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Putting India on the food map

After Gastronomika and with World Food India coming up, times are good...

brunch Updated: Oct 29, 2017 11:43 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
gastronomika,venkatesh verma,san sebastian
The popular dish Viskira of ITC Hotels was demonstrated by chef Manjit Gill at Gastronomika in Spain

Several months ago, Venkatesh Varma, Indian Ambassador to Spain, phoned me. I knew him slightly from his Delhi postings but not well enough to get a call out of the blue. What, I wondered, was this about?

It transpired that Venkatesh, showing great imagination and enterprise, had managed to get Gastronomika to make India its featured country this year. As most foodies know, Gastronomika, held in San Sebastian each year, is one of the culinary world’s most prestigious events. An invited audience attends a series of seminars and demonstrations where some of the world’s greatest chefs present their latest discoveries and creations.

I had never been to Gastronomika before but I had seen films about it including a memorable TV show where David Chang, the top New York chef (of Momofuku fame) presented a new technique for preserving pork and sweated nervously at the prospect of addressing such a high powered seminar.

What did “featured country” actually mean? I asked Venkatesh if it meant that Indian chefs would go up on stage and be treated on par with the great global chefs who were presenting.

Yes, it did, said Venkatesh. Even as we spoke, he explained, the Gastronomika team, which had finished a research trip to India, was drawing up a shortlist of chefs who were deemed good enough to attend.

This was clearly a major coup. How had Venkatesh swung this? He made modest noises before getting to the point of the call. Many of the Gastronomika delegates, he said, came from countries where Indian food was not so well-known. He wanted to use this opportunity to promote India as a food country. He was very excited that Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the cabinet minister for Food Processing would also be attending Gastronomika. He had arranged a press conference, he said, where Mrs. Badal would speak about the opportunities offered by India. Would I attend and also speak about the Indian food scene?

Would I attend Gastronomika?

You bet I would!

(From left) Basque Minister of Culture, Indian Ambassador to Spain Venkatesh Varma and Vir Sanghvi at the press conference of the event.

Fine, said Vekatesh. He would write to Gastronomika and I would hear from them.

Then, for months, nothing happened. I concluded that after Venkatesh had suggested my name, the folks at Gastronomika had laughed snidely and dismissed the idea and that was that.

Then, one day (while I was tasting sauces in the Thai town of Sriracha for this column) a lady from the Spanish tourist office phoned. She had been asked to invite me to San Sebastian for Gastronomika, she said.

Oh really, I responded, cheering up slightly. Which Indian chefs had been selected?

Harsimrat Kaur Badal has made it her mission to tell the world about India’s food scene.

She had no idea, she said. She had just been told to phone me. And eventually, the Spanish Tourist Office would choose a few journos of its own to send along. It would all take a little time, she said, but I would hear again from her.

Meanwhile, lots of other things happened. Mrs. Badal asked to see me to talk about World Food India 2017, a huge event that her ministry had planned. I knew that she had made it her mission to tell the world about India’s food scene (she has gone on six trips to various countries and her ministry has run 10 road shows) so I said that I looked forward to seeing her in Gastronomika.

“I am afraid not,” she responded. “I have to attend a food conference in Cologne and it is proving to be too difficult to fly from there to San Sebastian. But good you mentioned it. Let me call the Ambassador.”

And so as I watched, slightly startled, she phoned Venkatesh with her regrets. He must have been disappointed because I heard her say reassuringly, “Well, Mr. Sanghvi will be there. He is speaking so it will be all right.”

The famous Murgh Tikka of Bukhara, ITC Maurya, Delhi, was presented by chef JP Singh.

I feared Venkatesh may have been even more disheartened hearing that!

Then, various chefs started telling me that they had been selected. In London, Sriram Aylur told me that Srijith Gopinath (the two Michelin star chef from San Francisco’s Campton Place) and he had been invited. I heard that Thomas Zacharias, the brilliant Bombay Canteen chef, was going. Gaggan Anand said he would be attending. At Masala Library, Saurabh Udinia, perhaps the best young chef in India told me he was going. At Bukhara, JP Singh, who looks after Bukhara and all the Peshawaris, told me that at ITC, they were over the moon. The Gastronomika team had visited all their restaurants and picked five chefs including the great Manjit Gill. There would be JP himself, Ghulam from Dum Pukht and two others.

By the time I finally got to San Sebastian (a lovely town which I have written about in my other column The Taste on the HT website), I was proud of our chefs, excited to be there and terrified by the thought of holding forth about Indian food to a foreign audience.

Fortunately, Venkatesh took me out for a very good dinner the night before and if he was disappointed at being stuck with me rather than the high level representation he had wanted, he hid it well.

He was warm and reassuring, which worked well till the press conference the following day, where, with my heart beating faster each second, I managed to explain to an audience of mainly non-English speakers (with headphones for simultaneous translation!) how complex Indian food was. Venkatesh and the Basque Minister of Culture (who had spoken first) looked on benignly. Afterwards, I even took questions!

Chef Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen performed at Gastronomika .

Once the nerve-wracking part was over, Gastronomika was fun. The ITC chefs cooked street food by the sea, they gave elaborate and well-received demonstrations on stage and great Spanish chefs came to pay court to Manjit Gill. (It was his birthday during Gastronomika so, at an official dinner, they ceremonially cut a cake and made much of him.)

Prawns prepared by chef Srijith Gopinath.

The Indian chefs were truly impressive. Gaggan is a master performer so there were no surprises there. But Thomas, who spoke about the largely unknown dishes of middle India, was terrific. Young Saurabh (he has just turned 30 though he has run the Masala Library kitchens for several years) was outstanding. Everything that could go wrong technologically went wrong during Srijith’s presentation but he is such a great chef that he still pulled it off.

Sriram did an amazing presentation and his food was outstanding. (Not only do the chefs perform but they also make 300 small portions of each dish for the audience.)

Chef Manish Mehrotra talked about Indian flavours at the event.

My own favourite of the presentations was Manish Mehrotra’s clear and precise talk on Indian flavours and their complexities.

I had one slightly emotional moment when I went on stage to introduce the pioneering London chef, Vineet Bhatia, and spoke about his massive influence and about the many modern Indian classic dishes he had created. “Yaar, tu mujhe rula dega!” Vineet said and at that moment, I felt pretty much as he did.

I got back to Delhi and went to Mrs. Badal’s ministry to hear about her labour of love. World Food India is a global event, held partly in Vigyan Bhawan with 2,000 participants from all over the world. Over 800 companies will attend and the event is massive in its scope. The Prime Minister will inaugurate it and the closing address will be delivered by the President.

There is now so much interest in India both as a source of food and as a destination for global food products that word is that the Prime Minister will announce that India has welcomed 10 billion US dollars in foreign investment. The jostling within the global food industry to attend the event suggests that more investment may also be on the way. The foreign companies are lobbying for some relaxation of the regulations (for instance, a food retailer should be allowed to sell up to 25 per cent of non-food, personal care items), which I think will eventually happen.

(From left) Chef Gulam Qureshi, chef JP Singh, chef Manjit Gill, chef Praveen Anand and chef Varun Mohan at Gastronomika, San Sebastian.

But while all the government to business stuff will happen at Vigyan Bhavan, World Food India will also take up 40,000 square metres of the garden area near India Gate for exhibitions and displays. One of the highlights will be a 4,000 square metres area which will become a food street curated by Sanjeev Kapoor with stalls from all over India. There are plans too for chefs and hoteliers to speak.

Among those scheduled to perform or speak are Ranveer Brar, Satish Arora, Kunal Kapoor, Kapil Chopra, Anuraag Bhatnagar, Zorawar Kalra, Anahita Dhondy and Himanshu Taneja.

So first Gastronomika and now World Food India. Suddenly, Indian food is everywhere!

From HT Brunch, October 29, 2017

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First Published: Oct 28, 2017 22:01 IST