VALLETTA, MALTA, June 2011 – He is called Michael Paul Zachariah, but everybody simply calls him Michael… Chef Michael.
He is Indian and hails from Kerala, one of India’s prime tourist attractions, in the south. Originally from Bombay, Michael has worked in different kitchens not only in India but also around Europe, cooking uniquely Indian food.
For the past 14 years he has been working in Malta, more recently having become the resident Indian chef at the Grand Hotel Excelsior
We meet on the day when he is preparing a buffet laden with typical Indian fare and he spares some time out of the kitchen to share his experience. Chef Michael smiles warmly but discreetly – his quiet attitude is typical of his people.
“I have been working in kitchens since I was 19 years old. After school I got my diploma and since then have worked in a variety of cities and countries.”
His experience is vast and ranges from that acquired by working in a Taj Mahal restaurant to what he learnt from a Copper Chimney restaurant where he was head chef.
He has worked in the UK, Norway and Dubai and has been at the Excelsior since its opening. The hotel, which offers six types of cuisine on its menu lists, has thought well to provide Indian cuisine as a speciality.
A question arises spontaneously – how Indian is his Indian cooking when he has to adapt it to a European-Maltese palate?
“My executive chef Roger Friggieri and I work at creating a variety of dishes – 23 to 29 main courses and starter dishes, and around 42 different salads…. We incorporate typical and original Indian ingredients in our cooking – we also make our own Indian spices.”
Michael uses an original Tandoor oven in which he bakes his own specially prepared bread.
Actually, he bakes several different kinds, including the very tasty Naan bread, “which is a firm favourite”.
Two of the main course dishes are as hot and spicy as we make them in India. The rest ranges from mild to medium hotness in flavour, because not everybody can handle the very piquant dishes, he explains.
“Then again, I am very often surprised when some of our Maltese patrons specifically request food with extra hot sauces – so hot not even I can handle them!”
When guests who have never experienced Indian food turn up for the special buffet dinners, Michael takes time out of the kitchen to explain about the dishes, preparing them for the kind of food they will be presented with.
“In Indian cooking we use many spices that are not only included for the particular taste, colour and fragrance they produce, but also for their beneficial health qualities. For instance, turmeric is good for removing bacteria from food. It is also very good for the skin.
“Cardamon is helpful with breathing problems and heartburn. Then again, chilli is not good for everyone, and people with heartburn or acid problems should watch out.”
Some of the more popular dishes are typical Indian staples – chicken tikka masala is a case in point and those unfamiliar with Indian food should try out this first as a safe bet.
Both chicken and lamb are most popular meats in Indian cooking. Then there are fish curries, pickles, poppadoms and soups.
There are, however, other more particular dishes, such as the Kashmiri Chicken Tikka, Pancer Makhani made with cottage cheese, Chicken Chettinad, a special dish from the south of India, and Samiya Upma.
“Most British Indians who visit our restaurant say our Indian food is better than what they find back in the UK. This is such a compliment for me. I have had guests who have said my food is even better than what they ate in India – and that is a very special compliment indeed.”
Michael creates many of the dishes himself and likes to turn the menu around from week to week. He feels that the most important aspect is that guests can experience his kitchen staff preparing food in live cooking sessions – most frying is done in front of an audience – even samosas.
But what about this Indian chef predilection for Maltese food? Michael smiles and openly admits, “I have tried Maltese rabbit and I like it a lot – it is absolutely delicious and succulent. I have also sampled traditional timpana, which I enjoyed. But I have a weakness for cheesecakes…
After having cooked for so many people all day long, sometimes cheesecakes are my favourite dinner-time solution…