It was my first meeting with That Thalassery Girl, Marina Balakrishnan. We were sitting across a small table in a pretty cafe in Bandra, holding an imaginary pie between us. The persimmon pie was not on the menu, but had somewhat magically appeared before us, as our conversation unfolded. A beautiful, rustic pie with a filling of ripe persimmons. Marina's fingers circled the pastry base, a viscous, pulpy persimmon crush flowed languidly into it, and then, just with how she described this precious pie, she wove a beautiful lattice work of dough for the crust, and decorated it with little flowers and stars made from dough, pinning them in a glorious bouquet. She had brought an imaginary pie to life and now I wanted the real thing!
Marina, in her 50s, is a Mumbai-based food pop-up expert and plant-based chef trained by the Natural Gourmet Institute of New York. Her remarkable journey, from a Mumbai-homemaker to working with Michelin star chef Garima Arora, to designing unique pop-ups of traditional Indian, especially Kerala food, has been quite incredible. Married off in her early 20s, the bright young woman from Thalassery in Kerala got a second chance at life after her divorce at 50. To cope with the changes in her life, she took up running, on a lark. Pretty soon she was travelling across the country to run marathons, and winning them! Around this time Marina decided to focus on her other passion, cooking. She travelled all the way to New York to get a formal training at the Natural Gourmet Institute of New York, aced the course, got invited to and travelled to different countries to cook traditional Indian meals for select audience, then flew to Thailand to work in the kitchen of Michelin star restaurant Gaa in Bangkok, co-owned by chef Garima Arora, and finally headed back to Mumbai to focus on her passion for plant-based food.
“I like to cook traditional meals, with ancient recipes, like those that my grandmother prepared in her large kitchen. She was an instinctive cook, knew the ingredients and their interplay. There is an inherent wisdom in these recipes, a flavour like no other. The ingredients are fresh and handpicked, my grandmother cooked with instinct, and love. That’s what cooking is all about!” says Marina, recalling the matriarch's kitchen, and her it has shaped her own food philosophy. She believes her foray into plant-based food has put her back in touch with that ancient wisdom.
Back in Mumbai, she has spent a good part of last year perfecting the pie. For her, it has been a lesson in patience and practice, she says. “I've spent a lot of time trying to get the technique right,” she grins with childish rigour, when we meet again. This time to watch her bake a pie. “It began with numerous heartbreaking efforts at mealy, imperfect crusts,” she says of her experiments with pie making. Explaining the process, Marina tells me why the making of the crust is the most important stage in pie making: "The batter has to be made with care. The butter and flour is chilled, and then the short crust like pastry is made. This is chilled again and then rolled out. This is the stage when one has to be cautious, to chill the pie whenever the butter feels like it's melting," she says, handling the dough like a mother handles a newborn.
A bunch of plump organic strawberries sit on the table, waiting to be cooked and resting in the belly of the pie. She mashes and cooks them to a ruby red pulp, leaving out sugar and allowing the natural fructose to sweeten the pie. When the bubbly strawberry crush has cooled down, she pours it into the pie, and deftly weaves a latticework over it. "It is delightful to watch a pie take shape into a crust, with fruit fillings and dressed up with decorations of braids, cut-outs and lattices,” she says. To make it healthier, she has experimented with gluten-free, buckwheat and rye flour pies.
Once it is out of the oven and cooled, we nibble on the mildly sweet-and-tart slice, sipping on tea that evening. It’s a perfect piece pinned with a star and studded with sugar crystals. “The process is long, and extremely therapeutic,” she says. And the results are delicious too!
Featured image: Priyamvada Kowshik