With its ability to connect, inform and engage; evoke feelings of joy, sadness, empathy, jealousy or generally just irritate the hell out of you – love it, or loathe it…social media is certainly making the world a smaller place.
I mention this point only because without social media, the contents of this blog post would probably not exist. From my dining companions, that I finally have the pleasure of meeting (after a year of inflicting my virtual presence on them); here’s looking at you The Plate Licked Clean, Füüd Blog, Mac n Me and Bwyta yn y Brifddinas – to the pop-up sensation – Keralan Karavan, whose two quirky and fun-loving Keralan farmers, I have been following online with interest, for a number of years now!
Born out of the ashes of the unfortunate closure of Spiceberry on Caroline Street in 2015, the idea of creating a South Indian pop-up restaurant concept in Cardiff, became a reality shortly afterwards for Chef Pankaj Krishnan, in the form of Keralan Karavan.
Since its initial pop-up in Truffles on Church Street in Cardiff, it has gone from strength to strength, with further events in The Full Moon, BrewDog, a Bollywood supperclub in Cocorico Patisserie (how did I miss that one!) and more recently the kitchen take-overs in Small Bar, Cardiff…which is subsequently where I finally catch up with them.
I will say that 10 minutes in the company of Krish and his team, and you can understand why the concept is doing so well. It is fantastic to hear a chef talk with such enthusiasm about his home-style cooking; with a smile, he compares himself to a ‘mad scientist’ in terms of Indian cookery, essentially always seeking to discover the perfect ‘spice’ formula. He shares that the plan was always to give his father’s heritage a shout-out by creating a vibrant pop-up that was all about promoting good vibes, and celebrating good times with good food – the only thing that goes through my mind is that ‘good’ really should be upgraded to ‘great’. However, he is quick to add that his mum is his harshest critic, and that years later he still strives to appease her with one good dish. He leaves me laughing with a demonstration of her usual response; an Indian head nod and “it’s ok!”.
Escaping from the heat of the kitchen, it’s at this point that I’m keen to experience for myself, the dishes that everyone has been raving about.
Divided into three sections; the menu is small, but perfectly formed. Leading the way, are four dishes labelled as ‘small plates’, but if you’re there for the duration, they could quite happily be contenders for the ultimate in Indian street food starters. Priced between £2.50 and £4.50, you would think choosing would be easy…although if you’re anything like me, it is a little too tempting to opt for one of each!
With seven of us dining, naturally the menu is going to be put to the test. While I finally choose the Keralan Fried Chicken, I am reassured by the silence which descends, that both the Kottayam Beef Pepper Roast and Onion Bhajee would have been more than worthy choices too.
Anjee Bajee Onion Bhajee | £3.50
KFC (Keralan Fried Chicken) | £4
After the award for chicken supplier blunder of the year went to KFC last month, it was great to see that Keralan Karavan’s playfully named dish was a) plentiful in the aforementioned bird and b) knocked the socks off Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe. 11 herbs and spices? Pah! Marinated in Kashmir red chilli powder, fennel powder and rice powder, the tender bite size chicken pieces are deep fried, drizzled with a tangy mango chutney and arrive with a Keralan salad, topped with nigella seeds. Delivering a mild heat, the fennel adds to the chilli and brings the dish together in a comforting, aromatic and flavoursome tray of, for want of a better phrase, pure ‘finger-licking’ Indian goodness.
When it comes to food, I love being a ‘guinea pig’ (just to clarify…not the snuffly, furry kind) – but it’s an amusing fact, based on my inability as a child to eat anything that wasn’t beige in colour, or had any remote health benefit to it. Consequently, there is nothing more likely to put a smile on my face than if a chef turns around and says “try this…it’s not on the menu yet.”
So when two beautifully presented trays magically appear at the table, you can see seven pairs of eyes eagerly light up. A dish native to Kerala and usually found on breakfast tables (although I’d quite happily eat these anytime of the day); ten roasted eggs sit atop a ‘gravy’ of onions, tomatoes, coriander powder, ginger and garlic, each of which is cradled in a lettuce leaf. There’s simply only one way to eat these…and you can forget the knife and fork! Comforting and delicately infused with aromatic spices, the sole piece of feedback I can give, is to get them on the menu as a matter of public importance!
Aunty Maria’s Beef Curry | £8.95
Mains come in the form of three choices of curry; both Malabar Chicken and Kerelan Rajma look tempting, however on this occasion I opt for the third – ‘Aunty Maria’s Beef Curry’. Naturally, I have no clue who Aunty Maria is, but damn does she know how to make a good curry.
Unlike many states in India, beef is actually a secular dish in Kerala, where much of the population, cutting across class and religion, consume it. It is therefore lovely to see that Keralan Karavan’s dish is a family recipe. Flavoured with deep, distinctive Keralan spices and coconut paste, it certainly lives up to its ‘Maharaja’s Curry Bowl’ description as a ‘soulful’ dish. Tender slow-cooked chunks of beef in a thick, comforting gravy, are highly fragranced with the usual spice suspects, and accompanied with a soft chapati, rainbow pipe popadums and fluffy Kewra ‘scented’ steamed rice. And while I will say that personally, a touch more heat would have elevated the dish even further for me; from taste, to portion size, I really can’t find fault here.
Feeling a tad on the full side, at this stage I would usually happily bypass the sweet course. However, I know what’s coming…because tucked down at the bottom of the menu sits something a little bit special.
Mango and Coconut Cheesecake | £4
Ok…I’m going to put my hands up and say traditional Indian desserts and myself do not usually get along – gulab jamun (too sweet for my palate), gajar ka halwa (strange texture and again too sweet)…there’s a common theme. I can just about stretch to kulfi, but you can’t go too wrong with ice cream (except if you’re dairy intolerant…oops). That said, I have experienced some truly delicious desserts with an Indian twist, and the above would certainly be more than worthy of joining this clan. I mean, who can say no to a generous slice of creamy, rich home-made mango and coconut cheesecake, with a chocolate and cardamom crumb base. In essence, pudding heaven on a plate.
- These dishes are created and cooked by a chef who has an enormous amount of pride in what he does. Taking you on a true journey of Keralan cuisine, this combined with the warm welcome from an amazing team (with a special shout out to Cally) – transports you, and leaves you imagining that you are dining in someone’s home, rather than a bar in Cardiff.
- There should be no argument that these dishes are fantastic value for money. I promise, you will not be going home hungry.
- Location wise – as a pop-up venue, Small Bar Cardiff is perfect. What more could you want? Lively and friendly atmosphere…check. Local independent beers and ciders…check. Curry…check.
Would I recommend a visit to a Keralan Karavan pop-up?
The best thing is that I can now alter this question to exclude ‘pop-up’. As of last week it was officially announced that after the highly successful pop-up in January, Keralan Karavan will now be taking up a permanent residency in Small Bar, Cardiff…a big whoop and hooray to that news!
There is a whole lot of love going on in the city for this pop-up, and it’s wonderful to see a venture getting so much local support. It therefore goes without saying that if you enjoy authentic Indian food, I highly recommend checking out Keralan Karavan. I personally will be heading back soon, if nothing else to try out Chef’s hula hoop trick with the pipe popadums – ha ha!
Address | Small Bar Cardiff, 17 Church Street, Cardiff, CF10 1BG
To follow the antics of the Keralan farmers, check out @keralankaravan on Twitter…eat, drink and be merry (but don’t forget your sunglasses!).
- On a personal note, (once you’ve read this post ha ha…please scroll up and hit the links for my dining companions. Made up of some of Cardiff’s best (and I will say, amusing) food and restaurant bloggers, you really are in for a treat, and a great insight into some of the fabulous independent eateries in the city.
We were not invited to Keralan Karavan as bloggers, but instead decided to inflict our presence on them! With the exception of the sharing dishes of roasted eggs and two portions of cheesecake, which were very kindly complimentary, all dishes were paid for by the group.