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Thayir Vada is a lentil flour donut under a layer of yogurt with savory spices. Photo by Richard Foss.

I like it when restaurants show symbols of culinary culture. The pictures of village markets laden with exotic products, bakers proudly holding fresh bread, grandmothers stirring pots over wood fires, and families at the table are more than just decorations. It is a reminder that these recipes are the legacy of countless generations of loving experiments in the home kitchen. These pictures whet your appetite for the upcoming feast and allow you to introduce yourself in these pictures and enjoy this hospitality.

It is therefore amazing when a restaurant that represents one of the longest unbroken culinary traditions in human history has bare walls. I visited the Copper Pot Indian Grill in Redondo for the first time, a few days after it opened, thinking that once they got used to it, the white area would be covered in art. More than a month later, that hasn’t changed. Given the wealth of fine arts from South Asian tradition, this must be a deliberate omission, but I can’t imagine why.

One item I would nominate for decoration would be a large map of South India because that’s where this kitchen comes from. It’s a region that most Americans don’t know much about, and it has distinctive cuisine based on ecology. Among other things, they use more seafood, lentils, plantain, and coconut than they do in Punjab and the northern regions, which historically had the most immigration to America. The cooking style is also different, with more flatbread and rice dishes and significantly different spices.

That means Copper Pot has some offerings that are very different from most in our area, but unfortunately the menu makes a terrible explanation for this. There are five different types of biryani rice dishes on offer, but little or no indication of how they differ from each other. Some are named for ingredients that are unknown to most people – would we prefer those made with gongura leaves to those made with rogan spice? Luckily the restaurant wasn’t very busy so our waiter was able to spend time explaining some of the dishes. We ordered a few we knew, a few we didn’t, and sat back to see what had happened.

The first thing that arrived was thayir vada, Lentil flour donuts under a layer of yogurt with spicy spices. Eat it as soon as it arrives at the table and it’s amazing – a warm herbal donut under cool yogurt, topped with herbs and chillies. It is spicy and cooling and warm at the same time, which is pretty much without parallels in European cuisine. It was fittingly followed by another show stopper of South Indian cuisine, a Masala Dosa. This article surprises people when it first comes across it because it’s a crispy tube of dough almost two feet long – and I had ordered a small one.

The dosa, a crispy crpe that can be up to 1.2 meters long, is a specialty at the Copper Pot Indian Grill. Photo by Richard Foss

(They make a four-foot dosa for family gatherings, but even the standard size will likely activate the phone cameras around the table.) Dosas aren’t as much food as they look because most of that tube of crispy batter is empty – the Mitte has a layer of seasoned vegetable stew, and you can make the crunchy sourdough crpe yourself in between and use it to ladle the stew.

The sourdough that makes such a light crpe is also available in one uttapamwhich isn’t exactly the same as a pizza, but occupies the same ecological niche. I had one along with a samosa when visiting for lunch and it’s satisfying for all of the reasons I like good pizza. The samosa was good too, the conventional rounded pyramid of crispy batter with a little different seasoning on the vegetables than usual.

Another item that makes a great starter is egg kothu parottawhich sounds strange when you explain it. It’s a flaky flatbread that is torn into pieces and then sautéed briefly with hot sauce and scrambled eggs. I was familiar with a similar dish in Ethiopian restaurants, a legacy of centuries of trade between India and Africa. This dish is quite spicy unless you ask otherwise, but it’s worth trying for the combination of flavors and textures.

If you like to start a meal with soup, consider the crab leek, which has a lot of shellfish in a broth with a little coconut and a little pepper. It’s mildly flavored compared to many other dishes here, and even those averse to peppery flavors should find it within their heat tolerance.

For our main courses for dinner, we ordered an Alleppey fish curry, lamb Gilli Biriani, mutton ghee roast and, on the recommendation of our waiter, a tandoori chicken variation called Murgh Malai Tikka. This was very different from the typical tandoori chicken with its bright red coating made from a tamarind-based sauce – instead, the chicken is marinated twice, once in lemon with ginger, garlic and spices, the second time in yogurt, herbs and cream. Yogurt and lemon both help tenderize the meat and add slightly tart flavors, and the resulting dish has an almost Mediterranean lightness and simplicity with the complexity of Indian flavors underneath.

Another item that used citrus fruits in unexpected ways was the Alleppey fish curry, which combines coconut milk and tangerine juice for a remarkable tropical effect. It reminded me of a fish dish I had eaten in the Caribbean, which is probably no coincidence as South Indian workers in Trinidad and Tobago have heavily influenced this cuisine. The touch of sweet fruit juice and fresh coconut milk with the spice was a great effect and I can only recommend this dish.

I ordered both a lamb and mutton dish so that someone at our table who had never liked mutton could try it side by side with lamb. The mature sheep meat has a reputation for being strong wild and tough, and it can be both if poorly cooked, but a treat if used correctly. A marinade that breaks down the fibers in the meat takes care of the toughness problem, and the full flavor is beneficial when paired with a robust seasoning. This recipe is modern and somewhat unusual, as the mutton is placed in a pressure cooker with a garlic-ginger paste and clarified butter, then combined with spices and roasted. With the two cooking methods, the spices are poured into the tender meat, which is soft but not mushy. If you’ve never eaten mutton before, this is a great way to try it, and after you’ve done it, you can choose it over the milder lamb.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t order the lamb biryani again, because I definitely would. Gili Biryani is a modern recipe in which marinated and partially cooked meat is refined in a saucepan with rice and vegetables that are cooked in seasoned vegetable broth with a touch of rose water. This is rice pilaf with a distinctive Indian twist and has made the Chennai hotel where it was invented a place of pilgrimage for connoisseurs of Indian cuisine.

Indian desserts are offered and even if you can easily overorder here, you should save space for some. the kesar pista, an Indian style pistachio ice cream on a stick, is not homemade, but worth a try, but I prefer thandai phirni. This is a creamy pudding with cardamom, saffron, and nuts, similar to rice pudding. If you still have some heat on your tongue, it will cool you down in the most pleasant way.

The Copper Pot was reasonably priced, with a dinner for five going for around $ 120. The service was serious and friendly, from people who appreciated our interest in learning more about the kitchen. There are things that need to be reworked – the restaurant has poor acoustics that could be improved by putting fabrics on the walls that would also brighten up the drab surroundings and they really need to rewrite a menu with more detailed descriptions. For those who are culinary adventurers, the experience is different from any Indian restaurant for miles, and Copper Pot should be a destination for anyone wanting to try South India.

Copper Pot is located at 1511 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo. Open every day except Tuesday for lunch and dinner – please refer to website for opening times. Wheelchair access good, parking lot, no alcohol served. CopperPotLA.com, phone (310504-0777). HE


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