Gastronomic Alliances: From the Netherlands to India

Chef Fabio Antonini of the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance talks about his recent trip to Asia…

Despite living in Amsterdam for almost 15 years, chef Fabio Antonini hasn’t lost his Italian accent or his love of coffee.  Fabio, who lives in the city with his wife Laura Martini, is the manager of Pianeta Terra (Planet Earth), a restaurant located in the heart of the city in an old 17th century building.

Fabio was born in the kitchen: at 13, he spent his free time in his uncle’s restaurant in Rome, and at 18, he moved to London, where he decided to pursue a career in cooking. Today, he is one of the ambassadors of the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance and one of the promoters of the project in the Netherlands, believing that “alone you never get too far.”

Fabio recently travelled to India, to share his experience with the Slow Food network in the country and to oversee the first steps in launching a new Alliance in India. From Chennai to the cultural brilliance of Delhi and the municipality of Shillong (in the state of Meghalaya), Fabio’s trip was intense: culinary soirees, presentations, conferences and meetings with chefs from isolated villages all laid the foundations for the development of the network of chefs in India, set to be constructed in the next few months.

We got in touch with him on his return to find out more…

Upon arriving in Chennai, Fabio shared his experiences to an audience of 650 chefs who had gathered at the National Conference of the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations. Next it was on to Delhi.

“Delhi was a whirlwind experience: fast, like so many megalopolises in big capital cities, “ he explains. “The atmosphere was extremely interesting, above all because of the variety of vegetable products and their uses. There are already four of five chefs ready to start who work with local small producers.” First in line are Gunjan Goela, an expert on the cuisine in the area; Pallavi Mithika Menon, a young chef who, after completing a master’s degree at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy, actively participated with Slow Food to coordinate the project; and Manjit Gill, a chef who manages the kitchens of one of the main hotel chains in the country. “Manjit is extraordinary: every day he continues to look for new inspiration and unknown recipes, getting to know the producers in person.”

“India is a little bit like Italy: they always talk about food, and if they don’t talk about it, it’s only because their mouths are full!” Indeed, with more than 2,000 ethnic groups, 35 states, and a long history of cultural exchanges and differing religions, India is a mosaic of infinite culinary expressions. Even within the same city, dishes change from neighborhood to neighborhood. Fabio also told us how surprised he was by the use of spices in the south, where there are over 2,000 curry blends available. “In the south they use coconut a lot, they also have different names for different preparations depending on the ripeness. In Shillong, however, there are many fermented products: they make chutney from fish fermented in a particular local salt.  They also use animal blood a lot to cream different types of wild rice—in particular chicken’s blood or pig’s blood—and cook many types of produce in bamboo stalks which they place near the fire.”

When you travel to Shillong everything changes. Within the confines of Bangladesh, where the population is Christian, it doesn’t feel very Indian; the cities are small and in reality, it is very rural and tribal. Here Fabio was able to visit a series of small restaurants, like bars and cafés, which make up part of the network of the North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS), which showcases local food. “The situation is urgent,” Fabio explains. “The local biodiversity is disappearing and indigenous products are becoming obsolete; everyone chooses to eat noodles with chicken—fast food products—and in the city, eating indigenous food is considered an embarrassment. And yet here, each community has its own ingredients. Extraordinary products like the Khasi mandarin (listed on the Ark of Taste, which has recently become a Slow Food Presidium), honey from the wild bees of Nilgiri (gathered in a fascinating way), banana flowers or tomatoes that grow on trees. Slow Food is cataloging all these products on the Ark of Taste.”

Among the network of four or five cafés, a sense of resistance exists as they try to reintroduce different foods. NESFAS, along with Terra Madre, is doing great work here: first and foremost, they are developing a cultural awareness to make these chefs feel proud of the choices they make. Hygiene courses and other activities have also been provided to urge chefs to talk about unusual concepts. Fabio is familiar with resistance: when he opened up his place in Amsterdam, he chose to utilize organic raw materials procured directly from producers, even in one of the most industrialized countries in Europe.

However, in the end, Fabio continues, the problems of a chef—whether in the extremely international Amsterdam, the megalopolis of Delhi or the remote Shillong—are all the same: logistics, ties with the territory, relationships with producers… “We are chefs. We get our hands dirty everyday, although I realize that for me it’s much simpler. In three hours by car, I can travel through my region, and if a producer can’t get me the raw ingredients, it’s not a big deal. In India, however, things can be trickier. For example, when we broke the pasta machine, there weren’t any more available in the entire region! And yet we had fun all together in the kitchen, it was an incredible experience: pork by the meter in the market and pasta made entirely by hand for the event!”

His feelings upon returning? Countless. “I discovered and tasted so many products that I had never heard of. But above all I brought home a new energy—it was a captivating embrace from mother India, contact with real, tangible humanity. Even though I was far away, I felt at home.”

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