Cuisine with a wellness soul

Presidential Villa 2

The world is moving towards eating more sustainably and looking at their neighborhood for ingredients and recipes. Niraamaya Retreats have curated a menu that mines the local culinary heritage to come up with menus that blend innovative with experimental. Look out for the chef’s inventive Kerala tapas!
As the world eats more mindfully, conscious of their health and food miles, local, seasonal cuisines are increasingly becoming crucial. With greater research going into unearthing traditional recipes and incorporating them into menus, the best hotels and resorts are showing the way to a healthier lifestyle.

From the famous Noma restaurant at Copenhagen to the push given to local cuisine at many of Mandarin Oriental’s hotels across the world, eating local is a global trend.Niraamaya Retreats, where wellness is a way of life and hospitality, has gone the extra mile in ensuring a superlative menu designed by executive chef Prakash Nayak, with an accent on the local. So much so that even within its three retreats in Kerala, located at Kovalam, Kumarakom and Thekkady, the cuisine is significantly different.

“We are not called resort or hotel, we are called a retreat”, stresses the chef, indicating the ways in which Niraamaya is different from other abodes. “We focus on locally available fare on the menu. For example, you won’t find any of my menu is repeated if you travel across Kerala, where we have three properties. We do not serve lamb chop, foie gras, caviar, etc in our retreats. We focus on the daily available and make for dishes accordingly. Our focus is on the cuisine.”

The chef explains that to differentiate their menu from other hotels, “we use the same ingredients but prepare them differently”. Fish curries are a staple across the state, but in the Niraamaya retreats, they are cooked using different techniques. “To prepare a fish curry, we take the same kappa or cassava which is commonly prepared and make it with mango sauce. We take local ingredients and make it to international standards.”

One state, many local cuisines

Even though a quick glance at the map indicates Kerala to be a rather thin strip, the state’s geographic and climatic diversity is immense. Niraamaya’s retreats in the state are located in three very different locations – from the beach to the hills of Thekkady and the backwaters. While the retreat at Kovalam is on the beach, the one at Kumarakom is on the backwaters while the Thekkady retreat is located amongst sylvan hills that are home to India’s richest collection of spices.

Traditionally, Kerala’s different regions such as Alleppey, Travancore and Malabar are known for their distinct cuisines, shaped over centuries by the physical space they occupy, the play of seasons, as well as cultural influences, both local and global. For example, in Travancore Fish Curry drumstick is often used, while in Malabar, the use of tamarind is common and in Alleppey, people use raw mango. “In Thekkady, we have a Malabar Fish Curry on the menu as most people travel to the retreat from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka,” explains the chef. “We use of lot of spices grown locally – black pepper and cardamom, for instance. At Thekkady, since it is a forest area, we do not get sea fish; instead, we use river fish, and there is more use of meat. At the Kovalam retreat, we use a lot of drumstick and raw banana. As it is next to the sea, we use immense amount of seafood too. In Kumarakom, more of raw mango and fish from the backwaters is used.”

Cooking side dishes, and even snacks, in banana leaf is a common practice in the state and the retreats offer different stuffing at each. “In Kovalam, we offer Fish Pollichathu in banana leaf, while in Kumarakom, chicken and in Thekkady, we do Beef wrapped in banana leaf.”

Another example chef gives is of a favourite Kerala staple – the jackfruit. “We use a local vegetable like jackfruit, very commonly used in Kerala and make a jackfruit cheesecake; the jackfruit flour is used make chapatti or phulka. It is gluten-free and dairy-free. When we look at what people were using 300 years ago, you will realise they were not using exotic vegetables. They made flour and curries from jackfruit.”

An innovation at the retreats is chef’s unique creation – the Kerala tapas. “It has 12 courses. It is part of natural basket, which we keep in thali katoris. This tapas has seafood and meat and vegetables, served with local bread.”

Challenges remain

To be local and translate it at an international level, is a challenge of course. It is very difficult to source vegetables and fruits if the retreat is out of the way, such as Thekkady, Kumarakom and Kovalam retreats, the chef points out. “In Kumarakom, it all comes from Kochi. In Thekkady, it all comes from Tamil Nadu. The biggest challenges for chefs around the world are to get the right kind of cheese. I know how to make cheese myself, so I make it at all out properties, such as mozzarella, cream cheese and mascarpone. We own cows. Ghee and virgin coconut oil are also made in-house.”

Of course, the entire menu focuses on wellness. “I have curated the menu for entire Niraamaya,” the chef says. “Even the minibar has healthy cookies and drinks.” When you are visiting the retreats, we recommend you take out time to learn more about local ingredients and how they are used to make the food not just tastier but also help in improve well-being.