A vegan Maldivian feast

Sathya Saran | Updated on January 25, 2018

Novel flavours: ‘I am wary of what the menu says is burnt avocado, but the chargrilled smooth taste is delicious’   -  Picasa

Food for thought: Peach and strawberries are marinated in old balsamic, giving them added piquancy   -  Picasa

Humble yet bright: Sweet potato, in the hands of a chef does a Cinderella turn   -  Picasa

Food for the spirit: Chef de Silva worked with three varieties of stock using Maldivian curry leaves, pandan leaf and lemongrass to create aroma in this vegetable consommé   -  Picasa

A no-meat, zero-dairy challenge turns out to be a boon for this Maldivian lunch, as a happy diner finds out

The invitation to the Four Seasons, in Mumbai, presents two options. There is a meat and fish option, with traditional Maldivian recipes, but presented with a twist. It is exciting, if a bit fish heavy. Then there is the vegetarian option, which I understand is a bit of a challenge for a chef presenting a cuisine that depends heavily on things that run or swim.

Food sorcery

I was curious about how well he stood up to this challenge, and so I opted for the second option. Besides it will be lower on the calories, and sidestep the fact that though I will miss out on the prawn, I am not dying to eat lobster. The menu by Gaushan De Silva is an interpretation of the one he serves up to the tourists who eat at his restaurant, Aragu, in Velaa, Maldives. Chef De Silva is Sri Lankan, and that is what he will bring to the meal, a Lankan twist. And the inspiration, we have been told is classic French technique.

As the amuse bouche is presented, I realise there is a visual artist hiding within the chef’s mind. The menu reads classic Maldivian mas-huni style. Substituting artichoke for the usual flat roshi bread that it is commonly served with, he has worked on the vegetable to create crispy cups. The traditional mix of coconut grated fine, and Maldivian chilli mixed with dandelion leaves is combined with monk beans instead of tuna. I can taste a slightly tart and fermented mango chutney, and kaffir lime , though later I learn there is also mascarpone and Japanese yuzu blended in, which add a dash of bitterness. The complex creation takes a second to hit the palate with its intense flavours as it slides down the throat . And it’s gone! Chef de Silva is known for the fact that he works with his senses, using a taste or scent that he feels will work for a dish.

Not just vegetables

A vegetable consomme, the chef’s signature dish follows the amuse bouche. Chef de Silva would use three tomato techniques and combine them with a varietys of stock to create aroma and taste at his restaurant. What we will taste is purely vegetarian. Maldivian curry leaves, which taste somewhat different from our own curry patta, is boiled to create stock, added to pandan leaf stock, and blended with vegetable stock and lemon grass. The balance of the aroma is delicate and complex. Upon first tasting it, the infusion has all flavours rising together, my senses are alerted by a hint of celery. Further investigation reveals the presence of Thai basil, and enoki mushroom, which gives the consomme a rich body. Heartwarming, this is just the right thing to set the stomach clamouring for newer adventures.

The salad follows. I am wary of what the menu says is burnt avacado, but the chargrilled smooth taste is delicious. The slight bitterness is set off by the cherry tomatoes and the taste of lime. I realise the maroon dust decorating the plate is beetroot dust, which combines wonderfully with the avacado. It is a twist on a salad, but one that passes the test with flying colours, for the green and the maroon and the red make an eye catching composition.

Culinary adventure

Indian guests would traditionally perhaps look askance at a hostess who serves sweet potato and yam as her main dishes, but in the hands of a chef, these down-to-earth, humble vegetables do a Cinderella turn. The pasta dish has handmade ravioli stuffed with yam mixed with sauteed Swiss chard and a mature parmesan. Chef tells us the parmesan is 32 months mature, as against the 15 months that is common. The flavour is richer as a result. Then there is the dressing, which is a blend of home-fermented grapes and curry paste. My tongue is confused, but delighted. I can’t but wonder if the Italians would quite approve! This, I tell myself is quite a culinary adventure. Thankfully the portions are perfectly measured for there is more to come.

A royal treatment

Another underrated Indian vegetable makes an entrance. The taste is rich and creamy, the result of the vegetables being organically grown in Maldivian soil. Unlike in India, where pumpkins grow in profusion and are considered a poor man’s food, the vegetable is rare in the islands and is regarded as a delicacy! The pumpkin comes disguised in many textures, and the menu explains they come from the pulp being ‘braised, added in a curry flavored velouté, in a curry oil confit and its young flower cooked in tempura to add a different texture to the plate.’ Culinary jargon aside, enough to say, the concoction hits the spot, adding just the right feeling of fullness to conclude the meal. Pumpkin after all, is comfort food!

Sweet endings

But wait, the dessert beckons. Desserts bring out the best in chefs, I have realised. They like to surprise you with the fact that, after tucking in a meal that has filled the senses and satiated all cravings for flavours, you can still find room to clean up a calorie rich offering to the last crumb.

The dessert comes in like a Trojan Horse. Claiming to be just strawberry and peach and fresh mint. The visual is beguiling, and deceptive. Rich coconut, and coconut cream combined with the best white chocolate Valrhona has to offer lies hidden within the depths, bearing more calories than I wish to count. The peach and strawberries are marinated in old balsamic, giving them added piquancy. The chocolate's white sweetness is dressed in coffee extract. And the sprig of fresh mint, smiles disarmingly in feigned innocence as it distracts one from the sins that lie hidden.

I tell myself I have saved many calories by not drinking the wines, as I am driving myself back. And give the dessert a long, hard, measuring look.

The urge to give in won't be denied, and silence descends as each seductive spoonful turns on the tongue. My mind grapples with the divine taste of sin while my conscience presents pictures of my burgeoning waistline. When the deed is done, no evidence remains.

My conscience, I know, will take over and nag me, all the way as I drive back home.

But for now, I luxuriate in the pure happiness only a sensual meal like this one can give!

Sathya Saran is a Mumbai-based journalist

Published on January 24, 2018

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