Story and Photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
Kerala is a state in southwestern India with a unique culinary heritage, and it’s a heritage shared by chefs Kiran Kolathodan and Karma Tenpa, the two young men behind Café Malabar.
The new café launched this summer from the communal Coho Commissary kitchen in the Victoria Public Market, and is leaning on take-out to build fans for its south Indian menu, before expanding into a future bricks-and-mortar dining spot.
And locals are embracing their Keralan food, a departure from the north Indian fare that’s more commonly served Canada. From dosas and idlis, to steamed rice puttu, fish curries, and aromatic stews, redolent in the wide variety of spices
exported from this region for centuries, the cuisine of the tropical Malabar Coast is distinct and delicious.
Born in Kerala and trained in at the Institute of Hotel Management in India, Kolathodan cooked for four years at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (where he met his wife Lexi) before moving to BC, and working at The Wickaninnish Inn, the Fairmont Waterfront, the Shangri-La Hotel, and as chef de cuisine at the Rosemont Hotel Georgia in Vancouver. He did internships (stages) at NOMA and Borago in Chile, before landing in Victoria as culinary director at the Westin Bear Mountain Resort in 2022.
It was there that he hired Tenpa, newly arrived from Mumbai, where he was chef de cuisine at the contemporary Yazu - Pan Asian Supper Club, and often featured in Indian magazines and newspapers
Now the pair are channeling their many talents into the homey south Indian specialties of their youth.
“Keralan cuisine is not represented properly at all here,” says Kolathodan. “In the back of my mind, I always wanted to do something like this.”
Even if you’ve travelled to this part of India, you may need some help navigating Café Malabar’s menu, but the surprises are all pleasant.
DISCOVERING KERALAN CUISINE
Start with the snack side of the menu, which includes tasty vegetable cutlets (patties coated in crumbs and sauteed until crisp); Kerala Egg Puffs, a puff pastry package encasing a masala spiced egg; or spiced chicken fried in coconut oil.
Coconut is widely grown in Kerala and it’s an ingredient in many dishes, from the south Indian-style Gunpowder Dosa, a fermented rice crepe dusted spiced coconut and served plain or filled with masala potatoes, to the Cabbage Thoran or a sweet coconut chutney, to dollop on idlis, steamed fermented rice cakes, served with Café Malabar’s rich lentil and coconut Sambar.
Puttu is another south Indian staple, a ground rice and coconut mixture that’s steamed in a cylinder and served with their moreish black chickpea Kadala curry. The texture of puttu is soft and slightly grainy, similar to couscous, and it makes a nice base for any of their curries (a.k.a. stews), including the Varutharacha Chicken and Roasted Coconut Curry, or fiery Alleppey Fish Curry, with sour tamarind, dried chilies and curry leaves.
The Kerala Pepper Beef, a staple in Kerala, is typically served with bread, but instead of naan, here you can try parotta, a flakey, layered fried flatbread, or appam (a.k.a Hoppers), a thin fermented rice and coconut pancake, shaped like a shallow bowl.
Or opt for a side of the short-grained Kerala Matta rice from the Palakkadan region, slightly chewy with a reddish hue and slightly sweet, nutty flavour from the soil where its grown. Long grain kaima rice is also featured in rice bowls and cooked with whole spices and ghee, to compliment the plantain (morru) buttermilk curry or Kerala fried chicken.
KERALA, LAND OF SPICES
Wedged between the Western Ghats mountains and the Indian Ocean, Kerala is known as India’s “spice garden”, where a wide range of spices, notably black pepper and cinnamon, are grown. Its long been a region that attracted the world’s traders, an early hub of Chinese and Arab commerce, where Christian and Jewish cultures first converged, and where Portuguese merchants exported spices throughout Europe in the 16th century.
Kolathodan says those colonial influences are reflected in the melting pot of Keralan cuisine, whether it’s their Mutton Ishtu (a stew simmered in coconut milk), slow-cooked pepper beef, or Fish Molle, fried Spanish Mackerel in a black pepper and coconut sauce, with Portuguese roots.
“Kerala means ‘the land of coconut’, and that’s our staple oil,” says Kolathodan, noting a coconut paste is the basis of many the traditional curries, “but Kerala is also the main source of spices like cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.”
“We are also a fishing region so fish is always on the menu, which fits well here in Victoria,” he adds, noting the state’s shape resembles Vancouver Island, with a long coastline along the Arabian Sea.
So, whether the local “gunpowder” spice mix — the Keralan combination of toasted ground chilies, lentils, sesame seeds and curry leaves — or aromatic cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, the flavour of the warm spices in a Kerlan masala linger on the palate beyond the heat.
SOUTH INDIAN EXPORATIONS
There’s lots to discover on this menu, so you’ll need to visit more than once to taste through all of the choices. For now, you’ll have to perch on a stool in the public market or order online and rely on one of the delivery services that will bring Café Malabar to your door.
But this selection of Keralan snacks, breakfast specialties and curries is only the beginning — these chefs are hoping they can expand their South Indian menu in a full service restaurant soon.