Chef Palak Reveals: Top 5 Places That Inspire Her Flavor-Packed Cooking
Culinary inspiration can come from anywhere—I love taking tidbits from my travels and incorporating them into my routine, whether it be a new technique, a rare spice or recipe inspiration. Here are the top five places I’ve been that continue to influence my cooking today, adding richness, flavor and passion.
One of the most wonderful experiences that I’ve been lucky enough to have was living in the South of France, cooking in a small village, and learning the art of traditional French cooking with only the best ingredients. My days were spent visiting local farms brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables, and markets offering artisanal cheese, foie gras and other regional specialties. I felt such a connection to the land and wildlife and the goods they produced. There’s nothing more beautiful than the Southwest of France in late summer. I can still vividly picture the rows of sunflowers along the country roads. This region has so much to offer—if you’re planning a trip to Paris, be sure to take the time to go off the beaten track and explore the small, hidden villages and delicacies along the French countryside. You won’t be disappointed.
If you’re a fan of Thai food, Chiang Mai should be top of your list of culinary destinations. Surrounded by lush mountain and full of historic temples and colorful markets offering local meats and produce, the city of Chiang Mai is just magical. I spent my time there at a local farm, learning how to grow produce native to the area. We picked it fresh from the ground and cooked it on the spot. Talk about farm to table! I learned the many ways to use lemongrass, which is abundant in the region, as a flavor base for soups, sauces, and curries. Speaking of curry, I have yet to find a better green curry recipe (we’re talking from scratch here) than the one I learned in Thailand, and it was such a treat to be able to use the freshest coconuts to create a robust flavor base for the curry. It’s just out of this world.
For me, Moroccan cuisine is the most wonderful blend of savory and sweet, smooth and textured, hot and cold. I grew up using lots of cinnamon, ginger, saffron, cumin and caraway seeds, and luckily for me, the traditional cooking of Morocco shares a lot of these colorful flavors. What I love about this cuisine is that meals are an experience—a beautifully choreographed sequence of lingering around the table with family and friends over colorful dishes: fresh salads, small plates, tagine (a fragrant, spicy stew of meat and vegetables garnished with stewed dried fruit and almonds) and couscous (finely ground and steamed semolina granules, topped with meat —usually beef— topped with fresh seasonal vegetables). It’s simply magic for the taste buds. Don’t forget about dessert, generally consisting of ripe fruit and “etay,” sweet green tea with mint leaves. In between these vibrant meals, be sure to take in the aromas and sounds of the local souks— Arab markets lined with endless rows of exotic spices and oils. My favorite Moroccan spice is ras el hanout. It’s a mixture of ground spices, meaning “the best of the shop” in Arabic, and it’s simple to make your own at home. Recipes for ras el hanout vary but frequently include cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers, and turmeric. Mix and match to create your favorite blend.
Culinary inspiration can come from anywhere—I love taking tidbits from my travels and incorporating them into my routine, whether it be a new technique, a rare spice or recipe inspiration.
There is arguably no better place in the world with better street food than Vietnam. I can still remember the tour I took on the back of a motorbike, buzzing through the narrow streets of Ho Chi Minh City lined with food vendors—the aroma of fresh herbs, fish sauce, mint and lemongrass in the air, and my walk through Hanoi on foot, intoxicated by the scent of fresh cilantro, mint, and basil. A Vietnam must-have is pho, which is eaten for breakfast, but I think it’s pretty much perfect any time of day and look for any excuse to have a steaming hot bowl of it, spiced with sweet basil, chilies, and lime. The national cuisine is so fragrant, blending aromatics with heat, sweetness, sour and salt from a pungent fish sauce. While you’re there, a great way to experience the food culture is the way I did: through a foodie bike tour to take in the sights and sounds, and most of the smell of fresh herb throughout the country.
Drawing on flavor influences from Asia and Anatolia, Turkish food is typically dressed in olive oil. You’ll find it as an ingredient in “mezeler” (cold appetizers) and refreshing chopped salads; it also turns up in sweets, including the classic “revani,” or syrup-soaked semolina cake. My all-time favorite breakfast is börek—thin sheets of dough filled with cheese, minced meats and vegetables, wrapped, baked and served hot at most small corner shops. Börek and other fresh bread are often sprinkled with sesame seed or nigella seeds (a traditional spice with a nutty, oniony flavor and is a must-try). Other Turkish specialties include kebabs of lamb, beef or chicken and more variations of eggplant dishes than you can count. You’ll find sumac in almost every kitchen in the country. When ground, this spice is a gorgeous shade of burgundy and lends a tart, lemony flavor to dishes as a garnish. You’ll also find that dried mint adds a welcome hint of coolness to traditional, rich Turkish dishes. When visiting, I recommend you frequent as many local markets as possible—take a stroll, try the signature pastries and indulge in a cup (or two) of black or herbal tea with a rose hip.
So what are you waiting for? Get inspired. Break out the world map and set out on a culinary journey with an open mind and an empty stomach!
Born in India and raised in Atlanta, Chef Palak Patel grew up surrounded by traditional Indian cuisine. As her love of all things culinary expanded, she experimented with food, marrying the flavors of her native country with those of her adopted one. Her zest for travel further broadened her flavor palate as she globe-trotted, feasting on everything from local street food to la haute gastronomie. Palak shares these experiences as a TV personality, writer and one of the food industry’s newest and sassiest rising stars, gaining critical acclaim from victories in shows like Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay on Food Network. Palak also battled it out against 24 other seasoned chefs in the Sears Chef’s Challenge, winning $20,000 for the Los Angeles Food Bank. Palak has been a guest on multiple Food Network shows, Marie Claire’s The Fix and Bravo’s Blood, Sweat and Heels. She has been featured in Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and India Abroad, and is a regular food and travel contributor to Table Magazine. Palak also has partnered with high-profile brands such as BMW and Barclays to curate menus for large events, HelloFresh as a guest chef and Mashable about creating a personal brand. Learn more, and contact us to book Chef Palak Patel.
Vietnam photo credit: Durgesh Patel; Turkey photo credit: Jigna Patel; remaining photos credited to Chef Palak Patel