South Indian cuisine is very simple and humble: Chef Ranjit Kuttikattu

If it’s not masala dosa, we would be eating some idlis. If not any of this, you could bank on some appams or upma to ensure your tummy isn’t growling. And how could we forget medu wada? These are some of the most common South Indian recipes we Mumbaikars love hogging. Isn’t it?

Lotus Café at JW Marriott Mumbai is organising a South India Food Festival from July 5 to 21, 2013 between 7:30pm and 12am. The four southern states — Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala — are known for its unique flavours. So here’s my tête-à-tête with Chef Ranjit Kuttikattu, Junior Sous Chef at Saffron who takes us through a culinary journey to the south of India.

Chef Ranjit Kuttikattu, Junior Sous Chef at Saffron, JW Marriott Hotel Mumbai.

How would you describe south-Indian cuisine? Do elaborate on the flavors of each region.
Indian cuisine of the South is quite versatile and diverse. Every regional food of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka which collectively form the South Indian States are distinctively unique.

Flavours of Karnataka cuisine are a combination of coconut and mild spices. Scoville level of hotness is bare minimal compared to other states. North Karnataka is known for their vegetarian delicacies. Coastal regions are abundant with seafood.

Kerala cuisine is a perfect amalgamation of vegetarian food of Brahmins, seafood of Syrian Christians, and meats & poultry preparations of the Malabar region. Most of the food is vegetarian but with the increasing influx of Christians and Muslims, non-vegetarian dishes are becoming common.

Flavors of Tamil Nadu are quite diverse. The breakfast spreads are quite unique and cherished throughout the world. The Chettinad region and Kongunadu region of Tamil Nadu are equally well recognized for its varied uses of spices. Chettinad cuisine offers a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.

Andhra Pradesh is known for their fierce hot tangy food. Geographical and climatic condition suits extensive cultivation of hot chilies. The majority of a diverse variety of dishes is vegetable or lentil based. Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh shares some of Central India and the Vidharba region of Maharashtra, the region has more Jowar and Bajra based rotis in their main staple menu. The Rayalaseema districts, sharing borders with eastern Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has similarities to those regions. Hyderabad region of Andhra Pradesh is quite distinct due to the early presence of Nizams .Food is like Awadh or Lucknowi cuisine of North India but is comparatively spicier.

How would you distinguish north-Indian and south-Indian cuisine?
North Indian Food is very rich as compared to South Indian cuisine. Usage of ghee, butter and cream are quite prevalent.   North was invaded by Mughals and Nawabs earlier which helped in molding the current style of cooking in these states. They have a very unique technique of cooking food like Dum, Tandoor, etc. The food is based on various gravies and meat stocks which form the base for most of the dishes prepared in the north.

Unlike the North, South Indian Food is simple yet very distinctive. South Indian dishes have evolved more on geographical and climatic conditions. There are wide varieties of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes available. The coastline around South Indian States helps to produce varieties of seafood dishes. Other distinctive feature is the perfect blend of spices with local produce of vegetables, meat and poultry. South Indian Breakfast delicacies like idli, dosa, medu wada, sambhar are very prominent throughout the world. The meals have endless choices.

What does Lotus Cafe have to offer us?
At Lotus Café, we are serving an elaborate South Indian buffet, wherein there is selection of non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes. There are soups, starters, lamb, beef and duck preparations. A variety of seafood like Pearl spot, Sardine, Mackerel, Black pomfret, Lady Fish, White blade Fish, Mud Crab, Prawn and sundried seafood which are procured from South India, are abundantly available for the buffet.

Are you from one of the south-Indian states? Take us through the process of recipe selection. How easy/ difficult was it?
Yes, I am a Keralite, born and brought-up in Mumbai. Moreover I completed my Hotel Management from IHMCT, Kerala. Eating food from my mother’s kitchen and three years of hotel management has helped me understand the in and out of the food of Kerala. My Mother has influenced my cooking style in many ways. My dishes are quite homely and simple, but I always try to present them in a very professional way.

My friends working in other states of South India and my frequent visit to their places have helped me understand the complexity and uniqueness that goes into South Indian Cuisine. As I always say, South Indian Cuisine is the easiest of any other cuisine in India. This I say not because I am from south. This is because I have worked with restaurants with cuisines from Awadh, Punjab, Kashmir, etc. A right balance of ingredients with the spices can help one gain expertise in preparing South Indian Food.

I believe there is enormous learning required to understand the wholeness of South Indian cuisine due to its diversity. I have just started my journey and I am sure its going to be very exciting.

Tell us about the signature dishes and how you’ve managed to retain the real flavor.
I love few dishes which I will cook anytime and anywhere. I always try to do justice to all the food I make. But there are few dishes which I love to cook, eat and share all the time. I always carry my Kodumpulli (Kerala Tamarind) if I have to cook my signature Meen Vevichattu anywhere in this world. Similarly Tarav Mappas (Duck) , Kozhi Chimbli (deep fried Chicken Morsels), Beef Ularthiyathu , Chicken Chettinad , Kozhi Gassi, Mutta Roast (Duck Egg), Denji Rawa Fry (Soft shell crab) are always there in my South Indian Menu. I always try to bring my prime ingredients of the dish from the region where it is locally produced in. This has helped me to retain the flavor of the dishes and gives justice to the food I prepare.

A lot of Mumbaikars love south-Indian food. What could be the reason?
I believe there are Chefs like me who are trying their best in revolutionizing South Indian Cuisine by organizing South Indian Food Festivals, adding classical south Indian dishes in Ala carte Menu, opening Fine dining restaurants for South Indian Food, etc. Mumbai has seen lot of south Indian restaurants flourishing in recent times. And there are few restaurants helping in spreading awareness of authentic South Indian Food. And I am happy that JW Marriott, Mumbai has given me this platform to showcase my take on South Indian Cusine.

What’s that one best aspect about south-Indian cuisine?
South Indian Cuisine is very simple and humble, provided you keep adjusting your Chili Tolerance level depending upon your clientele. Westernizing South Indian Cuisine is possible provided you keep all the elements, flavors, textures intact without disturbing the originality of the dish.

Bonda Mor kuzhambu

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