Malluland Drive

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Ducking out of another hotel dinner, I put my fate in the hands of taxi driver Ainaz, who promptly took me to Zam Zam in nearby Thiruvanthapuram.

A short drive from the hotel, Thiruvananthapuram (I hope I don’t to write that again – even copy-paste is tough) turned out to be (disappointingly for a capital city of a state) a small and somewhat rundown town; possibly a reflection of Kerala’s communist dysfunction. Civic infrastructure – roads, sidewalks, garbage, traffic lights – were mostly non-existent, giving the town a feel of the uncomplimentary kind of backwater. We wound through the city’s main road (named, with the usual inevitability, after MG), past mostly uncrowded shops and jewellers, past Tripadvisor #1 Azad Restaurant to the end of the road – Zam Zam.

 

Now the one thing to be said for the place is that unlike the rest of the road, Zam Zam (and its three neighbours) were buzzing with cars and people. I nearly came back out since there was no place to sit, but the waiter took pity on my obvious out of town helplessness and cleared up a table for me.

 

Zam Zam isn’t what I expected – its biggest menu successes are not remotely mallu. Shawarma, fried and rotisserie chicken rule the roost here. I ordered an Iftar special – mutton kuruma and Ottu roty (some kind of rice roti) but apparently that had run out, so malabar parthas. They were decently nice, certainly more mallu than all the pitas and shawarmas swarming around led me to expect. Zam Zam also pushes a whole lone line of juices, ice creams and things called ‘parafites’ and ‘sandaes’ but for obvious reasons I kept my distance from them.

Still waiting for appams…

Avoiding Indian II

about Kovalam, Kerala, India 1 comment:

I’m at an exotic destination with excellent local food again, and Indian food is again being avoided.

This time, however, I’m not doing the avoiding by choice. Sitting in beautiful Kovalam, surrounded by sea and seafood, spices and foodloving nairs I’m stuck consuming thai salad, green curry and exotic vegetables for lunch. Even the desserts diligently dodge any mention of payasam; sticking valiantly to strudels, ice creams and “tropical fruits”.

Yesterday’s lunch was marginally better. Some of the dishes had suitably unpronounceable mallu names (even if the majority of the Indian section doled out punjabi and rajasthani). In particular a firecracker chilli pickle and some very nice mango pachadi made my meal. No such luck today – forget local authenticity, even the thai food was not remotely authentic.

Neither avial or appam has yet been encountered.

Highway Slobbery

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It was not the kind of branding I expected to see in a messy, muddy, back-of-beyond suburb of Pune. A bright purple could have been expected, wadewale is not that uncommon but a clean, well-designed sign with a small cartoon face? A self-confident sign that would be more in place in an ad agency pitch than a vada pao joint – its not even part of a chain! Yevale Wadevale – the sign-art was sufficiently attractive to get me to stop and take a second look. And boy, am I glad I did.

I was hungry, winding through those narrow rollercoaster Katraj Kondhwa road on my way back to Mumbai. An accidental traffic knot made me stop right in front of the bright pink sign; since I’d already managed to park I decided this was the vada pao shop for me. I sauntered in, and in my best James Bond voice asked for a vada and (when in Pune and all that) a Punehri Misal.


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The vada pao landed up immediately – steaming hot, blazingly spicy, sided by garlic chutney fried chillies. No chutneys, green red or otherwise, as is the the norm outside Mumbai. Not quite pilgrimage quality, but quite nice. So far so good, but the real kicker was what came next - The Misal…

Imagine, a deconstructed, multipart misal in the middle of nowhere. And it was fantastic. Pune style – made with sprouts rather than vatana (peas) the usal was spicy and loaded with flavour. The farsaan – the fine crunchy kinds rather than the surti-style gathia that Mumbai prefers, was suitably bolstered with grated coconut, diced onions and peanuts. It was, in other words, wonderfully satisfying.

Yavale is a real find. Its that rare place that Google has absolutely no knowledge off (till now, I guess) and its tasty, cheap, satisfying food – with branding!

An hour later, I was in front of a much better known wadewale – Joshi. This one is a huge, noticeably branded outlet that dominates a small stretch of eateries on the Mumbai-Pune Bypass Road. The huge frontage hides a large hall filled with pictures of what I assume must be Joshi, an avuncular balding man in various sizes and poses – could have done a politician proud, especially the saibaba impression.

Joshi was extremely disappointing. Once reknowned as one of the great vada pao makers, the immediate impression you get now is one of run-down negligence. The counters are empty, the service reluctant and the namesake vada paos plonked carelessly onto a plate cold; hard to screw up a vada pao, but cold and lifeless is definitely one way. The vada was very average, the misal on the other hand was nearly inedible – I abandoned it after a spoonful.

Luckily, the strip of food stalls is more than a pony with a single trick. It turned out to be an amusingly varied set of choices, from litti-chokha to daal bati churma. I settled on a a walk.


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Tammana, a few steps away from Joshi, caught my attention for  offering such stoutly Bhojpuri options such as Sattu paratha and Litti-Chokha (for those of you know have no idea what a litti is – here’s my blog post about what it is and how to get hold of one in Mumbai). Unfortunately, they were not ready at 4pm for my demands lunch so I changed to RK’s well advertised House of Rolls next door.

 

The brightly green RK’s House of Rolls certainly believed in celebrity endorsement – their signage had everything from Kapil Dev winning with world cup to Yana Gupta looking all Kingfisher – presumably both had just polished off something from RK. Truth in advertising aside, the anda-chicken roll was not half bad - sizeable chunks of kati kabab and a nice, flaky paratha that did not drip oil.

A great misal, a good roll, some halfway decent tea – it was a drive I could stomach after all.

High Thai II

about Phichai Ronnarong Songkhram, Khlong Tan, Khlong Toei, Bangkok 10110, Thailand 1 comment:

I gathered much material for Thai food; this might yet evolve into a Rambo-quality series.
This is my second instalment about eating Thai off the streets, sitting down in air-conditioned comfort ordering food off a menu. Waiting for food to come to you rather than walking up to it. Haute of a sort.

Thailand is, in a sense, like India – most of the best renditions of classic cuisine is found in the hole-in-walls rather than at fancy places. Like most Indian food, prices are usually attached to ambience rather than to food quality. This can make for a minefield of disappointment for the dedicated foodie – how do you decide visually what is worth visiting? Worse in a country where local reviews, blogs and even menu descriptions are written in gobbledygook. Haute can end up with pretty waiters instead of pretty good food.

 

The (English) guidebooks’ choice for high thai seemed to be Bo.Lan. From decidedly hippie Lonely Planet to the decidedly snootier Travel+Leisure, Bo.Lan seems to be much in the news with its hip story of imported chefs and michelin-star origins and all in all seemed a visit. A beautiful, lush space suitably tucked away in a hard-to-find lane, populated by the aforementioned pretty waiters and a generous helping of both foreigners and locals – it seemed to meet all the tick marks required for the experience.

 

Once you’re seated and settled in, Bo.lan offers you (in impeccable English for a change) a choice of a la carte or their version of a set menu – Bo.Lan Balance. Since the Thai also do not eat course wise, the set menu is closer to thali than pre-fixe – a starter thali, a main courses thai and an array of desserts. Put together, the five “courses” of Bo.Lan’s Balance put a large number of options in front of you.

 

First comes a wonderful drink of rice beer, sake-like, all light amber and beautifully fruity in a beautiful martini glass, accompanied by three tiny pickles and a green drink that I’ve since forgotten about. This is followed by a boat plate of starters, then a soup, then five main courses, a dessert and finally petit fours with tea. Alongside, they offer traditional white jasmine stickyrice (with a twenty baht carbon tax added on) or guilt-free organic brown.

 

The presentation, as you can see, is quite spectacular. The petit-fours, in particular, came artfully arranged on a spectacular slab of stone. Everything is deliberate, planed, refined, plate designs chosen to match, portions arranged with picture-perfect precision. This is a date place, very much a special occasion dinner.

 

And of course, I’m headed to the big question – what about the food?

Unquestionably, Bo.Lan Balance was a good introduction to Thai food – multiple courses, lamb, chicken, fish, different vegetables – everything tender and perfectly fresh. I won’t try and describe the menu; I’ve been told it changes all the time but it was wide ranging, well executed, undoubtedly refined - the tastes complex and nuanced. As an exercise in high dining, there was little to fault the experience.

Very nice, but ultimately … less satisfying than the street.

The mellow, refined, oh-so-civilized notes of a string quartet are nice, but I was hoping for a rock concert of a symphony orchestra. Years of chillies and India and days of Thai on the streets may have set my spice levels much above the international norm, but what I like best about Thai food is the subtle, complex flavours doing playback for a couple of strong, distinct, delectable tastes. It reminded me of the paradox of five start Indian – often well executed, but less grabbing, less addictive. Still a very nice dinner, and less expensive than a big night in Mumbai but for transcendent Thai, I would need to keep looking.

Gol Gappa

about Bengali Market, Tansen Marg, New Delhi No comments:

A quick trip to our great capital left me without enough time to go to Chandi Chowk, so we headed to Bengali Market – a place I last visited a decade ago, and still remembered fondly - for our golgappa fix.

The two giants – Nathu Sweets and Bengali Sweet House - still dominate Bengali Market with their huge range of sweets and chaat (not to mention Chinese). We headed to Bengali Sweet House first – partly because the car put us down in front of it, partly because unlike the air-conditioned Nathu this place was still willing to hand us golgappas one at a time, traditional style. The gol gappas water was much tangier and tastier than the Mumbai green bilge (though this was green too) but repeated entreaties to make the filling spicier did not yield much result. As verdicts go, “better than Mumbai” is all I’m willing to venture.

 

We then crossed the street into AC comfort to try and see if Nathu was still any good. The kesar lassi was great, but neither the kachori nor the aloo tikki rocked our boat and harder than “decent”. Figuring that maybe the AC was to blame, we crossed the road again to try aloo tikki, lassi and rasmalai in the stoutly non-AC open counter Bengali Sweet House.

  

And was disappointed again. Neither place produced anything earthshaking, and the rasmalai was outright disappointing for any store that has “Bengali” written so large on its signboard. Both places had fairly average chaat - decent at best, nothing to write home about (this is a blog, not home). Popular for sure, but far from exciting.

Do not dream of replacing this with Chandni Chowk; that pilgrimage still has to be done.

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