If there's one place in Kochi where you see insurance agents are not keen to impose upon you a policy, it is Rahulettan's 'Veetil Oonu ' (homely food) restaurant. Under its longish roof that is an extension of his house in bustling Kadavanthra, they line up to much on tasty food. For a change, they are least keen to chase new clients though a busy crowd like that can actually promote your business as, say, an LIC agent.
Fried fish. That will be anybody's key and only focus at Rahulettan's restaurant, a couple of kilometres south of Pallimukku in downtown Ernakulam. Needless to say, it's not just the city's insurance agents who take their noon break at this place. Lots of people from other walks of life will find themselves making their way to the restaurant and sitting on those red plastic stools for a lunch. Huddled on both sides the rectangular tables with their plywood surface propped by iron stands, the visitors relish each bit of the meals served on a fresh-green banana leaf.
Count them and you find not more than four tables at Rahulettan's. Not surprising, thus, that there is a long queue outside, waiting for their turn and standing by slanting against the staircase that double as their resting space. Below, where the food is being served, you get to hear the sounds of the fried fish being readied. That might swell water in your mouth, and soon Rahulettan may call you with that inviting 'shoo' voice. Come in and sit down, only to be proven that the anticipated taste is real.
The waiter-owner will in no time arrive with the meals. The highlight, undoubtedly, is the fish. Fried chemballi, as the red-hued snapper is locally called. There will be four to five pieces of it served along with rice and other curries. The sight itself is an appetiser. Eat them, and Rahul Ettan with serve you with more pieces - and leave matter-of-factly to get you even more.
You feel that a side dish like aviyal or the even the main curry that is sambar finds itself relegated in the feast. The hot pickle, too, gulps down its share of insult. Rahulettan, meanwhile, reappears: this time to serve kanji, which is the watery rice gruel. Sip in a quarter glass, and you feel refreshed. In fact, every dish on the leaf looks doubly beautiful.
Rahulettan seems to have sensed the visitors' surprise. He gives an answer: “Every day, my little daughter is the first to test the fried-fish meal. Her peak-joy smile reflects on your eyes as well.”
A good 200 km north of Kochi, Kozhikode prides in its restaurant called Amma. This also has the fish as the star on its daily menu at Divakarettan's Amma on the Netaji Road.
So where does the stuff come from? Primarily there are five varieties of fish: ayakoora, sravu, chemballi, avoli, choora. These are available anywhere in the region aplenty. So, they are not the key to the unique taste that draws even local people to often quit their home-made food and visit Divakarettan's.
Regulars say everything works around the masala kootu, the mix of spices. The owner laughs it away, saying there is no secret behind the taste. “Just be careful not to swallow the fish bone (in your eagerness to eat),” he says with a wink. Perhaps there is no special formula, but any visitor would at least silently say as they exit: “No taste like Divakarettan's fried fish.”
In both cases, after all there is one thing common: the food is home-made. They don't add colours to the dishes in the meal: rice and sambar besides the option between pulissery and rasam. Plus aviyal, a thoran of some vegetables and two varieties of pickle. None is served with adulteration. That trust itself adds to the taste for many.
Rahulettan's frish fry recipe
Cut fish into four big pieces. Add two teaspoons of turmeric and a big spoon of chilli powder. Also smear to it sufficient salt. Keep them aside for an hour. Then dunk them into boiled coconut oil (nothing else) and take the pieces out, fried. Spread on each of them nicely cut onion, carrot, cucumber and coriander leaves.