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12 things to eat in 2012

By Anoothi Vishal

Beginning-of-the-year food forecasting can get downright absurd. This year, for instance, popcorn has been deemed a big trend, at least in the US, where popcorn patrons are expected to consume buttered, honeyed or otherwise versions in copious quantities, just as another trend anoints customized French fries as the new “It” thing. Similarly, turmeric that goes into all Indian khana unfailingly is set to be “discovered” globally; though we can’t really be sure as to the dessert that will finally push cupcakes and brownies, the two have-beens, off pop charts….

My advice: Junk the lists. Just look out for interesting new things to try out in the new year- — break the clutter, go against established norms, discover tradition as much as exotic new ideas. There is, after all, a brave new world out there—waiting to be sampled.

1. A for… Ayurveda-chic: In 2012, rediscover this part of our heritage. In our mad rush for imported “luxury” feasts (caviar, by the way, is now being farmed everywhere from Spain to China and is thus certainly no luxury item), we have kind of forgotten all the fresh, seasonal ingredients that have always been the basis for Indian cuisines. Charaka’s “science of life” that has spin-offs in every culture, including the Chinese yin-yang, characterizes all foods as based on their taste and property. Each ingredient is thus suitable to not just different seasons and times of the day but to different people. As emphasis on health grows, learn to be Ayurveda- chic: There’s also at least one super luxe restaurant opening up this year based on the principle. Watch this space.

2. B for… Barramundi (er, not Basa): The Vietnamese catfish (also being farmed in India) has invaded the Indian restaurant space in recent times. And though basa filet is perhaps cheaper than most local fish in the market, we still tend to look at the “imported” fish as a luxury and exotic ingredient. This year, try Barramundi, the Australian, flaky, white-fleshed fish, whose stock has been rising globally —- not the least because this is the same as our very own Bhetki!

3. D for… Dirt! No, don’t baulk. We don’t mean real dirt, or soil or whatever it is that fancy chefs choose to call it. As plating gets more sophisticated even in India and chefs play around with flavours and textures, everything from a sprinkle of ground coffee beans to a smear of black olive paste is dubbed “dirt” on your beautiful platters. Learn to read the menus.

4. E for… Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Someone please tell those retailers to stop conning us with “good-for-frying” olive oil that has neither the supposed health benefits nor flavour of extra virgin olive oil. Like wine, EVOO tastes different depending on its terrior and varietals. This year, try to discover what your preferred taste is: Spanish Picual on that slice of red meat, Arbequina on an egg or salad? Better still, if you are travelling in the Continent (Spain, Italy, Greece) at the end of the harvest season (typically January in many places), bring back a bottle on unfiltered EVOO and discover the phenomenal taste. Though be careful to note the date of manufacture and consume the contents of the bottle within two years (for EVOO), or one (unfiltered).

5. F for… food, as drink…: Junk that Cosmopolitan or Appletini, try culinary cocktails with flavours of jalapeno, ginger, miso, mustard, sage, cucumber, japanese ginger, and coriander roots, suggests young chef Nishant Choubey. In America, it is bacon and grilled cheese flavours that are a novelty but we may give those a miss—yet.

6. … and fruits in maincourse: No, no one is suggesting that you go on a perpetual phalahar, literally, a fasting diet of fruits. But do try fruit infused kebabs, raspberry (or mango) “chutney” with that pan-fried foie gras and so on. Fruits and meat do meet, rather well, as some of our trendiest restaurant chefs are proving.

7. H for Hand-pulled noodles…: Noodles— udon, soba, pad thai, Singaporean, you name them—in a bowl are the stars on the many pan-Asian-café menus that have sprouted in the metros in the last year. Now, try the traditional fresh, hand-pulled Chinese noodles that are slowly also making their way into restaurants. Although these noodles are making their way to Asian cafes worldwide, the best way to truly experience a country’s dish is to travel there yourself. If you want to try authentic udon or soba, travel to Japan, and if you want to try authentic Singaporean noodles, take a trip to Singapore. Companies like Expedia can help you stay there cheap.

8. … and Heritage dishes: Hyderabad’s delicate sufiana biryani and haleem, old Delhi’s dorra or boti kebabs not to mention yakhni pulao, Lucknow’s sheermal, kakoris, nimish… Look hard enough and you will find these not just in hard-to-get-invited-to homes but exclusive restaurants too. Luckily, we are just about beginning to market our heritage.

9. K for Korean: Chennai, not surprisingly given its status as a manufacturing hub for so many Korean companies, has an astonishing number of authentic Korean restaurants. Catch a flight for spicy BBQs and the addictive bibimbap.

10. L for Licorice: Though licorice candy and desserts are quite common, it is, of course, possible to entirely hate the strong flavour of the herb that we also know as mulethi in India and by other local names. But, recently, I had home-made pasta flecked with licorice, also used as a seasoning for Chinese savoury sauces and the result was hardly unpleasant.

11. O for old grains: Refined maida is the bane of our existence. This year, go slow, and rediscover some old grains that are still around despite wheat and polished rice. In the Indus Valley, barley, for instance, accompanied wheat as a staple. It is the only grain mentioned in the Rig Veda even though it is a minor cereal today. It would be a shame to lose it and others like the amaranth (ram dana) that you still get in the form of chikki during northern winters. If you don’t want to stick to Indian grain, try other ancients like spelt (Italy), couscous and quinoa (a nut really native to south America), all being increasingly used by trendy, go-slow chefs.

12. X for Xtreme contrasts: Any cutting edge dish should startle you out of your comfort zone. And there’s nothing like contrasting temperatures. Ice with warm chocolate foam, or indeed a warm, cheese risotto with cold beet foam—two dishes I tried very recently at Rossini in Bangkok. Look forward to such inventiveness in India too

(The column appeared in Sunday Economic Times on Jan 1, 2012)

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