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