Bindu Gopal Rao
Growing up in a small village near Trivandrum, Kerala, Chef Regi Mathew had a pretty regular childhood — surrounded by lush greenery and savouring food cooked by his mother. While he never thought of becoming a chef then, he admits that the memory of fresh ingredients remained distinctly imprinted on his mind. This memory remains at the heart of his new restaurant, Kappa Chakka Kandhari at Bengaluru. The name inspired from the key ingredients of Kerala cuisine: kappa (tapioca), chakka (jackfruit) and kandhari (bird’s-eye chillies).
Self-admittedly, he wanted to have a fresh take on Kerala cuisine, one that went beyond the conventional appam, stew, Kerala parotta and Malabar biryani. He found the answer in his new venture, which he started along with his friends John Paul and Augustine Kurian. “When we were discussing this, each of us would share stories about home food. We thought that if we actually went inside people’s homes, we would be able to find so many more stories and recipes. The idea was to have a restaurant where food would be a tribute to the mother’s cooking.”
The team visited over 265 homes and 70 toddy shops across Kerala to decide on what would define the food that would suit everyone’s palette. “As a result of this exploration, we found about so many more dishes that went beyond the conventional understanding of Kerala cuisine. For instance, ramassery idli, which is cooked over a muslin-covered earthen pot, de-moulded with plachi leaves and served with either Kerala-style sambar or chicken curry.” In fact, the ramassery idli lies almost forgotten with only four families knowing how to make it; one of them works with Chef Regi.
The approach the team took was to first ask their own mothers first and then get in touch with their friends. “Since we structured it this way, we had references for each household and they all welcomed us and shared their recipes without hesitation.” He admits that they found some of the best food in toddy shops as the patrons demand different kind of food every day.
Quiz him on why these recipes have been forgotten, and he attributes it to the fact that “probably no one has the patience to listen to the stories”. “Even if you know the recipes, the ingredients may not be easily available and no one takes the effort to procure the same,” he says.
Some of the recipes that he has discovered and find place in his restaurant include chakka vevichathu — boiled jackfruit, cooked with freshly ground spices and grated coconut; kappa vevichathu, which is boiled tapioca, mashed with crushed bird’s eye chillies and coconut, served with two fiery chammandis (dips); and mutton puttu biryani, in which soft and steamy puttu is layered with biryani masala topped with papaddam.
Likewise, there is prawn kizhi, a flavourful preparation with plump prawns cooked in grated coconut and kodampuli and steamed in banana leaves; a vegetarian version with mushrooms is koon kizhi. Snacks include the kappa vada, wherein boiled tapioca is mashed with bird’s eye chillies and shallots, and ayakura melodu vachathu, the chef’s pièce de résistance — spicy, tangy tawa-grilled seer fish, marinated in tart gooseberry, green peppercorn and bird’s-eye chilli. These are dishes you will not find anywhere else.
Sticking to the roots
Chef Regi says they are all for local produce. Sourcing raw material directly from farmers is at the core of their cooking. “People have become health conscious and are looking at what the previous generation was eating as that is best suited for our genes. Because someone in France is eating cheese, you do not need to eat it in a tropical place like India,” he says, adding that food tastes different because of the region in which it is grown. “This is why I have ensured that each raw material is sourced from the place it is best known for and we encourage farmers to grow them for us. We always use the best quality ingredients from the source — like coconuts from Thrissur, tapioca from Kottayam, jaggery from Marayoor, peppercorns from Pulpally in Wayanad and fish from Paravur backwaters.”
A champion of old cooking styles, he is now working on a research project on ‘The Science of Indian Cooking and the importance of Spices’.
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