Diwali Food for BA

My editor from British Airways magazine emailed with this commission.

We’re after a piece on how different regions/cities in the country celebrate Diwali with food – this could be anything from street food in a big city like Delhi or Bombay to regions that might be influenced by other cultures (e.g French influence in Pondicherry).

The tone should speak very much to a local audience as opposed to someone, say, living in the UK.”

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What shocked me was how little I knew about foods in other regions.  Not the broad “Bengalis love fish” type thing but details.  Phone calls to friends/chefs, etc.  The result is here.

Childhood food cravings

Wrote this piece on a transatlantic flight.  I guess having bad airline food helped kindle taste memories.

The best cuisines are those that have the flavours of home

Shoba Narayan

September 14, 2014 Updated: September 14, 2014 04:59 PM

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Read more: http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/the-best-cuisines-are-those-that-have-the-flavours-of-home#ixzz3DNG69THv
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How many days can you go before you crave the foods of your childhood? I can last a two weeks, tops, and only if I am stuck in the middle of the Australian outback without access to turmeric or some decent curry powder.   

When it comes down to it, most of us are fairly narrow in terms of our food preferences. 

We may have cultivated a taste for sushi and noodles, but scratch the surface and we each have our own versions of shepherd’s pie, cheeseburger and fries or, in my case, rasam and dosa. Some clever restaurateurs try to use this love of traditional foods in the marketing of their dishes.  

A restaurant in England, described hummus as “chickpea mash”. I love hummus, but I wouldn’t eat chickpea mash if you gave me a year’s supply of Crème de la Mer, which, as it happens, is a wrinkle cream and not something that is churned from the sea. The restaurateur, however, told me that it was his most popular dish because the English associated it with bangers and mash.

Food is intimately tied with identity, home, memory and well-being. We may each have acquired global preferences in other parts of our lives, but take food away and you have the skeletal remains of the global sophisticates that we’ve all become. 

There will be variations. Indians who live their entire lives in temperate countries cannot eat the same level of spiciness that their parents did. Indians who grew up in Africa

incorporate local spices into their spice mixes. Indians who spend a lifetime in Scandinavia get used to local dishes but add a dash of lemon pickle to perk things up. But in each case, the essential component

remains underneath the new culinary layers that they’ve added on. 

Some part of it is habit. A north Indian or a Pakistani will finish a meal with a flavourful and fragrant biriani, because he says that rice will rest his stomach after the parade of meats. For a south Indian, it will be curd rice – something to eat at the end of the evening just because it settles your stomach.  

A Japanese chef once told me that after an evening creating the most wonderful dishes for his patrons, he goes home and eats boiled rice. These are the things that we grew up with, the proverbial chicken soup that nourishes our soul, in this life.

When you become an expatriate, you reach back your old country for three culinary things: comfort, essence and personal preferences. Curd rice isn’t particularly flavourful if you eat it for the first time, but it is comfort food for a south Indian.  

Being south Indian myself, I can tell you that I didn’t reach back for all the dishes I grew up with when I lived abroad. I had personal preferences veering towards the north. I loved paneer dishes; I liked their buttery dals instead of our watery ones. I liked milk-based Bengali sweets instead of sugar-based south Indian ones. Beyond the comfort foods and the personal preferences, there is that elusive element of the essence of India, which in my view, are its spices. After a two weeks away from them, I need a spice mix for a fix. It all boils down to that. It is my version of a hot dog, chicken soup, kebab, satay, sushi, or whatever your comfort food might be. I don’t question it. I just need it.

Shoba Narayan is the author of -Return to India: a memoir

Airline food and descriptions

This was published in Mint using verb-consonant.  An attentive read, said “Surely you mean vowel, not verb.”  Indeed.

 

‘Mor kuzhambu’ or ‘kadhi’: the name game

Menu descriptions are an art, somewhat like matrimonial ad descriptions

Shoba Narayan Travelling without moving The name of the dish matters. Photo: Thinkstock 

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The unfairness of menu descriptions struck me on a recent flight. Here is the menu that was handed out to us on British Airways. “Seared fillet of British lamb with béarnaise sauce, roasted potatoes, runner beans and butternut squash.”

I am vegetarian but the sound of this got my saliva tingling. I could imagine a proud British lamb giving itself up for the sake of airline pride and the warm enveloping company of béarnaise sauce. As for the sides, the roasted potatoes alone would had gotten me to raise my hands and say, “Yes, please. Me first.”

Here is what is on offer on the other side of the food-preference aisle: “Cabbage and pea curry with coconut rice and tamarind okra.” Not bad, you may think. A little insipid but then again, what can you expect with vegetarian food? Here is where the unfairness kicks in. Consider the same description in its native language, Tamil, helpfully transcribed on the menu as well: “Kosu-pattani poricha kootu; thengai sadam; and vendakkai puli kuzhambu.”

You may pity my culinary choice, but I’ll tell you this: the Tamil version of the menu is a lot more apt and exciting. Curry is not the same thing as ‘poricha kootu,’ a glorious concoction of slow-roasted and ground dals with a sprig of Bydegi red chili, a handful of cumin seeds, and grated coconut, all tempered with fragrant curry leaves and dancing black mustard seeds. Does that make your mouth water? As for the “tamarind okra,” on the menu, the Tamil “puli kuzhambu” is a robust, tart dish with soft mushy okra in a sauce that could give a béarnaise a run for its franc.

Menu descriptions are an art, somewhat like matrimonial ad descriptions. You have to make the candidate enticing enough to be chosen and yet realistic enough so that the person who chose will not get pissed off at the disparity between what they thought they’d end up with and what they actually ended up with. You have to capture the essence of the person or dish without giving away too many secrets or revealing essential flaws. But where menu and matrimony part ways in the description arena is the musicality of the words. “Wheatish complexion” sounds horrible but has been used for decades to describe a shade between brown and black. Words for dishes however have to sound musical. There is a reason why “paneer butter masala” is England’s most popular dish. Even if you didn’t know what paneer was, the fact that it has butter helps it along. Somewhat like saying “seven-figure salary” in a matrimonial ad. No matter what follows after, the candidate is a winner. Masala just sounds musical. It all boils down to the number of vowels per consonant. Here is the formula. “A” is the best letter to have in a dish followed by “I” because these two letters open up the mouth and mind: masala has an equal number of vowels and consonants. So does “chimichanga,” which follows the same formula: consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel. So does “yakitori,” which uses different vowel-consonant combinations but the same rhythm. As do sushi, dosa, taco, hara bara kebab, biriyani: vowel-consonant alternates all.

Some dishes live and die by the associations they create in the mind. Take tom yum soup. What does the word “yum” bring to mind? Good stuff, right. If you were confronted with ‘tom yum’ and “som kruap,” you are likely to pick something that sounds yum instead of sounding like, well, crap. Even the poricha kootu that I waxed eloquent about doesn’t sound good, which, in my view, is why some regional cuisines haven’t taken off as much as they should. They are just so hard to pronounce. Take “morkuzhambu,” which is a sublime and better version of the North Indian “kadhi.” Delhi folks have trouble with any Tamil word that has the letter “z” in it. Their tongues just roll up and lie down like a drunk dog. Naming someone “Azhagiri,” and sending him off to the central government was a bad idea and one that was bound to fail. Similarly, “morkuzhambu,” requires surgical modification before it can become acceptable. One way would be to take out the problematic letters: r and z, and replace them with letters than are easier on the tongue. “More Kulambu,” reads and sounds easier.

Some languages sound unfortunate and this impacts their dishes. Take bratwurst, for instance. I have never tasted it. I wouldn’t want to taste something called ‘brat’ and worst. Kung pao chicken sounds like a cat’s meow and I don’t mean that as a compliment. When I do search out foods in a foreign land, I almost always turn to the nice sounding ones; which is perhaps why I don’t drink borscht nearly as much as I could and why it hasn’t taken off globally. When it comes right down to it; the name of the dish matters nearly as much as the taste.

 Shoba Narayan loves mor kuzhambu. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com. 

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/97lv1DUNRLUciKBbZoyM9N/Mor-kuzhambu-or-kadhi-the-name-game.html?utm_source=copy

Carme Ruscellada

I was thrilled to meet this chef. She is casual and confident but underneath you can sense her resolve. It appeared in Quartz here.

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Carme Ruscellada i Serra looks like the seven-star Michelin chef that she is. I met her recently at her restaurant in Barcelona, Moments, to discuss Catalan cuisine, the Mediterranean diet, and why there are so few women chefs as successful as she.
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Like many of them, she downplays the role of gender in the high-temperature, high-testosterone world of restaurant kitchens. Running a 70-staff kitchen, according to Ruscellada, is not about screaming and swearing. It has to do with body language, posture and tone of voice. “My staff can look at my eyes and tell if I am angry about something they have done,” says Ruscellada, a celebrated chef in Catalunya, the corner of Spain that has now become the mecca for culinary travelers. Numerous Catalan chefs, beginning with Ferran Adria have taken center stage. Only two are women: Ruscellada and Elena Arzak.
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Carme Ruscellada i Serra Photo/Shoba Narayan

Every now and again, and particularly during awards season, the topic of women chefs comes up. The 50 best restaurants in the world were unveiled yesterday in London. This year, Helena Rizzo, chef and co-owner of Mani restaurant in Sao Paolo takes home the award for top female chef in the world: the only one with a gender tag. The other eight categories include “highest climber,” and “one to watch,” most of which allude to restaurants. There is no “best male chef” award. Instead, the chef of the top restaurant is deemed the top chef in the world. The top female chef category could be viewed as patronizing. The problem—for female chefs—is that there are so few contenders.
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In the US, for example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up a majority of the labor force in the food business but just a handful occupy its upper echelons. There are fewer women chefs than there are investment bankers, and CEOs. This is particularly galling when celebrity chefs list women—their mothers, aunts grandmothers—as inspiration. Women who cook, it seems, serve as muses and mentors. But not colleagues.
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Recently, Time magazine created a furor by putting three male chefs on the cover, prompting renewed accusations and handwringing about the state of women in the world’s kitchens. The reality is that putting a woman chef on Time’s cover would have been tokenism, given the small proportion of top jobs that they occupy. According to Bloomberg News, women occupy just 10 of the top 160 jobs in American restaurants. On the other hand, not acknowledging the slowly rising numbers of female chefs is part of the vicious cycle that causes rising female stars to drop out. I ask Ruscellada why she didn’t. “Because of my husband,” she says. Whenever there was the urge to opt out of the hard life of running a restaurant, she says through an interpreter, her husband would intervene and push her to continue.
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We get talking about female chefs and she grows more animated, switching to rapid Spanish from halting English. “Today, with the ease of kitchen equipment, a woman doesn’t need the superior strength or any special skills to work in a restaurant kitchen,” she says. “What you need is a good husband who will stand by you in this tough profession.”

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Ruscellada doesn’t seem to have heard of Sheryl Sandberg and when I mention the concept of “leaning in,” she nods politely. “The call and the pleasure of a family is hard to ignore for a woman chef,” she continues. “I too was very happy to withdraw and do some small cooking, but Toni, my husband, put my photo in front of our restaurant and said that I had to go for it.” Today, the entrance of the Mandarin Oriental has a fairly large photo of Ruscellada in chef’s whites, beaming at the hotel’s patrons and passersby on the street.
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Women can find it hard to compete and survive in the “ball-busting” atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen. Others describe the difficulties of achieving work-life balance in a profession that demands being away from children on most evenings. But very few chefs, if any—male or female—point to the choice of spouse as the main reason why women aren’t heading kitchens. Husbands matter when you want to become a female chef—perhaps more so than if you want to join Wall Street or head to Silicon Valley, something that the Bureau of Labor Statistics substantiates in its publications on women workers.
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What’s the way forward? How do you help female chefs deal with the brutal working hours of a restaurant kitchen? Chefs come in at noon and often leave at 1 a.m. on most nights, including weekends. Male chefs rely on wives to take care of their families. Ruscellada’s path was different. A farmer’s daughter, she married young and began her first restaurant with her husband, somewhat like the current number one female chef, Helena Rizzo, is doing with her Spanish husband.

Carme Ruscellada

Ruscellada’s husband, Toni Balam, manages the front of her three-starred restaurant, Sant Pau, just outside Barcelona. Her son, Raul Balam is the chef at Moments (two stars). They have an outpost in Tokyo. While Ruscellada’s photo adorns the entrance of the Mandarin Oriental, it is her husband who is the power behind the chef’s hat.

Ruscellada hasn’t won an award yet, but the number one chef in the world, Joan Roca i Fontané, feels that it is time she did. Perhaps soon, her restaurant will also become one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. It is about time.
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Follow Shoba on Twitter @ShobaNarayan. We welcome your comments at deas@qz.com.

Pappadams

I loved this week’s issue of Mint Lounge. Sumant Jaikrishnan is an authentic Indian stylister (the male version of stylista). I loved the cover. Read it here.

My piece is on Pappadams. Nice accompanying photo. Read it here and below.

Sat, Jul 27 2013. 12 07 AM IST

Pondering over ‘poppadoms’
Poppadoms are more fluff than substance. They are glorious, ephemeral and gone in minutes
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Papad or as south Indians call it, poppadom, is a popular part of Indian meals across regions. Photo: Manoj Madhavan/Mint

The essential dishes of a Kerala sadya (feast) are paruppu (dal/lentils), pachadi (raita), and payasam (kheer). To that, I would add the poppadom or papad. This triumvirate reflects Indian vegetarian cuisine across most regions. There is the dal for protein, the yogurt-based raita to cool off and provide calcium, there is the sweet dish ranging from shrikhand to sandesh to kheer or payasam, and there is papad, which is our version of chips.
The south Indian paruppu is nondescript. Imagine yellow dal, cooked with salt. That’s it. Kerala payasam is to die for and deserves a separate column. As for the poppadom, they are the high-calorie version of the Lijjat papad that has now become synonymous with women’s empowerment and self-help groups.
There are two kinds of papads in south India. There is the traditional appalam, which is made from urad dal and stays flat when fried. It may expand in circumference but not in volume. The poppadom has a bit of soda and therefore puffs up like a bhatura when fried. My Rajasthani friends eat a papad at the end of the meal. The dry papad, they say, will soak up all the desi ghee that the rest of their dishes are made from: a kind of sponge-effect all through the alimentary canal, with the papad doing what statin drugs do for cholesterol. I don’t buy this theory. I can understand the papad soaking up the desi ghee, but where does the papad then dump the desi ghee? That is unclear.
Poppadoms are famous all over Kerala. My village in Palakkad has many homes that make and sell poppadoms. The women mix the black gram flour with salt, pepper and a little baking soda; roll it out and dry it in the sun. They look a whole lot better than appalams when fried. My husband will only eat appalams because they are flat and unsullied by baking soda. His purist, unforgiving approach is the root of many of our marital quarrels. I go for show; he goes for substance, he says. I go for quirkiness; he goes for predictability, I say.
When you fry a poppadom, you never know how it will turn out. Some will puff out beautifully like a puri but most will do their own dance. Half of the poppadom will puff and the other will remain flat. It is a quirky dish. All appalams, on the other hand, will fry out flat. No rising or falling for them. In that sense, poppadoms, not to put too fine a point on it, are like life. Or so I tell my husband.
Years ago, one of my cousins married a Gujarati. At their wedding in Vadodra, the elders in my family were exposed to masala papads for the first time. Once they got over their fear of raw onions, they began devouring the stuff.
A TamBrahm boy marrying a Gujarati “Shah” girl: Now, there’s a menu discussion. The first thing that the mother of the boy—my cousin—did was forbid “the sweet stuff” in savoury dishes. Anjali’s mother countered by saying that their family was allergic to the shredded coconut that was freely thrown around in our dishes. Finally, the families did the only thing possible. We cleaved the feasts. Anjali’s side got the reception dinner, and for us children, it was a wonderland. We entered to find stalls and counters serving delicacies that we had never encountered all through our doused-in-coconut-oil childhood. There was chaat and what appeared to be giant frisbees that were borne aloft by waiters. These frisbees were masala papads and after a bit of sniffing, even the elders loved them. In exchange, we introduced the Gujaratis to poppadom; and are forever couriering them to relatives in Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat.
Whether it is Mexican nachos, American potato chips or Indian papads, cultures love crunchiness, it seems. They provide a brittle counterpoint to the softness of cooked food. They taste good; witness numerous cranky toddlers who will not touch anything on a banana leaf save the poppadom. It is not merely because they are deep-fried although that helps. It is that they don’t make culinary demands on our palate. Papads aren’t complex foods that you eat because you must. They don’t require you to process multiple textures like in a salad. They lack the girth of meats. The first sign of culinary ageing is when you eschew chips or papads. It is one short step to mashed-up goop after that.
Like bubbles or balloons or cotton candy—all of which are adored by children—poppadoms are more fluff than substance. They are glorious, ephemeral and gone in minutes.

Shoba Narayan loves masala papad, but she will take puffed-up poppadom any day.

New York Times contest

What a thrill to find this clipping.  Every time someone asks, “How did you become a food writer,” I talk about this contest in the New York Times where my entry was chosen for the prize.  It was a half-page announcement in the New York Times.  Today, when I was cleaning out my filing cabinet, I found this clipping that describes the contest and the essay.  Thank you, Ruth Reichl, then restaurant critic of the New York Times, for choosing my essay and launching my career as a food writer.

 

Photo NYT best

About the banana flower

The pink-skinned banana flower is a luxury

You have to be family to be served banana flower
Updated: Fri, Nov 23 2012. 05 21 PM IST
I am cooking banana flower today. It is a good-looking if shy vegetable, hiding its offerings under pink, smooth skin. Peeling a banana flower requires patience and if you are lucky, community. Joint families are best for this vegetable because it invites sitting around and gossiping. Women in the proverbial ancestral home will sit on the ground in a circle and painstakingly remove the kallan or stigma along with the pink outer skin. The next step is to dunk it into a vat of buttermilk. Otherwise, it will turn black. The same rule applies to brinjal, except that you dunk it in salt water.
Banana flowers are more accepting than a brinjal. You can chop them up in a haphazard way and they won’t bruise like the tender green brinjal. In time-constrained homes, the woman will peel the banana flower the previous night and keep it dunked in buttermilk overnight. This gives the dish a pleasing sour-salty-tangy taste.

The banana flower does not do well with speed, which is why so few restaurants serve it. It is, in that sense, a luxury. To eat it, you have to be invited to an Indian home of a certain ilk. Not the home that is used to throwing parties of the “show-offy” kind, pardon the expression; but a home that is authentic and unselfconscious. You too have to be a certain type of guest in order for a hostess to serve you the banana flower. You have to be family—or almost family; or a friend who can walk in unannounced. In such situations, particularly if it is lunchtime, you may be lucky enough to eat hot rice with ghee; or adal-bhath served with a few lightly sautéedsatvik (healthy) vegetables. This is home food of the best kind. Steamed rice, fragrant goldenghee, piping hot lemon-rasam, and one or two curries.

South Indians cook the banana flower (vazhai poo) as a poriyal (dry curry), kootu (with lentils as a gravy) and a paruppu usili (with ground lentils). Bengalis stuff the banana flower into a potato patty-type thing and deep-fry it asmochar chop. Coastal cuisines make a vada out of it. I have eaten this vada at the Taj group’s masala restaurants, at Karavalli, and at the ITC’s Dakshin restaurant. But I prefer the home-cooked version. A simpler recipe suits this rather retiring vegetable. Restaurants gravitate to two other kinds of vegetables: those that are flamboyant and those that are accepting of torture.
Take the potato. You can fry it, mash it, whip it, sauté it, scramble it, mix it with just about anything, and it will accept all that you dole out with the patience of an earth-mother. No wonder restaurants love this vegetable. The cauliflower is a good-looking vegetable that does well when you sauté it with tomatoes or with potatoes; or shroud it as a gobi-manchurian. The asparagus is a drama queen that demands pride of place in the centre of the plate with only a few drops of contrasting emulsion, the better to highlight its looks and taste. Mushrooms too demand a tart to rest their butts in; either that or they will allow themselves to be whipped into a foam—no middle ground for these masochists. The carrot is too good-looking for its own good, which is why cooks hate it. You can cut it into strips and serve it as a crudité, or you can julienne it for stir-fries, or blend it into soups. But it becomes sweet when cooked, which is a monkey-wrench for those who want a savoury taste in their vegetable dishes.
We Indians have chosen the path of least resistance with respect to this determined vegetable: We make a halwa out of it; and it is arguably the only vegetable that masquerades as a sweet; at least the only one with any provenance. Nowadays, people make halwa out of pumpkin and other nouveau vegetables but they are at best poor approximations, if not outright shams. The carrot, like other brightly coloured vegetables, ought to be handled with care, because it is mercurial and can blow hot, blow cold, depending on when it was picked.
The beetroot, its cousin, is similar. Russians use the beetroot in their hearty borscht, but they douse it with cream to curb the beet. In India, we make cutlets out of it, but mostly we are at a loss in terms of how to handle this volatile vegetable. You can make salads, thoren (Malayali curries) with coconut, and even sambhar with the beetroot, but somehow the cook is left feeling that he hasn’t quite got it right; that he hasn’t quite figured out how to handle this vegetable. The beetroot has the last laugh; or smirk, as if it were saying, “You can bend me but you will never triumph.”
The banana flower, along with yams, bitter gourd, cluster beans and certain gourds, are all native Indian vegetables—not “English vegetables”. They all share one characteristic: They aren’t flamboyant. This is a problem because they require doctoring—unless you happen to be in the satvik frame of mind that appreciates the simplicity of these vegetables. In my house, we do doctor the banana flower into aparuppu usili (lentil mixture). For an usili, you have to grind soaked chana dal (or tuvar dal), green or red chilli, salt and asafoetida (hing). That’s it. You coarsely grind this mixture, then steam it till it is cooked. Finally, you separate the mixture with your hands so that it crumbles (this is what usili means). You mix the crumbled lentil mixture with vegetables such as beans, cabbage and banana flower. There you have it: vazhai poo paruppu usili, home style.
Shoba Narayan’s favourite banana flower dish is the Maharashtrian version with Goda masala, jaggery and tamarind: kelphulachi bhaji. She is waiting to be invited to a Maharashtrian home so she can try the authentic version of this dish.
Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Deepavali Snacks

In my home, we are talking Deepavali snacks.  My help, Geeta, is an instinctive and brilliant cook.  We are debating what to make.  I stumbled on this lovely cooking site, Rak’s Kitchen, when searching for Deepavali (I prefer this to the Anglicized Diwali) recipes.  I like Rak’s kitchen because of the nice photographs that give easy step by step directions.  I hate cooking videos.  Have no patience for them.  This is an area where photos really trump videos in my view.  Based on Rak, we are making thenkuzhal and badam halwa today.  Perfect for a cold Bangalore day.

Culinary Crutches

Met Chef Imitiaz Qureshi today.  What a guy! Very authentic and knowledgeable about Awadh style cooking.

Listening to “There she goes” by Taio Cruz.  Here is my last Mint column

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 Two years ago, Olive Beach, a restaurant in Bangalore, made a special tasting menu for a group called The Bangalore Black Tie, of which I am a member. Typically, these are off-menu dishes that the chef specially crafts for the group, paired with wine. Each member pays a fixed price. What was unusual about this meal was that the chef, Manu Chandra, had made it vegetarian. Not just that, he had used Indian ingredients such as drumstick, jackfruit, lotus stem, and even bathua, a local green, if memory serves me right. That’s the thing: memory; food memory; the thing I obsess about.

What makes a meal memorable? The element of surprise makes for a memorable dining experience: paan shots at the Pink Poppadom restaurant at the Ista Bangalore; sake bombs at Edo in the ITC Gardenia; Brahmi juice for Sunday brunch at The Gateway Hotel are some from recent memory.

Eat, experiment: You are bound to be surprised by the results. (F Poincet/courtesy Shangri-La hotel, Paris)

Eat, experiment: You are bound to be surprised by the results. (F Poincet/courtesy Shangri-La hotel, Paris)

For professional restaurateurs and chefs, introducing the element of surprise is tricky because the spontaneous creativity that leads to surprise goes against the cardinal rule of a restaurant kitchen: consistency. Customers come back because they like your grilled fish or Chettinad chicken. Change the recipe and you may incur their wrath.Amuse-bouches are one great way to ask your chefs to be creative. It is off the menu; can be created on the whim of a particular chef on a particular day depending on what ingredients are available; and it forces chefs to be creative. Another method is to remove a chef’s crutch or cushion. This thought occurred halfway through a sublime vegetarian tasting menu at L’Abeille at the Shangri-La, Paris. The restaurant, named after the bee, which was Napoleon’s favourite emblem, is the signature fine-dining restaurant of this relatively new hotel. Owned by the Kuok family of Malaysia, the hotel has undergone a massive renovation to return it to its original state of being the home of Roland Bonaparte (Napoleon’s grandnephew).

Thanks to an introduction by a French fashion journalist, the restaurant invited me for a free vegetarian tasting a few weeks ago. We had delicate white and green asparagus, which were in season, and several courses of excellent vegetarian dishes. Here’s the thing. I know I enjoyed the meal but I can’t remember individual dishes unless I look at my notes or reach for the photos I took. But there’s one thing I remember right off the bat. The dessert was listed as “exotic fruits and vegetables”.

Oh, come on, I thought to myself. I didn’t come all the way here to eat the fruits I get in my homeland. I don’t want mangoes, pomegranates, or whatever it is that the French consider “exotic”. I want rich chocolate and painstakingly prepared pastries.

The dessert plate was ceremoniously placed in front. Along came a violet—the flower that is; on the plate, among cut fruits. I could eat it, said the waiter. I have never eaten a raw violet flower in a fine-dining restaurant. I have had squash blossom flowers in American restaurants, some of which were deep-fried like a tempura. As a child, I ategulmohar flowers and roses. But I haven’t seen flowers served as part of the meal at any of our Indian fine-dining restaurants. Why not?

Since I am vegetarian, I dined at L’Arpège, in Paris. Most of the vegetables come from chef Alain Passard’s 2-hectare kitchen garden outside Paris. The meal for three cost about €450 (around Rs. 31,050 now). It isn’t cheap, but it was wonderful. I remember several elements about the meal, but the surprising thing for me was how sparingly spices were used.

Every culinary tradition has a signature touch: an ingredient, cooking style or technique that is essential to their notion of what makes a good meal; something they cannot give up. Put another way, every culinary tradition has a signature crutch; something that suffuses their dishes; something that they cannot give up. These are the culinary stereotypes: pasta for Italians; sushi for Japanese; French sauces; Indian spices.

Really great restaurants—and meals—rise above these stereotypes. The way they do this is not by reinventing an entire cuisine, which some do. One way they do this is by removing culinary crutches. So the next time you have to challenge your chefs at a restaurant or hotel, ask them to prepare an Indian meal; or at least one dish; or even just an amuse-bouche—without the usual spices. You, and your diners, may be surprised by the results.

Shoba Narayan is wondering why Indians don’t use our abundant betel leaves to create a dish besides paan. She is chewing on a paan as she writes this. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com