Local Love

about Khao Lak, Phang-nga, Thailand No comments:

Authentic is not always what you expect it to be.

I spent three days in Khao Lak, searching for chillies and coconut milk; screaming in frustration at finding only ginger, soya and rice wine. Looking for locals feeding themselves got me to a strange mixture of hotpot and hot plate; I was quite excited by it but apparently that was as local as Chinese in Mumbai.

Markets are usually good hunting grounds. The local wet market did have food stalls, but most were closed by the time I got there - apparently Khao Lak's bucolic populace start early and shut by noon. The one stall that was open looked authentic enough but, in a sleepy unhurried afternoon was feeding only two tables - a German-sounding family and a European couple with too much suntan. A little bit of sign language did produce a classic tom yam with the much sought lemongrass and chillies, rustic chunks of ginger, galangal and onion floating about, reasonably rendered and reasonably fiery. Emboldened by my lack of distress with the chillies, she made the next dish – a rather nice crackling pork and beans in red curry - noticeably more fiery.


Sunday arrived and I scooted off early morning, still in search of the curry, towards Takuapa town – once a centre of tin mining. The old part of the town is scattered with older Sino-portuguese houses, while the new area looks just like any other town. Pleasant - especially the bits along the river - but nothing utterly spectacular. More to the point, it was a full-sized town, not bucolic at all and not much was open in the morning. The only thing open was packed to the gills, and served what looked to me exactly like biriyani and paratha. And indeed, that is what it was, with a twist.

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The biriyani was quite different taste-wise, laden with coriander and what the west calls curry powder (it originated with sambhar masala). The paratha, a crisp layered version createdby stretching the dough rather than rolling it, was filled with egg and meant to be had with powdered sugar and condensed milk, both of which rather conveniently were in dispensers at the table. The crackling paratha, with its soft egg centre and loads of condensed milk (yes, I was a little generous) was quite wonderful.

On the way back from Takuapa, I came across in the town of Ban Muang a row of stalls hidden from the sun and the highway by large awnings. A few of them were selling food, so I stopped to see. The first stall offered me a large array of sweets – sticky rice with fillings such as red bean, banana or coconut, wrapped in banana leaf, steamed or roasted – the banana-filled roasted version was especially nice. Alongside were sweet soups and brightly coloured jellies of different kinds, but I didn't try them.


Next door was a fair, frail old lady selling dim sums out of a huge steamer – these are common in the area (especially the standard sui mai in colourful variations) but this lady had the nicest looking ones. Opening the steamer revealed exquisite shapes; dim sums made to look like flowers, like crab claws, like shrimps, cubes, balls, dimples, so many shapes. The there were the combos, a pork base and a topping shaped into something interesting, were the nicest – most unusually a hot dog dim sum made to resemble a flower.


A trip to the nearby gas station led me to my next discovery - actual curry. I've since formulated the theory that a row of steel vessels signals curry, while hanging chickens or vegetables signals kway teow, and this place – a thatched, largish seating space under a few large trees, was definitely the curry types. The fried pork in red sauce was suitably fiery, spreading slowly down from lip to stomach. The pork and pineapple curry that followed was the best thing I ate on the trip; a wonderful combination of spicy, sour and sweet flavours (I discovered later that Phuket is particularly proud of its local pineapples) attached to some meltingly tender pork. A few hours later, another stall would feed me a tom kha gai (Chicken Galangal Soup) to challenge this, but it still won.

I was still puzzled that curry options - what I thought of as Thai food - was so hard to find and why everyone kept steering me to noodle soup and dim sum instead. Robyn's comments on my previous post (read on mobile while downing the curry above) pointed me in what is often called the right direction. It turns out that through the twists of history, Phuket has the highest percentage of ethnic Chinese in Thailand. Tin and trading both drew thousands of workers, mostly Hokkien – and gave the tiny Phuket island province its distinctive China-tinted identity. Most searches for top dining spots turned up many recommendations that were distinctly Chinese in origin. It turns out, yesterday's kway teow and all those other variants on noodle soup I had been turning my nose down on were the most original things I could have had. Alas, my eating was at an end – I had run out of mealtimes and stomach space.


My final dish in Phuket was, however, of suitably chinese-thai provenance – squid and basil in a wonderful ginger-soya sauce, spiked Thai style with loads of chillies and basil. Eaten, beachside, to gathering dark clouds and the slurps of a green coconut drunk through a nicely touristy straw.

Looking for Local


When IMA invited me to Phuket on what really important people call a junket, I was quite excited. Visions of pork-lined streets and wonderful curries glazing my eyes, I braved roaming charges to land at Phuket airport and discovered a slightly different destination – Khao Lak, rather than Phuket. Not so bad, I told myself, the name has eating in it and anyway, how far from good food can you get in Thailand.

Life has since been more of a challenge. Khao Lak is, it turns out, a small, rural, mildly sleepy town better described as a string of hotels plunked into some dramatic scenery, peppered with more Scandinavians than Thais. Faced with so much white skin the chefs at the intensely pretty JW Marriot treat chillies with great wariness – a single one probably powers an entire lunch service. As for real Thais eating real Thai food, It's easier to find McDonalds and steak than a local grabbing a meal.

However, I'm not about to give up that easily. As in Goa, renting a scooter here was a breeze and thus armed, off I go hunting ravenous locals and their hideouts. A few trips up and down the thin strip of civilization that constitutes the town does not yield much result, so I persuade the scooter lady to tell me her recommendation. "Kway Teow neah Moo Moo Show" she tells me, and I pretend to understand.

Moo Moo Show, it turns out, is hard to miss – a huge neon sign announcing the town's primary cabaret show. Right outside is indeed a food stall proudly displaying the flat rice noodles characteristic of Kway Teow, and eventually an excellent plate does indeed appear. Sliced fried pork from the stall next door is equally satisfying. Both, however, seem very Chinese; Kway Teow is very popular in Thailand so I shouldn't really complain,  but the stereotypes in my brain would not be satisfied with this chilli-lacking curry-missing option. No, I needed coconut milk and lemongrass.


I kept wondering, where do the locals eat? They certainly look well-fed enough, but most restaurants are empty of all but the whitest of skins. Worse, none of Europeans appear in any distress – a sure sign that the dreaded bird chilli has not been observed. More searching was in order; it was finally a Vegas-style 99 baht all-you-can-eat buffet sign with a happy pig that caught my interest and, venturing a short way down a beaten path I was in a large restaurant full of locals. The happy pig had saved the day.


All you can eat wasn't quite the huge array of Thai curries I expected. Indeed, there was not a curry in sight; the tables were packed with locals all trying the single item on the menu – a wierd combination of hot plate and hot pot that united Japan and Korea in ways politics never could. Korean Barbecue met Japanese Shabu Shabu in Khao Lak.


First came the fire – a clay bowl filled with blazing coals. Then the plate – a raised aluminium thingy with handles and a huge perforated bump in the middle. On the top of this bump was perched a big chunk of pork fat. Put the plate on the fire, pour the stock in around the bump and wait for everything to boil or melt while you go pick up the array of meats and vegetables on offer. The meat cooks on the bump – helped along by the melting lump of lard – while all around the stock happily boils into a soup.

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A row of trays greeted me, filled with strips of meat marinated in different sauces and ready for the grilling. Pork, as one may have expected from the happy pig on the sign, is the dominant choice but there were a few chicken options too. The soup portion had  noodle types to choose from (glass, flat or fried), a few kinds of greens, herbs and various shapes and sizes of fish and meat balls. Seafood choices (given that the sea was one hotel's width away) were surprisingly sparse – a single option each in fish, prawn and squid.

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This, though not particularly gourmet is a satisfying meal with lots of meat and a nice soup formed from a hearty stock redolent of  five-spice - a social and entertaining way to eat. The tables were filled with couples, families, mens parties, womens groups, all kinds of people having boisterous fun. Drink,s even water, is extra but all in all the bill came to a comfortable 140 baht.

Still no bird chillies, coconut milk or lemongrass but search abh bhi jari hain

Military Manoeuvres

about M Shetty Marg, Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai 1 comment:

Cafe Military, hidden in the bylanes of Flora Fountain, would have remained hidden to me but for a loving recent article in DNA. It took me a while to get to flora fountain (possibly a reflection of how much of Mumbai life has moved out of the fort area) but here I am, at lunch, catching a quick bite of Salli Boti and Masur Gosh before the caramel custard appears.

The cafe may have been hidden to me, but it certainly wasn't unknown. The red checkered table cloths were busy with beer bottles and raspberry sodas; waiters rushed past at regular intervals transporting keemas and paos; biriyani was already sold out. Contemplating the inevitable paper menu staring at me through the glass tabletop, I settled on (as already mentioned, look up dears) the special of the day - Masur Gosh. Whole masur dal with skin landed up - a hearty dal stew if there was one, prettied up for the non-vegetarians by drowning three tender boneless chunks of mutton. The brain masala was pedestrian but the the salli boti that followed was loaded with salli crunch and tomato sweet-sour. The final stage- the caramel custard – came with a darker-than-average brown cap and was on the better side of competent. This isn't the best Irani restaurant ever but it is, indeed, quite good.


The tale of Mumbai's Irani chai, as we all know, is no longer in the food but the borrowed time that Cafe Military and kin are living on. I've always wondered, though, why are these storied restaurants unable to convert a reputation into a sustainable business. With generations of loyal customers, prime real estate and often (Brittania, for instance) an enviable brand, these places should be able to do more than sit and wait for death. The owner, Sheriar Koshravi, complains that roadside puribhaji is eating his lunch and there's no dinner crowd, yet less than a hundred feet away restaurants such as Khyber or Apoorva are thumbing their nose at street food and queuing people up for dinner. Irani cafes seem headed towards graceless decay rather than graceful vintage – gripping at a fading past rather than building on a heritage.

Deep thoughts make me hungry. Go ahead, gobble up the keema while it lasts…

Utter Crepe

about Vinayak K Shah Marg, Nariman Point, Mumbai 10 comments:

So much has changed in a decade. South Mumbai was once a daily commute; now it has fallen so far off my work and entertainment map that it took me seven months to visit the newest and best regarded of one of those things I'm very fond of; the very Gallic crepe.

I acquired a taste for crepes the proper way – cycling the streets of Paris. It was stoked to fever pitch at another city – San Francisco – where Ti Couz and Galette introduced me to the savoury alternative (alas, both have since closed doors). Mumbai had its crepe choices (a couple of chains too) but they were usually pedestrian so, when a few Frenchmen get together to open a creperie, tongues are bound to wag.

And here I finally was, on  Saturday afternoon, at Suzette.


The location is tiny, hidden away in the depths of Nariman Point, the entrance a black narrow staircase beside another one that unfortunately leads to a men's loo. Once you have negotiated these rites of passage (and possibly taken a leak in the process) you fill find yourself in a space that could have been lifted straight from the streets of Soho, Manhattan. Chic and beautiful people fill stylish minimalist decor in a tiny tiny space. To add to the stereotypes, one of the partners is a soundly French-accented Pierre, while another is an investment banker.


Suzette's crepes are good; plenty of choices on the menu both sweet and savoury. The chicken-n-olive galette was nice, the Belgian chocolate crepe especially so; coffee was great, Wi-Fi was free, the fresh orange juice unsweetened for the more dedicated types. It's only flaws seem to be that inconvenient closure on Sundays and the barstools at the counter that could do with better footrests.

Mumbai is filling up fast with cosy, warm and very international options.


about Chimbai Rd, Bandra West, Mumbai No comments:

Just as you the corner from St. Andrews, just where the road - after a brief, tantalising view of the sea - reverts to narrow bylanes, is a small pastel and white slice that you could miss if the corner of your eye wasn't paying attention. This is Yoga House, technically not really a house at all, carved out from the side of what must once have been a pretty Bandra bungalow, now covered with utilitarian extensions and matchbox windows that sinks with ease into the unplanned mishmash of Chimbhai road.

Yoga House (next door to the late lamented Serpis) does much with its space. A white wooden porch, some coats of paint and a few flowers have persuaded this corner back into something resembling the Bandra of yore. Its focus, as the name suggests, is yoga but the few white chairs and pastel cushions on its porch signal its intention to be more than just a roomful of mats; it is also a very pleasant cafe. The slatted wood lets sunlight in strips and slices, the pastel green walls make rustic virtue of the rough plastering, cleansmelling airycotton women provide the cool chic of an upmarket yogi's life.

For all its yogic attachments, the menu does not insist on being healthy all the time. Plenty of options involve cheese - but organic is everywhere and meats nowhere. Healthy hints like toning, detoxifying or alkalizing buzz liberally about the pure vegetarian menu, built on soup, salad, sandwich, juice all worded eccentrically in first person moods; an aubergine sandwich is "I Am Daring" while the cheddar-loaded Somerset Tartine signals "I Am English".

I've been around the menu a couple of times, and most things are at the minimum pleasant, great ingredients minimally fussed about, tested combinations rather than haute stuff. Healthfad staples like quinoa and buckwheat abound, but the food tastes great even if you're not trying to save yourself from dying. There are a few standouts - the Mykonos Tartine soaked in liquid feta cheese, the Mediterranean salad with a wonderful sesame dressing and not a wilted lettuce, the khullar masala chais competing with the very best of roadside.

The nicest part of the Yoga House Cafe is the cool, languorous, encouraging cheeriness to come and while away time in a neighbourhood that - watched over by the very elegant St. Andrews Church - should have been quaint and picturesque but has over the years faded into chaotic and crowded. Sitting in Yoga House, sipping from a khullar and munching at those perfectly unwilted salad greens, it is easy to imagine Bandra as it should be.

Breakfast at night

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The Americans like their breakfast any time of the day, but most other people wait till the next morning. I felt American today, and had an uncontrollable urge to down an eggs benedict for dinner. Which is all very good, but eggs benedict isn't the easiest of dishes to get hold of in Mumbai even in normal hours. The only choice I had, really, was to make my own version – and so that is what I set out to do.

Eggs Benedict, like so many other famous dishes, has obscure origins though most people agree on its invention sometime at the turn of the century in New York. The basic recipe is remarkably consistent – poached eggs on english muffin and ham, topped with hollandaise sauce. Basically, crisp base, chewy salty centre, squishy top and a rich tasty sauce on top.

It turns out the only thing I had from that list was – the egg. A burger bun substituted for the muffin, a chicken mince patty played the role of ham and I do a fair poached egg with real eggs, but finally – there was the elephant in the room. Hollandaise sauce has been known to curdle even on Masterchef contestants who can otherwise produce six course meals with two hands tied behind their back; I had no idea how to make it.

Brainwave, however, was around the corner. There was, indeed, something in my pantry that was yellow, liquid and tangy the way a good hollandaise should be. Some days ago, I'd bought myself a bottle of cheese salsa for some nachos, and that was as close as I was to get.


And so the Shanky variant of the Eggs Benedict was made. It was surprisingly good; the chicken went nicely with the cheese salsa, and that beautiful runny poached yolk was – well -  beautiful. It did look like the real thing - sort of…

Sure, the original works better but I surely have a shot at one of those variants. Behold – the world's first Eggs Bambayia!

Creative Spam

1 comment:

I'm definitely becoming popular. I stand before you now as the vehicle of a very creative promotional attempt – one of my posts has an obvious, if creatively targeted, spam. Its made to look like a genuine comment by a person in response to my blog on Chennai biriyanis – but it's obviously fake. It gushes about basmati and clean cooking oils and fantastic packaging in a way that can only be an advertorial inspired by commercial interests. And, apparently this commentator – a person named a distinctly feminine-sounding Lavanya - has a wife…

What I cannot make out is, was this posted by a robot or manually? Manual, I'm very flattered; robot, not so much – I may even be a little creeped out.

Take a look here (comment #2) and decide for yourself.

Sunday Stuffing

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There's nothing like a run to work up a hunger, and long Sunday lunches were therefore perfect excuse for some stuffing. South Mumbai is no longer a place I visit so often any more, so this also seemed like the perfect excuse to visit some old favourites.

The first visit was to satisfy a craving for steak. After a few twists and turns around the block, I squeezed myself into a tight little parking spot in First Pasta Lane and walked. To Paradise.


An unassuming storefront on Colaba Causeway, right across the road from Kailash Kailash Parbat is quaint parsi restaurant that has not changed either its menu or its attitude in decades. Racy pictures on the walls, old men sipping coffee and a long line of deliveries to Cusrow Baug were – I noted - all intact as I sat down to get myself a hearty steak. Unfortunately, power was out. Both air-conditioning and beefsteak was unavailable, but all was not lost. Paradise also serves a mean mutton steak and a very nice salli boti, both of which soon landed up on my plate.


Paradise Special Mutton Steak is a special steak. Its a nice, juicy, tender lump of meat in no particular shape, slathered with a brown onion sauce and topped by these fat potato fries that are so good at absorbing aforementioned sauce that they should come with a warning label. Did I mention there's Russian salad on the side? Salli Boti was equally classic, a beautiful sweet-spicy sauce topped with light, crisp salli – string fries. The only complaint is the size of the portion; even for old Parsi lawyers, this must be bit of a small bite.

And then there was the end. My sweet tooth started asserting itself as the meal neared the finish line, and along came the star of the show - lagan nu custard - by far the best rendering of this Parsi staple around.

Last Sunday, I noticed a new sign on an old place. Hidden behind the rump of Wilson College, on the unglamorous side of Gamdevi's jeweller lane is a place once known more for comfortable beer and pool than food. Cafe New York was all about pool tables and jukebox, a less crowded Mondegar, Wilson girls instead of gori backpackers. I and my friends had long outgrown it (pool was no longer so cool anyway) but when Kedar told me it was now open for decently nice breakfasts there was this small nostalgic twinge.

Cafe New York remains a tiny, narrow, corridor-like space (though I couldn't figure out how to get upstairs to those pool tables) - chequerboard tablecloths covered with the menu and Irani chairs. Keema pao was on the menu, of course, and a plate of it soon landed on my plate – rich and brown, eggs stirred in ghotala style, dhania, bread and those two essentials on the side – diced onions and a fat slice of lime.


Brunch requires more than one dish, so another Irani classic – a chicken-cheese omlet – was kept for the second round. And so it was that a fat, juicy, amul cheese omlet with torn bits of chicken breast added to the count.

Satisfying, this conjunction of calories and nostalgia…

Bhutan III

about Taj Tashi, Thimphu, Bhutan No comments:

The dragon thundered at our last dinner, and it was loud!

Days of lunches and dinners had passed the same way; Indian food firmly hogging centrestage, local dishes waiting meekly in the shadows. Worse, the Bhutanese choices on the buffet were invariably vegetarian; beef, pork of the local eateries banished in deference to Indian sensibilities. Luckily, for the last dinner - our final gasp of the thunder dragon before we were back across the border - the kitchens of the Taj Tashi proved more adventurous. Significantly more; Bhutanese food may be all water-butter-boil, but much can obviously be done with just that.

Shikam Paa

The last night was only about local food. Ngou ngou and datshi pranced happily about, nary a korma in sight. Beef, pork made a grand appearance alongside chicken. Even the soup dug up local roots. Only the dessert counter was left in Indian and Western hands, the Bhutanese unable to conjure much of a sweet tooth.

Here's a the roster of dishes that were on offer:

  • Cheese Momos with fish sauce and a delicious chilli-cheese dip .
  • Gongdo Churu Jaju; a rather unusual soup of riverweed and egg-drop. The riverweed imparts a milder-than-seaweed seafood and umami punch, while the egg drop adds body to the soup. Delicious
  • Hoentse Jaju; a soup of mustard greens that was far tastier than it sounded
  • Gongo Datshi; a cheese-n-egg stew sounded nicer than it tasted, but it was nevertheless quite good with rice. Bright red, unlike the other datshi dishes.
  • Kewa Datshi; this was the best rendering yet of the staple potato-chilli-cheese stew. Quite delicious, and though neither origin nor technique is the same it bears a strong resemblance – in taste and appearance - to potatoes au gratin with chillies thrown in.

Kewa Datshi Bhutanese Saag Norsha Paa 

  • Jasha Broccoli Tshoem; a bright red stew of diced chicken and broccoli was colourful but not particularly memorable. Broccoli is a recent visitor to Bhutan, but plenty is grown locally
  • Dolom Ngou Ngou; aubergines and garlic stir fried in butter was simple but delicious.
  • Jeli Namcho Ngou Ngou; local mushrooms stir fried in butter. Resembled oyster mushrooms but a bit bland, not quite as interesting as the aubergine.
  • Bhutanese Saag Fry; a fry of some spinach-like local green and chillies – about as exciting as that sounds.

Jasha Broccoli Tshoem Dolom Ngou Ngou Gongo Datshi

  • Norsha Paa; dried beef with glass noodles in a red, chilli-laden sauce. An interesting combination of soft noodles and chewy beef
  • Shikam Paa; a combination of local dried pork and radishes was easily the star of the night. The fatty chunks of dried pork resembled bacon, and the radishes did a wonderful job of soaking up all kinds of juices.

I'm not quite done with the Datshi yet. Lunch, earlier in the day (as is often the case), had yielded a couple of new dishes including the much awaited Emma Datshi, or chilli-cheese stew. It's Kewa Datshi without the kewa or potato, a bunch of medium-spicy chillies vying with the cheese for attention; I must say do indeed like Emma Datshibetter - the lack of potato concentrates focus on those tasty chillies and cheese. They're spicy, these chillies, but not quite as murderous as the worst Indian ones and plump and meaty to boot.


Then there was Shamu Datshi, local mushrooms in the same cheese stew. Pumpkins made their appearance in Kakur Sege, not much more than boiled (people may harshly judge it as tasteless, I choose to carefully describe as 'interesting'). Lunch also yielded the only Bhutanese dessert in sight – a saffron-tinged rice called Dresi, mildly sweet and laced with fruits and nuts and served traditionally with a butter tea called Sudja before lunch. While the Sudja butter tea was a rather nice soup (it won't go far down your throat if you think of it as tea) the Dresi - well, I would tag it a similarly careful 'interesting'. Its hard to think of it as anything more than coloured steamed rice.


All in all, Bhutanese food showed far more promise than the previous few meals had led me to believe. The cheese stews are quite satisfying, the shikam paa definitely worth repeats and the ezzay  (chilli paste dips of various kinds) – some were simply wonderful.


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