The Gourmet by Subroto Mukerji | Gastronomy | Foods

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The Gourmet Pierre Courbertin was restless and more than a little annoyed. He was waiting for Majboot Singh and he was also beginning to feel hungry, and while he hardly liked to be kept waiting, he had a far greater aversion to hunger. Men like him were not meant to feel hungry. Hunger was a degrading experience, a debasing, humiliating fact of life that was the destiny of the poor and downtrodden, the under-nourished masses, the toilers and the sweatycollared. It was a close relative of overwork and malnutrition, poverty and exploitation, a constant companion of cheerless lives that looked forward to nothing as eagerly as the blessed release of death. It was not something that was to be felt by the idle rich of the world. But he could feel the onset of the first pangs of hunger now, and it was decidedly unsettling. Courbertin was of the wealthy upper classes that have more money than they know what to do with. In sorting out his life priorities, after he had inherited the family business of global shipping, aircraft manufacture and the chain of Export-Import Houses that ran themselves under professional management, he had decided that he would devote the rest of his life to exploring—not the higher reaches of finance—but the highest realms of gastronomic experience. Since that day, he lived but to eat selectively, eat exclusively, eat luxuriously…eat like few men before him had ever eaten. He had tried all the gustatory avenues available to the sybarite; none of the hedonistic solutions to ennui had appealed to him more than the intensely personal pleasure of sampling exceptionally good non-vegetarian food. An outstanding dish, well cooked and served, had the power to arouse him spiritually, to inspire him to a passionate contemplation of life’s immeasurable bounties. His predilections—and his insatiable appetite for gustatory adventures—had taken him far beyond the traditional eating-places of the rich, where each item on a menu could feed a poor family for a year, dishes that cost a king’s ransom and yet left him ever more dissatisfied. His awesome wealth, his encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s cuisines and his unwavering food fixation had made him one of the most famous gourmets of all time, a lover of extreme cuisine for whom lark’s tongues in honey were pedestrian stuff. His opinions carried weight, and his observations could make or mar the reputation of many a Cordon Bléu chef. A good dinner was to him as meditation was to a monk: it stimulated his inner person and gave him a glimpse of Higher Possibilities. He roamed far from well-trodden paths, discarding the usual continental conurbations such as Paris, Vienna and London and traveling to distant lands, sometimes enduring unconscionable hardships in search of more and yet ever more exotic dishes to tantalize his taste buds. To satisfy his craving for novel cooking had become as an obsession with him.

and he saw nothing excessive in pursuing its fulfilment. But he wasn’t sure enough to make a pronouncement just yet. He ate heartily and well—his well-rounded form was walking testimony to that—but to compare him with the over-indulgent patricians of Rome in its final years of decline. Baboon. Chimpanzee and Giraffe. undeterred by the fact that the snake was one of the most venomous reptiles in the world. Gorilla. Dugong sausages. A keen appetite. but he hastily swept his misgivings under whatever table he was dining at and concentrated on testing his palate against the world’s rarest dishes. parboiled Pandas. He was too rich to be greedy. He had feasted on Llama stew. He had devoured the steaming brains of Liontailed Macaques. He had tasted of Ostrich. as was the gourmet of myth. He would have tried Yeti if he could lay his hands on a specimen. juicy Lion steaks. but he was not a gormandizer. broiled Andean Condor. a little too fanatical in his quest. Now it all seemed to be coming together. At some time or the other.2 He was human—as he grudgingly admitted to himself in rare moments of introspection that he allowed to happen in the secret recesses of his mind— and he knew that such fanatical pursuit of culinary delights was somehow as corrupting as the honest hunger of the underprivileged. would have been have been an act of gross injustice. Wart Hog. the answer to the Final Question: What was the Best Meal in the World? Secretly. no one in his right mind could have accused Courbertin of gluttony. Black Mamba. Puma pies. Yet for all his fame as a titillator of taste buds. filleted Piranha fried in butter. and even Platypus patties. he found himself leaning ever closer towards the flesh of the primates. Zebra. spooning it out of the skulls after they had been boiled in brine and their bony crowns had been neatly sliced off with a machete to expose the oyster-like contents. Crocodile. and King crabs the Inuit peoples lived off. sweet and sour Anaconda in mushroom sauce. an answer lurked somewhere within his subconscious. roasted Canada goose. perhaps. to name but a few. Wildebeest. Mandrill. the meat of hundreds of the world’s fauna had lined his stomach. which was humiliating). Koala cutlets. Vampire bats stuffed with apple dumplings and boiled in maple syrup. Opossum. he . It always seemed as if the very next dish could hold the answer. Aardvark. He felt appetite was elevating (as opposed to hunger. who had built vomitoriums to facilitate their passion for incessant gorging. minced Kodiak bear. He had made many discoveries in the process of sampling African Bush meat —from Okapi sirloin to grilled gazelle liver—but he leaned earnestly towards Bushmaster fillets fried in raw olive oil. His obsession had taken him to Alaska for the Artic Char. either. He was not a dainty nibbler. Rhinoceros. but his innocent enthusiasm saved him from decadence. Kangaroo kabobs. and to his utter surprise. he had tried Reindeer and even—during a brief famine—eaten wolf meat. He was the epitome of the accomplished epicure. Salmon. Hippopotamus.

3 felt. They introduced themselves as they sat down next to each other. who began to take a lively interest in his companion’s remarks on the courses as they came and went. On rare occasions. the brawny man from the Punjab was a true- . Yet. The Frenchman was pleasantly surprised to find that despite his rough-hewn exterior. * So as he waited for Majboot Singh in the foyer of the posh hotel in New Delhi. One can hardly rely on them for intellectual prowess. It’s hardly surprising that although there’s no such thing as a sardarji philosopher. the Sikh turned to the subject of his other pet fascination—the menu. encomiums and eulogies accompanied the verdict. and Majboot’s refreshing candour appealed to the retiring Frenchman. for sardarjis are the earthiest of the earth’s earthy. whetted the mind. Like all his opportunistic and extroverted clansmen. and turbaned Indian towered above the crowd like a Punjabi Paul Bunyan. they see little need to over-exercise their mental muscles. a man who chose to approach the table in as much anonymity as was possible for one of the earth’s leading connoisseurs. lovingly prepared to perfection by an inspired cook. They are unabashed hedonists. even if such a feat were at all possible. was something to be proud of—it was a sign of good mental and physical health—especially when summoned up over a dish cooked to perfection. there is no dearth of sardarji sofa-fillers. for all his fascination with fastidious fooding. The large. Courbertin had met Majboot Singh at a reception given by the King of Morocco in the Hôtel de Paradiso. bearded. When he had done with checking out the women at the table (all the time twirling his moustache appreciatively). ever failed to be exonerated of all charges. and goaded the taste buds into delivering a fair verdict. It turned out that Singh was an exporter of Indian handicrafts. he was fond of the good things of life. No dish. and well-suited to the turquoise that was the size of a pigeon’s egg) had promised him the adventure to end all adventures. Le bon appetit instigated by the aroma of good food was like the Code Napoleon: it promoted impartiality even as it presumed that the defendant was guilty until proven innocent. if ever there was one. He recalled with keen anticipation—as he pulled back his cuff to peek discreetly at his Rolex—how the burly sardarji with the huge turquoise ring on his little finger (‘little’ was a misnomer. but they are uncommonly useful to have on one’s side when it comes to a mix-up at a dock-front bar. thought Courbertin: the said finger was the size of a decent frankfurter. Firmly rooted to the soil. and were more sought-after than knighthoods by restaurateurs. Courbertin was a shy sybarite. in Paris. They never allow their minds to soar to empyrean heights. The proclamations of Pierre Courbertin—scathing or generous—went straight into the food columns of international cuisine magazines. It sharpened the anticipation. his presence failed to elicit little more than the occasional curious glance. a business that took him all over the world. endowed as they are with hearty appetites and exceptional physiques.

and his last. He knows there is no such thing as a free lunch. Courbertin felt enervated by the waves of energy and power that emanated from the man. the gastronomical equivalent of Russian roulette. the strong spirits) of the world. It had been his twenty-second encounter. The titanic bulk of the sardarji lumbered into the foyer. as he puts the first morsel in his mouth. He reminded the Frenchman of prime beef on the hoof. even for the self-indulgent sardarji. the celebrated French gastronome of an earlier century. Not for him the dramatic gamble of going at Fugu one time too many. A massive chest balanced an equally wide. His huge paunch sagged over the fashionably wide leather belt. a man who knew the foods (and. Courbertin saw that he was clad in T-shirt and jeans. had described gastronomy as “the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man's nourishment. Majboot Singh was one-up on Courbertin in that he had tried Fugu…and lived to tell the tale of its delicate. It is never possible to predict with any degree of certainty the toxicity or otherwise of a Fugu. There are always strings attached. it must be confessed. Once was quite enough. It went with the territory.4 blue epicure. orange-scented flavour. It took him all over the globe. had keeled over at a fashionable restaurant in Hong Kong and died in convulsions within seconds of ingesting his first mouthful of Fugu. but Courbertin didn’t mind. The true gourmet is always a realist. a fish found in Japanese waters and reputed to be the tastiest in the world. this culinary courtship for commercial considerations. well fleshed out to be sure but . Majboot Singh had survived to tell the tale of his first (and—he was determined—his final) foray into the ranks of the Fugu worshippers. and his brawny arms bulged with muscle. all the better. He would never have taken the promise seriously had it come from anyone else. but the knowledgeable Indian was another matter. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. if too well. after receiving the ‘all clear’ from Delhi. the uncrowned king of the Fugu eaters.” Majboot called it ‘the intelligent man’s way to nourishing entertainment’. chow-savvy Lee Kew Chen. He intended to live long and eat wisely. It can also turn out to be the most toxic. a size 56 at least. just last year. If it meant he got to partake of Olympian fare as well. Courbertin had journeyed all the way to dusty Delhi because Majboot had promised him the ultimate epicurean experience. Legs like tree trunks did extreme things to the jeans he wore. Courbertin himself was but of medium height. whether he will bite into ecstasy or eternity. Courbertin had flown down to meet Majboot and take him up on his promise. The casual dress accentuated his enormous frame. No Fugu eater really knows. Why. A month later. muscular back. Lurking at the back of the Indian’s offer was the hint of a business deal.

to his envy. shouting directions over the bedlam in his native Punjabi tongue. The sardarji. either.5 somewhat the worse for wear (at fifty-one) and prone to sciatica. Malodorous vapors tortured his olfactory system. The din and confusion of Delhi’s chaotic traffic belaboured his eardrums. The deep carpeting. and today being one of the appointed days. faceless single-storied structure squeezed between two taller buildings from whose balconies young ladies. he urged the auto driver to greater speed with taps on his shoulders. in various (and garish) shades of makeup and matching attire. well spaced-out dining tables. seemed quite immune to the provocation around him. The Frenchman’s heart sank within his breast even as his burgeoning appetite expired in the squalid surroundings. on certain days in the year. the scenes of bygone feasts that adorned the walls. waited patiently to seat two to four diners each. covered with plain white tablecloths. A limited number of small. The faint aroma of good cooking lingered in the air. the décor from an earlier age of kings and conquerors who filled their huge palaces with the choicest things of the earth…all served to enhance the ambience. As his eyes gradually adjusted to the dim lighting of the interior. they were merely going to reconnoitre the eatery and make their advance payment and reservations for a table at eight tonight. and his eyes watered at the noxious fumes from auto engines. He could hardly be described as being in the prime of life. . yet somehow focused in some obscure way as to enable the scanty photons of light to congeal in puddles of discreet illumination around the tables. He had weathered many hardships in his quest for the best of the world’s cuisines. but not before Majboot made a sheepish confession. grinning fiercely from behind the profusion of whiskers that obscured most of his face. hanging on for dear life to the grab rail. It was always a supper event. Blissfully unaware of the acute distress of his companion. however. the rarest and tastiest delicacy in the world. waved uninhibitedly to the two men who alighted from the three-wheeler. but this one was near the top of the list. Courbertin wondered what he’d let himself in for this time. He had never sampled the slated dish. They shook hands enthusiastically and set off immediately. The auto twisted and gyrated violently through some of the narrowest lanes Courbertin had ever negotiated in a vehicle. the restaurant in question served ‘Mutton Mahakarma’. especially when juxtaposed with the vital and ebullient Indian who was striding delightedly towards him. The lighting was tasteful: diffused. till it finally stopped before a small. The silent approval of a satisfied clientele seemed to hover benignly over the room. The interior of the restaurant was lavish enough to be called opulent. Seated in the poorly sprung and noisy auto-rickshaw alongside Majboot. But he had it on the word of a good friend that. Courbertin’s misgivings abated.

as if for inspiration. oily-looking man had emerged from the gloomy recesses behind the manager’s cabin to enquire as to their business. the awful smells and the pandemonium hit the European like a sledgehammer. A small. Strong as an ox and bursting with the juices and vitality of ten. Courbertin rubbed his temples. Courbertin failed to respond to the outcry. The more spiteful among his . waving energetically in the hot sun. They emerged into the bright sunshine. At this juncture. promising to pick him up at seven-fifteen that evening from the hotel. Now he saw it depart again as suddenly as it had been resurrected. leaving in its wake a dull throbbing at the temples. Courbertin had seen it all before. followed by exchange of money. He saw the stricken Frenchman off at the rickshaw stand. He had seen his appetite vanish. A table was reserved for them for eight that evening. So incongruous was the sardarji’s sanguinary bulk in the midst of grinding poverty and naked starvation that Courbertin wondered—as his three-wheeled vehicle bore him swiftly homewards—how many million acre-feet of lush grass had gone into the raising of the prime cattle that had thereafter featured in the assembly of the redoubtable Sardar Majboot Singh. A thick wad of currency notes was seen to change hands. It was as if he was preoccupied with something meatier than mere victuals. so Pierre Courbertin had to be content to dine alone.6 Courbertin returned to the present. appeared totally unfazed. blinking their watering eyes. friendly darkness of his hotel room. then revive in the inviting interior they had just left. made in Punjab and therefore far more durable. ‘Mutton Mahakarma’ was on the bill of fare. almost was) all about should shun his fellow men in so churlish a fashion. alternately twirling his moustache and rubbing the gigantic turquoise on his little finger. France wondered. and asked Majboot to follow him inside. The strain had proved too much for his nervous system. It was unthinkable that their leading expert on what Paris was (well. He needed to lie down and rest in the cool. He flew home the next evening… to retreat behind a silence so comprehensive that even the editors of food magazines couldn’t penetrate it. Majboot lapsed into rapid-fire Hindi that made no sense to Courbertin. * Majboot Singh sent an elaborate note of apology stating that he had been called away to attend to a sudden crisis at his home in Amritsar. the dust. The unctuous one seemed to be in a state of complete denial. with Majboot just as forcefully insistent. followed by seemingly reluctant acceptance. the sebaceous one conceded defeat. The suffocating heat. The massive Indian. he stood there like some vast outcropping of nourishment in a sea of squalid deprivation. in the Orient: vociferous denial of available reservations. Courbertin felt tired just looking at the beefy expanse of him. as if a favour had been granted.

7 critics speculated whether—after consuming the tongues of so many of God’s creatures—the cat had finally managed to get his tongue. were firmly of the opinion that the gourmet had found his Holy Grail and. having done so. Even as the ‘Good Living’ columnists and Talk Show hosts failed to entice him out of his selfimposed hibernation. Courbertin never issued any explanation. Courbertin had turned vegetarian after his return from India. however. Had he become a Buddhist? Could his over-strained palate have succumbed to the ravages of some mysterious malady? Did he have carcinoma of the colon? No one knew what had occasioned this abrupt makeover. the rumour mills were busy churning out theories to explain the foppish Frenchman’s inexplicable behaviour. nor did he ever emerge into the public eye again till his death. Members of his faithful inner circle. a year after his visit to India. had decided to call it a day. gastronomically speaking. Who could ever have guessed that he did so simply because he found—at the bottom of a bowl of the fabled preparation that went by the name of Mutton Mahakarma—an artifact as inconsequential as a turquoise ring? ~*~ . Then his valet sold his diary to Paris Match…and the incredible truth was at last revealed.

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