Adding English flavour to Ashtamudi's traditional cuisine

The seafood-heavy menu at The Raviz Hotel and Spa in Kollam gets a makeover in the hands of BBC Master Chef participant Suresh Pillai.

The backwater circuit of Kerala is never complete without a stopover at Ashtamudi in Kollam. One of the most picturesque regions in the belt, the Ashtamudi lake is drawing more and more visitors who are keen on Kerala's backwater tourism. Smack in the middle of this hotspot is The Raviz Resort and Spa, Ashtamudi. The idyllic setting of the hotel is made all the more alluring by the lip-smacking food on offer at the restaurant. Suresh Pillai, who recently joined Raviz as corporate chef, has spruced up the menu to bring an exotic twist to the local cuisine.

Pillai had garnered attention as the only Indian chef featured on the prestigious BBC Master Chef in its 2017 edition. He did all Malayalis proud by showcasing Kerala's traditional fish curry on the show. His improvisations on the Raviz menu, which leans heavily on the rich seafood tradition of Kollam, are focused on revealing the natural flavours of the local food. Onmanorama readers get an exclusive sneak-peek of eight signature dishes that the chef has added to the spread.

The culinary route from Kollam to London

Suresh Pillai's journey to becoming a chef with international experience started off 16 years ago at a restaurant in Kollam. The humble beginning as a waiter was enough for the youngster to prove his enthusiasm and commitment. The years that followed rewarded him with stints in Leela Palace, Bangaluru and Kumarakom Lake Resort. He reached London in 2005 as a chef at the Veera Swamy restaurant. Famed as Britain's oldest Indian restaurant, a stint here is considered a coveted opportunity.

"Ravi Pillai sir, who owns the Raviz group, met me when he was in London. When he invited me to join Raviz as corporate chef, I thought it was a great opportunity to be part of a wonderful organisation. The joy of living and working in one's home town just cannot be rivalled," says Suresh who belongs to Chavara in Kollam district.

Prawns and sardines, London style

Suresh Pillai brings to the table his expertise in pleasing Indian food aficionados from across the globe. From his choice of flavourings to the accent on global standards, his cooking is a delicious blend of the exotic and the local. "Seafood lovers all over the world have a soft corner for prawns. It is one fish that tastes amazing with the least add ons. But in Kerala, we cook prawns till they are rubbery and lose the natural flavour.

By overcooking fish, you are actually causing nutrient loss too. Prawns taste best when they are cooked with the shell for three minutes. The juicy fluids inside the shell must be savoured. For flavouring, all you need to add is turmeric ground into a fine paste, salt, and curry leaves. Too much spice will only override the natural taste of cooked prawns. The same rule applies while cooking sardines (chaala); the fish is ready to be eaten if left in boiling water/gravy for five minutes," assures Suresh.

Pearl spot from Kanjirode lake

Suresh says that he did some research on the best-tasting fish varieties available in and around Kollam once he joined Raviz. Based on what he learned and what he already knew as a native, he zeroed in on the pearl spot (karimeen) caught from Kanjirode, a tributary of the Ashtamudi lake that lies to its east.

"The pearl spot in this part of the lake feeds on the residue from the tapioca starch manufacturing units in this region. This makes them bigger and tastier than the regular pearl spot population abundantly seen in the lakes of Kollam," he says.

A single Kanjirode pearl spot, steamed and served whole, is large enough to fill a big plate. The fish is marinated with a paste made of garlic, green chillies, curry leaves, lemon juice, and salt. The pieces are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over stone grill.

Seafood lovers among the regular visitors to Raviz specifically ask for a tiny fish variety called 'prachi caught from the Ashtamudi lake. Some of the loyalists are known to make time for a lunch with prachi preparations even during short visits from the Gulf. Suresh has added yet another fish dish on the menu for fans of the small varieties – Koozhali, a globoid fish that thrives in the Ashtamudi lake during the monsoon season.

One red snapper for one family

Apart from pearl spot, red snapper is a star item on the sea food menu, says Suresh. One fried fish can be shared by a family of four. After coating the fish with ginger-garlic-rock salt paste, the fish is marinated in a more spicy mixture made of garam masala and lemon juice. Cooked over a tandoori grill, the fish is ready to be served in 10 minutes flat. A fish weighing around one kilogram will be enough for a family of four. 'Azhuka' is yet another big fish variety that is a hot favourite.

Live chicken

If you order live chicken at Raviz, a chef would make appear wielding a covered tray, looking more like a magician. He would then lift the lid off the tray to reveal a whole baked chicken dressed in creamy pale yellow gravy. With flowers and herbs stuffed into the cavity of the head and colourful vegetables spread all around, the chicken sits pretty on a white serving dish. The delicious aroma that wafts through the air comes from the cream and butter that is gently pushed into the space between the meat and the skin, says Suresh. The filling is done by gently separating the skin using fingers. The mild taste of the baked chicken combined with the rich flavour of the gravy makes it an absolutely mouth-watering dish.

Beef dishes at Raviz include a fried preparation that uses only fennel and coconut strips, beef ularthiyathu (roast) and nadan beef curry. Suresh Pillai has introduced the coconut milk-based beef mappas to the menu. The mild flavour and soft texture of the dish is in contrast to the spicy beef dishes popular in Kerala, says Suresh, and admits that beef has become a sin qua non on the menu for Keralites.

Chammanthi, the typical Malayali version of what is more commonly known as chutney, has got a makeover in the hands of chef Suresh. "It was on a trip to Srilanka that I recognised chammanthi as a dish that holds immense possibilities. It is so much a part of the Srilankan cuisine that it is a go-to dish for them, just as it is for any Malayali. They call it 'sambal.' I tasted the onion-based 'seeni sambal' and the more spicy 'katta sambal' that ground together coconut and chilli.

One marked difference sambal has with our chammanthi is that most varieties have dry fish powder in them. The sambals inspired me to try and bring some twists to our good old chammanthi. While I have already tried a few versions, I also gave the traditional coconut-red chilli-shallots chammathi a makeover. Rolled into a perfect ball, just the way every Malayali likes it, we now serve it at Raviz on a banyan leaf. The visual appeal is fantastic and our guests seem to love it," beams the chef.

Lamb chops

The chef recommends lamb chops to crown a sumptuous repast. Traditionally the highlight of an English hunt breakfast, lamb chops is said to have been a favourite dish of King Edward VII. Lamb chops is a piece of meat cut along the spine and usually containing a rib of the lamb. Most often, they are grilled, but cooking on dry heat and pan-broiling also find favour among fans of lamb chops.

"Cooking time for other parts of the lamb is much longer when compared to that of ribs. These will cook in less than ten minutes," says Suresh. “Lamb chops should be cooked to medium-rare or rare instead of well done. The meat has to be tender so that the pink juice flows out of the bones when you eat it. For the right medium-rare cooking, the meat is placed on the cooking pan for some time, then they are removed. Again, they are cooked by flipping both sides till done,” he explains. He adds that lamb chops are served both as a starter and a main dish in a typical English dinner.

All said, Suresh proudly states that the Kerala cuisine has a timeless appeal. Except for the over-emphasis on rice, most dishes are a perfect balance of taste and healthy goodness, he says. An ardent advocate of the philosophy of responsible cooking, Suresh puts forth a proposal for the large population of Kerala’s home-makers to become part of the rebuilding efforts after the floods.

"The women in our homes are wonderful cooks; all of them will have their own special dishes which they are very confident about. To turn this into a fund raising effort, let each family invite guests to a home-cooked meal. The guests can pay the woman of the house the same amount they would spent if they were eating out. The amount collected in each house can be contributed toward the homemakers’ fund for flood relief."

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