Feature: Food and the Man
Food and the Man
“Mealtimes,“ pronounces the man with the air of an oracle, “should be Sybaritic.“ I reflect that Arundhati Roy would love this gent, He Who Speaks in Capitals. I am in the august company of The Man Who Can Cook Anything, the Garden City’s Epicure Number One, henceforth to be delineated as E1.
He’s tossing salad for me, an artful concoction of kidney beans, baby spuds, mushrooms and beet ringing a mound of fresh prawns draped in mayo as light as air. His ponderous manner belies the quicksilver movements of his beringed hands as he dices, peels, minces, reaches for dressing from the stone urns and jars neatly ranged behind him on a stone ledge, all the while talking. The Man, I am to discover, loves talking almost as much as he loves cooking.
“Mealtimes should be a time for Inspired Food, Intelligent Conversation, some Laughter, little Rambles to explore one’s surroundings. And the time to linger over a Superior Wine.“
He turns towards me, but I cannot reply. My mouth is full and my mother has taught me never to speak with my mouth full. The prawns slowly start to fill the insides of my mouth with its distinct flavour. I start to feel light-headed.
“Here, take a bite of this quichelet.“ E1 pushes a richly garnished slice of flan towards my already outstretched fingers. “I have Problems,“ he intones sonorously. “You just don’t get good enough cheese here. What passes off as Mascarpone or Provolone … pah! I have to Make Do.“
It is clear Making Do isn’t really cramping his talent. The melted cheese has glued my lips together in the tradition of the old-fashioned nougat toffee. I give the man a cheesy smile, which I hope is evocative enough.
The gastronome pulls down a big pan from the collection of smoke- blackened pots and pans he has hanging just above his head, and warms the soup for the day. “I love cooking for Small Numbers of People,“ he announces in a weighty manner. “That way, you get to enjoy both Food and Conversation. One complements the other, you know.“
I do know, I’m at the receiving end of both. Except, I’m sipping at my soup now and can’t reply. It is lentil soup, the common or garden dal soup given such a tangy flourish that I am hard put to say `kaise ho` to it. I can distinguish sage, thyme, parsley and a small host of others which my philistine tongue delights in.
He then takes a deep breath. “We are now about to have some of my spinach-based lasagna.“ I choke on a reply and smile limpidly; spinach is the stuff of my nightmares, the vegetable my mother used to force down my throat when I was a child and as for lasagna, I have a history with lasagna…it`s been a string of bummer relationships at most restaurants from Cuffe Parade, Mumbai to Carmel, California.
Inside of three minutes, I am forced to eat my thoughts, along with the first mouthful of a clever folding of pasta and Popeye’s staple veggie. The Man has applied his celebrated light touch to the dish and that has not only saved it from a tasteless demise, it has transformed the lasagna into a marvelous entrée. I reach for a second helping.
“You are a Mallu, so the main course is fish,“ E1 says now, with a dramatic flourish. “Malayalis love fish. I know.“ He nods his head in sage manner. “We often get people who like good food but rarely do I find an Adventurer, a Ranulph Fiennes of Food. “ He sighs sadly and I hastily compose my features into a look that combines sympathy with all the delight of a gourmandizing adventuress. I devoutly hope I don’t look like a victim of a sudden stomach spasm instead.
The Man is not looking at me, however. This is E1 in moralizing mode and you cannot stem the tide, all you can do is savour the nuggets that come your way. “We are a Race forever in a Hurry,“ he says. “ We are on Perpetual Diets. We stick to Safe Bets when we eat out. We never try anything new. A whole new world of Good Food is closed to he who will always order butter chicken. Yes?“
I can’t reply, I’m on a fish high. The flesh is so tender, it falls off my fork like autumn leaves drifting down from the treetops, with a faint sizzling sound. The butter binding the fish adds a cachet all its own and I’m hard put not to slurp.
“I want to write a Book,“ The Man says to me, over dessert. On food I presume, I want to say in an astute and clever manner but dessert is a lemon chiffon pie topped by a curl of sour cream. It is the kind of dessert you don’t insult by indulging in talk.
He carries on, “It’s going to be a Thriller. Lots of Blood, Gore, Sex and Violence.“ He exhales noisily and happily at the thought.
It has been a five-hour meal. Sybaritic as hell. But I have to go now.
“It was Great having you here, “ says The Man, turning on the charm in lethal manner. It’s like a knife going through mousse. “I really enjoyed your Conversation. It is important to meet People with Informed Minds and Wit.“
Mouth open rather like a goldfish, I stare fuzzily at him. But I don`t say anything. You don’t join issue with a man who cooks like this. Not if you want to eat at his place again.
Author’s TBT note: This piece was inspired by an interview over an unforgettable lunch with an unforgettable man, the late Saeed Sattar of The Farmhouse restaurant in Bangalore, many years ago.It found its way into my book Our Start-up Affair, too, as an amusing anecdote.
This appeared in MAN`S WORLD magazine of 18 Nov 2018.