I have a confession to make. I hate avial with a passion. Whenever I have had it, it has seemed to me to be the most pointless, tasteless dish in the panoply of that glorious melange of Kerala’s deservedly famous cuisine. A bunch of vegetable batons in a yellow, coconut-based gravy has never cut the mustard with me. Then a fanatical follower of Prima Kurien’s homedelivery service sung praises for her egg roast (Rs.400) and mutton biryani (Rs.575) so I rang her up. The first suggestion she had for me was to try her avial. That was when I was tempted to put down the phone and forget about this particular caterer, but by a stroke of luck, I pressed on. I ordered meat oolarthiathu (Rs.475), appams (Rs.12 per piece), buttermilk with shallots, ginger and curry leaves (Rs.12 per person), my favourite, meen molee (Rs.475), a yellow, coconut-flavoured curry with a whisper of sourness and only a couple of green chillies for spice and my bete noire, avial.
I had asked for the food to be delivered to my house and for a member of her staff to make appams in my house, both services that Prima Kurien offers at extra cost. I was in the bittersweet position of having to eat my words: the avial was the finest dish on the menu. I have to say that the food, all of which was excellent, went down a treat with appams made by a practised hand, while they were hot and fresh. The total cost of the meal was the princely sum of Rs 2,150 in which three hungry souls demolished countless appams and still had leftovers.
Kurien, a Syrian Christian from Kottayam, the bastion of the community, has hit the bull’s eye. By not running a restaurant, she can concentrate on quality, cooking the food of her community with authenticity and a dash of flair. And because she has her finger in many pies, catering is not the only option she has: she does it because it is a passion more than anything else, and it shows in the food. Her cuisine is perfect home-cooked food and the cuisine is rare to get in our city. No shortcuts, no hiring of clueless staff to hijack the food, the way it frequently happens in restaurants. But first the avial. There were batons of carrots, beans and drumsticks all right, but there was no gravy: only a clinging sauce of coconut and an intense flavour of raw mango, green chilli and curry leaves. The oolarthiathu, which can also be made with prawns (Rs.575) also has a clinging sauce and contains pieces of coconut that has been browned. Unlike avial and meen molee, oolarthiathu is spicy.
The menu has as much for the vegetarian as for meat and fish eaters. Many of the dishes on the menu, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, contain coconut. A few contain the uber Keralite souring agent called kodampuli or fish tamarind and the meen manga curry (Rs 475) contains raw mango for sourness. While you certainly can ring up Kurien for suggestions about dishes that do not contain coconut, it is not a good idea to suggest her altering her cuisine: she has strong feelings on the subject. And with such a mastery over her kitchen, why shouldn’t she?