What's In My Pantry? Show And Tell With Sricharan Venkatesh And Johnson Ebenezer Of Nadodi
Promotion: December 27, 2018 (Expired)
Head Chef at Nadodi
Whether in the calm of home or amid the bustle of Nadodi, Sricharan Venkatesh’s entertainer mode is permanently set to ‘power-on.’
“Water? Grapes? Homemade kombucha?” he proffers. He had us at homemade kombucha. Mildly sweet and spicy, the libation fizzes softly throughout our chat.
Besides an accommodating attitude, the chef totes his three favourite ingredients wherever he goes; peppercorns, curry leaves and yogurt can be found in his pantry at almost all times. “I need my basic Indian ingredients,” says the matured millennial. “Without them, it wouldn’t feel like a proper kitchen. Did you know? Malabar in Kerala is where the world’s spice trade first took off. India gave spices to the world,” pronounces the chef with pride.
A proud spokesman for Indian cuisine and culture, Srirachan moved to Malaysia two Septembers ago to staff Nadodi. Happily for him, he can easily stock his pantry with the same ingredients he gets at home—a quick trip to Little India ensures that. “I get most of my groceries from Ben’s or Mercato, but the Indian stuff I get from Brickfields. This is from Brickfields, this is from Brickfields, this is from Brickfields...” His voice trails off as he pulls a plethora of items out of his cupboards.
Even the way Malaysians eat reminds him of home. “I like seeing the banana leaf culture here, especially as someone coming from South India. In fact, there are more banana leaf concept eateries here than there,” says Srirachan to our surprised crew. “Really! The best part is seeing my fellow Southeast Asians going all in with their hands and licking their fingers!”
Which Malaysian dish does he deem the most lip-smacking? “Besides the obvious mee goreng, I like rojak, pan mee, and curry mee. In fact, I’m supposed to be making curry mee for family meal at Nadodi today,” he says.
A self-professed chocaholic, Srirachan addresses his affinity for one of Malaysia’s favourite snacks: “It’s weird, but nowadays I need to have a Kit Kat or some kind of chocolate before I go to bed. Kit Kat’s really grown on me since I moved here,” he muses. “It’s not too sweet, there’s a bit of crunch thanks to the wafer, and breaking it makes it, as you say, ‘interactive.’ By the way, did you know that cane sugar was invented in India?”
Head Chef at Nadodi
“Don’t mind the smell of burnt bread,” are Johnson Ebenezer’s welcoming words-cum-warning. “I recently tried to microwave a pretzel, forgot about it, and nearly burned the place down.” Humoured by the kitchen faux pas (coming from one of Nadodi's head chef, no less), I am also comforted by the all too human error.
Johnson, who takes pride in his bread making skills, is unruffled by the small kitchen accident. Of the many odd jobs he’s worked in his colourful life, ‘naan artisan’ was rather profitable. “At one point, I was in charge of making naans for a restaurant in the US. The basic dough was prepared by a Mexican, who had no knowledge of Indian breads. So I would take over and work the tandoor. You got paid 50 cents per naan, so if I made 400 naans in two hours, I’d get USD$200— all in a day’s work,” he beams.
While on the topic of Indian flatbreads, we chance upon a bowl on his kitchen counter. “Oh, that’s just dosa batter,” he says, dismissing the bowl with a wave of his hand. It takes some cajoling before delving into what he deems an elemental task: “I started on it just this morning. Set aside the lentil-based batter, after mixing it up. It only takes a night before it’s ready. The sourer the batter, the crispier your dosa. Using this, I can also make uthapam or idly."
Hailing from a small town in Chennai, Johnson got a foot in the restaurant industry via hospitality. “Back then, the coveted style of cooking was called ‘continental.’ I don’t know why they called it that, but it basically meant European style cooking,” he laughs. After years spent seeking out his ‘calling,’ Johnson stumbled upon molecular gastronomy. “It created a spark inside of me,” he reminisces. “I taught myself everything by reading books and watching YouTube videos on the topic.” While algium, calcic or xantana—staples in molecular gastonomy— are absent from his own pantry, the chef sees Nadodi as his gastronomic laboratory.
The contemporary Indian restaurant in Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle is where facets of Johnson’s upbringing canoodle with his skills in contemporary cooking. Take, for instance, the roti dish on the restaurant’s 12-Mile Journey menu; the ‘Surprising Duo,’ which pairs caviar mor kuzhmbu, tapioca chips and pineapple sambol with the staple Indian bread, is an exercise in fusion.
After rummaging through Johnson’s pantry, I must confess to being a bit of a cheat. Hoping to underscore my impressions of the quiet chef, I rifle through the books scattered on his coffee table. And there you have it, a summary of the man in three titles: The Way to Get Started Is To Quit Talking And Begin Doing; A History of Food in India; and Octaphilosophy: The Eight Elements of Restaurant André.