INA Meena Dikha!

(or, Fishing for Mallu Food at I. N. A. Market)

Vinayan and I have come a long way. About a decade ago, when our department acquired its first few computers and pretended to call the room they were dumped in a “lab”, I was an eager little graduate student there. I would go to him for assistance, entering his room with a hesitant “Sir?”. A friendly smile would instantly wreath Vinayan’s face, and soon I was saying the “Sir” without really meaning it. Now I teach students in the same computer lab, and Vinayan always meets me with a “Good Morning, Sir!”. But I’m happy in the knowledge that he too, never means the “Sir”.

Over the years, we’ve acquired many grey hairs, been through much sadness and joy, but with one thing or another, we’d never ended up going out together for a meal. That lacuna had been bothering me lately, so last week I used the pretext of this blog to ask Vinayan if he’d take me to a good mallu place in town.

In no time, a plan had formed to go to one of his favourite haunts, a joint in the I.N.A. market near AIIMS. Post demolitions, this is one of only three mallu restaurants that survive in that market. The first and biggest one, something on the lines of Malabar Food Plaza, seemed a little deserted — always a bad sign. Another one, a little stall on the side of the Plaza apparently dishes out a mean Crab Fry. Unfortunately, the place hadn’t yet got into gear when we arrived at about 7:15pm, so we passed on to the third — and Vinayan’s favourite — restaurant.

This one, which deigns to post a signboard only in Malayam, is called Kerala Hotel. For those Malayalam-handicapped like me, it is worth noting that it is located behind the Malabar Food Plaza, and next to the large English-marked Krishna Bag Depot. As you enter the shop, you would be excused for believing that the two tables in front of you are all that it has. But look carefully, and an opening towards the side leads into a cavernous room, with another dozen or so tables laid out, choc-a-bloc with Mallus of all descriptions gorging on their daily appam.

Thankfully, the menus posted on the walls are in English — though predictably, the beef dishes are jotted down only in Malayalam, to keep the more barbarous North Indian feathers unruffled. Of course, given Delhi’s laws, we can safely assume that the “beef” is in fact buffalo meat. Vinayan and I decided to order a beef fry, kari-meen fry and ayla. Kari-meen (literally, “black fish”) is Pearl Spot, a popular delicacy in Kerala. I imagine what arrived on our plate suffered from Delhi’s distance from the sea, because while the spices were good, the fish itself was not as soft as one would expect. The beef was tasty, though a little chewy. Of the three, it was the ayla which took the honours. Ayla is simply the Malayalam word for mackerel, and it was served to us in crumbly morsels lightly fried with pieces of garlic. These we had with several servings of appam and porotta (the latter being the mallu take on paranthas). Both were excellent, and once we were finished with the dishes we were still ordering more of the porottas to help mop up the complimentary bowls of fish curry.

But we were not done yet. Oh no, sir!

The next course was mutton biriyani (sic). Vinayan tells me the mallu style of preparing biryani is quite different from what we’re used to. Essentially, the meat with its curry is prepared entirely separately from the rice. At the time of serving, the meat curry is ladled onto the plate first, and then the rice is piled on top of it. This leaves their mixing to the consumer, according to his own taste. And of course, the curry itself is very different, with ample use of black peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, kari patta, and a sweet tinge imparted by the presence of cashews both solid and in the paste.

The mutton biriyani turned out to be the best dish we had that evening. Snooty Hyderabadis might scoff at the idea of calling such a preparation a biryani in the first place, but I have no cause to quibble — call it by any name, it’s still delicious!

There’s one other item on the menu that Vinayan tells me is delectable. This is kappa, i.e. tapioca, which is largely absent in North Indian food, but has been a staple in Malayali diet. Though it is a dish unto itself, the restaurant also serves kappa biriyani for the vegetarians who stumble into their den. Both dishes had run out by the time we went to the restaurant, so this one will have to wait until next time.

Meanwhile, we were quite pleased with our day’s work — for just about Rs. 200, we’d partaken of a whole lot of good food, drink and conversation. You might even call it a “sir-fete”!

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16 thoughts on “INA Meena Dikha!”

  1. Well written article. A minor correction. Kappa Biriyanai is not a vegetarian dish. Its actually kappa prepared with beef, I mean buffalo meat.

  2. I too had the privelege of having vinayan chettan’s company during my jaunts around INA. Infact he is a valuable repository of all information relating to mallu eateries in Delhi. In pursuit of porottas and fish curries, i have gone along with him to such places which may not even find a mention in MCD’s detailed maps!

  3. When vineyettan [ettan is an addition for an elderly brother] first took me to the INA market for the mallu food, i felt a little averse by the sight of the above mentioned Kerala hotel… my god it was dingy!!! Smelling of wet old clothes or whatever??? I literally jumped out…. I had to take an assurance from my friends that though the shop looks like that, food is very safe…. I did not want to fall ill in a strange place…[that was in my first few weeks at delhi]

    But when they started serving the food, I had no excuses… where did that smell go? When did the pathetic sight of dull poorly lit rooms disappeared?… I could not help it… kappa, meen [fish curry], the ayala which stole hemanshu’s heart, appam, beef fry… the boy at the counter passed a very cute smile… I knew I was quite “unbecoming of a lady”, devouring all those items in one go…. When I finally got out we saw crackers high up on the sky… and some one commented… “Kerala Hotel is celebrating.. they have never seen such a good customer!”

    There is a saying in malayalam “azhakulla chakkayil chulayill”… in other words, all that glitters is not gold.. and all that looks copper can be gold too…

  4. @shiju: thanks so much for the correction. I just assumed that the tapioca would be unmixed with anything else.
    @rosemary: I didn’t find the place smelling anything other than appetizing! Yes, the decor isn’t exactly snazzy, but that’s probably only because they have no time to spare on inessentials 😉
    @jithesh: thanks for that tip! I’m going to hound Vinayettan to take me to even more places now. If you’re in town, do join us!

  5. Sorry sir,

    I missed to correct the “kappa biryani” yesterday and thanks to Shiju for it.

    You are doing a great thing and I am glad that I could contribute something to it!!!

  6. Hemanshu:

    On my next trip to Delhi, I hope you will take a few days off and cart me around a few of the places mentioned here. Otherwise, I just end up eating at home or at India International Center.

  7. Hmm,I really love Mallu food for it’s quite simmilar with some items of indonesian traditional food. i think i should try this one…i was trying the bigger restaurant, considering the ‘higine’ issue, and i got a really bad experience there.Well, the ‘Buff’ items are Ok but the mutton briyani is a curse… My friend end up F_m_ _ _ing for its swettened briyani.So I think i should try the Kerala Hotel next time i want to eat mallu Food.Thank you very mch for the info.

  8. On a totally different note, it’s Onam today and my search to find a good place serving onasadya has come to a dead end! Any leads for the future? Please suggest!

  9. On Thiruvonam day Kerala House serves Onasadya to all and they charge something like Rs. 100 per head. I had it once or twice few years back and used to be good. The only sad thing is the long queue under the blazing sun. So be first in the queue!!!!!!

    The INA mallu joints also give special onasadya every year.

  10. Few things:

    The biryani is simply too amazing, we had two plates of it.

    Note that, NOBODY speaks hindi/english or any non-mallu languages… sign language is recommended.

    Appams are amazing, however they were a little cold (recommend the porotta with mutton curry though).

    Place is full by 1:15 pm, so make sure you get there in time.

    Please, do get your own cold drinks, because it takes him an hour to get two sprites (when we had asked for Thums Up) 😉

    -Shail and Sandeep

  11. when i go out to eat,there is only one thing i am looking for and that is taste.And the two dishes i ordered here had neither.chicken biryani(more of a chicken dish with boiled rice) and beef fry was very dry with no taste.the food doesn’t deserve a special write up.

    can’t say about the other dishes cos i was reluctant to order more once i had tasted the above.

    thanks

  12. Thx 2 all fr posting such informative infos here,I evn plnnd drpng down south 2 settle my cravings.I’d go in n check out these outlets fr sure.Thr’s another one inside dilli haat, sarojini ngr a mallu eating joint called ‘Anantha’ which hs sum lip-smacking items on its menu..like puttu kadala,apam,etc.A must-try!!

  13. Hi, I’m a huge fan of malbari food… specially the kind of biryani they make on fridays in dubai. Can someone please guide me a couple of kerela restaurants near Rohini, Delhi?

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