Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Touch of North India in the South

Dal Roti in Fort Kochi, which serves authentic north Indian food, is a popular stop for tourists as well as locals

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

One December morning, in 2012, a Portuguese woman, Carlota Alves, along with her husband and three children entered the Dal Roti restaurant on Lilly Road at Fort Kochi. They took a table near a wall. After a while, another family, a husband and wife and two children took a table against the opposite wall. The woman’s name was Emilia Coelho. Both families were speaking in Portuguese.

After a while, Carlota, 40, got up, went to the Coelho table, and asked Emilia, “Are you from Portugal?”

No,” said Emilia. “I am from Mexico.”

They started talking, exchanged names and got a shock. Both Carlota and Emilia were classmates in school in Mexico when they were four years old.
So excited were the two women to see each other, that Carlota, who was scheduled to fly out the next day, cancelled her ticket so that the two women could spend time with each other.

It was such an unforgettable experience,” says Dal Roti owner Ramesh Menon. “In fact, both of them thanked me for somehow engineering this meeting between the two.”

Dal Roti is an unusual place. It is the lone eatery in Fort Kochi that only serves North Indian food. Ramesh started this 3000 sq. ft. restaurant, which seats 60, on January 4, 2007, when his North Indian wife, Kalpana, complained of eating South Indian food all the time.

Like my wife, there are many north Indian tourists who come to the restaurant and beg me, ‘Sir, please make some dishes without curry leaves and coconut. We are tired of eating Malayali food’,” says Ramesh.

Expectedly, the cuisine is authentic North Indian stuff, like Mughlai parathas, paneer, kheema, biriyani and kofta, because the chief cook, Mumtaz Khan, as well as his assistants, are from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

When Ramesh went searching for chefs he deliberately avoided those who worked for five-star hotels. “They tend to neutralise food because they are looking for consistency in flavour,” says Ramesh. “So the food lacks the punch of natural cooking. But whenever people cook for a wedding feast, they need to provide quality fare. Otherwise, they will not be called again. All my chefs used to cook for weddings.”

Apart from having authentic cooks, Ramesh’s USP is that he ensures there is very little spice in the food. “I have always felt that if you add chillies, you can no longer taste the cardamom or the cloves,” he says. “The taste should be subtle.”

Also, unlike most owners, Ramesh is a hands-on person. “It is unusual for an owner to talk to the customers,” he says. “But I have no such problems. I suggest food items, take the order, and serve the food myself. In India, where there is a strong separation between the white and blue collar, here is a white-collar guy doing a blue-collar work. But in this business, the personal touch makes a restaurant successful.” 

Indeed, Dal Roti is doing well. There are many patrons from Europe and America. Some are unpredictable. One man came in, wearing torn jeans and t-shirt, with bedraggled hair. At the end of the meal, when Ramesh exchanged visiting cards, the man turned out to be a scientist with NASA. Best-selling US-based author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni comes whenever she is in Kochi.
There are regular Malayali customers, too. Among them is a Muslim family who comes every week from Kodungallur, which is 43 kms away.
So how did Malayalis develop a taste for North Indian food? “Their children go for further studies in places like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, where they learn to eat North Indian food,” says Ramesh. “So when they come home for their vacations, they persuade their parents to try the same food.”  
Asked about the most popular item, customer Niranjana says, “The kati rolls are to die for. The chicken mughlai is another awesome dish. You might have to wait for a while to get a table but in the end it's worth it.”
In the end, Ramesh lets out his own surprise secret. His favourite food is not available at his restaurant. “I prefer rice, sambar, rasam and vegetables,” he says, with a broad grin. 

(Sunday Standard, New Delhi, and New Indian Express, Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi) 

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