The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Why Indian chefs need to have discerning palates when it comes to the quality of ingredients - Hindustan Times
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The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Why Indian chefs need to have discerning palates when it comes to the quality of ingredients

By, New Delhi
Apr 09, 2024 09:57 AM IST

Does this matter? Should we want to serve the best carrots? Or should we just accept that our food is about spice and not the quality of ingredients?

Do you find that food tastes different first thing in the morning? Is that first cup of coffee much more bitter? More intense, at least? If you bite into a chilli —from a masala omelette perhaps —does it seem hotter than usual?

Why French chefs are a lot better at tasting than our Indian chefs(Freepik)
Why French chefs are a lot better at tasting than our Indian chefs(Freepik)

In theory, all of these things should certainly happen. Most food experts believe that your palate is at its most delicate in the morning. For instance, even the Chinese who may eat dim sum for breakfast, will rarely pair them with a spicy sauce. The Italians will usually only eat something sweet with their cappuccino. Even in cultures where the food is spicy, such as Thailand, breakfast dishes are milder. One argument in favour of the morning sambhar you get in South India (different from the sambhar they make at other times) is that it is more attuned to your taste buds at breakfast time.

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Of course there are scientific explanations for this phenomenon too but on matters of taste, I have more faith in the learnings of food culture going back centuries.

I know because I am the exception to all these rules.

I can start my day with a hefty dose of chilli or spice. For example , I am writing this column from Thailand where, every morning, the chefs at the Four Seasons in Samui make a wonderful congee with pork for me. There are spicy condiments available but they are discreetly left on the side. That's enough for me to destroy the lovingly prepared, delicate taste of the congee with multiple spicy condiments along with an umami-filled maxi-shot of soya sauce.

The Thais are too polite to say anything but I always feel that they look at me pityingly. The Chinese are less polite and stare disapprovingly when I eat my morning dim sum with chilli oil. Even in Italy, where the only time of the day when it is a acceptable to drink coffee with milk is in the morning, I get looks of concern when I ask for a very strong and intense black coffee, even a ristretto, at breakfast.

Some of this, I suspect, is because we in India are generally much less concerned with the delicacy of our taste buds. We know what we like and what we don’t but we don’t treat our taste buds like finely tuned racing car engines.

In much of the rest of the world, on the other hand, chefs and foodies pay a great deal of attention to preserving the delicacy of their taste buds. One example: Many French and Italian restaurants abroad now employ Indian chefs. But often, the Indians will be told to avoid very spicy food before they come in for service because the spices dull their taste buds and prevent them from being able to taste the subtleties of seasoning.

All this used to strike me as odd. I can understand sommeliers taking care of their palates. But chefs? Foodies?

I have now reluctantly got my head around this concept and have come to accept that an important component of a chef’s talent is his or her ability to taste.

How do chefs taste fresh carrots, for instance, and say that one carrot is better than another? How do they know exactly how a chicken has been bred merely by having one bite of a chicken dish?

The answer is that they have discerning palates which they have trained to detect the nuances of flavour. And it is often the great French chefs who have the most delicate palates.

The American chef Dan Barber is famous for his farm-to-table approach to cooking and for his emphasis on the purity and provenance of ingredients. But even he can be awed by the refined palates of other chefs.

(Also Read | The Taste By Vir Sanghvi: Are Indian restaurants taken more seriously globally than ever before?)

Barber tells the story of a visit to his farm by Alain Ducasse, the world’s greatest French chef. Ducasse came early in the morning for a 20 minute photo shoot. He did not want to eat anything but Barber, who was excited to have Ducasse at his farm, served him bread and butter anyway. Barber was sure that Ducasse would love the butter because it was made at the farm with fresh milk from the farm’s cows.

Ducasse was polite enough to try the bread and butter. Then he asked, “Has it been raining recently?” Barber conceded that a hurricane had just doused the area.

Then Ducasse asked: “Was the butter made by hand or in an electric mixer?” Barber replied that of course it was hand-churned. “And was the milk from cows pasturing near the barn or far away from the barn?” Ducasse continued.

Barber had always seen the cows grazing in the fields near the barn and told Duccase that.

A week later, Barber caught his pastry intern churning the butter in an electric mixer. He asked the intern what he was doing. “Chef,” the intern explained, “I have discovered that I can make the butter a lot faster with an electric mixer.”

So Ducasse has been right about that too.

A few days later, Barber was at the dairy farm again and did not see any cows. He asked where they were and was told that they were no longer pastured in the lush field near the barn. They were sent to graze in a field further away which had many weeds and much less greenery and so needed the manure that the cows would provide as they grazed.

Ducasse had tasted that in the butter too.

Barber is famous for his feel for ingredients. But even he could not tell merely by tasting the butter that it had been churned in an electric mixer, or that the field where the cows grazed was not particularly verdant and that it had been raining .

Ducasse, who grew up on his parents’ farm, often says that the major challenge with cooking is raw materials. His restaurants only use the best ingredients. The chef’s job, he says, is to preserve and interpret the taste of those great ingredients.

Frankly, I can’t imagine another chef being able to tell so much about the butter just by tasting a little bit. Ducasse is much better at this compared even to most French chefs. And most French chefs are a lot better at tasting than our Indian chefs. We have grown up with spices and hot-ness so our flavour detectors are muted. Many (if not most) Indian hotel kitchens use ingredients that would not get past the door in a good French restaurant.

Does this matter? Should we want to serve the best carrots? Or should we just accept that our food is about spice and not the quality of ingredients? When you eat a vada pav, do you care how the potatoes in the vada were grown? When you make a chicken curry, can anyone tell whether you have used a free-range chicken or a broiler?

Given that I blow my palate up with chilli in the mornings, I am not the right person to answer this. But I have to concede that while I don’t think our chefs need to reach Ducasse levels of taste discernment, perhaps the time has come for us to be a little more discriminating when it comes to the quality of our ingredients.

If you don’t believe me, try this simple test. Compare a tandoori chicken made with farmed chicken with one from a free range bird (like the Bukhara version) and see if you can’t tell the difference. It will be staggeringly obvious how much tastier the free range bird is.

Or try an Awadhi biryani made with ordinary long-grained rice. And then try one made with real basmati. There is really no comparison.

Eat fresh peas from anywhere in India. And then try the fresh peas from Jaipur in season. You’ll know then what peas should really taste like.

We do this already with fruit. Everyone can tell how good or bad a mango is. But we refuse to apply the same standards to vegetables. Could this be because we know that they will end up being cooked with spices? The mango, on the other hand, will be eaten raw.

Possibly. And though I often start my morning sabotaging my taste buds, I do feel that there is a lot for us to learn about discernment from the world’s great chefs and their palates.

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