My mother is a fantastic cook and has haather taar, as the Bengalis say. But the taar in her haath have some microscopic coverage drops: her tindas could taste a lot better than they do and she has never really mastered the art of cooking fish. Her fish pie (basically, fillets of fish in a mucoid white sauce) has made many grown men weep. There were brief talks on between her and the caterers at Guantanamo Bay regarding transfer of the recipe.
And she cannot cook omelettes.
They are either too runny and weepy and utterly gross-making or totally dry and desiccated and taste of nothing as much as corrugated board. Daddy used to have names for both these varieties when we were kids based on popular Hindi film mothers at the time. Is it Nirupa Roy with the waterworks or Lalita Pawar, the dried-up witch? he used to ask with a wink at the breakfast table.
The inability to cook omelettes well is a horrible allegation to level at anyone, but really, my mother’s omelettes are godawful. However, we, her family, have always looked upon her spectacular failure in the omelette department in the larger context of her incredible cooking skills and likened it to the tiny flaw that Persian carpet weavers deliberately introduce to their patterns, in acknowledgment of the fact that true perfection is beyond human endeavour.
Because the truth is that a good omelette is better than perfection—it is poetry. Even the simplest one, maybe especially the simplest one, made with just a few beaten eggs, some salt and some fat, can be light, soul-satisfying, rich and flavourful. It can be whipped up in a matter of minutes, can be dressed up or dressed down to suit the occasion and the preference and greed levels of the diner. And tastes pretty damn divine if done right.
And therein lies the rub. What exactly is “done right?” Is there a universal “omelette-done-rightness” meter that one can use as a standard against which to measure all efforts? Or does it all lie in the palate of the diner? (In other words, is there a parallel universe in which a Nirupa Roy is hailed as the standard bearer of how all good omelettes should be?)
In the West, the debate on what makes the perfect omelette has centred on what ingredients to use and the technique used to cook it. On what to use to make it light and fluffy while still not losing the flavour of the eggs, there are different views. Larousse Gastronomique advocates the addition of a teaspoonful of milk to the beaten eggs while Elizabeth David, the renowned British writer who helped popularize and demystify French food, prefers adding water. (While it might seem as if the water will make the eggs runny, the theory is that when it hits the pan, the water evaporates and forms steam pockets, thereby aerating the already fluffy eggs just that little bit more.) Many renowned chefs have weighed in on this what-to-add debate and while some favour one and some another, most have said in polite chef-ly terms that adding anything is bollocks and the best results always come from just good fresh eggs, well beaten.
The other part of the omelette mystique is the technique: the classic French way of cooking omelettes is, of course, swirling butter in a pan till it starts foaming and then adding the beaten seasoned eggs to it till a skin is formed and then shaking the pan vigorously so that the layer gets incorporated back into the mix. Each of these “skins” is referred to as a lamination. In classic French cooking, seven laminations folded in a half-moon shape, so that the egg butter mix is just set but still has a silky mouth feel when cut open – voilà – makes for the perfect omelette!
This, of course, is the Anglo-French ideal with just some good cheese or some prime ham or earthy musky mushrooms as filling. And glorious these omelettes are too: eat one and the world shifts microscopically on its own axis and everything settles down to become just so. If Daddy were around to christen them, he would call them the Jennifer Lawrences of the omelette world: accessible yet sophisticated, elegant yet full of oomph.
But wonderful as these are, these aren’t OUR omelettes, the quintessentially Indian omelettes we have all grown up on, the ones we have stories about, the ones whipped up at home by Cook Bhaiya every morning, or the ones we ate wrapped up in a bun at college (bun anda, anyone?). These aren’t the omelettes we giggled drunkenly and greedily over at roadside paratha joints or the ones we made for ourselves when we stumbled home dead with exhaustion after an all-nighter at the office, or the ones that literally saved our lives when we were dying of hunger in a remote village in Ladakh.
No, our omelettes may not have any acquaintance with butter (refined oil is the name of the beast), and our eggs may be only cursorily whipped, and they wouldn’t know a lamination unless it was on the table upon which they were eaten, but they score over the classical French ones simply because they are classically us.
First, there’s the taste. Our default option in flavour is always the one we are most familiar with. Enter, stage left the desi omelette, with onions, tomatoes, green chillies, hara dhania, all either whipped in with the eggs or scattered when the egg mix hits the pan. The more ambitious ones also have julienned ginger, red chilli flakes, diced garlic...anything that’s handy in the Indian cook’s tool box. Second, there’s just sheer numbers: for every one fluffy omelette with cheese and ham and mushrooms that we have eaten there will be at least 200 delicious and resolutely un-fluffy desi masala omelettes that we will have scarfed down.
And finally there’s the mythology around the omelettes we love which has nothing to do with the freshness of the eggs or the addition of water or milk to the mix. It’s where we ate them and how we ate them and how old we were and how they made us feel. A friend talks of how her mother made the most yummy omelettes haphazardly thrown into her skillet everyday with the most inventive fillings: shredded bits of chicken from pieces no one ate, some leftover Bikaneri bhujiya, boiled potatoes diced and pre-tossed in spices and achar spices as a rub on the inside. Another omelette that would have the French shuddering was the one routinely cooked by a friend’s Konkani cook: in a wok and with equal parts oil to egg mix and a mixture of fiery flavours and spices, including but not limited to leftover keema or chicken and, improbably enough, schezuan curry paste! Another friend swears the best omelettes she has eaten were in her mother’s omelette curry: A thin gravy of onions and tomatoes in which potatoes were first cooked and when done, an already cooked masala omelette would be added to the gravy. This would be eaten with rice.
For me, my all time favourite omelettes would have to be the ones in the omelette sandwich sold for years at the ONGC canteen in Express Towers in Mumbai. A limp, pallid blonde omelette would be imprisoned between two slices of resolutely white bread, the whole caboodle looking distinctly greasy and inedible. But when you bit into it, it was heaven: The canteen cooks used equal parts diced onions and green chillies to fleck the egg mix and contrasted with the sweetness and woolliness of the white bread, it tasted like Diwali and Dussera were both being celebrated in your mouth at the same time. No amount of tinkering about in my own kitchen has managed to replicate that perfect marriage of greasy yummy mirchi woolly limpness.
Vikram Doctor, food writer with the most obscure and extraordinarily delicious food facts in the world, talks of the Siachen Omelette, much beloved of Indian soldiers serving in the icy glacier. It is essentially a masala omelette stuffed with cooked Maggi. Of all the omelettes I have not yet eaten, this is the one I am drawn to most helplessly. More than the ones with shaved truffles and foie gras and runny organic cheeses, the Siachen Omelette’s the one that sounds absolutely, blindingly brilliant. Now that Maggi’s back in the market, I’m just off to make one for myself.
That’s a win-win if there ever was one: I get to eat the omelette I am salivating after while showing my support for our heroic troops on the border as well. And that, like the perfect omelette, is unbeatable.