Enjoy the variety in coastal food at the food fest in ‘Masala’, Holiday Inn
The lobby of the Holiday Inn hotel is quiet, with just a few guests milling about and a few more chatting in the coffee shop located in one corner. A walk down a small corridor lined with landing strip like lights takes one to ‘Masala’ one of the restaurants located on the hotel premises. ‘Masala’, which is an all day dining restaurant, is hosting a theme dinner food festival, ‘Coastal Cuisine of South India’.
It’s a little past seven in the evening, and ‘Masala’ is just as quiet as the lobby for now. A look around reveals that the earthy hues of the restaurant have been added upon to go with the tone of the festival. A large blue sea horse takes pride of place in front of the main counter and fishing nets are draped artistically behind the buffet spread. The waiters are dressed in a mix-match of coastal outfits, sporting bright Goan shirts and colourful lungis. Little fake fish appear to be caught in the net, creating a contrast to the live counter where whole and freshly sliced fish await the guests, allowing them to choose the fish and marinade of their choice.
The proceedings are traditional, the items on the menu, anything but. In keeping with the coastal theme, the meal is started off with chemmeen kurumulaku soup, a tangy concoction of spices and prawns that stimulates the taste buds for what is still in store. Accompanied by a mild apple cider, the liquid content threatens to fill the stomach before the main course begins, but the traditional Malayali’s attempts to skip the salad and jump right into the festivities is thwarted by Executive Chef Joji Joshua, “Salad!” he says with a smile, “we’re doing this properly!” Sporting a look not unlike that of parents enticing children to eat vegetables, he creates a leafy mix with some tomatoes and cucumber and selects some Mangalore fried squid, to add some crunchiness. This preparation, combined with our selection of beef with coconut flakes, is a cool and crunchy mix that makes one forget about salads being ‘boring’.
In between trips to the soup and salad counters, the restaurant slowly begins to fill up, and the reasonably deserted space that presented itself at the beginning of the meal is now a bustle of activity, with quiet conversation and the clinking of plates and glasses filling the air.
Finally, the Chef gives his blessing to dig into the main spread and we promptly pile a plate high with Vishak mutton biriyani, kozhi kothamalli curry, meen peera and one of the stars of the show, Goan beef fry. The latter, marinated overnight in vinegar and made in traditional Goan style, adds a sweetish tinge to the flavour of beef and proves the perfect companion to the biriyani and is definitely a must have for meat lovers. Joji goes on to display the assortment of fishes laid out artistically at the live counter, and recommends the Seer fish and Vatta from among the selection, which also includes tuna, mackerel and the ever popular karimeen. Among the marinades available are the traditional (spicy paste used in Kerala recipes for fried fish), ginger and soya sauce, barbeque sauce, mustard sauce and so on. The Seer fish and Vatta fried in local style and with ginger and soya are deliciously succulent and are a treat even to those who are not fish lovers. To add to the attraction, the restaurant offers a free beer or mocktail to the diners as well.
Nothing like good food and conversation, they say, and this is the philosophy employed at ‘Masala’. The chefs mingle with the diners, recommending (and in some cases, preparing) dishes according to individual preferences. “We believe that being accessible to our clients goes a long way towards fostering a lasting relationship. If they are satisfied and feel they have got their money’s worth, then that is a compliment for us as well. Many people come and personally thank us after their meal and promise to return again. It is good for business but it feels great for us too,” says Joji.
The selection of dishes is from all over the South Indian coastline. The main favourites are Goan and Kerala, but dishes from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are included as well. The hotel plans to organise such festivals on a regular basis to provide some variety to their regular clientele.
Next on the agenda is dessert. And again the selection is diverse. From naadan Aval Vilayichathu and Palada payasam to dry fruit cake, Tiramisu and melt-in-mouth delicious strawberry gateaux, the flavours mingle together in a delicious kaleidoscope. Joji suggests some mango ice cream to provide a final sweet rush, and talks about the personal touch that Holiday Inn aims to offer. “It is a special experience to talk to everyone and attend to their needs. Here everybody is a guest,” he concludes.
It’s a little past nine now and ‘Masala’ is teeming with people. A walk back down the landing strip corridor reveals more and more guests arriving to sample the South Indian dishes. The festival is slated to conclude this Sunday, so it comes as no surprise that Kochi is in a hurry to get a taste of exotic ‘Masala’.