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Indian Spices in Michelin 3 Star Kitchens


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Last week, I went to six Michelin three-star restaurants in Paris. Three star chefs have incorporated various degrees of influences from other cuisines into their kitchens. Japanese cuisine’s influence on French haute cuisine has been noted and documented over the years. Visual as well as textural elements of Japanese cuisine were extensively at display at Guy Savoy. What was surprising (to me), however, was the extent to which Indian spices have proliferated the kitchens at these temples of French haute cuisine. I can not claim authoritatively that the spices are Indian in origin.

The maitre d’ at L’Arpege declared that “the chef is in love with vegetables.” My wife and I decided to do the vegetarian tasting menu. How much that had to do with the extensive (meaning in 4 or 5 dishes) use of Indian spices. Cumin was the most used spice in this menu. Of note, light sea urchin ravioli with chives, saffron and cumin served in a seafood consume. Each taste hit the tongue one after another-- the slurp of clear broth into a bite of soft ravioli, the onioniness of chives arriving into your mouth at the same time as the texture of sea urchin followed by whiffs of saffron and a final bite of cumin. Then there were carrot sticks simply cooked in some sort of butter with roasted ground cumin. Not a lot. Texture, scent, the flavors of the butter and cumin perfectly mingling with the superb carrots. It was almost like a light sabzi of carrots (although I do not remember cumin being in carrot sabzis). As a side note, the famous Tomato Confit dessert with 12 flavors including dried nuts, herbs, cinnamon etc. This was an Indian style dessert almost. a) the texture was overly dominated by the dried fruits and nuts b) the 12 flavors kind of stepped on themselves a bit too much :-).  Topped with vanilla ice cream with warm sauce. It was fruity and nutty and ice creamy and syrupy all at the same time.

At Le Grand Vefour (as everywhere else) black truffles were everywhere. However, one of the main courses that I ordered was fillet of turbot with a yellow sauce. This sauce was chock full of very typical south Indian flavors (ok, ok I am ignorant about what goes into South Indian “tadkas”) and turmeric (accounting for the color). Fantastic. I was reminded of the spices my wife uses in Yoghurt Rice as such dishes.

At Guy Savoy, a grilled fillet of sea bass with skin on came with a vanilla sauce with coriander powder and topped with shitake mushrooms for texture. The coriander was on the side and added that little punch of flavor and aroma to the fish.

It is interesting to me what determines the timing and the direction of such movements. I also have a dozen CDs of house music from several Paris clubs that have incorporated (heavily) elements of Indian folk music and are quite popular (Nirvana Lounge, Buddha Bar to name a couple). Some of them redone/remixed versions of traditional songs that I heard as a kid. Any ideas why this infusion is happening in France?

What, if any will be the effect of this fusion (or Tabla’s) on Indian restaurants/chefs ? comments??

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Cumin seemed to be everywhere when I was in Paris about a year ago.  My wife had a dessert with a (really bad) cumin-orange sauce;  I tend to concur with those who say that the French haven't really figured these things out yet, but it's not truly a new thing, is it?  Doesn't Escoffier call for curry powder?  Or is he talking about something different?

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Indian-style spice mixes -- a/k/a, in some cases, curry powder -- are very much an entrenched component of French haute cuisine at this point. Whether they are used well is a different question, and I think the answer in most cases is no (with a few happy exceptions like Roellinger, Gagnaire and, according to your report, Passard). I really think of French cuisine as a cuisine of herbs not of spices, though that distinction is subject to interpretation. But usually when I see spices used in a forward manner in French cuisine, I can't help thinking it feels somewhat forced. As I've said elsewhere, I think the fusion-type restaurants around the Pacific Rim (and also in New York) on the whole do a much better job of integrating Eastern spices and Western technique.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I agree with you on this one Steven.  A lot of this fusion is very forced.  I had a meal a few weeks after Passard did the new menu last year at Arpege.

The food was lovely; it spared me the fusion confusion that can easily happen unless you are really very comfortable playing with spices.  And the Crème de truffe du perigord noir aux oeufs, haunt my senses even a year later.  

I saw a lot of spices used and mostly forced when I was there a year ago.  I am happy to hear that things seem more harmonious and fused now.  Exciting.

And curry powder does have Indian roots.  But were the roots what we see it as today?  Is another question.  The beast we see today seems to have no roots to anything worthwhile in any culture.  It fills the immediate need for something that acts as flavor filler when not sure what to do with spices.  It works for most people, but can offend those that have witnessed the erotic manner in which spices and herbs when used well together can create a symphony of flavors that becomes an instant classic.

Cumin in desserts, well, call me puritan for this one, but it offends my sweet tooth to be teased with savory and very acrid and way too warm than one would want an average dessert to be.  But, I do live with spices and spend most of my day entertaining them and being entertained by them.  I deal with them, like parents deal with their children.  I am in heaven eating desserts that are what desserts were meant to be.  Pleasurable, sweet ends for meals.  An end that leaves you happy about the savory meal that preceded the course that leaves you happy and sated without being tested at the last part of your meal.  To me desserts are all about bringing a very welcome and apt end to an evening of great importance.  The final note needs to be strong but certainly not overbearing.

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Spices of many sorts have been long prized in Europe. Most of what we call spice came to Europe from Asia, although not always as far away as the Indian subcontient. Columbus was on a search for a short route to the source of spices. That's why the West Indies are known as any sort of Indies as well as why Native Americans have been referred to as Indians.

I'm sure cumin is well used in India. I think of it more as a middle eastern and north African spice. I ate in Arpège about eight years ago. I remember the vegetables that accompanied my lamb chops. They were matchsticks of carrots, zucchini and perhaps another squash. The principle seasoning was harissa and cumin. It was far more Moroccan in nature than Indian and the harissa was used with a delicate hand.

I also remember the distinctly un-French, at the time, use of cumin in a tomato sauce in Aix-en-Provence or maybe Arles. The dish itself was an interesting inside out variation of a traditional provencal dish of stuffed tripe. In this case it was meat balls with tripe in the center, but it was the cumin that was most distinct. Cumin is also prevalent in Mexican cooking, if I'm not mistaken.

I'm sure Escoffier mentions "curry powder." I believe someone else noted that in another thread here, or in the France board. The thing that is probably more important is that medieval recipes use lots of spices, maybe more than we would use in contemporary European dishes. I suspect many of these recipes are from court dinners as the average peasant could hardly afford such spices. Nevertheless there is a historical precedent for using spices in France even if they have fallen out of favor. Roellinger, who is in Cancale on the coast of Brittany, uses a wide variety of spices in his cooking. He may be one of the most atypical of French chefs in this regard, but he claims to be carrying on an old local tradition citing the fact that the French East India trading company ships arrived in nearby St. Malo with their valuable spices. Fat Guy has good reason to think of French food dominated by herbs rather than spices, but some spices have always been there. Dijon is well known for spice cake. French charcuterie uses a staple seasoning blend of quatre-épices--cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and white pepper.

Robert Buxbaum


Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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England is not France, but in spite of wars, or because of them, they've shared rulers and the English language is full of words derived from the French. We can assume quite a bit of cross fertilization. Let me quote a short extract from a web site Suvir mentioned in another thread because it relates to my previous post.

"In the time of Richard I ... cooks were regularly using ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, galingale, cubebs, coriander, cumin, cardamom and aniseed, resulting in highly spiced cooking very similar to India."

Robert Buxbaum


Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Vivin-First of all, I have a few songs on some of those CD's you mentioned. Keep buying them. The royalties help pay for three star meals.  But the answer to your question ranges from, the increase in use of Indian spices in 3 star restaurants is fashionable to, it reflects the effects of globalization and the integration of Indian culture into everyday western life. Do you know that when I was in London 2 weeks ago, some poll was released that showed that curry was now Britain's number one dish. But I guess that is better than Germany though. Kofta Kebab was their number one dish. Go figure.

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In Belgium, curry is but one of many flavored cold sauces you can get on your frites. I would be surprised if any Indian found a familiar flavor in that sauce. On the subject of street food in Brussels, I also noticed a curry flavored sausage commonly sold in street stands. "Curry" seems to be a popular flavor in Brussels.

Robert Buxbaum


Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Last week, I went to six Michelin three-star restaurants in Paris.

That is an extraordinary thing to be able to say.

Can I ask was it a special occasion or do you do that sort of thing with any degree of regularity? Also, did the fact that the meals were all eaten close together have any impact on your enjoyment or ability to appreciate what you had, ie did you get bored by the end, or your palette tire?

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My wife and I love Paris and together with a close friend regularly visit high end food establishments in NYC. This trip was the result of a random idea that was made possible by the fact that we were able to bag reservations so close together (having planned 5 months in advance).

The first day we had both lunch and dinner booked on the same day. We realized that was a foolish thing to do. We cancelled two lunch reservations after that. Besides that, it was great to be able to have a LOT of great food in a week and be able to compare it to one another. Lots of different approaches to similar dishes.

Everyday, we thought our palettes were tired. We would groan and moan about too much food, drag ourselves to the next meal, and then get hungry as soon as we got the menus in our hands. It is a testament to the quality of the food that we did not tire of eating. It is however unlikely that I will be going to French places in NYC anytime soon ;-)

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Vivin, is it the Indian in you that does not tire of food too easily?  

We grow up around at least one great meal everyday... I remember so vividly the fuss made around every meal... Or at least dinner.  

But like you, I never tire of marathon  great food dinners as I seem to revel in their wonder.  But give me a tired meal day after day.. and I want to run.

You seem to have enjoyed a great many meals and so it makes sense to not run to the next French restaurant you hear about in NYC.

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My family's day to day life has always revolved around food. So talking about food, cooking etc has been a favorite pass time for us. Never will tire of good food. Same goes for music. Need my dose every day. Going to Babbo again this Saturday. can't wait.

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