Find them at the bottom of a grey building in Juhu, this plate of glossy prawn dry fry that's good enough to make your eyes widen. These crustaceans are covered with a masala marinade featuring chillies, coriander seeds, garlic and lime, and even though you really don't want to share even one of the eight pieces, it helps to keep a tall, cool glass of sambaram at hand. Nambiar's calls this drink chaas, but one sip of the curry leaf- and ginger-spiced buttermilk, and you know it's really not.
Nambiar's has a limited menu that is big on the flavours of Malabar. At lunch, a sadya as well as fish and chicken thalis include the expected array of sambar, thoran, pulissery, pachadi, avial, banana, papadam, and pickle, all girdling a mound of fat red rice. Shellfish is limited to prawns, and there is no mutton, or buffalo, forget the duck or rabbit available on Pitha Street in town, or sometimes in the Malayali messes of Marol. There isn't even any kappa (tapioca) or appams. But there are bunches of long, mottled ripe nandrem pazham (Kerala bananas) dangling by the cash counter. These go into meaty pazham pori (banana fritters) and everyone should try a piece.
If we ignore the blaring traffic outside, Nambiar's vibe is somewhere between Kochi's dive-y touristy hotel bars and and the toddy shops of R Block in Kumarakom, minus the toddy. Tree trunks are encircled with string lights, and punched pendant lampshades throw patterns on waiting room-style chairs, laminated tables, melamine plates and plastic glasses. There aren't even 20 seats, and guests can peek past an open kitchen at mounds of aluminium pots and pans. Accommodating and smile-y staff veer between hyper-efficiency during service and blundering confusion during billing.
Not everything is transportive. Kingfish pollichattu is seared in a banana leaf, as it should be. But the gravy encasing the firm (but not dry) steak though tasty, feels generic, missing the brightness and smokiness of kachampuli, and the body that comes from coconut. Kerala meaty toddy shop touchings are listed here under a section named “fries”. Our nadan chicken fry on the bone with a crunchy layer of red marinade could have been fun if it had spent just a little less time tightening up in the pan. A malabar parotta doesn't get its customary crush while hot off the griddle, which means it cools into a chewy whorl that is entirely non-absorbent.
It's specifically kozhi varutharacha kari we're looking to absorb, in ladlefuls. But instead, for this warmly spiced, unapologetically brown, semi-thick, roasted coconut chicken curry, we turn to idiyappam. Nambiar's little nests of coconut-dusted hoppers have fatter strings than we're accustomed to, but they soak in the stew hungrily. Shred chunks of muscular chicken from the kari into a swirl of soused idiyappam for best results.
There is no room for a Thalassery biryani left today, but we take a box of aromatic short-grained rice encasing two masala-coated eggs. Perhaps this is not the best idea – at home, the tightly packed cuboid of rice that pops out of the plastic container has a anaemic layer of masala, and the yolks are going grey at the edges.
Our jaundiced veg kurma looks like it's been loaded last-minute with steamed vegetables: sliced carrots, soggy cauliflower, malachite green beans and peas. Things are not all they appear. The thin coconut milk is hardly timid. It fires up our olfactories with a glorious symphony of spices: star anise, cardamom, cassia, green chillies. The vegetables are each perfectly tender and distinct. It's this kurma – light, hot, fresh – we decide to come back for, one month later on a very wet monsoon evening. Dessert is cumulus humilis: the ela ada, grated coconut and grated jaggery tucked into a cloud-like rice pancake is all the respite we'll get in May.
Getting there: Shop Number 1, Shiv Sagar Building, near Iskcon temple, Juhu. Call 6236 1777 / 73043 79797 / 80076 70243. Daily noon to midnight. A meal for two costs approximately Rs 750. No alcohol served.
bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.
Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in NYC, lives in Mumbai and writes mostly about food and travel for many a publication. She’s a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, and her words have also been found in Conde Nast Traveller, Mint Lounge, Scroll.in, The Hindu, Saveur, The Guardian, and Travel + Leisure, among others. She's crazy about obscure ingredients, and she always knows where to go back for seconds. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @roshnibajaj.
Photo Credit: MidDay
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