Fancy dining and gourmet food all on one side and 'ghar ka khana' on the other. No matter where you choose to go, you will always miss the food your mom prepared at home. You could take the simplest recipe in the world and try to prep it the way she would, but there still would be no competition. For all those who drift far away from home and look for their mother's food in every homely dish, we came across a restaurant that attempts to plate the tender and nurturing love of a mother in some lip-smacking traditional Goan fare with subtle hints of modernity.
In talks with Balaji Srinivasan, the head-chef at Maai—a restaurant that serves Goan and Portuguese fare while also giving it a little touch of contemporary magic—we find out what inspired this journey, what we can expect to find here and some interesting details about Srinivasan, from the man himself.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
What inspiration gave birth to this journey and how do you think you fit into this entire puzzle of Maai?
Maai is purely the brainchild of its owners—Columbus Marquis, Atul Chopra and Gurmeet Singh Arora. If I had to talk about my role in this story, I'd like to borrow a reference from the Mahabharatha and say, 'if they are like Krishna then I am just an Arjun who assisted in executing the plan'.
Have you always wanted to be a chef, or have you considered option after option, before you made a decision?
In my younger days, when I was deciding what career I should choose, my first choice was to join the Indian Army, becoming a chef was not yet in the picture. But as the time to finally pick a career path inched closer, I grew to be fascinated by the chefs on TV in several cooking shows. The way they used different ingredients to create unique dishes is what intrigued me and sealed the deal.
What according to you is the true essence of Maai? What can a customer expect to experience when they step foot in the restaurant?
'Maai' as the name sounds, is a true inspiration of how a mother shares her love with her children through the food she prepares for them. The structure of Maai is actually a restored Portuguese house which gives you the feeling of being in a home away from home, where food has a language of its own and resonates with the tone of the house. All customers can expect to be welcomed into a homely surrounding as well as enjoy wholesome meals.
What was the experience like, while creating the menu for Maai?
Let me be honest here, Maai has been a whole new culinary journey for me. I have worked with so many local ingredients, tasted different foods at various local homes and then curated this menu with the support of Maai's owners, who by the way, also went through sessions after sessions of food tastings till we as a team were convinced that this is Maai. It was a very involved process and very enriching too.
Given the current trends in the F&B industry, the concept of sustainability, local produce and organic ingredients are on a rise. How would you say MAAI places itself in this context?
Talking about sustainability, at Maai we work with ingredients whose by-products are also used in other forms. For instance, we have a dish named 'Beetroot Galettes'. And for this, we boil the beetroot and only a grated version of the beetroot is used in the dish. As for the beetroot juice that is leftover is used to prepare a beetroot flavoured sourdough. We are also big on how we source our produce at Maai. We maximise the use of fresh local produce like local amaranth, leaves, a variety of green beans, Goan chillies, bimli leaves, fruits etc. We ensure that we bring in good quality produce in order to serve a meal of the same calibre.
So we've learnt that MAAI attempts to curate traditional recipes with a modern lookout. Keeping this in mind, what dish would you say best exemplifies this. What are its core traditional aspects and how have you enhanced it, through your modern lense?
The Maai inspired Goan curry stands out in this frame as it is a dish that uses traditional spices but the way it is redefined is what makes it different. The curry is smooth, has the right flavours and is exemplified by the use of a signature coconut rice, which is paired with it.
If you were to recommend a full course meal at MAAI to a customer, from appetisers, drinks, all the way to desserts, what is the combination you would choose?
Well, in my opinion, I'd suggest edamame hummus or the peri peri clams for small plates. Some good drink choices to go with this would be 'whole lotta soul' or the 'will you be able' cane. And finally to end everything on a perfect note, my recommended desserts are the basque cheesecake or cherry dark chocolate souffle.
Name three cookbooks in your top recommendations list.
Three cookbooks that I hold close to my heart and are my top recommendations to anyone are 'The French Laundry' by Chef Thomas Keller, 'El Bulli' by Allan Ducasse and 'The Larousse Gastronomique' by Prosper Montagné.
What is an ingredient that you just cannot work without?
I do not have any fixed ingredients or a preference. I evolve with the trends and the present requirements of the client. For example at Maai I had never worked with vegan food as much as I have worked with it here and created so many dishes for the same. Nothing is a constant here.
Who has been a constant source of inspiration for you?
I have always looked up to all the senior chefs whom I have worked with and all the advice that I have gotten from them. I believe these words of wisdom are what help me look for a way out when I am stuck with making decisions.
What is your go-to comfort food? One that you whip up no matter the occasion?
From a chef's perspective, one dish that I love to eat and cook for the team is my version of a spaghetti bolognese. Spaghetti being a noodle-like-pasta requires using a fork to swirl it around and eat, which gives me time to interact with the dish and I believe that the more time I spend with a dish I can form more articulate thoughts and inputs on the dish.
Sonal Ved is the editor at IFN. She is also an author of an award-winning cookbook called Tiffin. She travelled through the first five tastes to be able to tell between a brie and provolone dolce. She can make stellar undhiyu and a green smoothie.