Collateral cuisine

Collateral cuisine

Collateral cuisine

Through his lifetime, Tipu Sultan, who reigned over Mysore and most of the Carnatic, attempted to get French help to counter the English. In 1787 he sent a delegation, accompanied by Pierre Monneron, a French trader from Pondicherry, to the French court. In 1797, a Jacobian club was formed at Mysore; and there was always French presence at his court.

The French revolution had a deep, lasting impact on French gastronomy. As the royals and their families were marched to the guillotine or fled, their chefs had two choices: to leave France and move to aristocratic houses in the rest of Europe, or start their own restaurants.

It was also the time French cooking was changing, morphing closer to as we know it today. Francois Pierre de la Varenne (1618-1678), was the author of Le cuisinier Francois (1651), the founding text of modern French cuisine, and an advocate of the ‘new’ methods of cooking. One of the four mother sauces, the bechamel sauce, is credited to him (although he is not the sole claimant to it).

In March 1799, the decisive Fourth Mysore War began, ending with Tipu’s death in May.
These are the facts in the story. The rest is fiction. Mysore, March 1796-97.
She picked up her skirt and ran, oiled pigtails flying in the air, over the small rocks, the dusty lane, and the last gravel path. She ran all the way until she reached where she should have been in the first place — home. Panting, she reached the window that overlooked the path to the house and waited. Then she shouted, “They’re coming, Amma!” And several cackling women joined her watch. Her grandfather was coming back from across the seas, from another country, as her mother liked to say.

The moving blur slowly acquired shape and colour. Her grandfather was climbing off the horse, acknowledging the servants. “Thank God,” some woman murmured behind her, meaning not only thank god he is back safe, but also thank god he hasn’t brought back a mistress. Lakshmi, her eldest aunt, shoved her aside, and shooed the children, to peer down the window. The brats ran down, impatient to examine the horses, carts and goodies.

Lakshmi, as the eldest daughter-in-law of the house, should have moved away, and gone to the ceremonial welcome. But she was still stuck at the window, staring. She had noticed a white man among the lot, and seen her father-in-law speak briefly to him before coming in. She wondered what a respectable white man was doing among the servants, and lifting his own bags.

The white man glanced up. Between the iron rods of the wooden window he saw large eyes, a long sharp nose in an equally long face, thick long hair, and, unduly dark complexion. Lakshmi was never famed for her beauty. She was well-brought up. She knew the rituals at different festivals; she could sing; she could keep house. Two things were rued by her family, her stubborn will, and her intelligence. ‘Clever’ was not an attribute one could comfortably use for women, at least not in public. And so, it was said of her, out of everyone’s earshot, that she was improper, had no respect for propriety, listened in on conversations that she shouldn’t, and asked too many questions. If she was the favourite daughter-in-law, in spite of all this, it was because everyone was usually rendered comatose by her exceptional, sumptuous, heavenly cooking. For other women, cooking was a chore; for Lakshmi, it was religion. In the well-designated duties of the household, the stone-floored kitchen was her arena. And so, when the strange white man was presented as Pierre de la Varenne, a royal chef, who would intern in their kitchen before moving onto the palace, she reacted with a mix of hubris and hospitality.
He had fascinated her, this fair-skinned, blue-eyed, long-haired man who had thought nothing of travelling across the seas to a foreign land to cook for strangers. She would not have found him interesting had he been a soldier, or a scholar, or even a trader. Like Monneron Saahib who was a regular visitor at their house and, they said, at the Sultan’s court. It was Monneron Saahib, an interpreter and a man of influence, who had gone with her father-in-law and the other emissaries to France. Depending on who was telling the story, this new Pierre, this chef had begged for a place on the voyage back, or, was so impressive that the emissaries paid to bring him back with them.

It took some weeks for Pierre to travel through the maze of introductions, courtesies, lunches and dinners to arrive at his appointed place — the kitchens of the Deewan, the kitchens that Lakshmi commandeered. He was housed separately — the Deewan’s aging mother would not hear of him in the same quarters with the other servants. A separate enclosure, extending the kitchen, had been built for him, and he was to take a bath before he entered.

Had Pierre been an ordinary cook, whom Lakshmi could order around, who would execute her instructions; life would have gone on uninterrupted, devoid of drama. But this imported chef threw her life and routines into more disarray than the ongoing wars. Pierre was keen to display his repertoire, to introduce new flavours, and earn his favours with the Sultan, to cook his way to fame, much like his grandfather.

This vagabond cook surpassed her skills, and his cooking defied her imagination. What kind of vessels does he use, she would ask. What did he add, when did he take the pot off the fire? She would ask that he be watched. But servants brought useless information, the kind that sent the other women into a tizzy: he did not bathe everyday; no, he wasn’t going to church like the Englishmen; and yes, he was asking about local women.
So, with envy and curiosity, Lakshmi took to watching him, even if from behind the door, at a good proper distance that couldn’t be faulted by the hawkish women-folk.

Pierre knew she was watching him, as he stirred the butter and flour, as he tossed in the spices. He didn’t mind, he was amused when the servants watched. He knew they were not serious, they dozed or they chatted and laughed with him. But when she decided to watch, there would be pin-drop silence in the kitchen. The normally fighting, screeching maids, hawkers, scampering children would all go quiet, creating a hush that was much like the one that descended on court in the seconds before the king arrived. It was difficult for him, the weird mix of attention and anonymity.

The delegation that had come to France had been impressed, certainly. Would they have picked a cook from any restaurant (and these days restaurants had mushroomed in Paris), or did they truly appreciate his skills, or understand his lineage, inheritance? His grandfather, Francois Pierre de la Varenne, was more than a celebrity chef and author of one of the first cookbooks. He was a gourmet crusader who ushered, with other chefs, a whole new cuisine. Pierre himself, named after his grandfather, would cherish none of these accomplishments. What he would remember of his cantankerous grandfather was stories, and the games. He had absorbed the stories, like a sponge, embellishing them sometimes, to suit his fantasies. The royal spread at Versaille, or the grand dinner where the bechamel sauce was christened.

Every meal, any meal, would be an elaborate guessing game, a predator-prey hunt almost, as they sniffed together every flavour and tongued every ingredient out.
Pierre was playing that game again, here. He was astonished by many things: the vastness of the land, the quantum of rice that everyone tucked in, and the many kinds of vegetables served. And thriving here, for ages, was a practice his grandfather had sought to introduce — a many-course meal, and not everything laid out at once.

Pierre asked questions, which usually got him a frenzied demonstration. It took him some time to fathom that Lakshmi was looking for his praise, and he was touched and amused. She used very little pepper; she was more fond of using red chillies. Pierre was amazed at this — wasn’t pepper native, and red chillies a very recent import? He enthused over jaggery, it was a revelation! So many possibilities, with that texture, that colour. He did not care much for the use of garlic, or ghee. He would rather use lard. He missed the bread at Paris more than he missed Paris itself, or his family and friends. He would try his own bread this week. It would be no minor triumph to serve it at the Jacobian meeting. M Dompart would surely appreciate it.

What would this strange woman have to say, Pierre wondered. She was delighted by how he cut vegetables, they looked a lot prettier than the chunky portions they did. She adored desserts, but her nose crinkled at his sauces, rich and bland. The nose stayed straight and sharp when he fused local spices, when he overcooked. He wondered what his granddad would say to that. He had been a strong advocate of reducing the excessive use of exotic imported spices in Parisian cooking, to keep natural flavours, and use local herbs.

He told her of the philosophy and showed her his well-thumbed copy of the book. Lakshmi was endlessly intrigued by the cookbook, and how Pierre dived into it in the middle of his cooking. What need could have prompted a book of cooking instructions? Their communication was slow, arduous and unbridled fun. With interpreters, or with Pierre’s stammering Kannada, his extravagant gestures; neither was quite sure how much the other had understood; but neither cared. They evolved a common language with the grammar of cooking, the syntax that the kitchen dictated, and it sufficed.
A serious war was brewing. One ignored it; the other was ignorant of it. They were engrossed in their own battle, or was it love? Both are after all different names for the same thing — an obsession. With her curiosity, with his fondness for all food, they achieved — neither rivalry, nor camaraderie, but a strange kinship. It was to be very briefly, sorely stretched and then, swiftly, completely forgotten.

Bangalore, March 1799.
Harried, hungry foot soldiers arrived. The Deewan and the Sultan himself were to come shortly. They would leave again, maybe that night, or in the early hours, and would be away for — who could tell how long? Arrangements should please be made, they were told. The household — greatly diminished and only recently, temporarily moved from Mysore — was galvanised.

Pierre was bent over the fire, stirring a white paste. Lakshmi was furious at his insolence in thinking that he could cook for so important a guest, and that he should do so in her presence, her house, her kitchen. Pierre, for the first time (and the last) asserted his right to cook the royal meal. “I’m the palace cook,” Pierre said, and the evening meal was his right. “Since when,” thundered Lakshmi, “since when?”

Pierre shrugged, and turned back to his pot, to stirring the ghee and the flour. Lakshmi fumed. The battle raged, ladles flying faster than words. It would have gone on, had more soldiers not arrived — the Sultan would be here any moment!

“We cannot be serving them your tame mish-mash,” she said.
“Woman!” Pierre, for the first time, in their acquaintance, raised his voice. “They are going to war! They are coming from war! They need to eat and they need to carry wholesome meals. This is not time for your tantrums.”

Of course they would have wholesome food. They would have the best wholesome food in fact. She ordered the rice and green gram roasted, the pepper pounded, and the ginger chopped. She stood, hands on rotund hips, sniffing, and checking. It would have to be cooked just right, and the ghee would have to be poured when it was almost gone. When the meals had been made, and served, she set about packing food that the entourage could carry. Pounded rice, cashew nuts, roasted gram...

That is what did it. With feverish excitement, looking rather like a dervish, he started to toss spices — cinnamon, nutmeg, chillies, cloves... He threw them in, roasting them, shouting for more. He himself started to grind this medley. The servants rushed to help. Lakshmi was mystified, but was always ready for an adventure. “Coconut,” she said. “Put in dried coconut. It is good for the stomach.”

Coarse ground, this tumble of spices he threw into his bechamel sauce and watched it redden, like the earth. He took some of her rice-lentil dish, just cooked and lying in the pot, and poured this concoction, his new sauce over it. It had to be tasted — there was no go — she could not have it served if it was not good enough. Garnish, she said, succinctly. “Garnish it.”

“The soldiers can carry the sauce and your roasted rice-lentil separately, and add it whenever they cook it,” he said triumphantly. Neither found out what the royal guest or the Deewan, or soldiers thought of the one-dish meal. Neither knew that it was probably the Sultan’s last well-made meal. In two months, the war had been lost and in it, the man himself.

Pierre did not want to tempt fate. He had not escaped the butchery in France to be hanged by the British. The exclusion of all French from Mysore was the British aim. Well before they could start achieving that, he bought his way to Pondicherry. That was the last anyone heard of him.

Lakshmi always wondered afterwards, if Pierre had already decided to leave that evening. He’d been warned, perhaps? Or had been prudent himself? She herself lived in the unmitigated calm of the aftermath. It was at her granddaughter’s wedding, more than three years later, that she roused herself from her hibernation. On the day of her wedding, she woke up earlier. Those who saw her enter the kitchen thought she was performing a rite. And perhaps she was. Would she remember? Maybe she had forgotten a thing or two?

She washed and dried the rice and lentils, in equal measure (She never did understand Pierre’s step-motherly treatment of rice). She proceeded to make the ‘sauce’,as Pierre would call it. He hadn’t added coconut, he wanted a mix that would not spoil. But she would. When it was done, she spooned some on her left hand and licked it. Yes, it was as he would make it. Perhaps even better. He had stinted on the spices, this was tangier. The tamarind had done it. Of course, some sourness had to be added to counter the chillies, but he wouldn’t have known.

This is what will be served at the wedding lunch, she said, satisfied, ghosts exorcised, the past to be devoured, to usher in the future.

Lakshmi became a legendary figure in the family. Each generation garnished the story of how she’d cooked the bisibelebath, until the tale acquired mythical proportions. Her grandchildren showed her off at every possible opportunity, like prized china. Having basked in inherited glory, they’d apologetically say, “She’s getting on, she’s quite senile,” and lead her away when she’d say to all the guests, that a royal French chef had taught her to make the bisibelebath.

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