Kerala’s first woman chef blazed a trail but had to fight to get there

Latha K. was seven when she saw her neighbour’s brother in chef’s uniform and decided that she too would become a chef. She was nine when she cooked her first meal. Her mother had taken ill while making lunch, so Latha stepped in, cleaning the fish and grinding masala the way she had seen her mother do.

The result was a hit. “I can still hear my father’s words in my ears: ‘This is so delicious.’ That was enough encouragement,” says Latha.

From that promising start, Latha went on to become Kerala’s first female chef, blazing the path for others to follow. Today, chef de cuisine at Malabar Café, one of the restaurants of The Grand Hyatt Bolgatty in Kochi, the petite chef with the trademark sandalwood paste on her forehead, says she has had to fight to get here, but has never lacked inspiration.

Childhood flavours

Latha’s paternal grandmother was a temple cook in Samoothiri Kovilakam. Her other grandmother was a farmer, and a patron of organic cooking. “I grew up watching my mother and grandmothers cook delicious meals, not just with fresh ingredients, but with love,” recalls Latha, who today strictly adheres to the principle that ‘if you are not in a good mood, don’t cook.’

At the start of her career though, Latha’s mood was often bad. The Food Craft Institute in Kozhikode was reluctant to take her on as a student because of her gender.

But she and her family were relentless and she finally became the first female student at the institute.

As part of the one-year course, Latha was required to do an internship in a hotel. While her classmates, 27 boys, were able to secure spots, she couldn’t. “No hotel in Calicut was willing to take me as an intern,” says Latha. ‘“This is not a job for women. We don’t take women,’ they would say.”

Latha refused to give up. She contacted a friend in Chennai, stayed with her for the next few months, and completed an internship at a three-star hotel called Royal Mirage. “After that, there was no turning back,” smiles Latha.

She returned to Calicut and started a catering business and a small restaurant called Kairali. It ran successfully for three years before Latha moved on. She began as a chef at Saj Lucia in Trivandrum and later at Saj Earth Resort in Kochi.

Against the grain

By 2005, women were slowly coming into hotel jobs, into housekeeping, front office and sales. Around this time, the Saj Group brought in a group of female chefs from Thailand to start a restaurant called Sukho Thai in Kochi. Latha trained under them for a year, and when they left, she became the Speciality Chef there.

After that, she moved ahead in leaps and bounds, learning new cuisines along the way. She worked in the Middle East for two years where she mastered Arabic cuisine. She spent a year in Wayanad to learn about tribal foodand cultures. “Unlike people in the city, tribals eat healthy. They begin their day with a herbal soup, which has cooked all through the night. They never roast anything directly on a fire, since they believe it is poisonous, they wrap it first in leaves or bark. They balance their meats with roots, vegetables and herbs. There’s so much we can learn from them,” Latha says.

Healthy and authentic

Latha’s interest in traditional food cultures continues. She makes it a point to read at least one page a day about food cultures. “No matter how tired I am, I don’t skip my reading. And I also write one new recipe a day,” she says.

Latha has more than 3,000 original recipes in her repository: she has given around 350 recipes of her own, based on her grandmother’s recipes written on palm leaves, to The Grand Hyatt. “I love interpreting traditional recipes without losing the original essence.”

This has resulted in dishes like Kappadu Curry (inspired by the fisherman’s offerings to the ocean) on Malabar Café’s menu.

Being true to one’s roots, in both ingredients and processes, has been the cornerstone of Latha’s culinary life. She insists on freshly ground masala, without additives and food colours. “The processes might be tedious, but it’s healthy and authentic.”

Often, her customers ask for dishes that are not on the menu. Like the US-based writer visiting Kerala after many years and wanting kanji and payar (porridge and green gram). The poor man’s dish wasn’t on the five-star menu, but Latha whisked it up in 20 minutes. “It made me very happy.”

Things have changed rapidly, and today, there are many female chefs in Kerala. In fact, Latha’s kitchen at Malabar Café has four women chefs, earning the team the moniker ‘Spice Girls’.

The writer is a solo traveller, photographer, and artist.

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