An Awful lot of Offal

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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.


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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.

IMG_0873 IMG_0878

And, of course, I love their deadbird displays.


Biriyani Wars 2: Dindigul Strikes back

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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


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


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, 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


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.

Spit and Polish

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My blog now has a new look, which makes me seem more productive, given that I'm down to one post per quarter...

Dargah Diversions

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Ramzan approaches, and the Muslim food of Mumbai suddenly floats onto the top of everyone’s consciousness. Few people in Mumbai can feign ignorance of Mohammad Ali Road but that’s not the only place in Mumbai to polish off a decent kabab. This post is about a somewhat lesser-known but equally cholesterol-friendly bylane of Mumbai.

Mahim Khau Gallo (officially Balamia Road) opposite the Mahim dargah – not so much lesser known (you can hardly miss the traffic knot there) as lesser explored. Most people I know have seen and not conquered it, but it is a galli of considerable choice and some uniqueness. The Dargah is Mumbai’s oldest, and Makhdoom-al-Mahimi who rests in peace inside (how he does amidst all that noise is a mystery) is the patron saint of the Mumbai police. I guess it’s one of life ironies that the Dargah is also the address of some of those most wanted by the police – Tiger Memon and his family. For those not inclined to a life of crime, however, the Dargah acts a fitting cornerstone to a mostly non-vege khau-galli – one of the tombs inside is that of a goat.

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Mahim has some items not commonly found in other places, which is what makes this galli worth exploring. The first one I encountered was the chicken vada-pav; it looks like the usual vegetarian version but comes with a marvellous chicken filling– so much more satisfying that mere aloo. Baida rotis and rolls abound too, but are not particularly different from anywhere else. Then, there’s the usual assortment of deepfried stuff – nice, but unspectacular. You do get fried fish here, though – I guess reflecting its fishing village roots.

Chicken vada  

The middle of the lane is the dedicated province of sharbatiyas and halwa-paratha sellers. Huge parathas accompany a startlingly orange sooji halwa topped with glazed fruit (as if more colour was need) in a combination that would be wonderful if the halwas was better. Also popular is an orange milkshake that’s as sweet, colourful and avoidable as the halwa. The final item on the dessert list is the rather grandiosely named Dilbahar – puff pastry enclosing a dull coconut and dry-fruit filling.

Halwa-paratha The partha for the halwa Orange sharbat Dilbahar

What this street is really famous for is at the Paradise Cinema end – the Khichda. Khichda is the haleem of bollywood, a concoction of wheat, dal and meat slow-cooked into a gloopy mixture that has much to recommend it. Add to it a generous helping of deep-fried onions and a twist of lime, sit down on one of those colourful plastic chairs and dig in.

Khichda degchis Khichda sellers Khichda

The khichda sellers also sell some murderous looking chana chaat and aloo dum that is surprisingly tasty and very vegetarian. They will also mix all of it up, some kichda some aloo dum and some chana chaat into a … well, just go and try it.


The bottom line in the verdict is this – chicken vada paos are fantastic. The other kabas are competent. The Khichda is nice. The whole place is a worthy change from Bycullah, and not just at Ramzan.


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