Chef Gopikrishna Govindasamy, known as Gopi, was always destined to become a chef. Growing up in Singapore in the 1970s, Gopi was surrounded by food — his mum would cook in a kitchen with pots big enough for him to "take a bath in", he'd visit spice markets and spice mills with his father and help out in his grandpa's spice shop.
Gopi describes this period as "the best thing ever", not least because of the time he spent in his grandpa's spice store.
"Growing up in my grandad's spice shop was a highlight of my youth," he says. "It was located at the very start of Little India in Singapore. Every weekend was spent there working, sorting spices and herbs, grinding spices to make various curry powders and much more."
His grandfather, P Govindasamy Pillai, is affectionately known in Singapore as PGP — a pioneer in Southeast Asian cooking and recognised as a successful businessperson. Indeed, PGP is a household name in Singapore. It was in the early 1920s when PGP began a modest provision store selling spices, which ultimately became a chain of PGP general goods stores and sari shops in the part of Singapore called Little India. PGP himself is now featured on the Singaporean 20 dollar note, an honour bestowed upon him a couple of years ago.
However, Gopi says his interest in cooking all began with his mum. "She is the one who taught me and is an amazing cook herself," he says.
"We used to host many parties at home and at a young age I used to follow my mum to the markets which I thoroughly enjoyed. She taught me at a young age how to clean prawns, portion chicken, clean crabs and then I slowly upgraded to helping her cook."
Gopi remembers the pots at home were big and their charcoal burners could hold more than 12 kg of coal at a time. "We had to stand on wooden stools using wooden oars to stir in the ingredients like onions, curry powders and other spices. That is where my interest in cooking started," he says.
Gopi arrived in Melbourne in 1996, after years of working in catering and building up his experience. It wasn't long before he opened Asian Fusion restaurant Searz Caffi in Newport in Melbourne's southwest in 2005.
His creativity and entrepreneurship qualities are in his blood. Gopi says, "My grandad pioneered the method of double washing the coriander seeds which gave its sheen and flavour. The washed seeds would have a metallic green and red shine on them."
PGP shared that washing method to the growers who grew the seeds for him. These are still sold today in the wholesale markets of Mumbai. "If you ever get a chance to go to Mumbai, you must visit the spice wholesale market by the ports," says Gopi, who continues his family's business.
"Growing up in my grandad's spice shop was a highlight of my youth...Every weekend was spent there working, Sorting spices and herbs, grinding spices to make various curry powders and much more."
Even though Gopi had many positive culinary influences, he says he started out as a "a fussy bugger" with food. But his grandpa helped him through it.
"I remember sitting on my grandad's lap as he fed me. He was very very patient as I was a poor eater. All our meals at home were served on a banana leaf and this remains a memory I will never forget. We had two [spice] mills, one on Cuff Road and the other in Dunlop Street in Little India."
Gopi says one of his earliest and fondest memories is of his dad taking him to one of his grandpa's stores. "I was intrigued at the work of my dad and my granddad, even something as simple as fixing one of the [spice] mills, I was fascinated and would spend many weekends there learning from the grandmaster millers [men who were in their 60s to 70s], drabbed in their singlets and dhotis, all covered and stained in ground spices like chilli, turmeric and other ground cardamom.
"It was especially chaotic during festive periods like Deepavali where I would step in and help out."
At Gopi's Searz Caffi restaurant, he uses his lifelong experience with spices to bring Asian and western flavours together. "I love mixing Asian and western flavours, as well as different Asian cultures on a plate and making them balance.
"Having the knowledge of what spices are blended to bring out flavours and fragrance in a dish was the advantage I had, I could smell what was missing in a dish just by smell and taste. I am so glad I acquired these senses in my youth while I was standing on a tin of cashew nuts and grinding spices at the mill."
"I could smell what was missing in a dish just by smell and taste. I am so glad I acquired these senses in my youth."
But despite his grandfather PGP having a spice named after him, PGP Coriander, cardamom is one of Gopi's favourites and reminds him of home. "I love all spices, because they come together as a paste, but I guess if I had to choose a favourite spice, it would be cardamon," says Gopi.
He disliked the taste when he was a kid, but realised its qualities as he grew older. "My respect for the spice came about in the 80s when I went with my family to the cardamom plantation in India and learned how it was cultivated, dried and finally graded and its many uses in cooking and blending curry powders."
After his father died in 1992, he began travelling to India to buy spices, where he learnt how to grade them from the traders who've supplied his grandad from the 1930s.
"I also learned how pappadums, pickles, chutneys, oils and many were made and processed right there. It was only there on this trip where I was told this high-quality grade of coriander was named after my granddad."
For spice enthusiasts and experts, the PGP Coriander is known as Super XO, which is like the wagyu of beef. But like vegetables, spices should be purchased based on their seasons. PGP Coriander is best purchased during March or April for optimum colour and flavour. It can be used in combination with curry, chilli powder and garam masala. However, you can simply pop into Searz Caffi and ask Gopi to whip up a special blend for you too.
Gopi's not-so-secret spice blend (spicy Madras curry powder)
- 2 ½ tbsp coriander seeds
- ½ tsp black mustard seeds
- ½ tsp brown mustard seeds
- 1 ¼ tbsp whole black pepper
- 40 g dried ginger
- 6-7 pcs cloves
- 2 ½ tbsp kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves)
- ½ inch cinnamon stick
- 2 tbsp cumin seeds
- 8 pcs dried Bombay chilli (seeds removed)
- 3 pcs dried mace (dried nutmeg flower)
- 1 sprig dried curry leaves (approx. 10 to 15 leaves)
- 1 ¼ tbsp good quality turmeric powder
- Lightly dry roast all whole dry ingredients in a pan over low heat, shaking the pan to stop the spices from catching.
- Once toasted let it cool for a bit then blend into a powder.
- Sift the blended powder and remove any bits and pieces that did not ground and grind them again.
- Finally, add the ground turmeric and combine it with a wooden spoon.
- Your curry powder is ready to use. The most popular recipe you can use it in is Madras chicken curry.