Growing up, siblings Anusha and Dharran Kandaiah were the lucky recipients of their mother Magasvary Rasiah’s delicious home-cooking.
“My mum is very passionate about cooking and she really makes amazing food,” gushes Anusha.
It had been a long-held dream of Magasvary’s to enrol in culinary school and open her own restaurant but as her parents couldn’t afford it, she spent the next 40 years cooking for her family instead.
When Anusha and Dharran grew up, they decided the time was ripe to make their mother’s dreams come true. And that is how Gajaa at 8 was born.
The restaurant, which is ensconced in Bangsar’s Lorong Maarof is devoted to Kerala cuisine, a south Indian cuisine typified by the liberal use of coconut in all its permutations. Interestingly, the family has no ties to Kerala (their roots can be traced back to Tamil Nadu). Instead, they were inspired to start a restaurant with Kerala cuisine at its heart after Anusha realised how popular Kerala food was in the Middle East.
“I live in the Middle East and there are many Indians from Kerala there who have opened amazing Kerala restaurants. So that’s where I learnt how awesome Kerala cuisine is, although it is not as well-known here,” says Anusha.
The family hired chefs from Kerala to cook authentic Kerala food and gave them strict instructions not to localise any of the dishes, as they wanted diners to sample the true flavours of the region. The family also expanded the menu to include some Indo-Chinese staples like Gobi Manchurian and chilli paneer, which are Chinese-influenced meals that feature in most Indian restaurants in India.
Most days, Magasvary is also in the kitchen, ensuring that everything that comes out is consistent and flavourful.
The food options at Gajaa are plentiful, but you’d do well to start with the meen pollichatu (RM30), which is pearl spot fish that has been marinated for hours in a concoction of spices and then wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. This is a specialty in Kerala where seafood is plentiful and popular. Gajaa’s version is delightful – tender fish with a rich masala layer that is spicy and fiery with a light acidic undertone.
The chetta chicken curry (RM26) is another delicious concoction, made up of chicken simmered in a cashew and green chilli paste gravy. The curry is magnificent – rich, thick and creamy with fiery notes laden throughout. It’s the sort of hedonistic delight that will inspire you to unconsciously hail the waiter as the words, “Can I have some more please?” magically flow out of your mouth.
Equally mouth-watering is mum’s mutton curry (RM38) which as its name implies, is Magasvary’s recipe. The curry itself is divine – a creamy, spicy affair redolent of the pleasures of home cooking. The only downside is that some of the mutton pieces aren’t cooked as well as others, leading to slightly chewy mouthfuls.
Another mutton dish worth your time is the dry-style mutton (RM30) paired with coconut slices. The meat is very tender and coated in an array of spices that have given it a fiery kick, while the coconut slices add bite to each mouthful. This is a seemingly docile but ultimately lethal assassin on the spice front, so do be prepared!
On the vegetarian front, try the mushroom varutharacha (RM18) which is a thick gravy filled with mushrooms. This is a sumptuous, spicy vixen that is so seductive, you can’t help but reach for more.
The Kerala chicken biryani (RM35) is made in the dum style, which means the pot has been sealed with a flour band. The biryani is filled with green chilli, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, cardamom and peppercorns and is suffused with the spices and flavours of the subcontinent. It may not be the best biryani you’ve ever had, but it is pretty darn good.
Perhaps the only blip on Gajaa’s menu is the kanthari fish (RM20) which features battered fried fish smothered in a creamy gravy. The entire dish is lacklustre and is unlikely to register on any foodie’s radar.
For dessert, try the poori & pandan chutney (RM12), which features spice-enhanced pandan chutney (the texture is more akin to kaya) against soft, fluffy pooris. It’s an interesting intermingling of cultures that actually works remarkably well, as the soft pooris prove to be the ideal receptacles to mop up the satin-soft pandan chutney.
Ultimately, while the family is hoping to open more Indian restaurants in the future, Dharran is adamant that everything at Gajaa must run perfectly before they even contemplate opening another outlet.
“We want to grow but I think it’s very important that we get this outlet right. People have to enjoy the experience here – that’s what we strive for,” he says.
GAJAA AT 8 ROYAL INDIAN CUISINE
No 8, Lorong Maarof
Tel: 03-2201 7369
Open Tuesday to Sunday: 11.30am to 11.30pm