Words on a plate

The menu boasts no dish names but will serve up similes and metaphors, oxymorons and syllogism, with metonymy that might pass for irony.

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Illustration by Siddharth Sengupta.

Illustration by Siddharth Sengupta.

I woke up this morning in a restaurant. And not just any old restaurant. This one will be written about. The day’s degustation will find words. The menu won’t name a single dish but will serve up similes and metaphors, hyperbole by the ton, oxymoron and syllogism, metonymy spiked with slivers of spite that might pass for irony. After which, watch me emerge, aproned and capped, once and forever chef extraordinaire.

How on earth will I meet the challenge? (That’s geography, not rhetoric. We aren’t into zero-gravity cuisine until next week.)

Usually, I can’t think till I’ve had my first sip of coffee, but hell, it is the first item on the menu and calls for a culinary globetrot for a suitable bean. There’s just the one sort on the shelf, single origin, but where? Could be Ethiopian or Columbian or the store-down-the-road on any other day, but today I need copy.

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I do have Arabica berries roasted dark, but I lack a pet palm civet to snug them in its alimentary canal till they ferment. I could grab the neighbourhood cat and force-feed it an ounce or two, but these things take time to harvest, and the cat’s unpredictable.


I grab the nearest steel tumbler, pour—and read…

Coffee arrived in burnished flutes of austenite steel, rims gently pouted to warm, not stall, the impatient lip. None of your sanitary-ware ceramics on this table. Only steel is tolerated here, and this, beyond doubt, was 18/8. A faint crackle of chromium was discernible in the fruity meld of molybdenum and carbon, while the faint tickle of nickel lent zing. Material and design tightened texture and concentrated flavour. Past the aromatic froth, this coffee was serious stuff. At first sip, hot and bittersweet, the brain switched on cognition. The second had us dancing a tandav halfway to the gym. It wasn’t till the fourth sip that the coffee unravelled smoky tendrils of cinnamon and cardamom to reveal the bean’s brooding and mysterious terroir.

Darn! The terroir of that Mr Rochester bean is pure kitchen. I should never have used the spoon out of the garam masala bottle to stir in the sugar.

Still, I’m emboldened enough to crack eggs for breakfast.

Tricky, that, but we can all use a bit of calcium, can’t we?

An omelette is all about the pan, and mine is a bit battle-scarred. But in glide the eggs as the toast pops and the doorbell rings.

And just so you know before I dish up, my kitchen is wired for disaster. I keep a grater handy next to the toaster, a fork at the ready to prod the omelette into metamorphosis, and a fire extinguisher in case of oeufs flambé.

Also there’s always a resuscitative bowl of fruit.

Now read on…

Wanting to keep it simple, we passed up on the Udupi Usual and opted for the Basic Breakfast. The coffee should have warned us. Nothing from this chef could ever be simple.

Consider the eggs. The presentation was beguilingly rustic. The tiny portions, adorably nested in a herby tangle, emitted thin spirals of smoke. We had to pause after the first morsel to debate the origin of the egg. No chicken could pull off flavours as intense, or trail so organic a jus. My guess was a sunbird, whirring bedizened wings in the heart of a hibiscus, but the companion settled on a more rara avis, and I had to agree. Nothing less than a phoenix could have nurtured eggs like these. Charred frills of lacy albumen suggested a fiery birthing.

But we did not linger over the presentation. Enticed by the aroma of freshly ground pepper, we hurried to taste.

Omelette? Bhurji? Eggs Benedict? Oeufs en coccote?

It was all these and none of these. Little pearls of yolk popped like faux caviar on glistening puddles of pristine white. The puddles looked glacial but jiggled at first nudge and were robust enough to be sculpted with a small sharp spoon or skewered with a harpoon (provided on request).

And then came the ambush.

Lulled into gustatory bliss, as the tongue lounged in that creamy curdle, crrrunch! got our attention. Toasty peppercorn? No, the tongue protested, no match-head burn, this. This was a razor cut, the ouch in the couch, a sliver of glass? Or caramel, perhaps? But no, it was none of these.

As a largish domed fragment was revealed, we discovered the source of that crisp crackle. It came from a perfect white tuille cleverly concealed inside the omelette.

“Amazing,” we cried.

“Not at all,” the modest chef murmured, “just call it an inside-out egg.”

We ended the meal with scalene triangles of toast that spanned the entire spectrum of grey from ash to anthracite, delicately nuanced in taste from the vapid to the visceral.

For punctuation, there was fruit.

We can only say this about the meal—from grape to gripe, a masterpiece.

Chef extraordinaire?

Yep. Me.

Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed are surgeons who write together as Kalpish Ratna. Their latest book Bahadur Shah of Gujarat is in bookstores now.

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