I’m not sure how much of it was the undoubtedly excellent food or how much the sheer magic of the place: The Taj Group’s real star property has got to be Gateway Pasumalai in Madurai. It is never talked about, let alone hyped. But enter the gate, drive up the one-and-a-half-kilometre-long driveway, dodging wild hare and mongoose, and enter the porch of this erstwhile Madura Coats bungalow, and you’ve left the present-day world behind and entered the British Raj. Since it’s built at a slight elevation from the rest of the town, you can see all the way to the Meenakshi temple while strains of devotional music are carried to its gardens by gusts of wind. You can feed peacocks with crumbs from your table.
Browning glory: This brain stir fry is flavoured with fried onions. Raj Sekhar
Chef Raj Sekhar’s local menu revolves around the food of Madurai which, according to him, is a melting pot of Chettinad food overlaid with influences from as far away as Kerala. The six or seven messes in the city are run by members of an extended family who reportedly hail from the Chettinad region. Amma Mess and the others have influenced local tastes to such an extent that Madurai is now more or less synonymous with Chettinad food, though Karaikudi (a prominent town in the Chettinad region) is an hour and a half away. Dhabas specialize in kothu poratta—a flaky paratha shredded and griddle-cooked with pieces of meat and fistfuls of spice. Sekhar is of the opinion that their provenance is Kerala.
You’ll encounter all this and more in the turn-of-the-century dining hall at the Gateway, where I shared a gigantic table with the chef’s enchanting three-year-old daughter, dressed up as a fairy as compensation for having fractured her arm. Sekhar’s efforts to build a bank of home-style Chettinad cooking have resulted in periodic food festivals where he invites Karaikudi housewives to cook their specialities in the Taj kitchen. Unusual dishes that he has encountered have included raktam curry—a preparation made from lamb’s blood that, he claims, has the appearance of scrambled eggs!
The single dish that stands out in my memory has to be Mulla Poriyal—lamb’s brain stir-fry. It had the elegance and subtlety of a French pâté, except that in the background was a melange of spices. Sekhar himself had never before encountered a brain preparation that was not a curry. In north India, all you’ll get is brain broken up or served in chunks, but always part of a flowing sauce that contains onions and/or tomatoes, plus enough spices to distract you from the principal ingredient. On the other hand, though Mulla Poriyal did not have the texture of brain, the pale brown colouring came more from the fried onions than heavy spicing.
None of which answers the question: Did I enjoy the meal because of its quality or because of the unmatched experience?
250g lamb brain
2 tbsp refined oil
1 star anise
1inch cinnamon stick
1 tsp urad dal
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 onion (medium size)
3 garlic cloves (sliced)
2 green chillies (sliced)
10-12 curry leaves
A pinch of turmeric powder
½ tomato (sliced)
Salt to taste
3 tbsp fresh coconut (grated)
1tsp coriander leaves (chopped)
Wash the brain under running water and dice. Heat oil in a pan, add the star anise, cinnamon stick, cumin seeds, urad dal and saute lightly. Add the garlic, onions, green chillies and curry leaves. Sweat the mixture on slow fire. Add a pinch of turmeric powder and the diced brain to the mixture. Keep stirring until the brain combines with the mixture. Add the tomato slices and beaten egg. Continue cooking for 5 minutes. Lastly, add the coconut. Check for seasoning and garnish with coriander leaves.
Recipe courtesy Raj Sekhar, executive chef, Gateway Pasumalai, Madurai.
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