Years ago, Paris-based filmmaker and novelist Vijay Singh recalls taking an Indian friend to a dinner at a French friend’s house. “When the main dish arrived, I turned to him and asked, ‘Is the steak okay for you?’ He smiled and said, ‘Excellent’. A minute later, he muttered from behind his napkin, ‘Rest is fine, it just needs a little chhaunk’” (an Indian mode of tempering to release the flavours of spices).
This delightful little anecdote illustrates how differently French and Indians view food. At first look (and taste), the two culinary cultures couldn’t be more different. French food seeks its inspiration, taste and aroma from herbs, while Indian food has a clear preference for spices. French food is minimalist, defined by lightness of taste — just a touch of aromatic herbs here and there, as though to extend the naturality of the food. Indian cuisine uses an abundance of spices that are stronger in taste, and, perhaps, even appearance. The reasons for this could well be ecological. People from sun-soaked climates need strong spices, while in colder countries, a touch of aroma and taste is enough for things to be edible.
Whether at home or at the restaurant, a French meal will have a starter, a main course and a dessert. Although courses exist in certain cuisines like Bengali, the concept is not that common across India. A key difference between the two worlds also lies in how sharing food is perceived. French eat single portions in an individually plated dish. Indians mostly eat family style, with shared dishes. Indians don’t take time over their meals, though the preparation of food takes a long time. This is quite the opposite in France, where preparation will be faster, but time around the table longer.
With such dissimilar cuisines and cultural attitudes to food, it’s not surprising that barring a few exceptions — like Bistro du Parc in New Delhi and the now-closed Zodiac Grill in Mumbai — French eateries have been virtually non-existent in India. However, there seems to be a new interest in French food, thanks to the efforts of a new wave of chefs and restaurateurs. Bengaluru has been in the midst of a French food boom since the last few years, with the opening of eateries like Café Noir, La Casse-Croute (a food truck that specialises in French-style sandwiches) and Pierre — Artisan Bakery. In Mumbai, chef Alexis Gielbaum is leading the way with his recently opened Slink & Bardot in Worli, a French-themed eatery that jettisons fine dining in favour of small plates and an expanded cocktail menu. Even chef Hemant Oberoi, who helmed Zodiac Grill for 25 years till it shuttered in 2015, has included French classics like brie and truffle soufflé in his eponymous Mumbai diner.
But, are there no meeting grounds between Indian and French cuisines, then? If gastronomy is based on an intimate knowledge of the alchemy of flavours, then the schematic differences between Indian and French cuisine do not run like two parallel lines. Both cultures are passionate about food, both can be wonderfully indulgent and both are sophisticated. The refinement of French cuisine is well-documented, but Indian cuisine is no less artful. Take the case of the Kashmiri goshtaba, made with hand-pounded meat, which takes all day to prepare. It’s as refined, if not more, than any French meat dish. Moreover, leading modern Indian restaurants like Indian Accent are now setting new benchmarks of sophistication in fusion food.
Perhaps, the biggest point of convergence is the inclusive, cosmopolitan character of both cuisines. French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, while praising the Parisian table in The Physiology of Taste, does not ascribe its virtues to an indigenous French character. He lists which ingredients come from France, which from England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Africa, Holland and America, and concludes: “A meal such as one can eat in Paris is a cosmopolitan whole in which every part of the world makes its appearance by way of its products.”
Likewise, India has a famed and well-documented history of multi-culturism. In her wonderful book, Fasts and Feasts, A History of Food in India, Colleen Taylor Sen describes India as one of the world’s first global economies. “From the time of the Indus Valley civilisation in the third Millennium BCE, it was the centre of a vast network of land and sea trade routes that were a conduit for plants, ingredients, dishes and cooking techniques from and to Afghanistan, Persia, Central Asia, the Middle East, China, Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago.” The spread of Buddhism and Jainism, which altered the diet of Indians with their concepts of ahimsa or non-violence, the advent of the Mughals, who brought the Persian and Muslim influence to Indian cuisine and refined it with their legendary royal feasts, and the arrival of Europeans who introduced ingredients like tomatoes, potatoes and chillies to the land added layer upon layer to India’s culinary palimpsest.
So, what can the two cuisines learn from one another? Plenty. Instead of hankering for imported products, we should value our own biodiversity and traditions much like the French, who have elevated their produce and culinary traditions to an art form. We would do well to monitor the feed of our cattle to improve the quality of our meat and grow our vegetables with more care. As Gielbaum vouches, “If the ingredients improve, the whole dish improves.”
The French are masters of minimalism and subtlety. Their obsession with details, like how to serve a dish and at what temperature, is a lesson in precision, not to forget the fine art of food and wine pairing. Their less-is-more approach focusses squarely on the quality of the produce. “We don’t like to interfere with it. If it’s red meat, we’ll just do a jus from the bone and carcass. It’s simple but full of flavour and it complements the meat. If you have an intelligent pairing with a garnish, that’s pretty much it,” says Gielbaum.
France should also motivate us to build a better cold chain to preserve fragile foods, believes Yann Auffray, a digital marketing executive in Mumbai, who experimented with a French pop-up called Bistronomie in the city a few years ago. “The first bacteria coming into a product like unpasteurized cheese will spoil it, and you can get very sick from eating it. In India, things get complicated because there is no reliable cold chain.”
Being among the first cuisines of the world, each Indian region has cooked the same recipe for centuries and perfected it. Indians can teach the French to appreciate complexity and balance in food. Remember the unexpected flavour combination Hassan uses to impress Madame Mallory in 100 Foot Journey when he cooks beef bourguignon spiced with ginger, cumin and Aleppo pepper and tweaks the recipe for bechamel sauce by lacing it with saffron?
Restaurateur Camellia Panjabi, who turned around the flagging fortunes of the Taj Hotel in the 1960s, believes the French would benefit from expanding their vegetarian repertoire. “With the recent recession, even the French are not finding it possible to serve steaks or large meat portions in their restaurants. This is one area the French can take a cue from Indians,” she says.
At a broader level, French culinary culture could learn to be more liberal and also imbibe some of the warmth of Indian hospitality. Krishnendu Ray, head of food studies department, New York University, believes India can teach the French about not taking their national propaganda about cuisine too seriously and gave more importance to regional traditions. “The best food is almost always regional. At the level of the nation, it is usually institutional food,” he argues.
In a globalising world, cultures can no longer think of their cuisines in monolithic terms. As Gielbaum says, “Fifteen years ago, there was a chef and there was a recipe book. Now, in the age of Facebook and Instagram, the volume of information is so dense and travels so fast that you can no longer relate to just one country, region or technique in terms of food.” In fact, such cross-cultural interactions have become vital in a rapidly shrinking planet as we transition from what Ray calls “univorism (only my kind of food) to omnivorism (my and other people’s food).”