My fondest memory of banana leaf restaurants date back to my days as a student, when I was poor, greedy, and weighed a jumbo 108kg. I’d intentionally skip breakfast and have a late lunch, to get the best bang for buck with the free flow of rice and vegetables that’s implicit to banana leaf meals.
So much has changed since then. Or, not. I’m still poor, and I’m still greedy. And I still love a good banana leaf meal. While my love for this particular genre of food had never faded over time, my enthusiasm with venturing to indulge in them has since been very much muted by the distinct lack of proper service at banana leaf restaurants. I’m not overly fussy about cleanliness or the stuffy conditions in these houses of greed and spices, ’cause I’m just sloppy that way, but it gets really hard to be greedy when I’m not being served as fast as I eat. To aggravate the banana leaf scene further, most places have been further slacking in service and quality of food. Disappointing. Disconcerting. Disheartening. Disaster!
Kashmir Cafe (picture courtesy of Andrew)
Enter Kashmir Cafe, the new contender! Except, they’ve actually been around since the 70′s. Due to unforeseen circumstances with family and life, Kashmir Cafe ceased operations some years ago. Recently, the legacy of Kashmir Cafe was revived. Sashie, one of the owners, is quite the wizard. First, he raises a banana leaf restaurant up from the ashes of time. Then he somehow got in touch with me through the magic of the Internet, to extend a gracious invitation for me to taste the food at Kashmir Cafe. And that’s not all he has up his sleeve, as I’d eventually find out.
What is a “plate”? At Kashmir Cafe, you eat on banana leaves.
Before I went to be served with special treatment, I decided to drop by the cafe incognito. I had to take a real look and see what it was all about. I didn’t want special service. I didn’t want special food. I didn’t want special attention. But I got it. Nobody knew I was there. Sashie had never met me before. Apparently, Sashie puts a lot of focus into the service of his customers. Everybody gets special attention at Kashmir Cafe. The moment you have that look on your face that indicates you’re looking for something, someone will come right to your service; something unheard of in most banana leaf restaurants.
Chicken masala thosai: Fresh, crispy, and loaded with chunky spiced chicken
During my first, I wasn’t very hungry. I didn’t think I could handle their specialty, which was the mutton briyani (also available in chicken kurma and vegetarian). I decided to order a masala chicken rawa thosai. Oh dear. It was bigger than I had expected. It’s a good thing, I just didn’t know if I could finish it. Yeah, I guess I’m being too modest. The chunks of chicken were abundant and tender, with all sorts of herbs and spices. I couldn’t identify anything that was in there, but it all collectively tasted like little bits of fragrant desire. The spices were potent but didn’t mask the familiar chickenny flavor. The flavors to my tongue were like a feeling of a woman’s delicate hands intertwined with mine – tender, fragrant and inspires sighs of affection. Because the batter is made fresh daily and never kept overnight, the thosai itself didn’t have any of that sour day-old taste, either. Ah, yes indeed, I like my thosai the way I like my women. At RM5.50 for a huge serving, it’s cheaper than any woman though.
Lassi – the original yoghurt drink
During my second visit, we came in a party of nine, with reservations and everything. Yes, I needed help. I couldn’t possibly tackle all those curries and dishes on my own. It was a rather hot day that day, a phenomenon that’s uncomfortably common these days. Indian food is all about heat and intensity. To balance out all that heat, there’s lassi. Ice cold yoghurt drink made with a recipe unique to Kashmir Cafe (just like everything else on the menu). I managed to try almost every variety of lassi they had. Mango. Strawberry. Salted. Sweet. Soursop and guava. For those who like their drinks unsweetened, the salted lassi is a very refreshing variety in a traditional flavor. The mildly salty flavor without any added sweetness balances out an intense meal very well, and is very quenching. It’s not for everyone, but as far as salted lassi goes, I’ve tasted none better. It lacks that sharp aftertaste that I experienced with most salted lassis I’ve had; instead it left a crisp salty aftertaste, much like sour plum juice, with a less intense sourness.
While you can’t go wrong with the strawberry or mango varieties of lassi, the soursop and guava flavored lassi was a clear winner with me, and everyone else who pilfered my lassi. It’s almost too good to share. The real fruit flavors were delightful, and the lassi was neither too thick nor too watered down: liquid enough to quench, thick enough to be flavorful. May as well order two at a go if someone else at the table didn’t order this. You’ll want one for yourself, and another to pass around so that you can enjoy yours all to yourself.
Chicken briyani: this is probably the only time you would be appetized to find a leg stuck in your rice
Mutton briyani set: the specialty at Kashmir cafe
On Sunday, Kashmir Cafe serves their signature briyani sets. Available in vegetarian (RM8), chicken (RM10), and mutton (RM12) varieties, you can expect it to be served in banana leaf style – that is, feel free to ask for more vegetables and rice. The briyani, made with basmathi rice, is light and has a less starchy bite to it. The mutton is cooked with the rice itself to infuse it with its savory aroma, but removed during keeping so that the fat from the meat does not soak the rice and turn it greasy. The mutton has a chunky bite, but not so much that it becomes tough. I reckon the meat was made with obedient goats, because it breaks down in my mouth the way they should, instead of getting stuck between every gap in my teeth. This style of briyani is light and the flavors are less intense, which makes way for the kurma gravy that it is served with. The kurma is rich and has a mild nutty flavor that almost goes unnoticed behind the delicate aroma of the saffron. It was a good balance, but I decided I preferred something a little more… intense!
Mutton bone curry: not for timid eaters
What’s Indian food if there’s no option to go intense? Mutton bone curry. Pairs wonderfully with the milder flavored briyani. It almost felt like an entire goat was packed into every drop of this curry. The flavors were intense to say the least. Everyone at the table had the same look on their faces, as they looked at each other in disbelief; a look that almost says, “IS THIS FOR REAL? ARE YOU FEELING IT TOO?!” Yes. It’s real. Most curries I’ve tasted leave a spicy feeling on the tongue, if any at all. This one works like an assassin in the shadows. It comes from behind. Behind your throat, that is. The heat doesn’t hit you immediately. Rather, it creeps up slowly and warms the back of your throat with a pleasant punch that keeps you wanting more. With the pleasant tingly sensation at the back of the throat, the tongue is free to continue savouring the complex mix of flavors in the meat and curry. Let no flavor go untasted! If for nothing else, I’ll keep coming back for this relatively new item on the menu, though it’s only available on Fridays and Sundays.
Crab resam: take it as gravy, a soup, or a drink
I couldn’t get enough of that zing that Indian food is known for. It’s like Sashie read my mind when he offered us some resam – and not just regular resam, but crab resam! This was something new to me. I’ve never seen it elsewhere. There’s actual crab meat inside. Resam usually has a strong sourish after-taste, that I find mildly unpleasant, but this one didn’t. It tasted refreshing. It had a little bit of sour (without that weird after-taste), a little bit of peppery, and was fragrant with all sorts of spices. Be sure down it all, there’s crab meat at the bottom! This feisty concoction left a tingly heat in my chest. Indian food sure is able to leave me feeling tingly all over my body. Very tantalizing, though it’s an acquired that that not everyone enjoys. Approach with caution, and an open mind!
It’s teh tarik. Did you expect a more theatrical description?
Masala chai: Chai tea infused with spices
Masala chai, or spiced tea, is one of those things which you either love or hate – another acquired taste. I find the intense flavors and aroma of the cinnamon and cardamom to be very invigorating, though some might find it overpowering. For those who prefer something more familar, you could always have a teh tarik instead – foamed the way it should be.
Kesari and Wajek: mild Indian desserts
Sashie and his team are always adding new items to the menu, and everything is made with from scratch and with freshness in mind. None of that pre-packed, pre-processed stuff is used in the food at Kashmir Cafe. My mum cooks by the same principals, so I can tell the difference between real home-made goodness, and stuff that came from a factory. Sashie wouldn’t dare defile the food with the ordinariness of store-bought curry mixes – you could tell he’s very proud of his food from the way he enthusiastically serves the customers himself, alongside his staff. The business is a family business and as far as I can see, it means that the staff is almost like family, and even the guests. I really felt at home eating here. Everything is taken care of. The premises are spanking clean.
Follow the arrow, they’ll show you where to go. Follow the arrow, just follow don’t say no.
No longer do I need to settle for being disappointed, disconcerted, disheartened. Discover Kashmir!