Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
Spice and sensibility
Profile: Karen Anand
You have seen her on television, Karen Anand, celebrity chef and writer on the international gourmet circuit.
She is the one who cooks up a dinner in full view of the TV camera, serving it to a company of friends who sit around a table sipping wines and crunching fresh salads, while Karen talks excitedly to the viewer to convey her sense of enjoyment at the event. She has written the book Lean Cuisine Curries even though that sounds like a contradiction in terms. She has got a degree from the Sorbonne University and runs courses in Management and as if that were not enough, she's got her own range of jams and preserves packed in tiny round plastic containers with peel off metallic tops with decorative labels that have been custom made for the hotel and catering industry. "You know what I want to be? The Indian Martha Stewart!" she says.
Like Martha Stewart, Empress of American Pecan pie and perfect kitchen manners, Karen Anand is a one woman industry. Yet when you meet her what immediately strikes you is what fun she is. The comparisons tend to be culinary . Caramel Anand, you think, when you meet her. She has got a honey coloured skin, eyes that are like the sparkling wines she so often recommends and a tangle of hair that is like a nest of spun sugar. It's impossible not to be enchanted by Karen, even while resisting the often odd combinations of ingredients that she has included in the menu.
"We are trying to create a resurgence of Indian food, something that will please the palate of those of us who are willing to experiment a bit. Basically it's the sort of food that I like to cook for my friends" she says with a laugh. "For instance when we are planning the desserts, we didn't want anything typically Indian, because we were fed up of the rich halwas and that kind of thing. So here I've poached fruit in red wine, with pepper and cinnamon and instead of sugar, I've used honey; instead of cream I've used Shreekhand; Indian flavours with European presentation."
She describes her style of cuisine as Indian Contemporary, preferring not to use the term "Fusion" that has now come to represent a mixture of styles that seeks to surprise rather than to seduce. As I take a look at the other desserts that Karen has devised for "Soul Spice" (the speciality restaurant at the Radisson Hotel, Chennai) I notice that there are a lot of old favourites in new trappings. She has included for instance that gorgeously creamy Parsi delight served mostly at weddings, "Lagan nu Custard" and married it to a Plum and Star Anise sauce. There are Baklava - like cigars of Filo pastry, stuffed with mava, dried fruit and nuts, with a nougat sauce. Quite often she uses a fairly ordinary Indian recipe and ignites it with a dashing sauce, spiced with colour (saffron), or flamed with alcohol, a Brandy and orange sauce, or spiked with a twist of preserved ginger. Beware, when Karen is around, preserved gingers strikes in the most unexpected places, from soups to salads.
It is in her starters, salads, soups and desserts that Karen shows herself to be a free spirit. She is quite faithful to tradition in the main courses. As she says in her book on Lean Cuisine in a chapter that underlines, "What Lean Cuisine Means": "The current trend worldwide is not a discovery of one's heritage. That has been seen and done and finished with. The trend today, after many slip-ups and much experimentation, is harmony and balance between taste, lightness and tradition." To this end, she borrows the stir fry techniques from the Far East, where the freshly bought ingredients are cut and cooked so as best to display their colour and individual textures and innovates using spices and chutneys. She marinates, steams, braises, broils and grills her meats and fish, so as to use the very minimum of oil and uses herbs and spices to bring out the flavours in the food.
Or again, to quote from her book: "Everybody is aware of health and heart attacks and cholesterol is a household world. This does not mean that we have to eat what is known as rabbit food. But we do have to eat with awareness and that awareness has to be part of our everyday life. Weight loss diets work, but for how long? If your basic lifestyle reverts to a daily dose of fried food, you have lost the point completely. For my part I concentrate on recipes using fresh vegetables and spices and in the non-vegetarian section, seafood and white meat. Desserts are often fruit based with the addition of a little alcohol for that extra lift and chutneys and relishes are light, tangy and oil free."
She grew up in England eating what she calls Indian-English food at home. From the age of 12, however, she spent every one of her summers in France and this is where she learnt the art of enjoying food, in all its myriad variety. "It could be as simple as going to shop for a melon, feeling a melon, picking it up in your hand and smelling it and then maybe taking it back to your kitchen and eating it. Just that melon. Learning how to enjoy just one ingredient and making the most of it." She feels that the idea of simplicity being a quality that can be enjoyed is something that she learnt from her years of apprenticeship in France. She thinks that this is an idea that she would like to introduce to the Indian public, that up-market need not mean the heavy greasy meals that have come to be associated with fine dining.
"Fine dining can mean natural, perfect ingredients cooked in a simple style. I don't go in for preservatives, or artificial colour, or all the fussy details that some chefs might favour. But I do believe in choosing the right ingredients, the right cuts of meat, fresh vegetables, the right atmosphere, the right accessories, good cutlery, plates and dishes, with a nice bright tablecloth, a bottle of wine. I don't ask for much, but I know very clearly what I want."
She describes her career as starting with a three year stint as a food writer for The Independent, during which time, she travelled a lot, read a lot and of course educated her palate, as she puts it. When she came to India, she was able to sample the fascinating variety of the Indian sub-continent when she co-wrote, The Penguin Food Lovers Guide to India and Nepal with Gul Anand, her partner at that time. It is still one of the best all India guides to eating out. As she describes it, while Gul was street wise as far as Indian food was concerned and had a great many friends who would recommend the specialities of a city or town, she brought her academic training to set down certain standards.
This was the period when she ran a Salad Bar in Mumbai and then started an European style Gourmet Cheese Shop and Delicatessen. These early experiences with running a food shop convinced her that in India you have either to go into the food business in a big way, or to be a specialist catering to a niche market. Now that she has finally graduated into the big time, with her own brand of jams and preserves that seems to run by itself, her stints as a management consultant, her experiments with "Soul Spice" and her regular appearances in the media, Karen appears to be as unfazed by the attention as ever. Though she may have started a trend, she refuses to swing with the purveyors of what has been described as "gastro porn" and become a trendy writer. For Karen, food has its reasons that only the palate can understand.
"Food is a social thing. It's something that has to be enjoyed. It's a very sensual pleasure. I don't like to bolt down my food and run, which is the way that most rich Indians prefer to eat. I like to take my time in cooking it and it eating it. I like to get down to the basics and then innovate. I think Indians, ordinary Indians are by and large some of the most innovative cooks you can find. Which is why everyone remembers their grandmother's cooking. That's where it all begins."
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