Over the years William George has fed high-ranking politicians and celebrated screen actors, and he has the photographs on his wall to prove it: when VIPs from the south Indian state of Kerala come to visit, George's Glenview-based Royal Malabar Catering is pretty much the only game in town. But George's bread and butter is supplying the working Keralite expats of Chicagoland with the everyday foods of their homeland, which include a remarkable variety of meat, seafood, and vegetarian dishes flavored with a brilliant palette of spices—cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, chiles, garlic, ginger, coriander, and turmeric, often tempered by the liberal use of coconut.
In rough translation Kerala means "land of the coconut," and the meat of the nut finds its way into a great number of edibles, from the thin, almost translucent fermented rice flour pancakes called palappam to the chunky, fiery beef fry to the family of dry-fried minced vegetable dishes known as thoran.
In addition to its vegetarian Hindu majority, Kerala is home to large Christian and Muslim minorities. Those groups account in part for the diversity of its food, shaped by its position at the epicenter of the spice trade, resulting in centuries of exchange with Phoenicians, Arabs, Jews, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British.
For the most part George's cooking represents Kerala's Syrian Christian community, which traces its origins to the middle of the first century, after Saint Thomas is said to have landed on on the Malabar coast. Syrian Christians are noted for brewing spicy stews from beef, chicken, fish, and mutton, typically eaten at breakfast with palappam. An alternative morning meal might include thinner, lentil-based vegetarian sambars, accompanied by coconut chutney, steamed fermented rice and lentil cakes called idli, and parippuvada, toothy deep-fried yellow split pea fritters seasoned with ginger, onion, curry leaf, red pepper, green chili, and fennel seed. Sour tamarind-flavored fish stews known as meen mouly are also common, as are coconut-based curries made with duck, mutton, chicken, or beef and a vegetarian dish called avial, a multitude of vegetables simmered in a creamy coconut and yogurt sauce. George is particularly well-known for his beef cutlets, gingery breaded deep-fried patties of minced meat, potato, onion, and garlic eaten with red onion salad.
George was born into a family of cooks who prepared these foods for gatherings in his hometown of Kottayam, inland from the Malabar coast, and he learned to cook as a boy—mostly from his mother and grandmother. He came to Chicago in 1990, toward the beginning of a wave of Keralite immigration sparked by opportunities in nursing and information technology, and worked for his uncle's packaging and mailing business. Two years later, eager to be his own boss, he opened Banana Leaf, a small restaurant in an Albany Park strip mall.
It was ahead of its time. Back then, George says, the young Keralite community was too busy with school or entry-level work to spend much time in restaurants. "They did not have that kind of money," he says. He sold the business in 1994, and the new owner later moved it from Lawrence to Milwaukee Avenue, where it operated for a short time as a catering operation. George went back to working for his uncle. Meanwhile, the Keralite community grew, and six years ago he decided to give catering a shot in another small storefront in Albany Park.
Alex Joseph, a KFC franchise owner and director of the Illinois Malayali Association, estimates that there are about 50,000 Keralites in the Chicago area, where they've prospered and gradually made their way to northwestern suburbs such as Niles, Des Plaines, Morton Grove, and Barrington. Early last year George went north too, installing himself in a Glenview strip mall with a larger kitchen. He has a full-time staff of five, plus a number of part-timers to help prepare for the many parties, engagements, weddings, christenings, and prayer meetings he caters—most of them revolving around a multidenominational group of about a dozen Keralite Christian churches.
George's menu lists almost 50 Keralite dishes, and he prepares a few not listed—a variation on the spicy dry beef fry made from Wisconsin-raised buffalo is particularly popular around Christmastime. He employs a part-time chef a few days a week to prepare richer northern Indian dishes like palak paneer, chicken tikka masala, and biryanis.
The run-up to Christmas and the New Year—which includes the Hindu harvest festival of Onam, celebrated by all of Kerala's religions—is his busiest time of year, with parties large and small most nights. Business then slows down until Easter, but George's regular customers—families who don't have the time to cook these labor-intensive foods—keep him busy. He takes orders and supplies them with enough meals to get through a workweek. Visitors without standing orders can drop in to see what's on hand, though most dishes aren't available every day. Weekends, when parties are most likely to be scheduled, promise a greater variety.v
Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.