Food for Thought in Kerala: On holiday with Das Sreedharan, the Indian restaurant mogul turned eco-hotelier

 
Sophie Ibbotson

I’ve eaten at Rasa W1 on Dering Street at least a dozen times, and on every occasion the subtle smells and flavours of the South Indian cooking have transported me far from central London.

With each spoonful of rice I see an ox, knee deep in the paddy fields. The first crunch of a dosa pancake takes me back to a food stall in Chennai. And the coconut? That’s the reminder of holding a fresh one in both hands and slurping up the milky juice through a straw.

Rasa’s founder, Das Sreedharan, understands that there’s a profound link between food and memory. It was his own Keralan childhood, spent following his mother around the vegetable garden and kitchen, that inspired him to open Rasa and share his love of good food.

Sitting with him one grey afternoon in London, sipping on fresh lime soda, his passion for his ingredients and recipes is infectious. And his plan to transform the way we engage with what we eat has just got bigger.

Three months later, tired and decidedly sweaty, I stepped off the plane in Cochin. It was a 15-mile drive to my destination, Das’s newly opened Rasa Gurukul. The road continues, but to go further I’ve the choice of a bullock cart or the power of my own two feet. No motorised vehicles are allowed on site. The day’s already warm and the air quite humid, so the bullock cart it is.

I’ve been struggling to define Rasa Gurukul. It’s not a hotel. The term “eco resort” is a nod in the right direction, but that doesn’t recognise the fact it’s inextricable from the surrounding organic farm, a social enterprise training disadvantaged youth, a community kitchen, and a place where school children can learn about food and farming. Oh, and there are blacksmith and bronze workshops and a coconut oil mill here as well. Perhaps it’s a model village.

Das divides his time between London and Rasa Gurukul. When I ask him for the third or fourth time what Rasa Gurukul is, he smiles and gently laughs. For him, it needs no definition. Rasa Gurukul is simply the physical manifestation of his dreams, a place people can come to reconnect with the earth and themselves, and to find happiness in daily life. It’s a noble vision, certainly, and one which seems far more possible here than on the crowded streets of London.

My cottage — a simple suite with whitewashed walls and a terracotta roof — overlooks the Chalakudy River. It’s a few minutes’ walk from the main lodge buildings, and when I look out, all I can see is the water and the trees. There’s an occasional screech from a bird nearby, but otherwise everything is quiet.

I’ve been up since daybreak: it seems natural here to rise and go to bed with the sun. Mornings start with yoga, and the instructor is thankfully most understanding. Whilst the other three guests in my session bend, stretch, and balance with grace and apparent ease, I struggle even to stand on one leg without wobbling. Still, I’m assured it’s the taking part that counts, and that as the week goes on my coordination will surely improve.

Meditation comes more easily; after a chaotic few weeks of deadlines and stressful negotiations, it’s probably what I need most. To be forced to be quiet, to remain still, and to take control of your breathing and thoughts brings with it a sense of calm and composure.

Das is omnipresent, floating from the stove to the spice grinder to the vegetable rack and back. Clearly he’s in his element.

Previously I’ve avoided going “on retreat” because wellbeing packages usually have a subtext of dieting or faddish detoxes. I’d agreed to come to Rasa Gurukul because I knew that food — and its enjoyment — would be a central component.

Rasa Gurukul’s completely free of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the farming is largely done by hand. It’s optional to get your hands dirty, but I want the reward of eating something I’ve helped harvest, if not to actually grow. The ripe crops vary from season to season, so the work and menu are always changing. We pick baskets of vegetables, not always large, and often misshapen, but without doubt fresh and flavourful.

From the fields I head into the kitchen, one of the largest buildings on site. It’s the centre of life on the farm, a melting pot of people. Das is omnipresent, floating from the stove to the spice grinder to the vegetable rack and back. Clearly he’s in his element. An Ayurvedic doctor is in one corner, holding up ingredients and discussing them with a visitor. The resident chefs, most of whom have been trained by Das, are grinding, grating, and blending spices, tasting dishes and laying them out on jade green banana leaves.

In between them, students stand wide eyed. Some of us are guests at Rasa Gurukul, hoping to pick up tips about balancing the flavours necessary to create an authentic South Indian meal. Others are youths from nearby villages who’ve come here on a paid training scheme.

They’re learning essential skills which will enable them to get jobs in the hospitality sector, improving their English, and, just as importantly, interacting with people from all kinds of different backgrounds. In fact, the broadening of horizons is mutual, and we’re learning from each other.

My 17 year old sidekick looks skeptical of my onion chopping skills, then shows me a much more effective and safer way to do it. He intervenes when we’re plating up as well: my presentation, apparently, left much to be desired.

After five days at Rasa Gurukul I still don’t have a term which encapsulates the concept, but I’ve concluded it doesn’t matter. The air’s clear, I’m significantly less stressed, and I haven’t slept so well in months. My command of South Indian cooking still isn’t up to snuff, but I’m happily feasting on the dishes others have lovingly made.

Rooms at Rasa Gurukul (rasagurukul.com) start from £112 per night and include all meals and activities. You can get in the mood with a taste of Das’ cooking at Rasa W1 and Rasa N16 (rasarestaurants.com)

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