It’s a Studio of Spice

by Odette and Joe Mascarenhas
article published on 1 May 2010 in Zest, the Saturday Lifestyle section of Herald newspaper in Goa

Well one has heard of a film studio, a photography studio but has one heard of a spice studio? Here is a new concept in town…a studio filled with spices where chef Amit Bhardwaraj works on his storyboard, casts, edits, mixes and then shoots it hot. I am talking about food…and food with a difference. And it’s all happening at Spice Studio at the Alila Diwa Goa.

Let’s talk about the storyboard. This season he as worked on his storyline along the coastal belt of India…Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, and even Tamil Nadu. Says he, “We went on an in-depth culinary search studying the different ingredients used in the preparations of meals in these regions.” Fine, so what’s new?

Let’s take his preparation of kombdi masala. Everyone has tasted this Malvani delicacy, a superb curry to have with ‘vadas’. Says Amit, “We went to Sindhudurg in Maharashtra and studied the different ingredients that went into the kombdi masala and decided to do it with a difference. There is a modification in the ingredients used. The percentage of coconut and chillies used has been changed, no star anise is used and we have used a combination of ‘bedgi’ and ‘sankreshti’ chillies. Moreover we suggest that instead of having a vada, the bakhri (roti) would accompany it beautifully.” Wow! So what other editing has he and his team worked on? Take the mutton sukha. For me it states Malvani cuisine. In fact better still Kolhapuri. But chef has done a lot of editing in this recipe too. The ingredients are a mix of Malvani with Kundapuri style (Mangalore) nuances.

His chefs created their magic while we sat on the veranda with the fans purring away waiting for them to display their skill. The waiter brought in the pickle tray – three varieties, raw mango with a mustard ‘tadka’, tendli with Goan nuances, and thinly sliced carrot with a spicy red masala (Kerala flavour).

We sampled a little of every pickle, the mustard was a winner. Our senses were perked as the pepper ‘boti’ reached the table. Did we need to have mint chutney to accompany this dish? No way. The Kerala style marination of the succulent boneless pieces was superb. I had eaten many kebabs, but normally in the North Indian style of preparations. Did the South Indians make kebabs? “We like to paint the preparation to give our diners a different experience,” he says. A fish preparation with a deep red masala comes onto the table. It is a Chinese pomfret – no not a raechado, but more Maharastrian in its flavour. The fish is fresh, the masala something which adds credence to the fact that before the boundaries of states were created, preparations were tried and tested in kitchens. The naans that accompanied the starters were stuffed with gorgonzola and coriander. Now there seemed some method in this madness…an Italian cheese and Indian spice? It worked. Absolutely novel.

But these magicians were still aiming at removing some more tricks from their bag – a mackerel salad. Now before you think about our mackerel tossed in onion and tomatoes, here is something different – thin fillets of mackerel cooked to perfection and tossed in rocket leaves, pomegranate and sliced onion. “I believe that the oil that comes out from the mackerel works wonders with the rocket leaves,” says Amit. He is right. A little bit of that fish with the crunchy rocket leaves and I take off to the moon. Chef Amit believes that this combination is much better than serving the fish separately and then some veggies with it. “We believe in balancing the meal so that one dish is fully wholesome and complementary in nutrition,” he says.

The chicken chettinadu with its thick gravy was reminiscent of spice at its best, but I must let you in on something awesome. Now we all know about the black gram usal that the Maharastrians prepare. Amit and his team had combined it with bay scallops. Those lightly grilled, delicately spiced, mouth sized pieces of seafood with the spiced black lentils… “It combines beautifully,” Amit remarked looking at my expression. And he is right.

We still had to sample the home cooked favourites of vanghi bhat and moong dal. He had added a little gravy to the dal instead of the normal dry variety that I normally was used to. “The gravy is to complement the bhat,” he states, although the ‘bhat’ by itself could be eaten alone. ‘Bhat’ lovers…it’s there for the picking.

The restaurant is open for dinner only. Just outside the kitchen is a long cooking school table. He teaches his guests how to cook specific dishes. “If we do not get an advance reservation, we could set up the school around 4 p.m. and wind up with a group having dinner with a few of the dishes they have learned to make,” he says. A novel idea indeed. Not only does he create the script but he also involves his diners in the shoot.

So after a bountiful nutritious meal of coastal delights, we left the artisans in their spice studio vowing to return to try out some different coastal fare. They have spices stocked for it all. So spice up your life and have a blast.

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