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

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 


  1. these kinda food festivals should reach the middle class people ... will it be possible ? ... though i am a vegetarian , this thought came to me

  2. That will depend on the kind of establishment hosting such events.


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