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Lagoons and Monsoons

Stormy South Indian food journeys to far eastern Queens

The fare of Kerala is probably unlike any Indian food you've ever eaten. Located on the extreme southwestern verge of the subcontinent, facing the Arabian Sea and isolated by mountains, Kerala is an area of palm trees, lagoons, and fearsome monsoons, a land rich in spices over which European powers contended for centuries. The Portuguese first gained a foothold when Vasco da Gama marauded up and down the coast in 1498, establishing a colony at Cochin in 1503. His most enduring legacy is the chile pepper. Eschewing the fistfuls of powdered spices used in northern cooking, Keralite fare recalls the cooking of ancient Vedic times, relying on curry leaf, black mustard seed, tamarind, and tender young ginger root. Coconut oil is preferred for frying, and coconut milk thickens sauces. Fish and rice are staples, while mutton assumes its deserved spot as king of meats.

The unobtrusively named Indian Coffee Shop is the city's only Keralite restaurant, located on a commercial strip frequented by South Indians in remote Floral Park. The small spotless dining room is calculated to put you in a cheery mood with its red-checked tablecloths, colorful place mats, and picture window, which looks onto a small shop in the front that peddles coconut oil, cinnamon-laced caramels, spice combinations called masalas, and other foodstuffs and cosmetics. Pitching to both Muslims and Hindus, the menu features vegetarian and nonvegetarian items, ordered à la carte or in set meals at very modest prices. These meals often include an amazing salad of shredded purple onions, fresh green chiles, raw ginger, and yogurt, making for one of the world's tangiest slaws.

On the red awning, Indian Coffee Shop bills itself as a Keralite bakery, and the range of breads is impressive. There are chapatis, pooris, papadams, and, best of all, multiple versions of the fluffy rice bread called appam, made with a batter heavily laced with coconut milk. Three to an order, utthapam ($3.99) is the plain round one, while vellayappam ($4.99) is shaped like a bowl, lacy and crisp at the edges and thick and spongy in the middle. The familiar South Indian crepes called dosas are also available, including a memorable filling-less rendition known as ghee roast.

Spicing up the neighborhood
photo: Shiho Fukada
Spicing up the neighborhood

The fish curry ($5.99) is wonderful, swatches of firm and flaky kingfish steak foundering in chile-laced oil. Dip your appam gingerly, rather than slurping up the fiery sauce, and your mouth will thank you. Good as the fish curry is, the seasonally available "fish fry" is nearer to the hearts of Keralites. Offered a choice of several fish, we picked pomfret, a silvery little devil with delicate white flesh. It came thickly coated with a red spice powder that annealed to the skin as it was griddle-fried in—you guessed it—coconut oil. This "fry" preparation method is available with mutton, miring the bony hunks in a thick welter of curry leaf, mustard seeds, and onion, playing a game of hide the mutton. Easier to eat and similarly toothsome is the profoundly pungent mutton curry, which tastes especially good mopped up with the absorbent and slightly sweet appam.

I'd have to say, though, that my favorite dish on the menu is the paradoxical egg roast ($4). I say paradoxical, because the dish is clearly not roasted at all, a pair of helpless boiled eggs swept up in a monsoon of chiles, onions, and fresh ginger. You may never look at a boiled egg the same way again.

 
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