Say no to pretension and snobbery in food
Those who think that cuisine is not about taste but about expensive ingredients know nothing about good food. Vir Sanghvi tells us why restaurants that rely on caviar, foie gras, truffle, etc. must be avoided.brunch Updated: Aug 24, 2014 09:45 IST
By some coincidence I had lunch and dinner on the same day at two Delhi restaurants that are cousins of each other: Zorawar Kalra’s wonderful new Farzi Café (which deserves a fuller piece – but you’ll have to wait for that one) and Indian Accent, run by Manish Mehrotra, for my money, India’s greatest chef.
The two chefs at Farzi worked in Manish’s kitchen and though they have now found the confidence to express their own styles (plus, of course, Zorawar’s inventive touches), it is clear that they perfected their craft under Manish’s tutelage.
At Farzi Café they served a dish of Maggi noodles drenched in truffle oil and topped with a slice of seared foie gras. I loathe truffle oil (see below) but the dish was clever and the foie gras was inventively used. That night, at dinner, I had Manish’s full tasting menu, which changes every time you go but which features some of his classics. One of these classics was his galouti kebab topped with seared foie gras.At both places, the chefs told me with some regret that they would have to tweak their menus. The government of India has now banned the import of foie gras. The reasons are the usual ones, familiar to anyone who has ever worn a PETA T-shirt: foie gras is made by force-feeding geese and ducks till their livers engorge and that this is cruel. I have no desire to enter yet again into the foie gras debate which is now a huge global bore, so I won’t waste your time with the arguments for and against foie gras.
But I will point out that foie gras, which is consumed by less than 0.0001 per cent of India’s population, seems like a soft target. If people really care about animals then perhaps they should do something about the appalling conditions in Indian abattoirs – nobody who sees how goats are killed in some of our slaughterhouses will ever want to eat Indian mutton. But then I guess it is far easier and trendier to protect geese in faraway Strasbourg than it is to do something for Indian animals.Never mind. My point is this: do I oppose the ban? No, not all. Frankly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s.
And that is not because I’m taking sides in the foie gras debate. It is because I am so fed up of foie gras and other so-called luxury ingredients. The night before I went to Farzi Café, I was at Le Cirque, one of the few restaurants in the world to serve that early 20th century staple, Tournedos Rossini, not as an ironic re-invention but as a straightforward menu dish of the sort that Queen Victoria might have enjoyed.
Le Cirque has run out of foie gras so the dish –essentially medallions of beef served in a truffle-madeira sauce and topped with hunks of foie gras – now comes without the foie gras. Frankly, it never worked in this century and it certainly doesn’t work at all with the foie gras. The sauce totally overpowers the tender Wagyu beef and the whole concoction is a waste of time and money. (Far better to just serve the Wagyu as a steak).
But why, I wondered, had the Le Cirque people (from New York) insisted on this boring menu staple from over a century ego being included in the Delhi menu? The answer I suspect is because they thought foie gras added a touch of luxury. And let’s be honest, that is about the only reason most people put foie gras on menus anyway.
Speaking for myself, I just find foie gras now too rich and too boring. (May be that’s a middle-aged man’s exhausted liver complaining!) So I welcome the ban. Let’s stop importing the damn thing. Let’s encourage chefs to be genuinely inventive.
Yes, there will be some foie gras dishes that will be missed – Manish’s foie gras galouti is one and so is Ananda Solomon’s Thai spiced foie gras. But that’s okay. Both these chefs are geniuses. They can think of more interesting dishes.
But that got me thinking. Are there really any luxury ingredients I would miss if they were banned? The short answer – I discovered to my surprise – is no. They can ban the whole damn lot for all I care. Here are some ingredients I will not miss.
Of course, I love fresh white truffles. I’m crazy about black truffles too. But you hardly ever get either of them in India. What you do get is truffle oil, which usually consists of ordinary oil to which they add a chemical (extracted from petroleum) that mimics the aroma of the truffle.
In the old days, they made real truffle oil by infusing good quality olive oil with genuine truffle. But now 90 per cent of the stuff you get is cheap and nasty, synthetic, chemically flavoured rubbish made with unpleasant oil. It tastes nothing like real truffle and has a way of making me sick. I would be delighted if chefs stopped using it and let the petroleum from which it is derived go back into the fuel tank.
So it is with bottled truffles. These may look right but 95 per cent of them have no truffle flavour at all. They should be banned.
I’ve written about this before, so I will be brief. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the independent republics that border the Caspian Sea have overfished the sturgeon and driven it to near extinction. Export of most wild caviar is banned so what does get smuggled out is poor quality stuff that has not been stored properly and tastes like fishy jam.
But because caviar has snob value, even the rubbish is sold at inflated prices. Personally I wouldn’t feed much of the caviar served (at great expense) at Indian hotels to a stray dog. So don’t waste your money on it.
A scallop is a delicious cold-water shellfish that is encased inside a shell that is so beautiful that it looks like a lady’s hand fan or the Burmah-Shell symbol. A fresh hand-dived scallop has few equals when it comes to flavour.
But those are not the scallops we get here. Instead, we import Atlantic scallops that have been bred on an industrial scale in giant fish farms, prised away from their shells, frozen or refrigerated and sent hundreds of miles away to lie in deep-freezes for months before being served at huge cost to some undiscriminating punter.
With one exception, all the scallops served in India are tasteless and have the texture of plastic. The exception is the Hokkaido scallop imported by the top Japanese restaurants, which serve them raw as sashimi. The Japanese scallops do not have the iodine-flavour of European and American scallops and so cannot be substituted for them in Western recipes. But the very tiny quantity imported into India makes for good sashimi.
With that solitary exception, steer clear of scallops in India. They are a waste of money.
There are some things we do well in India. And there are some we don’t. It cannot be an accident that oysters on the half-shell have no place in Indian cuisine, even though they are an integral part of European cuisines.
The reason is not hard to seek. Rare is the Indian oyster that is worth eating. I don’t know why this should be so. Twenty years ago, I remembering eating oysters in South India that were quite acceptable.
But now the farmed oysters that are air-lifted all over India from Cochin are uniformly inedible: tough, little pellets of snot that no real oyster lover can possibly enjoy. Perhaps industrial farming techniques have destroyed the Indian oyster. Whatever the reason, I will not shed a tear if oysters vanish from our menus.
There is a point to all this. Most restaurants that rely on caviar, foie gras, truffle products, oysters, lobsters, scallops and the like are places where the owners believe that you and I have no taste and will be impressed by the very sight of luxury ingredients no matter how horrible they taste.
It is time to put an end to all the pretension and snobbery. India has many wonderful treasures from the soil and sea, nurtured carefully by our ancestors. It is our duty to make the most of those ingredients. And all those who think that cuisine is not about taste but about expensive snobby ingredients really know nothing at all about good food.
From HT Brunch, August 24
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First Published: Aug 23, 2014 17:52 IST