Sauce of mackerel cooked with mango in coconut milk, spiced up with chilli and turmeric, served on a bed of potato infused with curry leaves and garnished with samphire pachadi and coriander oil. A perfect blend of the East and the West, this was the signature dish that Suresh Pillai made and served as a participant of BBC’s MasterChef in 2017.
For Suresh, it was another instance when he turned to his roots to whip up a creation that made the most of his creativity and expertise as a master chef. The same ingenuity that he brings to his workplace as headchef of Hoppers, London. “If one has the experience and the imagination, there are a lot of exciting and delicious creations in Kerala and South Indian cuisine that one can redefine and synthesise to suit different palates. Njally varatharachathu, wild garlic hoppers, beetroot-infused pink hoppers that we serve on Valentine’s Day at Hoppers... are all examples of such ingenuity,” says Suresh.
He points out that though Indian food, specifically curry, is extremely popular in UK, most Londoners believe that Indian food means Punjabi food. “There are a few Bengali and South Indian eateries too but the great diversity of Indian cuisine and Kerala food is still quite a novelty. I am happy I could add to their palate,” he adds.
Although jet-lagged after a hectic trip to the Bahamas where he took classes for more than 600 to 700 wannabe chefs, Suresh points out that it was a huge honour for him to take classes in a college. “I was never able to go to college and so this was a special session indeed.”
The soft-spoken, genial chef is all set to make his way to Kerala after 14 years of wooing and winning taste buds in the UK while working in Michelin-starred restaurants. It is a homecoming that chef Suresh Pillai could not have imagined in his wildest dreams. Not when he was perfecting his hoppers, masalas and signature seafood recipes in steamy kitchens in restaurants or whipping up delicacies in snazzy kitchens in world-class resorts.
As he gets ready to don the cap of the executive chef of the Raviz Group, Suresh says he is looking forward to sharing his experience and food memories with Indians. And what makes it more special is that the master chef will be posted in his home town — Kollam.
“At the Raviz restaurants, I hope to introduce foodies to dishes that will highlight the real taste of seafood, meat and veggies. I have noticed that most Indians, especially Malayalis, tend to drown the succulent juice of fresh food in different spices. In some places, so much of masala is added that every dish tastes the same. It becomes difficult to distinguish even the meat. One does not know whether one is eating beef or mutton,” says Suresh, over the phone from London.
He plans to make sure that world-class hygiene standards are followed in the kitchens under his supervision without compromising on flavour or authenticity of the dishes.
“While most of us are foodies with strong food memories, many of us miss out on the real flavours of the food on our plate. Many widely travelled Indians now look forward to enjoying those subtle tastes while dining out. So, while indulging them with the best that our kitchens can offer, I hope to entice them to savour the actual taste of seafood and meat that are cooked right and not overdone,” explains Suresh.
The excitement in his voice is palpable as he makes plans. The chef is leaving the country on a triumphant note, having been awarded the ‘news person of the year’ among British Malayalis.
Suresh insists he knew that food was his forte since the age of 16. He was then into his first job as a waiter at an eatery in Kollam. “I was studying as a private student since I could not get admission at SN College in Kollam. I was heartbroken but the job at Chef King in Bishop Jerome Nagar, Kollam, was a godsend. The kitchen was a magnet and I persuaded the management to let me work part time in the kitchen as well. The ₹450 I drew as salary was then worth ₹1 lakh as I was able to contribute to the family kitty,” he recalls.
A passionate chess player, Suresh, the then under-18 champion of the district, went to Kozhikode to participate in the chess championship. Suresh was checkmated by his competitors but Kozhikode’s melting pot of cuisines persuaded him to try his luck there and he joined a leading eatery there. The culinary traditions of Kozhikode and the food culture of the district enriched his menu. “From there, I moved to Coconut Grove in Bengaluru where I was able to learn to cook Coorg, Chettinad and Konkan food. Each stint has been a learning experience and my final port of call in Bengaluru was The Leela Palace,” he recalls.
After his marriage to Remya, Suresh joined as sous chef at the Kumarakom Lake Resorts and it was while working there that he got a chance to work at Veeraswamy, perhaps the oldest Indian restaurant in UK, before moving to Hoppers.
The chess player in him has taken advantage of every move to enhance his skills as a chef. Suresh’s aim is to showcase how food should be an experience in itself and he sees himself as a brand ambassador of Kerala’s cooking pot. If his participation in Masterchef was to encourage more Indians to take part in such shows and “promote Indian cuisines abroad”, his present move is to elevate fine dining to a memorable experience to cherish. Cheers to that.
THE TASTE ROOTS
The youngest son of daily wages labourers, Sasidharan Pillai and Radhamma, from Thekkumbhagam, a picturesque isle near Chavara in Kollam, Suresh recalls: “My place is home to some of the richest and the tastiest seafood in India and so even when vegetables and rice were in short supply, there would be no dearth of seafood. And my mother has always been an excellent cook. My taste buds were honed by her cooking and I still seek recipes from her,” says the proud son. He wants to revive those simple but flavoursome recipes in restaurants too. He points out that some of the most delicious food that we enjoy in our homes are often not found on the menus of eateries.
COOKING IN THE BAHAMAS
“It was a memorable experience. Most of the cooking was grills and fries and they did not use much of spices but for salt and pepper. Meat of conch is extremely popular in the Bahamas and I cooked that with our spices. The islands are rich in seafood and home to many kinds of mangoes and drumsticks. Most people relished the ripe mango but the raw fruit was not used much in cooking. The same with coconuts and drumstick. I introduced them to stews, new marinades, spices and coconut-based sauces. In turn, I also learnt many new things. The leaves of the moringa is used to make a kind of tea called drumstick tea. The leaves of the moringa are dried and powdered and stored. It is put in boiling water to be infused and tea is made. It is said to have many health benefits.”
WHAT WAS THAT AGAIN?
As for the signature dish that Suresh prepared in Ma sterchef , most Malayalis would recognise it as the gravy of ayala and mango fish curry served on a bed of potato masala with a pachadi made of an edible seaweed and tempered with coriander.
RECIPE OF MEEN VARUTHARACHATHU
Fish (Neymeen/seer fish, karutha avoli/Black pomfret, karimeen/pearl spot, shark, therandi/sting rig or any big variety) - 1 kg, cut into small pieces
Freshly grated coconut - 300 gm (use frozen or desicccated if fresh coconut is not available)
Red chilli powder- 20 gm
Coriander powder - 25 gm
Roasted fenugreek powder - 3 gm
Green chilli, slit in the middle - 3
Curry leaves- as needed
Kudampuli or Malabar tamarind - 4, soaked in water (you can use tamarind if kudampuli is not available)
Rock salt - A little
Coconut oil - 15 ml
Mustard - 5 gm
Dried red chilli, slit in the middle - 2
Shallots, sliced into small pieces - 2
Roast the coconut in non-stick pan or a heavy-bottomed vessel. Reduce the flame as it gets roasted. Ensure it does not get burned. Add red chilli powder, coriander powder and fenugreek powder, mix well and keep it on the stove for two more minutes. Once the mix cools, grind it in a mixer grinder to a fine paste without adding water. If you are using tamarind, grind it along with the mix.
Cook the mix in a pan (it is better to use a clay pot) adding water and the green chillies. The quantity of water should be in accordance with the quantity of fish. Add salt. When it boils well, add the cleaned fish. Once the fish is well cooked, add tamarind water (if you are using Malabar tamarind) and curry leaves. Once the gravy attains the consistency of double cream, take it off the stove. Heat oil in a pan to saute mustard, dried red chilli and shallots. Pour it onto the fish curry. Keep it closed for at least an hour. Have it once the curry is cooled.