For the last ten days or so, I have been toying with the idea of a different kind of food book. The motivation emerged out of the puzzlement I sometimes feel when I look at menus in American restaurants. Much of the time, I have no idea what the menu adjectives used to describe dishes mean. For instance, I used to be foxed by the term ‘heirloom’, usually applied to vegetables. When the menu says that a salad is made with ‘heirloom tomatoes’ what exactly does that mean? What is an heirloom tomato? Or when a burger is described as a Wagyu burger, what does that refer to?
I had the same problems with nouns. What is a ‘crudo’? You may think that this is a reference to Sharad Yadav, but in the context of a menu at an Italian restaurant, that makes no sense. What is a cocoa nib? What is salumi – is it a kind of salami? Why is it important to mention that the sea bass comes from Chile? What is an ‘artisanal’ food? If the menu says caviar then why is the stuff on my plate reddish-pink and not black? Why should I care whether a truffle was harvested in the summer?
Because I make a kind of living out of this stuff, I can look all this up. I can discover that heirloom is not a breed of tomato but merely a catch-all term for vegetables whose seeds have been passed down through the generations and are not hybridised or genetically modified or pushed in India by the American lobby.
Wagyu is a breed of cow found most famously in Kobe, Japan. These days Wagyu beef tends to be Australian or American, is always expensive and is not necessarily suited to burgers or steaks.
Crudo may well be what you call Sharad Yadav or Shakti Kapoor but it is also the Italian word for ‘raw’. In America (though not in Italy) where the fad for serving food raw has taken firm hold, chefs delight in serving raw fish and meat with Italian condiments (olive oil, sea salt etc.) and calling it ‘crudo’. A cocoa nib is essentially an upmarket chocolate chip and serves the same purpose. It is a piece of roasted cocoa bean used to give texture to chocolates and chocolate desserts.
Salumi is a generic term for Italian pork products; salami is a kind of salumi. A Chilean Sea Bass is so called because it is not a sea bass at all. Before it was renamed to appear on fancy menus, it was called a Patagonian Toothfish (try ordering that in a tony restaurant).
‘Artisanal’ means what you want it to. The idea is to distinguish it from ‘factory-made’ (a term you rarely see on menus but one which accurately describes many of the ingredients in a restaurant kitchen) but all it really means is ‘made in small quantities.’ Thus, the bread made by say, the
Hyatt Regency, is ‘artisanal’ compared to the bread made by Modern Bakery.
Caviar is almost as controversial a term as champagne. But while the French insist that only sparkling wines from the Champagne district of France can be called champagne, the Russians make no such stipulations about caviar.
The Russian term for caviar (Ikra), simply means fish roe and thus can be applied to the roe of any fish including the salmon which lays big red eggs. But once the term is applied to all roe, it loses its cachet so Western restaurateurs try and restrict its use to the breathtakingly expensive greyish-black eggs of the sturgeon.
So it is with truffles. There are scores of varieties of truffle but very few have the taste or aroma of the famous white truffle of Alba or the black truffle of Perigord. A summer truffle is so called not because it is wearing sunglasses and tanning but because it is a lesser truffle with a flavour that is much less intense.
As I was researching all this stuff, it struck me how complicated reading a menu has become these days. Frequently chefs write menus to show off rather than to provide diners any real information about the food on offer. Plus, there is a sort of code accessible only to chefs. If a dish is described as ‘Provencal’, only a chef knows that this means it has garlic, onions, tomato and peppers. Only food professionals recognise that ‘Florentine’ is usually a code for spinach.
To some extent, this is true of menus in India as well. First of all, they are full of all this ‘Florentine’ and ‘Provencal’ nonsense because guys just out of catering college imagine that diners will have also wasted three years of their lives learning this stuff. Secondly, as our chefs look to the West, you get many more relatively obscure references on the menu (‘foam’, ‘cappuccino’ used to describe a soup, Chilean Sea Bass etc.). And thirdly, there are our own codes, which make no sense to anyone outside of an Indian kitchen. When a dish is described as ‘shahi’, what does this mean?
What is Manchurian? What is ‘Mughlai cuisine’? What does ‘wholewheat’ mean in an Indian context? And so on.
So, my idea is to do a foodie dictionary listing all the slightly complicated terms you are likely to come across on Indian menus and all the references that pepper foodie conversations (famous Indian chefs, famous Indian restaurants, names that people drop etc.) so that anybody who is armed with this book cannot possibly be intimidated by the foodie speak that is so popular these days or (if you want to be cynical) can bullshit his way through any conversation about food.
Do you think it will work? I’ve included a few sample entries that I’ve made up off the top of my head. Write in and tell me if you think it has a market.
Mughlai: An essentially bogus term for restaurant cookery that is meant to evoke the era of the great Mughals and to make you feel that the dishes you are eating were invented for the emperor Akbar. There are many problems with this. One, the Mughals did not actually call themselves the Mughals so they could hardly have named a cooking style ‘Mughlai’. The term was invented by the British who linked the Mughals with the Mongols – a link that would not have pleased Akbar at all. Two: Many of the staples of ‘Mughlai’ cuisine (including chilli) did not reach India when most of the great Mughals were alive: they were brought by Europeans after America had been discovered. And three, what we know of the food of the Mughal court bears no resemblance to Mughlai cuisine as served at restaurants. There are court cuisines in India (Hyderabadi, Avadhi etc.) but steer clear of anything called Mughlai. It is a 20th century invention meant to dress up easy-to-make restaurant dishes.
Shahi: Meant to suggest ‘royal’ as in Shahi Paneer or Shahi Korma but all it really means is ‘enriched with dairy fat’. Shahi dishes usually have lots of cream.
Wholewheat: Currently trendy term for bread, pasta etc. on the reasonable grounds that wholewheat flour (atta) is healthier than refined flour (maida). Sounds fine in theory – after all, we all eat wholewheat roti at home. (Well, most of us. Some communities – the Bengalis, for instance – have a sentimental attachment to maida.) But chefs loathe wholewheat. In the old days the argument used to be that you cannot make decent bread from Indian atta. So many would take maida and caramelise it so that it looked brown and then pass off bread made from this flour as ‘brown’ or even ‘wholewheat’. Now that the quality of the atta has improved, they can no longer use that excuse. But even so, they mix maida with atta. So, the next time you buy some fancy grain bread, ask how much maida is mixed into the dough.
Tenderloin: Term invented by Indian hotels to get around the beef problem. In the old days, they would substitute water buffalo for beef but were anxious to keep quiet about this. So buffalo meat was called tenderloin. Now, many hotels do use beef but for fear of offending Hindu sensibilities, they do not use the world ‘beef’ on the menus and stick to tenderloin. In Nepal, they go one better. You may find Buff Steak on the menu. This is not a misprint. They mean buffalo not beef!
Veal: The meat from a calf. Good veal is naturally farmed but factory-produced veal is often bred in terrible conditions with baby calves restricted to little boxes and not allowed to see the sun (so that their meat stays white). Most veal in India tends to be of the industrial variety alas, but bizarrely there is no uproar either from animal rights activists or from Hindu fundamentalists who have yet to work out that veal is a kind of beef.