Berry berry nice

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.

Blueberry muffin (Pic: thebittenword.com/Flickr)

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.

Gin and tonic (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

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.

Moving feast of Taiwan

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.

A stall at a Taipei nightmarket. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

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.

Gulabjamunish sweets made of sweet potato and yams. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

“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.

Din tai Fung, an iconic Michelin-star restaurant. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

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

Here’s the e-paper link: http://epaper.mailtoday.in/showstory.aspx?queryed=9&querypage=38&boxid=174030781&parentid=46541&eddate=Dec%2026%202010%2012:00AM&issuedate=NaNundefinedundefined

Philippines on my plate

December 19, 2010

I fell for Philippines not because of its sizzling women. I am married. The food and drinks seduced me into a state of hypnotic bliss that set me thinking whether I still longed to spend my ripe years in Maugham’s Capri.

Jumbo lobsters thrashed about in my hand on waterfront Manila before landing up on the plate. A chef sliced fatty chunks of a barbequed pig cured in honey, and sea-fresh clams that wanted just a dash of calamansi — lime in Tagalog dialect — made me reach out for a San Miguel beer.

A carnivore's delight. At a buffet in Boracay. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

Welcome to the archipelago of moving feasts. Just walk into a bazaar, casually point to the hapless yet scrumptious creatures stretched out on chopping blocks or in pales of water and walk into the nearest eatery. Sip on buko — coconut water — or a beer and you will soon be served a spread that will remind you of one fit for a wedding.

Talking of beer, the principal drink of Philippines is served on the rocks, literally. They pour it in tall glasses packed with ice cubes, probably because the climate’s warm round the year. A sip of beer and a bite of crispy fried chicken skin, the national fast food dish, and I felt that life on the plate is also about throwing out the culinary straightjacket into the Pacific.

Philippines is a nation of chicken lovers, by them and for them. Though the sea food set my pulse racing, the way Filipinos savour the bird reminds you of a crusader guarding his chalice. From Max to Goldilocks and from Jolibees to Kenny Rogers, it’s a big fat chicken festival any day any time.

Fried chicken skin and San Miguel beer, the national fast food of Philippines. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

They fry the bird, grill the bird, stuff the bird, bake the bird and chase it down to, well, it’s a bit cruel, the egg. Balut, a fertilised egg with an embryo inside, is boiled by street vendors across Philippines and eaten in the shell itself. “It make you strong,” a vendor whispered to me with a grin, though I had to give the high-protein snack a miss because I was in a tearing rush.

‘Make you strong’, a common refrain across the east and south-east part of our continent, confronted me again at a swish Taipei hotel when a chef egged me on to go for a dessert made of turtle meat. “Especially recommended for gentlemen,” he said with a straight face “because” — and here the ladies at my table stifled a laugh and glanced at me in unison — “it gives you strength!”

The dessert tasted bitter and I, the sole man at a table of nine ladies, was the only one to finish the dish, inviting such a barrage of giggles and stares that I thought for a second I was teamed up in canary yellow trousers and a shocking pink shirt.

Surf and turf, a prawn and beef steak dish. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

Back to Philippines. While vegetarians in our group ate uneasily at best and almost starved at worse, I had a rocking time. Clams and crackling sausages, beef chops and grilled prawns, sugar-sweet yam cakes and dry beer — I let myself lose on a epicurean trip, mixing and matching at will, smacking my lips in delight and flopping on just one occasion, when I impudently teamed up seaweed salad and yakitori. The sous chef at Mactan Shangri-La immediately rushed to my aid, gently recommending, lest I be offended, that a New World Chardonnay could cut out the dank aftertaste of the weeds.

The weirdest gastronomic team-up at the weirdest hour in the entire trip was on Day I in Manila. Staggering into the hotel in the afternoon after a sleepless night on the flight to Hong Kong, I took a quick bath, dressed up again and was catching a 10-minute pre-lunch power nap when I was served a complimentary platter of the most visually flawless mangoes and bananas.

Also sitting pretty on the tray was a bottle — a bottle of Tunduay and a bowl of nuts. “But I didn’t order rum,” I protested. “It’s complementary,” the butler said with a wizened smile.

On the beach, waiting for you. (Dwaipyan Ghosh Dastidar)

Surprised beyond words, I sat still for a minute, looking at the fruits and the sealed bottle, trying to recollect if I was ever served a bottle of rum as a welcome drink. Failing in my effort, I poured a stiff peg, cut a slice of mango and was immediately transported to the Nineties when we used to spend many a stifling night in Kolkata, clumsily sucking on ripe mangoes and glugging on cheap rum.

I was later told over lunch at a Max’s Restaurant — a Filipino fast food chain that will shame fine-dining restaurants for its attention to details — that Tunduay ‘Rhum’ is to Philippines what Old Monk is to India. I, though, found the rum not as full-bodied as our Monk and best suited for, as I made that night, a quick cocktail, such as Ron Collins.

Their beers, though, are drinker-friendly for the sheer range they offer — San Mig Pilsen is soft on your palette and comes in bottles that will remind you of King’s Pilsner, the nectar they serve only in Goa. The San Mig Super Dry has, as the name suggests, more alcohol but is silky; next in strength comes San Mig Strong Ice and the ultimate challenge, as a bartender said, is in sipping on a Red Horse (7%ABV).

My type of dessert and coconut water spiked with white rum. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

I tasted all, and, unlike Knock Out or Haywards 10000 — strong beers in India that need to be tweaked into shandy to make them even remotely drinkable — all beers in Philippines are so smooth that even Singha, a popular brand in Thailand, appeared too strong when tasted after a Strong Ice and ‘surf and turf’, a culinary marriage of prawns and beef steak.

My gastronomic adventure continued into Taiwan, but not before I spent a day in Boracay, which has the best stretch of beach in Philippines. After a waddle in a shocking emerald sea, I gorged, though a trifle guiltily, on baby crabs and fried baby squids, while sipping on a Tequila Sunrise. Seeing that I had polished three cocktails in a matter of minutes, Anna Mary, a Barbiesh waitress, served me a triple Jim Beam on the rocks. That evening, I would sample an exquisite pig lechon (charcoal roast) and chicken anasal (barbequed bird), both Filipino delicacies, with coconut water spiked with white rum.

Go to Philippines if you are a beach animal; but if you are a glutton, set sail for one of the islands and drop anchor for the rest of your life. Like I plan to do.

(An abridged version of this article appeared in Mail Today on 19/12/2010)

Festive spread

October 24, 2010

I am not surprised that i could hardly eat out this Pujas.

Blame it on that inevitable gap between resolution and execution every time my plans get haywire in the pleasurable chaos that’s festive Calcutta.

Though my last post had dropped names, left right and centre, of eateries in Calcutta i would like to sample, at the end of the four-day jamboree, i barely managed a lunch gone wrong at Tung Fong, an astronomically expensive drink at a floating bar on the Hooghly and an ultra-late lunch at Bar B Que where the waiters pushed us to a shady part where the Chinese menu showed nearly everything that they could not serve.

And to top it all, a weird dinner at an upscale Thai restaurant at the South City Mall where we were forced to eat noodles and fried rice as appetisers, and once sanity prevailed, Thai curries and rice as main course.

So what kept the glutton in me last the festival?

Good old, yes that’s right, ghar ka khana.

******

Bhaat, kochur loti and Bombil (Pic: Judhajit Dutta)

One resolution i could keep was to wear the cook’s hat this time. The kitchen was unfamiliar; ironically, it’s in our flat in Calcutta, but then i had spend just a couple of months in it before settling in Delhi years ago.

So, i took it easy, whiling a day flitting in and out of the kitchen — adjusting to the monstrously high burner (i keep telling ma that’s it’s not for nothing that’s she’s got tennis elbow), the wind flow pattern (there’s no chimney, hence windows have to be kept open and you suddenly find you’ve been cooking on no flame for 10 minutes!), the nooks and corners (it’s infuriating not being able to locate, say, the bottle of cumin seeds with the oil merrily burning away).

In short, i took a full day prudently doing what you do when you land in Leh: acclimatise.

The perks of my labour, though, were lucrative. A piece of fried hilsa landed on my plate; so did a pomfret. And, ma gave me the tasks of polishing off a bowl of chhola diye kochur shak (a colocasia dish, a Bangladeshi delicacy) and tasting a ladle of jolpai-er (olive) chutney.

Backbreaking work, but every aspiring chef needs to go through the grind!

******

Prawn malai curry (Pic: Judhajit Dutta)

Oshtomi is a vegetarian affair in many Bengali families. But not so in our house. So out came the prawns from the freezer and kohur loti (colocasia stem) from the bazaar.

Ma willingly donned the mantle of a sous chef — chopping the vegetables, gathering the ingredients, marinating the prawns and neatly arranging all i would need around the oven. This, say my detractors, is to ensure that i can manage to serve lunch in the afternoon and not at night!

At 1.30pm, the executive chef arranged the spread: steaming rice, daal, fried bombil (Bombay duck) — okay, okay, he had nearly screwed it up, the fish breaking into bits before the sous chef took over and did some damage control — the kochur loti, a mean prawn malai curry (the last two dishes required no interference from the sous chef) and what else, the olive chutney.

At night, i stayed back in Bowbazar at a friend’s mess, a 100-year-old building — one of those which still entrap romance and wonder inside their bowels. Listening to the gurgle of thousands of revellers thronging College Street right below and down by four pegs of whisky, we polished off at least eight luchis (maida puris) each with chholar daal, begun bhaja (fried brinjals), fulkopir tarkari (cauliflower curry) and mishti.

******

Fried rice, chicken Manchurian and mushroom prawn (Pic: Judhajit Dutta)

Nabami was all about making mistakes and being compensated at the end. With a high-flying photographer cousin in tow, i saw a couple of iconic north Calcutta Pujas and then, hungry and parched, hit Floatel, a steamer-turned-hotel anchored in the Hooghly. It was my idea and it bombed spectacularly. The buffet was sold out and we retreated to a bar by the waters, where they serve nothing else but third-grade chips with booze the price of which will shame ITC or Taj. I felt cheated and took a cab to the time-tested Park Street.

Another misadventure followed. Bar B Que ran out of Chinese dishes after we had chicken lollipop and prawns. Defeated and a trifle drunk — the bills read Jack Daniels and Tom Collins and Johnnie Walker and Plunter’s Punch — we slunk to Salt Lake, the cousin’s abode.

Dinner more than made up for the gastronomic disasters. Mashi’s a fantastic cook, and it was no surprise that fried rice and chicken Manchurian were scrumptious. Where she excelled even by her standard was the prawn mushroom — a subtle blend of Indian masalas and Chinese sauces.

To be continued

Calcutta, here i come

October 12, 2010

I must write this post quickly. For, in a few hours, I will be in Calcutta where i won’t have a computer.

My mission this time, as always, will be to sample as much dishes as possible. Judgement, obviously, will be of essence.

I must avoid pitfalls like trying out the American Breakfast at Flurry’s; it marred the beginning of my pujas last year, but that’s another story. I shall give the Bangladeshi brunch at Prince a try. It will be interesting to test whether i can cope with mutton and khichdi early in the day.

Puja's the time to be in Calcutta. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

An unhurried lunch at Tung Fong is a must, just to observe how blissfully my wife polishes off the spinach and noodles after downing the signature pitcher of mint sorbet. And, to rekindle my affair with a humongous plate of pepper prawns and beer.

I will give Mocambo a try, for trying out Dansberg (one of the very few restaurants to serve Danny Denzongpa’s wonderful wonderful beer) and Baked Alaska (delight to watch the blue flame flicker from the warm-outside-chilled-inside dessert).

If time permits and a largish group can be gathered, a dive into the decrepit Eau Chew for a ladle of chimney soup should be on the cards.

I will visit my aunt’s at Salt Lake, so a tiny stop at Mitra Cafe in Sobhabazar won’t do any harm. Just for its brain chop (please don’t say “yuck yuck”; it tastes heavenly and is on a par with Karim’s brain curry). Before hopping on to an auto, i will bite into the best prawn cutlets in the world (Alen’s Kitchen), a stone’s throw away.

The last time i dined at a Bengali restaurant in Calcutta was way back in 2001, when Kewpies was a fledgling establishment. Ever cynical of Bengalis shying away from cooking at home and boasting of the kosha mangsho or pabdar jhaal at eateries, i am game to turn a bit flexible for a day, only to gauge how ma-mashider signature dishes taste at, say, Tero Parbon, 6 Ballygunj Place or Bhajohari Manna.

The spread at my aunt's last Puja. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

And then, there’s Tangra — the original Chinese hub in India where they serve authentic food at impossible prices. Because i am not a great fan of this cuisine, the best part for me dining at the unobtrusive eateries dotting the city’s leather belt is to order a gin and tonic and lazily munch on complimentary prawn wafers (i can kill for prawn; for the wafers, rarely seen in Delhi, well, i can kidnap).

I plan to meet an old friend at the ABP office on Friday night. New Cathay Bar is nearby, so we may drop in to say hi to Fahimbhai, who was our favourite waiter when we used to frequent the bar five-six years ago. Cathay, incidentally, makes a mean chilli pork.

Short on time, i must end the post now. I will return to the virtual world after a week full of Arsalan’s biryani, mutton rolls, phuchka, tele-bhaja, alu kabli, cutlets and roshogollas,

By the way, did i tell you mother’s cooking hilsa fry and prawn malaikari for lunch tomorrow?

Calcutta, here i come!

 

Tangled in noodles

October 10, 2010

Passion in an undiluted form is rare. So when you come across a crusader in the true sense of the term, you sit up and take notice. Like my wife. Here she writes about the cuisine she would love to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day in and day out…

 

I can go on and on about Chinese food. Just like the long strand of noodle that is intrinsic to the cuisine.

The faintest memory that I have of first eating chowmein is when I was in standard two. My mother insisted that I eat plenty of fruits everyday. So, she stuffed my tiffin box with cubes of apples, guavas, cucumbers and grapes every single day. Not that I complained. I was an abiding child.

 

Sharmi making the most of her noodles in Agra's Gateway Hotel. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

But one day, when I opened the tiffin box during recess, a clump of chowmein garnished with succulent soya nuggets smiled back at me. Now, what I did in glee, I remember not. I just recall that I ate in slow motion (apart from hugging my mother tightly when I went home) so that the chowmein did not end soon. And yes, I did not share my food with friends that day!

 

Four of us, my father, mother, brother and I, loved frequenting a Chinese restaurant in Gariahat called Mahal. We had to take a narrow lane from the main footpath and climb up a winding staircase to the restaurant. And when the door opened, that characteristic whiff present in all Chinese eateries greeted us. I used to be terribly happy then.

I clutched my father’s shirtsleeve and made myself comfortable on a chair next to his, my legs dangling in midair as I waited for egg chowmein and chilli chicken to arrive at the table. That used to be quite a regular order. And yes, I loved it. Only a few years later, did my mother try chicken sweet corn soup. It was good, she said. But I’m sure it could never beat the regular order.

I don’t know whether that quaint restaurant still exists. Perhaps not, or else why would we suddenly desert it? Oh yes, I remember why? During one Durga Puja night, we had gone there for dinner. Since we were regulars, the waiters immediately cleared a table for us. We placed our order and waited. But the food never appeared. My father was livid and we stormed out. May be we could have waited a bit longer than the one and a half hour…

 

Panfried to perfection. (Flickr/bluewaikiki.com)

That shoddy treatment was enough reason to never go back there. We lost touch with the place. I missed Mahal a lot whenever we set foot on Gariahat. After all, that’s where I learnt how to handle the slippery soft noodles, courtesy my father. And got initiated into the wondrous world of Chinese food.

 

Now why do I like Chinese food? Difficult to formulate an answer. I just know that it tastes heavenly (for me), is light and is full of vegetables. Whenever my colleagues decide to order food from outside they pretend I’m not there in the room. For, they know full well, what would be my choice. But then there are those days when they relent and I get to have pan-fried chicken noodles from Flavours of China, a nondescript Chinese haunt in Connaught Place. It’s neutral in taste, doused in light soy sauce and garnished with plenty of carrots, broccoli and chicken cubes. I mix everything together on a plate and savour every spoon from the mound. There’s one colleague who says, “Can I have a tiny bite?” every minute of the meal. I fake a smile and say, “Sure”, passing on the plate grudgingly. Yes, I’m possessive about my noodles.

That plate keeps me nice and full for hours. And whets my appetite, too. For more Chinese of course. In August we went to Agra and stayed at the Gateway Hotel. Due to some miscommunication on the part of the hotel staff, we were forced to eat dinner out of the buffet spread. I was okay with it. But, my husband is not particularly fond of these spreads. He says they are a confusing mishmash.

 

Full of vegetables. (Flickr/Just Samson)

While he reluctantly browsed through what was on offer, I was smiling away to see that it was largely a Chinese meal. No, my husband does not like Chinese. He was upset, very upset, he told me later. I, on the other hand, dug into my Schezwan noodles and fish in garlic soy sauce with gusto. I enjoyed every morsel and thanked God inwardly for the hotel’s goof-up. Sorry for admitting it here…

 

Then there is the greasy ubiquitous chowmein you get at every corner of India, the taste varying according to the palate of the region where it is being concocted. While in college, we friends ate Michael’s chow almost everyday (now that won’t make my mother very happy!). He was this huge man who owned this makeshift food stall opposite Vardaan Market in Camac Street. Helped by his brother (also pretty huge) and two more lads, Michael served a killer greasy chow. While the chow was mundane, he topped it with ladles of chilly chicken gravy. The taste transformed instantly and we lapped it up like hungry retards. He also sold momo and fried rice. But why waste space when you have the good old chowmein, this time with a lip-smacking garnish.

Tung Fong at Park Street in Kolkata is one of my new favourites for their appetising Chinese lunch buffet. They have a crunchy corn spinach side-dish that pulls me without fail. Then there’s fish cubes in oyster sauce and of course, noodles. This time my husband promises that we will visit Tung Fong during Durga Puja. My fingers are crossed…

 

Close to grandma's 'chaimeen'. (Flickr/rachyyx)

What is this relation I have with chowmein? Whenever I see a Chinese buffet before me, I try to stick to the side dishes. But then strangely I tiptoe towards the noodles section. Before I can even say EAT, I eat quite a bit of what I’d decided to stay away from!

 

In Delhi, I think I’ve had a memorable chowmein in Bercos. They call it their special chicken chowmein. Thin glass noodles tossed in sauces and garnished with black mushroom, broccoli, chicken chunks, onion slivers and what not. Soft, slippery and absolutely delightful. The first time I ordered it, my family claimed that that was the best dish on the table. I said, “See, I never go wrong with Chinese.” For me, it’s tried and tested…

My paternal grandmother made a wonderful chowmein, too. She used lots of soy and tomato sauce but held back on the chilly sauce. For, according to her the sharp chilly taste would burn our mouth. It was almost dark brown in colour and quite spicy. I remember the taste most definitely, as I remember her wielding her khunti in the kadhai dexterously while preparing it. When it was done, she served it on two plates, for my brother and me, and called, “Aay kheyney. Aaj chaimeen baniyechi…”

Yes, you’ve read right. She called chowmein so. Made with her loving touch, that ‘chaimeen’ remains one of the best I’ve ever had of my favourite…

In Paul’s den

October 7, 2010

While the country was glued to television sets as the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony unfurled itself like a rainbow flag, we escaped the ‘curfew’ Capital and fled to Noida for a quiet dinner.

Though i can’t exactly die for a Chinese meal, we hit the Oriental Octopus in Savoy Suites just because the name and the picture of a purple Paul with a black bulbous head painted on the restaurant’s signboard fascinated us to no end.

We started off, in a literally empty eatery painted purple with a contemporary decor nothing to write home about, with noodles fried in honey-chilli sauce. It’s complimentary, and an excellent time pass (the sticky threads tested my clumsiness, though) while you leaf through the menu card.

Oriental Octopus, Noida (Sulekha.com)

For starters, we took asparagus tempura and beer. I am not a succour for things deep fried, but the lily fingers served with wasabi, vinegared ginger and garlicky soya sauce felt like comfort food. One swig of the beer — Octopus is one of the few eateries to offer the premium Kingfisher Gold — and the disappointment of being greeted by a CLOSED board outside a spa in the afternoon melted away.

By the time we started debating on the main course, the restaurant began getting more footfalls. Because am painfully gawky handling noodles at a public place and fried rice reminds me of forgettable diners at some third-grade eateries in Calcutta when i didn’t have the money or the culinary discretion, i opted for Korean mixed grill.

Asparagus tempura (Aschaf/Flickr.com)

My partner, who is willing to die a thousand times for a Chinese meal, chose fish cubes in celery flavoured oyster sauce with vegetable noodles, but ended up ordering a mixed grill, minus the prawn and chicken, thanks to my reasonless persistence.

Not that it bombed — the fish was nicely tempered with sesame seeds — so were the chicken and the prawn in my case, which, after a point of time, got a bit boring. We fell back on the black mushrooms and an assortment of boiled vegetables served with the grill to mitigate the boredom.

I won’t judge the five-spices chocolate mousse. Because by the time it was served, my palate had gone to rest after a heavy assault of everything — wasabi, honey-chilli, sesame and of course, a commendable quantity of beer. I had a tiny spoon of the mousse and it smelt of garam masala, which along with chocolate should not be bad. But that’s for another day.

Rude dosa or good dosa?

September 24, 2010

You can put a five-star kitchen through a litmus test by asking room service to serve you dosa, feels Mr Vir Sanghvi. If it arrives cold, the chef fails; otherwise, he gets the credit for hatching a brilliant plan to keep the dosa hot, crisp and hence palatable.

Well, i agree and disagree.

At Agra’s Gateway Hotel (the erstwhile Taj View) last month, i had asked for a masala dosa at a breakfast buffet in its coffee shop. The sous chef nodded and i was served, 10 minutes later, a dosa, limp and tasteless, as happens to dosas which rapidly lose steam even before you can spoon the sambar. On top of that, the subzi inside the dosa reeked of raw turmeric; the chef must have needlessly hurried things up.

Masala dosa at Saravana Bhavan (Pic: mlinksva/Flickr)

I chatted up a restaurant staff and told him that the chef just failed the ‘Sanghvi Test’. Otherwise a knowledgeable gentleman — he claimed to have worked with the Qureshi brothers of the ITC fame — he drew a blank on being pointed out that my table was barely 20 feet from the open kitchen where the chef was churning out the buffet breakfast. “Well, we will have to see why it happened,” he mumbled in so forlorn a manner that I feared he would say the next moment: “Sir, the dish went cold because the restaurant is air conditioned”.

If the Taj Group finds it so tough serving a dosa hot and crisp — and i was not even eating in my room — why should i order a dosa at a star restaurant and blow up a fortune for nothing? I would rather have, as i did the morning after the dosa disaster, a jumbo egg-white omelette, a crisp wheat bread, waffles with maple syrup and an Earl Grey, stuff that you don’t get at an average breakfast joint.

As an extension of this logic, there are plenty of dishes to judge a multi-cuisine five-star kitchen by other than a dosa. Mr Sanghvi’s logic holds good only if you are dining at a niche south Indian restaurant such as the ITC’s Dakshin.

Dosa at the iconic MTR in Bangalore (Pic: feministjulie/Flickr)

Otherwise, the whole exercise of judging a kitchen only by the crispiness of a dosa betrays gastronomic snobbery and amounts to something as immature as telling your mom: “You are a bad cook because the rice is not piping hot.”

So where would i walk into when I feel like dunking a simple sada dosa into a steaming bowl of sambar? Anand or Madras Café in Kolkata, Saravana Bhawan and Banana Leaf in Delhi and pretty much every eatery (of course, MTR in Bangalore) in the southern half of the country.

(Last year, when i had placed an order at the dingy and impossibly cheap Madras Café in Kolkata’s Esplanade for probably the 99th time, the dosa came almost hissing and steaming and I remember having to wait for a minute or two before tucking into it.)

I know I must have missed scores of other restaurants in Mumbai but my point is you need not check into at, say, Oberoi Amarvilas or Four Seasons, Bombay to sample their dosa and accordingly pass or fail their kitchens.

At least, i won’t, because the best things in life almost always come in the simplest of forms and shapes and from the simplest of places.

Do you feel the same?

Spoilt for choice

September 15, 2010

Yours truly, it seems, has arrived. For, he has hit, as a true pro would, a writer’s block. Taking the easy way out at this juncture, he is posting an article which had once appeared in the newspaper he works for. Pardon him and please read on…

 JUST AFTER The Malaysia Savings Sale is thrown open in the chic Pavilion Mall in downtown Kuala Lumpur, scores of visiting journalists (yes, it’s a Tourism Malaysia invitation) are sweet-talked into exploring Food Republic, a titanic food court in the mall.

Armed with free food coupons, we trawl its expanse, gripped by awe (at its sheer size — 31,000 sq ft), surprise (a neat blend of a themed atrium and Asian street food), more surprise (a rather respectable-looking restaurant passing off pan-fried jumbo lobsters with rice, fried egg sunny side up, satay and other nibbles, as delicacies from Bombay) and mild disgust (frog eggs on toasts).

Eat-what-you-like fair at KL's Food Republic. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

I skip the frog eggs, despite a South Korean journalist suggesting it’s a poor man’s caviar (just Rs 57 a plate), and resume my hunt, marked by the blissful confusion of a child left alone in an you-get-all toy section.

A pause in front of the Taiwanese stall hawking beef noodles and dumplings, a close look at a menu card kept outside a Korean food counter and a hesitant linger near a Thai restaurant (as crowded as Bercos on weekends), i saunter into a continental joint.

Placing an order — disappointingly, i play safe and settle for fish and chips — and getting the food takes flat five minutes. Diners, even tiny tots, are deftly using chopsticks at a Japanese stall bang opposite, giving me quite a complex. Sushi and yakitori are the best for a hands-on person like me, i console myself.

“No drinks?” a waiter shatters my thoughts and produces a glass of orange juice in no time. A look at the accreditation card dangling on my chest, he breaks into a grin: “Dada ki Bangali naki? (Aren’t you a Bengali?)” I suddenly notice that all the waiters, cooks and the manager in the restaurant are shouting orders and taking them in Bengali.

Anwar, from Dhaka, admonishes me for ordering the fish and chips and coaxes me to settle for mutton bhuni khichuri (piping hot khichdi peppered with mutton chunks) and a beef bhuna (curry). Nearly as satisfying as the original version you get in Bangladesh, it transported me to a warm April evening seven years back when i polished off a similar plate at a crumbling eating hole outside Dhakas Bangabandhu Stadium, and fell for the same dish each time i went back to the country of my origin.

ABC of desserts

Durian chendol, a trademark Malay dessert. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

How good can a dessert taste if it’s named ABC? “Just go for it … you can have it at any time of the day, with or without anything, before, during or after the main course,” my guide said, ushering me to a Malay dessert counter.

The curiously named ABC (Air Batu Campur, or crushed ice dessert) is a national craze much like our ice gola, but looks spectacular. The lady at the counter suggests i have durian, the king of fruits, in my ABC. Before i can say aloud “smells like hell but tastes like heaven,” she plops durian pulp on an ice pyramid, sprinkles nuts on it and bathes it in myriad syrups.

The first spoon tastes of crushed ice. The next is a surprise: a fruity mush coats your tongue even as the nuts have crisp encounters with the teeth. The third washes down the ice, fruit and nuts — easy as ABC. The nearest i come to ABCs brilliance is at a cafe in Melaka’s posh Hotel Equatorial.

Durian chendol, the menu card says, is made of shaved ice with green pea flour, freshly squeezed coconut milk, palm sugar and topped with durian flesh. A superb dessert that thrives on contrasts. An observation: you won’t be cloyed by the temperate sweetness of these desserts, but in case you are, just keep sipping on a Tiger Beer.

Anyone for Bone Tea?

Teh tarik with fried oysters in Melaka. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

It’s Malaysia’s undisputed national drink.

You get everything from iced tea to Earl Grey, but the most interesting of them all are teh tarik and bak kut teh. Literally meaning ‘pulled tea’, teh tarik is served in all Malaysian roadside joints by ‘pulling’ the drink as it is prepared from black tea and condensed milk. The element of the chaiwallah’s showmanship lies in his expertise to drag a stream of tea as it’s poured back and forth repeatedly between jumbo glasses. The result: a not-too-hot cuppa with a frothy head. Munch on fried squid in between to prolong your pleasure. Teh tarik brewers are known to compete with each other to show off their skills.

Bak kut teh, or meat bone tea, is more of a filling soup than tea. Using spare pork ribs, sometimes herbal medicine and straw mushrooms, lettuce and abalone, its served in a clay pot to keep the contents hot.

Can’t Get Cheaper

Skewered chicken @ Rs 13 per stick. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

How cheap is very cheap? Well, incredibly cheap, if you happen to be in Malaysia. A glance at the room service menu of the five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur’s business district I am staying in, and i am stunned.

A signature Malay breakfast for one — vegetable juice, a fruit platter, nasi lemak (coconut rice served with shrimp rendang and satay and topped with poached egg) and a pot of Darjeeling — comes for just Rs 600. I scan the menu and find the costliest item — Australian beef steak — is priced at Rs 900. It sounds like fairytale in India.

On the road, the prices are equally unbelievable.

A thosai (dosa) at Selvam (an iconic Melaka eatery similar to Saravana Bhawan) costs Rs 13. Nasi lemak at roadside stalls sell for Rs 20 and a dish of oysters fried with free-range eggs for Rs 39.

In Melaka’s Hotel Equatorial (another five-star place where i was given a table next to Mukesh and Nita Ambani) roti ayam (panfried bread coated with egg, stuffed with minced chicken, and served with sauces, pickles and mayonnaise) comes for Rs 70 and durian cendol for Rs 74!

What are you waiting for?

It’s called pampa in Portuguese, saranga in Marathi, vavval in Tamil and avoli in Malayalam, but nothing compares to the sweetness with which pomfret is endearingly called in Bangladesh: rupchanda (the beautiful silvery orbs) and kalachanda (the black ones).

Though the Calcutta bhadralok, out of syntactical ignorance, still asks the fishmonger for a kilo of pomflet, I found their Dhaka counterparts adopt the more lilting tone in the markets: “Aiz rupsanda koto koira?” (How much are pomfrets for today?)

So when Narayan, the saviour of all Bengalis living in Delhi’s Mayur Vihar, coaxed me the other day: “Rupsanda loiya zaan. Ekkare A-class (My pomfrets are top class today),” I was struck by pleasurable nostalgia.

The marinated fish and its accompaniments (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

Not only is the silvery-white pomfret tastier than its black cousin, it also doesn’t smell so much of the sea.

Back home with my weekly catch, I decided to experiment a bit. Though i usually settle for fresh lime juice to marinate the fish — you can also use vinegar to cut out the smell — i thought of using lime cordial (an excess of it spoiled many a vodka I have had).

I love rohu, hilsa, mourola, parshe, prawns, bekti or pretty much any fish fried and served with tea, so it’s of no surprise that pomfret fry with a squeeze of lime and green salad is one of the ways to pamper the glutton in me.

Ma, though, wanted me to cook pomfret kosha (fish in a thick hot gravy).

Because onion and tomato as a base would not have yielded enough gravy for the four of us to eat with rice, she gave me an idea. Finely chopped potato and brinjal would add body to the fish kosha.

We had steaming rice, daal, karela ki subzi, muli ki subzi, pomfret kosha and mango chutney. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

I was initially apprehensive, having used potato and brinjal as the principal base only while cooking a hot dish of Bombay duck (loitta/lote maacher bhuna), a similar preparation of dried fish (the supremely pungent shutki maachh) and grinded prawn (chingri bata).

The clouds of doubts dispelled midway into cooking the dish with the tomato, onion, potato and brinjal forming an inviting body of gravy into which the fried pomfrets were raring to be lowered.

At the end, things came out well, though i felt like kicking myself for not buying coriander (dhaniapatta) to sprinkle on top of the dish before serving.

Pomfret kosha (serves four)

Marinate four pomfrets in lime juice and refrigerate overnight.

Smear the fish with salt and turmeric the next day and fry them preferably in mustard oil.

Finely dice potato and brinjal and set aside.

Chop onions, garlic and ginger, slit some green chilies and empty the mix in spattering mustard oil (5-6 tbsp)

Add turmeric, red chili powder, salt and a pinch of sugar to it and stir the contents in the pan for three minutes before adding a coarsely chopped tomato.

Add the diced potato and brinjal and vigorously stir for another five minutes, cover the pan and let the contents simmer for some time.

Add a cup of warm water when the oil floats on top. Gently place the fish in the thick gravy, stir cautiously and simmer for five more minutes.

Garnish with chopped coriander before serving with steaming hot rice.