food fight

Causing a stir: When young chefs from 45 nations battled for the top title at a culinary Olympiad

Even though the contest was not televised, it held plenty of drama and nail-biting moments.

She had trained for this moment for the last six months, but time seemed to be slipping away from Puja Mishra as she hurried around the kitchen, trying to finish plating the chicken fricassee. Mishra was among the chefs chosen from 45 countries to compete in the International Young Chef Olympiad – for her, this contest was a matter of life and bread.

“I overshot the time limit by just one minute,” said Mishra, after the first of four competitions was over. Mishra had had 90 minutes to create four portions of the classic French comfort food, which figured somewhere between a sauté and a stew for the unacquainted. But like most simple recipes, the chicken fricasee required a certain finesse. The sauce had to be creamy, yet light, and the chicken browned to perfection.

A third year student at the International Institute of Hospitality Management and an organiser of the Olympiad, Mishra resolved that she would keep an eye on the clock and manage her time better in the remaining events. Also on the agenda was to create two omelettes flawless enough to feature on the menu of a five-star restaurant. Along with being judged on their ability to follow a recipe, the young chefs would also be tested on their basic technical skills.

Indian contestant Pooja Mishra.
Indian contestant Pooja Mishra.

Spread across IIHM campuses all over India, the Olympiad in late January was nothing like the cooking competitions on television – for one, there was almost no element of surprise, no big revelations. Each competitor knew which dish they would have to prepare, which ingredients they would require and how many portions of each dish would be presented to the judges. “Knowing the ingredients does bring some focus and we’ve been practising a lot, but it’s not easy really,” Mishra said. “These are difficult recipes that require technical know-how.”

With a panel comprising 13 judges, the Olympiad was for students who were training to work in professional kitchens. “We are looking for innovation and technique, but above all we are looking to see if they have basic practical culinary skills,” said David Foskett, a member of the Academy of Culinary Arts and chairman of the jury. The line-up of judges included Indian celebrity chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor, Ranveer Brar and Karen Anand.

“The focus is not on a particular cuisine or culture,” Foskett added. “The recipes have been carefully chosen to allow each contestant to display their culinary skills.” However, despite Foskett’s assurance, the chosen dishes – fricasse, pavlovas and risotto – had a distinctly Western flavour.

Panel of judges (Image courtesy: Facebook.com/ycolympiad
Panel of judges (Image courtesy: Facebook.com/ycolympiad

For the finalé, each contestant was asked to prepare various tapas dishes and a main dish. “Each lost minute meant a negative mark,” said Mishra. She created a a risotto cake, made with arborio rice, cheese and five-spice powder, fried until it was crisp on the outside, while retaining a creaminess within. Apart from this, she prepared a puy lentil dish, cooked al dente and served with a pea purée and perfectly flaky phyllo pastry cigar rolls, stuffed with spinach and feta cheese.

The dessert round, in which the chefs were asked to make a pavolva with lemon curd, was challenging for the chef from Kolkata. The pavlova is a delicate dessert which requires egg whites to be whisked along with sugar into snowy peaks, vanilla and some cornflour, but the real challenge lies in baking it perfectly – it must be crunchy, yet chewy at the centre. Finally, Mishra made it right and won the award for the best vegetarian dish.

Since the very first day, Tham Jiajun Mathew from Singapore had been the chef to watch for. “He was extremely competent, organised and calm and right from round one,” Mishra had said. When Mathew finally won the Olympiad, it came as no surprise to the contestants. Andrew Ou Kai Peng of Malaysia was the first runner-up and Selah Joy Schmoll from Canada came next.

In the 2016 edition of the Olympiad, Schmoll had been victorious. An excited Schmoll admitted to being a little nervous going into the competition. “We have been practising constantly,” said Schmoll. “We all have mentors who were helping us prepare for the competition. As cooks we want to think out of the box and do something new and different, but here we are also assessed on our ability to follow orders, a recipe, working seamlessly in a kitchen. Knowing the ingredients is only a small part of this.”

Despite the fact that she did not win, Mishra said the competition changed her for the better. “I have always been shy, but I feel after this I have gained the confidence to travel to any part of the world and interact with people,” said the budding professional chef.

Tham Jiajun Mathew of Singapore along with Andrew Ou Kai Peng of Malaysia and Selah Joy Schmoll of Canada.
Tham Jiajun Mathew of Singapore along with Andrew Ou Kai Peng of Malaysia and Selah Joy Schmoll of Canada.
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.