The Spices Studio

Photographs and story by Peta Kaplan & Ben Sandzer-Bell

The region of Kerala has been at the center of the Orient Spice Trade for centuries.  When we visited Kochi (South of Goa), an active trading port for spices in the 16th to 19th Century, when successive European powers built up and administered colonial empires in this part of the world ~ first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British ~ it was evident by strolling through the former spice warehouses, just how large the spice trade was.

Alila Spice Studio #3 - A Alila Spice Studio #3 - B

Spices remain an important part of India’s export market today, and regionally, Kerala is still a major producer of such spices as coriander, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, tamarind, black pepper, turmeric, cassia, cardamom, fennel seeds, dill, caraway and chili.

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These spices not only constituted a major source of economic activity for the State of Kerala, for centuries; They inevitably became the culinary “signature” of the region.

Every household’s kitchen contains a collection of spices and every cook knows his/her way through these spices as integral ingredients in Indian cuisine.

Some home cooks take the culinary skill beyond day-to-day food preparation and become culinary ambassadors for the state of Kerala.  Such is the story of Chef Edia.

A Goan by birth, with a long family line that stretches to Portuguese ancestry, Chef Edia was “discovered” by Alila Diwa Goa, when they launched their hotel.  Alila wanted to distinguish their culinary offering.  They wanted to make it “real”.  They wanted a chef who had Goan cuisine running in her veins.  Though not formally trained in culinary school, Chef Edia carries in her DNA a long history of Goan cuisine, learned as a child from her mother’s kitchen and her aunt all they would pass down in the way of regional culinary treasure.

Chef Edia, thanks to Alila Diwa Goa’s decision to give her a venue to introduce the hotel’s guests to Goan cuisine, through the aptly named Spice Studio restaurant,  now has a chance to share her knowledge and skills.  And she does it with gusto.

A passionate chef, who finds herself in a relatively rare position as a female chef, in an industry that tends to be dominated by men, Chef Edia seeks to retain her brand of elevated home cooking through an extensive menu of local specialties.  A large segment of the Spice Studio’s clientele is Indian. So her challenge  is to take Indian clients and foreigners alike and bring them into the realm of Goan cuisine.

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We have a chance to chat with Chef Edia before our meal.  She readily shares her childhood cooking memories.  Asked about what are her favorite foods, she quickly thinks through her own family’s favorites ~ her far away son who recently flew into Goa and just had to have one of her special dishes as a matter of great urgency ~ a Goan stew that features turmeric and coconut milk.

Rather than talk in the abstract, the Spice Studio has set up a visual display, which allows Chef Edia to explain the spices that give Goan cuisine its distinctive flavors.

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The universe of Goan tastes and, more broadly, Indian spices leads to a bewildering array of dishes. The menu at the Spice Studio is pedagogical.  It is very helpful for a foreign dinner guest to be able to get a sense of what regions of India produce what dishes, and a map is a great tool to explain regional differences.

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There is so much to choose from ~ the proximity of the sea yields a treasure trove of mackerel, squid and black pomfret, a local white fish.

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While there is no major seasonal variation in the availability of spices and vegetables,  mango becomes the star ingredient in summer months.

Goan desserts deserve special mention.  Chef Edia becomes animated as she explains Doce ~, and Bebinca ~  a construction of multiple layers of yumminess cooked traditionally in clay ovens with coconut husk as fodder.  The coconut husk infuses a layer of flavor which permeates the cake.

We settle for a mostly vegetarian-centric meal ~ Potato “chops”, mild spicy curry, tandoori chickpeas, mushroom Amsol, King Fish and Goan red rice.  The words don’t begin to tell the tale of what our palates experienced.

The amuse-bouche, a small but brilliantly punchy combination of hot tomato soup and crispy outside, soft inside, potato ball, launches our meal with great panache.

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Modern day vegetarians look not only for tasty veggies ~ they, we, look for evidence that vegetables can be given the same level of creativity in cooking as is often displayed with meat dishes.  It’s about the taste, but it’s also about the presentation.  A medley of fresh and crunchy vegetables is an example of vegetables as the star of the culinary show.

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A trio of chicken tandoori, broccoli and potato dumplings – doesn’t sound revolutionary? And yet, it was.  By far, the best tandoori bite EVER.

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We could have stopped here.  But Chef Edia wants to introduce us to a local fish, served in thin slices and served with a Goan form of vegetable curry.  Her enthusiasm for Goan cuisine is contagious.

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We are now firmly in the camp of Goan cuisine gastronomes and while our ability to enjoy Goan chilies is limited by our neophyte inexperience with the lethality of this pepper, we are most eager to keep “working at it”.  We’ll be back next year, and  will be ready for the next rung of the chilly spiciness ladder.

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