The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: The legacy of two classic side dishes; French mashed potatoes and Indian dal bukhara - Hindustan Times

The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: The legacy of two classic side dishes; French mashed potatoes and Indian dal bukhara

Jun 17, 2024 01:25 PM IST

In the late 1970s, Joel Robuchon's buttery mashed potatoes in France and India's creamy dal Bukhara redefined traditional dishes with meticulous techniques.

There are two dishes, both created at the end of the 1970s and now regarded as classics, that have always seemed to me to be brothers from different fathers. Both are side dishes; never the main courses in a meal. And yet they are more famous and ordered more often than many main courses. Both are refinements of traditional dishes. But the refining has been so successful that it has changed the way everyone cooks these dishes. And both, though ostensibly, non-dairy are actually in thrall to milk and its fattier derivatives. Indeed, both dishes will give nightmares to heart surgeons.

Two iconic dishes, Joel Robuchon's pomme puree from France and India's dal Bukhara, revolutionised traditional recipes in the late 1970s.
Two iconic dishes, Joel Robuchon's pomme puree from France and India's dal Bukhara, revolutionised traditional recipes in the late 1970s.

Those are the similarities. These are the differences: One was created in France, the other in India. One was created by a man whom many regard as the greatest chef of his time. The other emerged out of teamwork and experimentation so that no individual chef is associated with its creation. You have probably guessed what the dishes are: One is pomme puree or mashed potatoes, as re-invented by Joel Robuchon. And the other is our very own dal Bukhara. (Also read: The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: The stark reality behind India's expensive restaurants )

Let’s take the mashed potato first. It is a traditional dish that has been around almost from the time that potatoes spread all over Europe after their journey from the Americas. French chefs like potatoes and there are several famous recipes: Pomme Parmentier named for the man who popularised potatoes in France; pomme dauphinoise, pommes souffle, pommes anna, pommes persillade, pomme de terre fondantes etc.

By the 1970s, however, few chefs would even consider putting mashed potatoes on the menu of a fancy restaurant. Enter Joel Robuchon. Born into a working-class family (his father was a bricklayer) he became an accomplished and respected executive chef at hotels before opening his own restaurant Jamin in Paris which went on to win three Michelin stars.

By the time he opened Jamin, in 1981, Robuchon had already perfected his mashed potatoes. People say that he broke with the snob orthodoxy and put mashed potatoes on his menu because they reminded him of his own simple background; Robuchon himself often talked about remembering his grandmother’s mash.

Whatever the reason, he re-invented the dish using just four ingredients. He used ratte potatoes (a small, French variety) lots of butter (one pound of butter for two pounds of potatoes), some milk (a quarter cup for two pounds of potatoes) and salt to taste.

Like many great French specialties, the point of the dish was how simple ingredients were transformed by the technique. Robuchon boiled the peeled potatoes and then pressed them through a food mill again and again. They were then cooked over a low flame to dry them out. As they cooked, Robuchon added the butter slowly, but only after he thought the potatoes had lost enough of their moisture. He then added hot milk. As with all French haute cuisine recipes, there was a lot of sieving to ensure that the texture was smooth and silky. But the point of the technique was to enhance the taste. Robuchon preserved the original potato flavour but he added enough dairy fat to make the potatoes velvety and rich.

The dish became so popular that a whole generation of European chefs started following Robuchon’s recipe. Now chefs no longer even feel the need to credit Robuchon with the recipe. Nobody could have predicted in 1981 that Robuchon would go on to front a restaurant empire, with outposts around the world. At his peak (in 2016) Robuchon’s restaurants had, between them, 31 Michelin stars, a record that is still to be broken.

Robuchon died of cancer in 2018 but the restaurant empire is intact. And all of his restaurants serve mashed potatoes. Robuchon did not shy away from using luxury ingredients (his other classics include quail with foie gras and a black truffle tart) but the potatoes will remain his most enduring legacy.

Dal Bukhara is also a fresh take on a traditional dish and in its own way, possibly even more important and more popular than Robuchon’s mashed potatoes.

The idea of a black dal is not new. Punjabis in Peshawar have made a black dal with urad for centuries. But, unlike the dal we now get at restaurants, that dal had no tomatoes: After all, tomatoes are not a traditional Punjabi ingredient. If cooks needed to add sourness they used yoghurt.

The first people who found fame by adding tomatoes to the traditional Punjabi dal were the founders of Moti Mahal. The original Moti Mahal in Peshawar had no tomatoes in any of the dishes. But the post-Partition Delhi version was distinguished by its use of tomatoes.

Why did they use tomatoes? Hard to say. But Monish Gujral, the grandson of Kundan Lal Gujral who was one of the founders of the Delhi Moti Mahal, says that after the success of its butter chicken, which used tomatoes, Moti Mahal looked to infuse the same flavour in other dishes. (Even the name suggests this--chicken makhani and dal makhani.)

For whatever reason, the dal was an instant hit and today, rare is the restaurant that serves a black dal without tomatoes. By the time Bukhara opened in 1978, the Moti Mahal-style black dal was well-established.

So, what did Bukhara do? Well, basically it Robuchonised the dish, doing to it what the great chef had done to mashed potatoes. First of all, it simplified the recipes. At many restaurants black dal is 50% urad but also 50% other dals and rajma. Bukhara went back to the Peshawar tradition of using only urad dal.

The reason most other restaurants did not only use urad was because a pure urad dal is not as thick as dals made with other lentils. Bukhara’s solution was Robuchon-like: Refine the technique. It took to slow cooking the dal, usually leaving it overnight to simmer over 12 hours over a low flame. The slow cooking gave urad dal the viscosity that other methods could not.

Bukhara can continue to do this because it is among India’s most expensive restaurants. It buys the best quality urad dal and when there are variations in the taste of the water that goes into the dal, it uses mineral water. (This is also true of its sister chain of Peshawari restaurants all over India.)

And then there is the dairy factor. Like Robuchon’s mashed potato, the Bukhara dal used much more butter than was normal. Like Robuchon’s mashed potato, it is partly a dairy product. Manish Mehrotra who does his own tribute to dal Bukhara at Indian Accent actually calls it dairy dal on the menu!

So popular is dal Bukhara that every other North Indian restaurant offers its own version. But very few get the ingredients right (just dal and butter) and hardly anyone has the patience to follow a technique that takes simmering all night.

Robuchon’s mashed potato has outlasted the chef himself. And dal Bukhara has outlasted the team that created it.

Because true classics go on forever.

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