Chop, dice, pare, julienne...
How you cut the ingredients can affect the final outcome because there is more than one way to cut...
Photo: Special Arrangement
To get that final shape and size...
Back in the 1960s, restaurants always served sandwiches with a “hedge” on the side: lettuce, cut into fine strips and piled into a fragile wall. It would be dark green and bitter. Remember no one ate rocket, arugula in those days, so this was common garden lettuce, with no specific name, which was sweet in its natural form, but ruined and turned bitter by cutting. Today we've learnt never to use a knife on salad leaves — they bruise and suffer — and that this style of cutting is called chiffonade. Leaves are stacked, tightly rolled, and then cut across with a sharp knife, so that a pile of ribbons is produced.
Another kind of expert cutting is that which is used in Thai fruit and vegetable displays. The entrance to the fancier Thai restaurants sometimes has a giant rose, tinted with green and white, which is actually a watermelon carved and scalloped in layers to expose first the green, then the white, and finally the red interior. Beautiful and yet intimidating. And this is the same cuisine where cooks plonk a jug filled with fresh basil leaves on to the dining table, so that you can tear off some to crunch with your pad thai. Probably both techniques work in different ways; one stimulates the appetite directly and the other is meant to impress with the skill and care involved.
Garnishing the dishes
I remember anchoring a TV food show, years ago, alternately with a trained chef. He was appreciative of my episodes, but appalled at my lack of “garnish”. So one day he made a platter of tomato roses, spring onion florets and other complicated vegetable titbits, and put it under the work counter, out of the camera's line of sight. He told me I could reach it with my right hand, and that I absolutely must use them. My cooking, he said, was good; these would elevate it to stylish. But I belong to the Lazy School of Cooking and, despite every intention to, quite forgot, because I'm not used to frills.
Cutting techniques, though, are another story. They're not frills; they are the most important part of preparing a meal. How you cut (or pare, chop, carve, cleave, dice or julienne) or even trim, hull, mince, slice, rip, shred or tear, affects the outcome. Sometimes you just top and tail. The very existence of different words that denote different techniques is a sign. Because how a vegetable is shaped changes the taste. My favourite way to cut young cucumbers, for instance, is to just halve them lengthwise, peel intact. When the cucumbers are bigger, I like them cut into long, thick batons. For a sandwich, the most convenient shape is wide rectangular pieces sliced off the entire length. The juice expresses better, and those abominable discs that people love don't slip and fall out. Worse is grating, or fine dicing, which is best in a raita, in which the juice mixes with the yoghurt, but in a sandwich the bread becomes soggy and effectively ruined. And it's unnecessary work.
There is a reason why cheese is pared, why Parmesan is shaved, why truffles are grate: you need thin slices or small shreds, because that's all the flavour that's required; more would be overwhelming. Even in Indian cooking, pulao and biryani require just a few onions to be sliced finely and fried crisp before being added to the cooked dish because their flavour is different from the rest of the onions, which are used in the same dish: either boiled in the bouquet garni or grated and sautéed for the meat. Traditional cooks insist on vegetables being cut in a particular way; potatoes, for instance, are diced or halved with the skin still on for alu methi, but boiled and crumbled for the gravy that is served with pooris. Beans are sometimes chopped fine, sometimes cut on the bias, and sometimes split lengthwise; and that changes how they taste and how they absorb spices.
Strangely, though, we have very few words for knives, and even fewer designs. In Hindi, there are only chaku and chhura (or chhuri) and both mean the same thing. Bengal traditionally has the bonti (or ansh-bonti, for fish): a curved, raised blade attached to a long, flat piece of wood or to a metal frame. But look at Japan. Deba bocho is a kitchen cleaver, santoku hocho an all-purpose utility knife, nakiri bocho and usuba hocho, vegetable knives, and tako hiki and yanagi ba are sashimi slicers. Possibly the reason is that presentation is integral to Japanese food, unlike ours, and so their tools are appropriate.
For the rest of us, the only rule is common sense: food shouldn't be tortured into unnatural shapes and the size of each piece should be convenient. For instance in a salad, the ideal shape and size of every ingredient size is bite-sized morsels: so leaves should be torn and not whole and everything else should be cut in the kitchen. With Indian food, though, long pieces work because we're eating with our fingers and can pick up and bite them (the salad vegetables, not the fingers). And of course there's personal preference — some people like raw onions to be sliced fine and rinsed, to dilute the sharpness, and I like them just quartered. Or better still, smashed with a fist and soaked in vinegar.
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