Mixing cakes and cultures

Minutes before mixing the traditional Christmas cake at Al Falaj hotel in Ruwi, Michelin-starred chef Bjorn Van Der Horst sits across the table and gets into a chat about almost everything: The pink city of France - Toulouse - where he grew up, to the humid weather in Sri Lanka where he is now based, to food and cultures. And that’s where the conversation steers to. 

There’s an assortment of dried fruits laid out on a table behind the chef, at the Stassen Tea Lounge. As per tradition, the dried fruits are mixed with preserving liquids and left to marinate for four to five weeks until Christmas when they are ready to be baked. The chef points out that ‘it’s only a gifted few who get to put their hands in the mixing’, indicating to the good fortune of the few that have gathered around the table to participate.

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Dried fruits are laid out on a table for the Christmas cake mixing

A French chef, overseeing a British tradition in Oman -  that’s a good cultural mix. Although Chef Horst lights up and points this as the fun bit, he also acknowledges the depth of cultural integration that takes place in a simple event such as this. “We take this as a fun thing…well that’s the world isn’t it? It is a melting pot and everyone is desperately trying to preserve their little piece of culture which is necessary against globalisation.

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Chef Horst and the chefs from Al Falaj participate in the cake mixing

“But at the same time human beings are being globalised forever, the way we roam around... we’re nomadic. And I think it’s a tremendously beautiful thing to be present to that and integrate all that.”

During his Oman visit last week, the chef went around tasting food from the street markets, local restaurants and he also ventured to Wahiba and tasted shuwa - which he has fallen in love with. “I’m intrigued by the method of cooking, and the spices used - it makes the shuwa even more amazing and unique. “

The chef is a die-hard fan of traditional cooking methods and insists that age-old ways add to the taste of a cuisine, and it is this methodology that influences him the most.

He’s always looking to integrate this into his cooking and business ideologies. For instance, he talks about the ‘heritage cuisine’ in Sri Lanka where he is currently with the Aitken Spence group of hotels.

“We’re taking Sri Lankan cuisine globally in a formatted package that’s contemporary. We’re looking at the deep-rooted, age-old recipes that have been forgotten, and we’re looking at how to introduce them in a contemporary way that appeals to a modern crowd.” 

Cooking in clay pots and open fires makes a huge difference in the taste of traditional recipes, says the chef, which is why he wishes to integrate these methods.

Chef Horst has run restaurants across America and England and has travelled extensively to other culinary centres of the world. “I am constantly being influenced,” says the chef, whose speciality lies in contemporary French cuisine. He says that it may not necessarily reflect on his style but, ‘I borrow from where I am’.

“The key is to stay as local as possible. I look for authenticity and local flavours.” He uses an analogy with music to break down this point. “It’s a bit like music, you have your palate and you have your notes and there’s a formatted way of doing things in certain respects. So it’s like taking that knowledge and seeing what you can do with the ingredients you have at the moment and whether you want to use age-old techniques or newfound ones.”

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