Food connoisseurs in India were in a state of shock last week at the announcement that India would ban the import of foie gras – a food that tops the totem of opulent dining, but which is produced by questionable means. That set off a reaction on social media with both pro and anti-ban people saying their bit in vociferous terms. The objection to the force feeding method (‘gavage’) lay at the bottom of the objections.
But in the larger scheme of things, what does a ban on foie gras (translation: fatty liver) of duck and geese mean to India’s culinary hoi polloi? India imports a comparatively miniscule amount of foie gras, but top restaurants do feature it on their menus. It spells luxury and indulgence of the highest order.
In 2012, California banned foie gras, and the state, known for its Michelin star restaurants, erupted in protests (the ‘foie-mageddon’), with celebrity chefs including Thomas Keller, Tyler Florence and Michael Chiarello legally challenging the ban. They proposed that, instead of banning, the production of foie gras be strictly regulated under humane conditions. The ban still holds.
In Bangalore, a handful of top-end restaurants have menus featuring foie gras, so I chatted with some chefs who use it on a regular basis. According to Olive Beach’s chef Manu Chandra, the ban “is a bummer. But the offtake is so miniscule that it won’t really make a difference to our dining ethos. What it is, is shortsighted; a blow to the newly developing food culture which benefits the government in so many ways.” Chandra says he shudders to think what the WTO can do in retaliation if India starts banning more foods. “Really, for such regulations to be passed, the industry must be consulted, and the administration needs to understand the ramifications of such a ban.”
Ritz Carlton’s executive chef Anupam Banerjee, who used 5 kgs a month before the ban, points out that “it’s not good news to be asked not to use an ingredient.” Beyond that, India’s own record in treating animals is hardly spotless, so why pick on foie gras, which matters to so few? Newly imposed restrictions are already impacting more than just foie gras – jasmine rice, Valrhona chocolate, etc., are feeling the pinch of our arbitrary laws. “The message going out is that the Indian palate is not ready for foods like
this. I hope it isn’t permanent.”
The Leela Palace’s executive chef Adrian Mellor approaches it pragmatically. It won’t affect him much as he doesn’t use much foie gras here for reasons of poor quality. “I like foie gras, but I can live without it. Most of my clients are foreigners who aren’t coming to India to eat foie gras anyway. On the other hand, it can’t be replaced by any other food, it’s unique, with its own character, texture and richness. And it’s an integral part of fine dining,” he says.
Meanwhile, chef Banerjee’s Foie Gras Three Ways, that includes a foie gras yoghurt, must remain a distant dream. As must the unforgettable foie gras sandwich chef Chandra ate in San Francisco. “Served with pear jam and pickled arugula, it came together fabulously.”
-Ruma Singh (Ruma Singh presents a column on observations, insights and what’s buzzing in the city. m firstname.lastname@example.org)