When Indian children are born, their grandparents often write the sacred syllable om on their tongue with a finger dipped in honey. Om means “I am,” and perhaps it was with his honeyed tongue that The Peninsula’s Indian Specialty Chef Radhey Shayam learned from the very start that, in a metaphysical as well as a culinary sense, you are what you eat. Maybe as an infant Chef Shayam smacked his lips loudly enough that the universe took heed and thus placed him on his intended culinary path.
Fortunately, it turned out that the man chosen to satisfy guests’ cravings for Indian cuisine at The Peninsula Manila is not only lover of food but an extremely gifted chef.
“Nobody taught me how to cook. I was living in the kitchen, observing my mother and grandmother cook,” he shares. “When I was 12 or 13 years old, I was asked to cook for 30 people, mostly relatives.”
He remembers the very first dish he cooked—a perfectly balanced dahl made up of three kilograms of rice and lentils. This was accompanied by the signature dish of his hometown of Rishikesh, a small town in Uttarakhand state near the Himalayan foothills bordering Nepal and China and where the practice of yoga is supposed to have originated. Called a Koda Ki Roti, he describes it as being “like a brown bread made from finger millet that is locally called kodo and eaten with vegetables, lentils, and curry.”
But there was a particular person who led him to aspire to chef-hood. That was his uncle Vinood Kumar, who dressed like the “big chef” that he was for Radhey’s father’s travel and tour agency Nautiyal. The boy spent countless hours beside Uncle Vinood. “I was inspired by his work. I also liked the chef’s white uniform,” the handsome Spices Indian chef says with a shy smile.
With very little prodding, he was soon attending culinary school in the capital city of Dehradun before moving to New Delhi, where he worked for the chain restaurant Sagar Ratna that specializes in South Indian cuisine. This was followed by a move to Nanjing, China, where for two years, he worked for a hotel that catered to a student population of Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, and Pakistanis.
When Radhey first came to China from India at age 25, he had never—not once—eaten meat. An adherent of the Pandit Brahmin diet, also called the sattvic or yogic diet, he followed a vegetarian lifestyle focusing on natural foods that promote peace and tranquility. “Absolutely no meat, not even eggs,” the chef explains. Not until Nanjing, that is.
He was in a Nanjing restaurant, famished and unable to speak a word of Mandarin, when he pointed to a picture of fried rice on the menu. He didn’t realize that the small cubes in the rice were pieces of beef until much later. Today, he speaks not only in Hindi and English but can also get along in Mandarin.
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Asked how he manages to handle and cook chicken, pork, mutton, and beef dishes in spite of his religious beliefs, Radhey, who looks up to Indian food celebrity and Master Chef India host and judge Kunal Kapur, says he first perfects the sauces of these ingredients before adding the meat.
It was his facility with Mandarin that gave him the confidence to accept an offer to work in the Chinese capital where, for a little over a year, he served as Indian Chef, specializing in tandoor and curry specialties at the ultra-exclusive The Red Club 96 Nanchizi in Beijing’s Old Quarter. From there, the siren call of The Peninsula Beijing beckoned and—not long after—The Peninsula Manila’s Spices restaurant.
India’s Gastronomic Ambassador
Chef Shayam’s career in cooking has seen him take on the mantle of gastronomic ambassador, educating Philippine palates on the flavors of real Indian food “because there is no such thing as a big Indian influence on Philippine cuisine as compared to Spanish, for example,” he points out.
A little over six months in his job, he has already hunkered down to business. He follows a daily routine which has him up and running around the Makati Central Business District at the crack of dawn. By mid-morning he’s off to Spices’ kitchen, where he and his team whip up dishes for lunch. After his afternoon break, it’s back to work in time for dinner service at 6:00 pm all the way to 10:00 in the evening. It’s all in a day’s work for Chef Shayam, who is 36 but looks like he’s in his early 30s. Perhaps it’s all that jogging; or could it be the food—the yogic diet consisting of herbs, spices, vegetables and nuts that, these days, is branded as a whole foods, plant-based diet?
“My dream for Spices is to put it under the spotlight and attract more customers to discover an authentic Indian cuisine,” he says.
“My dream for Spices is to put it under the spotlight and attract more customers to discover an authentic Indian cuisine”
For a Spices Indian sampler, he recommends starting with a Tomato Shorba which he describes as “a healthy Indian version of roasted, vine-ripened tomato soup.” If wary about the degree of spiciness, the kitchen team will adjust the dish to one’s level of tolerance—or recommend a frosty glass of sweet banana lassi to tone down the heat. Another technique is to eat bread. The Butter Naan, a soft, round, blistered tandoor-baked bread, or Lasuni Naan, flavored with roasted garlic, herbs, and slathered with ghee (clarified butter) are merely two of the Indian breads available at Spices.
Next choose between Vegetable Samosas and Crispy Chicken “Samosa” Spring Rolls, the former filled with cashews, green peas, and potatoes and delicious served with mint chutney; the latter with tangy coriander yogurt and fresh mint.
With taste buds sufficiently piqued by soup, breads, and samosas, proceed to some of the Indian main dishes: Salmon Fillet Tikka Masala (tandoor-roasted Norwegian salmon in spiced curry sauce), Tandoori Jumbo Prawns (tandoor-roasted jumbo prawns marinated in mustard and yogurt), Chili Paneer (Indo-Chinese hybrid of cottage cheese, stir-fried capsicum, onion, and chili glaze), Mali Kofta (potato and paneer balls, onion, and tomato-based gravy), Palak Paneer (spinach, cottage cheese, and cashew nut sauce), and Vegetable Biryani (mixed vegetables, yellow curry, and saffron basmati rice).
When pressed for personal favorites, Chef Shayam admits to having a weakness for highly spiced vegetarian fare when cooking at home and, because of his years working in China, a love of Szechuan food “because it’s hot, particularly Mapo Tofu. But I refuse to use monosodium glutamate. My umami flavors are all-natural.”
He still can’t get over the staggering choice of restaurants in Metro Manila. “But as far as Filipino food is concerned, I want to learn more and try more. I’ve only tried so far the adobo and seafood sinigang.” And he wants to introduce more Indo-Chinese influenced dishes into Spices’ menu. Already, Chef Shayam’s Chili Paneer and Chicken Manchurian (chicken with garlic, ginger, X.O., chili, cashews, bok choy, and soy sauce; a dish found only in India and nowhere in Manchuria) have been well received.
What better way to sample Indian Specialty Chef Radhey Shayam’s ever-expanding menu but to visit The Peninsula Manila’s Spices. Then come again. And again.