Among the sights guaranteed to lift any foodie’s heart is that of Alfred Prasad cooking lunch. Out in the garden of the Aditya Hotel Resort, India’s youngest chef to ever win a Michelin star is sweating as he vigorously stirs a pot from which rises appetizing aromas. Under his watchful eye, the group of amateur [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Cooking up something new with Indo-Lankan flavours

Indian Michelin star chef Alfred Prasad is determined to use Lankan produce and cuisine tips in his next foodie venture

Among the sights guaranteed to lift any foodie’s heart is that of Alfred Prasad cooking lunch. Out in the garden of the Aditya Hotel Resort, India’s youngest chef to ever win a Michelin star is sweating as he vigorously stirs a pot from which rises appetizing aromas. Under his watchful eye, the group of amateur cooks and local chefs gathered around, for this seafood masterclass will produce, by the end of this session, a veritable feast.

The Master at work: Chef Prasad demonstrates how it’s done. Pix by Indika Handuwala

On the table is to be a seafood ‘temp-kora’ of prawns, fish and calamari, served with smoked aubergine ‘bharta’ and roasted red peppers; herb crusted fish served with pineapple ‘kachumber; and onion-tomato masala and kheema mutter, served with fragrant basmati rice. As you delve into the recipes for each, the menu reveals some things you need to know about Prasad’s leanings – namely his interest in authentic Indian cuisine and local produce, his gift for unconventional pairings and his talent for reinvention.

Here at the invitation of Trekurious, Prasad is no stranger to Sri Lanka. His wife has family in Colombo, he tells the Sunday Times, remembering that he first visited before the turn of the millennium. He discovered here what he has long known to be true to India – that chefs working with largely the same set of spices and produce could create cuisines that were radically different. Growing up in India, Prasad identified many such “micro-cuisines,” that would be unique to a state or a region.

Pointing out that Sri Lankan cuisine shares much in common with some offerings from the southern state of Kerala in particular he notes that while the two might have many ingredients in common, the “flavours are so distinctly different.” He’s finding tremendous appeal in discovering how Sri Lankan cuisine reimagines the flavours and pairings he’s so familiar with.

This awareness of kaleidoscopic variety was not just due to the fact that his family moved around a lot when he was a child, but the very make-up of its members. His mother came from an Anglo-Indian background. Great eaters of meat, the community is famous for its uninhibited, genial members who know how to dance up a storm and generally have a good time. His father on the other hand, hailed from the typically more conservative group of Tamil Brahmins who prize tradition and often eat only vegetarian food. Born of this unconventional pairing, Prasad has had first-hand experience of the diversity of Indian cuisine.

Prasad, who has held his Michelin star for 12 years, graduated from Chennai’s Institute of Hotel Management in 1993 and was subsequently chosen to undergo advanced chef training at ITC Maurya, New Delhi, including at their flagship restaurants Dum Pukht and Bukhara. By 1996, he was at the helm of the critically acclaimed Dakshin restaurant at the ITC Park Sheraton, Chennai.

Two years after he moved to London in 1999, he joined Tamarind of Mayfair (London) as a Sous Chef. Within a year, he was promoted to Executive Chef and to him fell the burden of retaining the restaurant’s Michelin star. Prasad remembers even now hearing the rumours that swirled around London’s culinary circles at that time, whispers that Tamarind’s young, new chef would lose his restaurantthe much coveted stamp of approval from the Michelin Guide. When he didn’t, he sealed the restaurant’s reputation and made his own.

As Director Cuisine and Executive Chef of the Tamarind Collection, Prasad was the creative energy behind Tamarind of Mayfair (London), Imli Street (London), Zaika of Kensington (London) and Tamarind of London (Newport Beach, CA). His time in Sri Lanka however marks a period of transition. ”Having left Tamarind in December, I’m looking forward to establishing my own concept,” says Prasad, adding that many of the dishes that found their way on to his menus here are ideas that he has been working on for his own place, that have been tweaked to make the most of the local context.

“I certainly wanted to try and use as much Sri Lankan produce as I could,” he says explaining that in conversations with local chefs they identified modha as a premium product that could replace salmon in his signature herb crusted fish. Another dish is a playful, unique tribute to Indian chaat that combines polsambol with tuna, watermelon and puffed rice. “Pol sambol, was one of the first things I learned to cook in Sri Lanka,” says Prasad, saying he wanted to include it this time around too. “The combination of roasted coconut, tuna, lemon juice, and the sweetness of the watermelon, produce a very rounded, almost magical flavour.”He’s also enamoured of Sri Lanka’s true cinnamon and notes that the latter boasts greater health benefits than the cassia bark that is so often used as a substitute.

One of the simple ways he helps amateur and even professional chefs up their game in master classes such as these is to show them how to properly prepare meat so that it doesn’t overcook. He emphasises plating skills and balancing flavours so that marinades and accompaniments don’t overpower the taste of your premium, key ingredients such as tiger prawns, lamb chops or monkfish. However, it is unlearning the tendency to overcook meat and seafood that is a tough one even for experienced cooks in this part of the world.

Many are unaware of the concept of ‘carryover cooking’ – the process by which even after you have taken a dish off the fire, the food continues to cook for up to 20 minutes or more, even at room temperature. It applies not just to grilling meat, which people tend to be more aware of, but to even simple things like frying onions. A good chef will take this into consideration, know his or her instruments well enough to predict when a dish should be taken off the fire and allowed to finish cooking on its own. Prasad sees it as his most important contribution: “I make them think about what they are doing, and I try to explain it to them in a way that they understand the how, the why and the when,” he says, adding, “It’s very small window of excellence you have to find.”

Prasad, who met other stars like Sri Lankan legend Chef Publis at the Mount Lavinia Hotel while he was here, says he’s looking forward to seeing how Sri Lankan chefs evolve. He’s impressed with the enthusiasm of local foodies and thinks the fine dining culture in Colombo is thriving better than any Indian city he can think of. In the meantime, the island’s wonderful fare remains a source of true inspiration for this versatile chef.

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