COVER STORY RESTAURANT SPECIAL

Making waves

New entrants are redefining India’s coastal cuisine

Toast to the coast: Sandeep Sreedharan at Curry Tales | Janak Bhat Toast to the coast: Sandeep Sreedharan at Curry Tales | Janak Bhat

About two years ago, Sandeep Sreedharan, 45, quit his job as a management consultant and started a blog called Esca Brahma. Esca means food in Latin and Brahma means creation. “People get curious about the name, it’s kind of glocal,” he says.

For Sreedharan, who hails from Mahe, food had always been a passion. He started cooking when he was in class five, and is now one of the most sought-after chefs in Mumbai. Among other accomplishments, he has created a new cuisine called ‘Modern Coastal’, in which he has taken the flavours from the coast, starting from his hometown, and has applied some of the world’s best techniques to them. To add balance, he also included the concept of yin yang and ayurvedic principles. “Food is all about balance—nutritional, textural, colour and flavour balance, and that is what I wanted to bring out,” he says.

About six months ago, he started Curry Tales, his first casual fine-dining restaurant, to popularise southwestern coastal cuisine. “We have aspirations to take this to Singapore, Dubai and New York. Curry Tales is a universal name and works everywhere. And, you have that small tag—‘Curated from Homes’—and that gives you homely, simple food.”

Clearly comfortable with Kerala food, Sreedharan says there are a lot of options within the cuisine. “People think that Kerala food is very spicy, very oily, but that’s not true. Kerala isn’t just about beef and porotta or about fish curry rice. In fact, Kerala is divided into five or six distinct cuisines, ranging from what the Syrian Catholics cook to what Palakkad Brahmins cook to what the Travancore rajas cook to what the Jews cook, to what the Portuguese and the Arab descendants cook,” he says.

However, he doesn’t want to represent just Kerala, and so traversed the Karnataka and Konkan coasts, too. He ate with his friends there, in their homes, the food prepared by their mothers and grandmothers. And, whatever he felt he could bring to the mainstream, he did.

All our masalas come from a mill in Kerala and so do the spices, so that there is consistency. When you use top quality ingredients, you have to use much less. - sandeep sreedharan, owner, curry tales
South High is an “owner-driven restaurant”; the owners themselves have compiled the menu from the different regions of south India, along with chefs from the region.

In six months, Curry Tales has seen a menu change three times. Among the popular dishes is the squid sukha, which has Bunt community spices (from Karnataka) and coconut; the prawn dry fry, which is prawns marinated and shallow fried with a thin coating of rice powder; and the prawn pulao, which uses Kaima rice from north Kerala. The garam masala he uses is based on a recipe that is 150 years old. “All our masalas come from a mill in Kerala and so do the spices, so that there is consistency in terms of supply and flavour,” says Sreedharan. “When you use top quality ingredients, you have to use much less. Instead of five elaichis, you need just two,” he says.

Our lunch arrives. Everything is cooked in coconut oil. His fish pollichadu receives much praise. It arrives piping hot, wrapped in a plantain leaf with sliced onions. Accompanying it is a dosa. The vegetarian paneer version, which I tried, is also excellent.

Next, we try the crispy bhindi pachadi, which is his recipe. It is yoghurt-based, with ash gourd, and the bhindi is not in the pachadi, but on top. It is done that way to add texture, something Sreedharan loves experimenting with. “By adding contrast or freshness, the dish just evolves,” he says.

Sreedharan wants to create a gourmet company focusing only on coastal food with different concepts and products. “Whatever you do, people should be able to reach you,” he says. “So, you have the high-end fine dining that I do, and you have this [Curry Tales], my first casual dining restaurant. I am coming up with a quick service restaurant and an ‘affordable fine dine’, which will be an aspirational brand. We plan to open 12 to 14 of them across India, five in Mumbai and one in Goa,” he says.

Of bonds and flavours: Joshua D’Souza and Neha Manekia at the Curry Brothers | Janak Bhat Of bonds and flavours: Joshua D’Souza and Neha Manekia at the Curry Brothers | Janak Bhat

The Curry Brothers, run by chef Joshua D’Souza, 35, and his wife, Neha Manekia, 36, opened in June 2016. It started out as a delivery service providing home style, regional Indian cuisine. The proximity to the Currey Road station and the fact that their food was all about family and friends made them zero in on the name The Curry Brothers. While their delivery service continues in Lower Parel, they started a sit-down restaurant by the same name in Bandra last August.

While D’Souza was born and raised in Bahrain, Manekia is a Bandra girl who comes from a Khoja Muslim community. D’Souza went to a culinary school in Goa before returning to Bahrain, and his expertise is in Goan and regional food. Manekia studied psychology and human resources in the US, and went on to work at the Ritz Carlton in Los Angeles before moving to the Gulf. On returning to India in 2011, they started a catering company, Silverspoon, which delivers European food for private parties and events for an extremely elite clientele. However, they soon decided to go back to their roots, offering Goan and Khoja cuisines. They also added a few other cuisines to their repertoire. “Just by virtue of the cuisines we specialise in, there is a huge focus on coastal food. [We serve] Kerala cuisine, some Malvani food, and Goan and Bengali cuisines,” says Manekia.

The couple is big on clean eating and a lot of the fresh produce comes from their own farms in Alibag. Also, as everything is made from scratch, it doesn’t give diners the feeling of restaurant food, because it is all home-style food, nor does it leave them feeling bloated, sick and heavy, says Manekia. “We would rather sell fewer portions of something that is spectacular,” she says. “If you can’t feel good about what you do, it is going to show in the food.”

“We have a tonne of popular dishes such as our vegetarian Goan kaldeen, which is a coconut-based, yellow, light gravy that really goes well with rice,” says D’Souza. “We also do a small side dish called beans poriyal, which is a south Indian version of cabbage foogath, a Goan dish, usually had during Lent. While the beans poriyal is all about sautéed beans in coconut oil to which a little bit of fried coconut and salt and mustard are added, the cabbage foogath contains cabbage and turmeric, which are sautéed in a pan.”

They also have a starter called kasundi fish, in which the fish is marinated with kasundi, the Bengali mustard sauce, to make it spicy. “The heat comes from the mustard and chilly powder used, and we serve it with grilled vegetables, which are also done in kasundi,” says D’Souza.

Southern delights: Suraj Shetty at South High | Janak Bhat Southern delights: Suraj Shetty at South High | Janak Bhat

Says Manekia: “Food has always been an integral part of our lives. We just found a way to do what we do today.”

Suraj Shetty, 46, and Krishnappa Karkera, 59, are the cofounders of South High, a south Indian restaurant with a bar, in Lower Parel. The 80-seater, 2,500 square-foot restaurant has a traditional look, with hand-painted designs and artwork that adorn the wall. “We wanted an earthy look and feel to the place, besides a few south Indian cultural things and wordings on the wall,” says Shetty.

Started a year ago, Shetty is clear that South High is an “owner-driven restaurant”; the owners themselves have compiled the menu from the different regions of south India, along with chefs from the region. Shetty stresses that they serve not only south Indian, but coastal cuisine as well.

The place is already a huge hit thanks not just to its location, which attracts the office crowd and shoppers from neighbouring malls, but also the fact that it is a south Indian restaurant with a bar.

South High offers an all-day dining menu with a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian idlis and dosas. They also have a sadhya (a fixed vegetarian limited menu), which is only available for lunch. However, there is the option of ordering from their a la carte menu, which allows you to dip into their seafood section. They have crabs, fish tava fry as well as different kinds of prawn dishes. Another speciality is the fish mallipuram, which people enjoy with appams, neer dosa and idiappams. In the evenings, it becomes the perfect place where people can enjoy a quick drink or two from their extensive wine list.

While there, seek out their mixologist Santosh Garg for some refreshing mocktails. We had a tall, slim jar of imli soda, which was perfect to quench our thirst on a hot, April day. Besides tamarind, lime juice and sugar syrup, it also had a hint of chilli, and was topped up with soda. Mixed with secret spices, chaat masala and black salt, it also had crushed ice and was served in a 240ml jar.

Then came the Coorg idlis, cut up in triangles and dunked in a red paste. The base for the paste was made from tomato, onion and garlic tossed in spices. It was served with coconut chutney, garlic chutney and sambar.

The restaurant’s vegetarian thali | Janak Bhat The restaurant’s vegetarian thali | Janak Bhat

Muthukrishnan Nadar, head chef, says the mango meen curry surmai from his native Tamil Nadu is a big hit thanks to the homemade masala containing onion, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, coriander, chillies and curry leaves, which are roasted and made into a puree. Tamarind water and raw mangoes are sliced and added to it later. Served with idiappam, dosas or even Mangaluru or Champa rice, “people simply love devouring it,” he says. The Mangaluru fish gassi and prawn gassi are also popular. Their prawn thokku from Tamil Nadu, tava fry surmai from Bengaluru and Kerala tava fry surmai with a specially prepared green masala are also big draws, says Nadar.

Chef Aloysius D’Silva, 40, calls himself a “hardcore Bandra boy”, whose family has been living in the same old ancestral bungalow, off Carter Road, for four generations. “The D’Silva family are big foodies and my love for cooking came from my father, an engineer who loved to cook,” says the chef, who is also known as Aloo. After studying at Rizvi College of Hotel Management, in Mumbai, D’Silva travelled the world on cruise liners. When he returned, he associated himself with some famous restaurants, started his own catering company, and opened a small 20-seater café called Villa Vandre. Now, he has joined A.D. Singh’s Olive Group, and is handling the food side of the newly launched chain Lady Baga.

The vision of Lady Baga is to be an 1980s beach shack, like in Goa. The restaurant décor has been done by A.D. Singh’s wife, Sabina. “The old beach shacks were different from the beach shacks of today,” says D’Silva.

As for the menu, he says that though there are a few “twists and turns”, the food is distinctly traditional Goan. Before Lady Baga opened, D’Silva did extensive research on Goan cuisine and culture. In fact, he had to coax some older Goan ladies to part with their recipes. “Goa has two cuisines—Hindu and Catholic. They have the same dishes, but the Hindus eat spicier food as compared to the Catholics, whose food is more sweet and sour. While they both have Xacuti (a Goan curry) and mackerel curry, the Hindus don’t eat beef and pork as much,” says D’Silva.

The menu is seasonal, as “Everything is seasonal in Goa,” says D’Silva. “During monsoons, nobody ventures out into the rough seas and so fish isn’t available. People eat a lot of dry fish, salted fish and crab, which are easily gotten from their fields.”

The abc of sea: D’Silva at Lady Baga | Bhanu Prakash Chandra The abc of sea: D’Silva at Lady Baga | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

For the summer menu, D’Silva uses fruits such as ice apples, jackfruit and even has a pomelo salad. “It is a fruit that is green outside and when you open the whole thing out, it is pink in colour,” says D’Silva. “And, we do salt, pepper, crushed peanuts, lime and grated mango with it.” Apart from salads, there are also 12 vegetarian and 14 non-vegetarian starters. He says this is because when people come here, they think ‘Goa’ and want to enjoy a drink or two along with a snack in the evenings. There is the vegetable take on the traditional shrimp rissoi, “which is a very Portuguese Goan sort of snack, stuffed with filling, crusted and served with a dipping sauce,” says D’Silva.

To add variety to the Goan cuisine, which has more meat and fish, D’Silva has added a vegetable substitute to some dishes. We try some of his kokum and chilli pumpkin, which he says is a “a meaty, wholesome, vegetable”. Made with kokum, it also has onions, chillies and a hint of coconut milk. It takes you straight to Goa. Then, we try the aubergine and green bean ambotik, a hot, sweet and sour masala, usually made with shark or mussels.

He also does a jackfruit sambhar. The sambhar here is not the south Indian dish, but an everyday masala that Goans use. D’Silva gets his key ingredients, such as vinegar, kokum and black jaggery, from Goa. “The vinegar of Goa makes all the difference,” he says. “Some use the cane vinegar, but the local toddy vinegar is something else. They take an earthen tile from a house, make it red hot, and when the toddy is in a large jar, they toss the hot tile in and keep it closed. It ferments for three to four months, turning sour and becoming vinegar.”

When it comes to Goan food, people usually focus more on the main course than the appetisers. However, the success of Lady Baga shows that Goan food has moved on from its ‘cafe’ days and has acquired the ‘restaurant’ status. The bestsellers among the main course items are their fish curry, prawn curry, vindaloo and rawa fried bombil. But, one of the dishes that stand out is the king fish recheado, a red masala preparation which is sweet, thanks to the black jaggery, and which gets its heat from the chillies and its sourness from the Goa vinegar.

Ulavacharu, located at Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad, is named after a brown-hued horse gram soup. Started five years ago, the restaurant has become busier by the day. A major reason for this is that it serves its famed seafood through the day. The restaurant, which recently opened its second branch, has been consistently rated the best for Andhra food by critics. With good reason.

We taste the Godavari royyala vepudu, one of the popular seafood dishes. It is delectable. Each prawn we savour has an underlying sweetness. “We source the prawns from the Godavari region of coastal Andhra. These prawns come from rivers and not from aqua farms. That is why they are sweet,” says Kiran, the manager.

The chepala pulusu, too, stands out. It is spicy fish with gravy cooked Nellore style. “It goes best with steamed rice. The spicy and tangy taste makes it my favourite here,” said K. Krishna Rao, a businessman and a regular at the restaurant.

The fish fry is also a fast-selling appetiser. It is one of the few dishes that is mild, yet tasty. Their signature chicken dish, raju gari kuda pulao, has been copied by many new eateries. Similarly, their pachi mirchi kodi pulao, which has green chillies and prawns, is high on taste as well as presentation.

With Rahul Devulapalli