Much Ado about French Food

The simplicity of flavours in French food, however, is made up for with the complexity in technique. Here’s what we discovered about French food in India.

The food scene in India has never looked as diverse and colourful as it does right now, and every gourmand is practically rejoicing! From various kinds of food formats—specialty restaurants, pop-ups, food trucks, blind tastings and more—to unexplored cuisines from various parts of the world, we’re literally living in a foodie’s paradise. Nevertheless, the Indian palate is quite set in its tastes, and only cautiously experimental. That’s why cuisines like Italian, Oriental and Mediterranean with stronger flavours are far more popular than classical French food.

Nevertheless, a few restaurants and chefs are out to change that by offering both French cuisine classics as well as elements of French food to new-age consumers who are developing a palate for subtle flavours. Here’s what we discovered about French food in India.

The Flavours
When you dig into French cuisine, you can hardly expect to be met with spices and chillies like in Indian food. Antonia Achache and Jérémie Sabbagh, head chefs and co-founders, Suzette, a modern French café & crêperie chain in Mumbai say, “In our French food, we use spices like pepper, cloves and bay leaves to flavour savoury dishes, and cinnamon and vanilla in French desserts. We also use a lot of fresh herbs like basil, thyme, mint, parsley and tarragon, which are all available fresh in Mumbai.”

Interestingly, the duo hasn’t tried to localise their dishes. “We serve 100 per cent authentic French food, but we have included more vegetarian dishes than in regular French cafés.”

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Chef Milind Dhonsekar of Sofitel Mumbai BKC believes that French food is known for its elegance and subtle flavours. “Each ingredient is added to a recipe to complement the flavours of the main dish rather than overpower it,” he adds.

So while the smell of fresh coffee, flavourful cakes and pastries, homemade breads, delightful macarons and the wonderful taste of hot chocolate at Artisan (Sofitel’s French restaurant) are reminiscent of a Parisian café, he admits that the menu does have nuances of Indian flavours that blend in beautifully with the classics from French cuisine to cater to the Indian palate.

The Flair
The simplicity of flavours in French food, however, is made up for with the complexity in technique. French cuisine is known for cooking styles like braising, poaching, grilling, sautéing and flambéing, and also for their pastry techniques.

Take for instance the croissant, a classic French food. “A croissant looks simple but it takes seven to eight hours to create the 81 paper-thin layers of dough!” says Sabbagh with pride. No wonder the buttery, flaky, melt-in-your-mouth French food is such a sought-after speciality! He adds that the French people believe in the simplicity of pairing so you won’t find competing flavours in a single dish that belongs to French cuisine, and precision in cooking techniques.

Another important part of French cuisine is the five mother sauces—Béchamel, Espagnole, Hollandaise, Tomato and Velouté—that many argue every cook of French food must know how to make.

The Technique
When it comes to French food, every cooking technique has a very specific purpose. Chef Irfan Pabaney who has hosted Good France Week at his restaurant, The Sassy Spoon, explains, “Braising is one of my favourite cooking techniques from French cuisine as this slow-cooking method really keeps all the flavours in.” Catering French food to a primarily Indian clientele, he brought together the best elements of French cuisine in his a la carte menu, crafted especially to promote French tourism.

“We had dishes such as Fig-crusted Norwegian Salmon with Herbed Riz and Dijon Garlic Butter and Carpaccio of Yellow Fin Tuna with Niçoise Salad, that weren’t exactly French food but rather highlighted specific elements of French cuisine.” It was much appreciated by the discerning Indian palate.

He also raves about the south-western French ‘confit’. Confit essentially refers to any type of food that has been slow-cooked over a long period of time. In French cuisine, this method was originally meant to preserve the food, but the best part about eating a confit is that a well-matured piece of meat can be so tender; it just comes off the bone. “You can make a confit out of anything: vegetables, duck or chicken,” Chef Pabney says with confidence.

Sous-vide cooking is also a popular cooking technique in French cuisine. It requires the marinated food to be vacuum-packed in plastic bags and placed in a water bath to cook at a controlled temperature of about 50 to 78°C. Of course, it sounds tedious, but Chef Dhonsekar explains why this is such a treasured cooking technique even today, saying, “Sous-vide cooking is often used to ensure that the item retains its moisture and is cooked properly from the inside without getting overcooked on the outside."

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The Ingredients
Unlike Indians, the French go easy on the oil, salt and sugar, but it’s their exotic ingredients, like herbs, speck (fat), Dijon mustard, fleur du sel (hand-harvested sea salt), cheese, wine and loads of butter, that make all the difference to French food! All the famous dishes from French cuisine including Sole Meunière (fish fillets dredged in flour, pan-fried in butter and flavoured with parsley and lemon), Gratin Dauphinois (a baked dish with potatoes and fresh cream), French Onion Soup (meat stock and onions topped with croutons and cheese) and Coq Au Vin (chicken braised with wine) contain these ingredients.

The Meal
Having produced some of the world’s best cheeses and wines for centuries is probably the reason why wine and cheese are almost necessary accompaniments to any French food.

“I wish more people gave stronger cheeses like an aged Beaufort or Roquefort a chance,” says Sabbagh, while Achache adds, “There’s nothing like a good burgundy wine to enjoy your French meal with.” Both of them agree that the French table is incomplete without “wine, good friends and a discussion about politics”. “Wine is always there on the table and we love to stick around the table long after the meal is over!”

Plating is another important aspect of French cuisine and French food is presented in various courses and served separately to every individual, unlike in India, where we have a mix of different specialities combined in a plate (thali).

Indians love the concept of sharing, but this is not true of the French. “In France, the typical meal is three courses—hors d'œuvre (appetizer), plat principal (main course), and a dessert—and there’s no such thing as a common plate in French cuisine,” says Chef Pabney. “But I encourage my Indian clients to do what they like with French food in my restaurant,” he laughs.

And that’s how the Indian palate is slowly but surely discovering the sophisticated simplicity of French cuisine!

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