Craving some authentic home-cooked Kerala food? Try Oottupura, a unique pop-up kitchen in Mumbai which goes live every Friday at noon. This is when 30 diners get lucky. They are the few who get their orders placed with chef Marina Balakrishna’s Oottupura. Even during these trying times, Marina has been delivering authentic home-cooked food to people's doorsteps, and the number of people signing up keeps increasing with each passing day.
Trained at NYC's Natural Gourmet Institute, which offers 'health-supportive, plant based' cooking courses, Marina worked at The Mercer Kitchen and returned home to study Ayurvedic traditions in cooking. She then worked at Gaa with celebrated chef Garima Arora.
Oottupura offers traditional vegetarian food. However, these are nothing like your usual sadya. Marina's approach to food, its cooking and eating is inspired by her experiences with her grandmother. Growing up in a joint family in Thalassery, it was Malabari food, rooted in the traditional principles of cooking, prepared simply but uncompromisingly that has become the essence of this service. “For my grandmother, food was not just cooking and serving, it was a way of connecting and spending quality time bonding with people,” says Marina.
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She recounts how it was the last spoonsful of the bowl of sambar that everyone always wrangled about at family meals. Marina's signature sambar is a hearty concoction of freshly ground spices and roasted coconut, and it is light, bold, bright and comforting all at once. Like all of Oottupura's food, it is made without onion or garlic. The avial too is prepared from scratch with freshly ground coconut, and the distinctive taste of every vegetable infused with wholesome aromatic spices and condiments.
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Another key dish in her repertoire is the vellerika pachadi. The yogurt is made in a manchatti, and the pachadi it goes into is kept in a soapstone kalchetti. It's hardly the Kerala-style cucumber raita we might be familiar with as she adds her own twist to it with a pucker of oranges and mustard for some added layers of flavours. Even the spicy carrot achar (pickle) is no exception. The root vegetable is matched with dates and pickled in coconut vinegar and spices transfoming it into somethig that would make a curd-rice into a thing of delight.
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The meal is completed with a glass of masala chhaas with digestive spices, and pappadum sourced from the Guruvayoor temple.
The term 'oottupura' comes from a fond childhood memory from the trips Marina’s grandmother would make to the temple with her to eat at the oottupura, the Malayalam term for ‘community eating home’.
In the Oottupura meal, it is the cabbage thoran that leaves room for booming flavours. The barely dressed cabbage salad can be quickly fixed when you mix it with the delicious sambar rice.
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With Onam approaching, Marina will be whipping up traditional sadya lunches in the coming weeks. The art of making and having the 27 dishes, the right way of placing the banana leaf, the history behind it, everything makes up the entire experience of the sadya, says Marina. “In my childhood, I would see my grandmother place the leaf in a particular way and arrange the dishes in order and I would always ask her why it has to be this particular way, and she would explain why, the proper etiquette and style behind it.”
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All her sadya boxes come fully loaded with detailed descriptions of the layout process and how each of the items must be placed. To elevate the whole experience, Marina also sends some traditional Onam music suggestions and flowers to cater to all senses. “For me the numbers don’t matter. I have a good mix of people who keep coming back, asking me to increase the number of orders I take. But honestly, since I make every dish myself and source some of the ingredients from the source itself, it becomes quite a hefty task. Quality matters the most. To be able to deliver the wholesome experience of authentic Kerala food gives me to most satisfaction."
Her culinary expertise and the plethora of flavor palette are refelctions of the immense experience she has gathered over the years, working and learning from the best. “But I have realised that making homemade authentic Kerala food is my calling. It is my niche."