Of the handful of places on Earth that I miss, there is only one that makes me yearn to pack my bags and return: a tiny hilltop in the southern hills of India where I spent most of my childhood. Kodaikanal, 7000 feet above sea level and always close to my heart.
Food has always been a passion for me. As a chef living in London for the last 20 years, I am blessed to be in the greatest food city in the world and often say to people that my personal food style is influenced by the incredible cultures and cuisines that have made London their home, as well as by ingredients and inspiration gleaned from visiting other countries. Some of my fondest food memories, however, are still from the time I spent studying in Kodaikanal.
My memories of the ’90s in Kodai are still fresh: the sweet tang of eucalyptus waltzing with the smoke from wood fires, the fragrance of the morning mist slowly rising above the treetops as shards of sunlight rupture its milky haze, the taste of warm salted butter melting on the mottled skin of an aloo paratha at Tava’s, the burst of umami in a Tibbs momo. Those memories are as comforting as the first time I ate Baba’s French fries.
Sadly, Baba’s no longer exists, but I could bet my life that everyone who lived in Kodai in the early ’90s would have savoured these glorious bites of salty, sour, fried carbohydrate heaven. Sitting in a tiny ramshackle hut just outside Bendy Field on lower Lake Road, Baba’s was an institution. For the grand sum of two rupees, he would dunk a large handful of raw potatoes into a pan of hot oil and stir slowly as the flames from the kerosene stove licked up the sides of the blackened pan. Then he’d pour the chips into a bowl to drain the excess oil before filling them into a newspaper cone and ceremoniously dousing them in salt, vinegar and, the most important ingredient, red chilli powder, before handing them over to you.
We would then take our cones, run back to school and find a quiet nook to safely devour our prize, panting as the painful pleasure of hot chips and chilli kicked in. The intermittent licking of fingers was, naturally, one of our favourite parts of the Baba’s fries experience. Sometimes, we would take our cones and walk ten paces across to Joy’s ice cream parlour, where Campa Cola would crown this treat. Sitting on those rickety wooden stools outside Joy’s, sipping cola and eating those fries without a care in the world, being a twelve-year-old in Kodai was like having won the lottery of childhood.
Then there was the time we went camping when I was 17. The school had recently purchased its own campsite, complete with a lake. When people talk about wild, untouched beauty, Poondi was just that. Forests of pine and eucalyptus surrounding a pristine lake made for some of the best camping ever. Some of the more enterprising in our class even managed to rig up a sauna, whilst the early signs of my love for cooking became apparent on my breakfast shift. I was on egg duty and proudly announced that the menu included made-to-order fried, scrambled or poached eggs, as well as omelettes. Armed with nothing more than a pan of boiling water and a couple of frying pans set over a wood fire, I got cracking.
Before I knew it, shouts of ‘I’ll have three more…’ and ‘I’ll have two more’ began erupting. Turned out that eggs fried in butter, licked with a hint of smoke and embellished with tomato, coriander and onion were extremely addictive; before I knew it, most of the boys (who else?!) had started an egg-eating competition. I think the winner stopped, at last, at 19 eggs.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing indeed. Looking back over my years at Kodaikanal International School (KIS), the most common and recurring complaint was how bad we thought school food was. It wasn’t until I graduated that I realised just how good the food at my school actually was, incredibly varied in its offerings. I’d go so far as to say ours was the best food of any boarding school in India. My wife and I often banter about the superiority of each other’s boarding schools (she went to the Lawrence School, Sanawar), and there is one battle that KIS always wins—the battle of the dining rooms. From unlimited toast, butter, jam and peanut butter at breakfast with lots of tea and coffee to wash it down (Sanawar rationed jam and butter, whilst peanut butter was but a fantasy) to delicious cakes and pastries for mid-morning break to the divine bounties of Sunday lunch.
At school, Sunday lunch always meant chicken curry and paratha or rice, with gulab jamun for dessert, or tandoori chicken followed by home-made ice cream. Those were the days when the goodwill we had managed to inspire amongst the cooks and servers truly came into play; the Sunday desserts were one of the only things that were rationed (which teenager wouldn’t want to eat a whole tray of gulab jamun?). Sometimes we would try to get seconds by standing in different queues at opposite ends of the dining room, and whilst this would result in the odd successful mission, they were, by and large, failed attempts. Nonetheless, eating Sunday lunch on the Flag Green (an iconic open area outside the dining hall) to the sounds of The Doors, Guns N’ Roses or Bon Jovi from a senior student’s CD or tape deck, under a crisp blue sky, was priceless.
I could wax lyrical about all my comfort food memories in Kodai, from the giant, crispy dosais at Hotel Astoria to oozy, melting cheese wraps at Philco’s, where fried onions, capsicum, ginger, garlic and coriander were bound together with a secret blend of different local cheeses, topped off with a home-made chilli sauce, all rolled in a flatbread and handed to you wrapped in foil and tissue. And there were various outings to Silver Inn, where we would descend en masse for lunches and dinners, especially for their steak sizzlers. But the one place that I keep coming back to is Fay’s.
Fay’s Confectionary opened in the mid ’90s, and I was addicted to their chocolate eclairs and rhubarb crumble. When I was training as a chef and learning the art of pastry at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s in London, I would always reminisce about Fay Bradbury’s choux pastry eclairs: filled with rich vanilla cream and glazed with chocolate. I partly blame Fay for my being broke most of the time, mostly as I spent so much time there eating everything she made while she talked at length about her creations and how she made them.
Their rhubarb crumble—tart, vibrant rhubarb cooked in butter, topped with a crunchy, chewy oat crumble—was a taste sensation I never forgot. To this day I raise a spatula to Fay’s whenever I make chocolate eclairs or rhubarb crumble, for instilling a desire to recreate some of the dishes that inspired me as a teenager, 25 years ago.
One day soon, I tell myself, I will return to that misty mountaintop and show my wife around, bringing to life all those vignettes Kodai boys like to tell: of places we would hide, stuff our faces at or sneak away to for a kiss. Most of those places have probably changed, as have all the people that contributed to those memories, but the soul of the mountain will still be there, as will the timelessness of those flavours.