'Rasa Gurukul,' a holistic centre functioning on banks of the Chalakkudy, takes pride in the fact that they diligently follow unique traditions of Kerala's culinary art. This place takes you back to culinary practices that existed at least 25 years ago. It also offers an amazing opportunity to see some of the paraphernalia that once played vital role in the cultural lives of Keralites. Besides, Rasa Gurukul pledges their commitment to promoting healthy eating habits by serving delicious dishes that have traditionally been part of Kerala's rich culinary heritage. The holistic centre is at Melur-Pulani which is about 9 kilometres from Chalakudy town in Thrissur.
A vast and unending farm where vegetables and fruits like papaya, snake beans, lady finger, plantains, green chillies, drumsticks, cucumber, and rice are organically cultivated is just a preview of the countless mesmerizing experiences that await you inside. Hundreds of local and foreign varieties of fruits are organically grown in their orchards.
Besides, you would be amazed to see that hens, different types of pet birds, elephants, and lots of milking cows, too, are maintained here. Traditional ox-driven oil press, workshop of a moosari (bell metal worker), blacksmith's smithy, potter's wheel, huts made of palm fronds and traditional bathing ghats are all special sights at Rasa Gurukul which demonstrates Kerala's impeccable cultural and social heritage.
There is small tea shop called 'Pappu Pillai and Sons' inside the Rasa Gurukul. As he serves piping hot tea from traditional samovar and crispy pazham pori (banan fritters), the owner Das Sridharan will indulge you in the history of Rasa Gurukal. Pappu Pillai is actually is his great grandfather whose family owned a tea shop of the same name in Koyoor. Das Sridharan says that the roots of the Rasa resort could actually be traced to that tea shop. After completing his graduation, Sridharan, at the age of 19, caught a train to Delhi hoping to find a decent job. He roamed around the city a lot looking for jobs. Finally, he reached the office of a fashion exporting firm run by a Sardarji. The man asked him a few questions to check whether Sridharan had any basic knowledge about the business.
However, Sridharan shook his head to all the questions, indicating that he knew nothing. The Sardarji didn't have to think twice before driving Sridharan out. He then found a job at a small tea stall near the Air Force Colony where he wasn't paid any salary. But, when people began asking Sridharan, a BCom graduate, why he was wasting his life in a tea shop, he decided to take part in an interview at a computer centre. However, for most part of the interview, Sridharan could only explain his sad plight, with tears in his eyes. The owner of the computer center, K S Kumar, after patiently listening to Sridharan, announced he was not fit for the job. Dejected, Sridharan got up to leave. But Kumar, with a smile, patted on his shoulder and asked, "You have a beautiful smile which could make you an excellent host. Can't you look for a job in the hospitality sector?"
Sridharan admits that question proved to be one of the biggest twists in his life. It was Kumar who arranged a job for him in the front office of the renowned Ashoka Hotel in Delhi. There, Sridharan met a British family who invited him to London. Without thinking much Sridharan flew to London with them, hoping to open a restaurant there. For three years, he worked small jobs to save money to realize his dreams. He lost his job when the Indian restaurant where he had been working, was turned into a Thai hotel.
He roamed around for another six months looking for a job. It was a Pakistani butcher who told him about a small eatery in Stoke Newington which was for sale. He asked Sridharan whether he could take over the eatery and run it. Despite not having a single penny in hand, Sridharan convinced the owners, an elderly couple, of the restaurant called 'Delight of India' that he could run it for them. Though he had to borrow money from his friends to pay the high rent, he wanted to turn it into a fine eatery where delicious Kerala dishes were served. His quest for an amazing chef who could cook authentic Kerala dishes led him to an old age home where he met 75 year Thomas. He quickly agreed to help Sridharan and thus began the delightful tale of the Rasa hotel.
The elaborate kitchen is the liveliest spot in the Rasa Gurukul, where thick payasam (dessert) is bubbling up in the huge bronze uruli (vessel) and countless other curries and dishes are being prepared. 82-year-old Keshavan Nair, who is an expert in making more than 20 different varieties of payasam, is in charge of this kitchen. The disciples at the Gurukulam are the helpers here. A gracious host who loves to treat his guests to mouth watering dishes, Keshavan Nair offers a glass of fresh milk or tea or coffee made with it.
The menu for the lunch service seems to be endless, which includes agastya cheera thoran (sesbania grandiflora stir fry), ulli theeeyal, banana blossom stir fry, aviyal, papaya pachadi, rasam, fresh buttermilk, lady finger kichadi and rose apple payasam as well. The fresh vegetables and fruits from the organic farm are used to prepare the dishes here. The coconut oil used for cooking is made at the oil press in Rasa Gurukul.
Fresh cow milk is used for tea and coffee and for making ghee and butter as well. As the holistic centre grows its own organic rice, there is no need to buy it from outside. Most dishes are cooked on the traditional brick stove; gas stove is used only when is it necessary. Ammi and ural (stone grinder) and aattukallu (stone mixer) are used to grind the ingredients to retain its authentic flavours. This kitchen is truly unique and special where food is revered and is prepared with great care and love. "I am someone who believes that there is a unique philosophy related to cooking, serving and eating food. To grasp this philosophy well, you should realize the difference between a meal eaten at a hotel and the one that your mother lovingly prepares and serves for you. In the beginning of Rasa, Thomas had worked for just two weeks.
After that, I had to hire a part time help. As nothing worked out the way I wanted it to be, I decided to do it myself. I didn’t have any idea about cooking. But I knew about the flavours that I wished to serve my guests. It took me five hours to cook a curry for the first time. Later my kitchen also became a place of experiments," said Das Sridharan.
Gradually, people began loving the food at Rasa. The natives of London were thrilled to try out the unique flavours of the Kerala cuisine. Sridharan says that he had tried to recreate the exact taste and feel of the food that is cooked by his mother at home. He introduced Rasa's 'A box full of love,' the quintessential lunch packet that every Malayali yearns for. These packets which cost 5 pounds contained curries, specially prepared with less spice to suit the English taste buds. Slowly, Rasa grew into a major hotel chain in London. "It is Kerala and our cultural and culinary traditions which gifted me this success. Shouldn't I give smoething back to express my gratitude? The Rasa Gurkul in Chalakudy is my gift to Kerala," says Sridharan.
Special lunch service
The front yard of the Rasa is lined with agastya spinach which is a store house of vitamins. Mustard seeds are spluttered in coconut oil and dried chilies are roasted in it. Finely chopped spinach is then added into this tempering and roasted well with some salt. Grated coconut is added to make the stir fry delicious. This agastya cheera stir fry is a special dish that is regularly cooked in Rasa's kitchen.
To make their special rose apple payasam, freshly plucked rose apples are finely chopped, pitted and grounded into fine paste. This paste is cooked in the homemade ghee that is heated up in a huge bronze uruli. When this mixture thickens up, the creamy first extract of coconut milk and melted jaggery are added. The payasam is stirred well until it thickens up to the right consistency. This delicious payasam is then generously garnished with cashews and coconut shards fried in ghee. Keshavan Nair, the taste expert, shares a little tip that cow’s milk should not be used in rose apple payasam as the fruits are sour. The payasam is so delicious and sweet that one wouldn’t guess it is rose apples unless you are told.
There is a unique way in which lunch is served here. Lunch is served on fresh and clean plantain leaf which actually helps enhance the flavor of the dishes. Piping hot rice is served on the leaf and a small well is made in its middle into which a spoon full of spicy sambar is poured. Keshavan Nair, meanwhile, makes sure that you get enough pieces of vegetables. An array of tasty curries follow which make the meal extremely heartening and filling as well. It is nothing but pure love which is the magical ingredient that makes the dishes quite special and delicious at Rasa Gurukul.