Monday, June 17, 2019

Local, natural and delicious

Corporate Chef Suresh Pillai of the Raviz Resort and Spa, on the banks of the Ashtamudi Lake, Kollam, has made a unique menu based on the fishes in the lake

Pics: Chef Suresh Pillai with Chris Gayle; Chef Suresh Pillai; the Pearlspot Pollichathu (fried)  

By Shevlin Sebastian

The cap has the word, ‘Attitude’ written on the front. The white sleeveless banian compliments the black Bermuda shorts. There are tattoos all over the arms and upper shoulders, and golden necklaces around his neck. West Indian star cricketer Chris Gayle looks relaxed and breaks out into an easy smile as he sits at the floating restaurant, ‘Randaal’, of the Raviz Resort and Spa, on the banks of the Ashtamudi Lake, at Kollam (138 km from Kochi).

Chris is accompanied by his girlfriend Natasha Berridge and two-year-old daughter Crisalina. Corporate chef Suresh Pillai places a sizzling pearlspot fish on a green leaf in front of the cricketer. Chris takes a fork and digs into the fish. After a while, he looks up and says, “It’s good, man.”

Suresh beams and provides a seafood meal: prawn, oysters, crab and snapper.

Later Suresh says, “We always use fresh ingredients. The pearlspot has its own flavour. In Kerala cuisine, there is a tendency to use a lot of masala powder. As a result, it overcomes the flavour of the fish. So, for the pearlspot, I used the first extract of the coconut milk, black pepper, ginger and curry leaves. I did not put any masala, but a dash of turmeric.” Incidentally, after Chris’s visit, Suresh changed the name of the dish from Pearlspot Pollichathu (fried) to Pearlspot King Gayle.  

Since the resort is next to the lake, Suresh has made a specific menu called the ‘Taste of Ashtamudi’. “Usually only the local people eat these fishes, but I wanted our guests also to enjoy it,” says Suresh, who worked in London for 14 years and was a participant in the BBC Masterchef programme in 2017.

Earlier, there was a thinking that foreigners prefer large fish like kingfish, which has very little bones. But I have discovered they also like fishes with bones. Also, the lake fish have a distinct flavour.”

In Asthamudi, which has an area of 62 kms, there is a tributary called the Kanjirode. Earlier, there was a tapioca factory. The tapioca waste would be dumped into the lake. “The pearlspot loves this waste,” says Suresh. “As a result, the fish has more flavour and is regarded as one of the best.” It is also the most expensive. The usual pearlspot sells for Rs 400 per kilo, but the Kanjirode pearlspot sells for Rs 900 per kilo.

Another reason for the unique taste is because the mud has an earthy taste. In the olden times, the work on making coir products would take place by the side of lakes and rivers in Alleppey and Kollam districts. “The shell of the coconut would be soaked in the water for three months,” says Suresh. “And this is the cause for all sorts of flavours in the fishes.”

Apart from the pearlspot, the other items on the menu are the yellow clams, mussels, groupers, mullets, Indian bream, catfish and oysters. “In the West, people eat oysters raw, but in Kerala, we prefer to cook it,” says Suresh. “It could be stir or deep fried or roasted.”

Suresh also serves Tiger Prawns, as well as the mud crabs. The mud crabs are caught in a most unusual way. There is a long rope that has numerous hooks, which has feed on it. Then it is placed in the water. The crab starts feeding on it. The rope is gently pulled up. And the crabs are pulled away and put into a fishing net.

Usually, the fishermen go to catch fish every day at about 4 a.m. Suresh sometimes buys the catch from the local market or some fishermen come directly to the resort. Unfortunately, there is a negative aspect to this fishing.  

Some fishermen use nets with small gaps. As a result, all the fish are caught including the baby fishes. “They should only catch the bigger fish and leave the small ones,” says Suresh. “But this is not being done. One snapper can feed six people. But if a baby snapper dies, it is gone forever. There is a lack of awareness among fishermen. They don’t know how to sustain the environment. So many species are becoming extinct. However, some know they are doing harm. But they say they are doing it for their livelihood.”

Suresh suggests that like in the seas, there should be a ban on fishing in the lake during particular months. “The government should also conduct awareness classes,” he says. “That is the only way to protect our fish wealth.” 

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