Of Kerala's goodness

Updated: Sep 01, 2019, 08:09 IST | Phorum Dalal | Mumbai

Marina Balakrishnan went back to culinary school at 51, interned at Garima Arora's GAA and is now spreading happiness through her homestyle Ayurvedic Keralite food

Thali with Meen Pollichatu, sambar, appam and pachadi
Thali with Meen Pollichatu, sambar, appam and pachadi

IN a wooden bowl, a story unfolds. A flourless lentil pie spiced with rose and garam masala sits alongside a banana flower boat that holds moong sprout salad that has been infused with curry leaf dressing. It takes many bites of the different elements for the tale to unravel on the palate.

Back to the classroom
The meal moves to a millet khichdi with moringa leaves, and a turmeric pannacotta that leaves a hint of pepper as an aftertaste. The series is nourishing, light on the stomach and a melody of flavours that also includes ayurvedic goodness of rose petals, ashwagandha, liquorice and spices offered by Arqa Spices from their Ayurveda section that launched at Foodhall in Santacruz last week.

Chicken stew
Chicken stew

When we ask to meet the chef that has prepared this wholesome meal, the petite Marina Balakrishnan, whose Instagram handle @thethalasserygirl is full of droolworthy posts of tea cakes, pies, and Keralite delicacies, walks up to our table. A certified plant-based chef from The Natural Gourmet Institute, New York, the 55-year-old became a culinary student at the age of 51 and even worked at Mercer kitchen with Chris Beischer and wellness chefs, Stefanie Sacks and Marti Wolfson, in New York.

In May, Balakrishnan interned at Garima Arora's Bangkok restaurant GAA. "I wrote to Garima saying, I am passionate and dedicated, and don't have much restaurant experience. The idea of working with youngsters was overwhelming, but the experience gave me the direction I needed. Age doesn't matter when you are ready to work hard," says Balakrishnan who has also studied Ayurveda in Mahe, Kerala.

Marina Balakrishnan at her home in Juhu
Marina Balakrishnan at her home in Juhu

Food memories
Armed with culinary education, Balakrishnan realised her love for cooking stemmed from her childhood, and began to focus on Malabar and Keralite cuisine through classes and pop-ups. She grew up in a joint family home in Thalassery in north Kerala, where meals were shared at a 16-seater dining table with her grandmother playing head chef. "In a time of modern progressive cooking, my grandmother's cooking resonates the most [with me]. We had a woodfire hearth and she slow cooked everything, and hardly used a stove.

Thalassery is known for its tea cakes, which she cooked in a pressure cooker. Now, I often replicate her masala cookies with peppercorn and curry leaves," says Balakrishnan, who sources all her ingredients from South India, including peppercorns that come from her mother's plantation. "My mother and aunt have most of the recipes written in small notebooks in Malayali and I have been working on developing some of the recipes. Our home was suffused with the fragrance of curry leaves and mustard seeds," Balakrishnan later tells us over lunch at her Juhu home.

Over a spread of chicken stew, Kerala meen pollichatu (fish steamed in banana leaf), pachadi, appams, rice and sambar, she introduces us to Malabar cuisine, which apart from the flaky and layered Malabar parotta, is known for its tea snacks and dishes from the Muslim community such as unnakaya—a deep-fried mashed banana fritter stuffed with coconut and jaggery and dryfruits. "The Godamba payasam in our household is rather unique, where the wheat berry is slow cooked in an uruli (brass pot) and flavoured with jaggery and raisins," says Balakrishnan, who offers us a warm bowl for dessert.

"I divide a recipe into components and chart a map of how I can represent an ingredient's best flavour. When I am cooking, I give the process my undivided attention, preferring not to talk much and focus on the techniques. Cooking is meditative," says Balakrishnan, who has a string of pop-ups lined up in Delhi and Hyderabad. In Mumbai, she will soon start her cooking classes.

Follow @thatthalasserygirl on Instagram or write to her on marinasoulfood@gmail.com

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