Indian food is increasingly on the wish list of foreign dignitaries when they have to maintain a fine balance between diplomacy and hospitality. For Myanmarese leader Aung San Suu Kyi her recent visit to India was a culinary delight where with each bite she could go back to her teenage days.
During her official visit, where she was hosted by the who’s who of those in the corridors of power, the tallest leader from the neighbouring nation partook several Indian delicacies which she must have lapped up during his varsity days at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi.
Testifying this fact with pictures of the leader standing besides him, Montu Saini, Executive Chef at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, says that he was surprised when Aung San Suu Kyi ordered kachori and samosa without batting an eyelid. “She wanted allu ki bhaji for breakfast. She appreciated it a lot,” informs Montu, on the sidelines of an event organised at the Imperial Hotel for Club des Chefs des Chefs, an exclusive gastronomy club comprising chefs to Presidents, Prime Ministers and royals, which is in India as part of its General Assembly. It takes place once every year in a different country.
On their first day in India, Chefs of Heads of State, who serve important world leaders like the Queen, the German Chancellor and the U.S. President, happily tried fragile gol guppas and later proceeded for piping hot aloo ki tikki topped with spicy and sweet chutney.
“Samosa with chhola was also served. All of them liked it so much as it was made right before their eyes. It was a finger licking delight. However, some precautions were kept in mind since most foreign chefs have sensitive stomach and are averse to street food. I got them prepared in-house at Hotel Imperial,” says Montu.
For Chefs it is important to know preferences of Heads of State beforehand. “While preparing food, we consider their dietary preference like if the head of state is averse to red meat then we exclude it from our menu,” says Montu.
Sharing details on how she ensures that dining is a wonderful experience for President Barack Obama every day, Cristeta Comerford, Executive Chef at the White House, says: “For President Obama we make good use of the Kitchen Garden which you must have seen on the Internet. We make good use of it for the first family as the First Lady is particular about healthy food. We serve seasonal food as we believe in listening to nature. It is the nature which dictates the menu rather than the Chef.” President Obama has fondness for non vegetarian food and likes to have chicken, fish and lamb delicacies. “We pair them with seasonal vegetables. We get lot of vegetarian dignitaries in our State dinners. About twenty per cent of them are vegetarians. We also serve yoghurt and fresh fruits so that we prepare well balanced meals.”
Cristeta says food is evaluated at the White House on the basis of My Plate, a dietary guideline for Americans, which emphasises how grain, vegetable, protein and fruits can be all about nutrients and health benefits. “It is a great guideline on cooking and knowing how much to serve.”
Montu’s desire is to cook a special meal for President Obama, who would soon be vacating his chair for the new incumbent. “So far I have not got a chance to serve him. Next time if President Obama comes to India, I will be in touch with Cristeta,” he chuckles.
For Mark Flanagan, Chef to the Queen of the United Kingdom, sustainable food is the in-thing these days. “Globally, the profile of food is changing as more and more people are looking for sustainability. We have tried to use as much British produce as we can and that has been a big focus for most of us.”
Taking a trip down memory lane, veteran Chef Sudhir Sibal, who served foreign dignitaries at state banquets during 1980s and 1990s, says: “When Shankar Dayal Sharma was the President there was an interesting phase as the incumbent Prime Minister Deve Gowda too was vegetarian.”
Sibal notes that Indira Gandhi would insist that during state banquets one dish must be Indian. “During Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, roast turkey was the main course and Ms. Gandhi wanted us to serve mutton biryani with it. It was a question of combination which could have gone awry. ‘Please go ahead and try that,’ she insisted. Thankfully, the meal went off so well that everyone appreciated.”
With the appointment of P.V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister, South Indian food got its due. “Even welcome drink was from the South. Due to health complications, Rao ate light food like boiled rice but insisted that guests were well fed. Those days we stuffed idlis with nuts and veggies. And added pickle and spices before serving the guests. Innovation is part and parcel of a chef’s life. And that is what separates a chef from a cook,” remarks Sibal.
Montu’s cooking skills, who started serving the President since last year, were put to test during the India-Africa Forum Summit last November. “A grand feast was laid on the central lawn of the Rashtrapati Bhavan – the Mughal Garden. Fifty three heads of State were treated with thali comprising seven-eight varieties of dishes. We served only traditional food. In South Africa, I would not like to eat urad ki dal and idli, dal, rajma. Similarly, African leaders wanted to try Indian dishes.”
Talking about the futility of copying exotic recipes, Montu says, “We cannot create another France in India. Our quality of tomatoes and onions are different than those grown in the French countryside. In Haryana you get khathe tamatar, Dehradun’s tamatar tastes different. Quality of ingredient is directly proportionate to the tase of food.”
Montu loves to serve dosa and finds it most apt for foreign palates. “This fermented item is palatable as it is tasty and non spicy. Idli and chutney are also served most of the time. Chettinad is avoided as it is spicy for foreigners.”
Venu Rajamony, Press Secretary to President, says promoting culinary traditions of the country are of utmost importance at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. “We make sure that the guest gets to taste delicacies from different parts of India. Food is soft power and our rich diversity showcases our strength.”
Chefs are evasive when it comes to specifying favourite dishes of the incumbant Heads of State. According to Gilles Bragard, divulging details about what the President ate or omitted can become a tricky issue.
“Once it came in the news that President George Bush did not like broccoli. Consequently, grocery sellers were protesting outside the White House. So such comments can easily become a political issue. That is the reason why chefs do not take direct question on which dish their Head of State likes to eat or skip.”