Sauce it up!
Development of world cuisine owes a lot to the development of sauces and there are many dishes across cuisines that are actually known by the name of sauce itself
As a young culinary student at the IHM, Calcutta, I was enamoured by a multitude of new learning, but I clearly recall the chapter on sauces was one that had me develop a deep desire to understand more about the way cuisine has developed. Our extremely popular and capable, although at times too-strict-for-a-college teacher at the time, whom we lovingly referred to as 'DD' sir, would often quip to us first-year students – 'Bachchas - Once you get your sauce right, you get your dish right'. In the theory exams, I remember the topic of sauces regularly had many questions and our textbook contained more than 100 different variants of sauces that we were supposed to mug up and be ready to face the mighty DD and his unusual punishments.
What is a sauce?
In its most basic form, a sauce is a culinary ingredient, almost always of a liquid or semi-liquid texture that adds a counterpoint flavour, moisture, richness, and taste to the main dish, often protein or carbohydrate. In the olden times, it is argued that sauces were used to mask the flavours of the main dish, which sometimes due to lack of refrigeration had questionable freshness. At times, sauces were also used to showcase the variety of costly spices available to the host or the chef. In those days spices such as cardamom, cumin and nutmeg etc were a rarity and a prized ingredient and were therefore used variously in culinary preparations. Sauces, being of liquid consistency were a better carrier of these exotic flavours and were therefore generally chosen for the usage of those spices.
The 'Basic' sauces
In the French classical cuisine, there are five 'mother' sauces and almost all other sauces are a contraption of those. These mother sauces are 'Volute' – made by thickening a white stock with roux (a mixture of flour and butter), 'Béchamel' – made by thickening flavoured milk with roux, 'Espagnole' – a brown sauce made by thickening brown stock with brown roux, the brown stock itself is made with various vegetables and therefore Espagnole is a lot richer and complex in flavour. The condensed version of sauce Espagnole is the famous 'demi glaze' which is used for making many other sauces and is also served as it is in many dishes, especially red meats (beef and lamb).
The fourth sauce in our list is the luscious 'Hollandaise' which although slightly more technical in preparation is quite popular and is made with egg yolks and clarified butter. The most famous use of the Hollandaise is in the famous Eggs, Benedict. The last and the most famous mother sauce is the ubiquitous 'Tomato Sauce' which is the base sauce for many sauces and spreads such as pizza sauce, Neapolitan sauce or the famous marinara. Between these five mother sauces, there are literally hundreds of permutations, combinations and derivatives that are used the world over for almost all French or Continental preparations.
What about Shahi, Makhani and Manchurian then?
Technically speaking, there is no difference between gravy and a sauce and both are often used interchangeably. In the Indian cuisine also there are a few basic gravies and do the same job as the sauce does for Continental cuisine. The only difference is perhaps that the Indian gravies, or curries as they are generally known, are far less rich and are used in a much higher quantity as a ratio of the main component when compared to the Continental dishes.
To put it more in context, whereas we put a sauce on top of chicken for a grilled chicken, we actually put the chicken in the sauce for a chicken Makhani and often cook them both together. In other popular cuisines such as the Chinese, where different sauces form the backbone of many dishes, sauces are mostly made by fermenting fruits, legumes and fish such as oyster, soya or black bean.
Apart from sauces that are made and consumed fresh, there are a multitude of sauces, both savoury and sweet, that have come up in prepackaged, mass-produced forms and can be used right out of the bottle. This has made some traditional sauces such as pesto, sriracha and peri peri accessible to all and has resulted in increasing their popularity and reach, thereby putting those in the segment which is an intermediary between a sauce and a condiment.
Sauces such as HP, Tabasco and Mayonnaise are a good example of that too. Mayonnaise, in fact, is possibly the most widely used sauce in the world and has helped in the creation of many sauces and condiments. Similarly, salsa – the literal translation of sauce in Italian has also taken the condiment market by storm with many off the shelf products available that can replace fresh salsa in various dishes. In desserts too, there are various sauces now available such as chocolate, caramel and strawberry etc that can be used directly on desserts or sweet dishes.
In conclusion, it is perhaps not an overstatement to say that the development of world cuisine owes a lot to the development of sauces and there are many dishes across cuisines that are actually known by the name of the sauce itself, think a chicken makhani, a duck mornay, a lamb Piri Piri or a hot garlic pork, these dishes won't be there if it wasn't for the flavoursome sauces behind them, so therefore folks, Sauce it up!
For this column, I would like to produce a simple recipe of a sauce that I often failed at making and that cost me precious marks in the college exam but really could master during my training days. It is the ubiquitous and super versatile Mayonnaise.
Basically an emulsion, the only trick is to ensure that both the whisk and the bowl being used are cold and that the oil is not added very quickly. This mayonnaise will be better than any store-bought mayonnaise and will be much healthier too.
Egg Yolk: Two
Light Olive oil: 160 ml
Lemon Juice: 10 ml
Salt and Pepper: To taste
English mustard paste: 5 gm
Start by whisking the egg yolks, mustard, salt and pepper until pale and frothy. Then, start adding the oil in a steady stream and slowly emulsify until thick, almost like a viscous paste.
Store in an airtight container in the fridge. You can store this for almost a week.
There are many uses of mayonnaise – it can be used as a spread or a dip or to make sauces such as tartar, cocktail, remoulade or the celebrated thousand island dressing.