Celebrating South Indian Flavours & Women In Culinary World
Image Credit: The Leela Palace Jaipur

FOR someone who's grown up gorging on Rajasthani thalis, eating on a banana leaf feels like a breath of fresh air from the Arabian Sea. The sensory pyrotechnics I felt in my mouth during my visits to Kerala and Tamil Nadu came back to me on International Women's Day this year when three women chefs curated a South India-inspired meal as part of the fifth edition of The Shefs at The Leela Palace Jaipur.

A day after discussing their experiences of being women chefs travelling through South India in a chat set against the backdrop of the Aravalis, Rasika Venkatesa, Tashyaa Mehrotra, and Tejasvi Chandela treated us to products of their South India sojourns, combined with their years-long experience of heading their respective kitchens. An army of aspiring women chefs keenly listened to their anecdotes as they began their journey in the culinary realm.

It was befitting that the Shefs dinner was hosted at The Leela's Mohan Mahal. Inspired by The Sheesh Mahal at Amber Fort and built by the same family who designed the architectural marvel, Mohan Mahal is made of 350,000 pieces of cut glass which reflect candles to light up the hall. Commonly known as Thikri artwork, this technique makes Mohan Mahal spring to light without a single source of artificial light. The candles, the artwork, and the interior design – all ingredients come together to concoct an experience which feels regal but is essentially rustic.

The four-course dinner served by the Shefs boasted of the same values. It started with Chef Tashyaa's Podicha Puli, which combines the summer favourite of raw mango, the highly-underutilised Indian seaweed, kanthari chilli (bird's eye chilli), kachumpuli (Coorg's vinegar used as a substitute for tamarind) for a kachcha aam (raw mango) salad, which is wrapped into a paan ka patta (betel leaf) for a tangy delight cut by the pepperiness of its enclosure.

The next course the entrée had the most in store, starting with Chef Rasika's Nandu Crab Rasam. She married her experience of working at a Japanese-inspired steakhouse in San Francisco with her travels to Karaikudi to prepare a crab broth using ground spices, garlic, shallots, and a steamed egg and crab custard. It had the spicy tanginess of the rasam and the 'oishii' quotient of Japanese cuisine.

If you wished to opt for something cooler, there was Chef Tashyaa's coconut cold broth which fused the malai (cream) inside coconuts with the comforting coolth of cucumber for a rewardingly hydrating experience. It was closely followed by Chef Tejasvi's tender coconut and lychee sorbet, arguably the best offering of the entire dinner. 

After this breezy tropical experience, I went back to the spice farm. Chef Tashyaa presented a substitute for the salmon or meen (fish) pollichattu by marinating aubergine in freshly pounded spices and grilling it in a banana leaf. It was served with a spiced pomegranate kachumber and chur-chur naan, which she said is a Tamil household staple that somehow never made it to gourmet dining in a big way.

The evening ended with Chef Tejasvi's choux pastry platter. Having graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris, she came up with a confluence of the Sienne and the Kerala backwaters. Pastries made of tamarind toffee, coconut mousse, and filter kaapi, the finale transported me back to when I lounged in a boat navigating through Aleppey's backwaters. 

-- All images courtesy of Leela Palace Jaipur