Why Food?

In the middle of a particularly assiduous day working from home this week and racing to meet a deadline that day, I caught myself grating heaps of fresh ginger and garlic to marinate two glistening pink, wild caught salmon steaks. I had been thinking of the salmon since morning, intermittently through my morning cup of coffee and struggling through a dense research piece that I was writing for an academic journal. The decision to marinate the salmon steaks was almost involuntary and arguably quite unnecessary given the busyness of my day. And then, I had spent some time looking through marinades on the internet that morning and plotting my perfect and easy recipe even while wading through scores of work emails. In the midst of grating and deeply inhaling the fresh ginger, I thought of how much more productive my day could have been without the glistening salmon. Not only would I save time in preparing the marinade but I would also not have to rinse the dishes, properly stack my dishwasher and clean my kitchen after that. I consoled myself by thinking of a feature article that I had read in the newspaper that morning. “Eat fresh food and cook your own food!” the article had said. I never had thought that I had a choice to do otherwise, really. However, the prospect of lots of good Omega 3 oil in the salmon entering my body did manage to rationalize in some part my feelings of guilt about playing hooky from work with fish.

Last summer while talking to my friend R (the initiator of this blog) late at night at his house in Delhi over a delicious concoction of dark rum, fresh lime, a bit of soda and coke that he had whisked up, he suddenly said something to me that I have often remembered. “You know I am suspicious of people who don’t enjoy food. I think they are ‘niras’ in their lives,” he whispered. We admittedly may have been whispering because we were pleasantly enveloped in a lazy haze of cocktail and chat or because his three year old daughter was sleeping. I thought then that if I had to translate “niras” from Hindi, I would say that it is the absence of the life force. Recently when another friend started dating a seemingly interesting man, she was genuinely troubled by the fact that he did not enjoy food as much as she did. It signified something larger for her; an absence of sensuality, generosity, and a whole-hearted embracement of life itself.

Food forms a life force of so many of my memories and connections, a vital nerve connecting diverse people in my life over diverse spaces and times. When I first moved to Chicago in my mid-twenties and had to cook my everyday food, I realized that my body actually craved for fresh vegetables that I had grown up eating. My conversations with my mother in Kolkata became a medley of shared recipes and spices; cauliflower roast, stuffed green peppers/capsicum, eggplant in mustard sauce and cabbage with black pepper and a bit of flour. To this medley, I added my own discoveries in the US over the years and excitedly shared them with her. Roasted Brussels sprouts (who could know that they could taste so good!), the nutty Butternut Squash and the green leafy Broccoli raab with its unique slightly tangy kick. Then, there were the meat and fish dishes. One of my favorite memories with my then six year old niece in Australia is baking a yogurt cake together in Melbourne. I added the proportions of flour, baking powder, yogurt, oil, eggs, sugar and vanilla essence. She whisked them with great concentration, following my directions to get a loose mix that would be moist and occasionally licking her fingers. We both waited eagerly for the oven timer to go off, wanting to see how “our cake” had finally turned out.

Living in a small and quirky town in New England that is repeatedly in the news for its many fabulous restaurants and diverse cuisines has strengthened the significance of food in my world. My bonds with people have been a mixture of good conversation, new activities, and food. Hikes up several local hills here or walks through woody trails in Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson country are associated with fresh warm apple cider awaiting us at the end. My long walks each day, often inadvertently snowshoeing, has given me an unexpected appreciation of varieties of tea that are black, green and white. I learnt to bake from my Italian Linguist friend Ila while arguing about the importance of accents. I admired a friend from Indonesia who decided to cook a dried fish rice dish despite its strong and stubborn smell in her apartment for her birthday. I saw it as resistance to the often bland world of mainstream American cuisine and the perhaps accompanying paranoia about constant sanitary smells. When my friends E and M had us over for the holidays, they made an amazing roast beef that had cooked in the oven on low heat for ten hours. Its aroma interweaved its way through our gossip, debates and laughter. Living abroad away from “home” is often not easy and that choice comes with occasional discordant moments and interactions in our everyday lives. Inviting friends over, cracking open a bottle of good wine, and cooking and sharing some good food has translated into a space of connection and support for me through the years.

At the same time, I find myself increasingly drawn to ethical questions about food. Who grows our food? Why is the grower inevitably at the bottom of the food chain so to speak? Is it right to eat meat in the US when I know that its production is the result of a very cruel and exploitative meat industry? Do I turn vegetarian or what are the alternatives? A colleague here actually hunts his own meat, believing that it is a more humane way to eat meat! Then of course, there is the whole organic debate. The organic food movement largely benefits elite consumers in the US and excludes those who lack the resources to buy purer, more environmentally integrated food. While these questions can sometimes appear unnecessary to many of us, we probably owe it to the joy of food in our lives to at least ask these questions. In my classes on political and social theory and its connection to the world around us, my students and I sometimes explore these concerns as part of the increasingly complex and interconnected global world that we all form a part. Food is political too. Such discussions are often interspersed with interesting things I learn about my students – one makes cheese, the other is a “slow food” activist and a third lives with her boyfriend on a farm where they grow their own food.

So, here is to Foodnama and community and communion over food!

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.

And the answers….

Thanks for the responses, guys. As expected, many of you got the answers bang on. Here are the answers anyway:

1. Upma
2. Amul girl
3. Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
4. Sandwich
5. Long Island Iced Tea

Kudos to Anirban, Prasan, Megs83 and Shoubhik for a full score!

Expect more quizzes, on specific cuisines to come up here shortly. Do leave your feedback on what kind of stuff you would like to see here!

Cheers!
Venky

Food for Thought – 1

Here are a set of  questions on food and beverage. More coming your way regularly!

  1. Which food dish gets its name – a very similar one in many South Indian languages, since its primary ingredients are salt and flour?
  2. Call her the “Friday to Friday” star. Round eyed, chubby cheeked, winking at you, from strategically placed hoardings at many traffic lights. She is the girl everyone loves to love for the last 43 years. Which brand’s mascot?
  3. Cadbury’s had chosen this person’s school in UK as a focus group for new candies they were developing. Every so often, a plain gray cardboard box was issued to each child, filled with 11 bars for the children to rate. The experience got him thinking about candy, how it is manufactured, and how the production floor would look like. An idea took shape and materialized in 1964. What?
  4. What is named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of ____, an 18th-century English aristocrat, although he was neither the inventor nor sustainer of the food. It is said that he ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread, and others began to order “the same as _____!”?
  5. The Peach ___ ____ is a popular variation with the tequila omitted for peach schnapps. The Jersey Tea is a similar variant, with the cola substituted with a shot of Jaegermeister. The Pittsburgh Tea is a lesser known variant that substitutes tequila with Wild Turkey. Other variants include Alaskan, Tennessee and Tokyo. What is the original?

Do give your answers and feedback! Send in your answers as comments in the next 48 hours, preferably without googling or yahooing:)

Cheers!
Venky

Garam garam chai…and a post within a post

 

 Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world. ~T’ien Yiheng

 Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. ~Thich Nat Hahn

  

 

 

Tea! The mere thought of tea is enough to make me relax and think of long lazy afternoons spent in the cold mists of Darjeeling, reading books and drinking tea. I am a ‘tea person’ (whatever that means!). Even after living in South India for the past few years, I have never crossed over to the coffee-drinking side. And when I tell people that I’m a ‘chai person’ they go, “Of course! You’re from Darjeeling!”. I guess it seems so obvious. It’s not like all Eskimos love snow. I mean, it isn’t like children in Darjeeling are given tea to drink the moment they are weaned. I think it’s a Tibetan thing. In a Tibetan home, tea is a ‘given’. Tea is made in copious amounts and kept in big Chinese hot flasks (I know…the irony!) and drunk throughout the day. There isn’t a specific “tea time” as such. And back home in my small town, visitors keep popping in and out throughout the day. So a cup of tea is served immediately without even asking the visitor if she/he cares for some. Like I said earlier, it’s a given.

Two types of tea are made in a Tibetan home. One is the usual sweet tea (called “chha ngaamo”) and the ‘Tibetan Butter Tea’ (called “bhyo chha”) made of butter, salt and brick tea. In Tibet ‘bhyo chha’ was made by churning the above contents in a tea churner called “dongmo“. Making tea in a dongmo would give your arms quite a workout. Most Tibetan madres now simply use a blender. It’s more convenient, and less time consuming. One more traditional ritual lost at the altar of technology says the traditionalist in me.

Now we come to the post within the post. P (the bitter half) loves tea, like me. While I’m very kitchen shy, P likes to cook and makes really good “adrak chai” (ginger tea) for which he is world famous in our small circle of family and friends. He is constantly badgered for chai recipes by friends and he once wrote an article on tea which I’m reproducing here.

Adrak wali chai – by P

Having been brought up in a South Indian home where Coffee was the prevailing drink, I did not have too much of a taste for tea. I do remember drinking sweet (sometimes bitter also) milky tea in “Eversilver” tumblers at home, usually when “North Indian” guests came home. I used to wonder as to how people drank thestuff. I did not have any fascination for that brand of tea.

Things changed one day, when I went over to my friend’s place when his Parents were out of town. He made the most divine drink I had ever tasted. I did not know that tea could taste so heavenly. From then on, I became an ardent devotee of this fascinating brew.

I have tasted teas of varied types, from different places, from different climes, and appreciated every one of them. However, if you were to look deep into my heart, no matter where I go, I am and will be always, an unabashed admirer of good old adrak wali chai (Ginger tea).

I have had tea at roadside tea stalls all over the country and admired the subtle variation in taste, flavour and even in the techniques of making tea. Some of the unusual wayside teas that I have had are:

1. Chalu chai- Takes its name from the saucepan which is ‘always on’ (chaalu). You keep adding milk, water, tea and ginger to the saucepan at regular intervals as you keep pouring tea from it. Once in a couple of hours (during lean business hours), the spent tea leaves are discarded and fresh ones put in.

2. Irani Chai- Familiar to people from Hyderabad and Bombay who frequent Irani Cafes. Very sweet tea made by adding tea liquor to milk made thick by boiling with sugar. Usually had accompanied with Osmani biscuit. The custom is to have it in conical cups ‘One by Two’ or ‘Two by Three’. Tip- Even though these places are called cafes, do not ever order coffee in these establishments.

3. Tamil Bus stand tea (for want of a better name)- In this, a strainer with a very long net is used somewhat like a tea bag. Hot water is poured from the kettle into a mug, which fits on top of the kettle itself. The strainer net with tea leaves is dipped into it and the water is briskly stirred till it attains the desired strength. The liquor is poured into a glass and and milk and sugar are added. As in the case of Chalu chai, tea leaves are added into the strainer at regular intervals. I haven’t seen one being emptied out for cleaning yet. I have seen this tea being vended in Bus stands in Tamil Nadu and hence the name (I am open to changing the name to South India bus stand tea or anything else, if readers can vouch fro this being available at other places) . In case anyone knows if this type of tea has a specific name, I would be grateful if you let me know.

4. Laal cha (Colloquial term used for Black tea)- To the tea liquor, some lime, sugar and a masala (ingredients are not revealed) are added. The result is the most tasty, tangy tea you can ever have. I have had this in 2nd class railway carriages while traveling through West Bengal. It is dispensed from a kettle which is kept on a mobile stove. Both the Kettle and stove are kept in a Bamboo basket and can be carried as a set. Though this is strictly against the rules of Indian Railways, these are a very common sight in trains traveling through Orissa, Bengal and Bihar.

There might be some things more comforting than a glass of adrak wali chai on a Cold Rainy day, but none that I know of. For those who do not think so…here is a recipe to change their way of thinking.

Ingredients:

To make 2 cups (200ml each) of tea you need the following:
-Water- 400 ml
-Milk- 100ml. Do not use skimmed milk as the tea becomes too watery.
-Ginger- 1 inch piece (better more than less).
-Cardamom- 1
-Black pepper- 3-4 peppercorns
-Sugar or Honey.
-Tea (Assam tea/ Red Label/ 3 Roses or any other strong tea. Do not use green label or other mild teas)- 1.5 teaspoons. (The British method of One for each person and one for the pot does not hold for this Desi-ishtyle tea)

Method:
-Boil the water
-Crush the ginger, cardamom and peppercorns and add to the water kept to boil.
-If you are using sugar, add it now. For the honey-minded, hold on…not yet.
-Once this mixture is boiling, cover with a lid and let it simmer for at least 5 mins. Simmering it longer adds to the flavour. This is the most crucial step which will ensure that the tea absorbs all the goodness and flavours of ginger.
-Add the milk to this boiling mixture and bring it to boil.
-Add the tea leaves and keep stirring the mixture till it threatens to overflow and switch off the flame.
-Cover the tea and let it stay for at least 5 minutes. This will give you a medium strength tea with a strong ginger flavour.
-If you prefer your tea strong (kadak), let the tea simmer on a small flame for 5 minutes.
-Strain the tea into teacups (Glass cups go best with this tea. Use your bone china for having Darjeeling tea).
-Add a spoonful of honey to the cup and stir.
-Take a whiff of the tea before sipping it and enjoy the subtle flavours.

 

 You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. ~C.S. Lewis