Looking up at a tree in the southwest Indian district of Coorg, Gordon Ramsay holds a bag and sways on his feet in an attempt to be in the right place to catch a weaver ant nest. A local delicacy here in India’s state of Karnataka, the ants have a spicy and salty taste that Ramsay is planning to use in a chutney. “I look like I’m attempting the most awkward TikTok dance ever,” he says, as he tries to catch the nest when it falls out of the tree. He misses. “All of a sudden, they’re everywhere. I must have been bitten 50-60 times.”
From the tropical beaches and port cities of Kerala and Karnataka along the coast of the Arabian Sea to the interior hills of Coorg, this region has served as one of the world’s leading exporters of spices—including pepper, chili, and cardamom—for more than 3,000 years. “Nature has given us more spices because of the climactic conditions. You’re in the spice hub,” says Chef Shri Bala, a TV host and food historian whose culinary calling started at an early age by learning recipes from the groundbreaking Indian cookbook written by her great aunt.
Despite being a global spice capital, the cuisine of southwest India is more than simply “hot,” and has delicate nuances in how flavors are balanced. Shri Bala challenges Ramsay to learn not only about the importance of spices to this area, but also how locals blend them with other ingredients to cope with the warm climate, and how one small addition can change the flavor of a dish. Ultimately, Shri Bala tells Ramsay it will be up to him to convince the women of a local artisan food collective that he can master the regional foodways.
Spicy curries using kandhari chili peppers (also known as bird’s-eye chili) make people sweat, which in turn, makes them cool down faster. That’s helpful in hot climates, but it can be a challenge for folks who are shy about spicy food. In Kerala, Ramsay tastes a fish curry tempered with coconut milk, which lightens and sweetens the dish. In Coorg, where pork-based pandi curry is beloved, bitter limes become the cooling agent, and influence Ramsay to liken the combined bitter and spicy notes to composing music. Even roadside snacks, like sliced pineapple, can be immersed in chili water to create a refreshing spicy-sweet taste on a dusty, hot day.
Even though his introduction to the Kerala city of Kannur involved a mouthful of chili, Ramsay embraces the heat like a local once he immerses himself in the methods of balancing piquant elements. “It’s been fascinating to see how Mother Nature handles the heat here, providing spices that help cool the body and other cooling agents that magically balance that fire,” he says. “What I’ve really understood more is what this region has to offer in terms of some of the best ingredients to create some of the most mouthwatering dishes I’ve ever tasted.”