Have you ever wondered if that lemon twist on top of your martini or a dollop of cream on the 'daal makhani' is anything more than a quirk? Celebrity Chef Vikas Kumar delves deeper into the world of garnishes and shares his insights.
CHERRY ON TOP
So really, why are we discussing garnishes, I mean aren't there more pertinent culinary topics that need more focus and attention? Sure there might be, but for the moment, let me tell you a story. Once when I was working for a certain organisation as a Galley Chef, I was asked if I'd want to be the 'garnish man'. And I was like, sure! It's just garnish, like a cherry on the cake, right? Wrong. So the job of the garnish man was to prepare all the garnishes of all the dishes across the sections – we are talking about some 3000 meals, almost 20 dishes, all intricately prepared and the garnish was, well,'the cherry on the cake' and had to be just perfect since it was the first visual that the guest will get of the dish and will make up his own judgements before actually tasting (or not tasting) the dish. Apparently, the garnish man himself had to be the proverbial cherry just discussed, and in terms of skills and speed had to be second to none in the kitchen.
So let's then discuss the ubiquitous crowning glory of the food dishes, the garnish.
Why indeed? To put it anecdotally, well why do we wear jewellery/ make up? To look good, complete in a way perhaps. I'd say, same with food. If good food is the foundation of genuine happiness, the garnish on that food is what entices you towards it, makes you want it more and provides the visual stimulus to appreciate a food prior to sinking your teeth in. Garnishes are usually in colours opposite to the colour of the main dish, and to that extent provide a burst of colour and liveliness to the food dish. Imagine a plate of pasta in white sauce, white cheese and cream sitting in front of you. Now imagine it with a bright green sprig of parsley, some bright red cherry tomato and a splash of gorgeous light green olive oil. Imagine the difference. Get it?
The second and a very important reason for food garnishing is that the garnishes always enhance the flavour of the main dish and complements it in the overall taste profile. Think about lemon with fish, birista (deep fried onion) on top of biryani, pistachio on Gajar Halva or a drizzle of balsamic vinegar on a salad, all these enhance the flavour of the main dish and make it taste better.
Another reason for food garnishing is for the purpose of identification of the ingredients of the dishes. You will find, at most times the garnish tells more about the dish. For example, garnishing a pineapple pastry with pineapple and cherry, a dollop of cream on a cream soup, some makkhan on daal makkhani,...well you get the idea. Stop salivating!
Filling up a plate or a serving dish is also quite functional of garnishes and many times garnishes are used to make the dishes look more full and complete. This is specially true for dishes that are served in a buffet or on a dinner table. A pertinent example will be a Christmas Turkey which has so many garnish components that it makes the dish look really fancy and celebratory, ditto for a salad or a dessert.
Indian Food Garnishes
Well from our childhoods we have seen all our food dishes integrated with their garnishes to an extent that we have always considered them to be a part of the dish itself. Think our dals without the garlic and cumin tempering, our Halvas without the tiny sprinkling of crushed cardamom seeds or a plate of chholey without the chopped dhania or the ginger juliennes. I have always maintained that Indian food is by far the most advanced, balanced and varied of all culinary styles of the world and has always been ahead of its times. Let me give you some examples of how the food garnishes have become integral to our food culture that we don't really think much of them but they do indeed tick all boxes to be a worthy garnish and serves its full purpose. So there obviously are millions of Indian dishes that I could table here but will stick to the best known and easily relatable by all. First, the very popular Pao Bhaji – do you realize that a dollop of half melted butter, the chopped onions and coriander, tomato, lemon all are essentially garnishes and yet you will find at least all these in all pao bhajis served anywhere in the country or the world. In Bengal they serve 'Masala Muri' a more pungent and humble cousin of the bhelpuri and you will almost always find it garnished with some peanuts, a slice of coconut and some sprouts, nobody really thinks much but classic garnishes look good, taste good and provide an interesting contrast to the main food item. Similarly, almost all Indian food items have inherent garnishing that gives the food complexity, texture and colour. The case in point is the huge Indian Thalis that are served with a multitude of dishes in small bowls or saucers, yet all these will almost always have their individual garnishes, often different from each other.
So I have been scratching my head as to which recipe to give that will do justice to a topic such as this. Obviously, I had to find a recipe where the garnish is highlighted and stands out. To that extent, I am giving the recipe for a French dish. In French cuisine, there are many dishes that are known by their garnishes and are distinguishable only based on that. The name of the dish is 'French Onion Soup' and is always served with a rather discernible garnish which is a large bread and cheese crouton.
FRENCH ONION SOUP
100 g Butter
30 ml Olive oil
450 g Sliced onions
500ml Chicken/Beef /Vegetable stock
30 ml Red wine (optional)
1 g Dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
For the toast
2 slices French bread
2 slices cheddar cheese
20 g Grated Parmesan cheese
Melt butter with olive oil in a stock pot on medium heat. Add onions, and cook on a medium flame until tender and translucent. Do not brown the onions.
Add the stock, wine and thyme. Season with salt and pepper, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Layer each slice of bread with a slice of cheese, and 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese.
Ladle the soup in warm bowls. Just before serving, place the toast on the soup and put under a hot salamander/grill until the cheese melts and bread turns toasty.