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Go! Food Tour of India with Gold Medal Plates Winner Chef Thottungal

You don’t get to know a chef’s true tastes until you’ve had a meal prepared and served in his childhood home.

And while the scenario of travelling with an Ottawa-based chef to his native land of India might sound unlikely, that’s exactly the opportunity that is being offered by Chef Joe Thottungal of the celebrated Coconut Lagoon, who recently won gold at the Ottawa-Gatineau Gold Medal Plates.

Guests on the culinary tour will see how such dishes as idli sambhar, above, are made
Guests on the culinary tour will see how such dishes as idli sambhar, above, are made

“We’ll go to my house, where I grew up,” he said in a recent interview. “We’ll eat with my mom and dad. We’ll feast, because all the family comes down, and members of the tour get to see the plantation of coconut and peppercorn in the backyard.”

The tour, which happens next March, is just one step on an 18-day odyssey through India, organized by Bestway Tours & Safaris, a travel company based in Burnaby, British Columbia. Each stop along the way has been carefully curated by Chef Thottungal.

Sightseeing boat on Periyar Lake, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala, India
Sightseeing boat on Periyar Lake, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala, India

Kerala, a lush state in southwest India, holds an abundance of teas, fruits, and spices prominent in Thottungal’s dishes.

“Kerala is a hidden gem,” said Thottungal. “Surrounded by three oceans and peppered with hills, it has tea plantations, coffee, every spice you can imagine. You see how cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, and fresh coconut are grown and picked.”

Thottungal opened his restaurant in Ottawa 12 years ago to celebrate his passion for this food. In 2014, Bestway Tours asked if he would like to guide an expedition through his favourite haunts back home. Now close to three weeks in duration, the tour has expanded beyond Kerala and now explores the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Spice boxes, Kochi, Kerala, India
Spice boxes, Kochi, Kerala, India

“The style of cooking, the ingredients, the spices, everything is so different from one region of India to the next,” said Bestway Tours’ Mahmood Poonja. “Even the way women wear a sari is quite different from state to state.”

Poonja, the Chief Explorer of this special interest travel company, leaves the itineraries of each unique trip to an expert. India’s incredible mélange of flavours and sights has offered Bestway Tours a huge canvas on which to create several tours. For example, one focuses exclusively on indigenous textiles; another, places that The Beatles visited in the late 1960s.

Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India
Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India

Thottungal’s tour is a return to his formative kitchens, where he has a knack for getting into any house, church, or hotel for a taste and chat about local flavours. At the markets, he offers tips on how to bargain for a better price and to learn about the culture, the catch or crop, or the news of the day.

“Joe loves what he is doing,” said Poonja. “Not just cooking, he takes pride in showing people how to cook and how to enjoy eating food.”

A local Indian escort from Bestway’s Indian office joins the tour to offer information and facilitate arrangements, but Thottungal acts as the compass. The tastes of his childhood carry his 24 guests through a very personal series of experiences.

Seeing where he cooked his first meals, alongside his first teachers, is a unique way to see not only where a chef comes from but also where his passion for cooking began.

For more information on Chef Thottungal’s tour, visit Bestway Tours.