Slice of Life
It says something about the revolution in our eating habits that most serious Italian restaurants in India (by ‘serious’ I mean those that do not restrict themselves to pizza and pasta) put carpaccio on the menu. In most cases, it is the original though it may not actually be made from beef because the restaurant uses buffalo meat – which also tells us something about religious taboos and restaurant menus.
Even when the carpaccio is not made from beef but is made from say lamb (as it was on , the Delhi Oberoi’s menu), or when it is made from fish (Diva, also in Delhi, served a tuna carpaccio and beetroot carpaccio has also turned up on the menu), it is nearly always raw which, in turn, tells us how adventurous we’ve become.
Some restaurants treat carpaccio as a traditional Italian dish. In fact, it is no such thing. It was invented in 1949 at Harry’s Bar in Venice, the restaurant that is most celebrated for also inventing the Prosesco-and peach drink called the Bellini.
According to restaurant lore, one of Harry’s Bar’s most regular customers was a woman called Contessa Mocenigo. The Contessa had gone on a high-protein diet and liked her food nearly raw. Giuseppe Cipriani, owner of the restaurant, tried to find something she would like. He had the bright idea of slicing some raw steak paper thin and ar ranging it on a plate. Then he splashed mustard and mayonnaise all over the beef. The Contessa loved it and Cipriani began to serve the dish to all his regulars. He first called it Beef in Universal Sauce.
In 1950, when Venice hosted an exhibition of works by the painter Carpaccio the dish was renamed after the artist. (The Bellini had also been named after an exhibition of the paintings of the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini opened.)
Ideally the Ciprianis of Harry’s Bar would , have liked to have kept their copyright over the dish but by the 1960s, it was appearing on menus all over Italy. The Ciprianis later ran into worse luck when they couldn’t even keep the copyright on their restaurant’s name. They sold their eponymous Venetian hotel to container tycoon James Sherwood, the owner of Orient Express Hotels. Sherwood also bought the name ‘Harry’s Bar’ for use outside of Italy when he bought the hotel. So any Harry’s Bar that you might find elsewhere has nothing to do with the Ciprianis even if it serves the Venice restaurant’s specialities. This has led to much bad blood between the Ciprianis and Sherwood.
Sherwood opened a Harry’s Bar in London in partnership with the late Mark Birley (of Annabel’s) and though the two men later fell out as messily as Sherwood had with the Ciprianis, the London Harry’s Bar is a non-Cipriani operation. For all that, it is probably a better restaurant than the Cipriani, a few minutes away, another London operation owned by the Ciprani family in partnership with David Tang. Both restaurants serve what each claims is the original beef carpaccio though the Ciprianis are infuriated by their inability to use the name Harry’s Bar for their London operation. Similar battles between Sherwood and the Ciprians have raged elsewhere.
The original carpaccio was distinguished by its sauce. Giuseppe Cipriani and his chef Berto Toffolo could hardly take credit for slicing raw beef. So they made much of their old Universal Sauce. But ironically, as the dish has travelled the world, the one element that most chefs have dispensed with is the original sauce. I’ve had the Cipriani carpaccio and I can see why the sauce (ingredients: mayonaise, milk, Worcestershire sauce etc. – they’ve dropped the mustard these days) is often regarded as an old fashioned distraction.
In these modern times, carpaccio is popular because it fits in with the craze for healthy low-fat, no-carb food that de , pends on the very best quality ingredients. (Make carpaccio with poor quality beef and it simply will not work.) To emphasise the healthy nature of carpaccio, many chefs now serve it under a layer of rocket (arugula) leaves and some accentuate its flavour by shav ing Parmesan on to the plate even before it leaves the kitchen. A few restaurants (Bombay’s Trattoria for instance) smoke the meat so that it does not taste obvious ly raw. But the best carpaccio – at least according to me – does not need cooking or ornamentation.
The meat should be good enough to speak for itself. And black pepper is all you really need.
Somewhere along the way the term ‘carpaccio’ be , gan to mean “raw and thinly sliced.” My guess is that the transition occurred when they started making fish carpaccio. Unlike the original carpaccio which we can date to the month of its invention, fish carpaccio has a more complicated provenance. It came to fame in America where chefs decided that they could adopt the Japanese sashimi techniques to do a carpaccio of tuna, a fish that can sometimes remind you of red meat. But you find fish carpaccio in Italy too and the Italians insist that the shift first took place in the mother country and was then exported.
The Silver Spoon Cookbook, Italy’s version of the Larousse Gastronomique, lists a fish carpaccio made with swordfish and salmon sliced very thin. Unlike Americans who use Japanese-influenced sauces for their fish carpaccios, the Silver Spoon recommends a sauce made from brandy parsley garlic and thyme. (The Silver Spoon also has a recipe for carpaccio made with scamorza cheese so no doubt Italians will claim that cheese carpaccio is also a part of the tradition that began in 1950 or so!)
While these carpaccios have found a certain fame, they have also robbed the term of its original meaning. These days a chef who thinly slices fresh pineapple before putting a scoop of icecream on it will describe his dish as Pineapple Carpaccio. Scallop Carpaccio is now a common menu standby and I’ve found Black Truffle Carpaccio at some restaurants.
Nevertheless, the next great shift after the Cipriani carpaccio and its descendants occurred in Los Angeles in the 1980s when Nobu Matsuhisa (for his contribution to the invention of modern Japanese food, see Brunch, June 22) fooled around with a Peruvian dish called tiradito. In Peru, a tiradito involves arranging raw fish on a plate in the manner of petals and then smearing a hot sauce on top. Nobu had already been experimenting with new style sashimi, in which the fish was cooked by pouring warm oil on it just before serving. When he combined the two traditions – flash-cooked sashimi and tiradito – he came up with the modern fish carpaccio.
Nobu’s creations have been widely copied even if the term carpaccio is not always used to describe them. His original New York chef Masuhira Morimoto continued to use the Italian name when he opened his own Philadelphia restaurant.
Morimoto’s white fish carpaccio (made with blowfish or fugu, fluke, red snapper or any light white fish) sears the fish with hot olive oil and then flavours it with a variation on a traditional Japanese Ponzu sauce. (He also use a monkfish liver sauce but that’s not integral to the dish.) His lamb carpaccio, on the other hand, sticks close to the Cipriani style by serving the meat raw, not seared with hot oil. But it takes a very un-Italian sauce made from ginger, wasabi, lemon and scallions.
Oddly enough, it is the Nobu-Morimoto kind of sauce that is be coming increasingly popular as an accompaniment for beef carpaccio even in Italian restaurants. In this health con scious age, nobody really wants to eat mayonnaise so a light sauce is nearly always preferred.
When I first saw carpaccio being served in Indian restaurants, I wondered how we would take to the idea of raw beef. Europeans have more experience of raw meat. Long before Giuseppe Cipriani first sliced beef for his Contessa, Italians ate cruda, a dish not unlike Steak Tartare, which required mixing minced raw beef with spices. Cruda has now been adapted by Italian restaurants in New York as a sort of Tuscan sashi mi but even in its original form, was always raw0
Indian cuisine has no raw meat tradition that I know of so I was intrigued by the courage of restaurateurs who put it on the menu. I needn’t have worried. Fifteen years ago, when Delhi’s Hyatt Regency launched its Sunday brunch buffet, the one dish that disappeared within seconds was the beef carpaccio. Now, it is a fast-mov ing item at nearly every Italian restaurant.
And yet, I doubt whether many Indians would eat Steak Tartare. So what is it that makes carpaccio different? Silly as this sounds, I think it is the thickness. Put a piece of raw meat before me and I would think twice before eating it. Slice it very thin so that it is almost translucent and suddenly, I begin to treat it as a kind of fresh salami or ham.
My guess is that as the sushi explosion continues, a new gen eration of Indians will become less and less squeamish about raw meat and fish. If that is true, then carpaccio may well be the wave of the future. It’s only a matter of time, I suspect, before some en terprising chef dresses his carpaccio with an Indian sauce. After all, if a Venetian dish can be adapted with Japanese flavours, why shouldn’t Indian spices also do the trick?