The buzz around Nimmy and her food ultimately resulted
in her being invited to demonstrate Syrian Christian cuisine at the Culinary
Institute of America at Napa Valley, California. She was one of the three
Indians who were invited, the other two being professionals chefs.
Lacy delight: Nimmy Paul with a fresh batch of appams.
R.W. Apple’s story on the food and flavours of Kerala in
2003 put Nimmy Paul on the road to fame but not fortune, as yet, says
this Kochi-based gourmet cook and cooking instructor. The only thing she
likes more than cooking is teaching people how to cook. But when ‘Johnny’
Apple, the legendary editor of the New York Times and writer of books
like Apple’s America along with his wife Betsey, dropped in to spend
th e day and watch Nimmy cook, it was the beginning of the big time.
While in Kochi, Apple was interviewed by a local daily about his visit
to Kerala and he did not mention her at all. An upset Nimmy called him
and said, “Johnny, you spent a whole day here and never spoke about
me at all”. She was to remember Apple’s rather cryptic reply,
“In the right place at the right time” when she was featured
in a full-page article on the flavours of Kerala.
Nimmy’s gastronomic journey began as a cookery
instructor at Vimalalayam, a finishing school in Kochi which has taught
generations of girls from Kerala the subtleties of true blue mallu food.
Over time, she began to take cookery classes for women in the neighbourhood.
Nimmy soon expanded her classes for foreign tourists visiting Kochi, many
of whom were food writers and cookery instructors in their own right.
The buzz around Nimmy and her food ultimately resulted in her being invited
to demonstrate Syrian Christian cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America
at Napa Valley, California. She was one of the three Indians who were
invited, the other two being professional chefs.
(The Culinary Institute of America has an annual themed conference where
the best of world cuisine is showcased. This conference familiarises the
American foodservice industry and media with cuisines from the Mediterranean
region, Latin America and Asia. Last November’s conference was on
the flavours of Asia. There have been 10 conferences so far, and she has
attended two of them.)
Unlike northern India, external influences on the culture and
cuisine of Kerala have come not so much from the conquering armies as
from adventurers and merchants riding the trade winds. Over the centuries,
seafarers in search of the famed spices of Kerala — pepper, or black
gold as it was known — have left their imprint on the food. The
ever popular fish molee, a delicately-flavoured fish curry in coconut
milk gravy, is one such, says Nimmy.
The pallappam, which is the combination bread that goes along with the
fish molee or chicken stew is a Kerala classic, is said to have travelled
in the portmanteau of the Portuguese cooks. For Nimmy this traditional
fish curry and the crisp-laced rice pancakes have been a winning combination
even at Napa Valley. She says that this is typical Syrian Christian fare
and is often served for breakfast. In the old days, the dough was fermented
with toddy, but nowadays it is easier to use yeast, she said. (In colder
temperatures, the dough is put into a proving oven to rise). Appams have
gained in popularity all over India and are served as starters for lunch
and dinner in five-star hotels.
The exposure at Napa Valley has given Nimmy fresh insights on
the presentation of food. According to her, presentation is an area where
Kerala cuisine loses out on the world stage, especially when it competes
with the beautifully presented cuisines from South East Asia, China and
Japan. This is one area which she means to remedy. She has also realised
that a variety of dishes need to be made, especially when served to people
whose primary interest is food. The portions served should be small, mainly
tasting portions, she adds. Of course, the traditional recipes are altered
to suit foreign palates. Fish, for instance would be pan fried instead
of deep fried but with the same rub. The dishes would be less spicy and
payasam less sweet.
Nimmy is also a food consultant to chefs, food writers and columnists.
She has taught cookery for over 12 years at her home. She and her ever-supportive
husband Paul offer visitors to their home three packages. The first is
a traditional Kerala meal with the Pauls which is cooked by Nimmy herself.
Then you can spend a day with them where you get to help Nimmy with all
the elaborate preparations for a typical meal. The guests are taught how
to prepare traditional dishes like koomba (banana flower), using the traditional
peechati, the Kerala kitchen knife (no mean feat, this). One can also
spend a few relaxing days learning to cook and interact with the family.
Nimmy is quick to add that they are not in the home-stay business. The
package is all about learning to cook a Kerala meal, the authentic mallu
Nimmy has turned her passion into her career so much so that it has become
a must stop in many a foodie’s discovery of the world.