From sushi to street food: It’s all in the hand
A French restaurant is a military machine. The Asian way is to trust the chef’s handUpdated: Mar 31, 2019 00:19 IST
In common with nearly everyone else, there are times when I like to go to a great formal restaurant. I like the idea of being pampered, of solicitous service, of a sommelier who can surprise you with his recommendations, and of waiters who anticipate your every need.
And indeed, there are many such restaurants that I love. Orient Express in Delhi is one. Le Bernardin in New York is another. And among the best in the genre is Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo.
But somehow, when it comes to Indian food, I find formal restaurants annoying. I don’t like the way the food is served. I am fed up of plated Indian meals, of poncy presentation, of menus where everything is ‘cooked to perfection’ and goat is always falsely described as lamb.
Long ago, I came to the conclusion that the Indian food I liked best (when I was eating out) was street food.
I will go anywhere for a good dahi batata puri but you would have difficulty dragging me out for a decent rogan josh or even, the best butter chicken in Delhi.
Street food lets you deal with people who actually create the food, the guys who work with their hands, not the big name chefs
I have long wondered what it is about Indian street food I like. Partly it is the flavour: bhelpuri is a vastly superior dish to say chicken tikka. But I have always felt it goes beyond that. And I think that over the last few months I have finally put my finger on it.
The Western (mainly French) tradition is about standardisation and recipes. In the old days, you could not become a French chef unless you mastered scores of basic sauces (hollandaise, béchamel, etc.) and understood the strange language that chefs use to communicate: if it says that a dish is ‘Florentine’, that doesn’t mean it was invented in Tuscany. It just means that spinach is probably involved. If the term ‘Holstein’ appears, then don’t think of the cattle breed, think of a fried egg placed unnecessarily on top of a dish. A dessert that is ‘à la mode’ probably has a scoop of ice cream on it.
In a great French kitchen, the chef is not the guy who actually cooks your food. That is done by his ‘brigade’, the line of cooks. The use of the term ‘brigade’ tells you how a Western kitchen is organised. It is a militaristically disciplined operation where the chef is the general who plans the menu and invents the dishes but doesn’t actually do the fighting himself. At best, he will stand at the pass examining each plate as it goes out.
It is a brilliant system and the restaurant industry all over the world is based around these French principles.
The army (or brigade) stays out of view behind the swing doors of the kitchen though the chef, like some victorious general, may make a triumphal progress though the dining room once or twice an evening. But the guys the guests actually deal with are the service staff, the managers, the waiters, the bus boys etc. The people who actually cook the food remain hidden in the kitchen.
I find that the more I eat out, the less I want to have to do with the bow-tied managers and the uniformed waiters, as wonderful and well-trained as they are. I want to deal with the people who actually create the food, the guys who work with their hands, not the big name chefs.
Street food provides that opportunity. When you stand next to a puchka wala as he punctures each puri with this finger, fills it with pani and hands it over, there is something honest and pure about that experience. You are eating real food from the hands of the guy who made it.
This is as true of most street food. When you order a tikki-channa and watch the tikki sizzle on the giant tawa till finally, it is crisp enough for you to eat, your experience begins with that first sizzle, not with the finished product. For years and years, when I had magazines and newspapers to edit in Calcutta, I used to go to a tikki-channa guy near the AC Market. His food was delicious but frankly, I went for the whole experience.
I loved seeing him decide how much raw onion to scatter on his dish. I saw the silent calculation in his eye as he decided how much of each chutney the dish needed. There was no fixed recipe, just andaza. The process was even better than the taste.
I guess it is a personal thing. At a breakfast buffet, I will watch my eggs being cooked at a live station. I will stare fascinated as the liquid albumen suddenly turns into the gleaming white body of a fried egg on the surface of the pan. I will watch to see how the chef keeps the yolk from breaking and will stare as he brushes a little butter over the golden yellow of the yolk before sliding the egg off the pan.
I can stare at a dosa counter for hours, watching each dosa take shape, seeing the chef put the aloo-pyaaz sabzi for a masala dosa in the centre and then marvelling at his sense of timing as he folds the dosa so that the masala becomes the spicy centre of the dish.
I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way. The French style of hiding the chefs is the preferred method for restaurants all over the world. But there are other competing traditions that blast away the kitchen door and bring customers and chefs face to face.
At the great sushi restaurants of Japan, the waiters and managers will be the least important people in the room. Guests will sit at a counter that seats not much more than a dozen people. At the top places there will be just one chef with perhaps one or two assistants. He will never be a young man; to get to this level requires years of learning.
Making the rice for sushi so that it is just the right texture and temperature can take over a decade to master. It can take as long to learn how to make the perfect rice pellet for nigiri sushi (it should never be cold or tightly packed). Knife skills are crucial: the same fish can taste completely different depending on how it is cut.
To eat at one of these restaurants (and now there are excellent sushi restaurants outside Japan too) is to surrender yourself to the whole experience. The sushi will be wonderful, of course (I have yet to eat a piece of nigiri sushi in India – even at the most expensive places – that would pass muster at a top Japanese sushi restaurant). But it is the experience – the joy of seeing a master at work – that can overshadow the taste of the final product.
I don’t think any food culture has broken the wall between the kitchen and the guest as successfully as the Japanese have. Sushi and sashimi are one example. But there are many others. Teppanyaki meats are cooked in front of the guest. Even tempura is often fried in full view of the guests.
There are examples from other traditions. For instance, the Spanish will often have open kitchens with counter-seating at tapas places. Texas barbecue is often cooked in the open as diners watch. And these days, the golden rule for trendy places in the West is to open up the kitchen. The Momofuku model of counter-eating has been widely copied. Even Joel Robuchon’s L’Atelier restaurants have counters based on the great chef’s experiences in Spain – though you always get the sense that the real cooking happens out of public view at Robuchon’s places.
In some ways, the two approaches are diametrically opposed. The French style emphasises consistency. The kitchens and the recipes are planned so that the food maintains the same standard even if the chef is not there. The Japanese approach is about the chef, about the man, his experience, his judgement and his skill.
I yield to nobody in my respect for French cooking. But the more I eat out, the less I care about consistency and method. These days I care more about individual chefs and cooks, about the intelligence, techniques and experience they bring to their cooking. I will take a guy who makes just one dish everyday – say a kebab cooked over a skewer in the old Delhi or a batasha in a Lucknow street – over a chef who creates an inventive multi-course menu.
The guy who has spent his life making just that one dish has perfected it. The bright young chef with his fancy menu may well be very innovative. But I guess I am at the stage where I value excellence over innovation. And the magic of a chef’s fingers is worth a million bow-tied managers. In the end, I respect the man who creates the food more than those who surround him.
From HT Brunch, March 31, 2019
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First Published: Mar 30, 2019 21:56 IST