Game for Quail
Chef Madhu Krishnan never just walks into a restaurant. She marches in, toque firmly in place. On her face lies enthusiasm, in her eyes resolve and if you know her as well as I do, her brain cells have already mapped out the next one year in culinary creations. Minor cooks and trainee chefs have been known to quail at the sight of that determined jaw, until they chance upon her smile.
As executive chef of the ITC hotel, The Maratha Mumbai, luxury collection, Madhu raises the bar for her colleagues. Smiling wryly she informs me, "I hate to fail. I spend each day with a single point focus to excel. Because excellence is not an option. Because I only compete with myself!" Because it's clear that for Madhu, her role model is herself.
So when Madhu announces that she is going to cook for us, in full glare of lights and camera, expectations are obviously high. It's a sunny afternoon outside the ITC Grand Maratha, Sahar; the heat compounded by the proximity to the international airport. Inside this bespoke hotel however, everything purrs with air-conditioned efficiency. West View, the hotel's grill restaurant, opened earlier this year, is unusually busy at 3 p.m. Chefs of various denominations hustle and bustle, hither and thither, carrying trays laden with exotic fruits and vegetables, setting up this, attending to that. Inside the eye of the hurricane, is another whirligig. Multitasker Madhu is attending to a barrage of mobile calls, each one ending with, "Do it yourself, don't bother me, I'm in the middle of a shoot." Turning 180 degrees, she catches sight of me watching her and shouts out an imperative, "Never done this recipe before, so Vinod, just say it's stunning, ok?"
Napoleon would have quailed. Gulp. If you've read this far, you've realised as an intelligent Verve reader, that I have punned on the word quail. Twice. For it's not often that one gets to eat this small bird of the pheasant family phasianidae called coturnix, commonly known as the common quail. (Okay, couldn't resist that either). Banned for years in India as a protected species, it's only since quail farming has become a viable industry that these protein power packed plump birds are featured on high-end restaurant menus.
In a mortar, star anise and sea salt are being pounded like Schwarzenegger would pound those he wants to terminate. This releases the herb's oleoresins. Smell them, commands Madhu. I do. Before I can comment on its unusual aroma, it's whisked away from under my nose to be dumped into a pan of olive oil which contains chopped thyme and chives. Whisking briskly, Madhu marinates five de-feathered quails in this unctuous emulsion.
Looking at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, daring me to challenge that she does know what she's doing, she holds up a bottle that has maple syrup labeled on it and dunks this sugary concoction. Maple syrup! So what are you doing Madhu? Pat comes the smart reply: "Cooking is a troika of the arts, sciences and sensibilities. Each plays a vital role in creating culinary standards of excellence." Humph. I feel as if I am back in school.
Meanwhile, one of Madhu's star pupils Chef Pavan Kumar who has specialised in Naidu cuisine is giving his quails a different treatment altogether. One of the oldest communities in Andhra Pradesh, the Naidus were gold, silver and pearl merchant for the jjamindars and nawabs. Mainly meat and fish eaters, their cuisine makes liberal use of two ingredients: tamarind and hot chilies. Tamarind's fresh flowers and tender leaves called chigur are curried and the fruit is used to make chutneys as well as cooling drinks.
Cool as a cucumber in front of the roaring fire, chef Pavan fries onions, mustard seeds, fennel seeds in a pan till they turn golden brown. Ginger, garlic, turmeric, dhaniya, red chilies are thrown in and five minutes later, Pavan adds the raw marinade (pounded raw mangoes, cumin and fiery green chilies) he had made the night before. In this volcanic mix, go the quails.
Madhu goes again, tongue firmly in cheek. "The highest reward for a man's toil is not what he gets for it but what he comes by it." Since the quails, cooked in two completely different styles have come my way, who am I to argue? Knife and fork at the ready, I dig in. Yummm! To both.