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One fest, four cuisines

This time, the spotlight at Café Mercara is on authentic flavours from the South

Photo: S. R. Raghunathan

Southern spices Chefs Thiruna Vukkarasu and Rajeev Kumar displaying the delicacies

"In Chennai, an ordinary housewife can take a single vegetable — like the aubergine for example — and make it in twenty different ways," says Chola Sheraton's Executive Chef Rajeev Kumar, his eyes wide with awe. "There are so many spices and ways of cooking over here."

He has a point. Take the humble sambar, for instance. While to most North Indians sambar is just an idly-dosa accompaniment, every true blue home chef from Chennai knows that there are more than a dozen varieties of sambar, each of which goes with a different food. And this expertise extends all over South India. Which is why organising a `Masterpieces from the South' food festival can be a rather challenging project.

"But I've worked with a team. And we've put in a lot of research," says Chef Kumar, as he plunges into the Café Mercara kitchen, bubbling with curries, sauces and payasams from some of South India's most delicious cuisines: Travancore, Mangalore, Telengana and Chettinadu. "Now, lets see how it comes out."

The meal opens with deep fried cubes of lamb twanging with cinnamon, accompanied by a rather standard kuzhi paniyaram. They set the tone for the evening: mild flavours, a restrained use of spices and chillies... Food that's too sophisticated to be completely authentic. But then, that's what five star dining is all about.

Speciality cuisine

Not that anyone's complaining. "Andhra food is very spicy," says Chef Kumar, explaining how they needed to take it down a notch or two in deference to their expatriate clientele. (After all, large groups of people thundering out of a restaurant with smoking ears can never be good for business.) "Keralites also find it too spicy," adds South Indian Master Chef Thiruna Vukkarasu, explaining how different the food of each South Indian State is. "Andhraites, on the other hand, don't like Kerala's coconutty cuisine and in Karnataka, they use raw masalas in the cooking for a different flavour."

That's the basics in a nutshell. But it does explain why the cuisines are so different — even if they do use some similar spices.

The Miriyalu Mamsam, a tomato and peppercorn based mutton gravy is a delicious blend of ginger-garlic and gongura leaves. It goes brilliantly with a luscious thengapal sadam, basmati rice cooked in coconut milk, from Kerala.

Delicious meat

The Mangalore representative, a fish curry, however, is a bit too verbal, with a robust fishy flavour. The Chettinad crab too is average. And the appams were far too tart.

But the meal bounces back with the meats: especially the kozhi varthuaracha kozhumbu, made with coconut and red chillies, which competently pairs with the Telegana kodi pulao, a poor man's biriyani, made with tomatoes and herbs.

For desserts there is the ubiquitous semiya payasam (referred to as "saffron flavoured semolina porridge" in the menu! Giggle).

The festival is on for dinner at Café Mercara till May 31. Call 28110101 for reservations.

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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