Is French cuisine just like ours? Well, obviously it isn’t. But there are many things that the French do with their cuisine that may surprise Indians who are used to our own techniques.
Butter: It was Auguste Escoffier, the legendary chef, who famously said that the three great secrets of French cuisine are butter, butter and butter. The French use butter in nearly everything. Even the great nouvelle cuisine revolution of the 70s when French food became lighter did not lead to the elimination of butter. Most French chefs will use butter in the finishing of a dish to balance out the flavours.
Stock: According to Michel Guerard one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, the most crucial component of a dish is ‘bouillon’ or stock. The French use stock for sauces, soups and gravies and every French kitchen always has at least two kinds of stock ready because it is such an integral part of the cuisine.
Animal Fat: All dairy fat is, by definition, animal fat. But the French go further. They use fat from dead animals and birds for frying and flavour. Pork fat is an essential ingredient of many dishes, which is why lots of French recipes call for bacon. In more refined kitchens, goose fat is often considered the best medium for frying potatoes.
The secret of a lot of French pastry is the use of kidney fat (suet) which ensures the flakiness of croissants and other breads. In some regions they argue that horse fat is perfect for frying chips. And all over the north, lard is a common cooking medium.
Cream: If God abolished the cow tomorrow, the French nation would collapse. It isn’t just cheese and butter. The French love their cream. Many French recipes require cream and such classic dishes as a blanquette would not exist if there was no cream.
Flour: We use flour as a primary ingredient in rotis and such savouries as samosas. But the French use it as a secondary ingredient in dishes where you would not suspect that it was needed. For years, French chefs would thicken sauces by adding a roux made with flour and butter. The nouvelle cuisine revolution reduced the role of flour-thickened sauces, but they turn up anyway, especially in regional cuisines.
Wine: Indians don’t cook with alcohol. But the French use liquor (wine and brandy mostly) in all manner of dishes. Such classic dishes such as those Burgundy favourites’ Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon derive their flavour from the wine that goes into the pot.
Carbohydrates: No Indian meal is complete without rotis and/or rice. Even when we go to Chinese restaurants we order fried rice and noodles in a manner that Chinese people never would. The French, on the other hand, eat far fewer carbohydrates. Yes, they will serve bread with the meal but it is an accompaniment. Most of the food will be meat/poultry/fish with vegetables. This explains two phenomena. One: the French paradox, which is the term given to the fact that the French have lower rates of heart disease than say, Americans, even though they eat so much animal and dairy fat. (As the French have started eating US-style fast food, rates of heart disease have shot up). And two: it’s the reason why Indians don’t like French food. We prefer carb-rich Italian (pasta, pizza, etc.)
Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.