Smuggling jars of Vegemite into India for the Australian cricket team. Cooking for 40,000 people. Customising the carb-loading (or carb-avoiding) needs of athletes on highly specific diets.
These are a few things Siddharth Kalyanaraman had to do while catering for the cricket world.
The Indian-born chef was working in Hyderabad, in the country's south, when he got the call to cook for the Australian cricket team during its 2017 Indian tour.
"As a cricket fan, it's just a dream," he says.
It was an extension of his job for ITC, a company that caters for local teams, VIP boxes at cricket matches and stadium games that seated up to 40,000 ticketholders.
"You have a different menu for the players, which is sports-centric," the chef says. "They're very health-conscious and they have to be kept upright. And a lot of Indian food is very hearty, it's very full. You can't really play cricket after having biryani, right?"
Feeding sportspeople is an endless challenge: they need to burn calories while training and competing, but some athletes want to carb-load in the morning, while others hope to skip as many carbs as possible. Some players are pescatarians, while others are completely vegan.
"I speak to them individually," Kalyanaraman says. For carb-hungry athletes needing a big starchy hit before training, he'd make a ghee-free potato paratha or a quinoa version for protein-seeking players.
"I adapt Indian cooking to what they already know."
Instead of a bland dish of chicken and broccoli, he'd char the meat in a tandoor. "I tried to make things not-boring for them," he says.
So, he wasn't letting the vegan athletes survive on fruit alone.
He'd cook rich spinach, lentil and coconut curries and other satisfying dishes. And he'd replace buttery ghee with coconut oil, sesame oil and mustard seed oil, "because there's a lot of mustard-seed farming in India".
"We try to still keep it local, that's the best way to do it. And if you're going to come to India, why not enjoy the best of Indian cooking?" the chef says.
Kalyanaraman makes some exceptions, though. He was working in Sydney when the Australian cricket team requested he join them on its 2020 Indian tour, so the chef made sure to smuggle four jars of Vegemite abroad with him. "Because that's something I knew we'd not easily find and everyone loves their Vegemite," he says. "And it's not unhealthy."
"I consider myself an ambassador for my culture and my food and where I'm from."
Even if players had dietary restrictions, Kalyanaraman would showcase his cuisine when he could. South Indian cooking, for instance, is "predominantly vegan", he says.
"I consider myself an ambassador for my culture and my food and where I'm from."
It's an attitude he brings to Foreign Return in Sydney's Surry Hills, where he's currently head chef. Here, he's keen to show the diversity of Indian cuisine, and how it contrasts from region to region.
It's partly a response to how generic he found Indian restaurants to be in Australia.
"The general layout of the menus remained the same," he says. "So if you went from one Indian restaurant to another, the dishes would almost be identical."
There would be "vindaloo and madras, dishes like that, they're not quintessentially Indian at all. They're essentially British-Indian". This monotony of Indian restaurant menus seems to persist everywhere; even in New Zealand, where his brother lives.
Kalyanaraman thinks it's because the tandoor plays a central role in Indian cooking.
"The tandoor is essentially from the north of India; you wouldn't find [much] tandoor cooking in the south of India," he says. "If you were to ask any layman as to what he'd like to have, he'd probably say, 'butter chicken and naan', which is quintessentially north Indian."
The ubiquity of chicken tikka, seekh kebabs and butter chicken means that north Indian food is over-represented in Australia – and sometimes in an extreme way. Butter chicken, for instance, is usually too sweet, he believes.
"We do have a butter chicken as well, but we do it exactly as you would get it in Delhi, where butter chicken originated from," Kalyanarama says. There's a dried fenugreek earthiness in Foreign Return's version, and sour and spicy notes to balance the sweetness, just like the template set by Moti Mahal restaurant, where butter chicken was invented.
While Foreign Return serves some north Indian dishes, the menu also sends you right across the country.
“We have a Nandu kuzhambu, which is a crab curry from the South of India, from the Chettinad community in Tamil Nandu,” he says. Kosha mangsho is a Bengali specialty from the east of India, where spiced lamb is cooked in mustard oil. Prawn Koliwada, a deep-fried snack reportedly inspired by a Mumbai fishing village, originates from the country’s west.
Then there are the "lost recipes" at Foreign Return.
"We wanted to express recipes that are grandmother recipes. They're not even recipes that you'd even find in India – very few places in India would do this sort of thing."
One example is koldil duck, from Assam in northeast India; made with banana flowers, it's been resurrected here with the help of an Assamese friend's mother. "That is something that even if we asked 10 Indians, possibly eight of them might not know about it," Kalyanarama says.
Foreign Return's version uses duck instead of chicken, because he thinks the duck here is exceptional. This style of adaptation is something he learnt while working under Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to get a Michelin star in the UK: "keep things as local as you can, but it has to be Indian at heart."
Other "lost recipes" on the menu include nimona from Uttar Pradesh, which highlights mung bean fritters and a curry made from ground green peas; a dish of raw papaya served with cooked lentils, which originates from Odisha; and lauki mussallam, a stuffed bottle gourd that's flavoured with a spiced fruit and yoghurt gravy and has roots in Hyderabad.
"We have a dish called laal maas, which is venison cooked in chillies. We don't reduce the spice level of it and we keep the recipe as is," he says. The dish is from the royal kitchens of Rajasthan and the fiery amount of required chillies can be credited to the then king, who apparently wanted it extremely hot. The dish also reflects the monarchy’s love of hunting parties – and triumphantly bringing deer back to be cooked.
"Our laal mas has attracted so many people because that's not something you can get, even in India. Because in India, the dish is made with lamb, because you’re not allowed to hunt [deer]. That's how the recipe came through, it's a genuine lost recipe because you can not make it in India with venison anymore."
The Indian community has been drawn to Foreign Return because of this specialty – and other dishes like the nimona and the kosha mangsho, which are not regular features at other restaurants.
Then there's the highly personal nature of the restaurant's approach.
"A lot of dishes that we present at Foreign Return are from my memories," says Kalyanarama, who was born in Chennai in India’s south and grew up in Delhi, in the north ("I got the best of both worlds").
The kathirikai kurma on the menu is a long-time childhood favourite of his. Cooked with coconut ("because all of south India is a peninsula, so we have a lot of coconut trees"), it's almost like a time capsule in itself.
"The recipe I've provided is exactly what we would do in the restaurant, because that's how my mother would make it. And that's how my grandmother would make it. A lot of Indian cooking is passed-down recipes, mother to daughter, daughter to daughter, that's how a lot of our recipes are on the menu."
And like other dishes at Foreign Return, it tells an enduring story of India, regionality, community and home.
- 6 cashews
- 1 tsp poppy seeds
- ½ cup grated coconut
- ½ tsp fennel seeds
- 1 each green chillies
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 green cardamom pods
- 2 small pieces of cinnamon
- 5 cloves
- ½ tsp chopped green chilli
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 tomato, chopped
- 5 baby eggplants
- 2 tbsp coconut milk
- ½ tsp garam masala powder
- 5-6 curry leaves
- ½ tsp fennel powder
- Malabar parotta, to serve
1. To make the paste, combine ingredients and blend with enough water to create a coarse, paste-like consistency (around ½ cup of water should be plenty). Set aside.
2. To make the kurma, heat coconut oil in a frypan over medium-high heat. Heat the oil, but don’t allow it to smoke. Temper the spices by adding the bay leaves, green cardamom, cinnamon and cloves to the pan. The spices will be tempered once the cardamom starts to puff up.
3. Add the chopped chillies and onions to the pan and saute them until the onions become translucent.
4. Add tomatoes to the pan and cook for about 3 minutes.
5. Add the coconut paste to the pan and cook until it starts to give out oil from the sides.
6. Slit the baby eggplants (a cross-like pair of slits for each eggplant will do) and add to the curry for about 6 minutes until almost cooked.
7. Add the coconut milk to the pan and cook for another 2 minutes.
8. Finish with garam masala, curry leaves and fennel powder. Season with salt and serve with Malabar parotta.
Note: Malabar parotta is a flaky bread from the south of India. You can find frozen versions at an Indian grocer. You can also use roti paratha as an alternative.