Nimmy Paul – South India’s Julia Child
If you are going to cook, do it beautifully.
These are the words of Nimmy Paul. She’s run an eponymous cooking school in Fort Kochi, Kerala for over 20 years. We are standing in her brand new facility getting ready for a long afternoon of photography, cooking and EATING as she begins sharing her cooking philosophy. We are the third group she has hosted here and she is keen to know what we think of this space she has created.
Nimmy Paul has come a long way from her original cooking school cum garden shed in her nearby family home. Looking around this place, you start to understand the woman that has emerged with the enterprise.
The freshly plastered white walls are thick enough to keep the tropical heat at bay. The doors and trim are rich chocolate brown tropical woods. Red clay tile floors are cool underfoot. Slowly rotating ceiling fans circulate the warm sea breeze that wafts through the door leading to a garden courtyard. Beyond a thicket of palm and banana trees you can catch a glimpse of a white sandy beach and hear waves from the Arabian Sea falling rhythmically at its feet. Thoughtfully placed orchids, spice boxes and a cookbook collection offer hits of colour around the room where a long table leads all gazes to the raised kitchen. The stage is set and Nimmy Paul is the performer.
Her cooking performance is Shakespeare, not improv. The room, the cooking and the woman are refined. There’s an emphasis on classic methods and materials. The results are sublime.
From an early age she dreamed of teaching people to cook. She grew up in Kerala’s west Travancore region – the land between these sea level backwaters and the towering hill stations of the Western Ghats. The midlands are fertile and abundant with spice, tea and rubber plantations.
Nimmy was the seventh of eight children in a Syrian Christian family. Her life centred on her mother. The spacing of the children meant the older siblings were at school and Nimmy had her mother all to herself for 5 years before the final sibling – a little brother whom she adored – arrived. While it is tradition in Keralan households for each girl to learn at least 150 recipes by memory from their mother, Nimmy’s mother always said, You don’t need to know 150 recipes if you know how to cook 10 dishes perfectly.
Nimmy and her mother spent their days cooking for the family and Nimmy told her mother one day she’d be a cooking instructor. Marrying a stockbroker and moving to Kerala’s financial capital, Kochi (Cochin), this dream came true when she applied to be an instructor at a finishing school. She was hired in 1991 and one by one her mother wrote letters containing the family’s best recipes for Nimmy to teach the students.
Nimmy shares memories of sitting at the front of the classroom, with her two and a half year old son on her lap, dictating the recipes for the students as they carefully wrote them in their notebooks. She kept that job for 10 years and might have been satisfied with that achievement but for an unforeseen circumstance.
In 1997, Nimmy’s husband Paul had an unfortunate event in the stock market and their life savings were lost.
Nimmy went back to her passion for cooking. First she started cooking classes for local women. Then she snuck into tourism trade shows with cards advertising her cooking school. By 2004 she’d made enough money to move to a bigger home and turn her garden shed into a cooking school.
She was rewarded for her risk-taking with a feature story in The New York Times. Invitations to teach at the American Culinary Institute in Napa followed and she has travelled there to teach Keralan cooking not once but three times.
We visited just after Kerala’s first ever Culinary Festival, where Nimmy and her Keralan recipes were featured to 30 visiting chefs from around the globe. As she shows us around the property, she questions us on our impression. Is it good, she asks?
She’s risking it all again, leveraging the comfortable home and life she recouped to buy this land and build this place. We assure her that it’s world class and that anyone from anywhere will enjoy this physical space and the graceful way she cooks and hosts.
Once we settle in to cook, she visibly relaxes. She’s in her realm as her assistant of 20 years brings a bevy of precisely julienned vegetables from the prep kitchen and they exchange a few words in their language, Malayalam.
Avial (vegetable stew), Fish Molee and Chemeen (a prawn stir-fry) are on the menu. We watch and record her every move just as the students at that finishing school must have all those years ago. She’s a master at work. She repeats her mantra: if you are going to cook, do it beautifully, as we complement her on the outcome of her Fish Molee.
At lunch, which is a five course multi-plated affair, a few extra dishes appear and a few extra touches have been added to the food we’ve just prepared. Nimmy doesn’t eat with us.
The construction has only just finished and she has not recovered from the toll of the last few years of bringing this dream to reality. She’s exhausted but with our words of encouragement, she finally begins to relax and take enjoyment in the details of the place.
She starts to talk about the quintessential ingredients of Keralan cooking. For Nimmy, black pepper is key. This Malabar Coast is the home of the species and for her it is the highlight of all the region’s spice masalas.
The word Kerala translates to “land of coconuts” so coconut is the next most important ingredient whether it is the fresh milk she uses to mellow a dish or the oil for enhanced flavour.
We ask if Nimmy ever eats out? Only rarely she says before admitting that she finds it too disappointing. Why? Because too often the most important ingredient in cooking is missing, she replies. For Nimmy passion and love for the art of cooking will always be what cooks need to make food fabulous.
We hope you can taste Nimmy’s passion and love in these recipes that she shared with us.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.