Cultures from around the world converged on a plate at the recently-concluded World Heritage Cuisine Summit and Food Festival 2018 in Amritsar.
In a world where wars are being fought to gain territory, power or freedom from bondage, food plays the role of a unifier. It is the one thread that brings everyone together irrespective of their race, colour, caste or creed. This theme played out beautifully at the first edition of the World Heritage Cuisine Summit and Food Festival 2018, held in Amritsar last week, where chefs from over 40 countries and across India showcased their cultures and traditions by way of food. The coming together of different cuisines, with varied styles of cooking and contrarian cultural and religious beliefs might sound like an overflowing pot of confusion, but it was this very myth that the chefs sought to dispel.
From Portugal chefs using cataplana (a copper dish for cooking, also used in abundance in India and across the globe) to a Lebanese dish of sayadieh (fish and rice) being prepared with traditional Indian spices like cumin, cinnamon, coriander powder, black pepper and bay leaf, the confluence of cultures was overwhelming, to say the least. “Just like all human beings have genetically one father, that’s the case with food too. Food started from someone coincidentally finding fire who then coincidentally started hunting and evolved to give birth to different eating habits, traditions and cultures,” said chef Thomas Gugler, president of WorldChefs, the organiser of the summit.
However, irrespective of the diverse cultures, the representatives from each country bore a common love and passion for cooking, which they showcased by preparing a dish that depicted their roots.
The influence that each cuisine had on another was noteworthy too. Chef Avraj Singh Marwa, a Sikh by religion but a fourth-generation Kenyan national, said Kenyan food has a mix of different cuisines. “We got a few ingredients and cooking styles from Persians and the Chinese, as they used to travel back in time… but the major influence on Kenyan cuisine has been of Arabs, Indians and the locals,” said Marwa. They also have a lot of greens in their food. Just like Indians prepare sarson ka saag, Kenyans have a similar preparation of pumpkin leaves. “We are not very big on spices, but we believe in a lot of herbal properties being put into food just like Indians use turmeric,” Marwa added.
Given the ability of food and cuisines to transcend borders, it wasn’t surprising that most chefs managed to find the ingredients they wanted to use in the food mecca of Punjab. Chefs from Ecuador said the only ingredient they outsourced from their home country was salsa de maní, or peanut sauce. Similarly, chefs from Syria blended in by preparing fattoush salad from ingredients and vegetables available in Amritsar, with only sumak—their traditional spice that has a tangy-cum-sour taste—outsourced.
Interestingly, the one catalyst that helps food surpass borders and communities is travel, which is slowly transforming the world into a large global village. “Food has been transported, shifted and has reached regions, which are very uncommon to see… the travel industry makes a lot of changes to the food culture because people who travel and have food elsewhere wish to have the same food in their home country,” explained Gugler. The merging of food and cultures, hence, does two things. One, it gives people a peek into the diverse history that a country boasts of. And second, it results in the inception of fusion food. “The cataplana we use is used in India as well. So how did it get to Portugal? We were invaded by the Moors who probably got it from India. So if you look at history, there are a lot of influences that intertwine, which are related to culture,” said chef Fausto Luigi Airoldi from Portugal. Similar cases of accidental discovery are seen in the cuisines of Nagaland and Bhutan that deploy different cooking techniques and use different types of meat, but keep the spice content high in everything they cook.
Armenian chefs also prepared a dish of pumpkin and rice, bringing to mind a pumpkin curry eaten with rice in parts of Jammu. Chef Pankaj Sharma from Ladakh noted that their cuisine, too, has a lot of Mongol influences who, in turn, had Chinese influx in their food, which resulted in Ladakhi cuisine being largely inspired by the cuisines of Mongolia and China.
“Food is the basic identity of a human being. That’s why countries are also known by their food… it’s the basic thing. Human beings can become as technologically advanced as possible, but at the end of the day, everyone likes to eat their food well,” said Manjit Gill, president, Indian Federation Culinary Associations, the host for the event.