When I think of Kerala food, I think of appams and stew. Seasonal vegetables simmered in a spiced coconut milk based sauce, eaten with thin lacy pancakes made of fermented rice flour. Now imagine eating traditional Keralan food in a quiet restaurant decorated in the traditional way, served by staff in traditional attire. If you can’t be in Kerala, be in Vembanad, Bangalore.
Vembanad in Bangalore is a speciality restaurant at The Paul, just a little beyond the lights and action of Indiranagar. It doesn’t appear to be very well known - my parents who are big foodies and very familiar with the food scene in Bangalore, hadn’t heard of it - and it’s a little difficult to locate - we hit 2 dead-ends before we finally found the entrance to The Paul - but I’m always up for adventure and I rely on my gut a lot - and so when I first chanced upon a photograph of Vembanad on a blog post and then looked at their menu on Zomato, I knew I wanted to take my family to it for some authentic Kerala food.
At Vembanad, we were welcomed into a dining space with a high ceiling of carved wood. We were seated at a table with traditional table linen and an urli with floating flowers in the centre (an urli is a shallow bronze or earthen pot that’s filled with water and in which you float candles and flowers. Have to digress here to say that it’s one of my favourite Indian decor features!). I looked around me and noticed elements of Kerala everywhere: a snake boat with boatsmen, in miniature, brass diya stands, wooden wall hangings, Carnatic music. Best of all, the menu was as authentically Kerala as was possible.
Vembanad’s menu is extensive and has a fantastic selection of seafood too. A basketful of tapioca crisps and special Kerala crisps, yogurt-dipped fried chillies and fried pieces of bitter gourd were on the house. We picked chicken bharani soup to kick things off. A spicy chicken broth with the flavour of curry leaves and fried shallots coming through nice and strong. The pepper rasam and malabari prawn soup sounded very tempting too. The soup was delicious and we knew that our starters of parippu vada (lentil fritters served with coconut chutney) and chemmeen kakkan (sautéed prawns marinated in a yogurt, ginger garlic and chilli paste) would not disappoint. They didn’t. The other exciting starters on the menu were meen nirachathu (marinated fish fillets stuffed with raw mango and fried), nadan kozhi sukka (chicken cubes marinated with chilli and tomatoes, deep fried and then sautéed with spices), and vazha koombu cutlet (patties of plantain flower and potato, crumbed and pan seared). The way things were going, mains could only be better. And indeed they were! We had the choice of several crab, prawn, lobster, scampi, fish, chicken, mutton, duck, beef and vegetarian options, so choosing four was no easy task at all. We finally decided on pachakari stew (had to be done! Vegetables simmmered in spiced coconut milk), avial (a melange of vegetables cooked with yogurt and grated coconut), nadan kozhi curry (chicken and potatoes cooked in a coconut milk based sauce) and njandu kurumulaguittathu (crab cooked in a black pepper flavoured onion masala, tempered with shallots). To accompany these, we had appams which are thin lacy pancakes made of fermented rice flour batter, and Kerala parottas, which are layered flaky flatbread made of all purpose flour.
What a delightful meal. We came away supremely satisfied, very full, and feeling a little cheeky about (and mildly regretting) the portion of payasam (milk pudding) we’d shared amongst us at the end! Just when you think you couldn’t possibly eat anymore, there’s a lovely dessert menu placed in front of you...