Ganapati is an Indian restaurant specialising in the food of south India. So where better a place to locate it than south London? In particular, the food of Kerala is showcased here, along with dishes from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. After the proprietor and chef, Claire Fisher first visited India, she realised she was hooked, and went to learn the techniques and recipes typical to southern India before opening Ganapati in 2004.
Ganapati is, of course, another name for Ganesh (the much beloved god of the Hindus), the remover of obstacles. Initially a boy, created and given life by his mother, goddess Parvati, he was beheaded by his father's henchman (the half man-half cow god Nandi). Achieved through trickery (Ganesh's back had been turned when struck the fatal blow), Parvati threatened to end the world in revenge for her son's death. It became the task of the creator god Brahma to save the boy. Offering a magical discus, he instructed that the first being who met them in the forest be beheaded and the head given to the boy. It turned out that a one-tusked elephant was both the lucky and the unlucky party. Hence the most loved and worshipped god of the Hindu pantheon lived, with the head, bravery and strength of an elephant.
People in the know are more than aware there is more to Peckham than fried chicken and Del Boy Trotter references. Trading in Peckham since December 2004, Ganapati pre-dates the recent gentrification of Bellenden Road.
The restaurant has a loyal clientele who come regularly and are happy to recommend dishes to newbies. The restaurant space is small and compact. Given its popularity, it is hardly surprising that a small "al fresco" lean-to seating area has been set up for warmer days.
We had heard many of the other diners speak in animated tones highly recommending to each other the crab thoran. A thoran is a Keralan dish which is a dry, spice laden stir fry which is very briefly shown the pan before being served. It's a lot like a spicy warm salad. It is not intended to have much "sauce" or moisture, just enough to eat it with.
My thoran was light, fragrant and enough juiciness to keep you wanting more. Elements of softness and crunch created layers of texture. It was not the easiest thing to eat with cutlery alone, so I would recommend you eat it with either a poppadom as I did, or an Indian flatbread (the paratha will be discussed shortly).
Although not strictly a Keralan dish, Masala Dosa is a south Indian classic. The fermented lentil flour pancake should be thin, a little spongy but crisp on the outside, the masala potatoes, yielding and spicy, the sambar tangy and a little sour and the chutneys zingy and hot. Ganapati's dosa more than delivered.
People in the UK have a slight misconception about what a 'Korma' is. Because the version commonly found in our curryhouses is a very mild and creamy curry, with thick sauce, many think this is what a korma means in India. Without being too sniffy about it, a real curry is slow cooked from scratch to build the flavour in the sauce. Many curryhouses are under pressure to serve meals quickly to punters who do not wish to wait and as a result throw cubes of meat into a ready made sauce. The result is fairly good, but not the same as the time honoured methods of curry cooking.
The Ganapati Korma does have a thick sauce, but it is not as gloopy as that of the traditional curryhouse. It is clearly home-cooked from scratch. It has layers of spicing, which come through as you eat, both initially and as a finishing flourish. Korma is often the choice of the curry novice or curry-shy diner. This has more guts and depth than the regular, but Him Indoors still preferred it with a side order of chopped green chillis.
I went for the Kara Prawn Curry, which had a gloriously spicy, thin light sauce made of roasted coconut, chilli, tomato, tamarind and cinnamon. It was served with plain rice, tangy homemade pickles and a small, crunchy and very pleasant vegetable thoran.
As you can see, the prawns were generously sized and juicy.
The paratha we had was buttery, flaky and delightful. Some very simple foods can be difficult to get right. This was super.
This was the coconut rice side dish; basmati rice, full of fragrance, cooked with onion, curry leaves, coconut milk and fenugreek. Fenugreek can be an astonishing bully of a spice, taking over everything it comes near, but this was beautifully observed.
One dish you can use as a yardstick of a good Indian restaurant is the dahl. Dahl should be comfort food made in heaven; hearty, textured, spicy, sustaining. It's peasant food, but sometimes peasants are the true gourmands. Ganapati's Dahl Curry had a few chunks of potato and was prepared with garlic, chilli, curry leaves and mustard seeds, topped with fresh coriander. It more than passed the taste test!
Somehow we managed to find some space for pudding. Him Indoors went for the indulgent yet light homemade kulfi ice cream.
Because I don't get the chance to have Indian sweets or "mithai" as often as I would like, there was only one choice for me. Cute, colourful chunks of luxurious burfi. Like fudge, only much creamier and more delightful.
Ganapati is a real gem of a restaurant. This, along with Babur in Crofton Park, (which I reviewed here: ) is well worth the journey from the other side of London for. However, I am very lucky that it is in my neck of the woods. Fabulous, authentic flavours, a pleasant atmosphere and lovely service. I just can't understand how it has taken me so long to visit it.
Him Indoors and I paid for our meal with a combination of the folding stuff and coinage.
38 Holly Grove (off Bellenden Road)
(020) 7277 2928