The Making of a Perfect Palate - Karen Anand

Food. For most of us, it might just be a basic matter of sustenance and, at times, something to relish and splurge on. However, for chefs, food writers, and connoisseurs of all things edible, the relationship with food is much more intimate and intricate. Such is the case with Karen Anand, a gourmet guru with all three titles rolled into one. Following Hyderabad’s first farmers market, You & I caught up with Karen, who’s donned multiple hats while leading a rather delicious life in pursuit of training her palate!

What goes into the process of curating chefs, restaurateurs and local food groups for the farmers markets?
We have a team of around 10 people and they are stationed across the country. We also have a local person to guide us on seasonality, if any religious festivals are coming up, any unrest, and any local things we might not have thought of. One part of the team looks into what we should exhibit at the market. We categorise and try to reach the requirements accordingly. Our market isn’t solely organic; we try to do coffees, teas, fruits and vegetables, and interesting homemade products too. We also look into lots of new companies launching new products. We tend not to take multinationals at all; nothing with preservatives or artificial colours. For restaurants, we pick local ones or those that want to showcase something new, or one that’s just opened. I help curate that a bit.

What are the challenges you face as a food writer?
The challenge is to know your subject. I travel a lot and recently I’ve been invited on a truffle hunt to Italy; that’s my new passion. I spend a lot of time, money, and energy. I’m constantly learning and there is no shortcut. Social media and blogging are fantastic. It is a great way to work on what interests you, but if you don’t know your subject then you might just start talking rubbish. I believe in the economy of words. I don’t think people have the energy to read more than 800 words, or even 400. Travelling, eating, tasting, and talking to people helps. Knowledge and experience can’t be gained in six months.

What goes into the training of a professional food writer’s palate?
Experience and practice. And also, some people have it and some don’t. My husband, who smokes a pipe, has a brilliant wine palate and I’m shocked (laughs). It’s better than mine I’ll have to admit! I was born with a good wine palate, but with wine it takes me a while. But my husband gets flavours and subtleties immediately. However, even if you’re born with it, training is a must nonetheless.

What is your most memorable moment from working at Lucas Carton?
That would’ve been when the head chef of Lucas Carton from 1985---2005, Alain Senderens, came into the kitchen and exclaimed at the fact that there was a woman in the kitchen, something that had never happened there before. One of the other chefs informed him that I was a friend of his and I was only there for three weeks. Of course, now things have changed, but at that time they didn’t have any women apprentices either.

How often do you deal with disasters in the kitchen?
So often! Recently we had a sit down with the Jaipur Literature Fest people in Hong Kong, we faced situations like something important didn’t arrive on time; the lamb portion was larger in size than anticipated, and larger pieces had to be served. Despite doing a recce earlier to make sure everything was alright, we discovered later that their ovens were only working at one temperature. Sometimes, these situations are unavoidable, but it helps us prepare better in the future. One time while doing a cheese demonstration for Britannia with 300 people in the audience, I ended up with an empty gas cylinder. I wound up having to make small talk for 20 minutes!

What do you feel is the most underrated ingredient in Indian cooking, and what is your preferred comfort food?
There are certain spices that we don’t use enough, and star anise is definitely one of them. I think the quality of certain spices and where they come from matter quite a bit. It would be nice if people knew the variety of chillies they can experiment with. Sometimes we tend to underrate the simplicities of our dishes. As for my comfort food, it’s got to be dal chawal as well as any kind of soup.

If you weren’t in the food business, what do you think you would be doing today?
I wanted to become a diplomat. I couldn’t because while I was living in the UK, it required British parentage. It has changed now, but that’s what I would’ve worked towards.        - as told to Roshni