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The soufflé always rises
Bhicoo Manekshaw was a true lover of parsley, sage and rosemary but especially Basil & Thyme. Her delicious food was matched by her attitude - as Indira Gandhi found out.
The day Bhicoo Manekshaw opened Basil & Thyme, her cafê in New Delhi, the power went off. She had planned to make a beer cake for the opening, but now the oven was dead. Another chef might have had a meltdown, but not her. On the spot she invented a beer soufflê that didn't need baking that was so good that she got many compliments. A foreign lady told her she had never tasted a beer soufflê anywhere else in the world before. "Naturally! Where else would the electricity go dead on a restaurant, " Mrs Manekshaw later wrote tartly.
Mrs Manekshaw, who passed away earlier this week, was made for moments like this. Cooking food to the standard she had learned at the Cordon Bleu school in London within Indian constraints, variable ingredients, vanishing infrastructure and servants who could subvert her trick of adding a few drops of vanilla essence to coffee by adding a full spoon were just things she took in her stride. She knew that if your basic techniques were sound you could pull off almost anything, and it didn't hurt to have an attitude that could command respect even from Indira Gandhi.
That occasion also involved a soufflê. It was at a dinner organised by Mrs Gandhi's personal secretary and the main course was a hot lobster soufflê, so timing was vital or it would collapse. Mrs Gandhi was known for being punctual, but this time she was late - it was during the Emergency, so there must have been many reasons for her delay. Mrs Manekshaw lowered the oven temperature and hoped for the best, but then when Mrs Gandhi arrived she came to the kitchen to ask about the soufflê. This further delay, while well-intentioned, was too much for Mrs Manekshaw who told her sternly: "Madam Prime Minister, a hot soufflê will not wait even for a prime minister. Please go in so I can have dinner served. " The PM took the reproof well, only insisting that Mrs Manekshaw join them at the table.
This story is told in Feast of Love, a book of 50 menus that clearly summed up Mrs Manekshaw's views on food and life. Outside her reputation for catering in New Delhi, she had made her name with a meticulously researched book on the food of her Parsi community. It is an excellent book, detailing precisely all the different types of akoories, or scrambled egg dishes, and all the other hearty, delicious dishes of Parsi cuisine. But Feast of Love was about the food she had learned at Cordon Bleu, and which she served at Basil & Thyme, and which really seemed closest to her heart.
It is the style rather disparagingly called 'conti' today - its all-embracing sweep of European continental cooking seen as out of date at a time when we boast about how authentically Italian or Spanish or Greek we can be. French haute cuisine which formed the basis for the Cordon Bleu and the culinary system followed in most top hotels and restaurants is seen as outmoded, fussy, heavy, and unhealthy. But in this list of liabilities, one fact gets left out - it can be utterly delicious if done well, and doing it well was what Mrs Manekshaw was about.
This automatically meant using only the best, freshest products. Mrs Manekshaw's cooking classes started with taking her students to the market and teaching them how to shop. This is the step many cookbooks ignore, and many chefs do too, content to use what importers or purchase departments give them. But Feast of Love starts with a long section, worth the price of the book in itself, where she details things like how to tell beef from buffalo meat or how to press corn to make sure it is full of fresh milky juice. This is then followed by detailed instructions on how to prepare these ingredients, way before one gets to actual recipes.
This could be hard for her students. Mrs Manekshaw tells of how as the young Air Force wife (her husband, a surgeon, started the Institute of Aerospace Medicine), she was persuaded to give cooking lessons. She started by saying there could be no shortcuts in things like making stock that was essential for soups and sauces, but one girl said she couldn't be bothered and would use water instead. Mrs Manekshaw handed her the fees she had paid, "pointed at the door and told her that with her attitude, there was no place for her in this class". It is a measure of how her firmness was compelling, but not off-putting, that the girl stuck on - always making stock - and became her best student.
The food wasn't heavy either, as anyone who ate at Basil & Thyme knew. It was almost a spartan place, very simple dêcor and just a few dishes on the menu, all served without the extra embellishments that restaurants love adding on. Yet everything was absolutely delicious and people went back there for the simplest things - perhaps the best quiches you could get in India, flaky and crumbly, but not greasy, liver pate that was rich with taste, but not cloying, the most flavourful soups. It felt never remotely unhealthy, even if Mrs Manekshaw had little patience for endless obsessions over food and diet.
One thing annoyed her in particular - the dislike of chicken skin which is both peculiar to Indian chefs, who usually insist on removing it before cooking, and to health freaks, who abhor the fat that sticks to its underside. But as she pointed out, this fat was what prevented chicken drying out while it cooked and also contained a lot of the real flavour of chicken. Without it all you got was the bland, textured protein that tasted of nothing.
She was pragmatic though, as an experienced caterer and cookbook author, to realise that some things must be accepted, whether it is was a power cut or fussy guests. When a daughter's boyfriend rejected one of her perfect omelettes, set golden outside but still a bit gooey inside, because he said it was not cooked enough, she wrote that she mentally subtracted two points for him, but just offered him fruits instead. But in Feast of Love she showed her spirit by giving a recipe for an omelette stuffed with mushrooms and crisp fried chicken skin. She wrote: "Do not for a moment think that you will put on weight - with all that frying, the fat melts away, leaving behind a crispy delight. "
Health purists would still frown, but I can't think of a better tribute than cooking a chicken skin omelette à la Mrs Manekshaw this weekend.
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