I loved Ismail Merchant’s lyrical films, and I loved even more the freewheeling way he cooked, injecting a little of India into dishes that were essentially European and vice versa. And no one could light up a kitchen as he did, laughing and chatting exuberantly as he put together an excellent impromptu dinner from whatever ingredients were on hand.
Merchant, the voluble half of Merchant Ivory Productions, is best known for collaborating with director James Ivory on such notable films as “The Remains of the Day,” “Howards End” and “A Room With a View.” A dynamic producer, adept at persuading investors to back his films, he was equally at home behind the stove, cooking with great flair. This became a public relations tool as well as a way to feed cast and crew when the budget was pinched. The flavors were often Indian, because he was born in Bombay, but he loved sophisticated European food too.
When Merchant died two weeks ago at 68, I could think of no better memorial than a dinner composed of his dishes -- recipes that I had scribbled down while watching him cook in Los Angeles and on location in India. These recipes were not published in either of his two cookbooks, or in later books on filming in Paris and Florence, both of which included recipes. They were like extra scenes that never made it to the theater, but deserved to be seen.
These dishes were the inspiration of the moment, served to appreciative friends and then left on the cutting room floor, so to speak, as he went on to other dinners and other dishes. There would always be fresh ideas, so there was no need for him to write them all down.
Meals to unite
The last time I saw him, he turned out a glorious combination of shrimp and broccoli at the home of a mutual friend in Los Angeles. The seasonings were his favorites -- Dijon mustard, lemon juice and, for the Indian touch, black mustard seeds.
Shrimp and broccoli were his trademark ingredients too. When I invited him to cook in The Times Test Kitchen in 1987 after reading his first cookbook, “Ismail Merchant’s Indian Cuisine,” I made sure that both were in the refrigerator. Merchant was famous for scavenging odds and ends from the refrigerators of friends and producing sumptuous meals in an amazingly short time. That day, he cooked shrimp with lemon juice, mustard, caraway and cilantro, made a separate dish with the broccoli and tossed together a sort of ratatouille with eggplant.
He had a good time and lingered while the onlookers ate. “I love chatting,” he said. “I love seeing everyone eat and be together.”
Merchant shipped ingredients to locations where he planned to spend considerable time. In 1998, he went to India to direct “Cotton Mary,” which dealt with Anglo-Indians in the state of Kerala. In Fort Cochin, he rented a spacious bungalow and stocked the kitchen with pastas and olive oils from Italy, mustards from France and wines from Australia.
One night he invited a few friends, actors and visitors to a dinner that seamlessly blended South Indian and Western ingredients.
Mixing it up
Merchant never hesitated to take risks in the kitchen. “I love to improvise,” he said. “Cooking is a creative art, and I don’t shy away from anything. If it doesn’t work out the first time, it will work out the second time.”
The main course that night a was pasta dish typical of Merchant’s “Italo-Indian” cuisine: fettuccine with a sauce made from fresh tomatoes, green chiles, some coconut and dried kokum, a sourish fruit used in the south. The dessert was fresh pineapple marinated with Cointreau, lime juice, sugar and cloves.
“Kerala has the best pineapples,” Merchant said, and he made the flavor glow with this simple marinade. This dish is best with a pineapple that’s fully ripe.
The bungalow’s white-tiled kitchen was steamy-hot, but Merchant had boiled dal (lentils) anyway. “I can’t live without dal,” he wrote in “Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals.” That book included a recipe for lemon lentils that was reprinted in The Times Food section and voted one of the section’s best recipes of the year in 1994.
Dal on location was much simpler -- boiled red lentils to which Merchant added tomato and onion sauteed in olive oil, turmeric and salt. “Sometimes, if you have to entertain quickly and you’re tired, just mix it all up, pour it in a pan, and that’s it,” he said.
For a dinner in his honor a few days after he died, I made shrimp with broccoli, the pasta with kokum and coconut sauce, the pineapple dessert from Fort Cochin and added a tomato salad from “Ismail Merchant’s Indian Cuisine.”
In Kerala, Merchant served freshly fried cashews for “short eats” (appetizers). I substituted spicy cashews from an Indian sweet shop. Over there, we drank nimbu pani (limeade), Kingfisher beer and Australian Shiraz with dinner. Here, I poured a bottle of bubbly so guests could offer a toast. It was a fitting tribute -- and I’m sure Merchant would have loved how well Champagne went with his brightly seasoned food.
But he would have loved even more that his food had brought people together, chatting and lingering over a wonderful meal, as he had done so often during his lifetime.