No matter which land you reside in, an array of native dishes is all that would take to transport you to your homeland. A thought best understood by British-based Indian chef Alfred Prasad, who after spending more than a decade in the foreign soil, has taken the long road home in search of the aromatic flavours of desi cuisines perfected by centuries of cooking.
The youngest Indian to win Michelin star – a rating for best European restaurants and chef, Alfred Prasad won the hearts of the English as the chef of the Tamarind Hotel in London's Mayfair.
But when Alfred decided to go solo and open up his own in space in the United Kingdom – he did not forget the myriad choices offered by the cuisines back home in India.
And it was the legendary recipes of late Mrs K.M. Mathew, former chief editor of Vanitha magazine, that brought Alfred to Kottayam in Kerala.
“Authenticity is what matters,” Alfred reiterated as he joined two seasoned chefs in the kitchen. In between stirring the prawn moilee and keeping a tab on the cashew curry, Alfred found time to talk about his favourite buzzword – food!
About his trip to India...
I am on the lookout for authentic dishes prepared in authentic style. I am genuinely interested in learning first-hand from the veterans of the kitchen. For, if we don't document such indigenous dishes and the cooking methods, we may lose them forever. Therefore, I have taken a year out from my career to focus on learning more about our own cuisines.
And why Kerala?
As far as I am concerned, Kerala offers one of the three best cuisines from India. And even in Kerala, the different regions of the state offer very different tastes. The malabar cuisine is worlds apart from what is available in the south of the state, I believe.
So what are the other two cuisines from India that you would rate as best?
I will also vote for cuisines from Goa and Andhra, more specifically the coastal side one.
Punjabi food is probably the most popular food out in the western world. I want to tell them, there is more to India than the dal makhani and aloo parathas. Therefore, I want to take the indigenous tastes offered by Goa, Kerala and the coastal Andhra to the UK.
We sure smelled a love for seafood from his top list and the next question on favourite dish confirmed it, seafood it is! Alfred also voted for his mother's prawns curry as an all-time favourite.
So what is the one food that the great chef finds difficult to digest?
(sly smile) As a chef, I have learned to appreciate all types of cuisines. (Pause) But yeah, I admit bitter gourd is still too, well bitter, to accept.
That is pardoned, and we backtrack and asked him about how he ventured into the chef business?
I grew up in Vellore in Tamil Nadu, where I spent considerable amount of time playing around in the kitchen as my parents cooked. But even then, I wasn't looking it as a career option. It was my mother who filled up the form for a hotel management course. After passing out in 1993, I worked in couple of restaurants in India, including at Park Sheraton's Dakshin, before shifting my base to the UK. And now at my soon-to-be-opened space in the UK, I want to give them a real taste of our cuisines.
How do you plan to present the spicy food from the sub-continent to the UK crowd. Would they be able to stomach our Kerala food, when even rest of India doesn't look favourably at say, coconut oil?
There has been a definite change in the food habits in UK. It's not like earlier days, when they just liked the food bland. They are also ready to experiment different cuisines and people actually come out looking for Indian dishes. This is not a sudden change and it took probably 20 years for them to get here.
On the practical lines, for authentic style of cooking you would need native ingredients. How are you going to tackle that issue?
If you are talking about spices and masala powders, I can fetch them at the nearby supermarket. You would be taken aback by the choices one would find there – they will be narrowed down to say even Andhra or Kerala masala powers.
But yeah, I admit it would be difficult to get some farm produces such as fresh coconut in London. But coconuts from West Indies and Kenya are readily available. Will have to make do with those.
Being a chef is not all about whipping up delicacies. Alfred uses his culinary skills to wipe out the social evil of hunger. Could you tell us more about your philanthropic works?
In the UK supermarkets, there is an expiry date for vegetables too. So, after the expiry date, the veggies are not necessarily spoiled but they will be taken off the shelves. A group called 'Food Cycle' in UK collects these vegetables to make dishes and serve them to the poor for free.
I teach the volunteers of the group to make a meal from these veggies. Sometimes, it is a very tricky situation when you get lots of lettuce – so you need to be very creative on how to use these products in the best way possible.
And your tip to budding chefs?
When I started out, people did not even know what the word chef meant. Times have changed and this is seen as a good career option. If you work really hard, there is money and fame in this field.
But I do have a word of warning to the youngsters. Your life will change when you become a chef. When people will be out partying, you will be busy in the kitchen. So your social life may take a hit and you will have to make peace with that.
So other than food, what other interests do you pursue?
I like science and art too. There is a science in how different ingredients combine to give a special flavour to dishes, while there is also an art in presenting it to your audience. So I am glad to be in a field where I get to pursue all three interests of mine!