The 'rumali roti' is extremely hot. You may drop it if you pick it with bare hands. It has thin black patches along which ghee drips down to spread an irresistible aroma. No wonder...those insisting for the barbecue here, can be blamed. It's people who are that deeply sensitive about temperatures who prepare the grub here.
It's raining heavily in quiet Kuttikanam off scenic Peermade in hilly Idukki. Inside Open Kitchen, a group of students seems to have fallen in deep love with the grilled chicken the restaurant has just served them. ''We can survive without meals for four days together, but not without barbecue,'' is their common refrain.
So, who is the chef out here? Well, his name is Jithu. The man appeared garrulous on meeting. Jithu has a lot of stories to speak of the timba rice and the Mexican beef he prepares. His wife Rithu, too, joins the conversation.
The wall that the white rains build in the air ensures mist around Open Kitchen even at noon. Kuttikanam is anyway a hill station 3,500 feet above the sea level and rolling tea gardens across its territory. It's a tourist location, where some 40 students have now sashayed into the restaurant, speaking silken English. Near the finer kitchen inside, they notice four or five families enjoying the afternoon hour. So the latest batch chooses to move into the hall behind the building. Its walls have quite a lot of stuff scribbled. They add a rasp to those letters while occupying themselves somewhat noisily on the chairs. Jithu reaches them to take the order. And rolls out a long list quite lyrically:
"Barbecue chicken, Mexican beef, kathi roll, mint lime, sizzling brownie..." Well into the sixth item, the youngsters chip and ask, 'timba rice?' Ah, that is one exclusive item in Open Kitchen. Malayalis are largely new to this food that is liberal in adding vegetables before smearing masala and getting the whole stuff fried. It has yellow-coloured rice spread with brown chicken pieces. Soon it arrives, serving out a great sight as well.
Someone in the boisterous team breaks protocol and snatches a morsel from the plate. “It's foreign food, really,” he announces, after stuffing it into his mouth and chewing a bit. Maybe he meant just a joke, but there is half-truth in the 'discovery.' Timba, after all, is also the name for Afro-Cuban folk song. In his earnestness to give a sample of the music, Jithu prepares the timba rice that has the hot taste of ethnic lines. It’s another matter that he has chosen to play pop songs for the guests at the restaurant. Even so, that gives one another chance to call timba rice 'foreign.'
Straight from embers
It hasn't been long since Malayalis have become fans of chicken roasted from embers. Among the several varieties of fried chicken they get in Kerala today, the one that has become a bit hit of late is barbecue chicken with rumal roti, mayonnaise and salted green chillies. Add a mint lime as an excellent cap.
The realisation of the new taste habit is what led Jithu to open his Open Kitchen at Kuttikanam on his return journey from Cumbam just across the state border in Theni district of southwest Tamil Nadu a couple of years ago. “I was actually returning from the Velankanni church (in Nagapattinam). On reaching Kuttikanam, we thought of taking a tea break. That’s when we saw this building with its rooms locked and a spacious parking lot in the front. And decided to meet its owner,” winds back Jithu, who anyway ran a restaurant called Open Kitchen at Chingavanam, south of Kottayam, with his friend Unnikannan.
Thus, Jithu opened a 'branch' of it in this high-range town. In six months, timba rice and Mexican beef became famous. What began with 25 chairs has today the capacity to accommodate a 100 customers at one time. Stating this, Jithu gets into the kitchen and returns with Mexican beef on a longish plate. It has masala-mixed pieces that are served along with the gravy. The pieces are square-shaped are called 'sinina' in Mexican language, where the meat is cut from thin slices of it and boiled along with pepper. To that is added green chillies and garlic. That’s the recipe, though Jithu prefers to call his item the Kerala version of Mexican beef.
This is something that two chefs from upcountry cook in Open Kitchen. Kathi rolls at Bar-Be-Que are made by Uttarakhand natives Anil Singh and Balbir Singh.
There are both vegetarian and non-veg options: triple fried rice, Lebanese chicken kabab with rice, Malai kabab, Chinese Sichuan, assorted grilled chicken platter, chicken fry, roasted chicken, chicken bread canopy, Russian salad.... These are some among the 100-odd names on the Open Kitchen menu.
But there is one item unmentioned on the menu that Jithu revealed at the start of the conversation. Chicken kathi roll. That is the name of the item he conjures up from inside a silver foil. It's a variety of chicken mixed with masala and vegetables, overall shaped like a corn ice cream. It is, conceptually, a starter. But if you end up taking two such rolls and wash them down with a mint lime, it amounts to a good meal.
Outside, a trio is handed a menu. The young visitors are Rintu, Amal Rani, and Ammu, who are students at the engineering college in Kuttikanam. ''What do you want?'' The trio doesn't think for a moment: timba rice and Mexican beef.