Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cuisines of the World (or how I cook my vegetables)

I have frequently pointed out to my long-suffering French friends and collaborators that the quality of a nation's cuisine is a monotonically decreasing function from East to West. Start from South East Asia, China, India, move progressively westwards towards Western Europe ending finally at its nadir, the United Kingdom, and you will know what I mean (to my admittedly prejudiced tastes). Since on this travel, France appears just before the nadir, my view cannot be expected to please the Gauls with their fierce pride in their cuisine.

Mistake me not. A lot of fresh meat and fish preparations grilled or pan fried or roasted taste wonderful, with little or no assistance from spices. (I am actually quite a fan of Japanese food, a large part of which dispenses with cooking altogether :-). It's nice to feel the original flavours of the meat or fish, without it being submerged by a ton of spices, oil and other greasy ingredients which is often the fate of 'Non-Veg food' in Indian Restaurants. However, since in my view it is far more challenging to make good vegetarian food than meat or fish, I think a country's cuisine should be weighed against its ability to deal with vegetables in attractive ways. And here, regrettably the West does not fall flat on its face, it is completely comatose from the start.

All this and more flitted through my mind while having dinner in the CERN cafeteria yesterday. The CERN canteen is really one of the best I have seen in any academic institute or centre. The choice is large at lunch time - at least 6 - 7 hot platters consisting of everything from meat, fish, pasta, as well as an exotic 'Wok' corner offering some version of Thai/Indian meat and veggie curries, stir-fried vegetables and meat Chinese style and so on. It has a large salad bar and a truly wonderful collection of desserts (pies, tarts, flans, gateaux, mousse, pastries, tortes, ...). In fact in the matter of desserts, I truly feel the West beats the East hollow with its profusion of flavours and styles. (Yes, I know as a 'Bong' I am not supposed to say such things, but ....). However dinner is frequently depressing. The little hot food that is available disappears fast and as it happened yesterday, I was reduced to the mercy of the salad bar. And this is where I started thinking these hard thoughts which have culminated in this post.

First of all, whatever cold cuts there were, were polished off by a large Russian just in front of me in the queue. So what were the options -- corn which you picked up and it dripped water, broccoli which you picked up and it dripped water, peas which you picked up (you got it, it dripped water!). String beans, well, ok you have got the idea. Even the shredded tuna had been boiled in water. What kind of cuisine is this that only knows to boil? I picked up some grated carrot (wrong! it did not drip water - that's because it was raw and grated) and some grated radish. (Even some lentils, essentially whole masoor, was available just boiled). I challenge anyone (including any Westerner) to truly admit that shoveling grated carrot into your mouth (even with some dubious dressing on it) is an exciting culinary journey. Only if you are convinced that with every crunch, truckloads of vitamins and minerals are being poured into your bloodstream can you put up with such an experience. Occasionally some small slivers of ham and bacon are added to the peas to enliven them - not only does it do nothing to the overall taste, it also puts it out of bounds for the poor vegetarians.

Spinach is another wonder vegetable. Can there be anything as sad as a soggy mass of coarsely chopped greens with tendrils dripping water? Is it any wonder that the West has to resort to artifices like Popeye cartoons to make children eat their spinach? My heart goes out to all those kids like Calvin who have to eat those gooey blobs on their plates. (It's so easy to liven up spinach - add some cumin seeds, chopped garlic, a few dried red chillies to hot oil, add coarsely chopped spinach, stir fry for some time, add some salt and allow it to cook in its own juices and voila, you are done! You could add onions along with the garlic, though I don't). The French do a mean creamed spinach but that's just a way of making something attractive by adding a fat based ingredient to it - a bit like Russian salad.

Ok, ok, I know. Salads are GOOD for you (don't get me started on the lettuce obsession) and Indians just don't eat enough fresh vegetables and fruits. But surely it must be possible to eat healthy without boiling!

I think I will rest my case here. I do hope all those vegetables I consumed did wonders to my health. It did nothing to my mood....


AmOK said...

As Italian my friend once advised when I was travelling to the UK -- if you get hungry, Italy is nearby. Indeed you have projected the world's cuisine onto your personal palate. Boiled vegetables can be good - if not overcooked and before they are allowed to become soggy.

As a Bong, you must do community service for your thoughtless comment about Western desserts having a lead in the profusion of flavours and styles. Visit your local "Bengal Sweet House" and then try the rest of the country as well. Okay maybe "Chennai Sweet House" is all you can find, but nevertheless. Perhaps you hang out with the wrong crowd of Bongs and this clouds your judgment.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I'd say it's south-north rather than east-west. Italy and other Mediterranean regions are pretty good for vegetarian fare, as is Mexico. North African cooking, or what I've had of it, is quite interesting too. Most of the better (or better-known) American cooking comes from its southern states. Meanwhile, Canadian, Scandinavian and Russian cooking are nearly unknown elsewhere... (I did see "poutine" in a Chennai coffee shop, but I suspect it's rather far from the genuine article.)

Rahul Basu said...

Indeed I had not considered a passage through the other two cardinal points. And while what you say is indeed true (does it have to do with the average ambient temperature of the place?), my personal preference with regard to Indian food is the North, which is why I did not follow up on this direction!