January 2, 2013
As they say, if you can’t write a post on the first day of the year, do it on the second. So here goes:
The mercury went on a tailspin from the last week of 2012, and on the 30th, after entertaining guests till the evening, the empty house suddenly felt cold and miserable like a Yorkshire moor. The television did nothing to lift my spirits and i found the kitchen, still swirling with warm flovours of the mutton curry i cooked in the afternoon, inviting.
What now, i asked myself, after switching on the room heater. What would Heathcliff have done were he trapped in a freezing mansion? Pine for Catherine? Nah, a voice told me from within: He would have cranked up the oven and made a pot of Hungarian goulash to keep warm and cheerful!
Now, i did never attempt a goulash before, though i had a nice bowl of it with rice at Taj hotel, Agra. All i could remember was it had a liberal helping of stewed diced carrots and onion rings and that the mutton (they didn’t serve the authentic beef version) was unusually tender.
Determined not to look up the net, i started dicing carrots, onions, tomatoes and garlic pods. There’s a confession for the gastronomic purists: there was no paprika at home, though the mutton chunks were already tender after being marinated in yoghurt for 24 hours.
This, though, was a challenge in itself: the goulash I was to make would take on the flavour of curd; simply put, it could turn into an Indian curry instead of a continental stew. I needed something to neutralize and then overwhelm the curd. What could it be?
The answer lay in the glass in my hand: cabarnet shiraz — Sula’s medium-bodied peppery red wine.
The pan was heated in a jiffy and in went the onion and garlic followed by the tomato. A stir later, i sprinkled a liberal helping of oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley and pepper to add a Italian twist to was to come. In went the mutton and after five minutes of lightly stir frying it, i poured about six ounces of the wine and an equal quantity of water, just enough to drown the meat. Covering the pan, i let the thing simmer for 45 minutes during which, ahhh, the house started smelling of winey meat and i instantly felt a tad warmer! A couple of chillies slit down the middle and a sprinkling of salt was added and so were another six ounces of wine or so and three cups of water. After an hour of further simmer — yes, you need to be patient because slow cooking takes time — the goulash or whatever you call it, was ready to be had with a baguette.
The next day, i looked up an authentic recipe of Hungarian goulash, though by then it was too late or “too good”, as a dear friend put it after polishing off a bowl of the stew with some fresh sesame bread.
A glance at the recipe (http://homepage.interaccess.com/~june4/goulash.html) of June Meyer whose mother is from Austria-Hungary, makes it clear how much i deviated, unknowingly so, from the authentic dish. But as they say, all’s well that tastes well!
October 19, 2012
So what’s the secret of my energy nowadays? The same as any true-blue Bihari worth his sattu. Yes, ‘chane ka sattu’, the pale liquid that packs a mean punch of energy enough to keep the tummy full till lunch, is my breakfast. Every day. I love it primarily because it’s easy to make: Honey, rock salt and a wedge of lime goes into a jumbo glass, quarter full of the pounded gram. A top-up of cold water and a bit of stirring, and I am ready to take on the world, I mean, household chores.
Though largely associated with Bihari thelawallahs and coolies, my tryst with this protein-packed drink dates back to my childhood, probably because it took me no time to drink a glass of it and dash off to the football field. And when I had a bit more time, I used to be served a thicker version of it in a bowl. The hyper-healthy mash also used to contain unrecognisable remains of banana pulp, a spoon of sugar and a cup of milk. I dare not make the porridge now because over the years, I have turned lactose intolerant and shunned sugar.
Sometimes in the evenings, I have another date with the humble sattu, this time, in the form of litti. Served with piping hot chokha or a mishmash vegetable sabzi, I can polish off a plate or two of the crumbly roasted balls with a spoon of pickle, green chillies and raw onions.
The littiwallah, who seats outside our office just beside the tea stall of Jhaji (by now, you have rightly guessed how my life revolves around Biharis to the extent that a Bhojpuri will say ‘Bangali babu ho gail Bihari’), sometimes goes missing, so devotees such as me have to trudge half-a-kilometre to get hold of his fellow littiwallah.
Just as a write this, an outrageous thought flashes past my mind: What if I spike a thin sattu sorbet with a dash of vodka, add chopped chillies and sprigs of coriander and mint before serving it in a martini glass? Of course, after some shaking and stirring!
** To sample the sattu magic, lunch at Potbelly in Hauz Khas Village, apart from Bihar Bhavan in Lutyen’s Delhi
October 18, 2012
I have, as my handful of readers noticed, turned lazy. Shamelessly. The last post I wrote after eight months spanned just 160 words. In short, it ended almost before it began; quite an antithesis to the dinner I had at a friend’s place the other day. My invitation was for — apart from juicy chitchat — fish and chips with beer, an irresistible package for a forced bachelor. It ultimately turned out to be a spread that royalties would be proud to serve.
This was the first time I tasted Kingfisher Ultra, a beer expensive by Indian standards (Rs 85 for a 500 ml can). The playboy brewer has nearly gone bust but it hasn’t had any effect on the beer. It’s light and crispy yet heady, a perfect companion on an autumn evening, and next only to the divine Kings (available only in Goa) and (Danny Denzongpa’s) Dansberg in taste.
The fish and chips appeared an innovative take on the stuff that you get in restaurants. Humus was served instead of tartar sauce, the fish was not clichéd bekti but meaty basa fillets, firm yet juicy and plump. A bowl of Russian salad completed the package and made me nostalgic. For, I was tasting it probably for the first time since the Nineties, when nearly all caterers in Calcutta used to serve it with cutlets and fries.
The moment I thought that I was full, a stuffed capsicum popped up. Pregnant with minced meat, the vegetable was baked to perfection. By this time, I was going strong on the third can.
The last course was unexpected: one of the finest homemade biryani I ever had and a masterpiece in restraint. Its silky buttery taste, the host explained, came from the marrow of hulking bones clinging on to succulent pieces of mutton and was perfectly complimented by fresh bundi raita.
Though there was no potato and boiled egg accompanying the biryani — sacrilege to a Calcuttan — the juices of the marrow infused into the rice and made us lick our fingers. I will christen the dish nalli biryani, in the fond reminiscence of a former-colleague who used to insist that his biryani — and he used to order a packet of it every evening — must have two nalli pieces.
PS: As if the lavish dinner wasn’t enough, the gracious host drove me home dead at night — a sweet icing on the cake!
PS*: It’s a shame I don’t have pictures of the spread. For, it would have been uncouth to whip out a camera (in any case, I didn’t have one on me) and start clicking like a child.
October 15, 2012
What do you do when its lunchtime on Sunday and there’re just a fistful of cooked rice and a couple of frozen fish fillets to fall back on? Simple. Make yourself a G&T and say cheers! Rough-chop a potato, fry it in white oil even as you drizzle it with Tabasco and set aside. Now, thaw the fish and marinate it in salt, pepper, rosemary and olive oil. Heat some more oil in a skillet, fry one side of the fillets brown and turn them over. Coat the brown top in English mustard, taking care so that the sauce doesn’t dribble into the skillet while the lower side gets fried. Turn off the oven after taking the last sip
of your G&T and give the fish a couple of minute’s standing time. In a plate, slide in a knob of butter on the rice, the potato fries and the fish. Switch on the TV and watch Nigella Lawson seductively potter around her kitchen.
February 5, 2012
I did not write a post for quite some time not only because office had been demanding; i was waiting for the season to fill my plate up with the best of whatever mist-enveloped farms and barns full of fat poultry had to offer.
Winter in Delhi is what the whole year is in Goa — carnival on your platter. The sun dims itself so that you can picnic in Lodhi Gardens, the North wind blows in your face so that you can retreat from the balcony and pour a scotch, the mercury plummets so that the ducks and the koels and the turkeys go easy on your stomach.
The weather had somewhat enlivened last Sunday, so after a lazy day of baking ourselves in the sun and a brisk walk to the fishmonger, we decided to spend the evening sampling the cuisine of the sunny land I long to visit: Espana. It helped that we had a standing invitation from Sevilla, the marquee restaurant in The Claridges, a cozy boutique hotel in the lush and plush Lutyen’s Delhi.
I did a quick bit of homework on Sevilla — the town and the restaurant — and modern Spanish cuisine, though I earlier had the opportunity to polish off a fair amount of tapas and paella rustled up by Spanish journeyman chefs who periodically descend on Delhi.
No amount of study, though, could prepare me for what we were greeted with — a salt tasting session. I dimly remember I had read about it somewhere, but when senior sous chef Rajiv Sinha brought out his prized, literally so, bottles from the larder and laid them on our table, we gasped at the sheer variation in colour and texture of the salts.
From the pink Himalyan (procured from Islamabad after months of coaxing and negotiations with the Pakistani customs) to the blue Iranian and grey Italian to the volcanic black Hawaiian, we licked our way through precious milligrams of exotic and expensive sodium chlorides. Some were strong, some mild, some assaulted the tongues like a whip and the Persian, which I fell for, was faint and smoky — almost like a hazy blue apparition rising from Caspian salt flats in the dusk.
In between, we nibbled on melon slices to cleanse our palates, and I found the odd sip of a medium-bodied Torres white surprisingly appropriate for the occasion.
The session, which Chef Sinha claimed to have innovated and popularised among Claridges patrons, ended with exchanging notes on our favourite salts; the chef loves the Himalayan pink, partly because it’s robust and partly because his father — a geologist who sniffs his way around Himalayan rocks — gifted the pink slab to him on his last birthday.
A long train of tapas, logically, had to come next after we downed a shot of gazpacho with a twist: they made us a warm version of the traditional tomato soup served in a shot glass. My wife liked the poached artichokes and goat cheese salad while I ended up snatching away her foie gras with truffle essence and sea salt. Another round of tapas — smoked prawns and chicken wraps — came and went, leaving us hungering for the main course.
Sucked into the Mediterranean mood by the lush trees forming a canopy, a gurgling brook, quaint cabanas and melodious country music wafting in the background, I changed gears to a full-bodied Torres, though it proved a tad strong for my delicate Caspian Sea black cod that came with smoked watermelon cannelloni, truffled potato dumplings, citrus sabayon and a generous sprinkle of Persian blue salt (Thank you chef for remembering that I loved the salt).
My wife, in the meantime, started dismantling a virtual poetry on her plate — corn-fed chicken beautifully served with charred asparagus and rosemary wedges and garnished with sale grigio di bretagna (Italian grey salt).
By then, it was past 10 at night and we were left as stuffed as fat partridges. But the ever-smiling chef was ready with his dessert. “See, am a Bengali, I have a sweet tooth and you are my guests today,” he smiled coaxingly at us.
So the last half-an-hour went by spooning the apple and pecan crumble paired with granny smith apple jelly, candid orange dust and vanilla bean gelato and revelling in customary conversations that spice up a Bengali-meets-Bengali-outside-Bengal drama.
Now, how was the food? Why have I stopped short of dissecting the dishes? Well, my exposure to Spanish cuisine is not Vir Sanghvi-ish, so I chose to love the evening as it unfolded: a slice of Espana on my plate, interesting conversations with an earnest chef and the warm glow of the cosiness that makes The Claridges a romantic address.
November 28, 2011
When i was a tiny tot, my ambitions went ding-dong from being a Rajdhani driver to parking my cane basket of golgappas on the roadside. Several decades and reality checks down, i am as content nursing a scotch inside a first class coup of Rajdhani as i am nudging my way through hungry neighbours who ring the golgappa seller near my house. Both — scotch and golgappas — are on top of the pecking order of my food chain; i love the honeydew taste of the yellow liquid and the tang of the minty tamarind water that elevates the potato-stuffed wheat crisps into a divine orbit.
The moment my Rajdhani reaches Bombay, the scotch remains the same, but Delhi’s golgappa becomes panipuri. When the train pulls into Howrah station, the panipuri metamorphoses into fuchka. Next week, i will be in Calcutta for a wedding, but before i dive headlong into the feasting, i will make it a point, as always, to say ‘hi’ to a friendly fuchka-wallah.
I won’t go into the fuchka-is-better-than-golgappa debate because the conclusion is foregone. I would, instead, quietly let you into the Life and Times of a Passionate Fuchka Eater — my wife Sharmi — and let her tell you how a love story in her early life bloomed on the roadsides of Calcutta.
I remember a minute incident that happened almost four years back when I came to Delhi the first time after marriage. I’ve always been fond of Delhi. As a teenager whenever we came here on vacation, I loved the greenery, the posh localities and the sprawling roads. But that did not prepare me for living here alone with my husband. I thought I would love it from day one. But surprisingly, Delhi wasn’t that amicable from the word go. It took almost eight months to get adjusted to the Capital.
During those six months, I continuously defended my home, Calcutta. No matter what her flaws were, I used to doggedly stick to saying, “But it has warmth. Delhi lacks the buzz after eight. Calcutta is still alive even at midnight.” Well, it took me some time to realise that Delhi has even more buzz than my little hometown. And warmth? Yes, if you start mingling with the right kind of people.
During one such event of a headstrong defence of my home city, I almost had a nasty altercation with an ex-colleague who tried to malign the reputation of Calcutta’s fuchka. Yes, I’m too much in love with it to like any other type from any other place. When I said, “Calcutta’s fuchkas are the best!” She retorted with a foolish, “Naah! It’s too sour. Delhi’s golgappas are tingly because of the right balance of sweetness and sour.” My ears were burning!
But, I zipped up my lip from hurling out whatever was going on in my head right then because firstly, she was a senior in office, and secondly I thought, what does a Delhi denizen know of the charms of the Calcutta fuchka! “Talk to the hand, you person with no taste,” were the words that kept rotating in my cranial chamber.
I don’t remember the first time I had the heavenly fuchkas of Calcutta. Perhaps, I fell in love with it as a toddler. Who knows? The crunchy hollow wheat breads stuffed with a spicy blob of potato mix and dipped in tamarind water. A wholesome snack that is tingly, aromatic and oh-so- delectable. I can go on and on singing paeans to the Calcutta fuchka.
My brother and I spent much of our childhood on the playground near my paternal grandmother’s house. Ever since I remember, there used to be three vendors sitting outside that playground every single day. One ice-cream seller always ready in his blue uniform, one chholey chaat seller who I remember was extraordinarily amiable and the third one was a lean fuchka vendor. I was never really fond of ice-creams. My brother loved a strawberry version that he demanded almost every day. The chholey chaat seller’s fare was too spicy for us children (Once I grew a bit older I realised that his fare was too good to be missed).
But despite the tender age, I gravitated towards the fuchkas. They looked exciting and tasted heavenly. My granny used to tell me that initially I cried because of the heavy dose of spice, but there was no stopping me from popping them into my mouth. They broke, the water and the potato popped out, but I never gave up. My relationship with fuchkas were forged right then.
While my brother had a fall out with this awesome snack owing to hygiene issues (let’s not even talk about that!), I continue to be faithful to it.
The great thing about Calcutta’s fuchkas is that they are available in every nook and cranny of the city. There are those poor vendors with their grimy clothes and tiny boxes and vessels, and there are those well-to-do ones with their gigantic fuchkas that are difficult to have at a go. There is one notable thing however. Fuchkas vendors never sell their snack in the day. Come evening, they all carry their mobile stalls at their designated spaces and station there till late into the night. When they go back home, their boxes are empty, the potatoes all gobbled and the tamarind water drunk by faithful clients like me.
I loved my shopping trips with my mum. And after a hectic but pleasurable retail therapy, the day would invariably end with fuchkas in Gariahat. Then there were those times when I would sneak out of the house with a bit of money to gobble fuchkas from the vendor who sat near my house. Right there near the bus stop, his tiny bulb shed light on his spicy ware as he dished out a delicious mix. There are stories like this galore…
The vendor near my childhood playground was not a very well-to do man. I do not see him anymore. Perhaps he is too old to carry on with his trade, or maybe he could not sustain this job due to hardships. There is a younger fellow who sells fuchkas from that spot now. I’ve tasted his snack once. They are not half as good…
While in college, my best friend and I ate fuchkas everyday! Now, they might taste blissful, but all that spice and tamarind can be a bit nasty to the tummy. But with young blood in our veins, we threw caution to the air. While my friend sometimes hesitated, I made it a ritual to go to Camac Street from Loreto College to have my fill during lunch recess. My mother still does not know that! She thinks my college lunches comprised of the tame chapati and vegetables that she packed for me in the morning. And, I’m not going to tell her that I forced that tiffin down my classmates’ throats so that I could feast on fuchkas.
The fuchkas sold at Camac Street, Russel Street and Lake was a tad different from what I grew up on. I firmly believed that fuchkas would be incomplete without tamarind water (a natural purgative). But here, the vendors substituted tamarind water with mint water (pudina). Anyways, this wasn’t bad either. In Delhi too, the water is made of crushed mint leaves, green chillies and spices.
When we had gone to Andamans, I was thrilled to bits discovering a lone fuchka seller near Cellular Jail. I implored my mum to buy me a plate. But it was so disappointing. The vendor filled the fuchkas with ghooghni before serving them. Preposterous!!
In Delhi too, fuchkas disappoint me. Not that I don’t have them. It’s after all much better to have a bad copy than not having it at all. True for fuchkas, at least. But here, they cut the boiled potatoes into cubes, rub some black salt on them, fill the fuchkas with them and serve them with mint water. Nothing like the tamarind infused, super spicy potato of the Calcutta fuchka, mashed immaculately with love…
November 19, 2011
Succulent whole chillies, delicately cooked in a thick gravy of roasted peanuts, almonds and sesame seeds. A gourmet, ready to eat dish created by the Master Chefs of ITC Hotels.
Thus reads the description of the iconic Mirch ka Salan, packed in an equally iconic yellow packet, both screaming of the fame of Kitchens of India’s Dum Pukht style of cooking.
I started salivating the moment the ready-to-eat delicacy fell into my hands, thanks to a colleague and star food critic.
My wife, though, sounded circumspect. She recalled that a decade ago she had coaxed her father into buying a similar ITC packet of palak paneer and how she was reduced to tears on seeing just two or three paneer cubes trying to hide in a mesh of palak in the pan. Taste? She vouches she has had far better stuff at the landmark Balwant Singh Dhaba in Kolkata’s Bhawanipur.
Well, cynics will always be cynics, I felt when i heated the saucepan the other night, ready to empty the contents. Out came the salan (literally, ‘gravy’) and the moment I saw it, my heart sank. It looked a pale version of what all of us have had in restaurants. It looked a shadow of a shadow of the picture in the packet. No whiff of anything, forget that Hyderabadi aroma, filled up the kitchen when the gravy started bubbling a minute later.
The salan, a canned paste with limp chillies buried in it, tasted like NOTHING. If there were any peanuts, almonds, curry leaves and sesame seeds, the palate could not understand. A sharp sourness spoiled the paranthas, spoiled our meal and I felt I was having an unmitigated sludge of earth that floods wash down.
Dinner done, I asked myself: Would ITC serve this salan in its restaurants? If not, why on earth should it fool us to buy the trash from the shelves for almost a hundred bucks? Is it a case of packaging gone wrong or a case of conveyer-style cooking just for the unsuspecting common man who can’t visit a Bukhara or a Dum Pukht and will nod merrily while eating any packed stuff that Brand ITC offers? Had it been the Western world, people would surely have sued the hospitality giant for the contents in the packet not matching the picture on the packet.
I felt humiliated and cheated, though i thankfully didn’t have to spend a buck for the crap. I would request the head of the ITC food division, sitting pretty in Bangalore, to try tasting what he sells. If his wife doesn’t turn him out of the house after a spoon of this Mirch ka Salan, I will shut down this blog and never talk or write about food. It’s a promise.
PS: In case if you feel Mirch ka Salanish, try this Sanjeev Kapoor recipe. Please write back and tell us how it went.
How to do it
Wash, wipe and slit green chillies lengthwise without cutting the chillies into two.
Heat sufficient olive oil in a kadai (wok) and deep-fry for one minute. Drain and place on absorbent paper and set aside.
To make masala paste, dry roast sesame seeds, coriander seeds and cumin seeds. Cool and grind them to a paste along with peanuts, whole dry red chillies, ginger and garlic.
Heat two tablespoons oil in a pan, add mustard seeds, let them splutter and add curry leaves. Sauté for half a minute and add onion. Sauté, stirring continuously, till onion is light golden brown.
Add turmeric powder and mix well. Add masala paste and cook for three minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in one and half cups of water and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook for ten minutes.
Add tamarind pulp (dissolved in half a cup of water, if it is too thick). Add fried green chillies and salt and cook on low heat for eight to ten minutes. Serve hot.
November 10, 2011
Years ago, when i was in my teens and had not been introduced even to beer, I used to marvel at dishes that combined food and alcohol, or at least pretended to. So fancy names such as drunken chicken and mushroom flambéed in brandy Invariably used to catch my fancy in restaurants. A few bites into the dishes, i used to think I was drunk and that alcohol probably tasted sometimes like Chinese chicken curry and at other times like stir-fried mushroom!
I got the first real taste of liquor, very very late by today’s standard, during a graduation party at my hostel. Five of us had smuggled in a 750ml bottle of cheap whisky, but by the time the seal was broken, there were, by a moderate estimate, 20 thirsty souls crowding in a room for a sip!
Fifteen years hence, I am slightly luckier: my cellar boasts of Bombay Sapphires and gold tequilas and Absolutes and Bacardi Blacks, and one of those 20 hostel mates opened a Chivas Regal just for me the other day I went to his Dubai house.
So then, back to where we started from: My love for dishes that mix food and drinks. Seafood, malleable as it is, probably renders itself best to be cooked with alcohol. Try frying squid in beer batter, splash some vodka while stirring a slab of shark meat (cheaper than bekti) in olive oil and marinate a pomfret in a peg of whisky before firing up the grill and you will see how well the results come out.
All these thoughts owe their birth to a recent conversation. The other night, a colleague of mine was telling me how he cooks his own version of a quick prawn curry by browning onions, sautéing tomatoes, adding lightly fried prawns to the mix and rounding it off with coconut milk. I told him that he ends up cooking, without his knowledge, prawn malai curry (or Malay curry or malaikary) of sorts (without grated coconut, of course).
The next Sunday, i found myself trapped in the kitchen with around 400 gm of medium-sized prawns. Lunch was just half-an-hour away and a hungry friend was twitching his legs in anticipation. I thought I would cook a curry. But, there was no coconut milk. Neither was I in a mood to rustle up mustard prawns, nor did I have the necessary vegetables to stir fry the insects.
Minutes were ticking by. Half clueless, I marinated the prawns in salt and pepper, rough-chopped a couple of onions, battered some garlic pods and heated up white oil. In went everything and a bit later, a chopped tomato. After a bit of stirring, I found myself staring at what looked like a so-so dish, one that would probably not taste bad with a pint of beer.
Suddenly, there was light! I rushed to my cellar and fished out an Old Monk. A generous drizzle of the brown nectar, a toss of the pan and the prawns were absolved of mediocrity. Adding the rum gave the dish a somewhat Chinese zing, though we had no idea as to why it happened. The taste could have been enhanced with the help of a blowtorch just after the rum was added. Nevertheless, we polished off the dish, promptly dubbed Prawn Old Monk, with steamed rice.
My next venture? A tequila squid. Come down on a Sunday afternoon and i will have reason enough to again mix food and drink.
May 22, 2011
Guess what? I’ve just found a killer combo. Last night, when i came home famished (so what I packed off some momos and pawfulls of jhalmuri in office?), my enormously better half, read my mind (as always) and served a mushroom quiche and a blueberry muffin she had bought from a Khan Market bakery.
I was overjoyed with the quiche. Mushroom — baked, grilled, stir-fried, drowning in a sea of cheese and in probably any other avatar except the vindaloo-style curry that i was overfed in my early years and now hate — gives me jelly knees. So i wasn’t surprised that the bun, bursting with the meat of the fungi at every bite, turned out to be a sensation.
The next minute, I turned to the muffin. Well, this is a typical relationship — cakes and me. After years of being pummelled with bone-dry vanilla cupcakes, wannabe brownies, gooey chocolate pastries, lemon and strawberry mush, i have reached the plateau of realisation — tiramisu and only tiramisu and nothing else (waffles and pancakes are a different genre of bliss, but more of that later) will have the pleasure of seducing my palate.
So I started sizing up the oven-warmed blueberry muffin with extreme caution. What if the dry loaf disintegrates in my mouth and chokes me? What if the sweet sweet blueberry cloys my senses? What if the cinnamon-flavoured streusel collides in my tongue with the berries?
Irrational fear breeds irrational questions.
I stepped back and reached out to the cellar for something to calm my nerves. It was drizzling outside though the air was yet to pick up the chill from the drops. The Bombay Sapphire pleaded with me to give it a chance. In went the ice cubes with a tinkle and a peg of the Sapphire that i find perfect for my soft taste over Gordon’s and Beefeater, its drier cousins. The tonic water, which has so far prevented me getting malaria in mosquito-infested Delhi, and a splash of lime followed into the highball glass.
“Now then,” i swung back in my hammocky easy chair, took a sip, picked up the cake and unromantically sniffed at it. Not that i never had a blueberry muffin or cheese cake, but still then… A lightning struck nearby and I almost involuntarily took a bite. The smattering of berries, surprise of all surprises, wasn’t at all nauseatingly sweet. Still tentative, I took another bite off the doughy sides. A quick sip followed.
Was i hitherto missing anything in life?
Indeed, i was. I was ignorant of the truth, albeit subjective, that gin-tonic and blueberry muffin (or blueberry cheese cake, i am sure now) make a killer combo. The quinine in the tonic water undercuts, ever so subtly, the sweetness of the berries, leaving behind in the mouth the feel-good flavour of the streusel’s butter-and-flour mix. It’s the flavour that beings back my childhood — the memory of my first visit to an across-the-street bakery in Calcutta from which would waft a heart-warming scent at the earliest hours of the morning.
February 6, 2011
IN Taiwan, do as the Taiwanese do. Take a hearty slurp of braised seafood soup, wolf down a steaming pork dumpling, bite a stem off the assorted greens and sit back. The soybean milk will have arrived at the table by then. Take a quaff of it. Look around the roadside restaurant. Feel the buzz of the night market. And then, polish off an oyster omelette with the casual flick of a chopstick. Now, game for some deep- fried pork shank with rice wine? Or maybe, a piece or two of a gulabjamunish sweet made from yam, hot out of the sugary syrup?
In Taipei, still do as the Taiwanese do — live to eat. Precisely what I did in the island nation that Portuguese explorers had stumbled on in the 16th century, that the Japanese ruled 300 years later and the Mandarins settled in since 1950.
Logically then, the spread in front of you is straight out of a culinary melting pot — the indigenous tribal cooking, Jin Jin ( Japanese cuisine), the Huaiyang style ( from the lower reaches of the Huai and Yangtze) and of course, the broad- brush Mainland China fare.
Steamed noodle is a must in every meal as are the soups. The Taiwanese, like their mainland cousins, love soups. They start a meal with dumplings and a soup, have a chopstick of noodle from a watery broth and spoon in some soup ( before slurping on a refill) as they bite on, say, steamed fish or sushi.
I had my Taipei moment early on in the trip. I was dining at Howards Plaza — a five- star hotel which runs with such clockwork precision that I was left a bit unnerved — trying to decode the buffet. “Braised eel or pork chops?” I murmured to myself when a gentleman, hunting for food, softly suggested that the prawn in bitter gourd was worth a try. I nodded a thank you and my Taiwanese co- diner, after finding out that I am from India, started a conversation.
“Delhi or Mumbai?” he queried.
“Delhi, but originally from Calcutta,” I said, hastily adding: “Calcutta is Indias cultural capital.”
“Where in Calcutta?” he pushed on, making me a bit twitchy. “You won’t know,” I said politely.
“Ami jani. Ami Sealdah te jonmechhi ( I know. I was born in Sealdah),” he deadpanned in chaste Bengali. The plate almost fell from my hand and as soon as I gathered my wits we hugged like long- lost friends.
It was at that dinner that I had a heavenly sea bass, just as it should be, and a bowl of beef noodle that proved yet again that simplicity and restraint make the best things in life.
The next day, at Silks Palace, an uberexpensive restaurant on the premises of Taipei’s National Palace Museum, we were served seafood soup, braised duck, salmon with asparagus, fish roe and in a Bangkokish touch, bok choy with insects — all the dishes were replicas of the museums priceless ancient jade statuettes.
At night, in a sudden act of reverse snobbery, we shunned Nov. 5, Joel Robuchon’s den at Bellavita shopping centre, and trooped into the inexpensive Din tai Fung, where we were instantly hit by the adrenaline rush that extremely popular yet functional restaurants betray. Okay, Din tai has a one Michelin star and was rated by The New York Times as one of the 10 best eateries in the world, but those are not the major reasons why we ditched the French master.
The food is. Xiaolongbao, small steamed buns but unlike the staple Chinese dim sums, were lapped up in a jiffy in their vegetable, chicken and pork avatars; crispy pork skin with pineapple and Taiwan My last two days and nights in Taipei passed in a blur, hopping from a food stall to the next, sampling an extraordinary culinary mélange: poached red- yolked eggs swimming in prawn soup, stinky tofu with soy sauce, coffin bread with a filling of pepper beef, deep fried duck gizzard with rice wine, and at the iconic Shilin night market, pig blood cakes served on popsicle sticks.
It has been three weeks since I returned from Taiwan. After that, I haven’t dared to eat a Chinese meal in Delhi. Am I too swift a gastronomic convert? Well, I cant say, but I’m already planning a trip to Beijing to sample the mainland fare.
The article appeared in Mail Today on December 26, 2010