"We are going to have conti for dinner every day,” said the spouse, who is given to changing the course of our lives with no notice or democratic discussion.
Why conti? I asked, bemused. It turned out she was tired of the “same old thing” and had the previous night made a decent tomato soup, which she declared the “best tomato soup ever”. I, the 10-year-old and my mother hastily agreed. The wife likes criticism, constructive or otherwise, as long as it primarily involves fulsome praise. That said, the dinner she organised—soup, bread with pesto and breaded chicken-potato cutlet—was the perfect end to a hard workday and an expansive lunch.
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Conti is an old Indian babalog term for “continental” cuisine, a term that doubtless befuddles those from the Continent, which means Europe, and encompasses everything from French toast to sizzlers to chicken à la Kiev to caramel pudding. Search for definitions of continental food online and you will find most come from India. Even Wikipedia, home to several dubious descriptors, will redirect you to “European cuisine”. You may find gems like “veg continental fry” recipes, not unlike other quintessentially Indian culinary inventions, such as gobi Manchurian.
When I was younger, conti recipes tended to be heavy, involving lots of butter, cream, cheese and, often, deep-frying. With prosperous, health-conscious Indians in cities becoming somewhat more aware of the variety of food in Europe, there are many who can now distinguish between a goulash and a chicken soup, souvlaki and shawarma.
There’s still a market, though, for old-style continental food that stubbornly ignores the continent’s diversity. For instance, one of my old favourites, Embassy in Delhi’s Connaught Place, still offers its range of conti soups—you can choose, for instance, from cream of mushroom, cream of tomato, cream of asparagus, cream of broccoli and seafood chowder, which the menu helpfully tells you is a “creamy thick soup”. There’s a heavy Russian salad, a variety of entrées doused in mayonnaise, chicken à la Kiev (of course) and my personal favourite, clearly unknown to our Russian allies, the Bomb de Moscova—“breast of chicken stuffed with mushroom in a bomb shape”.
When I asked the wife for her interpretation of conti, her airy response included burgers, pasta, soup, leading me to shake my head and start thinking. I cannot say I have any enduring experience of European kitchens, having travelled to the continent infrequently, but I have had memorable meals cooked by locals in Spain, Austria and Denmark.
If you ask me to name light European food you can make at home—of the kind I believe the wife now seeks—I vote for the Danish smørrebrød, open-faced sandwiches of buttered rye bread topped with meats, herring, cheese or garnish. I first encountered it during my visit to Copenhagen in 2009, when I rented an Airbnb from a local for a week while covering the climate summit.
The price was steep for me, so in desperation I asked my young host if he would give me a discount if I cooked for him. He agreed, bringing down the rate by €1,000 (around ₹87,500 now). I carried kokum—the dried rind of a mangosteen family fruit so beloved of Goans as a souring agent in curries—and used a fish, halibut if I remember, from the frigid north Atlantic waters to make a version of my grandmother’s fish curry. In return, my host threw a party for me on my last day and made a variety of smørrebrød. My fondest memory was of pickled herring on rye, the earthy roughness of the bread contrasting with the sourness of the fish.
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I never tried to make smørrebrød in India because I always imagined the ingredients would be too hard to find. But there was no better time to indulge my wife’s conti phase—online school has restarted and the daughter is ravenous all through the morning. Despite an early breakfast of two eggs and a dosa or two toasts and/or ham, she must be fed almost every hour on the hour until lunch if she is to stay focused and if we are not to suffer hangry moods.
Every morning, we rack our brains for relatively healthy snacks. My conti thoughts merged with the school-snack imperative. I did not have the ingredients essential for smørrebrød, meat jellies or corned beef or garden cress, but there are always local options. There was no remoulade, the mayonnaise I am leery of anyway, but I did have a home-made yogurt-dill sauce. I may not have pickled herring but I had leftover home pork and ham from the shop. A quick search of the fridge revealed pickled cucumbers and onions aplenty.
Enthused, the wife quickly procured rye bread, pickled beets and made me the yogurt-dill spread. The smørrebrød were demolished by the eager child but she watched alarmed as the rest of the family piled in. I think we will do conti week again.
Three smørrebrød options:
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.