International Chefs Day: Meet flavour alchemists of Kerala

‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well’: Guess we can all agree with English writer Virginia Wolf when she says good food can make anyone ecstatic.

author_img Express News Service Published :  21st October 2021 02:42 PM   |   Published :   |  21st October 2021 02:42 PM

Passion Fruit Fish Curry

KOCHI: ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well’: Guess we can all agree with English writer Virginia Wolf when she says good food can make anyone ecstatic. On International Chefs Day, Mahima Anna Jacob and Krishna P S caught up with flavour alchemists from around the city. Delightfully, the chef de cuisines at three of Kochi’s most acclaimed hotels, are non-Malayalis who have fallen in love with Kerala’s flavour palate!

In awe of  Malayali simplicity

You name any cuisine, Chef Sathish Reddy has cooked it, had it! Born in Andhra Pradesh, settled in Chennai, Sathish took over the reins of Le Meridien, Kochi as its executive chef last year. Though he has always been a fan of European cuisine, he has learned to love all kinds over the span of his career. Having worked in many hotels across India and abroad, the chef admits that his tryst with Kerala cuisine has been nothing short of amazing.

The fresh ingredients and spices of the state have certainly caught Sathish’s attention. “Green pepper, regular black and dried ones, cinnamon sticks — the freshness of the ingredients stands apart as compared to the rest of the country. You don’t need to use a lot of butter, ghee, and cream to make food rich in Kerala, all you require is the best spices, and right ingredients,” he says.

The chef has had many firsts with Kerala’s eateries, and most of them proved the ‘meat lover’ stereotype of Malayalis right, quips the chef. “Everywhere I visit, there is a balanced proportion of veg and non-veg dishes. Almost 95 per cent Malayalis I have come across loves meat, and this was a first for me,” adds Sathish. While the palette weighs more meat than any food item, the chef opines that Malayalis are also open to experimentation.  The best part for chef Sathish has been watching passionate Malayali connoisseurs give him feedback. Effective communication between guests and chefs hardly happens in other states, claims Sathish. “Malayali guests are particular about food. One cannot just make any food and claim it is the best. Our guests in Kochi give upfront feedbacks about things they notice — be it the way ingredients are chopped or the spice level,” says Sathish.

Simplicity is key

Despite all the knowledge and exposure he has gained from around the world, Sathish is a lover of simple food and this preference resonates with the way Kerala cuisine is prepared. “A dish can be made in a mud pot! Where else can you witness such a practice!” he beams. Mud pots and food wrapped in plantain leaves are practices he hopes the rest of the world adapts. “These days, we are all about plastic packaging and wrapping. The Malayali use of leaves selectively is a healthy method I have come to notice,” he says.

Passion for the meen curry

Chef Yogender Pal came to Kerala as the executive chef of Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty earlier this year. However, the connoisseur has made it his mission to experience the culinary goodness of god’s own country. 

Hailing from Himachal Pradesh, the chef has worked with many luxury hospitality chains including The Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, Marriott, Hilton, Intercontinental Hotels and Claridges Hotels and Resorts. 
He now brings his vast knowledge of Indian and International cuisine to Kerala, with a penchant for constant experimentation.

“When I moved to Kochi at the beginning of the year, it was my first time savouring Kerala food inside the state. Though I had tasted Malayali cuisine outside the state, the taste is totally different here — everything is real and authentic. Even spices tasted different!  I am amazed by the many varieties of dishes and different takes on the flavours in different communities and places, all within the state,” says Chef Yogi, as he is popularly known.  His penchant for exploring street food and travelling has created delightful fusion food and concoctions at Grand Hyatt’s restaurants in a short period. 

“Street food gives a very good insight into the eating culture and flavours of a region. The actual personality of food in a particular area reflects greatly in its street foods,” he says.  He fell hard for Kerala’s special fish mango curry. “I like the meen manga curry and the biryani, which is totally different from the two other main variations that I have been exposed to — the Lucknowi and Hyderabadi. The Malabar Biryani has a completely different flavour profile,” the chef beams. 

With all the new flavours in mind, he recently experimented on the meen manga curry. When one of his chefs got fresh passion fruit from Wayanad, chef Yogi created the Passion Fruit Fish curry. The dish became an instant crowd-pleaser. 

The black seeds of the tangy passion fruit also elevate the beauty of the curry. The Malabar Chicken Liver Kulchas, one of their bar snack is also a result of another one of his experiments.  “That’s the fun of being in a new place. Letting the elements of the new cuisine influence your take on cooking,” he says. 

From the chef’s shelf: Passion Fruit Fish Curry
Ingredients: Sea bass 160 GM, Shallots sliced 40 GM, Ginger garlic paste 10 GM, Oil refined 20 Ml, Turmeric powder 3 GM, Cumin powder 2 GM, Bird-eye chilli 5 GM, Passion fruit 50 GM, Coriander powder 5 GM and Salt to taste

Heat oil in a pan, add sliced shallots and sauté well. 
Add the ginger-garlic paste into it and sauté. Add allspice and salt. Cook well with 50ml of water. Switch off the fire then blend and strain. Heat blended puree, add fish into it and cook well. Add passion fruit. Simmer the fire and check the seasoning.

Feels great to be back!

Kerala’s food culture is not new for Chef Tanuj Bahuguna. After working as an executive sous-chef at Kochi Marriott Hotel from 2016 to 2019, Tanuj returned as the executive chef a month ago. “The level of comfort I achieved with people here made it possible for me to handle the operations easily during my previous tenure,” claims Tanuj.

Hailing from Uttarakhand, a land known for its serene mountains and revered spiritual centres, and brought up in a small town in Pauri Garhwal, Tanuj has always followed the typical Garhwali cuisine —nutritious meals cooked with spices. “People are mostly vegetarians there.  Non-veg food is either mutton or chicken. In villages, people rear their own goat and chicken,” he quips. As someone who loved to explore cultures and regions, Tanuj was always intrigued with the South Indian cuisine, especially idlis and dosas, and the spices that were used. “The whole idea was to explore the culture and food habit which I was keen to know about. Since childhood I have been hearing about South Indian cuisine, after moving to Kerala, I made the habit of having south Indian breakfast,” adds Tanuj.

Flying down from the other side of the country, the chef did spot some similarities in the cuisines. As Kerala has a lot of communities, the same dish is done differently in different regions — be it the difference in taste or texture. “Uttarakhand is divided into two administrative divisions, Kumaon and Garhwal, since Kumaon shares a border with Nepal, it is much like Kerala — the dish made in one place would not be prepared in the same way in other areas,” says Tanuj. Kerala’s inclination towards spicy food is a known fact, the chef shares. “Garhwali dishes spice level is also on the same line,” he quips. 

Vegetarian goodness

What impressed the chef Tanuj most is the unlimited option of vegetables available in Kerala.  “No one will understand the umpteen vegetable options unless and until the typical Kerala Sadhya is placed in front of them,” says Tanuj. Intrigued by this, the chef made his signature dish, the Drumstick soup. The wholesome dish is made with the complete flavour of plants and coconut. According to Tanuj, no matter how open Malayalis are to experimentation, their palette is incomplete without the local cuisine. “Be it beef roast, Kerala porotta or fish curry the staple Malayali dishes are to be treated true to the heart,” he says.

From the chef’s shelf: Drumstick soup served with Kozhukotta

(The recipe is created keeping medicinal value and health benefits of Drumstick tree in mind) 

Ingredients: Rice powder 200gm, Water 500ml, Salt to taste, Drumstick  leaves 300gm, Ginger 50gm, Garlic 5gm, Green chilly 10gm, Shallots 25gm, Coconut grated 50gm, Curry leaves 2sprigs, Mustard seeds 3gm, Coconut oil 15gm

Boil 500ml of water with salt and sugar. add the boiled water to the rice flour little by little and mix it with a spatula.
Keep it aside for 5 minutes or till it is warm enough to handle.
Heat coconut oil in a pan add mustard, ginger, garlic, green chilli, shallots, salt, curry leaves, saute well. add drumstick leaves and saute
For three minutes then add grated coconut and keep aside.
Divide the dough into small dumplings and fill the dumplings with a mixture.
Shape up like a soft roll and steam for 10-15 minutes.