When James Barber used to write food reviews for the Georgia Straight in the 1980s and 1990s, he enjoyed visiting small family restaurants to educate readers about food from other countries.
In that spirit, I recently travelled to North Surrey to check out the cuisine of Kerala, a state on the southwestern Malabar Coast of India.
Kerala is home to Indian elephants and plenty of coconut trees, but it’s perhaps best known to Vancouverites as the childhood home of Indian writer Arundhati Roy. Her Man Booker Prize–winning The God of Small Things was set in a fishing village in the state.
In fact, fish curry is the heart and soul of Kerala. It’s to Kerala what beef bourguignon is to France.
So when I arrived at Kerala Kitchen, a casual eatery at 103–9386 120 Street, it would have been sacrilegious not to order it.
The chef-owner, Sujith Rajasekharan, told the Straight that he’s created his own recipe that includes turmeric, chili powder, asafoetida, ginger, garlic, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, tomato, coconut milk, and water.
The fish was incredibly tender and the sauce was super-spicy. In fact, this Kerala fish curry was a flavour bomb, exploding with a combination of tangy, super-hot, and slightly sweet sensations. And it’s unlike the fish curry found in any local Malaysian, Thai, or Indian restaurants in Metro Vancouver.
In fact, Kerala Kitchen’s fish curry ranks up there among the hottest dishes I’ve ever eaten, nearly setting my mouth on fire. That’s the South Indian way—and it’s advisable to order a Coca-Cola or some other cooling beverage in advance.
In comparison, the delicious Chicken 65 dish, which I also ordered, was less spicy, as was the dry-fried Beef Ularthiyathu.
“When people come here, they feel like they’re having something similar to home,” Rajasekharan said.
When asked about the difference between the cuisine of Kerala and food from other parts of South India, Rajasekharan mentioned the extensive use of coconut. In addition, Keralans tend to eat a lot of seafood, like residents of many coastal regions.
Rice is the main staple, and it’s not unusual for people from this part of India to consume this grain three times a day. And rice paddies are a common sight. That’s why naan and roti aren’t as common in Keralan eateries than in North Indian establishments.
Kerala Kitchen and Kairali Village Restaurant (108–12414 82 Avenue, Surrey) are two Keralan dining establishments in Metro Vancouver.
According to Rajasekharan, there are no purely Keralan restaurants in Vancouver, though it’s possible to find South Indian dishes at many locations in the city.
Rajasekharan previously worked for Fairmont hotels before opening Kerala Kitchen nearly three years ago. He hails from the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, which is near the southern tip of India.
Long ruled by Marxists, Kerala’s literacy rate stood at 96.2 percent in 2018. The state is famous for attracting medical tourists because of its well-regarded health-care system.
This part of India is also notable for its murals. For many centuries, artists have been depicting Hindu mythology in this way, mixing various pigments to create vibrant images.
To honour that tradition, there’s also a large, colourful mural on display in Rajasekharan’s restaurant, as well as other images common to Kerala.