I'm not just a reluctant gourmet. I'm also an accidental food writer. So after my first few reviews, which involved much frantic Googling on food terminology, I decided to bring out the big guns. Which is how the Larousse Gastronomique came home. Big, heavy and ponderous, it's been lounging in my bookcase for years, loftily pushing out the lesser food books and generally throwing its — considerable — weight around.
A detailed guide to the art of gastronomy, the Larousse was written in 1938, and translated from French into English in 1961. Covering every thing from culinary terminology to kitchen equipment, it has become an indispensible reference text for chefs and foodies all over the world, along with Escoffier. (Also French. Also culinary Holy Grail.)
Yet, I find myself referring to Larousse less and less. While basic cooking techniques don't change, this generation of chefs bristles with rule breakers and innovators. The only way to keep up is to surf incessantly, keeping a sharp eye on the bloggers and travellers, newsmakers and critics.
Attempting a definitive rule book for cooks in this climate is a daunting task. Fortunately Chef Soundararajan isn't easily intimidated. General Secretary of IFCA (the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations) and an enthusiastic member of the World Association of Cooks, he's the Corporate Executive Chef of Mahindra Holidays and Resorts. And now, he's also the author of The Essential Culinary Guide: Back to Basics.
Inspired by his mentor, Roger Moncourt, a French chef introduced to the Ashok ITDC hotel by Jawaharlal Nehru, who always carried a notebook listing recipe technique in two lines, Chef Soundararajan began collecting recipes.
After decades in the hospitality industry, about five years ago Chef Soundararajan decided it was time to pass on all that he had learned so far, and started to organise his information. “I had about 3,000 techniques in all.” He was finally ready to write his book.
The Essential Culinary Guide, unlike the reams of books that have flooded stores over the last decade, is not a recipe book. In the tradition of Escoffier and Larousse, it's a guide for cooks. I say ‘cooks' and not chefs because it's targeted at enthusiastic home cooks as well as young chefs. Take the ‘Sauce' section, which lists tomato sauce (“made with skinned, deseeded tomatoes, bacon, vegetables and spices”) as well as Béarnaise (“Clarified butter and egg yolks with tarragon, shallots and chervil simmered in vinegar.”)
The notes are concise and written for an audience that already knows the basics. However, it does mean that if you're not a food nut, you're likely to find the book a little bewildering. It is, essentially, a cheat sheet for cooks.
While this book is not likely to replace the old French food bibles, it does bring freshness to the admittedly-stodgy classics by introducing contemporary terms and global ingredients. The section on ‘Poultry preparations,' for instance includes aji de gallina (Peruvian chicken in chilli sauce), ga xao xa ot (chicken with lemon grass from Thailand) and tangri kebab beside the usual continental suspects — chicken kiev, kung pao and coq Au Vin.
“People keep asking me why they need the book when they can just go online,” Chef Soundararajan says, flipping though the book in his office at the Club Mahindra building in Chennai. “But online, you'll find 100,000 ways to make a soufflé. I give you one simple technique. To go into the net you need to know what to search for… My book is a compendium of checklists.”
As he grabs his white coat and heads out for the photo-shoot, he gives me a book on himself to read. It's a personal collection of all his photographs and letters. Watched over by a chef doll languidly slouched on the shelf above like it's taken one sip too many of cooking wine, I look through his books, lined up behind a chopping board: Becoming a Chef, The Oxford Companion to Food and 1000 Great Indian Recipes — the tome of tandoor, bible of butter fry. Beside his desk, a soft board displays a photo of him, looking slightly bewildered, beside three giggly tiara-crowned beauty queens feeding each other cake (as it turns out he was chef culinaire at Miss India 1995-96).
Unfortunately, the Essential Culinary Guide doesn't have tips on how to snag a photo-op with Miss India. But if you want to learn the difference between birnensuppe (summer fruit soup popular in Sweden) and blumenkohlsuppe (thick, creamy cauliflower soup from Germany), go for it.