A year, and back again

It’s been more than a year since this blog was posted to. In the interim, the cooking, trying out new recipes, eating and drinking continued unbroken, but somehow I never got around to blogging about it. Maybe the first flush of enthusiasm from the initial months of this blog last year had faded somewhat. I’m told many blogs face this fate.

And so a year and a bit went by. Saturday, 14 April was Bengali new year’s day (or Poila Boishakh). And a day before that was Vishu, the Malayali new year, and Tamil New year’s day. And Baisakhi in Punjab, and Bihu in Assam. It seemed like a mighty fine time to get Foodnama going again. Hopefully this time around, the infatuation would have given way to something more steady, less ephemeral, and the output on the blog will reflect that.

Image courtesy - http://bengalicuisine.net/2009/mishti-doi/

On Poila Boishakh as I wolfed down sweets through the day and later went out for dinner with the family I was reminded of an article I’d read a few months back. Mihir Sharma had written in the Indian Express that Indian festivals lacked distinctive foods to go with them, unlike the turkeys at Thanksgiving, or the cakes at Christmas. I wasn’t entirely convinced then. I believe the range and diversity of occasions in our festivals make it unlikely that they would necessarily have typical foods associated with them. Also, some of our biggest festivals have underpinnings other than food – think Diwali and Holi for example. Secondly, festivals that do have foods associated with them are sometimes the minor or lesser known festivals, that are not nationally known. Poush Sankranti (also known as Makar Sankranti) is a Bengali event that readily comes to mind. ‘Puli-pithey’, a range of outstanding sweets that are traditionally home-made and not often sold by merchants of Bengali sweets, are integral to Poush Sankranti. I would also posit that Durga Puja (not exactly a minor festival anyway) is typified by the glory of Calcutta street food, certainly in celebrations outside Bengal.

I cannot think of too many other examples right away, however (Ignorance is the main culprit, and enlightenment in this area is certainly a cause worth pursuing). As a result I’m not sure if Mihir’s point is the more correct one and Poush Sankranti is the outlier, or we simply do not know of enough festivals that go with specific kinds of festive foods. It may also well be that festival foods are gradually fading away, unable to command the attention and time to recipes and traditions from people today. And that would the sadder thing surely, than not to have foods linked to festivals to begin with.

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Risotto with smoked chicken and veggies – recipe

With risotto and me, it wasn’t love at first bite. Of the three ‘great’ staples of Italian cuisine – pizza, pasta and risotto (yes I know there’s antipasti, prosciutto, panini, lasagna and whatnot, but you know what I mean), risotto was the last one that I was introduced to. Growing up in Delhi, pizza was the first – chewy, cheesy pizzas from Nirula’s with friends after exams were a special treat. Pasta was next – cheesy, overdone delicious stuff with friends and beer on a student’s budget, when I studied in newly globalising Bangalore at the turn of the century. Pizza and pasta were easy to love, given the circumstances in which I initially had them, and later I was more easily able to appreciate the finer points of a thin-crust pizza from a wood-fired oven or an ‘al dente’ penne in a roasted garlic alfredo sauce.

On to risotto then. I had been working for a few years when I first had it. What led to an underwhelming experience was a mixture of not being entirely sure of what to expect, and what I think is a peculiarity of the Indian palate. You see, the texture and consistency of risotto is approximated in a number of Indian cuisines in ‘khichdi’, ‘pongal’ and the like. But ‘khichdi’ and ‘pongal’ are well-loved as comfort foods rather than gourmet specialities of any cuisine (largely). I’m not sure if risotto occupies a similar place in Italian cuisine, but the availability, pricing and general vibe around it in India certainly accords it a ‘gourmet’ aura. And when you have it for the first time, to pay as much as you do for something that is reminiscent of ‘khichdi’, can feel a little bit like having wool pulled over your eyes. Anyway, I resolved to approach future encounters with risotto with a more open mind and I was fortunate to come across some excellent and varied preparations over time. I feel much better about risotto now, indeed I love it – though not unconditionally (as this earlier post suggests), and I’m willing to try it widely and often. Which has led me to try cooking it a couple of times as well!

And so I made risotto a second time. The first time had turned out edible enough, as Appa will testify, hence this encouraged second attempt. I used this basic risotto recipe from Jamie Oliver as a starting point.

I should add at this point that most of my cooking tends to be by approximations (as they say in Bengali, ‘aandaaj’) – both in terms of ingredient proportions as well as cooking times. Here’s howIdunit:

What you need:
1. Arborio rice (it’s the stubby starchy rice that risotto needs. Most fancy supermarkets would have this. I’m not sure if Indian starchy varieties would do as well, might be worth trying) – 1.5 cups
2. Olive oil (I used extra virgin but I guess it’s not essential) – 3-4 tbsp
3. Butter (good ol’ Amul!) – 1 tbsp
4. Grated cheese (Parmesan is recommended and I used it the first time – this time it was regular Amul processed cubed cheese) – 50 gm
5. White wine (I used an Indian Chenin Blanc and it works well. Not sure if cooking wine is as effective) – 250 ml. Drink up the rest while you cook!
6. Stock (I used vegetable stock with a bit of chicken thrown in) – 1 litre, for this you will need:
– Water (a little more than a litre, but you can keep adding as it boils)
– A couple of bony pieces of chicken
– 1 onion, half a carrot, half a bell pepper – cut into big pieces
– 2-3 cloves of garlic, freshly crushed pepper, a pinch of thyme, salt
7. Smoked chicken (I just bought it, someone else had smoked it – how does one do this at home?) – 250 gm
8. Onions – 2 medium sized, chopped coarsely
9. Garlic – 5-6 cloves, chopped fine
10. Bell peppers (or ‘laal-peela’ / red-yellows, as my vegetable seller calls it) – 1 red and yellow bell pepper each, diced
11. Broccoli – one medium-sized head, chopped small
12. Mushrooms – I used 10-12 button mushrooms, sliced thin – although Jamie Oliver (and every other risotto recipe I’ve seen) forbids button mushrooms and recommends porcini, shiitake or some other flavourful sort. I grilled these in a microwave for 5 minutes to release some flavour.
13. Carrots (healthy!) – 1 medium-sized, diced small
14. Pepper
15. Herbs – I used rosemary, thyme and basil
16. Salt

Method:

For the stock:
Pour 1 litre water into a big saucepan and add everything in. Heat the water to nearly a boil, and then simmer. Keep the saucepan partly covered, and add a little water after 15 minutes. After simmering for 30 minutes, strain out the liquid into a bowl and check for mild salt levels.

For the main thing:
1. Take a wide heavy-bottomed pan, and heat the olive oil and half the butter.
2. As the butter melts, add the onion and garlic. Fry the onions and garlic gently, without letting them brown.
3. As the onions turn translucent, add the rice and fry lightly for a minute.
4. Once the rice begins turning translucent around the edges, add the wine. This will sizzle and exude a nice tart aroma. (The wine isn’t essential, it adds a slightly tart taste to the final risotto, you can choose not to use wine if you do not wish the risotto to taste so. But there’s no alcohol left in the final dish – so no worries on that count!)
5. Once the wine is cooked in, add a cup of the stock and gently massage it into the rice, onions and garlic.
6. As you pour in the stock and massage everything in, the rice will release starch and begin to look a little gooey and sticky. As the first cup of stock gets cooked in, pour in a second cup and add the broccoli and carrots. Massaging the rice right through the cooking is most critical, to keep releasing the starch and cooking everything in it.

7. Keep adding a little bit of stock and mix it in, coaxing the starch out of the rice and add more stock when the previous pour is cooked in.
8. After about 15 minutes, the rice should be about half done. Now add the rest of the ingredients – the chicken, bell peppers and mushrooms and stir them in.
9. Add stock one more time and cook it in before adding the herbs, grinding pepper and adding salt to taste. Add the rest of the butter at this stage as well.
10. Keep the heat on low, and keep adding stock (if you run out, add boiling water) and massaging it into the rice with all the ingredients until the rice is done. Check for salt and add some if required.
11. Once done, the rice should be cooked but a little firm to bite, and the overall consistency should be creamy and gooey.
12. Sprinkle the grated cheese all over and serve hot with a glass of wine!

Jamie Oliver calls risotto a labour of love. I now know why! 🙂

Bercos, Dwarka – Comfort Chinese (at home)

Metropolitan India is undergoing a global cuisine revolution. Descriptors such as niche, artisanal, authentic, creative and fusion now apply to numerous new restaurants in Mumbai, Bangalore and even Delhi (where the hippest restaurants are often found in its oldest villages – subject of a couple of posts previously). Foodies throng to these new places, discovering new cuisines and improving their geography (can you now identify Hunan province on the map of China, and do you know Jamaica through your jerk chicken or is it the other way round?).

Apparently all this is happening. Because if you live in Dwarka, you only see glimpses of this through excited reviews and colourful weekend planners in newspaper supplements, blog posts of friends, or lifestyle shows on TV that help you plan exciting evenings and weekends. Dwarka is a new-ish large suburb at Delhi’s south-western extremity, but its adjacency to Delhi’s airport hasn’t helped fly in global cuisine or far flung-regional cuisine (such as Konkani, Chettinad, Bengali and.. umm.. anything beyond Delhi and Punjab actually) here yet. Most of Delhi’s great culinary traditions find representation here however – Punjabi-tandoori, kabab-shabab, Mughlai, Punjabi-Chinese, Chhole-chaat-jalebi, with a few idly-dosa and pizza joints thrown in. Of these, Bercos is among the most famous of Delhi’s stalwart restaurant brands to have set up shop here (Golden Dragon is here too, but that’s another post).

Bercos has been one of Delhi’s greatest purveyors of Indian-Chinese cuisine, and an institution at Connaught Place (sorry, Rajiv Chowk?). At Dwarka, except to step in and pick up their ‘home-delivery’ menu once a couple of years back, I haven’t been inside the establishment and so cannot talk about ambience, service, seating and such like. But their food has been a regular and reliable visitor at our home for over two years now. Berco’s doesn’t mess much with new-fangled concepts – their ‘dimsums’ are called ‘momos’, and they offer all the old reliables of a Chinese menu – chilly garlic fish, chilli chicken, shredded lamb / diced chicken / slice fish in (choose 1) hot garlic / black bean / szechwan sauce et al. While little of it is authentic in the new-age way, the Bercos kitchen manages restraint in not going too far over to the ‘Punjabi’ way either. And so most of their food actually achieves a satisfying ‘marriage’ of robust taste and discernible flavour.

With Bercos, what you think is what you get. What comes to mind when you think chicken Manchurian? Or hot and sour soup, American chopsuey, fish in black bean sauce? Yes, that’s how Bercos makes it. And their order-taking on phone is reassuringly familiar –
Self: hello
Bercos: hello sir goodeveningthankyouforcallingbercos, you want veg or non-veg
S: non-veg
B: chicken or fish
S: fish
B: ispicy or non-ispicy
S: medium spicy
B: ok sir then you take sliced fish in black bean sauce, will be medium ispicy.
S: what about gravy?
B: do you want dry or gravy?
S: what will this dish be?
B: semi-dry, you can have it with isteamed rice.
You can only have a vague idea of what you want when you dial in, Bercos will guide you through their menu and help you decide dinner quite skilfully. And they are among the rare joints in Dwarka that deliver well within the promised time, even on a weekend evening. All of this probably doesn’t sound like much, but many restaurants in Dwarka will show you how easy it is to get these wrong.

All is not Manchurian and black bean sauce at Bercos either. Their Thai options, again inspired by Thai cuisine 101 (red and yellow curries, tom yum and tom kha for soup), are worth the occasional order as well. A Thai holy basil chicken was quite nice the last time we ordered. A segment called ‘Chef’s Special’ on the menu promises much and doesn’t deliver too poorly either. The chefs do seem to extend themselves here. A sliced fish in mustard chilli sauce tastes very un-Indian-Chinese and is quite lip-smacking. Combine this with their lovely aromatic Moon Faan rice, and you can end up with an unexpectedly good meal. I’m afraid there is no evidence to report of the soups or the vegetarian selection. Ordering from home, somehow those pages on the menu have been a blind spot to me so far.

Which reminds me, we haven’t ordered their starters in a long time either. Sorry to be abrupt, but it’s Friday evening now, and time to decide between Crispy Fish (as you like it with pepper-salt, pepper-garlic or butter-chilli-garlic) and Singapore Wok Fried Chicken!

Wokamama – Saturday serendipity, a review

Saturday afternoon found us at a loose end around lunch time in Gurgaon – the wife and our 4 year old T, and I. We’d just wrapped up some work, and we’d had Thai food on our minds for some time, so out came the phone to search for options. Among the many names offered up by Zomato.com (their mobile version has quite a helpful, minimalistic interface that makes restaurant search easy for the partially decided and vaguely aware), one stood out looking fresh and feisty – Wokamama – yes, I tried saying it a few times in the martial-arts-movie way as well!

It was nearing peak hunger time, so a quick call to confirm directions (not too far) and seating and we were on our way. As you drive down M G Road towards Delhi, the left turn soon after Guru Dronacharya station (I wonder why the name – did the great warrior teacher have his tuition academy in the vicinity?), past Neel Kanth Hospital leads you down a dusty path to Nathupur village. About half a km down the road on the left stands a modest mustard yellow 2 storey ‘haveli’, with Wokamama on its terrace. Its location is quite in keeping with the current trend of hip, new restaurants opening in the dusty, old villages of Delhi.

The bright winter afternoon sun felt fabulous as we sat at our table outdoors. As we often do at Chinese or Pan Asian restaurants, we ordered dimsums right away for T, steamed chicken with celery and basil this time. The dimsums took their time to appear – but they arrived as fresh and delicately flavoured as expected.

While we waited, we ordered Huai Yang crab meat soup (1 by 2, Indian style), and holy basil Thai fish fingers with roasted chilli paste. The soup was astounding, bursting with flavour and generously laden with crab. A quick check on Wikipedia tells me that Huaiyang cuisine is regarded as one of the 4 great traditions of Chinese cuisine. Not at all a bad introduction then! The fish fingers were robustly flavoured too – fried sea bass with skin, basted with spicy paste. The stronger aromas and taste of the soup and fish though, somewhat overwhelmed the dimsums when they arrived.

So far the three month old restaurant (they opened in Oct ’10) had done nothing but please, including the service, which was attentive, friendly and helpful throughout. Ahem.. no doubt aided by the fact that I took photos right through our time there, which must have made them think I was an influential reviewer or some such thing. And in another detail, they did what many established top-tier Chinese and Oriental restaurants often fail to do – they asked if we wanted any jasmine tea. We said yes, and we had a carafe of steaming brew on our table for the rest of the meal.

For the main course, we continued in the Pan Asian vein that we had ordered in until now. A chicken in Thai yellow curry with steamed rice was combined with a Teppanyaki selection – basa fish and sticky rice with broccoli, shiitake mushrooms, bell peppers and pok choi, in katsu sauce. The Thai curry was the old reliable, the Teppanyaki was the calculated risk. The portions were huge, and we wished our server had hinted at that when we ordered. The katsu sauce was a little over-salted but otherwise the plate of rice and fish and the vegetables came together very well. And the Thai yellow curry was superb, sweet to begin with, flavourful through and ended with a spicy pungent kick at the back of the mouth.

Full and sated, we almost did not mind the surprisingly long time they took over the bill. And did I mention how the menu separates the good news from the bad – by listing the dishes in evocative detail on each page but mentioning the prices down at the footer. A surprisingly satisfying discovery – and next time I really do want to check out the terrace on a cool spring night, under a full moon.

Olive Bar & Kitchen – A ‘Lazy’ Review

As the bleary winter sun struggled to descend through the clouds and trees on a Sunday afternoon, we walked into the meticulously Mediterranean Olive Bar & Kitchen at Mehrauli in Delhi for a long-planned and much anticipated ‘lazy Sunday brunch’. (No matter that most only turn up around lunch time, and then spiritedly chat over copious wine – it must always be called brunch. And lazy.)

The six of us – the wife and I, another couple, and our one 4 year old daughter each – walked past the whitewashed walls through the tree studded white gravel courtyard, initially thankful that we did not get reservations at any of the courtyard tables on this cold, weakly lit afternoon. But as we walked through to our table indoors, past the gas fires and coals smouldering in the ‘karhais’, we realised that outdoors would have been cosy enough. Unfortunately, a ‘private party booking’ in the courtyard put paid to those thoughts.

Once inside, the wine was quickly served (the kids had juice, in case you were wondering). The Chilean red on offer was quite crisp, with a fresh, cool bouquet (cannot yet tell the raspberry / plum notes, or the pine / oak finish!) – although cold as the weather was, a wine with a little more body may not have gone amiss. The Chilean white seemed quite nice as well, as far as the blurry photo below can tell!

On to the food then. The smorgasbord of cold cuts, terrines, salads, sauces and relishes was inviting enough and we sampled a fair selection. It wasn’t too bad but I’m not sure if that sort of food carries enough flavour for this weather. Oh well, my under-developed palate to blame I suppose. Who can however resist a freshly grilled plate or three of tiger prawns, tenderloin steak, lamb and basa fish. We couldn’t, so we duly got three steaming plates of lightly spiced, gently flavoured meats.

The service was prompt and efficient, the wine barely got to the bottom of the glass before it was refilled, and the mandatory broken glass (toppled by yours truly) was quickly mopped clean. Could it however have been a little more smiling and friendly? Especially since they weren’t busy serving a la carte? Yes, perhaps. We had to make do with cool and surly (broken wine glass to blame?).

The pizza was very warm and friendly by comparison. Rarely do desire and fulfilment follow as closely as they did when the pepperoni (with olives, sun-dried tomatoes and onions) pizza made it to our table in under 10 minutes, gushing with flavour and laden with just the right amount of cheese. Six slices were almost too few! A second pizza, of chicken and sundries, followed soon after.

Another interesting sight in the courtyard was of the beer-bummed chicken. I can think of no other name for the whole chickens grilling on the coals, hoisted on cans of beer, looking somewhat like headless chickens laying a particularly bizarre kind of egg. The chef explained that this was to infuse the grilling chicken with the flavours of beer (I can think of other ways of doing that, but that’s another post). This was a must-order, but it disappointed. The chicken was tender but flavour of beer or any other kind was hard to find.

Another wine, and it was time for the main course (you might be wondering what I think we’ve been having all this while). I suppose they expect people to stay lazy and boozy, eat up way too much salad and terrine, get conned by the beer-bummed chicken (guys certainly!) or seduced by the pizza. Because between all that and dessert, there was all of a live pasta station, one vegetarian risotto, looking like a green ‘khichdi’ turned out in rage, and a shrimp risotto, that had clearly been sitting on the buffet fire since Saturday morning. I actually hadn’t noticed the vegetarian option until I pointed out the caked shrimp risotto to the manager who agreed it had gone dry, looked at his watch and said they were near closing time, and then pointed out the green sludge for me to try if I wanted my risotto ‘wet’. The last station was then the one where your pasta would be cooked ‘live’. Thankfully, as live pasta stations go this one turned out better than expected, although the wife’s pasta was below par.

Dessert was wide-ranging and varied – I didn’t have any, not being particularly keen on dessert (and I had not planned to write this review!). The rest of the table evidently enjoyed, since what was brought to the table was quickly wiped out. Twice.

Terrific setting and ambience then. The wine’s not bad. And food is pretty good overall – the grills and pizza would be the pick of the lot. And I suppose if one doesn’t take up the offer of ‘lazy’ brunch too literally and lands up well before closing, the risotto may be great. I wouldn’t know though, my loss entirely. And just a live station for pasta is a little underwhelming, I guess laying out a few special / specific options would make the live station more fun.
The service is definitely hit and miss – one doesn’t expect feudal fawning, but some more ‘happy to see you’ would be welcome. And did anyone say good bye?