From Ayna to the Coast of Malabar


At Ayna, the napkins had been folded into little boats and that was in sync with our reason for being there - a food festival titled "Coast of Malabar". Ayna is, of course, the pan-Indian restaurant at the Hilton, Chennai.

Ayna at Hilton

A napkin boat!
Moplah cuisine is what the region is most famous and of course, Tellicherry biryani needs no introduction. Spices, chillies, tamarind, pepper and coconut are integral to the flavour of Malabar food. All we ate that evening was redolent in these ingredients.

Tender coconut water

Chips, pappadam & pachadis

Thirst-quenching tender coconut water was served in mud glasses. The table had been laid with little brass containers that held pappadams, potato and jackfruit chips and jaggery coated banana chips that signified the start of a traditional Kerala meal. On another tray, there were pachadis - cooked vegetables mixed in yoghurt, a tamarind chutney and tender mango pickle. No meal in Kerala is complete without these elements.

Top: Syrian beef fry; Malabar duck roast
Karimeen pollichathu

Kozhi porichathu
Chef Anuj Mathur, Sous Chef at Ayna has done a lot of research on the cuisine. One of the starters is the Syrian beef fry, a slightly different version from the one made further South. The Malabar duck roast was dark and heavy with spices. This was a deliciously boneless version but no matter how thick the spice coating on the cubes of meat, the slightly fishy taste eventually came through. The kozhi porichathu (fried chicken) was more like one of those Indo-Chinese versions complete with the red colour but the masala on the karimeen pollichathu was spot on. For ease of eating, it had been filleted (there were a couple of bones in it). All the spices had been made in-house and they tasted fresh. 

Top: squid pepper fry; chemeen (prawn) roast

Chemeen roast was a dish of large prawns, tails intact and coated with a thick blanket of masala that included ground coconut. It was absolutely yummy, so also the squid pepper fry that was delightful.

Kallumakkai fry

Kallumakkai arikadukka - mussels stuffed with rice powder and spices, is one of the delicacies from these parts and it's quite a laborious job to make it. We did have mussels, albeit a kallumakkai fry that had been sautéed with ginger and garlic. Not a fan of molluscs, I did try a piece and it was nice.

Tellicherry biryani; kadala curry; beef kaya; tapioca; adipoli mutton; Kerala fish curry; porotta

Main courses were porotta with beef kaya (raw banana) curry and a stand-out kadala (horsegram) curry, cubes of cooked and seasoned tapioca that accompanied a deliciously tangy Kerala fish curry and Tellicherry chicken biryani. The biryani, mildly flavoured and made with kaima rice was quite different from what I've had in Kerala but adipoli mutton, made according to the chef's secret recipe was yummy. The porotta too was thinner and less flaky than its Kerala counterpart, not that that stopped us from tucking in.

Egg appam

We were served egg appams but we opted for the plain ones. It had such a distinctive taste and after a bit of prodding, Chef Mathur revealed that the batter had been fermented naturally. No wonder it tasted quite like sourdough, it was crisp and had the typical earthiness of freshly baked bread crust.

Top: elaneer payasam; pazham pori

The menu is a rotational one, on the day we went, dessert was elaneer payasam and pazham pori. The payasam was very thin and the bits of tender coconut had been cut into such tiny dices. It had been flavoured with cardamom, almond and pistachios too. Secretly, I was quite glad to see the batter coated banana fritters as I don't eat bananas but my friends seemed to have quite enjoyed them so they must have been awesome. To end the meal, make your own paan from the d-i-y- platter but what I did miss was a glass of sulaimani tea!

Coast of Malabar at Ayna will end on November 19th. Do reserve your seats at 044 2225 5555 before this boat sails away!

An evening with Chivas Regal 18


An 18 year old Scotch with 85 flavour notes that include diverse things like orange, spices (but of course), licorice, chocolate and even tarry rope!

Flavour notes!

Tarry rope
It's the annual Whisky Appreciation Month all month at 365 A.S., Hyatt Regency Chennai; as part of the promotion, I was invited to a Sit Down dinner at Focaccia that featured Chivas Regal 18, a fine blended whisky from Scotland. At the front of the restaurant was a table on which sat jars and bottles of ingredients which represented all the aromas contained within a bottle of the Scotch. 

Chocolate, marzipan, nutmeg, ginger and a whole lot of other flavours in Chivas Regal 18  

85 unique flavour notes and these are only some of them

Table setting at Focaccia 

Focaccia was beautifully decked up for the occasion. The dim lighting, formally dressed waitstaff and flowers on each table set the mood for an elegant evening of food and whisky.

Alan Clark; Chef Mauro Ferrari

A well-attended dinner, we were welcomed by Madhav Sehgal, GM of the hotel and then, Alan Clark, Brand Ambassador for Chivas in India and a true-blue Scot spoke to us about the attributes of this award winning brand of blended whisky; Chef Mauro Ferrari who's worked at Michelin-starred Pomeroeu Ristorante Soranno talked to us about the menu he had specially curated for the evening, a menu that took him all of 20 minutes to draw up!

Aromatic Old Fashioned and Chivas Regal neat

Cocktails were served first and the Old Fashioned was a conversation starter. Unadorned, the flavours of orange and cinnamon syrup smoothened out the stronger notes of the whisky.

Melted Brie on toast, grilled pineapple & fig, micro-green salad. Pretty as a picture!

Chef Mauro's first course was melted Brie cheese toast with grilled pineapple and fig, caramelised hazelnut and a micro-green and flower salad. Beautifully presented, the creamy cheese on the toasted slice of baguette was the perfect complement to the slices of lightly charred fruit while the Chivas jelly perked up the taste of the components.

Simon on the sax

Bread baskets

Pink grapefruit risotto with chocolate; salmon conchiglie with Chivas essence

The vegetarian entreé was a pink grapefruit risotto topped with dark chocolate drop. I tasted a spoonful; the combination of flavours was amazing. For the rest of us, it was fresh and smoked salmon conchiglie with Chivas essence and ginger sauce. The shells held within their curves bits of sauce and fish, toasted strips of seaweed repeated that whiff in the whisky. 

Mains for veggies - savoury autumn vegetable tart with barley, baby carrots, snow peas, basil mayo
Plating the main course

Australian lamb loin, mint chutney sauce, vanlla smoked potato & barley

Australian lamb loin, pink in the middle and melt in the mouth tender was the main course. It rested on a bed of barley risotto and surrounded by smoked vanilla baby potatoes and a yummy mint chutney sauce. Accompanied by Chivas 18 served neat, the combination was surprising in its ability to marry all the flavours.

Scotch on the rocks

Dessert line up

Chivas banana caramel frozen smoothie; lime cinnamon pear frangipane tart; fig prune compote & brandy snap curl

Chivas Regal on the rocks was easy on the nose, the ice broke up the flavours and I thought it was infinitely more palatable. Dessert was a play of textures with a generosity of flavour. Loved the buttery tart with its dense, nutty filling, the crisp brandy snap and the moreish compote which was the absolute stand out.

For me, to know that whisky can be paired with a meal was food for thought.

Whilst the Chivas Regal dinner is over, there are more whisky offerings throughout the month. Do call 91 44 6100 1234 to know more; do remember to drink responsibly.


Of flying naans and the Flying Elephant


When a star hotel celebrates its 4th anniversary, you know food is in some way involved. The Flying Elephant, Park Hyatt Chennai has celebrated this milestone by revamping the menu as well as introducing an Asian dining section in the multi-tiered restaurant.

Table setting at the Italian section

An invitation to sample elements of the new menu just could not be passed up! Plenty of Asian-inspired food, new techniques in its Western fare and some twist to the Indian section. Oh man - this was looking quite interesting!

Singapore slaw salad

Executive sous chef Balaji explained the menu and we started with the table-side salad service. Like yusheng, the raw salad that's served on the eve of Chinese New Year, the veggies of the Singapore slaw salad were artfully arranged as a cone of crisp vermicelli, shredded carrot, cabbage and taro root. Unlike its Chinese counterpart where the diners do the tossing, here it was transferred into a salad bowl, mixed with a tangy apricot dressing and topped with toasted sesame seeds, fried shallots and crushed peanuts before being served. And it was delicious - crunchy, filled with the fuzzy warmth of ginger and the tang from the apricot dressing. Altogether a mighty yummy salad.

Charcoal cooked  tandoori watermelon

Tandoori tarbooza was definitely messing with my head. The portable brazier held sizzling pink cubes. They smelt like tandoori chicken and looked like them but they were cubes of marinated and grilled watermelon. Warm and spicy but the sweetness and juiciness of the melon helped the cool the fire on my tongue. 

Tandoori tarbooza

Wok-fried chicken in Nonya chilli sauce

Pork & prawn shumai

Wok fried chicken in Nonya chilli sauce had chunks of fried chicken in a sauce made of dried prawn, chili and kaffir lime leaf. It was delicious and spicy though the chicken was bland. I did wish there was steamed rice as accompaniment. However, the steamed pork and prawn shumai, topped with crunchy roe lacked for nothing, they were delicately flavoured and a delight to bite into.

Brazino in crosta di sale e erbe

The sea bass, baked in a salt shell and sliced open at the table revealed a beautifully moist fillet of the fish. Cooked to perfection, the fish was tender and paired well with the wilted spinach and crisp potato cubes tossed in parsley, a beautiful play of textures. It did not need any seasoning as the tiniest bit of salt was still discernible on the fish.

Ossobuco di agnello alla Milanese

Sitting in the Italian section of the restaurant, it would have been strange not to taste something from the region and the lamb shank ossobuco with saffron risotto fitted the bill perfectly. The meat, cooked for 7 hours, was just about ready to fall away from the bone by the time it reached the table while the sprinkle of gremolata brightened up both risotto and the meat.

Wok-fried silken tofu with chilli sauce

When a chef is inspired, there's no end to his creativity. The flying naan is the result of one such thought process. Naan dough is shaped into Turkish-style pide, smeared with harissa, a Punjabi onion kulcha topping and cheese before being popped into the oven to bake. It's brushed with butter when it comes out and sliced into triangles. What a fabulous fusion!

Making a flying naan 

The naan was served with Zaitooni khumb achari - an olive and mushroom gravy. A delicious pairing and the olives were actually pleasant to munch on. And that naan - perfect on its own too!

Flying naan with pickled olive and mushroom gravy

Chocolate & peanut butter brownie on a skillet

The first dessert was warm chocolate, almond and peanut butter brownie which was served with a scoop of peanut butter ice cream. The brownie, baked in a baby skillet was so deliciously fudgy. The toasted peanuts only added to the deliciousness of it all. Yum!!

Dessert No. 2 was a caramelised banana cake with soft serve ice cream. It came with a bit of theatre and my two dinner companions did enjoy it.

A meal for 2 at The Flying Elephant would be around 3500/-.  

Hydroponically yours - sambal kangkong


A friend's friend rang me in the morning, promising to drop off some basil and water spinach on his way home in the evening. By afternoon, the sky turned black and huge raindrops began to fall. Well, that seemed to be the end of my vegetable story.

I had underestimated Anandh's zeal. He called at about 6 pm to ask for directions to my place. He had brought with him packs of Thai and Italian basil as well as a couple of packs of kangkong (water spinach) which he had harvested a couple of hours earlier. The leaves were clean and green. All the produce had been grown hydroponically.

Thai basil; kangkong; Italian basil

Anandh Ranganathan runs *Ranga Farms at Chennai where greens are grown without soil. In all 3 samples he gave me, the leaves were unblemished and the flavour and aroma of both kinds of basil were incredible (as I write this, I'm enjoying my bowl of pasta with pesto). There was just enough  of stem on the greens to keep the leafy bunches intact and thus, practically nothing to waste!

Smooth pesto with pasta

Hollow stems

Kangkong is also known as water convolvulus, water spinach or morning glory (not the flower!) The leaves are arrow-shaped and the stems are hollow as it is a semi-aquatic plant. It's packed with vitamins, iron and minerals. I had always thought kangkong was an urban legend in Chennai - heard it's available but never seen it!! And now, finally, it was in my kitchen and I had to make my favourite sambal kangkong with it.

Separate leaves from the stems

Separate the leaves from the stems and keep them whole (discard any tough stems). Cut the stems into 3-inch lengths. For the spice paste or rempah, grind dry red chillies along with garlic, dry prawns and shrimp paste. If you want to make it completely vegetarian, do omit the prawns and shrimp paste. The kangkong has to be cooked over high heat.

Sambal kangkong

Sambal Kangkong  

350 gm kangkong, separate the leaves, cut stems into 3" lengths
3 shallots
3 cloves garlic
5 dry red chillies soaked in hot water to soften (you could also use a mix of fresh and dry chillies)
1 tbsp dried prawns (wash and soak in warm water for 15 minutes)
1 tsp shrimp paste
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons oil

Wash the spinach, drain in a colander.
Grind together shallots, garlic, chillies, dried prawns and shrimp paste (add just enough water to keep the blades moving). Keep it aside.

Remove the leaves when they wilt a bit

Heat a large wok, put a third of the leaves into it and stir it around till it wilts. (If you are using a smaller quantity, you could do it all together.)
Remove and repeat with the remaining leaves.

Fried spice paste

Heat the oil, sauté the spice paste on a low flame till it is dry and oil starts to separate.
Transfer the paste onto a plate and keep aside.

Cut stems into 3" lengths

Heat the wok till it is very hot, sauté the stalks for about a minute or till just soft.
Add the fried paste and mix well.
Add the leaves and about 3 spoons water.
Sauté well, dish out and serve with steamed rice.

For a completely vegetarian dish, omit the prawns and shrimp paste.

*Anandh can be contacted at

Yummy sambal kangkong

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