THE SPICE TRAIL
Chef Johnson Ebenezer & Chef Sricharan Venkatesh, Nadodi
Heart-warming, comforting and oh-so satisfying: that’s what South Indian cuisine means to Malaysians. A flavourful medley of idlis, thosais, sambhars and the darling of Malaysian palates, banana leaf rice, it’s hard to imagine them anywhere else but at home or your favourite mamak Chef Johnson Ebenezer & Chef Sricharan Venkatesh, Nadodi and banana leaf restaurants. However, this is where Nadodi steps in and turns the beloved cuisine on its head.
“We’re completely destroying the traditional way of looking at South Indian food,” exclaims Chef de Cuisine Sricharan Venkatesh with a mischievous grin. An inconspicuous white puff served on a flat stone is placed in front of me. My eyes widen with surprise as the airy Pol Puff rapidly dissolves on the tongue to reveal a burst of cinnamon and coconut flavours. It’s clear that I’m about to embark on quite an adventure.
The word ‘nadodi’ itself means ‘wanderer’ or ‘nomad’ in both Tamil and Malayalam. Before the 15th century, it is believed that there was frequent travel between the regions of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka along a route known as Adam’s Bridge. The limestone bridge is thought to have been a former land connection between the Indian subcontinent and island of Sri Lanka before it was reclaimed by the sea.
It’s the epic voyage of these olden day travellers, the exchange of cultures and ideas that have inspired the restaurant’s inventive menu. “Nadodi is all about the journey between these three regions. With every dish, guests embark on this journey of shared history, flavours and cultural resonance of South India,” explains Executive Chef Johnson Ebenezer.
The chefs admit to being nadodi themselves. Both born and raised in Chennai, they eventually found themselves wandering into the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur, determined to champion the food they grew up with. “Malaysia is one of the few countries outside of India that truly understand Southern Indian flavours; which is why the cuisine can truly blossom here,” observes Chef Ebenezer. Chef Sricharan nods in agreement: “Nadodi brings a sense of playfulness and youthful fun to an otherwise traditional cuisine – something that was missing in the local culinary scene.”
The gastronomic odyssey begins with an introduction to each region, such as the aforementioned Pol Puff that represents Sri Lanka’s penchant for robust spices such as cinnamon and lemongrass. Progressing further down the menu, the chefs expertly blend the spirit of each region’s cuisine. “We show how different these regions are, yet how well they blend together,” elaborates Chef Sricharan. Ba Ba Black Sheep showcases the fiery spirit of Tamil Nadu, where a beautifully cooked lamb is coated with the peppery blackstone flower. The ubiquitous presence of bananas in these parts is acknowledged though Tales of Musa, where the stem, flower and fruit of the plant are reassembled on a plate. Going back to Chef Sricharan’s proclamation of destroying the traditional dishes of South India, you can’t help but to notice that the flavours remain comfortingly familiar despite the delightfully bizarre presentations. The Dutch Colombo is one such example, resembling a thosai in miniature form and fashioned from moong dal crepe filled with light watalappam coconut custard.
“We want guests to have an experience, a journey because that’s what fine dining is all about,” says Chef Ebenezer. However, he does admit that it was not easy to elevate the cuisine that’s been so deeply embedded into the psyche as comfort food. “We understand that and that’s why we’ve come up with a story told through these creative concoctions,” he adds. Chef Sricharan is quite confident, though: “Without a doubt, South Indian cuisine trumps every other with its incredible flavours. The spice trail started in South India and the cuisine reflects the mastery of these spices throughout the centuries. Besides, if we don’t do it, who will?”