Four chefs from Coimbatore pride themselves on showcasing local food. Their inspiration? Thallu vandis and their moms
Coimbatore combines enviable entrepreneurial zeal with a love for tradition. Thaer festivals are as popular as theatre festivals and a jazz concert. A Bollywood music extravaganza and a Tyagaraja kutcheri are received with equal enthusiasm. People here go half way around the world to run in a marathon and they also turn up in hundreds to clean up a local tank with their bare hands. And they all love to eat.
Coarsely ground coriander, chillies that make you cry; curry leaves have you sighing… Garlic, pepper, aniseed, cumin…fresh greens, pumpkin, gourd, brinjals and shallots… hand pounded, stone ground…mixed and matched, roasted and fried. Add a big helping of love to it, and that is what native Coimbatore food is all about.
While we love chicken butter masala and the paneer kofta, it is the kozhambus and koozhs, the paniyaarams and parottas that are perennial favourites. So, four chefs from Coimbatore’s premier hotels are constantly on the prowl to find the best of local food and put it on their menus.
Executive Chef, Vivanta by Taj - Surya
Ramasseri idlis from neighbouring Palakkad, and Narasu’s Coffee are Vijayan’s muse. He enjoys them so much that he has made them a permanent fixture at the breakfast table. Keeping health in mind, he uses multi-grains instead of just rice in the idly/dosa batter. Vijayan has also tracked down small eateries where offal is cooked, served and consumed by appreciative locals. He tried out the kodal masala, thalai curry, nurai eeral sukka and moolai melagu, and found them good enough to be put in the menu. His meals at Junior Kupanna’s have inspired him to create the kongu kozhi biriyani that uses only the powder and paste form of the whole masalas. To keep the authentic local flavour, chef Vijayan has eschewed the basmati for ponni and seeraga samba rice. And he uses only country chicken. He has borrowed the tradition of smooth and silky gravies from the region too, in his preparations.
Chef S. Ashok Kumar
Executive Chef, The Residency
Over a smoky fire at a roadside pottikadai, a no-fuss cook turned out a meal that Ashok can’t forget. “He handed me a plate with a thick, honest-to-goodness dosai. It was so thick that I wondered how I was going to eat it,” says Ashok. The man instructed him to soak it in the accompanying karuvepilai kozhambu and a vegetable curry and then have it. The kozhambu was so good that Ashok begged the recipe off him and he has now incorporated it in the menu, along with the rustic vegetable curry and a tomato kozhambu too, where the tomatoes are NOT chopped, but simply squished by hand. Ashok ensures the ingredients he uses for these dishes come from that very region, and he says he is happiest serving dishes that his mom cooked for him.
Chef Suresh Natarajan
Sous Chef, Le Meridien
The naatu kozhi kozhambu, paruppu urundai and the panchamritam prasadam from these parts have inspired Suresh to improvise and feed his guests versions of the same. He visits the Karur/Tirupur area to taste and learn more about local food, as a lot of his guests come from there. While he polishes them up to meet five star standards, he ensures that they do not lose their original charm. He ensures that at least one local dish is served to the guests every day. Like the spicy kongu naatu kozhi kozhambu, so popular in the Kongu region. The secret to the incredibly flavourful dishes in these areas, says Suresh, are the use of freshly roasted and ground spices and stone-pounded masalas. Suresh has gone a step further and has brought the flavours and tastes of the Palani and the Maruthamalai temple prasadam into the five star dining room. He serves a caramelised panchamritham eclair!
Chef C. Arulselvan
Executive Chef, Clarion Hotel
“If you ask me to name the restaurants where I have eaten some of the best biryanis and parottas, I will not be able to tell you. They were obscure, small, nameless places,” says Arulsevan. He has taken these roadside feasts, upped the quality of the ingredients and set them with a flourish in front of his guests. Chicken and mutton biriyanis and the kozhi varutha curry are just some of the local fare that he has incorporated into his menu. In fact, when they had a biriyani fest, they served biryani in the thattukadai style. Sometimes, Arulselvan innovates. In order to give the found-everywhere dosa a makeover, he encourages diners to experiment with traditional tastes. “So, instead of the regular chutney/sambar, I offer them chicken curries, vegetable kurumas, kootus and poriyals. My guests love it.”