Chef Regi Mathew goes back to his roots as he traverses across Kerala to find traditional recipes from home kitchens that are showcased in his restaurants.
Growing up in a small village near Trivandrum in Kerala, Chef Regi Mathew, Co-Owner and Culinary Director, Kappa Chakka Kandhari Foods Pvt. Ltd. had an idyllic childhood surrounded with lush greenery and home cooked food made by his mother. While he never had the thought of becoming a chef then, he admits the memory of fresh ingredients that was locally available was always distinctly imprinted in his mind. Starting as a Hotel Operations Management trainee with the Taj Group of Hotels, he has spent over 25 years in the industry and has opened over 100 restaurants to date.
For someone who self admittedly wanted to have a fresh take on Kerala cuisine beyond the conventional Appam and Stew, Kerala Parota and Malabar Biryani His new venture Kappa Chakka Kandhari has been started with his friends, John Paul and Augustine Kurian. “When we were discussing this, each of us had our own stories so we thought if we actually went into people’s homes we could find so many more stories and recipes. The idea was to have a restaurant whose food would be a tribute to the cooking of a mother and what I enjoyed in my childhood.” The team went to over 265 homes and 70 toddy shops across Kerala to decide on what would define the food that would suit everyone’s palette. “As a result of this exploration, we found about so many more dishes that went beyond conventional understanding of Kerala cuisine. Like for instance the Chinese potato is something that is very local as is the Ramassery Idli cooked over a muslin-covered earthen pot, de-moulded with plachi leaves and served with either Kerala-style sambar or chicken curry.” In fact the Ramassery Idli is almost forgotten now with only four families who currently known how to make it and one of them works with Chef Regi. The approach the team took was to first ask their mother’s and then approached their mother’s friends. “Since we structured it this way, we had references from each household and they all welcomed us and shared their recipes with us without hesitation.” He admits that they found some of the best food in toddy shops as the patrons needed different kind of food every day. Quiz him on why these recipes have been forgotten he explains, “probably no one as the patience to listen to the stories and even if you know the recipes the ingredients may not be easily available and no one takes the effort for the same.”
Some of the recipes that he has discovered and find place in his restaurant include Chakka Vevichathu, boiled jackfruit, cooked with freshly ground spices and grated coconut; Kappa Vevichathu, boiled tapioca, mashed with crushed bird’s eye chillies and coconut, served with two fiery chammandis (dips) and Mutton Puttu Biryani, soft, steamy puttu layered with biryani masala topped with papaddam. Likewise, the Prawn Kizhi is flavourful with plump prawns, cooked with grated coconut and kodampuli, steamed in banana leaves and a vegetarian version with mushrooms is Koon Kizhi. Snacks like the Kappa Vada, where boiled tapioca is mashed with bird’s eye chillies and shallots and Ayakura Melodu Vachathu Chef Regi’s pièce de résistance- spicy, tangy tawa-grilled seer fish, marinated in tart gooseberry, green peppercorn and bird’s eye chilli are dishes you will not find anywhere else.
Sticking to the Roots
Naturally Chef Regi is passionate about sustainable business practices and believes in supporting local industry and produce. Sourcing of raw materials directly from farmers and from the place it is grown is very important. “People are become health conscious and are actively looking at what the previous generation was eating as this is suitable for your genes. Because someone in France is eating cheese you do not need to eat it in a tropical place like India.” As part of his food exploration, one thing that came out distinctly was that food tastes different because of the region in which it is grown. “This is why I have ensured that each raw material is sourced from the place it is best known for and we encourage farmers to grow them for us. We always use the best quality ingredients from the source whether it is coconuts from Thrissur, tapioca from Kottayam, jaggery from Marayoor, peppercorns from Pulpally in Wayanad and fish from Paravur backwaters.” A champion of old cooking styles, he is also working on a research project on ‘The Science of Indian Cooking and the importance of Spices’. “Our chicken curry is not called Kerala chicken curry but Ramapuram chicken curry as it is important to maintain the ethnicity of the region from where it comes.” His restaurant is named after the key ingredients – Kappa (tapioca), Chakka (jackfruit) and Kandhari (bird’s-eye chillies) and is all about bringing Kerala’s hidden culinary gems under the spotlight. He is clear that the future of food is in staying true to your roots and eating local regional food. After all mom is always right.
This story first appeared in The Tribune dated Feb 15, 2020 here: