Sitting inconspicuously among the hustle and bustle of East Ham’s high street is one of the quietest heroes in London’s restaurant scene. Championing proper homestyle cooking, Thattukada has been serving some of the best Keralan food in the country from its unfussy premises for almost a decade. Run by husband and wife duo Biju and Preeti Gopinath (the latter does all the cooking), the restaurant is regularly packed with diners who are willing to travel for Thattukada’s very special brand of comforting hospitality.
Keralan food is gaining momentum in London but still remains comparatively obscure in the mainstream. Although Indian cuisine is ubiquitous in the city and “curry” has repeatedly gained so-called “national dish” status in Britain, this is more commonly associated with the bhunas, kormas, and tikkas of North Indian cooking. An influx of restaurants serving regional Indian dishes in the past few years has gone some way towards showcasing the wonderful patchwork of flavours, culinary traditions, and spices that make up the vast subcontinent. Keralan cuisine, wildly popular across India for its liberal use of coconut, curry leaves, tamarind, and delicate spice combinations, has benefited from this exposure.
“In Kerala, we all live to eat. But the spices Preeti uses at Thattukada make a real difference,” Biju says. “They all come from Kerala and we blend the mixes in-house so they are all unique to our restaurant.”
From its position on the Malabar coast of southwestern India, the state of Kerala has a long and rich history rooted in the spice trade. Sumerian records dating as far back as 3000BC and accounts from classical historians like Pliny contribute to its reputation as the “Spice Garden of India” or “God’s Own Country.” European colonisation and the growth of Christianity in the state began in the 15th century from Portuguese traders — lured by Kerala’s abundance of black pepper (it still makes up 97 percent of national output), cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Its 595 kilometre coastline and numerous rivers foster a major fishing industry. While mountains and lush forests provide ample ground for tea, coffee, vegetables, and fruit to flourish. Cassava and rice, the main starch elements in the cuisine, also grow plentifully.
Despite this biodiversity plus a varied population of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and sizeable Syrian Christian and Jewish communities, all contributing to such distinctive flavours, Preeti was compelled to cook at Thattukada because of a shortage of Keralan chefs in the U.K. The retirement of Thattukada’s former chef, who taught her the ropes, revealed a gap in the market for those trained to cook this style of food. That, coupled with the fact that Preeti’s dishes, particularly the bestselling chicken fry and her breads — buttery parotta and spongey appam — have come to surpass her predecessor, has signified a golden age for the restaurant.
Biju continues, “The main thing about the restaurant is that we don’t cook commercial food. We cook exactly how Keralan people do for their families. People come here for the taste of home.” The pair are also known in the community for their willingness to help newcomers settle, whether that’s assisting with housing, travel, or even student meal plans.
At least seventy percent of Thattukada’s customers are from Kerala, either people who make up East Ham’s large Malayali community or those who have heard of the restaurant through word of mouth. Many are students or young families who miss dishes they would readily find back in cities like Trivandrum or Kottayam, where Biju and Preeti’s own families are based. The place itself has a warm family feel; on weekends the couple’s young son can be found playing behind the counter. And the restaurant is decorated with colourful photos of vallam kali, the state’s annual snake boat race, a famous scene that inspires pride in every Keralan.
“Apart from Keralan people, other Indians visit and so do many Bengalis, who also use lots of fish in their cooking,” Biju says. “Our cuisine has flavours that appeal to everyone. Thattukada refers to the hot food made fresh on the streets and people know that it will be fresh and piping hot, even though it may take a bit longer to cook.”
Biju adds that while the restaurant doesn’t do much self-promotion (this is their first interview), the recent push by Kerala’s Department of Tourism has put the cuisine on the map. Western tourists returning from the region have been led to Thattukada by Google, after searching for the dishes they enjoyed on their travels. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes, para pollichathu, a huge pearl spot or tilapia fish, marinated in spiced tomato paste and steamed whole in banana leaves, has proved particularly popular.
Another meal that brings the crowds is the Kerala sadhya, an elaborate banquet of about 20 different vegetarian courses, which the restaurant only serves during the harvest festival of Onam in August or at the Malayali new year, in mid-April. There is also a roster of weekend specials, left off of the main menu, but worth asking about.
Biju has now set his sights on opening another branch of the restaurant elsewhere in the U.K., to cater for other Keralan communities outside of London and introduce more British people to the cuisine. With food that is cooked with such heart and care, any venture is sure to bear fruit for the couple. “Everybody knows about the concept of Indian food,” he says. “But very few people know that in India, there is a part called Kerala, which has a totally different style of food. This is what we are now trying to promote.”
What to order
The main menu is extensive — with traditional classics and some generic Indian items. Forego these and delve into those which are listed below. Service can be slow but it is worth the wait.
Para pollichattu is a whole fish marinated in spicy tomato paste and steamed in banana leaves, similar to the French technique en papillote. The result is a gorgeously fragrant, meaty white fish that comes apart in beautiful soft chunks.
Fish moilley is a creamy curry in which chunks of king fish are simmered together with chunks of tomato adding a freshness to the spiced coconut milk broth.
Kanava peera is usually a side dish eaten with rice; tender pieces of squid are dry roasted with spices, green chillies and grated coconut.
Veg thali showcases the very best of the vegetarian dishes the restaurant has prepared that day, usually served with a pile of puffy Keralan rice, pickles and dal.
Chicken fry is one of the most popular items on the menu. It comes as a huge plate of fried chicken on the bone, wrapped in spicy batter and topped with crispy shallots and curry leaves, hugely comforting and delicious.
Beef fry comes as tender cubes of beef dry tossed with chunks of coconut, curry leaves and shallots. There is a strong flavour of black pepper, one of the signature spices of the region.
Mussel fry and netholi fry are both worth trying. Fat mussels are dry roasted with an aromatic house spice mix that coasts them with a glorious golden crust. Netholi fry are tiny anchovies that are battered up like whitebait — a wonderful south Indian alternative which is a perfect snack with a cold beer.
Appam are rice flour pancakes which have crispy latticed edges that lead to a thick, spongey centre, perfect for mopping up the flavoursome house curries.
Parotta are a delicacy in Kerala. This buttery layered flatbread is made from maida flour and is eaten with curries or enjoyed with fry dishes.
Kappa is a mildly seasoned mixture of mashed tapioca which acts as a perfect foil to spicy mackerel or sardine curry, another traditional Keralan pub food.