By Samir Shukla
We were watching a cooking show one evening.
The veggies were being karate chopped, stacked and sorted, and sent flying into pans. The chefs ran around like proverbial chickens with their heads lobbed off. The cameras panning this way and that way, with quick cuts and closeups. I guess that's needed to make a cooking show more exciting, like some kind of sporting event. It only made me dizzy, and hungry.
This was all being done in a “gourmet" kitchen.
Just as the sous chef was sousing something and the pastry chef was buttering something, a deep, philosophical question arose in my head. Who anointed the French as de facto masters of the culinary world? People from around the world go to France to “study" cooking.Cooking food is universal, whether done on open fires in a village or in gourmet kitchens. It's something done globally, multiple times every day. Cooking techniques are passed down through the generations, catalogued and occasionally refined. Yes, learning cooking methods outside of your familial background requires, well, learning. Culinary schools serve their purpose. And the French practically invented the concept of cooking schools. It then made its way to American shores.
This is all on Julia Child, an American who trained in France and famously brought French cuisine to America. Millions of housewives of the era tuned in to her TV shows and bought her books. Also, partners in this effort, Hollywood, with its ability to create iconic imagery, characters, and stories, quite a bit of it was France-centric. In the grand scheme of things, what America does, and adopts, the world does. So, you have the French school elevated to a sort of global standard.
Commonly used cooking-related terms: chef, cuisine, menu, sauté, braise, a la carte, entrée, hors d'oeuvres, gourmet, well you get my drift, are all French origin.
Ah, but let's face it, no French culinary school can cross knives with a Desi grandma or auntie or a dhaba cook and their time-softened and love-flavored cooking methods, passed down through generations and familial lines.
Time stands still as the mustard seeds begin popping in hot oil and pinches of spices begin their heated dance in the pan. This is where magic begins. The base is prepared. A thousand gourmet kitchens stand in awe as chopped veggies join in the fun to become a tasty dish. A classic, simple method used in India going back, likely, millennia. This is not cooking; it is food tradition, it is in the air, an uncodified technique and old-school flamboyance (dang it, another French origin word).
I'm convinced the French stole the idea of “Sauteing" from Desi pan frying. We just didn't give it a culinary name early enough or have a TV show or Hollywood making films like An American in Mumbai. Other “French" methods are also suspect.
No matter. Some of the best meals I've had were from food carts or hole in the wall joints or roadhouses and dhabas. Mom and pop joints. Along with home kitchens of friends and family. And that's that.
Don't need a Paris-trained chef and his crew of sub chefs to have an otherworldly food experience. Just channel old Indian tradition, heat some oil and melt some ghee and the air itself becomes an ingredient, and mouths begin to water. Happiness on Earth. This also holds true for Thai, Mexican, Italian, Cajun, and myriad other cultural kitchens and their particular traditions.
Cooking learned over time, honed, and passed down through generations, is the best culinary school of all. Restaurants, dhabas, kitchens, eateries, whatever you want to call them, are best when a sense of home-grown comfort is infused into the food, along with the plating and the Parisian fuss if you will. No disrespect to culinary schools, yes, there is art there, but sometimes the best food in the world is, well, less fussy.
What was grandma's kitchen but a utilitarian gourmet kitchen…spices at the ready nearby, pots hanging on walls, plopping down on the floor as a workstation, if needed, to chop veggies. Yeah, there was no huge refrigerator holding contemporary cooking needs. In her time, folks shopped and bought veggies and dairy on a daily basis. This was when fresh and organic were everyday items, not some type of elite food categories. Ghee was and is the hardy butter and cooking fat, and it doesn't require refrigeration. Her kitchen even had industrial strength ventilation. Just open the doors and the windows.
Later that night, I pondered further upon the purposeful pickiness of Parisian pots, pans, poaching, pairing, and plating so pervasive in our food preparation. I lay in bed, a lovely, single pan and belly satisfying meal cooked by my wife still comforting my entire being.
I slept and dreamt of cuisines, kitchens, and places where food is prepared everywhere. The unfathomable varieties of foods and methods of preparation, and perky chefs of dizzying cooking shows, swirling around in my head.
The next morning, I woke and cradled my mug of hot masala chai.
For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why I also craved a croissant.