“I travelled to France, I travelled to my childhood in Colombia, I travelled to my experiences in India. I did a world tour in my head in literally one bite,” says Pablo Naranjo Agular. The Colombian-Hungarian chef is talking about eating a corn pancake with a yak meat and cheese soup in Arunachal Pradesh, but he could easily to talking about his entire life-changing trip to meet the tribal villagers of northeast India.
“I will never be the same human or the same chef that I was before the trip,” Naranjo Agular says of the two months he spent eating with, cooking for and learning from a series of generous villagers, monks and nuns. His hosts and guides shared an array of dishes and drinks that showed just how varied the food of India is, from a cold Asian-style noodle salad to a warm drink that’s kind of like beer, kind of like tea. He discovered, after enthusiastically biting into one, just how incredibly hot a local chilli is. He ate in mountain huts and tiny villages, and set up camp fires in fields and on river banks to cook thank-you dishes for his hosts.
While very few of us will ever have a chance to make a similar trip, Naranjo Agular’s life-changing adventure can help all of us love our own food more. When SBS Food chats to the globe-roaming chef, he recounts how eating pitha, a simple pancake-like snack made with just three or four ingredients, at a roadside stall in Assam early one morning was like “a slap in the face” – in a good way.
Naranjo Agular’s journey was filmed for a documentary series, and his mind-opening pitha experience happened on the very first day.
“I'd never tasted anything like that,” he says of the rice flour, jaggery and sesame cake.
“It was our first day of the shoot. I was completely lost. It was five o'clock in the morning, we're at a bus stop, and on the side of the bus stop, on the main road, these guys are making these beautiful steamed pitha … This pitha was completely against all the expectations that I could've possibly had,” he says.
To him it was amazing – but to the locals lining up for their own pitha, which is a popular snack in Bangladesh and Nepal as well as some parts of India, it was something they took for granted.
“The people eating it around us were like, ‘oh, you know…’. Like, how you have breakfast at home, and you don't really pay attention to what you're having? That was the beauty of it. It's something that it's so common for them and so beautiful for someone who's not from that culture. It kind of reminds you to open your eyes every morning and try to see what you have, and try to appreciate it for what it really is.” Later in his trip, villagers showed him their versions of pitha, and again, he says, he was amazed at the results from so few ingredients.
Another experience was more eye-watering than eye-opening. His travels take him to Assam, which is known for its tea. But in the small village of Jorhat, he discovers something else: one of the world’s hottest chillies. Discovers is really a poor word to describe the moment where his face changes from “oh not really tasting much heat” to “I am dying and I know I am on camera but I just can’t pretend I am not dying”. But what he remembers most about that day is not the burning mouth, but the dish he cooked at the end of the day. At each of his stops, Naranjo Agular cooks a dish combining local ingredients and his own techniques. In Jorhat it was pigeon with nuts and chilli; in other spots, everything from pancakes made with local corn and served with a jaggery and ginger syrup and cream cheese made from local yak milk, to a risotto using locally grown red rice and local beer.
“They were among the happiest people that I ever met in my life. They welcomed me into their houses, they cooked for me, I was really out of words to express how I felt in those moments, and even today when I look back, I’m still speechless. And, the only way I could thank them, or rather express my humble gratitude was to cook for them, and share food with them.”
Many of his experiences were just as much about the people as the food they shared, he says – something that’s always been at the heart of his own love of food.
“I've always believed that the main objective is not to cook a yummy meal, it's not to prepare food. I believe that I cook experiences for people.
“I fell in love with cooking because of both of my grandmothers. They used to work like crazy people just to bring the family together and create a beautiful moment. It was not so much for the food; it was way more deep than that. It was about bringing everyone together. There used to be all my cousins, uncles, my granddad, my grandmother, my parents, my sister, and we will always have a happy moment around the table. So, that's the moment I decided to become a chef.”
Naranjo Agular grew up in Bogota. “My mother is Hungarian and my dad is Colombian … but I had both families in the same city. So, as a ritual, we used to have these beautiful Colombian lunches on Saturday and on Sundays we used to have a beautiful Hungarian meal at my grandmother’s place! Most of my happy memories while growing up… they come from moments around those tables… with those meals,” he explains in Gourmet Goes Tribal, the documentary series that captured his Indian travels (watch it from December 23 on SBS Food Channel 33).
Along the way, dishes he eats here and there remind him of childhood flavours, especially one dish in the village of Lubran, in Arunachal Pradesh, while visiting the Brokpa tribe.
“This lady, she made this… thick soup, with lots of butter and lots of cheese and on the side, she made this dough with corn flour and boiling water that reminded me of arepas in my grandmother’s house. And what you had to do was to take some of the dough and just press it to make a spoon and eat this thick, warm, delicious soup with an edible spoon. It was just a magical moment.
“That smell of that corn transported me to my grandmother's house back in Colombia, when she was boiling the corn, and she was grinding it. And then, at the end, I was having [it with] this soup that had a very sophisticated flavouring - that yak cheese that they were putting in kind of had a French feeling to it.”
Naranjo Agular left home at 18, moving to France, where he lived for 10 years and became a chef. And India? That was initially meant to be just a short visit.
“I came here to help a friend that I met in cooking school back in Paris. She wanted some help to set up a small French cafe. I came here … and it's been four years now!” he tells us.
When we chat to Naranjo Agular, he’s in Mumbai, but about to hit the road again; earlier in the year, he decided to spend a few months travelling around Southeast Asia.
“I've been working really hard for the last 12 years of my life as a chef, and I wanted to take some steps back, learn, meet new people, cook for some of those people, increase my knowledge about different cultures, because this trip [to northeast India] changed me and I feel a very pure feeling of responsibility, to help in promoting traditional cultures, preserving them. And finding the beauty in things that probably locals won't find.”
"It's just so beautiful to see that everything that we're seeking for, we already had it, and we just kind of forgot about it."
It’s a tricky challenge, he admits – encouraging people to embrace the values of traditional cultures, without too much tourism ruining it all.
One thing he has learned, he says, is that the food itself often can’t be replicated in other places. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all find something wonderful in how others cook and eat.
“At the beginning when I got here [back to Mumbai], I tried to reproduce a lot of things, and I was getting very frustrated with the results. So, after three or four or five different trials that I made, I said, ‘You know what? I'm going to take away the experiences and the memories'.
“One of the things this has taught me is to learn how to dive into the new experiences and dishes that life puts in front of me! I try to truly be in the present and enjoy, as much as I can, the flavours and the atmospheres I’m in.”
One day, he’s love to do what he did in India in Colombia.
“Unfortunately, now isn’t a really good time. My country has been going through a lot of things lately. So, I would definitely explore to do something like that, because of course, Colombians, we are extremely proud of our country. Even though we have a lot of problems, like every single other country, we are extremely proud. So, I'm a very proud and I would really like to showcase Colombian culture and indigenous tribes.”
In the meantime, he’s taking inspiration from the traditional ways he encountered on his two-month trip through India.
“I often run out of words to actually express everything that happened and everything that goes through my mind, because I don't think that there's enough words to make justice to how beautiful their communities and their lives are.
“In the world, everyone is trying to do something that is organic and that is locally sourced and everything has so much effort …We see everything like, 'I want to try to be eco-friendly and zero wastage and this and that.' And I'm completely pro all of these movements.
“The thing is that very often, we just forget that that's who we used to be. When I go to all of these indigenous tribes, I see that these guys, they have absolute zero waste, that their villages are like ecosystems … It's just so beautiful to see that everything that we're seeking for, we already had it, and we just kind of forgot about it.
“So, for me, it was like a true calling, the direction that I want to move towards. Not becoming indigenous, because it's not something that is going to be viable for the rest of the world today, but maybe we can just have their life in mind at all times and try to be as respectful to the environment as we can.”