Paati ’s wisdom for the win

Raised under the wings of his grandmother, winner of this year’s MasterChef Tamil, Akash Muralidharan, aims to bring back the lost ingredients in his dishes
Akash Muralidharan
Akash Muralidharan

CHENNAI: During the festival of crackers and lights, Akash Muralidharan recalls his grandmother, mother, and aunt carefully kneading and frying up batches of crispy murukku and adirasam. As one with a sweet tooth, the youngster’s first tryst with cooking was learning to make the festive soft, golden Mysore pak with his grandmother. The kitchen was his safe space and he spent generous amounts of time here, mastering recipes.

Growing up in a joint family, his routine was punctuated by meal times and the entire family congregating in the kitchen for breakfast and dinner. “Many memories are attached to that space and my grandmother would always encourage us to step inside the kitchen and cook. After all the men in the house would go off to work, it would just be my cousin, brother, and the women. We used to do activities together in the garden, kitchen and I enjoyed being around food and in the kitchen itself,” he says. 

Akash watched his grandmother pluck spinach, manathakkali, or coconut and transform them into comforting dishes. “These are things I look up to her for. She would make so many things quickly. When she made sweets, she would put Boost or Milo and bring out a new flavour. I would think about how she did it then only,” the 29-year-old explains, adding his interest in cooking existed since he was conscious. 

His paati’s experimental bone and love for cooking followed him ever since. From a degree in architecture to pursuing food design in Milan, Akash’s journey was intertwined with art, cooking, and food. “My effort has been to showcase my food, our South Indian food on an international platform. In Europe, I felt that everybody was celebrating their food and culture and they had such a strong bond they shared with it. Why are we not celebrating our food so much? This is the thought that pushed me to start working with food intensely,” explains the chef, who recently bagged the title of MasterChef India Tamil 2024.

Akash Muralidharan

Akash also runs Vizhamedai, along with his partners, Sanjana, and Darshini. Celebrating the local is at the heart of this platform. Their projects include crafting cards based on the Tamil calendar and they have also whipped up a feast at actors Ashok Selvan and Keerthi Pandian’s wedding. 

Plating forgotten ingredients

Have you heard of vetrilai valli kizhangu? Or mudavattukal kilzhangu? Have you eaten banana blossoms? These elements rarely enter our daily poriyals or kuzhambus, and despite being grown in south India, only a few residents have chanced upon these ingredients. 

The urge to tell stories about these lesser-known ingredients pushed Akash to begin cooking amid the lights, camera, and pressure of the MasterChef kitchen. “Each ingredient is unique in its way; if we are going to lose them forever, it also means our identity will be lost with them. We need to be conscious about including them in our food,” he underlines. From making mashed banana and egg yolk ravioli and blueberry rasam, to competing in various challenges, the MasterChef kitchen proved to be a fruitful platform.

Once, amid a heated week in the show, the chef opened up about dealing with ADHD. “I was struggling to focus on getting through the challenges; it was a difficult week and (opening up about it) helped me be nicer to myself. When I said it on the show, it made it more real and easier for me to handle. I learned to deal with it in a better way;  I am more than just a neurobehavioural condition,” he says, advising those with ADHD to get enough rest and sleep.

In the finale, Akash’s creation was influenced by a Salem-based dish made during Aadi Perukku, bringing a modern twist to a classic comfort dish. With urad dal, rice and jaggery, this signature pongal dish was served in a coconut shell and was a homage to Meenakshi Ammal and her cookbook Samaithu Par, he said on social media. As for his sakkarai pongal, he says, the kamala orange meringue was a tribute to his paati Kamala; the jasmine spheres were a tribute to his amma and chiththi and paasi paruppu laddoos were for his athai-paatis. While clinching the title, Akash said it was an emotional moment and it had “given me a lot more confidence about creating food.”

As for the future, Akash hopes to travel and learn more about the food, ingredients, and culture of different regions inside Tamil Nadu. When asked about advice for future cooks, he urges them to be more experimental and not restrict their cooking methods. “It is okay to make mistakes and for the dish to taste horrible in the beginning. only if you experiment, can you come up with something new,” he signs off. 

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The New Indian Express