LOUIS TIKARAM taking Fijian cuisine to L.A.
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That Fijian food is accessible in Los Angeles, one of the world’s most exciting food cities, hardly comes as a surprise. LA’s burgeoning, immensely culturally diverse restaurant scene lends itself to tasty, healthy island fare. Furthermore, chefs the world over are relocating to this food capital. Take Louis Tikaram, who spent much of his life zigzagging between Fiji and Australia. He worked at top restaurants, most notably Sydney’s Longrain, which gained two chefs hats from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide under his tutelage. In 2014, he won the paper’s Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year award. Deciding whether to helm the kitchen of EP&LP, an Asian eating house and rooftop bar in West Hollywood was a no-brainer. When the investors said go, he said yes. He has been serving Fijian dishes there for more than a year now. “I knew that when it was time to have my own restaurant I would show the food I grew up with,” Tikaram says over a tall glass of water in the EP dining room (which stands for “extended play” to the LP rooftop’s “long play”). It’s a late September afternoon and as hot as a Suva summer. On this Tuesday, a major delivery day, boxes are carted through the door every few minutes, compromising the restaurant’s air conditioning. Tikaram, however, remains unfazed. He’s been busy (restaurant prep starts at 7 am in anticipation of a 6 pm service start), but remains cool and collected. Tikaram was 28 when he was given the opportunity to head EP’s kitchen. Rooted in Thai cuisine with Chinese, Indian, Fijian, and Vietnamese influences, the menu reads like a blueprint of his years working in Sydney, traveling through South East Asia, and living in Mullumbimby near Byron Bay, Australia, as well as at Lami in Fiji. “A lot more of my childhood is coming out now because of the positive response to the Fijian dishes. No one in LA has really tried Fijian cooking. It’s been even hard to find traditional food in Fiji,” he says, referring to a fixation for serving spaghetti Bolognese and pizzas to tourists. “I’ve kind of taken it on as a personal goal to expose Fijian cooking and to create a lot of buzz and interest around it.” Between the ages of five and 18, Tikaram spent much time living in Fiji and hanging around the kitchen of his paternal Fiji Indian grandfather and Fijian Chinese grandmother’s Lami Bay home. “I would wake up in the morning, and smell cumin, coriander, curry leaves, onions, and garlic for the dinner my grandma was already cooking. She’d make the most amazing chow mein noodles, steamed fish with ginger and shallots, watercress soup; the best Indian roti and dal, curries, samosas; also really awesome traditional Fijian food like palusami (using taro leaves), ota (Fiji’s native tree fern), kokoda, and nama.”
Cue EP’s menu and its Nama Sea Pearls dish, a mix of seaweed and freshly squeezed coconut milk, seasoned with chili, salt and lime – flavours that conjure Tikaram’s earliest food memory. “Nama was one of the first dishes I put together. It’s a great for LA because there are so many vegans and vegetarians here… I refer to it as a seaweed ceviche. It’ll always be on the menu.” On the flipside, for sashimi lovers— “Everyone loves Japanese here”— the restaurant’s rendition of kokoda, dubbed Fijian ceviche, uses long line New Zealand snapper. Tikaram pays homage to his grandmother not only on the plate, but also in the kitchen, where everything is made from scratch daily: the spices, the curry paste, and the coconut milk, extracted from fresh coconut flesh squeezed through muslin. “Yes, we could probably do it a different way, but it’s cool teaching the guys [kitchen crew] the traditional techniques I grew up with, and then having the customer eat the dishes based on how I learned to make them. It’s where my passion and background come from,” Tikaram says. Nor does Tikaram compromise on quality ingredients—another lesson gleaned from his grandmother. Recalling their trips to Suva’s Saturday morning produce market, he says: “If something was picked too early or picked too late, she wouldn’t get it. She wouldn’t buy a wilted bunch of watercress.”
Tikaram’s daily supply of fresh herbs is immediately washed, placed in water, and sprayed with purified water throughout the day, making the walk-in cool room look like a nursery. Another standout on the EP menu is turmeric and coconut curry with clams and soft shell crab, a nod to Tikaram’s father. The former Air Pacific baggage handler turned carpenter—now retired and living in Sigatoka, Fiji—was known about town for his signature party dish, mud crab curry. “Growing up, we didn’t have much, but being known as the son of the ‘mud crab curry guy’ meant a lot. People would say, ‘Ohhhh, how do we get invited?’ It was such an amazing feeling to hear dad being praised for his cooking.” Tikaram recalls helping his father cook, who in turn had learnt the skills of the trade from his own mother. “My dad’s five brothers and sisters took turns every night to make the meal (my grandmother cooked on Sundays), so each child is an amazing cook.” When Tikaram’s father isn’t surfing at the beach, he’s spending time in the yard or in the kitchen. “It’s amazing how mum and dad prepare meals right out of the garden and use the abundance of fresh fish available at the local market. That’s dad’s specialty these days.” Come May 2017, Tikaram will celebrate two years at EP & LP “I say that LA found me, I didn’t find LA. The cuisine fits perfectly here, people just get it,” he says. “Mum and Dad visited when EP opened, which was a blur because I was so busy. But their support and encouragement gave me a huge boost in confidence and helped get me through the first few months of business.” What does Louis’s father thinks of his son’s culinary success in L.A.? “My dad always taught us to be proud of who we are and where we come from, so cooking and sharing Fijian food amongst the bright lights of LA is definitely putting a smile on his face.”
Turmeric and coconut curry of cloudy bay diamond clams, sea beans and Thai basil.
“Kokoda” of Baja Rock shrimp. Fijian style ceviche with Baja Rock shrimp, pickled Serrano chilies, coconut and cilantro Mango pudding with roast coconut ice cream