Chef Regi Matthew On Onam And The Richness Of Kerala Cuisine
Image Credit: Chef Regi Matthew at Kappa Chakka Kandhari

As the state of Kerala and Malayalis in and beyond the region start celebrating Onam, a harvest festival with immense cultural significance, it is time to also see how stalwarts in the culinary industry from the region have impacted perceptions of authentic Kerala cuisine. And, when it comes to chefs who have dedicated decades to not only share nuances of Kerala cuisine with the world but also traversed immense journeys to themselves learn more, Chef Regi Matthew is the first name that comes up. 

You may know him as one of the pioneering Indian chefs who were known for bringing Thai cuisine to India through their restaurants. You may also know of him as an award-winning chef who has worked for some of the most opulent names, like the Taj Group in India and beyond. But today, Chef Regi Matthew should be known and celebrated as the creative talent behind the sensation that is Kappa Chakka Kandhari—perhaps the most authentic destination for Kerala food in Bangalore and Chennai.  

In an exclusive conversation with Slurrp, Chef Regi Matthew explained his origins and journey, the concept behind Kappa Chakka Kandhari, and the way Onam is celebrated now at his restaurants for those seeking a true taste of Kerala. 

Video Credit: YouTube/Cook With Chef Regi Matthew

Onam Celebrations Are A Celebration Of Kerala Produce 

Chef Regi explains that though originally from Pala, a small town near Kottayam, he largely spent his childhood in an estate near Trivandrum. “I grew up in a village-like atmosphere and the school I went to was also nearby,” he explains. “Our life was more attached to the land and the rural nuances of Kerala. One of my most prominent memories is that of coming back from school and seeing that my mother had prepared snacks with tubers. For us, it was all fresh food and packed food was very rare because nature had blessed us with everything.” 

He explains that during his childhood, he used to be a picky eater and a selective vegetarian—and it was only after he left home that he felt that inevitable pull of nostalgia and home cooking, especially the dishes cooked by his mother. “This is why when, at a later stage, I started curating recipes for my own venture, I thought of going back to my roots and the flavours of my native land,” he says. “Kerala has a fertile land, so every household has a backyard or kitchen garden where they grow all the vegetables. I personally don’t remember people at my own home buying vegetables from the market, even the chicken would run around in the backyard.” 

Does this mean that even during festivals like Onam and Vishu, his family would eat what they grew? Yes, says Chef Regi. "All the material for the Onam Sadhya would come from our own backyard, so we would have one day as pumpkin day, another as yam day,” he explains. “And so we would end up having almost all the vegetables grown at home over the 10 days of Onam.” And this is the very essence of Onam celebrations that he maintains to this day at Kappa Chakka Kandhari.   

"We used to enjoy the Sadhya served on banana leaves while sitting on the floor, but this has changed now and we serve Sadhya at restaurants on banana leaves, but on table tops,” he says. “But to maintain the authenticity of the Onam Sadhya flavours, we have engaged a team of Nambodiri chefs from Kerala who come and make an exclusive Sadhya at the Kappa Chakka Kandhari outlets. Even the kitchen these chefs use is a separate one and all the ingredients on the Onam menu have been sourced from different parts of Kerala.” 

From Thai Cuisine To Kerala Cuisine: The Journey Of A Chef 

Looking back at his career though, the trajectory Chef Regi could have taken (and did, to a large extent) seems quite far away from the authenticity and traditions of Kerala cuisine that he represents now. He explains how after studying at the Insititute of Hotel Management (IHM), Trivandrum, he joined the Taj Group for years. “I was fortunate enough to get to work at an award-winning restaurant called Paradise Island, which was one of the only two Thai restaurants in India at that time,” he says. “I was there for almost eight years and during that time I also trained in Bangkok and specialised in Thai cuisine. Then I joined a company in Chennai to open a Thai restaurant, which was basically the first standalone Thai restaurant in India.” 

Soon, his interest in global cuisines helped Chef Regi open everything from a Spanish Tapas bar to Japanese restaurants here. "During that time I realised that I had worked on world cuisines for over 15 years, and I thought it was high time I focus on my own native cuisine,” he explains. “In 2015, two of my friends and I got together to chat about the nostalgia of food from our native villages. The idea of making the traditional dishes we grew up with available to people outside Kerala emboldened our resolve. That is how the concept of Kappa Chakka Kandhari came into being.”  

But once the idea was born, Chef Regi and his friends didn’t rush into opening a restaurant. “The three of us travelled to different parts of Kerala, visited close to 265 homes and household kitchens and around 170 toddy shops too,” he says. “During this travel, I got the opportunity to go deep into Kerala cuisine. I was looking for my mother’s food. When I say my mother’s food, I don’t only mean my biological mother, but every Malayali mother who has a unique way of representing their native cuisine using hyperlocal ingredients and personal tricks.” 

Kerala Cuisine Through The Prism Of Kappa Chakka Kandhari 

Chef Regi says that even today, he feels he has only scratched the surface of Kerala cuisine through Kappa Chakka Kandhari in Chennai (since 2018) and Bangalore (since 2019). “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we kept the restaurants closed for some time but we maintained the staff,” he says. “The clientele we get is not only consisting of Malayalis but a mix of people from all backgrounds. I want to proudly present the food of my native land to the global audience. When it comes to South Indian cuisine, everybody knows Dosa, Idli and Vada. I wanted to go deeper and give people hidden dishes and gems that have evolved culturally through centuries.”  

He further explains just how richer and more diverse Kerala’s cuisine has become over the centuries. “Kerala cuisine has taken a lot of knowledge from various cultures of the world, whether it is the Portuguese and Danish or the Arabs,” he says. “All the cooking methods were born from the milieu Kerala had since the ancient times thanks to the frequent influence of traders. The ancient Malayalis did not blindly adopt their recipes, but evaluated the techniques used to enhance the flavours of hyperlocal ingredients to create all new dishes. For example, the traditional Appam recipe uses toddy to ferment the rice batter and fermentation is something learnt from the Portuguese. Even the Thalassery Biryani has an Arab root instead of the typical North Indian Mughal root. That is the uniqueness of Kerala cuisine.” 

As for the future, Chef Regi says he is happiest to further explore Kerala cuisine and present the region’s rich cultural and culinary heritage through Kappa Chakka Kandhari. “These two restaurants are basically meant to show gratitude to our mothers, so these will be retained as they are,” he quips. “We don’t want to dilute the concept so this Kappa Chakka Kandhari model will not be recreated anywhere else in the near future.”