Chef Marina Balakrishnan On Kerala Cuisine, Onam Specials & More
Image Credit: Chef Marina Balakrishnan

Imagine the food from Kerala, God’s Own Country, and most people immediately think of non-vegetarian delicacies as the most popular dishes. Chef Marina Balakrishnan is breaking that myth about Kerala cuisine one vegetarian dish at a time. To the utter delight of all those who have tasted her incredibly delicious and yet authentic vegetarian Malayali food, and the list includes celebrities like Malaika Arora, Chef Marina Balakrishnan’s homecooking enterprise Oottupura is taking Kerala cuisine to new heights. 

There are perhaps very few Indians who don’t know about Chef Marina’s incredible talents, especially since her impactful appearance on the last season of MasterChef India. Known endearingly as @thatthalasserygirl, a social media handle that represents her origins in Kerala, this proud Malayali woman is now busy with serving delicious vegetarian fare to the people of Mumbai, and occasionally through pop-ups in other cities. With Onam just around the corner, she is also working on an incredible Sadhya feast. 

Speaking up about her origins, her food philosophy, Kerala cuisine and Onam specials, Chef Marina Balakrishnan had an insightful conversation with Slurrp. Here’s everything she had to say.  

Growing Up With Sattvik Kerala Cuisine 

Chef Marina journey as a woman making her way in the culinary world is nothing short of incredible. “I have always been into food and cooking, but initially it was all for the family,” she explains. “Growing up in a big household where food was the centre and my grandmother, being the matriarch of the family, handled all the cooking. Her way of running the kitchen, her energy, this is all I observed while growing up and learned from. It was much later in life with my daughter’s suggestion that I, at the age of 50, joined a culinary school in New York to study.” 

Learning professional skills at the plant-based culinary school in New York helped just as much her natural instinct and upbringing. She then went off to Bangkok to learn more about how a professional kitchen works. Here, she found an amazing mentor in Michelin-starred Chef Garima Arora. “I really look at her as my mentor because the beginning of my journey as a chef started with her guidance at Gaa. Her approach was very humble, hardworking and very driven, and there was a lot that I imbibed from her,” she says. “It was very long hours, 12 to 13 hours every day, but I really enjoyed every moment.” 

Chef Marina explains that it was this amazing MasterChef India judge who told her to start a venture that celebrates the food she grew up with. “Kerala food is known for its non-vegetarian fare, and until the time I started Oottupura people didn’t talk much about vegetarian food except in the context of Onam Sadhya,” she explains. “And Sadhya is an elaborate meal which we have during a celebration, like a birthday, a wedding or a festival. So, I just felt that people’s knowledge of the Keralite vegetarian cuisine was very limited.” 

Carving A Niche With Vegetarian Food 

She explains that while the Sadhya is a feast, everyday ordinary vegetarian food from Kerala is also delicious. “The local produce that Malayalis use, the backyard vegetables, the monsoon greens—these really haven’t been talked about much beyond the state. So, I started going deeper into this and wanted to start a small restaurant with this concept in mind. That’s when COVID hit and I had to change my plans and make it more of a home-based venture,” she says. 

So, she just started on Instagram with the promise of delivering authentic vegetarian and sattvik food from Kerala. “I started with 10 meals with focus on vegetarian food and wrote a lot on social media to start conversations around sattvik food beyond Sadhya,” she explains. From there, Oottupura bloomed and grew into the force to reckon with it is today. “For Onam and Vishu, I do elaborate meals or proper Sadhya banquet meals. For the rest of the year, I do Oonu meals which are simple lunches and meals that include Thorans, Aviyal, Parippu and yoghurt-based curries. These dishes are included in a Sadhya of course, but the variations are not reflected,” she explains.  

What are the specials that she then does as a part of Oonu meals as opposed to Sadhya? “During monsoon I make Kanji, which is a sort of gruel that doesn’t get much attention,” she says. “But Kanji is a healing dish, and when paired with something like a green moong Thoran, it makes for a delicious seasonal meal. Ingredients like ash gourd, pumpkin, wild Chandrakaran mangoes are what I explore, but not in the form of feasts. These are very simple things that I take and turn into a whole menu. And people really started enjoying these, even non-vegetarians!” 

The reason behind her success, in her own words, relies on the fact that people aren’t just looking for feasts every day. “People are looking for comfort food, they are looking out for flavours and warmth,” she says. “Every meal I serve comes with a narrative which I also send across to the clients as a part of the menu, and they love relating to these stories.”  

Understanding Kerala’s Sattvik Culture And Sadhya 

For those who don’t know much about Kerala’s vegetarian food culture, it is often easy to confuse Sadhya feasts with sattvik food. Chef Marina explains this and more. “Ayurveda clearly says that if you want to see a fully balanced meal with all the six Rasas or tastes then the place to look at is the Sadhya leaf, because Sadhya has all the flavours and there is a certain order in which it is served,” she quips. “There is a clear science to a Sadhya as per Ayurveda. To begin with, we first put the salt and then the Inji Puli, which is very good for digestion. The Rasam also works similarly when combined with rice. We put Nei or ghee into the combination to promote more lubrication.” 

So, Sadhya is a complete meal with every kind of flavour and texture you can imagine. “Coming to the Sattvik aspect, the fact is that Kerala vegetarian food does not require onion and garlic,” she explains further. “Except for a Theeyal, we don’t use onion and garlic at all, even for our Sambhar. I personally feel that the addition of onion and garlic takes away from the flavours of other ingredients. That is what you can find in my food, the flavours and textures of vegetables without the distraction of onion and garlic. When you get up after eating a regular Kerala vegetarian meal, you don’t get up and feel heavy—like you might with a Tamasic or Rajasic meal. All you feel is a lightness and joy, which is why people tell me my food is very Sattvik.” 

Sattvik, she says, is all about the energy you feel from food. So yes, a Sadhya meal is Sattvik, but it isn’t the only Sattvik meal from Kerala since all vegetarian food from the state can essentially fall into that category according to Chef Marina. What’s vital here, she says, is recognising the fact that making vegetarian food takes a lot of skill. “It is not just about frying onions and adding lots of spices,” she says. “It is about knowing the ingredients that you use and letting them shine through to create that lightness and positive energy.”  

Finally, what is it about her food philosophy that drives Chef Marina to continue with serving such incredibly simple yet delicious food? “For me, food is all about energy and intent,” she says. “We don’t have to see what anybody else is doing, we have to do what we are ordained to do. Our intent and energy while cooking matters, and my focus is on getting that right so that the beauty of the food I represent brings joy. When you treat food with that respect, your customers also get that respect because they are trusting me to nourish their bodies. And continuing to do this is my intent and prayer.”