As a devoted carnivore, it takes a lot to drag me to a restaurant that serves only “pure vegetarian cuisine,” but after just one trip to Mathura I’m a convert—not to vegetarianism, but to South Indian cooking of the kind I encountered here.
Of course, I’m no stranger to the largely meatless cuisine of Southern India. I enjoy a good dosai with sambar and all the trimmings any day–especially the paper masala dosai, a thin crispy pancake made of urud dhal flour; stuffed with potato curry; and shimmering with a coat of ghee. I love how it comes served on the traditional stainless steel Thali with all the condiments in individual steel bowls.
But speaking of Southern India, give me a Chettinad meal any day. The Chettiars are a community in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, known for their spicy, aromatic food that includes fish, prawns, lobster, crab, chicken and lamb. I used to frequent a great Chettinad restaurant in Colombo called Anjappar, which has sadly closed down. But Chettinad cuisine is a blog post of it’s own. Let me get back to vegetarian.
Mathura is considered one of the best South Indian veggie restaurants in Colombo, so on the recommendation of a friend (Thanks, Pendy), I decided to check it out for lunch with my cousin Sam (whom Anthony Bourdain called, “a guy who knows about everything”) and his daughter Shali. We were originally headed to one of my regular joints, Greenlands Hotel, when the inspiration hit us, so we headed to 185 Havelock Road in Colombo 5.
While I much prefer street food or at least a hole-in-the-wall joint (because I honestly believe the food is usually better and more authentic there), sometimes it’s actually worth it to ante up at a high stakes establishment like Mathura. The carpeting, air-conditioning, and nice paintings on the wall obviously enhance the comfort factor, and the intoxicating smells coming from the buffet with its variety of breads, condiments and curries, beckoned. Since I didn’t know exactly what to order in a vegetarian joint, this spread made the decision for me.
Let’s see, I had a little of everything—rasam, a spicy soup as a starter; pilau rice flecked with fennel seeds and peas; nan; puffy poori bread; fried chilies; paneer korma; mushroom masala; crispy chili and yellow dhal. Not only did my plate look good, but everything had it’s own unique taste, playing together like a symphony of flavors on my tongue. I never once thought I was eating vegetarian food—just good food—and if the people in southern India are eating like this everyday, it’s no wonder they remain vegetarians.
In addition, Sam and Shali ordered mushroom dopiyasa and paneer butter masala, which were equally scrumptious. It made me think that one could not go wrong with anything on the menu, which includes 117 items (not including soups, salads and desserts), none of which is over 390 rupees (about $3.43). While this is on the pricey side for Sri Lanka, I can only imagine what the same food would have cost in New York—even Jackson Heights, Queens, where all the good Indian restaurants are. So considering myself lucky and well fed, of course I picked up the tab, as well as a couple dishes to go.
Mathura Family Restaurant, 5 Havelock Road, Colombo 5