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In God’s Own Kitchen

The Spice Route Festival in Kochi had 34 chefs from 17 national teams garnishing food with stories.

Written by Shantanu David |
September 27, 2016 5:25:56 am
kerala tourism, spice route festival, unesco, food, india news, indian express, French chefs Didier Corlou (right) and Le Minh Manh (left) with their prize for best international chef team.

Several years ago, French chef Didier Corlou met an Indian woman and asked her to cook anything she liked for him, so he could get a sense of the cuisine. “Her reply, ‘I can’t cook for you because I don’t know you’, has stayed with me through all this time and helped shape my philosophy towards food,” says Corlou, head of the French contingent that won the Spice Route Festival, a first-of-its-kind event organised by Kerala Tourism and UNESCO in association with the Ministry of Tourism’s Incredible India! campaign in Kochi last week.

The Spice Route Festival is an attempt to reassert the coastal state’s prominence as a major stop on the Spice Route, the maritime trading channels of spices dating back more than two millennia.

Around Corlou, who cooked a main dish of Jumbo Prawns perfumed with savoury vanilla pods, were 16 other teams from 15 nations that were located on the Spice Route. They married their native cuisines with ingredients from Kerala. Countries ranged from Iran to Malaysia to Germany to Lebanon and The Netherlands (the last two sent two teams each), all separated by land, sea, culture and language, but sharing a culinary heritage, which, in some cases, date back to the the 1 BC. Portugal, for instance, introduced tapioca to Kerala. The Portuguese delegation, led by chef Bernando Agrela, paid their tribute to the starch, derived from the Brazilian-origin cassava roots, in their menu.

The festival had the 34 chefs from the 17 national teams visit the markets of Ernakulum and Varapuzha at the crack of dawn on Saturday to see and shop a grocery list of items of seafood, meats and fresh produce. And, of course, spices. A lot of spices.

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Corlou, who has cooked all over the world, found his manna in fresh curry leaves. “In the West and Japan, you get curry powder. These leaves are a revelation; they are so full of flavour. I had to find a use for them,” he says. He did, with a gloriously glutinous curried rice preparation, which used both basmati and a stickier local rice. Elsewhere, the heavily-tattooed Chef Gianluca Mennella, of the Italian contingent, delved into spice jars and racks, his curiosity matching the locals’ who gathered to see several kitchens’ worth of foreign chefs roam around with beatified expressions. Discoveries were made (“Is the bitter gourd really bitter?” asked one chef, while another fawned over the rich variety of seafood available) and deals bartered with the help of students of local culinary institutes (two were assigned to help each international team).

This exchange was perhaps no more apparent than on the day of the competition, a balmy morning which saw the chefs sweat it out in a culinary heat that lasted three-and-a-half hours at the Bologatty Palace and Island Resort, the venue of the festival. Perhaps more comfortable in the humidity than other participants, Chef Naif Bagi of the Turkish contingent turned in dishes in the first 15 minutes, while the brash Mennella was the first to serve up all three courses, within an hour-and-a-half. At another corner, Japanese chefs Yosuke Hidaka and Seijiro Hirohama, cut it fine, finished their dishes at the absolute last minute but treating their ingredients with the finesse of surgeons. Their result was a gorgeous visual display of platters bedecked with smoked oysters, daikon, lobster roll, sushi and sashimi, grilled masala pork and a Chai Pudding, among others, all shaded by Sakura blossoms and a traditional Japanese paper umbrella.

The jury comprised ITC Corporate Chef Vijay Nagpal, Mahindra Resorts’ Executive Chef Debraj Bhaumik and Montu Saini, currently Executive Chef to the President of India. The public, too, turned up, each armed with a spoon and fork, to savour the flavours from around the globe reinterpreted using ingredients native to them. Flavour profiles were compared, culinary influences discussed at great length and a general bonhomie displayed between participants and the visitors. Cops at the event were no less interested, clicking and recording the chefs and their creations. “Food is perhaps the most profound mode of cultural exchange. By accepting each other’s food, we are showcasing the highest form of praise and friendship,” Moe Chiba, head of UNESCO’s Culture Unit, had remarked at the beginning of the festival. This was the proof in the pudding.



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The writer was a guest of Kerala Tourism and UNESCO.

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