Wellington's Annual Culinary Festival has a Touch of India

Indian food is a big part of New Zealands month-long annual culinary festival, Visa Wellington on A Plate. We look at the festival through the lens of Indian-origin chef Vaibhav Vishen and his exclusive event, My Kashmir Odyssey.
Chef Vishens cooking is influenced by stories passed on through generations
Chef Vishens cooking is influenced by stories passed on through generations

Visa Wellington on A Plate, a month-long culinary festival held in Wellington in New Zealand focuses on food and beverage. This year it is being held through the month of August. Multiple events are showcasing the best of New Zealand&rsquos culinary heritage, ingredients, and organic produce. This year&rsquos theme is Out of Place and will take Kiwis on a trip around the world. One of the countries showcasing its cuisine is India. We spoke to Indian-origin chef Vaibhav Vishen who is hosting the culinary event, My Kashmir Odyssey.

To cook and serve with love is what Chef Vaibhav Vishen lives by, and he knows being passionate isn&rsquot enough. &ldquoI start each day knowing that the harder I work, the luckier I get. My grandfather taught me this. Good food should make you smile, and know that it isn&rsquot about just taste. Food to me is about opening our hearts and homes and giving a glimpse of our roots and where we intend to go,&rdquo he says.

Vishen&rsquos special dishes are all influenced by stories filled with love and passed on through generations. &ldquoFood that I have grown up with and which has brought me joy every time I think of it. These recipes are hand-me-downs from my Kashmiri heritage, discoveries made while traveling and foraging, and chemistry experiments I do in my kitchen after reading something somewhere".

His My Kashmir Odyssey is a food journey in a one-of-a-kind dining auditorium, curated by commended theatre artist Leo Gene Peters. It takes customers through Vishen&rsquos motherland, the Kashmir valley in the Himalayas. With Chef Vishen&rsquos first-rate dishes of Brahmin, Mughal, and colonial food, it makes for a dining experience with performances and creative storytelling, making it an immersive, multi-sensory art experience.

Themed around two friends in the Mughal gardens, the courses come out as the show goes on. The occasion shows attendees Kashmiri gastronomic relishes, from features of the ancient Kashmiri Wazwan to contemporary street foods of Kashmir like the khoya popsicle. Speaking on the diverse community at the festival, chef Vishen says, &ldquoThe Indian community in New Zealand is enormous and they like to tour for good food, mainly if it has Indian inspirations. Events such as Visa Wellington on a Plate bring individuals in from across New Zealand which is wonderful for businesses&rdquo.

Indian food is an amalgamation of flavours, science, clever hacks, experiences, and above all the concept of happiness, feels Vishen. &ldquoFood I make from my region, India&rsquos north, is exactly like how I have my vernacular diet - with no frills. Food that I make from other regions of India may involve new research each time as there is a lot that we still don&rsquot know about. I am also very careful to not throw in all kinds of spices and ingredients into a dish. It&rsquos not a big thing for a chef but when you&rsquore serving a mixed-race clientele, it can be a tough practice to stick to from a restaurant business point of view&rdquo.

The Wellington on a Plate festival is the most interesting part of the year for Vishen as food is the topic of conversation everywhere. &ldquoThis year, I am seeing a lot of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours, and I am curious to know what drove this and what is the public reaction. Additionally, Wellington on a Plate is getting a lot of traction with the international community, given that in most places in the world, having a food festival is a distant idea right now. The Indian High Commission has shared a social stake in my events which contributed to a lot of the Indian community coming in to eat. I see greater involvement of other embassies and immigrant communities in the coming year with Wellington on a Plate. This year, the festival is also an outlet to feel at home given the travel climate we are in. It&rsquos an excellent way to feel and experience many cultures and travel to destinations at least virtually".

Interestingly, Vishen&rsquos first university degree was in Computer Science from Delhi and it was something he did for his family full of academic professionals. &ldquoI joined a culinary school locally, which led to an enlightening job at the Imperial in Delhi. I still craved some international exposure and my decision to enroll in a culinary management programme after having been an engineer was accepted by New Zealand. I had not planned on staying more than a few years but Wellington&rsquos community draws you in like you&rsquore one of them. This is home for now. In many ways, Wellington reminds me of Kashmir - warm, generous, and soulful&rdquo, he smiles.

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