Let’s admit at the start. Despite the overkill of food-meets-travel shows on air, our gluttony for these telly-fests continues with hawk-like precision. In this pursuit, our luck has yo-yoed. We’ve encountered drab travelogues about beaten-to-death destinations, made worse by new accented, clueless hosts. But, we’ve also hit bulls-eye with well-researched documentaries, where even a heavy dose of geography doesn’t intimidate.
In search of our weekly virtual culinary vacation, Peru caught the eye. We loosened our seat belts. The nation’s capital, Lima, we assumed, would be the obvious location for this episode. It wasn’t. Instead, our host, a young, homegrown chef of one of the country’s top five-star restaurants was embarking on a long journey into the Andes Mountains — a quest to introduce his patrons to a lesser-known cooking technique being practiced by Incan tribes for centuries.
The chef was a regular visitor to this ruggedly scenic village. He wanted to acquaint himself with the local produce, including 400 varieties of potatoes (yes!) that were cultivated by these tribes for generations. A pit was dug by the banks of a high-altitude lake, as the chef watched an elderly gent and his family use an ancient cooking technique to prepare lunch. Here, different tubers were buried into the pit, and mud and charcoal was used to cover it. No ingredients, no implements, and certainly no oil. After a few hours, they prayed to the Incan god of the mountains and Mother Nature, and tucked in. Seated on our couch in Mumbai, we could almost savour the earthy flavours of this meal that was accompanied with fresh goat cheese and a basic Peruvian salad. In the next frame, the chef had created a deconstructed version of this dish to his customers in downtown Lima. It earned a big thumbs up.
Our thoughts strayed homeward – to our restaurants and chefs. We wondered if similar R&D was being done to retrace and resurrect indigenous ingredients and techniques. Many of our chefs-restaurateurs will be the first to admit that they’ve incorporated and fine-tuned culinary methods from their family kitchens and recipe books. But more needs to be done, and sustained as a part of our identity. Surely, we don’t need Gordon Ramsay and his ilk from the West to introduce us to the goodness of a pickle from Jharkhand or the heady flavours of a Coorgi Biryani.
India is more than its Butter Chicken, Kebabs, Karimeen or Rasgullas. The sooner our chefs take this leap of faith, the better it will be for this country that seems to be at the crossroads of finding the right seasoning between East and West.
The writer is Features Editor of mid-day