Mathura peda, Madurai jigarthanda, Ratlami sev, Agra petha and Bikaneri bhujia are names of the many sweets, drinks and namkeens that indicate the place of origin of these beloved Indian food items.
These are cities, towns and villages across the country have been recognised with the geographic indication (GI) tag for producing these famous foods. Driven by curiosity, culinary enthusiasts (like me) plan food-centric trips to each of these places.
Apart from gastronomic travels within India, I’ve often crossed the country’s borders on fascinating food pilgrimages. Some of my most memorable trips are to far-flung places in east Asia to sample unique dishes and ingredients, and bear witness to the centuries-old traditions that shape them.
Bokpyin, Myanmar’s Bird’s Nest Paradise
Once Myanmar’s leading producer of betel nut, rubber and palm oil, the seaside town of Bokpyin in the country’s southern peninsular Tanintharyi region now has new wings. Quite literally! It is the world’s number one supplier of the prized bird’s nest that goes into the infamous bird’s nest soup. As one of the most elusive, and thus expensive, animal products consumed by humans, the bird nests are made from the dried-up saliva produced by the male white-nest swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus). It’s a product that is said to have tremendous health and beauty benefits when consumed regularly. In the sleepy town, one can find several buildings under construction that are purposely left unfinished. They allow the swiftlets a safe haven to roost and thus produce the pearly white nests. These are then harvested by a whopping 80% majority of Bokpyin’s residents who are involved in the bird’s nest trade. Today, there are at least 150 such grey, concrete swiftlets’ apartment buildings scattered across the town. All of which are festooned with speakers and boom boxes installed in the nesting homes in a bid to attract more winged tenants.
Kampot, Cambodia’s pepper bastion
The Kampot pepper is a type of black peppercorn. Also known in the past as the Indochinese pepper, it gets its modern name from the province of Kampot in south-west Cambodia. The Chinese explorer Tcheou Ta Kouan recorded its cultivation in the 13th century. Today, tonnes of this pungent spice is sold in auctions, wholesale and retail shops at the city’s famous Kep Crab Market. This pepper is a certified GI product of Cambodia since 2010, and is grown at hundreds of pepper farms across the city and its suburbs. It's widely believed that the unique flavour of the pepper is due to the rich soil of Kampot, and its location between the mountains and the sea. Speaking of which, Kampot is equally famous as the exporter of two more products of the sea—a fish sauce called tik trei and the fine, flaky Kampot salt. Vast pans of the latter can be seen dotting the picturesque coastline.
Cu Da, Vietnam’s soy sauce stronghold
Famous for making the sweetest and most delicious soy sauce in all of Vietnam, is an ancient village located about 20 km from the capital Hanoi. Cu Da is the kind of nondescript village that doesn’t give the slightest of hints as to the prowess it holds within. Locals say that the craft of making soy sauce in Cu Da has been around for centuries. And that it is still made the same way with just four main ingredients: soybeans, glutinous rice, water and white salt. The last important ingredient is one that they claim gives the sauce its unique mouthfeel and intoxicating aroma. This is also because the soy sauce is made every year from April to August, which has the most favourable weather for its production. But that’s not all, Cu Da is also known for its traditional craft of handmade vermicelli that locals say is a dying art.
Gwangju, South Korea’s kimchi capital
Thanks to the halyu wave that has now transformed into a socio-cultural tsunami, most of us are well aware of the ubiquitous Korean condiment of kimchi. This pickle is the very essence of the city of Gwangju that’s located on the banks of the Yeongsan River at the foot of the Sobaek Mountains in the south-west corner of the Korean Peninsula. Meaning city of light, Gwangju—also said to be the birthplace of democracy in South Korea—is where one finds hundreds of kimchi-making units, factories and even homes where fresh bouquets of napa cabbage are smeared with garlic, shrimp paste and the spicy gochujang paste. Once left to ferment for months, it takes on a pungent, sour taste that defines it. The best place to get one’s fill and even take back home tonnes of the stuff is at the city’s Yangdong Market.
Garut in Indonesia for dodol
While it may have originated in faraway Indonesia, as a Goan kid, I’ve grown up eating tonnes of this black, flabby coconut milk, palm jaggery and rice flour sweet called dodol. Though different iterations of it were brought by the Portuguese colonisers to places like Goa and Sri Lanka—where it is called kalu dodol and made with kithul palm (caryota urens)—dodol remains a Javanese invention. Commonly served during Eid, it is called jenang in Javanese and is more toffee like here. The town of Garut in west Java is the main production center of dodol in Indonesia. Almost everywhere you look in Garut, you one can see huge cauldrons bubbling away with molten dodol with its nutty fragrance permeating the air. Today, Garut not only produces the original flavoured dodol, but also variants like the chocolate one and the pungent durian-flavoured version called lempuk, that’s not for the faint of heart.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.