Kerala's first woman chef revives forgotten dishes from the state
Latha K, said to be the first woman chef of Kerala, speaks to TNIE about her love for traditional dishes and her recent cookbook
KOCHI: Chef De Cuisine Latha K, 54, is busy overseeing the lunch preparation at Malabar Cafe in Grand Hyatt Kochi. After the hustle and bustle around the preparations for a traditional Kerala lunch, she gets ready to talk about her favourite activity — cooking.
“I love our traditional Malabar cuisines. Many of which we have already forgotten,” she begins.
Born in an orthodox family in Kozhikode, Latha’s journey into the culinary world was full of challenges. “I grew up watching my mother and grandmother cook, who made delicious dishes with so much love,” recalls Latha.
“My first step into the culinary world was at the age of nine. However, it was not a planned one,” chuckles Latha. “I had accidentally dropped the fish curry my mother had prepared for lunch. To cover up my mistake, I made it from scratch. To my surprise, my father loved it. I have never stopped cooking since then,” says Latha.
Latha has indeed come a long way now. From Thai to Arabic, she is an expert in several cuisines. However, it was a challenging journey.
“After completing my schooling, I wanted to pursue a degree in hotel management. But during the 80s, not many institutions offered hotel management courses. And since I was a woman, not many institutions wanted to admit me. In 1989, I got into the Food Craft Institute in Calicut, which had initially refused to take me based on my gender.” Latha became a female student at the institute.
The industry’s issue with her gender didn’t end there. She couldn’t find a hotel to do an internship after her course.
“Being a chef was considered a profession for males then. After several failed attempts, I finally got a chance at a three-star hotel in Chennai. But, being a woman, I was not given much work. I had to work from the kitchen of the owner’s house. I realised that it was not helping me grow and came back to Kerala within a week,” she says.
However, she didn’t give up and instead started a small hotel in Kozhikode. She named it Kairali. “I served nadan dishes and also worked in canteens. It was a good experience for the next five years. But I wanted to explore more, enter the world of chefs and work in a great kitchen,” she says. In 2000, she finally was able to achieve that dream by securing a position at Saj Lucia in Thiruvananthapuram. “It was a stepping stone in my career and I learned a lot about the hotel industry there,” she says.
Later, she moved to Dubai and became the speciality chef at Saj Group till 2009, where she was able to explore a myriad of cuisines. “A group of women chefs from Thailand trained me in their cuisine. There are a lot of similarities between Thai and Kerala cuisine. In Thailand, coconut milk, and green chilli are used in raw form in dishes. Thai food is sweet and spicy. All these have a striking resemblance to our food,” she says.
Living in UAE, she also specialised in Arabic dishes and later travelled to Bangkok to learn more about the street food cultures there. Then for 12 years, she worked in various well-known hotel chains like the Raviz Hotel. She returned to India and joined the Grand Hyatt in 2017.
Latha tries to keep to her roots and that is reflected in her first cookbook Lathapachakam: Nattinpurathinte Thanathu Ruchi. “I have tried to incorporate all the forgotten dishes of Kerala in my book,” says Latha K. The book consists of about 358 recipes.
“Our food is connected to our culture. And I travelled back in time, to the kitchen in my childhood home, where I saw my mother and grandmother work day and night to nourish the family. My grandmother used to make pickles from Nilamanga, a type of medicinal mushroom found under the soil. It is part of this book. Another unique recipe is kanjivellam soup,” she teases a few recipes from the book.
Latha loves cooking and that is more than a passion for her. Look at our sadyas, she says. “We have many more sadya in different regions. We have Aranmula vallasadya with 67 dishes. There is much more to explore,” she adds.
“And my favourite is fish curry. One of my signature dishes is the meen inji curry, which is a dish inspired by my grandmother. We roast the ginger, garlic, and green chilli and then cook it with fish.”
But Latha is disappointed that very few women take up the profession of a chef. “This is a field where women can achieve great heights. It is disappointing that even now, there are so few women from Kerala who wear Chef’s hats,” says Latha, who has completed 35 years.
Latha has also received numerous accolades and awards, including the Best Female Chef Award from Raviz Calicut in 2022, the World Women Leadership Award in 2020 and the Master Chef of the Year Award.
She is now busy writing her second book, which focuses on how past and modern food habits impact people’s health. However, the third book will be the most special one, she says. Titled ‘The memory of my hotel life’, will be based on her life in the culinary industry which she plans to release after retirement.
Dates and banana payasam
- Dates: 400g
- Robusta banana (or njalipoovan): 300g
- Jaggery/ honey as per taste
- Roasted rice flour:300g
- Cardamom powder:1tsp
- Dry ginger: 1tsp
- Ghee: 250g
- Dry coconut (chopped)-50g
- Coconuts: 4 (for milk)
- Salt: a pinch
- Cook dates and banana well and then keep it aside.
- Put one pinch of salt in water and then boil. Add roasted rice flour and then mix it well and make a dough.
- Add the cooked dates and banana into the dough and make small balls.
- Boil water in a vessel, then add these small balls and steam it well.
- Remove it and keep it aside.
- In a pan, add jaggery syrup and in that add thick coconut milk, cumin, dry ginger, cardamom and keep in low flame.
- In this, add the small balls and then cook for a while.
- Once it’s cooked, add some ghee, roast cashew nuts and dry coconut into it.
- Then serve hot.
Meen Inji Curry
- Fish: 1kg
- Shallots: 200g
- Coconut oil: 100ml
- Green chilli: 100g
- Ginger: 50g
- Garlic: 50g
- Tamarind juice: 50ml
- Fenugreek: 5g
- Red chilli whole: 150g
- Curry leaves: 2 pieces
- Roas red chilli, ginger, garlic, shallots, fenugreek and then make a paste.
- Then, put it in tamarind juice. Put salt and bring it to a boil.
- Put fish pieces and then boil
- After sometime, put aside the fish curry.
- In a pan, saute some shallots, green chilli, curry leaves and then put it in the curry.
- Serve hot.