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Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: A true Indian classic

Hindustan Times logo Hindustan Times 05-08-2022 Vir Sanghvi

I yield to nobody in my admiration of the American Grilled Cheese sandwich, possibly the only edible, fully-vegetarian sandwich to come out of that continent. And I am a fan of all kinds of British and Australian cheese toasts. But the greatest cooked bread-and-cheese combination was invented in Mumbai.

This happened before cheese replaced Imli Chutney as every thelawallah’s favourite ingredient, before they started grating Amul cheese on uttapams, dosas, and khakhras, and before the invention of ‘Jain pijja’ and ‘masala pijja’.

Way back in the 1970s when the idea of combining Indian flavours and cheese was still a novelty, the Chilli Cheese Toast was invented in Bombay (as it was then). It became a classic.

But first, a little background. The idea of putting cheese on bread dates to the Middle Ages. A great British savoury is called Welsh Rarebit. When I was a small boy, I mispronounced the name and called it Welsh Rabbit. This led to much hilarity and people asked how I could have got it so wrong. How could a cheese toast be called a rabbit? How they laughed!

The Mumbai chilli toast was invented by Satish Arora when he was the Executive Chef of the Taj © Provided by Hindustan Times The Mumbai chilli toast was invented by Satish Arora when he was the Executive Chef of the Taj

Actually, I have had the last laugh. Because the dish is not a cheese toast. To be made correctly, it has to be cooked with a cheese sauce, not with a slice of cheese or grated cheese. And as for the name, it is Welsh Rabbit. Though, of course, it is neither made with rabbit nor does it have anything to do with the Welsh.

It is an English dish dating back several centuries and the name reflects parochial snobbery. The English made fun of the poor Welsh who were not just poor but also liked cooked cheese. So, a Welsh Rabbit was supposedly the nearest the Welsh could get to real rabbit. (This was meant to be funny in a contemptuous sort of way.)

Except, of course, that everyone who tried it liked Welsh rabbit. When such great French chefs as Auguste Escoffier worked in London they began including it on their menus. Escoffier was no fan of English humour so, like many other chefs of his generations he refused to call it Welsh Rabbit and put it on the menu as Welsh rarebit.

Now, ‘rarebit’ is clearly a meaningless term. It only makes sense if you know what the original name was. But it has passed into common usage and poor sods like me who used the term ‘rabbit’ (its real name) are laughed at.

Satish Arora’s handwritten chilli cheese toast recipe that he used in his Taj days © Provided by Hindustan Times Satish Arora’s handwritten chilli cheese toast recipe that he used in his Taj days

A rarebit (or rabbit) must be made with a cheese sauce, the recipe for which is now standardised. That sauce can be used with other dishes, in which case it is called ‘rarebit sauce’. And there are also fancy variations. Put red wine into the sauce and it becomes English rarebit. And so on.

In India even when fancy places said they were serving Welsh rarebit, what they actually made was plain old Cheese Toast. This used to be made by grating cheese onto a piece of bread and putting it under the salamander (or grill). The bread become toast thanks to the heat of the salamander and the cheese melted into a bubbling mess. Home versions could be made on a tawa but they never quite matched up.

Indian cheese toast was made with whatever processed cheese was available in the market. Till the 1970s this was usually canned Kraft cheese. After that it became Amul, which was from the same cheese family as Kraft.

Many people argue that if you are going to grill cheese then you don’t really need very good quality cheese. Even so, I always find that good cheese helps. And if that is not available, you need to add your own extra flavour. (Hence the original Welsh rabbit, which could have white wine and mustard added to the sauce.)

The dish now turns up on every menu, often with refinements. This version comes from ITC hotel © Provided by Hindustan Times The dish now turns up on every menu, often with refinements. This version comes from ITC hotel

I am sure many mothers did something interesting with cheese toast at home but the first exciting Indian version of the cheese toast I ever tasted was served at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai where it was a staple of the room service menu (perhaps it still is). I liked it because it matched cheese with its natural partner, the tomato. (This was in the days before we learned what umami was!) And it took the then unprecedented step of adding, not just red chilli powder, but also chopped green chillis.

It was so delicious that it quickly became a hot-seller. Other hotels copied it. It began to be served at more modest establishments. Because it was so easy to make, it became a home cooking staple. And then, it reached the streets. If you Google it today, you will find scores of recipes, many by famous chefs.

I always recognised that the genius of the dish’s conception lay in its very simplicity. But who had made the first chilli cheese toast? Along with my pal, the great chef Cyrus Todiwala (an old Taj hand), we set about trying to find the original last month.

One theory was that it was invented in the Harbour Bar at the old Taj in 1970 “and was the brainchild of Bahadur Patel who introduced it to his regular clients, including the industrialist Arvind Kilachand, when a whole lot of them met for lunch every Tuesday.”

This theory credits Kilachand with suggesting the dish. He told Santan, a legendary chef at the old Taj, “Marcha mix kar cheese ke saath.” He duly turned out an early version of the dish and it became a drinks snack.

One version says the dish was invented at the Harbour Bar at the Mumbai Taj in 1970 © Provided by Hindustan Times One version says the dish was invented at the Harbour Bar at the Mumbai Taj in 1970

Cyrus remembers making it as a cocktail canape at the Taj. And when he was the chef at the Aguada in Goa, it became a favourite with many guests. Cyrus still makes it in London and he even served it at a fancy charity event at Michel Roux’s pub.

Cyrus’s version is better because he has access to good cheese in the UK. His current recipe uses free range eggs and up to five kinds of cheese.

So, was it invented in the Harbour Bar? I asked Ajit Kerkar who ran the Taj in those days. He said no, absolutely not. It was invented by Satish Arora when he was the Executive Chef of the Taj. Kerkar remembered the first versions of the dish before they decided to put it into the menu.

Arora is the great lost chef of Indian cuisine. Appointed Executive Chef of the Taj when he was only 26, he invented or refined many of the dishes we eat today. In any other country, he would be venerated like Fernand Point is in France. But because his glory days came before people began writing about chefs, he is not the household name he deserves to be.

The Welsh Rarebit is an English dish which has to be cooked with a cheese sauce, not with a slice of cheese or grated cheese © Provided by Hindustan Times The Welsh Rarebit is an English dish which has to be cooked with a cheese sauce, not with a slice of cheese or grated cheese

I tracked him down in retirement and asked him if Kerkar was right. Had he actually invented the Chilli Cheese Toast? It turned out he had.

And he told me how. “It was just by accident”, he said. “I was having tea with my sous chefs when I tried grated Amul cheese with chopped onions, chopped hard tomatoes, chopped coriander leaves. I mixed it well. I put it on an ordinary slice of white bread and put it in the salamander”. (This must have been in 1975/6.)

And thus, was born a classic. I asked Arora if he had his original recipe. He sent me the handwritten recipe he used in his Taj days. It is less fancy than many of today’s recipes but it is still recognisably the same dish.

Sadly, in our country, we rarely give credit to the creators of great dishes. So, next time you eat a cheese toast with chilli, tomatoes and onions, think of the chef who created it. The dish will live on. So should Satish Arora’s role in its creation.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, August 6, 2022

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