There’s something heavenly about the aromatic flavours wafting around a dinner table as you slowly pull open the carefully folded sections of a banana leaf to reveal a well-baked Karimeen (pearl spot fish), or a generous helping of Puttu (steamed rice cake with grated coconut) with Kadala Curry (black chickpeas made with spices, shallots and coconut milk). A Mutton Moplah Biriyani, Malabar Parotta (Indian flat bread) with Kerala Beef/Buff Curry or a Sadya elicits the same excitement. Indianexpress.com had the chance to meet chef Joe Thottungal of Coconut Lagoon, Canada who is known for his mastery over Kerala cuisine.
Thottungal was personally chosen by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to prepare a meal for 1000 guests at a party at his residence for his cabinet ministers, members of parliament, senators and staff. But the journey to foreign shores and international acclaim has been a long one.
Thottungal started his experiments in the kitchen when he was only 14-years-old. With his parents being away at work, and three siblings to feed, going to the market to buy fresh vegetables, fish and meat was a regular feature in his life. This is what actually laid the foundation stone for his life in the kitchen.
According to Thottungal, his family “was very supportive. Without them, I wouldn’t be here”. So what’s the first dish that he cooked for his family when he became a professional chef? “A great Pork Vindaloo for my entire family back in Thrissur which we never forget to this day”.
Excerpts of a conversation with Thottungal:
Kerala cuisine is a beautiful concoction of heady flavours. You have the lip-smacking Mappila cuisine, the extremely popular sadya, Syrian Christian cuisine… In short, it’s a gold mine for food connoisseurs. How do you incorporate the local flavours in your menu?
Kerala is a melting pot of different local cuisines. When we decide the menu, we always keep in mind the guests and their preference and craft the menu accordingly. We always take some of the techniques and ingredients from each dish, from each cuisine, and incorporate them into our creations, rather than just picking up the whole dish and improvising it.
You once said, “If a chef from Kerala will not teach the world about our spices and cuisine who will?” That’s a huge responsibility on your shoulders. Do you think you are doing a good job?
100%. It is a big task to fulfil and I am happy to say that when a French restaurant starts serving Turmeric Tuile or chefs start using garam masala in pâté and terrine, we feel happy. It took a lot of energy and hard work to educate the locals about spices in Canada.
In Ottawa with 1 million people now, we have four restaurants serving Kerala cuisine and around 29 Indian restaurants. Back in 2004, when we first opened Coconut Lagoon, we were the only one.
Your love for South Indian spices is well-known. So much so, that you have been heard requesting local chefs on your tours to not tone down the amount of spices being used. At a recent dinner in Delhi, when we tasted your food, we could distinguish the various flavours, but none of your dishes were really spicy. Do you experiment with your recipes depending on your audience?
It is really a myth that Kerala cuisine is very spicy. Rather, it is full of flavours and no dish is overly spiced. But, we eat a lot of spiced pickles on the side. Now, not using chili at all can also make a dish taste bland, so we adjust the spice level according to the audience.
Other than Kerala cuisine, what other cuisines do you like?
I love Chinese, Greek and Arabic food.
Coconut is an essential part of Kerala cuisine. Is there any dish in your menu where you don’t use it all?
Yes, indeed. Our famous Pepper Lamb and Crab Cakes have no coconut at all.
In 2010, in one of Anthony Bourdain’s episodes on ‘No Reservations’, he had visited Kerala to learn more about its unique cuisine. If you would have had a chance, what would you have served him?
I would have done a beautiful Rasam with Pineapple to start off, a Duck Masala, Clams with Coconut and a Tellicherry Biriyani.
Who inspired you to start cooking?
I got inspired by my first culinary instructor at my catering college, Mr Mathew. Then there was chef Muraliadhar Rao at Leela Bombay and John R Stevens. I also look up to chef Vikas Khanna.
What does Joe Thottungal eat for breakfast?
Oats pottu with banana.
What’s your idea of a comfort meal?
A bowl of steaming hot rice with a good fish curry.
One thing you can’t do without in your kitchen?
Passion and onions.
Your favourite spice and sauce?
Turmeric and a tangy coconut-based sauce.
Your favourite dish while growing up?
Beef with kappa (yucca).
Biriyani or sadya?
One food trend that should die in 2018?