As I glanced over the menu, the woman serving me eyed me suspiciously. She had clearly seen my type in here before.
“Butter chicken, NO! Chicken tikka masala, NO!” she half yelled at me, before I’d had a chance to say a word.
I chuckled in what I hoped was an assuredly un-philistine-like way, and casually selected a few items from the menu. I had no idea what they were, of course (I’d been hoping for butter chicken).
The experience turned out to be revelatory, and I’ve since sought out South Indian food wherever I go. It was a happy day for me then, when I discovered that a new South Indian restaurant, Mangalam, has opened around the corner from my office on Merchant Street.
Unlike their creamy northern or Punjabi equivalents, South Indian dishes are based around seeds, popped spices and various dals, and tend to be more nuanced in flavour. Vegetarian meals are the norm in the south, and Mangalam is sure to be a favourite among vegetarians. The menu celebrates regional specialities such as masala dosai (a lentil and rice crêpe filled with mildly spiced crushed potato), idli (steamed spherical rice cakes) and uttapam (a kind of pizza-pancake hybrid).
I order the onion vada (K2000), a kind of savoury donut made from lentils, and gently spiced with peppercorns, curry leaves, cumin, chilli and onion. They’re a far cry from the greasy versions served on the street, though, unless you’re in the habit of polishing off several donuts in one sitting, you’ll want to share with another person. Especially if, like me, you’ve already wolfed down one of Mangalam’s excellent, wafer-thin dosai (K2500), served with various pails of wet chutney.
Carnivores who haven’t already turned the page at the mere mention of those humourless, judgemental folk known as vegetarians will be glad to note that this small, no-frills restaurant also serves some of the best value curry sets around – and without a puddle of oil or floppy naan in sight. The mutton set (K6000) is served with two delicately spiced vegetable dishes, dal and sambar, rice, papadum and chapatti, plus a “desert of the day” which, on this day was a rather useless bowl of browning chopped apple. Still, what came before it was so superb that I’m inclined to forget about this minor oversight. The mutton curry is rich and earthy, with a hint of smoky tandoori flavour. The dal also has a delicious, mildly smoky flavour, and I nigh on drank it out of the bowl in one go before washing it all down with a sweet lassi (K1500) and a near perfect masala tea (K1000).
Mangalam isn’t fancy. In fact, you’d be forgiven for not noticing it at all among the clamour of Merchant Street. But you’re unlikely to find better value authentic South Indian cuisine anywhere else in the city.
Just don’t try to order butter chicken.