Malayalis are generally travel-lovers; only that the average among them tends to get homesick about native food within days of stay in places far from their Kerala. That is, once they are through with the initial excitement over trying unfamiliar cuisine beyond the Western Ghats. Soon they would sniff an imagined fragrance of the good old steamy rice wafting from mom’s kitchen back home. Even impressions about kanji, its watery version, would begin to stimulate the glands in the mouth.
‘Thavi’ literally means ladle. Aptly titled for a new-age restaurant that appears smartly traditional and sells, what else, varieties of the primordial kanji. You scoop out the rice porridge from the vessel using a ladle, the thavi, invariably. For that, you only need to get down from the bus and walk a few steps down the Ponoth lane. You can’t but notice the name-board of the compactly cute joint.
Thavi’s ethnic’s looks cannot be missed: the slender logs of the strong casuarina fence the entry-line leading to neat red-tile floors. Up, two hurricane lamps painted in green hang as if announcing themselves to be common man’s chandeliers. Potted plants occupy space alongside a wooden kuja (earthen water pot) and a perforated earthen container. The washbasin is inside a bamboo-pole cubicle. Thin planks of yellowish wood seek to break the monotony of the wall on one side, while a green board has on it a slice from the menu scribbled using white chalk: tea, coffee, puttu, idiyappam, poori, chapatti, appam, egg curry, banana fry.
But then Thavi is synonymous with none of the above. Varieties of kanji are what woo visitors to this nascent restaurant that has gained name in no time.
Nothing is served blandly, the customer will soon sense. It is no perfunctory dishing out the kanji. The range of side-dishes would make the longish dining desk against the wooden benches colourful so much so, selfies and photos capturing the aggressive mood are an irresistible ritual before the eating. Only then starts the real assault on the grub. It takes only minutes for the kanji and the curries to vanish before the eager customers at Thavi, where food is served from around 8.30 in the morning to 10.30 into the night.
The dishes are typically rooted in local tropical ethos — naadan as the word goes in Malayalam. Instances are the oily mezhukkupuratti (made of rustic ingredients such as raw bananas, plantain stems, yam, banana flower) or erisseri (made of sliced pumkin or aviyal that is a mix of several vegetables). On the non-veg side, you get the prawn chammanti , while preparations from salted mango, onion-chillies and bilimbi (irumban puli)) conjure up similar spicy stuff. The menu is seldom fixed; the specialties change over the days of a week.
Sprightly Jaseena Kadavil is the owner of Thavi, she had set up this monsoon next to her make-up studio that she had started a year ago. Simultaneously, the woman, into her 30s, has a penchant for experiment with recipes, more so with the traditional dishes. Churidar-clad Jaseena has been in Kochi for 17 years. She speaks in the city’s lilting Malayalam that effectively blurs her nativity: she originally belongs to interior Mala in neighbouring Thrissur district. “There it used to be kanji for us with simple naadan dishes for breakfast, lunch and supper,” she trails back to her formative years.
Jaseena’s eatery dispels the general notion that the younger generation is indifferent if not allergic to a traditional food like kanji. It is late teenagers and those in their twenties who form a chunk of the visitors at Thavi, which gets best crowded for two hours from 12.30 on a typical weekday.
The saada (common) kanji costs Rs 40 with its frugal side-dishes, but the most sought-after is what’s titled moha kanji besides jeeraka kanji with the liberal presence of cumin seeds. Moha kanji, with the red-vein rice and set of dishes made of tapioca, curd, ginger, green chillies, curry leaves, garlic and coriander leaves, is brightly decorated. There is also the sora kanji that pools in eight kinds of high-protein grains, boiled. Sounding similar to jeeraka kanji is cheera kanji made of spinach, primarily, along with dried chillies, small onions and fried mustard.
When you leave Thavi with a heavy belly, it won’t be a bad idea to pop in a sweet or two. This is something business-savvy Jaseena, too, knows: the restaurant has naadan stuff in that category as well. Jaggery-mixed sesame balls, chocolates from orange fruit and the spongy ‘then nilavu’ toffees figure among the top. In case you thought these are tricks to avoid paying back the change, please...the idea is to just coat the country experience with one more layer of childhood memory.