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Keralan take-out dinner menu for Dec 6, 2002 (Part 1)

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  • RST Dec 5, 2002 06:04 PM
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This is the final menu that we have put together with Malabar catering for tomorrow's take-out dinner. Zim actually did most of the menu-planning, tinkering quite a bit to get the wet/dry, hot/not hot balances just right. So, if the meal doesn't turn out right, you know whose b--t to kick ;). Honestly, I think that it has come out beautifully. It may not be a typical menu in the sense that there are so many "showcase" items that just would not appear together in one meal, but we thought that this is excusable for such a project since we want to sample from as broad a range as possible.

I am providing a few short notes/annotations below. These should not be considered an exact description of what the final dishes will be like. I have not tasted most of these preparations and don't know how Malabar will be approaching these classic items. I did a little bit of searching for recipes but recipes do not tell us everything as there are several important food traditions in Kerala (the Christian tradition, which is what we will be sampling from mostly on this menu; the Muslim tradition, the "recipes" and foodways of the Nairs, the Thiyals, the Nampoothiris...), each with its important variants on these "regional" dishes.

Still, I thought that it might be useful to provide a few notes, not so much to "predict" a preparation as much as to set it in a context. In short, the notes represent what I think the final outcome will be. If you sort of follow the logic, the concept behind the dish, the list of ingredients that I sketch out, then you can find yourself as surprised at any deviation from the expectation. Sometimes, such deviations provide a more striking clue to the origin/essence of a dish than any standardized recipe/account. I hope that these notes might also serve as a guide/springboard in recognizing any such revelations.

Those of you who have RSVPed should have received by now (from MikeG) an email with his address, the pick-up time (for the to-go group), the cost per person and so on. I think that he also forwarded some wine-match suggestions that I wrote out early a few mornings ago while still blurry-eyed and half-awake. I hope that it doesn't sound like nonsense (it's unedited). If there are specific questions about these wine suggestions, feel free to email me directly.

For the to-go group: there will be a few "very wet" curries and such, so please be careful while transporting the bag. I am not sure yet how they will be packing all these, but I got the impression that each double serving (1 order = 2 servings) of each dish will go into a 4 x 6? 5 x 7? black plastic to-go container. Well, we'll see.

THE MENU:

*Chicken cutlets (i.e. croquettes)

*Uzhunnuvada (vada = a traditional "lentil" fritter, formed in the shape of a doughnut; these ones will be made of urad dhal)

*Palappam (rice "pancakes". These are an essential part of a Keralan meal. Stacks of these white fluffy pancakes are presented on the side to scoop up the diff dishes with. They are made from a batter of rice flour, coconut milk and yeast; this batter being soured/fermented overnight. They are traditionally made in a chatti; the wok-like curving sides of this pan forming the fat, soft center and lacy edges. The root word "appam" refers to a whole family of rice cakes/pancakes/noodles.)

*Plain rice (keep your fingers crossed. The caterer said that he might use the special Keralan "red" rice: actually not exactly red, but pinkish and white bec of the presence of red bran. He said that Westerners end up disliking this rice which is why he never uses it, but I insisted and he might change his mind yet.)

*Pappadum (crush some over your curries to add a dimension of crispy to the dish. For those eating at home or much later, I think that this can be re-crisped over an open flame or for a few seconds in the microwave. Zim?)

*Dry-fried spice-encrusted beef/Eracchi olathiyathu
I "stole" the fancy name from Madhur Jaffrey. This is the most famous of the "Syrian Christian" dishes, and probably the only widely-known Indian beef dish, beef being taboo to Hindus. Most of the Chicago Keralans, including the owners of Malabar, are from this Christian tradition. It is the dish that is always prepared for weddings and feasts.

Small chunks of beef are stir-fried in a spice & oil mixture, which might include ground coriander seeds, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, dried chilies, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and cardamom pods. Pre-fried hand-slivered coconut "chips" are added in. Separately, little mustard seeds are "popped" (as in the "tarka" technique) in hot oil and fried with fresh, whole curry leaves and ginger. This separate set of spices is also added to the beef and the whole "stew" is steamed slowly with minimal liquid (a little vinegar and water) and with the beef's own fat and juices.

The beef is cooked till it is tender and till the sauce is completely "dry". Some more mustard seed/curry leaves/cardamom pods are popped/fried separately (Maya Kaimal calls this the katuku-varakkal technique in the Saveur article) and folded in at the end creating a very dry dish "garnished" or studded with these whole spices. It is a lot of fun picking out the different spices/leaves as well as the darkly-flavored coconut chips and identifying them: just be careful not to bite too hastily into a spicy seed.

This is a dish that I think keeps beautifully. I have kept it unrefrigerated on my kitchen counter and have found it to be even more delicious on the second or third day.

***

More on the rest of the menu to follow.
*Country-style duck curry (Taharava kuutan)
*Fish moilee (Meen moilee)

*Green mango pachadi
*Long bean thoran
*Wedding-style erisseri made with plantains
*Cala channa (Black channa)
*Ginger chutney (Ingli poli)

Part 2 follows.

RST

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  1. Quickly on the rest of the menu (I have half an hour before my next appointment//I'll just stick to salient points):

    *Country-style duck curry (Taharava kuutan)
    Siberian ducks migrate during the winter to this southwest corner of India and are trapped in the rice paddies. I was told that for this reason duck curry is much associated (in the countryside, among "Syrians") with Christmastime and is often served on Christmas Eve. I hesitated at first about including this dish, because I thought that the typical cut/chopping (leaving rather delicious but bony pieces) might be a challenge and we wanted this to be a popular event. But then I remembered that most people are already very familiar with the cut of Chinese barbeque duck/roast duck and that this should not be a big issue with this group. This is almost certainly a curry with coconut milk enriching it. They would probably also add short "sticks" of potato, carrot or cassava. My guess is that, in the distinctive Keralan style, they would fold in, at the very end, the same popped mustard seed/fried curry leaves "garnish" that I described above.

    *Fish moilee (Meen moilee)
    Another of the most celebrated dishes of Kerala. If I understand the concept correctly, a moilee is distinguished from a curry (THE fish curry for instance) by its "soupiness". Moilee is most definitely a "wet" dish or perhaps, a wet "genre". The chief distinguishing elements are the spiced coconut "broth" and--aha!--fresh green chilies (!) I have never tasted Malabar's version and hope that I am getting this right. But I suspect that those Thai enthusiasts among you might end up having fun comparing the weight/balance of the moilee with that of the various Thai "kaengs". The other spices (one or two others) usually listed in recipes for moilee are turmeric and ginger. I was told that they will be using kingfish (I'm not familiar with it)-which is, I think, an assertive (?) meaty (?) fish...?

    Incidentally, we chose to go with the moilee instead of the fish curry for reasons of balances. I would not have minded trying the fish curry as it includes as an ingredient, the rare kodumpoli (or kokum), a fruit in the mangosteen family that is used in the Keralan fish curry as a souring agent. Kodumpoli (dried, black, sticky) is available in Chicago at Kerala Grocery a few blocks to the west of Malabar catering on Montrose.

    *Long bean thoran
    Not the green bean, but the Asian/Indian long bean which could also be found in Szechuanese cooking (the Szechuan long bean dish) and in various Southeast Asian cuisines. Last weekend, Lili of Angkor Wat market composed a little bag of veggies for me to cut-up and eat raw with prahok (fermented fish), and it included little round eggplants, wing beans, these long beans etc She also had a box of these gorgeous white flowers for stir-frying which looked like acacia flowers (leguminous family) that she called "ng-keas dei" flowers: more on this later.

    Long beans are not good steamed or cooked in liquid but are delicious dry-fried or stir-fried. Using this technique, they take on a wonderful crunchy/chewy character. I tried a spoonful of Malabar's version and it seemed marvellously pebbly and light in texture.

    The concept of "thoran": I could be wrong here but I understand this word to refer to a specific technique (which can also be used for raw papaya, cabbage, peas,
    even meat or fish) of mounting veg/meat over a pool of simmering water/spice mixture and steam-cooking in a covered pan (wok) until dry/until all the liquid is absorbed. The masala is probably not elaborate, including prominently only garlic, cayenne, perhaps turmeric powder, perhaps ground cumin seeds. I think that the typical "garnish" of popped mustard seeds/curry leaves is also added at the end.

    Although I tasted a small spoonful of this, I am not very clear on the concept of this dish, so take the above with a critical eye.

    *Wedding-style erisseri made with plantains
    The more popular recipes use pumpkin (Maya Kaimal has a recipe in her book). But according to Dr. Kraig in private mail, other vegetables, including the plantain here might be used. When Malabar suggested this dish, I assumed that it is going to be with pumpkin and asked to see the actual type of squash to be used so that I can report on the variety and on the state of ripeness (Indian recipes using squash/jackfruit etc are extremely picky about exact states of ripeness). This is when they surprised me by saying that they had a diff dish, a typical wedding feast dish made with plantains, in mind. I am looking forward to trying this dish. Erisseri, I think, should also be considered a genre (not just a "dish") and refers to a specific technique (associated with, I think, certain vegetarian traditions like the nampoothiris') of "frying" (stir-frying with little oil and a masala of cumin seeds, cayenne, turmeric etc). I think that there might be a kind of dhal and perhaps also grated coconut adding texture and richness to this dish.

    *Cala channa
    Zim chose this at the last moment. I was told that these are the "black channa" used in the south. I sent out an email enquiry to two Indian experts and they both thought that there's no essential diff bet "northern" and "southern" channa (i.e. chickpea, same as the Mediterranean chickpea, but developed thru the centuries in a diff way: smaller, more wrinkled), except the "southern" one I saw in a bag was probably processed differently to get the "black" skin off and leave a yellow "kernel". However, I consulted Achaya and he suggests/lists two groups of names for north vs south and this linguistic distinction might suggest two separate lineages/provenances/cultivars. Must do some more sleuthing.

    *Ingle poli = Ginger chutney

    Have to go. I'm late for my date.

    RST

    7 Replies
    1. re: RST
      d
      David C. Hammond

      Is there anyone who is not struck speechless by the meticulous scholarly exactitude, the inyourface gastronomic rigour and smashmouth culinary enthusiasm of this remarkable mysteryman!?

      RST, you rule.

      1. re: David C. Hammond

        Well, for all we know he's making it all up.

        I guess we will know in less than 24 hours...

      2. re: RST

        richard thanks for the menu notes.

        a couple of things:

        pappadum which are often crumbled on to the dishes for crunch are much better reheated on open flame than in the microwave.

        Moilee was favored over the fish curry referred to above for a few reasons. The curry is soured with kokum as mentioned and is generally served with kappa or tapioca/cassava this was thought might be a very heavy meal, especially in addition to rice and appam. Additionally it supposed to be very spicy, moilee is understand generally milder and i thought would be good to have a dish that could appeal to those who don't like things as hot

        I also think that the technique you refer to for thoran (though I could well be wrong - this is based on reading) is actually th technique for oliarthatu dishes, thoran being more of a stiry fry technique

        I also thought the kala channa (black chick peas) were of the same sort as used in the north but cooked in a different style - kadala curry with onions. As chick pea curries are some of the most beloved dishes in various areas of the county I was personally interested in trying this variation

        1. re: RST

          Wow, I must say that planning this dinner has been a humbling and tremendously educational experience for me! How many times have I thought that I got a dish perfectly "conceptualized" in my head, just to end up seeing a completely unexpected form/variant of it, trumping what I thought was my sufficient grasp. How many times have I assumed that a certain ingredient (a vegetable, a grain...) called for in a published recipe could be had by stepping into any supermarket, just to discover that the Keralans use a very specific variety, with its specific textural and flavor profile, with its specific state of ripeness or unripeness...and that in our homogenized global world, many many traditions and forms (thanks be!) are so specific to a community that they are still not entirely replaceable or "translatable" one for the other.

          Just as an example: when we started planning this menu, I had wanted very much to include chakka malakushyam as this green jackfruit curry is one of the most renowned dishes of Kerala. Now, whole frozen unripe jackfruit is virtually never seen in this country bec the proportion of shell to pod/pulp does not make it economically worthwhile to ship whole. It is available however in vacuum-packed frozen segments (8 oz, with seeds, in Filipino groceries, for $1.29) or canned (10 oz., several Thai brands, about $.88) in all the different Southeast Asian markets. I had blithely told Zim that it should not be a problem finding this item for use. In fact, knowing that jackfruit is now being grown in Mexico, I thought of going down to S. Water St. to talk to a wholesaler about cutting down a whole fresh one for me. It turned out that the Filipino and Thai green jackfruit segments are completely useless to the Keralans: they use unripe jackfruit but from an exact state of unripeness and the Southeast Asian versions are just too green. Keralans use virtually ripe fruits that do not have their fruit-sugars completely formed yet. Who knew? Can you imagine if I had a whole jackfruit (they're huge: bigger than a pumpkin, but elongated) brought up from Mexico to find out that it's not the right one...? It turned out later that Kerala Foods does carry frozen packs of the correct jackfruit (about 8-10 oz, $2.29) but by then it was way to late to include it in this project.

          Similarly, Zim and I thought we "were" planning the menu and totally "in control" of all the different balances (hot/not hot, dry/wet, sour vs sweet/hot etc) only to discover that all we did was name the dishes we wanted to see. Malabar actually did all the instinctive balancing, altering the dishes often (and clearly contradicting my above "expectations") to create the final spectrum of changing aromas/flavors/textures.

          Just a quick note on the packing before I add to the annotations of the individual final dishes. I thought that they did a great job not just packing all these little dishes but actually (and I didn't ask for this) labelling each one for all the to-go orders. Those of you who were extremely confused by my format of "1 order = 2 servings" now understand that I saw way ahead of everyone (even Malabar, who were also confused by this). This format was the only way to avoid each person walking out with a gazillion little boxes, if we were to eat in the typical Keralan manner, i.e. from a whole array of little bites and dabs of many different things. On my single order (for 2), I got 2 bulging plastic bags (one in each hand) containing 11 (!) little styrofoam/plastic containers (most of them about 8 by 4 1/2) plus 2 foil packs for the palappam and the pappad. For those who were wondering where it was, the erisseri was not packed separately and was the yellow "puree" spooned (in 2 pools) right on top of the rice.

          Post-dinner notes follows in part 2.

          RST

          1. re: RST

            (continued from previous post/part 1):

            *chicken cutlets (croquettes) I was told that these were a hit at the party. A crowd-pleasing kind of item although they certainly didn't tone down the spices a bit and I got occasional nuances of different species (cardamom on one bite, something else on the next). This was served with a tiny bit of raw red onion salad.

            *Uzhunnavada was served with a little chutney of coconut/fresh green chilies.

            *Palappam. I ascertained that there is also a little bit of milk in the batter and that Malabar does allow this batter to rise/ferment overnight.

            *Papaddum. I had stupidly suggested above that these may be recrisped by turning over a flame, but of course I was thinking of the "northern" pappadum, which are roasted. "Southern" pappad are deep-fried and these were so thin and flavorful (and kept very well in foil) and reminded me very much of Indonesian munchies (all made in other ways, of course) like krupuk, kripik, emping.

            *Plain rice. Of course, we DID get the "red" (i.e. pink) rice, with its fluffy texture and very distinct/separate grains. My correspondents keep calling this rice rosematta and Maya Kaimal calls it this as well in her book; but the word just simply did not ring a bell with Malabar. I am suspecting that rosematta is the internationally-recognized variety name for this rice. Malabar says that this is called PUZHUKKALARI (Elizabeth wrote this spelling out for me; it actually sounds a bit more like pu-yu-kalari; nothing on google with this specific spelling). This rice is still processed artisanally following the traditional manner of parboiling (with the bran/chaff on), drying on mats AND THEN pounding (to remove "bran"). Incidentally, I discovered that rice in Kerala is not just any rice and there are many specific varieties for different dishes (the various appams etc)!

            *Eracchi/dry-fried beef. I was told that this was also a hit with the party.

            *Country-style duck. I adore this dish and really enjoyed sucking on the intense dark curry while biting/picking on the little bits of meat clinging to the bones. No carrots/sticks of root vegetables as I speculated above. I think (and I could be wrong) that the reason all these dishes last night are so much darker-toned than the usual "yellower" curries is bec of the prominent use of (ground) coriander seeds. The powder/ground seeds is fried in hot oil, and this turns them black.

            *Fish moilee. Again, much "darker" than I anticipated, almost certainly bec of the fried ground coriander seeds. I also saw them putting in fresh whole coriander (cilantro) leaves into the fish at the last moment. Much less "brothy" than I expected, the actual "sauce" was almost a very thick puree. I found out that a bit of tomato is chopped up and also included.

            *Green mango pachadi. Pachadi has the status in Maya Kaimal's cookbook of a vegetable "dish" of its own (she categorizes it as a "wet vegetable curry") although of course, it is arguable that many food traditions actually think in terms of discrete "dishes" like we do in the west. I had asked for a couple of homemade "pickles" (the sour element of the menu) and was surprised to be offered a pachadi (which I thought to be a "dish"). Now, I understand its function/use in the context of our menu. I hope everyone dug in deep into the yogurt "sauce" and tried a few slivers of the superbly sour unripe mangoes (they were cutting these up in the middle table the day before, when I visted).

            *Ginger chutney. I think this is wild! Sweet/hot/sour/earthy/fabulous. If they ever learned to bottle, I would love to be able to buy a couple of bottles of these to keep or give away as gifts.

            *Black channa/Kadala. This was one of the revelations for me in this menu. This is almost certainly not just ANY channa, not the same as the northern channa. The Keralans call the dish as well as the "pea" KADALA. These are smaller (I think), meatier, nuttier, so completely packed with flavor! William had shown me a bag and said that they do not use the same channa as the northerners; but THAT was yellow-colored, i.e. with skin off. These were cooked with skin on (!!!), so I guess there are further subdistinctions...? Must go by Kerala Foods and check the bags again. This Keralan kadala is a great, great product which should be better-known throughout the world. I can foresee a future for it in international haute cuisine and wonder when the great Michelin-starred chefs will discover it. It would certainly make an intriguing variant material for all the standard chickpea salad recipes!!!

            *Payar/long bean thoran. I think that Zim might be on to something when he corrected my "concept" or "understanding" of the thoran technique. I think, that, abstracting it from specific traditions, and trying to define it in terms of pure technique, we can tentatively define thoran as a kind of stir-fry, with a not so elaborate spice blend. I still think that there might be some water in the wok (pan) to start off the dry-frying. The little brown "beans" in the mix are not another kind of dhal but the seeds of the long bean itself (payar is the long bean/van payar is the name for the seeds). The tiny tiny little yellow threads are miniscule slivers of coconut.

            *Eriserri. Not made with plantain as I said above, but with pumpkin instead. I guess they changed their mind to fit the menu better. Plantain erisseri would be chunkier. This was NOT the expected "chunky" pumpkin erisseri (see Maya Kaimal for a recipe), but almost a kind of very thick puree, perhaps to bring in this wet aspect/balance the meaty channa + "pebbly" long beans. They used pumpkin-pumpkin and not another kind of squash. There is mung dhal (?) in there as well. My understanding of "erisseri" is still shaky although I think I can extrapolate the technique as follows: spices and powdered fresh coconut are fried in oil, pumpkin is added/boiled till tender, ground to a puree, whole mung dhal added, and then the "stew" dressed at the end with fresh-fried curry leaves.

            ****

            In sum, there are many many mysteries that remain unsolved about this very little-known but superb cuisine. I feel like the first-ever non-Vietnamese to try pho and to try to articulate it by calling it "boiled beef soup" (!) which is kinda correct but not nuanced enough to honor the dish. I suspect that as Keralan cuisine becomes better-known in this country, poeple will pull up my posts (2, 3 years from now) and find them absolutely simplistic and perhaps even erroneous in understanding. But if we do not start talking about new unexplored things for fear of making mistakes in public, when will we ever learn?

            RST

            Malabar Catering
            3519 W. Montrose Avenue
            (773) 588-0304, (773) 416-3313
            Ask for William or Elizabeth

            Malabar Foods
            3730 W. Montrose Avenue
            (773) 267-3307
            Kodumpoli, Keralan jackfruit (chakka), red rice etc available here
            Ask for Sunny

            Maya Kaimal
            Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala, HarperCollins, 2000
            The Chicago Public Library call number is TX724.5 .I4 K23 2000. We only have a reference copy. The library wants us to leave used books on the table, but the filing clerks are some of the worst around and if you leave a book on the table, it will not find its way back to its proper place for years. Please try to refile it yourself (in the correct place of course) after use. The Evanston public lib also has a copy (which is with Zim, I think).

            In addition, check out Maya Kaimal's article in Saveur (it's on the web and has been linked here previously), the first chapter of Madhur Jaffrey's Flavors of India, the Kerala episode of Dr. Bruce Kraig's PBS series and Kristin Eddy's travel pieces in the travel section of the Trib.

            ReneG has also reviewed the other Keralan place in town
            Banana Leaf (south of Addison on Milwaukee). Please do a site search for that.

            RST

            1. re: RST

              A few comments on RST's post-game show:

              >This was served with a tiny bit of raw red onion salad.

              Actually, several people said this was even better than the croquettes themselves. And along with the thoran, it was one of the items to come closest to being finished off. In general, I'd say the vegetarian items proved to be among the strongest and most distinctive items (most different from things most of us had before, and from each other). By comparison the meat dishes seemed much more similar overall. I know the descriptions say they're different in spices and so on, but they blurred together for me (and also tended, except maybe for the beef, to overpower the meat-- I couldn't really get a duck flavor from the duck or a fish flavor from the fish, for instance; not that they weren't good, just that the meat was overpowered as an ingredient).

              >This rice is still processed artisanally

              Which makes me feel even worse that we have an entire, unopened, aluminum container of this handmade, labor-intensive rice. Anyone have any suggestions?

              >Eracchi/dry-fried beef.

              I thought this was not only arguably the most flavorful of the meat dishes but inarguably the most convenient to eat, next to the very bony fish and duck. Incidentally, in the big tub of the fish there weren't bits of tomato, it was decorated with whole slices.

              >*Ginger chutney.

              Yes, definitely this was a winner and made a good contrast to the other dishes. I sent several people back in for that since it was kind of pushed to the back of the table and got overlooked the first time around.

              >*Payar/long bean thoran.

              Another hit, as noted nearly finished off. Whole Foods ought to retire one of their deli case salads and make this one; this is one thing I can definitely see trying to go back and buy a quart of sometime.

              >*Eriserri.

              Several people suggested that they doubted it was plantain, and the texture certainly suggested something like pumpkin instead. This was one of my least favorites, it was sort of baby foodish and runny (the idea that it would actually come on rice makes more sense than serving it as a tub of runny stuff). Nice color on the plate though!

              Incidentally, we shouldn't let the evening pass without mentioning the spicy chocolates Joan brought, which many of us had as pre-dessert while waiting for the catering guys. Given their delayed reaction spiciness, which was formidable, they were an absolutely appropriate addition to this meal!

              1. re: RST

                I should mention that the channa on the catering menu at malabar is not the one we had, the normal channa on there is N. indian style and in the N. Indian section we asked them to prepare this kerala style which we ate on friday.