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 called South India’s Julia Child because she pioneered culinary tourism long before the idea was popular.
Almost everything she says is pure gold cooking wisdom. She learned these nuggets at a tender age cooking at her mother’s side.
Now, on this breezy, beautiful post monsoon day in Fort Kochi, Kerala we stand in her brand new facility. For over 20 years, Nimmy has operated an eponymous cookery school. We’re excited for an afternoon of photography, cooking and EATING with this living legend.
We are only the third group to be in this brand new space. And, Nimmy is keen to know what we think of it.
Here and Now
Nimmy Paul has come a long way. Her original cooking school was a renovated garden shed in her nearby family home.
Looking around this new place, you start to understand the woman behind the enterprise. Details are everything.
The freshly plastered white walls are thick enough to keep the tropical heat at bay. Rich chocolate brown tropical woods frame doors made of the same. Red clay tile floors are cool underfoot. Slowly rotating ceiling fans circulate the sea breeze that wafts through the open garden door. A shaded courtyard lays beyond. These are great ingredients but they are only the start.
Exiting to the courtyard, you see a thicket of palm and banana trees. Something glistens on the other side. After a moment, you realize it’s a white sandy beach with waves from the Arabian Sea falling rhythmically at its feet.
Back inside, thoughtfully placed orchids, spice boxes and a cookbook collection offer touches of colour around the room. A long table leads all eyes to the raised kitchen.
The stage is set and Nimmy Paul is the performer. But, this chef’s cooking performance is Shakespeare, not improv. The room, the cooking and the woman are refined. There’s an ever present emphasis on classic methods and materials. The recipe is success and the results are sublime.
As a child, Nimmy dreamed of teaching people to cook. She grew up in Kerala’s west Travancore region. This is the land between the sea level backwaters and the towering hill stations of the Western Ghats. The midlands are fertile. They’re abundant with spice, tea and rubber plantations and Nimmy loved her life there.
She is the seventh of eight children in a Syrian Christian family. The spacing of the children meant the older siblings were at school and Nimmy’s life centered on her mother. She had her all to herself for five years until a final sibling – a little brother whom she adored – arrived.
It’s tradition in Keralan households for girls to learn at least 150 recipes, by memory, from their mother. Nimmy’s mother took a different view. She told Nimmy, “You don’t need to know 150 recipes if you know how to cook 10 dishes perfectly.”
Nimmy upholds that belief. Her fondest memories are the days she spent cooking for the family with her mother. She told her mother, “One day I’ll be a cooking instructor.”
Realizing her dream
Nimmy married a stockbroker and moved to Kerala’s financial capital, Kochi (Cochin). Her dream of teaching cooking came true when she was accepted as an instructor at a finishing school in 1991.
She immediately called her Mother for help. One-by-one her mother wrote letters to Nimmy containing the family’s best recipes. Nimmy shared them all with her students.
At that time, there were no cooking demonstrations. Nimmy simply sat at the front of the classroom, with her two and a half year old son on her lap, and dictated the recipes for the students. They wrote them out long-hand in their notebooks.
Nimmy kept that job for 10 years. It satisfied her dream of being a teacher. But, fate and an unforeseen circumstance pushed her further.
In 1997, Nimmy’s husband Paul had an unfortunate event in the stock market. The family lost their life’s savings. Nimmy went back to her passion for cooking to find a way out of the deep financial hole they were in.
Using her reputation as an instructor, she started cooking classes for local women. Then, she snuck into tourism trade shows with cards advertising her cooking school.
Foreigners loved her classes and tour operators planned their itineraries to include Nimmy Paul’s Cookery School. By 2004, Nimmy made enough money to move to a bigger home. That’s when she turned her garden shed into a cooking school.
Risks and Rewards
Thanks to all her tourism connections, Nimmy garnered a feature story in The New York Times. Her risk-taking paid off.
After the article, the American Culinary Institute in Napa, California invited Nimmy to come teach her specialties. She been three times now.
We visited Nimmy just after Kerala’s first ever Culinary Festival. The festival featured Nimmy teaching her Keralan recipes to 30 visiting chefs from around the globe.
Despite all she’s accomplished there’s still a vulnerability about this woman. As she shows us around the property, she questions us on our impression. “Is it good?” she asks.
She’s risking it all again. With her family, she is leveraging the comfortable home and life she recouped to buy this land and build this place. We assure her that At Home with Nimmy Paul, her cookery school, is world class. Anyone from anywhere will enjoy this physical space and the graceful way she cooks and hosts.
A Master at Work
Nimmy visibly relaxes once we settle in to cook for the afternoon. She’s in her realm. Her assistant of 20 years brings a bevy of precisely julienned vegetables from the prep kitchen.
Today’s menu is Avial (vegetable stew), Fish Molee and Chemeen (a prawn stir-fry). We watch and record Nimmy’s every move just as the students at that finishing school did all those years ago. She’s a master at work.
Nimmy repeats her mantra, “If you are going to cook, do it beautifully,” as we compliment her on the outcome of her Fish Molee recipe.
At lunch, which is a five course multi-plated affair, a few extra dishes appear. And, Nimmy deftly garnished the food we prepared together as well. She sits with us but doesn’t eat.
She explains that the construction of this space has only just finished and she’s exhausted. With our words of encouragement, she begins to relax and take enjoyment in the details we admire. The conversation turns to the quintessential ingredients of Keralan cooking.
For Nimmy, black pepper is key. Black pepper is indigenous to Kerala’s Malabar Coast where Kochi is situated. Nimmy says, “It’s the highlight of all the region’s spice masalas.” Then, there’s coconut.
The word Kerala translates to “land of coconuts.” So, it makes sense that coconut is the next most important ingredient. Nimmy says fresh coconut milk mellows a dish and the oil enhances all of Kerala’s flavours.
Changing the topic, we ask Nimmy if she ever eats out? “Only rarely,” she says, “I fear it’s always 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 the recipes she shared with us. You’ll find Avial – A Keralan Vegetable Stew, Fish Molee for Two and Chemeen – Prawn Stir Fry in upcoming posts. Next up, Things to Do and Places to Stay in Kochi.
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