Discover

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IMG_0101Mumbai isn't quite New York when it comes to writings about restaurants, but there's still a fair amount of discussion on where and what to eat, making it very unlikely that you'll discover something completely unknown to the food paparazzi. It was with some surprise, therefore, that I stumbled upon Farid Seekh Kabab center in a crowded Jogeshwari street. I went past the shop one day, noted the crowds waiting to get in and the smells, and decided to try it out. It turned out to be one of the best seekh kababs in IMG_0213-1 Mumbai - incredibly juicy (you can actually squeeze juice out of it), great taste and dirt cheap. Kabab is the only thing they  do (along with a cholestrol-spiking fried parathas), though they're willing to get you tea and pepsi from the hotel across the street. And people know they're on to a good thing; the place has an assembly line of kababs running continuously on a long charcoal sigdi, and a perpetual line of people waiting.

I discovered the secret on visit three - Farid is the unknown branch of the much-written-about Sayyad Seekh Kabab Center in Bachu Seth ki Wadi, deep in the heart of the red light district in Kamathipura (the signboard says there's a third branch - Nawab Seekh Kababs in Do Tanki). Its surprising that such a popular place with such utterly great kababs should be so un-written about - no mention in the Times Good Food guide (which mentions Sayyad), or Google or any Indian search engine.
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But more is to come.  

Right next door to Farid was an intriguing sign that promised Ramzan special sweets every day. The sign turned out to be JJ Jalebi Centre (I kid  you not! there's no "kk kiran" influence here). Now jalebis are pretty common in Mumbai, but I've never had anything like JJ's version. The standard jalebi is made of thin fried dough loops soaked in syrup; biting one gives a pleasant cruch and a quick sugar rush. JJ on the other hand, makes jalebis with nearly half-inch-thick strands. Bite one, and your teeth goes through the very crisp crust into a soft, runny yellow interior. Its great; probably the best jalebi I've had in a while. And they have decent gulab jamun too. Apparently the JJ comes from Jamshedji Jeejebhoy Hospital, next to which is the original shop (the Jogeshwari version is a mere five years old).

Getting there is easy - its on the road that connects Behram Baug to SV Road in Jogeshwari (W). Don't try too hard to look for the signage, though Hotel Metro on the other side of the road (where the tea and Pepsi come from) is much more visible. The map below might help.

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Playing Tag

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When I started this blog some years ago, one of the most frustrating things about blogger was the absence of tagging. They've finally caught up with it, and I too have finally caught up. I just finished tagging all my posts.

Luchi Mangsho

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There's whole rash of Bengali restaurants in Andheri Lokhandwala, where I stay, so I teamed up with a newly tattooed friend to test their mettle.

The restaurants we chose were Hooghli, Hangla's and Calcutta Club. Of these, two (Hoogli and Calcutta Club) are within shouting distance of each other at the end of Oshiwara's restaurant row, while Hanglas is some distance away near Lokhandwala market. (view map)

Now the question was how to test. Kosha Manghso, the seminal non-veg dish on a bong menu seemed like ideal to try the taste test. We decided to order a plate of Kosha Mangsho from each of the restaurants, and pair it with homemade luchis.

The three deliveries were very interesting in their differences. All looked distinctly different from each other, had different prices and came in different packages. Hangla's medium brown version came in a big foil box and cost Rs 99. Calcutta Club delivered an orange version for Rs 80 while Hooghli was the most expensive - a dark, rich gravy at Rs 130.

How did they stack up? The tastiest and the best was also the most expensive - Hooghli. It was the only truly kosha (braised) mutton of the lot. Second was Calcutta Club, though neither the colour nor the consistency of the gravy was what we expected. Hangla's had the softest and largest mutton pieces, but a complete lack of chillies left it tasting bland and funny. All three were quite reasonable, but none made it anywhere close to the hallowed levels of (say) Shyambazaar's Golbari.

Facing the Book

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I finally managed to discover how to integrate Blogger with Facebook - its in the Notes application. Now you can see my posts on Facebook.

Imitating Imtiaz

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Ok so I do a lot of cooking and I'd love to claim it all comes from taste memory and sheer genius. However, since no one seems to be swallowing the claim, here are some of my secrets. There's of course the whole business of eating, and trying out and asking my mother and google, but then there are cookbooks too. I'm a great reader of cookbooks to extract re-usable techniques and flavour combinations that I can then tweak. Most of my experiments with Avadhi food are inspired by the recipes found in Jiggs Kalra's book "Prashad - Cooking with the Indian Masters". The section on Avadh is written by Imtiaz Qureshi, whose food you can try at Dum Pukht in the ITC hotels. Another source of recipes is R.K. Saxena's website on Tripod (or at least, it seems like his website) that lists recipes from his book "Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh". Camellia Panjabi's book on the 50 Great Curries of India has also provided me some very reliable recipes. Minakshi Dasgupta, whose children run Kewpies in Kolkata has a cookbook that I find very useful - "Bangla Ranna".

Luchi

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The one thing that signals good food time in Kolkata is the luchi. Not to be confused with the non-bong poori, the luchi signals a special treat in this primarily rice-eating part of the world. The differences are subtle but important - a true luchi should be a feather-light, puffed roundel that retains its shape on the plate and doesn't flop about like the commonplace poori. Luchis come in two varieties - the regular atta version and the perfectly white, incredibly light maida luchi that only bongs make. Of course, they look unhealthy but that picture is a dinner plate full of luchi; it took half a cup of flour and a tablespoon of oil (I put 4 tablespoons of oil in the kadahi, and three remained after I finished) - that's about as much as salad dressing! That should have been enough luchis for two light diners, but I was hungry.

Everyone will tell you luchis are difficult to make, and it took me a long time to try making it. Frankly, the weight of culinary expectation discourages amateurs like me from trying, but its just fried dough and surprisingly simple once you get over the worries. Perfect luchis traditionally required skill and practice, but I have modern technology, as-seen-on-tv devices and tricks up my sleeve that my grandmother would never have forgiven me for, bless her soul.

Here are the basics - half a cup of whole wheat flour (or maida - refined flour - for the REAL thing), a bit of salt and few drops of ghee for something called moyan (don't ask me what it is, just do it). Mix the salt and drops of ghee into the dry flour with your hands for a few minutes. Add a tablespoon of water and knead to make a firm, pliant dough and let it rest for half an hour or so. Then divide into small smoothly rolled balls, smear with a little ghee and roll into round even discs with a rolling pin. Technically, that rolling's the hardest part - bong housewives practice for years before the luchis come out round, thin and even, but here's where non-grandma techniques make life so much easier. How thin is good? Well, even fat luchis (2mm or thicker) will puff; except that since the bottom will remain heavy they won't become round balls and won't look that great. Really thin luchis (1/2 mm or so) puff better and are that perfect light airiness, but then you have to make the size a little smaller - about 3" diameter or so - otherwise they'll become difficult to handle.

The most important trick-up-the-sleeve is a cookie cutter. No longer do you have to roll it perfect - even your amoeba-shaped mess can be turned into a great luchi by using a cookie cutter to cut a perfect circle from the dough (alternately, use thin-rimmed steel bowls or my favourite - the upper half of a cocktail shaker). Just roll the whole dough into a thin (1/2 mm), even sheet on a flat greased counter-top and cut multiple luchis out at one go (hey, chefs on television do it all the time). Roll the remaining dough back into a sheet and repeat. You can even use fancy shapes - circular ones puff the best, but square or other shapes look interesting and taste the same. While you should roll the dough as thin as possible, evenness is more important and be careful that it isn't so thin that it can't be handled. My mother tells me I should roll the pin only in one direction (towards my luchi-filled paunch) and put only light pressure.The best place to keep the unfried luchis are around the edges of a large bowl - that way they're easy to lift off.

Trick two - go forth and buy a cheap pastry scraper. It makes handling those thin cookie-cut discs of dough so much easier. If you don't have one of those, you'll have a problem lifting really thin luchis off the counter without screwing them up.

Trick three (though I haven't tried it yet) - use a pasta roller. Should cut the whole rolling business really short. Pasta rollers produce very even sheets of dough - half milimeter should be perfect. Don't use ready made pasta sheets, though - it has eggs and olive oil and would therefore approach heresy and ex-communcation. My grandmother might even come back from the dead.

Hold on, the story isn't over yet - what happened to frying? Enough hot oil for the luchi to be completely immersed is a must - any less and you can kiss perfect spheres goodbye. This means you must put enough oil so that the depth is least a couple of inches, and the with (of the oil, not the pan) at least a little bit more than the luchi being fried. Make sure its really really hot - just below smoking. If it's not hot, the luchis will not puff, and though they will eventually be edible they'll be fat and crisp rather than soft and fluffy. Ghee is great here, because it has a higher smoke point. Frying has three stages - release, immerse, flip. Slide a single luchi at a time into the hot oil, then use a perforated spoon to gently push the luchi down so that the whole thing is immersed in oil for a few seconds - till it starts puffing. Flip it over in a few seconds, wait for a count of three and take it out. A luchi should be light gold - if its brown it's too crisp to eat comfortably. The most common causes of non-puffing are - dough too thick (puffs very little), uneven dough (unevenly puffed rather than one glorious ball), insufficient oil, oil not hot enough (crisp biscuits take take time to brown) or dough too thin (starts to puff, then bursts).

Here are my three secrets to a luchi - (1) half mm thin and very even dough discs, (2) really hot oil and (3) enough oil depth to immerse the whole luchi. What to do if you're luchi doesn't puff? Nothing - its still going to be edible, just don't take any pictures and send them out.

And yes, I did make the ones in the picture. Three did not puff, and two got eaten before they even made it to the photo.

Desserted

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On Saturday, I made a dessert as part of my multi-course extravaganza. The Bengali sweet tooth is legendary, so dessert is simply unavoidable. I made shujir payesh - a version of the famed bong payesh that is considerably easier to make than the rice variety.

Shujir payesh, or polenta milk pudding, is actually one of the easiest and quickest desserts I know how to make, though I must admit it took me years of doing it wrong and failing to get it right. Its basically sooji (or rawa or polenta or grits) with milk, sugar and a little cardamom, optionally with raisins, cashews, pistachios, saffron and whatever else moves your cheese. Brown lots of cashews and raisins in a little ghee, then add a handful sooji and stir till the distinct aroma of frying sooji comes out (about 30 sec). Then add milk (at least twice the volume of sooji), a cardamom pod or two and sugar, thicken slightly and you're done. Stay low on the sugar; this is supposed to be only mildly sweet. Top it with saffron soaked previously in warm milk, chopped pistachios and some silver foil if you have any. Looks great, smells great, and of course tastes like you slaved on it all day - even without all the nuts and saffron.

The trick here is to fry (or dry roast) the sooji till the smell comes. Add the milk too soon and sooji acts as a thickener for the milk; you'll end up with a sticky gummy paste instead of a free-flowing payesh. There's no way to recover from that - throw it out and start again. The longest part of making this is browning the cashews; the rest is done in 90 seconds.

Sooji halwa is a very close cousin of this, using water instead of milk. Use enough water to get a thick paste, then let it set by cooling. For healthy eating, avoid the ghee and roast the sooji. Roasting takes a little longer - maybe 2-3 minutes.

Food of the Earth

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Prithvi Cafe has always been one of my favorite places to sit around and read books. In addition to uncomfortable seats and a steady supply of cheap tea, Prhtivi provided a continous stream of peoplewatching that was difficult to equal. It helped that the cafe, owned by Bengalis and kitchened by a chef who could speak and cook Bengali, was able to turn out Mumbai's best Shorshe Bata Maach. And then there was the Irish coffee... I went back to Prithvi after a fairly long time. Much had changed since then; the cafe is now operated by Mocha. There's no Bengali food in sight and there's not even the smallest scent of alchohol in the Irish Coffee. There's also a new menu with specialities from different landmark restaurants of Mumbai. The net result - I like the new, much warmer lighting. The seats are just as uncomfortable as ever in the old section but thats still the place for peoplewatching. The chai is definitely better, and the food even if lacking all shorshe is actually quite good - at least the sandwiches and chaat were. The service sucks though, which is all for the better since you don't feel guilty about all those people waiting in line for a seat. Lets face it, you're here to sit and read and peoplewatch and hopefully interest Makarand Deshpande into giving you a starring role in a movie; that takes time, patience, cheap tea and really slow waiters.

Feeding the Masses

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I finally got around to cooking a full, multi-course vegetarian meal for my friends. Here's what finally came out...
  1. Kumro bhate - Steamed pumpkin mash with coconut and raw mustard oil, and rice
  2. Posto bhate - poppyseed paste with raw mustard oil, and rice. This was actually the surplus poppyseed paste from the aloo posto, but it tastes great nevertheless
  3. Methi shaag - Fenugreek leaves stir fried with roasted peanuts
  4. Aloo posto - Potatoes in a poppyseed and nigella sauce
  5. Boti Chocchori - Cauliflower, peas and snow peas steamed with mustard. Snow peas, of course, are not traditional but substitute nicely for broad beans (sheem) which are.
  6. Mushur dal - Masoor dal with panch phoron and chopped cilantro
  7. Chhanar Dalna - Paneer in a ginger-cumin sauce with whole garam masala
  8. Shujir Payesh - Rawa milk pudding with saffron and cardamom.
(Its actually five courses, because 4,5 and 6 are meant to be had together) All this, of course, with steamed rice. I ran out of Gobindobhog, but there was the local Ambe Mohur. Nothing wrong with Basmati, but that's not what you would usually have it with at a Bengali home. Of course, we don't normally have rice at all for dinner - usually rotis or parathas or pooris, but that's outside my capabilities so rice it was.

Searching for Rezala

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When hunting for great food in the bylanes of Kolkata in my teenage years, one thing that we would often go looking for was the famed mutton rezala. Aminia, Nizam and many other places did good rezalas, but the most famous one was Shabir in Kolkata's Chandi Chowk area. I've been back to Shabir a few times over the years, but this time I went to the second-greatest rezala place in Kolkata - New Aaliya on Bentick street, very close to Statesman House - and came out licking my fingers for the next month.

Rizala originates from Lucknow (and is even listed in Dastarkhan-e-Avadh by RK Saxena) but seems to have survived in Kolkata in a unique variant (and its not just the spelling that changed); I've never seen quite the same thing in any other city. Though RK Saxena's authoritative Avadhi recipe describes it as a thick white gravy, Rezala - its Kolkata variety - is spicy, thin and just a little sweet. Awadhi Rezala is made with mutton but in Kolkata, the chicken variety is just as common.

Anyway, the reason for all this rezala rumination is that I was hankering for it last weekend and decided to reproduce it. Googling yielded a few recipes, but none of them looked like they would yield anything like the alsi Kolkata variety, so I decided to combine google with me and try things our from taste memory. The thing about taste memory is, of course, that the broad outlines of taste and look get reproduced, but the finer details can vary.

Basically, The Kolkata Rezala is a thin sweet-sour-spicy gravy with a onion-ginger-garlic sauce base, sour curd, whole garam masala, white pepper, a little coriader powder, onion paste and cashew paste - finished with kewra water or a drop of kewra essence. The sour curd and kewra finish are the key taste elements of the Rezala.

The net result was wonderful, though I did add a shade too much white pepper, and the curd wasn't very sour so I added a smidgen of lime juice. And it looks exactly like the New Aaliya variety white a perfectly white sauce base with a floating layer of nearly colourless oil (its actually an oil/water emulsion that contains most of the spice flavouring).

Treading Gingerly on Garlic

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In the last two years, I've really learned to make use of ginger-garlic paste.

Though books repeatedly tell you of the wonderful properties of ginger, specially the use of its thickening effects in Indian cooking, its only recently that I practically stumbled upon what exactly they mean. Ginger-garlic paste, added to hot oil or ghee and simmered on a low flame till it becomes vaguely gelatinous and releases oil. The trick is to make sure the paste is free-flowing and not very dry, and the simmer is slow and long. Keep simmering it undisturbed till the paste browns slightly at the bottom and you can smell it caramelizing.

How much ginger to garlic? I used to use roughly equal quantities, but my favoured mixture now is about 50% more garlic than ginger. Garlic, in particular, mellows with heat so more garlic makes sense, but I learned this from Jiggs Kalra's book of recipes. The other trick is to be generous in quantities of ginger-garlic paste - that's what makes your silky gravies.

This is not a general gyan blog entry. It seems simple and obvious, but getting it right has taken me years of experimentation and transformed my non-veg food from the good to sublime (sure, its me saying it about myself, but remember I eat enough of the best food and throw away enough of my own food to know what I'm talking about). The gravies come out silky and decadent, finally approaching the best Indian food I've ever had in the bylanes of Lucknow and Kolkata. Ginger garlic paste does not deaden the taste of spices the way onion paste does, hence the widespread use in Awadhi food with its prevalence of subtle spices that onion paste would have murdered. See, for instance, my post on the rezala.

The summary:

1. Use a free-flowing paste of ginger and garlic in a 1:2 ration. Excess water is ok, too little water will cause the paste to burn 2. Be very generous with the quantity - its possible to underuse but difficult to overuse 3. Simmer slow and long in adequate amounts of ghee till the paste has been reduced to a gelatinous mass, the water is gone and the oil shows on the surface.

The Prodigious Returns

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Ok, so I've ignored this blog for a long time. Just over two years since my last post. 1-Jan-2008 is probably a good time to restart. A lot happened in the two years. I changed jobs, came back to Mumbai, stayed in two different places and did lots more cooking and eating. Coming back to India, foodwise, has been a big change. Of course, I get to eat much more by way of Indian food (and its innumerable regional varieties), but I also get a lot less of New York's wonderful profusion of food from the rest of the world. I also get to cook a lot more, and observe how cooking and shopping has changed even in the few years that I was away with the advent of hypermarkets. Here's to the return of a convergence of two of my major interests - talking and food.

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