Kokum restaurant, located on the Broadwater end of the glittering Palazzo Versace, is as remarkable as its luxurious host hotel, although it’s for a different reason: its sophisticated cuisine that honours the traditions of the sub-continent while infusing dishes with the tastes of other lands.
Kokum by Chef Mural is a collaboration between Saffron restaurant owner Sridhar Penumechu and Chef Manjunath Mural (Head Chef of Michelin-starred Song of India). Kokum claims the influence of this landmark chef whose cuisine resulted in Song of India being the first Indian restaurant in South East Asia to be awarded a Michelin star (2016, 2017, 2018).
Defined as ‘Asian-Indian gastronomy’ (or in this case ‘Australasian-Indian’), Executive Chef Sabir Merchant follows Chef Mural’s mentorship, using traditional Indian preparation methods while transforming Indian dishes with the addition of native Australian and other Asian-Pacific (and even Mediterranean) flavours.
For Chef Merchant, life began far from the luxe hotel where he now works. Close to where Mahatma Gandhi was born, Sabir spent his childhood beside his mother in another far humbler kitchen, fed only milk until he was eight years old due to his family’s poverty.
Sobering though this is, the palate of young Sabir was honed to remember flavour combinations and textures that others would fail to notice. His childhood is honoured on Kokum’s menu by the presence of dishes such as the Gujarati dhokla heart for Valentine’s Day, a modern representation of the rice and lentil sponge his mother made on special occasions, and Murg Mussalam, a whole chicken with lamb mince in Kashmiri sauce, (the first meat he ever tasted in a family celebration to mark his father’s first business success). It’s a ‘lost dish’, he says, traditionally eaten as part of 21 courses for a wedding feast, with many of those flavours incorporated into the sauce.
Obstacles turned into hurdles as the young Sabir finished school, a milestone leap as one of only 120 people across the country to gain an apprenticeship in the 5-star Taj Hotel group. During the next four years, he worked and studied tirelessly day and night, completing his apprenticeship, a Bachelor of Bus. Admin., Dip. of Hospitality and Cert. III in Culinary Arts concurrently while working. It was to be a time that marked out the rest of his life: necessity being ‘the mother of invention’, education and hard work the means to a better life.
Since arriving in Australia twelve years ago via Singapore, Chef Merchant has gained experience across the hospitality industry. From cafés to fine dining, usually working two jobs at once to achieve a cross-fertilisation of ideas, he has gained a palate of world flavours.
Like Kokum berries, many of our native ingredients on Chef Merchant’s menu have both unique flavours and medicinal properties of which many Gold Coast diners are unaware. Not only are they a fresh twist on Indian dishes, but so is their presentation, ironically with Chef Merchant, an immigrant, serving our own food to us in a unique way.
Pani puri, a popular street snack in India, is a semolina shell fried crisp then stuffed with a mixture of potato, onion, chickpeas and sweet tamarind chutney. Kokum’s signature version is stuffed with potato, sprouts and Kakadu plum, presented on top of a shot glass of sol kadhi, a digestive, detoxifying coconut milk and kokum drink, on this occasion to be poured into the pani puri before eating it whole, a texture-shelled flavour explosion.
Sambal barramundi was never presented like this! The delicate sambal-marinated fish is cooked in the tandoor, strewn with turmeric yoghurt and charred silver beet across the top of a custom-made glass box displaying spices used in the dish. Tendrils of smoky spice seep out around the edges of the box, teasing our senses as we eat.
Pomegranate prawns, cooked in the tandoor, are served with a yoghurt pomegranate marinade, dotted with wakame salad and salmon roe laid down on a squid ink and roasted garlic sauce, mint sauce on the side, the dish a delicious example of eclectic world cuisine.
With Shrimp Bhaji, Chef Merchant takes a much-loved Indian snack, the humble onion bhaji, and gives it a luxe Queensland twist with the addition of prawns, native samphire and a peanut chutney.
Our main of Goat Biryani, using locally sourced meat, has been cooked in the traditional ‘dum’ style in a clay pot sealed by a pastry cover, the rice perfectly cooked and fragrant with rose water, whole spices, yoghurt and coriander. It’s served with a flambé lamb rack on turmeric mash with vegetables.
We finish with a dessert assiette of beetroot Garam Pudding, a take on the famous Gajar ka halwa carrot dessert, and Gulab Jamun, a saffron cheesecake with pistachio crumb and chocolate mousse.
Food philosophy is king at Kokum. While Chef Merchant stresses that ‘it’s important to know your roots’, he is not afraid to bring the flavours of different cultures into the crucible of his own kitchen giving his own twist to their presentation and turning traditional Indian dishes on their head. Though we may look behind us to determine each dish’s origin, Kokum provides an unmissable modern dining experience.
At a time when violent dissent is seemingly all around us, we can’t help but wonder… How much more understanding would we all gain if, as different cultures, we dined together, listening to one another’s stories around the table?
Kokum, Palazzo Versace, 94 Seaworld Dr, Main Beach QLD Ph: 07 5646 7314
NOTE: This article was originally published in The Cove magazine, May-June 2019.