Bhicoo Manekshaw, the food writer has passed away. She wrote really excellent, professionally done and well researched cookbooks, like her book on the food of her Parsi community. She also promoted good food in more tangible ways, through Basil Thyme, the Delhi cafe that she created as a place for simple, yet impeccable food. This column was written for last, most personal book, and is reproduced as a tribute to her:
I have to admit I was sceptical when I heard of the new Bhicoo Manekshaw cookbook that Penguin was publishing. Rs 1295? For a book on ‘continental’ cooking in the uncompromising style that almost no one I know still does? With no concessions to current health fads? And who would want an Indian book on that anyway when you could get Julia Child or some other Western author presumably closer to the source? And, finally, with a title, Feast of Love, that sounded like a corny kitchen romance?
Then I read the book and all my doubts melted like butter for béchamel sauce. Its a truly wonderful book and every one of my reservations are very well answered, though I still wonder how many people are likely to buy it. But Mrs. Manekshaw has been a valued culinary consultant at Penguin for some time, and perhaps, taking a cue from the title, the book is evidence of the very rarest kind of love of all, that between a publisher and an author. All we can be is grateful that Penguin has done this.
Mrs. Manekshaw’s book should be seen as part of a line of books, perhaps the last example we’ll ever see, which explains a style of cooking that’s derived from French restaurants and adapted to home cooks. Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner’s The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (1888) is one example, with more recent successors in the much beloved cookbook produced by the Time Talents Club in Mumbai, or Roshan Chagla’s recent Recipes From My Kitchen. But the real ancestor of Mrs. Manekshaw’s book is Colonel Kenney-Herbert’s Culinary Jottings from Old Madras (1878).
Misses Steel and Gardiner were writing for practical housewives, but the Colonel was writing for gourmets, and so, very definitely, is Mrs. Manekshaw. “This book is not about quick-thirty-minute cooking; nor is it a book of easy, thrifty recipes,” she states firmly. The Time Talents cookbook is for enthusiastic amateurs, but the Colonel brought a military professionalism to his cooking, and so too does Mrs. Manekshaw, both a graduate of the Cordon Bleu cooking in London and the wife of a senior air-force officer. (What has the airforce in particular done to enable two such excellent cookbook writers in Mrs. Manekshaw and Mrs. Bilkees Latif, wife of Air Chief Marshal I.H.Latif, and the expert on Hyderabadi cooking?)
Apart from writing cookbooks, like the Parsi cooking volume in Penguin’s regional cooking series, Mrs. Manekshaw has been a consultant to institutions as varied as Air India, the India International Centre and Basil Thyme, a restaurant that in its prime was the perfect place for simple yet sophisticated dining. This has informed her recipe selection in two ways: they are presented as menus, rather than just individual dishes (though of course you can pick them out as you like) and they are formal, even what’s rather disparagingly called ‘fancy’, but they don’t quite require the professional skills of restaurant cooks either. They do require some effort, but they can be done – and you can be sure they will be worth doing.
It’s true that people might need some persuading about that. These days such ‘conti’ food is mostly associated with stodgy club cooking or the tired concoctions of hotel coffee-shop kitchens. But the fault is not in the recipes, just the poor skills in these places and the corners that they cut. Properly made, with good ingredients and presented simply, with just the few accompaniments it needs, like a good salad or a decent bottle of wine, it’s truly hard to beat. Its not even that hard to do really, provided, as Mrs. Manekshaw says firmly in an initial section called ‘Boring Basics’ you take a time to learn these.
This section is worth the price of the book alone since it sets the difference between similar books from the West by showing how to do such recipes in a specifically Indian context. You’re not going to find Julia explaining the difference between beef and buffalo meat or how the Indian cooking pan called a lohri is the best one to use for sautéing. The book has many such great tips, often just mentioned in passing, but clearly born from deep experience. Such as the day Basil Thyme opened, but the electricity went off so she couldn’t bake the beer cake she’d planned. But displaying a poise that most Delhi cooks can only envy she invented a beer soufflé instead, and got many compliments, such as the one from a foreign lady who said she’d never found a beer soufflé anywhere in the world before. “Naturally! Where else would the electricity go dead on a restaurant,” writes Mrs. Manekshaw tartly.
This personal touch is the other wonderful part of this book. Mrs. Manekshaw has managed to do what few other Indian cookbook writers do – give it a personality, but not at the cost of being too intrusive or annoying. Even when her anecdotes are interesting in themselves, they always have a culinary point. So when, at the height of the Emergency, she ticks off Mrs. Gandhi for keeping a lobster soufflé waiting, its to point out the importance of timing with soufflés (Mrs. Gandhi, who knew the value of such things, took the reproof well). Nor does Mrs. Manekshaw become tiresomely exacting about her cooking, as some foodies can be. When a daughter’s boyfriend rejects one of her perfectly set omelettes because he says it’s not cooked enough, she tells us she mentally subtracts two points for him, but at the time just offered him fruits instead. (I admit I’d have subtracted 10 and probably not offered the fruits either).
There is one final reason to celebrate the book – but it’s also yet the same reason why many might not buy it. Cookbooks these days are obsessed with health, to the point where the food seems more medicine than something to enjoy. So after all those one-teaspoon oil only books I have to say there’s real pleasure in reading of the cups of cream that Mrs. Manekshaw regularly throws into her dishes, or her passionate defence of chicken skin, which most nutritionists insist be stripped off, but in which, as she points out, most of the real flavour of chicken lies (she even has a chicken skin omelette which is taking it rather far).
It would be easy to enjoy this just as nutritional defiance, yet I don’t think it is. The problem with such ‘healthy’ cooking is that it looks at just one, quasi-scientific, aspect of food, and not all the other reasons we eat it. Food is fuel, but its also the joy of eating it, the pleasure of the different ingredients that go into it, the connection made through it to the seasons that we eat it in, the people we share it with, the memories it evokes of past meals and yes, as that title I first thought was silly, the love that is embodied in it at a feast. To consider all these seems to me to be the really healthy, holistic way to eat, and this is what Mrs. Manekshaw has given us so memorably through all these menus of her life.