Monday, 3 March 2014

THE GOOD CHEF: Custodian of Delhi's Dakshin is an Encyclopedia of Southern Gastronomy

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
Dakshin's Chef Velumurugan
Paul Raj lets his cooking speak
more eloquently than his words,
but that doesn't stop him from
constantly digging deeper to
 know more about the south's
numerous kitchens

I HAVE been having food cooked by Velumurugan Paul Raj at my favourite Dakshin for many years, so when Anchal Ghosh, the EDM-loving PR of the Sheraton New Delhi, extended me an invitation to sample the Mudaliar spread laid out by the restaurant last week, I jumped at the opportunity because it meant meeting the soft-spoken chef with a childlike smile who lets his cooking speak more eloquently than his words.
In the past, I had written about Mudaliar cuisine -- a culinary tradition developed by an essentially vegetarian community that started out as pioneering agriculturists in the time of the early Cholas -- so I needed another angle to my story to get me interested in it. I chose to use the opportunity to reflect on the man who started out as the understudy of Master Chef C.B. Shankaran and then made Dakshin the go-to restaurant for a pan-South Indian fine-dining experience.
What I love about Dakshin is the consistency of the quality of its offerings -- from the Iyer's Trolley, which is famous for its banana-flavoured mini dosais and the addictive kuzhi paniyarams, to the metre coffee at the end -- and its many festivals, which take us into parts and communities of the south that we never knew existed. For the Mudaliar Samayal Pandiga, for instance, Velu's team produced a divine Chow Chow Curry that I almost licked off the serving bowl. Chow chow, also known as chayote, is a humble vegetable of South American origin that is quite a favourite in Tamil Nadu. The Vazhaipoo Thattai, vadas made of yam, coconut, green chillies and aniseed, also left an indelible impression on my palate. If these preparations made with everyday vegetables and tubers can grab your attention because of the efflorescence of flavours on the palate, then there has to be something right about Dakshin.
Like most Mudaliars, who are now divided into 26 sub-castes spread across Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, Velu comes from a family of farmers. His father, grandfather, great-grandfather and their forefathers have all been farmers, originally from Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, although his family moved to Kerala. Just one member of his extended family, an uncle, has been in the hospitality business for more than 40 years -- he owns one- and two-star hotels in and around Kochi -- and it is his advice that Velu keeps remembering: "In our business, your happiness depends entirely on the happiness of others."
Velu continues to be connected with the soil, helping his father whenever he can to nurture their five-acre farm near Munnar, Kerala, where they grow 'exotic fruits' such as sharifa (custard apple). His umbilical connection with the soil is taking him to the Servarayan Hills, a detached range that straddles nearly 400 sq. km. near the Tamil Nadu town of Salem. Famous for its old coffee estates and the orchidarium run by the Botanical Survey of India, as well as the hill station of Yercaud, Servarayan beckons Velu, despite its difficult terrain and troublesome leeches, because of the prospects it holds out for the discovery of wild mushrooms and root vegetables that can bring a whiff of novelty to the Dakshin menu. This urge for discovery is a trait that Velu has clearly imbibed from Dakshin's brand custodian and brilliant chef, Praveen Swamy, who has not only made the world aware of the many variations of a cuisine that we lump under the umbrella term 'South Indian', but also recovered the lost recipes of the Chola, Chola and Pandya kingdoms.
Velu launched his career 20 years ago at the Southern Spice restaurant in Taj Coromandel, Chennai. He joined Dakshin in 2003 and has 40 food promotions behind him. His work has taken him to various places in the south, but the experience that left a lasting impression on his was his stint at Mangalore, where he got an opportunity to dig deeper into the area's distinctive cuisine and the famous vegetarian fare of Udupi's maths (I first got to know him, in fact, when he organised an Udupi food promotion at Dakshin many years ago). He has even been to Russia, where he mastered the art of cooking horse meat,  a skill he hasn't been able to put to good use after his return to India, but give him fish curry and rice and you'll see break into his infectious smile.
I asked Velu what his forefathers ate and he said their staple, especially during the blazing summer months, was cold fermented rice (it reminded me of the Bengali paanta bhaat) served with sun-dried red chillies and vegetables such as butter beans, black eyed peas (lobia), okra, cluster beans (gawar phali) and brinjal. Why are Mudaliars so partial to sun-dried foodstuff (they even have dried seafood)? Velu said it was purely a response to the harsh weather that made it impossible for fresh vegetables to grow in most months of the year.
Modern storage and transportation methods may have changed the way people eat, but the Mudaliars haven't given up their love for dried vegetables. Incidentally, Mudaliars even cook fish -- surmai (king fish) and snakehead fish or murrel (viral meen in Tamil) are their favourites -- with vegetables, mainly okra and drumsticks. The community's agrarian and vegetarian roots keep showing up in its cuisine, but their marriages feasts are the stuff of legends, for it is at these events that the Mudaliar repertoire of spices -- nutmeg (jaiphal), star anise (chakra phool), mace (javitri), clove (laung), cinnamon (dalchini) and green cardamom (chhoti elaichi) -- find their true expressions.
It takes only a couple of hours with Velu to have a good meal and come back with a large helping of food for thought. He is Delhi's walking encyclopedia on the south's numerous kitchens, each churning out secrets that need a master to decode and share with the world.