I was delighted to hear that the humble upma was one of the three dishes that won the Top Chef Masters competition for an Indian chef for the first time – a contest among established professional chefs in America. This was until I found out it was pitched as “Wild mushroom upma polenta with kokum and coconut milk”. It was no longer the humble upma. Mushrooms? Polenta? Did a Tamilian make it to Milan in the Middle Ages? Ta- Mil(i)an? As much as I love watching cooking competitions like Top Chef and Masterchef, I hate the way simple food has to be dressed up. It’s like switching a comfy pair of cotton knickers for flimsy lacy panties that ride up your bum. I understand that half the taste is in what your eye sees and your mind envisions but I think professional chefs can pay undue attention to description and presentation. Cooking techniques are dressed up in fancy French words, disguising their simplicity.
In the West, French cooking is held up as the great bastion of culinary arts. So describing your food as chicken braised in Mirepoix sounds bloody exotic until I looked up that Mirepoix is just onions, carrots, celery. It’s stock! Plain and simple. Or what about chicken ‘barded’ in bacon. Barded just means ‘covered’ or wrapped. My favourite is fillet of veal francese. Francese means dipped in flour and egg, breaded and fried. I do that with chicken breasts every other week. And all these chefs love to use ‘mache’ (pronounced Marsh). Mache is a mild lettuce. That’s all, lettuce. If you made a vichyssoise all you did was boil potatoes and leeks and puree them in a blender to make a thin cold soup. I’ve only eaten in one Michelin starred French restaurant in my entire life in London called Chez Bruce and it was a truly amazing dining experience so I can’t be too harsh on the French. But the reason I liked it is because the menu, the waiters and generous portions did not make me feel like a stupid Indian who didn’t know what Vichyssoise meant. The atmosphere was so unpretentious you didn’t feel like a phony. But the way these Top Chefs describe their teeny tiny portions of food is so annoyingly fake.
I admit that I am a cooking show addict. I love watching the competition shows, Top Chef on AXN (featuring chefs in the restaurant biz) and MasterChef Australia on Star World, MasterChef UK (featuring amateur home cooks) on BBC One and The Great British Menu also on the BBC. The challenges that the chefs are set are sometimes mind bending. While you may not actually replicate their recipes at home it’s a great creative exercise to figure out what you would make with a ‘Mystery Box’ of ingredients or the contents of just one aisle in a supermarket or how you would make a meal of one item from a snack vending machine. My roomate and I in London would watch the British MasterChef – a great production- and discuss what dishes we would make for that particular challenge and sometimes set each other our own challenges.
But I’m always disappointed by the lack of Indian contestants on TV shows such as Top Chef and MasterChef. With the vastness of our cuisine and treasure box of flavours what are we doing wrong? I suspect it’s the presentation of food and how we describe it. While the flavours might be sound we tend to just pile a nondescript looking brown or yellow gravy on to some rice or a roti. The two pictures below are the same dish but I think you can tell which is the Indian presentation and which is the western presentation.
And perhaps our food lacks “different textures” (i.e a crunchiness, a softness etc). We also incorporate a lot of different spices, which have to be balanced but which the white man does not always comprehend and complains that “there’s a lot going on there”. French cooking usually gets away with the holy trinity of Olive Oil, white wine and parsley. I’m all for keeping it simple but that’s not always the way we Indians cook. By the time you’ve spluttered the mustard seeds, curry leaves, red chillies added onions, garlic you’re already on to 5 ingredients and that’s without any powdered spices.
The judges on these shows want “layers of flavours” and I’m not sure they can always sense it especially when they themselves describe the food as curried chicken or when a recipe for an Indian dish on Top Chef says sprinkle curry powder. As an Indian I ask the western world what the hell is ‘curry powder’? I’d like to try some please. Just like I never tried Madras curry till I went to London. I’m from bloody Madras!! I recall a heated (drunken) discussion with two of my closest English friends – one who was against all Indian food from different Indian regions being generically called curry in England (the phrase, “Let’s go for a curry”) and the other saying that Indians themselves use the word, Mutton curry or Brinjal curry so why couldn’t the English. I for one was too drunk to take sides so I’ll let you ponder over that one.
So how is the Indian chef supposed to compete with these fancy French descriptions which combine the technique applied and the ingredients involved. I guess he could describe his prawn curry as a medley of powdered Indian spices in a coconut flavoured broth with fresh Kumarakom prawns. Maybe our humble dal could be braised yellow lentils tempered with mustard seed, cumin and tomato. Basically you have to make it sound like you did more than you actually did.
Season 7 of Top Chef has begun on AXN and I see not one Indian or Indian origin chef competing. What’s happening in America? Are all the Indians born in America doctors and accountants? And are all the Indian chefs imported from India too cocooned in their own Indian worlds to step out in to a competition. And why are there no Mexicans in these competitions, they practically run the kitchens in New York as Anthony Bourdain will tell you. The Puerto Ricans have hardly any luck on Top Chef either and crash out quickly. I do not know who won Top Chef 7 (they are on to Season 10 in the US) and I refuse to look it up but I hope that after all those white people and even a white woman Top Chef, that one of the 3 black people left in the contest can make it to the coveted spot. They have a black president – it’s time for a black Top Chef.
Indians that have migrated to the mother land – England- seem to fair better as professional chefs and many have made a name for themselves. Atul Kochar has been consistently giving the chefs from the South East of England a run for their money in the Great British Menu Challenge. But sadly the Indian version of MasterChef (featuring amateur home cooks) is an abysmal failure. Ajit Andhare, the chief executive of Colosceum, the programme’s production company, told Mint newspaper, “Adapting the international format to reflect Indian tastes was a big challenge. One problem was that Indians view food as meals, and not as single dishes.” But I think its failure has more to do with Masterchef India for a cookery show, is far too filmy and loud, with Akshay Kumar not making too much of an effort to tone down his filmy histrionics. Critics say that the show may not even really appeal to people interested in cooking as the recipes are not really out of the box and the contestants, mainly women, are seriously amateur lacking creativity and exposure to cuisines from other cultures. The women and their melodrama contribute to making the show a complete disappointment. Apparently the screening rounds for contestants to apply to the show were only held in Mumbai, Delhi, Lucknow, Indore, Ahmedabad and Jaipur. What happened to the entire south of the Vindhyas? Have Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh contributed nothing to Indian cuisine ? What about the Bengalis and the whole of Eastern India? It’s all for the precious TV ratings. Trust us Indians to botch up a cooking competition and fail to make it appeal to the whole country.
The third season of MasterChef Australia is starting on August 2nd on Star World and I can’t wait to see what challenges they have in store for us. This year I’m going to be a total geek and write down what I would make for each ‘Mystery Box’ challenge and then head to the kitchen to experiment. Let’s hope there are some Aussie Indians who can do us proud.