If you have been to Kerala, I am certain you have come across what the Malayalees call a thattukada or, their version of a roadside eatery. Come to think of it, thattukadas exist across India, albeit with slight variations from region to region. In Kerala for example, it consists of a large wooden shack, huge tawas behind which the men dish out flaky parottas and tantalising beef curry in record time by the light of a small kerosene lamp. Throw in some hit Mollywood tracks from a radio, and a bunch of hungry customers — you have an authentic Kerala-style thattukada.
The staff at Mystic Spice, Vasundhara Sarovar Premier’s 24-hour restaurant, had replicated the entire scenario, complete with woven coconut fronds and menus written on blackboards. The theme of Mystic Spice, as I mentioned in my earlier blog post, is based on the ancient spice route of Kerala. The wooden floors were made of coconut woods strips and mosaic. A wall on the side had stacks of jars filled with spices. Another one displayed ancient cooking utensils. We seated ourselves at the dining table, as the chefs prepared in the live counters before us a number of dishes, just like they would in a real thattukada.
There were almost 25 different chutneys on the table. A group of courageous Americans, sweating profusely, after sampling the green chilly chutney were brave enough to try the rest: coconut, mango etc. “Keralites are mostly fish-and-rice eating people,” Suresh Kumar, the executive chef tell us, “Our food is spice-rich, usually made with coconut, pepper, chilies, curry leaves, mustard seeds, tamarind and asafoetida.”
I had sampled traditional sadya on a previous occasion. And that was a pure vegetarian meal, but delicious as ever. I remember eating rice on a large, green banana leaf, almost every inch of which was neatly filled with a range of curries, thorans and pickles. The thattukada meal was nothing like what I had before. “It is sort of similar to what we get in toddy shops around Kerala,” another diner told me. Our feast began with a plate of crispy anchovies fried deep in coconut oil, flavoured with turmeric and red chilli powder. Followed by something wrapped in a banana leaf. I unwrapped the “something” with as much enthusiasm with which I would unwrap a birthday gift. Inside lay a classic Kerala dish: the Meen Pollichathu, or grilled fish wrapped in banana leaf. The melt-in-your-mouth fish was spiced to perfection. Then came the spicy Kozhi Varuthrachathu, or chicken cooked in coconut and coriander masala. The Nadan Kurumulaku Kozhi was a chicken dish roasted with pepper, marinated from the night before.
While thattukadas exist in all parts of Kerala, different regions have different favourites. In Thiruvananthapuram, dosas were a favourite while in Kottayam, people prefer tapioca and appam. In Thrissur, it is the chappati and parotta. But in Calicut, meat reigned supreme. Our thattukada at Vasundhara also featured the much-needed accompaniments to the fiery main course: appams, parottas, and a typical thattukada item, the fluffy white omelette!
We finished our meal with a cup of piping hot chai, making light conversation — the food was heavy enough! The “land of spices” — Kerala — had truly lived up to its name.
thattukada: roadside eateries in Kerala
tawas: flat cooking vessel
thoran: vegetable stir fry
parottas: a layered flatbread made from flour
appam: a type of pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk
chappati: a thin pancake of unleavened wholemeal bread cooked on a griddle