When the organizers of India Fiesta Latina got in touch with Leela Ambience Gurgaon for a venue for their salsa performances and workshops, Chef Ramon Alvarez of the hotel pricked up his ears. Alvarez is from Spain (Barcelona, in fact, and he’s done a stint at El Bulli but that’s another story) and his wife is from Columbia, so Latin American cuisine and ingredients are uppermost in his consciousness. “It is unbelievable the variety of fruits you can buy at a traffic light in Bogota, and so cheaply too” he told Upper Crust recently. He sensed an opportunity to tie in food, cooking, wine and cigars in one fell swoop, at the same time that the dancers from Latin America were performing, and so was born what I consider the most well thought through food extravaganzas in the National Capital Region in a long while. It was in operation at the same time as the India Fiesta Latina, also held at the hotel and could be considered a double whammy.
Hosting ambassadors from nineteen countries in South America for a meeting set off tidal wave of help. Argentina offered its wines for a wine dinner, Cuba gave its cigars, five chefs from Ecuador, Mexico, Columbia, Peru and Dominican Republic showed up with overstuffed suitcases groaning with ingredients that you can’t buy in India for love or money and diners from the NCR were given a taste of not just food but a close-up look at South American culture.
What worked so well was that Executive Chef Alvarez is as familiar with Columbia and the other countries as with India. So the one word of advice that he gave to the five chefs was to have plenty of vegetarian options. For the days of the promotion, all five open kitchens of Spectra were given to each of the visiting chefs to showcase their food. You can never be too prepared or too cautious as they learnt during their short stint in Gurgaon.
South America already looks set to be the next big holiday destination for Indian travellers, so it was exciting to get a glimpse of the cuisines of four of the countries. Chef Vicky Acosta packed a modest amount of the ants that are a delicacy when fried, in Columbia and regretted not having packed more when supplies ran out within half an hour. “I had made potatoes stuffed with peanuts and ants, never imagining how popular they would turn out,” she said, beaming. Acosta’s restaurant in the Columbian city of Cali incorporates traditional dishes that Acosta learns on her travels to remote parts of her country, as well as Asian touches like Thai nam pla that she discovered while cooking in parts of South East Asia.
From the Mexican section, Chef Gerardo Lugo’s chicken mole was a best seller. “I can understand the fascination with this dish which can, I guess, be compared to a curry, with some similarities and some differences,” he intoned. A gravy dish with chicken as its main ingredient and ginger, cinnamon and cumin besides onions, had a resonance with the Indian palate. The tiny tortillas that he kept turning out kept disappearing at an amazing rate too. It was Lugo who presented the big picture about Latin American food. “From the dawn of civilization, dozens of varieties of corn, chillies and potatoes were the key ingredients in all the cuisines of South America. The equation changed once the Spanish arrived. With them came cinnamon and cloves, as well as the technique of soffrito – starting a dish with softening the flavouring agents like onions and tomatoes with gentle sautéing.” According to him, the Spanish set about creating infrastructure in the area for which slaves were brought in. At least one part of South American cuisine is based on the diet of the slaves, which continues stubbornly into the present day.
No prizes for guessing what Chef Javier Ampuero’s most popular dish was. “If it’s Peru, it’s got to be ceviche,” were his words of wisdom. For good measure, he alternated between regular ceviche with lime juice and salt to ‘cook’ the cubed fish and the Japanese version, called Nikkei. Apparently, there is a large population of Japanese settlers in Peru and their version of ceviche has its base in the food that Nobu made world famous! Chef Ampuero has kindly given Upper Crust readers his recipe for Nikkei ceviche. “In my country,” he tells Upper Crust, “chillies are used in soffrito, there is a touch of locally grown cumin in some dishes, while cinnamon is used for desserts.”
Felipe Rivandeneira from Ecuador was mercilessly teased by the others for being the most personable of the lot. Whether he was or not, he certainly had made a name for himself in the region for hosting a cooking show on television. The impression that remains of all the chefs was how, from not knowing one another before their trip to Gurgaon, to becoming close friends and bonding over shared jokes on a What’sApp chat group that appeared to cause much mirth. Chef Felipe Rivandeneira hit the nail on the head when he told Upper Crust that the flavours of Latin America occupied an interesting spot on the continuum of familiar flavours. “Too familiar and you may as well be eating at home; too exotic and you may feel uncomfortable.” Certainly his mixed seafood paella-style rice dish was familiar enough in the mix of squid, shrimps and fish in a glorious golden concoction, yet distinctively different in the flavours that lurked within it.
After the festival, the chefs were taken to Agra and Jaipur to get a taste of the host country. One wonders if they found anything remotely familiar in either town!