Omelette on my Pallete…

“So, what will you have for breakfast today?” This is one question I keep asking myself and my house guests. Will it be bacon, baked beans and eggs, paranthas, poori subzi etc. etc. When such confusion arises, I tell myself “Ash, stop beating around the bush! Beat the eggs instead and churn out a nice fluffy omelette!”

Yours Truly preparing a typical Indian masala omelette

Omelettes have been my all time favourite, as a breakfast meal or a snack. The first thing that I learnt how to cook at the age of twelve was actually an omelette. And now that I have gotten into food as a full time passion / profession and as a self proclaimed culinary historian,food anthropologist (without an anthropology degree of course-just an interest whch I inherited from my late father who was an anthropologist by profession and my guiding light to culture and tradition), I keep wondering what could be the origin of the omelette-who made the first omelette, when and how.

Today, while I was stuffing my omelette with smoked chicken and cheese, I thought why not do a little more research on its etymology and anthropology? Here I am scribbling yet another story of a dish that tells us one golden rule of cooking-INNOVATE.

I quickly glance through my Larousse to find out what does it have to say about it in definitive words? To my delight, Larousse Gastronomique has spared almost three pages describing this dish. To begin with it says, a sweet or savoury dish made from beaten whole eggs, cooked in a frying pan (skiller), and served plain or with various additions. The word comes from the French lamelle (small blade) because of its flat shape; in former times it was known as alumelle, then alumette, and amelette. (Some authorities claim that the word has a Latin origin, oca lellita, a classic Roman dish consisting of beaten eggs cooked on a flat tray dish with honey.)

The Romans are giving me ideas. The next omelette I cook shall be savoured with a tinge of honey in it, of course! But trying to do as Romans do even before reaching Rome? May be I’d start with what we find on Indian streets. A boy, you’re not sure has crossed fourteen years of age, tries to beat two eggs in a steel glass with a spoon. He adds chopped onions and green chillies into it. A pinch of salt and he beats it further. Now, he adds a lump…a huge lump of butter into the steamy frying pan. He keeps beating the eggs while the volatile butter evaporates and melts simultaneously. Then he splashes the beaten eggs into the frying pan. Within minutes we have what we call the desi omelette. Such is a common scene everywhere on the streets in India, be it a big city, a small town or even a village for that matter. In the remote Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir and so much so in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh I remember one evening food I did not get, but omelettes I surely got-such is the vastness and expanse of the omellete.

Ramkishan Gawlani

I remember the legendary, the world famous… Omelette Man of Jodhpur. He may not be a household name in the west or the east, but he sure has found his way to be featured in every travel guide book right from the US to France, Japan to Germany. Piere-a frend of mine from France fell in love with Omelette Man’s omlettes.  His testimony speaks a lot because he is an ardent omelette lover.

Omelette Man, Jodhpur (internet image)

Ramkishan Gawlani, the Omelette Man is one tough old cookie. He has set up a huge signboard boasting his authenticity to the world, “The Omelette Shop – recommended by Lonely Planet,” I for sure loved his omlettes especially his masala and cheese omellete. It had pleasantly surprised me when he actually dirverted from desi flavour of the omellete to western tastes. His shop consumes over a thousand eggs a day. It is a pity that he has more global fame than national fame.

There are hundreds of stories woven around the omelettes in India. I remember in Munnar in Kerala many moons back, I came across Jose Mathews a post graduate in history who had opened a chai, coffee and omellete shop. Boy, he had a tale to tell as to how he was an ex-naxalite-came back to the main stream-he had no job despite his qualifications -decided to set up something to sustain himself and did what he loved best-he loved omelettes and was good at making them so he opened a chai shop serving omelettes which were a hit with many tea planters(Munnar being tea country), tourists and the locals. I learn today from a planter friend of mine from Munnar that he is running a successful Malabar resturant in Cochin. Inspirational-is it not?

I could go on and on with personal ancedotes revolving around omellete but I feel we should now concentrate on the basics both historical and gastronomical.

The Chicken and Egg Question: Human beings have been consuming eggs since the neolithic ages. Not only were they easy to procure, they were excellent protein sources. Okay, for the prehistoric man it relieved him of hunger and energised him fast enough. Ostrich and chicken eggs were most common. After the introduction of cooking, egg became easy to cook and moulded into several dishes. It was diverse and offered a different taste each time it was cooked even with a slight difference in recipe. With induction of religion in sociological map of the world, some religions found it symbolic vis-a-vis life and hence encouraged eating and decorating eggs. However, some others considered it un pious.

According to the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, editor, Solomon H. Katz domestication of jungle fowl had started in India by 3200 B.C.E. Records from China and Egypt show that fowl were domesticated and laying eggs for human consumption around 1400 B.C.E. The Romans found egg laying hens in England, Gaul, and among Germans. The first domesticated fowl reached North America with the second voyage of Columbus in 1493

However, what about the term egg? The Old English term was oeg, which survived in Middle English as ey (plural eyren)….But in the fourteenth century the related egg was borrowed from Old Norse. For a time the two forms competed with each other (William Caxton, in the prologue to his Book of Eneydos (1490), asked ‘What should a man in these day now write, eggs or eyren, certainly it is hard to please every man’), and the Norse form did not finally emerge as the winner until the late sixteenth century.” —An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto

Okay, I realise that this paragraph still doesn’t answer what came first : chicken or egg. It only says what was eaten first! Phew!

The recipe of omelette is as basic as it can get. Beat the eggs. Condments follow. The French however, are not so simplistic. They deal with their food wth technique. Though it may be long to read,  have to mention at this point in time an excerpt from an article ‘Physiology of Taste’ or Physiologie du Gout, written by French lawyer, thinker and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826.  I think it is simply brilliant.

…The conversation passed from subject to subject, but I, as a philosopher, thought the secret of the preparation of such a dish must be valuable. I ordered my cook to obtain the recipe in its most minute details. I publish it the more willingly now, because I never saw it in any book.


French omelette (internet image)

Take for six persons the roe of four cash * and steep them for a few minutes in salt water just below boiling point.[* the translator has followed this recipe with shad, pike, pickerel, etc., and can recommend it with a quiet conscience. Any fish is a substitute for tunny

Put in also a fresh tunny about as large as an egg, to which you must add a charlotte minced. Mix the tunny and the roes together, and put the whole in a kettle with a portion of good butter, and keep it on the fire until the butter has melted. This is the peculiarity of the omelette.

Take then another piece of butter and mix it with parsely and sage. Put it in the dish intended to receive the omelette, cover it with lemon juice and put it on hot coals. Then beat twelve eggs, (fresh as possible), pour in the fish and roe so that all may be perfectly mixed. Then cook the omelette as usual, making it thin and firm. Serve it up hot.

This dish should be reserved for breakfasts, where all the guests are connoisseurs. It is caviare to the vulgar.

1. The roes and fish should be warmed, not boiled. They will thus mingle more easily with the eggs.
2. The plate should be deep.
3. It should be warm, for a cold porcelain plate would extract the caloric of the omelette and make it insipid.

Another early reference of Omelette can be found from 1685, The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May, “To make omelettes divers ways. The first way. Break six, eight, or ten eggs more of less, beat them together in a dish, and put salt to them; then put some butter a melting in a frying pan, fry it more or less, according to your discretion, only on one side of bottom. You may sometimes make it green with juyce of spinage and sorrel beat with the eggs, or serve it with green sauce, a little vinegar and sugar boil’d together, and served up on a dish with the Omlet.” “The sixth way. Beat the eggs, and put to them a little cream, a little grated bread, a little preserved lemon-peel minced or grated very small…”  

One layer of omelette being stuffed into the next: the Japanese Tamagoyaki (internet image)

In the eastern part of the world, i.e. Japan, omelettes are called Tamagoyaki. They make several leafy omelettes, roll each of them inside the other and create a big omelette. Well, that was just for information!

Spinach Tamagoyaki

Anyways, whatever people did centuries ago is only in the pages of history. My reality is that, omelette is the daily affair. It is very unlikely that there comes a day when I do not prepare one. For me, the most satiating part is to observe the contentment and sheer delight on the faces of people who relish the food I prepare. More so, when they demand something to be prepared. When someone can shun their inhibition to ask for their favourite dish to be prepared, one can judge the intimacy of a relationship. It is like asking your mother to give something to eat. And likewise.

For me an omelette is like a canvas. The base is plain and it is upon the artiste to add colour. Some artists rely on their technique, rest on their instinct. Some of course on their ‘secret ingredient’. I am thankfully liberal in certain matters, especially matters like these. Some of my friends love the omelette I stuff with seekh kebabs. Others prefer the chicken, mushroom and cheese recipe. Like the father says in Kung Fu Panda…there IS no ‘secret ingredient’.

All I am driven by is love and love alone.

30 Responses to “Omelette on my Pallete…”

  1. faithfulfoodie Says:

    As an omelette lover, I enjoyed this article. An omelette is truly a blank canvas to which one can add many flavors and textures. This is what makes them so versatile. I, too, love it when friends ask for a favorite dish to be prepared. It is an honor that they feel they can make such a request and a pleasure to prepare food for those who will enjoy it so much! Now I’m hungry for an omelette!!

  2. Paula Smith Says:

    This surely is food for thought.Did not know the omellete whch we eat almost everyday has such a long history.Very informative and well written article.Thank you.

  3. Reading this made me want a desi amlet.. with onions and coriander. Cooked in butter. slurp

  4. I am an omlette lover, tho I don’t eat it. Because my husband and daughter love omlettes and I think they’re easy to make
    (once you learn how..that is!) And I’m told nothing beats the regular desi omlette with finely chopped onions, green chillies, coriander and ofcourse butter!
    Lovely post, thanks!

  5. anjana Mahanta Says:

    Ash…the article is so absorbing and informative…i had no idea that, a write up about omelet could be this long but then u always spring new surprises when knowledge of food is concerned..who but a true to d core foddie like u would delve into d history of omlet…amazing….and u gave me some food for thought…about experimenting with diff versions of omlet..will try one today…for sure..can’t wait..after reading your gastronomous article…:P

  6. omlettes for breakfast today!!!

  7. reminds me of my childhood
    whem i was a kid, it always amuse me 2 watch an omlette being made. a food, which is cooked with da least amount of time n dat taste so yummm….:) da little time it takes 2 b cooked, lda esser times it takes 2 b relished n whack over….we hardly have any leftover omlette in my house…..
    i use 2 c da egg n imagine da yolk 2 b da center of da earth n da whites 2 b da world aroun
    n as i grew up, i felt dat da whole was in da egg…..

    wid dis article u’ve proved my childish hunch, right!!!

  8. meera kaushik Says:

    what an informative article.Did not fathom the depth of the simple omelette and its profound history.Truely a wonderful and informative read .This is the first time I have come across your blog through orkut.You are a wonderful story teller who knows how to ensure that your readers salivate.I for sure will add your blog to my favourites.

  9. Sanjay Joshi Says:

    Great job on the blog Ash-you seem to have lost weight and you are looking good in a chef’s gear-it suits you-How can I forget the awesome omlettes that you would make for us be it college in chandigarh or for that matter when I came to your house in gurgaon.Remember the mushroom,chillie and tomato cheese omellete you made-though it was not for us but the pretty lady next door whom you wanted to impress with your cooking-you always knew how to deal with the fair sex-you would always penetrate into their hearts with your innovating cooking and flawless communication and we would always curse you and say- phir pata li isne-those were some days. can you imagine chandigarh 1984-twenty six years ago.Now enough-No letting out your secrets anymore.
    Keep rocking and feeding with love-we can never forget your warmth and unconditional hospitality.God bless you always.

  10. what a lovely way to get reminded of the time spent in jodhpur…i dont eat eggs but i rem sitting there watching ppl! thanks ashish…for writing 🙂

  11. Joan Higgins Says:

    Hey there
    Stumbled upon your blog.I run a bed and breakfast place in Hull in East Yorkshire in UK.I liked your omellete story.I too love omelletes especially the indian masala omelette stuffed with green chillies.My tastebuds are more Indian than British.Keep writing.This blog goes on my list of preferred sites.

  12. Brilliant. I am sure you have done lots of research for this one. Never knew an omlette had so many varieties, dimensions and stories attached to it

  13. i love omlettes, all kinds!! i can have them for lunch, breakfast or dinner!! yummmy read!!!

  14. spanish omlettes, cheese omlettes or fluffy french omlettes, or indian omlettes…. with warm toasted bread or parathas or roti or with potaotes in fact spinach in omlettes is also nice….

  15. Chef kieth Ohara Says:

    “Although I cannot lay an egg, I am a very good judge of omelettes”
    This is what George bernard Shaw said.I say I am a good judge of your posts on your blog.You write with so much of passion.I am a chef and I understand the emotions that may have gone into your writings.It is an honour to read your blog.

  16. I’m trying to figure out how many eggs went into that huge omelette you are holding in that pan..Love the way it looks – I enjoy making and eating omelettes ..very nice write-up

  17. Hi Ashish,

    Great article! For me too, the omlette was the first thing I ever learned to cook. From those days, I’ve made them with two eggs to 24 eggs, in every style fron the ‘Desi’ omlette that you described, to one with chicken, beef, and all kinds of exotic stuff added! Pity I have a finicky pure-veggie room-mate. Gotta get back to my omlette days again!

  18. Its so true isnt it?? No matter where you go, the omlette can seldom go wrong!!! As little kids we’d freak out on a cheese stuffed omlettes.. Slurp… I realised the very thought still makes me very very hungry!!! 🙂

  19. Amrita mukherjee Says:

    Reading this made me realise that its so true that in all ages eggs is the most loves form of food.i have seen even six months old kids going ga ga over soft boiled eggs.Being a Chef today i dont like eating red meats and chicken any more but i still love eating a slurpy cheese and mushroom omelette for breakfast and i wont get bored ever i think.
    oh i also love egss in my weekly off Maggi,its a MUST!:)

  20. Chef Hans Vogel Says:

    I am a chef in Paris though I am from Germany.( the omelette country)I loved the way desi omellete is made,must try it sometime.In Holland, Belgium, and Germany, and in country villages in France, the omelet is made, as a rule, with six eggs to two ounces of butter. It comes up like eggs that have been set. In the higher-class restaurants in Paris, like Bignon’s, or the Cafe Anglais, the omelet is lighter, and probably about four ounces of butter would be used to six eggs.
    I love your story.really well written.Look forward to newer posts

  21. Tashi Wangdi Says:

    Ashish la,
    Remember the omelettes we had at Mari in Rotang pass. Judy,karma,Dolma,ajay singh that filmaker ,you and me at that omlette wali lady’s shack where you took over the kitchen and made some omelletes for us.I remember we comsumed almost 40 eggs between us.It had snowed and and was cold.I still rememeber the taste.Come to think of it was almost 12 years back.I enjoyed reading your blog.Your passion for food remains evergreen.Lovely stories of food.
    tashi delek

  22. I like the: “For me an omelette is like a canvas”.
    That could only have come from somebody who is an artist and chef at the same time.
    Have a good day my friend.


  23. “I thought why not do a little more research on its etymology and anthropology?”
    As far as I understand, anthropology is the study of humankind.
    Please explain how one can do research on the anthropology of eggs?

  24. @Nisha The study of food and eating has a long history in anthropology, beginning in the nineteenth century with Garrick Mallery and William Robertson Smith. The Anthropology of Food is an analysis of food in culture. While the primary purpose for food is nutrition, it also has a cultural dimension by which people choose what they eat not only by flavor or nutritional value but by cultural, religious, historic, economic or social status, and environmental factors. Closely related is the general subject of Food Science.

  25. fun post, Ashish. And since you are interested in person-food interactions, how about the fact that an omelet is the first thing one learns to make- or atleast attempts to? one of my favourite memories is my uncle teaching me to make this..though he didn’t quite trust me with his ‘special’ frying pan!

  26. Asish da, its really cruel on me who had not had his breakfast today and had to bear with these delicious photographs of mouth smacking omelette. God help me today. 😦

    And yes I am looking forward for a foodie catch up sometime soon. Chao!

  27. realy breakfast is very nic. im working in 5star hotel a last 8yesrs

  28. surajit Says:

    Ashishda, Where do I get this Japanese Tamgoyaki here in Delhi? I have been looking for it for a long time. Not in INA. And also the Moroccan Tajine?

  29. Big Tiiiiiiiiime Fillings and flavor Dam Goood mmm…

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