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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)

My Gymkhana meal (with S and A) and Delhi’s best Club food

By Anoothi Vishal

Over my monthly lunch with S and A (this time though it was more like a quarterly lunch), I discovered the best soup in Delhi. S is a member at the snobby Gymkhana; so we sat around a table in the dining hall, trying to look older and distinguished enough to fit in with all the other diners, to speak in hushed whispers and to not give in to the temptation of looking into our silenced-cellphones to check whether there could have been any other calls at all from non-random PR people.

When S turned 18, her father, a member of long-standing and repute, brought her to these hallowed portals for a meal. It was a rite of passage. And ever since then, she, a vegetarian, has possibly settled for paneer a la kiev that the club turns out in a paen to 1950’s-style clubby “Continental” food. When S ordered that once again at lunch yesterday, I was tempted to laugh, but looking at the butter and cheese oozing out of the roll, hastily changed my mind and begged her for a small bite, which, despite the paneer, is entirely edible.

For our part, A and I settled for fish—she for a simple grilled version, I for the famous baked tomato fish the dining hall here is famous for. And indeed this turned out to be the best food I have ever had at any Delhi club. We finished off our meal by sharing the famous caramel custard—the real thing, not out of a packet. But it was really the first course of beet soup that is going to get me all nostalgic. Never the one to choose anything healthy, I can, nevertheless, slurp on this soup all winter long.

Considering that standards at the other dining hall that I used to love going to—at the IIC— have been drastically slipping over the last couple of years, the Delhi Gymkhana now has no clubby rival to its food in the city. The last meal I had at the IIC was with author Chetan Bhagat (and his mother) over an interview, amusing for many things (including the grandiose, old waiters trying to bully poor Chetan) but certainly not the food. Even the apple pie that one had religiously sought on every occasion of IIC-eating had begun to lose its allure. I haven’t been there ever since.

Where I do go pretty frequently—given that that’s the only club I am actually a member of—is the Indian Women’s Press Club and I am indeed partial to its homely charms, even though sometimes they border on the plain ridiculous, like when serving up the comforting Indian-Chinese honey-chilli potatoes with a watery gravy. Nevertheless, for ghar ka khana, or bhelpuri and sarson ka saag IWPC has no rival. The food at the general Press Club, especially the snacks that you had with lots of subsidized booze (egg-on-toast, masala peanuts and so on), used to be pretty decent at one point. But I no longer have the will or taste to go to the Den, having acquired some grown-up sophistication at long last.

Panchsheel Club, newly-made over, has some decent food going, I have sampled some birthday fare at Friend’s Club that is nothing to write home about though the lovely location makes up for everything, but the Sarvapriya Vihar Club used to serve a mean rogan josh and kebabs at least till some time ago. There is, of course, the Delhi Golf Club (always memorable because I had my first glass of Rose wine there), where food and company have both been immaculate. Most recently, I attended a spectacular wedding on the lawns overlooking a heritage structure and the golf course. (Highly recommended to any one looking to get married or remarried.) It was understated, elegant, with a live jazz band and first-rate food that comprised everything from dim sum to a seafood buffet. I doubt whether the meal was catered to by the club though it would have been an interesting exercise.

(Do write in with your own Club favourites.)

My (unannounced) review of Smoke House Room

Smoke House Room in Delhi was quite the launch of 2011, I checked it out some time ago. Here’s how it went…

By Anoothi Vishal

First impression

The sleepy Crescent Mall, much of whose top floor Smoke House Room takes up, lies in darkness when I give my car to the valet. I need to walk inside, in semi darkness, and locate the lift— something that
would have made me feel a bit insecure were I an unaccompanied single woman in notorious Delhi. But I am soon to emerge from this area of darkness into a restaurant so a dazzling and all-white that I am tempted to shield my eyes. Smoke House Room lies bereft of too many guests on the Thursday evening I visit——- except for one other couple and another group that arrives a little later into our meal, there’s
no one apart from us. But that is not to say it isn’t populated: There is an overwhelming army of service staff that comes to life as we enter.

The food

Ashwin decides to go for “The Hunter” (non-vegetarian) menu. And since both people on the table need to opt for tasting menus or neither, I decide to try out the vegetarian, “The Gatherer”, menu. Both have about six courses each, so we are prepared for the long haul. We settle in with a cocktail each—I choose
Sangria that turns out to be pretty terrible and syrupy. (The waiter explains — later — that the Smoke House specialty is without fruit bits though I can’t imagine why. No one offers to replace my drink at any point as it lies only partially sipped.) Ashwin’s green apple martini, however, is top notch.

The chef starts off with surprises for both of us, not on the menus, of which the chicken pate enclosed in a Ferro Roche wrap, which, in turn, is placed inside a “light bulb” is definitely amusing and creative. I also like the first course: “A gathering of mushrooms” has different kinds, lightly sautéed, with a dash of
prune-porcini chutney and a sprinkling of coffee olive “soil”.

The platters are all pieces of art—each course is beautifully presented and there are many elements to each dish which show the dexterity of the chef. In fact, the presentation definitely evokes a wow. Smoked tenderloin carpaccio, for instance, comes atop smoking herbs in a plate covered with a cling
film…

But if the real test is taste, there were only one or two truly standout dishes that I would recommend without reserve: the Black cod with coconut miso was the highlight of our meal. While none of the dishes were “bad”, what they were is too busy. A little simplifying and cleaning up of flavours is needed.
There is way too much happening on every plate. Besides, there is a sweet element to almost every dish which gets repetitive in a tasting menu.

I did not like the cold “X-Ray Ravioli” despite the novel idea; the mascarpone was a spoiler. And the platter of maize cooked in different ways would have been a winner but for the sweetish carrot sauce poured on top. Both maize and carrots have their intrinsic sweetness; combined that’s deadly!

A word on the breads, olive oils and herbed butter: addictive.

Service: Food started rolling out very fast. In fact, we got though the entire tasting menu in a little more than an hour which is a big plus in my book. On the other hand to find yourself in a restaurant with more waiters than guests can be pretty distracting, even if they seem well informed and courteous. But
what on earth was the sommelier doing (I assume he was the sommelier; at any rate part of the service/ management staff) pacing the length of the restaurant almost continuously with an urgency more
reminiscent of expectant fathers?

The verdict: If you like showy food, this is the place to go to. The chef is skilled and has some good ideas.
But dishes need to come with cleaner flavours. Also, the flavour-palette tends to get repetitive. The restaurant is well above the average price range in Delhi with a glass of wine costing Rs 1,000 on an average (there may be a few that cost less) and the tasting menus costing Rs 3,500 (n-v) and Rs 2,500 (v)
per head each.

Would I go again: Unlikely. I prefer substance over show biz. For the price, there are few compelling dishes here that I would want to repeat.

Food: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Ambience: 5/10

Total: 19/30

(The review was published in the BBC Good Food Magazine India, Jan 2012 issue)

On Delhi’s 100th birthday: Coronation chicken, Shahjahanabad’s lost dishes, and a rant

By Anoothi Vishal

Not because I wanted to particularly celebrate the Delhi Durbar of Dec 12, 1912, where George V may well have been following, ironically, the grand Mughal tradition of holding an ostentatious audience with his tributary princes. Not even because the day should be celebrated — with or without the government of India pitching in to mark what it does not quite what to acknowledge: the country’s colonial past—as the beginning of a newer, more powerful Delhi. But quite by chance; because I was meeting a friend for lunch and wanted to check out the much raved-about Elma’s Tea Room in Hauz Khas Village (itself a destination bearing testimony to the twists and turns of Delhi history), that I landed up observing New Delhi’s 100th birthday with an old-fashioned “coronation chicken” sandwich.

It wasn’t a bad choice at all.

The finger sandwiches were quite the antithesis of all the terrible, soggy, mayo-laden monstrosities that we have been force-fed all this while. And while I will really need to authenticate the “Victorian” past of this common recipe that became so popular (mostly as a quick-fix TV meal) in Britain in the 1950s, the claim that is sometimes made of this cold chicken sandwich (or salad, flavoured with “curry” powder— Elma’s thankfully used fresh herbs) that it is indeed a throwback to George V’s times, put a delicious twist in the tale.

So here was I, a reluctant post-colonialist, sitting amidst scenic-ruins from Delhi’s Muslim past; that have been rediscovered today as a fashion-food-art destination for mostly expats, eating Coronation chicken on the 100th anniversary of the very day when a flaunting British monarch had insisted on celebrating his crowning in the jewel-in-the-crown colony, in a post-Liberalised anti-restaurant restaurant (that is another story for later) that wants you to believe that it is a cosy, country room in Victorian England…. Read that again. Could the layers in this narrative get more delicious?

At any rate, I am immensely glad that I chose to go to Elma’s (I adore their “made-in-India” by the Tatas floral crockery and tea cups that they have to, ironically, import all the way from London because the collection is only available in the UK… there, the strange Empire connection yet again…) and not to one of the flaky “Delhi” food festivals that have sprouted this season in our midst, seeking to market the birthday to a larger audience of not just tourists and expats but even those who consider themselves Dilliwallahs —though, of course, it is to be debated who exactly falls into the last category in a city of migrants where life, culture and enterprise have always been enlivened by the quintessential “outsiders”.

When I last checked, counters at the much-publicised “Dilli Ke Pakwaan” festival outside the row of emporia on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, were selling chole-bhature and pav-bhaji along with basterdised masala dosas and genric chaat (though there were some supposedly purani-Dilli specials like paranthe and kulfi) under the convenient tag of Delhi food. Certainly, this too is Delhi food of a kind, or at least pan-Indian food appealing to a globalised palate, commonly and cheaply available on our streets from Patna to Mumbai, in food courts and QSR-chains set up by enterprising sweet-shop owners. If the point is to regale Delhi masses with a “mela”, an undiscerning fair, then we cannot perhaps fault the conceptualization and execution of such feasts.

If, however, the point is to celebrate and showcase heritage, to give people a chance to sample those segments of the past that face obliteration thanks to an all-consuming mass culture of the day, then I suppose we must take exception to the way how we have been creating and marketing such shows. The more you think about it, India is really a strange country in our ambivalence towards history and dare I say “culture”. It is perhaps the fact that we live with so much of it in our midst that we are blind to its magnificence. Or, perhaps, it has to do with that urgent business of living, so competitive in the country, where, despite GDP projections and vaulting ambitions, ordinary lives have remained firmly third-world.
Today, with tourism, hospitality and retail booming, we are perhaps better aware of commoditizing heritage. But while it is valid to market it, shouldn’t some thought be put first into reasonable research and authentication? Countries around the world are not only protecting the unique identities of their produce but showcasing traditional recipes and cooking practices as an exercise in conservation and marketing. Sadly, as the celebrations around New Delhi’s big birthday have shown, neither is on top of our minds.

For those of you who have been reading this rant without knowing what exactly is “Delhi” food, a few pointers: Chole-bhature, as indeed dal makhni- or butter-chicken naan became part of the city’s pop consciousness only post-Partition when the tide of enterprising refugees from the Punjab brought in a new food culture in our midst. (Pav-bhaji, if provenance is important to you, has always been a Mumbai street snack, masala dosa, from Udupi, at least the version that is popular all over.)

The older food of Delhi, as it must have been during the Durbar of 1911, was a mix of the Mughal and various Hindu-community-foods of what we now know as old Delhi. These were the dominant communities of Shahjahanabad and it was their culture and cuisines interacting with each other, feeding off each other and reacting to each other that defined the older lifestyle. Apart from the Muslim nobles, whose food was itself a form of fusion of Persian-Turk-Subcontinental influences, cuisines of the Kayasthas (the record-keepers and administrators in Mughal courts, whose culture and food thus show a blend of high-caste Hindu and non-vegetarian Muslim influences) and the baniyas (the vegetarian community of traders and money lenders who owned most of the land and the first of the big businesses in the city) influenced the food culture of an older Delhi.
Amongst the most common ingredients that we use in Indian cooking today are potatoes, green chillies (not to mention red), and that bane-of-modern-Indian-kitchens, tomatoes. But these, as also many others, were not native to the Indian subcontinent and thus naturally not part of traditional, seasonal repertoires. But as they began to make an appearance with Colonial trade, they gradually found their way into Indian kitchens too. Potatoes, for instance, were first used by the English and then in upper-class Muslim homes only.

Seasonal ingredients were stuck to—in summer, a mutton curry with arvi or colocasia, in winter, famously with turnips, slowcooked overnight to perfection… Black pepper was another potent, winter masala—used in everything from nahari, the bazaar stew that the poor breakfasted on, to chaats, which included kulle, fruit cups, and lentil based tidbits not just the aloo-tikkis of today. And even those, when they did appear, were distinctive: The Dilli aloo-tikki has texture, filled as it is, with chana dal, and served with just a refreshing green coriander chutney and a sweet chutney, no overdose of yoghurt please. Bedmi-aloo, nagauris (small pooris) with halwa and the like were vegetarian breakfast dishes and mithai (non-channa) was made in multitudinous ways, a favourite with Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the ill-fated last Mughal with-a-weak-stomach. The lost/heritage dishes of Delhi would equally include boti kebabs and kali mirch ones, says researcher Salma Husain, pasande, even nargisi kofte, where mince is wrapped around hard-boiled eggs, and that apparently inspired the Scotched Eggs. Equally, a host of Anglo-Indian specialities that began to appear closer to the time of the darbar. But that’s a legacy that needs to be delved into whole-heartedly.

My day at the Academia Barilla, Parma

A meal in a library with some of Europe’s oldest recipe books and menus is even more special because of the gourmet cooking class that precedes it

By Anoothi Vishal

Last week, in the heart of Parma, that lovely region of Italy known for its ham and cheese amongst other things, I got a chance to live out my masterchef, er, apprentice dream! Yes, those have been my two favourite shows of television. And no, I am not mixing them up. But fact is that as I stood trying (unsuccessfully) to dice up carrots into very small and absolutely uniform cubes, to debone quail (with some success), make lollipops out of legs (!) and watch a pot of risotto bubble, I crossed over, albeit for just the tiniest fraction of time, from observer to observed, from taster to creator, from food critic to not-quite-chef but certainly a legit kitchen-apprentice taking lessons from not one but three masterchefs; Indian and Italian!

But, first, the context.

The Academia Barilla in Parma, established a couple of years ago, is rather an amazing resource centre for not only those who seek deeper knowledge of local regional produce but for anyone with the remotest interest in gastronomy and indeed food as a centerpiece of a larger culture. Housed within the academy set up by the food MNC (Barilla, after all, equals pasta in many markets where it is dominant, if not quite as yet in India) is a rare collection of books on food going back almost two centuries. The oldest manuscript here (from Milan) dates back to 1815, there are tomes on garlic and formaggio, on chocolate and fungi and aphrodisiacs, and such curious collectibles as a seating plan from the 19th century for 13 guests round the dinner table—whether as a parody of the Last Supper housed nearby in Milan incidentally or otherwise is not clear.

For anyone researching the history of communal eating in Europe, there is also a large section on some of the earliest menus on the continent that came into being, as it is recorded, only in 1810. It was only then that the traditional, centuries-old “French service”, where food was put on the table all at the same time, ironically, contrary to how we use the term today, gave way to a newer Russian service with the meal being presented in courses. Menu cards thus came into play, propped up before each guest, to explain the sequence of events and often these would be embellished with art and even a celebrity autograph or two. At the academy, it is possible to see some early examples and compare these with those of a hundred years later.

In the centre of the library that houses the books and the collectibles is a cheerful dining table. All you need to do is take your place and tuck into the quiet sense of history and culture that permeates the air as well as into the luscious Fontina cheese-fondue that can be wiped off with cabbage involtini (grilled roll-ups really that invoke the spring roll for many of us bred on Indian-Chinese) with just a hint of juniper in its midst and rather more of the Parmigiano-Reggiano; this after all is the big cheese’s home country. The menu crafted for us by chef Mario Grazia, presiding at the academy, also has an easy-enough-to-attempt-at home pumpkin risotto and stuffed quail wrapped with prosciutto di Parma, famed cured meats from this region, that may well qualify as the star of the meal – if not entirely because your columnist helped cook them!

Cooking vacations are now a part of many “offbeat” itineraries for luxury travelers around the world. And indeed nothing can give you the sense of a place, its history and its people than the simple (or complex) rituals of using local produce and local cooking methods to produce something for your palate. That’s why, increasingly, a small but growing set of well-heeled “experience” junkies all around the world as well as in India are now turning to food to unravel the mysteries of civilization.

If Bangkok has its immensely popular the Blue Elephant School for Thai cooking (as well as several other smaller, picturesque ones) known to even those of us in India who can’t get over the malls, the banks of the Seine its La Cuisine Paris and others of the ilk, if even the “serious” Culinary Institute of America not to mention the huge network of Le Cordon Blue schools are seeing their ranks swell thanks to weekend foodies and gourmet travelers, who would much rather attend local markets and cook lunch with their buys than “site-see” or shop-hop, the academy in Parma too could well be a destination for the foodie tourist.

Afternoon cooking classes can be as basic or involved as you like and are priced at upwards of Euros 300 per person, per class. And it would be possible to spend a couple of days visiting the nearby cheese and pasta factories not to mention salumi centres even as you do courses in dolci, primi, mains and more.

Back in the kitchen, chef Grazia, seems a relaxed man. His kitchen is possibly a much less chaotic space than it would surely have been let out to a bunch of bumbling amateurs. In their place we have two of India’s most assured chefs specializing in contemporary European cuisine. Caperberry’s Abhijeet Saha and Olive’s Manu Chandra may bring different sensibilities and personalities to the table, but, here, at Barilla, they work in tandem, deftly, finishing off each other’s dishes, anticipating, waiting, even cleaning, not to mention helping us, the unskilled, prep the food — sometimes sternly, sometimes with a lazy wave of the hand, rarely with class-teacherly approval.

As the last of the dishes get plated up and the wine uncorked, we head to the library. It’s been a meal worth cooking. And eating.

(The column appeared in the Financial Express on Dec 11, 2011)

The winter brunch list

The prettiest places to eat out at this season

By Anoothi Vishal

Unlike in other colder parts of the world (and country), winter is not a season full of blues for most of us in the Subcontinent. Instead, it is a particularly salubrious time; where the terrible heat and dust and sweat of the rest of the year give way to Lodhi Garden picnics, farmhouse revelry, Christmas lunches, beach BBQs and, in general, to much all-round consumption. Some fad dieticians propound that the best and easiest time to lose weight is after March, once we lose the will and appetite to gorge on so much F&B. Having seen way too often what the inexorable march of the party season does to all our waistlines and weighing scales, I couldn’t agree more.
For those who grew up closer to an agrarian world than today’s metropolitan dwellers, idyllic food memories associated with the season may include the famous “paunk parties” (in Maharashtra, where tender jowar would be roasted and consumed as a snack on picnics), or chewing on freshly harvested sugar cane while basking in the mild sun. (My siblings and I thoroughly enjoyed doing this as kids when we’d go visiting our maternal grandparents in Bareilly; my nana always stocking up on enough cane.) At the very least, one may remember indulging in gajak, til ki patti, laddos made of puffed rice and jaggery or indeed peanut chikkis (all made of seasonal produce after the winter harvest) bought from bicycle-borne vendors on the streets and not from a fancy sweet shop. All these are winter traditions on the verge of being lost in our globalised world.

In their place, modern food retail has created its own new rituals. Winter brunches have become hot favourites this time of the year in the metros. Of course, the best way to enjoy these is al fresco, sitting out in the sun, getting your fix of vitamin D as well. If you have a farmhouse, it’s easy to put out a table in the open with or without the works. The rest of us need to head to a restaurant with a terrace, garden or pool. So what are my recommendations for this season? read on:

1. Olive Bar & Kitchen (Delhi) & Olive Beach (Bangalore): AD Singh’s Olive has been a leader in the brunch business and can be credited for having brought home the concept. I love both the Olives in Bangalore and Mehrauli for their undeniable charm — dining in the open at both restaurants is hugely refreshing — not to mention the fact that they are helmed by two of the most talented chefs in the business. Though a clichéd choice, no winter brunch list can be complete without Olive.

2. Lodi, the garden restaurant: One of the prettiest restaurants in Delhi, Lodi has been around for a long time but has suffered from a crisis of sorts as far as its F&B goes. It has gone on from being an Indian restaurant to one serving none-too-great “continental” stuff. But this season, it seems to have found fresh focus, having recently hired a Canadian chef, Camino Cochrane. The brief is clear: Keep the menu light and contemporary, making use of the organic produce taken fresh from the owners’ garden. The day I visited, the chef, just a couple of days old in the city, turned out a small menu, all based on one fresh ingredient: arugula, or rocket leaves, as they are called. The pasta, sandwich, even dessert he served up all spell good tidings ahead. The setting for the Sunday brunch is almost magical – pebbled pathways, tables fringed by tall Lodhi Garden trees and enough fresh air. A lavish spread is laid out, including an omlette station and a hot dog one—hopefully we will see the new chef’s handiwork too.

3. Amour (Hauz Khas Village, Delhi): After years of slumber, the full-of-character Hauz Khas Village in Delhi has been seeing a rash of restaurant openings. Amour is the latest on the block and certainly with one of the most charming views in the city. You can see the Hauz Khas lake and ruins from the wooden deck and the restaurant promises you an uninterrupted view of the sun going down with your glass of mojito. But my belief is that a leisurely brunch, recently introduced, in the open here is hard to beat. The food is competent if not superlative and Italian (sometimes with a dash of Asian, which is not bad at all), there is a wood-fired oven in place and the pizzas are fairly fulfilling. There is a crepes station as also grills which can be done in a variety of marinades.

4. Eggspectations (Jaypee Greens resort and spa, Greater Noida): This one’s more a breakfast place and not strictly al fresco. But makes it to my list because nothing can quite beat the charm of breakfasting by a golf course— even if glass and air-conditioning separate you. The newly-opened resort started getting attention because this was where all those F1 stars stayed (and the staff is full of tales as to how some indulged in an Indian meal, setting aside rivalries). But even without the attraction of the motorsport, it can be a good idea to take a break with or without golf and begin a late morning with perfectly orange-yolked eggs.

5. Azok (Juhu, Mumbai): Unlike Delhi, not only does Mumbai not have true winters but there is also a dearth of open-air places sans the crowd and chaos. Azok on the terrace of a Juhu serviced apartments block is a rare restauarant indeed, where you can dine by the pool and get a mile-long view of maximum city (thanks to the fact that there are low-rise bunglows in the vicinity.) Food by celeb chef Vineet Bhatia is contemporary Indian (dosa topped with goat cheese et al) and may make for an interesting brunch option.

6. Aqua, (The Park, New Delhi): Aqua, the lovely poolside space in the hotel comes alive in winters when it starts hosting Sunday brunches. This year, dim sum (18 types), nicely served in bamboo baskets, are on the menu—with champagne, soups and tea. For Rs 1,000 pp, definitely attractive.

7. Claridges (New Delhi): The charm of Lutyen’s Delhi is hard to miss and if you don’t quite have a garden of your own in this part of town, your best bet would perhaps be to sit out in the Claridges garden and feast on salads and grills, tempura, pan-seared foie gras, fondue, kebabs as well as Dilli ke paranthe, and biryani from the live counters. Moet flows around but children are luckily kept busy with tattoos, paintings, stories and games. My favourite brunch!

8. Lido (Ista, Bangalore):The al fresco Sunday brunch set next to the infinity pool is very popular with its BBQs and grills. Instead of a common buffet, food comes fresh and hot on the table (salad and desserts are on the counter though) from the kitchen and there is a flexible price option where kids, those looking to celebrate, vegetarians et al don’t have to pay a common brunch rate.

9. Fratelli Fresh (Renaissance, Mumbai): The sprawling hotel is known for its conventions space but has a resort like feel thanks to magnificent views of the Powai lake. It’s a patch of Udaipur in Mumbai! Ask the hotel staff and they will tell you stories about how they have arranged not just weddings but wedding proposals in the middle of the lake. But that’s another story. Tuck into the Italian brunch at Fratelli Fresh with a variety of cheese, seafood, fresh pasta, loads of Sangria and a glorious view.
(The article appeared in Financial Express on Nov 27, 2011)

Big, fat tables

Top tables

Luxury dining comes of age in the capital with the likes of Le Cirque and Lebua’s ambitious gourmet- Indian plans…

By Anoothi Vishal

Will you pay $ 400 per person on a meal for a single person at a super-exclusive Indian food restaurant—no, not in New York or Chicago or even London, but here in the National Capital Region? That’s a question that I have been wanting to ask the foodies of this city ever since the jaw-dropping figure was mentioned casually enough by celebrated hotelier Deepak Ohri this week, over dinner with a closely-knit bunch of the city’s food writers.

For those of you who don’t know the Bangkok-based, Lebua-CEO Ohri, his reputation is formidable. As someone who took up an ailing hotel and turned into one of the world’s best luxury hotels (amongst others, Lebua has been a recipient of the Overall Best Luxury Hotel award world wide), he is well-known enough. But what he is best regarded for perhaps are his fine dine initiatives which put Bangkok on the global food map.

Ohri’s stellar concepts at his Bangkok hotel include Sirocco, arguably the world’s highest al fresco restaurant, Mezzaluna, a stunning restaurant with modern European food menus created daily by twin-German chefs, and Breeze, a contemporary Asian diner. With their superb view, a service concept that includes treating celebrities “just like ordinary people” and, of course, brilliant food, the restaurants have redefined gourmet eating out in Asia.
Now, Ohri has set his eyes on Delhi (and, later, Mumbai). The first Lebua in India is all set to open this December, incredibly enough at Dwarka, where the group is working on turning around an existing hotel after a management contract. But if the choice of destination is surprising, what is even more amazing for me is the plan for the Indian restaurant that comprises Lebua’s first steps into this tricky territory of selling traditional Indian food to Indian people in India.

Ohri says he wants to set up the definitive Indian restaurant in the country: A super exclusive one that seats just about 35-40 people and sells them a two-and-half hour experience at a tag of roughly Rs 20,000 per head (with just water included apart from the food). And this is not to be a contemporary Indian restaurant—or so we gather, even though it is to be helmed by a well-known Michelin Starred Indian chef. The full plans are to be disclosed only three weeks hence. Used to our Moti Mahals and Dumpukhts at two ends of the spectrum in the “traditional” Indian food space, will we accept a meal—whatever the concept may be—at that price point? It’s, excuse the rather apt cliché, a million dollar question. But Ohri is confident and says that he will retire if it doesn’t succeed—even though, he agrees, that “this is like a film. It can either do very well or sink at the box office. Only the audience can decide.”
The most expensive restaurant in India till date has been Hemant Oberoi’s Souk at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, where the chef could do special meals for two and more, for about Rs 10,000 per person. Certainly, eating out has become more expensive in India—across segments—than it ever was, as even a trip to McDonald’s will tell you. But for the top five per cent of spenders on luxury in India’s growing middle-class, it is a question of perceived value. And that’s why they are splurging even when in the rest of the world over-the-top dining is distinctly out of fashion. After all, it is not unreasonable to pay sums of about Rs 3,000-5,000 per head with a nice bottle of wine at any of the top and even mid-level eateries in Delhi and Mumbai.
Despite this, there is a thought amongst India’s restaurateurs (and those elsewhere) that the market is not yet mature for some serious luxury dining. The concepts that seem to be doing the best in India are all casual. But this year and the next may just change our perceptions.
On the day when Ohri was making his ambitious announcement, Le Cirque, one of the most eagerly awaited restaurants in the country, a sister of the elite, clubby New York restaurant, opened in Delhi at the Leela Palace—the most expensive hotel in the country at the moment. (Fittingly, Ohri held his dinner in the private dining room of this restaurant.) While, you may not have to shell out Rs 20,000 per person eating here—unless you wanted to spend a couple of lakhs on a single bottle of Petrus alone from the excellent wine library at the restaurant—what Le Cirque undoubtedly does is to introduce an element of elitism and haute dining on the Indian restaurantscape.
According to the rather fascinating biography of Sirio Maccioni—the Le Cirque owner– that I have been reading, a large part of the restaurant’s fascination undoubtedly comes from the element of celebrity and social elite within its precincts. The portrait of Maccioni, an orphaned Italian boy who rose to become a legendary restaurateur, is unforgettable as he stands at his station each evening, greeting guests individually and mentally calculating where to place them in his “circus”! The restaurant takes no reservation requests for specific tables and apparently Maccioni’s decision on where to seat his guests is not based on how much money they have alone. The red room is reserved for the seriously powerful, we are told—the Trumps, Regans and other famous clients. The purple room is the most subdued and the bar is coveted. The way in which Maccioni greets his guests—with a kiss, or a handshake, has apparently been the arbitrator of social success: At least in the pre-recession years.
In Delhi, the new restaurant, does indeed have a New York air to it—even though its interiors seem far less animated than what I have been reading about. But what Le Cirque, at least in its first few days, seems to have succeeded in creating—perhaps inevitably in a city like Delhi—is the aura of power. The first family, it is rumoured, has been here and on the two nights I visited, the restaurant had its share of politicians, businessmen, society.
The menu, in contrast, is startlingly simple: There are dishes specially tailored for India (including, interestingly many with more luxury ingredients than in the “classic Le Cirque” section). The food is competent without being particularly brilliant but then that is not necessarily a negative for Delhi’s classes—what with the chef in charge having to contend daily with several requests for chicken over all other meats; in appetizer, pasta, maincourse… much to his woe! The service (and the sommelier), by contrast, are amongst the best in the city.
But despite what you may make of it, what Le Cirque does and what undoubtedly Ohri’s next will do in India is introduce us to a whole new world of privileged dining— the way the country has not quite seen yet. With money and the business of luxury shifting east, it’s a trend waiting to take off.

(the article appeared in Financial Express on Sunday)

Why Masterchef India is not (and will not be) as good as Masterchef Australia!

By Anoothi Vishal

If you are struggling to make “party” conversation, a safe topic to touch upon, at least in young, metropolitan India, would be, well, Masterchef. Not Masterchef India, mind you. But Masterchef Australia, arguably one of the best cooking shows in the world, and one, let me confess right at the beginning, that I am absolutely devoted to. It’s a show that has caught on the imaginations of the aspiring and the arrived. That has bridged the gap between the hoggers and the dieters, the cooks and those who can’t (or won’t) boil even an occasional egg, between the party-hoppers and the stay-at-home moms. In short, it is hardly a show merely about cooking. It is entertainment, where food takes centrestage, but it’s also a show where the contestants provide for an emotional connect, albeit, in a good-natured, matey way, not in the over-the-top manner via which reality shows, at least on Indian prime time TV, seek to increase their TRP ratings.

Most importantly, what Masterchef Australia does, is capture a lifestyle to which most of us urban Indians aspire to: Where food is accessible, yet fancy and exotic, where cooking is an activity to be indulged in for fun, a gift with which you can entertain friends over a glass of wine on the weekends, and where food can, in fact, catapult you to great worldly success. It is this subtext that makes this show so different from what we have been seeing on Masterchef India, that show for neighbourhood auntijies and bored mummies, for the last few episodes.

If Masterchef Australia brings to us the sense of a certain, admittedly elitist, lifestyle, Masterchef India appears to do its exact opposite— even though the producers seem to have left no stone unturned to copy the exact format of the Australian show; right from a similar masterchef kitchen, to tasks judging technique, to the three chef-judges (who are the best part of this show, after actor Akshay Kumar was thankfully dumped this season). Most TV programming in India caters to the masses, to the lowest common denominator, if I may be excused for putting it so bluntly, and Masterchef India is seemingly treading this path.

For a show like KBC—whose most recent season has brought us some amazing stories from Bharat; a real-life Slumdog Millionaire from Champaran truly deserving the crowning glory apart from making for some compulsive television— this showcasing of the aam admi, his struggle and triumph, works well. For a show like Masterchef India, this kind of democratization just makes things extremely boring. Do you really want to see a “maa”, mother from Amritsar, make the most basic cucumber raita? Or someone else attempt a no-good paneer bhujji and chole, stuff that many of us eat, and cook reasonably well, almost everyday at home? Where is the drama? Where is the wow factor in any of this? This is precisely Masterchef India’s biggest failing.

In a country where cooking is a competitive sport — that cuts across classes — at par with soccer or cars or art and wine elsewhere, it is disappointing to see the level of contestants in Masterchef India. The episode that I caught yesterday featured a handful of the final contestants, supposedly “India’s top (amateur) cooks”, cooking for a panel of pehlwans (wrestlers). The food they turned out was shockingly mediocre. And indeed one ambitious, 20-year-old cook, thought it fit to cut puris with a katori and serve these up with halwa. Why would we want to watch this on television, unless, of course, it is for the thrill of seeing some bumbling idiots and feeling a little better about our own foibles! Every kitty party hostess in this country displays more elan, more flair and more ambition when it comes to serving up something special to her guests. And here were the judges suggesting that the hapless girl (who finally got eliminated) could have turned out at least aloo-gobhi as a third dish.

Masterchef India, unlike its Australian counterpart, where we have seen the contestants face truly amazing challenges and come out tops, sets the bar too low. I don’t know whether this is set to change in the next few episodes, but for now, even the chef-judges, who otherwise seem quite sensible and dignified, seem to be sticking to the very basics. The cooking class they gave to the contestants yesterday included very basic (vegetarian) Punjabi khana: Dal makhni, karele, kulche and a dodgy looking rajma tikki. Frankly the food looked fairly unappetizing, albeit a little bit more restaurantised than the efforts of the mothers in the cook-off segment where everything was sloppily ladled into casserols (including puris, for heaven’s sake, everyone knows to serve up these puffed breads on a flat platter and not boxed-in) put on trolleys and carted off to the wrestlers. Besides which, what I’d like to know is this: which home cook, or middle-class housewife, does not know how to make these simple dishes? (You may belong to a different part of the country and know how to cook your own community and regional dishes but after the likes of Tarla Dalal, Sanjeev Kapoor, not to mention numerous recipes online, is it really necessary for a Masterchef class to make a Grihshobha-like effort?)

One concept that is really missing from the larger philosophy of Indian food is the idea of the chef: Who is a chef? Is a chef merely a good cook? And if not what separates a good chef from a good cook? The Nala Pakashastra—actually a medieval tome though it is attributed to the mythic king Nala, who had to stay disguised as a cook when exiled and separated from the love of his life, his queen Damyanti; both immortalized in the Kalidas epic poem—actually lists the attributes of a good “cook”. But these are somewhat mystic and include auspicious birthmarks, a pleasing face and so on.

Unlike France, or even Japan and China, where extensive training in the correct kitchen technique and long years in a restaurant kitchen, have been traditionally necessary to be deemed a “chef”, India is a country of many talented cooks and none better than the one at home serving her (it is usually the women) family and following her own special recipe even for something as simple as the tempering of a dal. Cuisine is not codified in India since there is no one cuisine that we speak of. Instead, flavours of the ostensibly the same dish differ not just from region to region but community to community and home to home. With the restaurant business taking off, we, of course, have the professionals, trained in catering schools, but at least when it comes to Indian food, most Indian “amateur” or “home” cooks are generally better at the craft. It is a strangely complex situation for anyone— and any show that is based on a foreign format—to comprehend.

However, to my mind, there is and should be a simple way to discern the chef from the cook. If a cook is a follower of recipes, the maker of a perfect dal makhni or biryani, the chef is someone who uses his mind to cook too. He is more deliberate and cerebral about his art—and goes about using his imagination much more liberally than the conservative kitchen of a middle-class Indian family may permit.

What are the contrasting flavours, textures, temperatures, colours in a dish? How have the vegetables been cooked? Is there a better way to do the meats? And, finally, is this a wow enough dish, visually and tastewise, that is going out of the kitchen? These are all thoughts that must cross a chef’s mind.

One reason I love Masterchef Australia so much, and I assume so do others, is because of this use of imagination. There is an attempt to create something new and different from the techniques and recipes learnt; to do an individualistic take on the classics. And it is precisely this element that seems to have gone missing, at least till now, from Masterchef India.

A note on plating: While I am all against gimmickery in the kitchen and, like all sensible people who often do this instinctively, prize taste and honesty of a dish over mere visual appeal; the latter is pretty important too, especially if you are aiming to get into a professional kitchen. And that’s another critical difference between Masterchef India and Masterchef Australia.

In Masterchef Australia, most contestants have a plan to professional-ise their experience: Some want to open up restaurants, dessert bars, others want to work in restaurants, still others have turned bloggers or organizers of food events. In the Indian version, we are predominantly faced with housewives, who have no expressed aim than to make their “families proud”. Obviously, we are looking at entirely two different levels of contestants and the different level of professionalism in the shows is all too evident.

One of the most clichéd sentiments in the world of food has to do with mother’s (or grandmother’s) cooking. It’s the best in the world, we are told. What I would really like to see are mothers who can’t cook at all—but excel at something else entirely (business/computer science) and make their children proud. And for heaven’s sake, I would like to see more fathers (brothers, young male friends et al) cook. It would be infinetly cooler and make the world an equal-opportunity place.

What India needs desperately is some fun with its food. What the Indian Masterchef needs is a dose of cosmopolitanism. Unfortunately, while I can see the former happening increasingly in our midst, it will take much longer for TV shows to change.

The mithai chronicle

Sweet somethings during the festive season in India

By Anoothi Vishal

An interesting— if lesser known — reason proffered for failure of the uprising of 1857 had to do with, well, sweets! According to the Dihli Urdu Akhbar of August 23, 1857, chronicling those terrible days of murder and loot in Shahjahanabad, the rebels, who had congregated from other regions of the country, became “softened” with the luxuries of the Mughal capital — amongst them sweetmeats from Ghantewala, the halwai shop set up in 1790 that enjoyed the patronage of emperor Bahadur Shah. “The moment they have a round of Chandni Chowk… enjoy the sweetmeats of Ghantawala, they lose all urge to fight and kill the enemy,” the Akhbar apparently reported.

Mishri-mawa, piste ki lauj, patisa, pede, laddoo and others of their ilk may not have found their place under the sun as far as our reading of history goes. But you can’t really dispute the fact that truly good mithai does satiate the soul — destroy aggression, confer peace, promote brotherhood…

Strictly speaking, Diwali is not the time to forgive and forget your rivals. Holi, with its “bura na mano” spirit of bonhomie is better-suited to the purpose. The festival of lights, in fact, is a time when new rivalries get stoked and serious competitiveness lurks around teen patti tables. But a golden syurped-whirl of jalebi, balushahi or sandesh, literally meaning “news”, hopefully good, with molten palm jaggery at its core, may considerably sweeten losing hands and fraying tempers.

Laddoos, made with fine or coarse boondi (pearls of besan) stuck together with sugar or jaggery (though they can be made of many other ingredients too, including winter-special gond) are one of the most ancient Indian sweets. A favourite with Ganesha, these were interchangeable with the term “modak” in ancient texts. Today, of course, the modak, is an entirely different entity—refined flour dumpling, deliciously filled with coconut and khoya, and steamed, but sometimes fried too which makes it a kindred to UP’s gujiya, Bihar’s pedakiya, Maharashtra’s karanji and so on. Truly, a pan-India festive sweet, ironically, influenced by the Turkish tradition of flaky, filo pastry filled with sweetened nuts and dates.

But if you are bored of gujiyas and laddoos as also kheer or halwa (whether it is the nagauri-halwa of Purani Dilli, had with the tiny puris for breakfast, the saffron-rich rava kesari of Karnataka, or indeed katlis of gajjar ka halwa), try making something like lavang latika of eastern UP-Bihar-Bengal, parcels of fried flour (closed with a clove) drenched in syrup. Or, parwal ka meetha from the same belt, arguably the sweetest region in the Subcontinent. Both are do-able recipes that seem to have faded out of gourmet consciousness. Sanjeev Kapoor’s website has decent versions.

For the parval, slit and deseed, prick lightly with a sharp knife, rub in some limewater and let it stand for three-four hours. Meanwhile, blanch almonds and pistachios and cut into slivers. Make a two-string sugar syrup and add the parval to the boiling syrup, allowing them to simmer for 10 minutes. For the stuffing, fry khoya and then add the nuts, finishing with green cardamom powder. Allow it to cool and stuff each parval with this mix. Serve chilled.

You can make the shahi tukda, a nawabi special from Lucknow, where bread (it used to be pieces of the sheermal or taftan before sliced bread arrived in British-India) is first fried, then cooked in milk and finally drenched in sugar syrup, before being topped with rabdi, or thickened milk. If you are adventurous and want to trick your guests, you can learn to make lehsun ki kheer, another elusive, old-time delicacy, where blanched garlic is substituted for blanched almonds in a thickened milk-rabdi concoction, so that you can never make out the garlic.

You can serve shrikhand made from simple hung curd (or amrakhand, made by mixing mango puree into the curd) in like readymade tart shells, or layer your cheese cake with it, just as you can alter the base of the latter, using anything from crumbled doda barfi to tightly-packed fine boondi like some creative chefs do in swish restaurants.

But my own Diwali cooking is going to involve the lauj. If the barfi is commonplace, lauj is elegant, exclusive and unsullied by khoya, that bane of Indian mithai. And while there are the super-rich badam and pista lauj, lauki ki lauj is a dying art indeed. Made by boiling thickly-grated bottle-gourd in milk, and mixing in sugar, before setting this on a greased tray and cutting out squares or diamonds, the trick to this deceptively simple sweet, that the biggest of halwais are unable to make today, lies in the proportion of milk and gourd used. A recipe I have stumbled on to suggests using 1.5 cups of grated lauki to 2 cups of milk. A cheat’s way would be to simply crumble some bazaar-bough kalakand (a milk sweet as opposed to khoya sweet) into the boiled gourd but there is no sweet sweeter than wrought by the sweat of your brow!

Did you know?
1. No mention of Indian mithai is complete without talking of Bengali sweets. While sweets like khaja, modak, jilebi (jalebi), malpo (malpua), and sandesh (made from khoya) were known from earlier times and find a mention in even 16th century literature like the Chandimangala from the region, the real breakthrough as far as sweet-making in Bengal goes came in with the Portuguese, who settled near Hughli and liked cottage cheese. Bengali sweetmakers thus discovered “chhana” and started using it in imaginative ways.

2. The rasgulla was born in 1862, when 22-year-old Nobin Chandra Das created it from spongy chhana soaked in sugar syrup. His son Krishna Chandra Das created the rasmalai by flattening the patty and soaking it in sweetened milk. He started selling these on a large commercial scale under his firm KC Das and Co.

3. Kheer comes from the old Sanskrit word Kshir. The payasam of southern India and payesh of Bengal all belong to this genre of milk-sweets, which are fairly ancient in the Subcontinent and involve use of not just rice and grain but vermicelli, lotus seeds and nuts.

4. Sitamarhi in Bihar could well be the surprise mithai capital of India. It apparently supplies most of the halwais to sweet shops in Kolkata. Other famous mithai towns include Kozhikode that used to have an entire ‘Mithai Theravu or sweet street (now overrun by other shops). A speciality was a special sweet halwa made from bananas.

(the article appeared in the Economic Times on Sunday in October 2011)

Asian stir-frying

Forget samosas, as the season gets cooler, try stir-frys accented with pan-Asian flavours. But get the basics right first

By Anoothi Vishal

As I write this, the devout have just bid farewell to their beloved Ganpati. But even though the 10-day long festival marking the changing season is over, it continues to rain, clouding our days, bringing down temperatures and evoking amongst other things the natural desire to indulge in something hot, crisp and spicy.

Ayurveda, the traditional Indian science on both food and medicine (after all, food is medicine, according to this philosophy, and we are not just what we eat but should eat according to what we are), has long upheld seasonal diets. Certain categories of foods and spices, for instance, are recommended for particular seasons according to their “cooling” and “warming” properties.

Even though you may not eat in strict accordance with these principles, they are so entrenched in almost the entire body of Indian cooking that most households, through sheer habit and tradition, are committed to them. Which is not a bad thing at all, because seasonal diets often have inherent common-sense, which we fail to recognize in this day and age of globalization and 24X7 availability of ingredients. Hot, often fried, things are recommended during the monsoon, the traditional season for illness and disease, because cooking at high temperatures prevents spoilage and keeps germs at bay, especially if you are having food cooked in a commercial premise. Similarly, ingredients like ginger and garlic are supposed to be upped in our daily bites because of their “warming” properties and who is to say that these don’t help.

Anyone who has had hot ginger tea, or better still a potent concoction of ginger, tulsi leaves and black peppers knows that colds definitely tend to abate with these.

But what if you don’t want to stick to traditional Indian eats or gorge on typical snacks like pakoras and samosas synonymous with the season? Last week, as I sat down to a monsoon special meal at Shiro, the restaurant chain (though it functions more like a nightclub/bar on weekends) that serves a fusion of Asian flavours, I found an apt answer: Stir-frys. As the days get cooler, what’s better than have these piping hot, off the wok, including while you are eating out? With chefs experimenting with a medley of newer flavours, these need not be boring meals for dieters only.

The good thing about the demise of Indian-Chinese in this last decade has undoubtedly been the opening up of the market for pan-Asian flavours. And we have to agree that south and south-east Asia especially is so abundant in herbs, spices and seasonings that it makes for very exciting gourmet possibilities. The kind of easy-to-eat pan-Asian food that has swept our restaurants in recent times is often not strictly authentic. Instead, what chefs are doing is playing around with these flavours, using a variety of accents, from Korea and Japan to Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, to dress up any number of meats and vegetables, including those more commonly found on Western plates.

At Shiro, for instance, I went through the entire stir-fry menu, sampling the likes of tofu in a spicy Korean bean paste, aubergines tossed in coconut cream and basil, an excellent chicken with the Malay sambal and curry leaves, fish done in a mix of Hoisin and sweet Thai chilli sauce (!) and even some assorted veggies in kashundi, the Bengali mustard paste. There was also a take on the Thai kraphao (ground chicken with basil) with rice having been wok-fried with chicken and basil and there was a bowl meal comprising of spicy soba noodles. None of these dishes are authentic. And that’s really the point. They are fun meals that you can experiment with. You can similarly rev up your stir-fry experience even at home by getting some of these sauces and pastes, herbs and seasonings, easily available in retail market, and giving a free run to your imagination.
Of course, it is incredibly easy to ruin a stir-fry dish too— something that not many people, including professional chefs, seem to appreciate. While at home, you can customize your quick meal to your liking, in a restaurant, a good stir fry can be tricky business, especially because most of the cooks who stand at the station doing these are kitchen hands trained at old-fashioned cornflour-ridden Indian-Chinese establishments. They are comfortable dousing everything in “gravy”, or in (Chinese) dark soy sauce. They will inevitably reach for a pinch MSG in the mistaken belief that it’s a cure for all ills. And I know of a few places, where they will also automatically put Chinese rice wine in everything. But it’s hardly their fault; not having been exposed to enough flavours from other countries, they don’t really know what the dishes they are cooking should taste like. Restaurants, alas, don’t seem to be investing enough in training.

While it is a good idea to innovate and get creative while attempting something like a stir-fry, you must remember to let basic or regional flavours stand out. That’s the key to this otherwise simple cooking enterprise. If it’s Thai that you like and you are attempting a simple chicken with basil, make sure that there is enough fresh basil (and enough garlic and red chillies ground together, to start off) to provide that distinct flavour. If it is Vietnamese prawns, make sure to have enough pounded black pepper which is a highlight, and if it is greens in mustard, well, obviously the kind of mustard you are using will be the key (sweet vs vinegared, for instance). You don’t really need Ajinomoto or even the Maggi cubes that can be crumbled and put to enhance flavour. Instead, try wetting the stir-fry with a little stock. It is more nutritious, more flavourful and less artificial. So, next time it rains—or not—attempt a stir fry!

(The piece appeared in Financial Express on Sunday in September 2011)

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