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Sunday, May 2, 1999
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Sacrificial lamb at altar of cooking
By Manohar Malgonkar

ALICE Waters must surely be America’s answer to the French Gurus of haute-cuisine such as Escofier and Brillat Savarin! For who would have thought, only a few years ago, that the Directors of the French Academy of Music and the Decorative Arts, when they wanted to find someone to run their prestigious restaurant at the Louvre, would invite an expert from the domain of the Burger King?

That is precisely what they did last summer and in response to that appeal, the said Alice Waters, the founder of a restaurant in the town of Berkeley, California, called Chez Panisse, went to Paris to take a look at the work-site, as it were, and also to arrange about the supplies of the right grade of vegetables, meat and seafood that her restaurant would require.

While she was in Paris, a fellow-American writer who lives there, Adam Gopnik, offered to cook a meal for her. For Adam Gopnik, the proposed dinner was to be a very special occasion. It would be something like a Tibetan exile living in London inviting the Dalai Lama to his flat for a home-cooked dinner, and appropriately enough, Gopnik confesses to having "spent most of the summer worrying about what I would cook and how it would taste."

I have an idea that Adam Gopnik must suffer from an illusion that many of us, amateur cooks, are afflicted with: that while we don’t profess to be good enough at the gas stove to apply for a job as cook, we can make one or two dishes which will be as good as any you can get in some of our most expensive restaurants, such as the Istana in New York, or the Zodiac at the Taj in Mumbai. The mistake that Gopnik made in planning out his dinner for Ms Waters was, as it were, in the planning itself — something no cook should attempt; prepare a fancy dish he has never made before.

In his zeal to impress this lady who, in the world of haute cuisine, must rank as royalty, Gopnik wanted to prepare a dish which even she could not have eaten before. He had come across a recipe in an account of a tour through the French Alps, during which, in a small inn called the ‘Auberge of the Flowering Hearth’ the book’s author had been served a truly memorable dish called gigot de mouton de sept heures — lamb cooked for seven hours. The innkeeper had obligingly provided its recipe to the author, which recipe he had published in his book.

On the day of the dinner, Gopnik, who had earlier gone round the Paris markets for the right kind of meat and herbs that the recipe called for, meticulously followed the recipe given in the book.

So, how was the lamb?

Gopnik, himself a facile writer with a vivid imagination, has provided some apt similies, but they’are all a little too homespun for those of us who are not familiar with the sports gear of Baseball. I would say that it was like a piece of hide especially toughened up for the soles of ammunition boots, ready to be fitted with steel studs before marching off to the wars; that was what seven hours of cooking had done to the best haunch of tender lamb to be found in Paris. Like all followers of how-to books, Gopnik had taken the instructions like a disciplined soldier — unquestioningly. But the book had been published in the pre-historic, or at least, pre-metric-system times when cooking temperatures were given in Farenheit: Gopnik’s state-of-the-art oven had been educated in Celsius. The rack of lamb had been cooked in an oven for seven hours at a temperature of 200 Celsius — or at about twice the heat-level required by the recipe. So ... ugh!

Oh, well; happens to the best of us ... why, it even happened to me.

There was a time, some 30 years ago, when I was frequently picked on as a subject for a back-page space-filler interview by newspapers. Some young hopeful whom they were training as a cub reporter would be deputed for the job. As a rule he or she had not read any of my books. One question I could almost depend on being asked was: "How do you spend your leisure hours, Mr Malgonkar? Have you any hobbies?"

Hobbies? I don’t know. I do a little cooking, now and then; when the mood takes me. Not that the mood seized me all that often. But, say, a dozen times in a year, I would try to cook something I had copied out a recipe for. I still have a couple of note books filled with recipes of quite formidable dishes such as Jind Rish Achar, or Petit Hall Kadhia Masoor or Parsi Aleti-Paleti.

But over my days of cooking as a hobby, I had mastered two fairly unambitious dishes, and these I made well enough to have been complimented on even by fancy cooks; One was Fish-rice a la Ramanoff, and the other, a plain British Apple Crumble. Both are easy to make, and I had cooked both often enough for me not to have to rely on a written recipe. They were difficult to get wrong — or so I thought.

In the mid-eighties, I happened to be spending a week in a part of India I had never seen before, the wilder Himalayas north-east of Nainital where, close to a township called Ramgarh, which is about 5,000 feet high above sea level, Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia owned an apple orchard spread over a few hundred acres of hill and valley, and at its centre, a long, barracklike colonial bungalow with a magnificent view of the Himalayas.

It was summer. The apple trees were positively festooned with ripening fruit, as were the apricots, plums and pears. As it happened, the Rajmata had brought up a full staff of servants from Gwalior including a highly versatile cook, so there was absolutely no cause for me to come out and say: "This evening, I’m going to make the pudding, my speciality, Apple Crumble."

Vijayaraje’s daughter, Vasundhara Raje who is now a high-profile central minister was also spending a few days with her mother, and that day, on our routine trip to Nainital, I foraged round the market to buy the few simple ingredients that my recipe required. I spent a little time in the kitchen in the afternoon, assembling the dish and handed it to the cook: "Bake it for 45 minutes — just in time for dinner," I told him.

The arrival of my pudding was preceded by the familiar aroma of apples cooked in sugar and butter and spiced with cinnamon. But what was placed on the table with something of a flourish was a gooey brown mess — not the familiar dish topped by an half-an-inch thick layer of golden yelllow crumbly pastry which is what makes this simple dish fit for kings — kings or for ex-Maharanis accustomed to living in palaces as both my hostess and her daughter happened to be. They pushed the mess around their plates and and made the appropriate gestures of appreciation. But was my face red!

What I had done, I realised, was to mix up the mode of assembling my two special dishes. The Apple Crumble, you just fill the baking dish with cubed apple and then top it up with the layer of pastry flour. The Russian fish dish has to be made layer by layer, of fish, rice, sauce, repeated again and again till the dish is filled. My pudding had a couple of inch-thick layers of flour in the body of the pudding, instead of only at the top.

I have an idea that the cook, who had watched me prepare the dish knew all along what I had done wrong and had an alternative dessert of his own making ready: a sort of banana trifle. Adequate, but of course, not to be compared with the Apple Crumble — the real Apple Crumble which is so easy to make!

Except that, when it comes to cooking, nothing is simple or easy.Back

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