Remembering a lovely meal at the Shangrila Paris.
I was thrilled to meet this chef. She is casual and confident but underneath you can sense her resolve. It appeared in Quartz here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Follow Shoba on Twitter @ShobaNarayan. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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 email@example.com
This coming Saturday is Mint Lounge’s Summer Special issue. I wrote a column on cooling summer drinks, which, I discovered is already up on the site. So am posting it here.
- Posted: Thu, Apr 5 2012. 8:12 PM IST
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan
Stirring up memories: Sherbets are the drinks of an Indian childhood. Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.
Healing foods are a complicated business. Mangoes are heating but only the ripe ones. Green mangoes are cooling—witness their ubiquitous usage in summer sherbets, including the famous aam panna, which incidentally includes some cooling cardamom, should there be any residual heat in the mangoes. Yogurt is cooling and damp. Many elderly Indians will not eat yogurt at night because it causes kapha or mucus. A better option is buttermilk, particularly blended with heating spices such as ginger, pepper, curry leaves and asafoetida. This chhaas, or sambaaram as it is called in Kerala, is a soothing digestive. Sugar cane, which thrives in the summer, is heating, so you balance it with some cooling rock sugar or kalkandu.
Panakam is another drink that is served around this time of year. Made with jaggery, pepper, dried ginger and cardamom, it balances electrolytes and quenches thirst. The bael (Bengal quince) fruit is famously cooling. Starting now, bael sherbets will be sold in by-lanes all over India. The green fruits, about the size of a small football, will be stacked like a pyramid. The yellow insides will be scooped out, made into a pulp and served with spices and sugar.
Sandalwood is cooling; and chandan sherbet infused with rose or mograpetals is another visually arresting cooling drink. In my home, I am making a short-cut sherbet. I have submerged a stick of sandalwood in water and floated some mogra and rose petals on top. For good measure, I am preparing this concoction in a copper vessel. In two months, I expect that the fountain of youth will have found me. Either that, or my hair will turn yellow from all the sandalwood I am imbibing.
Are sherbets being overtaken by mocktails? Most restaurants serve mocktails but few include sherbets in their menu. Nimish Bhatia, regional executive chef (south), The Lalit Ashok Bangalore, serves sherbets at his Baluchi restaurant. “We have tukhmalanga sherbets made of those round seeds (called “sabja” in Mumbai) that are part offaloodas,” he says. “These are perceived to be thirst quenchers and coolants.” Other Baluchi sherbets are infused with hibiscus and rose flowers.
Before mocktails were marketed by hotels and restaurants, we all drank sherbet: made ofkokum, mango, screw pine or kewra, khus or vetiver, and sugar cane.
Raj Sethia, chef and CEO of Gangotree restaurant in Bangalore and Chennai, is a sherbet purist. He says that mixing a number of ingredients does not a sherbet make. Milk too is a no-no in the sherbet category, but forms the basis of the thandais that we all drink. “Anything that is an amalgam of many ingredients comes into the mocktail category,” says Sethia. “They are not sherbets.” He speaks effusively about the sherbets of his childhood—such as keri ka panna and bael sherbet—their history that began when the Mughals came to India, and how sherbets can trace their lineage and names back to Arabia and Turkey. But you know what? He is writing a book on mocktails—not sherbets. Mocktail seems to be the drink of today, and sherbet, a summer drink from yesteryear.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to summer drinks. The West reaches for instant quick fixes: ice creams, slushes, “soda” or fizzy drinks and chilled juices. The East is more convoluted. Most of our sherbets are made with three ingredients: fruits and flowers, spices, and herbs like mint. I posted a request for sherbet recipes on a Facebook page that I highly recommend called Foodies in Bangalore. The name is self-explanatory but the people populating it are from all over India. Within a couple of hours, I had a hundred responses. I found a lot of information on the Gourmet India forum, an online community, as well. The enthusiasm of the responses suggests to me that sherbets are the stuff of summer nostalgia. These are drinks that transport us to our childhood, when we came home to chilled juices and sherbets made of seasonal fruits and spices—red rhododendron in Himachal Pradesh; a delicate green aam panna in Rajasthan; spiced buttermilk in Gujarat and Kerala; red jil jil jigarthanda in Madurai, made of rose syrup and sarsaparilla; Rooh Afza and Rasna coolers all over India; chocolate-coloured panagam in the midst of south Indian weddings; kesar faloodasat Crawford Market in Mumbai along with the ubiquitous tender coconut water; bael panna in Lucknow; the prized Bengali kaancha-mitha mangopanna; and a variety of red watermelon-based sherbets in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. These are the drinks of an Indian childhood, along with sucking on chuskis and ripe tamarind fruits that grow so profusely on the roadside in south India. Climb up a mango tree, lean back on its branches, allow the wind to rustle your hair and suck on a ripe mango or tamarind fruit. Better yet, drink an imli (tamarind) sherbet, Bhojpuri barley sattu, ragi kanji or fresh lime soda. Arrey, lace it with vodka, if you must.
Shoba Narayan is currently drinking green Brahmi sherbet.
Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
This appeared in Silkroad magazine’s Feb 2012 issue
People want different things on a cold winter night: a piping hot bowl of soup or the seductive richness of, say, foie gras. I crave steaming hot rice. It could be Malaysian nasi lemak, Saudi Arabian kabsa, Iranian pilaf, Pakistani biryani, Indian tamarind rice, Qatari or Kuwaiti majboos. I don’t fuss as long as the main ingredient is earthy rice. For Asians, rice is the equivalent of American chicken soup.
Said to be cultivated since 6,000 BC in the middle Yangtze valley, rice feeds two-thirds of the world’s population. More than 120,000 varieties of rice exist. There are the fragrant Thai jasmine and the basmati, tiny sweet mochi gome, sticky Filipino malagkit, and plump Italian arborio. Sake is brewed from nine types of Japanese rice ranging from yamada nishiki to omachi. Colours range from brown rice to Chinese black rice, to Indonesian purple and pink rice. White rice is the most popular. Far East Asians like a sticky texture, while Arabic cultures prefer separate, somewhat undercooked grains.
India used to have more than 100,000 varieties of rice. Most were hand-pounded rice with the nutritious husk left intact. Today, the bulk of Asia eats polished white rice bereft of its mineral-rich skin. In Kerala, red rice is popular, while North Indians like basmati rice. A fortnight ago, South Indians celebrated Pongal, the spring harvest festival. My family served a savoury rice dish – also called Pongal – along with freshly harvested sugarcane, turmeric and other gifts of the harvest. When I lived in Manhattan, I frequently made Pongal using Thai jasmine rice that I bought in Little India.
Asia produces and consumes 90 per cent of the world’s rice. In Myanmar a single person eats 462 pounds of rice a year, relative to an American, who eats 20 pounds, according to Riceweb, a compendium of rice facts. Most Asians travel with a rice cooker, and spend a good part of their day testing and debating the merits of various brands and types of rice. For us, rice is the centre of a meal, and everything else, just condiments. In America, rice is considered, if not a condiment, a side dish.
The US farms about 20 varieties of rice, mostly in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana and Texas (where the aromatic Texmati rice originated). The type known to most is wild rice, which is not really rice – it belongs to the genus zizania, not oryza – and Uncle Ben’s “Ready Rice”, which I would argue is not really rice, either.
Vietnam ties its economy to rice grown in the Mekong Delta and its culture to rice wine (ruou nep), a ceremonial drink offered to honored guests and used to dissolve tonic medications. Indonesians base their Rijsttafel (rice table) feasts, consisting of 100-odd dishes, on rice. In Bangladesh, China and Thailand, a common greeting is “Have you had your rice today?” to which an appropriate answer is “No, come and share some rice with me.” Filipinos consider the Banaue rice terraces in Northern Luzon to be the eighth wonder of the world and make bibingkas – sweet rice patties – for holidays. Koreans offer songp’yon (rice cakes) to their ancestors and believe each bowl of ttokkuk (rice soup) eaten on New Year’s Day adds a year to their life. India and Pakistan feud on almost everything except for rice pilaf recipes.
As for me, I don’t feel like I’ve eaten till I eat rice. I may enjoy stinky cheeses, artisanal breads, rich creamy desserts, dark chocolates and cheesy pizza. But at the end of the day, or night, I have to eat steaming hot rice, served with a dollop of ghee. It is the taste of home.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India