When acclaimed south Indian fine-dining restaurant Nadodi opened last year, the restaurant’s executive chef Johnson Ebenezer and chef de cuisine Sricharan Venkatesh wanted to offer Malaysian diners something a little different from the traditional Indian meals they were accustomed to.
“We wanted to recreate lost recipes and our childhood memories of certain meals, but not the authentic way. Instead we looked at how else we could enhance it, how else we could do it using other elements and techniques, but having that base memory of the original dish in mind,” says Ebenezer.
Both Ebenezer and his partner-in-crime Sricharan are from south India. The two worked the usual rungs of five-star hotels in India – Ebenezer has worked in groups like Starwood and the Taj and on cruise liners while Sricharan had a stint at the vaunted Gaggan in Bangkok.
At Nadodi, both chefs now finally have the chance to flex their creative muscles, using the backdrop of South Indian cuisine which they grew up eating, as their playground.
“We know the risk factor, we’re not using expensive ingredients, but we take the basics of what we eat at home and show people that this can be done the same way as how you have wagyu or truffle. So people might say ‘This can’t be on a fine-dining plate’ but here you find it in almost all our dishes and plates, it’s there somehow,” says Sricharan.
And their food is testimony to this. Like the offerings on their new menu – the surprising duo, for example, which gleans both from their heritage as well as the new influences they’ve picked up in Malaysia. A velvety soft river prawn on a satay skewer imbibes the spirit of satay but fuses this with a distinctly Indian tomato pickle, one of Sricharan’s childhood favourites. This is balanced by air-dried rabbit, which features slightly crispy rabbit meat in puff pastry. “It’s based on a dish that dates back before 300 BCE, it’s actually written in one of the oldest Tamil literature that the meat is basted and cooked over a spit fire,” says Ebenezer.
Then there is the red curry, which pays homage to a Sri Lankan dish of beetroot cooked in coconut milk with pandan as a flavouring agent. In this incarnation, beetroot is incorporated three ways – as a sorbet, crisp and pickled beetroot. All offer the earthy mineral tinges so reminiscent of beetroot, but in different ways – the crisp provides snap and crunch, the pickle a swathe of tanginess and the sorbet a cold, explosive punch.
Given the creative and artistic licenses the two are allowed in their restaurant kitchen, one has to wonder just what they whip up at home?
“In the restaurant, you are in your zone, it’s more like going for a battle – you have all your soldiers ready and you’re on ‘Fire, fire, fire!” mode. You have a few hours to shoot all the dishes out and it’s exciting.
“When you’re at home is when you’re not in chef mode, which is a big relief. So it’s more casual and the dishes would be very simple. For me, it’s often just something very comforting that I grew up eating,” says Sricharan.
As Sricharan grew up in a totally vegetarian home, he often reverts to form, and cooks up all manner of vegetarian food. Like his incredibly delicious, creamy tempered chayote kootu, an all-vegetable offering that is also somehow rich, luscious and utterly satisfying. “Kootu technically means to mix everything up. This is more like a meal by itself – you have a lot of vegetables, and you have a sauce which you get from coconuts. Whenever my mum makes it, I take it in a bowl, have a bit of yoghurt and some papadom and sit in front of the TV with it,” he says.
The dish of puliogare or tamarind rice meanwhile is something that Sricharan’s grandmother used to make extremely well and harks back to his formative years. “This is my grandmother’s recipe destroyed by me,” he jokes. “When we have festivals or gatherings in my house, it is this rice that we eat. The purpose of adding tamarind is so the rice can keep for two or three days – it doesn’t get spoilt, instead the taste gets better!” says Sricharan.
With Ebenezer, meat and rice form the rich tapestry upon which his home-cooked meals are built. “I’m a hardcore carnivore, every single day, there should be meat,” he says.
Ebenezer does admit however, that he generally doesn’t really feel like cooking at home, but does it for family events. “We don’t want to cook at home because we’re cooking all day, so the best thing I like to cook is maggi goreng!” he says, laughing.
“When you have a family, then you do all the things to impress. The best thing I like to cook is anything related to rice,” he says.
This affinity with rice stems from the fact that Ebenezer’s father makes a phenomenal version of biryani, which is now on Nadodi’s menu. For family celebrations, Ebenezer makes a light, fun idiyappam prawn biryani instead, which does away with rice in favour of string hoppers. “When you put the word biryani in it, it sounds big but this is like rice but not rice,” he says.
Then there is his duck roast utthappam, which is based on the South Indian dish of curry dosa and a Syrian Christian roast duck staple in Kerala. The meal is delightful – soft fluffy uthappam with well-cooked, slightly spicy roast duck atop.
Ultimately though, both Ebenezer and Sricharan say they feel extremely lucky to be able to make the heritage food they grew up with in their restaurant kitchen, as not many chefs get to do that, often having to forgo their roots in favour of other cuisines considered more “marketable”.
“What we cook at home and what we cook in the restaurant is the same, except that it is plated beautifully and the techniques used to recreate a simple rasam or dhal differ. The base flavour is the same. As a chef, I feel lucky because this is my own cuisine that I get to do and I have not deviated, so that helps me and motivates me to do better,” says Sricharan.
DUCK ROAST UTTHAPPAM ( RICE PANCAKES)
For the uthappam batter
3 cups parboiled rice/idly rice
1 cup whole white urad dal
a pinch of soda powder / soda bicarbonate
a pinch of salt
For the roasted duck
1 whole duck
2 tbsp red chilli powder
4 tbsp coriander powder
1 tbsp cumin powder
1 tsp hing
2 tbsp chopped ginger
2 tbsp chopped garlic
For cooking the uthappam
3 cups fermented dosa/ uthappam batter
4 tbsp chopped onion
2 tbsp chopped green chilli
2 tbsp chopped tomato
1 tbsp chopped curry leaves vegetable oil or ghee as required
shredded roasted duck (3 tbsp per uthappam)
To make uthappam batter
Wash idly rice and urad dhal separately. Soak it separately for 6-8 hours
Grind urad dal in a mixer/grinder till it puffs up, add water when needed. Transfer to a container and set aside.
Grind the idly rice till it becomes smooth. Then add the ground urad dal into it and grind for 3-4 minutes.Transfer the batter to a big container, make sure that half of the vessel is empty, as it helps fermentation.
Leave it for 6-8 hours or overnight. When done, add soda powder and salt and store for use.
To make roast duck
Marinate the duck with all the ingredients and roast in the oven at 180 C for 45 minutes. When cool, debone and shred the meat.
Add salt to taste in the batter and mix well. Heat a flat pan and grease it with some ghee or oil. Pour a ladle full of dosa batter on the pan and gently spread it using the back of a spoon.
Sprinkle chopped onion, green chilli, tomato and curry leaves along with the shredded roasted duck. Drizzle some ghee or oil around the sides and top. Cover and cook on low-medium heat. When one side of the uthappam is done, carefully flip to the other side and continue cooking. When done, remove from the pan and transfer to a plate. Repeat with rest of the batter.
PULIOGARE (TAMARIND RICE)
For the tamarind paste
1½ cups dark tamarind
2½ cups water
8 pieces dried red chillies
2 tsp peppercorns
2 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsbp white sesame seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1½ cup sesame oil
3 strands curry leaves
2 tsp chana dal
½ tsp asafetida (hing)
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
For the rice
2 cups cooked rice, separate grains
½ cup sesame oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp asafoetida (hing)
4-5 sprigs curry leaves
¼ cup ground nuts
3 tbsp tamarind concentrate
salt to taste
To make the tamarind paste
Soak the tamarind in water overnight. The next day, extract the juice of the tamarind by grinding it in a blender. Blend it into a smooth paste and sieve.
In a pan, add red chillies, peppercorns, 1 tsp of mustard seeds, white sesame seeds, fenugreek and broil together. Allow it to cool and grind into a powder.
In a large deep bottomed pan, take sesame oil, add the remaining mustard (allow spluttering), curry leaves, asafoetida and chana dal. Fry and add the tamarind paste extract. Add turmeric and chilli powder and allow it to boil.
Add the ground spice powder to the pan once it boils. Reduce the heat to low and stir and keep watch to ensure it doesn’t burn. Set aside once done.
To cook tamarind rice
In a small pan, add sesame oil and once hot, add mustard seeds, asafoetida, curry leaves, ground nuts and allow to splutter. Remove from heat.
Add the concentrated tamarind paste to the rice and mix with your hands to ensure the paste is evenly coated. Finally, top with tempered ingredients and serve hot.