With branches in Bengaluru and Chennai, Kappa Chakka Kandhari offers traditional Kerala cuisine that balances nostalgia perfectly with contemporary presentation. Chef Regi Mathew tells us about the years of planning and research that went into this new restaurant.
Chef Regi Mathew is a quite a legend when it comes to the culinary world. Across a career spanning nearly three decades, the chef has launched hundreds of restaurants and is well known for his ingredient-focussed gastronomic concepts. With his latest launch Kappa Chakka Kandhari, in the cities of Bengaluru and Chennai, he has brought the traditional cuisine of Kerala to the fore, using not just recipes that have been handed down across generations but also techniques that have been in use for centuries.
We got a chance to catch up with the legendary chef and speak about the very many different aspects that were focused on with the unique new Kappa Chakka Kandhari.
Any restaurant takes years of planning before diners walk in through the front doors, and with Kappa, Chakka, Kandhari, the chef was clear about how he wanted to go about the process of menu engineering. “When it comes to Kerala cuisine, many are under the impression that the big hitters such as biryani or parotta are all there is to it. But once you start exploring, you realise what an enormous universe this is. What we wanted to do was present the food that we’ve grown up eating at home. So, we conducted in-depth research for almost three years across the entire state, visiting around 265 houses and 70 toddy shops. And we found a wealth of recipes that most people outside the state would have no clue about,” says Chef Mathew.
The chef, along with his partners, decided to go about the research in a systematic way, starting with possibly the best source for home recipes, their mothers. “It started out as a simple idea that three of us friends struck up one evening, as we discussed the food from our childhood which we missed. The very next day, we set out for Kerala. Obviously, since we wanted to return to our roots and our most reliable source for traditional cuisine were our mothers, we landed up and told them we want to understand Kerala cuisine. They were very happy to show us all they knew. After that, we asked them to put us in touch with 10 of their best friends. There was a lot of excitement there too, imagine, your mom’s schoolmates are receiving their friend’s son. We got a royal welcome there and we stayed for a couple of days with each of the families. On days, the father of the household would take us to the market, which is very important for me, and showed us where they got fresh produce from. Once they showed us all they knew, in turn, these families put us onto their friends, and thus, we managed to have an entire network of homes all the way from Trivandrum to the north. We found numerous gems of Kerala cuisine through this entire process and catalogued almost 800 recipes.”
The hidden gems the chef discovered provided a deep insight into not just understanding local habits but also in the science behind some of the methods used in traditional Kerala cuisine. “One of the places we visited was Ramasseri near Palakkad. Here, they make a particular idli using earthen pots. The batter is poured on a muslin cloth which is on a netted earthenware ring, which in turn is placed on an earthen pot. So the water gets steamed in the earthen pot, passes through the muslin cloth and then the idli. The idli is covered with another earthen pot, which gathers the steam and forces it down again on the idli, now with extra moisture. So, it’s like a double steaming process and the idlis are very soft and it is said that since no metal is used in the cooking, the shelf life is also longer. Other interesting cuisine we found was at a tribal settlement in Agastya near Trivandrum. They cook with easily available local ingredients such as tender peppercorns, bird’s eye chilli, curry leaves. They crush the masalas with a stone, apply it on fresh river fish and simply grill it. The taste is mouthwatering, and it served as inspiration for us when creating our own menu. We have a gooseberry masala on the menu which is made in a very similar way. Then in central Travancore, near Kottayam, we visited some houses where we found this traditional syrup pani. Pani is made from toddy, which is produced in abundance. They tap the toddy from palm trees which grows behind nearly every house. The toddy is cooked over a slow flame for around five hours to reduce to a syrup, which according to me, is much tastier than maple syrup. Pani with bananas is a very popular dessert, in fact, as it’s also a great digestive.”
Aside from home food, the other area Chef Regi Mathew was eager to explore was the toddy shop. “The thing with toddy shops is, their food is their trademark. After all, the only drink available is toddy; there are no cocktails, wines, beers or anything else, and toddy is pretty much the same everywhere. So, the only thing that draws people to a toddy shop are the snacks, or touchings, as we call it in Kerala. Hence, the chefs at these toddy shops take great care and pride in their food. And everything is made fresh every day, with no leftovers carrying on to the next day. This is one area of Kerala cuisine which we felt really deserves the limelight.”
Of course, while a lot of research went into creating the menu for Kappa Chakka Kandhari, the founders also held familiarisation events in Bengaluru and Dubai, so diners would learn of the incredible range of Kerala cuisine. “When we did the events, a lot of middle-aged people found this nostalgic connect to the foods they had grown up eating. So much so, that many were moved to tears! Interestingly, even the millennials and GenX showed up; overall, the food appealed to the entire family.”
Ingredients are a crucial element in Chef Mathew’s creations and while on the research trip, he went straight to the source to find the best produce. “When it comes to ethnic food, I believe 50 per cent of the game is won if you use the right kind of ingredient. And this we could do because of how we source our ingredients. We used to visit the markets everywhere we went, and we tried to understand the hyper local connect. For instance, coconut and tapioca grow across the entire state of Kerala. So, where do you find the best quality? We found out, that usually, the best quality of produce is found in places where that particular produce is consumed most. So, we started to keep records internally; each dish has the ingredients listed and where that ingredient needs to be procured from. We go and procure directly from the farmers and growers, cutting out any middlemen in the process. This gives them the best possible price while the farmers produce ingredients in the way and quantity we want. We also invited the farmers to our familiarisation events, so they could understand how important it is to have certain ingredients the way we want it. And of course, it gave them recognition, which is very important.”
It wasn’t just recipes and ingredients that Chef Regi Mathew picked up on his research trip across Kerala, but also the team that is behind Kappa Chakka Kandhari. “I have a habit of going into the kitchen after every meal to find the person who has prepared the meal. So, like that, I met a number of people and we explained the concept behind Kappa Chakka Kandhari, where the idea was not to commercialise production but instead, make the food the way it is made at home. We shortlisted around 60 people to help with our familiarisation events and then made the final list for the restaurant kitchen. We have both home cooks and toddy shop chefs in the team. We don’t want to burden them with making food for a large number of people as you would require in a restaurant. So, we break it down into small batches. After all, they cook with passion and that is most important for us, over quantities. You can’t ask a home chef to cook for 50 people at one go. Instead, if you take 2kg of chicken, and ask them to cook it for your friends, they’ll happily do it. So, we ask them to cook in smaller batches, multiple times.”
Chef Mathew takes a lot of pride in his team and the methods which are employed to produce each and every traditional delicacy. Modern technology might have cut short the preparation time but the chef believes that isn’t the best way to make food. “The time we spent researching in Kerala really opened our eyes to traditional foods and the methods used to prepare them. In our kitchen, we don’t use pressure cookers. Everything is made in shallow, thick-bottomed vessels and we do open-vessel cooking. This is the way our mothers used to cook at home. Cooking might be an art form but it is also a science. The reason why slow cooking is done with traditional food is because there are a number of processes that the food undergoes as it cooks. Each ingredient has a role to play. It might be a catalyst for the next ingredient or blends with other ingredients in such a way as to release crucial enzymes or effect a chemical reaction. When you try to run against time, put all ingredients together and then apply pressure and temperature, the ingredients simply become tenderised or palatable. I wouldn’t say it is happening how it has been envisaged. So, for our kitchen, we decided to stick to the basics and improve on the efficiencies by providing support services, instead of bypassing certain reactions, which are crucial to produce that tongue-tickling taste.”
The chef’s preferences for traditional tools and techniques becomes even more evident as he points out that his favourite tool to use in the kitchen is the mortar and pestle. “When you’re using it to crush masalas, the pressure applied by the pestle retains the flavours and fuses ingredients together.”
While sustainability is an essential part of Kappa Chakka Kandhari’s ecosystem, it isn’t just in the sourcing from local growers or employing local communities. Even in the kitchen, waste is kept to a minimum through a number of measures, aided massively by traditional means. “You don’t need to teach a mother how to reduce kitchen wastage. For example, the lime skin that remains once the juice is squeezed, will be used to make pickles. The trimmings from meats, will be repurposed to make cutlets and the like. So, nothing really goes to waste, except for non-edible bits. We don’t make excess quantities either, we have a clear planning and forecasting system, and prepare according to that. If we are done with our food for the day, we are done.”
While the Chennai (December 2020) and Bengaluru (March 2021) outlets have been open for some time, the pandemic played havoc with dine in. It isn’t particularly easy for standalone restaurants to operate in Chennai either, given the strict licensing regime in the state and a lot of bigger brands are usually associated with a hotel. In this scenario, it was important for the chef to focus on quality and provide an experience that diners would not find anywhere else. “Sure, we wanted to present ethnic cuisine in a unique way so as to appeal to diners. But as much focus as we gave to quality, we also ensured presentation was top-notch. After all, a lot of the decision makers today are millennials and a lot of them give a lot of importance to how the food looks. That’s what makes your Instagram feed richer. But, that doesn’t mean you need to compromise on quality.”
Despite the uncertainty about restaurants opening again, Chef Mathew is not for deliveries. “We have done a number of things to ensure safety and hygiene at the restaurant. During the lockdown, we also came up with the concept of comfort food packages. We also have QR code menus, set menus, things that the diner can easily browse before coming to the restaurant. So, they can decide and place an order even before they arrive. That way they spend minimal time and have minimal contact when they come in for the meal. But we encourage deliveries. For one thing, the food doesn’t travel well, and for another, we use several ingredients that can spoil unless handled carefully. Since we don’t have control over quality once it leaves the restaurant, we can’t vouch for the experience. Besides, no deliveries means we can cut out waste generated by packaging materials.”
Kappa Chakka Kandhari is open in Bengaluru and Chennai. For those who have grown up eating Kerala cuisine at home or those beginning to explore the state’s rich culinary heritage, the restaurant provides an instant connect to simpler times. But perhaps its biggest draw is in the fact that despite being rooted in tradition, it manages to present its concepts in a contemporary way.