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Food @ Trivandrum

Al Saj Restaurant: A Keralite Meal With Fish

It has been a few days since I have been experiencing a craving to have some Kerala style meal with seafood… Al Saj used to be a favourite of mine for the same and I haven’t been there for the same since the pandemic era began… So, finally got the chance to go there and here we are… 🙂 Al Saj Restaurant is one of the most popular and oldest restaurants in Trivandrum… It’s even known to be one of the favourite spots of Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the former President of India who even while being the President made it a point to visit the place when he was on his official tour here… The place is also one of the earliest “Drive-In” restaurant and is spread across quite a large area as you can sort of make out from the pic shown below and is very well maintained…

As far as I am concerned, this has been a regular spot for me and my parents since my childhood and we have been coming here for the Kerala style meals and also their Biriyani which I consider as one of the best Biriyani options available in Trivandrum… So, having been suffering from the craving, there was no need for a second thought and so placed the order for their “Veg Meals” and along with it, their Fish Curry and Fish Fry… Earlier they used to have a “Fish Curry Meals” combo which meant that the Fish Curry would come by default with the veg Meals… However, now we have to order them separately… After a little while, the waiter served my order as shown in the pic below…

I was indeed surprised as I have never been served the Kerala Style meals like that… Of-course I have had Pothichoru before but this was never the way this restaurant used to serve their meals… Instead of this Pothichoru mode, what they used to do is that they would serve on plates the rice and the side dishes and the the loose gravy curries would’ve been placed on the table in jugs for everyone to serve themselves… When I asked the ever familiar, head waiter he informed me that they switched to this mode due to the Pandemic so that common contact points could be eliminated, which when I thought about it is indeed a nice thing for them to do as it clearly shows that they take the Pandemic seriously… But at the same time, contrary to all that, you can see that from the pics that they still have the common pickle and raita jars that they usually keep for Biriyani eaters… So… not exactly sure whats the logic there and then again, this is a place for whom consistency is something they have always struggled with despite being open for quite a number of decades… Anyways, the following pic shows the Veg Meals with the Pothi opened, along with the side dishes, the Fish Curry and Fish Fry…

Now lets talk about the contents of the Pothi… Basically as can be seen from the pics below, obviously there is Rice, and along with it, the Aviyal, Thoran, Pachadi, Chammanthy and Pickle… Everything was wrapped in Banana Leaf including the side dishes which were all individually wrapped in pieces of Banana Leaf… I had once posted about the meals from this place before and back then, they used to give quite a large quantity of rice with very less side dishes… But this time, the quantity of rice felt manageable for a single person and the quantities of the side dishes felt very much better… The change is like night and day if you ask me as far as the presentation goes at-least and thats the reason I decided to write this post… As for the taste, everything does taste as good as it looks… I think I definitely got lucky enough to visit on one of their good days as I couldn’t find any faults in the taste of these items… The Rice was cooked well… The Aviyal was packed with vegetables and was seasoned just right with just the right amount of sourness for me… The Thoran made with Cabbage and Green Gram was nice and flavourful and was seasoned just right as well… The Lime Pickle was just like any other – spicy, salty and sour and the Chammanthy was just like how one would expect in the one included with Pothichoru – packed with flavours of Coconut, Dried Red Chillies and Green Chillies… Lastly, the Cucumber Pachadi made with Yogurt and Coconut base provided the cooling effect that balanced the spiciness of the spicy components of the meal… All the vegetables used in everything tasted fresh for me as in cooked on the same day… Of-course places like these don’t usually cook the meals to order and instead they precook them in bulk and then just serve… If you see the amount of crowd that this place pulls on a regular basis, I am sure you won’t feel like complaining about it… Of-course not everything in this meal is precooked and we’ll discuss about them too below… 🙂

Now other than the pothi, there are a few more components that are part of the Veg Meals… They are, the Pappadam, Sambar, Moru, Parippu Curry, Kappa and ofcourse the Payasam… The following pics show them as served… Ofcourse, the Pappadam was just like any other thats typically served in Kerala… The Sambar was on the spicy side and was loaded with vegetables and hence was quite flavourful with of-course the flavour of the Asafoetida taking the lead along with the Chilly Powder and Turmeric used… The Moru was sour but not too sour for my taste and had the flavours of Ginger and Green Chillies in it and as for the Parippu curry, it was the same “Green” Lentils and Coconut based curry that we typically see served as part of Sadya in Travancore areas… I felt that its flavours were also spot on, though I wish it had some ghee in it but then again, you can’t expect that for the pricing that they have here… Lastly, the Kappa or Cassava seems to have been cooked by boiling them just enough for them to retain their crunchiness instead of cooking them well in which case it would’ve been reduced to a paste… There were enough flavours of Turmeric, Chilly Powder and Green Chillies in them and that tadka of Mustard Seeds, Garlic and Curry Leaves gave that kick of flavours to it as well… The sweet component of the Veg Meals was the Payasam and this time they served was the one we call as the Semiya Payasam, ie, made using the Semolina pasta… This Payasam was spot on in my opinion with just the right amount of sweetness and flavour of Ghee and was incredibly creamy as well… I ended up wishing I had more of it but sadly thats the one item for which they don’t give you refills 🙁

Thats it about the Veg Meals and now lets talk about the Fish… I had ordered both their Fish Curry and Fish Fry and among the choices of Fish for them, I chose to go with the Neymeen which is the name restaurants here use to mean Kingfish (but serves you the Cobia instead which used to be a problem earlier cause of the difference between the price but nowadays its pretty much the same but I find it funny that restaurants still do this switch for that slight difference 😛 ) and the pics below show the Fish Curry and the Fish Fry as served… The Fish Curry was not the typical one we see being served with Meals in Kerala ie, the one with the Coconut based gravy… Instead this one was made with an Onion and Tomato based gravy, kind of like North Indian curries but made with Keralite Spices and Tamarind (not the Malabar Pot Tamarind or Garcinia unfortunately)… Though I felt the gravy was quite nice and flavourful, unfortunately, the pieces of Fish in the curry simply were just bland on their own and I ended up mashing the pieces of Fish into the gravy for better experience… This is what happens when you add boiled and precooked Fish/Protein into a gravy and serve them… Also, that gravy if I am not mistaken seemed to have a rich flavour of Mackerel in it which further seemed to confirm my suspicion that the gravy and the fish were cooked separately… That gimmicky use of the earthenware to mix and serve the Fish Curry felt funny though… 🙂 As for the Fish Fry, it turned out to be a thin slice of Fish looked like it was deep fried (cause of the way it has curled up) and it was served with a salad… I liked this salad very much when I tried having it mixed with the Fish Curry Gravy and Rice… This fish again had the same problem as the pieces of Fish in the Fish Curry ie, all flavours just outside with the inside being bland, suggesting that they didn’t let the Fish marinate enough in the spice rub… But when I had it with the accompanying salad, it felt nice… But I think overall, I felt that they could’ve done a better job in the way the Fish was cooked…

Overall, in spite of the obvious flaws, I think this was a fine meal… All the flavours appeared to complement each other like the Gravy compensating for the blandness of the Fish… In fact, the combination of the Parippu, Sambar and Fish Curry mixed together with the rice was very nice for me… Altogether I enjoyed the meal very much… 🙂

So, thats it for now… As I mentioned above, it really felt great to have my craving satisfied and I felt that they have maintained the taste of their Keralite meal very well… I am hoping to be able to visit and have it again soon… Meanwhile, feel free to try the same and let me know in the comments section below… 🙂

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