Kunal Vijayakar on the slow demise of continental cuisine
From potato au gratin to moussaka, Kunal Vijayakar on how continental dishes vanished from restaurant menusHT48HRS_Special Updated: Nov 19, 2016 09:11 IST
So if it isn’t Indian, or Chinese or Asian, and if the cuisine hails from Europe, what is it called? European? West European? Most fancy restaurants in Mumbai don’t call themselves French anymore, simply because they no longer serve French food. Most Italian restaurants in Mumbai serve food created in Surat, and not Sicily. Even the term Mediterranean has become sort of medieval. But if the cuisine is not French, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, British or Portuguese, then what’s it called?
I’ve eaten at restaurants by Heston Blumenthal, Joël Robuchon, Marco Pierre White, Alyn Williams and Alain Ducasse. Some of them called their cuisine nouvelle, while others called it modern contemporary or molecular. But even those terms are passé now. So what is the food that we eat at Indigo (Colaba) or The Table (Apollo Pier) called? In the good old days, we simply called it continental.
Today, continental is relegated to hotel breakfast buffets. It is nothing but an excuse of a breakfast comprising just coffee and bread rolls served with butter and jam. Earlier, the same word expounded a whole cuisine that included dishes from all over Europe, especially France, but not including the British Isles.
Does anyone remember the time-honoured continental classic: Chicken a la kiev? A fillet of chicken flattened and rolled around a frozen knob of butter, then coated with eggs and breadcrumbs, and deep-fried. Gaylord at Churchgate still makes an explosive one, which detonates with a gush of melted butter when pierced with a fork and knife.
Or do you remember the fish à la meunière: sauce that is made of butter, lemon, and parsley, served with crispy sautéed fish. Today, this dish of French ancestory can be found only at the Willingdon Club.
Or Tournedos niçoise: small round pieces from the end portion of tenderloin served with a sauce made of tomatoes, olives, capers, and garlic. These dishes are now relegated to the pages of the Time and Talents Cookbook, an almanac of recipes “of the Parsis, by the Parsis, for the Parsis”. This brings me to the once-popular au gratin. A dish that was adapted, adjusted, amended and converted by Parsi and Christian families to make something we simply called a ‘baked dish’.
I love a good baked dish. It’s easy to make, but if it goes wrong, it can be horribly dry, pasty and lumpy. The key is the béchamel. It is a sauce made with a roux (flour with tonnes of butter) heated with milk, while constantly stirring till it turns thick and creamy. The classic baked dish is a potato au gratin. Potatoes are thinly sliced and layered in a buttered dish with cream and cheese. The cheese, preferably, is a mix of Gruyere and parmesan. It is then topped with breadcrumbs and more grated cheese, often a layer of stiffly beaten egg whites and baked till it turns brown.
In our anglicised Maharashtrian household (influenced by the English, the Parsis and the Goan cook) baked dishes with white sauce were commonplace. Instead of potatoes, the family favourite was corn. Corn with chicken, corn with bacon or corn with macaroni. Or a moussaka: a Greek baked casserole with eggplant, tomatoes, and minced meat under a luxuriant layer of béchamel topped with cheese and baked.
The béchamel, grated cheese and the brown crust also made an eggs Florentine come alive. The English made eggs Florentine exactly like eggs benedict, with hollandaise, but replacing the ham with spinach. But we made it into a baked dish with eggs, spinach and béchamel, baked with a crust of cheese. Of course, by we I mean the old clubs and restaurants. The egg Florentine or its vegetarian eggless version still remains popular on buffets in most restaurants.
In later years, the country’s first celebrity chef, Tarla Dalal, popularised the baked dish among vegetarians. Boiled carrots, French beans and cauliflower, all smothered in white sauce, doused in Amul cheese and baked. Of course, there were variations such as baked corn with asparagus, baked beans and spaghetti, baked mixed vegetable layered with rice. You could take it as far as your imagination could go.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar