Thattu, the city's only Keralite restaurant, began with a biscuit | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

Thattu, the city's only Keralite restaurant, began with a biscuit 

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click to enlarge Thattu's masala biscuits - MIKE SULA
  • Thattu's masala biscuits
  • Mike Sula

Since I wrote about the cuisine of Kerala and Glenview's terrific grocery-caterer Kairali Food & Events last week, someone pointed out that there is, in fact, a full-service restaurant in the area featuring the food of India's southwestern state. That would be the two-year-old Mainland India in Niles, whose menu looks very promising.

But I said I was going to tell you about what turns out to be the city's only Keralite restaurant, Thattu, which opened last month. OK, technically it's a stand in the West Loop's Politan Row food hall, but for chef Margaret Pak it's the realization of something she's been dreaming about in one way or another for years.

It all started with the masala biscuits. Every year when Pak and her husband, Vinod Kalathil, visited his hometown, Calicut (aka Kozhikode), Kerala, his father would greet them with a particular sweet, savory, and spicy cookie from the venerable, now 75-year-old Delecta Bakery. Made with nearly two-dozen ingredients—including cashews, nigella seeds, asafetida, ginger, garlic, chile, cumin, and black salt—they're meant to be eaten with black tea. Known as khara biscuits, they're popular all over Kerala, and even though Delecta doesn't seem to tout them as a specialty, they became an obsession for Pak, particularly after the bakery gave her its industrial-scale recipe nine years ago.

Pak couldn't get all the ingredients here in the States, but she experimented with scaling down the recipe's quantity and heat level, thinking that one day she'd open a dedicated biscuit business. Then she started working as a line cook at Kimski and preparing Kalathil's mom's egg curry recipe for staff meals. Before long she was hosting pop-ups featuring the Keralite dishes her mother-in-law had taught her.

click to enlarge (counterclockwise from bottom) Kimchi upma, kadala curry, and appam, crepes made with fermented rice flour and coconut milk - MIKE SULA
  • (counterclockwise from bottom) Kimchi upma, kadala curry, and appam, crepes made with fermented rice flour and coconut milk
  • Mike Sula
In early May, she and Kalathil opened Thattu with a concise menu of four entree-size dishes and a few snacks, including the biscuits and egg curry, but also Kerala-style fried chicken, a mild coriander chicken curry, and a Portuguese-influenced vegetable stew called ishtu. Her black-chickpea kadala curry is a lighter but spicier version of one of my favorite dishes from Kairali Foods, while her kimchi upma is an astonishingly tasty and unexpected union of spicy fermented cabbage, fluffy steamed semolina, and crispy fried shallots.

Necessity was the mother of invention. "That's my take on kimchi fried rice," she says. "I needed something crunchy on the menu."

click to enlarge Coriander chicken curry - MIKE SULA
  • Coriander chicken curry
  • Mike Sula
Well, there are also those biscuits, which already seem cemented as her signature (she's working on variations), but there is one more alluring feature to the operation: made-to-order appam, soft, lacy crepes formed  from coconut milk and fermented rice flour. Pillowy, warm, slightly sweet, and flatter than traditional appam, they're the ideal vehicles for the curries (though there's a rice option as well). Pak is currently griddling about 70 of these per day, made from rice she ferments overnight in three Instant Pots behind the counter. They take about four minutes each; when she's been backed up some people have waited patiently for up to 35 minutes for them, she says.

Worth it, I think. And worth it to keep your eye on Thattu, to see what other Keralite foods (and Keralite mash-ups) Pak brings to the table.  v

Thattu at Politan Row, 111 N. Aberdeen, $, recommended

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