More Biriyani

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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

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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…


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