Photography: Anu Tirur
A warm, homely, and beautiful atmosphere that you do not usually find at a star hotel restaurant; and satisfying and inventive menu options for food lovers looking for a sense of nostalgia.
They say that besides skill and culinary expertise, in order to satisfy our taste buds, stomachs, hearts, and eventually souls, it is important to add in a bit of tradition, passion, and a lavish amount of love into the food.
When the Marketing Communications Manager of the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, Shana Susan Ninan invited team Bold Outline for a food tasting at their Malabar Café, a modern, yet, quintessentially South Indian restaurant, we knew it would be indeed a grand affair, just like the name suggests.
The 24/7 restaurant is known for its alluring dining options that feature traditional dishes from the state in its authentic form. Malabar Cafe works under the watchful eyes of Chef Latha K, the state’s first woman chef. And she, in turn, is assisted by five female chefs and the rest of the culinary team, to immerse in all nuances of South Indian cuisine, especially the Malabari style of cooking, from making timeless classic dishes, creating updated interpretations, as well as special dishes that keeps changing each day.
In terms of aesthetics, the restaurant complements the grandeur of the rest of the hotel with its warm and mellow palette, wooden and golden accents and decors, and lots of natural light. The giant floor-to-ceiling windows and the outdoor patio offers a panoramic perspective of the shorelines, bays and the ocean across.
As we enter, we see Chef Latha in action, gracefully tempering the special dish of the day, the Tomato Fish Masala. Here is a woman chef who has bravely fought her way in the food and hotel industry, at a time when this industry was mainly dominated by males, to create an impact. Yet, her humble and down-to-earth approach, friendly demeanour, and the signature sandalwood paste on her forehead, emanate only positive vibes. Anyone who engages in a conversation with her gets the impression of talking to a mother figure rather than a corporate chef – a chef who stays true to her own values by commanding respect without being ‘a screaming chef’ from one of those reality shows.
As the tempered oil mixture crackles its way through the simmering gravy of the fish curry, the enticing aroma wafts in the air. She explains, “The dish makes use of virgin coconut oil, unlike the regular coconut oil, which is pressed out from copra. This oil is made by extracting coconut milk from fresh coconuts, and heating it so that the oil separates from the mixture. The difference is a richer, flavoursome and more nutritious oil, that is then used for sautéing the ginger, garlic and green chillies, and also for tempering the mustard seeds, dried red chillies and curry leaves.”
The chef adds, “Every seafood dish needs an acidic element to tenderize the meat, help in even cooking, and deepen the flavour. You can add vinegar, lime juice, smoked kokums or even raw mangoes. In the Tomato Fish Masala, I use cooked tomatoes and a bit of tamarind sauce for the same purpose.”
Another special dish of the day was the award-winning Chicken Cashew, a stir-fried chicken dish. The sautéed ginger-green chilli paste, onions and masala powder accentuate the taste of the boneless chicken pieces. The cashew-nuts add contrast to the texture while imparting a nutty punch to the dish. The dish highlights the subtleties of simple ingredients to create rich tastes.
And then there was the Kizhangu Roast, a curry made by stir-frying baby potatoes in shallots sautéed in virgin coconut oil, and a dash of fennel powder for an exotic flavour and aroma, for a pleasing end-note.
The chef makes sure that they use the spices and herbs which are processed and powdered at the mill unit within the hotel itself. The luxury upscale ingredients are sourced from reliable dealers, while the vegetables are procured from organic farms.
Says Chef Latha, “It is not just the precise measurements of the ingredients that make food delicious, you need to enjoy the process of cooking. There must be a devotion, and of course, a divine element, also known as Kaipunyam in Malayalam which means the gift of being able to cook divinely. A moment of carelessness can spoil the entire dish, so it is important to respect the job you do.”
“You should not fear experimenting with an existing recipe, adding an exceptional twist, or even creating something from scratch,” she added.
The specially crafted menu of the Malabar Café at The Grand Hyatt was living proof of these words. Each of the traditional dishes has been carefully curated by Chef Latha, and then reinterpreted in her own style, in such a way that the authenticity of the dish is not lost in the process. It is very rarely that you come across people like Chef Latha; people who decide what they want to be at a very young age, and fully realise that ambition. The challenges she faced only honed her skills, making her an example for others to follow.
And, finally, it was time to taste the food prepared by Chef Latha, to pamper the taste buds. We start off with the Sambhaaram or buttermilk, flavoured with ginger, shallots, green chilli, curry leaves and salt. A refreshing drink that cools the body in the tropical weather, and also aids in the digestion process.
The Tomato Fish Masala is mildly spicy, a play of different exotic flavours and aromas with a slightly tangy after-taste. The tomatoes deepen the taste of the dish, lending the fish with savoury, sweet and sour notes all at the same time. The Tomato Fish Masala goes well with Kuthari Chor (steamed Kerala red rice) and Kallappam (lacy hoppers), as they ease the strong flavour of the fish curry.
The chef herself served us the red rice on our plates. Besides the Tomato Fish Masala, the Chicken Cashew, and the Kizhangu Roast, there were several vibrant, relishing side dishes to accompany the rice, like the Aviyal- a dish of steamed, julienned vegetables mixed with coarsely ground coconut flakes, spices, and yoghurt; Theeyal- a vegetable curry flavoured with roasted ground coconut paste; different types of Thoran-finely chopped vegetables stir fried with coconut, and tempered with oil and mustard seeds; and a variety of chutneys and pickles.
Chef Latha also makes time to greet every guest with gracious congeniality, making sure that they are comfortable, and spreading the positive aura that radiates from her.
“Do not forget to try our Malabar Biryani”, she said, as she served a generous portion of one of their signature dishes onto our plates. The spice-laced aromatic rice, the succulently cooked meat pieces, the perfect balance of the spices and the flavourful marinade plays a symphony of taste in our mouth. Besides the usual Raitha and Pappads, there is a date pickle for a sweet contrast, and the coconut chutney that blends in harmony with the savoury taste of the biryani.
To end the food affair on a sweet note, we saved some room for the dessert, indulging in the Parippu Pradhaman – a delectable dessert made of lentils slowly simmered in coconut-milk, cane sugar, and garnished with nuts and ghee and a pinch of ginger powder for the aroma. A meal at the Malabar Café feels like a warm and welcome escape from the high-speed cosmopolitan life, with every dish carrying the personal touch of the chef.