Spanish Lids

about Barcelona, Spain 1 comment:

I must say, I know very little about Spanish food, because they seem to completely ignore their cousins across the Atlantic and eat none of those convenient Spanish-named foods – nacho, taco, burrito, not even a quesadilla anywhere. Tapas, of course, was everywhere in New York and Washington DC, but I must say was not quite the kind I see displayed everywhere.

Tapas – oddly - means a covering or lid, and has all kinds of tales (including a few involving wise kings) to explain the connection to food. It finally boiled down to small plates drunk with all manner of all manner of spirits - specially wine, sherry and sangria. Dim sum with alcohol and Spanish music, basically.

My first experiment with Spanish food did not start all that well. An unscheduled snowstorm forced me to eat at the hotel, and the only choice - the coffee-shop that made most of its living from (ouch) hamburgers. Our of pity, the waitress agreed to give me a key local speciality, tomato bread, instead of the french fries - this turned out to literally be crusty bread topped with a small amount of crushed (practically brushed) tomatoes and some olive oil. Toast with ketchup in a Spanish accent.

It was only late evening, well after all hope had been given up that I took shelter in what turned out to be a drinks and tapas place . I have no idea if the place had any kind of review or rating, but it did have lots of stuff on display and counters manned by Punjabis from Pakistan.


The place was exciting, a long counter piled three high with all kinds of foods. Some were combinations - such as the elaborately constructed open sandwiches above – while some were single ingredients cooked with sauces and oils. Though plenty of meat and vegetables were present seafood was clearly the dominant theme – fishes, oysters, clams, mussels, squid, octopus and lots, lots of prawns swam about the counter. Great ingredients combined with some talent at presentation and simple cooking methods led to some very satisfying bites – especially when combined with some nice sherry (in my case a Tio Pepe dry). 

Things looked up a bit further when a colleague called and said we were all going to meet at Los Caracoles for dinner. A quick iphone google promised me competent Catalan food in a “hidden” tourist delight – promising enough. My friends got stuck in the snow, but I soldiered on and soon was shipping sherry with the bartender. And it did indeed have atmosphere – old barrels, aged hams and white-haired waiters in the right proportions and most interestingly, a kitchen right in the middle of the restaurant. Not unusual in iteslf, but this was no glassed-walled show kitchen with gleaming chrome everywhere; more like a basic ash-strewn affair that could have been your local dhaba. Make no mistake, however, this was self-concious dhabaism – the bread was shaped like a snail, photography was encouraged and mastercards flashed everywhere.


And of course the food. Huge trays of it were already streaming past when I ordered. Snails, massive prawns, lobsters, clams, all manner of heaped plates passed me by.


Lets not forget the food. Hearty, generous and quite delicious. Not gourmet or by any stretch of imagination fancy, but very satisfying.

Haute ethnic, in two different cities


In the last few days, I had two very nice meals at fancy restaurants, and they were both ethnic with twists. The first was Punjab Grill in the new Palladium Mall in Mumbai, where I was at the opening (and therefore sampled more of the starters than any of the main courses) and the other was South Indies in Bangalore, which I’ve been to before but never till recently had a full meal.


Punjab Grill’s driving force is Zorawar Kalra, a powerhouse of a man outstandingly passionate about his food (which is always a good sign – never believe the glob about the best halwais not eating their own sweets). Among the punjabi dishes he fed me was an incredible bhutte-ki-kabab (yes, in the middle of chickens and lambs, I’m praising a veg kabab) and a wonderfully unusual seekh, reminiscent more of Lucknow than tandoori, but distinctly punjabi nevertheless. Of course there were fusion flourishes – who in Punjab ever heard of scallop? The best innovation of the day, of course, were the paan shots – liquid paan hiding a potent shot of vodka under it – very addictive and very dangerous.


South Indies was the other side of the country. Its not exactly new - at least a few years under its belt – but though I’d been there a few times for various things I’d never had a full meal there. This time I went to the South Indies on Infantry Road – a brand new outlet hidden on top of the rather oddly named Chevron Hotel (no relation to the oil giant, I’m sure). A very pleasant venue populated by some very friendly waiters fed us a great southern vegetarian buffet – no fusion twists at lunch, only the classical stuff well executed especially to our Mumbai palates. Fancy south Indian is particularly rare outside ITC’s Dakshin chain – a good dosa or rice plate usually means sweaty bodies and long lines - so this was a very happy experience.

It is unfortunate that the best Indian food is found on the streets. Not because I’m unhappy about going down and dirty, but because my theory is that food cannot progress unless patronised by excess. The best street vendor perfects his offerings by making the same thing again and again for decades, but he tends to stick to the tried and true. He cannot afford experiment, and he certainly cannot afford expensive ingredients to experiment with (like scallops, for instance). Street food evolves but this is incremental evolution – improvements on old favourites – rather than totally new dishes, techniques or ingredients that add to the repertoire as a whole.

Most cuisine revolutions evolved out of jaded royals or rich merchants, a hundred years ago that was anyway the only choice for funding food experiments. Today democracy has taken royals out of the equation and replaced rich merchants with bankers, consultants and IT millionaires. Both Indian-Chinese and Tandoori-Punjabi – that so dominate both restaurants and streets today - were created in famous, fashionable restaurants (China Garden and Moti Mahal respectively, I’m told). I’m sure a lot of people will find it ridiculous, but today some fancy restaurants in London and New York actually make better Indian food than most places in India. Obsessive technique paired with obsession about the ingredients – the perfect cut of meat or the exact kind of rice – has elevated some restaurants to heights beyond its land of origin.

Lets hope this trend of truly regional restaurants charging top dollar and catering to jaded urban palates are going to drive the next evolution of desi food at home.


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