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?

Canned Spuds

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Atkins made the potato severely unfashionable, but it hasn't become any less tasty. If you're in the mood for some rapid fire food and can't be bothered with the elaboration of a full Indian dinner, there's nothing like the potato to rescue the day. Life was much better in America, I discovered, because potatoes came in cans already boiled and peeled.

Armed with that sort of weapon, suddenly a whole world of desi food opens its doors to you. There's aloo methi, aloo dum, aloo palak (yes, spinach comes in cans too) ... but nothing quite as worthy of lipsmacking dreams as aloo jeera. It's a very simple dish - even amateurs can make edible versions of it, but there's enough in it for the pro to show his tricks. And, having lived off many a can after a night of excess, I can safely lay claim to pro.

The basics are straightforward - heat the ghee, pop the jeera in hot oil, toss in potatoes with enough salt and red chilli powder - and in three minutes you're ready to wow the average American. To impress your mother, however, takes more work. First, you need cilantro - the stalks for cooking; the leaves are just for looking good. Second, you must avoid at all costs a non-stick pan. The thing is, potatoes and the starch they so liberally spread around does indeed stick if you're not using a non-stick, but considerable amounts of the taste seems to come from the browning that happens to these stuck bits. It takes a little effort to ensure nothing burns, but a couple of minutes of stirring later your non-non-stick pan will be coated with white starch that happens to have been fried brown by ghee underneath. Add a little water, deglaze the pan and pour it over the potatoes and I guarantee your mother will start feeling threatened.

Use cast iron pans if your wrists can stand them, but had-anodized aluminium ones are good too. Non-stick is for instant-noodle kiddies.

Bong Palak

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Spinach comes in cans too, but by far the better spinach is the one that comes in frozen bricks. My personal feeling - sacrilegous, Im sure - is that this spinach seems to taste better than most grocery-fresh spinach that I buy. The problem - thawing. You can't microwave them without turning them half into jelly - the only reliable method of thawing them without cooking them in the process is to leave them out overnight or in warm water for hours. Once that's done, however, you have really nice spinach. My mother taught me the Bengali way to make palak aloo. It's different from the Punjabi school, which is essentially paneer in palak paneer replaced with aloo. The Bong style has no spices but whole dried red chillies fried, and you keep stirring the chopped (not pasted) spinach in oil (not ghee) on the flame till it's dry. That takes much longer than it sounds - spinach tends to keep releasing water - but if you've had the patience to stir through it all (yes, constant attention or it burns) then you get fabulously tasty crumbly spinach that wraps nicely around the aloo. The aloo should be cut really small - half or quarter inch cubes are nice - and boiled beforehand or gotten out of a can. Minimal salt is called for right at the end; apparently spinach has a way of making salt taste saltier, and if you add salt to the spinach early on it releases even more water and becomes mushy. Of course, dont use anything non-stick and deglaze to impress your mother. Another great thing to add to this are small cubes of deep-fried aubergine.

Fishing in San Diego

about San Diego, CA, USA No comments:
You would expect a place on the coast to be full of seafood restaurants, and downtown San Diego does not disappoint. Specialist seafood places abound in San Diego, and here are some of my favorite ones. Relarively speaking, San Diego restaurants are very good but usually never rise to the level of incredible. The focus of most seafood places in San Diego is to get freshly caught fish from various parts of the world - this from hawaii, that from Spain - and serve it simply grilled with butter-lemon sauce - which is all very nice but makes it difficult to distinguish restaurant A from B. The menus look similar, and they probably get their fish from the same suppliers too. Also, the skill is really with the fish supplier, not with the chef. Understanding, therefore, that all these places have the SGLB (simply grilled butter lemon) thing down pat, I'm going to write about what stood out.

The most highly rated seafood place in San Diego, according to most reviews, is the Star of the Sea. It starts of with a huge advantage - being directly on the edge of the pier almost every seat has a dramatic view of the San Diego harbor, ehnanced by lots of glass and cleveryly muted lighting that prevents reflections. I wasn't going to eat the view, however, so I sat at the bar and chatted up a very sociable bartender who ran me through the very short menu. The starter was a roasted beet salad with goat cheese which, even of it lacked any trace of fish, I extremely highly recommend (is a recommendation allowed to be "extreme"?). The wild alaskan salmon held centre stage on the main course but was of the SGLB school. The bartender wanted me to try diver scallops too, which apparently comes from a single-boat, mom-n-pop operation in Maine but that was left to another day that has not yet come. The dessert-less total was $70, with a scotch thrown in.

Much more dramatic in presentation and preparation was Candelas in downtown. This is noveau Mexican rather than seafood, but the focus is adequately on fish for it to feature here - and they are far enough outside the SGLB school to be worthy of mention. The huge bartender, tatoo and piercings and all, had an incredible ability to describe the food but finally we settled on the rice-stuffed squid and the cheese-stuffed halibut. The first thing that came out was jalapeno bread rolls with some incredible flavored butter - and yes, there's fish involved - the butter had anchovies and enough other stuff that our bartender was able to expound it's virtues for a full minute. And boy did it live up to it's promise; one can live on the butter alone. The squid bellies soon followed, stuffed with rice and layered with a chipotle sauce; generously proportioned and interesting. The halibut entree was fish layered with cheese not unlike a lasagna, and baked to an incredible thin brown crust crust with a teasingly flavorful creamy sauce. All in all, quite a satisfactory meal at just under $50 - and the bar area of Candela is incredibly funky.

Another seafood place just around the corner is Oceanaire, complete with raw fish on ice, unrelated quotes from James Joyce on the walls and a long, long bar where I sat and chatted up two women. One of them was in love with the bartender which, luckily, meant that I got better than average service in addition to all kinds of gossip. The menu is, of course, heavily focused on SGLB seafood. I had the scallops the first day - very nice but somewhat too simple for a $30 price tag. The second time around though, I had cippolino, which is the cheapest thing on the menu at $19 (who said the place was cheap), but incredibly, life-changingly good. We're not just talking about the fish bits being good - they are and there are plenty of them, but every last drop of the tomato broth was quite worthy of the utter fool I made of myself slurping for. There's apparently nothing complicated about the dish, but somehow even the smallest bit of moisture left on the plate seemed sinful wastage.

One place that's alternately praised and reviled by various critics is Osetra, in the heart of the Gaslamp quarter. Some critics love it, some deride it as grossly overpriced. I...love it. I went both times at lunch (which may explain why overpriced did not hit me) but the baked oysters with roe was one of the best things I've ever seen done to an oyster.

I don't have a review for Blue Point Coastal - I had lamb chops there. They were excellent, but I haven't found a way to link lambs to the sea. There are many other places - Aqua Blu, Chive, McCormick&Schmick are three that come to mind immediately - that provide very nice seafood but firmly of the SGLB school. Chive has life-changing shortribs, but that like the lamb chops are for somewhere else.


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