Bloggers / Chefs / Photographers / Writers

Pradeep Jeganathan: Savouring Fusion Flavours

Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan likes to turn on the oldies station when he’s cooking. As Van Morrison echoes around his book lined, airy apartment and the breeze carries in the scent of the distant sea, he putters around in the kitchen. He stops to stir some fruit pulp bubbling in a small pot on the stove. Vodka, fresh cream, curd and ripe strawberries await their turn under his hands. When he’s done, heavy curd cream in the subtlest pink is poured over slivers of fresh strawberry and vodka laced strawberry reduction. Not too sweet, just a little tart, the dish refreshes, encouraging you to dig deep for a mouthful of alcohol soaked fruit.

Pradeep: Dabbling in just about anything that catches his fancy

When Pradeep talks food, techniques, ingredients, presentation become the stuff of poetry in his hands. “I find cooking very calming,” he tells me. “There used to be another big incentive,” he says, adding with a grin, “If I had a date it was also cheaper…girls love guys who cook for them.”

And cheap tends to be a primary consideration when you’re out on your own for the first time. As an 18-year-old University student in Cambridge, Pradeep would attempt to recreate some of the familiar flavours of home on a weekly budget of less than $20. He points out two cast iron pans hanging in his kitchen. Beloved companions from his university days, they’ve travelled the world with him.

Today, partly thanks to a far more generous budget, Pradeep loves to experiment with fusion cooking. Travel inspires him. A trip to the south of France and a particularly memorable meal lead him to substitute finely ground lunu-dehi for citron confit in a seared fish preparation, but other signature recipes have been born of a casual hour in front of the T.V. He counts among his influences French, Italian and Japanese cuisine, but is likely to dabble in just about anything that catches his fancy. Though he may spend as long as 15 hours preparing for a three- course meal, he still finds time to pursue what appear to be multiple, equally demanding careers.

Pradeep completed his undergraduate studies at MIT where he received a joint degree in electrical engineering, computer science and creative writing and then moved on to Harvard where he took some courses in social anthropology, with his studies culminating in a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Chicago. He is now a Senior Consultant Social Anthropologist at the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies, a Gratiaen Prize nominated author, researcher and editor. He has held professorial appointments and fellowships at Chicago, Minnesota, The New School, Delhi University and the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. With such an academic pedigree, he should be intimidating. Instead both in person and on his blog (www.my-halflife.com) Pradeep is sociable and more than happy to discuss food with novice and chef alike.

The pictures he posts of his dishes on Flickr and the recipes he publishes on his blog always provoke a torrent of responses, almost all of which are variations on the sentiment “This looks delicious, I’m going to try this at home!” Pradeep fields queries from would-be cooks (“Is unsalted butter available in Sri Lanka?”) and exchanges tips with old pros (an omelette with Japanese soy sauce, a bit of sesame oil and tobanjan, anyone?)

Strawberry and curd

“I like to marry various kinds of techniques to various kinds of ingredients in different traditions,” explains Pradeep, using Bouillabaisse, the French Fishermen’s stew to illustrate his point. The traditional recipe for Bouillabaisse calls for high quality saffron but since it’s expensive and difficult to source locally, Pradeep invented his own version.

His recipe has for its base a flavourful stock made out of fish head, complete prawn shells and a little dried fish. He then adds squid and tuna that have spent hours soaking up a simple marinade of ground onions, green chillies, garlic, a little bit of sugar and a little vinegar. The prawns are slipped in last, only for a few minutes, before the dish is taken off the stove. Voilà! Sri Lankan Fishermen’s Stew.

Discussing balanced flavour, Pradeep says that a dish that finds a mid-point between sweet, sour, hot and salty is a great dish. For him it’s all about complementary tastes. He often starts with a “stopper”, such as bitter gourd, in one corner. His guest is then gently wooed to sample something sweet next and then to go from sweet to sour, savouring the differing texture of each. “That’s my kind of fusion, that’s what I get excited about.”

Reflecting on how his favourite ingredients work together, he says “I was thinking if I wrote a cookbook I would call it Ginger, Kithul, Wasabi.”

He concedes that his defining characteristic as a cook might be simply that he is “madly innovative” but “lo and behold, sometimes that works,” he says. When it doesn’t, he takes it philosophically, eating it anyway because food is expensive, and because he wants to learn from what went wrong. While he displays a real talent for preparation of meat of all kinds, Pradeep also confesses to having a sweet tooth.

Mango Panna cotta

Mangoes are on his list of favourite ingredients and often find their way into his delicate, many layered desserts. He also makes liberal use of other intrinsically Sri Lankan ingredients like kithul treacle, jaggery and arrack in his cooking. Once he has mastered a specific dish, he often builds on it. “It’s something I learnt as an engineer; you have to try to control complexity, not to reduce it.”

On the surface of his bar top Pradeep records every stage of the cooking process. His stunning photography touches even the most everyday ingredients with magic, coaxing out a rare richness of texture and colour. He relies on one good fixed focus lens, a 50mm f/1.4, and on the light that floods into the room through some sliding doors.

Occasionally, to get the right angle, Pradeep will hoist himself up onto a bar stool. While his shots immortalise his spontaneous creations and help him reconstruct the recipe for his blog, often the price is a dish gone cold. Happily, Pradeep who finds deep satisfaction in every stage of the process, isn’t complaining.

 Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on October 18, 2009. Words by Smriti Daniel.
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