When you enter ‘Hotel Mubarak’ or the ‘Meen Kada’ (Fish Shop) as it is famously known among locals in Thiruvananthapuram, an affable waiter wants to know whether you prefer to ‘parcel’ your lunch, or have it right there.
Make the second choice, and you’re led you to a table. The waiter now waves two small plates under your nose, one filled with around five to six crispy succulent fried tiger prawns, while the other seems jam-packed with fried tuna.
(Photo by Sreekesh Raveendran Nair)
Once the crucial decision has been taken, a fresh plantain leaf is laid out in front of you. Within seconds you are served steaming rice, four vegetable variants, pickled mango, fish gravy, yellow buttermilk and rasam (South Indian soup with tamarind as base). ‘Kappa Puzhuku’ (mashed steamed tapioca) is an added delight. As you tuck into the fish, the warmth of its crunchy taste floods your entire being.
After the expansive meal, as the waiter asks you to dispose of the used leaf in a nearby carton, an inane thought crosses your mind. Just how much would you now have to shell out?
Such generous portions of really fresh fare at a starred restaurant would undoubtedly burn a hole in your pocket. It is for its reasonable prices and unmatched flavours that Hotel Mubarak is deemed a favourite among the labourers, the middle class and even the elite.
Situated behind the Sree Padmanabha Theatre at Chalai Bazaar in the capital city, Hotel Mubarak is one business which has thrived by sheer word-of-mouth indulged in by its legion of faithful customers who throng the place between 11 am to 8 pm on all days except Sundays. Over 38 years, it has built an almost unassailable reputation.
63-year old Salahudeen could easily be mistaken for an elderly help pottering around the place.It is with a mischievous grin, he acknowledges ownership of this iconic eatery.
“Did you know the hotel was renamed Mubarak only around 25 years ago? Earlier, it used to be known as ‘Chettakada’…a name by which it is still referred to at the Secretariat,” he says. Not surprising, as quite a few khadi-clad leaders drop in for lunch at regular intervals.
The secret to the tasty fish, are the big ‘cheeni chattis’ (hollow Chinese pans) used to fry these. “Go to any other hotel, and you will see them fry fish on large, flat frying pans using the same oil over and over again. Here, not only do we keep changing the oil, but also frying the fish in cheeni chattis ensure that all the unwanted residue from the marinated fish gets sapped…that is what makes our fish so scrumptious to taste,” Salahudeen says.
Four air-blasters are specifically fitted for his four cooks to keep the kitchen airy, ensuring that neither the kitchen nor his cooks feel suffocated. Only happy cooks can come up with appetizing food, he says.
“12pm to 4pm is peak time here. Why do you think so many people keep frequenting this place? It’s because they know that food served here is unadulterated and of excellent quality,” he avers.
Solemnly leaning forward as if to let on a trade secret, Salahudeen whispers with almost religious fervour: “Do you know that anyone who serves adulterated or contaminated food to others, is actually ensuring doom not just for himself, but also for his near and dear ones? Only two people in the whole world actually know whether the food served here is fresh or not….one is God, the other is myself. So it is up to me to ensure that I keep the faith that my customers impose in me.”
“I started out in a very small way. Now I have around 15 employees working for me, while relatives and friends drop in to help out during the peak hours. It is better to quit when the business is doing well, rather than keep running at a loss, only to have to flee by night, fearing creditors.”
Born into an impoverished family on the outskirts of the city near the old airport at Vallakadavu, Salahudeen is the sixth of nine siblings, of whom three are deceased. Forced to work at an eatery at Vembayan from the age of 12, he learned the basics of how to run a hotel from there.
Ask him why only fish, he replies: “That is one thing which most people in Kerala eat. Do you know that majority of people hailing from Kasargod, Kozhikode, Thaliparambu, Thalassery and Kottayam are fish-eaters…you can see them happily tuck into appam and fish curry as early as 6.30 in the morning for breakfast.”
Once Salahudeen decided that his eatery would specialize in fish and that too, only the ‘fried’ kind, the next step was to identify the supply point.
He buys fish only from Vizhinjam, Valiathura and Kanyakumari, and occasionally from Neendakara, to ensure that the fish are fresh and arrive in time for each day’s cooking. “The ones that come from Andhra Pradesh or Goa are all sprayed with chemicals, just like the way they do to stop corpses from rotting. Even though authorities are in the know, they prefer to turn a blind eye for commercial gain,” he rues.
(Photo by Sreekesh Raveendran Nair)
Every day sees a minimum of six to seven varieties of fried fish, namely Konju (Prawns), Choora (Tuna), Neymeen (Seer), Ayla (Mackerel), Netholee (Anchovy), Aavolee (Pomfret -both white and black), Parava (False Trevally), Para (Malabar Trevally), to name a few.
The fish arrive in two batches, one at around 7am and the next around 11/12 am. Once the extended lunch hour tapers off by 4.30 in the evening, a batch of freshly made appams/rotis come from Salahudeen’s home which is more or less a joint-family set-up with almost all his siblings and their families staying close by.
The appam/roti-fish combination ensures that the fish cooked for the day is sold out by 8 pm, and that is when the hotel downs its shutters for the day.
Salahudeen claims that he spends around Rs 2000 per month to ensure that all the waste generated is disposed of in a proper manner, without causing harm to the environment.
Ask him about the numerous foreign currency notes of various denominations displayed on his table, you get another wrinkled-eye-grin: “Oh…this began, when a few years ago, one of my customers handed me a foreign note, asking me to keep it as a memento. I just slipped it under the glass-top and left it there. As time passed, others who saw the note kept adding their own to it, and that is how there are so many of them now.”
(All Photographs by Sreekesh Raveendran Nair)