Recipe for a Perfect Evening

So, this is how it goes. Think of a style of cooking. Think of the main character – the meat or sometimes the veggie. For example, you could come up with Malwani and Fish. Or the other way around. Next step is to Google for recipes. After a few rounds you start getting a hang of which recipes to trust. Go as authentic as you can, and keep an eye out for smart recipe writers who will tell you a few substitutes for ingredients which are rare.

Now, add in some friends. Normally, this involves just calling people at the last hour and asking if they would want free dinner, conversation and drinks. On most occasions, you will find some takers. Now, add in some music and get started.

This is my recipe for a perfect evening. There are variations, mostly atmospheric. Sometimes, a bottle of wine comes with the guest and on other occasions – a new CD is unwrapped. I have realized that cooking itself is not so hard. On most occasions, you can cook much better than any restaurant, and there are no major screw-ups which cant be redeemed. There are a few tricks you learn along the way – and you develop your own style like in any other activity.

Yesterday, it went like this. I had come in good time from office, and my wife asked me if I wanted to cook. The answer to this question is almost always a resounding ‘Yes!’. We agreed that the cooking has to be Indian, and the meat has to be from a well fed goat. We quickly ordered mutton and put it through marination – garlic, ginger, turmeric (haldi) – since we were leaning towards the North Indian styles, this should work for most dishes.

I thought of Rajasthani first – Laal Maas- but somehow the look of the dish didn’t appeal . Then somone suggested Rogan Josh. Everyone agreed. I looked up a couple of recipes – and stumbled upon this one. It seemed straightforward and for what it is worth – illustrated!

I have someone to help, so a bit of parallel processing can happen. Onions were cut, cumin was roasted and powdered. As I went along, some adjustments were made to the recipe. Though garlic was already in the marinade , I added some more after the onions were done. Toned down masalas a bit – though I think could have reduced a tad further based on the final dish. I am a big fan of slow fire cooking and for this one, I pulled out the Moroccan tagine we bought from our trip to London a few months back. The tagine – for the unaware – is an awesome invention.. It aids slow cooking, and retains flavors like no other vessel.

There was a small episode in the middle (whats home cooking without one?). I added salt and then my help mentioned that salt was there in the marinade too. A small hell broke loose as everyone blamed the other, before wisdom prevailed and we figured that it wont hurt to taste the gravy on the stove before panicking. It was fine!

We opened a single malt, to go with the cool Mumbai evening, and hooked up Jazz through the laptop. As confidence increased, that the Josh was going to be fine, I messaged a friend to land-up. He hemmed and hawed about wife and kids being tired and then eventually said – what the heck – they can rest, I am coming over.

By this time, the kitchen and the living room start smelling like heaven. Someone or the other keeps opening the lid of the tagine, to check on the dish, to stir it a bit and to take in a whiff. There are arguments about how much more time there is to go – and what defines ready. The meat had started coming off the bone (wow!) and the tummies were grumbling now.

We made kachumber (salad) like in the recipe including the vinegar. Hot chapatis were popped out, and within 15 minutes, everyone was making satiated sounds. The party was over, or at least the food part was. My test is simple, if conversation subsides, and people have a glazed far away look, and chapatis pop out faster than you can count – the dish is a hit. Everyone loved it, and I was a happy man.

So try this at home – no cuisine is too hard and no dish is inaccessible. Happy cooking!

Crystal, just around the corner no more

Some restaurants are more than that. They are a part of your being, in the sense that they have played a large role in your life at some stage. You have hung out there, waiting for someone special, or with someone special. Or gone back there again and again, to have one particular dish. You associate some extremely important occasion with them, if not many.

This week, I learnt about the fall of not one but two such places. 

The first one is Crystal. To anybody who lives in Mumbai, it is difficult not to have heard of it. For business school grads who are not from the city, their first encounter is in the summers when they are put up in Wilson College and the evening meal is at this hole in a wall establishment. If you have seen it, you would know but for those who haven’t it wouldn’t be surprising if you didn’t register its existence as you drove past Girgaon Chawpatty on Marine Drive. It is difficult to describe the place from inside. It is as if someone had pressed the Pause button sometime in 1953, and the place froze. There were (yes were!) around  5 tables on the ground floor, and may be another 6 on the mezzanine level. The two were connected through a wooden staircase, which could test any back. The waiters looked as if and probably were there since the beginning – they all were in their late 40s/ early 50s and old world in all ways. The music on any given day would take you back to the Black and White era of Madan Mohan and O P Nayyar. My memory of the music is frozen to one night when I had come after watching a play called The Blue Mug, about some psychologically disturbed people and the song Zindagi pyar ki do chaar ghadi hoti hai was nostalgic to one of the characters . That evening, when I was returning from NCPA, I ate at Crystal and the same song was playing. It seemed as if it had been playing for years.

 The food was drop dead awesome, especially to anyone who has grown up in North India and misses the home cooking. It is difficult to describe how brilliant the dishes were at taking you back to that cooking – and I am afraid it might remain a secret how the cooks managed to get that taste repeatedly. I am sure the secrets included home made ghee, masalas ground on a stone slab and possibly transported from Himachal where the restaurant staff and owner hail from. The owner, to spend a minute on him, was an almost static figure – it seems his job was only to count the money, and return the change – but I am sure he was aware of every single happening in the restaurant. He would sit, without displaying an emotion – except if you turned up just after lunch or dinner hour and he would sternly turn you away signaling there was no room for negotiation.

I have been visiting this place for almost a decade, of course with much lesser frequency lately. As a bachelor, it was almost a haunt, where I would take a taxi from my pad in Churchgate, and queue up for the mouthwatering Rajma, daal, alu gobhi or sukhe aloo. As life got busier and I got married and moved away to the suburbs, the visits became infrequent – though both the wife and I share the love for the place. We would drag every visiting friend to the place, who after their initial shock (at how the place looked) would settle down to enjoy the meal, and the stunning kheer that would follow. We used to have a challenge – to eat for more than Rs. 200 between two people – and I can assure you it wasn’t easy – even for gluttons like me.

Last week, coming back from the Kala Ghoda festival, we stopped their to satisfy a late evening urge for Crystal food. We were sitting in the car and got the friendly waiter to deliver the parcel to the car. He mentioned, to disbelieving ears, that the place might shut down anytime – as the building is being razed down. Today, I discovered a shutter on the place with the chairs lying awkwardly on top of the decades old tables.

There is a small ray of hope –  apparently the cooks have moved to a new version of Crystal at Lower Parel, which is being run by the owners’ daughter. It would not be the same, it never could – but hopefully the food will be. I hear they have got an air-conditioned section. Wonder what the waiters at the old Crystal would have to say about that.

The other bachelor institution that has fallen is Just around the corner at Bandra. I would save that story for another day.