Seeing Chef Velayudhan’s team at Kalari Kovilakom Vengunad (KKV) in action was a chance for us to learn how to put Ayurveda food principles into practice. KKV is known as A Palace for Ayurveda.
The CGH Earth Experience group of hotels lease the palace from the family who are descendants of the Vengunad Chieftains who built it over 200 years ago. It’s one of Kerala’s premier Ayurveda hospitals. Surrounded by nature, it is located in the important rice-growing area of Palakkad at the base of the Western Ghats in Northern Kerala. We popped in for 24 hours on our way south from Wayanad to Kochi.
Arriving, a guard opened the tall iron gates to the palace compound. We were turning off a busy highway and could see the importance of this barrier to keep noise and dust out. Later, we realized the insular nature of the compound also helps patients focus completely on the inner journey they are about to commit to. The minimum stay here is two weeks – without ANY contact with the outside world – and while that might prove a challenge for some, it is vital for the transformation they seek.
Our micro stay was just long enough to get a feel for the life of the guests and to wonder what it would be like to be in their shoes. Not that shoes are necessary here.
We were given a pair of comfy slipper sandals and white pajamas to wear as we checked into our spacious suite. Jasmine garlands lay across perfectly pressed bedspreads. The antiques are original to the palace. There’s no WiFi, no TV, and no phones. Any alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs must be locked up upon entry.
Everyone gets the same outfit. The sameness is to place emphasis on our inherent oneness. After changing, we immediately took our new shoes out for a walk. We had an appointment with executive chef Velayudhan or “Velu Chef” as his team affectionately calls him.
Touring the property
We were excited to spend the afternoon with Chef Velayudhan’s team at Kalari Kovilakom learning how to prepare the Ayurvedic food regimens prescribed at the hospital. Meeting him in the gardens was our first clue that this kitchen is run differently than most.
We walked by still water ponds under the shade of old growth tropical trees. Chef stopped so we could read plaques with both the botanical and common names and the Ayurveda medicinal uses of the many plants and trees.
With only the sounds of bird song and the soft shuffle of our slippers, we experienced first hand the peace and tranquility of this place where people come to heal and balance the elements of their bodies. We were completely silent when anywhere near the treatment rooms.
At one point, Chef paused to heft a branch laden with knobbly, warty-looking limes the size of papayas. Rubbing their leaves rewarded us with a bouquet of fragrance much like the famous Makrut Thai limes. The knobbly rows of ridged wrinkles spoke of a genetic link, but the super-size tropical Kerala version left some doubt.
With that heady perfume still lingering on our hands and clothes, we strolled onto the pumpkin patch and gardens. The gardeners paused from tending the organic produce to give a polite Namaskaram pressing of the hands together. We would see their harvest of the day later in the kitchen. The gourds were impressive.
Of all the gourds that grow in South India, Ash Gourd is the most pranic. That means it has the greatest positive effect on life energies. Here at KKV, the Ash Gourds were the biggest we’d ever seen. Reluctant as we were to leave the kitchen garden, a new delight awaited at every twist in the path.
We paused to gaze at a 200-year-old mango tree, for example. It was about a hundred feet tall with a crown radius of about 30 feet. The most treasured tree on the grounds, Chef shared, “we literally get tons of fruit off this one tree every May. It’s truly a blessing and a most beloved tree.” We entered the kitchen through the back door.
Chef Velayudhan’s Team at Kalari Kovilakom
In Ayurveda, food is medicine. And Velu chef and his team are responsible for the delivery of that medicine. It’s a big task and one they take up quite joyfully.
Velu Chef has been with CGH since 1983. KKV opened in 1996 and as the executive chef here, his role is to take what foods the Ayurvedic doctors prescribe as medicine and figure out how to cook them as deliciously as possible.
“One of the basic tenets is to help people think of food as nutrition and medicine, not as pleasure and entertainment. Meals are taken in complete silence to encourage mindful eating so the essence of the food can be assimilated in an aware and respectful manner.”
The team’s recipes are light, simple, easily digestible and nutritious. They avoid oil, spicy food and any artificial flavors, colouring or taste enhancers. You won’t find white sugar or refined flour either. “Our job is to bring out the natural taste.” Everything is personalized.
Cooking with Precision
A wall of clip boards represents the prescribed diet of each guest at KKV. There are 19 rooms total and it seems like the ratio of chef to guest is about one to three.
The chefs check on what foods the doctors want included in the guest’s meals and then plan individual menus accordingly. Most dishes start with a dry tempering of spices instead of the ubiquitous coconut oil treatment we’ve seen everywhere else on our trip. Because garlic, ginger, and asafoetida are medicines, some guests get them and others don’t.
Breakfast is a light bit of fruit. We had steamed apples the morning of our departure. We kept thinking there would be something more, but when the server made a third pass with the same offering we clued in. The guests will spend all morning in treatments so their early day intake is minimal so as not to interfere. Lunch and dinner are vegetarian and planned for appropriate quantity and timing in sync with nature and body.
We marvelled over the cooking utensils the chefs used. There were shining vengalam/brass vessels called uruli. After years of searching, Pauli-Ann and I had recently purchased our own. But, we also admired the antique brass steamers and deep granite cooking vessels. When we asked where we could find them Chef laughed and said, “They came with the place.” We looked at each other and laughed, knowing that a new quest and hopeful return to antiquing was born in that instant. Once an obsessed cook, always an obsessed cook!
The kitchen also had modern scales, blenders and food processors. The most enviable asset of all? The freshest ingredients imaginable. Bottle gourd, snake gourd, ridge gourd, banana flower, rich orange pumpkin, deep green kombucha and gnarly brown elephant’s foot squash, plus that huge ash gourd, lay on a nearby counter ready for action.
We watched as the team worked their meticulous way through each dish for each guest. Soups, salads, dal, rice, string hoppers, dosas, vegetable thorans, stews, kootus and pachadis came together in a flash. Six chefs worked at as many cooking stations around a huge black granite kitchen block. Another team member set up the service cutlery and serving dishes in the adjacent room.
A lightness of being
We left the kitchen then. Another team member toured us through the rest of the palace as dark began to fall. Classical music and dance were important to the Vengunad royals who owned the palace. We saw their intricately carved and painted dance theatre and music hall. The guests of KKV still enjoy nightly performances of Kathakali dance and Carnatic music.
We enjoyed our repast that evening with all the grateful awareness and intensity we could muster. Knowing all the love and care that went into growing and preparing the food had set the required tone for us. We left satisfied yet feeling light, and we slept the deepest of sleeps.
When we left the next morning, we both wondered what it would be like to spend two to four weeks under the care of expert Ayurvedic practitioners and chef Velayudhan’s team at Kalari Kovilakom. That’s the thing about spending time in India, it stirs desires you never even knew you had. Can there be a greater desire than that of living in perfect balance with nature and in complete vitality? Exploring Ayurveda might just lead to the answer.
Pauli-Ann has captured some wonderful photos of our time with the KKV team and Velu chef. In our upcoming posts we look forward to sharing more about Ayurveda and the recipes chef so generously gave to us.
Thank you to CGH Earth Experience Hotels and the team at Kalari Kovalikom for hosting us during our visit to Palakkad, and to the KTM Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our travel throughout South India in 2016. We are especially grateful to Velu Chef and his team for the sheer joy of spending time with them in their beautiful garden, kitchen, and dining room.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.