Passage to Kerala
The woman who organized several sold-out $10,000 culinary tours with super-star chef Vikram Vij says a coming food tour to India with an Ottawa chef will be even better, for a fraction of the price.
"I'm very good friends with Vikram," says Raju Banerjee who moved to Ottawa from Vancouver about a year ago with her husband, an Ottawa Hospital doctor. "But chef Joe (Thottungal) is the real thing. He can surpass Vikram Vij because his cuisine is more authentic."
Banerjee is referring to the Vancouver chef whose restaurant, Vij's, was praised by Mark Bittman of The New York Times as "easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world" in 2003 and whose new Vij's Railway Express just won the inaugural People's Choice Award as Canada's favourite new restaurant in Air Canada's enRoute magazine.
Banerjee says Thottungal's food is even better, though largely undiscovered. "Joe is definitely underrated," says Banerjee. "What Vikram has done for the north Indian cuisine, I think chef Joe can do for southern Indian cuisine. He should be way up there."
Banerjee, who is from India and who specializes in organizing indepth cultural tours from Canada, says that while Vij's cuisine is wonderful, it's not as authentic as what Thottungal makes at his restaurant Coconut Lagoon in Ottawa, since Vij adds his own North American twists. And it's not unique like Thottungal's, since Vij specializes in the cuisine of northern India, like most Indian restaurants in North America, while Thottungal remains true to his roots in Kerala in the southwest of India.
Thottungal, 41, is modest, but he allows that he doesn't know of any other restaurant in Ottawa, or even Canada, that specializes in Keralan cuisine.
"Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama came to Kerala for the spices, but Canadian people have not been exposed to its cuisine," he says. "Ten years ago, it became popular in England, with the Rasa restaurants. The owner comes from my town and he took his whole team to Kerala to learn about the cuisine."
So while Thottungal's menu at Coconut Lagoon, on St. Laurent Boulevard, includes butter chicken and naan bread, those are "really as comfort foods for families and people who want what they're familiar with," says Thottungal, who has brought three cooks from his Kerala hometown to staff his kitchen in Ottawa.
The real stars of his menu include paratha, a melt-in-your-mouth layered Keralan flatbread bread that is so popular among regulars that making about 200 rounds of it each day has become the sole duty of Thottungal's brother Thomas. Other Keralan specialties include unpolished rice, curries featuring smoked tamarind and fish dishes from shrimp moilee, which has a coconut sauce, to lobster masala.
"Kerala is surrounded by three oceans," says Thottungal. "There are a lot of fish dishes."
The tour Banerjee has cooked up with Thottungal gives participants an in-depth taste of Keralan cuisine, with cooking classes, visits to spice markets, tours of spice gardens and even a private houseboat cruise into backwaters famous for specific dishes.
"A lot of people have never seen how a pineapple grows, or what peppercorns look like when they're on the plant, or how to crack and grate a coconut," says Thottungal, who will accompany the tour from the airport in Ottawa, to each stop, and back again. "It's my passion to share Kerala's spices and its cuisine."
- Laura Robin, Ottawa Citizen