Hungry Planet | Oscar Valles Rodriguez
Madrid-based chef Oscar Vallés Rodríguez has been cooking professionally since he was 18. He specializes in cooking simple Mediterranean food, made with the freshest ingredients. He is on a mission to teach the world the joys of uncomplicated food. His theory is that if you eat lobsters every day, you will get sick of them. A fisherman will never eat lobsters. And you will not tire of dishes that the fisherman eats at home.
On his first visit to India, he tells Lounge what makes Spanish food and wine special. Edited excerpts:
Spanish tango: Gazpacho, a tomato-based cold soup; and (below) chef Rodríguez.
What lies at the heart of Spanish cooking?
The essence of Spanish food is that it is prepared very naturally. It’s simple food, but the ingredients are fresh. I always tell people who want to be chefs that the first step to cooking is knowing the ingredients. Take a tomato—it has skin, which is a thick, hard layer; then pulp, which is very tender and sweet, and in the centre a seedy liquid which is very acidic. When you think about a tomato, you think about all this and only then can you understand what you can prepare with it.
What is the Spanish technique?
There are many. In Andalusia in southern Spain, they do a lot of frying. There is nothing like a fried fish in Andalusia—that’s one of the biggest pleasures you can ever have. In Catalonia you can have some incredible soups. And they are cooked over a long time. In northern Spain, they cook meat on stone. And in central Spain, food is cooked in very, very big ovens. In all Spanish regions we know about all these techniques and in every plate you can introduce as many of these as you like.
Now, there is a new technique that we use. We suck the air out of an ingredient and put it in a bag. This can be then cooked at 75 degrees (Celsius; the temperature at which the body begins to burn) for 30 or 40 hours. It becomes very, very tender. It’s excellent.
What are the typical meals eaten in Spain every day?
What characterizes us in Spain is that we are eating all day. But it’s a good, healthy diet. Most people have coffee and milk in the morning—with a sandwich and a piece of fruit. Another fruit mid-morning and something simple like yogurt or a small sandwich in the evening. Lunch and dinner will usually be fish or meat.
And what is festive food?
The three constituents of Spanish festivals are music, food and wine. The food is different in each region. In Barcelona, bread with tomato is a festive dish. It looks very simple, but it is not just a piece of bread with a slice of tomato. It is important to have big bread—cut it into pieces of 2cm and toast it so that it becomes crispy. You then cut a ripe tomato and grate the pulp of the tomato on the bread. Add salt and olive oil. In Madrid, what is typical is very tender pork cooked in big ovens.
What’s the best drink to go with this?
The Spanish people have the best wines in the world but they are not big drinkers.
Won’t the French be upset with you for saying that Spanish wines are the best?
The French often make mistakes. And they are neighbours, we are used to fighting, but they are nice people. They don’t have the best cheese and they don’t have the best wines. And they are not the most important people in the world. The sun in Spain is much better than what the French have. And to get sweet grapes you need the sun. Therefore, Spanish wines are far superior to French wines.
2kg ripe tomatoes
100g red pepper
100g green pepper
3 large onions
2 cloves of garlic
2 tsp olive oil
1 litre water
Salt to taste
Cut the tomatoes in halves. Peel and remove the ends of the cucumber, cut in half and remove seeds. Cut the red and green peppers in half, deseed, wash and cut into quarters. Peel onion and garlic. Add water and salt and blend all the ingredients until you get a smooth soup. Add olive oil and refrigerate. Serve when chilled.