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The Prez’s thali: The kitchen of the India International Centre has many stories to tell

Glorious guests: Raza in the dining hall of the IIC in February 2006.

Glorious guests: Raza in the dining hall of the IIC in February 2006.   | Photo Credit: Shanker Chakravarty

Not all the secrets exchanged at the IIC are political

Looking at the charming building of the India International Centre (IIC) the other day, I thought to myself that walls, indeed, have ears. A lot happens inside the IIC, the hub of those who hold the reins to the country’s administration, and most of it stays within. But some of the stories do trickle out. And quite a few tales emerge out of the kitchen.

I have been reading and enjoying a book called Secrets from the Kitchen: Fifty Years of Culinary Experience at the India International Centre, compiled by Bhicoo Manekshaw and Vijay Thukral. Manekshaw, hailed as the first Indian Cordon Bleu chef, was the catering consultant at the IIC, and Thukral its former chief chef.

The two have put together a host of recipes along with some little nuggets about the people the IIC cooked for in this delightful collection published by Niyogi Books.

Gateau Indira

It has a recipe for a dish called Gateau Indira. Indira Gandhi, as Prime Minister, wanted to have a dinner party to celebrate her son’s wedding. The menu was prepared (a hot lobster soufflé, duck a l’orange, and jardinière platter of vegetables), but the problem was the pudding.

It was a winter’s night, so they couldn’t serve a cold dessert, and Gandhi didn’t like hot puddings. “What could it be? Not hot and not cold. Of course! Meringue,” Manekshaw, who passed away in 2013, writes.

Gandhi liked it, and sent a message across, wanting to know what the dessert with whipped cream and fruit was called. “At the spur of the moment, I replied, Gateau Indira,” she writes.

The menu in the 70s and 80s was a lot more eclectic than it is now (it included such delicious entrées as pepper steaks and roast pork with Cajun stuffing). The soups — the book lists chilled melon and cucumber soup, French onion soup and potage Andalouse — must have been lip-smacking at some point of time. The architect Joseph Stein — the man behind the spectacular building — apparently liked the IIC’s potato and sesame soup so much that Manekshaw named it Stein’s Potato and Sesame Soup.

The recipe is simple. To serve 4-6 people, melt butter (100g) with oil (2tbsp) in a pan. Add potatoes (7 large, finely diced) and sauté. Add spring onions (500g bulbs with some tender greens, finely sliced). Sauté. Add vegetable stock (2 cups) and salt and white pepper. Let it simmer till the potatoes are tender and slightly broken. Before serving, reheat the soup till it comes to a boil. Reduce the heat. Mix in hot milk (2 cups) and cream (1 cup with a pinch of sodium bicarbonate). Heat through, stirring all the while. Spoon the soup into warm bowls. Sprinkle with crisp toasted sesame seeds (100g) and serve.

Chacko’s utthapam

I like this story about former Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan because I can somehow picture it. The then CEC had liked the utthapam that the IIC’s Chef Chacko had prepared for a reception so much that he asked the chef to make two more for him. “He said in Malayalam that though his wife was a good cook, Chacko’s utthapam was better,” the book says.

Then there was former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who always had the South Indian thali at the IIC. A day before he became President, he went to the IIC for his favourite meal. “He told the staff that day that he would no longer be able to enjoy IIC’s thalis as his security staff would not allow him free movement and he would miss it,” recounts IIC staffer Aslam Khan.

Kitchens, clearly, have stories to tell. With, perhaps, just the right spices.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 1:04:11 PM |

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