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Captivating cuisine from India’s tropics

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

Forget the pakoras, naan bread and chicken tikka masala flaunted in most Indian restaurants. Those are standard provisions from the country’s northern regions far removed from the menu choices at Flavors of Mayura, which specializes in a rare lineup of dishes common to India’s tropical southwest province of Kerala. (Mayura is a Sanskrit word for peacock.)

Indeed, you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere things like ultra-thin dosa crepes made with a batter of rice and lentils and stuffed with turmeric-kissed potatoes. Dramatic in size, they sport the length and girth of a loosely rolled-up wall poster.

Dosa filled with curried potatoes

The curries and marinades veer into novel territory as well with their exceptionally dynamic combinations of red and green chilies, black peppercorns, shaved coconut, garlic, and ginger. On a heat scale of one to 10, they can soar to a seven by default, although most of the dishes we tried ranked tolerably at level five.

Even the breads are unique compared to other Indian restaurants. Here, one of the preferred sauce “mops” is appam, a subtly sweet pancake of sorts that relies on fermented rice batter and coconut milk to achieve its spongy, bubbly texture. If you’re familiar with injera bread served in Ethiopian restaurants, this comes close.

Chicken curry with appam bread

There’s also paratha, a multi-layered flat bread of refined flour that is so delicate it turns dry and crumbly if you ignore it for too long.

Throughout our entire dinner, the cozy semi-formal dining room was filled exclusively with Indian families that were obviously more familiar with the cuisine than us. According to our friendly and efficient waiter, there are only two other restaurants in California that focus mainly on Keralan cuisine — Los Angeles and Silicon Valley.

Chicken lollipops coated in a sauce of chilies and ginger (Photos by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

As a couple of flat screens overhead played Indian music videos, our first grandly flavored dish was the chicken lollipops, certainly not the panko-crusted types served on wooden sticks in trendy American eateries.

These were frenched wings, with the meat pulled down a bit from their bones and the tips wrapped in aluminum foil for easy handling. The dark-red sauce coating them tasted equal parts garlic, chilies and black pepper, offering a mischievous heat factor we found addicting.

From the “veg appetizer” section we tried the “cutlet,” which is erroneously described on the menu as a “deep-fried meat snack.” Similar to croquettes and served two to an order with a curious ketchup-like condiment, they consisted of potatoes, peas and flecks of red chilies — simple but delicious.

Fried vegetable “cutlets”

The giant dosa crepe followed. Despite its astounding mass, we easily polished off every speck of the paper-thin casing and the tenderly cooked spiced potatoes inside. It was served with pulpy coconut chutney and comforting lentil soup for dipping.

For our entrees, hubby opted for the meen polichathu, a large filet of king mackerel marinated intensely in ginger, cinnamon and chilies. It was wrapped tightly in oily banana leaves, which served as a barrier to the meaty, greaseless fish during deep-frying.

Fish wrapped in banana leaves

The mackerel was supposed to be the spiciest entrée in our lineup, according to the waiter. But the chicken curry I chose — served with potatoes in innocent-looking brown gravy — rivaled the fish’s heat level by a couple of notches. Offering tender meat and a riot of flavors, I loved every speck of it.

Our cool down was mango mousse for dessert, a straightforward blend of mango puree and heavy cream. If you’re expecting something airy, this isn’t it.

Although given its bright fruity flavor and perhaps the first dose of dairy you’re encountering from a menu that uses only ghee (clarified butter) in a few of the dishes, it’s a coddling treat to the palate.

In addition to nightly dinner service, Flavors of Mayura offers plated lunch specials from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Wednesday, and a buffet for $9.99 during the same hours on Thursdays and Fridays.

—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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