After spending two summers hopping from one Jamaican isle to another on the luxury liner Carnival, you might think it would be a tad boring cooking bland food for patients. It’s not, claims chef Himanshu Sharma, 30, who once worked on the liner.
Now, as head of the kitchen at Delhi’s Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, he finds planning meals for patients a bigger challenge than pleasing the palates of leisure travellers. “It’s not easy cooking appetising meals for patients who are on pain-relievers and antibiotics. Medication often numbs their tastebuds, making food either taste like sawdust or like nothing on earth,” says Sharma, who has also trained at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi. “I’ve got some strange complaints about too much chilli or salt when no chilli or spices were added at all,” he laughs.
To make food palatable for harried patients and their families, Sharma offers a menu that puts many restaurants to shame. He doesn’t think it’s enough, though. “Of course, we don’t have as much choice on offer, but we do try to offer more than khichdi and porridge,” he says.
Sharma is being modest. A peek into the hospital’s Tuesday menu showed that patients had a choice of six soups along with a continental, north Indian and south Indian meal options. The continental platter alone offered a choice of soup, carrot and orange salad or fish cakes, Afghan korma or chicken stew with rice or pasta, steamed vegetables, dinner rolls, caramel custard and a fruit platter.
“Patients are routinely asked about their food preferences. Cooking here is a bigger challenge than a commercial kitchen due to the constraints set by dietitians monitoring the patient’s needs. What I miss is garnishing and presentation, because we cannot play around given the volume and the format,” says Sharma.
But Sharma more than makes up in the cafeteria menu, offering wild mushroom soup, baked fish and crème brûlée. Patients’ companions now, no longer need to get food from home, with 24/7 room service.
The idea, says Dr Anupam Sibal, is to make the stay as comfortable as possible. “We had a child on chemotherapy who ate very little, so the chef prepared the boy’s favourite food, rajma-chawal for lunch. You should have seen the boy eat that day, he was thrilled,” says Dr Sibal.