By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When French Cuisine Turned Totally Vegetarian !

Chef Stephane Mathonneau of Le Bistro du Parc in Paris is currently on a hectic tour of India, giving demonstrations of French cuisine in five-star hotels, as part of the second wave of Bonjour India  --  a festival of French art, culture and lifestyles spanning 15 cities and going on from January to April, 2013. 

He's accompanied by Ms. Naïna de Bois-Juzan, also from Le Bistro du Parc, who will be organizing a bistro project in the Defence Colony in New Delhi soon, and who's taking the initiative on the gastronomic side of Bonjour India.

Today is the last day of their visit to a city called Thiruvananthapuram on the south-west coast of  India.  A few days ago, their instant initiative there was greeted with the following report in THE HINDU, under the glowing headline A culinary invasion with French flavours:

"[The visitors] wasted no time on arrival here late on Monday evening. They scheduled a meeting with a chef at Taj Vivanta and explored the kitchen, their senses tuned to the sights and smells of local ingredients and traditional cooking styles that can possibly be incorporated into the dishes they have in mind. . . ."

Which strongly reminded me of an article I had written 35 years ago in New Delhi, in the context of  the French Gastronomic Fete, which had clashed spectacularly with the World Vegetarian Conference.  Unlike Chefs Antoine and Udipi Krishna Iyer, who were imaginary characters, Chef George Aubriet who figured in the article was a real-life master cook from Paris, who was taking part in the food festival and had expressed great admiration for Indian cuisine.

Evening News, New Delhi
2 December 1977

Veg. 1989 !

I have a feeling that the World Vegetarian Conference in New Delhi, coinciding as it did with the French Gastronomic Fete organized by Oberoi Intercontinental and Air France, is destined to lead ultimately to a global culinary revolution.

Since India is the paramount vegetarian Power, world-wide gastronomic glossaries in future will be derived mainly from Indian sources.

So when I went to Paris in 1989, I wasn't very surprised to find, in the menu card at Maxim's, the following and other similar items:

Les Idlis a la Tchutney de Coconut  --  Dossa au Massala Udipi  --   Samossas Speciales a la Pantchquinne Marg  --  Paratta aux Galies de Tchandni Tchaouc......

I got talking to the waiter Henri, who said the Chef  de Cuisine was the world-famous Antoine.  After a memorable all-vegetarian meal, I went round to the kitchen and congratulated the great man.

"Felicitations, Maestro!"  I said.  "How did you learn our Indian recipes so perfectly?  Who is your master?"

Antoine's eyes became moist, and they rolled like Maaurice Chevalier's.  "Ah, M'sieu, my Master he callz'imslf Udipi Krishna Iyer.  He'z one of ze most amazing cooks in ze world!  And he has come to Maxim's in 1978."

"Oh, really?"  I exclaimed.  I know U.K. Iyer very well!  I used to eat regularly in his idli-dosa joint in New Delhi in the Seventies!  Is he here now, Antoine?  Can I see him?"

"No, M'sieu!  My Master he has now left Maxim's and has joined Air France."

U.K. Iyer was supervising the mass-production of idlis in the Air France kitchen when I called on him.

"Oh, it is Raja Vishnu Sir, is it not?"  he asked happily.  "How nice it is to see you again!  It is a long time after we saw each other, is it not?"

"More than ten years, Iyer!"  I said.  "I was wondering what on earth had happened to you!  I am glad to see you're doing so well!"

 "God is great, Sir!  When Air France went vegetarian, I had a big break."

"Tell me something, Iyer!  I've been wondering what exactly happened to make the French people turn completely vegetarian.  Do you know anything about it?"

"Do I know anything, ha ha!"  Iyer laughed.  "Why, Sir, I had a big hand in it myself !  There was this World Vegetarian Conference in Delhi in 1977  --  you do not remember, do you?"

"Oh yes, I remember!  What happened there?"

"I had the catering contract for that conference, Sir.  By a strange coincidence, Master Cook Georges Aubriet had come to Delhi from Paris just then for the French Gastronomic Gala at the Oberoi Hotel.  The French delegates to the Vegetarian Conference invited him to taste my masala dosa, and it changed the whole philosophy of French cooking!....

"But all that is an old story, Raja Vishnu Sir!"  Udipi Krishna Iyer said.  "Now please tell me what you will have  --  Les Idlis a la Molagappodi de Madras, or Pongalle  avec de l'Avialle Keralaise?"


(In same order as in article)
Idli :  Small white ultra-soft pancake, cooked by steaming (and not frying) fermented batter made from rice and cereal powders
Dosa:  Slim and soft pancake, made by spreading rice-cereal batter thinly on metal pan, sprinkling edible oil around it and heating till it becomes crisp and brownish.  I had spelt it 'dossa' in the French menu, to avoid sounding 'doza'.  Idlis and dosas are staple South Indian dishes for breakfast or light evening snacks.
Tchutney :  French for Chutney  --  hot green chillis and shredded coconut, ground together to form a thick, salty paste.  Standard accompaniment for idlis and dosas. 
Masala/Massala:  Hot and salty side-dish, with potatoes and onions as main ingredients, often stuffed inside a folded dosa, which is then called 'masala dosa' 
Udipi:  Town in south-western State Karnataka, famous for classic restaurants serving legendary light dishes 
Samosa/Samossa:  Staple North Indian light dish, with potatoes, onions, peas and hot green chillis and spices, all stuffed inside pear-shaped covering of wheat batter, fried in edible oil till skin becomes crisp and crunchy   
Pantchquinne Marg:  Busy street in a business sector in New Delhi, with roadside shops selling samossas, among other things
Paratta:  Staple North Indian pancake, made from wheat dough 
Gali/Galie: Lane, in Hindi
Tchandi Tchaouc (Chandni Chowk):  Ancient and famous street in Old Delhi and adjacent lanes, lined with shops selling various goods, including sweets and savouries made on the spot
Raja Vishnu:  Pen-name I used when writing my Delhiberations column
Molagappodi :  Hot, spicy powder with a fine grainy texture, made by frying red chillis and cereals and grinding them together  --  usually made into a thick paste with a teaspoonful of edible oil, when serving with idlis.  A standard alternative to Chutney
Pongalle  (Pongal):  Salty dish of boiled rice, with a sprinkling of spices
Avialle (Avial):  Salty mixture of small boiled pieces of several vegetables (such as pumpkins, potatoes, yams, carrots, green beans, etc.), generously laced with coconut oil

Keralaise:  French for 'of Kerala'

Kerala:  A State on the south-west coast of India, whose capital city is Thiruvananthapuram.   (By the way, can you pronounce that?  If you have a problem, try Thiru-Vanantha-Puram.... there you are!)

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