At Kokum, Chef Hemant Mathur Takes on the Cuisine of Kerala

June 4, 2015 5:37 pm Last Updated: September 8, 2015 7:34 am

Do you ever have an impulse to rename a restaurant? Sometimes you find the essence of it and you think, “That’s it. This is what this restaurant is really about.”

I found myself at Curry Hill’s Kokum last week. Kokum is fine and dandy. It’s exotic—a bright red fruit in the same family as mangosteens. But I wanted to rename it “Coconuts.”

There’s perhaps too much of a tiki bar feel to the name, and for sure that’s not what the restaurant is. But coconuts find their way into all sorts of incarnations—perfuming the heady coconut rice, thickening curries, made into dough to make hoppers (or appa), a kind of lacy crepe with lacy golden edges and a spongy center, in the shape of a bowl.

Kokum offers dishes from both the north and south of India, but if the walls are a hint, the festive depictions of the boats that ply the backwaters of Kerala, at the southwestern tip of India would suggest letting your tastebuds take a turn south.

The executive chef is Michelin-starred Hemant Mathur, who for about half a year now has been at the helm of several restaurants in the Fine Indian Dining restaurant groups: Chola, Dhaba, Haldi, Malai Marke, Chote Nawab, and Kokum. One by one he is revamping the menus at each of them.

Michelin-starred chef Hemant Mathur takes on regional cuisines of  India with his restaurant group, Fine Indian Dining. He highlights the  cuisine of Kerala at Kokum.(Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Michelin-starred chef Hemant Mathur takes on regional cuisines of India with his restaurant group, Fine Indian Dining. He highlights the cuisine of Kerala at Kokum.(Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

I had eaten at Haldi, a few doors down, and was thoroughly impressed with Mathur’s work on the Calcutta dishes, adding, taking away dishes, or reworking and fine tuning them until he struck just the right balance.

At Kokum, he devotes part of the menu to the cuisine of Kerala—which, I found out later, means “land of coconut trees.” No wonder. The state produced 4,886 million coconuts in 2014–2015, according to a survey by the Indian Coconut Development Board.

If coconuts evoke only cloyingly sweet macaroons for you, you’re in for a surprise at Kokum. The flavors touched by coconut are nothing like that.

And there are also fresh curry leaves, characteristic of the cuisine of Kerala. These are not related to curry powder despite the name. They’re never the main note in a dish, but their aroma, released after being tempered in oil, is something citrusy, something pungent and an essential supporting player in the dishes.

In Indian cuisine, the magic happens twice. Once in the initial blending of the spices (which are often heated to release flavors first), and then toward the end, when spices are once again heated in oil to release their fragrance and flavor, and added to the dish for not only a layer of complexity but sometimes to also bring forward—like a stronger echo—of some of the spices that were used earlier.

What to Eat

To start, try the Shrimp Kokum ($12.95). The shrimp is marinated in kokum juice, sautéed, and then covered in fried slivers of shallots and ginger, which made it all the more difficult to practice self-restraint. It packed a nice amount of spiciness too.

The addictive Shrimp Kokum, shrimp marinated in kokum juice, topped with fried shal lots and ginger. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
The addictive Shrimp Kokum, shrimp marinated in kokum juice, topped with fried shal
lots and ginger. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

On a completely different flavor spectrum, and if you’re looking for something much milder, try the Thair Vada, a lentil dumpling basically dunked in a cold yogurt soup, with curry leaves ($6.95). There’s an at once comforting and refreshing quality to it—a touch of tangy, a touch of sweet, and overall mushy (in a good way). I was convinced it had the qualities of comfort food for someone from Kerala. If you’re looking for bold flavors, there are plenty other dishes to order.

Thair Vada, a lentil dumpling in cold yogurt. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Thair Vada, a lentil dumpling in cold yogurt. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Aesthetically a number of dishes have a roundness to them: there’s the bowl-like hopper I mentioned earlier, meant to be broken into pieces to sop up curries.

But also string hoppers, or idiyappam. Made of rice strands, these little disks are also round in shape, and meant to be eaten with either a vegetable or chicken stew ($11.95). I had the chicken stew—as simple as it sounds, with bits of chicken, carrots, and potatoes, being carried in a light green coconut milk broth, it was delicious.

There’s of course dosas, those large, round thin crepes made of a fermented rice and lentil flours, formed in a round shape and filled with all manners of savory fillings like spicy potato masala, and served with different chutneys.

The Madurai Podi Masala  Dosa, with a filling of  spiced potatoes. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
The Madurai Podi Masala Dosa, with a filling of spiced potatoes. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

And then I also noticed some round Kerala Parotta, basically a delicious flat bread with the dough made of spiraling layers.

Some of the flavors were completely new to me and revelatory: Chicken Kottumali for example, a curry made of coconut and fresh coriander, which gave the dish a fresh, herbal quality—though its alchemy with the coconut and other spices tasted nothing like a coriander leaf ($14.95).

When I say curry, of course, that’s a loose, imprecise term for anything vaguely soupy or stewy.

Kochi Goat Curry, curried goat on the bone with curry leaves. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Kochi Goat Curry, curried goat on the bone with curry leaves. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

The Keera Masiyal ($13.95), made with fresh spinach with lentils, was delightful—a combination that I’d never expect but that I’d get again.

The Fish Polichattu, tilapia roasted in a plantain leaf, was at once spicy, with a hint of bitter pungency, and was addictive  ($16.95–$17.95).

The Eggplant Chennai Roast is sautéed masterfully: somehow the skin is crispy, smoke, while the inside flesh is soft ($14.95). All the while it makes the tastebuds tingle with heat.

The Eggplant  Chennai Roast is  smoky and spicy,  crisp and soft all at  once. It's eggplant  sorcery. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
The Eggplant Chennai Roast is smoky and spicy, crisp and soft all at once. It’s eggplant sorcery. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Coconuts, or rather, Kokum, I mean, provides delicious fare from lush, tropical Kerala. Mathur’s low-key restaurant is definitely worth checking out.

Kokum
106 Lexington Ave. (between 27th and 28th streets)
212-684-6842
KokumNYC.com
Hours
Monday – Friday noon –11 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday noon – 10 p.m.