A (culinary) passage to India: filmmaker as exotic chef

FOR only a very few, fame can take many forms. Within just a few days, crowds assembled on the East and West Coasts of the United States to honor Ismail Merchant for two quite different achievements - in film and food.

``A Room With a View,'' which Mr. Merchant directed, won three Oscars in this year's ceremonies. His accomplishments also include roles as director, writer, and producer of such films as ``The Europeans,'' ``The Bostonians,'' and ``Heat and Dust.''

But shortly before the star-studded awards in Los Angeles, Merchant was in the spotlight at quite a different assembly in a Philadelphia restaurant: to recognize his achievement as a culinary artist, chef, and author of the new cookbook, ``Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine'' (St. Martin's Press, $19.95).

At Philadelphia's Carolina Restaurant, director Merchant commanded a kitchen crew of seven, preparing a menu that reflected Merchant's highly personalized interpretation of the intriguing and sometimes pungent cuisine of his native India.

More than 100 Philadelphians had made reservations weeks ahead so they could taste the saffron rice, lemony prawns, spicy curries, and other exotic dishes described in Merchant's cookbook, which has been a best seller in England, and is now catching on in the United States.

It all began when Merchant first came to this country and despaired of finding the ``homey tastes of India'' in New York City's automat restaurants. Relying on his nostalgia for the haunting flavors of home and his liking for French and Chinese foods, he dreamed up dishes that are a complete departure from other books on Indian cooking.

``Before I left India I knew about Chinese cooking, but in America I learned about French, Italian, and many others, and it was here that I actually learned how to cook,'' he says. ``As an Indian host I just couldn't offer guests hamburgers and hot dogs. They expected something exotic.''

Ironically, it wasn't until he arrived in the United States (in 1958) that he began to prepare his own meals and develop his approach to Indian food. Merchant says for years he never dared tell his mother and sisters that he had learned how to cook, although later they were surprised and pleased, if somewhat alarmed. In India, cooking in the home is something family men do not do - especially when you have six sisters, all talented in the kitchen, says Merchant.

``Cooking is done by the women of the household and passed on from one generation to the next,'' he explains. ``Each family has its own style or `taste' somehow bequeathed by grandmother to mother to daughters - and occasionally to a son, like myself.

``The old memories out of the kitchen of childhood are overlaid with new ones, making another `family taste' that has now become part of me and my cooking,'' he says.

In the cookbook preface, director James Ivory describes Merchant's cooking as ``fast family food - some of it rough and ready, some of it leftover, some with a surprising degree of freshness and delicacy of ingredient and inspiration.'' Merchant often combines ingredients such as dried French herbs and lemon with his favorite Indian fish, pomfret. Another fish dish combines Dijon mustard with dill, bay, and cayenne. He is equally lavish with coconut, fresh tamarind, caraway, and cumin.

The chef tells wonderful stories of visits to the huge, famous Crawford produce market in Bombay and to the Nul Bazaar with his father on Saturdays, of going from stall to stall to find the best quality and the best price for fruit, fish, and vegetables. Good ingredients, he stresses, are ``far more important'' than a fancy kitchen.

``Indian cooks prepare superb meals of many dishes while they crouch over one burner set in the floor,'' he says. ``Knowing this, I have worked out some recipes that can be done in less than an hour, although mine often take more than one burner.''

Merchant says he has cooked meals for such friends as Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Reeve, Diane Kagan, Ingrid Bergman, and Raquel Welch. Dick Robbins, who composed the music for several of Merchant's recent films, including ``A Room With a View,'' helped test many of the recipes in the cookbook.

One thing friends exclaim about is his speed and efficiency in putting together a great dinner in a short time. Merchant says it's not unusual for him to bring friends home for dinner, stopping on the way to buy ingredients for a special meal. ``When they see me park the brown bags of food on the kitchen counter and sit down and talk with them, they begin to wonder if dinner is ever coming,'' he says. ``But once I start, it doesn't take long.'' Most of the dishes in the cookbook take less than an hour.

He tells of one of his first company meals, for his friends Saeed and Madhur Jaffrey (author of ``An Invitation to Indian Cooking,'' Knopf). ``Madhur hadn't yet written her cookbook, and we both wanted to create in New York City the Indian flavors we had grown up with at home. They first tasted my cooking the night Saeed brought Madhur from the hospital with their firstborn, Zia, in their tiny apartment on West 27th Street.

``In wanting to please my American friends,'' he continues, ``I learned how to do all the things men are not allowed to do in India: the cooking, shopping, and the serving.

``In the United States one has to do everything, and I enjoy it all the way. I discovered that my cooking not only pleased my friends but also was useful and helpful when I brought home to dinner people involved with all aspects of filmmaking.''

Merchant says he enjoys cooking most of all at home - in a small house in New York State's Hudson Valley. But because he travels a lot, he has learned to put a meal together anywhere - even ``on location'' at the Carolina Restaurant.

The popularity of Merchant's book - as well as the emanating aromas of ginger-chicken, fresh coriander, cardamom, and cumin - drew an overflow crowd to the South 20th Street establishment, and owner Bill Hoffman apologetically turned away those without reservations.

Merchant was certainly at ease in the capacity of guest chef. Carolina's chef, David Raimond, was impressed that Merchant arrived four days ahead to discuss the menu and recipes. During dinner the director talked with guests from table to table, as they asked questions on everything from making tandoori to making movies.

The evening began with a delicious Watercress-Potato Soup. Prawns were served with a choice of a refreshing yogurt sauce or tangy mustard sauce. Savory Onion Rice and Saute'ed Zucchini were a perfect balance for the lemon lentils (Nimbu Masoor Dal).

The event concluded with two desserts that were real pleasers: a special, traditional Indian Rice Pudding (Kheer) and Carrot Halva.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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