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SIMPLY Malayali!


Thomas Fenn and Zachariah Jacob have created a little Kerala in South Delhi with their speciality restaurant, Mahabelly

The longing for home food is common, but not many who live away from home open a restaurant to satiate that. Thomas Fenn and Zachariah Jacob from Kottayam did just that when they set up Mahabelly in New Delhi in 2015. Two years down the road they have managed to weave a little Kerala around their eatery.

“There were and are many South Indian restaurants in Delhi but most just skim the surface of authentic food from the South and there was nothing Kerala specific,” reasons Thomas. Another pointer that encouraged the men forward was the memory of their friends relishing the food they brought with them every time they returned from home. “Its popularity made us feel that the cuisine would do well here.”

Thomas graduated in Economics from St. Stephen’s College and worked in marketing and operations for five years before changing track. He was discussing education loans and preparing for Management exams while Zachariah, a law graduate from Delhi University, was vying with the idea of switching his job. They were both at the cusp of new beginnings when the idea came upon them and they took it seriously.

The two scouted for a suitable place, working through exorbitant rentals and settling for an eatery on sale at the rear of a mall in Saket. Finding a name that established an instant connect was the next hurdle. A blind survey threw up the best name ‘V for Vendakka’ something that did not really appeal to them. ‘Mahabelly’, a play on Mahabali, the legendary king of Kerala, was an instant choice, “an intelligent name suggested by a Malayali friend in Mumbai.”

“In running a restaurant, food is the easier part, what was tough was getting licenses, permits, civil works and legal works,” says Thomas about the initial days of setting up of the 50 cover restaurant.

Help came from Zachariah’s family business which is into hospitality. The two visited job fairs in Kochi and recruited two cooks who have stood by them these years. “They had experience in the kitchens of bars and eateries in the State and knew exactly the taste and presentation of food that we were looking for.”

“We wanted to recreate the casual dining cuisine that is available across Kerala,” says Thomas and the menu was thus divided into popular foods from the State’s three zones—North, Central and South.

‘Mahabelly’ opened with 30 most popular Kerala dishes on the menu. Beef fry and porotta, appam and mutton stew, puttu and kadala became the fastest selling dishes, the most popular ones. Prawn mango curry, using raw mangoes and kodampuli, is their signature dish and biriyani is a hot selling item.

In the beginning Thomas’ sister helped with tasting and streamlining the menu. Getting listed on food search engines ensured a steady stream of Malayalis at their tables and slowly the restaurant became a hub for the community. The Capital’s huge population of Keralites from Mayur Vihar, Central Delhi, Gurugram, with nurses forming a big chunk, came over for a taste of home.

The ela sadya was a big draw on festivals like Onam and Vishu. Last year Onam was a turning point as a record 1,200 guests savoured the Onasadya.

“Initially our clientèle was 60% Malayalis and 40% North Indians but that has changed. We have many more people from Delhi savouring our food. Most have travelled to the backwaters and have a tourist’s understanding of Kerala and its food. This too gave us an idea of how to curate our menu; Delhi has a strong eating-out culture though eating fish with bones was one point where North Indians were at odds. We soon addressed that,” says Thomas who oversees kitchen operations, while Zachariah attends to business affairs.

‘Mahabelly’ soon became a name in casual dining, as the idea was to serve the true taste of Kerala, foods available at the shappu curry and meals-ready joints.

“The whole idea is to have the flavours and presentation like what we get in Kerala; if the garnish is tacky it has to be that way and not fine-dining,” says Thomas.

They have also steered clear of fusion food, coming close to it only in their version of puttu biriyani, which is a hit. Other typical Kerala dishes that have made a mark are chicken 65, kothu porotta and chilli beef. The idiyappam too has its fair share of takers. A big move, undertaken recently that will make the cuisine completely authentic, was to procure fish directly from Kerala, hence sardines, pearl spot, pink perch, mackerels, anchovies are now being flown down from the State. A full-fledged bar complements the strong spicy flavours of the cuisine.

As the restaurant came into its own it has received good reviews and won awards. Thomas, Zachariah, and their third partner Prem Kiran, are now reaping the success of their hard work, happy to feed people the food from their home State, happy that Kerala cuisine has made a place for itself in the Capital.

Source: The Hindu

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