I am a book worm, not a film buff. I prefer to weave words into worlds in my own mind, not have some hotshot director determine – nay, dictate – how I see a story. I read as I ride; pedalling on an exercise bike as I exercise my imagination. ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey‘ carried me through a fair few miles and have firm ideas about how people and places should look from the book.
But then I got an invite, and suddenly this film was looking like one well worth booking. The cast is as tasty as the tale it traces; starring Manish Dayal as our hero, Hassan, Om Puri as his father, and Helen Mirren as Madame Mallory – the owner of a rival restaurant in the French town they fetch up in, and the woman who first despises then realises Hassan’s talent by appointing him her apprentice.
The distance I covered in order to catch the preview performance of ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey‘ was far further than the distance of the titular trip. And now, having fallen for both the film and the lovely lead boy in a big way, I would urge you to fall all over yourself in order to see it for yourself when it hits cinema screens on 5th September.
Having witnessed Indian cooking of all types and at all levels as well as working in the wider world of food, the film’s themes seem particularly pertinent. Less and less does West seem best, and Desi delicacies are finally being seen as fine fare that’s fairly afforded as many accolades as European fine dining dishes.
In ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’, Hassan introduced Indian influences to French food; using spice to entice extra flavours from his ingredients. The unusual approach might strike one as being every bit as fictitious as the film, but I wondered – is Indo-French fusion really so extraordinary?
And then I wondered whether there was anyone better to ask about the issue than some of my mates who just so happen to be talented Indian chefs. So I did, and here’s what they had to say…
As a young chef, did you aspire to cook French/European food?
Indeed – and I was most interested in bakery and patisserie.
Saransh Goila, India’s youngest celebrity chef
French food was covered in the first semester of my Culinary course. Even before we were taught traditional Indian dishes, we were taught the basics of French cuisine. It did fascinate me, and I would often practice classical French items.
Palash Mitra, head chef, Scarfes Bar
At cookery school in India, we grew up reading about chefs like Marco Pierre White, the Roux brothers, Thomas Keller and Anthony Bourdain – many of us were keen to learn European cuisine.
Jay Ghosh, head chef, Potli
Certainly whilst at catering college in India, where French food was considered as especially upmarket. At that time, stand-alone French restaurants were a rarity outside the 5 star hotels.
Kanthi Thamma, head chef & co-owner, Curry Leaf Cafe
Yes – in fact my first position was at India’s very first Italian Restaurant at Taj Goa. I always found European desserts much more exciting than Indian sweets and discovered that some of the cooking techniques work really well when applied to Indian food. I continue to be driven to learn as much about the diverse cuisines of Europe as possible.
Do you think there are areas of India where the food uses similar ingredients or techniques to France?
All cuisines have an overlap. India’s yakhni palav – a meat and rice dish – uses reduction for the stock, and that technique is common to other dishes. Slow cooking is all the rage here now, and has always been so in classical Indian cuisine. Whilst Indians might not make Italian pasta, we do have a lot of similar items prepared like it but not known as such.
Frying , sauteeing, grilling, griddling, boiling and poaching are all common in both Eastern and Western cuisines. Do you know we also eat snails in Goa, and that India grows the best morels in Kashmir? Like the French, we too make great use of garlic, tomatoes, cream and butter.
Although we don’t subscribe to a strict course structure in most parts of the country, a few communities and individuals do follow one in Kolkata. Pondicherry also has a strong historical French influence on its food.
Yes – the town of Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) in South India was a major French colony, and some aspects of the food there displays notable use of French techniques – especially in the use of wine and herbs.
One can still see the French influences on Pondicherry. Baguettes and croissants with coffee for breakfast are common, and there are a wealth of boulangeries and patisseries. I also see French accents in the use of mustard paste used instead of seeds, and vinegar instead of lime. Curried mayonnaise is a perfect example of Indo-French, as are the ‘curry puffs’ which are a classic Indian afternoon tea time snack.
Are there any common themes between traditional French and Indian attitudes to food and cooking?
Indian housewives will only cook seasonally, and have a serious aversion to out-of-season produce. The family dining as a unit is very much an Indian habit too. All Indians believe that they and theirs is the best – this is total ignorance of all other cuisines from India itself. Just like the French, they find it difficult to accept or embrace other cuisines.
Firstly, both take their cuisines very seriously! The love of food is never ending. Also, both are very particular, precise and rigid in the way recipes should be followed. A lot of seasonal and local produce is used in both countries; and the refinement found in French sauces is similar to that in Indian curries.
The two have a lot in common. Both have very established base techniques, both depend on the flair of the individual cooking, and, most importantly, these two cuisines have for centuries been practised as an art form as opposed to a means of survival and sustenance sees in many other cultures.
Both countries have a very strong culinary heritage; the difference being that French cuisine was well-documented while India’s was more of word-of–mouth, passed on from one generation to the next. Both offer much regionality and diversity, although owing to successive historical invasions, Indian cuisine has necessarily assimilated more foreign influences than France.
Oh, yes. The French ‘gouter’ is similar to ‘chai time’ in India, where tea is offered with sweets and snacks. And local farmers markets selling fresh, locally-sourced items are common. Seasonal produce is bought, cooked and eaten on a daily basis, and there is little chance of small businesses being usurped by chain supermarkets in either country.
Which elements of Indian and French cuisines do you think are complementary, and which clash?
Certain dishes and techniques from both countries are very heavy. The cuisines are in tune in terms of freshness, local produce, and seasonality, and in using the entire animal including the well-liked offal. And of course, bread is quintessential to both cultures in whatever shape or form.
The cooking techniques can complement each other, as a lot of reduction, simmering and extraction takes place in both cuisines. Plating and presentation are straight clashes between the cuisines. Don’t forget – French cuisine is subtle to the core, and Indian cuisine is everything but subtle!
I do not think there is a ‘clash’… rather, it’s the fact that Indian cuisine is so – perhaps too – open to interpretation and compromise that has earned it an unjust reputation as lacking in the refinement of its European counterparts.
The shared importance of regionality, seasonality and terroir are complementary, whilst the varied and distinct spicing employed in an Indian kitchen can clash with the subtler elements and techniques involved with French cooking.
I feel that historical trade and economic migration means that the North African influence in France bears similarities to North Indian cooking. Dishes like Shorba are found in both cuisines, albeit in different forms. Both classical French and North Indian cooking uses large amounts of cream and butter.
Silky-smooth makhani and korma are good examples of sauces that remind me of French sauces – and many of the creamy European preparations can work well with a little spice added. Provencal tomato sauce is not so far removed from the tomato-garlic sauces used to cook vegetables in South India.
The Indian heavy hand with chilli and spice and the inclusion of myriad ingredients in a single dish clashes with French cuisine, as does the predilection in the latter for ‘lightly cooking’ items Indians prefer well-done. And the majority of India’s population is vegetarian whereas the French are traditionally committed carnivores.
Has your own cooking been influenced by French food? If so, is this in terms of technique, ingredients, mentality…?
My cooking has been greatly influenced by my training in Switzerland, the UK, and bits and pieces elsewhere in places like Thailand. That experience along with working alongside several different chefs gives me the excitement to keep playing. I use a lot of European produce, especially from Britain – often using ingredients that many fellow chefs may not.
The basic cooking techniques I learnt were all French in nature, so a lot of it does influence my cooking style. The way I blanch vegetables for Indian dishes is so French. There are some great things to learn from French technique that make it easier to prepare certain dishes correctly.
My cooking has definitely been influenced by both French cuisine and the chefs who have practised it for so long. One thing more than anything else I take from it is the discipline; that adherence to procedures and the particularity of refinement.
Not heavily, and I don’t try to mix up the ingredients. What I do tend to borrow from French cuisine are a few of the cooking methods and some of the classic combinations.
Definitely, I always cook vegetables al dente and blanch rather than boil. A la Minute is my favourite cooking technique. I went mushroom hunting in France and we cooked what we found that evening – that inspired me to create a new dish of fresh wild mushrooms in a sour and spicy tomato sauce for the Curry Leaf Cafe dinner menu.
Do you feel it is possible to retain very Indian flavour profile and the ‘jaan’ of a dish whilst presenting it in a modernised, European style?
That’s all down to the chef, Madam, all down to the chef. But many elements do get lost if you go down the elitist route, for sure.
It is possible. The only challenge is to declutter the dish. A lot of Indian food is crowded with flavourful elements. You can’t remove these elements from the dish, but you DO have to find a successful way to incorporate them all in new ways.
Many chefs are cleverly marrying these two cuisines. What Indian food may lack in terms of presentation is more than compensated for by its powerful flavours, fragrances and textures. To bring out the best of both worlds needs a good understanding of both French and Indian cuisines.
I do not think so. I am purist and will always remain so, although I have been privileged to work with classically-trained French chefs. People offer ‘French-style’ Indian dishes under the pretext of ‘modern Indian cuisine’ – but I don’t see the need. If the market demands it, one can probably take some inspiration….
Yes and no. True fusion can work, but if it’s just authentic Indian food in question then I don’t feel that European presentations work. Most great Indian curries include meat that’s slow cooked on the bone; allowing sauce, spice and meat to marry. When components are cooked separately and served fancifully in skimpy portions with sauce on the side, it’s just not the same.
Do you have any examples of past or current dishes that display this type of Indo-French fusion?
In the past we have had a fish feulliiate, baked from raw. We had xec xec – snails in xacutti sauce – on the menu… Plus far too many more to name, Madam. We regularly make many different things as you will know!
A few of my original recipes fit the bill – Chilli potato buckwheat crepes, Fennel Cottage Cheese Quiche, Panch Phoran Ratatouille and Cardamom creme brulee (incidentally, these four dishes combine to make the perfect post-Hundred-Foot Journey Indo-French feast 😉 – The Spice Scribe)
I wouldn’t say ‘fusion’, but some of my dishes like the Scarfes Bar club sandwich; chicken tikka with asparagus and poached egg; and mapalla duck salad with endive and duck egg Royale blend the best of East and West.
None at all; past or current.
Yes – one of our best-sellers at the Curry Leaf Cafe is our Pondicherry pork curry; slow-cooked pork in a mildly-spiced sauce flavoured with Dijon mustard.
What lessons could France learn from India about cooking and the joys of food, and vice versa?
The French need to learn that there are cuisines out there which are older and more established than theirs, which have a great history and include dishes designed to remain fresh even as they remain uneaten and unrefrigerated; dishes whose preparation involves a deep appreciation and understanding of science. Do not underestimate the intricacy and depth of Indian cooking!
I think French people already love food a lot, but they could take some influence from India in its use of spices and a few traditional cooking methods. Like in the film, I can imagine that the use of a single spice in a French dish would create something wonderful. There are so many possible permutations. Apart from that, I think Indian street food culture could and should be embraced.
The French could take a holiday, freewheel like their Indian counterparts for a little while… and spice up their lives in doing so!
I think India could teach France a thing or two about exciting vegetarian dishes and how to cater well for different dietary needs. In turn, India could get to grips with gentler cooking methods like blanching and steaming vegetables and lightly cooking protein. India should also embrace French patisserie and baking traditions – along with its delicious desserts.
A lot of food for thought to digest, I think you’ll agree. In closing, Palash pronounces; ‘It just amazes me that these two cuisines can have so much in common despite being separated by thousands of miles for many centuries!’
- Entertainment One UK will release The Hundred-Foot Journey nationwide on Friday 5thSeptember 2014.
- To view the official trailer, click here.
- To read a review of the book that inspired The Hundred-Foot Journey film, click here.
- To read about the French-influenced cuisine of Pondicherry, click here.
- To read about Cyrus Todiwala’s Portuguese-influenced Goan restaurant, Assado, click here.
- To read more about Palash Mitra’s cooking, click here.
- To read a review of Scarfes Bar, click here.