The newly opened Jakob’s Kitchen revives recipes of 175 housewives

There’s no Chennai food here. After all, food doesn’t obey political boundaries. It’s moulded by geography and history. Wars and treaties. Travel and trade. Most of all, by women. Specifically housewives. Newly opened ‘Jakob’s Kitchen’ celebrates these women by reviving their recipes.

Chef Jacob Sahaya Kumar Aruni is best known for his wacky television stunts, which include making mutton curry in a coconut tree and cooking prawns in a boat mid-river. In March 2010, he created a Guinness World Record for the longest individual cooking marathon. But he’s also a dedicated food historian, with a special interest in ancient Tamil Cuisine.

“Chettinad is familiar to everyone because the five-star hotels promoted it in the Eighties. After that, all the roadside restaurants started making it, which resulted in the present version. Very spicy, very oily,” he says. Chef Jacob’s version comes from the heart of Chettinad, Kanadukathan and Nattarasankottai. Contrary to popular opinion, there’s a variety of vegetarian dishes too. Like the distinctive ‘mandi’, cooked with the water used to rinse rice, blends the sourness of tamarind with the heat of green chillies.

Spice route

There’s ‘Nanjilnad’ stretching from Madurai to Kanyakumari, known for mutton dishes and deep fried parathas. ‘Kongunad’, which is Coimbatore and its surroundings, where they use a unique spice mix comprising dry ginger and turmeric, with roasted groundnuts. Finally, there’s the food that surrounds us in Chennai. “Thondainad cooking, specialising with vadagams and pickles.”

Ordering a fleet of starters, Chef Jacob states: “You won’t find most of these dishes in any other restaurant. These are culled from recipes of 175 housewives.” The menu begins with a recipe of his mother: Vimalakka Kozhi Chaaru, a hearty soup with a powerful, peppery punch. Original Mutton Sukka is a highlight: moist and fragrant with the scent of coconut.

Spiked with flavour

Next comes Uppu Kari, mutton again, this time powered with red chillies and hailing from Kanadukathan. There’s Chicken Chintamani, styled like fluffy pakoras. We’re less enthusiastic about the Meen Varuval, which seems overly fishy despite its coriander seed masala. Vegetarians should try the crisp baby corn, spiked with the sharpness of dried ginger.

Jakob’s Kitchen’s punchy signature biriyani is inspired by Madurai. Served in individual mud pots sealed with banana leaves, it’s made from the stocky seeraga samba rice, and cooked with live coals piled above and beneath for maximum impact.

There are flaky parathas served with a Veetu Kozhi Kolambu that adroitly balances the flavours of red chillies, small onions and coriander seeds. And tamarind-spiked Railway Mutton Curry, caramelly with browned onions, created by the Anglo-Indians and served on long-distance trains during the British Raj.

The interiors are earnest, veering between funky and kitsch. Oversized plants and random knickknacks in glass cases. Quirky lamps created by turning kadais upside down. Pots hanging from the roof, in the style of village homes. No-fuss tables and chairs, designed for quick service and clean-ups. Housed in a series of rooms, the restaurant is fairly intimate. If your neighbours are loud, the acoustics can be oppressive.

Dessert’s an innovative Amirtha Vadai, deep fried and soaked in sugar syrup, then covered with shredded coconut. Too rich and too sweet. The simple Mettukudi Pudding, on the other hand, is a delightful blend of biscuits and tinned peaches, soggy with double cream.

There’s a kids menu offering everything from chicken popcorn to those inescapable nuggets. If junior’s still cranky, wow him with a Cartoon Dosa’. States Chef Jacob proudly: “It’s in the shape of a rabbit.”

(Jakob’s Kitchen is at No. 28 (Old No. 18), Khader Nawaz Khan Road. Call 4203-2808 for details. A meal for two costs about Rs. 600)

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