A month ago, when Ottawa chef Joe Thottungal received copies of his new cookbook, Coconut Lagoon, he knew just who he would give the first copy to — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The decision wasn’t partisan, Thottungal says, pointing out that in 2015, he happily cooked lamb biryani for then-prime minister Stephen Harper at 24 Sussex Dr.
Besides, the Trudeau family had eaten twice in recent months at Thottungal’s east-end Ottawa restaurant, which is also called Coconut Lagoon. At an out-of-the-way table in the back of the dining room, the Trudeaus dug into the vibrant and distinctive dishes from the chef’s home province, Kerala, on India’s tropical, southwestern Malabar Coast.
So in mid-April, Thottungal briefly visited Trudeau’s Parliament Hill office. The chef gave the Prime Minister one copy of his cookbook, and had Trudeau sign another, which he says he will treasure.
For the chef, being able to give his book to Canada’s prime minister is a sign of how welcoming Canada is to new Canadians. “That is why I am a blessed Canadian,” Thottungal says. “I am a proud Indian, but I am blessed Canadian.”
The arrival of Thottungal’s cookbook on May 15 — the 15th anniversary of the opening of Coconut Lagoon — is another milestone for the chef who began his working life simply in far-flung, high-end hotel kitchens but in 2017 took home the silver medal at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, B.C.
Thottungal, 47, came to Canada in 1998, at the age of 25. Years before, he was the first person in his family to leave Thrissur, a mid-sized city in Kerala. He studied at a culinary college in Chennai, on the other side of India, and then took jobs cooking European fare in high-end hotels in India and later Saudi Arabia. In search of new opportunities, he emigrated to Canada.
He cooked at Centro, a famed Italian restaurant in Toronto, before toiling in the kitchens of the Royal York, Casino Windsor and then the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Ottawa, where he rose to become the executive sous chef.
But Thottungal was determined to be his own boss. He opened Coconut Lagoon in May 2004, taking over a rundown sports bar on St. Laurent Boulevard that a few years ago underwent an overdue sleek renovation. There, in contrast to Ottawa’s Indian restaurants where North Indian dishes and butter chicken were the norm, Thottungal has faithfully served potently spiced Keralan specialties.
Initially, the restaurant was quiet. Its first customers were just a few Kerala expats. Back then, Thottungal, his pregnant wife and their baby daughter were sleeping in the one of the two bedrooms in an apartment that they shared with a Coconut Lagoon cook.
“I struggled,” Thottungal recalls. “The restaurant industry, it’s good, but it’s not that easy if you’re starting from scratch. There are a lot of hardships.”
But as word of Thottungal’s cooking spread beyond the expats, so too did his business. He attracted diplomats and politicians as customers. Coconut Lagoon’s success allowed Thottungal to open last year a second restaurant, the downtown Ottawa lunch-spot called Thali, while several other Keralan restaurants that opened in Ottawa in the last few years are indebted to Thottungal blazing the trail.
Thottungal has taken part in three of Ottawa’s annual Gold Medal Plates competitions, finishing in the top three each time and winning out right in 2016. That win sent him to the Canadian Culinary Championships in February 2017, and there he finished second. In Kelowna, he served a refined Keralan-inspired dish of halibut poached in spiced oil, with fish curry crumbs, woodland mushroom aviyal and a lentil emulsion.
Thottungal’s second-place showing put him on the radar of Vancouver-based Figure 1 Publishing. The company contracted him to write his cookbook, which he did with the help of veteran Ottawa-based food writer and critic Anne DesBrisay.
After a concise introduction that poignantly tells Thottungal’s life story, the 192-page paperback, which is chock full of mouth-watering photos, discusses ingredients, equipment and basic recipes before sharing 80 recipes for dishes and items served over the years at Coconut Lagoon.
Thottungal says he’s learned a lot from adapting the dishes for home cooks. “We’re used to doing it by hand. To measure everything, it’s another game,” he says. “It was nice to do it at home and try it with the recipe, and it comes out.”
He is keen that readers learn that Keralan cuisine revels in multiple layers of flavour, thanks to the initial tempering of spices, the patient frying of onions and more.
At the same time, Thottungal says the recipes are guidelines that be tweaked according to tastes of spice-lovers and the spice-averse.
Thottungal is especially proud of small, authentic touches in his book, such as the names of dishes also appearing in the evocative Malayalam script used to write the main language used in Kerala.
He hopes Canadians will enjoy these glimpses and tastes of Kerala, which in the Malayalam language means “land of the coconut trees.”
Thottungal says Indians can be less adventurous eaters than Canadians. “When in Rome or something, we still look for Indian restaurants,” he says. “But Canadians, they want always to try different cuisines. They support all these ethnic restaurants, for which I am grateful.”
Masoor Dal and Spinach Curry
Mild and lightly spiced, the red lentils (masoor dal) in this gluten-free and vegetarian dish cook in no time at all. Turmeric and fresh spinach lend their lovely colours, but no dal dish is complete without a drizzle of ghee and the lift of lemon. If you wish, top it with fried onions for a sweet, crunchy finish.
2 cups (500 mL) dried red lentils, rinsed
1/2 cup (125 mL) coconut oil
1 tbsp (15 mL) cumin seeds
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp (15 mL) chopped ginger
2 Indian or Thai green chiles, finely chopped
12 curry leaves
2 1/2 onions, finely chopped (1 1/2 cups or 375 mL)
1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) ground turmeric
1 cup (250 mL) chopped spinach leaves
1 cup (250 mL) coconut milk
1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp (15 mL) Ghee (recipe below)
2 tbsp (30 mL) Fried Onions, for garnish (recipe below)
Basmati Rice (recipe below)
1. In a large saucepan, combine lentils and 6 cups (1.5 L) of lightly salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 12–15 minutes, until lentils are tender. (If necessary, add more water to keep lentils covered.)
2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add cumin and toast for 30 seconds. Add garlic, ginger, chiles, and curry leaves and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in onions and salt and cook for 7 minutes, until softened and translucent. Add turmeric and spinach and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in cooked red lentils.
3. Pour in coconut milk and bring to a boil. Stir in lemon juice and ghee, then remove from heat. Season with salt to taste.
4. Garnish with fried onions (if using) and serve with rice.
Makes: about 1 1/2 cups (375 mL)
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter
1. Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer gently. Every few minutes, using a small spoon or strainer, carefully skim off the milk solids that will rise to the surface as the butter simmers. It should take about 10 to 15 minutes for the ghee to turn a golden colour. Pour ghee through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth into an airtight container and set aside to cool. Store in the fridge for up to 2 months.
Makes: 1/2 cup (125 mL)
Onions are the base — the very foundation — of Indian cooking, and yet here, they are used to add a crispy topping, as a finishing flourish to a dish.
1 cup (250 mL) vegetable oil
2 cooking onions, finely sliced
1. Heat oil in a wok or frying pan over medium heat until hot enough to fry. Add one piece of onion to test the oil (it should begin to sizzle right away). Sauté onions for 15–20 minutes, until golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer onions to a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Spread onions out to drain and cool.
2. Store in an airtight container for up to 7 days.
2 cups (500 mL) basmati rice
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
1 1/2 (7.5 mL) tsp fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 (7.5 mL) tsp vegetable oil
1. Rinse rice well, at least 3–4 times, until the water runs clear. Put rice, salt, lemon juice, and oil in a large saucepan, add 4 cups water, and bring to a boil, stirring to prevent rice from sticking.
2. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for 12–15 minutes until rice is cooked. Remove from heat and set aside, covered, for another 8–10 minutes. Remove lid and fluff the grains with a fork. Serve immediately.
Source: Coconut Lagoon: Recipes from a South Indian Kitchen by Joe Thottungal with Anne DesBrisay, Published by Figure 1 Publishing
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