‘They are so much a part of what we are doing on this shore’, said Eugene Pandala, renowned architect and friend as he gently patted the shrubs and arranged the tiny stones on the banks of the Ashtamudi lake providing a cosy cove for the tiny lake fishes that had made it a home.

The fishes were tiny fellas, but something told me they were residents of the environment and I was just a visitor trying to take it all in a day.

We were on the banks of the Ashtamudi, so close to Eugene’s home that we walked into the property as he explained his project to us. I was lucky to be shown a lake side property which would one day evolve into one of Kerala’a finest resorts.
Eugene was an award winning architect, known for building with values of environmental sustainability.

Not only was Eugene designing and overseeing the construction of what is now Hotel Raviz, (a 5 star lakeside resort on the lakeside in Kollam), he was also ingeniously landscaping the area with plants and foliage indigenous to the place that would merge well with the classic architecture designed to look like a palace with a touch of Travancore Royalty.

I’m sure the fishes, birds and the foliage would agree.

Eugene was not disturbing the landscape, he was just merging the buildings in.

As I scanned the high tiled roofs, elegant pillars and columns that held up large spacious halls and quaint, winding corridors, laterite stone steps and white painted walls of the mammoth 3-storey building, it exuded a feel of being around for a long, long time.
That was almost a decade ago. And the Ashtamudi lake was like pristine still waters, broken only by the passing lake fishermen in slim canoes. We waved and they waved back.

It was a good day on the lake and the shore.

Took me back to a time when we boarded a Kerala Govt. water transport ferry that had passengers travelling all the way to Alleppy from the Kollam Road Transport Bus stand where the ferry was anchored to the pier by the waterline. The ticket tariff was just 8 Rupees. The ferry was filled with backpacking foreigners armed with binoculars and cameras with massive telelenses as they shot black cormorants perched on wooden poles as they flapped and dried their wings before diving in again for fish. After reaching Alleppy, we took the ride back in the evening perched on top of the Govt. ferry with only the moonlight and the boat driver for company. All of 8 hours long. It was a free ride.

Back then. Freedom was a rupee an hour in the daytime. But the nights were free as black cormorants.

That moonlight boat ride back to Kollam still gives me goose bumps thinking about it.

I was now at the Raviz Hotel just over a week ago, to catch up with my schoolmates who took the effort to meet up over 3 days and spend a day at the Trinity Lyceum School from where we had passed out 43 years ago. They had homed in from across the world, each one of them, and the lake facing rooms at the Raviz provided that lazy, hometown touch of the backwaters, complete with glorious sunrises and painted skies as the day ended.

We became schoolboys again.

It was during one of our dinner breaks that I ran into Chef Suresh Pillai. I knew he was of ‘Masterchef Fame’ (as the only participant from Kerala in the nail-biting TV Series on competitive cooking), it was only now that I had met him for real. His excitement was infectious as he explained to us the bountiful catch from the Ashtamudi Lake, the fresh seafood from the Arabian Sea and how he cooked and plated them for the guests as he scrolled us thru his live cooking videos on his smartphone.

Much as I was impressed with his cooking skills, it was his treatment of the ‘Meen Varutharachathu’, I was inspired by.
What with the expanse of the Ashtamudi lake that held all kinds of fishes and other secrets, Chef Suresh came across to me like a brother who knew what to do with fish. From the lake or from the Arabian Sea, which was just around the bend.

Kollam, my home town was magical that way.

The sea and the lake, and all the quaint folks living on land in between.

The Raviz Hotel is owned by businessman Ravi Pillai who also now owns Hotel properties in Calicut as well as the prestigious Leela Group Hotel in Kovalam.

The urban myth goes that Mr.Pillai on a jaunt through London was impressed with what he was served at a restaurant where the chef had cooked up some delicious stuff that hit Mr. Pillai where it mattered. On realizing both him and the Chef, none other than Suresh Pillai, hail from the same place Chavara in Kollam, Kerala, the tie was forever bonded.

I was back in Bangalore recovering from an enjoyable break in Kerala with school mates which included Sadhya lunches with beef and fried fish, Buffet spreads with Sear fish Pollichathu, Beef roasts and Mutton Stew with appams, Mutton curries and parottas, Arabic Al Faham chicken and mutton cutlets all washed down with Fruit Salads with ice cream from the iconic 100 year old Crown Bakery which we slurped down like school kids.

My taste buds and my gastro intestinal system was on a pure non-vegetarian overdrive of Kerala cuisine.

I managed to get only the white pomfret online on the Fresh to Home store in Bangalore though I wanted the Black Pomfret to do justice to Chef Suresh’s masterpiece dish.

Like a great chess player that he was (A District Champion), he just moves the right ingredients around and bingo! I was impressed.

So here goes Chef Suresh’s Meen Varutharachathu. The slow roasted coconut gratings with a handful of spices bring out the flavours of fresh and juicy pomfrets. Mind you, this was my home kitchen in Bangalore, a long, long haul away from the Kerala shoreline, but I was determined to cook up the dish.

Here’s his Recipe which I cooked.

And needless to say, the deep brown terracotta chatti was wiped clean.

As I slurped the last of the dark gravy, there was definitely a touch of a skilled Chef, an environmentally conscious architect and a lake that wished it was still.

About the Author

Monu Danesh Surendran works for a retail organization in Bangalore and heads it online and branding division. He is a foodie by passion and therefore tries his hand at stuff in his home kitchen. While not dabbling in cooking during his days off he likes his music and of course trying out food. He prefers home cooked cuisine though restaurant fare guarantees a good outing with friends.

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