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


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


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


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.


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