Big-ticket Manhattan openings like Dhamaka and Sona have grabbed the spotlight lately, and indeed these places are very good at revealing aspects of Indian cuisine the city hasn’t seen before. But a more obscurely located restaurant opened during the pandemic that’s every bit as good and just as unique. Named after a coastal region known for its rivers, rice paddies, and monsoons, Kuttanadan focuses on the food of the country’s far southwestern state of Kerala.
There were at least three previous restaurants presenting food of Kerala, though not quite so comprehensively, on the border of eastern Queens and Long Island: Taste of Cochin, Five Star Indian Cuisine, and Kerala Kitchen. Last July, Kuttanadan appeared on the Bellerose, Long Island, side of Jericho Turnpike near 248th Street, while across the street lies the Queens neighborhood of Floral Park.
Once known as the fabled Malabar Coast — an Arabic name for a major destination in the spice trade for centuries — the food of Kerala shows Portuguese influences, as seen in the sardine fry ($10). I’d never seen sardines in an Indian restaurant before. These are fresh as an ocean breeze, slashed on the sides, flame-grilled to a crisp char, and presented six to a plate in all their impeccable plainness — an amazing seafood deal anywhere in New York City.
Indeed, a large proportion of Kuttanadan’s menu is devoted to fresh seafood, much of it simply presented, including grilled mackerel, king fish curry, shrimp fry, fish peera (chunks of fish tossed with shredded coconut), and mackerel mango curry (in a chile-laced paste of coconut and fruit). The use of seafood may not be surprising in a seaside region, but the large sections of the menu devoted to pork and beef, two meats absent from many Indian restaurants, is an unexpected revelation.
The reason for this prohibition is the combined influences of Hinduism, for which the cow is considered sacred, and Islam, which eschews pork in diets. But the influence of traders and colonialists from the Middle East and Europe has made the eating of those meats a long-established practice. In addition, an 18 percent Christian minority has been traditionally permitted those meats, and there once was a Sephardic Jewish population that could eat the beef but not the pork. A recent ban on the slaughter of cattle has been met with pro-beef protests in the state.
But beef and pork are still given starring roles in the Keralan restaurants of Queens and Long Island. The four pork dishes here range from dry-cooked to “lots of gravy,” as our server told us. Dragging a friend along whose family comes from Karnataka, just north of Kerala, we picked pork roast ($17), a dish that sits at the midway point on the gravy scale in terms of how much sauce it has. It featured generous chunks of meat and fat in a mellow sauce swimming in oil, similar to how Sichuan food flaunts its chile-infused oil. We were impressed to find crescents of chewy coconut, and the dish had an agreeable gingery flavor.
Other dishes unique to Indian cooking in New York were in store. My friend and I are both from Texas, and we were delighted when the picturesquely named beef devil ($25) turned out to be sliced brisket, and lots of it. Owner Feban Simon had warned us that it was ultra-spicy, and it left our tongues burning — but with black pepper rather than chiles. Black peppercorns are native to the Malabar Coast, and according to K.T. Achaya in Indian Food: A Historical Companion, black pepper was commonly used in a broad range of recipes to produce a burning sensation in the mouth before chiles were introduced from South America to India in the 15th century, possibly by Vasco de Gama.
There are seven entrees involving beef, including beef ularth ($20), a stir fry flavored with green chiles, coconut, and curry leaf. Chef Aneesh Alleppy also does a Deep South version of biryani with a choice of main ingredients, including shrimp, yuca, boiled egg, lamb, and beef, but we picked goat biryani, which comes with the rice festively painted multiple shades of brown, yellow, and red, dotted with yellow raisins and toasted cashews. It was altogether one of the best goat biryanis we’d ever tasted, and we’ve tasted plenty.
There were many other things we didn’t try because there were only two of us: an egg burji (scrambled with garlic, ginger, and spices); a mutton vindaloo; an intriguing-sounding item identified only as vegetable stew; and a selection of Indo-Chinese dishes, like chilly gobi, that have become a feature of nearly every Indian menu in town.
And don’t miss the signature bread of the region, called Malabar fresh paratha ($2). It had multiple buttery layers like a croissant, was huge in size, and proved better than basmati rice as an accompaniment to the sometimes sauceless dishes at Kuttanadan. But whether you eat beef and pork — or avoid them entirely — there’s much to love among the chicken, seafood, and vegetarian dishes at Kuttanadan.
Note: As a result of the pandemic, Kuttanadan currently permits only takeout and delivery.