I was idly looking at my favourite food delivery app (this changes seasonally, and I go from being rabid fan to intractable critic to fanatic hater of each app - in other words, I am an average user!) when I noticed a new restaurant within my delivery radius. Malabar Kitchen. Now, word enthusiasts and geography nerds will tell you that ‘mala’ is Malayalam for mountain, and ‘bar’ is Arabic for country, and together they stand for the land between the mountains and the sea, which is what Arab traders saw when they landed on the — you guessed it — Malabar coast. However, to a confirmed gourmand and inveterate seeker of good eating experiences like me, all it says is — beef!
In recent times, it has become rather difficult to indulge beef cravings without outraging someone or confirming non-conformance to the newest definitions of citizenship. So the in-secret indulgence of beef cravings by ordering through a food app (current fave being one that sounds like a ‘60s fashion model venerated by crossword setters and aficionados alike) seems to be just the right sort of giving it to the Man without the people around you beating you up. Though the Man himself would definitely know about it as he ceaselessly collects all data about us before parceling it out to various dark web characters who want only 750 dollars for all of it. Hmm.
Beef has a special place in our hearts, palates and stomachs. As children, beef was a staple at home. Buying it from the Puliakulam shop in Coimbatore was itself an adventure as we accompanied our parents into the hallowed halls (well, tiny makeshift shack, more like) of the butcher, known by the noble name of Beef Bhai. He plied his trade from behind two large tree trunks that had been cut to a height of about four feet. On top of these, he would carelessly toss chunks of beef he had previously cut from the larger pieces hanging from meathooks suspended from the ceiling (well, from the branches of the tree above the makeshift shack). Then depending on the instructions he got from either my mom or dad, he would proceed to chop it up or mince it.
Watching this was fascinating — he would use two knives, one large and one small. Occasionally, he would pause and whet his knife on a stone before resuming his meat-chopping. Sometimes when especially large bones were encountered, he would deal mighty blows with his knife, sending tiny bone and meat shrapnel flying every which way. As I said, exciting. The drama is largely missing these days — the last time I was visiting my hometown and I accompanied my parents to the beef shop, it was still in Puliakulam, but it was very updated and modern — in a very clean spacious modern place with a glass barrier between the butcher and the customer. The tree trunks were still there, though the meathooks were actually hung from the ceiling. The modern butcher — no, not the son of the old butcher — was very matter-of-fact and non-dramatic. The whole experience lacked a certain je ne sais quoi — and I do not know what it is.
While in college, my severely limited funds, even if they were supplemented by cleverly earning some money by tricking a few parents into giving us money on a monthly basis by keeping their children occupied under the guise of tuition, would go a particularly long way when beef was involved. As an example, for the price of one mutton biryani, slightly more than two beef biryanis could be had. Beef biryani places, which also usually served parotta and beef curry and beef fry, were also run by jolly fellows who would give us extra-large portions of everything and were generally friendlier to penniless students. One particular favourite place was in Puliakulam, right next to where the giant Ganesh was later made to sit under the tamarind tree.
It was during this time that we discovered the mind-bendingly amazing taste of Kerala beef curry eaten with pretty much anything, but preferably a parotta made in the same establishment. The beef-eating excursions involved getting to one of the nearby places in the neighbouring state of Kerala, usually a 45-minute bus ride for some ridiculously tiny amount of money. My favourite was a roadside eatery at a place called Mannarkad. I would do these trips solo or with anyone else who cared to accompany me. Sometimes we would even indulge in the dangerous-to-life-and-limb adventure of riding a local bus within Kerala, just for the heck of it.
The trysts with beef continued unabated as we ventured farther afield — the myriad parotta and beef roadside eateries in Chennai, the beef biryani in Hyderabad named after a noble family, the discovery of steaks in the USA, the rediscovery of really good steaks when we ate prime beef, the life-changing eating of bulls knees on the banks of the Nile, wagyu and Kobe in the most expensive meal I have paid for in my life in Japan. But through it all, one taste has remained a constant superstar, like a culinary lodestar in my mind, and that is the Kerala beef curry and fry. That is one taste that I long for every minute of every day. Even after I’ve finished off a beef fry and four parottas with beef curry, I long for it. It is that kind of taste.
So naturally, when I saw Malabar Kitchen on the app, my first instinct was to open the menu and see if they had beef on it. The menu did not disappoint — the trifecta of beef perfection was available — fry, curry and biryani. Now, living in Hyderabad, I have been a bit spoilt by extremely high quality beef biryani, so Malabar Kitchen’s fry and curry were the ones I had my eyes on, and of course, they also had parottas. I set a speed record for placing an order that day — from seeing beef on the menu to placing the order might have been under 1.2 seconds — any pit stop boss would have been proud of that timing.
The time it took for the order to be delivered went by unbelievably slowly. I think in my mind more time passed in that one hour than had passed between March 2020 and March 2021. I was looking at the delivery tracking every 2.1 seconds like an addict waiting for his fix. When it finally arrived, I pretty much tore it from the delivery fellow’s hands; he must have thought I hadn’t eaten in days!
The first mouthful of parotta and beef curry had me in a trance, tears streaming down my face at the sheer beauty of it, my eyes closed in bliss, and me rotating in my chair rather like Kamal Hassan in Guna when he gets a laddoo from that lady. This was a perfect Kerala beef curry, clearly made by a master cook from Kerala, with ingredients from Kerala. The memories came fast and thick, and each mouthful made me more and more nostalgic and euphoric. For the duration of the meal, I was in heaven. I enjoyed it so much that I was deeply sad when it ended, though my stomach was so full I could hardly have a sip of water. Then I remembered my newfound access to it and was happy once again.
Kerala beef curry is not merely a dish — it is an experience that will last you a lifetime. Without any reservation, I can say that if you are in front of a plate of Kerala beef curry and parotta, you can safely say, softly and with reverence,
“Agar Firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast,
Hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast.”
I am told this translates to, “If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.