In the days before Google burst upon the scene, I used to have a Dutch friend who was the second violinist in the National Philharmonic Orchestra in The Hague. He once recounted a hilarious story of an elderly Russian conductor who came to conduct a concert with the Dutch orchestra and needed to rehearse for a fortnight before the important day of the concert. There was just one slight hitch. The Russian spoke no Dutch and the Dutch musicians no Russian. There was a single link however. Every morning the conductor used to have semolina porridge for breakfast and had learnt to pronounce it by its Dutch name, in order to be intelligible to the waiters at the hotel: griesmeelpap (the ‘g’ is guttural). So, whenever the hapless conductor felt that the musicians were not playing to the standard that he expected, he would make the universal cross sign with his baton and shout angrily “Griesmeelpap” and the orchestra would groan to a halt. Semolina porridge, needless to say, has little taste and no texture, so the invective was particularly apt.
Edo van der Hoog’s words came to my mind yesterday evening as I sat with half a dozen chefs from various countries in North Europe: Iceland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Finland besides Italy. They were six among a party of thirty who were visiting India. We spoke not a single common language between us, but it is incredible how eloquent you can be without actual words when talking about food.
The Club des Chefs des Chefs is an association of chefs who cook for either kings and queens or the President of their country. So strictly enforced is the rule that the Thai chef de chef who was supposed to come to India, had to cancel his trip after King Bhumibhol passed away, because the next king has the freedom to appoint any other chef of his choice and is not bound by his or her predecessor’s preference. You don’t really hear of this bunch of rather low-key chefs with high-key jobs, because they’re not in the public eye. And the only reason they know each other is because of the Club that meets once every year in a different country each year.
This year was India’s chance to host them and all they could talk about was their trip to Chandni Chowk and the spice market in Khari Baoli where US $ 3.7 billion worth of spices are traded per annum. Cristeta Comerford, Chef to the President of the United States spoke breathlessly about the ‘traceability’ of a fistful of spices that lie sanitized in jars on her spice shelves in the White House kitchen and how she could never imagine that they started their journey from the chaos and the tear-inducing precincts of Gadodia Market.
But it was the food of Bukhara that Delhiites take for granted that was the star of the afternoon. Accompanied by beer, the chefs tried every dish without discriminating, even the stuffed potato barrels and the florets of cauliflower. The raan proved to be a hot favourite at our table, the thick creamy curd turned out to be the perfect foil for any spice, the Bukhara naan provoked the most number of funny photographs and good ole gulab jamuns and kulfi resulted in the most number of wrinkled brows, as each chef tried to guess the ingredients and technique.
That lunch turned the tables for the chefs des chefs as they paid full attention to each dish and quizzed me about ingredients: at the state banquets that they slave over, food is probably just a detail for most of the guests who have affairs of the state to deliberate over as the agenda of the day. And when Cristeta Comerford has cooked sockeye salmon and organic vegetables from a nearby farm for the First Family, she goes home to her husband who asks her what she wants to eat. And her answer is usually “Rice and adobo”. It is as comforting as a bowl of griesmeelpap!