Patrick Widdess writes poetry, prose, and arts and travel features. He is based in Norwich, UK.
Britain has a longstanding love affair with Indian food. You are never far from a curry house, but the South Indian cuisine served at Cafe Malabar is a rarity. Having visited South India a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to rediscovering the region’s distinctive culinary delights.
When we arrived on a weekday evening, the spacious venue was empty with Bollywood music playing quite loudly. We were soon distracted by the extensive menu, which featured familiar names like samosas and biryani alongside intriguing specialties from the region.
I started with fish fry. The four chunks of kingfish did not look like much, but they proved to be very filling. Encased in a lightly spiced batter, the fish was hot, succulent and tender. My vegetarian friend had plenty to choose from and tucked into two plain vada—small but quite dense, savoury donuts made with white lentils and served with a coconut chutney.
The menu offered an extensive selection of fish, meat and vegetable main courses. I had the chicken Malabar, described as a famous Keralan dish cooked with spices and herbs. There was a variety of traditional breads and rice dishes available, and I chose coconut rice. My friend had aubergine masala with lemon rice.
The main courses arrived in large, wide dishes. each with a mountain of rice rising from a large bowl. The lemon rice was an exotic yellow hue. We could have eaten well on half the amount of food, especially after the filling starters.
A wonderful coconut aroma rose from my rice as I piled it onto my plate. Coconut is a staple ingredient in Keralan cooking, and it was an excellent accompaniment to the chicken. The succulent meat was awash in a thick, gently spiced gravy—like a drier-tasting chicken korma.
I can vouch for its authenticity having had a similar dish on my travels. The flavour took me back to Alleppey, a picturesque rural area of Kerala where I spent a day on a houseboat sailing through spectacular scenery and feasting on traditional dishes.
The aubergine was cooked with tomato and a sharper mix of spices, making a soft tangy dish. It was a stark contrast from the chicken, and with the lemon rice it was a little sour for my liking, but my friend enjoyed it. The gut-busting size of the portions was also authentic to the region, and finishing them off was a challenge we failed in. Well, we had to save room for dessert!
And for Dessert ...
In addition to ice cream, the restaurant offers two traditional sweets. Gulab jamun are spongy brown balls drenched in syrup, a small but intensely sweet treat. Semiya payasam is a creamy dessert similar in flavour to rice pudding but made with roasted vermicelli. The cashew nuts and raisins mixed in gave each mouthful a slightly different taste.
Already Thinking About Next Time
The rich ingredients and huge portions left us feeling full and more than satisfied. It was an exotic and varied meal and a refreshing change from the standard choices at many Indian restaurants.
With many other items left to try on the menu, I found I was soon thinking about what I would have next time. And when I come back I’ll be sure to bring an even bigger appetite.
- Setting: The decor seemed a little old and worn but it was clean and comfortable.
- Ambiance: It was empty when we arrived but got busier later on. The music that was playing loudly at first was soon turned down.
- Service: The service was friendly but a little slow. Even when there were only two or three other parties, it took a while to get the waitress’s attention.
- Drinks: There is a licensed bar and a wide selection of drinks. My friend had mango juice while I had an Indian lager.
- Accessibility: Everything’s on the level with plenty of space. The disabled toilet was closed when we visited.
- Toilets: Quite old but clean and in good general condition.
- Parking: Colegate and Magdalen car parks are both nearby.
- Price: A three-course meal for two with drinks for £43 is good value, especially as half the amount of food would have been enough for a square meal.
- Highlight: The chicken Malabar and coconut rice took me back to Kerala.
If you like Indian food you will love the menu here and the chance to try something a bit different. With so many dishes to choose from, I’ll definitely be going back.
© 2019 Patrick Widdess