Passions of Kerala Restaurant, Georgetown - Penang

More than memories of backpacking - aromatic briyani rice on a rectangle sized banana leaf ala natural plate, accompanied by (clockwise from 11 o'clock) shall veg curry, hot sauces and sambar.

There is an art and etiquette to eating with hands from a banana leaf laid out in front of you.  At the very start, it is required to wash your hands, which can be obvious.  You are then asked your preference of steamed white rice or tomato flavoured rice laden with cooked spices, raisins and finely chopped nuts.   As with most Middle Eastern, South Asian and south-east Asian cultures, you always eat with your right hand - the other hand is reserved for other specific uses.   Condiments, garnishings and vegetables are provided in several forms and you just take it all on your banana leaf, which soon gets crowded.  Meat and seafood dishes which you  have chosen additionally from the menu are then served in separate plates.  When you have finished your meal, you can show satisfaction to your host or the chef and restaurant by folding your emptied banana leaf inwards towards you. Do the opposite if you are unhappy with the quality and taste of the food served.

After all this awareness, I nevertheless opted for the use of folk and spoon at a banana leaf and curry restaurant in the heart of Georgetown.   I had no recent practice using my hands ( a technique that requires being able to push a dollop of rice into mouth with a finger) - and so I had missed this unique opportunity to re-try this interesting practice that reduces the use of utensils at meal time.

Kerala cuisine or
Sadya evolved from the heavy influence of the land lying along the Spice Trade, in the path of Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and British sailors and being subject to the socio-commercial implications of the monsoons, when travelling historically relied so much on weather and wind direction.  The Thalassery Briyani  from the Malabar area epitomises such influences with its dual utilisation of both chicken and seafood.  Kerala is part of the Tamil language speaking zone - and Tamils have traditionally formed a significant minority of the populations of both Singapore and Malaysia.  Many a traveller in this region is familiar with the puttu, sambar, dosa and Paal-Appam at breakfast time along busy road stalls and in tourist food hubs in this part of the world,    These dishes are part of the Kerala tradition and  just refer accordingly to steamed rice and grated coconut, chutney-like condiments and pancakes.

Chicken curry with an authentic twist, a delightful change from what is usually available.

Deep fried fish is bathed in a thick and flavoursome curry.

Seafood stands out in this cuisine and you can have a wide variety of options in this space. Squid and prawns are part of this menu but what captivated me was the crab masala.  Masala is a term that refers to a blend of spices to produce a heady mix and flavour. Generally the dishes here are noted for their rich but rewarding curries. Service is efficient and tables were quickly filled up at the lunch time we were there, a working day. The restaurant is air conditioned and spacious. Penangites love their fried fish which are then consumed in a variety of cuisine styles, whether with a light gravy or soaked in curries. The coast of Kerala, on the south-west coast of the Indian sub-continent, with cities like Kochi, Payyanur and Thiruvananthapuram, does significantly affect this specific cuisine, apart from the unique herbs and tropical flora and fruits that dot its hinterland. Prices charged are most reasonable and offer a refreshing value when compared to eating similar meals in Singapore or Sydney. Henry, who took me there, remarked that the standard of Indian food here is as good as to what backpackers and tourists may find in exotic cafes and shops in Little India, about ten minutes away by car in Penang's old quarter. Passions of Kerala Restaurant is open daily, with lunch served from 1130am and dinner provided from 6pm. Its location in the New World Park entertainment and street food precinct is popular and relatively easy to find.  Apparently additional rice and vegetables are offered to customers at no additional cost.  There is another branch of the passions of Kerala in suburban Georgetown in the Bukit Gelugor area on  the way south to the airport.

Portions of delightful accompaniments, some spicy and others not so chili hot, are dished out neatly in front of you.

What are the essential differences between Kerala curries and their northern cousins in India? The ubiquitous use of aromatic curry leaves, the careful pouring of different types of fresh coconut milk at critical stages of the cooking process and the prevalent presence of cinnamon, pepper and cardamom perhaps contribute to the distinctive taste of this specific cuisine. There is definitely a sense of the heavy tropical air from Kerala cuisine.

 Interesting enough owner Gary Nair also offers kiwi flavoured lhassi yogurt, something which restaurants in New Zealand and Australia may consider, especially with the availability of this gooseberry fruit in the Antipodean countries. I tried this type of lhassi and I liked it. Pappadums offered were small sized compared to what you find in Sydney or Wollongong.  Indian food inevitably contains a strong element of vegetarian - the dish that stood out to me was the sharp but stimulating lime acar, with julieanned strips of hard vegetables marinated with a sour and spicy marinade.

If you have time for only one dish, I strongly suggest the mutton masala (photo below). This meat of goats, as opposed to sheep, has a more powerful natural odour, so is best cooked in a curry with several spices.  I was more than satisfied with our meal of several dishes and could no longer try the Kerala desserts - okay, maybe  the next time around!


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