Treacle tarts and meringue Chantilly come together with panchmela dal and Kerala fish curry in a book commemorating fifty years of cuisine at the India International Centre

On Monday’s episode of MasterChef: The Professionals, it was the turn of Adriano Zumbo to put the fear of cake mixes into the heart of the contestants. Zumbo, dubbed the ‘Dark Lord of Pastry’, is best known in Indian homes as the man behind the croquembouche, that scary tower of profiteroles topped with a web of spun sugar that in various editions of the TV franchise has been turning practised chefs into little cry babies.

Strangely, earlier in the day, browsing through a copy of Secrets from the Kitchen: Fifty Years of Culinary Experience at the India International Centre (Niyogi Books), one reads that the croquembouche has been a party favourite at the IIC for many, many years. Only, here meringues are used instead of profiteroles.

The book, brought out to coincide with the Golden Jubilee of the IIC, is a bundle of recipes compiled by Bhicoo Manekshaw, Cordon Bleu chef and food legend who passed away in April this year, who was catering consultant for the Centre for around two decades, with Vijay Thukral, executive chef at IIC.

While, of course, making achievable intimidating things like vichyssoise, paella and coq au vin and dozens of other recipes that at one time or the other have been, or are, part of the IIC menu, the book offers interesting insights into a menu that evolved by absorbing influences from the Capital’s newly adventurous cultural landscape.

Changes came in many ways; Manekshaw added an Indian and Continental plat du jour (‘for the day’) to the existing a la carte menu. Colonial influences entered, and some remained, like the mulligatawny soup and fried fish with tartare sauce that she points out to in the preface of the book. Observations and recommendations were made with respect to the food, how it was served, and how a menu should be planned. For example, “The dishes that were brought for individual baked dishes are being used to serve sauces! We have sauce boats for sauces and baking dishes for baked dishes.” Or, “Do not repeat a main ingredient. For example, if the soup is crème subarry (cream of cauliflower soup), then cauliflower should not reappear in any other course.”

Personalities brought their own influences. The potato and sesame soup became ‘Stein’s potato and sesame soup’ when IIC architect Joseph Stein fell in love with it. At a dinner for Indira Gandhi, improvisation led to naming the vacherin ‘Gateau Indira’. (The recipes are there in the book.) Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay wanted the inclusion of the traditions of the country’s smaller and lesser-known communities. So, in came the baimale kari (tender bamboo shoot curry) of the Kodavas of Coorg, sali ma gosht of the Parsis, plantain kabab and labda of Assam, and smoked pork and bamboo shoots from Mizoram.

Recipes in the book are categorised not according to courses but according to how they illustrate the Centre’s menu evolvement, with sections like ‘The Early Years’, ‘The Changes’, ‘The Indian Kitchen’, ‘The Chinese Kitchen’, ‘The South Indian Kitchen’, ‘New Ideas’ and ‘The IIC Experience’. ‘All-time favourites’ includes recipes for chilled melon and cucumber soup, vegetable terrine (also a favourite of chef Vijay), ratatouille crepes, and vegetable stroganoff, while under ‘Basic techniques and recipes’ there are bouquet garni, stocks, sauces like béchamel, hollandaise and veloute, and pastry.

Sherna Wadia, Bhicoo Manekshaw’s daughter who’s worked on editing the compilation, says, “We kept the more popular dishes, dishes that were popular when they were on the menu. Dishes that are not run-of-the-mill things like dal or masala dal.”

While pork chops, pepper steaks, tournedos Rossini were popular once, one’s not likely to find them on the IIC menu anymore. “Now, for example, they don’t serve beef and pork,” adds Wadia. “All those old recipes, which were very popular at the time, but are no longer on the menu…”

She, however, says the additions and subtractions on the menu are more reflective of the cultural microcosm and brief with which the IIC operated rather than the general leanings of the Capital’s eating-out crowd. “The whole point of IIC is to spread knowledge of different cultures of the world. That was the concept. So they started collaborations with different embassies. If there was a collaboration with the Italian embassy, and then a programme on Italian music, art, culture, they would have an Italian dinner. Then Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was very anxious that the knowledge of the culture and traditions of the smaller traditions of India should spread. So they started with the Kodavas (of Coorg) — talks and programmes on the Kodavas and then a Kodava meal. That’s how food from different parts of India, and the world, made it to the menu.”

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