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.