All photos by Christian Lalonde
In May 2004, when Chef Joe Thottungal opened his first restaurant in Ottawa, called Coconut Lagoon, he was excited at the prospect of sharing South Indian food from his homeland Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala in India. What he didn’t anticipate was the reaction he would receive. South Indian food was very different from the Indian food people in Canada were familiar with. Customers would come into the restaurant and be surprised the menu did not include more recognizable Indian dishes, such as butter chicken, dahl and naan.
“Those were tough early days. In the beginning, I used to watch people walk out. We were averaging six people a day, mostly Kerala expats looking for flavours of home. I was barely covering rent.” Then came the first bits of press from the Ottawa Citizen declaring the food “worth crossing town for.” And people started coming and returning with their friends. “We were presenting dishes and flavours the city was unfamiliar with and they were having an impact. I had good staff, the people around me were very dedicated and we all believed if we could do it, it would come out successfully.”
And come out successfully it did. 15 years later, Coconut Lagoon is a booming culinary destination, specializing in a wide variety of South Indian vegetarian and vegan dishes, handmade parathas, and exotic seafood dishes like Malabar Salmon.
Chef Thottungal’s love of cooking began at a young age, learning to cook from his mother. He went on to study hotel management in Bombay (now Mumbai) specializing in continental cuisines. After graduation and in pursuit of a well-paying job, he left for Saudi Arabia working at the very private Oasis Residential Resorts. However living in a walled compound offered little opportunity to marry or start a family and returning home wasn’t an option due to high unemployment rates.
Chef Thottungal began exploring options that would allow him to use his years of experience and qualifications and came up with two: Australia or North America. Although tantalized by the warm weather offered by Australia, he already had a cousin living in Toronto who could help him settle in, so he chose Canada.
It was during an assessment of his culinary skills by a Canadian immigration officer, that Chef Thottungal first received encouragement that he could attain his dream. Says Chef Thottungal, “the immigration officer told me that cooks like me were needed in Canada and that I would make it in Canada and have a good life there. This guy seemed to really want me to come to his country and his words were promising.” After arriving in Canada in 1998, Chef Thottungal landed a job at Centro and went on to work at the Royal York Hotel. At the same time he held an evening job at the Park Hyatt while also giving cooking demonstrations at Loblaws.
He had been in Canada three years when he married his wife Suma and took a job at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Ottawa. It was when his daughter Mariann was born that Chef Thottungal’s desire to settle down for good and grow some roots began to take hold and he felt Ottawa was the right place to do that. “I picked Ottawa as it was a beautiful capital with a lot of diplomats and foreign people there, and they supported me.” Once his older brother joined him in Ottawa, bringing with him his hospitality training, and with some encouragement from other chefs, he felt it was the right time to introduce Ottawa to the cuisine of Kerala.
“All my career I’d been cooking the food of other places – lobster thermidor, Caesar salad, Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding. It was time to be an Indian chef again, cooking the food of my childhood, of my mother’s kitchen, and reconnecting with that spice heritage so embedded in my taste buds. There was no shortage of Indian restaurants in the city at that time, but they all served the more familiar food of the north. Food from my region, wasn’t on anyone’s radar. At least not in Ottawa and I wanted to change that. Ours would be the first to bring our southern, coastal cuisines to Canada’s capital.” And with that, Coconut Lagoon was born.
Not only was Coconut Lagoon born, but it went on to thrive. In 2015 Chef Thottungal won the bronze medal at the prestigious Gold Medal Plates competition and went on to take home the gold medal in 2016 and the silver in 2017. It was after his 2017 win that he was approached to write a cookbook, resulting in Coconut Lagoon: Recipes from a South Indian Kitchen, putting Kerala cuisine in the national spotlight.
Featuring a collection of 80 easy to make recipes designed for home cooks, the cookbook features authentic regional Kerala dishes including mango pickle, dosas, Thrissur-style fish, biryani and banana fritters. Full of exotic and unfamiliar spices and techniques, Thottungal’s main focus for the cookbook was to teach. “That is the main thing – to learn about new ingredients, to learn two or three new tricks. If you learn what the dish or spices are, that in itself is the knowledge, and I am successful.”
No longer overshadowed by more popular North Indian destinations, Kerala is a lush oasis on India’s tropical Malabar Coast with nearly 600 km of Arabian Sea shoreline. It’s known for its palm-lined beaches and backwaters, evergreen mountains, swift flowing rivers and blue lagoons. Kerala translates into “God’s Own Country” named aptly not only for its stunning natural beauty but abundance of food the land has to offer, most notably the spices – peppercorns, mustard seeds, cinnamon, chiles, cardamom, cloves, and turmeric – making it a once popular trading route for the Portuguese and French.
The recipes of Kerala are born of a unique geography and tend to be a bit spicier than northern dishes, featuring more seafood, due to its close proximity to three oceans. The food also tends to be lighter due to the use of coconut milk and coconut oil compared to the traditionally heavier ghee used in North Indian fare. Most of the South Indian dishes are enhanced with coconut and curry leaves which are two ingredients prominently featured in and on the cookbook. Chef Thottungal tells me that Kerala also means “land of coconuts” which inspired the name of the cookbook. And the simple image of curry leaves on the cover? “To me if I get Kerala food and it’s made without a curry leave, it’s like its naked,” he says.
Thottungal admits developing a cookbook was a long and not always easy process, however feels it is great publicity for any restaurant. “It can be challenging to adapt restaurant recipes for a home cook, especially when none of the recipes are written down,” he says. The cookbook has certainly done the job of cultivating publicity – the cookbook has been featured in Taste and Travel Magazine, the New York Journal of Books and his restaurant has been featured on the Flight Network.
Teaching people about his food and culture is what drives Chef Thottungal. This year marks the 5th edition of his always sold out culinary journey of Kerala. For almost three weeks, he plays tour guide to the cultural and culinary practices of his home state, with hands-on cooking demonstrations to lessons in bargaining with fish mongers, to a tour of the fragrant spice plantations. His in-laws even invite guests into their home for a traditional Indian style welcome. “One of the things I’ve done really well in the last 15 years was educating people, promoting my culture and cuisine.”
Thottungal continues to gain momentum with the opening of a new restaurant in 2018. Thali is a casual downtown restaurant where the entire meal is served on a round plate, called Thali in Indian. The idea behind a Thali is to offer six different flavours of sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy on one single plate. These days Chef Thottungal has an obsession with beets which appear in many of his menu items from candied beets to beets with yogurt and potatoes.
The restaurant has a completely different concept from Coconut Lagoon, which is on purpose and sums up Chef Thottungal’s approach to cooking. “You can’t be a copycat,” he says, “you have to be different, you have to be a purple cow in the group, and people will follow you. You have to be innovative and creative. But the most important thing, the whole purpose of it all – you have to make people hungry.”
For Chef Thottungal the road from Kerala has not been easy – “I was a stubborn guy from Kerala, determined to cook my coconut-rich coastal cuisine.” But that stubbornness paid off. “The encouraging words from that immigration officer agent all those years ago I now agree with wholeheartedly,” he says. “I feel I’ve made it in Canada. For many years I thought I chose Canada. But perhaps it chose me.”