Thursday, April 3, 2008

Chandigarh means parties and food

My husband's parents stay in Chandigarh, a city in North India (capital of Punjab and Haryana), famous for being planned and designed by French architect Le Corbusier. It is a city of gentle living, with very few highrises, and mostly houses with beautiful gardens. Just a short drive away from the hills, it is also comparatively unpolluted. My in-laws are both originary from there, so the entire extended family lives close by. And each time we visit, it is hard to even take a breath between parties and dinners. The local food is rich and delicious, and saying "no" to it is simply not an option, hence, we spend half our time in a semi-comatose state of overeating.
It starts in the morning, with frothy cold coffee made the old way (the ice crushed by hand, and with full fat milk, of course) helping us brighten up from our slumber. My mother-in-law, Livleen, then tempts us with eggs sunny side up (served with her signature sauteed tomatoes, onions and mushrooms mix, which I sometimes eat separately on toast), porridge and loads of fruit. Everyone then sips hot tea and coffee (Nescafe is the best you can get here, but I would rather have that than live through the rest of the day without my caffeine kick).

Lunch parties in the garden are big with our family, with most of the food prepared at home (despite my father-in-law insisting that we order). And when my mom-in-law is in the kitchen, you better not cross her! Well, I would be way worst if I had to cook for 20 people! One of her signature dishes is a very simple bake that I LOVE! She mashes up some potatoes, and mixes them with parboiled spinach and grated cheese (optionally mushrooms), and hop, the dish goes in the oven, only to result into delicious comfort food! She also frequently makes a mutton curry with a simple tomato-based gravy, much lighter and less spicy than the commercial variety. I like the fact that you can taste the freshness and naturalness of the ingredients, and there are always leftovers for the dogs. Fish and chicken are also always on the menu; lentils and 2-3 more vegetarian dishes are a must. A very typical Punjabi concoction is paneer (or potato) and green peas curry.
I never eat this much tomato as when I am in Chandigarh. And the simplest way is the tastiest - big chunks of it tossed with red onions (which are very 'sweet' and mild in this part of India), olive oil, lemon and salt. Yum!!! And my other absolute favourite is kulcha - flat buns of bread with coriander kneaded into the dough. My mom-in-law heats them up on a tawa and serves them with a dash of butter. Sinful!!!
Gurtaj's aunt makes amazing chaats and last time we visited we relished her homemade dumplings in yoghurt, and paani puri (tamarind water and chopped up vegetables, stuffed in a crispy shell). She also surprised us with an amazing carrot halwa and prashad (a halwa made of sugar and wholewheat flour which is normally given at Sikh temples) which Gurtaj could simply die for! And don't even think of leaving a Punjabi table without having dessert! My father-in-law revels in kulfi (Indian ice cream) and barfi (another milk-based delicacy) and vanilla ice cream is always available in the freezer!
The whole ceremony is rounded off by drinking copious amounts of tea, often prepared with cardamom and ginger for an extra kick. Actually, in a Punjabi household, you can ask for tea at any time of the day.
You can't beat Hot Millions for their kathi rolls (chicken or paneer kababs rolled in egg-coated flat bread), Indian-style pizzas and sizzlers, and of course their hot chocolate fudge sundae which makes my otherwise very unselfish mom into a predator protecting its pray.
The tandoori chicken here is simply divine, provided you get a good batch of it. There are many shops where you can order and wait in your car for your share to be finished in the clay oven. You will recognise them by the big queues outside. Two of them, Singh's Chicken and... Singh's Chicken, are right next to each other, and we really can't make out the difference. However, they both have their staunch regulars.
There's no better place for Indian sweets, with hundreds of shops offering eldless supplies of the boiled milk variety. My favourite is the coconut barfi.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Salak Bali

In Bali, my finger nails got all red because of constantly peeling and eating Salak, or 'snake fruit'. One look at it and you understand why it is called so - it is covered by a reddish-brown, scaly dry skin, like a round little reptile. It crackles when you peel it off and reveals three dryish, huge 'cloves' of fruit with an apple-like taste and crumbly, starchy consistency. Delicious and addictive!

A bit more on this fruit, courtesy Wikipedia:
Salak (Salacca zalacca) is a species of palm tree (family Arecaceae) native to Indonesia and Malaysia. The fruit grow in clusters at the base of the palm. They are about the size and shape of a ripe fig, with a distinct tip. The fruit can be peeled by pinching the tip which should cause the skin to slough off so it can be pulled away. Salak Bali is commonly sold all over the island of Bali, and is a popular fruit with both locals and tourists. It is also a favourite of the monkeys found in the famous "Monkey Forests", with the animals often stealing fruit from visitors, especially children whom they see as an easier target.

Freshly squeezed

Inspired by another lavish buffet breakfast at a 5-star hotel, I decided to get up a bit earlier every morning, take out my rusting away juicer, and squeeze out something refreshing and colourful to start the day on a sweet and healthy note! I managed to do it yesterday and today, and both me and hubby enjoyed it thouroughly! First of all, it made me wake up early (and I am NOT a morning person). Second, slicing and manipulating the fruit, and the ensuing fresh aroma, was positively meditative. Third, it gave us more time to chat in the morning, sipping juice at the terrace of our beautiful flat overlooking the Arabian Sea which we will have to leave next month due to the lease expiring. Sigh! So imagine that: shimmering waters, great conversation, the morning newspaper, and a glass of brighly coloured, fruity, citrusy, vitamin goodness. Actually juice is such an intrinsic part of the Indian diet, but as usual I am being a "late bloomer".

Yesterday I made pomelo, orange and lime juice. It was awesome and invigorating, except that later on it gave me a bout of acidity!

This morning, I made watermelon juice. I bought a medium sized watermelon at the neighbourhood supermarket, and left it in the fridge overnight. Funnily enough, slicing it brought long-forgotten childhood memories to me - you know, one of these things that come back to you in a flash and you have the feeling of vaguely recollecting a past life... In Sofia, the beginning of summer was marked by the arrival of gypsy families from all over the country, setting tent at the roadside, and spreading mountains of dark green or light green with stripes watermelons. So throughout this season, watermelons became a staple dessert in most Bulgarian households. My mom and I used to get off the bus (number 306) one stop earlier, as "the best guy" had set up business there, and then lug a couple of watermelons all the way home, taking a shortcut through the neighbourhood school yard. I remembered my parents teaching me how to choose a good watermelon: first, weigh it in your palm; then, start tapping it like a drum, to see if it has this nice hollow sound which means it is ripe and sweet; to confirm the ripeness, look at the little stub on top - if it is already brown, it means it has laid around for enough time to ripen nicely. Some sellers, to show off how nice their watermelons are, would cut out neat tiny triangular pyramids into the fruit and take them out like a cork, to show the colour of the flesh. We would reach home, wash the watermelon thouroughly, then proceed to cut it in boat shapes (something I would do so deflty as a kid made me almost slice off a finger this morning!). For a really good watermelon, just sticking the knife in was enough for it to crack open with an awesome crunchy sound. And my mother would call us to the kitchen: "Look at this beauty! It cracked open by itself!" I remember my dad eating watermelon with cheese which I found yucky! Yep, all these memories came back rushing to me this morning (thank you, watermelon!) while I squeezed out the most refreshing and sweet, ruby red juice. I relished it, although it made me run to the loo every 10 minutes all the way till noon!

Tomorrow I am planning sweet lime (a cross between an orange and lime), lemon and apple mix.

Other juices on my list:
- carrot and apple
- pineapple
- grape
- cucumber and apple

Malaysian breakfast

Recently on a Malaysia Air flight, I was offered Nasi Kandar, a traditional Malaysian breakfast. I jumped on the opportunity to try something new. It came hot, looking more like a lunch - rice, boiled egg, fish in masala, the whole thing sprinkled with peanuts and tiny dried fish flakes. It was absolutely delicious and comforting. Fish and rice in any case is one of my favourite combinations, and I relished it, with the added crunch of the fish flakes. The only thing was the lingering smell and taste of fish, something we Europeans are not used to early in the morning.
But it seems Malaysians don't kid around with their breakfast. It is a major meal of the day and not just a meagre snack gulped down on the way to office. Apart from Nasi Kandar, they also indulge in Nasi Dagang (glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, served with fish curry, coconut sambal, and cucumber pickle), chicken and vegetable Congee (something like our oats, but made of rice), and Roti Telur (something like crepes).
I guess having a heavy breakfast is common in Asian, predominantly agrarian countries. In India too, a typical villager's breakfast would be Aloo Parathas (flat bread stuffed with potatoes), idli sambar (steamed rice cakes with thin curry), Sabudana Kichdi (sago pearls fried with spices and curry leaves)... Yummy! But then, these guys then go out and work hard in the fields, quickly burning all those extra calories! While we sit staring at computer screens all day long!!! Food for thought...

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Monday, February 25, 2008


Recently, while driving to a beautiful seaside area called Kashid (just 3-4 hours away from Bombay, pristine white beaches!), I noticed many stalls selling white onions. We had a local in our car, so I asked him why is so much of this variety sold here. He said a lot of farms around grow it and sell it, as it is used in Ayrvedic medecine (it seems it helps kids with severe coughs). Which prodded me to look a bit further and here is what I found:

--> White onion is a type of dry onion that has a pure white skin and a mild white flesh.
--> Because white onions have a slightly higher water content, they are somewhat sweeter then yellow onions.
--> Usage: In Mexican food; raw on burgers and in potato, pasta and lettuce salads; barbecued on shish kebabs; sautéed in casseroles, stews, soups and roasted beef, pork and poultry dishes
--> Contain vitamin A & C, calcium and iron
--> Are fat- and cholesterol-free, and very low in sodium
--> Are more prone to molding than yellow onions because of their higher water content. So must be stored in a well ventilated place
--> Onions contain anti inflammatory, anticholesterol, anticancer, and antioxidant components and are considered effective against Respiratory Disease, Tooth Disorders, Anemia, Skin Disorders, Ear Disorders, Cholera, Urinary System Disorders, Bleeding Piles, common cold, heart disease
--> Ayrveda prescribes the mix of betel leaf juice and white onion juice to fight asthma

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Roadside fruit wholesale

While driving from Chandigarh to Manali last year, we could not help but stop at this roadside market for wholesale plums, pears and raw almonds (had never seen that before!). We grabbed a couple of boxes which we ate through our journey to Leh.

Our current dining table, with kitchen (and cook :-) in the background

My favourite comfort snack

I love corn, or as it is called in India, butta. All over the country, coal roasted corn rubbed with salt and spices (chaat masala) is a typical monsoon treat, and you see many stalls around, with vendors furiously fanning the fire in small iron burners. It is very safe to eat, as I would guess no bacteria survives the high temperature. But I still prefer to have it home made, in two different ways:
1) Just boiled and salted.
2) Roasted directly on the gas burner, then coated with a mix of butter, salt, black pepper and lime juice. It is YUMMY!!!

When we go for a movie, my favourite intermission snack is boiled corn kernels, mixed with butter, lemon juice, black pepper and masala.

Gurtaj's loves his childhood snack of corn and cheese baked on toast. I do a variation of it, adding a bit of chopped onion and fresh coriander.

I put boiled corn kernels, greeen peas and sauteed onion when I want to give some crunch and colour to steamed rice.

Sauteed capsicum, corn and mushrooms is one of my favourite combos.

And I think corn is a must in any vegetable bake (with or without pasta).

At dinner in Kandahar restaurant (Hilton Towers, erstwhile Oberoi), we had an amazing starter of tandoor roasted corn coated with spicy masalas, served on an elegant vintage skewer (looking very much like what a woman would put in her hair to keep her bun together).

Cream of corn soup, of course!!!

At Noodle Bar in Bombay, they serve an amazing starter or fried corn cream cubes, delicious with soy sauce!

And recently, on my friend Lulu's blog, Lulu Loves Mumbai, I read about a tantalizing way to cook corn on the cob in a Goan curry!

Some time ago I got scared off corn, being told that that's what pigs have so that they get nice and fat. But believe me, it was not for long! I believe that any vegetable (including the villified potatoes), if eaten in moderation and as part of a healthy diet, is good for you. And on prodding further, I discovered that corn has plenty of health benefits:

--> Cooking sweet corn, whether you cream it, steam it or keep it on the cob, unleashes beneficial nutrients that can substantially reduce the chance of heart disease and cancer, according to Cornell food scientists.

--> It is a low-fat (!!) complex carbohydrate.

--> Its insoluble fiber is tops at tackling common digestive ailments (like constipation and hemorrhoids) by absorbing water, which speeds intestinal movement.

--> It is a surprising source of several vitamins, including folic acid, niacin, and vitamin C. The folic acid in corn is known to be an important factor in preventing neural-tube birth defects. It's just as important in preventing heart disease, according to studies that show folic acid can prevent a buildup of homocysteine, an amino acid, in the body. Long-term elevation of homocysteine has been linked to higher rates of heart disease; folic acid helps break it down.

--> Is a great source of thiamin, which supports your memory and fights Alzheimer's disease.

--> Contains pantothenic acid, necessary for carbohydrate, protein and lipid metabolism. Pantothenic acid is an especially valuable B-vitamin when you're under stress since it supports the function of the adrenal glands.
The picture was taken during our drive from Manali to Leh, at Rothang Pass

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sweet like jalebi

This is a line that you can hear in many an Indian song, and yes, you guessed right, it is praising the sweetness of a girl! And while no self-conscious Indian (or other) girl would include jalebis as part of her (healthy) diet, it is, indeed, one of the most sugary, comforting Indian sweets (but only eaten piping hot, like the one Gurtaj is wolfing down in this photo. His father stood for 20 minutes at a street stall, waiting for the vendor to fry a fresh batch).

While it is eaten all over India, the jalebi is particularly popular in the North. You see jalebis being fried on the roadside, in huge black woks filled to the brim with boiling oil (the only way to get the spiral shape to perfection is to be really quick and deft in the frying - it is really an experience to watch).
I turned to good old Wikipedia for a bit of history of this delicacy and even found a recipe for those willing to try:
Jalebi is a fried sweet commonly prepared in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, thought to have originated in the north of India, probably in the state of Punjab. The Persian word for Jalebi is "Zoolbiah". It is made of deep-fried, syrup-soaked white flour batter and shaped into a large, chaotic pretzel shape, rather like the American funnel cake. Jalebis are bright orange or yellow in colour, but are also available in white. It can be served dripping warm or cold. It has a somewhat chewy texture with a crystallized sugary crunch. The sugars get partly fermented which is thought to add flavour to the dish. It is a derivative of jangiri. Another version of it is "Emarti", a red-orange in colour and sweeter in taste, made in Uttar Pradesh. Jalebis in Orissa are also sometimes made of chhena. Jalebi is one of the most popular sweets in India and is served at celebrations, especially during national holidays like Independence Day and Republic Day, in government offices, defence and other organisations. Jalebi is similar to the sweet referred to as "Zangoola", popular in the middle east.

2 cups self raising flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup yoghurt
Vegetable/canola/sunflower cooking oil for deep frying
1 cup sugar
Few strands saffron
1/4 tsp cardamom powder
2 drops orange food colour
2 tbsps rose water
· Mix the flour, baking powder and yoghurt into a batter and keep aside for 24 hours to ferment.
· Pour batter into a ketchup dispensing bottle.
· To make sugar syrup: Melt the sugar with the rose water and boil to get a one thread consistency. To check for one thread consistency, carefully dip the tip of your index finger into the syrup, touch your finger and thumb together and genly tease apart. If one thread is formed between your finger and thumb the syrup is done.
· Turn off fire, add the saffron strands and cardamom and stir well.
· Heat the oil in a deep wok-like dish. To test for the right temperature, drop a small amount of batter into the oil. If it sizzles and rises to the top of the oil, the oil is hot enough. Keep the flame on medium at all times to ensure all round cooking of the jalebis.
· Now hold the ketchup dispenser over the hot oil and squeeze the batter into the oil into a wiggly, randomly coiled circle. Squeeze out several at a time.
· Fry till light golden and then remove and put directly into the sugar syrup.
· Allow to soak for 2-3 minutes and then remove.
· Serve warm
Forget about counting calories and enjoy!

Happiness is a scoop of ice cream

Today, after trying out VibroGym, the supert workout station that every one has been raving about (it increases gravity and doubles the intensity of what a weights session would achieve), I could not bear the thought of all these calories burnt, and decided to compensate with a stopover at our neighbourhood Natural ice cream parlour. Established in 1984, this chain is the Indian version of Baskin Robbins, the difference being that they use real fruit in their ice creams, so a lot of their flavours are seasonal. All ice creams are also 100 per cent vegetarian.
Today I really had a tough time choosing between tender coconut, gooseberry, chikoo, guava, saffron pistachio, date, and cream. But finally settled for a mix of roasted almond and tender coconut which I polished off in the car, before even reaching home. It's really a mystery how the crunchiness of the almond is retained even after soaking in the ice cream for so long. And the tender coconut scoop was just divine: fresh yet creamy, with the coconut flesh providing pleasant chewy bites.

When the season is right, they also offer peach apricot, watermelon, musk melon and mango. And throughout the year they have a few chocolate flavours, of which I am not a great fan.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Something fishy

Open any Bombay guidebook, or ask anyone to recommend good places to eat here, and invariably TRISHNA will come up! This legendary seafood restaurant in a small lane adjacent to Kala Ghoda art district, is a magnet for tourists and gourmet Bombayites alike. It is far from elegant (I would even call its interiors gaudy) and not even remotely classy. But while there, you will see some of the richest Indians sitting next to hippies and enjoying oil and butter-dripping delicacies. It is always full. And getting a reservation on the same day is nothing short of a miracle, even after they opened a second room. When you finish eating, you are expected to leave immediately and free up a place for those waiting in line at the entrance. So here, you can't linger on and order tea or coffee - it is simply not served.
The menu is huge. You get seafood starters and mains. Indian, continental and Chinese. However, I always end up ordering the same thing: butter pepper garlic giant prawns; tandoori pomfret, and shrimps (or calamari) koliwada (deep fried with a special spicy batter). I absolutely love their yellow lentils, garnished with cumin fried in ghee (clarified butter). And of course, you can't have a meal here without the customary naan or roti.
It is a place to indulge, and 'healthy' is not in their vocabulary. I invariably hate myself after eating here and promise to never come again. But with guests, we always end up here, and enjoy it every time.

What's in a bhel puri

There are very few snacks that symbolise Indian roadside eating like bhel puri. It is a snack almost as essential here as a sandwich would be in the West. Although it looks like junk food and it looks fattening, it's actually packed with good stuff: puffed rice, sev (fried crispi little sprinkles made of besan flour), tomatoes, onions, green chillies, chopped coriander, date & tamarind chutney, and green chutney. Some varieties include goodies like pomogrenate seeds, grated coconut or chunks of green mango. To be consumed immediately after being mixed together (otherwise it becomes really soggy), part of the fum is waiting at a stall and watching the whole thing being assembled. The ingredients themselves are always meticulously arranged by the vendors, and look like mini art works - mostly the sev, puffed rice and potatoes in the middle, and the bright tomatoes and green chillies used as a frame.

Sunday Lunch

Bombay winter... The two words almost mutually exclude each other. But when temperatures drop to 10 degrees where they have to be at least 15, something has changed... I guess I should consider it a bad sign about global environment. But I have to admit I am enjoying it to the fullest! I am so much more energetic without the heat bogging me down!
To celebrate the last few days of cool, we invited a few friends over for a relaxed lunch on our terrace, overlooking the Arabian Sea. I wanted to keep the menu simple and fresh, in tune with the 'lightness of being' in this weather. I ordered a lasagna just in case, and made the rest myself:

VEGETABLE STICKS WITH DIP: Baby corn, carrots, white radish, capsicum and cucumber sticks. Dip: yogurt, goat cheese spread, crushed walnuts, salt and pepper.
CHEESY CHICKEN CASSEROLE: I used a Bulgarian earthen dish for slow oven cooking. I layered chicken pieces with mushrooms and pieces of smoked cheese (La Vache Qui Rit). Finally, I poured a big mug of diluted cream spiced up with black pepper on top. It cooked for 30 minutes in moderate heat. The chicken was melting in the mouth, and the mushrooms and melted cheese gave this extremely simple dish a positively gourmet taste!

GERMAN POTATO SALAD: Just boiled potatoes mixed with homemade mayonnaise, mustard, gherkins, salt, pepper, onion (very important to sprinkle it with salt and crush it in your palms before mixing it in the salad, in order to tune down the sharp taste), and lots of parsley and dill. Yum!
AUBERGINE SALAD: Dust aubergine slices with flour, fry them and let them cool down. Season with a dressing of olive oil, crushed garlic, salt, pepper and lots & lots of dill. It got some rave comments!
COCKTAIL OF THE DAY: Green Island Mauritian white rum, half soda half Sprite, lemon juice and a lot of ice. Perfect for a mid-day drink!

Daily Junk

Canteen temptations:

Dahi batata puri: Boiled chickpeas, moong and potatoes inside a fried 'puri', garnished with green chutney, tamarind, crushed cumin powder, red chilli powder, chopped coriander, beaten curds, fine sev (crispy stuff sprinkled on top), chopped onion.
Bhajias: deadly - vegetables in a batter, deep fried, every Indian's preferred snack for cold weather.


Far from the glamour and eccentricity often attributed to them, a chef’s job is a daily exercise of endurance, patience, teamwork and imagination. Three of Mumbai’s star chefs let The Gourmet Explorer take a peek behind the scenes, witness the action, meet the staff…

A friend got a job as a chef in a 5-star hotel restaurant in Mumbai’s northern suburbs. I made fun of her, saying she can forget about dieting and keeping a thin waistline. Surrounded by so much sinful food… She was doomed! To my biggest surprise, I saw her literally melting away week by week. In two months, we had to go shopping for new clothes as she had reduced 2 sizes! Her shifts were crazy – 11 am to 3 pm and 6 pm to midnight, sometimes till 2 am. In her single day off per week, “the biggest excitement is that I can dress like a girl!!! And smell good!” Another difficult thing to take is the heat. That's something that she just "puts up with it." And sometimes sneaks into the walk-in cold storage of the pastry section to cool off.
During the long working hours there is hardly time for a break or even simply sit down. Staff at the kitchen is on their feet for hours at a stretch behind their stations. If they are lucky, they get to rest on the few bunk beds available. Last minute changes of orders, big groups coming in, whims of customers keep them on their toes (literally).

So who are the people who go to work when everyone else goes to play? Who are the ones who comply with our every whim and for whom the only concern is our palate’s delight? Three chefs opened up their kitchens to us for a peek on what is going on behind the scenes.

The kitchen opens at 8, when the pre-preparation (or as they call it in kitchen jargon, “prep”) starts. The staff dressed in white and black put their hearts into carrying out everything that the numerous guests from midday to midnight are supposed to enjoy eating. All the machine work, butchery, cutting, boiling of stocks, washing of ingredients, has to be done before the first shift comes in at 11… Hundreds of carved up, grated, chopped up vegetables arrive from the garde-manger section (the cold preparations department of a 5-star kitchen). They need to be cooked, blanched, fried, grilled and kept ready. Seafood needs to be cleaned and shelled, meat needs to be cut and trimmed by the butcher. Other service staff put all china in place, prep plate wipes… Cooks have already started preparing the basic curries. Chef Solomon overlooks this well-orchestrated, slow ballet, in a quiet but yet firm manner. “Every single hour of our day is planned. Nothing is left to chance. I know exactly what I will do tomorrow.” After the prep work, the kitchen fills up at around 11.30 and the mise-en-place (literally meaning putting everything in its place, or as they shortly call it “misa”) starts. The Executive Chef (Chef de Cuisine), Assistant Chef-de-Cuisine, Sous-chefs and the Chefs de Partie or helpers (as one can see, all the traditional French terms are used even in Indian kitchens) get together to dish out the specialties of the day. There is no fuss, no wasted movements. The staff’s uniforms are perfect. The cooks are blanching the vegetables, half-cooking the basic noodles and broths…not only for the same day, but for the next day as well. There is no single woman around, except for the pretty Thai hostess at the entrance. “Working in a kitchen means long, odd hours, and for Indian women it is tough to make this commitment, especially after marriage,” says chef Solomon. “But this is changing. For example in one of our other restaurants in the hotel – Trattoria, one of our main chefs is a girl.” By 12.30 the restaurant is open and the show begins! The customer places the order. A slip is printed out at the kitchen, with a list of the dishes and all the special requirements (desired level of spiciness for example), stating the number of the table, the number of customers, the time the order was placed, the desired sequence of serving the dishes and the name of the waiter. The “barker” (a person who coordinates the orders) reads it out loud to the cooks and the action is on. Meats are sizzling, curries are poured, salads are artfully arranged. In 10 minutes flat the tray is ready to go to the table.

“It is a very tedious job,” says chef Akerkar, “this is why I tell my people that they should either love it or forget about it.” He himself dropped out of a Biochemical Engineering PhD in the US to pursue his passion for food. From working as a washer in a French restaurant, he now owns one of the best restaurants in Mumbai. The kitchen is medium sized and, needless to say, spick and span. There are different stations for sauté, barbecue, sauces, salads. Some of the chefs are wearing bandanas instead of chef’s caps, which gives the space a more relaxed feel. But don’t get misjudged by the appearance. There is a perfect order and discipline in here. The single barker coordinates several orders at a time. Knowing the time and preparation each dish requires, he knows in what sequence to shout out the order. The cooks depend on him completely and would prepare the different ingredients in the order he indicates. Sometimes, a dish half cooked is set aside, until another which takes more time is still simmering or sizzling. But when the barker says “Fire table number…”, the final result has to be delivered on the counter. The waiter, standing behind the barker, can then serve it to the guests. Each dish has a different accompaniment. A particular mashed potato is used in strictly one preparation. “I like to play with food,” says Akerkar, “Creating food is a constant evolution. When you understand the basics, you can afford to experiment with textures, techniques… In many restaurants they call this fusion. But what is fusion cuisine? We have twisted around this concept. Fusion is a historical term. It is about food evolving with the changing cultural influences of a place. Here, fusion is all about availability – you have to adapt to what is available in the market. Today my supplier might come with just one odd fish he has caught and does not know what to do with. Or with some unusual vegetable. I might take it and try to incorporate it into a particular dish. I might use a typical Indian vegetable into a Mediterranean dish.” But does this mean that the cuisine would still be authentic, a term many restaurants are hung up on? “Indian customers have this great need to compare! There is nothing like “authentic” cuisine. You cannot sit in a restaurant in Mumbai and tell the chef – these fries do not taste the same as the ones I ate in New York. You cannot make comparisons as the food is influenced by the environment. The air, the landscape, the climate, the soil – everything influences the way food tastes.”

Designing the menu is not an easy task and chef Khambata knows this only too well. It took him two months to design a menu for the restaurant. “We tried around 500 recipes and finally narrowed down to 70-80. I was cooking and my catering team tasted the food.” Using different ingredients on the menu is not enough. “Human’s taste buds have a balance. The chef needs to know how to use the senses to create a good combination. Although most methods in the far eastern cuisine are traditional, I tried to give them a twist. I use 8 to 10 different types of preparation like barbecuing, steaming, braising, grilling etc. I create different textures – soft, crisp or fried…” Chef Khambata was into architecture before succumbing to the art of cooking. And for him a chef’s job is not a flashy one. Everything happens behind the scenes and “the biggest pleasure a chef can experience is when a customers calls him to the table to say how good the food was. Even then it is normally the main chef who receives the compliments. Very soon my restaurant will be the only one with cameras and screens inside the kitchen, so that the chefs can see people’s reactions and the result of their labor. We are also the only restaurant, as far as I know, where tips are shared with the cooks.”

So next time you are at a restaurant and you like the food, don’t hesitate to voice it… While there are many common rules, each kitchen has its own character, according to the kind of cuisine it serves. And cooking has a different meaning for all three chefs. For chef Rahul Akerkar, it is a “craft”. For chef Khambatta it is a mixture of science and art. And for chef Solomon it is “pure art. Because if it was science it could be very easily replicated.”
Picture courtesy Getty Images

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Gourmet Explorer is finally happening!

Dear all,
I am pleased to announce the arrival of The Gourmet Explorer!
It all started with a car, a map of India, endless kilometers of roads and an insatiable appetite for adventure. This led to the discovery of an India far removed from any flight of imagination or any guide book ever written.
Upon arrival, anywhere, at any time, invariably the first question was: “Have you eaten?”, and not ordering even a cup of tea was regarded as really odd. This led to an increased waistline, of course, but also to an increased awareness that here, almost everything happens over food, starts with food, or ends with food. Every social occasion or ritual in India invariably has a component that involves the taste buds. And as kilometers rolled under our car’s wheels, so changed the flavours. Food was becoming not just a pit stop during a long drive, but a very important part of the exploration and the overall sensory experience. Thus was born the idea of sharing the little dots on the map which represent my India – out of the box, unique and delicious!
Our concept: we are against anything canned and processed. Each journey is an organic spread of cultural and olfactory experiences centered around food. Beyond culinary tourism, we are also looking at exploring food as an ecological act, through organising talks, book discussions and demonstrations by experts.
Our audience: expats living in India; foreign guests with a passion for food; Indians and NRIs looking to expand their knowledge of regional Indian cuisine. Small, exclusive groups, allowing people to enjoy the experience to the fullest and take active participation in food demonstrations and hands-on classes.
Our destinations: unusual, out-of-the-box rural or urban locations in India, which offer a mix of cultural and olfactory experiences hard to forget; authentic restaurants in Mumbai city (through our Bombay-centric programme Ladies Who Lunch, exclusively for women); residences with terrific master chefs; food stores; fresh produce markets.
Our exploration ‘subjects’: We may invite guests to watch a prince working his magic over the stove at a fort perched above a river, or welcome them to join us while chopping vegetables sitting around the communal cooking fire at a Rajasthan village… Celebrity chefs, food writers and historians, nutrition experts, food activists… You never know what may come next.
Our USP: The Gourmet Explorer has access to both the expatriate market in Mumbai, as well as to some of the best and most unique heritage properties around India. Each property has been personally ‘tested’ by us and the best service and standards are guaranteed. An in-depth knowledge of the culinary traditions of India, the people who propagate it, and on the other side, the people who are eager to know more about it.
Is your seat belt on?

Monday, February 11, 2008

TV Cooks

I am getting completely addicted to food-related TV programs, mainly on Discovery Travel & Living. I watch them the way some people watch Prison Break or Heroes, sometimes even with a pen and a writing pad in hand, especially when they are India-specific. And recently, as I lay sick at home, all I did was browsing channels for anything related to food and cooking.

This is when I first watched a Nigela Watson show. I had heard a lot about her, and even read somewhere that men were crazy about her voluptious figure and sexy ways of dishing out exotic yet easy meals. So I was only too excited to see what the fuss is all about. Her figure is voluptious alright. And I wonder how the men who watch the show can concentrate on anything happening below her chest. But really... To me she looked like an oversized aunty, and I didn't like the fact that everything she made consisted of ingredients taken out of cans and bottles exclusively. Her accent drove me mad and I still have nightmares of her saying: "and, at the end, a generous squirrrrt of wasaaaaabhi..." Yucks! So unappetising! Sorry, boys!

If I was not happily hitched, I would have hunted down Anthony Bourdain on one of his adventures, tied him up and forced him into marrying me! The man is so cool, so composed, yet so funny and sharp. He is also an ex-chef, so he can cook me dinner all while telling me about hunting boar in New Zealand and drinking with tribesmen. I would not mind his absences, simply because I would be following him everywhere he goes! I loved watching (again) the episode on India, where he watches Arvind Singh of Udaipur cook while sitting; has extra strong bhang in Jaisalmer only to wake up later, lying face down in the desert, with a lone camel shepherd squatting beside him; rides on the top of a bus; gets completely high on cocktails and a hookah at The Lake palace; gets his horoscope done and, with a straight face, listens at an analysis of his sex life (apparently not that good!) in front of a camera.

But let's finally talk about Kylie Kwong. If you haven't heard about her, you are probably just coming back from an extended vacation on Mars. And if you love food, you better tune in next time her show is on! Of Chinese descent, she lives in Australia, and cooks the most divine Chinese food (yes, I have tasted it time and again with my eyes and I can assure you it's DELICIOUS!). Here's an accent I love! I even love her geeky frames and the way she frowns while focussed on what's happening on the stove. And normally what's happening is pure poetry! From the way she shops for ingredients, through the process of chopping, explaining and actually cooking, Kylie has me hypnotised and drooling, every time she says "beautiful!" (her favourite word). A week ago I watched transfixed as she made crispy peking duck with plum sauce. I love her kitchen, and the way she cuts on a thick wooden slab. I love the little touch in her show where while waiting for something to bake or boil, she sits down and reads cookbooks. I love how every show ends with friends coming over and eating what she has prepared, and the look on her face as they show appreciation. Kylie, you're the best!!!

Padma Lakshmi (Salman Rushdie's model ex-wife) may be a really glamourous gal, but she also knows her Indian cuisine. In her show Planet Food she travels around India, exploring the cusines of different states. She is even gutsy enough to try and make papad with village women. She radiates beauty and intelligence, and is a natural in front of the camera. I love the way she bonds with simple Indian people, and has the gift of breaking the ice with her smile and humour. Despite her stunning looks, she somehow doesn't look out of place, even when she helps a cook in a temple kitchen stir a giant bubbling pot of rasam. Her descriptions of food are very correct, you could almost taste the crispiness of a dosa as she talks about it, and then you can feel the softness of the potato stuffing as Padma "mmmm"s about it. What I learnt from her show:
- papad dough is cut by a thread outstretched between a woman's big toe and her hand
- Chennai has the only in the world pepper stock exchange
- the longest dining table in the world is in Hyderabad's Falaknuma Palace
- MTR - an abbrevation that I have seen on many a spice box, actually means The Mallavi Tiffin Room - an institution in Bangalore, a restaurant buily in the 1920s, famous for its delicious vegetarian food and stringent cleanliness standards

Vir Sangvhi may look like a recovering overweight alcoholic and talk so slow that you just want to shake him up, but the man has his style and his A Matter Of Taste is the only comprehensive program on Indian cuisine and culture. I just wish they gave him more air time. His trips are always too rushed, and just when you are settling comfortably to enjoy the ride, it's over!

There are also a couple of shows whose names I have forgotten. One is really cute, about people who are a complete disaster in the kitchen, but want to learn. They go to a chef who teaches them an entire meal which is very simple, but very visually appealing and interesting in taste. They have to learn it, then cook it for their family. It is great to watch people who are so clumsy with food, slowly gain confidence. One of them was anonymously put into a competition for professional chefs and ... won. Simply because the others tried to make things too elaborate to impress the judges. Awesome!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Calcutta Series: Flurys

Sugar & spice and all things nice... Flurys ( was a fairy sugary doll land in the midst of chaotic Calcutta! I personally breathed a sigh of relief when we entered this legendary bakery cum cafe on Kolkata's Park Street, and felt like home amongst the almond slices, black forest pastries, chocolate chip cookies and smell of espresso.

"Founded in 1926 by Mr and Mrs J. Flury. The tearoom was known far and wide for its exotic cakes, creamy pastries, rich puddings and perhaps the best Swiss chocolates outside the European continent, and in no small measure to the relaxed and cheerful atmosphere that it provided." Just reading this on the website makes me want to take the flight right back to Kolkata and sit in one of these chairs with a copy of The Telegraph, sipping a cappucino and eating a vanilla slice! Soft and moist inside, with a crispy, perfectly glazed icing!

To my biggest astonishment, my mom ordered a rum ball (in Bulgaria, she never let me eat this delicacy as she suspected bakeries use leftover pastries to make these) and it was absolutely delicious with a Flurry Viennese Coffee. Gurtaj ordered a chocolate pastry. And Mini struggled with an ice cream soda determined to set free from its tall glass.

Other yummy things spotted: meringues with cream, rich puddings, apple strudel, fudge...

Heavenly sugar rush!

The Calcutta Series: Nizam's

They say you can't go to Calcutta and not eat a kathi roll (barbecued chicken wrapped in a flat Indian bread coated with egg and spices) at Nizam's. They also say the roll was invented when an enterprising local realised that English people did not want to grease their fingers while eating kababs, so he started selling them inside a bread roll. Thus started this great institution of the city. I am guilty of loving non-vegetarian food, so I could not wait to taste the delicacy I had heard so much about! In Bombay, so many times we would go out for a kathi roll and Gurtaj would say: "Hmmm, you can't compare this to Nizam's." So off we were on a Sunday afternoon, starved in advance and determined to enjoy the national dish of Calcutta to the fullest!

First disappointment: Nizam's has become a "fancy" restaurant (in the garish sort of way) with plastic tables and chairs, and a doorman, believe it or not! Thankfully, we didn't have to actually sit down in this place which looked more drab than my office canteen. Nizam's had a small take away window on the side for hardcore focussed eaters. While ordering, I could peek right into the kitchen, and I could see the small tandoori ovens where skewers were sizzling. It looked positively delicious and I could not wait to sink my teeth in one of those! India oblige, we went to wait in the car while our order was getting ready, and two hot parcels were soon delivered to us. We decided to drive to the river bank and have our rolls in looking down at the water.
Second disappointment: My roll was absolutely stuffed with onions and green chillies. So I fist had to struggle to get them all out. But even then the onion smell and taste were to overwhelming for the poor kababs to stand their ground. The bread was so oily that the initial purpose of the kathi roll - not ditrying your hands - was completely missed. I felt sick immediately after eating the roll and had to ingest many mints to tone down the onion aftertaste. Yuck! While I was happy I ticked this off my list, I can safely say that a kathi roll in Mumbai is far better...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Calcutta series: New Market

That's what I thought: Calcutta = Bengoli cuisine = palate in heaven. But what was my disappointment when I was told (several times - yes, I triple checked) that I can taste the quintessential Bengoli cuisine, the delectable fish and vegetable curries I have read so much about, only at someone's house. And that no restaurant on this Earth can do justice to this rare kind of cooking. So I had to content myself, again, with just thinking about it, and browsing the market looking at ingredients. While even that didn't really live up to my expectations, I still made some interesting discoveries:

1) These guys obviously love their meat! Most roadside stalls I saw were selling a mince preparation with a lot of onion, combined with fluffy, freshly fried bread rolls and thick, juicy parathas. As much as my tastebuds were begging for a try, I could not bring myself to stop at one of these not too hygienically looking spots and ordering a plate. So I contented myself to watch and take snaps of the preparations, and of the plates of fresh chillies and onion neatly cut up and ready to be tossed into the mix.

2) We also saw a very strange snack of halved hard boiled eggs filled with a funny mixture of the yolk and mince, I think.
3) As my brother-in-law Raj and I walked into the market, we came directly through the poultry, meat and fish section. It didn't start that bad - we first walked through what I decided to name Bird Flu Lane - full of caged chickens, enough to feed a small country. We then decided to brave the meat market, but barely a couple of steps on the slimy stones, I was ready to run away from the sights and smells I would rather not describe here. Just as I was turning around to walk out, with my peripheral vision I spotted someone coming directly in my way with something on their shoulder, and I quickly wiggled away, barely escaping what turned to be a HUGE pig carcasse this guy was carrying into the market. I have never sworn so loudly, and got quite a few surprised glances. Truly traumatic...

4) Walking around the provision stores, I realsed that Bombay's Crawford Market is light years ahead of this place. None of the exotic imported ingredients and goodies were present here. Just the basics.
5) I came across a sign board that set my imagination racing – Fresh Aligarh Butter. It sounded utterly butterly delicious, and my mind started churning out images of endless grazing fields with happy cows, village maidens milking them in buckets and the milk looking superbly frothy. I looked up 'Aligarh' in Wikipedia. It turned out it is a small city in Uttar Pradesh, famous for its Muslim University, and where the main industries are flour milling, the processing of raw cotton, and the manufacture of butter and glass
6) Surprisingly, I still had appetite after what I had seen, so Raj and I walked into a small restaurant filled with a jovial crowd. Too chicken to order fish, we asked for noodles (could we be more boring??) and chilly chicken. It was not a gourmet experience, but at least it stopped my stomach from grumbling, and gave me the opportunity to spy on our neighbour's plates. People had ordered all sorts of different things - fish curry with rice, soups, even sandwiches. But what really amazed me was a strange sort of preparation everyone was eating as a side dish - in a soup plate, they were served a completely spice-devoid, bland, boiled vegetables (potatoes and carrots) and chicken legs, with a bit of soup. It was looking delicious in a cold European evening kind of way, making it seem completely out of place here! Some people ordered seconds of it, and then topped it with the main Indian dish... Mystery!
7) We found Gurtaj's old favourite bakery - Nahoum - from where his mom used to buy sponge cake. Amazinfly well organized, it had a huge variety of dry cakes, birthday cakes (so laden with artificial colour, that they reminded me of the brightly coloured posonous animals I have seen on Animal Planet - the more colourful, the more poisonous). I loved the old-fashioned scales and cash machine!
8) But here's the most amusing thing - while walking through, we saw a tea man serving the tiniest tea cups I have ever seen - literally two sips inside. A shop keeper ordered it and I went to ask him how much it costs - one rupee per cup! He very proudly and ceremoniously posed for me with his tea, and insisted on seeing the photograph. On not liking it, he requested for a second shot. And was finally satisfied!