Chef Marina Balakrishnan On Why She Cooks Pal Payasam On Onam

Chef Balakrishnan, the one-woman force behind Mumbai-based pop-up Oottupura, talks about her cooking philosophy and her tradition of making the sweet rice pudding Pal Payasam every Onam
Chef Marina Balakrishnan On Why She Cooks Pal Payasam On Onam

Every year on Onam, Chef Marina Balakrishnan, chef and founder of Mumbai-based cloud kitchen service Oottupura, takes the time to prepare the South Indian delicacy, Pal Payasam, with utmost dedication and devotion. For Balakrishnan, the sweetened rice pudding Pal Payasam is too sacred to cook too often.

“I don’t make as much Pal Payasam because I associate the dish with Lord Krishna and it is a sacred dish to me,” she says. "I associate a lot of spirituality with Pal Payasam because it is one of the greatest offerings in Kerala’s Krishna temples. I mostly make it once a year for Onam and it takes a lot of time so I start stirring the milk from one or two in the morning and it goes on till midday. You have to ensure not to boil the rice before and only cook it in the milk. In a way, it is a lot like how Bengalis make their rice puddings.”

I chirp up the fact that I am a Bengali, so I understand, at the opportune time and she indulges my excitement politely. 

After Ambalapuzha’s Pal Payasam, Balakrishnan loves her grandmother’s version the most.

“The proper traditional way of preparing the Pal Payasam requires hours of cooking. I remember watching my grandmother sitting for hours and stirring 20-30 litres of milk in a big uruli (large cooking pot made of clay, copper or bronze, extensively used in southern India). That is how I also make it whenever I prepare the payasam for my Oottupura menu.”

She laments that people don’t respect the long cooking process of the dish anymore because of lack of time. She makes it a point always to make it in a large quantity as the dish reduces and thickens by the time it is fully done. 

The fame of Kerala's Ambalapuzha Sri Krishna temple is only matched by its celebrated Pal Payasam, which is offered daily to the deity.

"The most prominent memories associated with Pal Payasam is from the Ambalapuzha Pal Payasam," says Balakrishnan. Pal Payasam is one of the dishes served as sadhya food on Onam. "Even today, the traditional process of making the sweet dish is followed there." 

Balakrishnan, the chef behind the immensely popular venture based in Mumbai, prepares fresh, home-cooked Kerala dishes for her dedicated customers.

"My main philosophy with food is that I treat it as an energy source," she explains. “I don’t know the people I’m cooking for personally most of the time, but I always try to make it with as much love and warmth as I would for my family.”

Cooking is often considered therapeutic by a lot of people, and that includes Balakrishnan. Her earliest memories of good food involve visiting the Ambalapuzha Sri Krishna temple with her grandmother and eating the sadhya food offered to devotees. Her daughter encouraged her to go to culinary school, which she finally did at 50 before the praises from her peers and mentors on her cooking gave her the confidence to start Oottupura.

Balakrishnan, cooks the sweetened rice pudding Pal Payasam once a year on Onam
Balakrishnan, cooks the sweetened rice pudding Pal Payasam once a year on OnamShutterstock

The beautiful pink colour of the Pal Payasam can only be achieved when you give it the time it needs for perfection, states Balakrishnan adding that it is one of the most delicious things you could taste when made right.

We steer the conversation to her favourite snack which is a spindle-shaped plantain dessert called Unnakai.

“Unnam means cotton and ‘Kai’ is a type of fruit. You have to find the perfect plantain, not too ripe but ripe enough, then steam and mash it. Before deep frying it, you fill it with fresh coconut, sugar and cardamom.”

She emphasises that this popular snack, a favourite of hers growing up, is only found in the Malabar region until Calicut, and you have to make it yourself everywhere else. 

Unnakai, a spindle-shaped plantain snack, is only found in the Malabar region until Calicut
Unnakai, a spindle-shaped plantain snack, is only found in the Malabar region until CalicutWikimedia Commons

"Oottupura means the dining space in a temple," she answers my query before going into detail on how growing up in a joint family deeply instilled the art of cooking in her personality. "My purpose in coming up with Oottupura was to offer my customers the comfort of home-cooked meals. Something you cannot find in a restaurant. My concept of food is about comfort and nourishment."

Balakrishnan's food is strictly vegetarian; she prepares her meals with seasonal and fresh produce, keeping in mind their ayurvedic properties and what works best for a particular season. Hailing from the coastal town of Thalassery in Kerala, Balakrishnan grew up in a joint family, tailing around her grandmother and watching her cook for everybody at home. 

"My grandmother used to eat more vegetarian dishes than meat." She answers with a maybe when asked whether that was the reason for Oottupura’s purely vegetarian fare. “I was never a great meat eater. I did eat fish up until a couple of years ago, but I started experimenting a lot with vegetarian Keralite food, and so it’s the same recipes that my grandmother used to make but I tweak them with my own techniques like not overcooking vegetables and making sure to use the freshest produce I can find.” 

We talk some more about her goals and her journey going ahead, for which she informs me in very certain terms that Oottupra has a life of its own and it is as sacred as its namesake for her.

“People talk about goal setting but I don’t believe in that, I just go with the flow,” she explains. “I only know that tomorrow, when I cook, I want to do it with a happy heart and a nourishing feeling for the person I cook for. Let it be my kitchen, let it be a pop-up. I want to make it a divine experience because people matter to me. I always say that it is not about me; it is about my customers, the people who trust my food. I want to give them the food that nourished me in my childhood because that’s how Oottupura was born.” 

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