Viewers of the National Geographic TV channel have the chance to catch Gordon Ramsay, famous celebrity chef, in the latest Unchartered series, tackle the challenges of cooking curry in South West India. Tasks included cooking weaver ants, a local delicacy in Karnataka, for a special chutney.
From the tropical beaches and port cities of Kerala and Karnataka along the coast of the Arabian Sea to the interior hills of Coorg, this region has served as one of the world’s leading exporters of spices, including pepper, chili, and cardamon, for more than 3,000 years. “Nature has given us more spices because of the climactic conditions. You’re in the spice hub,” says Chef Shri Bala, a TV host and food historian whose culinary calling started at an early age by learning recipes from the ground-breaking Indian cookbook written by her great aunt.
Despite being a global spice capital, the cuisine of southwest India is more than simply “hot,” and has delicate nuances in how flavours are balanced. In the programme Shri Bala challenges Ramsay to learn not only about the importance of spices to this area, but also how locals blend them with other ingredients to cope with the warm climate, and how one small addition can change the flavour of a dish. Ultimately, Shri Bala tells Ramsay it will be up to him to convince the women of a local artisan food collective that he can master the regional food ways.
In Kerala, Ramsay tastes a fish curry tempered with coconut milk, which lightens and sweetens the dish. In Coorg, where pork-based pandi curry is beloved, bitter limes become the cooling agent, and leads Ramsay to liken the combined bitter and spicy notes to composing music. Even roadside snacks, like sliced pineapple, can be immersed in chili water to create a refreshing spicy-sweet taste on a dusty, hot day.
Even though his introduction to the Kerala city of Kannur involved a mouthful of chili, Ramsay embraces the heat like a local once he immerses himself in the methods of balancing piquant elements. “It’s been fascinating to see how Mother Nature handles the heat here, providing spices that help cool the body and other cooling agents that magically balance that fire,” he says. “What I’ve really understood more is what this region has to offer in terms of some of the best ingredients to create some of the most mouth-watering dishes I’ve ever tasted.”