From interesting plating to flavour deconstruction and recreating disappearing treats like the Mutta Mala, how the zeal and culinary ingenuity of a few chefs (some self-taught) is reconstructing our perceptions of South Indian cuisine…
Sandeep Sreedharan carefully places the pair fried curry leaf on his panna cotta, dusts the fennel powder, carefully wipes the side of the slate; inspects the dish one final time and rings the bell. It’s time. Soon he will be out addressing the curious queries of his 20-odd special invitees of the six course special coastal menu about the dishes served today, over a warm glass of herbed-infused water for digestion. It’s been a year since the former IT executive shunned his high flying job to do what he loved, full time: cooking, researching and recreating Southern India’s coastal flavours.
“It seems like yesterday when I took to cooking, and just to add a little fun, would turn and present the poha as a roulade,” says the founder of the award winning microblog Esca Brahma, which today is a name synonym with bespoke coastal dinners – “with a heavy focus on the southern belt, especially North Kerala, where I grew up.”
Miles away, Ashwin Iyer is busy giving his creation a life of its own. “It is rasam,” he says nonchalantly as he curls the sides of a petal cut dried tomatoes. Minutes later, he puts a plate that looks like a bud and pours the hot rasam over it. And just like that the tomato bud blooms like a flower to reveal the three mini white idlies. “It needs more tweaking,” says the idli addict. A self-taught chef and food stylist, Iyer’s monochromatic representation of Yellu Bella (a treat made of jaggery, dry coconut, roasted peanuts, roasted split chana dal, white sesame, and sugar coated cumin seeds) has found followers among Heston Blumenthal’s team, and FOUR magazine.
World of Fusion
Further ahead, yet another person, this time a chef though, sits in his cubicle to design one more wedding on a plate by combining two traditional dishes he picked up while on his deccan odyssey. Chef Saurabh Udinia, who made food marriages like the thalassery rasam, steamed basa dumpling, dosai tuille famous in Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, is now working on his next that would combine the two big love of the erstwhile Chola kingdom: pancakes and fish! This dish, says the young chef, “will be a revival of at least one disappearing dish and bring forth the flavours of another.”
Curating lost recipes is on agenda for Chef Arun Kumar of Zeaside too. Busy piecing together his new menu that will showcase the lesser known cuisine of the Chovas, Theeyas (of Malabar Coast) and the Cochin Jews. The chef says, “This food culture is what the south cuisine is made of, and will be the next big trend on the table after the sadya and Malabari parotta and Mappila biryani.” But the recreation is by no means an easy task given that ‘techniques have almost disappeared from the kitchens, and the shops, which often are second place to revive a dish.”
Concurs Sreedharan who has now spent about a year roaming the streets of North Kerala and its coast searching for recipes that now are ‘privy of a few good old hands’. Take for instance the Mutta Mala, a lacy sweet dish made from egg yolk in the shape of a garland by the Malabar Muslims. “Just to get the garland and the sizing right, I had to impress the womenfolk to even allow me to watch it being made.” What adds to the daunting task is that home kitchens in Kerala are off limits for men, interestingly, says Chef Kumar, “partly for the same reasons that royal kitchens were off limits for princesses.”
Disappearing dishes (and techniques) was one of the de facto in Iyer decision to start his culinary restoration project with his own food culture. Says the founder of Magicplateman, “Iyer cuisine is by far the simplest cuisine of all the culinary branches you would find in South India, and the oldest too. It is the answer to what Indian cuisine was before the foreign influence were incorporated into the cuisine, and hence one of the trickiest cuisines to master.
Iyer’s initial years saw a lot of flavour and presentation play of the quintessential idli and chutney and its various forms. Then three years ago, he began changing popular traditional dishes like the poriyals and the pongal. In fact, one of his favourite is the contemporary plating of the Venn Pongal. The key consideration was the balance and taste profile, which went from sweet, sour, spice to bitter, no matter how you moved the spoon, recalls Iyer, whose take on the Yellu Bella, yet another favourite served with Sakkare Acchus, was in the form of coconut and jaggery ice cream with roasted white sesame paste, peanut butter, roasted coconut with cumin, warm coconut milk and sugar balls.
While Iyer’s focus is the plating, Sreedharan’s creation stresses on the taste deconstruction. The Aviyal is an excellent case in point. Says the self-taught chef, “the uniqueness of the dish is the flavour that is imparted by the mélange of three ingredients: the drumstick, coconut and yogurt. And when I present, I work out the ingredients to give it ‘freshness’.”
Another example of Sreedharan’s culinary ingenuity is his ‘Steamed fish with Squid-ink-ginger sauce’ that he serves with local greens on the side. The main focus is to keep one ingredient as the hero of the dish. This could explain why Puli-inchi, a traditional chutney that is served as a side with any sadhya (feast) in Kerala, features so prominently in his sit-down menus. “While the dish’s many versions offer the creative liberty to playground with the dish, the beauty of the dish is the way ginger is treated, which, once deconstructed, is the perfect sauce for all kinds of seafood.”
Concurs Udinia, a specialist of culinary weddings on plate, his stint with southern delicacies began during his trip to Kerala, where he tried to recreate the fish rasam, he had from a hawker. It took the modern Indian specialist a number of trials to get the dish right. It led to the completion of Udinia’s toughest dish to master: Curry leaf and pepper prawns, thayir satham and banana crisp.
So what’s next on their plates now? Continuous research and representing, say the chefs in unison.
Written by – Madhulika Dash