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An omelette for all

Vir Sanghvi

The omelette is a big deal in classical French cooking. The French make all kinds of omelettes. An Omelette Farcie is a stuffed omelette. A Poulard Omelette is finished in the oven. A souffle omelette relies on egg whites. And the more popular Paris Omelette is often regarded as the test of a cook.

According to legend, every French kitchen must have a heavy cast iron omelette pan. This is to be used only for cooking omelettes and must never be washed. Instead, it should be wiped clean with a damp cloth. The chef must learn to make an omelette that is soft and creamy on the inside with a rich buttery taste but maintains a firm golden exterior. This is not easy to do as it involves a complicated series of hand movements: rotating the pan, stirring a certain way, etc.

But when, the French do get it right, a classic Paris Omelette is a thing of beauty. You can cheat, as many useless chefs do, and put grated cheese at the centre. That way, you will get a soft centre when the cheese melts but no good French chef will sink that low.

The Japanese do wonderful things with omelettes but never seem to get the credit they deserve for it.

Tamagoyaki is described best by the editors of the Lucky Peach as a rolled log made from numerous golden-brown layers of savoury-sweet egg cooked in a traditional copper square pan called a makiyakinabe.

Or you can just call it a Japanese omelette. It is as complicated to cook as a classic French omelette. You mix the eggs with extra yolks, sugar, soy sauce and dashi (the classic Japanese stock made from seaweed and dried flakes of the bonito fish). Then, you pour the egg mixture on to a hot pan till it forms a thin layer. Next you use a series of complicated French-style hand movements to roll that layer to the side of the pan. Then you make another omelette layer. Then, another. And so it goes till you have run out of eggs. Finally, you take the layers out of the pan, place them on a sushi mat and cut them into one-inch slices.

It is a lot of trouble to go through just to make an omelette. But hey! That’s Japanese cuisine.

The best Chinese omelette is not Foo Yong (invented in America) but Taiwan’s Oyster Omelette. All over Taiwan, you will find hawkers making this simple dish. They put lots of fresh oysters into a pan for a minute, then add the beaten eggs and as the eggs begin to cover the oysters, they quickly turn the omelette over and let it brown slightly. And that’s it!

In European countries – other than France, perhaps – the omelette is often seen as a flour-less pie. Spanish omelettes are essentially large egg pies into which they put everything from ham to potatoes to chillies. They are served on large platters and you cut off a slice just as you would with a pie or a pizza. An Italian frittata is roughly the same idea, with an oven or a grill used to brown the top.

To make a Spanish omelette for instance, it takes a good half hour just to get the potatoes ready and I’m not convinced they add much to the final taste of the omelette. I don’t mind French fries served on the side with an omelette, but I hate the idea of using potatoes as a stuffing.

Ferran Adria, of EI Bulli, shocked Spaniards a few years ago when he published a collection of the recipes he used while cooking at home.

Arguing, sensibly enough, that his countrymen took too long to make an omelette, Adria suggested making a tortilla with kettle chips. Store-bought Kettle chips from a paper bag! His recipe was absurdly simple. You mixed beaten eggs with strips of ham, kettle chips, chopped peppers or chillies, salt, pepper and thyme. You let the mixture sit for five minutes to let the chips soften and then you made an omelette the usual way in the pan. When it had set, you put it briefly under the grill to give it a golden hue on top. The entire process, from the time you tore open the packet of kettle chips to the time you ate it took 20 minutes; much less time than it would take to just prepare the potatoes for a normal Spanish omelette.

Of the omelettes I can make at home, I have two favourites. The first is a Thai version which is so easy that any fool can make it.

You mix the eggs with a spoonful of lemon juice and one more of Thai fish sauce. That’s your basic mixture. You can add cooked ground pork so if you have some krapow or any other left overs in the fridge, they can go in. Or you can cheat and crumble some Northern Thai sausage into the egg mixture.

You cook it the normal way, on a pan, with neutral (not olive or strongly-flavoured) oil, flipping it over till both sides are cooked. The fish sauce will caramelise the outside of the omelette and you should not hesitate to make the edges crisp. You serve it with a mound of Jasmine rice, more fish sauce and some Sriracha or the hot sauce of your choice.

You’ll get this omelette at virtually every dhabha in Bangkok but Thai restaurants outside of Thailand find it too plebeian to serve. The only place I know of in Delhi where it turns up regularly is at Qube at The Leela Palace.

During my childhood, when going to boarding school and back involved days of train travel and I became a dedicated fan of the railway station omelette. Though the catering at each station was handled by a different entity, the omelette, somehow, remained the same.

It was always thin and big, so big, in fact that the edges of the omelette curled up at the ends of the plate. It had a mottled, pale yellow colour and its surface was flecked with bits of the onion, tomato and chilli that had been mixed with the eggs.

We ate it with the slices of the white bread it was served with. They were roughly toasted with black, charred streaks and came with a splodge of butter by the side. You cut off a bit of the omelette, buttered the toast, and then placed the omelette bit on it. Finally, you smeared a dollop of tomato ketchup all over it.

Heaven!

That taste has stayed with me through the decades. Till I began to cut out gluten, my standard aeroplane meal would be a pre-packed masala omelette sandwich, with chips (as in wafers) and a few sachets of ketchup. I would open the sandwich, smear the ketchup on the omelette and then – this is the inventive bit – add a layer of chips, before putting the top slice of bread back again. When I ate it, I got the masala, egg, white bread and ketchup tastes of my childhood with the added crunch of crisp wafers.

Now, when people ask me what my favourite omelette in the world is, I always feel that I should pay tribute to the classic French omelette or praise the brilliant Japanese chefs who make their omelettes in layers.

But I end up telling the truth. I like the Thai omelette, I say, because it can be a substantial meal in itself.

But in my heart, I have only one true love: the simple and great masala omelette of the Indian streets and railway platforms.

(HT Media)

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