Saturday, February 25, 2012

Kerala Kitchen

732 Murphy Rd. (FM 1092), Stafford


Kerala Kitchen has been around for some years I guess. It’s mostly a catering operation but they sell OTC by the pound whatever they have cooking and over the months I’ve been going, the in-house eating area has been spiffed up a bit and I’m more likely to see someone having a meal on premises, typically a thali. Still, dining accommodations are rudimentary.

Like Mahima Indian Bistro down the road a couple of miles, Kerala Kitchen features the unique dishes of Kerala like Steak Fry, Pork Fry, Fish Fry, Kerala style curries and biryanis, aviyal, thoran and others, plus dishes like Chilli Chicken and Chicken 65.

My first visit over a year ago was almost my last and I almost left empty-handed. I was walking out in frustration, never having seen another soul after standing at the counter for 10 minutes, when another customer came in and showed me how it worked - he yelled at the top of his lungs to get the attention of the crew in the back. Since then, a bell has been placed on the counter that you can ring. The menu is limited - there’s an erasable board on the wall listing the dishes but not all of them may be available, about a dozen in toto, some vegetarian, some non-vegetarian, and some biryanis. The menu does change.

On that first visit I walked out with a pound of Chicken Curry for $6 as I recall. I was just relieved to have gotten anything at all for my time but my mood brightened considerably when I tasted it as it was very good. In fact, I was moved to compare it to my first meal at Himalaya or the first time I tried the Beef Nihari at Sabri Nihari. Pretty impressive company and I knew I had to go back to check my impression despite the awkwardness of the ordering routine, but that was about when I was burning out on Indian food and it was a long time before I returned..

I’ve also had the Butter Chicken, taking something of a chance because it’s a dish I haven’t found to be very satisfying the few times I’ve had it before, I’ve found it too rich from the butter for my taste or terribly bland but this version redeemed the dish. It’s the best I’ve had of my limited samples.

One time the Mutton Stew caught my eye on the menu board. They warned me they only had about a half a pound left but I thought that would be enough for me and I wasn’t deterred. When I first opened up the container I thought perhaps my order had been mixed up with another until I looked it up online at found that Mutton Stew in Kerala is made with coconut milk. It also included potatoes, carrots, ginger, curry leaves and other spices. Being the last of the batch, there were only a few small bites of meat but this too was very impressive and I’m hoping to be able to try it again.

I’ve also had the Moru Curry and a pork dish. Moru means buttermilk and online references to this dish refer to it as a buttermilk curry but both here and at Mahima, where it is also offered, it is explained as a yogurt curry. The difference may stem from awareness of the difference between buttermilk as the term is used in India and what we refer to as buttermilk in the USA. In India, buttermilk is the liquid left over after butter is churned from yogurt - yes, I wrote that correctly, butter is churned from yogurt. As I recall being told, it’s a little thinner than whole milk. That differs a lot from the cultured buttermilk that we are familiar with here. Actually, I’m also told few places churn their own butter anymore and buttermilk often is just watered down yogurt. I used it over some rice I heated up at home, as had been suggested by another customer, and then tried to find other uses for it besides just gulping it (I got about a quart for $3). Corn flakes and curry, anyone? I didn’t try it, but I thought about it.

The menu offered either Pork Fry or Curry, I don’t remember which, but the man who waited on me said it was the other dish, not the one listed. By the time I got home, I couldn’t remember which was which so I’m not sure what I got. Curries in Kerala are typically rather dry, like Malaysian curries, and in my experience the Fry dishes are even drier. There is a difference in preparation and some differences in spices used, etc., but I’m not familiar enough with the dishes yet to decipher which one this was. I thought it was the least impressive dish I had gotten until I got around to reheating the leftovers and I liked it a lot more.

As I have experienced at other Indian restaurants and grocery stores, other customers can be very helpful and courteous and I’ve had some very good conversations with others waiting for food. One time there was a guy from the North Shore area who said there is no place offering the foods of the Subcontinent on the far east side and he can only go so long on burgers, pizza, bbq, and Tex Mex before he has to have some of the tastes of his homeland. He is not from Kerala but he drives all the way over, bypassing the Mahatma Gandhi district and the cluster of Indo-Pak restaurants around W. Bellfort, Wilcrest and 59, down to Stafford to this place to load up. He had to make a couple of trips to his car to carry out his haul, several trays of probably about 5 pounds each. I wish I had thought to ask him what he thought was worth driving all that way for.

According to the sign on the door, they’re open seven days a week until 8 pm.

All dishes are shown as plated at home; I've gotten take-out everytime.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Mahima Indian Bistro

2258 FM 1092, Missouri City, TX

I burned out on Indian food around mid-year last year and have been avoiding it for months. Recently though I’ve been re-discovering how much I love the flavors and dishes. I’ve checked out a couple of chat places, hoping to find a replacement for Sweet n’ Namkin, and the new re-incarnation of Pavani at it’s original location. I was also drawn to a several places in Fort Bend Co.

We revel in the diversity of our offerings from different cultures on the Houston restaurant scene and the cross-pollination that sometimes goes on between cuisines and within regional variations of some cuisines, but with respect to some of the multifaceted cuisines like Chinese, Mexican and Indian it can be difficult to explore the regional variations in depth. In the Stafford-Missouri City area, however, you can get a real good taste of the cuisine of the Spice Coast state of Kerala. There are now four eateries catering to the ex-pat community plus two grocery stores. Mahima is the most recently opened of the eateries; I had seen it last year though I never could catch it open. Perusing an Indian language newspaper while waiting for my food at another place recently I spotted a half page ad for the grand re-opening under new management.

The previous operation was mostly if not exclusively a catering operation, apparently, but the new owner is trying to expand to more OTC sales to walk-in and telephone orders. There is also a small dining area, seating maybe a maximum of 12, for dining on premises. The hours, however, are limited.

The menu has maybe a dozen to a dozen and a half offerings, not all of which will be available on any given day. Though the dishes are mostly representative of Kerala, there are some that are not particular to that state, such as Chicken Curry and Butter Chicken.

On my first visit, I tried the Aviyal, a mixed vegetable dish (I’ve gotten everything to go; all pictures are as plated at home and are only portions of what I received as you buy by the pound). Coconut is one of the most important agricultural products of Kerala and it is used in many dishes; these vegetables are cooked in coconut milk, I think. It also included carrots, potato, long beans, and the unique vegetable known as drumstick that is eaten like artichoke leaves, using your teeth to scrape the tender portion off the inedible stalks. Another common ingredient in Kerala dishes is curry leaves and I think there may have been some broccoli stalks in there - it’s a bit difficult to tell since everything is cooked down to a very tender state. This came with some rice - Wiki says there are 600 varieties grown in Kerala’s rice fields - and a pappad. Surprisingly, there was a little bit of heat, which I don’t think I’ve experienced in this dish before.

I also tried the fish curry. Another one of the ingredients common in dishes from Kerala is kodumpuli, also known as gambooge, brindleberry or Malabar tamarind, a pumpkin-like fruit that adds very sour tastes to a dish. The Kerala style fish curry is wonderfully sour and fiery and I must admit I find it kind of addictive. It is one of my favorites of the unique dishes of this cuisine.

On another visit, I picked up the lamb biryani, one of four available. There are many variations of biryani in India; the Kerala version is different in that it uses very little chilli and is not spicy like most others. I understand also the rice is cooked in butter, making it very rich. It includes cashews, another important agricultural product, cardamon, nutmeg, clove and similar spices. It came with lime pickle and an onion and tomato raita. Although it was very enjoyable, I do prefer some of the spicier versions of biryani.

Mahima on Facebook

Tacos estilo Jalisco/tacos de barbacoa dorados

In a recent communique, a blog reader has asked for my help in locating the above named tacos, a specialty of Guadalajara. We haven't had much luck over the years in trying to locate another Guadalajaran specialty, the torta ahogada, but maybe we will with this.

These tacos are not the same thing as the Tacos Dorados de Papas at Hugo's described by Alison Cook in a review last fall nor the tacos dorados described by Robb Walsh two years ago in a review of Airline Flea Market, both of which are deep fried items.

These tacos are described as tacos, usually barbacoa, that are fried on the flat top in the grease from the meat until the tortillas become crispy, then topped with the usual toppings.

We have tons of taquerias with Jalisco in the name and probably quite a few taco trucks. Anybody see these on a menu anywhere? They sound tasty (all three types).