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.

The Return of the Icons

So, here I am – with the second instalment of iconic food joints across the country.

There was a mild frisson of controversy over the first instalment (read it here) as the venerable JAP pointed out Mocambo had much better food than Peter Cat and a senior colleague was quite distressed that Gajalee hadn’t featured. Well, of course these two (and many others) serve out-of-the-world food but the point about icons is that they are not (necessarily) about food.

It is about the legend.

In an untraceable blend of history, society and serendipity, these places have become part of the folklore of the city they are located in. So, even a person who’s never been to Calcutta will say “I have heard that Shiraz ka biriyani is too good. My co-brother was saying…”

Which brings us to the first name in this list.

Calcutta – Shiraz

A not-so-glitzy shop at the edge of the glitzy Park Street is known as The Golden Restaurant. The adjective probably refers to the golden hue of the rice and potato (Yes! Calcutta biriyanis have potatoes) that arrives in perfect heap on a gleaming white porcelain dish. The chicken biriyani would have one end of the chicken bone sticking out of the rice (to distinguish it from the mutton version, which is a plain heap of rice). I have never seen the biriyani remain on that dish for more than 9 minutes. Be it the democratic open area in the ground floor or the AC section on the mezzanine, people just jump the biriyani the moment it arrives.

Of course, the rest of their fare is magical too. They have a sort-of-multi-layer-sweetish paratha (which is not really a lachha paratha) that – when served with their Chicken Chnaap – is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. While writing this post, I realised that I have never had kababs from Shiraz. I have gone through three-and-half decades of my life having tasted only 4 or 5 items of their menu!

Bangalore – MTR

This is one place I was totally unimpressed by. When I was in Bangalore, I could not voice my opinion in the fear of being lynched (or being mistaken for a donkey and sacrificed!). But I am completely convinced about its status as a Bangalore icon.

Its unobtrusive facade. The stern guy at the billing desk. The (waiting) coupon which always seems to have a number in excess of 400. And the queue seems to go on till the end of the universe. Even before you get a glimpse of their overloaded stainless steel thalis, MTR imposes its legend upon you.

Their serving style is old-style Bangalore – suffused with a confident lethargy. They know you’ll wait. They also know the wait will be worth it. So, they stop to sniff the flowers before they let you sniff the sambhar! For people like me – used to inhale full plates of biriyani in 7 minutes – this art is lost but that is clearly my loss.

Bombay – Bade Miyan

This is clearly the one Bombay institution which divides the city right down the middle. Some people think it is over-hyped rubbish while others swear it is manna, dropped straight off carnivorous heaven. Without taking sides, I can safely say that any food that ignites such debate is an icon.

All my brushes with Bade Miyan came immediately after a longish booze session at Gokul (which could well be an icon itself) next door. After finishing the liquor that is served rapidly and cheaply, the steps are a little unsteady when you come out but the hunger is beating a steady rhythm. It is in this state that everybody approaches Bade Miyan. Be it the cheap rum at Gokul or the swish wine at Indigo, this small nondescript shop is an island of protein in a sea of alcohol. And thanks to the inflammable nature of the liquid, Bade Miyan is never short of flying fists around it.

A food joint where fights happen regularly. If that is not an icon, what is?

While on the subject of violence and carnivores, read this post (and the comments with it).

Hyderabad – Chutneys

This is where Chiranjeevi comes for breakfast.

What? You are not convinced it is an icon. You Rajini fans, I tell you…

Located at the triveni sangam of Banjara Hills, Jubilee Hills and Punjagutta, Chutney’s is just another restaurant serving dosas, idlis, uttapams and pesarattus to hungry souls. But their Baba Hotel Idli – oh god! Or their MLA Pesarattu… don’t ask me why it is so named. I just thought its because it is as thick-skinned and oily as a MLA!

Like Swagath in Delhi tries to do a Chinese gig to increase menu pages, Chutney’s also thulps in some North Indian delicacies. But I don’t think they ever get any orders of those as people just jump on to the 70 mm Dosa and all will be well with the world.

Delhi – The Big Chill

The wait. The massive menu. The four pages of desserts. The walls jam-packed with Hollywood posters.And the blueberry cheese cake.

The Big Chill serves a mixed menu that draws laughter from critics when it wins prizes for Best Italian at food awards but that’s because that’s the best category they fit in. Otherwise, what prize can you give them. Best Place To Take Girlfriend On First Date award? Or Desserts That Blow Your Mind, Diet and Wallet Award?

In a strange inversion of the demand-supply laws, Big Chill seems to increase demand in Delhi as it increases supply. Every outlet they have opened in Delhi have got jam-packed within 17 minutes of opening the shutters. There are many places in Delhi that serve better Italian food and are quite reasonable too. But nobody packs it in like BC. And that’s one hell of an iconic queue!

BTW, have you ever been to Big Chill and got to sit straight away? Yes? Hi Rahul. Hi Priyanka.

Picture courtesy: Delhi Photo Diary

Answers to FFT 2

Here goes folks! The theme, as you may have figured out was all fictional food places and brands

  1. This Hawaiian word, part of a famous 2-word brand name means “Priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession.”A soda-cup bearing this brand name was first noticed in 1992, but it became indelibly associated with burgers after 1994. Which brand name?
    Kahuna; Big Kahuna burgers made famous by Quentin Tarantino
  2. It is a Canadian-themed bar decorated with maple leaves, Vancouver Canucks shirts, and it has a karaoke machine, that includes the song, Let’s Go To The Mall. Despite being a Canada-themed bar in NYC, Walker’s Crisps seem to be available there. Where will you come across this and who is its most famous visitor?
    Hoser’s Hut, which comes in How I Met Your Mother; the most famous visitor is of course, Robin Scherbatsky
  3. In 2006, Iranian businessman Mojtaba Asadian started this franchise, registering the name in 32 countries. The decor of the coffee houses features replica couches, counters, neon signage and bricks. James Michael Tyler attended the grand opening of the Dubai cafe.  Which memorable coffee shop franchise?
    Central Perk from Friends
  4. “Up, Up and Buffet”, Prof. VJ Cornicopia’s Fantastic Foodmagorium & Great American Steakery, Griddler on the Roof, The Texas Cheesecake Depository – where will you find them?
    Springfield; Simpsons
  5. The arrival of the railroad meant a market for produce and especially winter vegetables for northern markets. Onions were the first crop introduced, but ____ replaced the onion crop and now Crystal City is “____ Capital of the World”. In honor of this, a statue of the most famous consumer of this product is in front of the City Hall. Which crop and whose statue?
    Crystal City Texas, Spinach, Popeye

And the winner is….Santosh Swaminathan with 4 correct answers! Good attempts by Megs83 and RC!

Keep it coming folks!

Cheers!
Venky

Food for thought – 2

Here goes the next set of questions for you all to try sans search engine support:)

  1. This Hawaiian word, part of a famous 2-word brand name means “Priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession.”A soda-cup bearing this brand name was first noticed in 1992, but it became indelibly associated with burgers after 1994. Which brand name?
  2. It is a Canadian-themed bar decorated with maple leaves, Vancouver Canucks shirts, and it has a karaoke machine, that includes the song, Let’s Go To The Mall. Despite being a Canada-themed bar in NYC, Walker’s Crisps seem to be available there. Where will you come across this and who is its most famous visitor?
  3. In 2006, Iranian businessman Mojtaba Asadian started this franchise, registering the name in 32 countries. The decor of the coffee houses features replica couches, counters, neon signage and bricks. James Michael Tyler attended the grand opening of the Dubai cafe.  Which memorable coffee shop franchise?
  4. “Up, Up and Buffet”, Prof. VJ Cornicopia’s Fantastic Foodmagorium & Great American Steakery, Griddler on the Roof, The Texas Cheesecake Depository – where will you find them?
  5. The arrival of the railroad meant a market for produce and especially winter vegetables for northern markets. Onions were the first crop introduced, but ____ replaced the onion crop and now Crystal City is “____ Capital of the World”. In honor of this, a statue of the most famous consumer of this product is in front of the City Hall. Which crop and whose statue?

Answers in 48 hours!

Cheers!
Venky

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!