THE moment I really fell in love with South India and its food was at the Pepper County spice plantation at Thekkady in Kerala, discussing the sex life of the vanilla pod with Mr Cyriac, the owner.
We had wandered through his seven verdant hillside acres, the warm airs wafting aromas of pepper, cardamom and mace, when we found the vanilla vines.
Mr Cyriac, a man with a hangdog expression, reached for one and explained that each had to be hand fertilised or it died, a life unconsummated.
“How on earth did it cope before people?” I asked, unconvinced. Mr Cyriac looked even more mournful. “Only God knows.”
If the Almighty goes out to dine, His favourite dish might well be South Indian. The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu produce the most ambrosial food. Flavourings can be more vivid and subtle than we experience in the average Indian restaurant.
Spices may be the same but the combination is different and then there is the coconut. It’s not just the milk and cream which enhances sauces but the raw flesh grated on to dishes for texture or roasted to caramelise the sugars to add lustre and depth.
Mr Cyriac’s wife Dolly cooked like a dream and I’m reminded of the taste in Sheffield’s handful of South Indian restaurants.
The latest is Maveli in the former Glossop Road Baths. It sounds Italian but is another name for the mythological Hindu king Mahabali, taken down a peg or two by Lord Vishnu.
It’s run by Cherian Mookenchery, until recently head chef at the city’s Jurys Inn, and Tojo Jos, who had the same job at the nearby Las Iguanos. Both have left their kitchens to be front of house while fellow Keralan and partner Sajy Mathai looks after Keralan dishes in the kitchen. Those from Tamil Nadu are cooked by Thangaraj.
Décor here is dull (there are some cheerful cartoons on its Facebook pages which would make better pictures) but the food is anything but.
There are all your usual regional favourites, fish and coconut, dosas and a form of bread called appam (or hopper), made with fermented rice. Think what might result if a Derbyshire oatcake had a naughty night out with a bowl of boiled rice and you’ve got it.
We order poppadoms (two for £2.50), not as I remember common practice as starters in Kerala, served with coconut and tomato chutneys.
My wife had Andhra chilli chicken, spicy nuggets in yoghurt, which she thoroughly enjoyed, while I had a masala dosa (both £4.50).
The dosa is the USP of South Indian restaurants. This is a crisp pancake made from a batter of fermented rice and lentils which looks like a roll of lino, with a choice of filling. Maveli does family sized ones four foot long or more. I’ve never yet worked out the best way to eat them but was once transfixed watching an Indian girl consume a dosa single handedly – the other hand clasping a mobile to her ear.
You can have all sorts of fillings but mine had mildly spiced crushed potato. Every dosa is naked without a sambal, not so much a chutney, more a sauce. Here it looks as muddy as the River Pampa (it’s in Kerala and I’ve eaten curried eggs on its banks) but tastes fine.
Main courses were lovely: mutton Chettinad (£7), a dish from Tamil Nadu, had good pieces of meat in a rich gravy made from roasted coconut paste, black pepper and chilli.
Our appam (£1.50), which resembles a moist pikelet, wasn’t perhaps the best bread to go with these dishes but I wanted to try it as I never got to eat one in Kerala.
Fish molee (£6.50) was a light curry in a fragrant coconut sauce, the fish still retaining its firmness. We had both with coconut rice (£4).
Normally we’d stop here when reviewing a curry because Indian desserts come straight out of the freezer but Maveli has a full slate worth considering.
Carrot halwa (£4), a sticky pan-Indian sweet of shredded vegetable, milk, sugar and spices, was enjoyable in a quiet sort of way. Mango Delish (£5), was a slightly expensive spin on crème brule with a wafer-thin top.
Maveli has had a quiet opening because it operated for a time without a drinks licence (it now has one).
“I like a beer when I go for a curry,” said Cherian after our meal. Like many Keralans, he is Christian. Me, I like a lassi (here £2 a glass).
We paid £39.50 for food, £12 for drinks and tea.
Maveli, 223 Glossop Road, Sheffield S10 2GW. Tel: 0114 276 6150. Open Sun-Thur 5-10.30pm, Fri-Sat until 11pm. Vegetarian dishes. Credit cards. Disabled access and toilets. Street parking.