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For the love of (Kerala) food

Roshin George

One of the first and most endearing advertisements I used to hear on FM radio when I shifted to the UAE five years ago was about a new Kerala restaurant in Karama, Dubai. In the voice-over ad, a person is heard asking then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who had just returned to Kerala after a UAE visit, what he had liked best about his trip. The voice-alike of the CM replies that it was the lip-smacking food at Aaraamam restaurant and goes on to describe the fare on offer. Since then, Aaraamam has come up with more such interesting ads, some of them based on film dialogues.
But what has made it dear to us since then was the fact that it was one of the few restaurants that cater to the Central Travancore palate. Its parottas and beef fry are to die for. Most restaurants here churn out dishes with a distinct north Kerala flavour, save for the naadan chai which is the same everywhere. Talking of tea, my first glass of restaurant tea in Dubai was from Wide Range in Karama, which true to its name has a wide range of dishes. Not a cup of tea but a glass of tea served in a small transparent tempered glass like in tea shops back home.
Everything at the Kerala restaurants in the Gulf is meant to induce nostalgia – nostalgia for mom’s food or the wayside teashop snacks and of course, nostalgia for everything Kerala. From the coconut oil used for cooking to the banana leaf used to serve meals to the bay leaf used to make kumbil appam to the Ravi Varma prints adorning the walls. Kumbil appam – a wheat/rice preparation with jackfruit, jaggery and coconut wrapped in bay leaf and steamed – is an Aaraamam specialty, but since jackfruit is not always available here, banana is the substitute ingredient.
North Kerala  food has a distinct relish, but when nostalgia for grandma’s fish curry hits me, it is the kappa and sardine curry at Aaraamam that satiates the craving. Or the magnificent spread of the lunch and pothichor (pre-packed lunch in banana leaf reminiscent of the food grandma packed for lunch during school years) that comes for anywhere between 10-15 dirhams (Rs.200-300).
Indeed, Dubai is a foodie paradise. It is many other things too – shopping, fashion, fun and frolic – but it is the love of food that reigns supreme in the minds of residents and citizens alike. So when the most fashionable and diversified of the emirates decided to close its restaurants, cafes and the like on March 23 to combat the elusive coronavirus, it crippled an essential aspect of the city’s culture. For, dining – forget fine dining, we are talking only of earthy, ethnic dining with loud, boisterous talk and messy tables and children running around – is festival time for the Indian expat.
When it comes to ordering food like a king, north Keralites take the cake. Food is celebration for them with family and friends, which explains the families that come in groups and join tables to share meals. Mealtimes that often go past midnight on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the weekend in the Gulf.
The dine-in carnivals came to an end with the 24-hour lockdown in Dubai in late March. Instead, home deliveries thrived thanks to delivery apps like Zomato and Talabat. However, the nature of the virus transmission has made a good many resident stick to home-made food; bachelors who swore by take-aways learnt to cook and found it economical and safe too. Even with restaurants returning to business as usual since May 28, people remain cautious and avoid eating out unless absolutely necessary.
Some restaurants took their social responsibility seriously during the pandemic. For instance, Uppum Mulakum in Karama came up with a novel initiative – it delivered over 4,000 free meals to those in home quarantine during the city’s sterilization drive. On Vishu, the Kerala New Year on April 14, it distributed 1,000 free sadyas to those in need.
Aaraamam is buzzing with dine-in clients again, but this time only outdoor dining is permitted. From taxi drivers to suave executives, its patrons at lunch time keep the waiters on their toes. Karama, needless to mention, is the epicenter of the Indian F&B industry and has eateries that suit each resident’s pocket – even kanjikadas!

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Eagerly awaited is the re-opening of Adaminte Chayakada in Qusais. It shot up in popularity charts in the short time it has been in business in Dubai. Its retro décor, with collectibles from the 1960s and 1970s, lent a nostalgic charm. Recreating Kozhikode market with sacks stacked as props behind a bench and salvaged vehicle parts that serve as seats, it had been one of the most popular joints for Malayalis in Dubai. The food was excellent too, though the fusion dishes served at dinner time was not everyone’s cup of tea. The names of each dish was quirky (chottumpatram, puyyapila kozhi, etc.)  and so was the invite – “vannolee, irunolee, thinnolee (come, sit, eat)” in typical Kozhikode accent. The al fresco ‘Soramukku’ became everyone’s favourite evening hangout especially in winter. Tea, unnakai and chicken samosas made small talk doubly sweet.
While actor Asif Ali threw his weight behind Kozhikode hotelier Aneez Adam to start the Dubai branch of Adaminte Chayakada, actor Dileep himself launched a branch of Dhe Puttu in Karama which served puttu in flavours, fusions and shapes  rivalled only by the megastar’s comedies on screen. The puttu varieties are christened after his hit movies like Joker, Meesha Madhavan and Two Countries.
Talking of actors and films, Ustad Hotel in Al Nahda has in part been helped by the commercial success of a movie by the same name. One seeks out the restaurant in the hope that it will recreate Thilakan’s magical biriyani. The limited space inside is compensated by the scrumptious food and wall art.

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Panoor, Calicut Notebook, Calicut Paragon, Salkara, Kurkum and myriad others had satisfied the Malayali’s longing for homely food week after week in pre-Covid times. Some have closed shop; many others survive on home deliveries, takeaways or the 30% of dining capacity rule. Tables and chairs remain stacked away to maintain physical distancing between diners, while disposable plates and cups aim to instill a feeling of safety and hygiene in them. The invisible enemy that can be decimated by soap and frequent hand washing is teaching us new lessons in cleanliness and community living.
Kerala restaurants may have pressed the pause button for now, but residents will eventually return to their favourite haunts and gastronomic delights in Dubai with great gusto.