Get to know the Creator. Those magicians in the kitchen who dish out your favourite items on the menu? Like so many others, I, once in a while, crave to get pampered in a great formal restaurant, of its solicitous service accompanied with excellent food, of a maverick sommelier who stuns you with his unconventional suggestions and of waiters who anticipate your personal preferences. “Wasabi by Morimoto” in Mumbai, Delhi’s “Orient Express” and “Le Louis XV” in Monte Carlo are a few examples.
But in the matter of Indian food, it bores me. The same plated service, every other item in the menu is “cooked to perfection”, the monotonous pompous presentation and where goat meat is claimed as lamb. And if you choose an Oriental or a European restaurant, every beef item is “tenderloin”, more often than not. Any foodie worth his name knows that tenderloin is just one of the cuts from a specific portion of the carcass.
So, I have concluded that if you seriously want to live the taste of India, venture out for street food where the ingredients are fresh, where the cooks/creators personally connect to you and have nothing to hide and where your choices are endless.
The megacities of course have their fair share of charm and variety, but smaller cities like Amritsar and Banaras serve exceptional street food. Delhi boasts of its chaats despite coming nowhere close to those of Banaras. In fact, most of the chaatwalas of Delhi have come from either U.P. or Bihar. Daulat-ki-chaat, which is available in Old Delhi only during the winters, is a heavenly soufflé, light as snow, made with raw milk and cream, sweetened and then hand-whipped to a frothy consistency. Dry fruits, mawa and saffron are blended and then served in donas or khullars. Although, Delhi claims the credit, this dessert also known as Maliyo which is available on the streets of Banaras is of far superior quality. The Banarasi version is so delightful that it has been included in the regular menu of the famed “Indian Accent” restaurant in Delhi, the menu for which has been designed by the best-known Indian chef of recent times, Chef Manish Mehrotra.
It is necessary to understand how the kitchens of the restaurant industry run all over the world. It originated in the great French kitchens. The food is prepared away from the guests behind closed doors. The kitchen is run by a brigade of specialists following militaristic discipline with pre-defined SOPs created and supervised by the ‘kitchen General’– the Executive Chef. It is the brigade that prepares the food and the Executive Chef only follows hands-off policy. His job is to create the menu, to invent and to design recipes and of course, kitchen administration. At best, he tastes the finished products at random. The waiters, the restaurant managers and other service staff are those who interact with the guests. The chef might take a stroll through the dining area once or twice in the evening like a triumphant General. The point is- the artiste remains hidden. The only possible exception is with the Japanese who have obliterated this invisible wall between the kitchen and the guest.
Having said so, nothing compares to the dining experience in a great restaurant. But it is little relief for those who put their hard-earned skills to test every second to make your evening happy and unforgettable. Street food provides that opportunity to connect with the creator. When I ask for Jhalmuri from the local jhalmuri -wala, I stand in awe by the dexterity of his hands- how he expertly chops the onions, cucumber and tomatoes with both hands and never needing a chopping board for the same. And how swift he is! He blends all the masala and seasonings just by andaza producing the same standardized product every time without ever feeling the need to taste before offering to his customers. Possibly, he has never heard of such culinary jargon like ‘standardized recipe’ or ‘food cost’. He is a natural and is instinctive who has perfected his art through years of practice. There is something honest about his performance which is open and transparent and not concealed behind closed doors. The same holds true for the puchka-wala or any other street food.
It’s a delight to watch the man behind the dosa counter; how he puts the batter in the centre of the tawa and then spreads it outward in concentric circular motions to form a perfect wafer-thin circle on the tawa. To produce the right amount of crispiness, he knows the exact amount of oil to be used and the temperature to which the tawa should be heated to give the crepe a perfect texture. He tosses the bhaji in the middle of the dosa and folds it at the precise moment it attains the desired texture. Watching the process far exceeds the taste. I consider myself a fast learner, but, to be honest, I tried making dosas many times in my kitchen and admittedly, I failed miserably on every occasion. I have nothing but respect for the nondescript dosa-wala.
I had written in my last blog about the influence of the Chinese of Kolkata on Bengali food and how they had invented what is best known as Indian-Chinese which has pervaded every nook and corner of the streets of India. During my Kolkata days, I used to frequent a place called Tiretti Bazar near Poddar Court. The sole purpose was to savour the famous Chinese Breakfast at dawn.
This 5 am breakfast market serves authentic home-made Chinese fair, extravagant with its choices, fresh and succulent and is light on your pocket. Some of the most popular items sold in this market are momos, wontons, hand-made sausages, pork rolls, pork chops, baos, khwai choi pan (crepes with vegetable fillings), zung (sweet rice or meat steamed and cooked with sticky rice coating on bamboo leaves), etc. If you are a real foodie and happen to be in Kolkata, do not miss this must-visit gastronomic paradise, where supreme skills pass unnoticed against the crowded formal sector.
The great sushi restaurants in Japan are perfect places to observe and appreciate the skills of the creators. The waiters and managers are the least important persons in the room. The customers are made to sit at the counters and watch magic unfold before their own eyes. It’s all about the chef accompanied by one or two assistants at most. The chef will almost never be a young man. To achieve this kind of mastery requires years of experience and polishing of skills. Knife skills are indispensable. Different cuts of the same product can produce completely different tastes and textures. It is sheer joy to watch the master preparing a sashimi, slicing a salmon fillet into small diamond shaped pieces which will be so thin that they will be virtually translucent; or for that matter how he presents fugu– an art for the aficionados. Sushi and sashimi are not the only ones that are prepared live. Teppanyaki meats are always cooked right in front of the guests.
Some other traditions also encourage personal interactions among the chefs and the guests; like the tapas eateries of Spain. In the US, barbecue joints often cook their stuff in the open for guests to watch and soak in the aroma of wood smoke, the raw meat slowly getting charred on the outside with its dripping melting fat and juices. A sight to behold indeed! Nowadays, more and more trendy places in the West are opening up their kitchens. The Momofuku model of counter-eating is being widely copied and applied, which I personally think is the right way forward.
The French culinary principle is a brilliant system which the restaurant industry all over the world follows. But the more I explore, the less I care about standardization and consistency. These days, I rather look for the individual who would surprise me with his experience, technique and intelligence than the young man with his fancy menu and fusions. I would pick the man who makes one dish every day over the chef who creates an innovative multi-course menu.
Over the years, with my gastronomic adventures, I, at this stage would choose excellence over innovation any day. The man with his hands on the cooking range is worth millions more than those who surround him. In short, I revere the man who creates the food- the soldier, much more than The General.