Jomon Kuriakose's Kerala

The chef heading up Baluchi, in The Lalit London, for the past five years says his menu – perhaps appropriate to this former school building –
is a tribute to ‘memories and food habits’ from his childhood in Kerala.

Jomon Kuriakose's Kerala Photo

Spend a few minutes in the company of Jomon Kuriakose and you’ll quickly discover why he became a chef. Ingredients and dishes are woven through every story of his Keralan upbringing – the fragrant spices, milky coconut and sharp tamarind add more than colour to his anecdotes: they’re part of the main narrative. To paraphrase that old adage, Jomon is amiable proof that you can take the boy out of Kerala but you can’t take Kerala – or its food – out of the boy.

‘My whole childhood belongs to food,’ he explains. Like many chefs, he describes his mother’s home cooking with a sense of longing. What’s perhaps more unusual is how solo meals out shaped so many of his formative food memories. With his father working away in Saudi Arabia and his pocket money seemingly disappearing, Jomon’s worried mother spoke to one of his teachers, concerned he’d been buying alcohol or cigarettes. ‘She cooked for us three or four times a day, so she didn’t believe me when I told her I’d been spending it on food,’ he says. Jomon remembers having to convince his teacher, saying: ‘For me, it’s not necessarily about the food, but I’m searching for flavour.’ He remembers it as the first time someone suggested he explore hospitality as a career.

If this quest for flavour was an early obsession, there can be few better hunting grounds than the state of Kerala – which starts near the southern tip of India and snakes up the western Malabar Coast. It’s a small state – just one per cent of India’s total land mass – but with enormous variety. Postcards often show houseboats wending along the Alleppey Backwaters or the Chinese fishing nets in Kochi, but there’s also the tea grown in the Western Ghats and coffee cultivated in forests around Wayanad. There are tamarind groves, cardamom plantations, the Palakkad rice fields and famous Alleppey turmeric – known for being bright and loaded with health benefits – as well as Kerala’s namesake coconut (kera translating as ‘coconut’ and alam meaning ‘land’ in native Malayalam).

Perhaps the ingredient that has had most impact on the region is the black peppercorn, which attracted trade as far back as Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Known as ‘black gold’, it remained a treasured commodity for millennia. Indeed, the first direct sea route from Europe to India was forged in 1498 when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in Kerala in search of a peppercorn bounty. With fortunes to be made, it soon became a well-trodden trade route, and it was in Kerala that the Portuguese first introduced the chilli to India, as well as vindaloo (based on Portuguese carne de vinha d’alhos).

Thanks to centuries of trade, the region remains something of a culinary melting pot. There’s the Persian flavour of the Mappila cuisine inspired by Malabar’s Muslim community and the Indo-Jewish cuisine that ranges from rice-flour dumplings to the Cochin Jewish cutlet – not unlike a schnitzel. The ayurvedic diet continues to inform Keralan cuisine, as well as enduring traditions like sadhya – a celebratory meal often consisting of a dozen vegetarian dishes, served on a fresh banana leaf, with diners sitting cross-legged on a mat, eating with their hands. Such rituals may remain rooted in tradition, but it’s not unusual for them to be served with a cola or rounded-off with a scoop of Pappai’s jackfruit or chikoo (sapodilla) ice cream. Jomon suggests the best route to the heart of Kerala’s unique flavour is through breakfast. ‘There’s no better example,’ he says, launching into a description of puttu: ‘It’s a steamed rice cake with fresh grated coconut on top – you might have it with ripe plantains or boiled eggs.’ It’s a cuisine that uses spice for fragrance as much as heat, with fruity tamarind for sharpness and coconuts or cashew for creaminess. ‘Have you had appam and stew for breakfast? It’s one of the best things ever,’ Jomon continues, describing the fermented rice batter pancakes – pale, pocked with bubbles. ‘My mother would often keep back some of the chicken curry we had for dinner and then she’d thin it out with coconut milk and serve it with appam for breakfast: total heaven!’

Unsurprisingly, the geography of Jomon’s home state is dictated almost entirely by his tastebuds: ‘Kerala is long and narrow – if you travelled it from top to bottom it would take about 15 hours by road or by train,’ he says. ‘And if you stopped every hour along the coast for a meal, then you’d end up with 15 very different dishes because the state has so many different regions, ingredients, spices, local delicacies and culinary traditions.’ ‘In the north there’s more meat, kebabs and beef curry – it dates back to an Arabian influence,’ Jomon explains. ‘The state capital Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) is famous for vegetarian dishes like kadala curry – black chickpeas, coconut milk, curry leaves.’ Jomon talks about Malabar biryani with coconut chutney, steamed rice cakes, sweetened rice kheer and, of course, the seafood the region is most famous for. ‘In Kollam and around the backwaters you’ll get the best prawns and lobsters,’ he says.

His hometown of Mavelikara – just 50km north of Kollam and still in the Alleppey region – is best known for its network of brackish lagoons and canals. ‘I often go back, and like to take my three daughters. I want them to have a connection with their heritage,’ he says. Far from whiling away time lounging on a houseboat, his trips are often gastronomically led. ‘The best way to understand a culture is to eat – and not just at the upmarket places. You’ll pick up more regional variations from roadside snacks, chai stands, local shops; that’s often where the real flavour bombs are. ‘Last time I was in Kerala, I travelled from my hometown to Calicut (Kozhikode),’ he continues. ‘It’s almost eight hours north on the train and it’s very rural; there are beautiful forests and magnificent waterfalls.’ True to form, Jomon eschewed traditional tourism: ‘Most people plan their trips by landmarks or places, but my plan was all about where I was having breakfast, what I was doing for lunch, where I was going for dinner...’ After all, the state’s second largest city is now rebranding itself as Kerala’s ‘culinary capital’. Jomon wasn’t disappointed: sulaimani spiced black tea sweetened with jaggery and served with pazham pori (banana fritters); date pickle alongside the local biryani; and arikadukka, mussels stuffed with spiced shallot paste.

It’s a combination of these research trips and the chef’s Proustian memories that continue to inspire the ever-evolving menu at Baluchi. ‘I recently watched a movie about sandalwood smuggling and it triggered something,’ says Jomon. ‘It’s a smell that takes me right back to a strong childhood memory. In Hindu mythology, people put sandalwood paste on their forehead and I wanted to somehow capture that very distinct aroma, so I started experimenting and created the sandalwood-scented, tandoor- roasted chicken dish that is currently on the menu.’

The London Bridge restaurant may label itself as ‘pan-Indian’ but it’s Jomon’s intention to hone in even further on Keralan cuisine and the stories behind the dishes. ‘My ambition is to stand as an ambassador for my culture and particularly the dishes that are unknown outside Kerala,’ he says – disappearing again into a homily on lesser-known spices and ingredient combinations. Somewhere, just beneath the surface, is that 15-year old boy, still very much engaged in his singular pursuit of flavour.


CHEENAVALA, KOCHI Great Keralan dishes, with
a focus on seafood – and a crab-inspired decor. Noted for its creative dessert menu. 00 91 484 280 3456

VAZHIYORAKKADA, TRIVANDUM Family-run, unassuming restaurant offering a range of classic dishes, from breakfast to dinner.

RESTAURANT CHEF PILLAI, KOCHI A fine-dining concept at the five-star Le Méridien Kochi with a strong emphasis on seafood or, as the chef’s hallmark preparation has it, ‘fish Nirvana’ and ‘God’s own lobster’.

RAMEES, KOLLAM For dishes that go beyond the predictable in a contemporary setting at very reasonable prices. 00 91 474 201 6666

THE LEELA KOVALAM The only clifftop luxury resort in Kerala, the sunset views from this five-star are rather special, and there’s access
to a beach.

VELLAKKANTHAARI RESTAURANT, ELAMAKKARA A tiny, intimate seafood spot with sweeping views of the sea. The crab and prawns, in particular, are celebrated – you may have to queue but they’re worth it. 00 91 88914 35587

AYURSOMA AYURVEDA ROYAL RETREAT, KOVALAM Is it a hotel? Is it a retreat? Is it an ayurvedic hospital? All the above. A multi-award-winning, boutique property promoting the Indian science of wellbeing through diet, massage and yoga.

Jomon Kuriakose's Kerala Photo

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