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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Summer Food Part 1

Well, hello.

It is 32 degrees outside.  Apparently this year Spring never sprung and instead, we hopped and skipped our way merrily straight to summer. I hear it is hotter today in London than it is in Bangalore.  And I don’t know if I like it, to be honest.  It’s just exhausting to be outside. Which is SO weird a thing to say for a sun-worshipper like me. Especially in London where it rains, on average, oh - 365/365.

Yes, yes. I’m cancelling out the days where it rains 5x a day with the days like today when it doesn’t rain at all. That’s how I calculate averages. (Maths, as you know, is not my forte).

But cooking is :) And I’d much rather have it that way, thank you very much!

So, anyway, the bigger problem, of course is that it’s too hot to eat. Which is the diametric opposite problem to the one I face when it’s cold outside. Then of course I want to eat all the time. I’m not sure which one’s the bigger problem.

I’d like to say I have no problem with eating all the time, except that I think it’s about time I lost some of that baby belly that’s stubbornly refusing to leave me, much in the manner of a spawned unyielding lover. Not that I’ve ever had a spawned, unyielding lover, mind you. I speak metaphorically.

But yes, 9 months and counting. And still no sign of reversion to concavity. Sigh. Should I keep the faith or resign myself to the sad truth that a flat stomach may remain the sole prerogative of the young and the rested??

But, my soon-to-be-a-mommy freinds out there: Worry not, smile bravely and wave the flag of mommyhood up high, for even if it's true (and I join you in hoping it's not), it's a small price to pay. What’s a little convexity in return for a living, squiggling, cuddling, bundle of joy-toy of your very own? Worth every bit, I promise you. Verily so.

But – I digress.

So what does one do when it’s most definitely too hot to cook and bordering (dangerously) on being too hot to eat?  OK, it’s technically never too hot to eat, but you get my general drift. The only things that are working for me today are cooling citrusy things like lemons and melons and oranges and things.

So I drag a reluctant baby (yes, the one I traded in for a flat stomach) – who’d MUCH rather be watching Wimbledon in the aircon, thank you very much – to Waitrose. Thankfully it’s only a five minute walk away. The sun is blazing down on pram-and-self, the heat is rising from the sidewalk, and I swear I can see smoke coming out of the metal surfaces of parked cars. I stay away from them, lest they come alive and eat me.

I almost run into the air conditioned store. Aaah...the cool blast of the AC hits me squarely on my face. This is heaven. Reluctant baby has stopped whining. Which is also heaven. I wouldn’t mind laying out a picnic rug and settling down here today, in the aisle between the frozen foods. Very tempting, that proposition, on a day like this.

As I pick up a shopping basket, I notice the demo-sample station lady is demoing soup.
Guess the person who made that decision didn’t check the weather. Either that, or he/she lives in the air conditioned splendour of Waitrose. Lucky bugger/ess.
Anyway, the demo-sample station lady is standing there, apron, gloves and all, with forty untouched cups of soup all laid out in neat rows in front of her, and a rather forlorn expression on her face.
On any other day, lady, I’d have helped her out (I'm nice like that)...but today, even the mere thought of soup is making my pulse quicken. And it's not from excitement. So, I give her a sympathetic look and rush past to the fresh vegetable aisle. Everything looks fresh and cool and crisp and refreshing. And just lovely. Here’s what I buy:

For my salad: 
- 1/2 head Napa cabbage, shredded
- 1/2 head romaine lettuce, shredded
- 2 carrots, shredded
- Handful of snow peas
- 1/4 cup spring onion, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup slivered almonds
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
- 1 orange, segmented
- 2 cups cooked rotisserie chicken, shredded by hand (optional)

For my dressing:
-  2 tbsp sesame oil
-  2 tbsp soy sauce
-  1/4 cup rice vinegar
-  2 tbsp honey
-  Pinch red pepper flakes
-  Salt & white pepper to taste

To make the dressing, simply combine all the above ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until everything is well mixed.

Meanwhile, add romaine and cabbage in a large bowl before tossing in the spring onion, snow peas, carrots, oranges (and chicken, if you are using any). Pour dressing over the salad and toss well to coat. Add in cilantro, almonds and sesame seeds. 

This is a salad I love. Love! It’s crispy, and crunchy, and spicy, and sweet, and savoury. And COOLING!

For the rare London day when it’s too hot to eat. Well, almost!

Friday, 24 June 2011

The Closet Gourmand

This piece has been published in Tim Hayward's Fire and Knives, Issue 11, but here's a teaser:

Man, I love London.  I really do.

It’s green, it’s clean, the air is so fresh and pure, it makes me want to close my eyes and inhale, deep into my lungs. London has more history than most history books can hold, architecture so stunning that sometimes I stop, in mid-stride, just to admire it. It’s proudly English, yet it’s chicly cosmopolitan, and if you pay attention, you can hear a 100 different languages, all in a single day. I love the crisp English accent, and I love the dry brilliance of British humour.  I love that I get my haldi powder at my local Sainsbury’s and that Chicken Tikka Masala is more widely available than Yorkshire Pudding.  I love that the work-day ends at 6 and that my friends have interests and hobbies that don’t involve the office. I love the vast green expanse of Regent’s Park, the magnificence of Westminster, the dark, brooding solitude of Moorgate on a weekend. I love tennis at Wimbledon and I love cricket at Lords. I love Ribena, and I love Coronation Chicken and I love a good old D-shaped Cornish pasty. And I love the picture perfect English summer that Enid Blyton told me about when I was a child – blue, blue skies, flowers in colour, that gentle breeze through my hair, the sun streaming into my bedroom, waking me up. And you know what, I don’t even mind the grey skies anymore – the rain is simply an excuse to stay home. And cook. And write.

But, amidst all this love, there is, sadly, a “But.” But, just one. And it is this: if there’s one thing that London can do better, much better – it’s good Mexican. I’ve rummaged through “Where To Eat In London” books, asked all my foodie friends, clicked through 19 pages of goooooooooogle, and sorry to be dramatic (and totally unoriginal), but Bono really says it best – “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for...”

I must admit, this boggles the mind. See, I was walking around aimlessly the other day (which I seem to do a lot of these days) and came across a restaurant offering – wait for this –‘Vegan Sushi.’ Umm. Ok, “No, Thanks” obviously, but the point is – I am willing to wager (quite a bit) that you’re highly unlikely to find a ‘Vegan Sushi’ restaurant even in Japan. So clearly, when it comes to food, London doesn’t, by any standards, lack in diversity. But, I mean, ketchup with chopped up onions, is Salsa?

Now, I’m by no means a Mexican food purist. Of course, I’d willingly do the Mexican Hat Dance for some Chile Relleno, but frankly – dare I admit it – I love Tex-Mex.  I lived in New York for 12 years and when people ask me what I miss most about it, I have to admit Mexican food (authentic, cheap and available around the corner) is always up there. So yes, I genuinely adore sizzling fajitas and melting quesadillas and big, stuffed burritos. Yum, Yum and Yum. There, I’ve said it. I love Tex-Mex. But good Tex Mex. Please? London, are you listening?

So, after much searching and exploring and commuting to the very end of every colour of the London tube network, all to my great disillusionment, my Mexican-food fervour had reached a Celine Dion type level. So imagine my excitement when...

You can subscribe to the whole article PLUS brilliant food writing from the likes of Thomas Blythe, Anna Berrill, Ellen Hardy,Mansour Chow, Josh Kornbluth, Karen Barichievy, Joe Bridal, Josh Sutton, Nick Baines, Jojo Tulloh, Fiona Button, Linda Gibson, Catherine Phipps and Judy O'Kane - HERE

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Dal Bukhara

I call my husband at work. He’s a busy Wall-Street type, you know. The kind I used to be. Except he manages to stay loving and kind despite it, while I turned into a grumpy little ball with spines coming out of me in all directions. I think that’s called a hedgehog. Yes, most definitely I turned into a hedgehog. Is that where the term “hedge fund” comes from, I wonder?  Ok, ok, that’s a joke. I know full well what a “hedge” means, before some moralist hedge fund manager chirps up to correct me. A hedge is a shrub. Hee hee, just kidding.

Anyway, so I call my husband up at work. He hates when I call him at work. Many times he hangs up on me in mid sentence, but I don’t take it personally. I finish my sentence and then hang up too. There!

Now, what my husband hates even more than when I call him at work, is when I call him at work to ask him to solve mathematical puzzles – like “Hey, I had a question, what’s greater - 2/3 or 3/4”?

Then he hangs up on me straightaway. Not even the luxury of a mid-sentence hang up. Bam!

But I – persistent little creature that I am – call again. “Please help me,” I say, “I can’t proceed without this”
Fractions, you see, are not my forte.

So, loving and kind as he is, he tells me the answer – (It’s 3/4, if you’re curious). The key is to do it on the phone see, so I’m not physically there to witness his eyes roll. I like to think he’s doing it with love and kindness.

 “Really?” I exclaim. “Cool!”

He then goes into some mindless jargon about how I won’t need to call next time if I just spent some time working it out myself using lowest common denominations... blah blah.

And so I hang up on him.
Sweet Revenge.

Anyway, I get an email from him a few second later. Modern technology, I tell you! Can’t ever be left alone. Anyway, the email asks two questions – 1) Do you ask me these questions just to irritate me? 2) You went to Harvard?

Very pertinent.

No and Yes. Respectively.

On the first – no, my dearest, the love of my life, the beating pulse of my heart (and so on), now why would I (batting eyelashes for fantastic theatrical effect) ever do anything to irritate you?

And on the second. Uh. Hmm.Yeah. Though how I fooled those HBS committee people into giving me a place there is anyone’s guess. I’ve never really thought about it you know. But now – since I’ve been asked the (very pertinent) question, Now, is when I step back and analyze it. And I rather think I know the answer.

I think, my friends, that it’s down to that one elusive line at the bottom of my otherwise ho-hum resume that did it for me. The one line that declares that I have interned at the Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton. And indeed, I have. I have interned at the Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton. In the summer after I graduated University, with job in hand and three months of nothing to do, I decided to follow my only true passion (yes, food) and intern at the Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton. (I’m sorry by the way for repeating the phrase “Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton” so many times. But it’s necessary for impact, you see. A thousand apologies.)

Now, tell me, how can anyone in their right mind deny a place to someone whose spent any time at all in the Bukhara Kitchens at the ITC Maurya Sheraton? I mean, granted that I never saw the venerated men on the HBS Admissions Committee ever in my life again. But still, I am SURE that deep inside their venerated hearts they were thinking: she has the secret to Dal Bukhara? To that creamy, buttery deliciousness worth Rs. 900 (plus tax) for a bowl? This deserves no further scrutiny. Let’s move on to the three-time Olympic gold medalist with a PhD in applied Maths and decide if he deserves a place.

So there. That’s the real story of how I got in. And proud of it, I am. For the three months that I spent in those kitchens was more hard work than my seven collective years in investment banking. And that’s the truth.

So when I hear people raising their eyebrows over the fairly recent “celebrity chef” trend, I just have this to say to them:

Try it for yourself. Just for a day. And if you can get through it, you’ll have shown your true mettle. And understand why chefs deserve every last bit of the hype they get.

For it is a job that is not only intensely demanding, mentally and creatively, but also requires tremendous physical resolve. Firstly, it is oppressively hot inside professional kitchens – the ovens are on, 24/7 and in the interest of hygiene, you have to wear the chefs’ hat and gown over your own clothes. I distinctly remember times when breathing was a struggle. And the hours are just killing. When I was there, there were two shifts, with some overlap between each. Lunch service ran from 12:30pm to 2:30pm and dinner service ran from 7:00 pm to midnight. I was only involved in dinner, thankfully. For my dinner shift, prep started at 11am every morning (yup, that’s right) and I was on my feet for the next 14 hours, sitting down only when the company car dropped me home at 1am every morning when the last of the orders had been taken out. And I was a lowly intern. I have no idea when the lunch people started their prep and I can only imagine the hours of those who were required to be there to supervise both shifts.  It’s back-breaking work.

And for those who think you just strut into the kitchen and show off your creative genius, think again. It is a long, hard road up. There is virtually no creative input in the initial years. You’re not there to invent your own stuff. You need to earn the right to do that. You’re there to learn and to perfect the menu that has survived the tests of time and has over the years, earned the restaurant the acclaim of being one of the best in Asia. You're there to deliver immaculate plate after immaculate plate, that's supposed to taste a specific expected way under the intense demands of a madly ticking clock. It’s about precision and it’s about practice and it’s about perfection.

So, while some have (quite rightfully) worked their way up to achieve fame, accumulate fortunes, and become ‘name brand’ chefs; the real hard work lies in the hands of those anonymous stirrers of pots who rarely venture out of the kitchen, but without whom, the show certainly wouldn't be on the road.

And so, while I have to thank many of the Senior chefs (whose names I don’t remember) for helping me witness, first-hand, the sheer brilliance behind some of Bukhara’s signature dishes – Sikandari Raan, Malai Kabab, Tandoori Jhinga and of course – the ever popular Dal Bukhara, there is one person (whose name I do remember) who I have to thank for really teaching me how to roll up my sleeves and COOK.

Govind Ram was a whole foot and a half shorter than me (making him about 4 foot 3), painfully thin, sporting a small thin moustache that made him look rather like a Bihari Charlie Chaplin. When he smiled, which he often did, he showed a surprisingly white, near perfect set of teeth that would make any toothpaste commercial maker beg him to model for them.

Now Govind was my real teacher.

You have to realize that my presence caused a great deal of hilarity in the kitchens – I’m not sure whether that was because it was the first time they had ever had an intern or because of the notion that I was doing this for fun, rather than for economic necessity or simply because  I was a 22 year old girl in a kitchen full of men – either way, it was difficult for them to take me seriously.

For the first several days, I was given nothing to do. Every person would ask me to “please sit” and I felt totally useless. Or worse – that I was just in peoples’ way; this annoying person for whom they had to stop their busy routine to exchange pleasantries. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided that if I wanted to learn, then I needed to do something about it. My strategy was to pick the most “approachable” looking individual, and beg them to give me work. Purely on account of Govind’s perfect smile, he was the chosen one.

And did I make the right choice.

Zaroor, Madam-ji” he replied with a shy smile, when I asked him whether he would teach me. It took me several weeks of explaining that I was neither ‘Madam’ nor ‘ji’ and that I had a name that I much preferred to either, that he reluctantly started calling me ‘Ami-ji.’

Every now and then, he would lapse into “Madam-ji” and then on account of the hawk-like stare I’d give him, he’d clap his hand to his mouth and shyly shake his head and say, in English - “oh sorry, Ami-ji”

And for the next three months, he taught me everything that was worth learning: How to pulp tomatoes and how to layer parathas, how to devein prawns and how to marinate malai kabab, how much spice is enough and how much is too much, the balance between andaz and precision, art and skill and science, how to make Paneer from scratch. And how to make the perfect Kali Dal.

And last but not least, this man taught me a far more valuable lesson than how to cook, he taught me to appreciate those who cook for us, to recognize what goes on in those unknown dark recesses behind the scenes, to understand the hard work that goes into that perfectly presented dish that’s brought out to the table, to realize how many hours it took to make what we finish off in value the absolute and undeniable reality that professional cooking is an art that not many have the nerve to attempt, let alone succeed in.

On the last day of my internship, Govind brought me food from home that his wife and he had cooked together, as a goodbye present to me. I still remember what they had cooked for me – perfectly made hot flaky parathas, spiced kala channa and chicken curry. Such is the generosity of a man who probably made less in a month than the hedgehogs make in a day. Food for thought. Quite literally.

I asked him then, what he wanted to become. What his ultimate goal was.
Bada chef banna hai, Madam-ji,” he said to me, valiantly. “Master chef.”
Then. “Sirf sapna hai Madam-ji” – it is just a dream

But it is precisely at these times in our lives – when we are motivated by goals that have deep significance, by dreams that need completion, that we are at our true best. And so it was with him.

I have yet to meet a more superb North Indian cook, talented with the precise, resonant, yet subtle spicing that is required of such cuisine. I don’t know where he is now. Maybe he’s still there, in the Bukhara kitchen, de-seeding chillies meticulously or chopping tomatoes in precisely measured cubes. Or maybe he’s now a bada chef somewhere in the world. A Master Chef.

For Govind then, wherever you are, I hope your dreams have come true: This is Your Dal Bukhara:

By the way, he made me make it once, on a slow order day, all by myself. Not to serve customers, just to learn. And, being 22 and high-spirited, I did something against my better judgment. I experimented with a healthy version of Dal Makhani.


One word. Disaster.

My healthy Dal Makhani lacked spectacularly in flavour. I caught it in Govind’s expression in that narrow window between putting a spoonful in his mouth and expressing polite delight. It was Disappointment. With a capital D.

So then I had to beg him. First to admit that it was bad. Then to help me salvage it. Not a worthwhile use of time, I tell you. Just do it right the first time around. In hindsight, of course I realize that any self respecting Dal Bukhara lover knows that “Healthy Dal Makhani” is an oxymoron. One should not tamper with taking out the “makhan” from a dish that is called “makhani.” That is my considered opinion.

Anyway, this is precisely how he helped me salvage it - “Phikar math kariye, Madam-ji, bus khoob saara makhan aur malai daliye...” (Don’t worry, just add a whole lot of butter and cream) And when I hesitated – just for a tiny fraction of a second – before closing my eyes and dropping in half a stick of butter and 30 mls of heavy cream, he smiled and added, “arre, dariye math, pyaar se daaliye!” (Go on, don’t be afraid, add it with love!)

Here’s what you need:

In the cooker:
1/2 cup of whole black urad dal, soaked in water overnight
2 tbspn of red kidney beans (rajma), soaked in water overnight
2-inch piece of ginger
3 tbsps butter

For your tadka:
1 onion, diced
2 tomatoes, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 green chillies, slit
1 tbsps of oil
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
Salt to taste

To finish: (sigh)
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp cream

Soak the urad dal and rajma overnight in water. Drain the water in the morning and add the lentils to the pressure cooker. Add in butter, salt, half the ginger and enough water so there is at least ½ inch of water above the beans.  Pressure cook to three whistles.

This point here, requires some pause. One time when I made this dish, I skipped the pre-soaking part (impulse desire for Kali Dal, what can I say? And it took me 7 whistles on the cooker to get it right...). So you will need to use the failsafe Andaz to make sure you’re where you want to be. Which is – when you open the lid, the beans should be totally soft. Have a taste if you like – they should literally melt in your mouth. This means they are done. If there is still a bite to them, continue to cook on low heat until they are completely soft. If you are good and pre-soak, usually three whistles should do the trick.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a pan and add in the cumin seeds. When they begin to sputter, add the diced onion and sauté till golden. Add in remaining ginger, garlic and cook for a few more minutes. Now, add slit green chillies and tomatoes and cook the mixture on high heat. At this point, add in all the dry powders and continue cooking till the tomatoes are reduced to a pulp.
Once the dals have been pressure cooked, open the lid and add in the mixture you’ve just prepared above to the cooked dal, mixing well. Bring the dal to the boil again, adding the butter and cream. “Arre, dariye math, pyaar se daaliye!” Simmer on low heat for all the flavors to combine well.  
Taste-wise (rather unsurprisingly on account of all the generous amounts of "love" that this dish contains) it is mind boggling. Worth every last bit of the hype. Chef’s Promise.

Friday, 17 June 2011

5-Spice Magic


I'm contemplating starting a series of posts on Bengali food and I'm a little daunted by it all. First of all, my 91 year old grandmother is my teacher, and she's the best cook I know. So I have large, large, large shoes to fill. She stopped cooking a while ago - even walking unsupported is a virtual impossibility now - but her departure from the kitchen was gradual. So, some 20 years ago, she was properly Mistress of the Kitchen, chopping and stirring and whipping up pure magic-on-a-plate that would surprise and delight even the most fussy of eaters. Then, when physically cooking became too tedious, she would sit herself on a stool and boss me around - do this, chop that, mix this, no dear - too much, no dear - too little - etc. Mind you, I quite enjoyed being bossed around by her. And when the bossing got too much, I'd just plonk myself on her lap and we'd exchange big bear hugs. That was really the best part. And oh! How I remember those days with fondness!

Anyway, the result of these supervised cooking sessions were always quite good if I may say so myself. But I think that only means that she was rather good at being bossy, than that I was a good cook. Alas!

And that was as recently as some 5 years ago. Now of course, even that's too tedious. So, now, it’s all me. As I said, I have large, large, large shoes to fill. But just because I can’t ever make Bengali food quite as well as she does, doesn’t mean that one should go through life without even braving an attempt.

So here goes nothing.

And as if that's not daunting enough, there's Bengali food itself. See, Bengali food has its own, very-specific-to-itself list of ingredients and spices and lentils and things. And they aren't really easily translatable in a Pan-Indian context, much to the bewilderment of my non-Bengali brethren. For example, in Bengali food, you routinely use jayatri and jaiphol. That's mace and nutmeg in English. But I'll be damned if I know their Hindi names. See what I mean? Ce probleme est trex complexe.

Thus, I am daunted. Greatly so.

So, I have decided that as I go along, I will try and explain away some of these very peculiarly Bengali ingredients - the secret to great deliciousness, I promise you, that often doesn't go much beyond a Bengali kitchen. But since I am so lovable and kind, sweetness personified and all that, I will happily share it ALL!


So, I'm starting with Panch Phoron.
"Panch" means five and "Phoron" refers to the process of tempering oil or ghee. It so happens that I do know the Hindi word for "phoron." It's "tarka." There! I knew my marriage to a hot-blooded Punjabi wasn't completely in vain.

So anyway, Panch Phoron I guess would then translate to "Five Spice" – and the five spices that make up Panch Phoron are:

1) Fenugreek - (Hindi word: methi)
2) Nigella - (Hindi word - kalonji)
3) Mustard - (Hindi word - rai)
4) Fennel - (Hindi word - saunf)
5) Cumin - (Hindi word- jeera)


By the way – Who says I can't speak Hindi?

Anyway, anyway. Back to more pressing matters - to make Panch Phoron, just take equal quantities of each of the above (2 tbsp of each should do), put in an air-tight container and store away!

Panch Phoron is as indispensible a part of Bengali food as they come, and in the dishes that use it, it serves as your very first step. So, you would take the pan you are cooking in, add in a spoonful of oil or ghee, and then add the Panch Phoron. When the seeds begin to sputter, you have your cue to add in whatever else you want. The idea is that when you take regular oil and fry the panch phoron in it, the aromatic oils inherent in the panch phoron mixture (they are all seeds, after all, and all seeds have oils in them) mix with your cooking oil, thus flavouring it. So basically you now have a much more flavourful oil in which to cook whatever you were planning on cooking. You follow? Or have I confused the heck out of you?

Really though - it works wonders. Try it. Heat ghee or oil, toss in a teaspoon of paanch phoron, pause awhile to take in the wonderful aromatic fragrance. Now, add in your vegetables (really anything will do - cauliflower or beans or peas or carrots or potatoes or all of the above mixed together) add salt, mix everything well, cover and let cook. You don't need a thing more.

You have sweetness and heat and bitterness and muskyness and nuttyness and pungency. All at once. And your vegetables are transformed. From an insipid pile of boring blah to flavourful, crunchy, heart-healthy deliciousness. With a sizzle and a splutter. Just like that. It's magic.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Calcutta Egg Rolls

The weather is flirting with me today. One minute the sky is ominously dark and grey, and it’s chucking it down, as if rain’s going to go out of fashion, and then, as soon as I turn my back, it’s sunny again.

Whatever it is, this game of hide-and-seek makes for one of those lazy days when you don’t feel like doing anything at all. I need to sort out dinner though, and it has to be something easy. No marinating or grinding or simmering or standing for hours in front of the stove. No spices, no mess and no clean-up. So, here is the best example of taste without effort that I can think of:  These are Calcutta Egg Rolls.

Here’s what you need:

- Tortillas
- Eggs (1 egg for each tortilla)
- 1 tbsp milk (per egg)
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- Green chillies, chopped (as many as you like, for as hot as you like)
- ¼ cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
- Lemon juice
- Pudina (mint) chutney, imli (tamarind) chutney or plain tomato ketchup
- Salt, to taste

Beat the eggs in a bowl, add milk (to make them fluffy), and add salt to taste. Smear a griddle or frying pan with little oil and pour the egg mixture. Spread it out in a circle.

Before the egg cooks fully, place a tortilla on top. Then, when you start to notice the edges of the egg browning, flip the tortilla over, so the egg-side is on the upside. Give it a couple of seconds for the under-side to brown.

Remove and assemble the filing on the egg-side.  The standard filing for a Calcutta egg roll consists of red onions, chopped green chillies and cucumber, all thinly sliced and sprinkled liberally with lemon juice. Add some of the chutneys to the filling, if you have them, or if not, tomato ketchup does the trick beautifully.

Roll, wrap it up in foil and tear as you bite your way through.

Super, super easy and super, super delicious!

Egg rolls are of course wildly reminiscent of Calcutta’s dusty streets, where the ubiquitous egg-roll walahs sit on street corners serving up their wares piping hot off the griddle. The best can be found at Kusum on Park Steet, Campari at Gariahat or Nizams, behind New Market (Nizams, I believe is where the Kathi Roll originated to begin with). Taste-wise, mine will pale in comparison to theirs. There is that special something about street food that makes it so good – I don’t know what it is, but really, perhaps in this case, ignorance is bliss.
Anyhow, writing about egg rolls has stirred up a deep longing for Calcutta that’s tugging at my heart strings. For it is the city of my birth.
By the way, I just can’t get myself to call it Kolkata. It’s perfectly acceptable when I’m speaking Bengali. But it’s mighty odd when I hear people referring to the city as “Kolkata” in an otherwise perfectly constructed English sentence. It seems unnatural to me, as much so as I would expect my German friend Romy to puff up her chest and declare, “I’m from Deutschland!”
So – really people –it’s Calcutta. Pronounced, if you like, with the border-line pretentious-Loreto-House-anglicised-lilt: “Calcaata”
Anyway, Calcutta is really the only city I know of that does not produce a binary reaction (love it or hate it). In fact, when people speak of Calcutta, you hear a term I’ve never really heard applied to anyone or anything else – “It grows on you,” they say.
Lord knows what that means.
But I? I just love Calcutta.
I never lived there long enough to ever call it home. And yet, I feel a great kinship to it.
Why, you ask?
I don’t know, is the honest answer.
Perhaps it’s because it is the city where my father first romanced my mother
Perhaps it’s because it is where I spent so many memorable childhood days with my grandmother in her New Alipur flat
Or perhaps, as the daughter of a Bengali mother, I just have Calcutta in my blood.
Don’t get me wrong – Calcutta has no dearth of the filth and squalor which sadly characterizes most big cities in India today. But still...whatever it is, I love it.
To me, there’s something utterly romantic and old school about it – like a place stuck in time.
Perhaps it’s the architecture: The Calcutta High Court, Writer’s building, the GPO, The Grand Hotel, the numerous buildings around Maidan Park and Dalhousie Square. These are perhaps some of the finest example of British imperial architecture one can ever see. Sadly, a number of these so called “Heritage Buildings” remain in various stages of dilapidation, blackened with dirt and grime owing to years of neglect and disrepair, defaced by rows of ugly electrical cables and posters of politicians with fake smiles and folded “namaste” hands. Yet, despite all this, there is something to be said for the glorious marble façade of Victoria Memorial at dusk, the dome lit up against the darkening sky, it’s rotating bronze winged angel calling out to twilight lovers meeting secretly in the shadows…
Or is it the people? Take for example, the Bengalis’ sitting on their verandahs clad in their dhoti-kurtas, engaged happily in animated discussion over endless cups of tea. Observe carefully and it’s none of this boiled-milk-and-tea-leaf-Masala Chai business (much as I love Masala Chai) – it’s perfectly brewed Assam or Darjeeling in a teapot (adorned with tea cosy), milk and sugar in separate containers, all served neatly in a tea service, English style. The discussions are really on any topic under the sun, and more often than not, for no reason other than the sake of debate. It is a rare sight in the world, this – people engaging in conversation with each other, in no perceivable rush to get anywhere. For these are a people strangely unmotivated by economics, choosing to live their lives in pursuit of some other-worldly happiness. Go figure.
There is more of course. Much, much more, but Calcutta is hard for me to write about. My memories of the city are disjointed, stitched together like patchwork from various sources including stories from my mother and my grandmother, old photographs and letters, snippets of my own memories from visits over the years...Sadly, the imagery is inextricably jumbled.

But here it is, in the spirit of creative writing – I give you the essence of Calcutta as it exists in my mind, muddled no doubt, but still beloved: hard boiled eggs at picnics in Alipore Zoological park; Park Street glittering at Christmas time, decked out with silver stars and fairy lights; the bearer at Tolly Club who’s been there ever since I was born (at least) and always recognises me with a “Gopal Babar mei na ki;” the Bengali peoples’ undying love for all things intellectual, their penchant for art and culture and music and education; the peculiar obsession with all things British; the street hawkers selling everything from newspapers to lychees to fresh vegetables to stainless steel cutlery; the faint strains of Rabindra Sangeet playing on All India Radio from a neighbours house; women in flowery nighties, foreheads adorned with large red bindis standing by their gates, waving goodbye to school going children and working husbands; the vibrancy and fervour with which the city comes alive during Durga Puja; Rum-soaked plum cake from Nahoum's, the Bengali habit of always carrying umbrellas, regardless of whether its raining or not – and as an extension – the endearing Bengali way of crossing the road (rotate open umbrella sideways, shade-side out, stick it in the face on oncoming traffic and cross)...

And the FOOD. My god, the food! Whether its momos on Lee Road, Indian Chinese in Tangra, Mutton Patties at Fluries, or Pineapple pastry at Kathleens, Calcutta offers – in my objective view – the best cross section of food in the country. I will hand it to Delhi for the best Mughlai, but really Shiraz and Dhaba will not disappoint even the most Punjabi Punjabi. I even remember on one visit, being dragged by my grandmother to some South Indian restaurant (Raj?) for Dosa. My parents lived in Madras at the time and I didn't know why I was being taken for Dosa when I lived in the Land of Dosa. 
“Why are we going for Dosa, Didima, I can get Dosa in Madras any time I want” I would ask.
The Dosa in South India is hopeless dear,” she would reply solemnly.
“But Didima, Dosas come from South India”
To which she would roll her beautiful hazel-green eyes and repeat with infinite patience – “I know dear. But they’re hopeless.”  

And then you have the sweets. Even I, born evidently without a sweet tooth, find it hard resist the sweets of Calcutta. So – Mishti doi, Roshoglla, Chomchom, Shondesh, Rajbhog, Pantua, Pithe, Payesh...bring it on! Of course, if you are lucky enough to be invited to a Bengali home, authentic Bengali food is distinctive enough and numerous enough to fill volumes. Apt subject matter for a subsequent post...or many!

For now, enjoy the egg rolls – perhaps the most famous street food offered by this charming metropolis with its indomitable spirit, that truly does grow on you.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Butterfly Kisses

“Nobody can ever love you as much as I do.” Sid said to me on our wedding night. He was right. Until today.
Today, somebody proved him wrong.
Today, Ranbir gave me my first kiss.
It is often said that the first kiss – the romantic one – is the most unforgettable one.  Very, very true. But having just experienced this one, I gotta tell you, it comes pretty close. I feel like I have just died and gone to heaven.
I’ve asked for kisses before, many times. I’ve asked for them ever since Ranbir started responding to being kissed. Whenever he seems in the mood, I start with his cheeks, planting big loud kisses on both sides and then, I bury my whole face into his neck, kissing him under his ears and below his chin, making him squeal with toothless baby giggles that I just can’t seem to get enough of. And then I ask him hopefully – “mama kissy?”
But I never get one. Until today, that is.
Ranbir is an affectionate child. He loves baby cuddles, wrapping his arms tightly around my neck, rubbing his head against my face. He loves sitting on my lap, while we play “tuk tuk horsey,” turning back to look at me every now and again with his big brown eyes, just to make sure I'm still there. He loves being held in my arms as I put on some music and dance all around the room with him. But he hasn’t been one to kiss.
I figured that either he didn’t know how to physically do it, or he didn’t understand what I wanted or perhaps he was just plain shy, not interested in such a palpable gesture of affection.
Sometimes, when I put my face right up against his little mouth, he opens it as if to eat my cheek, making it not much different to any other object that comes near his mouth – toys, my mobile phone, his toes. Special? Not really.
But today? Today is different. He is sitting quietly in his rocker, watching me as I read the newspaper. I steal a quick glance at him and, he looks back, steadily holding my gaze. When he sees me look at him, he breaks into the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen. On a whim, I get up and crouch down on the floor, beside him, put my face next to his and ask – “mama kissy?”
And there it is. Looking straight into my eyes, my little baby turns his face to mine, and gives me a kiss, right there in the middle of my cheek. It isn’t an attempt to eat me, it isn’t a slobbery lick, it is a proper kiss. A baby kiss.
It feels soft, gentle – like a whisper on my skin. A Butterfly Kiss. And I sit there, motionless, on my haunches, too moved to do anything. There are some moments in life when words fail us. This is one of them.
He, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s done; the significance of this precious gift he’s given me. He’s sitting waggling his fat legs, looking delighted with himself.
When I regain my wits, I need to leave the room for a second, close the door, savour the private glow within me, just by myself.  I come back and stare at him, this child, who is part Sid and part me. I can’t yet find the words for the feelings his kiss evoked. But this is 100%, without a shadow of a doubt, one of those moments that make it all worth it.
I have had Ranbir for only 8 months now, but it’s hard to imagine life without him. The beginning was hard, but it passed. Quickly. And among all the glorious milestones in between those first 12 weeks and today, the marvellous unfolding of new discoveries – this one is my favourite.
I wonder if Ranbir will ever know how he made me feel today.
So, this is for him. It has honey for its exquisite sweetness, pecans for the hint of surprise, oats for the crumbly, crusty play of textures, vanilla for that gentle, whispering touch of flavour and raspberries for that final burst of pleasure.
Put it all together, and you get: Butterfly Kisses
Here’s how you do it:
Raspberry Filling
- 2-½ cups raspberries
- 1 tablespoon corn starch (optional)
- 1/2 cups sugar (less if you prefer your dessert tart)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cups honey
- 1/3 cups oats
- 1/4 cups pecans, chopped
- ½ cup butter
- Dash of salt

Preheat oven to 175 degrees C.
In a medium bowl, combine raspberries, corn starch, 1/2 cup sugar, and vanilla extract. Stir and set aside. Adding cornstarch gives berries body, as berries often have a tendency to get soggy while cooking. I personally use a little less sugar than the 1/2 cup written here - but I love the balance of the tart raspberries with the sweet, crispy topping; it's personal preference really, so go ahead and try what works best for you.

In a separate bowl (or directly in a food processor) combine flour, 1/4 cup sugar, brown sugar, oats, pecans, dash of salt, and butter pieces. Pulse in a food processor until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Add the berry mixture to a small baking dish. Sprinkle topping mixture all over the top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until topping is golden brown.

Allow to sit for ten minutes before serving. Scoop out with a spoon and top with vanilla ice cream.

There you have it: A crispy, crumbly, golden brown topping sitting atop warm, gooey, zingy berries, spreading a delicious warmth across your mouth that will make you tingle.

I waited 8 months for my baby to give me a Butterfly Kiss – It was his language of love.
Warm, zingy, sweet, fruity, crisp, and miraculous – This is mine.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Sidharth's Butter Chicken

"Amrita, puh-lease," my friend Aarti says to me, raising her eyebrows in disbelief of the question asked. "I hope you are joking."
I look at her confused. I am, you see, confused. It's the summer of '07 and I've just met a man who makes my heart lurch every time I see him. I've never felt this way before and I don't know what to do with him. So I make him meet Aarti. And then I ask her what she thinks of him. To which she raises her eyebrows in disbelief and says "Amrita, puh-lease."
Which really doesn't give me too much to go on.
"Carry on!" I say despondently, "What do you think?"
She sighs. Gives me a look. That look. "Have you totally lost the plot?” she asks me out of genuine concern.
I shake my head tentatively.
“Oh come on dude,” she says impatiently. “I've known you for years now. Everyone else you've dated all your life, and I mean everyone else - is yellow daal. This one is butter chicken."

Aah. Enlightenment. I feel like Buddha under the Bodhi tree. Which is all very apt considering the man we are discussing is called Sidharth.

For if there is any other being (human or otherwise) on this earth, other than myself, who gets as giddily excited about food, it's Aarti. So her analogy speaks volumes. It’s saying the same thing as my heart, except in a language I can understand. This one is a keeper.

Four years and one baby butter chicken later, I am glad I followed my heart. Because it continues to lurch every evening when the key turns in the door, and Sid is about to walk in. Still. Always. 

Now, all that aside, butter chicken has a very special place in my heart and for reasons that go back long before Sid came into my life. It was an integral part of my growing-up years, woven tightly into the fabric of some of the happiest memories of my childhood.

Every family, I think, has that one thing they do together, that one thing that slowly, over the years, becomes ritualistic. It could be eating breakfast together every morning, or watching a movie on Friday evenings, or going back to a favourite holiday spot every year. It could be a dish or an activity or an interest. Whatever it is, it becomes a cohesive part of your family life, at the core of all your memories. You begin to own it.

For my family, it was Sunday lunch. Every Sunday, come rain or shine, we would go out to lunch as a family. It gave the cook a break and it gave us the opportunity to celebrate together before the hectic school-work-week started again. No one made other plans on Sunday afternoons – this was our “family time,” as sacred as they come. We looked forward to it all week, everything to do with it – taking out our nice "going out" clothes, my mom looking beautiful all dressed up, my dad complimenting her adoringly, the drive to the restaurant in our cream coloured Ambassador, being greeted at the entrance by the friendly staff, entering the air conditioned, cavernous space, being escorted to our table all set up with starched white linen and gleaming cutlery, sitting down on the plush chairs, excitedly looking through the menus, animatedly deciding what we were going to eat...It was no big deal, but it was ours. And we never tired of it!
Food-wise, we would alternate between Indian and Chinese. This is India of the '80's remember - 1 TV channel, 1 domestic airline, 3 flavours of ice-cream and 2 choices of restaurant food – Indian or Chinese. Which was really absolutely fine if you don’t know any different! I especially didn’t mind, given that my lunchtime menu rarely ever changed. Chinese meant garlic chicken and noodles and Indian meant butter chicken, naan and raita. Always. Every Sunday. For years. We would only need to walk into the restaurant and the waiter taking our order would ask "...and the usual for baby?"  

Which is all a happy coincidence considering that one of the first stories Sid shared with me when we started dating was how, as a little boy, butter chicken was his “best food in the world” and how he could eat it “for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Of course, this didn’t really surprise me. Most Indian kids love butter chicken – what’s there not to love? It’s creamy, mild, tangy and fantastically flavourful (thanks mostly to the butter from which it gets its name).

What did surprise me was that as I got to know him better, first as my boyfirned, then as my fiance and finally as my husband, I realised that it is still his “best food in the world” and – quite amazingly – he can still eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Sid is a Delhi boy, as Punjab da puttar as they come. And butter chicken is Punjab's National Bird. Haha. Seriously though, legend has it that butter chicken (or Murgh Makhani) originated in the 1950's at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi. Famed for its Tandoori Chicken, the cooks at Moti Mahal started to recycle the leftover chicken juices in the marinade trays by adding butter and tomato. The sauce was then tossed around with the tandoor-cooked chicken pieces and presto - Butter Chicken was ready! 

So, maybe it's really quite natural for my Dilli-wala Dilwala to want butter chicken equally passionately at 3 or 30.  
Well. Sucks to be him. Because all the heart lurching notwithstanding, I don't make butter chicken very often. It's not because it’s hard to make – it’s not really. It’s because somehow butter chicken is one of those dishes that is always associated with eating out. Perhaps it’s because the traditional way of making it involves cooking the chicken in a tandoor-oven, which most people don’t have at home. Or perhaps it’s because of all the butter and cream that goes into it that makes one all huffy about making it at home. Funny how we proudly boast about our non-stick, oil-free cooking at home, but we’re quite happy to stuff our faces - and our arteries – outside, without a care in the world! I have no idea what the logic behind this curiousness is, but I have to admit, I'm a sucker for it. And with butter chicken, it’s the cream and the butter that give the dish it’s dreamy, creamy texture. So therefore, it’s really impossible to skimp on them. So therefore, I don’t really make it much. So therefore, sucks to be him, I say.

Anyhoo, on Sid’s 30th birthday, the love overcame the guilt and it was butter chicken for birthday dinner. It was the first time I had cooked it at home, and boy was it a good choice! I’ve never seen his eyes light up like that before. So much love for the chicken, I was almost jealous. I could have bought him a brand new Aston Martin and he wouldn’t have been happier. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but only partly. Because it was butter chicken for dinner (his, not mine) for seven straight days after that until he had finished every last bit. Which I don't understand (one bit). But which makes me feel incredibly flattered. So, really it was win-win.

How my tall, lean husband manages to consume such copious amounts of the stuff is beyond me. I would kill for that metabolism.

So, here it is. I’m making it again: this full flavoured, rich, tomato-based, holy grail of all chicken dishes. This is occasion dining for me, and today is my son's 8 month birthday. When you make it, try to eat it guilt-free – it's allowed once in a while, even at home!

Here’s how you do it:

- 500 grams boneless chicken, cut into cubes
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
- 1 1/2 tbsp tandoori masala
- 3 tbsp butter
- 2 cardamoms
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 cloves
- 1 can tomato puree
- 1 tspn garam masala powder
- 1 tspn red chilli powder
- 1 tbsp honey (or sugar)
- 1 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)
- 250 ml thick cream
- Salt, to taste

Marinate the chicken cubes in lemon juice, salt, chili powder, yogurt, ginger-garlic paste and tandoori powder overnight or at least for a few hours for the chicken to absorb all the flavours. When you are ready to cook the chicken, preheat the oven to your highest grill setting and grill for at least 10 minutes on each side or until cooked. Allow the chicken to cook until it just starts to char. This way, it stays moist and succulent even after it’s mixed in with the gravy

To prepare the makhani gravy, heat and melt the butter. Add the cardamoms, cinnamon sticks and cloves. Stir fry until you get the warm, crackling aroma of the cooking garam masala, and then add the tomato paste. Let the mixture simmer on low to medium heat, half covered, for about 15-20 minutes. You will notice the gravy will start to thicken. Add the rest of the ingredients as well as the grilled chicken and simmer for another 15 minutes. For a thicker and richer gravy, cashewnut paste (soak cashews in water for an hour or so and grind them) can be added while making the gravy – just fry it along with the spice powders. And – that’s it! Serve hot with naan.

For me, the most fun part about making this dish today is watching my son, watching my husband as he eats. They have identical eyes, my two boys, long-lashed and almond shaped. One set of eyes stares excitedly at the other, alight with wonderment and glee. The other shines back, twinkling with delight. It is one of those times when it’s hard to tell which set belong to whom.