Since last December, we have been involved in tasting and discussing the new menus from an iconic Taj restaurant – Karavalli. Internationally renowned for its unique representations of the regional cuisines of the South West Coast, Karavalli, meaning 'the land by the shore' is in a class by itself and the new menu boasts several outstanding additions and rare culinary treats, carefully put together after years of planning.
Behind the scenes at Karavalli, you will find gigantic versions of your grandmother's cooking vessels that are now almost obsolete in modern kitchens. The food is served in beautifully styled brass, copper, bell metal and cast iron dishes. If this sounds like the fast disappearing, traditional south Indian home, that is precisely the ambience that has been carefully re-created here, reinforced when the food arrives. These are the kinds of flavours that you would expect to find when a friend invites you home to a special meal, where a mother or aunt has cooked much loved family favourites, following a recipe handed down the generations with the best, the freshest ingredients available. Karavalli's reputation is built on a solid bank of such family recipes, garnered carefully over months of travel and years of detective work from homes in coastal Karnataka, Goa and Kerala, and some forays a little inland, to Syrian Christian and Coorg homes.
The man most closely associated with this remarkable, multiple award -winning restaurant, is Barianda Naren Thimmaiah. A Murnad lad, Thimmaiah grew up on the unique cuisine of his native Coorg, distinctly shaped by the seasons, a background that helps him understand perfectly the philosophy of Karavalli: a philosophy that presents seasonal specials and pays obsessive attention to sourcing authentic raw materials and spices to create that perfect dish. Kachampuli, for instance, the prized Coorg vinegar, black pepper and cardamom, all grown on the soil of Coorg, with their unique flavours are procured fresh from carefully selected suppliers. And on the menu are two Coorg favourites – koli barthad, dark, pepper fried chicken, a quintessential Coorg fry, offered up at every home. Chickens, free range and full of flavour were always available, so this was an easily prepared, popular dish with chunks of chicken and a dash of kachampuli, full of the fire of home grown peppercorns. The second offering from Coorg is bollari barthad, fried Mangalore cucumber, typical in its simplicity of the Coorg vegetarian menu. In true Karavalli style, both these recipes are from a Coorg housewife, who takes pride in her excellent table – Chef Naren Thimmaiah's mother!
Chef Thimmaiah has had his share of national and international recognition. In 2005, he represented India at the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore, one of the few Indian chefs to do so, since it was established in 1997. In 2009 he was judged the Best Chef Of India, in his category at the National Tourism Awards and, in 2010, he was among ten Indian chefs chosen by the Singapore Tourism Board to be part of a prestigious Chefs Exchange Programme. You are likely to spot him on TV shows, in food magazines and the newspapers, frequently.
The affable and imperturbable Thimmaiah takes all the press and attention as part of a days work. He is more interested in innovating and experimenting to refine the dining experience the restaurant offers and even more importantly, keeping the quality consistent from one day to the next. He travels often visiting small eateries and homes across the South West Coast on the track of an elusive recipe or ingredient. He remains rooted in the culture and traditions of Coorg, and having grown up with its cuisine, observing its preparations and understanding its nuances, he brings a rare expertise to his work.
Karavalli is on the S.Pellegrino list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants
Image Credits: Chef Naren Thimmaiah