Gourmet files Vasundhara Chauhan

Buffeted by curry

A buffet on display. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Stand in a line to take a plate. Politely ignore those who smile and join “friends” already standing ahead of me (had it been a line at the bank or the airport check-in counter, I wouldn’t smile back). Inch forward to the curries (the kababs are over — they were starters), look at the salad display, move on, and start taking ladlefuls of gravies that slide into each other on my plate and — never having tasted very different from each other anyway — become one big creamy brown mélange. Then comes the rice, so I try to insert a spoonful to create a hedge between the brown and the creamy brown. And then various khaki vegetables, called Shahjahani this and Mumtaz that. Collect a bowl from a “station” tempering dal on the spot, and if I’m lucky there are two dals: one yellow; one black, called, naturally, Bukhara. Last, a trough of rotis getting leathery in the winter cold. I went to two such last week; at two different establishments. The menu was the same, although the names were different. Maybe the dal was a hodgepodge of leftovers and called panchmel, and maybe the spinach had kernels of “American” sweet corn in it instead of mushrooms and baby corn-on-the-cob. The menu is this simple if the host hasn’t tried to create a United Nations General Assembly. Then there’s no getting away from indifferent Chinese and Thai food, and “live pasta stations” that fry up ready sauces with already boiled pasta of different shapes.

I’m told — and I know — that I’m a pernickety fussbudget, with views on everything. But I’m surprised that the views on buffet dinners aren’t universal. I know sit-down dinners are difficult for large gatherings, unless one’s home is Hyderabad House. One of last week’s was a sunny lunch in a club courtyard and trendily started with salad. There were huge steel oval platters with scalloped edges, tightly covered in cling-wrap and unveiled as we waited. Flies were effectively avoided, but the wrapping couldn’t refresh wilted iceberg lettuce and limp cucumber slices, nor prevent the browned congealing of an egg-based dressing. Did no one tell them what happens to mayonnaise exposed to the elements? Did anyone notice that people looked at the wrinkled mayonnaise skin and walked away? I wonder whether the same thing had happened at dinner the night before and the club had gone in for some recycling.

Over the years, I’ve noticed annoying details of buffet dinners that are universal, and if they were changed, would make a difference to the whole experience. Queuing up should be minimised. If there’s space, I wish they would have more than one table serving the same food — or give access from both sides of the table. Salads should be clean and tidy. Thick egg-based ones are going to lie there and get dry and discoloured. Some dinners have a choice of salad ingredients to be mixed on the spot and dressings drizzled then and there. Space doesn’t always allow for that and, for some reason, we Indians have forgotten the pleasure of a simple fresh green salad with unfussy batons of seasonal salad vegetables.

And if only the caterer would place the katoris next to the plates and cutlery and put the rice (or pasta and bread) first. Then one could help oneself to curries (and dishes with sauce and gravy), spooning them on to the rice — or into katoris — and preventing hot red rogan josh from mixing with the cold white dahi bhalla. If I had a katori in time I could eat a dry roti not rendered soggy on the matar-paneer, and a papad still crisp when I take my first bite. Oriental food suffers from buffet-ing, especially the dry stir-fried dishes. So we’re stuck with wet dishes: brown Mongolian (or Hong Kong) chicken, light brown fish something and pale grey Chinese greens, all running into each other until we reach the last chafing dishes of fried rice and hakka noodles. If only these had been served first.

There’s obviously embarrassment in small menus. Apparently caterers offer a larger variety at almost the same price as a smaller one, as long as the ingredients cost about the same and you’re not asking for pâté, morels or lobsters. So dinner parties rely on wowing guests with 20 paneer curries and 30 halwas to wow guests instead of focusing on details that make the experience more pleasurable.


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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 4:14:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Vasundhara_Chauhan/gourmet-files-buffeted-by-curry/article6730624.ece

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