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South West India's coast guard

Why does South West Indian coastal food begin and end with Mangalorean prawn gassi? A Bandra chef is determined to broaden the horizon

I have more fisherwomen friends than regular women pals,” admits Bandra-based chef Sandeep Sreedharan with a straight face, adding a story to the fact. “I was in New York recently and got three missed calls from an unknown Mumbai number. A fisherwomen had called to tell me she had caught a small octopus. ‘What do I do with it’, she asked me,” Sreedharan narrates.

Fish pulimulaguFish pulimulagu

The 42-year-old says he has 21 such ‘friends’ who reach out to him when they land a fresh catch, and another 15 across the south western coast of India. “I get my mussels from north Kerala, oysters from Kochi and squid from Kozhikode,” says Sreedharan, who quit his job in October to launch Coastal Flavours, a delivery service that focuses on authentic recipes from north Kerala, Goa and Mangalore. “The idea is to offer the freshest seafood with flavours from the coast.” If you want special attention, and are willing to pay a price, Sreedharan will organise a special sit-down dinner too, gaining clientele via his blog Esca Brahma.

Sandeep Sreedharan plates up modern Indian coastal dishes . pic/sameer sayed abedi
Sandeep Sreedharan plates up modern Indian coastal dishes . Pic/Sameer Sayed Abedi

Memory lane
Sreedharan took to cooking when he was in the fifth grade. “My father was in the Army and I spent my childhood in Kanpur, Bangalore and Kerala. I was inspired by my father, who would have breakfast ready for the family at 8 am.” At engineering college in Bangalore, his cooking prowess came handy when feasts were rustled up with wares sneaked out of the canteen kitchen.

Tellicherry paepper crusted lamb with date chutney and garlic coulee
Tellicherry paepper crusted lamb with date chutney and garlic coulee

His move from Mumbai, where he worked as an electronic engineer to Lausanne, Switzerland for a Masters programme marked his first global culinary exposure. “One day, I offered to cook lamb curry for a friend’s family. His mother offered me New Zealand lamb to cook. I made the dish and waited for her reaction. She gave none. It was only later that I realised that you shouldn’t overcook lamb.” This lesson he kept in mind when he returned to Mumbai. “My job required me to travel 180 days. I used my free time to try local cuisine wherever I went,” says Sreedharan, who launched the blog to document his own recipes and techniques. “Soon, I earned a few followers who had tried my recipes. People, mostly friends and family, appreciated my food,” he adds.

Coastal food on the map Sreedharan throws us a question: “What’s the second most popular cuisine in the world?”

“Indian?”

“No, it is Thai. Indian comes third. You know why? Because there is no such thing as Indian food — we have over 500 different cuisines, and culinary habits change every 100 kilometres. Thai, on the other hand, refers to one region. It’s one of the reasons why Indian coastal food isn’t all that popularised.”

That it is poorly advertised makes matters worse. “If we talk about Western coastal food, only Malwani and Mangalorean, it’s either gassi or curry.”

Sreedharan wishes to focus attention on north Kerala cuisine, which is where his hometown, Mahe, sits. “Kerala’s Malabar region is known for ethnic Moplah (local term for Muslims in the state) dishes. The food is subtle in spice, but high on flavour. When we make fish, we mix it with onion, green chillies, curry leaves, ginger-garlic and cumin. Cook it for eight minutes and that’s it,” he explains, adding that the cooking technique from the region is rarely cumbersome. Sreedharan hopes to find a commercial kitchen by the end of January. “The idea is to open a restaurant that will serve high quality seafood.”

Global touch
On the other hand, Esca Brahma (Esca means food in Latin; Brahma is creator in Sanskrit) will offer modern versions of Indian coastal food marked by the use of global techniques.

“One of my dishes, lamb is a Tellicherry pepper-crusted lamb served with a date chutney, banana chips and topped with curry leaf oil. This, I serve with a French-inspired garlic coulee to make it creamy. Another is a piece of fish with a Tellichery pepper, organic all-spice jus with pickled apples and caramelised fig,” says Sreedharan, who likes to add fresh ingredients to all dishes. “Indians want things overcooked. We are not used to eating a big piece of fish since we like accompaniments. Reverse this one simple habit, and you will be making an instant healthy food choice,” he says.

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