KERALA, INDIA – A culinary journey home with Chef Arun Gupta & Restauranteur Anjan Mitra. Coconut & rice, lamb & fish and all things spice – these are the tenants of Kerala cuisine in Southern India.
At a time when Indian cuisine appears to be everywhere in the Bay Area and being recognized with accolades and Michelin stars: (August 15, Rooh & DumSF and more), I joined the team behind San Francisco’s first South Indian restaurant DOSA (opened 2006) for a one of a kind culinary adventure. Chef Arun Gupta & restauranteur Anjan Mitra embarked on a trip home to India to rediscover their culinary roots and find inspiration to place on the menus at popular DOSA restaurants in San Francisco (on Fillmore & Valencia). I had the joy of tagging along for this bucket list once in a lifetime “foodie-cation”.
“For me this journey was an opportunity to find the best of Kerala cuisine and to understand what is at its heart” said Anjan.
In one week we travelled from Mumbai to Delhi to Kerala. From the coast of Kerala where the Kerala fish curry rules and further south into the mountains to tea country and further in to Periyar, known as India’s “Spice box”. The bounty here is impressive, it’s a pantry in nature. It’s mind blowing what can be found on one farm.
“You can go into the back yard and pick and taste and smell curry leaves and cloves from a bush and pull up ginger and tumeric from the ground. Then you step into the kitchen and smell the same spices being cooked, simmering in fresh coconut oil” says Chef Arun.
We cooked and learned with amazing chefs from the region’s resorts and with home cooks too. Each chef provided a chance to delve deeper into the roots and culture of this spice driven Indian cuisine. Chef Jerry of SPICE VILLAGE cooked “Avial” – a vegetable dish with coconut, curry leaves and turmeric. Home cook Anu Mathew cooked the Kilcutty Chicken Curry with her Mother. It was indeed one of the highlights showcasing the best of the region, an impressive embarrassment of riches from the 35 acre farm. A chicken curry made Kerala style with coconut oil & milk and all the spices the garden grows: Cloves, curry leaf, cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, fennel, cumin and allspice. Chef Arun hopes to feature this Kerela favorite on the DOSA SF menus. A dish that will represent Kerala with spices from region coupled with fresh California ingredients.
I learned a thing of two as well on this culinary adventure by Nanda Journeys. I learned that the best of Kerala’s cuisine is to be found at the homestays, the food cooked by mama or grandma, recipes passed on through the ages and each cooked with that extra portion of love and soul. Visitors who stay at these homes get an authentic Kerala experience, eating and living like a local. They also get three full tasty meals a day and will often eat with the family. The homestays are as varied as the spices that show up in Kerala dishes. One we visited was on a 100 plus acres rubber plant farm and the other on a 35 acre farm that grew it all: Bananas, coconuts, curry leaves, cloves,cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, peppers and more.
The food came from the back yard to the table and the fish from the river just feet away. The freshness of the cuisine was palpable, the flavors banging, the joy from each tasty bite expressed through the quiet as we ate and satisfying smiles from all as we finished every soulful bite on our plates.
Chef Arun on the Kerala culinary journey: “We spent 10 days in a region of India that is very connected to the land, to what they eat and what they grow. You have a people that are very proud of their culture and eager to share it and teach it. We got to experience the whole food story here in Kerela for example picking pepper corns from a tree and seeing them evolve from bright and green to a biting black and later to a bowl of prawn pepper fry.”
Expect the flavors and spirit of Kerala to show up with a California sensibility soon on the DOSA SF menus. Perhaps Appam – the coconut flavored bread eaten with the Kilcutty Chicken Curry or a local fish cooked with Kerala spices wrapped in a banana leaf.
I cannot wait to return to Kerala for another food seeking mission but for now DOSA SF, closer to home will give me and you the opportunity for a yummy taste of Kerala. Every single Kerala dish an inviting spice party on your palate.
Enjoy my tasty “chaat” with DOSA’s Executive Chef Arun Gupta & owner Anjan Mitra. A big heartfelt thanks to them both for being my travel companions on this trip that took them to their ancestral home – India and to the heart of their native Indian cuisine.
Grilled Striped Bass With Moilee Sauce
- 1 medium (~4-5 striped bass gutted fileted and pinboned with the scales left ON)
- —placeholder for Kerala marinade—-
- 1 bunch cilantro washed and dried.
- 1 TBSP ginger, finely grated
- 1TBSP garlic finely chopped
- 1 Jalapeño finely chopped with seeds
- 1 Thai chili finely chopped
- 2 medium ripe tomatoes (one chopped and one puréed)
- 3/4 cup sliced shallots
- 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 1tsp coriander powder
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 60 ml unsweetened coconut milk
- 5 of curry leaves
- Salt to taste
- Water as needed
- Coconut oil for cooking as needed
Fish Marinade Ingredients:
- 1.5 cups coconut vinegar (sub white wine vinegar if coconut vinegar is not available
- 1 small red onion thinly sliced
- 8 dried red chilis
- 6 garlic cloves smashed
- 1 TBSP ginger freshly grated
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1/4 tsp coriander seeds
- 4 cloves
- 1/tsp cinnamon powder
- 1 TBSP desiccated coconut
- Combine all ingredients except dessicated coconut and let sit for 2 hours or up to one day.
- In a small food processor purée until smooth. Fold in coconut and apply to fish. This marinade can hold for up to one week.
- For the fish season well with salt and ground black pepper. Apply marinade thoroughly and let sit for an hour
Moilee Sauce Instructions:
- In a medium stockpot, and heat coconut oil on medium high until oil is shimmering
- Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring constantly until lightly browned.
- Add jalapeno and fenugreek seeds and cook until fenugreek is lightly browned- this will help eliminate bitter flavor
- Add shallots and cook, stirring constantly until shallots are golden brown, approximately 5-7 minutes
- And curry leaves and continue to cook until mixture is dark brown (not burnt) actively scraping and stirring any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Approximately 5-7 minutes
- Add chopped and puréed tomatoes and cook for 2-3 minutes or until raw flavor is gone
- Combine powdered spices with 1/2 cup water and pour mixture into pot. Turn heat to low and cook 4-5 minutes
- Add coconut milk and continue to cook on low heat for 10-15 minutes. If sauce looks to be getting too thick add water
- Season to taste with salt and fresh lime juice
To cook the fish:
- Using a gas or charcoal grill place filets on hottest part of the grill scale side down.
- Cook for 5-7 minutes until fish is 80 percent cooked. Place cilantro on grill creating two separate beds for the fish filets to lie on and flip filets into cilantro.
- Continue to cook for 1-2 minutes or until fish is cooked through.
- The scales on the fish should tighten up and even blacken. This will help keep the fish’s moisture and also keep the fish from sticking to the grill. When the fish is cooked the flesh should flake write off the skin which should not be eaten.
- Serve with Moilee sauce and rice as well as chutneys and mango pickle if desired.
- (Note: if you do not have a grill you can substitute scaled filets of striped bass and bake fish in the oven wrapped in a banana leaf or aluminum foil until fish is cooked through 12-15 minutes depending on thickness)
DOSA on Valencia
995 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dosa on Fillmore
1700 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94115