A PRODUCER OF TASTE

Ismail Merchant's name is a guarantee of class in films. But he is also a quality cook. Food fascinates him, he tells Michael Bateman, as he prepares a meal
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The Independent Culture
IS THERE anything left to be said about Ismail Merchant's new movie, Jefferson in Paris? Without a reel of film unrolling (it opens on Tuesday) the Merchant-Ivory publicity machine has told us almost more than we want to know.

We've been teased with titillating interviews with film-makers, cast and crew. We've learnt that the future US president, when ambassador to Paris, had a black mistress. We have even discovered the style of her corsets. Perhaps the only thing we haven't been told is what the crew ate while on location.

Hold the front page. This can now be revealed. They ate curried chicken in yoghurt. And it was cooked by the producer himself, Ismail Merchant. For the man acclaimed for his film Shakespeare Wallah is as much admired by friends for his Sarson-wallah Jhingi (a dish of giant prawns with mustard sauce).

Ismail Merchant is an irrepressible amateur cook, who even takes to the stove on film location. And filming Jefferson in Paris he cooked for a crowd of 200 extras. "One Friday when we'd finished shooting I said I'd give them a taste of Indian curry, warning them it would be tres chaud." (Yup, he's been learning French).

So, he teamed up with the unit's French chef, Axel. "We did poulet with rice, and potatoes with peas. Soon the unit canteen queue was a lot longer than usual - usually a lot of people bring their own baguettes and cheese. The plates piled up and there wasn't a morsel left, and there was a request that I should do it every Friday. And I did, for 100 people. The French love good food and good cinema."

Over the years he has built up a large repertoire of Indian dishes which he tempers to Western tastes, having lived in the States since he was in his twenties. In fact he'd never cooked until he got to New York. "It was taboo for a man to go into the kitchen in India, but I was not attracted by the prospect of having to live off hamburgers." He gets very upset if he can't eat his own kind of spicy Indian food at least once a week.

He lives in Manhattan on the 14th floor of a block which also houses his partners, the director James Ivory and the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. When they are all in town they come to him for breakfast.

Over the years he has successfully used the dining table to woo prospective bankers, backers and actors. Stars such as Shirley Maclaine and Lauren Bacall and more recently Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Newman and Simon Callow have been won in this way. (He hooked Callow, would you believe, with curried croissant.)

A taste of what they ate is offered by his book of 200 recipes, Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals (published here by Pavilion, pounds 14.99), with its introduction by the guru of Indian cooking herself, Madhur Jaffrey, who has featured as an actress in quite a few of Ismail Merchant's films.

She comments: "Ismail loves to throw parties. A shrewd horse-trader by instinct, parties have always been for him an ideal setting to convince the doubtful, charm the frosted, cajole those holding back, reward the underpaid and, almost as a by-product, inject a sense of easy camaraderie between those high up in the entertainment establishment and those barely on the rise." It might be a noted film critic who needed wooing, she observes, or just as easily some humble assistant editors or envelope stuffers who needed consoling.

The American edition of his book was wildly acclaimed, Americans being amazed at the way he cut through the mystique of Indian cooking. They loved his simplicity and directness. "He creates splendid dishes in less time than it takes to set a table," said one reviewer. The doyen of New York food critics, Craig Claiborne, applauded: "A splendid cookbook."

As an admirer of Ismail Merchant's films, would I not also enjoy his cooking? And since he was passing through London, I wondered if he'd like to let me have a taste. Of course. With his easy talent for persuasion he harnessed London's swankiest new Indian restaurant, The Tamarind, in Mayfair.

The omens were good. He arrived beaming, together with his oldest pal, Shashi Kapoor, 59, a very large Indian actor whose benign expression of content testifies to a profoundly satisfied appetite (he has his own restaurant in Bombay to nourish him).

Ismail Merchant holds that cooking is an instinct, like acting. "These are things you are born with. You can learn techniques but you must have the passion. To touch wood, I've never made an unsuccessful meal." Madhur Jaffrey concurs: "Ismail has a good palate, hates waste and cooks in the last analysis to please himself. It is a good way to cook."

He is sad that people get so worried about cooking. "Some women get into a hysteria or a depression. They say, I have to work, I have to shop. They are suffering. But cooking is such a joy, it lifts your spirits up." Like making films, he says. The end result is the least of it. "The act of making a film is its own reward. You put your whole self into it. It's a passion."

Ismail Merchant is Muslim which means he was brought up in the meat-eating tradition of north India, though he later learnt to enjoy the fine Gujarati cooking, and the vegetarian food of south India.

He can't remember a time when he wasn't fascinated by food, sneaking a look into the kitchen when he came home from school. "I first found I had a knack at a Boy Scouts' picnic when I was 10; I cooked a chicken curry over a wood fire with rice and a tomato salad. It was actually on the terrace of a local railway station. The stationmaster provided the pots and pans."

His special joy was sweets. The dessert sections of Indian menus in this country do his people a disservice. "At fairs the sweetmeat seller is the biggest attraction. There are hundreds of different kinds. When I go to Bombay, Shashi gets me a clay pot full of rabbadi, which is a sweet made from milk cooked down for hours to intensify the lactose [sugar] in the milk. It's made with pistachios and almonds."

He remembers, too, his passion for mangoes. "In Bombay I would go to the early morning market to buy them at wholesale prices. The shout would go up: 'The King of Fruit has arrived.' They'd auction the whole truck, like acrobatic monkeys jumping up and down."

Did I know the Indian mango, the Alfonso? Yes, I did. "It's the best in the world. I will send you some." A week later a Merchant-Ivory Productions messenger was knocking on the door with box of small but perfectly-formed apricot-coloured mangoes. They were delicious, the ripe flesh slithery, rich and sweet, tempered with a lemony sharpness.

From his mango farm in Bombay? No, no, said the man from the film company, from Southall market. He'd been sent there on the Underground to collect them. They bore no resemblance to the hard, sour stuff that's been picked too early and is on offer in most of our shops and supermarkets. The fruit imported for the Indian community is of a higher quality altogether. For this insight, and many others, Mr Merchant, our grateful thanks.

Mr Merchant is now going to cook our lunch. It won't take long, he promises. Ten minutes, say. A chicken dish and a prawn dish. Madhur Jaffrey has watched him cook many a time: "He cooks easily and he cooks well. He cooks in swift strokes, with just a hint of perspiration on his forehead. The shopping bags usually come in with him just a few minutes before the guests. It requires both courage and gall, qualities Ismail has in abundance."

In the Tamarind's kitchen Mr Merchant takes his coat off and the chef, Atul Kochhar, fastens an apron round him to protect his expensive striped shirt. A lot of chopping and cutting has been done already, I see.

Into a wide, hot pan he pours a ladleful of vegetable oil and almost at once throws in a finely chopped onion, four whole dried chillies, half a dozen cloves. In goes a tablespoon of grated ginger, a large tablespoon of black pepper (yes, a lot, he says, but before chillies were imported to India in the 16th century black pepper was the predominant spice in curries).

He pushes in some skinned breast of chicken, stirring it into the flavoured oil. In goes a carton of plain yoghurt, and then he judges the right amount of water and bangs the lid on. "It'll be ready in 15 minutes." He doesn't hang around.

The prawns are dealt with just as quickly. A lot of oil goes into a frying pan, and immediately the king-size prawns. He adds a teaspoonful of whole black mustard seeds, a tablespoon of French mustard, crushed chopped garlic, grated ginger, a generous shake of chilli pepper, the juice of half a lemon, salt. In the time it takes to write this, the translucent prawns turn opaque. He sprinkles chopped coriander leaf on top. "It's ready," he announces. It's a wrap.

We sat down to eat in the context of a feast of accompaniments prepared by Atul Kochhar, skewered kofta, minced meat balls, curried bhindi (ladies' fingers) and spicy potatoes, rice and breads - naan, paratha and roti.

Mr Merchant immediately seeks out the dal curry, a thin gruel of spiced lentils. "I am a dal junkie, I can't do without it,"he says. "Dal may appear to be a very simple food in Western terms, but in India it is the focus of the meal. Dal it is to India what pasta is to Italy. I can't live without dal. If I were told I couldn't have it each day, I would feel deprived."

His love of good food is infectious. We smack our lips over the mustard prawns, a tremendous combination of flavourings, and the succulent chicken in yoghurt. If he'd asked me to star in his next film, at that moment I wouldn't have been able to refuse. But he didn't. No, he just hoped I'd be able to mention his new book.

YOGHURT CHICKEN DAHI MURGH

This is meant to be spicy but the quality of pepper can be reduced according to taste.

Serves 10-12

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 medium onions, peeled and chopped

4 dried whole red chillies

12 whole cloves

512lbs/2kgchicken drumsticks and thighs

1 inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated

12 pint/300ml plain yoghurt

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan or saucepan over medium heat. When it is hot, add the onions, chillies and cloves and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions brown.

Add the chicken and ginger to the onions and stir continually until the pieces of meat are seared on all sides.

Mix the yoghurt with an equal quantity of water, and add to the pan with the salt and pepper. Cover and cook over a medium-low heat for one hour, stirring occasionally.

Serve with rice and a green salad.

MUSTARD PRAWN

SARSON-WALLAH JHINGHA

Serves 4

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

12 teaspoon caraway seeds

12 teaspoon red pepper

1lb/500g raw prawns, shelled, deveined, rinsed and dried

112 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons lemon juice

salt to taste

Heat the oil in a small skillet over a low heat. When hot, add the caraway seeds and red pepper and cook for three or four minutes.

Add the prawns, mustard, lemon juice, and salt and stir well. Cover the pan and cook for five to six minutes. Stir the mixture well and serve with a saffron pilaf and a green salad.

HAMIDA BEGUM'S STUFFED LIME PICKLE

BHARE NIMBOO KA AACHAR

This recipe will produce enough pickle to last a whole family for quite a long time, as you can imagine. It is so good there is always great demand for it from friends and family. You can, of course, reduce the quantities proportionately. Preparation time: 212 hours, plus the time for cooling and bottling.

Makes about 10 pints/6 litres

200 limes

114lbs/600g dried red chillies

1 cup mustard seeds

2oz/50g cumin seeds

2oz/50g onion seeds

1lb/500g garlic peeled

1lb/500g coarse salt

114 pints/800ml mustard oil

12 fresh hot green chillies

Squeeze the juice from 100 of the limes into a large bowl; cover and reserve.

Put the rest of the limes in a large stainless steel saucepan or preserving kettle, cover with plenty of cold water, bring to the boil and simmer until they are tender. Drain the limes, dry them with a kitchen towel, and put them aside.

Take the red chillies and pound them fine with a mortar and pestle, or grind them in a food processor, or in batches in a blender.

Put the mustard, cumin and onion seeds into a large frying pan over a low heat and dry-roast them for two or three minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. The seeds should begin to release their aroma.

Take two-thirds of the seed mixture and pound it fine with a mortar and pestle, or grind it in a food processor or in batches in a blender.

Combine the ground red chillies and the pounded or ground seed mixture with the remaining seed mixture.

Pound the garlic cloves into a paste with a little water, then drain off the water. Mix the garlic with the chilli and seed mixture, adding the salt and a little of the lime juice to make a paste.

Cut each boiled lime halfway down into four sections. Spread the spice paste well into the limes, put them in a large container and add the rest of the lime juice.

Warm the oil until it begins to splutter, then pour it over the stuffed limes and whole green chillies. When the mixture is cool enough, transfer it to glass or ceramic jars and cover them with airtight lids. Store in the refrigerator.

CARROT HALVA WITH RAISINS

GAJJAR KA HALVA

Serves 6

a pinch of saffron

4fl oz/100ml double cream

8 tablespoons butter, melted

112lbs/700g carrots, peeled and grated

2 oz/50g sugar

7oz/200g raisins

seeds from 4 black cardamom pods

1oz/30g slivered almonds

1 tablespoon rose water

thick cream (optional)

Gently stir the saffron into two tablespoons of the cream. Gradually mix in the rest of the cream. The cream will take on the colour of the saffron. Do not beat the mixture.

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over a low heat. Add the grated carrots and stir to coat well. Stir the sugar, raisins and cardamom seeds into the carrot mixture.

Blend in the saffron and cream mixture and add the almonds. Sprinkle in the rose water and cook for 30 to 40 minutes over a low heat, stirring occasionally. The mixture will become a fairly dry, golden-brown mass.

Serve with cream poured on top, if desired.

!SSee page 28 for the story of Jefferson in Paris

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