Roll over Beethoven

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One of the most useful words in German - or at least the word I found most use for after the usual hellos and thankyous - was frühstück. This double-barrel umlaut of a word is a key ingredient of a successful B&B stay - it being the second of the B's and to my latearrival earlydeparture ways, the more important of the two. Last, not least, that sort of thing.

Now I had taken German lessons in college, but my focus was much more on lunch in those days (the classes were usually just before noon). Frühstück, on the other hand, is breakfast - lots of heavy-duty german-style snorting required to get the right sound - and it is a glorious thing in Germany. I used to be a frequent visitor to Deutschland, and my B&B hostess would wake up at the crack of dawn to buy bread for me (and her family). The smell of fresh bread would often be what I woke up to - fist-sized buns of sesame, multi-grain, poppyseed, pumpernickel all ready to be my friends for the day.

Not every culture has a big breakfast tradition. New yorkers gulp black coffee, the French dress it up a little bit more and throw in a croissant, America makes Kellogs happy and India just minimizes lunches or serves idlis. The Germans and the English, however, load up their plates early, and in somewhat different ways.

English breakfasts are all about sausage and bacon, sideshowed by eggs, bread, tea, sweetened with those wonderful jams and marmalades. Germans on the other hand, meat and potatoes at all other times, like their bread for breakfast. I personally think the Germans are the best breadmakers in the world, and breakfast (double umlaut and all) is when they choose to show it off. Bakeries open really early and fresh-baked rolls of different kinds  soon land up at your table. Every family seems to buy its bread daily, and some minimal brushing with butter, honey, cheese or a cold cut is all that is required for a satisfying wake-up call.

Frühstück. A big tonguetwister of a word; I miss it.

Not made in china

1 comment:

A few days ago, while wading through a reliably satisfying meal at one of the many Mainland Chinas of Mumbai, I was asked The Question again. No doubt you have asked this many times yourselves, in your head or to your friends or the occasional visitor from the real mainland of China - how different is Chinese food in India from real Chinese food?

The short, maggi-sauce answer is easy (its different) but the longer answer - like all longer answers to Great Questions - is complicated. The first twist is in defining what one means by "Chinese" food. China, after all, is a really huge number of people and many different food cultures - and contrary to popular opinion they don’t all eat fried rice with kung pao chicken. In fact, food from one province can verge on the inedible for another, much like my soundly Bengali grandmother's opinion of a dosa. Indian Chinese food is heavily influenced by the first wave of Chinese immigrants who came to India from Canton province, and from the areas in and around Hong Kong. They settled originally in Kolkata and fuelled by the voracious Bengali belly soon childbirthed Indian Chinese. A couple of hundred years later, chefs like Nelson Wang were feeding the masses exotica like Veg Manchurian and Chilly Chicken, and we had a new cuisine.

The other complication is that even back in our own land, Indian Chinese is hardly the monolithic cuisine we pretend it is. Every place in India from roadside stall to five star sells the stuff. Chinese is possibly the most ubiquitous exotic (as in, not native) cuisine worldwide, but nowhere have I seen it as heavily localised as in India. The average roadside cook in India has taken his idea of Chinese food and made it his own in different ways. . Roadside chinese in India is basically Indian food with soya sauce, those characteristic soup spoons and the occasional noodle; there’s no real point looking there for references to anything more chinese than these three. Mumbai's chinese bhel or Bangalore's manjari chicken - comparing them to each other is hard enough, trying to cross the himalayas with them is impossible. Chinese food adapts to local tastes everywhere, but India has adopted it in ways that I’ve never seen anywhere. Usually, the people who cook these foods are of Chinese descent but India is different. Originally a whole generation of Nepalis were employed to ease the illusion but now you’ll even find sardars doling the stuff out of every crack in the wall. Desi chinese is proudly desi.

Which brings us back to the original question - with some modifications. What I think people want to know is – how do the fancy “authentic” chinese restaurants compare to the real deal? How authentic is “authentic”. The short answer – it is not particularly authentic at all. Unlike roadside chinese – this food clearly originates from Chinese food and uses many of the ingredients, techniques and combinations (including imported sauces and oddities like bok choy) but food is not just about techniques and ingredients. Cuisine, finally, is about individual dishes, the classic recipes that survive generations and come to represent the collective body called a cuisine. Tandoori chicken is Punjabi, tandoori salmon is merely a western chef trying his hand at bhangra. And this is where the fortune cookie crumbles.

Chinese cooking, depending on how far you dig into Wikipedia, is four or eight or nine grand traditions of cooking - they’re all characterized (like any cuisine) by particular recipes and dishes. Indian chinese is primarily Cantonese or Shichuan in origin, but if you look at almost any of the aforementioned restaurants – pretty much every one of these representative dishes is off the menu. Most Indian restaurants will not serve pork, beef or dried seafood, which leaves out the majority of Chinese dishes anyway. Most chinese vegetables are off the shelves (no, bok choy is not the only veggie they eat). Stickyrice the Indians will not eat. Tofu they find inedible. That does not leave much room for “authentic”. Even the five stars dumb it down – and with good sense; most Indians find authentic Chinese food as unattractive as chopsticks.

Mainland, Aromas, Royal, China Garden, Lings Pavilion are all restaurants that we love; luckily none of us are born chinese.

More foodwriting

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Food blogs are gaining some prominence. In the last few days, two people have posted on my blog, one offering to send me Danone yoghurt to taste and write about, and another a missive from Sweden on food products planning to enter the Indian market. Which brings me to an interesting thought - Busybee and Vir Sanghvi notwithstanding, India does not have much of a culture of mainstream food journalism. No major newspaper has a food editor or even a dedicated food section. Food magazines are at best Femina supplements, while A Michelin-like guide is as distant a dream as many of the cars that sport those tires.

In contrast, The New York Times gives its (daily) food section prominence equal to the sports pages, while Europe worships its many food guides (chefs have committed suicide for failing to get the desired stars). The food press worldwide is massive - innumerable magazines with names like Gourmet or Restaurant (we're not even talking wine mags) sell lakhs of issues; they've successfully replaced grandma or next-door-aunty as the source recipes and kitchen tips. Similarly, cookbook sales in India are tepid, Sanjiv Kapur or Tarla Dalal never seriously challenging a Nigella Lawson or Madhur Jaffrey. Even Masterchef India is more about crying than cooking.

Part of this may be to do with the average Indian's inherent suspicion about any food that is not his own. When Raj or Kesari Travels advertises proudly never having to touch Italian food when taking tours to Rome (or French food in Paris), you start to get the message. Take me to Pisa but feed me no pizza, the average Indian traveller might say. Yes, vegetarian plays a role, but its hard to see how German breads, French jams or Italian cheeses - all of which these tours scrupulously avoid - can offend religious sensibilities. Nor is this phenomenon restricted to Mumbai Gujaratis; Bengalis are intrepid travellers but carrying food from home so that you will have something to eat on your travels has been a constant refrain. Indians travel to see the world, only through the eyes - the mouth is strictly reserved for noisy opinions on what has been seen.

Its not that India has no eat-out culture - the dhabas, the udipis, the chaat, mithai and kabab stalls have all been flourishing for centuries - but the focus is firmly on familiarity. For most of India, wife-knows-best is less an expression of marital subjugation; more an inability to accept any kind of dietary flutter.

This is a huge pity, really. India is one of the world's great culinary destinations, stuffing at least a dozen of it's greatest cuisines into a relatively small diamond of land. And yet, less is written about all this than the perfect way to boil an egg.

Flying High

about Mumbai Airport 1 comment:

If one expects little of airline food, one expects even less if hunger pangs strike at the airport. A decade ago, Indian airports were places where famine victims would feel at home – even coffee usually came in steel containers on the back of a cycle. International airports were better, but only if your tastes ran to McDonalds or Sbarro.

Things have changed in the last decade. Flier numbers increased, airlines stopped serving even peanuts, but most importantly Osama’s antics led to a lot of people stewing long hours away between security and boarding. Nothing induces food cravings as much as boredom, and where there is demand supply will catch up.

I’ve written earlier about airport food – sandwiches at Milan’s Malpensa, American at Madhuri Dixit’s Denver and more recently goose and dim sum in Hong Kong. A few days ago another airport restaurant caught my attention; this time much closer - homechi Mumbai. Just outside the newly prettied arrivals area of the Indian Airlines domestic terminal is a place that advertises all the right words – foodie and bar.

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I spent a little while there recently, waiting for Sunanda to come back from a flight. Plagued with a cold, I asked the bartender for a cocktail that was hot and not sweet – did he know what a Hot Toddy was? A certain amount of tizzied discussion happened, and just as I was about to turn away with disappointment the head bartender appeared and furiously nodded his head at my request. My hopes were’nt high – its hard to get a respectable hot toddy anywhere in Mumbai, even more so at a place that’s next to nescafe booth in an Indian airport.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when faced with a brandy snifter full of a steaming brown liquid; fragrant, hot, delicious stuff that immediately dispatched my cold to the departures lounge. Hot Toddy is at its heart any kind of strong alchohol mixed with hot water, honey and lemon – but this was no ordinary one. No no, this one sported Hennessey cognac, came with a perfect little cinnamon stick and gave off undeniably luxury airs (at 600 rupees a pop, it should). Look at the discovery - not only do I find a bartender who knows what a hot toddy is, I'm also in a bar that sports decent cognac – is that hot or what?

The place has decent food too. Nothing exceptional, but definitely adequate while toddying up. Best of all, its in arrivals. No risk of missing your flight, and all those brownie points from girfriends for sudden enthusiasm about waiting for them.

Random Ruminations

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This Sunday’s cycle ride yielded a mish-mash of culinary experiences. The day started with Bandra’s Theobroma and its Akuri. It was quite nice, creamy and spiced right; and a major star of the sideshow was the cheesy hash brown. The macaroons that came next were, however, a huge disappointment – the raspberry filling was delicious but the macaroon itself crumbled into gloopy nothingness in my hands. Not a patch on Le 15.

Next stop was VT, and an old favourite seems to have spruced up again. Cannon (just outside the exit for the pedestrian subway) used to be Mumbai’s greatest pao bhaji (ok one of the greatest) but had in the middle fallen distinctly into mediocrity; thankfully it seems to have recovered its lost touch. Now I think of Pao Bhaji as comfort rather than truly gourmet, and indeed I think of most pao bhaji as insipid mash, but Cannon (along with Sardar in Tardeo) is definitely one of those the critics tag “worth visiting”. The secret of their explosive name is a mystery, but the pao bhaji is good for two simple reasons – lots of butter (far more than average) and a very long simmer that makes this a dense, dark brown bhaji instead of the orange slop that most places serve. Cannon fries its onions long and hard, and then the veggies of the bhaji itself sits simmering (and darkening) for at least an hour on one tawa while the one of other three is being used to serve the current crop of customers. Slow cooking it is, and this multi-tawa business is only possible in a place like Cannon who is confident ahead of time that multiple massive (four-foot-wide) griddles full of bhaji will sell out.

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Next to Cannon is another old favourite – Kala Khatta Cold Drinks. Its main offering is the eponymous Kala Khatta – a spice-sweet-sour (and cold) drink that is distinctly superior to the average roadside Kala Khatta available all over Mumbai. The place also serves a few other flavours – I tried White Rose, which turned out to be a clear sharbat with a nice musky rose smell.

Moshe Moshe

about Bandra West, Mumbai 1 comment:

Haircuts are usually not on my list of pleasant, but friends sometimes take pity on me and treat me to goodies afterwards. Tuesday night the goody was a tasting session at the launch of Moshe’s newest outlet in (finally) Bandra.

The location is tucked up above Nature’s Basket, a death-defying climb up some narrow stairs or a lift ride away from the street. The layout is similar to his other locations – walking in brings you face to face with the breads, and then there’s a nice dining area which, for this tasting session, was dominated by a table filled with salads, cheeses and turkey cold cuts. I’ve never been thank thankful for turkey, but the Mediterranean-tinged salads were, without exception, wonderful.

Then the real assault started. As we sat down with glasses of pleasant white wine, little square plates filled with food started chasing us in what seemed like a never-ending supply. Nice little kebabs on sticks, poppers of asparagus and leek, two kinds of risotto, tofu, spicy chicken, not-so-spicy chicken, lamb, beef, corn crepes, the list went on and on. After a longish pause in the parade of plates, we thought we were at the end and moved into dessert territory, only to be brought back with a resumption of  more savouries. Presentations were outstanding, either single helpings in tiny square plates, or full portions in long rectangular ones

Many dishes stood out. There was a bulgur salad,  a spinach and pine-nut salad with some kind of creamy dressing, an asparagus and walnuts salad all of which were much worthy of attention. The risotto, the spiced chicken with green couscous, the ravioli and the leek&asparagus poppers were divine. The beefsteak, the shish kabobs, the tofu in pepper and the spiced fondue rated as very good (I’m sure I don’t even remember them all – there were over two dozen options). In desserts were murder-worthy lemon mascarpone logs, drool-worthy baby walnut tarts and some of his Madonna-worthy blueberry cheesecake.

The choice, the presentation and the execution is, much as expected of Moshe, impeccable. It is one of the few restaurants in Mumbai that consistently measure up to international standards in international food. Moshe’s food is centred around his Bagdadi Jewish roots, but there’s plenty of influences from everywhere else to liven things up. Many of the dishes we had are not on Moshe’s regular menu; we’ll have to see which ones finally make it but it’s bound to be good.

Moshe Shek was, apparently, the first Indian signature chef-restaurateur (that’s a chef with a restaurant named after him) – and indeed, I know of no one else in Mumbai who dares to bare. (disclaimer - traditional names like Thakkar or Bhagat Tarachand are not really thought of as chefs, though one could argue the point there). Obviously his baring has worked; his Cuffe Parade location, tucked inside the heritage precincts of Minoo Manor in the shadow of Badhwar Park has been feeding the chattering classes for a little past the itch years. Lets see how the burbies fare.

Sweet Swirls

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Rajpurohit Bhanwar Singh is not a man you would expect to find wandering the lanes of Mumbai, but that’s where I met him, churning out Mumbai’s best paneer jalebis for Gangaur at Juhu Shopping Center. Now paneer jalebis aren’t your tappori roadside stuff; we’re talking rolaty here with paneer, khoya, milk. and saffron all lined up. Crisp on the outside, but much juicier inside – this one’s a totally different taste and texture experience. Other sweetshops (like the disappointing Tiwari’s next door) make paneer Jalebis too, but Gangaur’s fat juicy crisp versions are distinctly better. Royal priest and all that…

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This is not the first time I’ve had paneer jalebis, but the variety I grew quite literally fat on was at Kharagpur’s Tech Market. The Bongs will have no truck with paneer, so we would call it chhanar jilipi. Unlike the regular flour jalebis, or even the paneer-milk versions of Gangaur (the sweetshop has strong Kolkata roots, by the way) – these are more like gulab jamuns made all squiggly, in taste, texture and look. At Tech Market, each one-rupee jilipi was the size of a small fist, enough to turn even the most resilient sixpack to jelly in days.

Mumbai is full of jalebiwallas, but most struggle to rise even slightly above average. Here, they’re thicker, sweeter, more chewy, an evening snack to be had after lunch or when leaving office. I miss the crisp, brown, early-morning jilipis of Kolkata, perfect for pairing up with rich mishti doi. The jewellers of Zaveri Bazaar do like their ancestors did in Gujarat, and faithfully pair their savoury breakfast fafdas with small, crunchy, yellow jalebis from Pancharatna or the 113yr old Mumbadevi Jalebiwalla. Fountain Caterers fed me a killer, saffron-loaded Kesar Jalebi at my birthday party, and I’ve written earlier about the fat, crisp, dark brown offerings of the very popular JJ Jalebiwallah. Delhi has its Old & Famous Jalebiwala, though I admit I’ve never actually been there done that, while UP takes things to a different level altogether with its imartis.

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If you thought that the ubiquitous Jalebi was a fun but pedestrian Indian sweet, think again. As the thirteenth century “Zlabia” it finds mention in ancient Persian cookbooks. Zlabia (or zlebia, zalabia, zalabiya or any one of its numerous alternate spellings) is well known in North Africa and the Middle East (though not always in the swiggly, baby-finds-crayons shape that is so familiar to us). Fried, orange and syrup are common factors – details vary from place to place – honey instead of sugar syrup, yeast, saffron, nuts, et al. And then there’s the American connection - a bit of side trivia on the zalabia is its association with the origins of the ice cream cone in America.

Foodwriting

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While much is written about food, cookbooks are usually not the best to find great prose. Great pictures, great recipes, even great murder weapons are often in good supply but prose;that's usually the province of food eaters.

It being a rule and all that, there need to be exceptions. When Rushina invites a bunch of dedicated, carnivorous bloggers to a veggie meal in Gamdevi, it certainly smells like one such. This time, we were faced with Yashbir Sharma and The Food Trails of Punjab – a book that is definitely a work of passion. Its hard to describe the book – a cookbook, a travelogue, a Lonely Planet of Punjabi Dhabas – picture, recipes, cook histories, dhaba tales, hotel recommendations all threaded together with honest, unpolished prose that makes for compelling reading. It is a true cookbook, because there are pages and pages of detailed recipes. It is also a great guide to the dhabas and other eateries of Punjab. Squeezed inside are stories of some of the men behind these dhabas and generous helpings of pictures of everything. One would call the style of writing distinctly rustic, but in a book about rustic foods and people that is hardy out of place. I devoured the book faster than the aloo tikkis that Rushina was handing out as starters.

Vikram Doctor came in late, praising Yashbir’s previous book. This turned out to be The Dhabas of Amritsar – and wonder of wonders, it is conveniently available online.

A Celebrity Chef

about Aurus, Juhu Tara Rd, Juhu, Mumbai 1 comment:

Aurus is better known for its miniskirt traffic-jams than its food, but this is an injustice. This very stylish venue, laced with open-air seating, fancy cutlery and a great wine choice is also the place for some of the city’s best western food - helmed by Vicky Ratnani.

Like most people, I had sampled Aurus food in bits and pieces between conversations or hanging onto drinks at parties and nights out. The food was good - demanding enough attention to get your eyes of the nearest celebrity leg for a few minutes – but we’d never actually had a meal there till recently. And this, as I’ve mentioned before, was a definite injustice.

Sunanda’s birthday seemed the appropriate occasion for a fancy, al-fresco-by-the-sea dining spectacular – a chef’s menu with everything (including some soft-shell crab that Vicky excitedly announced he’d laid his hands on that day). And it was quite a spectacular meal – unending courses, food, presentation and the infectious, child-like enthusiasm Vicky brings (quite literally) to the table when explaining his dishes. Expensive, but certainly not off the charts for this level of meal.

Now I hear Vicky is getting his hands dirty on television again. There was this dessert show last year with Maria Goretti, now in Gourmet Central (NDTV Good Times Mon-Fri noon, 3pm, 7pm) – he’s all on his own.

Modern Mutton

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It makes for a nice title, but the mutton is no more modern than the shop it came from. Having been stranded by meetings and car-parkings, I managed to get some thoroughly nice mutton cuts from Modern Mutton Shop in Bandra. I didn’t have enough onions for a true attempt at Kosha Mangsho, but decided instead on bhuna gosht (which is basically a blanket name for a mutton dish that is not quite kosha mangsho). Attempting to impress the ladies also led me to rustle up some luchis.

I laid it on some nice blue plates, topped it with a few slivers of green chilli (purely for cosmetic effect) and clicked away. Yes, the luchis have a great shape – its from a cookie cutter.

The haiku of the mutton is as follows – mutton marinated in dahi, then whole bayleaf, cinnamon, clove, elaichi, badi elaichi, dry red chillies in hot oil, some coarsely chopped onions fried to brown, ginger garlic paste, some dhania and kali mirch all cooked till the oil separates. Then add mutton, the dahi marinade, and two halves of a medium potato – all topped with mace and nutmeg. Leave it on low low low heat till the mutton is done (I left it for about three hours). Slow slow cooking really helps mutton. A pressure-cooker can get you soft mutton (eventually), but not tender, butter-soft texture that slow cooking will get you.

Trafficking in Biriyani

about Acres Club, Chembur, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400071, India 3 comments:

Ninety minutes of start-stop is not exactly geared to improve one’s tastebuds, so it is with some lack of joy (and food) that I approached the dinner party thrown by a very close friend of a very close friend (that, I’ve learned, is the most unavoidable kind – even the end of the universe would have to be considered). But finally it was sighted in the horizon – Acres Club, Chembur. The map below is not just here to compensate for the lack of photos – trust me, you’ll need it.


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Anyway, interminable brakes and gear changes later, suitably settled into the pleasant divans of the Indian Harvest Restaurant, pacified by a glass of excellent Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, I was in a more forgiving mood. The venue seemed nice, but call it my snooty-address snobbery – I still wasn’t expecting anything more than chicken-tikka-masala to appear. I just could not think of Chembur rising much above that.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the most delectable biriyani appeared. Apparently, this place – owned, managed and cooked for by Dadar Catering College alumni - is a bit of a culinary destination. The rich, flavourful mutton biriyani turned out to be genuinely unusual – Bhatkali style, inspired by the chef’s family cook (who was a Bhatkal Kayasth). With strong mint undertones (unusual in most other biriyani forms) this was indeed a distinct biriyani – closer to Malabar than Lucknow or Hyderabad, but different from both.

Bhatkal, it turns out, is a port town north of Mangalore with a long and distinguished history, and a long association with Arabs, Persians, Marathas and biriyani. Google even found me a restaurant in Bangalore that talks quite a about Bhatkali food and has a lot of these dishes on the menu.

The food at Indian Harvest is overall very good. I was served a pre-fixe menu so I’m not quite sure what all the dishes were, but the dessert is worth particular mention. Presented in martini glasses was a silky, milky rasmalai topped with paan ice cream! Not paan flavoured – the ingredients of an actual paan mixed into ice cream in-house – it blew me away.

Go, go, once in a while go see your distant cousins. It will be worth the trip…

Saag Saga

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For the rest of India, saag is usually the ingredient in a curry, such as saag gosht or saag paneer but the true-blue Bengali raises his left eyebrow every so gently with disdain at such pulverized, spiced and curried stuff. Saag to us is shaag – fresh greens and minimal fussing around with. And the Bengali munches through a lot of different shaags - laal, pui, palak, note and others that are mostly out of reach unless from your own garden.

One shaag that is, however, easy to get nearly everywhere (even in the USA, where Indian groceries sell a perfectly usable frozen version) is methi shaag or fenugreek leaves. It also happens to be one of my favourite shaags, and to top it all is, as you can all see below, extremely photogenic.

Methi shaag has some characteristic differences from other Bengali shaag recipes; firstly there are no spices (methi is quite a strong flavour in itself). Also, it uses peanuts, which is not that common in Bengali food otherwise. And its a bachelor’s dream – very simple to make if you follow the process. Methi shaag has two tricks. One, you have to use peanuts with skin that you fry to a nice darkish colour (the skin improves the colour, no other reason really). Two, you have to cook the methi for a bit to ensure that all the moisture has evaporated – otherwise it will be a little bitter. Also it helps to chop the saag finely to avoid long entangled noodles of methi that tie up in knots. The stalks of methi, unlike that of mint, are quite edible and though people often sit around peeling off only the leaves, this is quite unnecessary. The dried red chilly glistening in the picture is purely for cosmetic effect; don’t put anything genuinely spicy.

The dish is quite a texture and taste contrast. There are those neutral, soft yielding potatoes, the chewy, slightly bitter methi and the crunchy peanuts - not to mention the wonderful smells from both the fried peanuts and the methi. Sunanda approved.

So here’s the haiku of a recipe. Cut potato into small cubes and boil till done, set aside. Fry peanuts till browned and set aside. Fry methi till dry, then add the other two ingredients and mix. Add salt to taste at the end. Serve with rice and panache.

Signing off Hong Kong

about Hong Kong 1 comment:

I’ve been back a while now, so this is the last of my Hong Kong posts.

I didn’t really eat much more than street food in Hong Kong, but there were a few noteworthy meals fitted in there. The first was the dim sum meal I mentioned in an earlier post, but there were two others.

My best proper Chinese meal was with my very multi-coloured friend PD, who took me to one of the few places in Hong Kong with lines. We went to Crystal Jade Xia Long Bao in the rather swanky IFC mall at the bottom of Hong Kong’s tallest building. This is the same Crystal Jade that fed me dumplings right off the boat (plane) but now, under PD’s watchful, paternal eye, it was going to be the full deal.

 

Some rapid-fire ordering later, food started landing up. Barbecued pork in a spicy noodle came first, a flavourful clear broth loaded with spice in which floated a generous helping of noodles and slices of meltingly fantastic, slightly sweet barbecued pork. Alongside were some sauce-tossed wontons and, of course, the signature Xia Long Bao.

 

Xia Long Bao is apparently a bao (bread) rather than a dumpling (but do you really care). The soup inside is actually frozen aspic that melts during the steaming. Originally from Shanghai, its apparently quite a popular dim sum in Hong Kong. Eating it takes a little practice to avoid burning your tongue or splattering your face with hot soup.

We weren’t done yet. Dish four was approximately a scrambled egg white with our old friend conpoy. Dish five was beans with ground pork. Both were delicious in a comfort-food way, and both looked like they would be simple to replicate.

 

Finally we were at the last two dishes. Six was a load of cabbage covering some fairly tasty beef balls, while nine was the dry version of that barbecued pork. I must say, though the dry version was quite good, I prefer the version in the soup.

 

Of course, Crystal Jade turned out to be a Singapore company reputated for Shanghai dumplings but it was nevertheless a very good – and sometimes outstanding - Chinese meal.

The last meal worth mentioning was an accidental one. Before landing up I had read about the Dai Pai Dongs of Hong Kong, famous for their wok-tossed food made over high heat. These stalls serve various kinds of stir fry, loaded with burnt bits and a smoky taste from both the style of cooking and the very high temperatures used. The la mein, in particular was very popular. Originally outdoor roadside eateries, they are apparently no longer as common.

I was wandering somewhat aimlessly through the streets of Wan Chai, along what the road signs said were Lockhart Road, when I came across a board saying “wet market”. A somewhat rickety government-looking building housed a wet market inside (one floor of which was, bizarrely, full of tailors instead of the vegetable stalls the signs insisted on). The top floor was a food court, but unlike the other places I’d seen with photogallery menus, this one had only chinese text. Not a single picture, and no sign of any English either.

A bit of sign language later, however, a plate of thin, dark brown noodles loaded with pork bits and smoky flavour landed up. The flavours are indescribable – nice chewy noodles loaded with burnt bits and chewy bits of fried pork – a smokiness from the high-temperatures the oil was subjected to, this was an amazingly tasty dish.

Two Onions, Nine Gems and a bit more

2 comments:

This Saturday, I was faced with two small onions and a kilo of frozen chicken.

Onion always bring do piaza to mind. The dish has a nice historic tale of its own – it is traceable to Mulla, one of Akbar’s Navratnas, a commoner who had worked his way through the imperial poultry farm to the royal court. Mulla (who was a scholar and administrator, not a cook) was so famous for this recipe that it became his royal title – he was officially called Mulla Do Piaza. He was said to have invented the recipe in question as a cost-saving measure; apparently the royal kitchen prepared both grated onions and fried onions for use in different dishes, much of which was wasted at the end of the day. I must also mention that though do piaza features in both Lucknawi and Hyderabadi food, Bengali men are particularly fond of claiming culinary excellence at it.

The humble onion is omnipresent in food but usually as a sidekick - it is unusual to find the onion as the star, and a double role like this is nearly unheard of. Now there are as many ways of making a do piaza as cookbooks in the universe. Some claim that two onions are to be used per kilo of meat (what size?). Some say double the weight of onion to meat (that will get you onion soup) and yet others insist on adding it twice, in different forms at two different stages of cooking. The last explanation seems to me the most plausible, and is also the one most authoritative cookbooks will tell you. So thats the do piaza it was, and since it was one of those rare instances that I was cooking in the daytime, some self-indulgent photography seemed called for.

 

My version of dopiaza comes basically from my favourite Lucknow cookbook - Dastarkhwaan-e-Awadh. Since it was the Mughal influence that brought chicken to Bengal to start with, I figured this would be as ‘authentic’ as any and anyway, it comes out wonderful. The sauce uses a base of grated onions while dark, deep fried onions are added at the end for a textural contrast and an extra dollop of flavour. The basic gravy is simple, whole garam masala and coriander-chilli-pepper powder added to an onion-dahi base. The recipe calls for no jeera powder, and the final twist at the end is mace and nutmeg powder.

Ok the pictures were good, but the chicken was great too. The deep-fried onions add a sweet-onion bite with that slight bitter edge and a little bit of bite to a smooth, flavourful gravy. I add my own twists to the recipe – a few chopped-up dhania stalks, a little bit of green chillies to heat things up and a pinch of amchoor for added tang.

Now for the bit more. Given that two onions were all I had, I was still left with some no-piaza chicken; only spices from my spice cabinet to spice things up. Always up to the challenge, I decided on the usual cinnamon-cardamom-clove trio, along with whole coriander seeds, black pepper, shahi jeera and plain jeera ground into a coarse powder. On that, I needed a binder – something to make it sticky and coat the chicken – so some cashew paste in milk was added. Everything was duly fried in ghee, tossed with a leftover green chilly from earlier - low heat and a bit of patience later, things were looking good. A pinch of nutmeg and mace and voila! – there landed on the plate a beautifully fragrant chicken with a great chunky textured coating. Some cashews to top if off, and it was ready for food porn.

There’s a sub-note. I’ve just discovered one key downside of do piaza – it does not reheat well. When I had it fresh, the second of the two piazas was crisp, chewy, nicely textured and added a lot to the overall dish. A bit of microwave love and those lovely fried onions were just dark brown stains in the gravy; they melted away at the first sight of heat leaving us, I guess, with ek-piaza.

Touching the Heart

about Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong No comments:

The first thing I did stepping off the plane into Hong Kong was to head for dim sum. Luckily, Crystal Jade was right in front of the exit, dim sum conveniently at hand. In short order, Xiao Long Bao soup dumplings in my stomach, I stepped into a bold new world ready to chow through the chinese.

As any Wikipedia-fed fool will tell you – dim sum means touch the heart and started up as a tea-time snack in Canton. Now that dim sum has worldwide recognition and is starting to challenge noodles as the flag bearer of Chinese food, I figure I should put some focus into it in its native land. Of course, it turned out to be harder to get in Hong Kong than I thought. Firstly, the Chinese insist on this whole daytime business – most places start at ungodly hours (even 5am was bandied around) and by the time the average conference goer (as in, I myself) has gotten himself out of his suit (as in, 2pm) the average shop is not in the mood to touch hearts.

Then there was this little matter of what dim sum is. Unlike the dumplings that every Mumbai resutaurant from China House to Mainland China leads you to expect – most dim sum in Hong Kong are not dumplings. To top it all, the trolleys that New York taught me to expect are conspicuously absent here. A final straw - Wikipedia informed me, somewhat smugly, that the Xiao Long Bao dumplings I had eagerly lapped up were from Shanghai and indeed, were buns not dumplings. Life seemed more complicated than I started out with.

 

A little research on Hong Kong Dim Sum did, in fact, reveal it to be a big part of the food here. The tourism board has a guide about it, and every travel book worth its name lists places where the ‘experience’ can be had. Lots of options surfaced, though most seemed to be owned by the conglomerate named Maxims, who does every conceivable kind of Chinese food and even Starbucks in Hong Kong. I finally chose Serenade Chinese, whose prime inside the modern architectural landmark of the Hong Kong Cultural Center apparently makes it a favourite venue for weddings. It was also open late – which in dim sum land is till 4:30pm. Of course, as it turned out it was also owned by the Maxim empire.

Serenade duly handed me a nice long colourful sheet of tick mark choices, all nicely numbered and categorized. A few ticks later, dishes started landing up at regular intervals, starting with a nice, full pigeon that tasted great but was horribly hard to eat with chopsticks.

 

The obligatory dumplings were there (in vegetable form, no less), but most of the dishes were not what New York and Mumbai had led me to expect.

 

Two dishes, in particular, were spectacular. Turnip cake with conpoy was a cake of turnip strips that had an addictively chewy texture reminiscent of potatoes, but loaded with flavour and that added conpoy twist. Conpoy is, by itself, a fairly interesting ingredient – scallops dried and then cooked leading to a slightly stronger version of scallop flavour with an asparagus texture. I was to encounter conpoy again later, but this one – apparently a classic combination – was quite worth the money.

Then came the star of the show, another classic Hong Kong dim sum that was one of the best bites of my entire trip. Steamed chicken with fish maw and black mushroom. Fish maw is another of the Chinese fascination with entrails – in this case the spongy, lung-like floatation bladder of a fish. The maw soaked up the wine and chicken stock and whatever else went into the steaming of the dish, and burst it into your mouth at the first bite. Add the chicken and a single black mushroom, and ‘spectacular’ came into my mind more than once as I slowly demolished it.

There were many other dim sums that I would like to have tried. Figurine dim sums were on the menu, and I later discovered that they are quite a speciality – dim sum in intricately elaborate shapes. Then, there was a long list of dessert dim sum (mostly puddings and soups) that also seemed worth trying. I however, had to stop before touching the heart spilled over to touching a heart attack.

Serenade is definitely a restaurant worth visiting. I've been told the centerpiece of the Maxim empire is the Maxim's City Hall (which overlooks us from across the bay on the Hong Kong side) is a more traditional venue carts and all. The dim sum, however, is similar but this one avoids the lines, stays open till later and is conveniently located near an MTR station.

Still More Food for the Eyes

about Hong Kong No comments:

I wrote earlier about food photography, but I was quite unprepared for Hong Kong. The night markets and the profusion of eateries there turned out to be a parade of food photos like no other.

 

Chinese eateries are known for their long menus but plastering every square inch of the walls with food shots gives these places an unusual atmosphere; as if you’re part of some massive photo exhibit. This comprehensive plastering seems to serve both purposes – point-n-shoot ordering and wallpapering, and of course if you’re not Chinese it gives you the barest hint of what you might expect. The photographs are quite good (if all in a vary straightforward, angled topshot style). The plates are artfully arranged and properly lighted, there are the usual colourful touches of lettuce or artful sauce splashes, and its all printed in large, sharp colour on photo-quality flex or paper.

The interesting part is - I can’t imagine cheap eateries actually investing generous amounts on photographers and equipment, so the only choice seems to be advertiser driven (as in most other places) or stock photos (given that most restaurants serve essentially the same menu anyway). Except that I never saw ads on the walls or the pictures look exactly the same in any two restaurants – different bowls, different backgrounds, different arrangements each time. I saw in particular, a row of large eating places at the night market that seemed to be made entirely of temporary seating and plastic walls covered with food pictures. Every restaurant seemed to have similar menus but slightly different pictures. Think of it – here’s a place that’s little better than a temporary shack, selling food at HK$20 a plate (about Rs 100) that somehow manages to hire a pro photographer to shoot something like a hundred photos?

Eggs in a Puff

about Hong Kong No comments:

Walking the streets of Hong Kong often brought me face to face with a funny snack; it looked to me like giant brown bubble-wrap and people seemed to regularly queue up for it. Meat did not seem to be involved, so I stayed clear of the queues till, eventually, google warned me I was missing a cultural phenomenon.

Gei Dan Jai

Gei Dan Jai, Eggettes, Egg waffles, these things are everywhere on the streets of Hong Kong. I finally picked up the courage to buy, for a Hong Kong dollar, one of those folded bubblewrap eggette sheets. I had been told to expect mildly sweet vanilla-eggy flavour, crispy outsides and chewey insides and – well - thats what I got.

Looks cute, tastes pleasant, not exactly earth-shaking. Methinks a bit of ice cream or chocolate sauce (of which I saw no signs) will do wonders. I guess its one of those things – you know you’re from Hong Kong if you salivate over Gei Dan Jai.

An Awful lot of Offal

about 22.396428, 114.109497 No comments:

Sure, everyone eats the spare bits of whatever animal happens to be dinner, but no one does it quite like the Chinese. The Bengalis diligently polish off every inch of a fish, the English trot out the occassional trotter, the French wax about tripes and sweetbreads while Bycullah trumpets khiri and kaleji to all and sundry. All this, however, pales in comparison with the average street vendor in Hong Kong, whose entire existence seems focused on what the English translation rather guilelessly calls ‘offal’. Intestines, tongues, feet, knuckles, necks, ears, wings, after a while you start wondering where the regular bits of the animal go. Maybe to McDonalds.

This is also one big aspect of Chinese cuisine that is never exported. I don’t think we’re likely to see Mainland China featuring intestine or skin anytime soon. Even cities like New York or San Francisco boasting substantial and authentic Chinatowns steer clear of organs.

  

Some of the offal is rather droolworthy. Pork-neck barbecue, Beef trotters, braised chicken feet are three examples immediately spring to mind from the last few days of culinary trawling. Some others were inedible – fried salt fish skin, what might have been bits of a lung, a tasteless yellow octopus thingy. Most were more experiential than revelatory. Many I can’t even identify, and without instructions in English can only stumble along smiling cheerfully.

 

Its quite obvious that offal (a rare English translator euphemised it to “varied organs”) seems to be a cultural preference rather than a necessity. In Bycullah (or France) the khiri and kaleji are adjacent to large quantities of regular beef portions – here that seems to be largely absent. Few dishes on the menu feature full cuts or display them in the pictures that dominate shop windows. From what I can observe, it seems to me that most of these stalls actually buy only the offal – skin, lungs, spareribs, intestines, all were stacked up in bags at the back. The exception is poultry – full ducks and chicken are prominently hung out in front – but that may be because the intestine of the average chicken is unlikely to get you very far.

Goosebumps

about Chek Lap Kok Airport, Hong Kong No comments:

I landed in Hong Kong deprived of breakfast and headed straight to the geese.

Maxim’s at the airport makes no bones about how great it is. “Secret Recipe” “Delicious” all the important keywords were there. The counter was a straight lift from McDonalds, but they did have some tasty roasted geese on rice.

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And, of course, I love their deadbird displays.

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Biriyani Wars 2: Dindigul Strikes back

about Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India 4 comments:

Right across the road from the Park Hotel are these big white letters on coca-cola red, once in 2D, once more in 3D; in other words, unmistakeable. I was finally face to face with the the Chennai branch of the injured party in the local biriyani wars.

 

Much as us outsiders insist on thinking of Chennai as veggie heaven, the city is actually teeming with biriyani joints – a feat attributed in no small part to the very successful Thalappakattu chain (the last letter of the spelling is critical here). In an earlier post almost exactly a year ago, I blogged about a quirky story of intrigue, marketing and myth-building around the popularity of biriyani in Chennai and its now-ubiquitous association with headgear (thalappa) – apparently two claimants presented themselves as the headgear trademark for biriyani. The battle between the Payyoli Rawther defender and the Dindigul challenger went to court, but seems finally to have been settled now with both parties left standing.

The Dindigul version (which to my mind has a more believable story to the headgear association) has been around since 1957, and they were not about to give up. They promptly opened up in Chennai and made sure that everyone new where they were the originally from – going from the original Anandha Vilas Biriyani Hotel to the simpler, pithier Dindigul Thalappakatti Restaurant. As of now, they have three large branches in the city and, as I will come to later, have established their own legendary tales.

Jeergasamba rice - fatter and shorter than basmati

The two biriyanis claim interesting origins. Rawther is an influential Muslim community from Kerala (where, oddly, they seem to be called Tamil Muslims) while Dindigul’s Hindu Naidu community originates from Andhra Pradesh and traces its roots to the Vijayanagar Empire. The Rawther variant uses basmati rice, while the Dindigul version makes much of its use of the native Jeergasamba (or seergasamba) rice, which they claim is superior for biriyani because it absorbs more flavours. Oddly, their website also talks about sourcing meat from particular breeds of cattle in the region; yet the Naidus are Hindu and there’s no beef on the menu.

Dindigul Thalappakatti is a moderately upmarket restaurant. Unlike the Rawther variant, this one was airconditioned, sported liveried waiters and plenty of interior ambience. A leather-clad menu continued the bright red colour scheme and biriyani, as expected, was given pride of place - the rice USP mentioned twice over. However, they’re not a pure biriyani place, for the menu is long and even reaches China. They’ve been able to build quite a legend around the rice, though – the two people who sat at my table were both articulate about the rice and its purported biriyani-superiority (they did say, however, that Ponnuswamy was better still).

  

Among the unusual items was a mutton rasam, which I decided would be a good pre-cursor to the biriyani. It turned out as expected, a spicy, peppery rasam with pieces of mutton floating about. The mutton biriyani landed up boneless (which is a little disappointing – I’m a great fan of bone in a biriyani) accompanied by onion raita, gravy and dalcha (a meat-stock toor dal with brinjals). Along with it came Neenju Curry Chops – a dry, peppery stir-fry of fatty mutton chops (ribs), onions and dhania. I must say, however, that a lot of the dishes sounded worthy of exploration.

 

And now the verdict. The biriyani was genuinely great, even without the bones. The Jeergasamba rice is chewy, flavourful and works very well as a biriyani rice. The Neenju Curry Chops were quite worth the calories too. Rasam wasn’t as mutton as I expected (I guess they don’t make the stock with mutton, just add the pieces at the end)

My personal opinion – Dindigul is better biriyani than Rawthers. Both are good biriyanis, but Dindigul definitely has something going for it.

Khoya Khoya Chaand

2 comments:

Though I’m Bengali with a sweet tooth that would put an elephant to shame, I don't cook desserts that often. One of my early attempts at making shujir halwa – a simple matter of combining semolina, milk and sugar (or so I thought) – had led to much embarrassment. Blissfully ignorant of the semolina-milk ratio and having never been told to roast the semolina first, I ventured forth and multiplied. Not so much time later, after poured every packet of milk at home into the attempt, I was left with five litres of what the unkind would describe as halwa-flavoured fevicol.

That is now behind me, and if people remain stuck to one of my halwas nowadays the reasons are entirely more pleasant. Having cracked the suji code, I went through a whole halwa phase with dal, besan, and the rockstar of halwas – gajar. Then, having conquered the impossible, I gave it up a decade ago and except for the occasional foray remained largely halwa-free.

Till recently.

One day, a hard days’ work safely under my belt I go to visit Sunanda and come face to face with her most recent purchase – a substantial quantity of carrots that she was was convinced I would turn into a halwa. In a touching gesture of faith, she had even grated them for me.

Ok, I figure, its not so hard. I haven’t done it for a decade but no one forgets. Khoya, ghee, cashews, sugar, some cardamom, optionally a little saffron and we’d be in the game.

“We might not have saffron” – she says.

No one to be fazed, I decide to start by roasting the cashews.

“Hmm, you know, there may be no cashews either. I don’t like them that much anyway”

Ok no garnish. Still manageable. Lets start with heating the ghee then.

“Ghee?” she says, “I don’t think we use ghee at all”.

“What about khoya?”

“No!  What is that anyway?”

“Milk?” I could boil it down to khoya, I figured.

“Hmm, I dont think we have any milk either. I didn’t realize gajar halwa was so complicated!”

Five minutes of conversation later, it strikes me. Armed only with grated carrots and sugar (I hadn’t even asked about the sugar yet), I was expected to beat the pants off Haldirams’ at the halwa sweepstakes. This was the stone soup story, in reverse.

“Not to worry, sweets” I ventured bravely, “we’ll just go and buy everything”.

Except that its now nearly eleven in the night - what the unkind will call ‘late’. Unshuttered grocery stores (or dairies, or hypermarkets) are not exactly screaming welcome all over Bandra West at this time. Or anywhere in Mumbai, for that matter. We could have swum the sea and hit Dubai to see if things were open, but I decided to be difficult and use my ingenuity instead.

Now gajar halwa can be prepared in many ways, but my favourite was to cook the gajar in ghee and sugar till done, and add khoya (which, for those still stuck to the Mohd. Rafi song from the title, is actually milk thickened till dry. Mumbaikars wanting to be different can call it mawa). This simmering makes for a wonderful, strong carrot taste and a nice dark colour from the sugar, while the khoya adds the dairy twist and contrasting creaminess. The other choice is to simmer the carrots in milk, which I’ve always thought leads to soggy, textureless carrot pudding more worthy of the English than the Marwaris.

The first hurdle was ghee but Pali Market’s local medicine shop had ghee, right next to the heart pills. Sugar and cardamom appeared from the deep recesses of a sideboard. Which, one roundtrip of Bandra-Khar and two closed dairies later, still left me with the khoya problem.

And that’s where it helps to stand in the path of a brainwave. Right next to the medicine shop was Punjab Sweet House. I know what you’re thinking but no, they didn’t have gajar halwa . Nor did they have mawa, but they did have peda and kalakand, which you might realize, is made with khoya. Peda is fine khoya, while kalakand is based on a grainy, rich khoya. I plumped for the kalakand – looked better, tasted better and worst case would be adequate consolation if the halwaing failed utterly.

Thus got made a perfectly good halwa. Well, I exaggerate - it wasn’t perfect. Kalakand isn’t quite mawa and the odd cashew definitely adds something but still, it tasted great.

Since this is  a food blog, I figured a quick brief of the recipe would not be out of place. Gajar halwa is one of those recipes simple and short enough to be squeezed into a haiku – simmer the grated carrots in dollops of ghee and sugar till the ghee separates out completely (takes a while). Let it cool, crumble in generous quantities of mawa, toss in a handful of roasted cashews, lean back and let the adulation sink in.

“tumko bhi kaise neend ayegi……”

More Food for the Eyes

3 comments:

My eye-candy post proved to be very popular, which may well be destined to make me lazy (picture equals hazaar words and all that). However, I’m determined to be as wordy as ever so here’s a ramble on photographs without photographs.

I must say, Friday’s foodblogger dinner opened my photographic eyes. The top honours must go to Shaheen’s purplefoodie.com, where the pictures are so outstandingly wow that droolworthy is an understatement. Her potato photos should come with statutory warnings for dieters (though the garlic olive oil may provide some relief). Somehow she even manages to sex up the simple opening of a can.

Nowadays, armed with multimegapixel phones and digital cameras, everyone’s photoblogging food. Once upon a time people used to photograph their kids obsessively but I guess food moves less, allows for reorders and often looks better.

Food photography is the logical child of the trend of plating food in artistic ways. One can hardly eat at top restaurants nowadays without feeling constantly guilty about destroying works of art. The pro and amateur chefs on an unceasing progression of foodshows turn out picture-perfect plates under deadlines tighter than Jack Bauer’s on 24. But, like most things, this was not always how it was.

Plated service, though associated most often with French food, was actually started by the Russian courts. The custom (continuing from medieval times) was to serve everything at once in a lavish and impressive banquets ala the feasts of Asterix (who, of course, was French). Somewhere in the early 19th century, however, the French adopted the ‘Russian’ style of serving (service à la russe) and thus, the individual plating of foods began its domination of tables and televisions. By the late nineteenth century, the ‘homestyle’ banquet was headed firmly into extinction -preserved with care only by New York Italians and Las Vegas casino bosses. The (western) world was, meanwhile, firmly in the grip of the plated meal.

Food photography had to wait a few years more for the world to turn colour (I guess there aren’t many ways to make a monochrome chicken look edible). People had been drawing luscious colour apples for ages, but photography was still obstinately stuck in sepia. Then there came Nickolas Muray, a man of many talents, also an accomplished practitioner of the new and novel color-carbro process (you had to develop your own photos in those days, just clicking the button wasn’t enough). As it turned out, the Great Depression robbed him of his main line of work – celebrity portraits in colour – and pushed him into commercial photography. McCall’s magazine contracted him in 1935 for their home and kitchen pages, and just like that, food photography was born. Today, food photography is a big chunk of the commercial photo industry. They even have their own festival!

I really have no idea how purplefoodie gets the results that she does, but here and here are some tips to getting a great food shot (not to mention the 7,890,000 other results from google).

Food for the Eyes

5 comments:

Blogs, I notice, have become very visual of late. Food blogs, in particular, seem to have improved in leaps and bounds on the quality of photographs. Just so that I dont feel left behind, I’m posting here four of my nicest food photographs.

Parathas in Mumbai 

Number one is a photo of a food stall at the Kandivali Lokhandwala Durga Puja, where fresh parathas are being made in preparation for the evening rush

Sweet potato chaat in Delhi

Number two is a sweet potato and starfruit chaat seller in Chandi Chowk in Delhi.

Street food in Mahim

Chicken vadas on a tawa in a Mahim bylane

Bread being sold in Istanbul

A store in Istanbul offering traditional turkish pide breads.

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