Panvel Pao

about NH4 near Panvel No comments:

I cycled a hundred kilometres for Mumbai's most famous vada pao.

Thats a bit of an exaggeration, I admit. Not the cycling, the fame of the vada pao. I discovered two crucial things on reaching Panvel - one, the McDonalds is not actually in Panvel (its nearly 4km before Panvel) and two, that watermelons are more common than vada pao there. No one in Panvel seemed to think that there was anything very famous about vada paos in Panvel; finally an auto-driver doubtfully pointed me to Wagesh.

Wagesh turned out to be Wagesh Pao Bhaji Center,  a short diversion into the market near the bus stand. For someone with a famous vada pao, it was surprising that the only thing associated with pao on the signboard was bhaji, but I went in anyway. Its a tiny joint that's been around for forty years, serving various fried combinations of besan, batata  and bread to what seemed a surprisingly large customer base. The samosa was great and the misal outstanding. Their samosa is the flat, thin-skinned triangular kind, not the pyramid shaped Punjabi variant, and the misal, was oily, spicy but unusualy, had batata in it - the same batata that fills the vadas!  And it was tasty!! Unfortunately, I never got taste the masthead-advertised pao bhaji - that happens only in the evenings.

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The Vada Pao, however, was a disappointment. Strictly okayish is the best I can do for it. However, I wasn't willing to give up so easily. I asked at Wagesh where they would consider vada pao was great, and they pointed me to Dutta Snacks, a bit further down the road.
A bit was a little over two kilometres. Dutta (not, unfortunately anything to do with Bengalis) is at the junction where the Pune and Goa branches of the old highway part ways. It was, unlike Wagesh, a very highway food court kind of place where you had to buy coupons first and pick up stuff from the counter. Strictly self-service. For some reason, the place also had a counter selling bunches of Alibag's famous white onions (though that was not what was used in the dishes)

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Here again, my foray to the coupon counter yieled misal and vada pao. And tea. And the pattern repeated. The misal (though distinctly different from Wagesh) was great. No batatas, less of the crunchy stuff, but lots of taste. The vada pao, as before, will again be described as strictly okayish. The tea was fantastic.

Conclusion: For great vada pao stick to Juhu. If in Panvel and desperate to avoid any taint of McDonald's, head to Wagesh or Dutta for misal.

A Highway to Somewhere

about Saktigarh, West Bengal 2 comments:
Most of Bengal's famous sweets come from Kolkata, but some particular ones have the names of other places attached to them.. Many of these places remain off the map for all but a small number of people who lived or went through those places. Shaktigarh, whose reputation rests on the langcha - is one such place.
The common langcha, an elongated brown sausage of a sweet that adorns the counters of every mishti-shop in sight, is usually a distant cousin to the rossogolla, the chamcham, the sandesh, the mishti doi - more a change of palate than anything worth pursuing on its own. All that changes, though, when you come to the Shaktigarhi variant. Bigger, bolder, a much darker brown and dangerously addictive - this is no pale second-rung sweet. Its hard to believe that there can be anything uplifting about filling a longish paneer sausage with khoa and frying it in ghee, but the best of Shaktigarh is simply outstanding. The magic is in the quality of the ingredients, the mix and the precise process - there's variance even within Shaktigarh, with some very average shops and a couple of outstanding ones.
For those who've never come near one, a Shaktigarh langcha is not unlike an elongated gulab jamun - but there are some differences. The skin is noticeably more chewy, the inside soft, fluffy and very white. Bad ones have hard centres, great ones ooze perfect soft, billowy white creaminess. The special version uses khoa (mawa) in the filling, which gives the centre more creaminess than the ordinary variety. You have to eat it warm or room temperature though; cold makes it unappealing.
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For the longest while, however, the reputation of these langchas far exceeded their availability; I lived for over a decade within a hundred miles of Shaktigarh, yet managed to have it only once or twice. What changed things was the Expressway, which decide to go through Shaktigarh; suddenly there was this spanking new four-lane road connecting this rural hamlet to Kolkata, Durgapur, Asansol and busloads of people in between. The intersection where the expressway connects to the road leading to Shaktigarh station is strip about half a kilometre long lined with langcha shops.

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On my first highway visit to Shaktigarh, there were just a handful of small stalls selling the langchas. Barely more than roadside shacks, they were already doing great business; indeed the busiest one claimed to be selling over seven thousand a day. That time, in my usual quest for the best, I actually tried every stall and found a winner. On my recent visit, however, I was amazed. The shacks had multiplied, and become far shinier and fancier. Instead of a couple, there was now more than a dozen each named with every variant of house you can imagine in Bengali - from the humble nook to palaces, mahals and and even a bhuban (universe).
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I couldn't resist doing the survey again, though this time trying every shop wasn't an option. All of Shaktigarh's langchas are a cut above most found anywhere else, but as before, there is plenty of difference between the shops. I tried a few at random, the ones nearest to where we had parked. The only langcha shop that did not carry a bhaban/mahal kind of name was one that proclaimed Kaushik Ghosher Langcha. This got me excited enough to try and cross the road for a taste of one of them, but their langchas were quite avoidable. The winner, in my short survey, was Adi Langcha Bhaban (pictured below). Their card informed us they were present on both up and down lanes; both branches are at the Kolkata end of the strip, on either side of the road.  In particular, their special langcha (khoya added to regular langcha, fried slightly more) is outstanding. Beware of imitators, though - right next to it is Langcha Bhuban - nearly identical signage (even the colours are copied) but noticeably poorer langchas
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Puff Daddy in Japan

about Four Seasons Hotel, Worli, India No comments:

So I finally had it. Fugu Sashimi, the deadliest food known to mankind.
Fugu, the Japanese name for the much-discussed, much-poisonous puffer fish, actually does puff up - it can in fact become a nearly spherical ball of a fish by filling itself with air or water. Its quite a dramatic looker, and quite the aquarium pet. Unlike the average cobra, though, the deadly toxin found in its organs is not produced by the fish itself but by bacteria living inside it - apparently aquarium puffer-fish are not poisonous and can be chomped down without expense accounts (eat the funny pompous fish as much as you like, just don't fool around with the little guys).

The toxin itself is really really toxic, and without antidote; apparently you turn into this zombie thing and die within hours. That doesn't prevent the Japanese from paying a lot to eat them, in a whole ceremony involving sharp knives, licensed chefs and voodo (ok maybe not voodoo). In all my trips to Japan, I didn't quite dare to stress my courage or my expense account to actually venture fuguwards, but the damned thing gets enough press coverage that it remained on my must-try list. It was with some interest, therefore, that I heard about the Four Seasons, Mumbai offering fugu on the menu of their fancy Asian restaurant. So a few months ago, four of us went to the Four Seasons to try and add the puffy stuff to our gourmet credentials.

There was indeed fugu sashimi on the menu. At a shade under Rs 1,000, it wasnt even going to break the bank. All well and good, but a small amount of exploration with the waiter on its origins yielded the fact that the fish had, in fact, been sliced in Japan by a certified chef, and shipped here frozen. In other words, the waiter was quick to assure us, it was perfectly safe. He even showed us the sliced, packed, frozen portion. I must say that this let much of the drama out. Frozen? Safe? not words you want to hear for your most on-the-edge culinary experience. We ordered it anyway. The picture below is not mine (google image search leads me here), but that's pretty close to how the Four Seasons variant looked.

The fugu sashimi is a plate of pale white, translucent strips of fish. Google image search also shows that this is not usually how the stuff is presented. Remember, you're usually paying the GDP of a small country to eat the stuff in Japan, so presentation is a big deal.  A thousand rupees got us the above, but the full deal looks more like the picture below. Quite a stunning display, that. 


The final paragraph is reserved for the gourmet qualities of the fish. Frankly, it was more disappointing than anything else. We already knew it was frozen, a word that is usually kept far away from the vicinity of sashimi. On top of that, the flesh itself was chewy, tasted mildly of nothing and did not wring any ecstatic noises from anyone except the lone vegetarian who was not paying for it. Rubbery mouthfeel, undistinguished aftertaste, even my wine-trained vocabulary is struggling to make this sound good. Maybe the freshly-sliced real-Japanese thing is better, but it might just be the size of the bill and the death-defiant rush that makes this work. Not something I'm dying to try again.

Disclaimer: Unlike my usual posts, this one has images sourced from the web

Breakfast in Goa

about Calangute, Goa, India 2 comments:
Every time I've stayed in Goa I've always been surprised that the breafast buffet spread ignores goan altogether. There's your aloo-paratha, your dosa-idli, your frenchtoast-pancake, even exotica like swiss muesli or chinese porridge but anything is local a rarity. Goans, it would seem, don't wake for breakfast.

The Lemontree, as expected, offered us a bland, location-free breakfast but I wasn't giving up so easily. Apparently, hidden away in the menu are Goan dishes that the chef is willing to make for you, if only you can find it, find him, and be charming enough. I'm not sure why they make it so difficult, but my efforts resulted in a Pao with Patal Bhai, which the chef assured me is an authentic breakfast option for the Konkanis of Goa.

It turned out to be a spicy aloo peas curry with coconut milk, tamarind and jaggery, eaten with buttered pao. Surrounded by Portugese names, crisp white churches and piles of vindaloo, one forgets that Goa is home to substantial population of Konkanis with their own distinct culture, and some rather colourful temples. Patal Bhaji is from them, a food that Goa shares with its Maharashtrian neighbour not far away.

Turkey Two

about Istanbul, Turkey 5 comments:
Though Turkish coffee is famous, we actually spent a lot of time in Turkey having chai. They call it cay which looks a bit like the numbers you find painted on trucks in India, but its chai, black, very strong and very sweet, served always in these colourful plates and glass tumblers.
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The Turks have a sweet tooth. Actually, that's an understatement - they have sweet tusks, mammoth gigantic ones at that . Sweet in Turkey is really sweet, more than chemistry can possibly allow. Smelling one of those sweets has been known to cause diabetes. Brightly coloured and packaged Baklava shops dripped their honeyed sweetness everywhere, but one of the most surprising desserts in Turkey was a sweet chicken pudding. Nedim convinced me that such a thing did indeed exist, and was in fact edible. And popular, unlike those pufferfish-applefungus kind of creations that only two people in the world had ever salivated over. Yes, it is a dessert and an actual chicken is involved, and it has been around since Roman times. Called Tavuk Gogsu, or Chicken Breast Pudding, it is made of strips of chicken breast cooked in rice paste and sugar and comes in plain, or browned variants that I and Nedim preferred (no jokes about roast chicken, please). The chcken adds a faint flavour and an interesting texture, but basically its a sticky, mildly sweet rice pudding dusted with cinnamon. My other favourite was a Kunefe, a cake-shaped confection made of wiry strands of dough, soaked in syrup and topped off with soft cheese - chewy rather than crunchy, and overpoweringly sweet unless had with adequate amounts of the cheese. The pictures are not mine; some unknown photographer on flickr...

We stayed a few days in Sultanahmet, a place full of tiny hotels, great views of the monuments and lots and lots of food joints. Ramzan did not seem to deter anyone; restaurants opened at 10am and stayed open till late. Menus were full of lahmacuns and pides, baklavas and boregis but the most ubiquitous of them all was the kebab. They was simply everywhere, the doner, the iskander, the shish and a hundred others. I couldn't figure out which was the best, so I finally decided to pick one with atmosphere. Late in the night, I walked into the one with the most crowd milling around, a horde of hungry Ramzaners just out from the tiny but elegant Firoz Cami across the street were crowding into Sultanahmet Kebab House. It turned out to be a bit of a find; wooden panelling, busy waiters, the usual claim to a century of history but crucially - and this is usually my test of a good place - a busy restaurant with a tiny menu. The theory is, if so many people want to eat the same thing, it must be good. The entire menu is five items, including a salad and a dessert. I went for the star of the five - the Shish Kebab that I could see being piled by the plateful at the counter and hurried away by harassed waiters to waiting stomachs. It was great.
While planning for Turkey I was instructed by Deanna to try the Gozleme. "Forget everything else, you'll love it" she said (or something roughly on the same lines). As luck would have it, a nicely photogenic Gozleme seller had his cart parked within a sneeze of my hotel. In addition to looking good, he certainly managed to turn a mean gozleme. It doesn't sound much - big rotis folded with cheese in it, but I couldn't stop eating them. It helps that they're cheap and portable.
My favourite street food in Turkey, however, first landed in my lap (or more correctly in the path of my loiterings) in Izmir. This old guy with a big basket that looked for the world like black panipuri waved me down on a dimlit part of the Izmir promenade. It was midnight, he was probably having a slow day. Maybe he had a daughter he wanted me to get married to (that happens more often than you think). In any case, after some exciting sign language, I discovered he was selling oysters. I thought he was selling raw oysters, but this turned out to be something else altogether. Oysters, filled with a peppery rice filling, opened and served with a dash of lime. Indescribably wonderful - I've since swallowed bucketfuls of the stuff. Its worth going to Turkey just for this.

Turkey (the country, not the bird)

about Turkey 1 comment:
Ok I was in Turkey months ago. I've just been too lazy till just now about posting on its food.
Turkish food has plenty in common with Indian food. The reason isn't hard to find; a succession of Turks have ruled various parts of India stretching back over a thousand years. We had Turkish painters and poets, some of them must have been cooks too. I'm not really going to present a study of Turkish food in a blog post (that is beyond even my fantastic reserves of overconfidence). My idea here is to describe some of my most notable food experiences in Turkey, and so I should start at the start.
The first thing I had after landing up in Istanbul was a dolma (or stuffed grape leaf) from a small store that looked like a cross between a New York Deli and an Indian corner grocery. Apparently, cold dolmas are vegetarian, hot ones have meat - this one was cold. This was followed in short succession by "Duniya Mehshur" Kuru Fasuliye - World Famous Butter Bean Stew. The restaurant H├╝srev has apparently been making the stuff since 1928, a stew of beans and meat in a tomato base. Its made in these huge aluminium vats by grim-faced cooks and served with buttered rice. Nothing fancy, but quite satisfying.
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Next on the list of interesting foods was a baked potato - something I always thought of as uniquely American. It sounded very boring, and frankly I wouldn't have given it a try if it had not been for the insistence of my vegetarian friend. The Turks give it an exotic name - Kumpir - and load it with more stuff than most Americans can spell. These fillings are laid out in colourful rows behind a glass case, looking for all the world like an ice-cream parlor. The Kumpir-master takes a massive potato, splits it open and piles it high with yoghurt, olives, veggies, beans and loads of other things, then finally tops of off with a flourish of ketchup and cream. Surprisingly, most filling choices were veg - in fact the only common non-veg choice was a very dull sliced sausage that looked like it had come from a can. The kumpir is one of the most colourful dishes I've ever seen, but best of all - its a fantastically tasty medley of tastes and textures.
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This is getting long. To be continued...


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