The western reaches of Venice Boulevard are nothing like Kerala. No vast groves of coconut palms, no quiet beaches on the Arabian Sea, no elephants striding ponderously down the road--just traffic and nondescript businesses.
And, of course, the India Cafe. It may look like one of those spartan, often empty, neighborhood Indian eating places, but it's not. This is probably the only restaurant anywhere near Los Angeles where you can taste Keralan dishes.
In many cases, the ingredients actually come from the state of Kerala in southwestern India. Owner Sodharan Varughese imports spices, fish, shrimp, potatoes, rice, coffee, coconut powder, pappadums and even a bread called parota from Kerala. But you can't tell this from the regular menu, which emphasizes familiar north Indian fare. The Keralan dishes have to be ordered in advance. Varughese will supply a list to choose from, and he recently started including one Keralan dish a day into the buffet. The one you're likely to get is avial, green bananas and mixed vegetables cooked with coconut milk.
This food can be extremely spicy, spicier than anything I've tasted in Kerala itself. "Even for me, it's hot," sighed a friend from Kerala as we ate shrimp fry, dark with spices and intensely hot with both dried and fresh chiles. My friend's trick for dealing with such heat is to sprinkle the shrimp with lime juice. This helped a little, but more significantly, the lime added a fresh and tangy nuance that improved the flavor.
The flakes of browned coconut mixed with the shrimp testify to the Keralan taste for coconut. Potato stew, a bland name for a very, very hot dish, combines potatoes with a silky coconut milk sauce. This vegetarian dish contains a few slim, pointy curry leaves, which are basic to Keralan cuisine.
Potato stew traditionally goes with idiyappam (also known as string hoppers), thread-like steamed rice noodles topped with coconut. Another typical Kerala combination is puttu and kala chana. The former is alternate layers of pounded rice and coconut steamed in a tubular mold. When turned out and sliced, this starchy mixture appears to have a pink coating, the result of using unpolished rice. Kala chana resembles a dark and chewy garbanzo bean. It too is cooked with coconut.
Two fish curries arrived at the table cold. This is because Kerala custom is to cook once for the whole day and not reheat the food. At India Cafe, these dishes had been refrigerated, rather than allowed to stand at room temperature; we asked for them to be reheated. The Malabari fish curry had a rosy sauce of coconut milk and tomatoes. Red fish curry, by contrast, was as red as can be from red peppers and paprika.
These curries illustrate a still more rarefied aspect of Kerala cuisine. Both are Syrian Christian dishes. Christianity is said to have arrived in Kerala when St. Thomas the Apostle landed at Kodungallur in AD 52. Varughese, who practices this faith, comes from Thiruvalla, located between Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) and Kollam (Quilon), an area with a high concentration of Christians.
Beef fry, small heavily spiced chunks of beef combined with coconut flakes, is obviously Syrian Christian--you wouldn't find a beef dish among Hindus. Kerala also has a Muslim community, and Varughese can make halal biryanis and tandoori chicken if requested.
The fluffy parboiled Indian rice that Varughese imports goes well with creamy, coconut-based fish and shrimp curries. But I prefer to sop them up with palappam, a bowl-shaped pancake with a thick center and crisp, lacy edges. The batter is, of course, made with coconut milk. Then there is vellayappam, a thicker, flat pancake with similar ingredients.
Although the names are similar, Malabari parota is not quite the same as north Indian paratha. It is a layered, flat, grilled bread that pulls apart in shreds as you eat it. Varughese imports it frozen from Kochi.
When it comes to desserts, there's one that has a different name in the north and in the south of India. Rice pudding is kheer in the north but payasam on India Cafe's menu. Even better is semiya payasam, a bowlful of cardamom-scented sweetened milk floating with slim Indian rice noodles, raisins and roasted cashews. It's just what you need to cool down from a seriously spicy dinner.
India Cafe, 10855 1/2 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 836-9696. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Takeout and delivery. No alcohol. Major credit cards accepted. Street parking. Dinner for two, food only, $14 to $25.
What to Get (must be ordered in advance): beef or shrimp fry, potato stew, Malabari fish or shrimp curry, avial, idiyappam, semiya payasam.