Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: At home with food
If there is one thing the lockdown seems to have taught us, it is that there is a difference between home cooking and restaurant cooking. Most of us are cooking much more at home than we did before the lockdown and we are enjoying it.
But we have come to accept that it is not the same thing as the food served at restaurants. Hence the recent popularity of nearly-ready-meals from restaurants, where all the hard work is done by restaurant kitchens and you merely do the finishing at home.
And you can preface the meal experience with cocktails that are of better-than-restaurant standards. My fellow judge of the World Class cocktail competition, Yangdup Lama, is by universal acclaim India’s best bartender and runs Sidecar, a Delhi bar. Such is Sidecar’s fame that it is the only Indian bar to make it to this year’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars.
Sidecar has been hit by the lockdown, so Lama has responded by creating packaging for new cocktails that he has created. He sends them over with garnishes and some of the more unusual snacks that Sidecar thinks will go well with their cocktails. I enjoyed the skewered pork belly and their riff on Korean Bulgogi.
It’s a novel idea. But I liked the cocktails. You can’t really package Lama’s skill but these came closer than I thought possible.
As for those of us who don’t have access to restaurant food, we can opt for delivery. Everybody is doing delivery now. Chef Rohit Gambhir showed me the extensive and impressive home delivery menu that The Oberoi, New Delhi is now serving. And Town Hall (the Delhi branch), which had sworn off delivery in the early part of the lockdown has now bowed to the inevitable. Co-owner Randeep Bajaj WhatsApped the menu to regulars with a wry little note: “Hope you and your family are doing well in the continued lockdown or whatever we may call this. We have finally started delivery (yes, we had to) from Town Hall, Delhi, only for now.”
As you may know, I am all for delivery. Yes, it works better for Indian and Oriental food where you just have to empty the food from the container into your own vessels before quickly reheating it. Western food can be a problem because the dish often has many components that are not so easy to assemble on the plate (though, after my experiences with Delhi’s Tres, I believe it can be done). And you can only order sushi from a place you really trust because it is impossible to reheat before serving.
But as time has gone on, I have become a big fan of home cooking. It has got little in common with restaurant food, of course, and I think we should accept that the two are completely different kinds of cuisine. No matter how good a cook you are, a home stove will never give you the high flame required for Chinese stir-frying. Nor do we have tandoors at home, so North Indian kebab-type food can be a challenge.
And then, there’s the whole question of ingredients. Even if I knew how to make sushi rolls (I don’t but junk sushi is not that difficult to make), I would never make them at home because not only do I not have easy access to Japanese ingredients, I wouldn’t know where to get the fresh fish required for sushi from and I certainly am not up to the job of filleting it for the sushi. (If you want to cheat and make desi-style Masala Paneer Rolls, then I guess ingredients may not be a problem but, really!)
Home food can never be restaurant food but it has its own virtues. I was watching an interview with Nigella Lawson, the queen of home cooking, (the term “Domestic Goddess” she always says, was meant to be ironic) who has also eaten at most of the world’s great restaurants, and was struck by many of the things she said.
First of all, she said, always remember that in the home kitchen, there’s just you. In restaurants, a single meal will be divided up among many people in the kitchen. The meat will be cooked by a chef at one kitchen station, the fish at another station, a different chef will cook the vegetables and so on.
So home food can never be like restaurant food. We don’t have the kitchen staffing!
But – and this, I thought, was crucial – it can always be much more creative than restaurant food.
At any good restaurant, consistency is the key. If you liked the fish on your first visit, you must be served exactly the same fish the next time you eat there. If you like the Butter Chicken at say, Moti Mahal Deluxe, you expect to be served exactly the same Butter Chicken each time you go.
So, while chefs can be creative when they invent their dishes, they have to kiss creativity goodbye once the menu is printed. Each night, the kitchen will make the same dish to exactly the same recipe.
We like to think of restaurant chefs as being inventive – and the best ones are – but there are rigid limits on their creativity. Most restaurants change their menus no more than four times a year. Usually only about 25 to 40 per cent of the menu changes. So, chefs – even great ones – usually get to be a little creative only four times a year.
Contrast that with home cooking. You make what you like, how you like it, in any way you like. Recipe consistency is not a virtue to be prized in a home kitchen. Most people start out cooking a dish from somebody else’s recipe. But once you have guessed the fundamentals of the dish, you don’t need to follow that recipe. You can make changes, you can tweak it to suit your own tastes, you can replace ingredients at will and even use the basics of the recipe to create your own very different dish.
Nigella suggests making the same dish (with your own variations) a few times so that you are comfortable with the recipe, and the ingredients and techniques it requires. Don’t just move on to the next recipe, she says.
She’s right, of course, and one of the things I have noticed about the lockdown (or semi lockdown or whatever you want to call it this week) is that because we have more time on our hands, we are much more experimental in the kitchen. At my house, we are doing much more oven-roasting and steaming than we used to, for instance.
The absence of urgency and time constraints now gives us the freedom to let our imaginations run wild. My wife, for example, doesn’t bother with recipes. She looks at an ingredient (a piece of meat, a vegetable, a herb or a new kind of flour) and wonders what she can do with it. The recipe is made up as she goes along. Sometimes it fails. But more often than not, the made up dishes work really well.
None of this detracts from the glory of restaurants. Once it is safe to go back and restaurants are allowed to open for dinner, I shall be at all my favourite places. But my lockdown experiences have taught me that one important reason we go to restaurants is for the pampering; for the sense of service.
It won’t be the same till the pandemic ends but all the better establishments are already working on ways to offer great service in these unprecedented times. At ITC Hotels, where they have evolved new SOPs for these contactless times, the director in-charge of the hotels division, Nakul Anand, has circulated an Ode To Service. It says, in part, “Limiting contact need not limit warmth. At the core of great service lies an endearing experience.”
Anand’s prescription for “service excellence redefined” is to transform service into something that is delivered almost invisibly so that it is “seldom heard, seldom seen. Never touched; yet always felt with heartfelt compassion and empathy.”
It is really an ode to the new normal. But one that re-emphasises the difference between the home and the restaurant. And redefines service for our times.
Because, physical distancing or not, hospitality will go on.
From HT Brunch, June 28, 2020
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