Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Dried Ants, Chillies Galore and Much More at The Leela Gurgaon's Fiesta Latina

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

The Leela Gurgaon's Executive Chef, Ramon
Salto Alvarez, has put together Fiesta Latina, which
is being billed as India's first Latin American food
festival. It features celebrity chefs from Colombia,
Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru.
WHEN Gerardo Vasquez Lugo landed in Delhi a couple of nights ago, he had no change of clothes in his baggage, for there was room only for ingredients he had flown in from Mexico for what is possibly Delhi-NCR's first exposure to the vast wealth of Latin American cuisines at The Leela Gurgaon.
When The Leela Gurgaon's good-humoured general manager, Michel Koopman, brought in Ramon Salto Alvarez, the jolly Catalan chef who started out as an apprentice at Ferran Adria's El Bulli in 1993 and was heading Austrian-American super chef Jean Georges Vongerichten's restaurants at the W Doha before moving base, we knew there would be lots of action.
It took Chef Ramon, whose Latin American connection is his Colombian wife, four months to conceptualise a celebration of food and wine to coincide with the Fiesta Latina dance festival. It took a presentation made by him over breakfast to convince ambassadors of the 19 Latin American countries represented in New Delhi that they were on to a good thing. "Five of them hadn't even been to Gurgaon till that day," Koopman said with that unmissable twinkle in his eye. "It was like the Wild West for them." After Fiesta Latina, which will be on from April 5 to 19 at the hotel's all-day multi-cuisine restaurant, Spectra, Gurgaon will cease to be a stranger for Delhi-NCR's Latin American community.
The results of Chef Ramon's hard work are there for all of us to see, all labelled and stacked neatly on open shelves in his office. These are ingredients that have travelled half-way across the world with five visiting chefs from countries whose food not many of us have had the chance to sample. Chef Ramon's shelves have dried ants, chantaduro (peach palm) and panderito biscuits waiting to be used by the Colombian chef, Vicky Acosta, who's young and bubbly but already a celebrity in her home town Cali. She draws her ingredients and influences equally from the Pacific Ocean and her country's African heritage.
The shelves are also filled up with 25 kilos of pastes of different kinds of chillies, which have come with the ambassador of Peruvian cuisine, Javier Ampuero, whose magical bag has quinoa in eight different colours and ingredients such as purple sweet corn paste and papa seca (dried potatoes), which he requires to showcase his country's Nikkei cuisine, which marries the cooking styles of his country's Peruvian and Japanese communities.
Javier Ampuero, who's regarded as Peru's
culinary ambassador, will present his brand of
Nikkei cuisine, which marries Peruvian and
Japanese gastronomic traditions. Peru has a
large Japanese community and has even
elected a president of Japanese origin.
Chef Gerardo, with whom I started my story, has come with about a dozen different kinds of chillies plus bags full of nopales (prickly pear cactus), poblano chilli peppers, avocado leaves and dried persimmon powder. Amaranth and chia seeds are the other goodies in his bag, and he's ready to reveal how far they can go  And yes, the first thing he did after landing in Delhi was to go and buy a wardrobe for himself at Ambience Mall, Gurgaon, followed by Dilli Haat. "You wouldn't have had chillies without Mexico," the chef said with a gentle smile, underlining the culinary links between two great ancient civilisations that know so little about each other.
Just like Chef Gerardo, the guru of traditional Mexican cuisine, who draws his inspiration from the culinary legacies of the ancient Olmec, Mayan, Zapotec and Purepecha cultures, Ines Paes Nin ('Chef Tita') from the Dominican Republic is the young pioneer of the New Dominican Cuisine, which has brought local produce and traditional cuisines back in fashion in her Caribbean island nation, where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492 to start the saga of the New World.
Likewise, Chef Felipe Rivandeneira from Ecuador is the quintet's other young gastronomic guru. The chef still had his carry-on bag with him when I met him and heard him talk excitedly about New Andean Cuisine and the unique gastronomic tradition of the enchanted island of Galapagos, where Darwin had found the evidence he needed for his theory of evolution.
Delhi has had infrequent exchanges with Latin American culture. New Delhi is the only city in the world outside Mexico to have a street named after one of its nation builders, Benito Juarez. Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz, who lived in Delhi as Mexico's ambassador to India in 1962-65, completed two of his acclaimed works -- El mono gramático (The Monkey Grammarian) and Ladera este (Eastern Slope) -- during his stint here and had a profound impact on the Bengali poets and writers who called themselves the 'Hungry Generation' or 'Hungryalists'.
In an earlier stint in India, when he was first secretary at the Embassy of Mexico in the early 1950s, a lesser-known Paz had facilitated a scholarship for Satish Gujral to study under the Mexican masters, Diego Rivera and David Sequeiros, and the young painter was an eyewitness to the combustible relationship between Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, with the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky also choosing to fish in these troubled waters.
The closest we got to experiencing Latin American food was courtesy of Saeed Sherwani, now the president of the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), who opened what must have been the country's first Tex-Mex restaurant, Rodeo, in Connaught Place, in 1994. In the early days of the restaurant, the Mexican chefs Roberto Treves and Sergio Snyder -- two gentlemen whom I won't ever be able to forget -- kept showing up at regular intervals at its kitchen, and they were the ones who were introduced us to the mole poblano, with which they cooked chicken.
Delhi never quite fell in love with Mexico's national dish, but 20 years on, with our taste buds having evolved dramatically and with Nobu putting Peruvian Nikkei cuisine on the world map, we seem to be ready for the fiesta that Chef Ramon and the five Latin American chefs now in residence at The Leela Gurgaon are about to lay out for us.