At the end of each year or at the beginning of a new one, I usually do a round-up of the food trends of the year. This time, I am breaking slightly from tradition. Here is a list of trends/ingredients that I think we have seen too much of.
My fervent hope is that we see less of them this year.
Truffles and truffle oil
About five years ago, Indian restaurateurs and hoteliers discovered truffles. There were pioneers, like Diva’s Ritu Dalmia, but most Indian chefs had never seen a real truffle in their lives. Then the craze for (very expensive) seasonal Italian white truffles hit India – largely, I suspect, because so many of India’s billionaires are vegetarians and chefs need to find something that is as expensive as caviar to make them feel special.
A truffle is one of the world’s great delicacies and I am all for allowing those who can afford to eat it to continue to enjoy it. (I say “allow” because they ban everything these days – imported cheese is now on the lunatic hit list).
But there are two problems. First of all, a truffle is an extremely delicate ingredient. Keep it too long and it loses its taste and aroma. Because truffle traders sell the best truffles locally (to those who can actually smell them and choose what they want), Asia, and India in particular, gets the junk: the stuff that is on its last legs.
Consequently, many hotels end up importing truffles that have no aroma or taste. But having bought them, they have to push them anyway. So what do they do?
Well, they use truffle oil.
Which brings us to the second problem and my great bugbear: Truffle oil.
In the old days, before the world discovered truffles, the oil would be made by infusing truffle shavings into good quality olive oil. But now that everybody wants to say they have eaten truffles, something like 95 per cent (99 per cent, even) of the truffle oil available in the shops is completely bogus.
Manufacturers take cheap quality olive oil or rapeseed oil and infuse it with a synthetic chemical called dithiapentane, which often is a by-product of the petroleum industry. A real truffle has many complex aromas, but dithiapentane mimics the smell of only one of them. This is enough to fool people who have no experience of truffles into believing that the oil is made with real truffles.
There are other advantages. Synthetic truffle oil costs virtually nothing to make. And yet it can be sold at a huge mark-up because nowhere in the packaging will it say that the product is synthetic. Plus, canny manufacturers can add a tiny quantity of cheap summer truffles, which are past their prime, to the oil. They can now claim that the oil contains actual truffles. And no law compels them to name the primary chemical component and the source of the smell on the packaging.
The trick is to look closely at the list of ingredients. If it says “aroma” or “flavouring”; then it is synthetic oil. Some established truffle product brands like Urbani are now forced to infuse chemicals into their oils, but try and retain their honour by listing the quantity of synthetic chemicals. One bottle of Urbani truffle oil I saw recently listed “0.1 per cent aroma”, which sounds like very little. Actually, you need only a tiny amount of the chemical to flavour the oil. So even that distinction is a meaningless evasion.
No chef of any consequence in the West will use synthetic truffle oil: Gordon Ramsay has said that it is “the most pungent, ridiculous ingredient known to man”. The restaurateur Joe Bastianich has called it “garbage olive oil with perfume added to it. It is very difficult to digest. It is bad for you”.
And yet Indian chefs love their truffle oil. They use it to boost the flavour of the dead truffles they import and they add it to everything, even Chinese and Japanese food. So you’ll get truffle french fries, truffle macaroni and all kinds of truffle pasta.
The problem is that truffle oil does not taste or smell like truffle. And yet, because of its overuse here, many Indians now imagine that real truffles smell like this.
I would call it a giant con trick. But it is ignorance. Most Indian chefs are so ignorant that they think the oil is actually made from truffles. So if you see the word “truffle” on an Indian menu, ask them to shave the truffle in front of you.
Or just say no. And save yourself lots of money.
Yes, science and food do mix. But when you hand a canister of liquid nitrogen to a talentless chef, you get rubbish food. And sadly, that is exactly what is happening.
There are only a handful of Indian chefs who know how to use scientific techniques creatively. Gaggan Anand is the master and the world acknowledges that. Manish Mehrotra has recreated dishes like the Daulat Ki Chaat of old Delhi by using cutting-edge technology. (Without Manish’s techniques, the dessert can only be made on early winter mornings). And Saurabh Udinia of Farzi Café/Masala Library understands the technology. (Vikramjit Roy does too – but he is an Oriental chef).
And yet, nearly everywhere I go, I see somebody trying to copy Gaggan’s experiments with spherification or serving rubbish food inside a cloud of smoke.
Give up guys! It is no longer fashionable anywhere else in the world. And most of you don’t have the talent to carry it off. So just stick to real Indian food: it is one of the world’s great cuisines even without your liquid nitrogen.
I blame Manish and Gaggan. They were the first chefs to take great street food dishes and to turn them into haute cuisine. Gaggan’s papdi-chaat sphere and his Calcutta-chop-Charcoal were great dishes when they were first invented. And nobody used golgappas as creatively as Manish did.
But now, every second modern Indian chef is trying to tell us what a genius he is by doing a new kind of vada pav or turning a dosa into a crepe.
The point of street food is that it is food that is not made by great chefs with expensive kitchens. It is made by poor people with access to few resources (usually not even a kitchen) who take the humblest ingredients (because they can’t afford high food costs) and turn out delicious dishes that they sell at low prices.
Yes, there is a lot to inspire us and much to learn from their inventiveness. And certainly, a few of their dishes can benefit from creative reimagining. But it is crazy for well-paid chefs with access to immense resources, to steal their dishes, pimp up the ingredients and to then serve them as great dishes of their own.
Daniel Boulud may have reimagined the hamburger, but he did not base his entire reputation on cooking upmarket hot dogs and hamburgers. Nor, for that matter, are Manish and Gaggan admired only for their riffs on street-food – it is, at best, a tiny part of their repertoire.
So can we please get the fancy chefs back in their kitchens, cooking the food they know best? Besides, not one of them can make a kulcha-channa that is better than the one you get at humble establishments in Amritsar. And no bhelpuri they can make will ever top the one you get on the streets of Bombay.
Why do so many restaurants pride themselves on their hamburgers when the truth is that you can’t really make a hamburger in India at all?
A real hamburger should be made with good-quality beef. This is next to impossible in today’s India because cow slaughter is banned in most Indian states and the food police persecute anyone who serves imported beef.
What you get instead is – by and large – truly disgusting. Usually, it is the bits of chicken that you can’t use for anything else (the waste), minced finely and shaped into a patty. Then, this patty is bread-crumbed and fried so it becomes a kind of chicken pakora.
If this is a hamburger, then I am Walt Disney.
Others claim they make a “lamb burger”, which is usually a lie because they use goat, which is a wonderful meat for shami kababs, but does not usually lend itself to hamburgers.
You can, of course, use buffalo meat. But a) this has to be treated right because it cooks differently from beef and b) in this era of the food Nazis, restaurants are scared to cook even buffalo meat for fear that they will be accused of using beef.
So why put burgers on the menu? Why devalue the name? Why tell lies about the meat (lamb/goat)?
Just be honest with your customers. It is always a good policy.
From HT Brunch, January 17, 2016
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