Chefs in a spicy battle of flavours at Bolgatty island

Chitra Narayanan Kochi | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on September 25, 2016

Celebrating heritage: The food festival was organised to celebrate the heritage of the 2,000-year-old maritime route

34 chefs from 15 countries cook up a storm at the Spice Route Culinary Festival

The tantalising aroma from Bolgatty islands would surely have wafted across to the Kochi mainland. On a balmy Sunday, watched by a crowd of curious onlookers, 34 top chefs from 15 countries whipped up a storm in a battle of flavours at the Spice Route Culinary Festival, drawing inspiration from the fiery pepper and other condiments traded on the old maritime route.

The Spice Route Culinary Festival is an initiative by the Kerala Tourism department in association with UNESCO and the Union Tourism Ministry to celebrate the heritage of the 2,000-year-old maritime route. UNESCO reached out to 31 countries that traded with Malabar on this heritage route to take part in a cooking contest — of which 15 countries sent their entries. Lebanon and Netherlands had sent two entries.

On Sunday, top chefs from Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Thailand, Oman, Turkey, Qatar, Netherlands, France, Malaysia, Italy and Japan battled it out for three-and-a-half hours in a rivetting performance of culinary skills and creative thinking. The chefs had sourced around 80 per cent of their ingredients locally. On Saturday, they panned out into the local markets buying fish, meat, vegetables and spices, and adapting their menus to what was available.

German chef Lars Flugge, who arrived here with only a sketchy idea of what he would make, said: “I made up my menu right at the Varapuzha market after seeing the fish and vegetables.” Flugge created an innovative fusion dish combining rasam with searfish for the entry and a pepper beef curry for the main event. He said he drew inspiration from both the German dish Pfefferopotthast, which uses a lot of pepper and bay leaf, and the Kerala beef curry.

26-year old Chef Bernardo Agrela from Portugal, a much written about young chef, cleverly drew on the shared heritage of the two countries. He used tapioca, which the Portuguese had introduced in Kerala (from Brazil), yam and a lot of local seafood produce. “When I visited the market, I was delighted with the abundant fresh sea food avilable here, I felt like I was at home,” he said. He also drew on maritime traditions by getting dried codfish from home and using it. “Because Portugal is such a seafaring country, we have a tradition of travelling with dried cod that can be preserved for three months,” he said.

The two teams from the Netherlands looked right at home in their old fiefdom, perhaps also getting an extra edge thanks to the presence and vocal support of the Dutch ambassador to India Alphonsus Stoelinga. Stoelinga and his wife were seen excitedly clicking pictures and tweeting the dishes. “Two thing that struck me about this contestare that the Indian chefs are tasting and judging International chefs and the idea of roping in students from hotel management institute as volunteers to the teams. It will help transfer skills and closes the generation gap,” said Stoelinga.

Chefs Vijay Nagpal from the ITC chain, chef Debraj Bhaumik, executive chef of Mahindra Holiday Resorts and Chef Montu Saini, executive chef to the President of India had a really challenging task, tasting and judging the entries. “We will go by international guidelines on judging — which lays emphasis on taste, technique, and presentation,” said Chef Nagpal, though of course the use of spices would also no doubt influence the decision.

Turkey was first off the table, readying its entry of spiced flatbread and a coconut soup in 15 minutes . Japan by contrast, took its sweet time, only finishing at the very last minute. “Using spices was very challenging for us,” confessed Japanese chef Yosuke Hidaka, though they rose up to it going by the end result on the plate — a delicate looking pork dish.

The results of the contest will be announced only on Monday evening. But as Chef Bob Burger from Netherlands said, “All of us are winners here because of the flavour of friendship we are taking back.”

UNESCO's programme specialist for culture Moe Chiba said the spice route culinary festival had opened up a new kind of cultural relations. “Food is more profound than dance and music as you imbibe it inside you,” she said.

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Published on September 25, 2016
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