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June 18, 1999


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The Decade Of Fusion Cooking

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Radhika R Shankar in Memphis

Raji Jallepalli Elvis Presley was notorious for his passion for high-cholesterol junk food. And this city has scores of restaurants -- cheap and expensive -- that serve gigantic steaks and fatty ribs that would Elvis feel at home. But for the serious food lovers in Elvis's city, the gastronomic symphony Raji Jallepalli orchestrates offers a rare treat.

Raji's metamorphosis from a doctor's wife to the owner and chef of one of Tennessee's most sought eateries, Restaurant Raji, has caught the attention of magazines and newspapers for many years. And now she is writing her first book to be released next year on the day her restaurant will celebrate its 11th anniversary.

Her complex French-Indian fusion haute cuisine produces comments like, "Raji Jallepalli is like a comet." Another admirer says her presentations "generate a culinary light show".

She has cooked at major functions like the Beard Awards Gala, the gastronomic equivalent of the Oscars, and the opening night of the Masters of Food and Wine and amazed them with her ability to heighten tastes with a controlled introduction of tamarind, cilantro, cardamom, sandalwood smoking and other classical Indian seasonings into classical French preparations.

Raji, daughter of a high ranking state official in Andhra Pradesh, says her childhood curiosity of how cooks created delicious dishes became stronger as she grew up. But since her family considered neither chefs nor cooking as creative, she concealed her interest and often sneaked into the kitchen to watch the chef prepare elaborate feasts for the guests.

Raji with a couple of her
frequent guests "I got married when I was in my teens, had my sons soon after, and as a doctor's wife and medical technician, I kept my culinary interests as a hobby," she said.

Even today Raji feels that her mother doesn't understand that her daughter is a chef -- and her mother wouldn't like it one bit if she did. "She thinks of me in fine linen dresses, walking around the restaurant to see if everything is all right," Raji says with a chuckle.

Despite the success of her restaurant, and the attention she got at President Clinton's inaugural celebrations, with her quail salad with tandoori spices and black lentil blinis, topped with caviar, Raji feels that she has not "even scratched the surface and the possibilities for new tastes are endless".

Raji's concealed culinary interest surfaced in 1989 when her then husband bought a Victorian house in Memphis and encouraged her to create an Indian restaurant. She designed The East India Company based on her memories of dining in southern France "where we could enjoy delicious food without the stuffy atmosphere".

Just as her culinary dreams grew, her marriage foundered.

While facing a divorce and an empty nest, Raji began recreating her restaurant. Motivated by Jean-Louis Palladin, the celebrated French chef and restaurateur in Washington DC, Raji started serving dishes like sautéed fois gras in fresh sandalwood sauce and tenderloin of pork with curried blueberry sauce and cardamom creme brulee.

"I found myself learning more from the French because I often find Indian food too overloaded with flavors," she said.

Soon Raji won Palladin's attention by preparing him a nine-course meal. By 1992, East India Company metamorphosed into Restaurant Raji. Renoir and Rembrandt reproductions were hung next to the etched glass Taj Mahal panel and saag paneer was served in a puff pastry with wine steamed mussels and saffron sauce.

But Raji didn't sit back to enjoy the transformation. She decided to match the best French wines with her creations. Soon wine connoisseurs began frequenting her restaurant. One of the foremost wine makers of contemporary Bordeaux, Bruno Prats, of Chateau Cos D'Esoutnel, heard about Raji and decided to come from France to match his creations with those of Raji's.

She says that one of perfect marriage between a wine and her creation was "Zucchini coulis scented with ajowan with a Pavillon Blanc from Chateau Margraux 1990." Every month, she invites a select group of patrons, people from the food industry and owners of wineries to critique her latest creations and her matching of the dishes with the wines.

She finds her kitchen a place where she returns to recreate herself and her passion for the culinary art.

"My kitchen is like a giant lab that transforms my inspirations into reality," she said.

In keeping with the boutique restaurant style the guests at Restaurant Raji are made to feel at home. They enjoy the best wines by the fireplace and, on occasions, are seated at tables set with vintage china and crystal glasses. They are presented ornately wrapped boxes of Indian spices that will remind them of that magnificient dosa with a filling of grilled scallop, shrimp and lobster in a sauce of mint, ginger and beurre blanc. Raji spends months orchestrating the seamless culinary presentations until it meets her standards.

Raji believes in never losing sight of the basic ideas that brought her into the limelight.

"I am trying to keep my focus on the business and not rest on my laurels," she explained. "When I read a really good review, I work much harder, because I know that it may not last forever."

Food experts at one of Raji's monthly wineand food tasting
events With a passion for the rich textures, colors and expressions of life, Raji wants to make sure that she does not lose the fun part of her cooking by expanding her business rapidly.

"When I want to take a break, I head out to New York and enjoy the food, the theater and the atmosphere," she said.

With her fiancee living on the East Coast, Raji has another strong motivation to head out to the Big Apple more frequently. She considered opening a restaurant in New York, but decided to be a consultant to Surya, a popular restaurant.

While she wants to continue cooking, "I got into cooking because it is an art form, and I enjoy expressing myself," Raji's recent projects steal time away from her kitchen.

She is building a corporate guest house, Maison Raji, where guests can enjoy a state-of-the-art conference center and experience a fusion meal in a cozy 20-seat restaurant. Planning her wedding also leaves Raji less time to create dishes. However, the she believes cooking will be an integral part of herself.

"Cooking to me is an emotional experience and there is something special about owning a restaurant and seeing people happy when lingering over a meal, and it's a fun way to make a living," she says.

Restaurant Raji, 712 W. Brookhaven Circle, Memphis, TN; Phone: 901/685-8723.

One Of Raji's Specials

Raji's Acorn Squash Veloute with Ginger And Mustard Seeds

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups chopped onions
8 cups 1-inch pieces peeled acorn squash (about 3 1/4 pounds)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
4 1/2 cups (or more) canned low-salt chicken broth
2 tablespoons tomato purée
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon mustard seeds

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions; sauté until light golden, about 8 minutes. Add squash and ginger; sauté 5 minutes. Add 4 1/2 cups broth. Simmer until squash is very tender, about 35 minutes.

Working in batches, purée soup in blender. Return to same pot. Add tomato purée and cayenne. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes to blend flavors; add more broth if soup is too thick. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Warm soup over medium heat before serving.)

Heat one teaspoon of oil in small skillet over medium heat. Add cumin and mustard seeds and stir until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Ladle soup into bowls. Top with seed mixture and serve.

Serves 6.

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