Julia Childs seminal work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, brought the stove top and the oven into the ken of a vast number of American housewives. She built on her success by presenting a television programme called, I believe, Cooking with Julia which aired on the American Public Broadcasting Service. In the 70s I saw many of these weekly shows.
One sticks in my memory as exemplar of the popularization of cooking good food at home for friends. Julia was preparing a French staple, which she made sure you knew was gigot aux haricots blancs, aka leg of lamb with borlotti beans. Sniffing the pan juices bubbling in the roasting pan, she lifted the roast onto the kitchen island and gave a brief discourse on the different methods to carve a leg of lamb: slicing parallel to the bone for French, and making a deep incision in the thickest part of the leg and then cutting slices perpendicular to the bone for English.
She gripped the shank end in one towel wrapped hand and began to demonstrate the French technique. (Interestingly, French carve with the grain of the meat, whilst the Anglo-Saxon lot carve against it.) All of a sudden, the shank slipped out of her hand and the roast out of the pan and onto the floor. Well, said Julia, Theyll never know. And she picked the roast up off the floor, gave it the once over to see that there were no telltale floor remains, dropped it back into the roasting pan, and continued carving. (Im not sure I would recommend this approach in an Indian kitchen, for reasons which we all know and I wont elaborate upon.)
Not only did Julias action connect with what must have happened to hundreds, thousands of home cooks approaching a gigot, or ham or whatever, but it also brought to the fore a certain healthy irreverence to the Art of cooking, ensuring that people who liked to cook would approach the challenge with an easy mind and no guilty conscience if things didnt work out perfectly.
Julias approach is the bedrock upon which dozens of cooks and cookbook writers have based their outlook on the preparation of food. A particular favourite of mine is Nigel Slater, whose cookbooks are amongst the most appetizing I have read and cooked from. For a start his approach to food exactly mirrors mine: Find an idea that you like, and work at it until it can be no better. What I would like to think I am doing with my recipes is to go most of the way for you, so that you can add, tweak and fiddle until you find something that is perfect for you (Nigel Slater, Real Food, Fourth Estate, London, 1998, p. 10). Equally important, his language makes my mouth water and, as often as not, drives me to the stove.
Heres his take on the potato from Real Food: Perhaps its the pleasure I get from squashing a naked, virginal steamed potato into the gravy of a lamb casserole Or it could be that second when I smash open a baked potato with my fist [the only way to ensure a truly fluffy spud] and the solid white flesh turns to white snow? (Ibid., p. 15) Note the use of the words squash and smash. You wont find these words in Escoffier or Careme, or for that matter The Joy of Cooking. But Julia I am sure would approve.
This is not to say that technique and precision are to be rinsed down the kitchen drain. I reckon the finest Indian chef of the twentieth century was Digvijay Singh, the late Maharajah of Sailana. I was fortunate to have him as my cooking guru, as much for the remarkable quality of his table as the delicious and world-class ashas (distilled liquors) which he produced. Royal India was a land of highly developed and exuberant recipes, cunningly created and jealously guarded by master chefs. When royals would entertain fellow royals, they delighted in offering sumptuous and original dishes, meant both to tickle the palate and pique the curiosity of their noble guest. A typical example, kheer made of liver without the faintest taste of liver. If youre intrigued, youll find the recipe in his cookbook, The Cooking Delights of Maharajas.
Both the late Maharajah and his father set themselves the challenge of winkling out the recipes of sumptuous and secret dishes they were served by fellow princes. The following strategy was developed. HH would invite say, the Nawab of Rampur, whose kitchen was famous for shammi kababs, and request Nawab Saheb to bring his cook with him. The Nawab, anxious to strut his stuff, agreed, and the Rampur ruler and his entourage would duly arrive. Now HH knew that the Rampur cook would never divulge how much of what ingredient was used, but the cook could not refuse to prepare the dish in the presence of the Maharajah. The sigdis were duly lit and brought out, the masala box produced, the cooking party assembled, the crystal decanters of superb Sailana gulab or narangi brought out, ice, soda water arrived and the cooking started.
When asked by HH how much of what was to be used, the cook would always reply, Hukum, Ive never learnt to read or write, nor do I understand how to measure. I prepare every dish by andaaz or approximation. So into the ground lamb would go a pinch of red chillies, a handful of ground onion, a sprinkle of powdered cardamom and so forth. Now your pinch or whatever is different from mine and both are different from the Rampuri cooks. But the technique was there for HH to see and learn. The kababs were duly fried in pure ghee. Compliments were paid and the Rampuri cook departed to the guest quarters, where no insidious Sailana folk could pry into his secrets.
HH retired to his chambers and called for the masala dabba. An old fashioned set of scales, used to weigh gold, was called for, and the weight of remaining ingredients careful ascertained. And voila! By simple subtraction, HH arrived at the quantity used, for he had taken the precaution, before the masala dabba was brought to the cooking theatre, of carefully weighing each ingredient! And so, the secrets of many wonderful recipes were unveiled, and are available to non-royals in Maharajah Sahebs remarkable compendium of royal recipes.
What is salutary about todays food and its cooking is the fact that more and more people are into it. This accentuates the popularization of what Julia might well have started and what Nigel Slater and so many others continue. For after all, food and drink are about taste. Fortunately, how something tastes in the mouth is supplanting good taste. The OED informs:
1. Mental perception of quality; judgement, discriminative faculty; the sense of what is harmonious, or beautiful; the faculty of perceiving and enjoying what is excellent in art, literature, etc.
2. The quality of a substance, which is perceived when brought into contact with the mouth.
In the first definition, taste is largely defined by culture, whereas in the second we are dealing with a physical sensation. Brillat Savarin, the 19th century Frenchman whose eloquent treatise, The Physiology of Taste, brought philosophy to food, talked of taste in the second sense. He divided taste into categories such as sweet, salty, bitter, acid and so forth, which when ingested, produced agreeable or disagreeable sensations.
Agood example of good taste and tasting good is the question of wine and Indian food. In the olden days, it was good taste to have beer with our tandoori, people of taste felt that wine was not right for Indian food; today tandoori and a Gewurztraminer taste good together. A young woman who orders some wine does so because she finds it tastes good with her tandoori. Her choice springs from a less complex and regimented mental framework. She breaks with the culture of tandoori and beer, and replaces it with tandoori and wine, which combination, known today as pairing, is agreeable to her. As more people try and then begin to enjoy tandoori or kababs or biryani with wine, the culture itself starts to change. This new pairing of food and wine becomes accepted, and indeed a sign of a person of taste.
How has this transformation come about, bringing the acceptance of new taste combinations to our palate and thence to our culture? The world is shrinking. We are increasingly exposed to new experiences, new influences. We travel more. The pairing of Indian cuisine with wine is but one of the examples of a broader perspective toward food, one which breaks with convention and concentrates of what actually tastes good.
I think it is right to separate this new attitude toward food into two distinct streams. The first is what can roughly be called the range from Nouvelle Cuisine to California Cuisine. The second is Fusion Cooking. The common ingredients to these two streams are imagination, fresh ingredients and light preparation.
Michel Guerard, who along with the French food writers Henri Gault and Christian Millau, coined the term Nouvelle Cuisine in the seventies, felt that he could be true to Brillat Savarins dictum of food being agreeable whilst avoiding obesity. The Masters suggestions could be directly transplanted into Michel Guerards kitchen: You like bread: very well, you will eat rye bread. You like soup, let it be clear but innocent of bread and floury pastes. For the first course you are free of everything, with the exception of such [dishes] as chicken and rice and the crust of hot pies. For the second course flee all things floury. Have you not the roast, the salad, and the green vegetables? Here comes dessert, a new source of danger avert your eyes from biscuits and from macaroons; there still remain all kinds of fruit (The Physiology of Taste, Peter Davies, 1925, p. 184).
Guerard opened a restaurant and combined it with a spa in the town of Eugenie les Bains, favourite of Empress Josephine for its thermal baths, which kept her slim. He earned his third Michelin star in 1977 and has retained it ever since.
Distinctive to his world of taste is the primacy of fresh seasonal ingredients and the relegation of heavy sauces to the outhouse. Thickening of sauces was achieved by concentrating stocks, and pureeing and reducing vegetables, to which imagination and a sense of proportion chooses the flavourings to add. (Lauki or cucumber are excellent for this purpose, by the way.)
California cuisine started in 1971 with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, her restaurant in Berkeley, California. Her culinary philosophy and practice insisted on local seasonal products, and earned her Gourmet magazines accolade of the best restaurant in the USA (2001).
Chez Panisse offers diners a fixed price, no choice menu, consisting only of fresh ingredients, harvested in season and purchased from local farmers, fishermen or foragers. How different from the menus of the traditional great restaurants of the world. Anton Mosimann at the Connaught in London, La Tour dArgent in Paris, Grenouille in New York, a vast array of dishes in the menu, good no doubt, but again somewhat over the top.
The representative of Chez Panisses philosophy was a dish of green beans served as a first course: Sharply vinegared with an artfully rumpled heap of beyond organic herbs, a drop of jelly and a swath of mayonnaise: the beans vibrated on the plate. Along with half a soft boiled egg, this dish was reviewed as the loveliest conceivable expression of a great cultural region (California Dish, Jeremiah Tower, Free Press, 2003. p. 275). This culinary philosophy has taken the world by its palate and its gullet, and I might add its wallet. The prix fixe no-choice menu runs from $65 on Monday to $110 on Saturday, without wine. Today, local produce is the watchword in hundreds of restaurants around the world.
Alice Waters chef for several years was a legendary foody by the name of Jeremiah Tower. Born with a silver spoon firmly grasped between his teeth, the child Tower tasted the riches of the grand hotels, transatlantic liners and wagonslits of the West, and in adolescence learnt of the poverty food of English and American boarding schools. Tower has had a chequered career. Thrust onto his own devices after college, he maintained himself as a gardener while he took to heart Richard Olneys French Menu Cookbook. Tower has the habit of recording all his menus, and in a period of deep insolvency, he recorded the following, shortly before his fortunes changed and he joined Alice Waters.
Dinner for One, San Francisco 1972.
The virtues of boiled garlic, Spread on new bread and French butter.
Chateau dYquem 1967
(He couldnt have been so broke!)
Yet just to keep things in perspective, which means that there are no absolutes in the world of fine food, todays new culinary Mecca is Las Vegas, where nothing, but nothing is local, yet thanks to the wonders of Fedex, the freshest blue fin tuna from Japan, wild asparagus from the Appenines, blue crab from Chesapeake Bay arrive on your table prepared by the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, or Jean-George Vongerichten. All the worlds great chefs have opened restaurants here. If Jeremiah Tower were twenty years younger he too would have offered you his famous Blue Trout with Pink Champagne in one of the Bellagio Hotels 13 restaurants. (Look up this recipe in his California Dish, Jeremiah Tower, Free Press, 2003 a remarkable personal odyssey liberally salted with quite unique menus.) By the time you get out of Vegas, if you havent blown your vacation money on the gaming tables, youll have blown it on the dining tables.
Fusion: The union or blending together of different things. OED.
While California Cuisine, or what Jeremiah Tower calls The American Culinary Revolution, has a distinct notably uncomplicated style, fusion cooking concentrates on experience and innovation, experience of different world cuisines, and a sense of innovation which brings together eclectic ingredients without losing harmony. The pairing of Indian food and an appropriate wine is a simple example of the successful fusion of East and West.
The cook who applies the word fusion to food he cooks sets himself the following challenge: I live in an environment, which offers me a variety of ingredients. I can stick to the local culture and its cooking, or I can use my imagination and bring in ideas from my experience of other cooking cultures.
Iplan to create a summer lunch menu each dish of which will take a familiar and culturally pure recipe and add or modify ingredients and methods from other cultures, creating the union or blending together of different things.
Heres the menu:
Cold Bharta (India) soup (the West) (thats right I said Bharta Soup!)
Tabouleh (Mid East with Indian spices and techniques)
Pasta al Pesto di Angelo (North Italy, with Sicily and India)
Cole Slaw (American with Indian ingredients)
Rosso Golla (Indian with the West).
Bharta Soup: In this dish, we take the well-known Indian eggplant preparation, bharta, and turn it into a very western chilled soup. Very little in the way of non-traditional ingredients, put much in the way of fusing East and West. 1 large brinjal; 2 tablespoons oil; 1 pinch asafoetida; 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds; 1 large onion; 1 tablespoon chopped ginger; 1 teaspoon chopped garlic; 1 teaspoon green chillies; 1 cup finely chopped tomato, seeds, skin and juice removed; 1 teaspoon chilli powder; 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder; 1/2 teaspoon garam masala; 1 tblsp toasted sesame seeds; ½ cup chopped green coriander, stems and leaves; 1 litre chilled chaach (must be light, largely bereft of milk solids); 1 tablespoon very finely minced ginger; salt.
Iam going to take for granted that you know how to make the bharta, first roasting the whole eggplant to give it that smoky flavour, and so forth. The bharta is prepared normally, except the tomatoes are kept aside, uncooked. It is then cooled and whizzed in the blender until smooth. Now comes the tricky part. Into the chilled chaach we add the finely chopped (1/4 inch) tomatoes (kept raw and chopped to give the soup two textures) and start spooning in the liquefied bharta. How much to add is to your taste: a thicker or a thinner soup will result. Serve in chilled soup bowls, garnished with the chopped green coriander, minced ginger and toasted sesame seed.
Tabouleh: The traditional recipe calls for the cracked wheat to be cooked al dente, drained and forked till fluffy, cooled, and the remaining ingredients are mixed in. The whole is left to stand in the frig till well chilled. This more adventurous version fuses mid-East and Indian tastes, and calls for the addition of an Indian technique: tadka or bagghar to infuse the olive oil with flavour.
4 cups boiling water over 2 cups raw bulgur wheat or cracked wheat; 1 c. cooked chick-peas (garbanzos), drained; 1 c. minced coriander; 3/4 c. minced mint; 3/4 c. minced scallions or 1 onion finely chopped; 3 tomatoes chopped (optional); 3/4 c. fresh lemon juice; 1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil; 1 tsp minced green chillies; 1 tsp dry red chilli flakes; 1 tsp whole cumin; 1 tblsp whole coriander seeds, lightly crushed; 1 tblsp minced garlic; 1 pinch curry leaves; salt to taste.
While the preparation of the cracked wheat is the same, the olive oil is first infused with Indian spices. This bagghar is done by heating the olive oil to just below the smoking point. Whole cumin is added. When the cumin starts to go pop, the garlic, red chilli flakes, curry leaves and crushed coriander are added, the pan is covered and shaken, off the heat, for a minute. The oil, now flavoured with the spices, is poured over the warm, drained cracked wheat. (Some may wish to strain out the spices. I prefer to keep them in anticipation of the burst of flavour, which each one will provide.) The dish is left to cool before the fresh flavourings (coriander, mint, scallions, tomatoes) are added. An hour or so in the frig produces a substantial and intriguing salad.
Pasta al Pesto is a dish, which originated on the Ligurian coast of Italy, most probably near Genoa. It is a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil leaves, cheese (either Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino), pine nuts or walnuts, garlic, and salt and pepper. Proportions are hotly debated, but they all turn out scrumptious. You can find a good recipe on-line or in any decent Italian cookbook.
Several years ago, Angelo Chizzoni, a friend from Sicily spent a week with me. Amongst many delicious dishes he prepared was his fusion take on pesto. After all, Sicily is a land where Arab, Greek and Italian streams come together, and it is but normal that many Sicilian dishes fuse together strands from different cultures.
Pasta al Pesto di Angelo: This dish is fun to make with a group of friends, where each can take part in pounding the mixture (pesto means pounded in Ligurian). Under no circumstances is a blender to be used.
Traditional Pesto: 2 cups of basil leaves; 2 cloves of garlic; ¼ cup pine nuts; ¾ cup Parmesan grated cheese; ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil.
To this we substitute blanched almonds (very Arab) for pine nuts and add 1 tsp sugar, a healthy pinch of saffron (Mid East and India), 2-4 seeded and dry red chillies (India) torn into little pieces.
First pound the nuts, saffron, sugar and chillies: when they are well amalgamated, start adding basil and drizzle in the olive oil. This is where several hands are useful, since the pounding of the ingredients can take a good 15 minutes. So start pounding while you drink bharta soup. Once the basil is pounded into submission, add the cheese no need to pound the cheese. The pesto should be the consistency of heavy cream, which adjustment is done by a judicious use of olive oil. Dont forget to have the pasta ready. I prefer fusilli, the corkscrew shaped pasta. Then load up with the sauce.
Cole Slaw is the archetypal American salad, but we are going to fuse into it some Indian ingredients. Remove core and outer leaves from a small head of cabbage, and shred finely. Should yield a cup of shredded cabbage. Add to this a cup of shredded raw papaya. Make sure that both cabbage and papaya are shredded, not grated. For the dressing, make a mayonnaise and flavour it with any salty rather than sweet mango pickle.
Rosso Gollas: For dessert we are going to transform bazaar bought rosso gollas into the perfect counterfoil to melon or mangoes or any other juicy fruit. This recipe is for 24 rosso gollas.
Remove the rosso gollas from their syrup. Prepare a half a cup of freshly squeezed limejuice. Add to it half a cup of gin or vodka. Cut the fruit of your choice into pieces. Marinate in half a cup of the lime and gin mixture, to which you will add half a cup of syrup from the rosso gollas. Taking a rosso golla in your hand, gently squeeze out as much syrup as you can, being careful not to break the rosso golla. Keep aside the syrup. Spoon the remaining limejuice and gin (vodka) mixture over each rosso golla, making sure that they soak it up. Place the rosso gollas directly in your serving bowl, and ladle over the cut fruit and its marinade. Chill.
We are fortunate to live in an era of cooking where good taste takes a back seat to tasting good, where conventions are cast aside, where imagination comes to the service of taste, and where a broad selection of ingredients is available to the aspiring cook. At the same time, cookbook writers and their partners-in-crime, cooking show television hosts, entice us into the kitchen with ever more mouthwatering meals, so easily prepared at home. So don an apron, and experiment, maybe with the following.
Consommé Marijuana: 6 cups rich chicken stock; ½ cup fresh basil leaves; 1 cup freshly picked nasturtium flowers in various colours; salt and pepper. Bring the stock to a boil while you preheat the oven. Steep the stems and seeds in the stock for an hour, after toasting them in the oven for ten minutes. Strain the stock scrupulously, and return to simmer. Chop basil and nasturtium and place in the bottom of a soup bowl. Pour the consommé over.
(California Dish, op.cit., p. 61.)
Oh dear! Ive forgotten the main ingredient. Well, then use your imagination!
* Co-author of Cooking of the Maharajas, Viking Press, New York, 1975.