Chef Shri Bala Revives History On A Plate
Image Credit: Meghana Dayanand

Amid the aroma of girmit and the delightful flavours of chicken kari dosa with coconut and mint-coconut chutney, there's a fascinating culinary artist at work in the Deccan Odyssey food festival at the Marriott Courtyard.

This creative soul is not your run-of-the-mill chef; she's Shri Bala, a home chef and a culinary virtuoso with a diverse set of talents. Beyond her expertise in the kitchen, she's also a chartered accountant and a skilled violinist currently in pursuit of a PHD in Indian history of food. She also runs her own cloud restaurant and a brand of masalas. But it's her culinary prowess that has captured the hearts and taste buds of many.   

She's known for her Deccan Odyssey pop-ups, where she introduces South Indian flavours through fine dining experiences across the country. What sets her apart is not just her culinary skills but also her commitment to authenticity, which serves as a gateway to the rich tapestry of South Indian cuisine.   

Chef Shri Bala has a knack for crafting her own masalas for her dishes, which she carries with her to every city where she hosts her pop-ups. Her culinary creations are anything but repetitive, with one notable exception being the North Karnataka-style girmit, a snack she learned from a family in Bengaluru. This dish is served with a unique chutney that incorporates all six tastes, lending it a toasty flavour and a long shelf-life.   

Speaking of Bengaluru, Chef Shri Bala fondly reminisces about her time in the city. She shares how Prasidhi Food Corner in Jayanagar's 9th Block became not just her late father's favourite eatery for rava idlis and sagoo but a cherished family spot. The evenings were graced with Madras-style sambar, enriched with greens like amaranth and shallots, creating culinary memories that still linger.   

Chef Shri Bala's culinary adventures have transcended boundaries. She had the privilege of guiding the renowned chef Gordon Ramsay through the flavours of South India. Her expertise shone as she introduced him to traditional recipes and delights, including bird's eye chillies from Kerala, fire ants' chutney, and pandi curry, or pork curry, from Kodagu in Karnataka, all featured in his Netflix docu-series, "Unchartered."   

Now, the Deccan Odyssey has set its course in Bengaluru, hosted at The Marriott Courtyard's Momo Cafe from September 11th to 17th. The menu is a treasure trove of unique South Indian recipes, a culinary journey inspired by ancient Sangama literary accounts.

The spread features everything from the chef’s unique South Indian recipes like Madurai pepper mutton curry, Chidambaram-style mixed vegetable pakoras, kodi pulusu (chicken gravy), the layered Thalassery fish biryani, wedding-style kaai birinji, vegetable stew, sundal, ragi kosambari, fried yam, erral thenga pal (prawn in coconut milk), tender coconut payasam, boondi laddoo, rose-flavoured coconut barfi and more.  

For Chef Shri Bala, the Deccan Odyssey is not just a culinary experience; it's a voyage through time, bringing to life the rich heritage of South Indian cuisine. It also showcases delights that are inspired by the ancient Sangama literary accounts and packed with historical flavours that can take you back in time. Chef Shri Bala's culinary journey is fueled by a passion for historical flavours and a commitment to keeping the Deccan Odyssey alive, and here’s what she says:  

Deccan Odyssey is the name of all your pop-ups. As a specialist in South Indian cuisine, could you share some insights into how you've masterfully crafted the essence of South Indian flavours for the Deccan Odyssey Food Festival at the Marriott Courtyard? What are some of the standout dishes that guests should definitely try?   

To put it literally, "Odyssey" means an eventful long journey, and the region below the Maharashtrian region of the Deccan Plateau that covers the entirety of South India. The name "Deccan Odessey" encapsulates the idea of a long, eventful journey across the South Indian states, the journey being a culinary treat.   

This pop-up provides soulful home-style cooked food from the various regions within the South Indian states, with an array of dishes where you can taste different courses from different regions. A highlight for seafood lovers will be the smoked fish curry that I learned from a Chettinad family and that has been a fan favourite in many of my pop-ups. 

Beyond the culinary aspect, what do you hope guests will take away from the Deccan Odyssey food festival in terms of cultural appreciation and food memories?    

The most important aspect of my food is the memories. As people often mention, a particular food reminds them of their mothers or grandmothers, establishing sweet memories. I myself have learned these recipes from my mother and my grandmother, and I try to incorporate home-style cooking into my dishes. So, beyond the culinary aspect, I hope guests will savour and take away this experience as a long-standing memory with them.

It's exciting to see live cooking counters as part of the Deccan Odyssey Food Festival. Can you tell us more about the live counters and the interactive experience they offer guests?    

The live counters of Deccan Odessey will be an exciting feast, as there will be multiple dishes that are unheard of in mainstream culinary culture and are only popular as home-style dishes in various regions. I intend to highlight such food items for culinary enthusiasts and bring light to these finger-licking recipes.   

Some of these highlights will be a Girmit live station, a bhel puri having a unique chutney specially prepared, the Madurai dosas that are made by adding chicken and mutton mince into the dosa batter, millet and ancient rice preparation live counters, etc.

It is fascinating to hear about your dedication to reviving lesser-known recipes from the Imperial Kings of South India and your commitment to incorporating elements like the six tastes, five elements of nature, seven chakras, and historical significance into your menu. Can you elaborate on how these elements come together in your dishes, particularly in the context of balancing ayurvedic doshas, and how this approach contributes to the unique and medicinal value of South Indian cuisine?  

After researching the recipes of the imperial kings of South India for two years in 2017 and 2018, I came up with the concept in 2019 and did a series of events along the length and breadth of India. My motive was to highlight the use of the original spice agents, black pepper and long pepper, instead of red chillies, and the event was a big success.   

The Ayurvedic principles state that at least one meal of the day should include all six different tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. This is also scientifically proven to improve gut health. The use of seasonal ingredients in food is also helpful to not only promote sustainability by using locally sourced ingredients, but they also provide a lot of health benefits.   

The use of all the tastes in my food, along with seasonal ingredients, is a major factor in aligning my craft with Ayurveda. The idea of having balanced meals and eating right is essential to balancing ayurvedic doshas so that food itself can work as medicine instead of external treatments.    

Can you describe your journey into the world of South Indian cuisine and your motivation for researching the ancient Tamil heritage and its food? How did this journey lead to the creation of 'Tamizhaga Ula,' or ‘the journey through the four states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala’, and what aspects of Sangam literature have inspired your culinary exploration?   

The concept of ‘Tamizhaga Ula’ was developed in 2018. The development of this concept was inspired by my history professor, who changed my viewpoint in college. From wanting to research the Chola dynasty's food due to my admiration for Rajendra Chola, but my professor suggested I look into Sangam literature instead for their food and poems. This shifted my focus in a different direction, followed by a two-year research project that resulted in me writing a lot of inscriptions from the poems. I coined the term ‘Tamizhaga Ula', where Tamizhaga means the conjunction of the four South Indian states and Ula means journey.

Your approach to cooking is truly unique, as you take inspiration from various historical periods and reimagine ancient dishes. You have earlier mentioned 'time travelling through different culinary eras, from ancient to mediaeval to the British Raj, while curating menus. Can you share more about your overarching cooking philosophy? How do you balance preserving the authenticity of these historical recipes while infusing your own creative touch to bring the tastes of the past to the present?

The Sangam literature, which is the inspiration for my style of cooking, lacks proper documentation of recipes and only provides a description of the food. I collected the list of ingredients available in the various landscapes of that time, combined them with the food description, and reimagined a way of cooking using the same or similar ingredients.

I do not claim that my food is authentic since I do not follow any particularly stated recipes; I only follow what I think was the way of cooking at that time. That being said, the difference between the quality and type of ingredients available back then compared to what is available now is vastly different, as is the landscape of both times, given that there is a 3000–4000-year gap in time.

Your unique culinary approach is deeply rooted in history, focusing on the revival of traditional recipes within the context of fine dining. Can you share the challenges you've encountered on this path and explain how you confidently overcame them? Given the ever-evolving landscape of culinary trends, how do you ensure the sustainability of your approach? Lastly, could you provide insights into your perspective on the future of gastronomy?

As mortals, we have a limited amount of time in this world. I have done extensive research on my craft to gain the knowledge I have today, and I intend to pass it down to future generations. I do not believe in being tight-lipped about my recipes and want as many people as possible to learn and understand what I have learned and understood. I intend to protect my proud culture and heritage. I want to be remembered as someone who rekindled people’s imaginations and revived our culinary traditions.

What is your go-to comfort food? And what is your idea of a satisfying meal experience? How does food connect you to your soul and family? What dish of yours is a family favourite?

My friends from the culinary fraternity call me "curd rice," denoting my love for simple dishes. As my mother taught me, curd rice made with hot rice, milk, and a small dollop of curd that sets into a juicy texture and is served hot with a side of pickle and a choice of protein is all the satisfaction I need in my food.   

Another one of my addictions is filter coffee. Being a little prejudiced, I do not like anyone else making my coffee. I prefer to carry my own filter and coffee powder to brew a few drops of pure goodness. Moreover, my late mother’s recipe for bisebele bhath makes me salivate and holds a lot of dear memories for me. My family is fond of all of my dishes, but my home-made pani-puri and brownies are favourites among my kids.

We understand your dedication to crafting your own masalas. Given that hosting food festivals requires extensive effort and takes you to various cities, how do you ensure you have your essential ingredients when you travel? Could you tell us about the must-have items you always carry in your luggage for these culinary journeys?

I have a boutique masala brand and a restaurant named Shri Bala. I have a team of two helpers and a production unit operating from my home that helps me prepare my own masalas, the recipes for which I learned from my mother (vegetarian dishes) and family friends (non-vegetarian dishes). I produce various types of masalas like chettinad masala, fish masala, mutton masala, idly podi, etc., which I make by physically grinding the masalas to keep the aromas intact. My must-have ingredients are my own sambhar masala powder, which I carry everywhere.