Karavalli is one of the most popular restaurants in south India and it isn't hard to see why. Tucked away in a corner of the grounds of the Gateway Hotel in Bangalore, it dishes up the kind of dining experience that you might expect from a good regional Italian restaurant. The food is inspired by India's south-west seaboard and its name means "the land by the shore".
Chef Aylur Sriram was born into a high-class Brahmin family. He began studying law but switched to cooking when his father opened a restaurant in Mumbai. Like many professionals of his generation, he has been through a catering college and worked for the large chains. Unlike most of them, though, he travels extensively to Europe or the USA whenever he can afford it, hunting for new flavours.
Though fascinated by Western cuisine, he remains loyal to his own culinary roots. "Wherever I go in the world," he says, "I carry my spice pack with me."
With very few exceptions, regional food has never been marketed in India. Madhur Jaffrey may do TV presentations on the cooking of Goa, Gujerat, Bengal and Kerala for Western consumption, but her influence in her country of origin is small. Before Karavalli opened, few hotel managers felt confident enough to commit a menu to a single authentically produced style.
According to Sriram, Indian restaurant meals are too heavily influenced by the so-called Mogul style of cooking. "We're in danger of stagnating," he says. "There's a comfort level between customers and chefs. Neither wants to take risks."
During Karavalli's planning stages, he spent weeks visiting private homes in Mangalore, Calicut, Cochin and other Keralan towns in order to unearth the secrets of a cooking tradition that has never been properly documented. He learnt not to add coconut milk to raw vegetables, to add spice to hot ghee only after it stops bubbling, and to grind pastes slowly so that their flavour isn't deformed by modern machinery.
He learnt about the cooking which can't be college-taught. "Recipes aren't like making a cocktail," he says. "I have three chefs making a Mangalorean chicken curry to the same formula, and I can tell which of them has made it simply by looking at the pot."
Karavalli's menu covers the coastline from Panjim, south of Bombay, to Trivandrum, by the tip of India. It's completely distinctive from mainstream Indian fare.
The shellfish dishes include mussels cooked in a dry masala, chilli oysters, lobster served with Goan pickles and pan-roasted crabs. The "scampi", a rough translation for a giant indigenous shrimp, can weigh 200g each.
The characteristic flavours of the lush subtropical coastline are fresh curry leaves, coconut milk, fenugreek, kokum or tamarind as souring agents, and the sharp, but fruity Byadgi chillies. They recur in dark and dry grilled chicken cafreal and creamy white mutton ishtew, served with rice-flour pancakes, appams, known as "hoppers" during the Raj, or spit-roasted lambs' trotters.
Apart from appams, he offers as an accompaniment idiappams, made from a similar batter, but in the form of a coiled string; neer dhosa, a steamed dough sheet folded like a handkerchief; plus four kinds of rice.
Each item is prepared separately. No standard curry sauce or ready-to-use, all-purpose spice mixes lurk in the kitchen.
Sriram uses charcoal for grilling. He has a granite spice grinder which takes 90 minutes to prepare the masala for the Mangalorean chicken. The haldi (brass cooking pots) are retinned twice a month.
He insists that he never cuts corners. "There are two ways of slaughtering animals in India," he says, "the Muslim halal way, and the Sikh method where the butcher simply chops off the head - it's called jhatka. We use the word metaphorically to describe taking shortcuts. Plenty of chefs are happy with jhatka cooking, but we don't do any of it here."