Easy Exotic (or The Day The Emu almost Ate Me.)

Eat an emu? After coming beak to nose with one of the more nasty
representatives of the emu dynasty, I’d rather eat my hat. (Reebok.
Pink. Goes great with my new running shoes. Just in case you need the
whole picture.) It’s a good thing I had those pink running shoes on,
in hindsight. I had been absent-mindedly rambling around the Melbourne
zoo when I heard a furtive little emu cough. I turned and froze with
terror. Emu and I were beak to nose. Apparently he wanders about the
zoo, sneaking up on unsuspecting visitors for fun. He stared. I smiled
apologetically. He deliberated on which of my ears to bite first. I
politely pointed out the chubby chimpanzees. He squinted. I ran.
Eat an emu? You’ve got to be kidding. They look like they’ll make
quick notes on your appearance, send it out via some creepy
ornithological Blackberry system and, before you know it, organize
rabid gangs of their feathered flightless friends grunting
threateningly at your door.
Yet, it makes sense to eat an emu. Or a kangaroo. Or an alligator.
(Try a barbecued emu, alligator tail steak sirloin, kangaroo pie.)
Increasingly, a section of the world’s environmentalists are urging
people to expand their food horizons for the sake of diversity. This
way species that are threatened because they are so popular on the
table, like the blue finned tuna fish, get a break. And, lesser known
species get farmed more.
Unfortunately, it sometimes translates into a whole new form of food
snobbery: Who ate what. With snotty gourmets trying to outdo each
other, it’s inevitable that you sometimes end up being in the middle
of a situation as outrageous as the movie, The Freshman (1990) in
which Mathew Broderick ends up babysitting a komodo dragon for a
ridiculous gourmet club where exotic and endangered animals are served
for dinner.
In a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction, the National
Geographic recently reported on how a rare quail from the Philippines
was photographed for the first time before being sold as food at a
poultry market. This buttonquail, known solely through drawings based
on dated museum specimens collected several decades ago, might just
have been the last of its species!
Slow Food, an influential, inspirational worldwide organisation that
promotes sustainable eating is gearing up for its dramatic 2009
edition of ‘Slow Fish’, which will be held between April 17 and 20 in
Genoa, Italy. Elisa Virgillito, of Slow Food, talks of how Slow Fish
promotes responsible fish consumption, which keeps in mind the the
health of sea and fresh water ecosystems.
Of course, it’s not easy to change ingrained food habits. Which is why
Eliza says that this year they even have “an expert who can accompany
visitors around the fish market, assisting them to discover the wide
variety of the fish available and to point out lesser-known species
that are also highly tasty.”
The movement succeeds because they focus on the pleasures of eating
good food, instead of using emotional blackmail to get their message
across. So, to stop people from eating bluefin tuna and swordfish,
both of which are over-fished, they are gathering talented chefs and
food artisans to demonstrate recipes with lesser-known species like
palamita (Atlantic bonito), blue whiting or scabbardfish, which taste
as good, if not better, and often cost less too.
Since Slow Food focuses on eating local, representatives from around
the world will be talking about local flavours made with ingredients
that have never seen the inside of a plane. Italy will be showcasing
sandwiches made from butter and Monterosso anchovies, marinated horse
mackerel, grilled cuttlefish with purple asparagus and the finest
farmed mussels with extra-virgin olive oil. From Spain, the region of
Galicia, which has used seaweed in its cooking for centuries, will
exhibit a kaleidoscope of recipes featuring seaweed.
We certainly live in a weird and wonderful world. So keep an open
mind. And if you can dodge the bad-tempered emu gang, perhaps you’ll
enjoy a gorgonzola stuffed emu roast or — here’s a surprise — emu
kebabs.

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Kokum

Stop asking me where to go for dinner. I really don’t know. Why should I always decide anyway? And why do I always have to order for everybody?

I’m embarrassingly unimaginative anyway. If I find a new restaurant, I squat there for months, till the waiters start slapping me on the back and asking me to help out on busy days.

Fortunately, this year there’s always been something new.

Now, with MRC Nagar rapidly being restructured, the city is likely to finally have an actual dining destination, buzzing with hotels, fine dining and hip restaurants. Not surprisingly, M. Mahadevan, who’s possibly one of Chennai’s shrewdest restaurateurs, has quietly beaten everyone to the draw and opened Kokum in the heart of this area.

Kokum, which follows in the footsteps of the popular Ente Keralam, focusses on traditional home cooking. Except this time, it expands beyond just Kerala to the four Southern States. Although this is a rather common theme with Southern restaurants, Kokum’s advantage is its attention to seafood, which makes up a significant part of the menu.

Right now, they keep their blinds down, because the view consists of dusty roads, ugly construction and heavy machinery. But you can see that once it’s all done, this is going to be a scenic Singapore-like area. Best of all, between the buildings, there’s the glimmer of the sea.

Which makes the juicy karivepak royyala vepadu, prawns from Andhra Pradesh, delightfully appropriate. Especially when it’s served with spicy kane besule, soft ladyfish slathered in a crisp skin twanging with spices, including the distinctive Mangalorean red chilli.
Focus on specific areas

Chef Regi Mathew, who’s overseeing the restaurant, says the team decided to pick specific areas to base the food on, so the menu wouldn’t lose focus. Otherwise, as any true-blue foodie knows, recipes and food habits can change every 10 km or so in our deliciously diverse country.

Therefore Andhra Pradesh is represented by Nellore, Karnataka by Mangalore and Kundapur, Kerala by Alleppey and the Malabar regions and Tamil Nadu by Chettinad food.

The interiors therefore are carefully unbiased, attempting to convey the essence of the traditional South without getting too hung up on specific cultures. Tranquil, pretty and sedate, Kokum like all Mahadevan’s restaurants is sensibly comfortable without being superbly posh or unnervingly opulent.
Distintive flavours

The food, in keeping with the décor, is good without being extraordinarily elaborate or fussy. Thanks to the fact that they’re being quite obsessive about ingredients, every dish has a distinctive flavour, which is quite a treat in these days of ‘one spice fits all.’

The highlights are the Goan prawn balchao, rich and tangy, teamed with fluffy sanas. Also the spicy stuffed eggplants in a thick gravy redolent with peanuts, copra and sesame seeds. Then there was the red fish curry, designed to go beautifully with steaming rice.

There was also a duck roast, though with all the spice and frying it seems overly satiating given the fact that duck is rather heavy to begin with. The mutton gongura is interesting if you like the brisk tartness of the gongura leaf. There’s also an Udipi delicacy, a rather strange blend of plump mushrooms and bottle gourd, which takes some getting used to.
Sample slowly

Although they serve an intimidatingly large thali, Kokum’s variety is best sampled slowly. You wouldn’t rush through four states as a tourist, would you? It makes sense to approach the food the same way, since every cuisine is so defiantly individual. Of course, mixing and matching is the nicest feature of a restaurant that brings together different cuisines. But do it thoughtfully. Fish and rice. Crisp kori roti, a rice flour bread, with Mangalore chicken curry. Delicate neer dosa with, well, almost anything.

A thin payasam bobbing with what tastes like little vadais (pal kozhukattai) is served for dessert. The hot milky liquid is delicious, the spongy solids less so. Instead, I’d suggest their gorgeous banana dosas laced with cinnamon, which are really starters but make great desserts with their fudgy, flamboyant flavours.

Kokum is at Old Number 60, New Number 115, Kasthuri Avenue. Dinner for two should cost roughly Rs. 800. Call 42185462 for details.

Sho-Buzz

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