Homemakers like Samundeswari are entering star hotel kitchens to revive grandma’s recipes and the homely taste of food
Who wouldn’t envy M. Samundeswari? At 52 and without a formal degree, she has walked into a job at the gourmet kitchen of The Gateway Hotel of the Taj group at Pasumalai. She wears the apron and cap and rubs shoulders with English-speaking chefs armed with degrees in Catering and Hotel Management.
Yet, she is the lovable “Amma” in the five-star kitchen, single-handedly dishing out home-made recipes for in-house guests and visitors to the hotel. The young chefs don’t mind when she corrects their cooking style or portions. As the only woman chef in the kitchen, she gives them tips on how “the food should just taste right”. She is on duty daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rolling out a platter of rural cuisine which seems to be increasingly in demand. She is quick, focussed, meticulous and unfussy, say her colleagues.
Samundeswari is the hotel’s discovery in a new approach to serving food. “She has been hired to dish out authentic provincial flavours,” says General Manager Devraj Singh, “as part of our group’s Home-Style Regional Food menu launched across all Gateway Hotels.”
Samundeswari has been briefed but she is her own master. “I enjoy cooking and cook the same way I do at home. Given my age, local guests must be getting a taste of their mother’s cooking and for the foreigners it is something new,” she says.
Taj Corporate Chef K. Natarajan’s initiative has caught on. “Why would anyone go out to eat home food? But there are guests who come to hotels craving for it. Locals want a break from their home kitchen or a change in taste, people travelling often on business look forward to eating simple ghar ka khana and foreigners ask for typical local food,” says Mr.Devraj.
Common items like sambar, rasam, poriyal, gravy and sweet constitute Samundeswari’s cyclic menu. “Daily I prepare six to eight varieties and decide which vegetables and in what combinations after I get the basket of items from the hotel every morning,” she says.
She makes her own masalas. “Once I finish preparing the day’s lunch, I roast, pound and grind the condiments and spices that I will require the next day. Packet masalas in the market don’t have the same aroma, I never use them,” she says, adding her food has always been liked by all her family members. “I do it with the same love and care here. Guests often tell me they enjoyed the food. For me, cooking is something very natural and effortless.” She chooses to cook in less oil, without artificial flavours, colours or additives. Every dish is cooked in clay pots. “That’s where nostalgia and taste comes from,” she smiles. “I feel comfortable inside my territory, the kitchen, and like to do everything by myself.”
The home-cooked menu is not available for room service. “Like at home, it should be served piping hot straight from the kitchen,” she says. Her favourites are kathrika pulikuzhambu, potato masala and kathrikai chutney. But her hit item is the killi potta sambar. “Whenever I make it, some guests will enquire and I give them on-the-spot demo on the trolley,” she says.
She has an inherent confidence about the food she cooks, yet she is anxious to serve a fully satisfying meal to the guests. There is little doubt that from reigning as the little-known queen in her own kitchen, Samundeswari has become a speciality chef and is drawing people to The Gateway’s dining tables.
Samundeswari’s platter: ‘Tulsi vetrelai saru’, a starter drink made with garden fresh basil and betel leaves. , Vazhaipoo vadai, banana flower infused with lentils and grounded South Indian spices, the kara paniyaram, rice and lentil batter tempered with select south Indian spices and pan fried and Moru kali urundai, rice dumpling tossed in aromatic Madurai spices and paruppu podi, as accompaniments.
For the main course, rice and chapatis come with butter beans masala, poondu and paruppu urundai kozhambu, athalakkai poriyal, seasonal vegetables tempered in South Indian spices and coconut and murugakeerai thovattal, a regional delicacy with young drumstick leaves wilted with pearl onions and coconut.
The kavan arisi pongal made with black rice and paal kozhukattai, rice dumplings cooked in condensed coconut milk, make a sweet ending.
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