How Chef Regi Mathew Won Hearts with Rustic, Home-style Food from Kerala

His food venture Kappa Chakka Kandhari focuses on the ethnic micro-cuisines of the southern state and is a labour of love that came together after three intense years of travel and research.

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Chef Regi Mathew (left) is hailed as the champion of ethnic Kerala cuisine (right). Photos Courtesy: Regi Mathew

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Across India, a heavy downpour results in a flurry of social media updates on the joys of petrichor or plans for a hot chai with fritters. Most posts centre on the nostalgia of these age-old combinations that never fail to make us happy. The sentimentality was no different during one such rainy day in 2015 for three childhood friends: Chef Regi Mathew, John Paul and Augustine Kurian, who sat together with some tea and pazhampori (banana fritters). It was when they decided to capture nostalgia through food in an organised way. “I hail from Kottayam,” says Regi—co-owner and culinary director, Kappa Chakka Kandhari (KCK – Chennai and Bengaluru)—and the others from Kannur and Thrissur in Kerala. “Our approaches to food were different and we decided to explore these differences and revisit our idea of capturing nostalgia.”

 

A Journey of Exploration and Discovery

Regi began with an open study. He visited Mangalore and Agumbe, places where Keralites often migrated to, and documented how their move affected their eating habits.  The three friends simultaneously began a systematic discovery within their own homes. “We spoke to our mothers, who were quite happy that we were thinking of food from back in the day. We ate a lot and listened to stories about what we were eating, all from memories of our mothers’ childhoods,” reminisces the chef. “When we compared stories, we found so many variations in the food, techniques and approaches.”

 

How Chef Regi Mathew Won Hearts With Rustic, Home Style Food From Kerala

The chef’s food venture, Kappa Chakka Kandhari (top), serves set menus rooted in nostalgia, such as this one called Toddy Shop Memories (bottom). Photos Courtesy: Regi Mathew

 

The three mothers were asked for contacts of 10 friends from their childhood, and the trio thus visited 30 more people to eat, talk, document and learn. “For the aunties we visited, we would always be children and they were happy to share their food and recipes, which we would not have gotten without the references we had.” These contacts provided additional references, which led Regi, John and Augustine to visit 265 homes over three years.

In every home, they asked for stories behind each dish they tried. The trio explored versions and dug deep into what made a difference in each preparation of the same dish. “We were told that except for staples like salt and sugar almost everything was home grown or locally available. Fresh whole spices would be sourced locally, washed, dried and powdered. This made a huge difference to the food.”

This understanding triggered another aspect of research on ingredients and their provenance. The three began to geographically identify regions where key ingredients of the best quality are grown based on soil conditions, water availability, and terrain. “Ramapuram in Kottayam turned out to be an excellent source of tapioca, unlike the ones grown in paddy fields that retain more water and are not as flavourful as the ones harvested in high range areas. Similarly, we found the duck from Thanneermukkom near Alleppey and Kumarakom to be flavourful.” For Kappa Chakka Kandhari, such informal, but research and experience-based geographical mapping has set the blueprint for sourcing ingredients.

The friends also visited over 70 kallu shappus (toddy shops in Malayalam) and they found that the menu drove customer loyalty. People returned for the duck mappas, kakka roast, irachi fry, etc.

By the end of the three-year mark, Regi had 850 recipes to work with for the food venture. The trio also welcomed aboard food experts—10 each of home chefs and toddy shop cooks from different parts of Kerala who specialised in specific dishes—and placed them in KCK restaurants in Chennai (opened in July 2018) and Bengaluru (opened in December 2019).

 

How Chef Regi Mathew Won Hearts With Rustic, Home Style Food From Kerala

Each recipe is sourced from home kitchens after three years of research and travel across Kerala. Some of the dishes on the menu include neimeen fry (top left), grilled lobster (bottom left), and duck mappas with vattayappams (right). Photos Courtesy: Regi Mathew

 

The Kappa Chakka Kandhari Experience

“We don’t eat course-wise at home and so I curated the restaurant menu removing this barrier. Keeping things open allowed us to bring a lot of flavours to the experience,” asserts Regi.

Regi’s menu is representative of several communities and he associates each dish with the region he experienced it in. There is Moplah cuisine from the Malabar region, payasams from Thrissur, aviyal from central Travancore, food from the Syrian Christian community and even Fort Kochi cuisine that has Portuguese influences. With time, Regi says KCK grew to become a people’s brand, something that was quite evident with the number of requests the restaurant received for home delivery during the pandemic.

When the Chennai and Bengaluru branches re-opened after a 12-month and an 18-month hiatus respectively, Regi made a conscious move to shift to set menus and one-pot meals. Each set menu has been named for the experience it provides: of a home cook, toddy shop or tea shop. The Jalarani, a homely, yet indulgent seafood set menu, for example, comes with a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage, six ‘touchings’ (Kerala slang for spicy bar finger food) like koondal roast (roasted calamari rings), prawn kizhi, chicken peralan, etc. This is followed by main courses, dessert and a Suleimani tea. There are one-pot meals like the pazham kanji or payaru kanji (variations of rice gruel and porridge), pidi kozhi curry (rice dumplings in coconut milk with Ramapuram style chicken curry) or the fish chatti choru (boiled matta rice with fish curry).

“We want people to focus more on the side dishes and lesser on the accompaniments,” says Regi. “The restaurant has paired dishes so that people new to the cuisine can venture beyond the popular choices and not worry about pairing. We have combinations like vattayappam-duck mappas, pazhampori beef curry, idiyappam-fish mulagitta curry and more.”

KCK in Chennai and Bengaluru today sees bookings that bring in multi-generational families to the table. The food touches a chord with each diner and is visible from the packed houses that run on most days.

Regi believes that Indian cuisine has so much to offer. “People are recognising that ethnic cuisine has much more acceptance today. Restaurateurs are exploring it. Research, focus on stories, information and the quality of ingredients helps with the growth of hyper-local cuisine. It forms a complete circle where we can support farmers, buy good quality produce, cook good food and have people enjoy it,” he signs off.

 

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  • Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bangalore-based freelance writer. She writes for several publications on food, travel, lifestyle, interiors, parenting and architecture. She enjoys telling the stories of people who have contributed to a range of fields, and chronicling interesting experiences that don't find a place in the rush of the mainstream. An avid food lover, Ruth loves to explore a city through its food.

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