In uncharted territory

Tasked with curating the India episode of ‘Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted’, Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy  wondered what food adventures could they dish out to a Michelin star chef?

Gordon Ramsay is no stranger to India. In his 2010 series Gordon’s Great Escape, he learnt Lucknowi biryani, Rajasthani khud gosht, Bastar’s chapda chutney to blood sausages in Nagaland. In South India, he tried sattvik fare and cooked on a houseboat in Kumarakom. For Uncharted, Gordon would undertake a culinary adventure in remote parts of the world learning food secrets from emerging chefs and locals, ending in a Big Cook with his take on the region’s cuisine.

The Season 2 of the series would take him to Tasmania, South Africa, Louisiana, Guyana, West Sumatra, Norway and one wondered how India would match up. We drove via Coorg to Kannur in mid-October last year on a weeklong recce. The Mapilas, Kerala’s second-largest community, are known for their unique cuisine. But Uncharted went beyond the food to the source with emphasis on foraging.

Though kakka irachi (fried clams) is a kallu shaap (toddy shop) favourite, Valiyaparamba backwaters where women dove in shallow riverbeds for the elambakka (clams) was too far north. Kannur’s legendary thattukadas (food stalls) serve typical Malabari snacks like pazham pori (banana fritters) and ari kaduka — green mussels stuffed with rice dough. At Ezhara Beach, local fishermen rued the late monsoon’s effect on the sea’s salinity and the reduced spawning of the kallumakai (green mussels). They ventured on a two-hour boat ride to rocks mid-sea for a sizeable catch, holding their breaths for 4-5 minutes in each dive. Too dangerous and time-consuming!

Coorg Pandi curry

Our friends Nasir and Rosie acquainted us with some local fishermen. The best kallumakai came from Thottada and none knew these waters better than 70-year-old Moiuddin or Moidu ka. His group used the caravela or dragnet technique — two men waded in to spread out a wide net that the crew dragged in an arc to dredge the catch ashore. Moidu ran an eatery in Bengaluru before he settled for a quiet life by the sea. “Those were wild days when he was “Yeshwantpur ka Don,” his vivacious wife Shakila teased the mellowed Moidu, clearly showing who was boss now! He humoured her by baring his battle-scarred body — reminders of drunken brawls at his eatery. We told them about a crazy British chef who would learn the ropes from him —perhaps Shakila could teach him a fish curry? On the itinerary was a kachhkada serving fruit pickled in brine and chilli. Just the spice test Gordon needed (though he never made it to the kachh, a fiery red tamarind chutney used as a topping.)

In Coorg, we were early to harvest honey with the Jenu Kurubas. Monsoon-centric activities like hunting for bemble (bamboo shoot), kumme (mushrooms), kembu (colocasia) and termay (fiddlehead fern) or collecting ripe Garcinia fruits to make kachampuli, Coorg’s signature black vinegar, was out. Seasonality dictated our choices and we couldn’t ask Gordon to come back in the rains! Coorg’s legendary pandi (pork) curry was on the menu but didn’t really have a foraging or adventure angle. Besides coffee, bitter limes would be in season, so we opted for chutta kaipuli pajji — the smoky flavoured chutney made with roasted bitter lime and Kodagu’s delicious kumbla (pumpkin) curry.

Vonekk Yerchi
or smoked pork

On the pre-shoot scout in mid-November, the production team unanimously chose Coorg as the Big Cook locale. The network zeroed in on Chef Sri Bala from Chennai, an authority on ancient Chola cuisine and Kerala local Harish. The India shoot was sandwiched between Indonesia and Guyana. 

Come coffee picking season, estate workers are beset by ant nests. Enter chigli (Weaver Ant) chutney, a dish not native to the Kodavas but consumed by the Gowda community from neighbouring Malnad. He dubbed his attempt to catch the ant nest ‘the funniest TikTok dance ever’. Pavithra from Mudigere helped us make the chutney in a grindstone. Eventually, chigli chutney was the ace up Gordon’s sleeve though he didn’t bargain for the ants in his pants! At the Big Cook, the graceful Kodava ladies fearlessly critiqued his pandi curry. “Less kachampuli, more spice… ’cos we are all spicy ladies,” they chimed in. Ramsay promised to return with his mum. The latest in the grapevine is that he plans to open a restaurant in Kerala! Wouldn’t that be a coup?