My Malayalam is no better than my Polish. But whether you speak the language of the southwestern state of India or not, much like Polish sausages there are some obstacles in Chicago to exploring the vastly diverse food of the subcontinent’s Malabar Coast. For one thing, despite some 50,000 Keralites (or Malayalis) residing in the Chicago region (largely around Glenview, Mount Prospect, Morton Grove, and Des Plaines), there are few places to eat it.
With the recent opening of Margaret Pak’s Thattu in the new West Loop food hall Politan Row, exactly one restaurant specializing in Keralite food exists anywhere in the city or the suburbs. Hers is an intriguing if brief menu (more about that later). But venture into the suburbs and you’ll find a few sources that tap into the state’s extraordinary culinary diversity.
The food of Kerala is “shaped by its position at the epicenter of the spice trade, resulting in centuries of exchange with Phoenicians, Arabs, Jews, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British.” That’s what I wrote about it ten years ago in a story about Royal Malabar, a Glenview-based caterer that still does a brisk carryout business for the thousands of professionals in the area who are too busy to cook dishes such as the coconut-laced meaty dry frys, the family of minced veggie dishes thoran, or the fermented rice-flour pancakes appam.
Last October, Royal Malabar’s nearby competitor, Kairali Foods & Events, was taken over by a group of friends who continued to stock its tiny strip-mall grocery HQ with an astonishing number of dishes in recyclable circular takeaway containers. The food is great, but penmanship on the containers is sometimes cryptic, and though there are quite familiar pan-Indian dishes among the 150-some item repertoire, more than a few could use some clarity for the non-Malayalis among us. What follows is a by no-means-comprehensive guide to some of the tasty things you’d encounter in Kerala, and at Kairali Foods, where you’ll find the greatest selection on the weekends, each running between $8 and $15.
Photo above, clockwise from left:
Avial: a thick, coconutty vegetable medley with potatoes, beans, carrots, and squash
Sambar: the ubiquitous, thin, vegetable and lentil stew
Kadala curry: a rich black-chickpea curry
From top right:
Kallumakkaya: The folks behind Kairali Foods hail from central Kerala, home to a great variety of seafood preparations. This peppery dry mussel stir-fry is a proper drinking food according to co-owner Ginesh Elackattu.
Kappa: carb-loaded mashed cassava, speckled with black mustard seeds
Chicken dum biryani: Malabar-style biryani is sealed and cooked in its own steam.
Kappa beef: one of the endless variants building on the mashed starch
Inji curry: a ginger-based condiment sweetened with jaggery and commonly eaten with dosas or idli, spongy, saucer-shaped rice cakes (not pictured)
Thoran is an endlessly variable coconut-based dry curry of minced vegetables, typically found (like many of these foods) on a sadhya, a kind of smorgasbord arranged on a banana leaf. From left: an excellent mushroom thoran, beet and kale thoran, and long bean and black-eyed pea thoran, all next to the store’s chewy paratha.
Clockwise from top middle:
Beef and fish cutlets: gingery minced protein molded into ovals, breaded, and fried
Samosas: smaller, more delicate versions of the ubiquitous fried dumplings
Onion pakoras: crispy onion-and-chickpea-flour nuggets
Egg puff: masala-spiced hard-cooked eggs enveloped in flaky pastry
Sukhiyan: sweet rice-flour-battered mung bean dumplings
Parrippu vada: crunchy, spicy yellow dal fritters
Chicken “manjurian”: a surprisingly unsweetened, veggie-laden version of the Indo-Chinese staple
Pulissery: aka moru curry, a rich, spiced buttermilk curry that can act as an extinguisher to spicier dishes
Beef fry: similar to an Indonesian rendang; spicy and mined with chewy bits of coconut. Another appropriate drinking food. v