All things spice: Meet Chef Thanabalan!

Chef Thanabalan Chandrasekaran is Sous Chef at the Singapore Marriott Hotel. The Hungry Happy Hippy meets him at the JW Marriott Juhu’s Lotus Café in Mumbai, where he is presenting a showcase of Singaporean street food.

Thanabalan (1)

His origins lie in coastal Tamil Nadu, where his family fished for generations before migrating eastwards across the ocean. Born in Malaysia, Chef Thanabalan is predictably proud of the Penang peninsula. “Some of the best food in the world can be found here,” he says with an ear-to-ear smile. The progression from there to Singapore, the hotpot of cuisine influenced by South India, Malaysia and the Chinese Hainan province, seems completely logical for someone who has all the same roots and is just as passionate about good food.

In Singapore since 1995, the 42-year-old has been a hit with the high-fliers, with a career at the St Regis as well as the Intercontinental, before he joined the Marriott in 2009. As Sous Chef, he’s the man who handles the VIP areas and the food and beverage arrangements high-profile events such as the Formula One parties.

Here in Mumbai to curate the Singaporean Street Food Festival at the Lotus Café, Thanabalan greets us with his trademark smile and earthy manner. As he takes us through the variety of dishes (there’s a live station with three signature dishes, a salad counter with five options and six different hot mains to select from!), we are entertained by his stories and impressed with his passion (bordering on obsession!) for using the correct ingredients. He has carried many of the authentic pastes with him although it’s hard to bring a lot of ingredients through the Indian Customs, he avers. But aren’t spices similar here, we wonder aloud. “No,” he shakes his head ruefully, “They’re called the same but they taste completely different!”

Laksa Lehmak

We do enjoy his Laksa and satays quite a bit more than we have had with local versions, so there may be something to his views. But while we really enjoy the lamb and pork preparations, we find the famous slow-roasted duck and chicken a bit too gamey for our palate, although we’re acutely aware that they are the mainstay of Singaporean street food! And then we ask him about vegetarian food. “Singaporeans don’t eat vegetarian food much,” Chef Thanabalan says matter-of-factly, adding, “Even the salads and soups use shrimp paste. That’s why I’ve added options such as Gado-Gado (mixed vegetables with a peanut sauce) and Sambal Eggplant.” Luckily the rest of the buffet beckons.

But we realise that the flavours of Singaporean cuisine are similar to the chef’s personality… piquant, intense and packing a punch. Worth an encounter for sure.

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