Is there any style of cooking represented in Cardiff with such breadth and range as Keralan? Probably not: arguably more than Spanish or Italian, or Thai, Chinese, French or Pakistani. In the last year alone you could eat it on trestle tables from small vendors’ cardboard trays, or have your pick of lavish multi-course tasting menus with matched wines, via busy lunchtime market stall menus topping out at a tenner. That’s often dictated by resources, of course, though incidentally there’s often more of a sense of fun and innovation at that street food end.
Of course, straddling the whole landscape like Cassius’ colossus is Anand George, godfather of Keralan cooking in Wales, and without whom none of this would have happened. His influence is everywhere, and it’s worth debating whether anyone else locally has managed to master street food and formal dining with the same fluency.
Any new local Keralan restaurant, then, has to decide where it is going to pitch itself.
Little Kochi, recently opened on the site of the mystifyingly long-lived Bo Zan on Cardiff’s Albany Road, has chosen the middle path. Its deliberately short menu of familiar Keralan staples is much less formal than the nearby Salkaara: happily, five vegetarian, five fish and six meat mains mean there’s something for everyone here. They will even adjust spicing to your preference.
Most if the menu will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed Southern Indian menus in the city over the last decade and more. Poppadoms are the usual delicate little curls, with the lemon chutney a a standout for its bold sourness. It’s an encouraging start.
It’s a damp, glum Wednesday evening in Roath but there’s a happy hum in the air here, among the hanging lanterns and floor to ceiling woven bamboo. There’s hardly a seat to be had on our first visit, either, which is good to see.
Beef roast, a street food favourite, and also available as a main, is done very well here, aromatic with trademark curry leaf and coconut. It’s saucier than I’d usually like, matron, but apparently that’s how their customers like it: so what do I know? Feel free to ask for it served drier if you prefer.
The tomato sauce in the Munnar lamb curry is richly creamy and subtly sweetened with coconut milk and cashews, the meat tender and plentiful. (That’s echoed in the Alleppey Prawn, where the crustacean census returns eight in residence). There’s a notable heat, even at a medium level from Pepper Chicken, also based around cashews and coconut but spiky with lingering peppercorn punch.
The only outright dud is mushroom thoran, cooked past the point of bite into textural anonymity. It’s a shame for a dish that promised much. And it’s only fair to tell you they listened to feedback very graciously.
Chicken trio recalls Purple Poppadom’s Chicken Connoisseur: three breast pieces, three marinades. Here it’s mint and coriander, the vivid scarlet of Kashmiri chilli and cream cheese with the nutty whiff of brown butter, all with a beetroot puree my Blogger Cliche Generator obliges me to describe as ‘earthy’. It’s £6.49 well spent.
We order the seafood main at ‘Keralan’ spice level. It’s called Allepy Prawn but don’t confuse this with the Alleppey sauce you may already know. If you’re used to it as a coconut milk base, soured with raw mango and golden with turmeric, this rugged tomato-based masala might not be what you expect, though the promised tamarind tang is very welcome.
The clinging tomato based sauce is sour-sweet, thick and clinging and I eat it with appam. These pancakes, made from coconut milk and fermented rice flour, are thick and feel substantial in the hand, but pull off that trick of feeling cloudily light as you tear them apart and get to scooping and mopping.
Alas, no keema naan. I repeat: no keema naan. The king of breads is missing. This must be against the Geneva Convention. Or at least local by-laws, surely. Parotta, dosaa and appam are the alternatives, with only plain and garlic naan available.
UPDATE: On 26th January 2023 they launched a standalone lunch menu.
It is very well pitched: the mint and coriander-marinated chicken ‘Meat Lunch Box’ and feels substantial enough in both size and flavour to make itself count. The chicken is tossed with peppers and onion, comes with salad, rice and a full-bodied sauce. It is £6.99. Or ham eggs and chips at your local caff, but without any of the punch of this plate. And yes, there is a vegetarian version with aubergine in coconut milk, okra and a spinach thoran.
Equally attractive value is the stuffed chicken parotta, another bargain and packing more interest and flavour than many alternative lunches. They have clearly put some thought into this- it’s a lighter menu than the evening, and this wrap is very competitively priced at £4.99. It’s not hsrd to be impressed at what they’re offering here.
A promising start for Little Kochi, then: it will be interesting to see how they build from here and take on customer feedback as the menu develops. This is a relaxed, accessible way into Keralan cooking, and the new lunch menu highly recommended.
Little Kochi, 78 Albany Rd, Cardiff CF24 3RS
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