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Chef Mahesh Kutty’s Ramassery idli

Chef Mahesh Kutty’s Ramassery idli  

RAHUL VERMA returns from Kochi with a bagful of appetising memories

Take a lush green, seaside city. Take spices that grow in abundance. Take culinary experts from across the world. Take a heap of fresh ingredients. What do you get? A food festival.

This is what Kerala’s Spice Route Culinary Festival was all about. I went to Kochi some days ago for this, and came back with some spectacular images of festivity. And, of course, some nice memories of food.

Held from September 23 to 26, the focus of the festival was on the spice route taken by traders 2000 years ago. Organised by the Kerala Tourism in association with UNESCO, the festival was not just a celebration of spices, but of old ties. The focus, as an organiser put it, was on culture, tourism, dialogue and preservation of heritage.

Chefs came from many of the countries that connected Kerala to the world along the ancient spice route. There were culinary masters from Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Netherlands and so on. And, of course, there were a great many master chefs from Kerala.

On the first two days of the festival, the foreign chefs went to local kitchens and discussed food and cooking methods. On the second day, they were taken to markets in Varapuzha and Ernakulam to source local ingredients that they would use in a chefs’ face off the next day. The third day saw the contest among international chefs who could cook anything they wanted to, but with one condition: they had to mostly do so with local produce. On the final day, chefs from Kerala wielded their ‘karchis’, and the results of the two contests were announced.

So what were the spices that the festival sought to highlight? Everything that Kerala is known for — black pepper, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon and so on. Some of the spices came to Kerala centuries ago from elsewhere, but had adopted the land as their own, and vice versa. Cloves, which Kerala is famous for, would have reached the State somewhere from Indonesia, and cinnamon from Sri Lanka.

The contests took place at the Bolgatty Palace and Island resort. It is a beautiful resort, surrounded by the sea. Under a white marquee, the contestants, mostly in uniform, worked furiously at their well-equipped work stations. With the help of a band of eager assistants, they washed, cut, and readied their ingredients — and then conjured up some splendid magic.

Once the food was cooked, a panel of three chefs — Vijay Nagpal of ITC, Debraj Bhaumik of Mahindra Holiday Resorts and Montu Saini of ITDC, now executive chef to the President — went around tasting the food. Some enterprising residents of Kochi, carrying their own spoons, also happily tried out the dishes that the contestants had prepared.

There was, as there always is when it comes to food, a raging debate on whose food was the best. Some thought that the Iranian chef’s eggplant khoorak with meat and spicy pulao with chicken deserved a prize, as did the Japanese chef’s rendition of sushi with local ingredients.

But the judges zeroed in on the French duo, Chefs Didier Corlou and Le Minh Manh, who prepared jumbo prawns with vanilla pods, and glutinous curried rice with curry leaves. It was the flavour of the home-grown vanilla that made the prawn dish stand out.

The second prize went to Yasser Ramadan and Mariem Magdy of Egypt, who prepared Bessara soup (with beans), koshari (a dish of lentils, chickpeas, rice and beef) and tahini rice pudding. Chefs Songpol Vithanwata and Jareuk Sriaroon of Thailand won the third prize with their banana spicy salad, pad Thai egg wrap crispy noodles with a sweet chilly sauce and Massaman beef with pineapple fried rice and garlic pepper prawn ball with tamarind sauce.

The Kerala chefs weaved their own magic the next day. The winner was Prakash Sundaram of Ernakulam. His fish roast in tamarind leaf paste and squid fry highlighted the traditional use of leaves in food. Ashok Eapen of Thiruvananthapuram won the second prize for his dual flavoured fish and curried sago, while the third prize went to Siyad CA of Ernakulam, whose tenga aracha meen curry was a fish dish flavoured with coconut.

What I also liked about the somewhat chaotic festival was how it highlighted some dying food traditions. There was, for instance, a lot of excitement when Chef Mahesh Kutty prepared Ramassery idli — which you hardly get to see these days. The dish originally from the village in Palakkad is bigger and flatter, but soft the way good idlis should be. The idlis are cooked in a piece of cloth atop a pot of steaming water. And what makes them so soft (as I later learnt) are the few castor seeds that are put in the batter for a dab of oil.

The organisers hope that the festival will turn into an annual event. When you think of Cannes, you think of a film festival. Soon, perhaps, when you say Kochi, you will think of food.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 4:37:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Route-check/article16071235.ece

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