The Malabar Tea Room
The Malabar Tea Room is a mother/daughter project where Aysha is the writer and photographer, and her mother is the chief recipe tester.
On their blog, they cook up culinary favorites from around the world, using local ingredients, improvisation, and a keen imagination. Aysha is a food writer with a penchant for cookbooks with obscure ingredients, and her writing has appeared in publications such as Vogue, Lucky Peach, and National Geographic Traveler.
I am so excited to have Aysha Tanya of The Malabar Tea Room with me here on the show today.
(*All photos below are Aysha’s.)
On Learning to Cook:
Looking back, we always sat in the pantry when my mother was cooking. We’ve always been around her as she cooked. So, there were a lot of things that you just pick up naturally. When I stepped into the kitchen, I didn’t think, “Oh, maybe this is difficult. I won’t be able to do this without help.” It just came out a lot more naturally than I suppose it would have if I hadn’t been watching her all those years.
On Food Along the Malabar Coast:
Our food is really picked from all these different cultures. We’ve incorporated little pieces of it into our own food. There are a lot of dishes that you would find similarities with in other parts of the world, which is amazing. Most of these dishes, though, they’re in homes only because Malabar food is only beginning to become popular outside. To get most of these delicacies, you would definitely have to go to someone’s home.
On Cooking Involving Improvisation and Imagination:
We don’t have access to a lot of ingredients from other cuisines in Kerala. In Kannur, the supermarkets don’t really stock those. So, my mom makes her own noodles. We don’t have access to really great noodles. So, what we started doing is that she just reads these books and she reads a couple of recipes and she just puts something together and makes her own noodles, which I think is really awesome.
On A Dish That’s Special to Her:
One of the dishes that I’m very attached to is a stew. It’s something we call a stew, but it’s nothing like what you know a stew to be. I think what you would refer to as a stew would be much thicker and slow cooked?
Well, this is a really light and thin gravy. The one I’m talking about is a chicken stew. You can have mutton stew, egg stew, different versions of it. It has onions, green chili, black pepper, potatoes, and chicken and ginger, a little bit of ginger.
It’s the most flavorsome, most wholesome, and really nourishing dishes that we have on the Malabar Coast. Actually, you find variations of it in other parts of Kelara as well, so in the south. Malabar is in the northern part of Kelara. In the south, they make it with coconut milk, which is thicker. We leave out the coconut milk most of the time.
I feel sentimental about this dish because it was one of the first things that I learned to make from our food. And I learned it in my aunt’s house with my mother and her standing beside me, and giving directions and me scribbling it down in my notebook and illustrating it. I still have that. I had just started cooking, so I had to draw the pan and I had to say, “You have to listen to the sizzling sound.”
It’s delicious. And I think if anyone wanted to try food from the Malabar Coast, this is a dish that they should start with.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
People ask me this all the time. But, I don’t like watching people cook, I like reading about it. But if I had to pick one, I love watching Nigella’s shows. She’s so fun to watch. She’s so articulate and charming. I love it.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
Her blog is just amazing. She’s such a talented baker. She started out as a blogger, and she won the James Beard’s scholarship and she studied at Cordon Bleu. Now she’s at the Alain Ducasse School in Paris, and she’s a pastry chef. She’s doing amazing things. She still keeps her blog, and it’s a pretty great blog.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat that make you happy?
Instagram, I love following Ann Street Studio.
She’s a photographer. I think she’s primarily a fashion photographer, but she also does food, she does travel. Her photos are just so beautiful. It just makes my day every time she posts.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
I went to a vintage store recently a few towns away from where I live, and I found this bowl. So, Food 52 has…I’m sure you’re aware of how they have their online store, and they have the most beautiful things on it. But they don’t ship outside the U.S. and Canada.
And there are these bowls on there, these jade bowls. I don’t know if you’ve seen them. They’re green and sort of translucent. They’re mixing bowls. I’ve had my eyes on them forever. And recently, I went to this vintage store, this antique store, and I found this bowl that was so similar to that. And it was awesome. I think it’s my greatest find yet. So, yeah, I would say my green mixing bowl.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
I think I would say garam masala.
It’s a spice blend, basically. And each family has its own version and its own proportions and things like that. And it’s very strong, and you can add only very little to your dishes, otherwise it just overpowers the whole thing. And that was something I was never too fond of, because I feel like my taste buds are super sensitive to cumin. But as I’m growing older, I’ve learned to appreciate it in very, very small doses.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
I buy a lot of cookbooks. I think this might be because, like I said, you know, we live in this small town and we don’t really have access to a lot of ingredients. So when I buy a book, I’m not really telling myself, “So, my next 20 meals are set. I’m going to cook it from this book.” That’s not how it works.
I buy it because I want to see how people cook, I want to read about the thought process that goes into their recipes and so on. So, yeah, I think I mostly pick it up for the writing. And I love the way Nigel Slater writes. I think he’s a fantastic writer. And I love Ripe. I’ve cooked one recipe from it, but it’s my favorite cookbook. I have it by my bedside.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
I have a cooking playlist. I think it’s Frank Sinatra’s best hits, and I only listen to it when I’m cooking. I think because I read somewhere that you need to have this one playlist or album or something like that. And so, you only associate only good things with it. I tried that, and it actually works. So, every time I’m in the kitchen by myself. Not with my mother; she gets annoyed when we have music playing. But that’s what I like to listen to.
On Keeping Posted with Aysha:
Instagram. I’m malabartearoom on Instagram, and my Facebook page is also called malabartearoom. So, that’s where I post most of my updates, besides the blog. So, that would be a great way to stay in touch.