Too Simple

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Sometimes, simplicity can be amazing. Sometimes a chef can combine just a couple of very basic ingredients in a way that you cannot have enough of. Not all the time; sometimes a simple combination can be just that tad too simple to be considered seriously. Unless you're paying generously for it.

Mario Batali has made quite an empire out of simplcity. There are those raw fish thingies called crudo at Esca, tiny bits of raw fish in olive oil and one condiment that will set you back a dozen dollars a bite. A flight of six is a little better, at $30. Yes, the fish are good and the combinations interesting, but most reasonable sushi restaurants give you a tenth of the pretension (not to mention half the price) to outdo Esca( of course, they don't have olive oil). Caviar House at London Airport charged me the same $12 a bite for salmon dipped in nothing, but the memory of that salmon still causes drops of saliva to start heading downwards. At Esca, the only thing I remember is the price.

I made a more recent stop at the Batali empire, days before he was largely ignored by Michelin; at Otto, his pizza and casual empire. 'Simplicity' rules again, but as usual things can be taken too far. I ordered the 'signature' Otto Lardo pizza - the menu promised lard and sea salt at $13 - and was surprised to find that, well, it was just pizza crust covered with lard and sea salt. Imagine the disappointment of going to a fancy restaurant, ordering something with exotically big words and discovering plain bread and butter. Pizza dough covered with a small strips of lard has about the same taste excitement as the aforementioned pain-beurre - very comforting when you're hungry, great to eat while wating for the waiter but hardly what I would considering as a dinner. Sure you can bake wonderful bread from wheat personally polished by French royalty, get your butter from a cow that only watches Britney Spears videos, but at the end of the day its still bread and butter. Or, in this case, dough with lard.

Its going to happen soon. Some big-apple restaurant is going to get so hip that it will charge $50 for a whole, untouched, perfect apple.

More Frigid Tales

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I've just learned about more things that you can freeze. Freezing, of course extends shelf-life by weeks over normal refrigeration, which is specially useful for someone like me who's always cooking more than can be eaten. Bongs love multi-course meals, and its really tough to cook small helpings of each of the courses.

The most useful thing that you can apparently freeze (though I have yet to try it) is rice. I've just been informed on good authority that rice does not suffer from extreme cold, and will come out nice and fluffy with a little help from the microwave. Another really useful freeze is fresh onion paste. You can even fry or boil it before blending and freezing it; perfect as the base for a quick gravy. And finally, you can freeze dal! This is really useful, because its so central to an Indian meal, but so difficult to prepare in one-person quantities.

Going green

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Everyone already knows this, but India is truly the place for vegetarian food. The thing about veggie food in India is, its not the meatless version of something. This is a true, first class treatement of vegetables that one would find difficult to introduce meat into. This is specially true of veggie dishes from people who are not traditionally vegetarian, such as Bengalis. When they leave the meat out of something, there is good reason for it.

This trip to India, I ate far more Bengali vegetarian food than I normally would. Courtesy a veggie girlfriend, my family shifted the balance of meals from multiple fish types to multiple veggies, including many of my hot favorites - Kanchkolar Kofta, Potoler Dalna, Chocchori. Then there were all those Gujarati favorites that I indulged in - Muthia, Dhokla, Khandvi, Sweet dal, Kadhi - little wonder that I'm becoming fatter.

Freshly Frozen

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My fridge is full of rotting vegetables. These are usually invaluable leftovers from my shopping trips; unique veggies that are essential to one recipe or the other, but not available at Jubilee Market next door. Or the next three hundred doors for that matter.

Hence lies a problem with cooking Indian in New York - how do you keep veggies at hand without to take a jaunt to suburban New Jersey? The answer, in the land of huge refrigerators is of course frozen; tucked away nicely in that frosty-looking ziplock bag, waiting paitiently for your attention (somtimes for months on end). A few things are readily available frozen such as spinach and parathas, but I've discovered a couple of other really useful ones.

The mostest value undoubtedly comes from frozen green chillies. These absolutely indispensable hot friends can be frozen for a good long while; a couple of weeks at least. They lose some of their shape and become slightly watery when thawed, but usually survive the ordeal without much of a fuss. Paneer is readily available frozen from local Indian stores. Another is karela - which can be sliced and frozen for 3-4 months or more. Then there's onion paste - raw and boiled - it can be frozen for about a month according to official sources, but much, much longer if you're willing to do a pepsi. I discovered frozen methi the other day at Spice Corner. And finally, grated coconut preserves frozen for a good long while. For greated convenience, it can be pasted in a blender directly from the freezer.

Some crucial stuff, however, just wont freeze. Cilantro is a complete disaster if frozen. (luckily its readily available in stores). Limes are another - can be frozen in theory, but turn mushy too readily (the ice expands and bursts the pods). The juice of the lime, however, can be frozen - someone on a chowhound forum recommends making lime juice ice cubes. I would think that applied to any soft fruits - tomatoes, lemons, limes, oranges.

Chef Coming Up

about New York, NY, USA No comments:
An email from Gayot a few days ago warned of the five rising chefs in America. Amazingly, only one was from New York. Zakary Pelaccio's distinctly pizza-parlor name hid a penchant for peddling inexpensive Malaysian food in superhip Meatpacking District. This Saturday, suitably encouraged by my stomach, I headed into Fatty Crab to check the chef rising.

Its a tiny tiny place, barely able to contain the tables and waiters. The three of us were so space challenged that lunch was a constant juggling of plates and glasses and forks and knives. The food did, however, live up to its promise of being both interesting and affordable. We ate all kinds of the things of the menu, and were not disappointed by any (except possibly the tiny portions of the skate entree). The nasi lemak was spectacular, the lo-si-fun delectable and the crab more than passable. Portions are usually small, though. Of course, this isn't traditional Malaysian food; more on the lines of "inspired by".

Another gourmet chef trying her had at downmarket cuisine is Anita Lo at Rickshaw Dumpling Bar. Unlike her main showpiece at Annisa (which is gourmet dining in hidden corner of the village), Rickshaw brightly modern fast food place opposite the Home Depot. It serves dumplings in sixes and nines, steamed or fried, all at incredible speeds; (fumbling for change can sometimes make your dumplings go cold). I ran through about two thirds of the short menu, and found the dumplings quite competent, the steamed generally better than the fried and the chicken-thaibasil dumpling the best of the lot - not least because of the rather delectable coconut dipping sauce.

The Daily Grind

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One of my biggest challenges to cooking Indian food, surprisingly enough, has been to do with grinding spices. Wet or dry grinding is a staple with Indian spieces. This may not sound like much of a challenge but it's huge. To start with, the quantity problem; most appliances (such as coffee grinders) are suited for larger quantities (such as handful of coffee beans). That's enough ground spice to run a restaurant. You can't simply grind a large quantity and store it for later use - many spices will rapidly deteriorate into sawdust (and the ones that don't - duh - you can buy those pre-ground). The other problem is the blending of those strong spice smells; Coffee grinders are meant to grind the same thing over and over again, while an average Indian meal may require you to grind some ten different spices in one meal, and they should not all end up smelling of each other. To top it all off, coffee grinders cannot be washed. The best you can do is wipe them with a wet cloth, a feeble gesture that makes only a small dent in the wondorous odors of some of the stronger condiments. Individual spice mills are easily available options, but can quickly become very expensive. They can't accommodate more than one spice, so you're going to need a lot of them if that's your only option. I use them for really frequently ground spices, such as cardamom or roast cumin (they dont grind cinammon sticks very well). A much better option is decidedly low-tech - the humble but very versatile mortar and pestle. These things are easy to wash between grinds, and are outrageously good for small quantities. A good one should have bulk and be sufficiently rough inside for fine grinding. Not to forget entirely about the coffee grinder alternative, though. Many spices - cumin, poppyseed or mustard, for example - are tough to grind in a mortar but do wonderfully well in a coffee grinder. What to look for are blades that are really close to the bottom, so that there isn't much space below the blade for these small seeds to hide. Some of them have as much as 1/2 inch of space below the blade, and that's a lot for a spice. The one I've had the most success with is Krup's small, inexpensive model whose are blades nearly flush with the bottom. Wet grinding is a far bigger challenge. India sells that wondorous device called a wet grinder, but I never did find one in the United States. Coffee grinders will short out (dont try it). Blenders, unfortunately, won't do in many situations. They work well only if the contents are fluid enough to keep sliding to the bottom - like coconuts or onions. For spice pastes, however, that's far too much liquid. Just as troublesome are bigger wet things like mint leaves or green chillies, where no water should be added at all - I want a thick smooth paste, not a milkshake. Also, blend blenders with small quantities and all you get is a nice splatter pattern along the sides. I do use the coffee-grinder for ginger and garlic; they're wet but not so much as to cause trouble, and a nice smooth paste comes out. Some spices you can dry-grind and then mix in a bowl with a little with water to form a smooth paste. I use this for cumin, coriander, mustard, poppyseed or dry red chillies, but it doesn't work for every thing. Dont try it with nuts such as almonds or cashew; the results are patchy at best. So what's the answer? A bald wondercook friend of mine had the best one. He'd sautee the onions first (pretty much every Indian curry requires onions). Then, he'd put the onions along with whatever was to be pasted into the blender and blend the whole thing. The onions have enough volume and juice that everything comes out nice and paste. Sure, you're going to have to be smart about quantities (measurements in the recipe will usually be given for the paste, not the whole) but that will come with a few tries. And, of course, you can buy bottled pastes of much of the standard stuff - ginger, garlic, green chillies. They're distinctly inferior to fresh paste, but work in a pinch (just remember that they already have salt in them). Tamarind the bottled version is quite up to scratch, and almond (or cashew) butter is a good substitute for almond (or cashew) paste.

French Stars

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The Michelin Guide is the most famous of restaurant guides. Till recently, however, Michelin stars weren't available to American chefs; not having never set up an office across the pond, the Michelin guide kept its opinions of American eateries to itself. That changed yesterday, when Michelin announced its ratings for New York - the first American city to be so listed. 507 restaurants made it to the list while 39 recevied at least one star, catapulting New York to the top of the list of food cities - nearly. Paris still beat it handily with 70 starred restaurants, but what do the French know of food anyway? Michelin is not the lone star in the world. Gault-Millau (thats Go-Me-oh to you illiterates) - has its own 20-point rating system, and is considered influential enough to that a downgrade supposedly led to the suicide of superchef Bernard Loiseau. However, Gault-Millau does not deign to step out of continental Europe (even London isn't considered worth it). New York has long been full of guides. NY Times, Zagat, TONY, NY Metro, The Village Voice all publish reasonably influential ratings and reviews of restaurants in New York. Outside the city, however, the choices are far more limited - usually websites of local magazines and Internet city guides. After having suffered much at the hands of local newspapers that wax ecstatic at the slighest excuse, or Citysearch, AOL City Guide which provide a lot of information but unevenly reliable reviews, I've settled down with Gayot as possibly the most consistent. André Gayot, who once worked closely with Gault and Millau and was one of the earliest critics of the Michelin Guide, has a 20-point scale similar to Gault-Millau. The occassional lemon still surfaces but you're more likely than not to have a good meal when Gayot awards a 14 or higher. The website is hardly the model of usability, but Gayot has served me well in many cities - specially Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco and Austin.

Chainsmokin

about Plano, TX, USA No comments:
I've always had a low opinion about chains and their ability to create anything resembling gourmet cuisine. Chains, are fine for steaks and fast food, but by the very nature of their business, focus on standardization and repeat production than on the finer, more complex processes of producing great food.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I walked into Roy's. I noticed they had restaurants in list of cities long enough to cover all four glass doors, and the parking-lot suburban location next to an Amerisuites in Dallas did nothing to lessen the worries. Inside I was handed a large menu duly marked with the chef's specialities, which I dutifully decided to restrict my choices to.

My first choice was a ceviche. It came in a martini glass and was absolutely wonderful. Things looked up even more when their signature Hawaiian buttefirsh landed up beautifully presented, and made it after a mouthful to the list of the world's greatest meals. Ok, a few mouthfuls later euphoria headed down a little, but its still an absolutely wonderful fish that Roy Yamaguchi has done great things to. All this encouraged me into a second visit, and then a third - enabling me to run through every signature dish except the salad - and I must report that chain or not Roy's prepares excellent food. Go forth and fish without worries.

Parking in Dallas

about Dallas, TX, USA 1 comment:
When I went to Dallas people joked about how I was going to have to stick to steak everyday, and for the first week (not knowing any better) thats what I did - and a New York steakhouse at that. A little enthusiasm on the Internet showed me, however, that Dallas had a very lively dining scene with choices like seafood and even salads in quaint neighborhoods and hidden nooks that would compete favorably with the best in the country. Many of them were beautiful restaurants, some tiny, some huge, decorated with vert individual styles and serving excellent and distinctive food. Here are my favorite ones so far, not ranked in any order. They all serve essentially the same cuisine - modern American with southern and mexican touches. Surprisingly enough, most places are heavy on fish - but in landlocked Dallas excellent quality nevertheless.

The one I've been to most often is Jaspers; its right by where I work and is open for lunch and serves a sophisticated take on American food with southern comfort touches married to the haute in a large but very stylish dining room. The supremely unhealthy chips with melted blue cheese are (probably literally) to die for, but pretty much nothing on the menu disappoints. Jasper has a cousin restaurant in downtown - Abacus - which was a similar combination of style and substance, only with still more beautiful people.

Quite the other end of the spectrum was York Street - a tiny tiny restaurant with exactly thirteen seats and a kitchen you could fit into a Manhattan apartment. It's right next to a gas station in an area that seems extremely unlikely to offer anything better than fried chicken, but thats before you take the first bite. York Street offers foie gras, kobe beef tongue and unusual fishes in a menu that changes every day - and the restaurant is tiny enough that the chef both toils away and talks to you.

The Green Room is located in the Elm Street entertainment districts - another area that looks the epitome of urban decay but houses a line of slick restaurants and clubs behind crumbling facades. A vintage bar is attached to a pleasantly old-world dining room, and topped by an open-air live music venue. They have the best deal in the city on a pre-fixe, and the food - again modern American - is great. Salmon to die for, a thrilling salad, baby back ribs with a great take on barbecue sauce - there's enough on the menu to keep me happy for a few repeat visits.

Iris was the most offbeat of the restaurants I went to. It seems to be the norm in Dallas to hide restaurants in unexpected places, and Iris was no exception. Hidden in a strip mall along with a furniture store and cheap chinese, it took me three passes and a close inspection of the address numbers before I found it. The search was rewarding - yielding an outstanding sea bass; the best dish I've had in Dallas so far. (I also orderd a mexican cheese plate that failed to impress, but the fish made up for all sins).

The last on the list is Hatties, which is worth visiting just to walk about the Bishops Arts District in one of the oldest areas of Dallas. The area itself is just a couple of blocks, but well worth walking around - and it also helps build appetite for Hattie's solid offerings. In particular, the fried green tomatoes lived up to the hype - the dish sounds silly but I'm glad I followed the critics and ordered it. My trout was good too, and from what I could see on other tables a repeat visit is definitely on the cards.

Skin flick

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Vegetables often have these inconvenient biological barriers that need to be removed using advanced devices called peelers. There's obviously quite some tachnology involved, given the wide variety of different kinds of peelers in the market, but they all serve the same basic purpose - to strip certain kinds of veggies naked and fill up garbage cans. I cannot do too much about those naked vegetables, but Bengalis are sensitive about filling up garbage cans (possibly because of Kolkata municipal corporation's dismal record in emptying them). They have, therefore, come up with various options to avoid the trash can - many of which are ridiculously tasty. Here are two choices that I love. First is the potato. Peeling the average potato yields a fairly substantial volume of potato peel, and Bengalis wash them up, cut them into inch-sized pieces, add a touch of flour, dip them in a generous handful of poppyseed and deep fry them to the most delicious, incredibly crispy fries ever. Be careful - a lot of peel makes very little fry. Then there's lauki,or bottle gourd. We'll not go into its merits as a vegetable but if you lay your hands on some of its peel and some mustard seeds, you're in for a true bong dish. Pop the mustard seeds in hot oil, throw in the finely chopped peel, toss it around till you get bored - and you have "lau khosa" to be had with rice. Wonderful. Not to mention easier to clean up after.

Airport food

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Most airports have boring food; at best, a range of fast food choices or minimal cheesygreasy food to go with beer. International airports generally fare better - London or Amsterdam in particular, and also see my raves about Milan - but some domestic ones are catching on too.

Jetblue is a pioneer of a kind here. Along with their much advertised mantra of not serving food (though the food they do serve - Terra chips and real almonds - is miles better than the hated airplane staple of mini pretzels) Jetblue terminals tend to have a nice (though pricey) range of salads and take-away sandwiches. At JFK, however, they go further - a full food court provides options like sushi too - which even at its average is quite a change from fastfood hamburgers. Los Angeles airport used to have nice choices, like outlets of Wolfgang Puck's ever expanding chain, but I haven't been there for a while.

Interesting airport food popped up, of all places, at Denver airport. The last time I was here, at terminal A, sleek well-dressed women were inviting me into a small corner space complete with table service and dimlighting. I was, however, full from a silly Holiday Inn breakfast. This time, I noticed huge fastfood-looking signs called Chef Jimmy's that eventually led me to the same space - now brightly sunlit and not fighting a breakfast bloat. The menu is fastfood-inspired too, not unusual because the Jimmy in Chef Jimmy's is Jimmy Lambatos - who happens to also have co-founded Quizno's.

The short version - the food was surprisingly good. Salads that promised real vegetables and strange words like udon and mahi mahi floated about. Creamy tomato bisque, fresh tasty mixed greens instead of the ubiquitious iceberg and a final surprise - flaky, moist tasty mahi mahi. Service was hardly up to high dining standards but that did not seem to out of place with all the luggage lying around. Dont visit Denver for it, but definitely visit it while waiting for airplane food in Denver airport.

Sausages and Smoke

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Texas is barbecue land, so of course I had to go chasing down some of the real stuff.

My first experience of Texas barbecue started with Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse in Dallas, which I was told was famous. One of the eight branches of Sonny Bryan wasn't too far from the office, so I headed there on a hot summer's day. It turned out to be inside a strip mall, looking all the world like takeaway Chinese. The stories on the wall were entertaining but, unfortunately, the barbecue was not much better than ... well ... takeaway Chinese. In short, a washout. I went a few weeks later to Tioga, TX where a Sonny Bryant prodigal started Clark's; the resut is much the same. I discover later that Sonny Bryant is no small operation - its a franchise chain with a CEO.

First a bit about Texas barbecue. It's not the regular backyard stuff - here things are very slowly cooked over woodsmoke heat in massive pits. The traditional way is to start with raw meat that's dry-rubbed with salt and other condiments and left to smoke for 5-8 hrs, though some people shortcut the process by boiling it first and then smoking it for a the finish (this produces noticeably inferior results). This technique that was brought over in the late 19th century by immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe who still dominate this part of Texas. The really good places start the smoking process at ungodly hours such as 2am, and serve the real thing straight out of the pit from 10 in the morning. In Texas, barbecue sauce is always on the side. The common cuts are ribs, brisket, shoulder and sausage.

A little research showed me that most of the famous barbecues in Texas seemed to be clustered around Austin. I thus gave up on Dallas entirely and headed for the small town of Lockhart just a little southwest of Austin. If any place can be called obsessed with barbecue, Lockhart TX must be it - the four well-known barbecue places in Lockhart can accommodate a sixth of the whole town in one sitting. Lockhart has four well-known barbecue joints. By far the best advertised is Black's; big yellow signs start miles outside the town assuring us that it is the oldest in Texas still run by the same family. The restaurant is what I later discovered to be a typical layout in Lockhart - the entrance door leads to a narrow corridor where you queue for the counter and order, then carry your tray into the much larger seating area which boasts a soda and beer bar. Ordering usually means choosing how much of each kind of meat you want and which of the standard sides.

Black's nearly turned me off further exploration. The barbecue was hardly worth a two-hundred-mile drive (or even the drive from Austin). The famed pork loin was dry and not particularly flavourful, while the ribs though juicy and competently smoked was only averagely droolworthy. Coupled with the previous debacle in Dallas I was ready to accept that like so many other things American, Texas barbecue was more hype than substance. Somewhat depressed, I drove off to take a closer look at the Town Hall three blocks down; a building that teetered on the fine line between elegant and garish but eventually stepped into the merely loud. I must mention here that Lockhart is a nicely preserved historical town with some very interesting houses and storefronts.

There, almost next to the Town Hall, I stumbled on the second place on my list. Smitty's Market isn't much to look at from outside but I was charmed when I walked through the door. In Smitty's the ordering area is next to the smoking pits; you walk into a barewalled, brick-lined, circular room with soaring ceilings and a dark, dungeon look befitting a gothic horror movie. The choices are listed in a simple handpainted sign near the door - brisket, ribs, sausage, all the usual suspects. I decided to ask the girl at the counter and a grizzly-looking old man behind me what to order; this led to an animated discussion which spread to half the people in the room. Eventually, sausage and brisket were recommended ("we make our brisket a fattier cut" I was told) and I was offered a small taste. That's when I changed my opinion. Black's hinted at a good smoking technique, but the results failed to transport. Smitty's tiny bite of brisket however, was more transport that a fleet of cars. A rich, smoky flavor combined with dripping fat from the brisket and convinced me that Texans, when talking barbecue, weren't outright idiots after all. The hot sausage was fantastic too, grimly loaded with cholesterol and touched with a little pepper.

Chisholm Trail BBQ was my last stop in Lockhart, and my third lunch of the day. Sausages and brisket again, and this time a touch of pork ribs. Chisholm has the best sausages around - firm, rich and supremely flavourful - though a little less peppery than Smittys. The ribs were fantastic too but the brisket fell shrot of Smitty's. My liver protested so loudly I veered away from the fourth lunch of the day - at Kreusz - but I hear they're closely related to Smitty's (where they originally operated from) and produce an indistinguishable product.

The next day, I went to Elgin, TX - The Sausage Capital of Texas. And we're talking the official capital here - it seems the Texas legislature, while discussing weighty matters such as education reform and state budgets found time to officially christen Elgin with this rather grand title in 1998. It has one historic barbecue - the Southside Market and BBQ Inc (1882) - and two more sausage makers. It was once illegal to call a restaurant after the town's name it seems, so this less interesting name was chosen. An upstart has since claimed the name Meyer's Elgin Sausage Company (now legal) but from the looks of the huge hall filled with maybe a hundred families and tens still standing in line, I'm guessing Southside does not care. This is a massive operation, large even by Texas standards, with a parking lot to put Wal Mart to shame (this in a town of 6,000 residents). The beans pans alone would feed Ethiopia. The barbecue, including the famed sausage, was very good, but in final analysis I thought Lockhart beat them to it.

Southside serves, among other things, mutton ribs. Now this is not the mutton of us desi Indians - it's aged sheep rather than kid goat. With my usual adventurousness, I leaped at that and the mutton rib turned out to be two feet long; rich and fatty and well smoked and wonderfully tender but - and this is a big big but - the stinkiest, gamiest meat I've ever eaten. One bite was all I could stand; the stink that we hate in lamb is overpowering in this grandfather version. Very much, I must say, an acquired taste.

The bottom line; how does this compare to the real sausage capital of the world, AKA Germany (which, incidentally, is about half the size ofTexas). The greatest Texan barbecue is sublime by any standards; the average, however, is distinctly average and much inferior to what a Deutschlander will put up with. Brisket is usually the best part of a Texas BBQ, and is not very common in Germany. As bratwurst-style sausages go, these Texan specimens (specially the ones from Chisholm Trail) are very good indeed, but what an average Texan would need to drive hours for every town and village in Germany makes locally. On top of that, Germany makes maybe a few hundred other kinds of sausage (like my favorite weisswurst or the blood-curdling blutwurst), not to mention better beer.

The other gripe I have with Texas barbecue and one which prevents it from becoming gourmet is that the quality of meat going into a barbecue isn't anything special. Unlike the obsessive Europeans, who spend a lot of time fussing over which breeds and cuts go into their wonderful hams, Texas basically uses run-of-the-mill beef for their barbecue. Of course, it does keep things inexpensive - $6-8 per pound for most kinds of meat - but what I would really like to see is USDA Prime Angus married to the slow, gentle cooking of a Smitty's barbecue. That would be worth a multi-hundred mile drive.



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Porks and Chops

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My uncle in Calcutta would go to a lot of trouble for pork chops. They were a special treat at his house, served only when guests came from out of town. Good pork is not common in India; in this case he would leg it all the way to a single vendor in New Market's meat market to get the perfect cut. Later, when he became too old to try the journey himself, he would persuade others to go. It had to be that one vendor, and with good reason. Simply broiled and had with bread, they were wonderful pork chops - more than making up in a rich, robust taste what they lacked in tenderness. Now of course, cholesterol fears and a modernized New Market have put paid to the tradition for ever. I've only recently returned to pork chops. Never having tried to cook them, I can only comment from outside, but pork seems to strain a chefs chops more that one would expect. Perfectly competent chefs seem to falter at the attempt as diners scowl their way through dry, tasteless meat. Its easy to get competent fish or beef or even lamb chops at most good restaurants, but I've learned to be far more wary with pork. After a long hiatus my friend and I tried the pork chops at San Diego's much respected Blue Point Coastal Cuisine. Sure, it says 'coastal' and is even named after an oyster, but the waiter was very fulsome in praise of the meats. Unfortunately, he was also totally off the mark. A tough, dry, tasteless pork chop cannot be redeemed by nice sides and pleasant wine - and it was expensive to boot. This set my friend off to defend San Diego's honor. I was led this time to Hilcrest and a much smaller restaurant called (rather cheesily, I thought) California Cuisine. It was true californian, organic touches everywhere, outrageous hairstyles atop formally dressed waiters and a cool casual attitude that did succeed in being welcoming. And there, once I succeeded in navigating past an ordinary starter was a fantastically tender and flavorful pork chop. Possibly the best I've had so far. Inspired by that, I decided to brave the world of pork again at Chow Thai Pacific Rim - a new-york-artsy-warehouse interior hidden away in a strip mall in Plano, TX. Excellent spring rolls were followed by the inch-thick pork chop slathered in a dark fragrant sauce that promised greatness, but the first swish of the knife and hopes were dashed. It was, as usual, crumbly and tasteless, though redeemed somewhat by the unusual sauce. What am I missing? Pork is supposed to be a strongly flavored meat; how do I keep getting with these tasteless cuts? Its particularly galling after Bangalore (where the Coorgi influence made for wonderful pig) and Mumbai (where Konkani mothers did magic with swine).

Fishes in the Steam

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Steaming is a time-honored way of cooking fishes, mostly because the results are so good. Microwaves aren't exactly time-honored, but they seem to be a great way to steam fishes without ...well... steaming them.

The exotic Bengali word for steam is bhapa, and the most famous of the bhapa varieties are undoubtedly the one where mustard is involved. When wrapped in banana leaf, it's also called paturi. This is not the only way that bongs know to bring fish and mustard together, or even fish and steam - but it is the most well known.

Bhapa fish is a really simple dish; just two things are absolutely required - mustard paste and fish. And, of course, a wrapper of some kind to steam in - traditionally banana leaf, but I use parchment when that's not around. You coat the fish with the mustard paste and steam it for enough time; this yields a fairly interesting (if not wonderful) mustard fish. In India, it's made with hilsa - the holy grail of steamed fishes - or bhetki. Here, in the land of the hilsa-deprived, the fishes that works best are flaky, high-fat fishes such as halibut, cod, salmon or chilean sea bass. Shad, a common hilsa substitute, does not have enough fat. Salmon steak is easy to get and has a strong-enough taste to stand up to lots of mustard and tastes great though somewhat non-traditional (salmon isn't available in Bengal).

The best mustard paste is made using Colman's English Mustard Powder(only the powder, mind you, NOT the paste). However, this mustard, in the refined British way that the refined British are, is a smooth uniform yellow paste - very unexciting. You want your mustard a little flecked, a little stubbly, so to get a bit of texture I usually add freshly powdered black mustard (rai) seeds. They don't taste as strong as the Colman's, but look a whole lot more real. Make the paste dry, with just a tiny amount of water.

Now for the fancy touches. First, a thickener that makes the sauce cling to the fish. Once choice is posto (poppy-seed) paste. Don't go overboard - about a third the volume of mustard should be enough posto. Be light, posto doesn't have much flavour so too much of it will give you a very dull fish.

The other option (the one favoured by bong grandmothers) is fresh coconut ground to a fine paste. Add as much of it as you like; tastes great. No fresh coconut? Use a touch of canned coconut cream, though I recommend heating is slowly before to thicken it a little (and slow is important, or you will end up with coconut oil). I like coconut cream, so I add it anyway, even when there's fresh coconut. Also, you have to cool it before adding it to anything, or you'll end up cooking the fish with the sauce well before any steam can be let off.

Finally, the toppings - green chillies (deseeded) and kalonji (nigella seeds) crackled in oil. A few drops of raw mustard oil adds an extra kick. Mix up the paste, coat the fishes generously, then take a deep breath. Put a sheet of parchment (banana leaf, if you're intent on being fancy) on the table, place the coated fishes on the paper, wrap it in, fold and staple the sides closed (yes, staple - the kind you get at Staples). Then, put it into a microwave, remember to press the start button and wait. It's about usually three minutes per medium steak - about 250g (a little over 1/2 lb) of fish, but you'll have to experiment with your particular microwave and fish; luckily, it's quite tolerant and wont overcook easily.

Desi meets Texas Grocer

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A friend of mine wanted me to cook for her, but had no spices at home. We made a pact; I'd cook something truly Indian with only what's available at her local supermarket - which sounded like a huge challenge till I discovered her 'local' was a WholeFoods with neary every kind of spice there is.

Life, however, wasn't as simple as all that. First, each bottle of spice is at least $3; buying a decent complement would soon have made holes in pockets enough for spaceships to pass through. We decided therefore only to buy condiments that would be useful after the mess I made had been cleared up - that is, she could keep using them. Second, there were some critical missing ingredients such as besan, green chillies, ghee, mustard oil - all of which made cooking most standard Indian dishes (like the basic aloo-jeera or my superquick aloo golki) impossible. Chillies were a particular challenge - I've learned with experience that Mexican chillies don't work - the taste rather different. Third, we were looking at a kitchen devoid of kadahis or woks. The final blow? No basmati rice.

Here's what I was left with; ginger (not fresh), garlic, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, cilantro, chicken, black pepper, coconut milk, cumin powder, mustard powder (unfortunately not a very nice kind), yoghurt and garbanzo beans from a can. And some Hungarian paprika was already lurking in her cupboard.

(That was some boring paragraph above but how interesting can you make a grocery list sound).

Moving on. The ingredients resulted in a Chicken Kosha (with black pepper instead of chillies), chickpeas chaat and mustard aloo. I thought the first two were quite good, while the mustard potatoes was a complete failure (primarily because of a lack of green chillies and strange-smelling sweetish mustard). My American friends, however, loved the chaat and (rather to my surprise) the potatoes. The opinion on chicken; I thought it was quite nice (smelled great though not hot enough) but they were less than impressed. It seems they expected more flavors. So I'm wondering, is the chicken a failure because it looks like 'curry' but is just a simple homestyle dish or did I just cook badly?

I'm also thinking; what else that's India can be made with the output of a standard grocery? it need not be Whole Foods - even Albertsons or any other chain has all the ingredients I listed. And which one of those will impress women?

Dining About Town

about New York, NY, USA No comments:
I've been spending the last fortnight entertaining my mother and aunt, which means trying out some nice new restaurants.

My travels took me to some new ones, and some old favorites. One of the new ones was Vong, the much reviewed restaurant from celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s chain of restaurants. It's hidden away under the lipstick building, and is populated entirely by Bangladeshi waiters, which made life much easier for us.

I seem to be having French-Asian everywhere nowadays; cream sauces dusted with exotic spices and presented brilliantly. The interesting part is how they convert Asian street foods or communal serving to the plated paradigm, where each person gets a plate all his own all beautifully laid and not to be touched. Plated food always puts me in a bit of a tizzy. I have two worries; one is - am I supposed to eat all those things that make it look pretty? Do you put all of them in your mouth together (the perfect bite) or are there combinations that the French are born with and others have to learn. The scond worry is, how do I get seconds of what I like?

Anyway, Vong was firmly in the plated school but starters came with a twist. The sauces were plated, while the spring rolls and lobster somethings were in a large platter in the middle. Wonderful sauces, and probably the main reason my mother gave it the highest rating of all the places visited.

Tamarind was the fancy Indian alternative, also attached to a celebrity chef (albeit a dead one). Given that most executive chefs dont actually cook (I'm sure Mr.Vongerichten didn't plate those sauces himself) a dead chef here and there should not make that much of a difference. The current chef is Sujit Bose, a non-celeb Bengali who lived in Delhi. The food was satisfying, but was not quite as outstanding as hoped. Interestingly enough, the kitchen sent it out plated french style but the servers served it Indian style (serving a bit of every dish to each diner on a seperate plate). This wasn't so bad - it saved us from reaching shamelessly across the table with our forks but destroyed (before we could see it) the fancy presentations.

Tamarind brings out an interesting aspect of Indian food. It's 'authentic' enough (whetever that means) but defnitely the view from the South (which was fairly disappointing given that the menu leans heavily to the North). My mother likes the dry aromatic biriyani; this one was distinctly the kind that comes out of Bangalore or Chennai. Even more strange, the menu insisted that Fish Moilly was a speciality from Chennai (much to the consternation of Keralites everywhere I'm sure). And, it had Lamb Vindaloo which seems to be the curse of every Indian restaurant outside India.

So Tamarind advertises a (dead) south-Indian celebrity chef who lived in America and originally learned French cooking. At the same time it offers a primarily north-Indian menu with bits of Goa thrown in, which makes for a very confused Indian food experience. I can heartily recommend it for play-it-safe corporate dinners where the (very nice) atmosphere and nicely priced wines are important, but as a food destination Tabla is defnitely better.

The South West Experiment

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I've finally inspired other people. Here's the review (unedited except for links and capitalization) sent in a few days ago by the very friend of mine that fished in hell in with me.
Last week, this foodie friend of mine suggested that we try sampling fare at restaurants/bars named after their addresses. I found the idea intriguing but we got drawn to the Osteria Gelsi fish (which was very very good), so today, when another friend came to the city from India I decided to try this place called 44 SW in Hell's Kitchen. It said ristorante and the menu outside seemed to have antipasti and insalata - so we walked in assuming they would have the usual entrees on the menu. The place turned out to be full of disappointments. First, they did not have half the wines on their list. The list itself was kind of sparse and uninformative. The pretty stewardess recommended something that turned out to be rather bland. More chicken than fish in an italian restaurant sounded like bad news. No stand-alone seafood, so i went for shrimp with garlic and herbs with linguini, and that was bad news too. Oh, and the calamari fritti we ordered for starters was very also-ran, kind of onion-ringish if you know what I mean. And finally, the espresso tasted weird. All in all, a great evening almost destroyed by a mediocre menu. South West was all south. No more address-christened restaurants for me. All in all

Cheap in the Village

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I know you're running out of money. What better than a free magazine to recommend cheap joints, so here's the 2005 cheap&best list from Village Voice. And cheap&best was in fashion in earlier years too; here are the previous lists - Italian (2004) , Latin (2003), Asian (2002) and the Original List in 2001.
No, I haven't eaten at all these places. I may be chubby but I am NOT FAT.

More Dal Stuff

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masoor dal

While Masoor starts life as pink, a little persuasion by hot water quickly converts it to a pale yellow. It's color makes it the easiest dal to recognise but people usually see the prepared version and go looking for a yellow dal. Bengalis use it a lot by itself while most other communities mix it with other dals. A light dal, it does not stand up well to heavy masalas.

Here's my favorite recipe for it, which goes wonderfully well with spicy pickles and crunchy fries.

Recipe magic

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I found a good place to post formal recipes - RecipeGullet. They have a nice editor for entering recipes; it even comes out looking pretty (on the web page, at least). And, they have a fancy-shmancy search engine. Here, for instance, is my super-quick recipe for Aloo Golki.

Never a Dal Day

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Dal pretty much the core of Indian food. One could argue that it is more imporant that even rice, since many areas of India are wheat-centered. Dal is eaten everyday by pretty much all of India in some form or the other. Dals are pulses (dried food crops of of the legume family), and come either with or without skin. The skins make a considerable difference to the taste, so different recipes call for skinned or unskinned dal. It is also the generic name for the many kinds of soupy dishes made from one or more of those pulses. Just to confuse things, only the soupy dishes are called 'dal' - other things made with the same stuff are not.

I'm eventually going to write an introduction to the dals - and there are a surprising variety of varieties. People get confused by which dal is what - even Indians. Identifying the dals by sight is not simple; that is traditionally the first test of a Bengali housewife (and it seems both my aunts failed). Luckily, they recovered so when I landed at my aunt's a few days ago the first thing I slurped down was arhar dal - thats the one in the picture below. Try not to confuse it with three other dals that look nearly exactly the same.



Arhar (or toor) dal is among the commonest of dals. The skinless split pigeon pea is a legume that housewives have been trying their art on for thousands of years. In addition to being cheap and widely available, arhar dal is easily digested and forms a nice thick dal base that goes well with lots of different kinds of tempering. My aunt made me a simple dal from it with cumin seeds and ginger that's common in Bengali households. Here's the recipe for it.

The Burger is the King too

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Nothing quite defines the American food experience like the burger. And nothing quite defines the burger experience like a fast food chain. When I'm on the road driving the back roads, the only food I'm likely to get consistently is a burger. Sure, there's the occassional hippie who's opened a chai-latte place in the middle of a forest but dont count on that when looking for three meals a day. Even pizza pales in the face of the burger chain and its ubiquitious presence. My keen, inquisitive mind (not to mention huge stomach) naturally formulated the question - which is the fairest of them all, the best chain burger that exists, the best and the rest. The results of an extensive survey has a surprising answer. The best damn burger I've eaten at a chain is the Ciabatta burger from Jack-in-the-box. I know anything Italian is frowned on a true burger and In-N-Out is supposed to be really good, but that Ciabatta went wonderfully with two fat slabs of meat, cheese and bacon and some nicely runny mayo. It came periliously close to being a great burger even by my nonchain fussynewyork standards. There are over two thousand outlets - go find out for yourself. I thought White Castle, with bitesize slider burgers quite unlike anywhere else, came second. I would normally hate buns as pasty as theirs, but somehow it makes some kind of addictive sense in their burgers. I was also amazed by Burger Kings (hold your breath) Chicken burger! In-N-Out is in too; they're the best of the traditional burgers. Its been a while since Fuddruckers came into my range, but I do remember them as having some very good stuff. I also tried the Paris-Hilton attached spicy-bbq-six-dollar burger from Carls Jr (which does not come with the car or the woman, and isn't even six dollars...). The others I tried in this experimental round were McDonalds, Burger King, Wendys, Dennys and Sonic. And Arby's but they dont call their rather nice roast beef sandwiches 'burgers' .

Dosa is the king

about 13812 Red Hill Ave, Tustin, CA 92780 1 comment:

The search has come to an end. The best Indian food in the continent is to be found in a strip mall on Red Hill Avenue in Tutsin CA. It's called Dosa Place, and produces dosas that would make most chefs in Chennai sweat. Luckily, its well hidden by Del Taco and Chinese takeouts.

Ok, so its a little bit of a hyperbole. The place isn't the best Indian food but it is - and there's no question about it - the best dosas on the face of the ...ummm... continent. They make a lot of other stuff (including the unavoidable chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo) but stick fairly and squarely to their dosas and come away blessed. I'm not talking "authentic" or "really nice for America". I'm talking real dosas, the kinds that would divert attention from Chennai films and Andhra politics. A real, true brown work of genius.

For those who dont know much about these matters, a dosa is a crepe made from fermented rice-lentil batter. The critical parts of a good dosa are the batter itself (which is all important and somehow very difficult to make) and the sambhar that you dip pieces of it into when eating. It's made in a style very similar to a French crepe; batter spread on the tawa (a flat hot surface) and then folded over. Paper dosa is more complex - its starts out like a regular dosa spread on that tawa, then the chef scrapes away most of the batter leaving just a thin layer. The resulting crepe is paper-thin and very crisp. Paper dosas are very difficult to make - On the rare occassions that I tried my hand they burnt, came out too thick, had holes from the scraping or simply refused to get off the tawa.

I started with some very promising idlis. That's another thing that's available everywhere but very difficult to make really well but no such trouble here. This could tango with the best of the Shanti Sagars in Bangalore. The critical component - the firmly conservative pearl-onion sambhar - also passed with flying colors, though the coconut chutney could be better. I then moved on to the paper masala, which was a four-foot wonder of a crisp. The regular and the mysore variants were excellent too. I've been told the egg is great too, and there's also a rather intriguing jam-n-cheese dosa for ABCD kids which I suspect is better avoided. Prices were quite good at $4-6 per dosa (easily a small meal each). They offer some other Andhra dishes too - I tried the Chapala Pulusu and came away interested but not impressed. It was good (and very very very hot), but not rhapsody-class.

And now the French

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I discovered myself in French food fairly regularly in the last few days. I also realized that for some reason all French restaurants in New York look very similar. The first was Les Halles, one branch of which is right around the corner from my house and open till midnight. yes there's a celebrity chef involved, but the place isn't fantastically expensive. The roast duck was basic and simple, but beautifully executed - enough to overcome the bother of constant jabber from my somewhat inebriated (and male) neighbor. It had this half-inch thick meltingly sinful skin, browned and crisp on top but a sweet yam mash on the side that I didn't care for. Then there was Artisanal, widely known as cheese heaven with another celebrity chef in tow. The cheese plates are excellent; amazing choice and good presentation. A waiter with a disappointing lack of accent informed us that there was a short list of cheese (around 40) on the specials and the whole list of over 150 (some of which may not be there anymore) but our best bet if we insisted on seeing everything was to visit the temperature-controled cheese shelves at the back called the 'Cave'. The $35 plate came with four cheeses (that my Swiss companion and the waiter conspired to choose) generously sprinkled with pate, cold cuts and preserves and even some wonderful dijon mustard. I licked my chops through a fairly expensive cheese plate and a bottle of bourdeax but didn't get as far as the food - though we did try the competent gougeres as starters. Also on the list was L'Express, open 24 hours on Park Avenue. Nice seating, decent eggs - probably the only place for a sit-down breakfast in that area. They didn't seem to worried that I kept talking like a retard into a cellphone while ordering.

Southeastward ho

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A drive to get rid of excess clothes on a Sunday took me to the east village, where I stumbled upon Ma*ya Hurapan. It turned out to have nothing to do with Mayans; the food is a scattering of dishes from South East Asia. The interestingly colorful two-level eatery was empty when I went (for a late late late lunch) so I got myself a nice seat at a window (all the better to see summer belly-buttons through) and ordered Roti Canai and Chinese Sausage topped Vegetable Fried Rice. Before the roti canai, however, came a free plate of shrimp crackers with peanut sauce of the satay kind. I must tell you, however, that the peanut sauce was incredibly fantastically wonderful - this from a guy who's punded the streets of Singapore trying out every satay vendor there is. It's not as good as the best that a Singapore street vendor can offer, but it's close - and certainly far above the namby-pamby versions every other New York place offers. Even better - its free. The roti canai was very good too, nice crunchy crumbled parathas with an excellent chicken curry. The fried rice initially came with no chinese sausages at all, but a profusely apologetic waiter got them for me afterwards. The place is definitely worth trying again, if only for all those bold complex flavors. I still wonder about the Ma*ya, though...

Fishing in Hell

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Hell's kitchen isn't on my normal routes, but a friend who lives there assured me that it would be well worththe trip so I found myself in his neighborhood Italian restaurant - Osteria Gelsi. It wasn't merely Italian; it was Puglian (they don't let you into New York City Italian restaurants without a geography exam nowadays - Puglia happens to be on the boot heel of peninsular Italy). I dont know anything about Puglia, but its obvious they're fond of fish. The menu leaned heavily towards seafood, but more interestingly (in a city of a million Italian eateries) promised fishes that I'd rarely seen anywhere else, such as porgie or rock scorpion fish. We ordered one of each, preceded by baked baby squid and followed by a huge square of (what else) tiramisu. The food was fantastic. Both the fishes were revelations; the assertive, coarse-grained porgie simply grilled with herbs, the flaky, buttery rock scorpion fish with cherry tomatoes. The baked baby squid starter - tiny morsels of squid breaded and baked - was very nice too. The standard but fabulously airy tiramisu was a great ending to the dinner. So calm and mellow was my mood after the meal that I was even persuaded to pay for the whole thing.

The Best in the World

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CNN Money has come out with The World's Top 50 Restaurants taken from a survery by the British Magazine "Restaurant".

Its an interesting excercise; and of course a deeply flawed and controversial one. The western-palate bias is obvious; the London outpost of a New York sushi joint (Nobu London #20) supposedly makes better sushi than anywhere in Japan. And who knew that the best Chinese in the world (Hakkasan #30) is found in London's Fitzrovia? The only representative from all of Asia (Felix Hong Kong #49) is a bar that serves throughly western creations such as seared Ahi Tuna. European food doesn't always fare well, either. England, France and Spain appears up there but poor Italy is left out of the top twenty altogether - squeezing in with Checcino dal 1887 only at #23.

Interesting also to see its variance from another great restaurant list - the Michelin guide. The long-time bible of star eateries does not cover New York (they dont have an office here), but the divergence with this list in Europe is stark. London, which ranks as the greatest food destination according to the Restaurant magazine's survey, has only a single three-star restaurant (and a handful of two -stars, some of which I've talked about earlier). Paris, on the other hand, has half a dozen three-stars and plenty with a mere two. Many of the two-stars dod not even make it to the list on the Restaurant magazine survey.

However; it does list a wide selection of excellent restaurants that should be useful to every wannabe gourmet - even more so if you're in London or New York. While you have fun trying out and trashing the rankings, you're going to have some seriously satisfied bellies (unfortunately, along with badly damaged pockets). Also of interest is last year's list, which deigns to rank an Indian restaurant as the best restaurant in Asia - oh the poor Chinese.

One hit wonder

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This sunday a charming woman chose academics over me, so I was left to my own devices. And, just by that solace of abandonded souls (Bed Bath and Beyond) was a very interesting restaurant indeed.

Almost as soon as I had gotten on my trusty steed, my eye was caught by a chic modern whitelaminate space that prominently announced "Tebaya" and threatened to sell me Japanese chicken wings. What captured my interest was that for such a slick space the menu was miniscule; Nagoya-style chicken wings in three portion sizes, kushiyaki (chicken on a stick) and a katsu burger. Teba, it turns out, is deep fried chicken wings with a secret sauce - soy, sesame and pepper to be sure, but there's more in there. The sides are gummy, sticky potato balls in a wonderfully buttery soy sauce called potemochi.

It takes some courage to sell such a small menu, but Tebaya does a great job. The wings are fabulous, and messy and cheap to boot. The potemochi is kind of strange but addictive - specially with that sauce (I even drank some after the potatoes were over). And its close by the next time you want to fix your bath up, and cheap enough to forget you spent too much making your towels look good.

What's in a name

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So, I changed it...the name of the blog, I mean. I think it's cool to have a name that matches the URL. Gives an aura of...of...well something.

Fast food

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This book deserves a place on my blog as a whole new take on the concept of fast food - look here

Saigon falls

1 comment:
Every once in a while, you stumble upon a restaurant that you really like but critics ignore and no one else knows about. A few weeks ago I was led to a small, almost unseen vietnamese restaurant nestled in Tribeca between much more famous neighbours. We could see Bouley from our window, and Nobu, Megu, Chanterelle and a dozen critical raves were staring over our shoulder, but our quiet little place held its own. Not unlike Vietnam itself, one might say. Hoi An, named after a once-famous port town in Vietnam (ok I googled that) is small, unpretentious, inexpensive and strangely enough staffed by small cheerful Japanese women. There is no easy way to discover Hoi An. I was taken there by a friend, and that's probably the only way to go; on your own you'll almost always get distracted by one of the much better reviewed neighbours that abound in Tribeca. That would be a mistake, though - the food there was some of the best Vietnamese I've had in recent times. We ordered the starter combination, an artfully presented set of four starters that you get to choose - of which the only false step was the strange and slimy salt squid. Entrees; I went for pork and boiled egg in caramel sauce while my friend ordered grilled seasoned beef in rice paper (no I'm not even going to try those x-laden vietnamese names). The pork was wonderful, soft and melting; the caramel thankfully described the color rather than the taste of the sauce. And the rice paper - this was my first experience with that rather fun thing, made even better by the wonderful grilled beef. And it was inexpensive. Hoi An is definitely a hidden gem.

Subscribing

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You can now subscribe to the blog. I've been told it helps the poor of the world but that may not be entirely true. There's a text box and button on the sidebar that makes the magic possible, though I warn you it will automatically throw you into the arms of an Yahoo group (or should I say...group). At the moment it's all the way at the bottom of the sidebar but may relocate without warning or unnatural squeaking sounds.

Birmingham in Alabama

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I landed in Birmingham Alabama hungry, having been deprived of food since the night before. A quick drive got me from the airport to what the GPS told me was the center of the city, where I promptly started looking for a place to eat. Having cruised the crumbling and mostly shuttered city blocks of downtown Birmingham, a fine dining restaurant was the last thing I expected to find. I nearly chose chick-a-fil but last minute parking problems forced me to attempt the rather plain exterior of the oddly named Restaurant G.

Once past the door, the change was dramatic. The plain glass Eurodiner gave way to valuted celings and original artwork. A soaring staircase led the previous group of four diners into the heavens while we soacked in the smile from our glamorous hostess and occupied a table at the window. The extremely pleasant space, it turns out, was matched by some marvelous food. Right off the bat, bread basket came with excellent sesame nut and walnut raisin breads. My choice of spicy green tomato soup with apple-smoked backon bits and peppered shrimp was tangy, spicy, tasty and extremely well presented to boot. The special of the day - perch on spicy corn - was just as good. The menu is completely non-vegetarian, but my colleague managed to substitute cheese for bacon on his BLGT (green tomatoes again) and ended up with a sandwich that was, well, superb. In short, this place is highly recommended. A suit is suggested, though - a nearly full-house lunchtime crowd had everybody wearing one.

Equally satisfying though more basic was the Dreamland Barbecue near the University. It's a chain, kind of - the original was founded fifty years ago and fifty miles away in Tuscaloosa. It's now a franchise operation of seven locations, and I went not (alas) to the original but a much newer variant in Birmingham - a large comfortable dining room whose chimney spouted copious quantities of hickory smoke. The choice was simple; half rack of ribs with loaf bread, a side of sauce and a beer - and as satisfying as can be. The ribs were beautifully done and the barbeque sauce a rare version without that overpowering, cling-to-everything barbecue smell. Dont take the banana cream pudding, but this is a good place to come hungry, watch the game and leave happy.

Money money money

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I have surrendered to crass commercialism. There are now advertisments in my blog. Luckily they seem to be highly intrusive and real money spinners. I promise to treat all readers to dinners with the accumulated wealth, so click away. And dream on...

Around Town

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Here are two places that I visited recently Bridge Cafe turns out to be the oldest surviving bar in New York, which is big in a city where some 99% fail in the first few years. Situated just below the Brooklyn bridge on Water street, it turned out to be a small, plain cafe that showed few signs of its ancient heritage. However, age is not the only reason to go there - we went for brunch and the food was very good, specially their apple-smoked honey bacon. They also have one of the best selections of single malt whisky in Manhattan, stretching three deep across half the bar. Von Singh was my midweek, a somewhat quirkily named store on West 8th and McDougal selling its own take on Indian kati rolls. As the name suggests, the menu aims at fusion. The rolls here come in tortilla-like baked flatbreads (which, in my opinion, is not ideal) and contain varieties of curried chicken, optionally topped with a few kinds of sauce. The effect is more pita or burrito than kati roll, but the chicken in standalone was surprisingly good, if somewhat sweet. The "Sweet Chicken" was actually as close to pubjabi mint chicken as I've had in Manhattan, while pepper chicken was a tasty but non-chettinad coconut-n-pepper concoction. Overall, nice enough but nothing to get wildly excited about.

Real Indian

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I have often bemoaned in these columns (ok I haven't ever bemoaned and this isn't even a column but I think it makes me sound like I'm getting paid for this - lets not get distracted here) that Indian food abroad is a bit like Chinese food in India. Every restaurant sells the same menu, and most of those dishes dont even exist in traditional Indian cooking. Chicken Tikka Masala is firmly a British invention, almost certainly the fortuituous combination of Bangladeshi cook and tomato sauce. It is, in fact, so British that the British Council uses its history in an English lesson - I kid you not! It was with considerable admiration, therefore, that I stared at the menu of Babu. A vast expanse of nicely expensive paper made no mention of either tikka or tandoor, and vindaloo was mysteriously invisible. At first I though it was a trick of the dim lights (entirely candles) but no amount of blinking made any of the familiars appear. I was instead marooned with names like doi mach, kosha mangsho and vegetable chop - all thoughtfully labelled with the cultural influence that created it in the orginal eastern megacity - Calcutta. Chinese, Anglo-Indian, Bengali and Muslim were the four strains that ran through the menu, covering many of the best known delicacies of a Bengali kitchen. I had the doi mach - where king fish replaced rohu came simmering in yoghurt, whole garam masala and raisins just like real bong likes it. There was banana leaf below the rice, tomato chutney and jhuribhaja on the side, and the star of the show itself wasn't merely "authentic" (which to my mind sounds like the recipe was right but hey no big deal taste-wise) but quite good. Maybe even very good - I'll decide that on a soon to be executed visit number two. There was also phirni, that inspite of a generous sprinkling of pistachio has alas to remain satisfied with "authentic". And of course I must go back - Sushmit has promised me real khasi (tender goat) and genuine bekti. I also went a few weeks ago to the much reviewed Angon, this time firmly Bangladeshi and right in the middle of the dreaded sitar players of 6th street. However, daring flourishes everywhere - the menu does indeed mention the staples but has generous helpings of truly Bengali muslim dishes cooked by an original Bangladeshi matriarch. The bhuna, though very well executed, suffered from quality of meat. The haleem, however, was excellent. There are many limitations to making something like haleem (which should ideally simmer all day) in a fine dining context but Begum Mina Azad (Mina Appa to the cognoscenti) has somehow managed to work it. She awas actually in the kitchen in aprons. She also had a superlative pomfret masala fry - a study in simplcity with tomato ginger garlic onions and a touch of magic - that nearly stuck my tongue to the plate forever.

Boiling Basmati

7 comments:

A friend of mine recounts with much amusement how I once gave a long speech on cooking rice to some hapless woman at a grocery store. Here's the shortened version Rice is the staple of Indian cooking, so one should not treat it lightly. Basmati is the king, but making it as fragrant as the restaurant requires a little technique. There are four steps in cooking any kind of raw (as opposed to parboiled) rice - rinsing, soaking, cooking and fluffing.

In India they would always rinse rice to make sure it was clean, but also to wash away the talc commonly used as a milling agent. Most rice today is clean and has no talc, so rinsing isn't required. Some of the surface starch gets washed away in the rinse, so you might want to do it anyway.

Soaking is a 15-30 minute affair, where cleaned and rinsed rice is left to soak in warm water. It's supposed to soften the grains and release the flavor and should be done unless you're in a hurry. They say you should use the same water to boil the rice so that nutrients are preserved. Cooking - there are two basic choices. The simpler one is to put an exact quantity of water and let it all dry up - called the absorption method. The other is like making pasta; put in excess water and drain when the rice is done - lets call it the draining method. Which one is better? I can't make out the difference but the draining method does get rid of a lot of starch and gives lighter rice that's easier to digest. It also seems to give longer, fuller grains.

In the absorption method, I use just under two cups of water per cup of rice for basmati. The proportion varies with different kinds of rice, but most basmati uses this ratio. The favorite way to cook by absorption is the rice cooker, but be aware that most Chinese and Korean ones are made for sticky rice so don't have a small perforated plate at the bottom that helps to trap excess starch. Without that, the bottom layer of rice will not be edible. Rice can also be made in a microwave or on a gas with a close-lidded vessel that allows steam to escape slowly. You should put a cloth on top of the vessel before closing it, to absorb the water that forms on the underside of the lid.

By the drainage method, you cook rice uncovered in around three cups of water per cup of rice. Here you have to keep watch, or you might end up with an inedible mass of sticky, overcooked rice. It takes about 10-12 minutes for the rice to be cooked al dente - firm but without any hard chalky core. Then drain the water out. The drained water is edible - there are recipes with that too.

The last stage is to let the rice sit covered on very low heat for about 5 minutes while it dries and fluffs up. Most people skip this stage, but without it your rice will invariably be a little sticky and fragile, not the flowing grains you want it to be. The drainage method removes the water and steam trapped in the rice more evenly; in the absorption method you should stir the top layer of rice slightly with a fork.

Final tips - a touch of butter or ghee at the end of cooking adds dramatically to the natural aroma of basmati. Also, my friend puts a bay leaf into the rice before steaming it.

Steaking San Diego

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I never expected to like large slabs of meat barely cooked and served with nothing, but steaks have a way of growing on you - sometimes literally.

There are two steak joints of note inches from where I work - Rainwaters on Kettner and Ruth's Chris. One a resolutely independent steakhouse, one part of America's largest fine dining chain. Both, however, were very similar in appearance - dramatic curved stairways leading to a huge, heavily wood-panelled upstairs dining room. Ruth's has the advantage of better views, perched as it is just off Harbor drive, and also seemed busier than the very empty Rainwaters.

I had the ribeye in both places (no, not on the same day, not even the same month - I'm not that fond of cholesterol). To start with, both steaks were excellent, but there are differences. Ruth's gave me a detailed writeup of the special oven, the New Orleans rags to riches story and placed a sizzling medium-rare steak floating in butter in front of me. the butter added a wonderful, if extremely guilty kick to the proceedings, and was wonderful to mop up with bread afterwards. Rainwaters avoided the butter, but seemed to be the richer, tastier steak. It also had a better seared crust so I award them the crown by a slim margin.

The other steakhouse I tried was Georges on 5th, this time in the Gaslamp district. They had a much more elaborate story involving Wyatt Earp and a much busier ground-floor dining room in the middle of Gaslamp. It seems the dining room was formerly a den of vice, gambling and all that other good stuff - now it just serves dinner. There was plenty of buildup there about how it was the only place in San Diego to be hand selected, certified Angus prime. The steak - a filet mignon this time, with a port wine demi-glace - was unfortunately not quite in the league of the other two. First, it wasn't charred at all on the outside. Second, it lacked the robust beefy punch and was distracted by an ordinary demi-glace. Since the prices are the same as the others, my recommendation is to go there only with Wyatt Earp devotees.

Counting Chickens

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America is a land of choices. In India you go to a store, ask the guy there to give you a kilo of chicken, and he hands you a bag of the stuff that you go home and cook it. That doesn't work in America. In the land of the choices, you're faced with breasts, thighs, legs, wings, portions, skinless, boneless, ground, fry, stir-fry, roast, antibiotic, biotic, organic, free range (there's a rumour the average American has to pass an exam before he or she is allowed near the poultry aisle). So which one is the one to choose?

Fear not, I have been there, done that research. Read on, if you're not chicken.

First, if you dont know what cut of chicken is, then here is a guide from the original Spam guys. Online grocer FreshDirect has an excellent section on cuts of chicken complete with pictures but you have to put in a New York zip code (say 10016) to look at it.

The absolute worst pieces to buy for most Indian food is breast. It is commonly recommended for western cooking, but in most Indian curries will turn dry and chewy. The problem is simple - breasts cook very quickly and can't stand up to the long slow cooking of the average Indian curry. No,my favorite part of the chicken is the thigh for the average Indian curry. A mixture of skinless and with-skin thighs on the bone give an excellent package of meat, skin and bone that is just right for most curries. The pieces from a grocer are usually too big though; I cut them up into smaller bite-sized bits. Thighs have a fat bone in the center - if you dont want to cut through the bone (you really need a cleaver for that or you'll get splinters and a damaged knife) then you can cut around it leaving you with four pieces one of which is still attached to the bone. You can even do four boneless pieces and a standalone bone that you discard after cooking.

The other cut that does well is the mixed portion, containing bits of everything. Choose the mixed portions with bone and skin, but throw away most of the skin since chickens here tend to be higher fat than India. American grocers seem to sell larger chunks than Indians usually like, so I cut the portions into bite-sized pieces. Wings (specially half wings and lollipops) cook very nicely in an Indian curry. They're nice juicy bits rich in fat but dont overdo it - many people find it irritating to eat only wings. Legs - they're just too big; they do fine only if you have the patience to chop them up. Drumsticks are often too big too (since the average chicken here is much bigger than its Indian cousin), but the occassionally available smaller drumsticks are very nice. Of course, you can buy whole chicken and cut it up yourself. Buy birds that are two pounds or less and avoid the roaster at all costs (unless actually roasting). Places like Costco sell surprisingly good whole chickens, and they're a whole lot cheaper if making large quantities. If you're worried about cutting them, well whole chickens can be pieced with nothing more than a good chef's knife, as shown here and here. These do it the western way, where the carcass is rejected. In India they don't usually do that but except for special cuts for certain recipes, there is no benefit to retaining the carcass. Just don't remove every bone; bones add volume and taste to the gravy.

There are recipes that call for specific cuts. Tawa Chicken or Kadahi Chicken must absolutely have breast; other cuts don't work because you're cooking quickly on moderate heat. Leg pieces are essential for Tandoori Chicken, Rezala or Chaap. Kalmi or Tangri Kabab needs small drumsticks. Indian food also makes very creative uses of minced chicken - in kababs, in meatballs and as fillings for many things.

There's also the question of which kind of chicken. Free range chicken seems to be the best, and frozen supermarket chicken is definitely the worst - rich, juicy but somehow completely tasteless. The unbranded chicken I find at my local grocer is very good too - that may be the way to go. Cornish hens are tasty, but I find those sharp little bones quite irritating.

Fish Some More

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As benefits a coastal town, San Diego is full of seafood restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall fish taco places to black-tie affairs. I've already written on some of them earlier, but I recently had a chance to go to the two that were the highest rated on downtown - Point Loma Seafoods and Top of the Market.

Point Loma Seafoods is much away from the beaten restaurant track, serving salads, cocktails and fish plates amidst counters of fresh fish for sale. It was rated the number one in magazine reviews so I went there with high hopes and, well, came away very disappointed. The location seemed the only thing worth the effort; I wasn't impressed either with the quality of the fish or the cooking. Though the jetty next door gives the impression that the fish just came off the boat, many of the offerings at the counter had names starting with "Atlantic" and "farm raised". I tried their smoked fish, but its a very far cry from the stuff at, say, Katie's Smokehouse in Trinidad, CA (where the fish is actually off a nearby boat). This one was dry, a little too salty and quite chewy. The fish plate - batter fried Atlantic halibut - was overcooked, limp and unexciting. How it can be fresh off the Atlantic ocean in San Diego adds that edge of mystery.

I'm not being overly harsh; the food was not special at all. Go there if you like standing in line or want to sit and watch the boats, but eat at Red Lobster instead.

Back to the top two in San Diego. Fish Market (along with Top of the Market, its upstairs cousin) also features the theme of fish store and diner. Its also on a pier and its a kind of chain (there are nine of them) but dont let that fool you - the seafood is outstanding. While Point Loma Seafoods wilts at competition from the corner fish taco shop, Top of The Market can knock the white-tablecloth-crowd flat. It is, in my opinion, the best seafood restaurant in town, and one of the best in the USA.

Fish Market looks suspiciously like a SGBP restaurant (Simply Grilled Butter Pepper) but it is magically more. The halibut (at the Top of the Market) was indeed simply grilled, but the thick slab was juicy, flaky and perfectly done medium rare. What came with it wasn't a butter sauce; it was a tomato cilantro sauce so good that I dug every drop out with the sourdough bread. My second visit focused on the Idaho trout, again grilled but brushed with a teasing barbecue sauce that I just couldn't get enough of. In most restaurants, the simply-grilled school makes for a disappointing experience, the lingering feeling that you could have done this yourself with help from the local grocer, that all you're really paying for are the table cloths and napkins. Not so for Fish Market; the touch is light but very much the kind that you despair of recreating in your kitchen.

In short - avoid Point Loma and head for the Market.

Chickening out

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Chicken is simple to cook. If you put your mind to it then a delicious, genuinely Indian chicken dish is not that tough. Of course, there are some basics to cooking chicken Indian style. First, boneless chicken does not work - lose the bones and you'll have a weak tasteless gravy. Second, the skin has a lot of flavor so dont throw it away before cooking - pick it out after the dish is done and throw it away (you need just a little skin though, too much will just make it greasy). Third, dont go to a supermarket chain for your chicken - those look great, cook beautifully but taste of nothing. Shell out twice the money, but its worth getting non-frozen free-range chicken.

The simplest chicken dish I know is a Raj-era dish called Shikari Murgh, or Hunters Chicken. I don't remember how I came by it, and the name - I guess it was cooked by shikaris when on a hunt because it's really quite simple to make. Take some large pieces of chicken, make a few slits in them to let the flavors in deeper, rub with lime juice and chilli powder. Heat a generous quantity of ghee in a wok, put the chickens and some salt in and toss around on medium heat. Then add a little water (maybe a half cup per pound) and cover till the chicken is almost done. Then put on high heat till any released water is nearly dry. Takes about 10 minutes or so depending on the size of the pieces. There are some simple variants of Shikari Murgh take come out pretty good too. One, use pepper instead of chilli powder, but in that case the pepper is added at the end - coarse fresh-ground is the best. A little dried kasoori methi - crushed and added at start - is also a great flavor twist. So is a touch of powdered cinnamon, added at the end.

Thats the simplest chicken dish I know. Very tasty, but it has no gravy and is therefore not really ideal with rice or bread. The next dish is a notch up from Shikari Murgh, and one of my favorite ways to make chicken - its a Bengali variant called Kosha Chicken or chicken slow-cooked without water. It's the cousin of Kosha Mangsho - which uses goat instead of chicken.

Kosha Chicken starts life with some dried red chillies, some cloves, a little cinnamon and a few green cardamoms in the wok in hot oil on a low flame. Be generous with the chilly - its supposed to be spicy. Then add fine-chopped onions, about a cupful per pound. Once the onions are done - transparent, maybe just a little browned - add a generous dollop of ginger garlic paste (about a tablespoon per pound) and toss the thing around till the water from the paste is gone. Then the tomato stage - optional but nice - chopped tomatoes added and the whole thing cooked while stirring till the tomatoes have become mushy jelly - this takes a little time. Finally the chicken - with bone and skin - salt, sugar (bongs always add sugar but you can chicken out) and leave covered for about 30 minutes on a low flame just above a simmer. And the magic ingredient - two medium potatoes cut into halves added along with the chicken. The chicken is done when the potatoes are done - and there should be a thick gravy left that clings to the meat. Thats it!

Ok there are some things you can do to juice it up even more. Jeera and Dhania - the two workhorse condiments of Indian food. Put about half tablespoon of each into hot oil (ghee) in another wok or tarka pan, and keep on low heat till the oil visibly separates out. Then pour it into the chicken, preferably when about two thirds done. Another good touch is a bit of powdered garam masala added at the end.

Enjoy!

Sandwiching Milan

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Malpensa sounds like a Bengali dessert but is actually the name of Milan's airport - as a disembodied announcer has already announced several times in the twelve hours I have spent here.

Airports aren't usually food destinations. Even in countries that should know better, the fondness for food and drink seems to stop at the check-in gate and passengers are usually stuck inside with a choice of three different outlets of the same single vendor offering ordinary sandwiches at outrageous prices.

Milan does not disappoint. There are seven restaurants, or so it seems at first glance. It turns out that all of them are run by the same company (MyChef) and offer the same food - just the decor is different. In the central food court, because of some wierd workflow that only the Italians seem to understand, you pay first at the chocolate counter and then order what you want at each seperate counter - one for coffee, one for sandwiches, one for wine and so on. Since the items and prices are displayed at each counter, this usually means several trips back and forth to remember each tongue-twisting name while the lady at the counter in extremely hip glasses wonders why god created non-italians.

The upside, however, is very good coffee and some of the best sandwiches I've had anywhere. The choices are many; various combinations of ham, cheese and bread with or without dressing. Paninis, panindos, foccacias line the counter, attached to names like papavero and napoli. Luckily, quality of the ingredients, specially the freshly grilled bread, is exceptional. They're all melt-in-the-mouth wonders, with real ham and cheese to boot. The wine counter was a disaster, the grilled mixed skewer average, but the sandwiches nearly make me want to layover in Milan again.

Let me go grab my third.

The Bitter End

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Bongs are very fond of bitterness. I'm not talking attitude or psychology; this is something that's far more important to the bhadrolok - food, or more specifically the first course at lunch. Now the whole business of a bong lunch is ridiculously elaborate. The full ceremonial version, usually served when someone is dead, goes to fifty plus courses and is supervised by a stern grandmother. More common, however, is a managaeable ten-odd choices in a very strict order and the first course is, traditionally, a bitter dish. The most common bitter is the pedestrian karela - usually steamed and mashed with potatoes in mustard oil - but there are more exotic choices None more than neem-begun and sojne phool. Neem, of course, is India's wonder herb - able to cure everything from bad hair days to tropical malaria, minor infection to major infestation. Its fruit is inedible and its tough, fibrous leaves taste bitter enough to deserve every wonder-drug epithet. The persistent bong, however, is not so easily dissuaded. It turns out that at the end of winter, the neem tree sprouts tiny, soft, non-firbous new leaves that can be fried with aubergines for the most fantastic bitter-sweet first course ever. And, you won't die of the pox, malaria or malnutrition. That's not the end of the story. Neem trees are fairly huge trees, and these tiny interesting leaves (they're purple when at the most tender) sprout at the end of the branches out of reach of all but the monkiest. The only ones accessible to ordinary people are neem saplings, and even in a countryside dotted with neem trees there aren't that many saplings. The leaves, therefore, are not an easily acquired taste; you might have expected demand and supply to dictate that they be expensive but this is bongland. In Asansol market an old man sells small, two-portion bunches of these leaves for two rupees each - he has maybe ten or fifteen of these laid out on a small piece of cloth, neatly divided into really tender purple leaves in front, or slightly bigger bunches of older lightgreen ones at the back. Bunches sell at a brisk pace, almost as quickly as he can make them by digging into the stash of leaves in a bag on the side. The bag looks like it holds enough leaves for another maybe fifty bunches. His take on demand-supply is that the higher the demand the quicker he can go back and home and sleep, so getting hold of these leaves means going early. Cooking neem begun is deceptively simple - small cubes of aubergine (begun) are deep fried till completely tender, and then mixed with the neem leaves, which were fried seperately till crisp (though be careful, they burn very easily). The two fry at different rates so it takes an expert to fry them together ; adding the neem and some magically accurate point in the process of frying the begun so that both end up done. Much better to do it seperately or outsource to a bengali housewife. The resultant dish is a marvel of balance of both texture and flavor - by now the neem leaves have become crisp and crackly while the aubergine is mushy and sweet. While still bitter, it's only a pale reminder of the poisonous bitterness you have just tamed. It's had with rice, which gives bite and body. Sojne phool, or drumstick flower, is different. Neem begun is strong bitterness barely tamed; sojne phool is a faint flavor that could easily become a mushy tasteless mess. Even the potatoes it is cooked with can overpower the flowers, so proportion is all-important. It has all those medicinal benefits that people make you swallow bitter stuff for - quite disproportionate to its gentle bitterness, I'm told - which is a big reason for it being eaten. Again, the season for it is only a few weeks at the end of February, and the process of getting hold of the flowers involves old men and their economics. Don't let all this fool you into thinking that sojne phool is merely something to be swallowed under the stern eys of your mother as you head for bigger things. The faintly bitter flowers, mixed with tiny cubes of potato and a touch of mustard make for a dish that's impossible to describe but difficult to forget.

Go Bananas

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Kolkata is always an indulgence in food. It helps, of course, that my aunt is both keen and competent as a cook. Bengali food is all about simple spice combinations and exotic vegetables. Given that Bengal is full of banana trees, it isn't unexpected that banana florets - which we call mocha - is on the menu today. The stuff is horrendously laborious to clean and peel since you need to go through a lot of those tiny florets to arrive at any volume of the curry, but the result is one of my favorites specially since I play no role in the aforementioned labour. Mochar ghonto is best had with rice for lunch, where the blandness of the rice matches the spicy cinnamon-clove flavor of the ghonto. Then there's thor (rhyming with more) - the spongy pith inside the stem. When the green outer layers are peeled off, a white hollow tube emerges that looks and feels quite like plastic, but someone somewhere persuaded the bongs that it was edible. Since then, the chopped up, nicely spiced version has displaced the Norse god in Bongland. Not without considerable hard work. though. The stalk is surrounded by a fibruos string that has to be unwound before the edible core is accessible. It's a bit of an acquired taste (which, of course, is another way of saying it tastes bizarre till you're too used to it to know better). I remember I used to dislike it when I was a child, specially the stringy celery-stalk texture it had, but I've changed my opinion since then. It's a dry dish, eaten with rice before any of the curries. More banana stuff is in store. A different species of banana is the kachkola - literally "green banana" but not the unripe version of the regular yellow kinds. Rather this is a cousin that is also, strangely enough, synonymous with snubbing someone. It tastes horrible when ripe, but while green forms the critical component to two of my favorite bongland items - sukto and kachkolar kopta. Sukto is a vegetable medley with ginger and mustard, but the kachkola is one of the essentials. The kopta is mashed kachkola made into balls with whole raisins in a garam-masla gravy. The subtle taste and smooth texture of mashed kachkola combines extremely well with the sweet raisins and the hot, strongly aromatic gravy. Finally, of course, there's the banana leaf. In bongo-shomaj (that's bongland for you illiterates) it's used to wrap stuff such as cauliflower or shrimp or fish such as hilsa with a paste of coconut, green chillies and mustard. The package is then steamed, usually by putting it on top of rice that's cooking. It's called paturi, and no you don't eat the leaf. Did I mention we eat ripe bananas too?

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