Pivot to the Asian palate

The Tourism Ministry prepares for an influx of Indian and Chinese tourists by training local chefs to meet their culinary needs.

Suresh Mathpal teaches a class at the Dan Gourmet culinary school in Tel Aviv last week (photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
Suresh Mathpal teaches a class at the Dan Gourmet culinary school in Tel Aviv last week
(photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
Partly clad in chef jackets and part in civilian wear, a group of cooks listens attentively to the white-jacketed figure at the front of the kitchen, who had flown halfway around the globe to teach them.
But it wasn’t Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay or Ferran Adria behind the stove, it was Suresh C. Mathpal, executive chef with Taj SATS air catering in Mumbai.
Mathpal was one of four chefs from India in Israel last week as part of a Tourism Ministry-sponsored push to prepare the industry for an expected influx of Indian travelers.
Two years ago Israel opened a Government Tourism Office in Mumbai, and hopes to nearly triple the number of Indian tourists to Israel, from 34,900 in 2014 to 100,000 by 2017. In February of this year, the Travel Agents Federation of India held its annual conference in Israel for the first time.
But unlike many tourists who arrive for culinary adventures, Indian travelers are much less adventurous, and prefer to stick to the foods that they are familiar with from home, say tourism officials.
A Virgin Atlantic study in July showed that Indian students who study abroad devote on average 30 percent of their luggage to food – from ghee (clarified butter) to laddu (a traditional dessert) and mathri (a flaky cracker with cumin seeds).
To that end, Mathpal demonstrated how to make five different recipes to the several dozen chefs gathered at the Dan Gourmet culinary school in Tel Aviv.
The cooks came from hotels and restaurants in the area to hear from Mathpal how to make fish and chutney cooked in banana leaves; chicken kheema masala; curried lentils; upma – a breakfast dish made with oats, tomatoes and chickpeas; and carrot pudding.
The other three chefs held similar seminars in Eilat, Herzliya and Tiberias – twice in each location, reaching more than 250 cooks overall.
“I feel honored to come here, being here is my dream,” Mathpal told the group. “This is an amazing country with amazing people.”
As the smell of fried onions and chilies filled the air, the chef explained how he adapted some of his recipes for the kosher market.
“We usually use cream and butter, but because we cater for El Al we know not to use it. We have alternatives,” he said.
One of his best substitutions, Mathpal said, is cashew cream, made by soaking the nuts then blending them with water until the desired consistency is achieved.
The chefs peppered Mathpal with questions through his translator, Dan Gourmet culinary department head chef Amir Ilan. A couple of those in the audience with Indian heritage chipped in with tips, explanations and places in Israel to find unfamiliar ingredients.
One face in the audience was a familiar one to many foodies in Israel – Saranda Dilvesky, who competed on season four of Israel’s MasterChef and made it into the show’s top seven cooks. Dilvesky met her Israeli husband 15 years ago while he was traveling in India, and later moved with him to Israel and settled down. On the show she showcased her native cuisine, which she learned to cook to settle her pangs of homesickness.
“For me, any place they’re going to show Indian food and Indian culture in Israel – I’ll be there,” Dilvesky told the Magazine on the sidelines of the workshop.
Since the show aired, she has been exploring the culinary world professionally, and is currently interning at Rokach 73, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant in Tel Aviv under the auspices of chef Eyal Lavi. After becoming a reality star, Dilvesky still gets recognized on the street, but she’s now “moving from the spotlight to getting real professional training.”
The food Mathpal cooked for the chefs “took me right back home,” she said, even interacting with him in Hindi – much to his surprise – to tell him so.
Dilvesky sees benefits in this kind of training for tourists and locals alike.
“I think there’s always a blend of cuisines [here in Israel], the Israeli palate is ready for Indian food and it has been ready,” she said. “It needs to get more things like this.”
According to Mina Ganem, the head of the professional training program at the Tourism Ministry, this project is part of a larger push to always stay ahead of the game in the industry.
“The intention is to match the Israeli tourism product – in this instance culinarily – to the community of visitors,” Ganem told the Magazine. She said the ministry has representatives in India who helped pick the right chefs to bring to Israel for the workshops.
“These [Israeli] chefs really know a lot, and we have to bring the best to teach them,” she said. The ministry reaches out to hotels and restaurants and invites them to the workshops, which it provides free of charge.
“It’s an expensive project,” she admitted.
“But there’s a lot of interest.”
Plus the ministry used the opportunity to work at creating more buzz in India for potential tourists.
“With the four Indian chefs came four local journalists, and we give them a week of travel – in markets, vineyards, places where they make cheese, culinary schools, the land itself,” said Ganem.
At the end of next month, the process will repeat itself, but this time with four chefs from China. The Tourism Ministry sees travel from that country as another potentially huge market.
While the numbers of Chinese tourists in Israel are still small, they’ve been growing steadily over the past few years; about 34,100 visitors in 2014 compared to around 25,000 in 2013 and about 19,000 in 2012. Plus, just last month, Hainan Airlines, China’s largest private airline, announced it will be opening a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Beijing beginning in April 2016 – a route that was previously only served by El Al.
The visiting Chinese chefs will be demonstrating how to cook classic dishes like fried spring rolls, vegetable wontons, fried tilapia and even douhua, a bean curd jelly.
Su Newman, a spokeswoman for the Dan Hotels chain, said seven of its locations in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem have already begun to add Chinese dishes to its buffet.
According to Haim Spiegel, Dan Hotels director of food and beverages, those hotels have specifically adapted their breakfast menus to suit the needs of Chinese tourists.
“The Chinese tourist has very specific requests when he leaves China and travels around,” Spiegel told the Magazine.
“They’re not interested in compromising.
They’re not excessive requests though – they’re easy but they need to be met.”
Spiegel said the hotel chain brought in a chef who had trained in Chinese and Asian cooking to advise them.
“We saw that we have to focus on two important things: first on their breakfast, and second on what we provide in the rooms of Chinese tourists.”
To improve the breakfast offerings, those seven hotels now serve a broth and dumplings, noodles, rice and steamed vegetables for those Asian tourists looking for a taste of the familiar. The broth is fish- or vegetable- based, since it has to be pareve to be included in the breakfast buffet, which is kosher in every Dan hotel.
“The Chinese tourist can come down to breakfast and try new things, but if he wants to have the things that are familiar, we now have a Chinese table, as we call it,” said Spiegel.
The second thing they’ve focused on, he said, is providing loose-leaf tea – green, fruit and jasmine – in the room of every Chinese guest, and a special kettle to brew it in.
Many of the chain’s hotel chefs attended the Indian cooking courses last week, as well as past classes at the Dan Gourmet school on Thai cuisine.
As for Indian food, Spiegel said the hotel chain is quite familiar with their tour groups. “We know them and we know what they’re ready to eat.” He also noted that the chain is opening a hotel in Bangalore, India and learns a lot from its contacts on the ground there.
“We’re always trying to improve the Israeli tourism product,” said Ganem.
“We’re never standing still.”