Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Heston unbound
One of the world’s greatest chefs shows us how cooking is not about recipes but about expressing yourself
Almost the first thing I noticed when I bought a copy of Heston Blumenthal’s Is This A Cookbook? was that he had included a selection of Indian recipes. I know that Blumenthal loves India and its food. I know also that he understands enough about our cuisine to dissect the nuances of biryani.
Some years ago, we had a long (and quite magical) lunch at Delhi’s ITC Maurya, where the chefs did their best to wow him and succeeded. But what struck me was that Blumenthal could not just tell the difference between a Dum Pukht Biryani and a Delhi Biryani, he could also discuss which worked better for which occasion. The Dum Pukht biryani, he said, was a magnificent special occasion dish. But at most other times, he would rather have the Delhi biryani.
So, I was only a little surprised when I found that the book had a recipe for Baingan and Palak Biryani, dum-cooked with a purdah topping. Famous British chefs (and I am not naming names) have published Indian cookbooks before, but these are usually ghost written for them by British-Indian cookery writers and never contain any interesting recipes. But, I know that Heston devises every recipe himself, so, I was intrigued.
I decided to conduct an experiment. I called Rajdeep Kapoor, Executive Chef at the ITC Maurya, the location of my memorable lunch with Heston, and asked him if the Maurya’s chefs could cook one of Blumenthal’s Indian recipes, a mutton curry. Heston had liked their food so much, I said, that it would be nice to see what they thought of his take on Indian food.
Rajdeep had the curry prepared and sent it to me. It was terrific, a wonderfully flavourful, thick gravy that you wanted to scoop up with a paratha or a naan. I tried it with rice too. It worked perfectly. I asked Rajdeep if they had tinkered with the recipe. No, he said. They had followed every detail of the recipe and yes, even he and his chefs were surprised by how well the dish had turned out. It was delicious.
Somehow, that seemed to me to complete the circle. The ITC chefs had cooked Indian food for Blumenthal. And, now, he had shown them how much respect he had for our cuisine traditions by devising his own recipe for a mutton curry and had wowed them in turn.
One of the problems with writing about Heston is that unless they care about food, most readers are still stuck with the ‘mad scientist’ image that the popular press bestowed on him in the early part of the century. That was when Ferran Adria and Heston revolutionised cooking techniques. The press used the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ to describe their cooking and set Adria up as a challenger to the great French chefs. (“Spain is the new France” said the New York Times.) Blumenthal was portrayed as the eccentric Brit who made crazy dishes like Bacon and Egg ice cream and Snail Porridge.
Neither man fit the caricature (and neither was keen on the term ‘molecular gastronomy’), and in the West, Heston soon went far beyond it but his global image (like Adria’s) still bears traces of that caricature.
Blumenthal achieved a new level of fame (partly thanks to television) as the man who re-invented the cooking of simple but classic dishes: fish and chips, steak, boiled eggs, etc. Then, he went in a totally different direction, researching medieval food and creating the acclaimed Dinner by Heston restaurant which served updated versions of historical dishes.
Because there is a strain of continuity in everything Blumenthal does, he managed to show us that much of what we considered to be new had always been around. For instance, at Adria’s El Bulli, chefs enjoyed fooling guests. You bit into what you thought was a solid olive and it turned out to be a liquid. And so on.
In fact, the idea of surprising the palate by deceiving the eye is centuries old. Meat Fruit, which became Dinner’s most famous dish, looked like fruit. But when you bit into it, you tasted chicken liver mousse.
While Blumenthal’s flagships The Fat Duck and Dinner flourish, Blumenthal himself has often given the impression in recent years that he has moved beyond cooking. For the last five years, he has been obsessed with water and its properties. He has become more and more fascinated by the way in which we respond to food. He is intrigued by the microbiomes in the gut about which so little is known but which might hold the key to digestion, taste and metabolism. Over the last two years, he has been talking about the concept of quantum gastronomy. And his current fascination is with the imagination—across life, not just in a food context.
When I saw the new book, I wondered how he could bring all of this together. In fact, the book is a tour de force. It begins with a discussion of quantum gastronomy: the idea that everything in the kitchen is not about timings and pressure but that cooking should be an exploration of the things that make us human. Even when we cook we should always have choices and options. “Forget the search for perfection, let’s celebrate imperfection ”, he writes. “If the dish doesn’t look exactly like the photo but it tastes pretty good and you’ve enjoyed cooking it, then that’s surely a success.” (This from a man whose best known TV show was called “In Search of Perfection.”)
The book is structured so that it has two parts. One page has the recipe while the facing page has options and suggestions about how you can improvise and make the recipe your own. For instance, while he offers the classic recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara (simplified for the home cook: you can use pancetta, there is no insistence on guanciale) he also suggests ways of making it more interesting with onion, garlic and a chilli.
All the Heston classics are there: those roast potatoes, the triple cooked chips, the frequently flipped steak and the perfect eggs, for instance. And he adds the little chefs’ secrets. For instance, while his recipe for a basic Chilli Corn Carne is not so different from the one I use at home, he adds the technical touches that elevate the dish: you need to brown the meat in a really hot, smoking pan to get a Maillard reaction and then deglaze the pan and add the juices to the mince. That’s how you add flavour to the dish.
And as the book goes on, Heston’s current interests turn up on its pages.There is a section on dishes which are good for the gut (and the bacteria in it). There is a rumination on water at the very end. And there is even a section on the nutritional benefits of insects. (No, he doesn’t go the full Atala and tell you to eat them whole but stops at cricket powder.)
It is not a trendy book. I love that he disses all the currently fashionable nonsense about foraging, and approvingly quotes the late AA Gill who described foraging as the process of picking something off a bush (after a ‘hot walk with flies’) and saying “here, taste this—it’s like rosemary but not as nice…” Most great chefs I know have exactly the same view but have been Redzepied into silence.
It is probably the only cookbook you’ll ever need. It goes all the way from the basics (how to boil an egg) to how to make a Dum Biryani! It’s written with verve, with humour and it has brilliant, funny illustrations by Dave McKean. And it tells you what every cookbook should: recipes are only starting points. How a dish is made depends on you and your own preferences.
It’s like his curry recipe. Surprising. And Indian. But also very Heston.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, November 19, 2022
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