The French food god makes a dosa

Updated: Jan 21, 2020, 07:31 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Paul Bocuse was just beginning to make waves when he came to Bombay. I challenged him to make masala dosa - as a Frenchman would

In the kitchen of the Taj Hotel, the god of French cuisine, Paul Bocuse, made a shrimp stuffing using ingredients no dosa has ever seen. I have never eaten anything as unexpected as the nouvelle dosa. File pic/AFP
In the kitchen of the Taj Hotel, the god of French cuisine, Paul Bocuse, made a shrimp stuffing using ingredients no dosa has ever seen. I have never eaten anything as unexpected as the nouvelle dosa. File pic/AFP

C Y GopinathThere is no reason why the name Paul Bocuse should mean anything to you. It didn't mean anything to me in 1978, when Vinod Mehta, then editor of the late Debonair magazine, asked me if I could do a story on a chef whom the Taj Hotels group had invited. It seemed Bocuse was the father of something called nouvelle cuisine.

Nouvelle cuisine, I was told, was light, minimalistic, emphasised regional recipes and fresh local produce. Portions were small. Bocuse's family restaurant outside Lyons, the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, better known now as Paul Bocuse, was legendary as the throbbing heart of nouvelle cuisine. More than half a century ago, it became one of 28 restaurants in the world to hold three Michelin stars.

Here, Bocuse and his team created a never-ending stream of creative entreés all of which broke with the heavy sauces and excesses of classic French cuisine.

When the god passed away, at age 91, in 2018, it was as though a French monument had crumbled overnight. It was a moment of such national bereavement that it was announced by the French interior minister.

Last week, the unthinkable happened. The Michelin Guide stripped the Paul Bocuse restaurant of its third star 55 years after awarding it, leaving it now with only two. Outraged chefs and critics screamed that it was near sacrilege, while the Michelin Guide said the food remained excellent, just no longer worthy of three stars.

My mind flew back to that day 42 years ago when I had met Bocuse. I had contacted the Taj Hotels group and they had kindly agreed to let me spend time with him.

At first, Bocuse struck me as an unremarkable — a heavy jowled, overweight Frenchman who served miniature entrées on giant plates at exorbitant prices and called them a breakthrough, which struck me as a canny marketing gimmick. Within minutes of meeting him, though, I was under the spell of this passionate, exuberant and inventive chef.

"Food is like sex," he once famously said. He made no secret of his love for both, and openly kept two mistresses in addition to his wife, having children from all, and revelling in his polygamy by proudly pointing to the friendship between his women, who apparently didn't mind sharing him with each other.

"You say local produce and regional cuisines are important for nouvelle cuisine," I said.

"Oui, oui, c'est ça!" he said.

"We have a local crepe-like thing called dosa," I said, "which we stuff with potatoes."

"Et alors?" he said.

"What would nouvelle cuisine do to a dosa?"

Bocuse and I visited streetside dosa vendors around Victoria Terminus. We browsed through the vegetable and meat stalls of Crawford. He touched, smelled, nibbled and savoured.

Things he chose went into a bag.

Later that day in the kitchen of the Taj Hotel, the god of French cuisine made a shrimp stuffing for the dosa using ingredients no dosa has ever seen. I have never eaten anything as unexpected as the nouvelle dosa.

Here, in full, is Bocuse's recipe.

Nouvelle Masala Dosa á la Bocuse

Ingredients
Garlic, 1 clove, finely chopped
Shallots, 4-5, minced
Green chillies, chopped
Curry leaves, 3-4, shredded
Small mustard seeds 1/4 tsp
1 teaspoon Madras curry powder
Double cream for cooking, 3 tbsps
Cold pressed coconut oil, 2 tbsps
Small prawns, shelled, deveined, cleaned and patted dry, 250 gms
Salt to taste

Method
1. In a medium-sized frying pan, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds before the oil starts smoking and let it splutter.
2. As the spluttering reduces, add the garlic, minced shallots, curry leaves and chillies. Stir for a minute or so, till the shallots start becoming translucent.
3. Add the prawns and stir until they start becoming opaque and the colour turns into a shade of pink.
4. Add the double cream, give it a stir and add the Madras curry powder and salt.
5. Cook on low heat until the prawns are cooked and the gravy is thick enough.
6. Make dosas and fold about four tablespoons of the stuffing into each one.

You might ask, rightly, what's so French or nouvelle about this recipe — other than perhaps the double cream?

The secret French ingredient in Bocuse's recipe, unknown to you, is Madras curry powder, which is powder all right but has nothing to do with Madras and can't be found in any Tamilian's kitchen. The original recipe for Madras Curry powder was proposed by a Frenchman called Beauvilliers at the Universal Paris Exhibition in 1889.

That's what makes this dosa French, I suppose. And the fact that it was made by an exuberant, life-loving Frenchman who was a genuine god in his kitchen.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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