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Spice up your life

06/10/2016

To celebrate National Curry Week (10-16 October), we go behind the scenes at our Sindhu restaurants to get to know Food Hero Atul Kochhar and see how his on-board menus are developed. Plus, we take a tour of the exotic Indian region of Kerala and learn to make Atul’s classic korma with pilau rice.

Food Hero Atul Kochhar

Food Hero Atul Kochhar’s Sindhu restaurants showcase traditional Indian cooking with a British twist

Spice it up with Atul Kochhar

Since becoming the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star in 2001, P&O Cruises Food Hero Atul Kochhar has received acclaim for his innovative take on Indian cuisine. His Sindhu restaurants are firm favourites on our ships and a dining highlight for many, with a menu featuring traditional Indian cooking with a British twist.

We talk to Atul as he tests his new menu for our Sindhu restaurants to find out about his life in food and the tasty treats that await us on board.

 

How did you get into cooking?

I was dropped into a family of foodies. My dad had a catering business and my great-grandfather was a baker. When I said I wanted to be a chef, they packed me off from my home in east India to study in south India. I was 17 and it really was a new world for me. I absolutely fell in love with it, and didn’t leave for three years. The cuisine, culture and people were all so warm and welcoming.

I only left because I was selected to go to the Oberoi School of Hotel Management, which was a massive deal. Close to two million people sit the exam, and 12 students get chosen each year. It was hard – studying three days a week, then working very long hours in the kitchen for the other three or four days of the week – but we learned so much about both Indian food and other cuisines from around the world.

 

How do you come up with your modern take on traditional food?

I love playing with new ideas and new technologies, so I enjoy the inventive side of my menus. But I love the traditional too – I want to really dig deep down to find the heart of a recipe and its original ingredients. I try to play with a dish’s heritage and history, while retaining and being faithful to its distinct ingredients.

At Benares (Atul’s Michelin-starred central London restaurant), I push the boat out and constantly challenge my team to experiment and explore new ideas and ingredients. That experimentation helps us learn. However, ultimately food has to please people. Over the years I’ve gained a lot of experience about how our guests like to eat, and what they like to eat – it’s all about beautifully cooked food rather than adventurous cuisine.

 

How would you describe the new Sindhu menu, and how does it differ from the previous menus?

When devising the P&O Cruises Sindhu menu, I think of it as two menus in one: inspirational Indian food and traditional Indian food. The dishes have to appeal to a large variety of diners, so I need to make sure that everyone is kept happy. Some people like to try new things while others prefer traditional things they’re familiar with. The new menu is influenced more by south Indian food. I’m using Keralan ingredients and spices such as mustard seeds, curry leaves, coconut and turmeric. I’m also trying to use more British-grown ingredients such as smoked black garlic.

 

What’s the most important advice you pass onto the young chefs you work with?

The most critical thing I give them is the understanding of how to use spices. It’s a seasoning, not an ingredient, and should be used as flavouring. Used sparingly, ingredients like chilli, turmeric, ginger and coriander should give dishes delicate nuances, rather than overwhelming them.

 

What do you find rewarding about working with P&O Cruises?

To be able to connect directly with such a large number of team members is special. I always have six or seven new team members when I go on board a ship, and to be able to go from an initial meeting to serving with them in a matter of hours, and to cook with them as though we’ve been cooking together for years, is amazing. There’s also massive satisfaction in cooking under conditions that are definitely unusual, and still producing amazing cuisine that people absolutely love.

 

What are some of your favourite dishes on the new menus?

That’s like asking a father to name his favourite child! I have to say I can’t live without my soft-shell crab, and I particularly like the scallops, tenderloin beef and tandoori chicken dishes. The meat we use on board has such great flavour and is of superb quality.

 

Atul’s new Sindhu menu: 5 tasty treats

Atul lets us in on the secrets of a few of his new menu additions:

 

Karara Kekda

Soft-Shell Crab, Celeriac & Apple Slaw, Passion Fruit Chutney

‘The batter gets its colour from red chilli powder mixed with rice flour, chickpeas and cornflour. I can’t live without a variation of this on the menu.’

 

Kozhi Sukka

Tamilian Spicy Chicken, Tomato and Coconut Relish

‘This dish is essentially chicken nuggets made using a wide variety of spices, including very mild red chilli, curry leaves and ginger, served with a spicy tomato relish. The idea isn’t to create lots of heat, but lots of flavour.’

 

Tandoori Murgh

Traditional Tandoori Chicken with a Leafy Salad

‘I love this dish. We conceived it as a whole poussin on the bone, which looks spectacular, but it will be changed to a half corn-fed chicken to make it easier for guests to eat.’

 

Kolhapuri Gosht

Pan Roasted Beef Tenderloin with ‘Bhuna Masala’ Sauce, Garlic Spinach and Curried Mash

‘This is a north Indian dish and the bhuna sauce is my version of a classic UK curry-house sauce. I love the quality of beef we use on board, which is outstanding. It’s beautifully flavoured and the texture is amazing.’

 

Chocolate Textures

Chocolate Pudding
‘Mousse, sponge, chocolate rocks and chocolate dust using a mix of white, milk and dark chocolate are combined to create what’s probably my favourite new dessert.’

The P&O Cruises food tasting team

The P&O Cruises food and beverage team get their first chance to sample Atul’s new menus

Tasting, testing… 1, 2, 3: how the Sindhu menu comes to life


It takes a lot of hard work to develop and fine-tune the dishes you enjoy on board. We join Atul Kochhar and his team of six chefs on one of the most important days in the menu development process, when key members of the P&O Cruises food and beverage team get their first chance to sample the 50+ dishes that Atul has created. The best of these will form two on-board menus to ensure a wonderful choice of top-quality dishes for diners. We speak to Atul and the development team to find out how it works.

 

‘These menu development days are hugely important,’ says Atul. ‘By the time we get to this point we’re about 60-70% of the way towards finalising the new menu. This is when we begin to refine the dishes so they are absolutely perfect for P&O Cruises guests.’ Currently the team holds a development day every two or three years, but Atul plans to make it an annual event. ‘With more frequent opportunities to discuss and make changes we can offer diners more variation,’ he says.

 

Among those trying the dishes for the first time today is P&O Cruises Culinary Development Manager Haydn Davis. ‘Everyone here today will be looking at these dishes from a different perspective, making sure all the aspects work. Being able to do that collectively and discuss our thoughts with each other, including Atul, is a very effective way of working.’

 

Operations/Development Chef for P&O Cruises, Ernest De Souza, will be tasked with some of the next steps for the new menu. ‘As well as making initial decisions about flavours and presentation, we need to explore issues such as sourcing ingredients and thinking about crockery and cutlery,’ he says. ‘For example, one of the new dishes includes an ingredient called kewra water, which we don’t use at the moment, so I’ll start looking for a supplier for that. We also talked about some unusual serving methods including bento boxes and taco stands.’

 

After this first development day there will be further tweaking of the dishes ahead of a second meeting a couple of weeks later at Atul’s restaurant in London. Shortly after that, Ernest will join Aurora, where the team will have four days to teach the on-board chefs how to make the new dishes. ‘All the staff in the kitchens have been trained by Atul’s team, so they’re really familiar with this style of cooking,’ says Ernest. ‘I take detailed photos of presentation so they know exactly how each dish should look. The officers will often try the dishes at this stage, and before I leave I gather everyone to resolve any concerns or queries.’

 

Developing a menu specifically for P&O Cruises involves a range of considerations, says Haydn. ‘We like to recognise trends and are happy to dip our toes in the water, but we steer clear of being too radical too soon. We have to be more balanced than a restaurant in our offering because we have a wide range of guests to please.’ There are also practical issues when it comes to cooking on a ship. ‘We always have a Plan B! Travelling the world, you never know when you’re going to have to deal with sudden changes in staff, shortage of supplies or equipment issues.’

 

The official last stage of the menu development occurs when Atul comes on board for final refinements and to confirm the menu wording. But even after the menu has ‘gone live’, that’s not the end. ‘It’s an ongoing and continually evolving process,’ says Ernest. ‘The on-board staff are the ones who get reactions, find out what people like and don’t like, and keep track of popular dishes and less popular ones. They’ll feed all this back to us so that things can be tweaked, improved or even replaced if necessary.’

 

Traditional Keralan fishing boats

 

Cochin: the best port of call for curry


Atul Kochhar’s new menu at Sindhu draws on the flavours and spices of Kerala in southern India. Earlier this year, travel writer Yolanda Zappaterra – who got the chance to experience Sindhu’s menu development process – visited this stunning part of the world with an unforgettable stop-off in Cochin. Here, she takes us on a tour of the Keralan state capital.

‘I love Kerala because it grows nearly 80% of India’s spices,’ says P&O Cruises Food Hero Atul Kochhar, the genius behind the amazing dishes at Sindhu. ‘To be able to see the plantations and spend time with the farmers, learning how they grow and get the best out of the spices, is a real delight.’

Having enjoyed a magical stay in Kerala earlier this year, I know exactly what he means, and as we try his new menu, the sights, smells and spices of his cuisine bring back great memories. 

 

Find the heart of the Old Town

Our stay in Fort Kochi, the most alluring part of Kerala’s state capital Cochin, or Kochi, was brief so we signed up for a guided tour of this lovely enclave on the southern peninsula by Vembanad Lake. Here, cantilevered Chinese-style fishing nets have been a feature since the 16th century, when Kochi became the first European township in India. There’s a pretty Portuguese church, St Francis, that dates back to the period, as well as a surprising number of other churches, including the 19th-century Santa Cruz Basilica, serving the spiritual needs of the large number of Catholics here.

 

Atmospheric Indo-European colonial architecture abounds at places like the delightful Mattancherry Palace, renovated by the Dutch, the presence of which is marked elegiacally at the lovely Dutch Cemetery. But easily the most memorable spot is Jew Town, where a tiny 17th-century synagogue is the heart of the oldest Jewish settlement outside Israel. Nowadays, just a handful of Jewish families live here, and the area is filled instead with scores of spice shops and the heady smell of ginger, cardamom, cumin, turmeric and cloves, their pungent intensity setting our tummies rumbling. Luckily, Jew Town is the last stop on the tour before lunch.

 

Food and drink

Keralan food is some of the most exotic in India, a testament to the many nationalities that have passed through it. Syrian Christians brought coconut milk, the Portuguese introduced cassava, Muslims gave the state its fragrant, dough-topped layers of meat and rice that are the base of the biryani here.

 

Unsurprisingly, given the length of Kerala’s coastline and its huge network of backwaters, fish predominates. Famous Keralan dishes include fish stew, fish molee (a spicy fish and coconut dish), chemmeen curry (a prawn curry) and Karimeen pollichathu (fish cooked in banana leaf). They are made using the pearl spot fish of the backwaters, and familiar flavours like black mustard, fennel seeds, cumin, chillies and turmeric are mixed with more unusual ingredients like fenugreek, brindleberries and star anise to create deliciously flavoured but not necessarily hot dishes that are some of the best in India.

 

We are lucky enough to sample some of these – as well as traditional Keralan meat and veggie curries like erissery (pumpkin and lentil curry) and beef curry with Malabar parotta (flatbreads) – in Cochin, but for proper backwater fish dishes, we head north out of town for an hour or so to the town of Alleppey.

 

Get away from it all

Tours of Kerala’s backwaters on a traditional houseboat are one of its most popular tourist attractions, and for good reason. These gorgeous vessels, converted from traditional Indian longboats, are a winning mix of old and new – thatched roofs cover bedrooms that boast air conditioning. Once away from the hustle and bustle of their moorings, they putter quietly along centuries-old trading canals bordered by lush green paddyfields and waterside homes. Villagers wash their clothes, and sometimes themselves and their buffaloes, while waving cheerily as we glide by. It’s a lovely way to experience a small slice of rural Kerala, and some of the amazing dishes to be had here – such as the giant prawns.

 

Little wonder Atul draws inspiration from this inspiring region that offers such a warm welcome. He sums it up, recalling his first visit here, aged just 17, to train as a chef: I didn’t speak the language, people looked different, the architecture was different. It was a new world and I absolutely fell in love with it. The cuisine, culture and people were all so warm and welcoming; it was like discovering another country within my own country. I adored it, and still do.’

Find out about cruises to Cochin >

 

Atul Kochhar’s Chicken Murgh Kesari Korma

Celebrate National Curry Week in the comfort of your own home with Atul’s easy recipe for a delicious creamy korma.

 

Chicken Murgh Kesari Korma

Saffron-infused Chicken Korma with Raisin Pilau Rice

Serves 2

 

Ingredients:
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into large dice 

 

Korma sauce

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 onion, diced

60g cashew nuts, roasted until light golden, then crushed

1 tsp chopped green chilli

2 tsp puréed ginger  

5 green cardamom pods, crushed

Pinch saffron

150g yogurt

1 tbsp cream

30g butter

Sea salt, to taste

 

Raisin pilau rice

125g basmati rice

1 tsp vegetable oil

2 tsp puréed garlic

1 tbsp diced onion

1 tsp ground coriander

Large pinch chilli powder

1 tbsp chopped tomatoes

1 tbsp raisins

5g butter

Sea salt, to taste

 

For the korma

1. Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium heat and then add the onion, cashew nuts, green chilli, ginger and cardamom. Cook for 3-5 minutes until the onion has softened slightly and turned a light golden colour.

2. Remove from the heat and blend in a food processor until paste-like.

3. Return the blended mixture to the pan, add the saffron, yogurt, cream and butter and bring to the boil.

4. Add the chicken and simmer for 10-15 minutes until all the meat is cooked through and tender.

5. Remove from the heat and adjust the seasoning with salt.

 

For the raisin pilau rice

1. Cook the basmati rice according to pack instructions, then drain and spread out in a thin layer on a tray or plate to allow it to cool.

2. Heat the oil in a saucepan on a medium heat, then add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds until a light golden brown colour.

3. Add the onion and cook for 3-4 minutes, until starting to soften.

4. Mix in the ground coriander, chilli powder, chopped tomatoes and raisins.

5. Add the rice and stir until well combined. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is piping hot.

6. To finish the dish, stir through the butter and season to taste with salt. 

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