Creation of a food festival: The making of A Syrian Christian Fare

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Four months ago, I was at Hyatt Regency Chennai to do a food review. While chatting with the PR Manager, she confided that the hotel was planning a Syrian Christian food fest and asked if I knew any Syrian Christians who could help them design the menu. I nearly fell off my chair in excitement, thought over her words for exactly one second and then slowly told her I was one. Well, she nearly fell off her chair in shock! She called Executive Chef Vikram Ganpule, explained our conversation and asked him if he could come over. He did so immediately and asked me to name 8 popular SC dishes. Eh? It had been quite a while since I had made a naadan dish and my mind went blank. Then I recalled the table at home, my parents and I having lunch together and I started reeling out names when Chef Ganpule stopped me and said, "I asked you for 8 and you've already named 12!"

Beef oliarthiathu, one of the most popular dishes in the cuisine

The 10-day festival was to be held in August. Chef Senthil, chef-de-cuisine of Spice Haat was in charge of organising the menu. My job was to make a list of recipes, let the chefs know of any ingredient that may not be easily available in Chennai so they could source it and then turn up at the restaurant kitchen in August when the food trials would start. Spice Haat had a couple more food festivals in the intervening months where the team explained the format of food planning and service during promotions. Huh! August was still months away.

Chef Senthil

Chef Pandian with demi-chefs de partie

The team

Or so I thought when in June, I realised that I still hadn't come up with a single recipe. And they wanted 40!

Parippu with coconut; kappa vevichathu - served with red fish curry

Back home, my mother had a stack of Malayalam cookbooks and while I couldn't read the language, as ingredients were being assembled, I had a fair idea of what she was cooking. Lunch at home would usually be a typical Syrian Christian meal of rice and curry.

Meen mappas - tangy, coconutty and perfect with appam

Among my wedding presents were 2 cookbooks on Syrian Christian cooking by the late Mrs. KM Mathew, the first editor of Vanitha and a prolific cookbook writer. She was my mother's cousin and I was always grateful to her for the thoughtful gift. Her recipes had been tried and tested by many over the years and I followed them blindly; everything I tried came out pretty much like what Mum made (at least I thought so).

Crisp beef cutlets

Still, a little something more was needed and that's when I asked my aunt, Dr. Sare Paul to share some of her recipes. And tips! She wrote out a stack of recipes and comparing them with Mrs. Mathew's, I found they were quite similar. Interesting, because the recipes and methods of making this cuisine did not vary much over generations, towns and families. Thanks to my aunt, I also learnt interesting facets of the cuisine and after each cooking session, we would do a mini review of the day's events.

Meat ball curry, great with paratha, appam and rice

In school, we had Domestic Science classes where we were taught Fish Moilee and beef ball curry. Fascinating isn't it that heritage recipes from Kerala were being cooked by 14-year old Singapore schoolgirls. Food really has no boundaries.

Delicious curries of a meat-based cuisine

As children, whenever we visited my father's family home in Kerala, the array of food that came out of my aunt's kitchen would amaze me. The kitchen was out of bounds to me but I would find ways to sneak in. And run out almost immediately as the cooking was done over firewood and it was difficult to see and breathe with all that smoke. The family was large, visitors were enthusiastically welcomed and urged to stay on for a meal. The dining table would be groaning with food, there would always be a fish curry and one other meat, some vegetable dishes, rice, buttermilk, sambar or dal, theeyal, ginger curry, pappadams and pickle. And bananas!

Only a part of A Syrian Christian Fare spread

So what is Syrian Christian cuisine? I'm no expert on the matter but it comes across as a predominantly meat-based cuisine. There's beef, pork, chicken, mutton, duck and thanks to the long coastline, abundant seafood. Kodampulli, a souring agent, is an integral ingredient in fish curries. Another point is that the food is served as combinations - kappa (tapioca) and meen vevichathu (red fish curry), rice with mor kachithu (spiced buttermilk), beef oliarthiathu (beef fry) and cabbage thoren (cabbage with grated coconut) and appam with meen moilee or stew. Fish would be made in many ways - peera pattichathu, pollichathu, vevichathu and there would always be ulli (shallot) theeyal and inji (ginger)curry. Vegetables were cooked with grated coconut (thoren), in coconut milk or as mezhukkupuratti or fried.

The heights they go to to shoot a pic!
By early July, I submitted a list of 60 recipes and then some more. Eventually it was whittled down to about 40 that we could use for the festival. Some of the recipes were already familiar to the chefs so there was no need to try them out. We started the food trials a week ago. Spread out over 3 days, we cooked 6 dishes every day between the kitchen's lunch and dinner service. We worked on one side of the display kitchen while life went on as usual on the other side. Once our food was ready, they were transferred into little earthen pots and the F&B, PR and Marketing teams would arrange them artistically and shoot pictures to be posted on social media. The whole team would then taste the dishes and Chef Ganpule would suggest changes. On the last day, the chefs planned which dishes would be served on each day of the festival, keeping in mind colours and textures and the combination of dishes that would work with the rest of Spice Haat's buffet menu.

Table arrangements for the photo shoot

Aval vilaychathu to be eaten with bananas

On the final day, we tried out a selection of desserts. And they were delicious, not too sweet but each of them distinct in taste.


Avalose oonda, kids refer to them as cannonballs!

Having been invited very often by HRC to review their various food festivals, it has been quite an experience to be on the other side of the counter for a change. The hard work and coordination between departments is obvious, planning is meticulous and the results are there for all to see and taste. And thankfully, there are no Mr. Ramsey-esque moments!

The Syrian Christian Fare food promotion is on from August 18th - 27th. The pictures are a sneak peak of some of the dishes that will be served and I do hope that I've managed to whet your appetites. Do come on over and experience the food of the Syrian Christians. Vegetarians, do not despair for there will be a selection of dishes, especially for you.

There will also be a cooking workshop on August 23rd where recipes of some yummy dishes will be taught.

For reservations,  the number to call is 044 6100 1234.

A selection of sweetmeats - ada prathamam; wattayappam; ethakkappam; oonda; elayappam 
     

Eating East at Salt.Co.531

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The Eat East Street Carnival is an ongoing food carnival at Salt.Co.531, Radisson Blu GRT. Featuring the cuisines of Japan, Thailand and Korea, this 14 day fest is a good way to catch up with some delish Eastern street-food favourites. The pool deck area has been converted into open air cooking space while less smoke inducing dishes are cooked inside the restaurant. Incidentally, not only did this restaurant turn 2 recently but this the second edition of this popular promotion.

Adding colours to the carnival setting

Coloured balloons add a festive touch to the restaurant and as one walks in, there's a table with origami on display. You could even get an instant lesson in the Japanese art of paper folding by the pair manning the stall.

Origami art

We were invited to review the food festival and going around to photograph the stations, we got the opportunity to talk to some of the chefs as well.

Kimchee appetisers

Bamboo and coconut shell cookware

Grilled prawns; fish; chicken wings; tentacle on a stick and tenderloin












At the grill counter, there were lengths of bamboo and coconut shells being used as cooking containers. The bamboo had been stuffed with marinated quail - Gai Yang in Bamboo (Thai) while the coconut shell held marinated fish. We didn't get to try the quail but the fish tasted nice. If it were not basa, it would have tasted even better. The best was definitely the chicken - Yakitori Peneang Watermelon (Japanese), moist, slightly smoky and just a little char on it. The meats had all been marinated and then placed inside the receptacles, sealed and then put on the grill. This ensured that the food was cooked slower, developing better flavours along the way. Another interesting point was that the receptacles too added to the aromas.

Food on sticks and a veg grilled platter with babycorn, tofu, cottage cheese and nasu dengaku 

Other starters on sticks included octopus tentacles  - ika geso shio (Korean)(perfectly grilled, slightly charred and the lovely flavour of teriyaki sauce), large grilled prawns that were juicy and tender and tenderloin strips, once again brushed with teriyaki sauce. A sprinkling of sesame seeds added a nutty element. Vegetarians too had sticks skewered with cottage cheese, tofu and nasu dengaku, Japanese-style marinated and grilled baby brinjals.

How to make... khowsuey!

Condiments laid out beside a basic coconut flavoured stock turned out to be the add-ons for khowsuey. Lovely flavours, perfectly thickened stock and the thick coconut milk topped with golden fried onions and garlic which added the finishing touch.

Okonomiyaki

There was a stall making their version of Japanese-style savoury pancake, okonomiyaki. The covering was a little chewy but the vegetarian filling that included beansprouts was delicious.

Chawan munshi 

There was chawan munshi, cooked and served in a coconut shell. It tasted nice but was a little overdone.

Dimsums with sauces


Dimsums are always a lovely sight. The ones we tried were had nice thin skins and a good amount of stuffing inside. The dipping pastes are awesome.

The curry station; everything goes with rice

Sushi on a plate

It looked like the sushi counter was pretty busy that night and no wonder as sushi-making classes were going on as well! Great sushi too!

Everything battered and fried
Batter-fried squid and potato-studded sausage

Mix veg tempura
There were 2 more interesting counters by the poolside. One was serving batter fried everything from squid rings to sausages dipped in potato cube batter and the other, mixed vegetable and tofu tempura. The tempura batter was more a coating but the selection of fresh vegetables was definitely interesting.

Pad thai noodle mix

There's a variety of noodles and I chose to have a mix of soba and flat rice sticks cooked with pad thai sauce. And lots of seafood. Delicious!

Desserts on display

Kulfi!

The dessert table looked spectacular, tub tim grop - water chestnuts in coconut milk was the best. Err... we cheated and had kulfi too!! If you'd like to indulge the inner child in you, there's somsatang - cotton candy in English!

The Eat East Street Carnival is on till August 22nd.  It costs 1799/++ per head. Do head on over to Salt.Co.531 if you'd like some grilled, fried and curried Asian on your plate.

An Oriental welcome

A Bhangra dinner

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What happens when a restaurant has 15 chefs? Easy - each one of them specialises in one or maybe 2 dishes on the menu. That's certainly a good sign in my book.

Bhangra is a Punjabi restaurant that's situated after the Uthandi toll gate. Actually, it's located within the Mayajaal complex. Invited to review what a true blue Punjabi meal should taste like, we landed up there on a Wednesday night. The entrance to the restaurant is behind the complex and is opposite a large carpark.

The charpoy

We were welcomed by our gregarious host and Bhangra's director, Navtej. In the foyer, there are life-size cutouts of a Punjabi lass and lad with a moustache. Stick your head in the hole and a staff member would be only too willing to click your pic. There's also a charpoy with 2 hand fans. Why a charpoy I wondered.



Its a 50-seater restaurant and thankfully, lots of space between tables. On the walls, there are framed pictures of Bhangra dancers, glass bangles and famous Punjabi quotes like the ones above.

Lassi ; sugarcane juice

As soon as we're seated, we were served sweet lassi. It's thick, has just the right amount of sweetness and is topped with red squiggles. Do find out what it is but it does add to the flavour. Halfway through dinner, we're served freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. Navtej tells us he's so fond of the drink that he went and got himself a sugarcane juice extractor just so he could indulge not just himself but also his customers!

Papads & onion with kulcha chutney, pachranga & mint chutney

A plate of papads and sliced onions, pickle and 2 chutneys are served. The mint chutney is very nice but the kulcha chutney, great with naan and the pachranga, with its mustard-y overtones, are delicious.

Tandoori paneer

Amritsari fish tikka

Chicken malai tikka

Mutton seekh kabab

Starters were all served hot, each one had a bit of char and lovely smoky flavours that went all the way to the core. Mutton seekh kababs were the best, the meat was springy and moist. Each dish was plated simply - a mound of sliced onions, a lime wedge and a sprinkling of coriander leaves.

Lochha naan

Another interesting starter was the lochha naan, a naan stuffed with cottage cheese, peas, onions, garlic, chillies and I'm sure a lot more ingredients. A wedge of it and some pachranga - yummm!

Fried green chillies that go best with channa bhatura

Lochha naan; Pindi channa bhatura; tandoori  roti; lachha paratha

Each of the breads is wholesome and rather substantial in size. Made with whole wheat flour, they are good to eat without any accompaniment too, or maybe with the kulcha chutney. The peas pulao we sampled was fragrant and was so good with all the gravies.

Dal makhani

There are two kinds of paneer that come out of the kitchens of Bhangra. The slightly firmer kind is used when cooking in the tandoor and the softer one in the gravies. The mutton rogan josh is so tender but it's the dal makhni that has us raving. The reddish gravy is thick, rich, creamy and redolent with the flavour of butter. If I could go into raptures about any one dish, it has to be this.

Butter chicken, paneer makhani and mirch paratha

Food is served on steel plates and everything that comes to the table is fresh off the tandoor, tawa or kadai. Each of the gravies is different, every one of them tastes superb. It's comfort food at its best and with peppy bhangra music playing in the background, it's so easy to overeat. I guess I finally figured out why there's a charpoy out front!

Moong dal halwa (top); kheer

There are 2 desserts on the menu - a hot moong dal halwa and a cold kheer. Both were topped with fried cashewnuts, such an unfussy presentation.

Bhangra even has a small Jain menu that can be had with their breads or rice.

The restaurant is open from noon to midnight on all the days of the week. A meal for two should cost about 1200/++.

 
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