Author, restaurateur, and Malayali chef Joe Thottungal is putting Indian thalis on the world food map

Indo-Canadian Joe Thottungal’s new cookbook 'My Thali' features 85 Indian recipes and was written with restaurant critic Anne DesBrisay.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published Apr 07, 2023 | 10:00 AMUpdated Apr 07, 2023 | 10:00 AM

In March 2023, Thottungal released his second book, 'My Thali – A Simple Indian Kitchen', in Canada. (Portrait by Christian Lalonde)

Joe Thottungal, 51, has the beard of Joju George in Joseph (2018), the energy of Nivin Pauly in Premam (2015), and the culinary skills of Dulquer Salmaan in Ustad Hotel (2012).

His loyalty to South Indian food is unswerving. And so, despite having lived in Canada for over two decades, he continues to be the flag-bearer of matta rice (chubbier than basmati), sambar (lentil and vegetable stew), puttu (steamed cylinder of rice), uppumavu (thick porridge), and all things Malayali.

Thottungal’s culinary story

Joe Thottungal meets Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. (Supplied)

Joe Thottungal meets Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. (Supplied)

Born in Kerala’s Thrissur district, Thottungal currently lives in Canada’s capital Ottawa. The Indo-Canadian chef has two restaurants to his credit — Coconut Lagoon (opened in 2004) and Thali (opened in 2018) — both located in the city. 

In March 2023, Thottungal released his second book, My Thali – A Simple Indian Kitchen, in Canada. The book, which features 85 Indian recipes, will be made available in the US in April. Written with Canadian restaurant critic Anne DesBrisay, the recipes in this cookbook can all be prepared as small parts of a larger platter, or a thali, but they can also make for delicious standalone dishes. 

“Thali, as a concept, has been prevalent in India for more than 5,000 years,” says Thottungal. “I want to bring that to Canada (through this book).”

The power of a thali

The concept of a thali meal is believed to have originated in ancient South India, where it was called sadya. The sadya was a feast served on a banana leaf and included a variety of vegetarian dishes like rice, dal, sambar, rasam, and different types of vegetable curries. Over time, the thali spread to other regions of India and different variations of the meal emerged.

Originally, these elaborate meals were served to kings and royalty. So naturally, now when you say “thali”, the first thing that comes to mind is a lavish feast. 

But that isn’t the case always, Thottungal explains. “Thalis can be very elaborate or simple with small portions of rice, dal, yogurt and a pickle. My book shows every possible option; it is in the hands of a reader whether to choose a heavy meal or an ordinary one.”

Also Read: The renaissance of India’s regional cuisines via cookbooks

Writing in time of isolation

The idea to write a second book was born in the Covid-19 pandemic. Thottungal was cooped up at home with his wife Suma, and three children — two teenagers and an eight-year-old.

“Until the lockdown happened, life was always fast-paced,” he told South First. “Only thing on my mind was my work. But the pandemic gave me a chance to reconnect with my family and enjoy the little joys of life.”

Joe Thottangal's restaurant Coconut Lagoon in Ottawa. (Facebook)

Joe Thottungal‘s restaurant Coconut Lagoon in Ottawa. (Facebook)

But the heartache of not being able to grace his two restaurants remained. He missed the rush of his buzzing eateries, now silenced, the streets outside desolate. To add to the woes, Coconut Lagoon — Thottungal’s flagship restaurant — was destroyed in a fire in May 2020.

Coconut Lagoon brought South Indian food and flavour to Ottawa city. While it mainly focused on serving Kerala cuisine, the setup was more of a fine dining. On the other hand, Thali, his second restaurant, is a melting pot of all the Indian cuisines.

Coconut Lagoon remains forever close to his heart. After all, it won him the honour of “Ottawa Chef of the Year” in 2008. His first book, released in 2019, was titled Coconut Lagoon – Recipes from a Simple Indian Kitchen. It consisted of 80 easy-to-make recipes designed for home cooks.

But life goes on, and so, Thottungal didn’t let the fire tragedy come in the way of his new adventures. He took the obvious route — cooking.

“During the lockdowns, I would cook with my family at home,” he says. “Simply spending time with them in the kitchen gave me the idea of writing my second book. These would include recipes that my wife and I used at home, which were passed on by our grandparents, aunts, and other relatives back home in India.”

All good things come to those who wait. Coconut Lagoon reopened two years later. And his second book, My Thali, hit the shelves last month.

Also Read: This couple made friends by cooking idlis and dosas in NYC

Little Malayali chef

Thottungal never forgets to credit his Indian roots for his success. He grew up in Kunnathangadi, a small village in Thrissur district. Family get-togethers at his grandparents’ traditional home meant a riot of laughter, etching memories forever. 

Author and restaurateur Joe Thottungal. (Christian Lalonde)

Author and restaurateur Joe Thottungal. (Christian Lalonde)

In his immediate family, Thottungal had three brothers. He took to cooking at a young age of 10. This interest was, however, born out of necessity.

“Both my parents were working and so I used to help my mum in the kitchen,” he remembers. “But gradually, I enjoyed learning newer cooking skills. I was always that little cooking ninja chopping veggies next to mum.”

Dinner time meant light banter and long discussions around food. “My grandfather was a foodie. He loved going to the market to buy fresh fish from local fishermen and make delicious curries.”

Thottungal pursued cooking as a profession, thanks to his family’s support. In 1994, he finished hotel school from Chennai, worked for a year in Mumbai and then spent another three years in Saudi Arabia, until finally relocating to Canada in 1998. He was 26.

So was it hard leaving his home state, we ask.

“I was very clear that there weren’t enough opportunities for me in India — it was a developing country then. While I do miss home today, I am equally connected to my adopted country Canada. Having said that, I do try to stay connected to my birth country by organising culinary tours to India for my Canadian friends.”

Also Read: Can sambar actually save you from colon cancer? What doctors say

Putting Indian thali on the world map

Cashew balls. (Supplied)

Cashew balls. (Supplied)

His books are another way for him to stay close to home. In My Thali, Thottungal even mentions small observations he made during his childhood years in Kerala. 

The “meals-ready” concept, which gave patrons an experience of Kerala’s authentic meal culture, gets a prominent space in this book. For the unversed, “meals-ready” is a popular phrase often handwritten on boards outside eateries in Kerala. These traditional rice meals are served for a few hours of the day. They are popular for their affordable prices.

“The meals-ready sign is very unique to Kerala. Once the food is ready, a signboard is installed outside small hotels and people flock to eat these flavoured meals,” Thottungal shares.

On a recent trip to Thrissur, Thottungal brought back one such signboard to Ottawa and installed it outside his restaurant Thali.

Oats puttu. (Supplied)

Oats puttu. (Supplied)

The “meals-ready” culture also inspired him to write My Thali. “The book contains recipes that I easily make at my Ottawa home. For instance, there is oats puttu (rice topped with banana slices), cashew balls, fried tilapia (fish fillet), Kerala chips, chaat masala and sambar powder recipes.”

Thottungal also demonstrates his technique for opening a coconut that is used in a majority of his dishes. His favourite recipes in the book are squash rasam and fried tilapia.

As for what is next on the cards, Thottungal says that he is “not a big planner” and will take “whatever life throws at me”.

“One thing is certain, I will continue to introduce more of Kerala to North America and remain an ambassador for my state and for India,” he adds.

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