The Taste with Vir: The Great Cream Scam
Every time you eat an overpriced pastry at a five star hotel you are probably being cheated by an unscrupulous chef who uses cheap synthetic cream that may be bad for your health.Updated: Dec 11, 2019 12:38 IST
One of the many ironies about food in India is that a nation that claims to venerate the cow, subjects milk, the one cow product that we all respect, to so many indignities.
For decades, we were told that ghee and butter, both delicious milk derivatives, were bad for us. We should not cook in ghee, we were instructed. Far better to cook in vanaspati, which had no dairy content and was, therefore, much healthier.
We now know that this is nonsense. Vanaspati is not exactly poison; but it comes pretty close. It is made by a process that creates unhealthy (hydrogenated) fats and can damage your health. Doctors will tell you to avoid vanaspati and it survives in some markets only because of its low price.
Fortunately, the demonisation of butter has ended and the health benefits of ghee - acknowledged by Ayurveda through the centuries - are finally being recognised again.
But it was a close run thing. And when dairy fat was restored to its original position as a desirable food, it was not Indian doctors who did it. When scientists in the West pointed out how harmful margarine could be, our doctors finally stopped warning us about the (largely mythical) dangers of ghee.
To this day, however, it is hard to find real ice-cream in India. The British started the trend of using cheap and nasty vegetable oil in ice-cream and it persists to this day in such former colonies as India. The ‘ice-cream’ made by many multinationals in India contains very little dairy fat. Instead disgusting oils (say palm oil) are added to the mixture before it is frozen to create the illusion of ice cream.
If you look closely at the advertising for the (mostly revolting) branded ‘ice-cream’ made by large corporations in India, you will discover that the phrase ‘ice-cream’ is never used. (It would be false and misleading adverting to call this rubbish ice-cream.) Instead, the use of pretty photos and well-known brand names is meant to seduce us into believing that we are eating the real thing not frozen vegetable oil.
The bogus ice-cream trick is now pretty well-known so there are newer brands that make the real thing. And most five star hotels will either make their own ice-cream or buy it from a supplier who does not deal in frozen oil.
But there is one area where even the top five star hotels continue to diddle customers with a bogus, non-dairy product. And that is in the pastry section.
Most fancy (and over-priced) bakeries in India do not use real cream in their desserts. Instead they use a horrible, non-dairy, artificially-flavoured cream substitute. My friend Suvir Saran, the first Indian chef to get a Michelin star in America, is opening a bakery in Delhi. As he sampled the desserts his bakers were making, he kept wondering why they tasted wrong. Finally, he decided that it was the heavy cream they were using.
He asked to see the container. This was the list of ingredients on the packet.
-Edible Vegetable Fat (Hydrogenated oils)
-Emulsifiers (INS 435, INS 322, INS 475)
-Soya Protein Concentrate
-Stabilisers (INS 461, INS 405, INS 415)
-Acidity Regulators (INS 331, INS 339)
-Contains Added Flavour (Artificial cream flavouring substances).
And that was it.
Nothing in the packet had ever been near a cow. It was all completely artificial. Much of it had been made in industrial labs. And it had hydrogenated vegetable oil which is not healthy.
The cream scam is the pastry chefs’ dirty little secret. Unlike chefs in Western countries whose dishes they try to emulate our chefs cheat their customers every time they serve a pastry or a cream-based dessert.
In the case of Vanaspati or multinational-manufactured bogus ‘ice-cream’, there is at least a price advantage. Fraud ice-cream is cheaper than real ice-cream. So it is with vanaspati. It costs less than ghee.
But what excuse do pastry chefs at India’s deluxe hotels have for using a synthetic ingredient when their pastries sell for so much?
My guess is that general managers and top people at hotel companies are not aware of the scam that the pastry chefs are pulling off.
And the pastry chefs like it because it keeps their food costs down and synthetic cream makes it easier for talentless chefs to function.
Synthetic cream lasts longer. The cream pastry you see on the shelves of the hotel pastry shop may have been made days ago. With real cream you would have to make it fresh every day.
Bogus cream is easier to handle and to manipulate when you are filling pastries or topping cakes.
The danger with real cream is that if you whip it too such it can turn into butter. Here, because this is a factory-made industrial product, there is no danger of that happening.You can whip away.
So, from the point of view of an unscrupulous pastry chef, bogus cream is the perfect ingredient: it is ¼ the price of real cream, never curdles and requires no skill to handle.
The obvious question: why don’t customers complain? Well, because, sadly enough, they can’t tell the difference. It is like vanilla. We have been brought up on synthetic vanillin (extracted from wood pulp) so we don’t know the taste of real vanilla. So it is with ice-cream.
When I first wrote about the frozen vegetable oil scam, somebody from the food industry wrote to me to say that in blind tastings consumers could not tell the difference between bogus and real ice-cream. The man was actually proud of how Big Food had screwed around with our tastebuds!
In fact, I know of at least one popular big city bakery where a pastry chef with some integrity tried replacing the bogus cream in longstanding favourites like the pineapple pastry (canned pineapple, synthetic cream, artificial flavouring, and maida) only to have customers complain that it did not taste as good as it used to.
Our palates have been beaten into submission to the extent that we no longer know what the real thing tastes like. (Truffle oil, the favourite ingredient of many incompetent Indian chefs, will do the same to our understanding of the flavour of real truffles.) No doubt chefs will say, as Big Food does, that if people are unable to tell the difference, then how does it matter?
But in the case of cream, there are two other factors. One: the multinationals have been stopped from calling their products ‘ice-cream’. But hotels continue to pretend that their products contain cream.
Two: there is a health factor. Don’t hotels have an obligation to tell their guests that they are using hydrogenated vegetable oil?
Suvir Saran says that once Big Food was unable to sell hydrogenated oils in the West after the health dangers were exposed, the focus shifted to Third World markets where customers were less aware about the health effects. And in pastry chefs, they found willing accomplices.
But not all pastry chefs are the same. India’s best young pastry chef is the Taj’s Rohit Sangwan. I asked if he was aware of the bogus cream scam. He said he was but that he would not comment on his peers and contemporaries.
Would he use bogus cream himself?
Sangwan was insulted by the question.
“Never. Ever. Only real cream”, he said vehemently.
And that ultimately is the only answer. Unless chefs and the people who run hotels wake up to the need for quality and transparency, the situation will never improve.
To read more on The Taste With Vir, click here