A TV chef in my soup
Blame it on my residence away from Mumbai and Delhi, or my lack of patience with Indian food television but, before I read this book, I had very little idea about Ranveer Brar. That probably puts me in a minority of one but, honestly speaking, whenever I encountered his photos and interviews, I’d mentally congratulate his PR machinery and turn the page, bracketing him with a bunch of pretty-boy TV chefs who used their looks rather than their skills to make a mark on the food scene.
Yes, that’s pretty judgemental (hey, I don’t review TV shows) but I tried to shed my blinkers when I approached this book. First thought: There are too many photos of the chef: in a Sikh pagdi at Golden Temple, striking a pose at the Institute of Hotel Management, Lucknow, praying over a meal. As if uncomfortably aware of the rockstar overload but unsure how to not showcase its USP, the photos are toned down in black-and-white. Unfortunately, the reproduction recalls 1970s newspaper photos more than the underplayed glamour of the decade.
Second thought: What’s with the names of the dishes?! Nawabi quesadillas? Idli prawn Sandwich with Tender Coconut Salsa? Melon Rice Paper Rolls with Salty Singdanechya Kutt? I did a double take and cast the book aside for a few weeks. It was on a rather idle afternoon that I picked it up again and dipped in randomly—straight into an account of Brar’s early life, apprenticing as a 16-year-old with Munir Ustad, a kebab vendor in Lucknow.
Okay, this is interesting.
A few pages later, I encountered a schematic diagram, something like a food pyramid. But this is actually Brar’s own “Hierarchy of Taste”, modelled on American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Perhaps it should’ve been called Hierarchy of Food, given that taste forms the bottom rung, topped by flavour, texture, appearance and aroma. Whether you buy into it or not—given that so much about food, cooking and eating is intensely un-didactic—it is certainly an interesting breakdown of the composition of a professional dish.
What one does appreciate, though, is Brar’s completely non-academic approach: His language is conversational (so much so, I repeatedly got the feeling that he “spoke” the book, and didn’t write it) and he uses it to simplify complex ideas. There’s not too much exploration of the “why” factor—for instance, why a chocolate truffle cake straight out of the fridge won’t be as tasty as one at room temperature—but that is possibly a lacuna only food-science nerds will spot.
For the rest, though, Brar’s demolition of the silos of cuisines, flavours, pairings, will be quite eye-opening. In fact, if you can get past the mindbending names of his dishes and translate them into one language —call the Shirred Bhaji Per Eedu with Bacon Twists something like ‘Baked Eggs with Fenugreek and Bacon’, for instance, or give the Melon Rice Paper Rolls with Salty Singdanechya Kutt a straightforward name, like ‘Thai Salad Parcels with Dry Peanut Chutney’—the recipes offer a glimpse of an unconventional thought-process and an inquisitive mind.
A downside to the recipes though is the commercial-kitchen approach: The use of bits and pieces of one-off ingredients such as nachni flour or beansprouts or curry powder — you get the idea. I went through the entire book looking for a recipe I could cook with ingredients I had handy, and I found only this one: Quinoa Upma with Kerala Mushroom Ishtew. It made for a fine weekday dinner (though I almost didn’t add salt to the ishtu since the instructions don’t mention it). The ishtew was a riff on a pretty basic Kerala ishtu. The quinoa is a sexy touch but, really, roasted semolina or foxtail millet would’ve worked as well.
Quinoa Upma with Kerala Mushroom Ishtew
Half cup white quinoa
1 cup water
1 juice of lemon
1 tsp olive oil
Half tsp mustard seeds
Half tsp cumin seeds
Half tbsp Bengal gram (chana dal)
2 tbsp onion, chopped
1 green chilli, finely chopped
1tbsp ginger, grated
1 sprig curry leaves
Salt to taste
2 tbsp green coriander leaves, fresh, finely chopped
For the Kerala Mushroom Ishtew
250g mushroom, washed, thickly sliced
1 tsp coconut oil
2 stalks curry leaves
1 onion, finely sliced
1” piece ginger, chopped
2 cloves garlic
6 green chillies, slit
Half tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala
2 cups coconut milk
Handful of green coriander leaves, chopped
Salt to taste
Cook the quinoa according to instruction on the package. Add the lemon juice and then fluff using a fork.
Heat the oil in a pan. Add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds, allow to splutter. Add the Bengal gram; stir-fry until golden brown. Add the onion and stir-fry. Add the green chilli, ginger and curry leaves, sauté till fragrant.
Season with salt and add a little water to prevent the mixture from burning.
Add the cooked quinoa in small batches and stir well with each addition.
When all the quinoa has been added, cook on low heat for 2 minutes until warmed through. Garnish with chopped coriander. Keep covered and warm.
For the Kerala Mushroom Ishtew
In a frying pan, heat the coconut oil. Add the curry leaves and quickly fry till fragrant. Add the onion and sauté for a minute. Add the ginger, garlic and green chillies; stir-fry for a minute. Add the coriander powder and garam masala; sauté till fragrant.
Then add the mushrooms and sauté till it releases water and then reduces in quantity by half.
Pour in the coconut milk and stir to combine.
Remove from heat and add the chopped coriander leaves.
Serve hot with the quinoa upma.