A Completely Different (South) Indian
Shilpa Indian Restaurant - a gateway to Kerala cuisine
Indian food in Britain has become synonymous of one tiny portion of Indian food eaten across the sub-continent's 28 states and seven Union Territories. Each of these states has h their unique culture, languages and food but it is Punjabi food that is erroneously dubbed by most of the population as going for an “Indian."
Punjab, today is a modern day misnomer as the state derived from Persian meaning land of the five rivers of the Indus Valley. With the partition of India the Punjab or the land of the five rivers really became Punjab (India) and Punjab (Pakistan) and the five rivers no longer encompassed both countries. The southern Punjab in India is arid and part of Rajasthan with the Thar Desert, the northern Punjab is in the disputed territory of Jammu-Kashmir and the source of the river Indus and the whole area Hindustan - a persian name referred to the people from the land of the five rivers of the Indus.
Almost 10,000 miles away in southern India on the western coast of India remote from anything that resembles what the British describe as “Indian” food is the complex and more delicate cuisine of Kerala – the real starting point of the historical meeting of east and west.
In the fifteenth century when European traders were looking for an alternative route to India – the land of the spices that the Arabs traded as brokers between the east and west – Portuguese traders first came to Kerala. Ironically this is not the state whose cuisine is most associated with Indian food, though one would think it should.
There are only half a dozen authentic restaurants in London serving Kerala cuisine – Shilpa Indian restaurant in Hammersmith, we lucky residents should know is one of them. A small obscure door opposite the Methodist Church behind a bus shelter with the doorway not even facing the road, is your tiny, tiny gateway into the rich riot of food that Kerala is known for.
Spices like pepper and ginger traditionally used in Indian cooking provide heat and you understand how spicy food can be delicious. Kerala is the home of the most fabulous spices of the spice trade – cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cardamom – and not chilli. Spanish and Portuguese travellers introduced the green chilli pepper to India – it is not a native plant and often in Kerala cooking you will find a fine blend of spices in the food without many chilli peppers. Other traditional flavours are coconut milk and a host of delicate herbs – coriander, curry leaves, mint and holy basil.
On the western seaboard, Kerala is also well known for its delicious seafood and that is what we decided to eat – crab, mussels and sea bass are house specialities. So we started with the spicy lime and chilli fried mussel and grilled garlic and ginger scallops. There is a delicious array of vegetarian starters and we choose the spicy cauliflower in yoghurt and curry leaves and sweet baby corn in pepper. The friendly service and unpretentious atmosphere – more akin to a cafe than a gourmet restaurant was a treat given the food was so delicate and well thought out.
We were more in a piggy mood than a gourmand mood and decided to do our main course justice too choosing from a seabass polichattu - mild fish steamed and served in a banana leaf which seals in the flavour and keeps the fish moist, a mango prawn (king prawn mangachar) and hot five spice chicken dish (Varutarcha chicken) which is uses a blend of cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, cloves and star anise. We decided to mop it all up with a coconut rice and a leavened bread – kerala paratha which is great to soak up the sauces of the chicken and fish.
Including a delicious traditional paal paysam (semolina and milk) dessert (but excluding the alcohol) our pig-out was just under thirty pounds per head. We therefore decided to treat ourselves to one of my favourite wines – a white Sancerre which was not reflective of the more cost-effective wines including the house white a delicious Sauvingnon Blanc on the menu. Beers go as well but a delicious delicate white like a Sancerre adds that je ne sais quoi to an exquisite meal.
September 2, 2010