It's Dubai's time now, says Michelin-star Chef Sriram Aylur
The London-based chef is in town to take part in the Dubai Food Festival
Published: Fri 28 Apr 2023, 2:33 PM
Last updated: Fri 28 Apr 2023, 5:56 PM
When people speak about the global reach of Indian cuisine, South Indian food rarely makes it into the conversation. As such helming the only Michelin star Southern Indian restaurant in the heart of London, Quilon, is a truly spectacular feat for a Malayali hailing from the sleepy city of Palakkad in Kerala, India.
For Chef Sriram Aylur, however, the journey has been all about projecting Indian food to a global audience, without compromising on its inherent DNA.
In the city to participate in the Dubai Food festival, Chef Sriram Aylur harks back to the time when Indian cuisine first crossed the seas and tempered itself in an attempt to appeal to a global palate.
“So, the food had to be mild, it had to be rich, it had to be creamy,” he points out referencing the ubiquitous Chicken Tikka Masala, that now takes pride of place in most Indian restaurants across the globe.
“Once something is successful, everything gets copied right?,” he avers. “I mean, in which house do they make Chicken Tikka Masala?”
An existential crisis may have propelled the first lot of ‘chefs’ to plate up dishes that appealed to all. That is until the trained chefs arrived and started setting things aright.
“Until the 80s, there was nothing to write home about, even in the UK, about representing Indian food. Rightly so, if you actually jog history and see the cuisine. The real food was represented only 40 years back in this country.”
And that’s when Taj also got into the fray and decided to expand their cuisine base. “That's how Quilon came into being. And Quilon is inspired by Karavalli in Bangalore. We have been lucky to get the recognition we got. In the meantime, the world was also changing.
"India opened up and became an important player in the world economy and that changed the whole look and feel of how we were perceived across the world. So for example, New York which never had great restaurants, suddenly had many Indian restaurants. In fact even more South Indian restaurants are opening there.
“It's happening all over the world. Indian food is slowly getting the exposure it deserves. I think that what we have not seen in the last few decades or centuries we would see in the next 10 years,” he avers.
Chicken Roast served up at Quilon
I wish somebody had told me not to…
Sriram admits he has been lucky to work with and get advice from some very talented people in the field, including his own father who was also in the restaurant business.
“I was privileged to be working with a lot of stalwarts and knowledgable people were able to guide me genuinely.”
“But the one thing that I wish somebody had told me was that I should have not worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week for many, many years. I should have taken a little break in between.
"And nobody told me, so I did it for decades. If I had that time, I would have done other things and pursued my hobbies. Maybe this is very unlike what the present generation will say. But that's what I did.”
Both my parents were very, very good cooks…
Growing up in a household where cooking was an art form, was formative to Sriram’s upbringing.
“Both my parents were very, very good cooks. My mother was a very good cook, and my father was a fantastic cook,” he explains. “So I was born in the midst of all this great food.”
He recollects how every Sunday there used to be a feast laid out in his house whereby family, friends and even some uninvited people would turn up just to sample the delicious food cooked by his parents.
Among them were some signature dishes that have found favour in his menu.
“For example, my mother made a raw tomato curry which was unlike anything anybody had.” The dish finds pride of place in his restaurant and that along with the ripe mango curry, is pretty popular with the diners as well.
I live to eat…
A self-confessed foodie, Sriram always makes it a point when he travels to find out from the locals where the best food is served - and it doesn’t matter if it’s a street side eatery even.
“To me it's about good food. I'm very inquisitive to try new dishes and also dishes that are classical, but done very well. So if somebody says a certain dish is made beautifully in this little shack, I would happily go and eat there. I've almost lived to eat in many ways, I must say. And that's why I think I fit into the profession easily!”
Diversity of our cuisine is the real hero
Sriram points out that Indian food is so diverse that even if you travel 150 miles within the same state, you will get to sample a totally different cuisine.
“Take one ingredient like chilli for example. Now the chilli that you get in Gujarat is different from the chillies you get in Andhra; and even within Andhra, the chilli that you get from Warangal is different from that in Guntur.”
In the past decade or so he says chefs have become very discerning about the quality of the ingredients they use. “When you are exposed to the world stage, you also learn new presentation techniques. So a lot of chefs have used these techniques without compromising the classical approach, flavour, taste and texture of Indian cuisine. But at the same time, the diversity of our cuisine is the real hero of all that we do.”
Roger Federer ate with us…
Sriram who also directs operations at the acclaimed London restaurant Bombay Brasserie, has had the privilege to cook for eminent personalities like Prince Charles, Madonna, Tom Cruise and AR Rahman, but is averse to name dropping.
He also asserts he doesn’t believe in taking pictures with his celeb clients. “You're as good as the last meal you served somebody. So every day is a new day and new challenge.”
But push him a bit more and he admits; “Roger Federer actually came and ate with us a few years back just before he played the finals the following day. I told him that all the chilli and pepper that we fed him will make him win and he actually won that match! ”
The biggest misconception about Indian food
Indian food may have achieved global status today. But there are certain misconceptions the chef is keen to clear.
One is that Indian food is spicy, which is the wrong notion, he says. Just as it is wrong to say that all Indian food has got lots of onion and garlic.
He explains that the general belief that Indian food is very rich came because of the legacy. “Who eats tonnes of butter and cream at home in Asia, let alone India, right?”
He also points out the misconception that Indian food is all about Chicken Tikka, Dal Makhani, Naan etc. and anything outside that realm is not Indian.
He recollects how when they first launched Quilon in London, people would come and ask if it was actually an Indian restaurant because they could not see the familiar old dishes.
“But today it’s a different world where people know better because they travel. Kerala has become a very important tourism destination.”
The 3 key changes in the diners’ palate…
Gone are the days when you walk into a restaurant and order the same old thing from the menu. The modern day epicurean, who is exposed to diverse cuisines and flavours, is not averse to sampling new dishes, says Chef Sriram. “They are not afraid to try different kinds of spices and textures.”
Another change is with regards to dietary preferences with many now wanting to eat gluten-free or a protein heavy meal or go vegan, while others want to eat more fish and seafood.
“It is happening across the world, not just in the UK. I'm sure you're seeing it in Dubai also where people are talking about different requirements. So that is the new ask.”
“But the beauty of Indian cuisine is it inherently has the ability to cater to all those needs. So if somebody comes and says they're vegan, vegetarian or want to eat gluten-free, it's very easy because Indian cuisine has an inbuilt strength to cater to that.
“The other new ask is people today want to try multiple dishes. So they want either sharing or small plate format so that they can try more dishes. So what changes is the portion and the way it is served.”
While Chef Sriram has been to Dubai often, this will be the first time he will be cooking here at Varq, Taj Exotica Resort and Spa, The Palm, Dubai.
And he’s most excited to serve up a unique, seamless experience for diners that consists of North Indian and South Indian cuisine.
“It is Dubai's time now. The spotlight is on the city. It's so exciting to hear about the different cuisines and restaurants that are opening up here.”
And while he cooks up a Pan Indian feast in the kitchen, he’s also hoping to explore the city and sample some of the fantastic culinary offerings the city has to showcase right now.
As part of the Dubai Food Festival, Varq, is offering an exclusive Chef's Table experience on April 28-29. It features a fusion of Indian flavors crafted by Executive Chef Sonu Koithara of Varq, Taj Exotica Resort and Spa, The Palm, Dubai, and internationally acclaimed Michelin Star Chef Sriram Aylur of Quilon, London. The meal will feature Bharwan Gucchi (Lotus stem stuffing, mild saffron sauce); signature Varqui Lobster (Rock lobster, tandoori shrimp, crisp filo sheet, beaten gold); and Jerusalem artichoke roast (Malabar spices). Dh395 per person.