Is there an overwhelming reason to start a new menu devoted to South Indian cuisine at the Zafran, the casual dining restaurant devoted to North West Indian cuisine? Not really. Except that when chef Chalapathi Rao, founder of the Simply South restaurant chain in India, offers to do it, you just don’t say no.
In fact, chef Challu, as he’s professionally known, started his chain after he realised from his culinary travels that South Indian cuisine was under-represented even in India, being reduced to just ‘idli-dosa-vada’ in most parts of the country.
“The South Indian cuisine you get in Dubai, and in fact in most parts of India, is restricted to just those dishes,” says the quietly passionate Challu. “I would say it’s not South Indian — it’s mostly a few dishes from a few states.”
To remedy that, Zafran is running a promotion ‘Simply South’ at Zafran’s two restaurant’s in Dubai — Marina Mall and Mirdif City Centre — with Challu’s selection of dishes from the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.
And it does not feature any dish with ingredients that are not used in traditional South Indian cuisine. “Not even paneer [cottage cheese], which is definitely not South Indian!” says Chef Challu.
Incidentally, Zafran is a casual dining restaurant which is just fine for South Indian cuisine which is best eaten with your fingers. The restaurant on the ground level at Marina Mall has a section of its dining area out in the balcony overlooking the marina that can make for some pretty scenery. The night we dined there was even an impromptu orchestra performance out there.
Challu guided us through the colourfully designed Simply South menu — my wife had a savoury melt-in-the-mouth Tahir Vada (deep-fried lentil dumplings marinated in yoghurt), while I had samplings of an excellent chepa vepudu (spicy pan-fried kingfish) and tala gosht (mutton marinated in ginger-garlic and spices) as starters. The gosht had a striking flavour that Challu said was endemic to the “lanes of the Charminar” in Hyderabad.
“The Iranian influence,” he explained.
For mains, my wife had kai kari chettinad (literally vegetables cooked in Chettinad style from Tamil Nadu) and idiyappam (string hoppers). She also sampled the Malabar pachcha kari stew (vegetables in creamy coconut milk). The Chettinad curry was infused with a lovely peppery flavour that did not sear the tongue, and the stew from Kerala evoked memories of my mother’s cooking.
I had Alleppey prawn curry with my Kerala porotta (flaky layered flatbread). The raw mango-infused gravy in which the tiger prawns swam transported me back to the backwaters of Alappuzha in Kerala which spawned this delightful curry.
Of course, how can we end the dinner without an Andhra-style kodi biryani? This popular version of the chicken biryani that’s made with green chillies, poppy seeds and coconut paste, was all that its touted to be, a satisfying meal on its own.
The dessert, tender coconut payasam (tender coconut pulp simmered in sweetened coconut milk), was the piece de resistance; mild but incredibly flavourful, it lingered on the palate.
The best part was that despite the number of dishes we had, our waist buttons were still intact at the end of the meal.
Incidentally, Challu stressed that the spices had been toned down for an international audience. Looking at the different nationalities who gorged on his food that night I guess he was bang on.
Zafran Indian Bistro — Simply South promotion runs until May 15
Cuisine: South Indian
Credit card: Yes
Good for: Groups
Average cost for a person: Dh250
Location: Ground Floor, Marina Mall, Dubai