Reputation in Ruins

about Kolkata, West Bengal, India 1 comment:

My last trip to Kolkata was unexciting foodwise; what with flight delays, traffic jams and work there wasn’t enough time left for anything useful, but on the way to the airport, I stopped at an old favourite – Rahmania.

Rahmania has been at this Park Circus location for ages (people say a hundred years) but now the building that houses it (and the other great – Shiraz) is being reconstructed into some anonymous multistoried matchbox. Shiraz moved across the street, occupying the space that used to be Tandoor Mahal many years ago but Rahmania stays put. Its space is much reduced, the cracked walls propped up with rickety iron scaffolding while the restaurant plies its business, there seems to hang an air of defiance and desperation over it all. The kitchen is dispersed into the newly built concrete pillars of the building being constructed in a bizarre ritual of co-existence. The place seems smaller than it used to be, and some of that already tiny space is now taken up by storage over from the innards.

But of course, no one ever went to Rahmania for the decor. This along with the aforementioned Shiraz and the now defunct Tandoor Mahal formed the holy biriyani trinity of Park Circus. Rezala and chaap also flowed freely, as did customers. Tandoor Mahal closed rather abruptly about fifteen years ago, Shiraz went on to greater heights but Rahmania remained where it was – reliably tasty but small and messy. For years, many preferred Rahmania’s biriyani to Shiraz (I wasn’t one of them) and most considered their tandoori chicken the best in the city (I was one of them). For a while, you could even order the stuff over the net – via Calcuttaweb (Rahmania is no longer listed, though you can still order from other places). In any case, I ignored the potential for ceiling collapse, took life in my hands and walked into the crumbling version that is today’s Rahmania.

A biriyani, chaap and rezala later, I was disappointed. It was good, but one does not come to the holy trinity for mere good. While still miles better than most biriyanis on offer, great seems elude it. The mutton was soft, the ghee plentiful, the rice perfect but the edge – that indescribable difference between good and great obvious to the tongue but impossible to grasp in words - was missing.

I hope the distinct decline is due the incredibly strained working environment in the kitchen, what with cooking and masonry jostling for space. The great is surely but slowly crumbling, but hopefully like the building they’re in a rejuvenated Rahmania will emerge renewed, just as great as before and ready for another hundred-year stint.

Burrp shows a Salt Lake listing for Rahmania too, but I hear its a franchisee that uses vanaspati instead of ghee.


about Chandni Chowk, Delhi 3 comments:

I visited the streets of old Delhi after many years. One goes to Delhi quite often, but nowadays towers of Gurgaon divert attention from the fabulous treasures of Chandni Chowk. This time, however, an accommodation website pointed me to the Maidens, a hotel situated in the quaintly named Civil Lines and appropriately full of chandeliers, heritage certificates and directions to the nearest Metro station.

Nowadays, visiting old Delhi isn't what it used to be. Nadir shah or the Mongols had to climb mountains and kill a million people, but I discovered (with some help from a uniformed doorman) that nowadays you could step out of the hotel, pop down some escalators, get groped by some khaki and swishy minutes later you're hearing Chandni Chowk platform is on the left hand side. Inspired by an article in the Mint about nahari joints, I decided on a pass to Chandni Chowk (where I’d gone the last time in search of parathewali galli), head on to the next stop - Chawri Bazaar - and then find my way to Kala Masjid (which google informed me was a short walk away). Thats where, I was told, was Haji Shiroo, the oldest of the nahari joints.

So I walk out of the Chawri Bazaar metro, into the chaotic, litter-strewn world of late evening old Delhi and stumble straightaway on what I’ve been told is that hard-to-find-come-early-morning sweet – Daulat ka chaat or malai makkhan. Rahul Verma of the Hindu had put a fair amount of mystery into it and a food blogger in Delhi had put some extra spin (and a nicer picture) to this nearly mythical sweet. I blogged about it too, almost exactly a year ago but here it was – not early in the morning, not hidden in some bylane but two side-by-side vendors right in front of everyone at the Hauz Kazi Chauk just as you come out of the metro. And the clock just crossing 8pm. Of course it was the real thing – just as airy and buttery as I remembered it.

Feeling perky with my first find of the evening, I continued my scooter-dodging rickshaw-avoiding stroll towards Kala Masjid and its nahari promise and stumbled next upon a small stall selling many different kinds of vari, two of which I purchased; back in Mumbai a few days later, I’d discover that they were some of the best varis I’d ever had, but right then it was just a way to change a hundred rupee note while asking for directions. A few feet from the vari wallah, flitting past a couple of kulche-chole and anda-paratha vendors was a chaat guy who threw me another twist. While watching him make chaat, I noticed he put in something that looked to me like sliced ginger; it took a few tries for him to explain that it was raw potato! Some disbelief and tastings ensued, but raw potato it was - sliced thin and marinated in lime the potato has just a hint of a bite - a great addition to all the crunchy and squishy bits in the rest of the chaat.

It set me thinking about Delhi’s fascination with potatoes and the myriad ways it is used in the chaats on the street – boiled, mashed, fried, mashed and then fried, now even raw.

Bad news awaited me at Kala Masjid. I was told that Bakr-Id had preceded my visit by a few days, and the specialist nahari shops were closed for the week. A harrowing rickshaw drive then took me to the Jama Masjid and Matya Mahal street, with its usual line of mughal restaurants including the renowned Karim’s. I decided to be contrarian this time; skip the famous and try some of the other choices. This brought me to an old man sitting at a huge degchi of biriyani – he said he had started the day with 400kg – and interestingly, it was beef biriyani (Unlike Mumbai’s bylanes, beef isn’t as common in Matiya Mahal. Mutton is the king here, maybe there’s some story there). The biriyani too had a twist – there were bits of chilli and lime pickle in it, giving the occasional bite the most interesting zing. Not close to the best biriyani ever, but nice.

The old man also told me to try Jawahar at the mouth of the galli that houses Karim – he was convinced that though it was less famous, it was better (a view shared by many, it seems). Jawahar turned out to be Al-Jawahar, a large, multi-room restaurant serving pretty much the Karim menu but unlike Karim quite easy to find bang on Matya Mahal road. A stone thrown from the Jama Masjid by an old woman in crutches would reach it. Its big, brightly lit, serves no beef, and has halfway decent service. Mutton Korma, Achari Biriyani and a sheermal soon landed on my table. The sheermal was fantastic (but fantastically rich too, I barely had a quarter) – slightly sweet, soft yet ever so slightly chewy, quite a beguiling bread. The korma was rich, complex and satisfying. The achari biriyani was redolent with pickle smells, but otherwise just about average.

Its hard for me to generalize from scattered meals on the streets of Delhi, but it seems to me that biriyani is not Delhi's thing. Like Mumbai, Delhi biriyani is nice, occassionally very nice but nowhere as genuinely-world-class, ohmygod transporting experience that the best of Delhi’s kormas or burrahs can be. Lucknow, Hyderabad, Andhra, Moplah – these biriyanis are occassionally memorable – I’ve never found that in a Delhi biriyani yet (Dum Pukht, but that’s true blue Lucknow). There are still some leads left, though – Yahoo answers has some for me, will eventually be pursued. Of course, nahari too awaits a second try. The interesting part was how small the whole area really is. Most of the area (including the enormous Jama Masjid) is well within the grasp of the average walker - provided of course he or she has the reflexes of a top-notch video gamer at avoiding things moving at arbitrary speeds.

Chinese Brunch

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Sunday is an ideal day for overeating, and where better but a five-star brunch. This Sunday, feeling decidedly chinese, I headed to the Pan Asian at the ITC Grand Maratha for their Sunday Brunch.

It turns out that the Chinese are in the middle of their Moon Festival, the chowmein version of our very own Kojagiri (or Lakshmi) Poornima. Related to the equinox, this day considered to be the brightest full moon in the year (and a good day to see the glitter of money). Luckily, food is involved – specially those strange creations called moon cakes.


The ITC is my favourite far eastern Sunday Brunch. The only other choice nearby – Spices at the JW Marriot – does have a good spread too (more sushi choices) but they tend to have the same things on their menu every Sunday (right down to the desserts). Overall, I like the ITC better -great dim sum, polished Peking duck, unlimited salmon and tuna sashimi, a grill counter, a decent choice of salads, main courses and desserts. This time they had a fantastic lamb shank on the buffet – fat marrow-filled bones wrapped with meat in a Chinese 5-spice sauce.

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Then, of course, there’s the mooncake. It was indeed on the dessert menu, but people avoid it in the most part. The mooncake at the ITC was one single kind - Cantonese style. I find mooncakes a little wierd too – very dense, strange texture and a thin, sweet skin. Pleasant, but hardly the stuff of my dreams. The Chinese never did very well with desserts; their obsession with the mooncake is similarly a little hard to get excited by.

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More Biriyani

about 9.9396253, 76.2594981 No comments:

I still haven’t quite figured out the spelling. Is it Biriyani or Biryani? I tried the latter spelling on my last blog about it, its time to try the former one now. A rose by any other name…

In any case, I found myself in Kochi (or Cochin) which, interestingly enough, has its own direct claim to the original biriyani. There seems to be little doubt that biriyani, along with horses and melons and Taj Mahal domes came from tied to the coattails of Muslim travellers. in the case of the Malabar Coast, the travellers came in the form of seafaring traders, who seem to have teamed up with the Shettys and started their own biriyani outlets without bothering to consult the Lakhnavis. Indeed, Google tells me the Malabar Moplah biriyani bears a remarkable resemblance to the Yemeni Mandi (no, I haven’t tried the mandi myself).

Mattancherry is where many of Kochi’s Muslims settled down, and Mattancherry is also were Kayeekas started fifty years ago. To make life easier in the jet age, I didn’t even have to travel to Mattancherry for it; there was an outlet right around the corner from my office, and it even had a shorter, more jet age name – Kayees. Google told me their prawn biriyani is to die for, but I didn’t feel like putting my life on the line just yet (I’m allergic to prawns) and so was glad to hear that prawn is, for them, a “special item” (the person at the counter, in fact, did not seem particularly enthused about it). Their most popular version is mutton biriyani – they advised me to give it a try.

Kayees Kayees Biriyani

The biriyani was white (no saffron), had lots of nuts and raisins, came with pickle, raita and rather unusually – a date chutney (probably from its Arab influences). It was also incredible – significantly different from the lucknow-kolkata varieties but one of the tastiest biriyanis I’ve had in a while. A much milder biriyani, loaded with ghee and cashews, rich soft mutton smells permeating everywhere – its the perfect start to biriyani adventures in mallu-land. Adding the sweet-sour date chutney adds a whole extra dimension to an already great biriyani. Esctatic, I wanted to try the chicken biriyani too, but eventually wiser counsel prevailed.

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The first stop may have been great but I wasn’t about to end my biriyani adventures yet. The famed Malabar fish biriyani was still lurking somewhere, and I wasn’t about to let that pass. Surprisingly, fish biriyani isn’t as widely available in Kochi as we outsiders seem to imagine, but a bit of research by my colleague yielded The Woods Manor, a hotel loosely affiliated to the Woodlands chain of elsewhere in India (even the address is Woodlands Junction)but nevertheless (the manager assured me repeatedly) completely local in both decor and cuisine. They don’t believe in modesty (the hotel is advertised as a “heavenly stop-over”) and you get generous helpings of Malabar Baroque with your food, but they did have the fish biriyani which isn’t part of their regular buffet (which did have some incredible avial) but was made for us on “special request”. Not unlike Kayees, this whole “special request” business

Woods Manor Woods Manor Fish Biriyani

Our special order Fish Biriyani landed up in a small container, sealed in a roti. Very different biriyani from Kayees the day before (which had come heaped on a plate, served from a huge degchi), this one was what is apparently known as the Malabar Moplah style – a much spicier, darker dum-biriyani with helpings of chopped mint. Again, very good, though a little too strongly spiced for me to put it on a favourite list (I have grown up thinking of biriyani as more smell than taste). The fish, though, seemed like an afterthought – as if the restaurant decided a fish biriyani was needed, took out the mutton and added the fish. The smells of the biriyani did not complement the fish entirely – I finally ate the (very tasty) rice parts and the (average) fish parts separately, to excellent results. Both biriyanis, I must say, were quite good – fragrant, tasty and definitely not curry-rice.

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Kayees was clearly a great biriyani (up there with the Shiraz’s of the world) but Woods, while still very good, was not great. Primarily, it wasn’t really a fish biriyani – more like a good mutton biriyani with the meat taken out and fish put in. I think fish biriyani should incorporate the aroma of fish in the same way as a mutton biriyani does – that I didn’t see happen in Woods. Cookbook research leads me to discover that Moplah Fish (or prawn or mussel) biriyani uses aniseed (similar to saunf or fennel but sweeter) as the primary spice, so maybe more exploration is required. Aniseed is a very unusual spice, common in the Mediterranean (though primarily as a way to get drunk) but not so frequently used in India. Kochi, here I come again… sometime…

Singapore Sling

about Singapore No comments:

A couple of months ago, I was cycling from eatery to eatery in Singapore.

Now Singapore is full of fancy imported restaurants, but there nevertheless really is something called original traditional Singaporean food - cuisine that originated here and continues to be eaten here. This is where the Chinese clashed (sometimes literally) with Malays, Tamilians, Indonesians (to say nothing of the odd Englishman) and formed all kinds of subcultures. Every block has a subgenre, a slightly different mix of the basic cultural ingredients expressed (mostly) in the food. Smothered it may be by malls, manicured it may be to the point of oblivion, but Singapore has managed to keep its home and street food alive and flourishing.

And the secret is in the hawker centres.

Singapore has many types of hawker centres – fancy ones inside fancy malls, remote residential areas like Boon Lay or Ang Mo Kio, tourist traps such as Lau Pat Sat or Newton, ethnic enclaves such as Geylang or Little India or messy convoluted ones such as Maxwell Road or Chinatown. In short, no dearth of variety, but one thing is common – the small and big food stalls are owned and managed by individuals, some of whom have been doing it for decades (many date back to before the formation of of Singapore). Hawker Centre tourism is a must for any serious foodie in Singapore – wildly varied and usually just that little rough around the edges – messy tables, no air-con, overflowing trash cans, the occasional sticky thing on the floor - a small relief from the usually obsessive manicuring of Singapore.

Hawker Centre Stalls Lunching at a Hawker Centre Queuing The Crowds

Lets focus back on the focus - the food. Each hawker centre has a lot of stalls, many stalls sell the same foods and of course, some stalls are better than others – things can get quite hairy when trying to choose between five different stalls of chicken rice or nasi padang. Someone had whispered me the secret a while ago – go for the longest line. Survival of the busiest, they say. Unfortunately, the standard hawker centre will have at least a few long lines; this technique therefore calls for repeated patience and forbearance.

At Maxwell Road, the longest queue was at 75 Peanuts Soup 57 (not sure what the numbering convention means but 57 seems to be the stall number). Its the proud bearer of various awards and doles out red bean or peanut soup, with or without rice balls. A soup (I figure) is always a good way to start so I stood in line, ordered the headlined item with rice ball (a dollar extra) and promptly discovered the pitfalls of falling in line. Peanut Soup, you see, turned out to be one of those odd sweet thingies that no one without a Singapore PR. It was, quite literally, boiled peanuts with some sugar and chunks of fried dough (called chinese doughnuts or You Tiao) added to give it a bit of chew. The rice balls that cost me an extra dollar were balls of sticky rice paste - one filled with coconut, the other with sesame paste – possibly the tastiest part of the otherwise underwhelming dish. This is what people have been queuing to lap up for seventy years?

75 Peanuts Soup 57

Slightly shaken but not yet stirred I stood in the next long line I saw – Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. Now you can’t go too wrong with Chicken Rice in Singapore – the stuff is pretty much everywhere and everyone has it for lunch. This looked a little different, but I figured, as usual - if the lines are long you cant go wrong – and after a 10-15min wait ended up with a plate of what looked (and tasted) like plain steamed chicken with a bowl of soup and some plain rice. I’d also ordered chicken claws (which the man at the counter snipped off the bone into shreds using a wicked pair of scissors.

Peanuts Soup, with bits of fried dough and rice ball Tian Tian Chicken Rice

Ok I’m being wicked. The food was simple (chicken, rice, a soup and a chilli sauce dip), but much tastier than it looks. Somehow, the process concentrates flavours beautifully, making the chicken more chicken than seems possible. The rice (cooked in the stock) is addictively tasty. Later research on google revealed this place to be famous (Makansutra calls it “die die must try”, though I suspect if I was die die this would not be choice number one for must try). Hainanese Chicken Rice vendors are everywhere, and this apparently is the biggest cheese of them all.

My other favourite hawker centre is the Hong Lim Complex Hawker Centre in the heart of Chinatown. This one has possibly the least ambience of all – convoluted rows of stalls, messy tables, messy floors, but it’s the one hawker centre where you’re least likely to go wrong. On the ground floor a fragrant turtle soup from Hokkein Street Bak Koot Teh,Turtle Soup greeted me (something I could indeed die die for). Upstairs, Ah Kow Mushroom Minced Pork Mee fed me a highly recommended Teochew Dumpling Soup. Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee fried up the same mee (, added sprouts, ground peanut, cockles and some brown sauce and served up a tasty Kway Teow (for a change a dish often found in restaurants, but not a patch on the street version). The hawkers of Boon Lay yielded Nasi Padang (the Indonesian version of a rice plate) a heap of rice plus as many optionals as you want, such as rendang, fried chicken or chicken liver. I didn’t venture close to any desserts, but there was some sugarcane juice to be had.

Hokkien Street Bak Koot Teh Turtle Soup Ah Kow Teochew Dumplings Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee Boon Lay Nasi Padang

Mee, in case you’re wondering, is not another odd Singaporean twist on the English language – its the Chinese name for noodle (along with bee, mein, mi and other assorted spellings). Hey, they invented it, surely they can call it what they want.

Then, there were the mall food courts – Funan Mall’s Ya Kun outlet fed me some excellent Kaya Toast (thin toast with a peculiar but addictive sweet jam-like spread called Kaya). A temporary hawker centre at Suntec City had chicken samosa and two kinds of sausage (the brown one was particularly tasty, coupled with a spicy-sweet dip). Tangs has a hawker centre hidden in its basement offering some great Otak Otak and outstanding Nyonya Glutinous Rice Cake. Across the road, Ngee Ann City fed me Rojak (the closest thing to chaat ever – fruits, vegetables, exotic stuff like ginger flower all coated in an ultra-spicy sweet-sour sauce and given the crunch with crushed peanuts).

Ya Kun Kaya Toast Chicken Samosas

Sausages and Fish Ball Rojak

Street food is real democracy – a popularity contest these vendors have been winning consistently, sometimes for over half a century. Many pre-date the country itself, some are older even than the formation of Singapore as a British colony. Luckily the history lesson is optional - follow the queues and participate in a bit of adventure; sometimes fabulous, sometimes peanuts soup. I’ve covered only a tiny slice of all the dishes available, and of course there are many more hawker centres than I can possibly cycle to. For the googler in you, Singapore’s blogosphere is full of discussions of hawker food.

At least you’re unlikely to get bored; there are, literally, thousands of hawkers to have an opinion on – enjoy lah.

The Hole in the Wall

about Kharagpur, West Bengal, India 8 comments:

The Menu 2Much of my life in IIT was spent at Chedis, which quite literally means hole but apparently refers to the owners name. In those days Chedis had lawn seating, a banyan tree and starlight dinners, was open 24x7 and served reliably greasy food. I was quite pleased, therefore, to see Chedis still around (though considerably hemmed in by the new IIT boundary wall), still open 24x7 and still as reliably greasy-spoon as before. Now it had actual printed menu and marble tabletops but luckily, still sells the regulars, prominently displayed right below the name, upstaged only by Top Ramen Curry (a brand unknown in our time).

Our life at Chedis revolved around a few things – Maggi, Special Chai, Bread Bhujiya and two unique offerings - Mohile Special and Tinku Special -available nowhere else in the world, not even elsewhere at IIT. Mohile was the nickname of a student credited with the invention of this concoction (he was Me and Mohilestill trying to graduate when I joined), while Tinku was a cook at Chedis who created a variant of Mohile and duly got his name into the history books. Both used to be specials, only to be ordered on occasion except by us bad boys (who ordered one every day) but I guess time and tide have relegated both to the status of the honoured but regular. Only a KGPite can discern the difference between a Mohile and Tinku, (and I’ve long since forgotten) but I did remember being a Mohile man, so that's what I tried on this visit, supervised kindly from a dark corner by the old man himself.

And that’s the reason its in a food blog. Mohile, greasy hamburger buns sandwiching two doublefry eggs and a unique masala, was as delicious to this now-jaded-with-sushi-and-foie-gras palate as it always was. In short, the Mohile is a genuine, 100%, alsi-desi gourmet creation. The bread adds crunch, the yolk oozes out in a most Chedidelicious fashion and that very unique masala gives it that very unique aroma.

Chedi used to be very cagey about what exactly that masala was (and we had no shortage of fanciful theories, some of which included cocaine) but age seems to have mellowed him. He was quite talkative this time, revealed readily it was some kind of standard masala from the market, though I admit I couldn’t quite make out what masala he was saying. I suspect that the deep dark secret is actually Everest Garam Masala (it certainly smells like that) – it struck me only later that I should have asked to see the packet. In any case, he let me have a handful of it to take home. I’ve been sprinkling it, on and off, on my breakfast eggs and thinking of Mohile-stuffed nights under the stars and the big banyan tree.

Making a Mohile is straightforward – hamburger buns toasted in fat on the griddle, two eggs, salt and masala fried first on one side then the other. The twist seems to be to let the masala fry a little, you can’t just sprinkle it on top and be done, oh no no. The frying of the masala is what gives off the killer smell that makes a Mohile a Mohile. Then, sit down with hot tea and munch away.

Biryani Wars in Chennai

about Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India 8 comments:
Chennai again drew me to a forgettably convenient meal at Saravana Bhavan. I find the food utterly pedestrian, but somehow the sheer convenience of this Wal-Mart of Udipis sneaks me in. Yes, they have every kind of food on earth - I noticed Lebanese and fusion this time (vegetarian is probably the only reason sushi is left out). Unfortunately, its all fairly dull routine stuff. Not incompetent, but about as exciting as a Michael Jackson rendition of Bach to a western classical fan.

Luckily, that’s not all I ate in Chennai. My visits to Chennai aren’t very frequent, but I’ve noticed on my last few trips an increasing proliferation of signs announcing biryani. Unlike Mumbai (where nearly every eatery offers biryani right next to manchurian in an encyclopaedia of a menu) these places  headlining it, staking its Thalapakkattureputation and business model on the mutton and chicken variants of this one dish. All very interesting for the biryani lover.

It was this in mind that I got my host of the day to take me to a biryani place for lunch. We headed into Triplicane, which I was told was the Muslim heart of Chennai, and promptly encountered clusters of biryani signboards, each offering mutton, chicken, veg and a few other variants. They all seemed to dole out the stuff from these huge aluminium degchis in the front. I was guided to what was supposed to be the best known – Thalappakattu Biryani, right on the main road and bustling with customers and noticeably more prosperous than some of the others. It turned out to be a chain too, about 14 branches all over Chennai.
We ordered a classic mutton biryani each, and were promptly handed a plastic tv-dinner plate with baingan pachadi and onions coated with yoghurt (basically a dry onion raita). The biryani itself came, somewhat intriguingly, in plastic cello-like casseroles, one per person. Each portion comes with a boiled egg.

The eggs and casseroles stand waiting above a nearly empty degchi Now to the meat of the matter – the biryani itself was indeed quite good. Its the dry fragrant lucknow-calcutta style made with Basmati, not the curryrice mumbai style that is the despair of so many true biryani lovers. The bustling place does incredibly well – we got the last plates of mutton and even chicken was nearly empty by the time I took the photograph. They also have a special version (couldn’t figure the difference out) and a Moglay version that has eggs scrambled in to the rice in addition to the boiled egg. Stick to the classic, is my advice.

My host explained the origin of the rather odd name thus – Thalappakattu means headgear in Tamil. It supposedly comes from the traditional habit that biryani vendors had of tying the biryani pots with their headgear when putting the biryani on dum. My friend is convinced this is a traditional Triplicane biryani joint, and this headgear thing is how they have done it for decades – he’s been having it since childhood, he says. When I asked, however, the man at the counter told me the shop was thirty years old – still in the decades but not quite as old as all that. The website, interestingly, says “since 1990” while the newspaper articles say the chain was started in 2004. Ah, the powers of branding…

A little googling dug up some intrigue – Thalappakatti Naidu Biriyani Hotel from Dindigul founded in 1957, not affiliated with the Chennai variant, claims to be the origin of the stuff. The single Dindigul shop is supposedly quite famous, counting politicians and actors such as Sivaji Ganesan as regulars. They also have a more convincing story about the name – apparently the owner used to wear a headdress to hide his bald pate, and was therefore nicknamed Thalappakatti Naidu (hence the name of the eatery). The Chennai version, on the other hand, was started in Koyambedu by a young entrepreneur called Hashnas from Kerala less than a decade ago, in 2004 (the 1990 on the website refers, I think, to the original non-biryani restaurant his father ran). Hashnas seems to have no obvious connection to either headgear or chennai’s version of biryani – his father ran a highway eatery in Payoli in Kerala. However, given the current rash of biryani places in Chennai claiming to be headgear related, I must say Hashnas has done a wonderful job of brand building.

Of course, the Dindigul original sued, and the courts finally decided to let both exist, so now the Chennai variant is called Chennai Rawther Thalappakattu Biryani (Rawther, in case you’re wondering, is a community of Tamil Muslims). The Dindigul version, meanwhile, has just opened a Chennai branch so now you can find out for yourself which one is the original – and more importantly – which one is better. A key point of difference is that the Dindigul one uses Seeragasamba rice (a native Tamil rice that I’ve been told absorbs flavours very well and so is great for biryani); the Chennai upstart meanwhile uses regular north-indian basmati.

Let the wars begin…

Rivers of Hilsa

about Hotel Rosewood, Tardeo, Mumbai 4 comments:
The end of summer is traditionally Hilsa feasting time in Bengal, but things are much more muddled in Mumbai. In any case, O Calcutta announced the Hilsa Festival in August, and we promptly started salivating. There’s nothing like a bit of independence to inspire the Bengali bhadralok to a feast, so we headed into Tardeo’s innards on the very next day – Sunday, August 16 2009.

This OnlyFish-turned-OCalcutta tucked away in a shady-sounding Hotel Rosewood in the bylanes of Tardeo is my favourite in the now humungous chain that Anjan Chatterjee has built, but it turned out to be firmly in the middle of a renovation. The restaurant was still open, though now it was tucked away in what must have been a conference room at the same shadily named hotel. There were, however, plenty of displays announcing that the hilsa we were after was definitely on the menu.

Basically, the festival was six different preparations of hilsa; what the Frenchophiles among us call entrees. Of course fried hilsa was there but off all menus altogether – obviously the Bengali did not have be told of its existence. The four of us decided the most convenient would be fried hilsa, smoked hilsa (from the regular menu) and four of the special prepares – Posto, Aam Sorshe, Midnapuri and Tetulpata. Each plate had one peti piece.

Smoked boneless Ilish used to be a wow on the old Only Fish menu; its still good but the drool factor is less – I think the chef has changed. Fried hilsa, along with generous quantities of fish eggs was good too, not the world’s best hilsa but quite recognisably from Bengal (as opposed to the insipid Narmada varities). Posto Ilish turned out to be very posto, the others though it ok though I liked the silky texture it imparted to the fish itself. Tetulpata (cooked with tetul leaves) was slightly sour – nice but not that dramatic. Aam Shorshe was loaded with raw mango and mustard in a wonderful gravy but the hit of the day was Midnapuri – hilsa with bhindi in a khatta gravy that was unusual but quite droolworthy.

The Hilsa Festival is on till the end of the month, so go fish…

Pure Expense


A few days ago, I had a very expensive lunch. Beer, two courses and no dessert the bill came to a staggering Rs 6,000 for two. No, I wasn’t on Wall Street chewing gold-plated hamburgers (that would have cost more). We were in Mumbai, on a normal weekday lunch, with a friend who had just been offered a great job (yesyes, he paid).

The restaurant was Pure, in the Taj Lands End. This was only the second time I was eating lunch there, and I must say its a restaurant of interest for more than just the prices on the menu. Though usually empty at lunch (indeed, both times we were the only diners) its a gorgeous space – pastel latticework faintly reminiscent of Mughal architecture, large tables, stylish flower centerpieces, service more polished than the polite but intrusive kinds you usually get (check the Taj site out for all the brand names attached, if you’re inclined). Its also backed by a culinary philosophy that the waiters and the menu try to explain. Michel Nischan, the chef-inspiration behind the concept, has spent decades espousing his cause of healthy, natural, new world cooking to some success in New York and elsewhere; lets see how that translated here.

But lets get back to the food. The last time I was here (a few months ago) I was blown away by the gazpacho and its rather dramatic presentation on dry ice, but this time it came in a normal bowl without all the drama. Tasted good and there was still the scoop of sorbet inside to add some flair, but I missed the smoke and mirrors. Presentations were all generally impeccable, though not quite as theatrical as before, and the ingredients were certainly top-notch. Simple massive prawns, perfectly tender lamb, polished execution was everywhere.

Leg of Lamb The free bread

But… (oh oh there's a but)

The food, though very competent and certainly new world, wasn’t wow – or at least wow in the sense that one dreams of the taste for months afterwards. Ignore the prices for the moment, but this wouldn’t rank in the top 10 meals I’ve ever had (or even in the top 10 new world meals). Technical excellence was everywhere, but the genius was missing – except in one item. That item wasn’t even on the menu – its free. The Pure version of the bread basket is a broad bean dip accompanying six sticks of flame-grilled course bread. Oh it was all fancily presented – perfect square sticks, patterned grilling, the dip with a tiny cherry tomato – but basically its amazing how a simple piece of bread can be transformed by flame-grilling. Right through childhood, when toasters were made a rarity by frequent power cuts, I’ve been having bread grilled on flames but I realize that its been decades since I had it. That's the essence of new world food – take something basic, do simple things to it but to great effect.

King prawns

The bottom line on Pure – beautiful space, very competent food different from most menus in Mumbai but don't go expecting Michelin starsbursts. Make sure you have your credit rating pristine – there’s no way you’ll be able to wash enough dishes otherwise.


about NH4 near Kamshet, Maharashtra 3 comments:
The emu looks like a kidsmenu version of the ostrich, but is apparently only distantly related (not even the same continent). I had seen a hundred emus from faraway in Karjat and three up close in a resort in Hampi (one wanted to befriend my shoe). A friend told me that it has a reputation for being stubborn, (but I think that’s before being cooked). And I knew they had three toes (ostriches have only two) - basically, I considered myself an expert on emus.

So this emu expert was driving through the old NH4 highway, looking for some dhaba named after Toni. Signs for the dhaba peppered the highway once we were past Lonavala, and eventually we were informed in warm tones that they accept all major credit cards, do come on in.

Toni da dhaba wasn’t exactly tony but it definitely was well-known - teeming as it was with people. At the back right where we parked the car was a cage full of emus. Not only that, the massive menu had menu scattered all over it, including a section of Toni specials that focused heavily on the bird. My mother, instantly suspicious of anything that wierd-looking, ordered a tandoori chicken (it was a dhaba, after all). I was keen on dipping a toe into emuland, maybe something safe like trying an emu omlette, but the waiter put paid to my hopes (and that, I later found out, was quite a lifesaver. An emu egg is the size of 10 chicken eggs and not even Australians think much of the taste). Finally, I ordered emu masala dry.

Emu meat, I must say, was interesting. Firstly, it is red meat – as dark as mutton, and with a taste that’s not dissimilar. Stringy, but not chewy, the pleasant texture of a well-cooked brisket springs to mind. And of course, given the size of the bird, the bones were huge and hard. Overall, quite pleasant, but smothered in a generic masala difficult to be be excited about except as a novelty. It had enough favour that something interesting can possibly be made from it with a good cook and some experimentation, but till then do go to Toni’s Dhaba and use any credit card.

Food Side Story

about Ambala, Haryana 4 comments:
Food, sometimes, is not just about food. Sometimes its about the stories behind food and once in a while the story is as big as the food. Here is one such story. Its just story, no food was harmed in the process…

I didn’t know very much about Ambala, but I had the vague idea that it was in Punjab (it's in Haryana) and that it was somehow associated with dhabas (The only time I'd heard of Ambala before was when I went mutton-hunting in Los Angeles and discovered Ambala Dhaba). Obviously, dreams of mutton again swimming in my head, I went looking on the Internet for famous dhabas in Ambala. So the story starts.

It turns out Ambala does indeed have a dhaba that’s famous. The Hindustan Times warned me that the famous one is full of copies – apparently there were over ten of them (even a reference to one in Chandigarh). This piqued my interest – anything with this much imitation must be worthy of flattery) - so we headed to Ambala.

On the GT Road (now all expressway-looking) right off the bus stand we came face to face with it. Only, it wasn’t quite what I expected – it wasn’t just some dhabas noisily claiming to be the ‘original’ Puran Singh but an entire eco-system with dhabas, shops, an auto repair shack, a grocery and even a hotel all claiming ‘original’ links with the big man. All in all, about fifteen shops of various kinds. This man must have been something special – apparently he’s been dead nearly a decade (and childless) but the craze for his legacy continues. Dhabas of all shapes and sizes insist on being either mashoor or asli or both, and one even insisted that we not pay any attention to other people’s baimaan and dhokebaaz claims.

Our driver pointed out the one that apparently had the best claim to original – the dhaba at the corner called Puran Singh da Mashoor Vishaal Dhaba. Adorned by a life-size picture apparently of the man himself – Puran Singh enthusiastically stirring a pot with two other people who look like the family he didn’t have – this dhaba is the biggest of the lot. And of course, just like the driver had warned, the sign said rather prominently that it shuts at four. We were there just before six…
But the battle for the dhaba does not end here. Painted at the back was an intriguing sign pointing to Asli Puran Singh da New Dhaba that made the most complete claim yet. Apparently (the sign says in great detail) the original Puran Singh (may his soul rest in peace) sold his asli mashoor dhaba and moved to this, asli new dhaba that there is now the asli asli dhaba. It also closes at four, and unlike the booze ads that adorn the others, this one leans towards family-friendly Coca Cola. Next to it a sign for a toilet mentioning (just like everything else here) the asli Puran Singh - I guess this is where the great man produced asli pee.

It seems, from my deep and researched analysis of all claims and some backfill from google that the big one in the Blue Corner - Puran Singh da Mashoor Vishaal Dhaba- is the original dhaba, but is no longer owned by his family. They seem to now own the contender in the Red Corner - Asli Puran Singh da New Dhaba – but the ownership change seems to have happened after the big man died giving the Blue Corner, in my mind, the upper hand. Of course, food joints are decided by recipes rather than owners, but alas neither was open for me to try. Not even the toilet.

We decided to try one of the pretenders – and the most interesting was the one claiming that we should not believe the traitorous and fraudulent claims of the others sounded like the cheekiest. This resulted in a standard dhaba meal of pleasant mutton, good dal and roti. Nothing worth driving to Ambala for, which makes me think - was the big man’s food so great or is it just a fabulous exercise in branding? Punjabis certainly know good food and the GT Road is basically a thousand-mile stretch of food joints, so there must be something to the place to have overcome so much competition to gain (and retain for decades) so much popular appeal.

As every imitator of Schwarzenegger says at some point – Ai will be buck…this time before four.


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