The new tastes of Kerala

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Renowned chefs from ‘God’s own country’ serve up modern variants of age-old traditions

Michael Saju’s Fried Fish with Masala Potatoes and Green Mango Sauce

As cuisine from Kerala gets more and more popular, non-Mallus are learning that there is more to it than merely idlis and dosas. And fish moilee and Malabar prawn curry.

If you’re a foodie or if you’ve travelled to the state that’s called ‘God’s own country’, you’ve probably heard of Kerala’s appams and puttus, pathiris and upperis, and stews and biryanis. And you’re aware that over and above that ever-present coconut (in the form of oil, or milk, or grated vegetable, or garnish, or some or all of these together!), the other essentials in this cuisine are curry leaves, mustard seeds, tamarind and asafoetida. Oh, and you can boast to your friends that the distinct sourness in dishes from Kerala comes from kudambuli, not kokum which is really Konkani/Marathi – surely you knew that!

Not content with having ‘educated’ the rest of India about their real cuisine, some of the state’s most renowned chefs are now sprucing up their centuries-old traditions, presenting an array of dishes to international tourists descending on their state in droves. Elangovan Shanmugam of Kovalam and Michael Saju of Kochi for instance, have experimented successfully with variations of the traditional, to make their cuisine so much more international.

Elangovan’s particular passion is to apply elements of European cuisine, in which he trained, to everyday Keralan fare. While Elangovan does it in his cooking technique, Michael Saju does it with great flair in his style of presentation.

Elangovan has been a Taj chef for over ten years, having served in the iconic hotel chain’s many properties not only in India, but also in Malaysia. Currently he is at Vivanta by Taj at the luxurious Kovalam Resort. The resort’s swanky restaurant ‘Bait’, known as the state’s best seafood restaurant, serves up some of Elangovan’s many novelties, such as fish fire-baked on slabs of wood.

“Yes, slabs of wood,” Elangovan tells Indian Link. “Mango wood, to be precise! A gentle mango flavour infuses into the fish as it cooks. You serve it smoking hot, on the slab. The aim is to introduce a faint mango aroma as you present it before the guest. Not too overpowering, but just a whiff of it”.

It makes for picturesque presentation, the smoky wood and hint of mango bringing in an exotic and earthy appeal.

(In much the same style, another Kerala chef Nibu James of the eco-resort Greenwoods in Thekaddy, prepares a variation of the famed Parsi dish Patrani machchi, in which fish is barbecued in banana leaves. Living and working in the district which is called Kerala’s ‘spice basket’, Nibu replaces the banana leaf with the long leaves of the cardamom bush. The aroma is unmistakable).

Elangovan Shanmugam of Kovalam

Elangovan also likes to cook – and serve – meat on stone slabs. “A thick stone slab is heated to 600 degrees some three hours in advance,” he explains. “The marinated meat is first sealed on a pan and then placed on the slab inside the oven. It is served on the stone slab, but of course the guests are warned that the slab is piping hot!”

The slab meals are served with potatoes and vegetables in continental style.

Elangovan’s other innovations at Taj Kovalam include some magnificent breakfasts. Passionate about changing food habits in India given the increase in diabetes, he has developed an entire range of low GI breakfast foods. Along with your traditional Indian and western fare, you can try his low GI Indian: whole-wheat upma, cornmeal upma, ragi dosa, red rice dosa, green moong dosa, barley pongal. Now, how healthy is that!

Meanwhile at Kochi, Michael Saju of Holiday Inn fame is creating his own modernisms. Stationed in Indore in India’s north early in his career, not only did this Malayalee learn to speak Hindi, he also began to play with north-south fusion in cuisine. Southern-flavoured chicken, cooked in the tandoor, why not?!

“I loved it!” Michael tells Indian Link. “I worked and reworked it to perfection, and then began to experiment with international fusion. Chicken with olives, cooked in the tandoor! Potato subzi with peanut butter. Hot and cold combinations. The possibilities were endless!”

Soon he was trying fusion in desserts: paan-flavoured desserts such as paan pannacotta, and gulab jal mousse.

Some of his creations are now regulars at his Holiday Inn brunch buffet, so popular with Kochi locals that it is almost becoming an institution.

These culinary masterpieces are all immaculately presented. “Presentation is vital to my dishes”, Michael reveals. “I want you to fall in love with the food before you eat it!”

Plating up has never been big in Indian cuisine, largely because diners serve themselves, and also because pre-plated food is seen as an ‘insult’. But it is catching on, as our lifestyles change gradually to reflect a growing internationalisation. Adopting techniques of presentation gleaned from his western training, Michael firmly believes that food ought to be a feast for the eyes just as much for the mouth and nose.

His signature dish (fried fish with potatoes and green mango sauce), the recipe of which is presented here, is distinctly Keralan in flavour, but is presented in contemporary style, built up on the plate architecturally in the ‘vertical’ fashion that is in vogue these days.

Michael is a figure hard to miss at Holiday Inn. As he bustles around in his busy restaurant at this new five-star hotel, he won’t hesitate to stop and chat if you call out to him with a question about the food.

“Can’t you tell by looking at me that I love food?” he says with a smile.

Nibu James’ Chicken cooked in cardamom leaves, served on a bed of lemon rice

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Michael Saju’s Fried Fish with Masala Potatoes and Green Mango Sauce

 

For fish

600 gms fish fillets (red snapper or any firm fleshed white fish, skin on)

30 gms Kashmiri red chilli powder

2 eggs

5 gms curry leaves, chopped

10 gms rice flour

5 ml vinegar

Salt to taste

Oil for frying

Mix rice flour, eggs, curry leaves, vinegar, salt and red chili powder into a fine paste. Marinate fish in this for half an hour. Cook on a hot barbecue or skillet till skin is crispy.

 

For potatoes

20 gms mustard seeds

30 ml coconut oil

30 gms garlic (peeled and sliced)

10 gms ginger (peeled and chopped)

100 gms shallots (peeled and sliced)

10 gms green chilli (slit whole)

20 gms curry leaves

15 gms turmeric powder

15 gms fresh coriander

Salt to taste

20 gms clarified butter

 

Peel boiled potatoes and mash with hand. Heat oil in a pan and add curry leaves, mustard seeds, sliced onions, turmeric powder and salt. Stir till onions start to lose colour but are still crunchy, a few minutes only. Add potatoes and mix well. Add clarified butter and fresh coriander.

 

For green mango sauce

50 gms green mango (peeled and grated)

20 gms mustard seeds

30 ml coconut oil

30 gms garlic (peeled and sliced)

10 gms ginger (peeled and chopped)

100 gms shallots (peeled and sliced)

10 gms green chilli (slit whole)

20 gms curry leaves

15 gms turmeric powder

15 gms fresh coriander

Salt to taste

50 gms coconut milk                     

Heat coconut oil in a pan and add curry leaves and mustard seeds. When seeds pop, add in sliced onions and stir briefly. Then add ginger, garlic and green chilli, and turmeric powder and salt. Stir to combine and then introduce green mango and fresh coriander. Cook for some time, then add coconut milk. Allow to thicken.

To serve

Arrange the potatoes on plate in a neat circular mound. Place fish on top, one or two fillets depending on size. Drizzle mango sauce over. Place some vegetable batons on top as garnish if desired, and some tender greens or coriander. Use some sauce to decorate plate.

 

Elangovan Shanmugam’s Wood Fire-Baked Fish

 

300 gms red snapper fillet

10 gms red chilli powder

Salt to taste

1 small onion, grated

1 sprig curry leaf

2 gms ginger and garlic paste

1 gm turmeric powder

10 gms tamarind pulp or juice of one lime

5 ml coconut oil

1 slab mango wood

 

Mix together red chilli powder, ginger and garlic paste, turmeric powder and tamarind pulp or lime juice. Add in grated onion and coconut oil to make marinade for the fish.

Keep fish marinated in this for about 15 minutes.

Grill the fish briefly on a hot skillet, both sides.

Place the fish on the mango wood slab then bake in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes.

Serve smoking hot, garnished with a sprig of curry leaves.

For accompaniments, try roast baby potatoes and char-grilled vegetables.

 

 

 

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Rajni is the Editor of Indian Link.
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