More Bhutan

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Tired of potatoes and chillies, I ventured into the local market. Rescue came in the form of Chengdu restaurant, a local joint with rows of local booze bottles at the back and stacks of instant noodle in the front. There was no menu but the woman at the counter did promise me pork and beef in rudimentary Hindi.

The pork on offer turned out to be Kangshu Maroo - a dry curry of trotters, pleasant enough if you like that kind of thing.

The beef, a tough, chewy local sausage called Juma is made from beef, pork tripe and a generous helping of numbing sichuan peppers. It was too much effort on the jaw for me to get excited about, but apparently its quite popular locally.

The hotel dinner too had a non-vegetarian Bhutanese option - a tomato-garlic-chicken stew called Jansha Maroo.

Today's dinner did have a rather pleasant version of Kewa Datshi or potato-chilli-cheese curry, which tasted very like the spicy version of a potato in cheese sauce.

Still waiting for Ema Datshi...

Eating with the Dragons

about Thimphu Thimphu 1 comment:

Here I am, in a land that's more vertical than horizontal. Bhutan is a land of smiling people in funny clothes, tiny rivers struggling through spectacular valleys, quaint traditional homes everywhere, dark thunderclouds watching over dragons.

A buddhist country that eschews materialism is not expected to be very elaborate on food, and Bhutan does not disappoint. Their cooking can be summed up (as a blogger did rather elaborately) as "water, butter, boil". Ingredients are equally simple - potato, chilli and cheese - sometimes with chicken or pork tagged on. I wonder what the Bhutanese ate before the colonists introduced chillies and potatoes a few hundred years ago.

Chillies are a cornerstone of Bhutanese food; the drive from the airport went past many a rooftop covered with drying chillies. The local food is as spicy as anywhere in India, and chillies of all sizes and colours grace every dish, alongside the other favourite - potatoes. The local cheese tastes like cheese but (like paneer) can be boiled without melting. Meat for local recipes is either chicken or pork. Mutton is available, but seems to go into Indian food (which, of course, is everywhere too).

The staple is a local red rice, nutty in flavour but with a stickyish texture - not quite stickyrice, not quite loose grain - that takes a little getting used to.

More interesting was a spicy buckwheat noodle called Puta, delicious all on its own but nice with curries too.

Then there was Kewa Datshi, a curry of the three greats - cheese, chillies and potatoes. Its a colourful, spicy dish - tasty in spite of all its simplicity.

Finally a local salad if onions and the inevitable chillies, potatoes and cheese, called Hogay.

I'm still waiting for the Emma Datshi.

Kabab in a Corner

about Indraprastha Extension, New Delhi, 1 comment:

Last night I managed some nice-ish gol gappas but it was the kabab in a hidden corner of Patparganj that made my evening.

A tiny shop that relies on your car for seating space, Punjabi By Taste is your typical hole in the wall. What makes it worth visiting is their malai kabab. it's some nicely done chicken tikka slathered - and here's the real deal - slathered with this delectable pepper-cream sauce. Liquid malai with a kick, perfect for the roomali.

The twist in the story is that the original Punjabi had run out, the version I had came from next door where his brother had split off a few years ago. Taposh (who took me there) tells me the brother is distinctly inferior, but even that was droolworthy enough for me.

Must go back for the first brother...

What's in a Name

about New Market, Margaon, Goa, India 1 comment:

The Catholics of the western coast sometimes have strange names. Their world is full of elegant names like Braganza or Pereira, but every once in a while slips in a name like Serpis.

Situated in Margao's Nuovo Mercado (New Market) is one such name – Jackris. A bakery that's so small it shares its entrance with another stall adorns this name, but the size and odd name belies an outsized reputation. Surrounded by gold shops and barely visible from the street (your best bet is to persuade an old Catholic to hold your hand and lead you there) Jackris is one of Goa's best traditional bakeries.

It took me over a decade of trips to Goa to discover it, but it is a discovery. Mince pie, egg puff, bebinca, dodol, pretty much any Goan baked edible is sold here. Everything I tasted can safely be tagged with labels like fabulous or fantastic (even sniffy Catholic aunties award a "very nice"). The good gets elevated to great, while things like doss that I never cared for elsewhere transforms into something actually worth eating.

Sure, the shop's frontage and choice is limited. Things run out fast. This diminutive supply fuels demand - people are quite willing to line up and gobble up - but Jackris has a distinctly old-world view about growth. I hear they have four branches, though I could not tell you where the other three are; all are said to be similarly unrepossessing.

Go early, wait patiently and be rewarded with sin.


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You don't often get a call that asks you if you have a fridge to store tea.

A friend of mine spends a lot of time travelling around China and Vietnam; one of the benefits is a constant stream of exotic teas for me. None, however, has been more exotic than the tea that followed this telephone call. Whoever heard of a tea needing a fridge? And that's how I first came face to face with Ba Bao Tea.

My version of the Ba Bao tea came from Fook Ming Tong, a Hong Kong purveyor of high end teas, including their own Ba Bao. The tea comes in a beautiful gift-wrapped box of a dozen individual tea bags. Each bag makes one pot of tea, four cups at a time. The tea can be re-soaked in hot water for more tea; at least five or six soakings can be obtained making all of twenty to twenty four cups of tea per bag. Refrigerated storage is, strictly speaking, not necessary, but there's always the chance that the hot humid Mumbai weather will shorten the life of the tea.

Everything about this tea is a little bit different. It isn't a standard tea at all – the name means "eight treasures" and green tea is only one of those treasures. As you can see from the picture, there are all kinds of dried fruits and berries along with some green tea leaves. The origin of the tea seems to be tribal – the Hui people of Northern China – but apparently it has now become quite popular everywhere in China. For a nice analysis of the ingredients, a google searched turned up just the blog post.

It's a fantastic tea. The key complexity is the different ingredients releasing flavours at different times. The first soaking yields a pale yellow liquid smelling of flowers and green tea. The second becomes sweeter as the rock sugar melt, but that disappears by the next soaking. Nuts and fruits show up in the third and subsequent soakings.


Instant Karma


Today, I woke up lazy and made myself some Maggi, and it brought back memories.

Like many of my generation, Maggi used to be vital to sustenance. In school, it was an after-school snack, in college one of the only edible things on the canteen menu. We we first started working, Maggi was still a key factor in keeping us alive. It was years before we realized there were other ways to do things.

Instant noodles, however, is a fascinating food. Maggi is nearly synonymous with instant noodles in India, but the Swiss-German company did not invent it. It started life as a luxury good, many times more expensive than regular noodles in 1958 Japan, founder Momofuku Ando's original intention to alleviate post-war food shortages. It was hardly an instant success – Nissin (the company that Ando founded) trundled along for a over a decade till the cup-a-noodle was introduced in 1971, to instant success.

It may have taken a while to get there, but get there it has. The World Instant Noodle Association tells us that 95,392,000,000 packets (that's 95 billion packets) were sold in 2010, or just above fifteen packets for every human on earth. Instant noodles is today one of the most popular foods in the world.

Amazingly, China is the #1 consumer of instant noodles (nearly 50%) while India, all those student canteens push us into #7. Japan, inordinately proud of its slow-food traditions, nevertheless manages five billion packets a year. Its citizens are just as proud of instant noodles as of sushi, having voted it their (Japan's) best invention of the 20th century. Who knew my nostalgia was getting me to bite into a full-fledged culinary revolution?

So I ate my noodles. Still edible, still far from gourmet…

Kosha Mangsho II

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I'm happy to say my Kosha Mangsho has improved the second time around. Here are the key changes

  • More onions, and sliced rather than diced. There seems to be no situation in the kosha mangsho universe where too much onion is a concern. I finally added twice as much onion as meat, by volume. Sliced, I find, gives better texture - diced just meekly melts away.
  • Dahi in the marinade, along with some green chilli paste. Green chillies give a more predictable, front-of-the-mouth heat. The last time, I had just ginger and salt in the marinade.
  • More badi elaichi (black cardamom) - I tried just one for a kilo the last time, this time I upped it to three. Black cardamom is a powerful spice (on the rowdy side, if you ask me) but mutton seems more than capable of standing up to it.
  • Gur instead of sugar. All that onion is going to be a little bitter when slow-roasted, so the sweetener keeps things from getting unpleasant. Gur is suitably gourmet, what with its organic roots and all, but sugar will do in a pinch.
  • Some star anise, just to up the fun quotient. Seemed to fit with the other spices, though I'm sure my grandmother had never heard of it.

The colour of the gravy was still an issue - restaurants leave the stuff to simmer for hours, I had to finish before people died of hunger. I resorted, therefore, to an old trick someone taught me once - to get a nice dark colouring, fry a teaspoon of chilli powder till burnt. Chilli powder is a good colouring agent, while frying to death kills the heat. In a stroke that can only be described as master, the weak caramel of the last attempt transformed into a robust, deep, in-your-face brown worthy of real attention. Think of it as permitted colouring.

And the final step - keep a day in the fridge. Kosha mangsho improves much with age and anticipation.

Bitter Memories

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Yesterday, Vicky Ratnani of the very posh Aurus was on TV stuffing karelas.

A recent post of mine about karela in Kerala had people doubting my taste in taste but here a five star chef was happily stuffing the very same thing on national television.With imported cheese too! Which got me thinking...

Human tastebuds have a syllabus of four (five if you're Chinese - they couldn't fit a billion into just five) but the only one that gets a bad rap is bitter. Medicine is supposed to be the cause of it, but really – when was the last time you had a bitter pill? Think of it. Many of life's greatest pleasures have a bitter edge. Chocolate is bitter. Marmalade is bitter. Tea, coffee is bitter. Beer, Rum, Whisky and every other variant of alcohol is bitter. Even the olives in Bond's martini are bitter. In spite of all that, leaving a bitter taste in one's mouth is considered a bad thing.

No wonder the karela is bitter about it.

Eat Your Words


Every once in a while, Rushina gets a bunch of bloggers together for a great evening, and the most recent one was at West View at the ITC Maratha, a restaurant I've been eyeing for a while. Weeks after the event, here's my two bits about the dinner.

The company was fabulous; its amazing how much fun talking about talking about food can be. Rushina always manages to get together a varied and interesting bunch of people, and I've never regretted attending any of them. The location was very nice too. The food (though it was expensive and tried very hard) not so much.

West View is about grilling – it lays out a generous spread of meats and veggies that you pick out and they grill for you. This concept is not unusual, but two key things are required to make it work – good grilling and great ingredients. The first they get mostly right; its the second that the all-woman chef team struggles with.


You would have thought that if anyone could do ingredients right, it would be a five star. Grilling, however, is such a simple way to cook that the ingredient standards are different. To wow me, West View needed much better sausages than competent but supermarket variety on offer (their marketing blurb mentions artisanal). The beef cannot just sport its New Zealand origins – it needs to be marbled with fat and aged forever. I'll be impressed with milk fed lamb chops worthy of a Michelin restaurant, not something you can pick up at Nature's Basket. The only ingredient that came close to top-of-the-line was the salmon.

Did I mention the bread was absolutely divine?

Then there's a key gap – the rub. Spice rubs (and sometimes marinades) are what make grills great, and every great grill chef – from Chinese street vendors to grill-touting celebrities Bobby Flay or Emeril Lagasse – sport signature rubs worth their salt. If you have Kobe beef and Copperhead salmon you can ignore the rub, but more pedestrian meat is going to need some assistance jumping from nice to wonderful.

Both wow food and yuck food are conversation killers. West View is a pleasant dining experience, but go for the conversation.

Made in China

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Foodwise, China was not at all what I expected.

I'm going to get right into generalising the food of a billion people into a post shorter than a short story, all on the basis of seven days of experience. As is my wont, I ate on the streets and avoided restaurants for the most part. This may have given me a slightly different bias, but it was clearly everyday diet for the ordinary Chinese. The food was (mostly) delicious, varied, challenging and very, very strange.

The thing about China is, their take on food is as far from India as I have gotten. Just a short hop across the Himalayas China nevertheless represents a totally alien experience that Indian Chinese does nothing to ease one into. Singapore and Thailand have distinct Chinese influences, but a visit to the markets there yields the unfamiliar but also plenty of the familiar. In China, its nearly all unfamiliar - the vegetables, the seafood, the sauces, the ways they cook their meats, pretty much everything.

Possibly the biggest eye opener is their lack of focus on what we have always been taught were the staples - soup, chowmein and fried rice. Yes, you can get all three, just not in ways that you expect. Soup in China means a steaming cauldron of stock into which they put baskets filled with your choices from an array of noodles, meats and vegetables, almost all unrecognisable. Soup for them is a meal in a bowl, not really our concept of a soup at all. 

Then there's the Chowmein;  not hard to find, but its far from being as ubiquitous as menus outside China lead you to believe. The Chinese make lots of different kinds of noodles - with rice, potato starch, pumpkin, tapioca and also, of course, wheat. Only one of these many kinds of mein is chow mein. In a country that loves its rice much more than its wheat, our version of chowmein is usually a small sideshow. 

And finally the rice - for all those fattened on a lifetime of triple shechuan or egg fried rice, you'll be happy to know that the Chinese serve lots and lots of rice, but obstinately choose to serve the plain simple unadorned variety. The fried version that we love is, like our chowmein, a sideshow, a side dish or evening snack. On top of that, its usually served very al-dente - my grandmother (god rest her toothless soul) would certainly consider it uncooked. 

The tea story is another shock. For all their exalted claims as the centre of the tea world, there are few tea stalls visible. I was told (on my return, alas) that fancy tea is to be had in China in traditional wellness shops that also serve you strange jellies and nearly inedible "healthy" soups meant to make you live for ever and reproduce in viagraless splendour. The Chinese serve you tea everywhere you go, but its an insipid warm pale liquid that tastes of nothing and doubles up as a way to sterilise your chopsticks.  

Some things were indeed familiar. Dim sums turned up at regular intervals. every subway station sported a chinese sausage stall, duck was everywhere and everyone insisted you order in Chinese. A lot more was deep fried than we expected, meatballs, various chicken parts, a whole fish and pretty much every kind of meatball and sausage. 

The Chinese are spoilt for choice. The average, working class canteen lunch will offer a mind boggling array of food putting even fives-star buffets in Mumbai to shame - I counted over fifty choices in one restaurant, but thirty or more main course options are pretty routine. There are usually a range of huge cauldrons filled with different kinds of stew, lines of metal trays holding prepared dishes and usually a number of ingredient choices for the aforementioned make-it-yourself soup meals. Some places had side dishes - dim sum, fried meats, fried rice, scallion pancakes and the like. Pork was the dominant meat, with the occasional fish, beef or chicken to liven things up. Given the language problem and completely unfamiliar ingredients (even most vegetables are unknown) point, shoot and hope for edibility was usually the only option. Once in a while, you'll end up with things like a large bowl filled mostly with some variant of mooli, but mostly its tasty stuff. 

Usually all this is consumed with quantities of white rice (which they insist on calling 'wai lai') - the Chinese diner will put things on the rice rather than mix it into the rice; what goes in is mostly plain rice with a bit of topping. The dishes are eaten separately, on their own, with the occasional mouthful of rice as a break. I never did get a taste for eating rice that way, and stayed away from it after day one. 

I can barely remember my own name so I while I pretended seriously to remember all the Chinese food and ingredient names I came across, I knew beforehand that it was a doomed endeavour. I'll stick to themes, and it seems to me that Chinese food seems to revolve around a few central themes. MBA-ishtyle bulleting is called for here:

  • The deep fried protein – meat, fish or even tofu in extreme cases.
  • The wok - meats and vegetables, rice and noodles all stir-fried with sauces in huge woks over very high heat. May be dry or gravy, depending on what's made.
  • The soup bowl theme – chunks of different kinds of meat (and meat parts), vegetables, noodles of various kinds all cooked for a few minutes in boiling stock
  • The barbecue theme – meats, seafood and the occasional corn cob on flame grills. The meats are usually marinated and put on sticks.
  • The stew theme – slow-cooked stews, usually combining a meat with one or more vegetables in large stew pots (or individual clay pots).

Notice the absence of a sweet theme. There's good reason for that; the land that invented dentistry lacks any kind of sweet tooth. If you wondered why desi-chinese served ice-cream and kulfi instead of anything chinese, restaurants in China are usually at a complete loss for sweet choices too. By far the most common dessert is the egg tart, but these have their origins in Macau's Portuguese roots. Outside that, you're lumped with jellied fruit soups and bean pastes of various colours – very hard for anyone to show more than mild glimmers of excitement. In one place, for instance, they sent us some beautiful looking yam medallions topped with blueberry sauce; that the yam was as tasteless as steamed yams can be seemed not to bother anyone. A midly sweet jelly with sesame was similarly underwhelming but beautiful. They do have wonderful fruits, though, including some great mango - that's pretty much the saving grace for many a dessert soup.



One last lesson – vegetarian. The Chinese know a lot about vegetables, but only when combined with at least some kind of animal protein. If someone offers to take you to one of these pure vegetarian buddhist-monk meals – duck quick and walk rapidly back to Gujarat.

I did visit some restaurants too, some of which make for their own tales. More on individual dining experiences in other posts.

Kosha Mangsho

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I admit, my kosha mangsho comes out good, but not great.

In any case, I made some yesterday. It turned out meltingly tender and more than edible but the drawbacks as I see it are – not enough of that clingy gravy and somehow just not that dark rich brown. Good enough, but good enough is not good enough.

Kosha Mangsho which to all real Bongs will mean goat mutton (not chicken, and definitely certainly absolutely not lamb) is basically a variant of bhuna ghosht or braised mutton. You cook it slow, and do not add any water. The spicing is fairly standard:

  • bay leaf
  • whole red chillies, as many as you can bear
  • whole bong-style garam masala (relax, its just clove, cinnamon, cardamom and black cardamom in suitably mysterious proportions)
  • ginger, paste or diced
  • dhania, jeera, red chilli, turmeric paste
  • two large potatoes, halved
  • a little jaggery (or sugar)

The body of the gravy is from onions (lots of them – I used three medium onions to a kilo of meat and it felt a little short). Caramelizing onions the way restaurants do it is quicker but takes lots of oil - I stick to just about coating them in oil and leaving them covered on slow for hours (or for as long as you want to stay hungry, which in my case was about 15 min - this lack of patience is probably why my gravy is Jennifer Lopez rather than Naomi Campbell). Traditionally, bongs fry the mutton a bit before braising, but you can skip that.

So here goes – add the spices to hot hot oil and roast up, slow cook the onions on the lowest flame possible for as long as possible, add the potato halves, the mutton and salt, cover and continue on the lowest flame. Takes about 90 minutes till the mutton is done, add the dahi, then another 5-6 minutes uncovered till the gravy is clingy. Copius quantities of oil should be released by now, otherwise more slow-flame patience is recommended. Patience, in short, is a key ingredient of this process. I would have made luchis too, but I was already approaching Anna Hazare levels of fasting so I stuck to my maid's rotis.

Great, for so simple a dish, can be incredibly great, but even good is pretty droolworthy.

Sunday Shiro

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It being Sunday and all that, I decided that a nice brunch was just the thing to celebrate the glow of finally having run past the ten kilometre barrier (warning: some walking involved). A couple of months ago, the very imposing Shiro had advertised a Masterchef Brunch (along with, presumably, dishes from the show). I did not make to that, but that day Shiro crawled into dark recesses of my brain as a possible brunch option, only to be sought out and exposed by today's deep meditations on my choices.

My first look at Shiro's brunch was underwhelming - it looked like a very small spread, not even half a dozen salads (mostly veg) and a scattering of dessert options padded with a couple of sushi rolls. Having already paid fifty bucks to park the car, I was disinclined to leave my chopsticks, groaning inwardly at the thought the zillion lost options at nearby Four Seasons (my other choice for emulating those healthy Japanese eating habits). However, Shiro had more sense than to stop at a few salads; as I was biting into my kimchi, sushi platters and dim sum baskets started to appear, along with other bits like barbecue chicken. Plates and plates of all that later, just when I began to consider that stuffed may apply to more than pillows, the waiter kindly suggested I should choose a mains. Or worse - not choose at all and all three could appear. It turns out I had, in all that dim lighting, overlooked the user manual that clearly stated no less than twenty choices wanted to head my way.

True, five star buffets with both hands tied behind their back could beat Shiro hands down for choice, but the food here is really quite good. The lighting is dim, so you occassionally end up with a mouthful of garnish and no blogworthy photos are possibe, but they get their sushi and much else very right - there's certainly more reason than the parking charge to stay back.

Tangled Tastes

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The frenetic Durga Puja over, a nice slow midweek holiday emerged yesterday. Sunny weather, nothing much to do all added up to picture windows and leisurely lunches. I chose Tasty Tangles.


Yes, ok, its a chain (though not a very big one) and its format is very fastfood. However, in this area it has the nicest picture windows and (though this can't be that good for them) easily available seating. It also has some wonderful things on the menu.

Duck Wontons 

Tasy Tangles had all the leisurely look I wanted – huge windows flooding the place with sunlight, enough empty tables that getting a seat was not a struggle yet sufficiently full to not make you the sole saviour of the waiters. The place has a bit of an odd menu – a tearaway sheet of paper where you tick off what you want and hand to your waiter (who, of course, trained in old world graces will insist on repeating the entire order and checking the ticks). The menu isn't big and unusually for an Asian restaurant is dominated by vegetarian choices.

I stayed faithful to my sinful carnivorous habits, and ordered a duck wonton. Service was rather quicker than my holiday sensibilities were expecting, but in any case a trio of crispy squares landed up, filled with generous amounts of a nicely flavoured duck mince. The seafood cilantro soup that followed was more cilantro than seafood, but pleasant nevertheless.


I consider the aromatic spicy chicken dumplings here one of the great dim sums of all time – at least in India, and order them on every visit here. Beautiful to look at, and once bitten into they're wonderful parcels of chicken mince that fill both your nose and your mouth with the most pleasing sensations. Words like spicy and aromatic immediately justify their existence. The sweet and sour chicken that followed was efficiently uninspired, no fireworks there but such a dish rarely allows for fireworks. On earlier visits to Tasty Tangles, I've had a wonderful laksa (served as a soup), some competent nasi goreng and an average-to-nice rendang.

Efficient service or not, they allowed me to sit and read for three hours with no more than the occasional visit to politely see if I was ok. A holiday well tangled.

Ma Dugga and The Movable Feast

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Bengalis like their festivals more food-centred than any other community. The Catholics keep saying feast this feast that, but they don't really mean it – apparently things like joy and spirituality are being consumed there. Bengalis don't call anything a feast; what's the point, its all feastly.

For those idiots who thought Durga Puja was about pandals and idols, you have basically missed the point. Ma Durga's annual visit is basically an excuse to gorge. In Kolkata the para pujas ply you generously with food for free – calling it bhog (food offered to the god) tags enough religion on it to avoid any guilt pangs. And what feasts these are!


Mumbai pujas do bhog too; lunch and dinner. Dadar's Shivaji Park had a nice bhog spread at lunch (vegetarian, but thats how it is on some days) – hundreds of people in queue being doled out some very nice khichudi along with begun bhaja (batter fried aubergines), a veg curry, a tomato-date chatni (chutney) that was wonderful and mishti – the obligatory rossogolla perched on some payesh (rice pudding). All very traditional, and all very well executed. We tried a repeat in Powai the next day, but the lines were longer than the American consulate in student season – we


Mumbai's bhog can never quite achieve the intimate but lavish scale that Kolkata (where every housing complex has a puja) manages. Here, food stalls rule the roost - usually at prices that make even petrol and alcohol look cheap. What is on offer does not vary much - a dubious array of Bengali sweets, rolls of various kinds, breaded chops and cutlets both veggies and not, biriyanis, and a few standard gravies – kosha mangsho, prawn malai curry, pabda shorshe, ilish bhape, bhetki paturi. All this of immense value to the non-resident Bengali forcefully brought up on a diet of butter chicken and vada pao.


Most food on offer, unfortunately, is crap at the price of gold – the only reason we venture anywhere near is nostalgia. The mishti is dubious at best. The chops – prawn or mocha are usually the most desirable - is usually far more chop (read potato) than either prawn or mocha. The Bhetki - a wonderfully tasty fish – is also very expensive so don't wonder so much why your fry tastes of the more pedestrian rui (rohu). A traditional paturi has a thin layer of marinade covering a generous chunk of fish, nor surprise that things are reversed here. Then, of course, there are generous doses of incompetent cooking. Its great social fun, just do not mistake it for culinary satisfaction.


Here's a quick summary of what was truly worth eating. At Notunpolli Bandra, the Taste of Kolkata stall fed us (at a steep 600 rupees a prawn) some fantastic prawn malai curry – the prawns were massive and the curry to die for (their bhetki paturi was also quite worthy of mention). The stall next door had some very light, fluffy radhaballabhis with ghugni. Powai fed us some truly lipsmacking kosha mangsho  and some fairly nice veg chops (Bengali ones are, uniquely, made of peanuts and beetroot). The biriyani at Kandivali Lokhandwalla's rather secluded puja were both worthy of repeats. Rolls and mishti was disappointing everywhere – none of the real Kolkata confectioners ventured anywhere this side. The best mishti doi was from Sweet Bengal at Andheri Lokhandwalla.

Unfortunately, no pheesh phrai made it to the great list this year.

Pheesh Phrai

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Pheesh Phrai (fish fry to the rest of you plebs) was left to us (along with pheesh chop, pheesh cutlet, Enid Blyton, Victoria Memorial and other cool stuff) by the British. This simple crusty brown rectangle is one of the things guaranteed to produce mild glazing to ocular orbits of bongs everywhere, not to mention uncontrolled salivation and the urge to lick ones lips.

Bread (and thus crumb) is phoren to Bengali food and bonelessness of fish practically a sin; fish fry is thus rarely made at home by the well brought up Bengali boudi.It has always been a guilty pleasure, associated with the forbidden roadside stall, the fancy cocktail party or that other great Bengali culinary event - the wedding feast; no bong is truly married unless every dhoti-clad guest has stuffed himself silly with first rate pheesh phrai.

The basic genuine fish fry a bhadralok will consider worthy of mauling in his the true-bong accent is a crumb-fried fillet of bhetki, accompanied by a blazingly zingy kasundi. Substitutes like atlantic cod or bass or snapper may result in slight upturnings of the Bengali nose, but will nevertheless be ingested forgivingly. Which brings most non-bongs (and a few bongs) to the question - what is this bhekti fish.

The Pheesh
Bhetki is more commonly known worldwide as the Asiatic seabass or barramundi, and to biologists as Lates calcarifer (try ordering that at your local grocer). It is a very popular fish in South East Asia; the Bongs love it with passions that can come close to hilsa, and even the Thai are often persuaded away from their pork obsessions by this fish. To make life confusing, there's a cod version of barramundi, not very pheesh phrai at all. Truth be told, however, any firm flaky white fish that fillets well works - opening the way for such scandalously daring options as haddock or tilapia. Fillets need to be palm-sized, boneless and about 5 mm thick - any thinner and you're just being mean. Any thicker and you lose the balance between fish and crust.

The Phrai
Fish is fried all over the world, and even bongland is happy enough to fry all kinds of fish in all kinds of ways, but a true-bong pheesh phrai is a very specific dish - marinated, crumbed and deep fried.

First, the marinade. The British wanted to fry the fish plain but your local maharaj (cook for the non-bongs) would have none of it. A suitable marinade of ginger-garlic-onion paste, diced green chillies, turmeric and a little garam masala - tossed on heat for a bit - is smeared on all sides of the fillet to spice things up (sometimes a touch of kasundi too).

Then there's the coating - traditionally the crumbs are from thin arrowroot biscuits, not bread - shops buy these el-cheapo biscuits by the sackful and crush away. This is possibly the more practical option in a land where stale bread is mouldy rather than crusty, and it does give a better crunch. The binder is egg, all beaten up and a little watered down - and the trick is to double dip. Marinated fillet - dip in egg once, roll in crumbs, dip again, roll again, then shape into a nice rectangle. Keep aside for 5-10 min (real chefs call it resting) before deep frying to a brown on the tan side of golden in hot oil. Sprinkle a pinch of rock salt on the finished product.

Serve with kasundi, or legions of Bengali ghosts will haunt every ancestor you have (guilty secret - also have tomato ketchup handy).

Salmon Lunch

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Nature's Basket Bandra tempted me yesterday with a rather expensive salmon steak. It was all frozen and plasticwrapped, but it reminded me of some very nice dinners in the USA. Salmon was one of the things I learned to make well, out of my hours of watching Food TV on my (then very new) HD television. It helped that it was also very easily available in New York, and needed little by way of persuasion to come out beautifully.

Today morning, therefore, I defrosted the fish and heated up a pan. The process of salmon is simple, heat a pan, splash some oil, place the steak on it, then pretty much leave it alone for the correct period of time, turning it just once in the process. Salmon has a soft melting texture when barely that tiny hair breadth above undercooked that's just magic, and fooling around with it will not get you anywhere. Cooking here is all about almost not cooking - put on the pan, turn once and take it out - all about the timing.

Of course, I did the whole plating thing. I rarely cook in daytime, the chance to get actual photos cannot be passed up. And its not just photoshop - the middle of the steak did come out great...

Feeling very topchef, I used the trimmings (oh yes, I trimmed off the uneven ends to get a perfect steak) for a ceviche. A few twists of lime, some diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lots of love later, the ceviche looked very photogenic but did actually manage to taste great too.

A very nice lunch, just a few minutes of chopping and a few minutes of impatient watching - it did turn out quite delectable.

Mallu Leela, to say nothing of Dubaikutti


I misjudged the Leela. Far from being clueless about local food, the hotel actually puts on quite a spread in their regular menus both at lunch and dinner. It turns out the conference had requested a less adventurous menu, hence the constant attempt to feed us Thai and French.

The executive sous chef (as hardboiled a mallu as they come) revealed this secret to me over a crib session, and invited me upstairs to the Terrace restaurant to sample some of the real thing. True it was. Suddenly, lunch was full of unpronounceable names and strange textures. Surprising for a land with a fishy reputation, the veggie options far outnumbered the couple of non-vegetarian items on offer. The food was all that Kerala is reputed for - complex flavours, complicated textures, lots of spices, coconut milk, pepper and, of course, appams. I'm not going to try and produce a documentary on all that I wolfed down, but suffice to say that two sneaky visits to the non-conference menu filled me up with plenty of choice.

While a lot of things were great, the pachadi choices in particular entranced me. I had six different kinds there, including a memorable mango pachadi, an outstanding karela pachadi and a very nice pineapple one. Pachadis are had with rice, especially Kerala red rice, which was also religiously on offer at the buffet.

But Leela was only one part of mallu foodland that I discovered in the last two days. My other food experience came from Dubai.

I love doing these dramatic, single line paragraphs that end in something attention-grabbing. Yes, Kerala  supplies Dubai with mallus in generous quantities, but please put any pictures of meals being shipped in foodsafe container across the Arabian sea out of your head. Dubai Fast Food is a shack on the way to the beautiful backwaters of Poovar; the only thing Dubai about it is the name. The food, though, is worth writing about.

We chose Dubai Fast Food without any particular recommendation - it had a nice big sign and was visibly selling the local evening speciality - fried chicken with parathas. We noticed it on our way to the backwaters, and stopped on the return. It did not disappoint; the small doorway led to a larger (though equally rundown) seating space suitably furnished with aluminium tabletops and plastic chairs. Local resident Anant rolled out a stream of orders in malayalam, and soon food started landing up. The layered malabar parathas were wonderful - quite addictive even on its own but magical when combined with the squid's spicy gravy. The squid itself looked like leftover plumbing chopped up, but smelled and tasted flamingly good. The fried chicken was nothing like KFC (though many a local shop uses KFC to advertise it) - this was spice-coated deep fried chicken, nearly black in colour but juicy in every bite. There was also the other Kerala staple – beef pepper fry.


The place also sported an industrial grade puttu steamer, but alas this would have taken too long, so we stuck to those wonderful malabar parathas and thosas (very like set dosas). Another revelation was the tapioca. Kerala is in love with that vegetable, making chips, curries, fries, even dessert with the damn thing. At DFF (can't keep saying Dubai Fast Food) the tapioca came cooked like dry potatoes, tempered with curry leaves and mustard to be had dry with parathas. It looked like potatoes, but tasted distinctly different – we ended up picking at it like a snack rather than with paratha. Chef Dinesh at the Leela showed me a different twist to the tapioca tale - he ladled some chicken gravy on top of the tapioca to make a fantastic combination. Apparently, any spicy gravy works and this is how the tapioca side dish is usually had.


I finally left Kovalam satisfyingly full of malayali food, much of which I had not encountered earlier. I had not tried everything; that is not even remotely possible. As befits any major cuisine, Kerala is a vast cauldron of dishes, ingredients and techniques that lifetimes can be spent on. My attempt merely was to avoid  avoiding kerala in the few meals that I was there, and on the last day and a half that was handsomely met except in one aspect - dessert. There somehow, even the Leela chickened out on anything truly local. The closest they got to a payasam that was a suspiciously north-looking sevai version in the otherwise usual sea of baked goodies.


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