When Chef Ravitej Nath, Executive Chef, The Oberoi Gurgaon, visited Japan, he was taken around by his hosts to a merry-go-round of fabulous dining, from a 5 am sushi breakfast in an unpretentious stall outside Tsukiji, the world’s most famous fish market in Tokyo, to 200 year old restaurants that sell nothing but hot-pot. On the penultimate day, Nath was taken, with suitable fanfare to a restaurant that served, among other things, a whole sanma: a mackerel pike, fished from the waters around Hokkaido. Available only in August, it was served, sharp bones and all, on a skewer. Using your chopsticks, you separated the fish from the skewer and then you began to strip off the flesh from the bones. “It was less than six inches in length, but it took me the longest time to perform the operation with chopsticks” says Nath, still embarrassed at the memory. However, what really set the seal on the horror of the moment was when ten pairs of eyes fixed their gaze on him, keenly anticipating palpable joy. “I just could not get why everybody else at the table kept oohing and aahing about the flavour. I found it rather commonplace,” he avers, the embarrassment still palpable.
And that is the first principle of luxurious dining: Not only is one man’s food another man’s poison, but one man’s luxury is another man’s banality.
Chef Nath is of the firm belief that luxury has many components. One is seasonal, like the sanma from Shizuoka Prefecture whose flavour still confounds Nath. The other is region specific: white asparagus from the Netherlands, white truffles from Alba or black truffles from Perigord; beef from the Kobe region of Japan; sockeye salmon from the Pacific Northwest. Or, most famous of all, sparkling wine from the region of Champagne. One component of luxury is certainly memory. Gift a Bengali in New York a gondhoraj lemon or an Oriya in San Fransisco pancha-phutona: so far from home, an agricultural product is no short of a luxury.
On the whole, however, there’s a startling difference between how the term luxury is understood in the west and how it is perceived in the east. Says Tejinder Singh, Divisional Head, Food & Beverage for ITC Hotels, “In India, luxury dining has more to do with time and effort than with fine ingredients on their own.” He goes on to describe the laborious process of grinding minced lamb into forcemeat that resembles pate, which is made into galauti or kakori kebabs, or lamb that has been cooked, spiced and then ground on a grinding stone (silbhatta) to acquire its characteristic texture. “We all know that what comes out of a food processor cannot be called the real thing: it just have to have the reshams (fibres) just broken, and that only comes from hard labour and time at the grinding stone. In India, it is our kaarigari (expert labour) that counts for a lot and food is no exception.”
Nobody is suggesting that idlis are a luxury food, but they have one connection with the painstaking labour required to grind a kebab: there are no short cuts. Try and pass of an idli that has been made in a food processor and any Mylapore maami worth her kaapi will turn to you with an icy stare and ask you what brand of food processor you own. In Tamil Brahmin circles, that is the ultimate put down. A true blue-blooded Tam-Bram will grind idli batter in a stone mortar and pestle.
Then, there are the spices that go to make the kakori and the galauti kebabs. Several chefs have tried to replicate the signature blend of spices that go into these kebabs, but without being able to manage even a fraction of the real flavour. To be sure, potli masala, as it is called, does require between nineteen and twenty-one spices to be blended in a certain proportion, but trying to approximate the blend without a bona fide recipe is to flounder in the dark. Paan ki jadh, khus ki jadh, paththar ka phool, meetha gondh… not only does the list ramble on and on, it is only intelligible to those who have been using these ingredients for generations. There’s just one catch: those who have mastered these alchemical materials that have to be bought from apothecaries rather than spice shops, are not about to divulge their secrets to those for whom it is merely a way to make a living. Then too, not only is the making of potli masala is an exact science, but the using of it is too. Add it too liberally and the dish is inedible. Add it with too tight-fisted a measure, and the other ingredients will drown out its subtle flavours and aromas.
On the whole, it is much easier to work with agricultural products whose demand always outstrips supply by a vast margin. In the realm of Indian food, the first ingredient that springs to mind is the guchchi or morel. Like their distant country cousins on another continent, the truffle, morels too grow wild and have – so far, at any rate – resisted any attempts to be cultivated. Hence, the imbalance between demand and supply is always in favour of the morel, whose price per kilo is in the region of Rs 22,000. As edible luxuries go, it is hard to beat the morel for one more reason than its price: being a vegetarian ingredient, it is a must-have at weddings and vegetarian banquets. Even the morel, however, must bow to the giant of all food products: saffron. Grown in relative modest quantities in Iran around Mashad, as well as Pampore in Kashmir, the precise conditions required to grow it and the intensive labour needed to process it post-harvest means that the spice is priced well out of the middle-class budget.
It is curious that Indian dining has always paid more heed to the tastes of a minority who eats meat. The number of Indian diners who can appreciate the finer nuances of USDA prime steak or Angus tenderloin is a tiny fraction of the number of well-heeled, well-travelled people from all over the country who eat no meat at all. By a quirk of accident or design, they never got their due until earlier this year, when ITC Welcomgroup set up Vega, a fine-dining restaurant in which not only is the entire menu completely vegetarian, but the chefs in the kitchen too are vegetarian, for that ultimate cutting edge. Service in Vega – so far only one restaurant in ITC Grand Chola, Chennai – is silver service and the diametric opposite of the rather casual, homely service that is the norm at vegetarian eateries across the country. Plate underlays are made of metal with bas-relief designs as are the cloches under which the food is served. Recipes have been researched from ancient texts and ingredients include asparagus. If Executive Corporate Chef Manjit Gill is to be believed, asparagus, called shatawari in Hindi, is an ingredient that dates back to the Vedic civilization.
As societies evolve, the one thing that is getting more and more scarce is time. Perhaps the day is not too far off when cooking and eating a meal – any meal at all – will become a luxury.