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Duck Confit Musallam

Look closely at the menu. It’s the boys from Bihar and Bhopal, Amritsar and Asansol who are playing around with memory and flavours at India’s most stylish diners.

A hush descends on the table as the chef brings out the dessert. It’s been a meal of some distinction. Beginning with a flavourful broccoli cappuccino, thick with cheesy foam on top, we’ve gone through goat cheese soufflé, chicken wrapped in crispy Parma in a platter splashed beet red, and bread, oh! bread to die for. So warm, so fresh, and so flaky that it reminds me of a patisserie in Paris. But the dessert, when it arrives, is in another league altogether: Dainty filo parcels of nuts, from which rise flowers fashioned out of thin apple chips. No one moves. No one pulls out the knife. We don’t even breathe. How do you dig into a work of art?

Sabyasachi Gorai, chef at Olive Bar and Kitchen, stands in the middle of the pretty Mehrauli haveli that houses the restaurant, exhorting us to do just that. The moment is broken, the flowers demolished, and the chef shrugs: “At the World Gourmet Summit,” he says, “you will find pastry chefs sleeping on the floor next to their creations, having worked overnight to finish these.” That’s an attention to presentation you’d expect from a French pastry chef or from the Spartan sensibilities of a Japanese. Not from a young man who grew up in Asansol, a small coal-miner’s town on the edge of Bihar and Bengal, on dohi mach and govind bhog and pithe steamed in clay haandi set on a cowdung fire!

Look around, and you’ll be surprised to find that heading the kitchens of some of India’s most stylish diners are boys from Bihar and Bhopal, Amritsar and indeed Asansol — who grew up on robuster cuisines, a cry from the cutting-edge morsels they now dish out. They dabble in gastronomy — even if Adria himself be contemplating a “real” pizzeria — research recipes from the Tanzanian wilds even as they stick to Escoffier’s techniques, bake wasabi-flavoured breads and reinterpret rules with a confident cosmopolitanism that belies their roots. These are men — for women in professional kitchens in India are still few and far between — who are a far cry from the “master chefs” of yore content to carry on family legacies from Avadh or Hyderabad, but have evidently kept pace with middle India’s growing obsession with culinary adventure.

Yet, as they go about serving us pricey filet mignons and fatty pork belly, do bits of their own culture ever seep into the mélange they serve up? It would certainly seem so and not just from colourful kitchen tales of “conti” chefs polishing off tins of foie gras with pudina paranthas!

At Indian Accent, chef Manish Mehrotra’s obvious homage to his childhood, and to everyone else’s, may be by way of an unlikely chyawanprash crème brulee. But memory is a strange creature, surfacing where you least expect it to — how else could you explain a connection between grandmom-concocted kadhi and perfectly-done lamb chops?

Mehrotra’s abiding memory as a schoolkid in a Punjabi home in Patna is one of wolfing down boiled eggs — for breakfast — on the terrace of his home. “Eggs were not allowed inside,” he says. Neither was bread — both deemed impure. So, you could say Mehrotra’s tryst with béchamel sauce-making at catering college was a way of rebellion. On the other hand, he does recall with obvious relish, “My grandmother’s unusual kadhi” structured like an ordinary one “made with besan but flavoured with tamarind and jaggery”. Today, when the chef serves up his tamarind-glazed lamb-on-the bone on a fancier plate but with the same signature sweet-sourness, is it possible to trace ancient connections?

Smoke House Grill’s Mayak Tiwari put his Army upbringing in small towns to good use too — on his menus! Tiwari, who belongs to Ganjbasoda, near Bhopal, admits that his family is wary of his restaurant offerings but says that memories of food served up by “aunties” in various cantonments have found their way into unlikely creations. “I encountered rasam as a schoolkid in Secunderabad and observed that south Indian homes use different souring agents,” he points out. Today, not only does his menu include an entrée by way of smoked pineapple rasam but it even masquerades as a stylish sauce to dress up black cod! But inside Tiwari’s head, the perfect soup remains a rough broth of ground onion, garlic and ginger served by an army wife a decade ago. The trick to its unique flavour was processed cheese stirred in at the end. Tiwari now has his own version of his childhood favourite in a smoked chicken and fennel soup — finished, in this case, with more finesse and a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano.

But why haven’t any of these young chefs thought fit to research or extend their own culinary traditions? Is it because Makande (Tanzanian kidney beans dish) sounds more exotic than rajma-chawal or because “wine-poached salmon with truffles” has a sexier sound than galauti kebabs? “The leeway to experiment with Indian cuisine is less,” agrees corporate chef Vikas Seth of Aurus in Mumbai. “It isn’t as if one cannot experiment but if I were to serve paneer caviar in spinach sauce, it would be an insult to that dish,” he says. His colleagues accept what the chef says: It may be possible to tinker with presentation of Indian food. But within a country where traditions are firmly established and food cooked within homes more often than not many notches higher than what you’d find within restaurants, it isn’t easy to market anything not familiar or “authenticated”. For his part, Seth’s paean to his own hometown, Amritsar, comes by way of “scaloppini of chicken marinated in chilli and cilantro”. Chicken tikka any one?

Devraj Halder, brought up in Dhanbad by a quintessential Bengali mother “who is the world’s best chef”, also has an interesting hypothesis as to why you will find “90 per cent Bengali chefs specialising in French cuisine”. Halder believes that the “roots of French and Bengali cooking are the same”. Both — the cuisines, not chefs — are subtle, focus on the freshness of ingredients rather than too much flavouring and both involve laborious, slow cooking. The chef himself has found other inspirations. An innovative food festival that he put together, for instance, offered dishes using flowers as the main ingredient. “In Bengal, we use banana flower, so I thought why couldn’t we cook with other flowers too?”

But there are chefs who are applying their training in Western — primarily classic French — techniques to Indian recipes. Bakshish Dean at The Park, New Delhi, grew up in Simla in a household where food was always no-fuss because both his parents were working. Local dhabas, noodles made by a Chinese shoe-maker and indeed qormas and salans cooked by a family that lived in a masjid opposite Dean’s house, provided for some adventure till Dean, a struggling chef-in-training landed in Hemant Oberoi’s kitchen at the Mumbai Taj. At that time, in the early 1980s, the hotel used to run Ménage a trois, a European restaurant where chefs from all over the world would come and cook. This was to be Dean’s training ground. “Classic French cooking is really superior,” he says earnestly, “you can’t go wrong with it,” he adds.

At Fire, The Park’s contemporary Indian restaurant, Dean applied French techniques to desi recipes. “In 2004, we wanted to introduce duck mussalam but failed. The chef trained in Indian was boiling the duck in water and finishing it in the tandoor just as most restaurants will prepare the raan. All the flavour got lost as a result,” the chef recalls. This was when he suggested the confit method—an old technique where meat is poached in its own fat, slowly, after a 24- (or 36-) hour marination. “It is 110 per cent accurate. When we turned out the duck, it was finished in 10 minutes by six people.” Today, under Dean, even dishes such as the nihari are cooked in controlled temperature in the oven rather than slowly simmered in a pot, which may damage the joints of meat, and all fish preparations are cooked in the oven, smoked with a live piece of coal later. “We are not meddling with flavours, it’s just a change in mindset,” says Dean. As you spoon up the nihari, you wouldn’t know.

(The article appeared in Times of India Crest on Nov 14)

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One Response to “Duck Confit Musallam”

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