On a December day in 1974, at a small dinner party to celebrate the wedding of then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay, the menu was appropriately sophisticated: a hot lobster soufflé, duck à la orange and a jardinière platter of vegetables. Dessert was a problem, though.
A cold dessert was out of the question in winter and the prime minister did not like hot puddings. The dessert had to be a vacharin, decided Bhicoo Manekshaw, catering consultant to the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi where the dinner was being served. While the French dessert made with meringue, filled with whipped cream and fruits, was being served, Gandhi wanted to know what it was called.
Mankeshaw replied on the spur of the moment: “Gâteau Indira!”
The spontaneity that Manekshaw, trained at the prestigious Cordon Bleu in London, UK, brought to the IIC kitchen may well have marked the beginning of a rich culinary tradition. While the à la carte menu at India’s premier cultural institution had been mostly north Indian in the years since its inception in 1962, it changed under Manekshaw, who joined in June 1974, to include an Indian and Continental du jour, presenting an excellent mix of barbecues, south Indian and Chinese cuisines. Special dishes such as Gâteau Indira and Stein’s Potato and Sesame Soup, named after the architect who designed the IIC, were introduced.
In 1992, her son-in-law Sunil Chandra set up the restaurant Basil & Thyme in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri, with Manekshaw as founding chef. It served the best Continental food in the Capital. “One had always heard of the restaurant growing up…but never had a chance to visit since it was always considered posh. I had some sort of mushroom pasta, which was divine. This stuff was a revelation, and except perhaps Ritu Dalmia’s restaurant Diva at the time, no one was doing this quality of Western cuisine in Delhi,” says Manu Chandra, partner and executive chef at Olive Beach, Likethatonly and Monkey Bar in Bangalore.
Chandra met Manekshaw—“a dignified lady one would usually find in the drawing rooms of Prithviraj Road”—at her restaurant while studying at St Stephen’s College. Once she realized that he too wanted to be a chef, he says, “we exchanged notes on how to make mushroom pasta and to make ravioli without a pasta machine”.
At the IIC, where she consulted until her death on 17 April at the age of 90, Manekshaw modified French cuisine to suit the local palate and even introduced cuisines from traditional Indian communities, like the Kodavas and Parsis. “She never compromised. She would join the cooks even to cut, peel and garnish. Not one ingredient would be missing,” says Vijay Thukral, executive chef at the IIC, who worked with Manekshaw.
Manekshaw and Thukral compiled Secrets From the Kitchen: Fifty Years of Culinary Experience at the India International Centre, released earlier this year. It was the last of her four books, starting with a collection of traditional Indian recipes in the early 1970s. Two more books followed: one on Parsi food and customs, and a coffee-table book on 50 classic recipes that explained a style of cooking derived from French restaurants and adapted to the Indian palate.
Secrets From the Kitchen is anecdotal and even carries a list of recommendations compiled by Manekshaw to improve the IIC’s catering services.
“While Julia Childs was able to make America-appropriate French cuisine, Bhicoo, in her own way, paved the way for the restaurant revolution (in India),” says Chandra.
Manekshaw also stuck sternly to classicalrecipes, with little concern for calories. “Her recipes were filled with cups of cream and butter. She placed the joy of eating above every consideration,” says Thukral. “The cuisine, she said, will stay even after we are gone.”