Chef’s Table with Radhey Shayam
A stalwart in Manila’s dining scene for top-of-mind Asian cuisine, The Peninsula Manila’s Spices, as it is so aptly called, hits all the right (and authentic) notes whether you’re ordering Indian, Thai, Indo-Chinese or Peranakan-style dishes.
Aside from the guarantee of a memorable meal at one of the landmark hotel’s most established restaurants, Indian Specialty Chef, Radhey Shayam, has been turning up the heat in the kitchen and spicing up our lives for a year now.
Hailing from northern India, Shayam gets into Scoville heat units, his favourite dish on the menu (a must-try!), and what he and Wolfgang Puck see eye-to-eye on.
What do you cook for yourself when you are at home?
A perfectly done dahl or lentils. In my hometown of Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, we have a dish called Kodo ki roti that I like to pair with dahl or vegetable curry. Kodo is a brown bread made from finger millet. It’s healthy.
What is your favourite spice to cook with? What’s always in Spices’ pantry?
Turmeric, cumin, coriander, mustard seed, ginger, chilli, garam masala, cardamom, and cinnamon. These are my basic essentials if I want to prepare a proper Indian meal.
Are there ingredients endemic to the Philippines that you use frequently?
I like the green finger chilli or siling pang sigang or siling haba. It’s not hot as some of the chilli peppers that we have in India or those I had while working in China, and it’s definitely not as hot as birds’ eye chilli or sili labuyo, but that’s what makes them more versatile. They’re also more aromatic.
What would you like to tell people to optimise the experience of eating your food?
I’d say that dining in Spices is an opportunity to expand horizons. I come from the north of India and I bring with me a different palate to what most Filipinos are probably accustomed to when dining at Indian restaurants here. Also, the years I spent working in China have made me more adventurous. There are dishes in Spices that would be best described as Indo-Chinese, like my chilli paneer. And aside from Indian cuisine, we also serve lovely Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Thai food.
What inspires you both in and out of the kitchen?
I draw inspiration from many things; from memorable meals, something I see during my daily run, a conversation with a friend, a painting, a memory, etc. But I am also inspired by guests who come up to me and my team in Spices’ open kitchen, saying how much they’ve enjoyed their meals. There’s nothing quite like a happy guest to give you a boost of validation. And my team. I have a great kitchen team who are a constant source of inspiration.
What challenges have you encountered in the F&B industry that have made an impact on you?
I think it was Wolfgang Puck who said, “A good chef has to be a manager, a businessman and a great cook. To marry all three together is sometimes difficult.” There really is a difference between being a cook and a chef–while all chefs cook, a chef is expected to run a kitchen. I have to be a manager, a leader. We build teams, keep down food cost, develop menus, define standards, train, build morale, and make the restaurant profitable among many other things.
What is the best and worst thing about being a chef?
Travelling because you discover new things about a country’s culture and its people through food and drink. Unfortunately, travelling can also very expensive.
Who is your ideal person to cook for? Why?
Indian food celebrity and Master Chef India host and judge, Kunal Kapur and food writer, Madhur Jaffrey. They are ambassadors of Indian cuisine.
What is the spiciest dish you have ever tried?
My favourite would be a Goa Vindaloo. It uses Kashmiri chillis that ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 Scoville heat units. Goa Vindaloo also always tastes better the next day—like adobo. Next would be a proper Szechuan hot pot.
Are there any updates to the Spices menu we ought to try?
I’ve put my stamp on the Spices menu, but it’s still a continuous process. Due to popular demand, we are adding a “Spices Favourites” page for those nostalgic for their Tom yum goong (spicy prawn soup), Tom nuong (tiger prawns baked with garlic hollandaise), and Asam goreng (beef in tamarind sauce), as well as more Vietnamese dishes since we get more and more requests for light and healthy dishes.
What's your personal favourite dish on the menu?
I love our pla neung manao, which is a Thai dish of spicy steamed Asian seabass with lots of galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, chilli, and coriander. It’s sour, spicy, garlicky, and well balanced.