There’s no denying it — most cookbook writers would give a rump and a rib to have a book as lavishly produced as Bhicoo Manekshaw and Vijay Thukral’s Secrets from the Kitchen: Fifty Years of Culinary Experience at the India International Centre (IIC). Thick, glossy paper, a contemporary, international quality design and professionally shot photographs (albeit poorly styled and printed) are the stuff of cookbook writers’ fantasies.
But then the IIC, inaugurated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr S Radhakrishnan and John D Rockefeller III in 1962, is not the kind of place to stint on a publication, least of all one commemorating its fifty years.
The IIC was the outcome of a conversation between Rockefeller and Radhakrishnan in Japan and set up as a place for the ‘dissemination of ideas and a meeting of cultures, where people could pause and reflect’. Its members were, and are, largely bureaucrats, diplomats, academics and other prominent Indians. This was a place where the intellectual elite congregated; by arranging the recipes by decade the book gives a sense of how tastes shifted over the last 50 years.
The colonial hangover loomed over the first decade. From the early Sixties to the early Seventies, continental staples like chicken à la Kiev, roast leg of lamb with mint sauce, Waldorf salad, pineapple upside down pudding and baked Alaska appeared on the menu. Cordon-bleu trained Manekshaw who was brought on as a Catering Consultant in 1974 expanded the repertoire by introducing classics from French cuisine: chicken consommé, poached eggs Benedict, chicken Véronique appeared.
Over the next two decades, more varied cultural programmes were introduced at the IIC and food from the north east, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra and Coorg, among other states, found a place. While basic Italian and Chinese had also been incorporated, collaborations with embassies resulted in Egyptian, Hungarian, Singaporean, Thai, Korean, Peruvian and Southern American dishes on the menu. The book is a bubbling cauldron of recipes from all these places along with an approximate date or context in which they appeared. Like many of her other books, this too bears the Manekshaw stamp and has a strong personality and character. While the recipes have exactness in the quantities of measurements and detailed descriptions of the method, the anecdotes peppered through the book make it an engaging read.
The most famous story relates to the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. On a cold December day, Mrs Gandhi wanted a small dinner party to celebrate the wedding of her younger son Sanjay. The French menu was simple, but classic: hot lobster soufflé, duck à la orange and a jardinière platter of vegetables. Dessert was a problem, though. A cold dessert was out of the question in winter and Mrs Gandhi did not like hot puddings. Manekshaw opted for a vacherin, a meringue filled with whipped cream and fruits. While the dessert was being served, Gandhi wanted to know what it was called. On the spur of the moment Mankeshaw replied, “Gâteau Indira!”
There’s also a bit about the then Election Commissioner TN Seshan admitting that the IIC cook made better uthappams than his wife and would make it a point to order them everytime he was visiting the IIC. Former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam loved the South Indian thali and the day before he became President he let the staff know how much he would miss it as his security staff would not allow him to eat there anymore.
At Rs 1,000, the book is not cheap and one must ask whether at this price the book is worth buying. There’s much in it that is desirable: a sense of history, a great chapter on basic recipes and techniques, a wealth of unusual tried and tested recipes as well as recipes for signature IIC dishes (though unfortunately not their famous fig and honey ice cream). But there are just as many recipes easily available elsewhere. Do we really need another recipe for seekh kebab, tandoori pomfret, dahi vadé or aloo bonda?
It’s a tough call. Perhaps Secrets from the Kitchen is a good book to gift rather than to own.
Antoine Lewis is a food and wine columnist. He has been editor of Savvy Cookbook