Maska Maarke: Gravy, roasts, pies and the way we used to be
Where did all those ‘Continental’ specialties come from, and why did we fall so in love with them? Let’s take a stroll down memory laneUpdated: Jun 16, 2018 12:01 IST
Long before the term ‘amuse bouche’ became common parlance, ‘degustation’ became daily jargon and ‘sous vide’ became brag talk, our knowledge of French food terms was pretty much limited to one phrase. A la carte. I’m talking about the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, when Bombay’s food culture was blooming.
This is before anyone could conceive that surnames like Lokhandwala and Hiranandani would mutate into names of suburbs. It was a time when restaurants along the Churchgate strip, hotels like The Taj Mahal and virtuosos like Chef Masci (Miguel Arcanjo Mascarenhas) were introducing the Bombay elite to words like Velouté, Béchamel, Au Gratin and Flambé. The city was warming up to what was generically called Continental food.
Let’s stop there for a moment and examine that term. The Continent is Europe and the influence is from France and Italy and maybe the odd dish from Hungary and Russia. The cuisines of these countries slowly swaying the humdrum, morose tastes of Great British Cooking. And that food making its way to our metropolitan aspirations.
Now cooks and butlers in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay’s posh clubs, and households too, were turning into desi Escoffiers, all expertly mastering ‘Continental’ dishes. Innovative and complicated recipes like Chicken a la Kiev (a little hand-grenade sized ball of crumb fried hollow chicken served with buttered beans, carrots and mashed potato), or Chicken and Ham Timbale (minced chicken and ham, steam-baked in cups and served with mushroom sauce) or Welsh Rarebit (which is nothing but a sauce of melted cheese with red chilli, poured over slices of toasted bread) or Ramekins of Eggs (eggs baked in cheese sauce) or a Shepherd’s Pie (mince baked with mashed potatoes) became commonplace in the not-so-commonplace eateries.
For the next 35 years or so, this cuisine reigned supreme at every banquet, buffet and blowout. No party or dinner was complete without dishes like Eggs Florentine, Vegetable Au Gratin, Poulet à la Crème et Champignons (chicken with cream and mushrooms) or Steak Chateaubriand (thick tenderloin in a shallot and red-wine reduction with chateau potatoes), always served for two.
But just when you think you’ve learned the way to live, life changes. The 21st century brought along with it liquid nitrogen, lecithin and foams and nearly wiped out words like Espagnole, Hollandaise and Roux. Continental food got sidelined. Now considered an unhealthy, butter- and flour-laden cuisine, the world woke up to Paul Bocuse, Pierre Gagnaire, Heston Blumenthal and MasterChef on television.
Distance brings nostalgia, and with nostalgia comes perspective, and maybe objectivity. Just a few restaurants still keep the richness and simplicity of that cuisine alive. I head to Gallops at the race course for a Chicken Cecelia (sautéed in butter and topped with cheese, mushroom and asparagus), and to The Society at Ambassador Hotel, which is still famous for their Roast Duck in Orange Sauce, Coq au Vin — and for that fact that the server comes to the table to flambé you a Chicken Diane or Spaghetti a la Fernandes.
But my discovery of the year has been the nostalgic menu at Fenix at The Oberoi. Executive chef Satbir Bakshi has turned this modern, unassuming café into one of the finest gourmet destinations in the city. I went there to celebrate my birthday with friends, and we started with classic Lobster Bisque. This is a wholesome crustacean soup (in this case, crayfish) thick, creamy and well-seasoned, with a base of tomato. If you’re not careful, the soup could get too fishy, but this was just perfectly flavoured. Along with the bisque we ordered some good old-fashioned Prawn Cocktail. That’s cooked prawns in a cocktail sauce (essentially ketchup plus mayonnaise with a few shakes of Tabasco). At Fenix, Chef Satbir garnishes the Prawn Cocktail with thin slices of boiled egg and tops it all with caviar.
For the main course we shared Fish à la Meunière. A Meunière sauce, made from butter, lemon, and parsley, served with crispy sautéed fish.
But all eyes were on the Lobster Thermidor. It’s a dish that has fascinated me since I was a child. So much so that I learnt to cook it when I was very young. Legend and Wiki say that the great French chef Auguste Escoffier created this dish in a Parisian restaurant called Maison Maire, near the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin. The dish was named after a play, Thermidor by Victorien Sardou, which opened in that theatre to packed houses. It’s whole lobster shell, stuffed with a creamy mixture of cooked lobster meat, egg yolk and cognac or white wine, gratinated with Gruyère and baked till brown. It’s luxury from another day, and Fenix does it impeccably.