An omelet for all
The Thai omelet can be a meal in itself, a classic Paris omelet is a thing of beauty but the masala omelet of the Indian streets signifies true lovebrunch Updated: Oct 16, 2017 11:25 IST
The omelet (there are many more complicated spellings, but this one is the easiest so I prefer it) is a big deal in classical French cooking. The French make all kinds of omelets. An Omelet Farcie is a stuffed omelet. A Poulard Omelet is finished in the oven. A souffle omelet relies on egg whites. And the more popular Paris Omelet is often regarded as the test of a cook.
According to legend, every French kitchen must have a heavy cast iron omelet pan. This is to be used only for cooking omelets and must never be washed. Instead, it should be wiped clean with a damp cloth. The chef must learn to make an omelet that is soft and creamy on the inside with a rich buttery taste but maintains a firm golden exterior. This is not easy to do as it involves a complicated series of hand movements: rotating the pan, stirring a certain way etc.
But when, the French do get it right, a classic Paris Omelet is a thing of beauty. You can cheat, as many useless chefs do, and put grated cheese at the centre. That way, you will get a soft centre when the cheese melts but no good French chef will sink that low. The point of the omelet is the egg. When a great chef like Daniel Boulud cooks a stuffed omelet (Omelet Farcie), he uses scrambled eggs for the stuffing so you get a double egg overload.
While I yield to none in my respect for the French omelet, I sometimes feel that we don’t pay enough attention to omelets from other parts of the world. The Japanese do wonderful things with omelets but never seem to get the credit they deserve for it.
Tamagoyaki is described best by the editors of the Lucky Peach as “a rolled log made from numerous golden-brown layers of savoury-sweet egg cooked in a traditional copper square pan called a makiyakinabe”.
Or you can just call it a Japanese omelet. It is as complicated to cook as a classic French omelet. You mix the eggs with extra yolks, sugar, soy sauce and dashi (the classic Japanese stock made from seaweed and dried flakes of the bonito fish). Then, you pour the egg mixture on to a hot pan till it forms a thin layer. Next you use a series of complicated French-style hand movements to roll that layer to the side of the pan. Then you make another omelet layer. Then, another. And so it goes till you have run out of eggs. Finally, you take the layers out of the pan, place them on a sushi mat and cut them into one-inch slices.
It is a lot of trouble to go through just to make an omelet. But hey! That’s Japanese cuisine.
According to legend, every French kitchen must have a heavy cast iron omelet pan. This is to be used only for cooking omelets and must never be washed.
The best Chinese omelet is not Foo Yong (invented in America!) but Taiwan’s Oyster Omelet. All over Taiwan, you will find hawkers making this simple dish. They put lots of fresh oysters into a pan for a minute, then add the beaten eggs and as the eggs begin to cover the oysters, they quickly turn the omelet over and let it brown slightly. And that’s it!
In European countries – other than France, perhaps – the omelet is often seen as a flour-less pie. Spanish omelets are essentially large egg pies into which they put everything from ham to potatoes to chillis. They are served on large platters and you cut off a slice just as you would with a pie or a pizza. An Italian frittata is roughly the same idea, with an oven or a grill used to brown the top.
I am not a fan of the pie-style omelet (tortilla, frittata etc.) and usually think of it as a stodgy waste of time, eggs and vegetables. To make a Spanish omelet for instance, it takes a good half hour just to get the potatoes ready and I’m not convinced they add much to the final taste of the omelet. I don’t mind French fries served on the side with an omelet, but I hate the idea of using potatoes as a stuffing. (Though a Chipsi Mayai, or a French fry omelet, is apparently a great favourite in East Africa).
Ferran Adria, of EI Bulli, shocked Spaniards a few years ago when he published a collection of the recipes he used while cooking at home .
Arguing, sensibly enough, that his countrymen took too long to make an omelet, Adria suggested making a tortilla with kettle chips. Yups. Store-bought Kettle chips from a paper bag! His recipe was absurdly simple. You mixed beaten eggs with strips of ham, kettle chips, chopped peppers or chillies, salt, pepper and thyme. You let the mixture sit for five minutes to let the chips soften and then you made an omelet the usual way in the pan. When it had set, you put it briefly under the grill to give it a golden hue on top. The entire process, from the time you tore open the packet of kettle chips to the time you ate it took 20 minutes; much less time than it would take to just prepare the potatoes for a normal Spanish omelet.
I love a good French omelet, as long as someone else is making it – I don’t have the skills required to make one myself. But of the omelets I can make at home, I have two favourites. The first is a Thai version which is so easy that any fool (i.e. me) can make it.
You mix the eggs with a spoonful of lemon juice and one more of Thai fish sauce. That’s your basic mixture. You can add cooked ground pork so if you have some krapow or any other left overs in the fridge, they can go in. Or you can cheat and crumble some Northern Thai sausage into the egg mixture.
You cook it the normal way, on a pan, with a neutral (i.e. not olive or strongly-flavoured) oil, flipping it over till both sides are cooked. The fish sauce will caramelise the outside of the omelet and you should not hesitate to make the edges crisp. You serve it with a mound of Jasmine rice, more fish sauce and some Sriracha or the hot sauce of your choice.
You’ll get this omelet at virtually every dhabha in Bangkok but Thai restaurants outside of Thailand find it too plebeian to serve. But if a Thai chef is in an obliging mood, he will make it for you. The only place I know of in Delhi where it turns up regularly is at Qube at The Leela Palace where they put the Thai omelet on the buffet. The Thai chef will usually make it to order but Qube is an upmarket place so they may want to use a fancy filling like crabmeat. (Which is delicious, by the way, though the chef is always horrified by the spoonfuls of fish sauce that I ladle on to the Jasmine rice.)
Just as the Thais have adapted the omelet to the demands of their own cuisine, we have our own classic omelet. During my childhood, when going to boarding school and back, involved days of train travel, I became a dedicated fan of the railway station omelet. Though the catering at each station was handled by a different entity, the omelet, somehow, remained the same.
It was always thin and big, so big, in fact, that the edges of the omelet curled up at the ends of the plate. It had a mottled, pale yellow colour and its surface was flecked with bits of the onion, tomato and chilli that had been mixed with the eggs.
We ate it with the slices of the white bread it was served with. They were roughly toasted with black, charred streaks and came with a splodge of butter (not necessarily Amul) by the side. You cut off a bit of the omelet, buttered the toast, and then placed the omelet bit on it. Finally, you smeared a dollop of tomato ketchup all over it.
That taste has stayed with me through the decades. Till I began to cut out gluten, my standard aeroplane meal would be a pre-packed masala omelet sandwich, with chips (as in wafers) and a few sachets of ketchup. I would open the sandwich, smear the ketchup on the omelet and then – this is the inventive bit – add a layer of chips, before putting the top slice of bread back again. When I ate it, I got the masala, egg, white bread and ketchup tastes of my childhood with the added crunch of crisp wafers.
Now, when people ask me what my favourite omelet in the world is, I always feel that I should pay tribute to the classic French omelet or praise the brilliant Japanese chefs who make their omelets in layers.
But I end up telling the truth. I like the Thai omelet, I say, because it can be a substantial meal in itself.
But in my heart, I have only one true love: the simple and great masala omelet of the Indian streets and railway platforms.
From HT Brunch, October 8, 2017
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