During our 2016 journey through South India, we had the chance to sit and talk with chef Jerry Matthew about what “local food” means in his corner of South India – Periyar in Kerala.
Chef Matthew has been with the CGH Earth Experience group of hotels for 20 years now and is the executive chef of their Spice Village resort in Periyar. In 2014, he launched the properties’ newest restaurant – The 50 Mile Diet. All the food created here comes from within 50 miles of the resort and features recipes of the local tribal people.
Part of the CGH (Clean, Green and Healthy) mandate is that resorts in the group be designed to reflect, enhance and celebrate what is authentically local. They do not impose their own brand but rather adopt and adapt to the local architecture, culture and cuisine wherever they are located.
Chef Matthew enjoyed the challenge of walking this talk in the kitchens of Spice Village. He became equal parts detective and culinary historian as he researched what would be possible. He started with the geography itself. Ultimately, this is always what determines our dietary intake.
The place makes the plate
Periyar is surrounded by a large national park tiger reserve, lush spice plantations and thousands of acres of cardamom in the highland hills of Kerala. It also sits on the border of Tamil Nadu where – once you’ve crossed the checkpoint – a dramatic hairpin highway snakes its way to the productive fields of rice and grains on the great plains below.
There are only two foods used at The 50 Mile Diet that chef Matthew does not source locally for use in the restaurant – salt and sunflower oil. The popular red onions of South India could not be found here but shallots, which grow well, were an easy substitute. There is no garlic for flavouring because he could not find it in his “food shed” zone. Recipes were sourced directly from locals.
Chef Matthew talked to old Indo-English families and sourced recipes for pork roast. He talked to the families of the ancient houses of the tribal people. Here he found recipes for quail, duck, country chickens, goat, lamb and many foraged vegetables.
The resort has its own organic garden. Mutton (goats) and pork were sourced from a nearby farm that has been in operation since 1972. There is no wheat in the area so all the flour at The 50 Mile Diet is rice flour. Honey is the chief source of sweetening as the property also houses their own apiary in the organic garden.
We were able to obtain several recipes from The 50 Mile Diet including the richly spiced “Homely Turkey” and a light and lively grilled quail preparation. Chef Matthew’s favourite dish is a Keralan Roast Beef. “Well that and a great biryani,” he says with a smile.
When I ask his favourite spice, his dimples deepen again as he says, “Black pepper, of course.” He truly has a local’s palate and is a great Keralan and very generous cook. He is always thrilled to share his recipes and his passion for the flavours of his homeland.
Spice Village features a nightly cooking lesson for all guests who are keen to participate. We highly recommend it, if you get the chance!
A special thank you to chef Jerry Matthew, for his time when we visited and his wonderfully efficient correspondence when we sought the special recipes of The 50 Mile Diet restaurant. Thanks to CGH Earth Experience for supporting our stay at Spice Village and so many others in their incredible collection of hotels. Many thanks also to the KTM Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our travel throughout South India in 2016.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.