The most important reason to visit INA Market is that in these ominous times, its two, now three Kerala restaurants will still happily serve you the meat that must not be named, let alone eaten. (Technically, of course, it can be both named and eaten—but distinctions between animals hardly seem to matter anymore given the regularity with which people are beaten and, sometimes, killed for allegedly transporting, skinning or killing ungulates of indeterminate identity.)
Appu Hotel doesn’t carry it on the menu, but in response to hesitant queries, the waiter will rattle off a list of dishes that the kitchen can serve up. Kerala Hotel lists some dishes in Malayalam script—presumably to throw off rabid rashtrabhasha types. And though new restaurant Muthassi has run out on the day we visit, when we enquire about availability, the proprietor says, simply, “All that you can get here.”
The Heart Of The Matta
INA has always been a bewildering place to visit. Crammed into its warren of lanes are clothes and shoe sellers, grocers, bakers and dry-fruit and spice vendors, and even the occasional DVD shop. Leaves and other discarded shreds of vegetables litter the floor, and the heavy reek of fish and meat awaits around every corner. But this is where the city’s Malayalis return week after week, to buy ingredients uncommon in Delhi shops, such as plantains and red matta rice, and to eat home, or home-like food.
Appu Hotel and Kerala Hotel, the two older restaurants, are strictly no-frills affairs. The waiters are brisk and efficient, but unlikely to waste much time fussing over you. What decor there is is functional, if inoffensive.
Muthassi (Malayalam for grandmother) might have been expected to try and edge ahead of its competitors by upping the ante on these fronts. But on the evening of our visit, we get more dour unfriendliness than grandmotherly warmth from our server. Perhaps we asked for it. Perhaps, when he said, “Prawn masala roast,” we were foolish to think he meant one dish, and deserved the irritated eye roll and tongue-click he gave us when we replied, simply, “Yes.” Nevertheless, we steel ourselves against this and other displays of surliness long enough to order egg biryani, mutton roast, prawn masala, karimeen (pearl spot) fry, and appams.
Perhaps, when he said, “Prawn masala roast,” we were foolish to think the server meant one dish, and deserved the irritated eye roll and tongue-click he gave us when we replied, simply, “Yes.”
As it turns out, it isn’t only in service that Muthassi fails to improve on its competitors—its spirited efforts in interior design are wholly unsuccessful. The restaurant’s two wedge-shaped rooms are newly painted, but their bright tubelights and the blazing orange of their walls, tabletops and chair backs serve to heighten the stifling summer heat. Two large windows might have offered some visual respite if they hadn’t been blocked out from the outside by Muthassi’s own flexes. The effect is altogether suffocating—Appu Hotel’s faux wooden panelling and even the scruffy canteen-like atmosphere of Kerala Hotel are preferable to this.
Egg, Jo, Beth & Amy
The food, fortunately, goes some way in redeeming the experience. The prawns are large and while not quite succulent (a quality only the most optimistic diner would anticipate in crustaceans served in Delhi) they are tender. Their sharp, peppery gravy is quickly soaked up by the appams—not quite the perfectly lacy and crisp-edged creations that homesick civil service aspirants and engineers remember being ladled up by their muthassis, but, pleasingly soft and with a satisfying hint of sweetness in the batter.
The mutton roast is a fiery red that brings to mind the excesses of Indian-Chinese street food, but the comforting tang of its thick tomato-onion gravy leaves little to complain about—even if some of the cuts of meat are rather too sinewy. The karimeen, grinning on its plate, had been expertly marinated and fried, so that pieces peel off in neat flakes—thin, crisp skin enfolding soft chunks of meat.
But it is with the egg biryani that the kitchen truly shines. The smooth dome of fragrant, small-grained kaima rice, topped with crunchy slivers of fried onion, gives way to reveal two plump boiled eggs and a rich, but not overpowering, masala with a base of onion, ginger, garlic and tomato, sprinkled through with fried cashews. We dig in gleefully, and order the mutton version to go (it is devoured, the next day, with much rejoicing in its delicately spiced, juicy meat). For this, we think we will kaima again and sidle up to the server whose hatred we've inexplicably earned, asking if we can start over.
Getting there: Muthassi, INA Market. Meal for two will cost approximately Rs 500.
Accessibility: Not wheelchair accessible.
bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.
Image credit: Instagram / @iajit.
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