In the vast pantheon of hallowed French sauces—considered to be the pillars of this classic form of cookery—is bordelaise sauce. Being named after the wine-producing Bordeaux region of France, means, that it has as its base dry red wine, butter, shallots and sauce demi-glace made from meat drippings. But one very crucial ingredient that gives it its characteristic unctuous mouthfeel and velvety texture is beef bone marrow. All this, making it one of this otherwise offal-hating food writer’s most favourite accompaniments to a medium-rare filet mignon steak.
No big surprise then, that I’m also partial to an iconic Awadhi dish that I make sure to partake in whenever I’m in the place that does it best. Yes, eating nalli nihari in Lucknow is a meat lover’s rite of passage best undertaken at dawn. A time when the nihari stalls around the city’s famed Chowk area start to dish out quarter plates full of this rich, spicy goat meat and bone marrow stew. Best eaten by dunking a piece of either khamiri roti or the milk and saffron-based sheermal in a vibrant-hued gravy, speckled with globules of delicious marrow interspersed with bits of floating fat.
Interestingly, over the last few months, I’ve been seeing a renaissance of sorts with regards to bone marrow. Breaking away from its classic French and traditional Indian shackles to have a crossover outing for itself like never before at restaurants across the country. Finding itself in culinary expressions that are as varied as they are interesting and avant-garde.
As part of a mammoth, 14-course degustation menu lunch at Trèsind, Mumbai, I recently found before me placed a bowl of three, tiny inconspicuous looking blue cheese-stuffed tortellini. It was the delicate bone marrow sauce which was a riff on a nalli nihari that did it for me with its rich, umami, meat-y intensity and just right salt hit. Chef Sarfaraz Ahmed, the fine dine restaurant’s head chef says that the marrow plays a vital role in the consistency and richness of the sauce. “While creating the dish, we thought of pairing it with an ingredient that goes well with lamb, especially its marrow, and retains the flavour profile, yet is progressive in the approach,” believes Ahmed.
However, not all agree that the use of bone marrow is very outré and experimental in the modern Indian fine dining construct. Served in a roasted form with citrus pepper paté, sourdough toast and a herb salad, the buff bone marrow dish at Bengaluru’s Lupa isn’t an experiment as per chef Manu Chandra, the restaurant’s founder-partner. “Instead, it was an effort to offer guests an ingredient for what it was. It used to be an unusual offering on any menu in the past, simply due to supply chain and quality issues. But with those constraints out of the way, this dish is a classic, rich addition to our menu,” says Chandra.
All praise for the versatility of bone marrow is Hussain Shahzad, executive chef of The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai. “It’s that one type of animal fat that you can use to cook in various ways; from shallow fry, to smoking it or folding it into curries for a rich, meaty, umami flavour,” believes Shahzad. He says he was inspired by Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road’s bhuna gosht naan chaap, for his iteration of the bone marrow naan chaap that is made using bone marrow from the water buffalo.
Inspired by culinary world heavyweights like chef Eric Ripert of NYC’s Le Bernardin who once famously paired bone marrow with sea urchin, Altaf Patel, corporate chef at Geist Brewing Co., Bengaluru prefers to take the off beaten path with this particular ingredient. And thus, he came up with a brined and roasted buff bone marrow, served with mango mustard sauce, onion jam, gherkin, and grilled sourdough. “As a child growing up in Bombay, bone marrow for me was mutton nalli cooked in korma or the star ingredient of a nihari,” says Patel. “During my time as demi chef de partie at a Mumbai hotel over a decade ago, I saw how this ingredient could be used in other ways. Like in a French bordelaise sauce for steaks and as bone marrow croquettes.”
Incorporating buff bone marrow into her rather experimental short rib and marrow smashburger is chef Gauri Bhasin, of Mumbai’s latest favourite sandwich place Veronica’s. Served with browned onions, aged cheddar cheese and bacon, all ensconced in a pillowy soft Hokkaido-style milk bun, the fat in the marrow is crucial in helping the meat caramelise a little more, while keeping it moist and juicy. However, Bhasin is quick to point out the pitfalls of working with a “finicky” ingredient like marrow. “Achieving the desired texture and consistency when cooking bone marrow can be a challenge. Overcooking can cause the marrow to melt completely, becoming too oily. It is essential to find the right balance and cook the marrow just enough to keep it soft and retain its creamy, custard-like consistency,” says Bhasin.
Steering the bone marrow discussion in a whole other culinary direction is the wacky, seemingly bonkers dessert twist given to it by Kanishka Sharma and Pallavi Mehta, chef partners at Bengaluru’s NĀVU, a contemporary, dinner-only bistro. Their bone marrow creme brûlée is a sweet and savoury dessert with distinct notes of rich buff bone marrow fat, set and served in a femur bone. “Using bone marrow became trendy across the world and it fits within our view of food needing to be decadent and sexy. Thus, pushing the boundaries of imagination and taste” say Sharma and Mehta. I couldn’t agree more!
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.