Where Seelan Sundoo goes, Capetonians follow. The veteran chef is a familiar face about town and has been the key ingredient in many of Cape Town's most popular establishments. He decided to go it alone two years ago, opening Seelan at the V&A Waterfront and, earlier in 2016, his intimate "Indian tapas" space, Sundoo, on the revived Sea Point strip. With his roots firmly in lands of spice — Kerala, Mauritius and Durban — diners feast on authentic South Indian-style dishes and some of Seelan's all-time classics.
Sundoo is the gathering place of his extended family, long-time friends and fans, with mouthwatering biryanis and tandooris designed to be shared.
Your first memories of food? I was about 17 years old and went down to Durban for my grandfather's funeral. My grandmother took me with her to their neighbours to collect vegetables, spices and ingredients to make food for the funeral. She started in the early hours of the morning and I got up with her and she showed me how to make a big pot of curry from scratch. Vegetable biryani, vegetarian curries and different types of other curries caught my interest.
Where are your grandparents originally from? My mother's side is from Mauritius and my father's side is from Kerala in southern India.
Would you say that your style of cooking is a combination of the two cultures? They are both very similar to Durban-style cooking so I mixed them together and created something unique with the flavours.
Where was your first experience cooking in a restaurant? La Perla in Sea Point. I had dabbled in a few other restaurants too, but La Perla was on another level.
What have you prepared for us? A typical Durban dish called bunny chow, a South Indian curry that we put in hollowed-out bread. I've adapted it to three little bunny chows for our tapas-style menu — the lamb bunny is very popular. The second dish is our Kerala roast chicken, which is done in a big clay tandoor oven.
Why tapas-style Indian food? It's part of my heritage and also one of the strengths of my cooking skills. I can cook anything from Italian, French, Greek to Chinese, but Indian has always been my passion and a lot of my old clientele from La Perla and The Grand have always loved my Indian-style cooking. They always said, "Why don’t you open an Indian restaurant?" so I decided to do something a bit different to opening another Indian restaurant.
What do you eat when you're not cooking? Usually my mother sends me food from her home in Milnerton. She's got a competition going with me, because she always thinks her food is better than mine. If she sees a video, she'll say, "Now I'm going to make this chicken better than yours," and next thing it arrives at my home, because she's sent it to me in a takeaway box. If I make crab curry for her birthday, she says, "Oh, it's not bad." And then the next week, she'll make me a crab curry and say, "This is how it should be done!"
Kerala Roast Chicken
1 600g baby chicken
1 tsp salt
1 tsp white pepper
4 tsp chicken masala spice
1 large onion, finely chopped
½ tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp chilli powder
8 curry leaves
1 tsp fresh ginger, crushed
1 tsp fresh garlic, crushed
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp ground cardamon
3 cloves, crushed
¼ tsp aniseed
½ tsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp oil
Fresh coriander, for garnish
Wash chicken thoroughly and dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, add masala spice and rub all over the chicken, including under the skin. Set aside. Braise onion in oil in a small pot until soft. Add mustard seeds, chilli powder, curry leaves, ginger and garlic. After three minutes, add tomatoes, then add water and simmer for 20 minutes until tomatoes have blended into a thickish sauce. Add salt to taste. Set aside. Using a pestle and mortar, grind the rest of the dry spices with oil, then rub onto chicken.
Preheat oven to 160°C and roast for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven, place over medium coal fire [or grill in an oven] and turn every seven minutes for 21 minutes until evenly browned. Cut the chicken in half, heat up the masala sauce and spoon over the chicken.
Garnish with fresh coriander and serve with rice or carrot salad.
Lamb Bunny Chow
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 ginger knob, finely chopped
1 tbsp cumin seeds
6 curry leaves
1 cinnamon stick
2 dried bay leaves
1½ tbsp medium-hot masala powder
3 large tomatoes, chopped without skin
1 kg lamb leg, chopped into 2cm cubes
1 tsp salt
3 potatoes, cut into chunks
3 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
1 large French loaf (it holds its shape for a longer period)
Warm oil in a heavy-based pot. Add onion and sauté until glossy, then add garlic, ginger, cumin seeds, curry leaves, cinnamon, bay leaves and masala powder and fry gently for about three minutes, without burning onions.
Add tomatoes and simmer for a few minutes until it becomes a rich sauce.
Add lamb and salt. Turn stove down to a very gentle simmer and cook for about one hour until lamb is half-cooked. If the curry becomes dry, add up to one cup of cold water. Add potatoes and cook until soft.
To serve, add coriander and let curry rest for about 10 minutes.
Prepare loaf by cutting three 5cm portions per person. Pull bread filling halfway and add lamb curry gravy, meat and some of the potatoes until bread overflows. Garnish with coriander.
This is an extract from ‘Cooked in South Africa’, an initiative of Wish Upon A Star, a non-profit fund-raising charity (Reg. No 2013/038478/08). Cooked in South Africa is about memories and journeys around food and will be on sale in leading bookstores from mid-November with all profits from the sales going to children living with disability. Photographs courtesy of Naashon Zalk and Cooked in South Africa