First it was CNN International and Reza Aslan telling us how we pray. Then it was Fox Life and Italian chef David Rocco and Australian Sarah Todd telling us how we eat. If I was made of frailer stuff, my kitchen and my taste buds would cave in. This is of course not the first time that a foreigner has come and waxed eloquent on our food. Floyd did it for years. Sweating into various utensils and stoves set up by the side of the road, cooking up increasingly dodgy curries and telling the free world that that’s how we Indians ate.
It was essentially defamation by curry.
Yet, it seems that finally we may just have a cooking show with a foreign chef which gets Indian food right. The chef isn’t totally foreign though, since his name is Kiran Jethwa, who has an English mother and an Indian father. Which explains the name. But that’s where the Indian-ness stops. Jethwa is a third-generation Kenyan, born in Nairobi and is a chef-restaurateur and like most chef-TV anchors, owns a number of restaurants in Kenya.
The new show which has him like most other visiting chef/TV hosts to India, travelling through India and telling us new things about our country, is called Spirited Traveller. What’s odd is that Fox Life’s sister channel, Nat Geo People, is airing Jethwa’s other show, Fearless Chef, at the same time. Who knows the method behind the madness in the minds of these programming geniuses.
I watched the first two episodes of the show and have to say that contrary to what I believed, it’s quite an interesting watch. Owing a great deal to the fact that Jethwa is exceedingly easy on the eye, but also to the fact that he doesn’t mess around with the food like David Rocco who made a pasta using coriander leaves and chopped green chili. Or look surprised by Indian practices like Oprah did to see that we eat with our hands!
Now I’ve scripted a number of food shows and I know how difficult it is for the research team to keep finding new places to visit and activities to include. After all, how many different and visually appealing dishes are there in Bengal or Kashmir and how many different stories are there to tell? But I have to give it to the Spirited Traveller team, that they’ve managed to find something new in at least the two episodes I watched. The other problem with a foreign team shooting in India, is that they usually get a local guide or point person whose responsibility it is to make you meet the right people and get the right stories and the facts of the place. The wrong guide will get you gems such as Aslan telling us that all ghats are cremation sites. Fox Life seems to have got its research straight.
The first episode was set in Kerala. Where Jethwa went on the backwaters with fishermen to catch the fish Karimeen by diving into the waters. This was followed by him heading to Kumarakom to taste and extract toddy and then to one of Kerala’s duck farms. The format is simple. Jethwa learns one authentic recipe from an Indian chef – in the case of the Kerala episode, it is chef Naveen who teaches him how to make Karimeen in a banana leaf with a spicy cooked marinade (as opposed to a raw marinade which will be cooked later with the meat). He then ends the episode by cooking a dish with the same ingredients or technique. Following his many travels through Kerala, Jethwa made a duck confit with toddy phulka using the same technique he learnt from Naveen.
The Goa episode had Jethwa give up on travelling through Goa. He instead played a spot of football on the beach and then tried some kokum cocktails and helped cook a spicy prawn with kokum at a beach shack. He then went on to visit a coconut rum factory and a feni farm. And then a visit to a Goan fish market where he picked up a King Mackerel with which he cooked a Kingfish ceviche with kokum pesto, flavoured with Urak, the sour Bimla fruit and chopped white haldi. For a cook, there is nothing as delightful and attractive as seeing someone fillet a fish without a misstep.
Second episode in I also got why the show is called Spirited Traveller. Because along with the food, Jethwa seems to be trying quite a lot of alcohol in each state or city. Which is a welcome change from the usual food shows, which seem to veer clear of any alcohol being shown. And for a country with different kinds of alcohol indigenous to each state, it’s great that a show has finally realized that here lies some unexplored terrain. Also, and as importantly, the recipes make sense.
Fox Life seems to have hit on a winner. The next two episodes are in Mumbai and in Nagaland, respectively, and look quite promising. Should you watch it? I’d say yes. And not just because Jethwa is a feast for the eyes.
You can watch Spirited Traveller every Monday and Tuesday at 9pm on Fox Life.