Masala Bay, at Taj Land’s End recently wrapped its food festival where they had ‘Southern Spice Veteran’ Chef Shanmugam churn some of his specialties one after another in a beautifully planned menu. Southern spice, at Taj, Coromandel, prides itself as being one of the top ‘100 restaurants of the world’. Chef shyly denies his team’s role and thanks its patron’s goodwill.
Chef Shanmugam treated us to some authentic and appetizing South Indian fare and stuck to his true blue tamilian best to take us through the entire journey with hints of traditional cuisine from the districts of Udipi, Mangalore and Coorg in Karnataka to Calicut and Thalasseri from God’s Own Country via Madurai deep into the heartlands to the South of the Vindhyas.
While he agrees to carrying some spices and blends, from his own kitchens, to give meals the required regional touch, he tried to juggle with few ingredients off the Taj,Mumbai’s kitchen shelf, too.
The journey kick started with the tangy, sweet and faintly spiced tamarind aperitif- ‘Panakam’ which is normally prepared during Sri rama navami along with Neer Mor and Vadaparuppu, in temples of Andra Pradesh. Hints of black salt and pepper gave a perfect balance to the sweetness of the jaggery. While many recipes call for cardamom and cloves, Chef Shanmugam chose mint leaves as a flavour enhancer, which was refreshing.
The stewards march in with soup bowls. Before they even announce the name, the aroma of chilly and asafoetida fills the room and we know it is ‘Mysore Rasam’. It is comforting, spicy and flavourful. Appalams, poppadums and tomato chutney are ushered in and are perfect accompaniments to the tanginess
‘Mini Orappu Adai’ is crisp and chef suggests an array of pickles and chutneys along with the same. Rightly so, as they take care of the dryness of the pancakes. As we bite into the bits of onion, chillies, coriander and curry leaves, we sip onto ‘Mango-Passion Fruit Bellini’ and their signature Apple cinnamon martini. Simple, bubbly, elegant and perfectly sweet, it sets us for the evening ahead. Though a little out of place, as our choice of beverage amidst this traditional fare, but, who is complaining?
‘More Kali Uppu Urundai’ tossed in molaga pudi is chef’s twist to the traditional urundai. The spiciness is worth every bite as it is later masked completely by the rice dumpling, itself.
‘Vaigai kari sukka’, tamilian dry meat, laced in coconut and curry leaves, was fork tender morsels of lamb, perfectly spiced in masalas hand-pounded by the chef , back in his kitchens at the Taj, Coromandel. Kori kempu, is crisp on the outside and juicy in every bite. The batter is crisp and not over coated, which made this an instant favourite on the table. The gentle sprinkling of south Indian garam masala did the trick.
‘Kozhikodan cheemen fry’, which is a typical mapilla snack was fiery and robust. The chillies, curry leaves and dried shrimp in the batter is chef’s addition to the traditional favourite,which quite adds to the charm.
Parappu usali is one such Brahmin-Iyengar vegetable preparation, which has varied ways of preparing. Whilst the vegetables could range from cluster beans, French beans, cabbage, peas, banana blossoms to the whole range of greens beans, chef experiments with asparagus. The amount of lentils, their ratio to vegetables, methods of cooking vary with each family’s preferences. While some prefer frying the ground lentils, others prefer steaming. All is well that suits well. While we loved his rendition of the steamed version, addition of asparagus became quite a talking point for the rest of the fare.
A chettinad specialty Kozhi Melagu Curry was again fiery, but this time spiked with black pepper corns. It had a very prominent flavour of fennel seeds, which is quite a peculiarity of chettinad spice. Alleppey fish curry poured over some steamed rice is spicy with sparks of gingerroot, madras chillies, masked with coconut milk.
Appams and pachakari ishtew, despite being traditional and top in taste gets snubbed by the meat devourers. I take a little bite just to do justice to the efforts put in by the team. Amazed by the simplicity of the mélange, this in all probabilities would have been my meal, had the others not been served before.
The team planned an assiette of traditional desserts. A bowl of ada pradaman with godhi bella ice cream. Ada Pradaman has flakes of rice ada cooked in jaggery, coconut milk with cardamom powder to enhance the combining flavours. It is traditional and rightly, ‘the king of payasams’. Each bite into the rice ada had hidden aromas of plantain leaves, which is quite an amazing feat to have achieved in a food festival in an alien land. Godhi bella icecream is truly the trump on the menu. It is broken wheat, jaggery and banana payassam churned into an ice cream. Kudos to the thought and execution of both desserts. Truly commendable.
Overall, Chef Shanmugam leaves a trailing mark in our hearts through his southward culinary journey .Taj Land’s End provided the perfect backing and it showed in every aspect. Right from following the chef’s instructions to serving the courses with equal simplicity and humility, they got it right with a smile.