Homemade cook

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.

Nina Varghese
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.

The journey

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.

Fresh insights
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 way.
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.