Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Egg on your face
What is a Scotch Egg? Is it a snack? Or is it a ‘substantial meal’? I know it is a silly question but it is one that they were asking a lot in the UK last week. The disagreement was over rules that allowed only ‘substantial meals’ to be served at restaurants during the Pandemic period. So, could a Scotch Egg be called a ‘substantial meal’?
Most people were amused by the dispute and by the sight of ministers squabbling among themselves about how substantial an egg could be.
But what I liked about the controversy was that it captured the essential ambiguity – or multipurpose nature, depending on your perspective – of the egg. Is it a snack? Is it a meal? Is it merely an ingredient in greater dishes? Or is it capable of greatness on its own? Is it a Western ingredient? Or is it (like the Scotch Egg, which is an Anglicisation of our Nargisi kofta) something that the West picked up from the East?
The glorious thing about an egg is that the answer to all of those seemingly conflicting questions is: yes, emphatically yes.
We see this with Indian cuisine where a boiled egg can be the basis of a great haute cuisine dish like the Nargisi kofta. And it can also be a cheap snack sold on the pavement by vendors in our big cities.
The egg is a staple of most non-vegetarian cuisines. But it is often the one thing that young Indian vegetarians will happily eat even if their parents regarded it as ‘non-veg’. So ubiquitous is the egg that often you don’t even realise that you are eating it – in cakes, in ice cream, and naans, even.
For me, the best example of the versatility of the egg is the omelette. It may be one of the most popular egg dishes in the world. In France, a classic omelette, nicely runny in the centre, is considered the test of a good chef, and apprentices spend weeks learning how to master the hand and pan duet that is central to the French omelette. In India, we make it without any fuss, with onions, tomatoes, green chillies and none of that nonsense about letting your hand dance over the pan. Both versions are as delicious, in their own way.
And the egg is a totally Indian ingredient even if we don’t always realise this. Archaeologists believe that the chicken was first domesticated by our ancestors during the Indus Valley Civilisation and then sent abroad to the Middle East (starting with Mesopotamia) from where it travelled to the rest of the world, taking its eggs with it. But it is also a Western ingredient because we sent the chicken on its way many centuries before the birth of Christ, so Westerners can’t remember a time when eggs did not form part of their diet.
And yet, what is interesting is that though eggs have travelled the world and have been around for centuries, there are only about a dozen ways to cook them: boiled (hard or soft), pickled, scrambled, fried, turned into an omelette and a few others. Except for the raw eggs used in cooking other dishes (soufflés, meringues, custards, sauces, etc.) almost every egg dish is based on those basic methods.
The challenge for a great chef is to take those basic techniques and create something special. In India, boiled eggs are still the favourite: egg roast, egg curry, a boiled egg garnish on a pulao etc. We love omelettes but we are not as inventive with fried eggs perhaps because there is not much we can do to masala-fy their flavour. The Sri Lankans make a wonderful curry from omelettes, but I am not sure we have anything quite like that. (I am told they make it in Kerala, but I have not come across it myself.)
A poached egg – the modern chef’s favourite way of cooking an egg – is not part of our culinary tradition either (though Bengalis sometimes call a fried egg a ‘poach’). The great thing about a poached egg, once you master how to cook it (about a dozen tries, I reckon), is that it preserves the oozing yellow deliciousness of the yolk while transforming the protein-y white into a firm but silky covering.
A poached egg can be a basic breakfast dish. But it can also be the basis of many classic recipes. Take, for instance, Eggs Benedict. There are so many disputes over its origins (was it invented at Delmonico’s or was it created for a man called Benedict at the Waldorf, etc.?) that about all we can say with certainty is that it was born in New York towards the end of the 19th Century. It is a restaurant dish because it involves too many things that are not always available in a home kitchen.
But for a restaurant chef it is quite easy to make. You toast a muffin. Then you take either ham or back bacon (that is the meaty kind not the side bacon, which is streaked with fat) and cook it in the oven (yes, even the ham, oddly enough). You put the bacon on the muffin, top it with a poached egg and cover the whole thing with Hollandaise sauce.
Eggs Benedict survives because it is the sort of easy-but-impressive dish that even junior chefs can make for brunch menus on Sunday (when the main chef is usually off). Rarely have I seen an inventive luxury version though.
I finally found one in Agra last month when chef Arjun Singh Yadav at Amarvilas made a gluten-free, deluxe version by replacing the muffin with a wheat-free base (quinoa, I think), and putting slices of black truffle and Parma ham below the egg. When you slit open the poached egg, he spooned wild beluga caviar over it.
Eggs work well with luxury ingredients. They are the classic base for truffles and you can’t go wrong with caviar on scrambled eggs. On the other hand, you can’t go wrong with an anda bhurji flavoured with caramelised garlic and green chillis and garnished with kothmir (dhania). Or with a roadside omelette in a Thai village, where the Nam Pla in the egg mixture gives it a brown tinge and the filling can be anything from prawns to minced pork. Or a basic omelette in any bar in Spain, where the egg is just a thin layer to hold the delicious potatoes together.
How many ingredients can you say that of? Whether it is caviar or kothmir you choose as your flavouring, an egg will never let you down.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, December 13, 2020
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