The South Beach Wine & Food Festival arrives February 19 through 22 with more than 75 events, tastings, parties, seminars, and dinners. The bash, which benefits Florida International University's dining and tourism programs, brings thousands of fans and celebrity chefs to Miami.
As the spotlight shines on the sand and the celebrities who flood Miami for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, countless nuanced cuisines of the world take center stage.
This year's fest will feature a tribute to the Spanish culinary legend Juan Mari Arzak, who has helped redefine Basque cuisine. The humble taco will be honored. So will the empanada. An event will celebrate the medianoche, a far superior version of the Cuban sandwich built on sweet, fluffy egg bread. There will also be an Israeli dinner with some of Tel Aviv's best-known chefs.
One event, hosted by Atlanta chef Asha Gomez, will be a rare glimpse of India. Gomez was born and raised in Kerala in the country's southern reaches, and her take on the fragrant, savory curries and other dishes is far from the Indian food most of us know, which largely hails from Punjab in the north. Kerala "was a huge port city during the years of the spice route, and the prominent crop was black pepper," Gomez says, noting that the nasal-tingling spice is what adds heat to her cuisine.
Rice is also a major player. It's found in steamed cakes as well as in the wide, thin pancakes called dosas that are filled with potatoes and lentils. Gomez distinctly recalls her mother's dosas. They're made by pounding rice and letting it ferment in coconut milk and moonshine. After being rolled out and cooked, they feature a crisp, lacy edge with a soft, cake-like interior.
Most striking, however, will be the proteins featured throughout the menu.
"Before the Brits came, the Portuguese were there, and with them came missionaries," she says. "The area starting from Goa all the way south to where I'm from was converted, and the last names became Gomez, Diaz, and others."
The cow, sacred in many parts of India, was suddenly on the menu. So beef will be featured along with pork and fish during Gomez's dinner. There will be a spicy vindaloo curry dominated by Kerala's black pepper instead of chilies. "It's almost an Indian equivalent of American barbecue sauce: It's spicy, tangy, sweet, and savory," she says.
The fish dish, seasoned with cardamom and steamed in a banana leaf, will be plated with spiced plantains. This should sound familiar to those from the Caribbean. Both regions are close to the equator, and though they're thousands of miles apart, the inhabitants happily stumbled upon similar techniques.
Another Asian-leaning event is Boston-based Ming Tsai's collaboration with Michael Mina. Tsai says large-scale dinners require a careful balance when it comes to using traditional ingredients. "Of course you want to impress the diners, but you also need perfect execution. There's a big difference between cooking for 20 versus 200," he says.
That execution will be shown off in a duck dish with a traditional foundation: rice porridge called congee or jook in China, juk in Korea, okayu in Japan, and cháo in Vietnam. This classic staple is slowly cooked in water until the grains disintegrate and the whole pot became a thick, slightly sweet, and nutty stew. In Hong Kong, it's a ubiquitous breakfast dish, sometimes topped with a few strips of fatty brisket and accompanied by cylinders of hot fried dough.Tsai plans to top it with duck prepared two ways. "That's something I should know how to make -- I'm Chinese," he says.
To make the congee, rice will be simmered in duck stock until it takes on a tawny color rather than its usual pearly hue. The legs will be rubbed in salt and sugar and then cooked for hours in the duck's own fat to make a confit, a classic French technique that lends the West to the dish. The ruby duck breasts will have their fat cut away, which will be fried into cracklings, while the meat will be sliced razor-thin for a play on the Japanese boiled beef dish, shabu shabu. "Diners will be able to eat the duck breast rare or let it cook a bit in the hot congee," Tsai says.
Another offering that will blend Asian classics with Western influences is the foie gras mousse served shumai-style in a dumpling wrapper with a vinegar emulsion.
Asian-inspired favorites will also appear in a Southern dinner celebrating Nashville at Brickell Key's Mandarin Oriental. Though the event will highlight the South by featuring Tandy Wilson, owner of Nashville's City House, and Hattie B's nuclear-spicy fried chicken, it will take place in famed Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio's restaurant. Executive chef Diego Oka says he'll dish out chaufa aeropuerto, a nod to the heavy Asian influences in Peru with crisp rice, sweet soy, roast pork, and pickled ginger, all topped with a thin egg crepe.
"Every Sunday in Peru we eat this," Oka says. "It's a classic."
The history of chaufa is particularly fascinating. It began in the late 19th Century, when diplomatic relations between Peru and Japan opened. Thousands of Japanese left their homeland for the mountainous Latin American nation. More than a century later, many of the Asian country's culinary traditions are woven into Peru's. Tiraditos, for instance, are a common-sense blend of Peruvian ceviche and Japanese sashimi.
The Japanese "taught us how to eat fish raw, how to cut it, how to clean it, and how to eat it right at that moment to tell what it is and whether it's fresh," Oka says.
All of these options are inspired in one way or another by the travels and preferences of festival founder Lee Brian Schrager. Follow him on Instagram and you'll get a glimpse of whirlwind trips that inspire some of the fair's events. What you might not see is that the man who is adored by celebrity chefs is simple at heart. He loves burgers, fried chicken, and tacos. But sometimes he likes to step out of his comfort zone and take thousands of festival attendees with him.
"I traveled to Israel, was impressed with what was going on there, and brought back what I hope will be a great idea," Schrager says. "I want to be able to bring chefs here" for people who might not be able to travel. "That's the best part."
East Meats West Dinner, hosted by Michael Mina and Ming Tsai: Thursday, February 19, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Turnberry Isle Resort, 19999 W. Country Club Dr., Aventura. Tickets cost $250.
Nashville On Fire Dinner, featuring Jonathan Waxman, Hattie B's, Tandy Wilson, Patrick Martin, and Diego Oka: Friday, February 20, from 7 to 10 p.m. beachside at the Mandarin Oriental Miami, 500 Brickell Key Dr., Miami. Tickets cost $225.
Flavors of India Dinner, hosted by Asha Gomez and Amol Agarwal, part of the New York Times Dinner Series: Saturday, February 21, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, 1 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets are sold out.
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