Malayalees do have a penchant for seafood. Every family and region has their own recipes for meen pattichathu, pollichathu, thenga arachathu, meen masala, fish mappas and fish mollee. So then, if you are on Container Road, wait patiently if required, for a table at Vella Kanthari. It serves great food at affordable rates in neat surroundings.
The proprietors John and his wife Nitsy choose to serve palate-tickling fish dishes a Malayalee has grown up eating with basic recipes. The meen thilapichathu as they call it, or meen pattichathu as I have grown up saying, is a tangy fish curry cooked traditionally with red chilly powder and dried Malabar tamarind. The meen peera is made with smaller fishes in a mix of coarsely-ground fresh coconut, turmeric, shallots, ginger, green chilies and curry leaves. These staple homely food is essentially what they serve.
Housed in their own property as an extension of their home at Mulavukad between the police station and the toll plaza, they have been in this business for six years. John manages the inflow of food, Nitsy takes the orders, and her mother is in charge of the billing counter.
Vella Kanthari began as an eatery that served kanji (rice gruel) with a mathi (sardine) curry. When John and Nitsy took over from her mother, it was still a small place which served seafood prepared by the members of this family. As the number of customers grew after mouthwatering reviews began to appear in food groups on social media, they recruited Baby chettan to helm the cooking and women in their locality to help him with preparation. The neat apron-clad crew of women, chechis, who help clean, prep and serve the food make sure every customer is looked after and fed well.
The menu hangs on a coconut tree outside restaurant—it is as tall as the tree trunk. The food in this restaurant can be clubbed primarily into three categories—every fish dish can be enjoyed in three ways: marinated and fried; cooked in a tangy gravy; and roasted inside a banana leaf. Therefore, when Chemballi/River Snapper is the fish of the day, you can order a chemballi fry, a chemballi vevichathu and a chemballi pollichathu. They have over 10 different varieties of bigger fish, and over 30 dishes ready at any given time of their working day. In addition to fish, they serve crustaceans, poultry and meat.
The menu at Vella Kanthari reflects the range of fish available in Cochin. It isn’t about the karimeen/Pearlspot fish alone. Kerala Tourism has successfully sold the idea of the karimeen pollichathu— fish marinated in Kerala spices wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked—as the ultimate seafood delicacy. Don’t get me wrong, I love my karimeen. But I’d rather order a plate of the crispy fried kozhuva/anchovy, and mathi/sardines with equal joy, skip the karimeen entirely, as my lunch sides.
Also, Vella Kanthari caters to the hidden yearnings of Malayalees by serving up meen-mutta/fish roe and thala/fish-head curry. And that sets them apart from the other seafood restaurants in Cochin—imagine ordering fish heads in a five-star or even a four-star restaurant. The heads of the bigger fishes namely, Vatta/Bluefin Trevally, Catla/Bengal Carp are usually available in local toddy shops and or at home and does not appear on restaurant menus. I am used to fish head curry, for my parents love that part of the fish, a bi-weekly item on our lunch table at my home.
The one thing that I would recommend is the crab meat. It is Nitsy’s recipe for a crab meat sans the shell—a dry dish with slices of tender coconut. Call ahead to know if it is available for the day. There is no fixed fish on the menu here. The morning’s catch decides what will be served that day. The leftover food is distributed among the chechis to take home in the evening.
Lunch time is the busiest—the place is brimming with people who are either eating or waiting their turn. The customers sit down wherever they can, most often sharing a table with strangers that inevitably leads to a conversation, about food. There’s an open-air seating arrangement in addition to their main dining hall, to accommodate the crowd.
The small portions ensure that we can taste the chicken chinthamani and the chemeen kizhi, together with the main vegetarian meal served on the banana leaf, without the fear of stuffing ourselves. All in all, it looks like a small community of locally-trained home cooks genuinely interested in satiating our taste buds. They are open for a breakfast of appam, puttu, pathiri and idiyappam from 6 am Monday to Saturday, and snacks of kappa/tapioca post lunch until they shut shop at 6 pm. The evening porotta and chappati are outsourced to a group of women in the area.
For the predominantly Malayali customers, fish meals at Vella Kanthari strike a balance. It allows them to venture outside home on a working day for a meal without worrying about food additives, the guilt of eating junk food, and the toll it may take on their tummy.
Where: NH 66A, near Ponnarimangalam Toll Plaza, Mulavukad, Cochin-682504
Cuisine: Seafood. Naadan Kerala Menu
Price: Rs 600 for 2 people
Tips: Take cash as a backup as the network coverage in this area is a little tricky. Uber and Ola cab services are hard to come by for a return trip back to Cochin. KSRTC buses ply every half an hour from the Mulavukkad bus stand to High Court and Marine Drive.