The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 28, 2003
Time Off

Eating the connoisseur’s way
Manohar Malgonkar

THE Oxford dictionary defines "gastronomy" as the ‘science’ of eating, but other dictionaries say it is the ‘art’ of eating. Art or science, gastronomy has more to do with eating than cooking, and that means that, every time we enjoy a good meal, we’re not conducting a scientific experiment but exposing ourselves to artistic fulfilment, as we do when we listen to good music.

In India, good food is what we eat in our own homes. In the more affluent West, home cooking is often a slapdash affair. There the art of cooking has been hijacked by the professionals, the chefs.

As in women’s fashions or in creating perfumes, it is France that has long been accepted as the holy land of gastronomy, where the temples of good eating are presided over by their high priests, the chefs. Which other country confers high national honours on its professional cooks?

They’re easy to find, these temples, because of their ratings in the latest edition of the Red Guide Michelin, is being accorded one or two and, very rarely, three stars, which is the highest rating — perfection itself. From here, you can, god forbid, go only down, if they find some fault with your food; but never up. Three is Mount Everest.

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It is not easy even for the most famous culinary wizards to ensure that their eating places retain all three stars for long, for the Guide Michelin tasters are unknown, scrupulous, and unforgiving — they can fault you even if the plate on which the food is served is not properly heated or chilled, or for recommending the wrong wine. Chefs in France are jealous of their ‘stars’ if only because dropping one means almost certain financial loss, and some indeed develop nervous breakdowns.

As did Bernard Loisseau, the chef and owner of an eating place called La cote d’Or in a small town in the Burgundy district, Saulieu. He had held on to his three stars for ten years and been awarded the Legion of Honour, by the President.

Early this year, Bernard Loisseau blew his own head off with a hunting rifle. He was in the prime of his life and fame, and positively rolling in money. Gossip in the profession ascribed his suicide to a fit of depression brought on by his fear of losing a star. The irony is that, when the Red Guide for the year came out a few months after his death, his restaurant was still in possession of all its stars.

How much does it cost to eat in such a hallowed place of gastronomic excellence? The short answer is, "too much". Unless, of course, you’re very rich. Because an average meal for two would cost around 350 Euros just for the food. But what food!

Tender frogs legs smothered in a sauce made of dried eels, sorbet of minute mussels slow-cooked in red wine, lightly braised carrots stuffed with crab-meat floating in a gravy garnished with black troufles, brandied strawberries served in little crunchy cups made of bitter chocolate with a meurange covering topped by a ball of whipped cream. Yum!

And then the wine, oh, you just have to order it, if only to avoid being seen as an uncivilised bumpkin from the Third World, — say, another 100 Euros.

As you come out in the fresh air, pleasantly gorged and only slightly befuddled, you calculate how much that meal was in rupees. Rs 20,000, a bit more or less. The thought crosses your mind that that sum would have paid for a week’s holiday at Ooty for you and your wife, or even for that pilgrimage to Mathura which you have been putting off.

Oh, well. You’ve had a memorable experience, something that you will tell your grandchildren about. However, did you truly relish any of those exotic dishes? Would you, even if you could afford them, eat them every day?

Of course you won’t, no one does. Even the master chefs who concoct them, themselves sneak out of their own kitchens to some eatery which serves the food that ordinary people eat in their own homes. Even the Great Louisseau used to find himself a cheap bistro every now and then, the sort of place where you sit on plastic chairs and use paper napkins, and order from the standard menu the house speciality, a hearty meal called gras double: grilled pigs’ intestines accompanied by a slab of beef so lightly roasted that blood oozed from it when pricked with the fork. "My favourite dish!" he would pronounce: 8 Euros!

All of which just shows that gastronomy, like the other arts cannot be what the critics go into ecstasies about. Just as we have our own tastes in painting or music, so in food. Don’t you tell us what is good food. It is what we ourselves like.

So H.D. Deve Gowda, who often spoke of his farming background of rustic Karnataka, thereby springing a surprise on New Delhi’s elite who were gung-ho about their Mughal heritage. He made his cooks learn to prepare steamed ragi dumplings and sambhar fiery with Byadigi chilly, in preference to the kulcha-Kabuli chana or kachori stuffed with potato-and-onion cooked in herbs. No frogleg in a batter of troufles here!

That, ultimately, is the real test. What you and Ireally like to eat is good food, not what great chefs concoct and food-critics extol. Pablo Piccasso is honoured all over the world as the 20th century’s greatest painter. Yet, to the uncultivated masses, his picture of men and women and animals look like images reconstituted from the hacked-out limbs and faces of their subjects. They’re all very well for the great museums, but on our own walls we’d much rather hang prints of conventional artists, thank you!

Not many people have paintings in their houses, especially in India. But almost all of us are addicted to music; and as to food, all off us just have to have to several times every day. And with food, it is every man to his own taste.

So, Gowda who, may be even as his own cooks were preparing shahi korma, Zarda pulao and rabdi choked with almonds and pista for the lunch to be served to some visiting head of state, fortifying himself with those ragi rolls doused with a fiery gravy — or, for that matter Monsieur Loisseau, Master Chef, having just served a plate of lightly braised snails fragrant with wine and nutmeg, rushing off to a wayside food-stand for a plateful of boudin, which is a sausage filled with blood and cooked rice which the French adore.

Or again our own nephews and nieces who have settled down in distant lands where dollars grow on bushes and much of the food is manufactured in factories, on their visits home, wanting to eat jhunka-bhakar, or masala dosa, or idli-with-groundnut chutney, or aloo-paranthas — for every meal and even for in-between snacks.

One of my granddaughters lives in Lugano, Switzerland, where her husband has a plum job which necessitates a fair amount of expense-account entertaining.

Well, on a visit to my house a year ago, she made my cook teach her how to make gavti-sagoti, which is a local lamb curry whose recipe requires fresh coconut meat, which is roasted and then made into a paste. Apparently, she can duplicate it in her own kitchen. What she cannot make are the ordinary chappatis that go with virtually all Indian food. There just doesn’t seem to be a gadget which can deliver ballooning hot chappatis.

So she makes do with re-heated chappatis taken from home. Every time she visits her father’s home in Bombay, she takes back dozens of cooked chappatis. They’re stored away in a freezer, to be taken out and heated only when she herself has cooked an Indian curry for her very special friends.