Chef Alvaro Clavijo Celebrates Indian Local Produce
Image Credit: Le Cirque Signature

We might have dined in many restaurants across India that offer a range of delicacies from various cuisines around the world, most of which are authentic. Japanese, Lebanese, Greek, Italian, and more But how often can you get a hearty Colombian meal in India?

Diners in Bengaluru had a rare opportunity to savor Colombian cuisine at a 7-course fine dining pop-up event hosted by The Leela Palace Bengaluru. The event featured Chef Alvaro Clavijo, renowned for his Bogotá-based El Chato restaurant, known for reshaping Colombian cuisine and earning top rankings in prestigious restaurant lists. The dinner, held at Le Cirque Signature, aimed to introduce diners to the diverse culinary heritage of Colombia through Chef Clavijo's innovative creations paired with Italian and Chilean wines.

The meal began with appetisers like pickled guavas with black garlic oil, chicken heart pate, tapioca with blackberry gel and hay pearls, and scallops with Pipian sauce and crispy rice. Each dish was thoughtfully paired with Italian white wine. The seafood course featured sea bass with tucupi and seaweed and crab with Chilean merlot wine.

A standout dish was the black plantain with chayote, eggplant, and saddle of lamb with mung bean sprouts, pigeon peas, and kefir yoghurt sauce. Dessert included Lulo sorbet with merengon and custard apple, complemented by rambutan fennel candy.

In a conversation with the chef about bringing the flavours of El Chato to India, he expressed his excitement and highlighted his pleasant surprise at finding similarities between Indian and Colombian ingredients. Here is a detailed conversation about how it went:

Can you share your excitement about bringing the flavours of El Chato to Bengaluru, India, and what can diners expect from this exceptional culinary event at Le Cirque Signature?

When the opportunity was presented to me, I was beyond excited to come to India and showcase what we do back home. I have never been to India before, so I had no idea what to expect from what I was going to find here because the way we cook in Colombia is different from how it is done here. And it has been a pleasant surprise. 

So, we travelled with a lot of basic stuff like sauces, fermented mixes, and pickles. We brought a lot of ingredients from back home for the culinary event at Le Cirque Signature, but during our visit to the market, we noticed that what was available had a lot of similarities to what we use at home. Additionally, I have to mention and commend the team at Le Cirque Signature for their exceptional skills and professionalism throughout this collaboration. 

El Chato has received global acclaim, recently ranking No. 33 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants. How do you feel about this recognition, and what does it mean for Colombian cuisine on the world stage?

I feel that this recognition is a testament to the seven years of hard work and growth the restaurant has experienced. We have learned from so many mistakes and evolved from them.  

For Colombian cuisine, this achievement is not short of amazing. In the history of this list, a Colombian restaurant has never been ranked this high. It's a significant moment for our country's tourism and the restaurant scene. I don't just see it as a win for our place alone; it's a win for all of Colombia because El Chato is, in essence, Colombia served on a plate. 

Colombia is known for its diverse and unique ingredients. What are the five local Colombian ingredients you're eager to introduce to India, and how do they enhance your dishes?

The first one is plantain when it is on the brink of going bad. We call it ‘black plantain’ and it’s quite sweet. We usually serve this with eggplant and chayote, and it’s an absolute vegetarian delight! Another one is ‘Tucupi’ which is made out of fermented cassava. We serve it with scallops and mushrooms. I was not aware that guava is so widely used here in India. Back home, we serve pickled guava, which is quite a different flavour.

Our 'Lulo and sour sop' dessert is a Colombian gem that's never left our menu. Lulo is an orange fruit that is green on the inside. It is then transformed into a refreshing granita. It is served with meringue and sour sop, making it one of the most distinct and unique dishes you can savour in Colombia. Lastly, our 'pipián sauce' is a blend of peanuts, potatoes, and tomatoes. We serve it as a perfect complement to our scallop dish.

How would you describe Colombian cuisine to those who may not be familiar with it, and what makes it stand out in the culinary world?

Our cuisine has influences from Arab, African, Spanish, and other indigenous communities. When you bring all of them together, it creates a remarkable mix that becomes our source of inspiration for everything we make at the restaurant. This unique blend is what we offer at the restaurant through all the techniques I have learned in my cooking career. 

You've mentioned your passion for culinary improvisation. Could you elaborate on this concept and how it plays a role in your creative process at El Chato?

To me, improvisation is synonymous with cooking. It’s a principle deeply ingrained in the essence of El Chato. We put a lot of thought into what we plan, but we are also constantly changing and adapting our recipes to the various unique ingredients we keep encountering.

We change our menu regularly to present fresh, local, and seasonal produce to our diners. Making mistakes is extremely important in what we do. It’s the best way to evolve our cooking skills by learning from and growing from those mistakes.

What is your overall culinary philosophy, and how do you approach the art of food and flavour creation in your restaurant? 

We get our inspiration from the unknown ingredients of Colombia. These are ingredients we have never had a chance to work with before. We enjoy experimenting with these unknown elements to explore the best and all the possible ways we can use them, especially through our trial-and-error process.  

Acidity and bitterness are crucial to our recipe development process. We aim to let the true essence of each ingredient shine by using them in a way that highlights their unique qualities while refraining from overloading any single dish. It's all about balance and letting the ingredients shine.

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It is my first time in India, and it has been amazing so far! Every time I visit a place, a market visit is a must, and I love going to the old-fashioned stores. We haven't been able to step out much, but I did check out the local market, and I loved the experience. I was surprised to find many vegetables and fruits here that are similar to what we use back at home.  

I've had the pleasure of sampling Indian cuisine around the world, but the experience here in India is truly distinct. The intensity of spices and the rich variety of vegetarian dishes took me by surprise, as it's quite different from the kind of cooking we do back home.  

What truly stands out is the remarkable hospitality. The people here are extremely warm and welcoming, which makes you feel like you never want to leave. This journey has also been a lot of learning from the people here, as much as it has been about savouring the incredible cuisine. 

Planning a Colombian menu for Indian diners must have been a unique challenge. Could you tell us about the process and inspiration behind crafting this special menu?

Our discussions often revolved around what we could bring from Colombia that would withstand the journey. Eventually, we settled on a selection of fruits, dry ingredients, and fermented vegetables. We combined these with locally-sourced proteins and, of course, infused everything with the vibrant flavours of Colombia.

Usually, we incorporate the ingredients that we carry along with local fresh produce like vegetables and fruits that we get wherever we travel. Here, we had to improvise and re-organise our menu for the culinary event after I chanced upon some familiar vegetables and fruits that we use back at home.

For instance, on my trip to the local market here, I was excited to find fresh local produce like chayote and plantains that were similar to what we use back home. And when I saw them, I felt like I had to use them in the special seven-course meals at Le Cirque Signature, although they were not on the menu in the beginning. 

The elaborate dinners like this are always challenging and require a great deal of improvisation and culinary wizardry. Fortunately, we had an exceptional team supporting us, making the entire process considerably smoother and more enjoyable.

Have you had the opportunity to try Indian cuisine before, and if so, what are your thoughts on it? Are there any particular Indian ingredients or dishes that have caught your attention?

In Bogota, we have three Indian restaurants run by chefs from India. I visit them from time to time because I enjoy the bold and strong flavours in their recipes. So, I had a lot of expectations for what I was going to be eating in Bangalore. 

While one Indian restaurant is an old one that has been around for 10 years, two new restaurants have opened very close to my home in Bogota, and they are packed most of the time. Also, I enjoy samosas. I learned how to make them from a Sri Lankan colleague when I was working as a chef in Paris.

My family and I love dosas and the different kinds of chutneys that I have tried, apart from the naan and butter chicken that my daughter and I indulge in often. What caught my attention more than the ingredients was the sheer power of the vegetarian food here. It’s amazing how much flavour they’re able to bring to every dish. 

What are five things from India that you would like to take back with you and incorporate into your culinary repertoire, and why?

More than ingredients, I would love to take back a few techniques that I learned in the kitchen here. We absolutely fell in love with dosa because of our extensive use of rice in various forms. The coriander chutney with coconut was a delightful discovery. We loved everything, from its texture and colour to the bold and strong flavours!  

The cheese naan—we have tried this before, but nothing quite like what we have had here. The technique and flavours are truly unique and on a whole new level. The pressed fig candy reminded me of a Spanish turrón, but with a more gentle bite to it. This was an instant favourite. Lastly, the fennel candy caught our attention as it's similar to something we use in the restaurant for rambutan. It was an incredible coincidence, and a tasty one at that!

When you prepare a meal for your family or for yourself, what is that one dish that you make that is everybody's favourite at home? What is your comfort food?

If and when I have time to cook for my family and myself, I will always go for a stew with coconut, plantains, and rice. My daughter loves it too. The Colombian rice is different and thicker in comparison to the slender and fragrant morsels available here in India. And whenever you visit someone in their house in Colombia, you can expect to be served rice. There will always be a pot full of rice. Always.