From dishes drawn from the varied communities in the region to experimentations by the chef and a lavish Vembanad breakfast – the food at the retreat is a blend of several cultures and inspirations.
Working with the local food culture has been a passion with Chef Prakash, the executive chef at Niraamaya Retreats. At Niraamaya Retreats – Backwaters & Beyond, Kumarakom he mines the culinary traditions of the communities who on the banks of Lake Vembanad, to create a menu that is both eclectic and experimental.
“The culinary traditions around the backwaters are not just influenced by the Hindu food culture, but also by what Christians and Muslims eat; the region is dominated by people from all three religions. The way the Kerala Christians cook pork, for instance, the process leaves behind 15% fat in the pan; the meat gets juicy because of all the fat,” he adds. “The communities have a different style of cooking. For instance, the appams cooked by Christians are large while the ones cooked by Muslims are much smaller.” Also, since the community around Lake Vembanad includes several fishermen, fresh seafood is bought by the retreat’s chefs every morning and served to guests in various dishes.
The dining spaces and the cuisine they serve
Niraamaya Retreat Backwaters & Beyond, Kumarakom has several dining spaces that, depending on the cuisine, serve freshly cooked food made from local ingredients. No buffet is served at any of Niraamaya Retreats, not even for breakfast.
Café Samsara, the all-day restaurant which overlooks the swimming pool and an atmospheric landscape of trees and foliage, serves a blend of cuisines – Italian, continental and some bit of Indian food. The menu has a slew of local specialities that you must dine on for the flavour of the region. Among them, Chef Prakash recommends coconut milk laced with cardamom and jaggery; Parippu vada, a deep-fried, spicy vada cooked using ground chana dal (split chickpeas) and served in a curry tempered with curry leaves, chopped ginger and chillies; Unnakai, a dish from the coastal Malabar region, in which steamed banana, mashed and rolled into a ball, is topped with coconut, jaggery and cardamom; Banana Blossom Cutlets; Bhindi masala (okra masala) in which batons of bhindi shallow are fried in masala and tossed with onions and tomatoes.
Café Samsara also serves a delish Vembanad breakfast, a spread that includes appam, Vegetable Moilee (vegetables cooked in coconut milk), Pazham Curry (a creamy sweet curry made with bananas from Kerala, coconut, milk, sugar and cardamom.) Chef Prakash adds, “We also served home-made loaves of bread and jams made using local fruits such as papaya, pineapple and apple.”
Café Samsara also serves vegetarian and non-vegetarian thali. The latter includes chicken cooked in spices and local seafood, such as King Fish or the pearl spot fish and Karimeen, fished from the backwaters of Alleppey. The latter is made into a dish called Karimeen Pollichathu, a recipe that comes from Kottayam. The vegetarian thali includes Udithyal which includes mushrooms added to roasted coconut gravy; Mixed vegetable mappas, a coconut milk-based curry from the Malabar coast; and thoran a classic delight, a delicacy which is a perfect amalgamation of aromatic curry leaves and crunchy coconut cooked with grated carrots. “Many of these recipes have sourced from Christian and Muslim families and reflects the vibrant cuisine of the area,” says Chef Prakash.
If you are staying at Niraamaya Retreats Backwaters & Beyond, Kumarakom for more than two days, ask for the Healthy Breakfast on of the days. Your lavish spread would include a vegan coffee with soya milk or coconut milk, eggs – poached, boiled or scrambled, a fresh fruit platter, Sambharam (thin and spicy buttermilk, tempered with chillies, onions and ginger), scrambled tofu and smoked salmon platter if you are a meat-eater.
Oriental cuisine at Essence
The setting of this Oriental restaurant is beautiful. Perched on the first floor of a Kerala Tharavad, with a sweeping view of the expansive backwaters and the twinkling lights of the fishing boats, the restaurant focuses largely on barbequed food from Thailand and tapas. “Most of the dishes are made on the lava, stone and charcoal grills,” says Chef Prakash. “The food is sautéed or grilled. One of our popular dishes is prawns grilled with lemongrass and kaafir lime.” Essence also serves several curries and finger food since it has a bar that opens in the evenings.
Beyond the restaurants
Wellness is at the core of Niraamaya Retreats experience. The doctors at the award-winning Niraamaya Spa often collaborate with chefs to create a wellness menu, particularly for guests who check-in for a wellness or Ayurveda package. The food is largely based on the principles of Ayurveda, says Chef Prakash.
On the sprawling grounds of the retreat, in the non-monsoon months, the retreat sets up a kiosk – a quintessential Kerala coffee shop, which serves light refreshments. Think batter-fried bananas, dal vada and fried fish. Besides, Niraamaya Retreats organizes backwater cruises on which lunch is served. Cooked fresh by the men who manoeuver the Kettuvalam, or the traditional rice boats which have been completely refurbished into pleasure vessels that ferry travellers and tourists across the stretch of this manmade lake which resembles a sea in parts and river in others.