New Plymouth's Kathakali making spicy waves across Taranaki

It's hard not to want to feast on everything on the menu.
Emma Boyd

It's hard not to want to feast on everything on the menu.

Until recent years, Indian food in New Zealand has generally followed a singular style of cuisine – a combination of some of Punjab's most famous foods with some other northern Indian delights thrown in for good measure.

Ever-familiar plastic tubs of butter chicken, lamb saag and tikka masala have solidified their place on Kiwis' Indian take-out menus, while copper bowls of creamy korma or aromatic biryani are the go-to for a quick dinner out.

For the most part, coconut-based curries have been reserved for Thai restaurants and chutneys for the supermarket aisle, but these form a big part of an Indian cuisine unfamiliar to a large portion of this country: food of the south.  

These classic copper bowls aren't filled with the Inidan food you're used to.
Emma Boyd

These classic copper bowls aren't filled with the Inidan food you're used to.

In the centre of New Plymouth, however, Kathakali is providing Taranaki with a taste of the south-western Indian region of Kerala. Instead of naan, you'll find paratha made with wheat flour or fermented rice, and coconut milk batter kallapam pancakes. Instead of chicken tikka, there's coconut-based chicken istoo, and rather than beef vindaloo you'll find braised beef chaaps.

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South India has a reputation for being largely vegetarian, but that's not the case in Kerala, Kathakali managing director Sree Nair says. 

Kathakali proves a hit with just about everyone, including the kids.
Emma Boyd

Kathakali proves a hit with just about everyone, including the kids.

"Everyone eats everything now. In South India, people are more vegetarian [than the north]. 

"But when you come to Kerala, people are more meat-eating. People don't really have restrictions... if someone likes beef or pork, they eat it."

That's partly because Kerala's population is about 20 per cent Christian, 20 per cent Muslim and half Hindu, so meats restricted by respective religions are available to the others. More people are eating meat by the day, Nair says. 

Chicken moilee, a traditional Kerala-style curry with a coconut milk base.
Emma Boyd

Chicken moilee, a traditional Kerala-style curry with a coconut milk base.

The dishes on the Kathakali menu reflect the region's diversity and carnivorous ways, with spiced coconut Kerala beef or saucy pork Malabar masala both classic Syrian Christian dishes.

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"Everything is done from scratch in the restaurant," explains Nair. "We don't use any cream and we have only one dish from other Indian restaurants: butter chicken. 

"We didn't actually have it for the first two years, but most people come back and ask if we do butter chicken, because the kids love it," Nair says.

After a little negotiation with the chef, Kathakala developed its own version of the popular curry, featuring chicken marinated in yoghurt and cooked in coconut cream. 

The restaurant attracts plenty of members of New Plymouth's Indian community – something their many regular non-Indian "locals" have noticed, Nair says. 

He puts it down to the fact that 90 per cent of the food Kathakali serves is totally authentic. With that authenticity comes a little education, says Nair, because many customers don't recognise the dishes. But that's all part of the fun. 

Nair opened Kathakali with childhood friend Manuel Jacob in 2012, and it's been so successful that the pair has now launched another restaurant in Palmerston North. 

Called Arranged Marriage, it follows the same winning formula as Kathakali.

Nair and Jacob are now in the process of refitting their New Plymouth eatery and are also rewriting the menu, with plenty of new Kerala delights to raise eyebrows. That's the goal, Nair says.

"India's a big country. Everywhere has a different kind of flavour. It's good to show the locals: this is our food too." 

 - Cuisine

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