Here in the Klang Valley, one’s banana leaf preference has the ability to weaken friendships. “Raju’s is the best”’ “Brickfields for life!” “You’re crazy. How can you say Kanna Curry House is the best?”
Whichever restaurant you side with, we Malaysians are a bunch who takes our banana leaf meals seriously. The ritual of using our fingers to mix many curries onto a heaping of rice is one that we cannot be torn away from. And after all the fuss, a mango lassi and an afternoon nap is almost mandatory.
Among the multitude of banana leaf restaurants in the Klang Valley, however, we often overlook the the Malayalee variation. We’re used to the usual thali comprising popular South Indian dishes (i.e. chicken varuval and dal), but not many in KL have experienced the Malayalee version – food from the state of Kerala. As a step towards correcting this neglect, allow me to introduce you to what I think is the best Malayalee restaurant in the Klang Valley: May & Mike’s Corner.
May & Mike’s Corner has been in business for over 12 years and is helmed by a passionate Malayalee food specialist, May Miranda. All her years of chopping onions and stirring gravy at her home in Klang led to starting a catering business that lasted 17 years, and eventually the opening of the restaurant in Petaling Gardens.
The meals here are simple; rice and basic curries and vegetables served on banana leaf. You can point at the extra meat dishes on display if you want more than the standard serve. At May & Mike’s, you always want more than the standard serve. The shop gets busy on weekends, often brimming over with PJ families and noisy post-temple crowds.
Being Malayalee herself, May lights up when she runs me through some of the main characteristics of the cuisine. The first rule in Malayalee food is coconut – and lots of it. Coconut trees grow in wealth in Kerala, leading to the use of it in the form of raw gratings, milk and cream. Yoghurt comes a close second in importance.
Malayalee dishes tend to produce more subtle flavours than South Indian food; the latter might pack more of a punch but Malayalee food is no less complex. In the 19th century, South Indian workers (Malayalees included) were sent to Sri Lanka to work in agriculture, so some might argue that Malayalee and Ceylonese food have similar bases.
The most popular dish at May & Mike’s is the avial, a traditional Keralian vegetable mixture. Vegetables like carrot, snake gourd, yam, young green bananas, drumsticks and long beans come together with turmeric, coconut and yoghurt to create a distinctly sour side dish that holds visible specks of curd. May tells me the first thing her Malayalee customers usually ask for is the avial while those lesser exposed to the cuisine tend to shy away from it. “It’s either ‘My grandmother used to cook this’ or ‘I haven’t eaten this in a long time’ – these are normal comments from the customers”, May says.
Part of the standard banana leaf serving here is the beans thoran, beans cooked with coconut and turmeric. Note the threads of shredded coconut that are tossed through the vegetables, a popular sighting in Malayalee food. The mooru (buttermilk) curry is also a must with your rice as is the Kerala fish curry, made popular by Bangar’s Devi’s Corner. A dull mustard in colour, the curry exudes its distinct sour-creamy taste with the addition of tamarind and coconut milk. May also takes pride in her fish puttu, shredded steamed fish cooked in coconut. Preparation of the fish is laboriously done a day before it’s served, as its flesh is broken up by hand.
Finally, Malayalee food is not Malayalee food if it doesn’t include injipuli, a deep red ginger pickle that acts as a condiment to the rice. A bit of a cult favourite among her regular customers, the pickle is also bottled and sold at the shop. Its taste bursts of ginger and is especially punchy when scooped onto shards of crispy pappadam.
May tells me that the recipes she serves up have been handed down from her mother and mother-in-law, both of whom hail from Kerala. “I find it sad that the younger generation don’t cook the way their parents or grandparents cook Malayalee food,” May says. In efforts to preserve these recipes, she conducts cooking classes at her shop every Sunday.
I can’t leave the shop without adding dessert to the bill. Where sweet things are concerned, May & Mike’s serves appam, a type of Indian pancake made popular by mamaks around town. Localised appams you’re likely to have eaten are what’s known as vattayappam, made by steaming the batter. Instead, May serves unni appam, a Kerala-only variety made with rice flour, shaped into snack-sized balls and fried to a golden brown. Fluffy in the centre and crisp around the edges, the appam is dipped in coconut milk for optimum pleasure. “My children love it when I make this,” she smiles. As I munch on one, I have a hunch that they are not the only ones who do.
Photos by Stacy Liu
May & Mike’s Corner, 357C, Jalan 5/57, Petaling Gardens, PJ 46150 (012 252 9683) Mon-Sat, 8am-6pm