TWO MILLENNIA ago, a tiny strip of coastal land in the southern part of India became the spice warehouse for countries across the world. For centuries thereafter, Kerala supplied spices such as pepper, clove, cardamom, etc, to different corners of the world, creating a ‘Spice Route’, which linked 31 countries of Asia, Far East, Africa and Europe. Modern-day navigation, however, consigned the ancient trade circuit to pages of history.
But things are looking up now. The Kerala government last year signed an agreement with Unesco to preserve the Spice Route heritage by restoring major heritage sites and promoting cultural exchange and research among member countries. As part of this agreement, the port city of Kochi in Kerala hosted the first-ever Spice Route Culinary Festival recently to revive the Spice Route for the discerning modern-day traveller. The festival, which was held in partnership with the tourism department of Kerala, the ministry of tourism and Unesco, saw the participation of as many as 15 countries, which were part of the Spice Route. Chefs from countries such as Italy, Portugal, Spain, Egypt and Turkey spent four days together, not just learning from each other, but also competing against one another as part of a cooking competition.
“A culinary festival helps common explorations,” says V Venu, principal secretary (tourism), Kerala. For the cooking competition, the participating chefs visited the local market together and explored the different varieties of vegetables and spices on offer to bring their respective recipes to life. “The brief given was simple: source all ingredients locally,” says Sujith Soman, the technical consultant of the festival.
“I am giving back the gift India gave to my country,” says Mariem Magdy, a young chef from Cairo, who prepared koshary. A traditional Egyptian dish of lentils and rice made with tomato sauce, koshary is the Egyptian version of the simple Indian khichdi that was introduced in that country by Indian soldiers who were part of the British occupation forces in the early 20th century. “Khichdi became very popular in Egypt,” says Magdy. “We have now brought it back to India with more spices and nuts,” says Magdy, adding, “What can be more intimate than feeding someone?” Magdy’s and fellow chef Yasser Ramadan’s koshary earned them the first runner-up position at the competition. France took away the top honour for the jumbo prawns made by chefs Didier Corlou and Le Minh Manh, while Thailand was the second runner-up with chefs Songpol Vithanwata and Jareuk Sriaroon whipping up pineapple fried rice and garlic pepper prawns.
Qatari chef Aisha Al-Tamimi whipped up fish kebabs, machboos (a biryani-like preparation with chicken) and caramelised scrambled eggs for dessert for the competition. “Our preparations were the result of a very interesting visit to the local market,” says Al-Tamimi, who is getting ready to open her own restaurant in Doha in November. “In Qatar, too, we use a lot of spices, especially green chillies,” says Al-Tamimi, who came to Kochi with her assistant chef Myra Navarro. “I will be carrying back a lot of spices from Kerala,” she says.
For Bernardo Agrela, a pop-up restaurant specialist from Portugal, participating in the festival felt like a homecoming. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Kerala late in the 15th century. They took home the spices and brought foods like cashewnut and cassava to Kerala. “Kerala injected a lot of spices in our food,” says Agrela, who is based in Lisbon. “There was a big change in Portuguese food after that,” adds the chef, who cooked a fusion main course of deep-fried sardine and cod fish in saffron and cardamom for the competition.
Mila van der Schalk and Simone van Veen, chefs from the Netherlands, also opted for fish, cooking snapper and parsnip for the main course and pineapple with a whipped egg yolk for dessert. The Dutch, who defeated the Portuguese to rule Kerala for nearly two centuries, know their spices well. “We use a lot of spices such as turmeric, clove, cardamom and cinnamon in our preparations,” says van der Schalk, who runs a gastro bar near The Hague.
“Food should be the starting point of understanding culture, as that is the most important element to create tolerance, mutual understanding and a sense of belonging,” says Shigeru Aoyagi, the Unesco representative to India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives. “Food is common to everybody. If food can be exchanged, dialogue can happen,” says Aoyagi, the architect of the festival.
If early indications are to be believed, the culinary festival could become a travelling event, taking place every alternate year in a different Spice Route country. Kochi, the melting pot for its assimilation of cultures from around the world, will host it every second year.
The festival has also given momentum to the Spice Route dialogue. As per Aoyagi and Kerala government officials, the embassy of the Netherlands in India will host a meeting of the ambassadors of the 31 countries on the Spice Route in Kochi later this month to take the initiative forward. It will be followed by another round of meetings next month in New Delhi. “The idea is to use cuisine as one of the avenues for the revival of the Spice Route,” says Venu.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer