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Of magic potions and secret recipes

Most secret recipes are about hype. But they make for great storytelling, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Sep 17, 2016 22:03 IST
KFC reportedly keeps the Colonel’s recipe locked up in a digital safe
KFC reportedly keeps the Colonel’s recipe locked up in a digital safe (AFP)

Did you know that there was a secret formula behind the fried chicken that KFC serves? Me neither. But apparently, there is one and for all of the last month the American media have thrilled to the revelation that this formula may now have been discovered.

If you are as baffled as I am, a little background may help. Fried chicken is a traditional dish from the southern part of the United States. Most southern states have their own signature versions, though sometimes these seem a little contrived. For instance, Chicken Maryland is the same old fried chicken served with a slice of canned pineapple.

But the version that has travelled around the world is Kentucky Fried Chicken, marketed by a fast-food chain that has had many owners.

Though the chain now calls itself just KFC and is owned by Yum Brands Inc, its heritage dates back to a man called Colonel Harland David Sanders. There was a time when pictures of a genial old codger used to appear outside every Kentucky Fried Chicken store. This was Colonel Sanders and the chicken was allegedly made to his original recipe.

KFC still makes a big deal about the Colonel’s recipe and keeps it locked up in a digital safe that is encased in two-feet of concrete and monitored day and night by video cameras and motion sensors.

I find all this giggle-worthy and hopelessly publicity driven. But judging by the way America has gone mad over the discovery of the recipe, perhaps I am just too Indian to understand the Colonel’s legacy. A Chicago Tribune reporter found a handwritten recipe in an old scrapbook and printed the list of 11 herbs and spices that went into the Colonel’s ‘secret’ batter. Frankly, I found it unexceptional except for the use of white pepper, a spice that could not have been very popular in the American south in 1940.

Yum Brands Inc has been cagey about the recipe’s authenticity. The official version is that other ingredients also constitute the KFC formula. But one of those ingredients may well be monosodium glutamate, so unless the Colonel also had a secret commission in the Japanese army in 1940 with access to a stash of ajinomoto, they’ve probably tweaked the recipe a little while trumpeting the Colonel’s legacy for publicity purposes.

But then, aren’t most secret recipes about hype? Take the most famous secret recipe in the world, the original Coca-Cola formula. This is also locked up in a vault somewhere and only a handful of people have access to the full recipe.

But ask yourself this: if the secret of Coke is so hard to find, then why do most Colas taste broadly the same? Yes, Pepsi does taste different from Coke. (One technical explanation is that the Pepsi formula uses vanillin while Coke uses vanilla. But who knows?) But is it necessarily any better or worse than Coke? In the 1980s, Pepsi conducted a taste test called the Pepsi Challenge across the US. It claimed that a majority of consumers picked Pepsi over Coke in blind tastings. The Coca-Cola company’s response was to tweak the formula of Coke so that it tasted more like Pepsi and to relaunch the drink as New Coke. This was such a fiasco that they eventually brought back the old Coke.

The original Coca-Cola formula is perhaps the most famous secret recipe in the world. (Shutterstock)

So, I am never convinced by the claim that the Coca-Cola recipe is so valuable that it needs special security and protection. In the Indian market, for instance, Coke is routinely outsold by Thums Up, a drink invented in Bombay. This is despite Coke’s refusal to spend much money to advertise Thums Up (which it now owns) while spending crores on the mother brand.

Most people in the food business will tell you that the only secret recipe they respect is the formula for Heinz tomato ketchup. As Malcolm Gladwell noted in a famous essay for The New Yorker, the Heinz ketchup is almost perfect with just the right umami kick and vinegar sourness. Though it is an industrial product, it always beats artisanal ketchups in blind tastings.

So, will anyone crack that formula?

Well, I think they already have. I wrote some years ago about organizing blind tastings that featured Heinz, along with another big name international ketchup and India’s very own Cremica. Lots of foreign hoteliers who swore by Heinz were unable to pick it out of the three and many preferred Cremica. Since then, Veeba, another domestic producer, has sent me early batches of their ketchup and it is also excellent.

All this leaves me a little sceptical about special formulas and secret recipes.

There is, however, one exception to this rule. And that is the Secret Masala Exception. It works like this: all Indian recipes ultimately stand or fall on the quality of the spicing. A great Indian chef is not necessarily the man who makes the best rotis or knows how long a chicken should stay in the tandoor. The top Indian chefs are the ones who understand how to create the perfect spicing for each dish.

Throughout the centuries, the great chefs have been possessive about their spice mixtures and have refused to share them with anyone. The recipes are only passed on from father to son.

I know of many catering college-trained chefs who have been excited to host traditional cooks in their kitchens. The chefs believe that once they watch these cooks in action, they will learn how to cook the perfect korma or to reproduce a great biryani. In fact, they never learn anything because the cooks either mix the masalas when no one is looking or come with masalas that have been pre-mixed and packed in little pouches.

In the popular imagination, this practice is usually associated with the great Avadhi chefs. And while it is true that they are unusually secretive, they are not the only ones to hold on to their recipes. The greatest living Goan chef is Urbano Rego and though hundreds of chefs have worked with him over the decades, I doubt if Rego has let any of them really learn the tricks of his trade. At Muthu’s in Singapore, famous for inventing fish head curry, I was surprised to learn that the family of the founder will not part with the secret of the masala. Early each morning, a member of the family arrives at the kitchen and mixes the masala for the day. The line cooks never have any idea of what it contains.

One reason why ITC has the best North Indian food is because it allows traditional chefs to keep their secrets. The great Imtiaz Quereshi turns into Pinocchio if you ask him what his recipes are. The Dum Pukht kitchens all over India are filled with Imtiaz’s relatives who will cheerfully dissemble when they are asked to explain what masalas they use.

Other chains have learnt this the hard way. In the 1990s, the Taj stole two chefs from ITC and opened Sonargaon at the Taj Bengal with a menu that relied on ITC favourites. Within months, ITC had lured the chefs back and the food collapsed. I remember going in for lunch one day and ordering the kakori kebab.

“We can’t do it,” the manager told me sadly.

I was perplexed. “Why not?” I asked.

“We’ve made the keema mixture but we can’t get the damn thing to stay on the skewer. It keeps falling off,” he explained.

“But didn’t your guys learn how to make it?”

“No, those chefs never let us learn how they did it,” he responded angrily.

Over time however, even the secrets of the great North Indian chefs will spill out. In the early days of Bukhara, Madan Jaiswal, the chef, would prepare the marinades for the kebabs in secret. But now, JP Singh, the current chef, has cracked Madan’s recipes and is happy to share them with chefs at Peshawaris (the Bukhara clones) all over India.

That’s a welcome development. Despite the romance of the Secret Masala Exception, food should not be about secrets. It should be about sharing and learning.

Let’s leave the hype and the secrets to Colonel Sanders and Coca-Cola.

From HT Brunch, September 11, 2016

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