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The flavour-packed interlude of palate cleansers

Palate cleansers have become big crowd-pleasers, with chefs in India experimenting with local, seasonal fruits like ‘phalsa’

Palate cleansers revive the palate to fully enjoy a tasting menu.
Palate cleansers revive the palate to fully enjoy a tasting menu. (Kate McLean, Unsplash)

In an interview with The Guardian in 2012, chef Heston Blumenthal famously remarked that he found tampons—yes, you heard it right— one of the most effective palate cleansers. Though he never introduced these at The Fat Duck, his famous three Michelin- starred restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, England, he went on to say: “If you drain the moisture in your mouth you experience richness, creaminess and sweetness more intensely and there is really nothing more absorbing than a tampon.”

While Blumenthal was clear he didn’t want to serve a “tampon palate cleanser” at The Fat Duck, his other offering, a nitro-poached mousse palate cleanser with a combination of lime juice, malic acid, green tea and vodka, continues to command attention there.

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Closer home, at The Lodhi in Delhi, chef Vaibhav Bhargava created a 10-course tasting menu at the hotel’s Perbacco restaurant, inspired by his travels in Japan, a month and a half ago. At this two-day culinary experiential event, it was the passion-fruit palate cleanser that had the guests talking. “I will have a second helping of this, please,” said one. “It’s a compliment when guests want more than just one helping of the palate cleanser. To crave that tiny, mouthful serving more than just once means that it’s a job well done,” Bhargava told me later.

Evolving from French cuisine, where food would arrive in courses, traditional palate cleansers, or nettoyant pour palais, were served to remove the taste of previous flavours. Mostly, these were sorbets, granitas, fresh herbs, fresh fruit, sparkling wine…anything that helped to clean the tongue thoroughly. The palate cleanser is a refreshing break in a culinary journey that involves a five- to 14-course meal or more. Depending on the number of courses, more than one palate cleanser can be used, say food experts.

Though it’s tough to find out when the tradition began, various cultures have their own versions—drinking milk after a spicy course (Spanish); having an “intermezzo”, or interlude (Italian). Most chefs Lounge spoke with, however, say it was—and continues to be—intrinsic to French cuisine.

Bhargava says even the humblest of items can serve as palate cleansers: “Still water between whiskies, bread between wine tasting, pickled ginger while having sushi… these, too, are palate cleansers.” For the 10-course menu at Perbacco, he says he knew the flavour he wanted for the palate cleanser—seasonal fruit that was citrus and acidic in nature, in preparation for the bold, heady flavours of the Japanese curries and meats. Fresh fruit pulp from 10-12kg of passion fruit was mixed with water and lemon was churned, frozen and made into sorbets before being served to roughly 100 guests.

“Done well, it is—as it should be—a shock to the system,” says Vidushi Sharma, founder of Mensho Tokyo, a new Japanese restaurant in Delhi. Sharma recently attended a tasting menu at a Delhi five-star hotel where the palate cleanser was a fermented vodka sorbet. Her favourite, however, remains a yuzu-gin granita she had once when she was travelling. Yuzu is a fragrant citrus fruit and the gin, says Sharma, cut through any sourness, elevating the flavour profile. “That’s the beauty of the palate cleanser, it leaves you craving more,” she says.

Chefs and experts say palate cleansers of the kind popular in the West aren’t part of the Indian tradition. “Come to think of it, amuse bouche by way of chaats that are eaten before meals is, well, more us,” says Anubhav Sapra, founder of Delhi Food Walks. Some, of course, might argue that the quintessential lip-smacking chaat is no less than a meal in itself. “We either have interesting elements at the beginning of a meal or at the end with digestive mouth fresheners, paans, etc,” adds Sapra.

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Nonetheless, palate cleansers are fast catching the attention of several Indian chefs, who are experimenting with local, seasonal fruits that take us back to our childhood. At Rooh, a Delhi-based Indian restaurant where home chef Taiyaba Ali recently hosted a Lucknavi food festival to celebrate her stories of the city she grew up in, a humble phalsa, or Indian sherbet berry, sorbet with a generous mix of kala namak (black salt) evokes memories of summer holidays in grandparents’ homes. “My entire menu didn’t give me so much stress as this tiny palate cleanser did,” quips Ali.

She experimented with mango and shahtoot (mulberry) but both seemed sweet and more like dessert, rather than being neutral. When she decided on phalsa, Ali realised it was a challenging fruit (seasonal, not always available in enormous quantities; she had to get fruit that was hard yet plump, not limp). After careful selection, she mixed generous amounts of salt to soften the skin for better pulp extraction in a traditional chalni, or sieve. Deseeded, it was cooked with more salt, chilli flakes and sugar before being cooled, churned and kept in the deep freezer. Over 8-10kg of phalsa was peeled to extract 5-6kg of pulp for 150 people. Ali laughs: “Almost everyone wanted a second serving of the palate cleanser. Everyone sat and remembered their childhood days while enjoying it.” At a recent pop-up where she was a guest, Ali remembers having cold tomato tea as a palate cleanser.

The perfection of a palate cleanser, explains Rajesh Wadhwa, executive chef at Taj Palace, Delhi, isn’t simple: “You can’t have ice-crystal formation in a palate cleanser that’s, say, a sorbet.” Orient Express, the hotel restaurant that serves European cuisine, has blueberry and blackberry sorbets as palate cleansers. The chef says one of his personal favourites at the restaurant is the earthy-citrusy cumin-calamansi palate cleanser. “The flavours have to be neutral in a palate cleanser. Just using a sweet fruit can never be an effective palate cleanser. You have to add a citrus, astringent element for it to be effective,” he adds.

Manish Sharma, executive chef at The Oberoi, Delhi, explains why a palate cleanser becomes an important note in the symphony of a multi-course menu. Since it should be able to revive the palate, he says it should be citrusy, sharp and cold. “A tasting menu comes in a sequence, from light notes to heavier, bolder notes,” he says. “In the middle, the tongue needs a reinvention of sorts to be able to fully enjoy the experience—and that’s what a palate cleanser is meant to achieve.”

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Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based writer.

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