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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Grimsvotn on a plate!

Apparently, we have ash cloud disruption again this year, thanks to Iceland's Grimsvotn volcano, which started erupting a few days ago. I'm cursing Grimsvotn's grim timing. Now, if only it had been considerate enough to time its eruption a mere couple of days earlier, I would have been stranded on the sandy shores of Antigua. But alas, such good fortune was not to be mine. Boo!

I’m being facetious of course. Apologies to the thousands stuck in airports all over the UK and Europe who don’t find my humour funny. But if this makes it any better – I was you last year, stuck for weeks (and not in Antigua), because of that other volcano with the unpronounceable name. And in precisely such times – when you’ve done everything you can, planned all those little details so meticulously...and then life throws a curve ball (or ash cloud in this case) your way, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it – sometimes, a good laugh is just what you need.

So, just for a good laugh and in the hope that all you stuck people get unstuck very soon, I’m making: Grimsvotn on a plate!

This is chocolate at its shiny best.  Pure, unadulterated, liquid decadence.

To be perfectly honest, I'm actually not that into chocolate. I neither require it, nor crave it. I'd really rather have apple crumble. But then every once in a blue moon when I want chocolate, I want chocolate. And nothing else will do. And when I want chocolate, I want the dark, bitter kind. Rich. Seductive. Almost Sinful. Today is that blue moon.  

And this is Chocolate Lava Cake.

For all you cocoa worshippers out there, this cake is about as perfect a dish as you can imagine. It looks innocent enough on the outside, almost like the top half of a muffin. Yawn. But on the inside?  On the inside, lies pure magic. Seducing you. Calling your name. Whispering secrets of dark desire and unspoken pleasures.

Try it:
- 200g semi-sweet chocolate. Cooking chocolate works, as does a dark chocolate bar. I use the Chocolate Society's Cooking Chocolate, 70% cocoa-filled little ovals of heaven!
- 125g butter, plus extra for greasing
- 25g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 2 eggs, plus 2 yolks
- 100g caster sugar

Break or chop the chocolate in a heat proof bowl. Add butter and set over a saucepan of simmering water until the chocolate is almost completely melted. While that's heating, beat together the eggs, the egg yolks and the sugar with a whisk or electric beater until light and thick (about 3 mins. by electric mix and 5-6 minutes with the whisk). Add the melted chocolate-butter mixture into the eggs. Sift in the flour and gently fold in, until well combined.

Butter and lightly flour four 4-ounce muffin molds, custard cups, or ramekins.  When buttering, coat the bottoms first, then butter the sides using upward strokes - this causes the chocolate to rise and also helps get the cakes out easier when baked. Tap out any excess flour.  Cocoa powder, incidentally, serves the same purpose as the flour – it makes no noticeable difference to the taste, but you do away with any risk of white residue on the finished product. Divide the batter among the molds until about 3/4 of the way full. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 C for 6 to 7 minutes until risen and just firm to the touch; the sides will be set, as in a brownie or muffin, but the centre will be liquid (check with a toothpick if you like). Invert each mold onto a plate and the cake should slip right out in a soft upside down U. Eat immediately after baking so the centres are still hot – the best way to enjoy the perfectly liquid melted chocolate core.

I take my little volcano outside and sit down to eat it in the garden. The wind is still, the night sky is cloudless. As you know, I only crave chocolate once in a blue moon. And I’m really craving chocolate now. I look up and I can't see a blue moon, but I can see the stars shimmering like jewels in the spreading darkness. It’s a rare sight, this – a London sky filled with stars.  

I am transported back to another starry night in a place far away from here. Strangely, that memory too, has a volcano in it. Considerably more magnificent than the one on my plate, I have to admit. This is Kilauea, in the Big Island of Hawaii.

It was the summer of 2007. I had just graduated from Business School and was on a 2-week holiday in the spectacular Hawaiian Islands. Along with the many secluded beaches and undiscovered ocean pools, I was also eager to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, boasting Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. And so, as I get myself up to the public hiking trail that would have taken me to the Kilauea overlook, I am dismayed to find the path blocked off. A uniformed National Park guard is standing at the entrance, turning people back. “There’s a bit of unusual activity going on today”, he explains, “we’re not sure how safe it is, we’ve closed the trail.”

I am crestfallen. When will I ever get to come here again?

I am just turning around to make my way back to the car when I hear the rest of his sentence, “...but you can go to viewing area if you like, just follow this path...”

And so, I follow the path. It ends on a flat, smooth, cliff jutting directly out onto the Pacific. The edge of the earth. There are a few people there already, sitting cross legged, the wind in their hair, staring out in front of them in absolute awe. I look up to see what they are looking at, and even the memory of the sight in front of me sends goose bumps through my body.

For just about thirty feet away, towering high above us, is Kilauea. And Kilauea is performing. Every few minutes, from deep within its belly, it spews out smoldering embers that light up the darkening sky in bursts of flame. And then it rests. I sit there in silence, taking it all in, the unspoken significance of these intervals of perfect darkness alternating with explosions of fire. Kileauea, disappearing into the shadows and then appearing again, its outline dark and majestic against the burnished glow of the sky. Creation and destruction. Some of the molten lava emerges from the open mouth of the caldera and flows down the edge of the rocks, carving out zig-zag paths of liquid fire. Rivers of Gold.

And then, just when I think it can’t get any better, it does. A chunk of volcanic rock – a piece of Kilauea – aglow with blistering lava, breaks off in front of my eyes, falling dramatically, as if in slow motion, into the Pacific Ocean below. The spectators gasp. A thunderous splash, a cloud of steam. High, high into the sky. As earth meets fire meets water meets air.

It is the most spectacular show I have ever seen.

Back to Grimsvotn. Mine, that is. I look down at it, sitting demurely on my plate. It’s time to make it perform. I take my fork and break off the crumbly crust, savouring its slight sweet crispness on my tongue. And then I get to the core. And the magic begins. The liquid chocolate lava oozes out. Swirls around seductively in my mouth. Hot. Voluptuous. Molten. I feel myself sinking into the dark, satiny smoothness. It’s easy to lose yourself here...

These are fireworks of a different kind. The volcano has come alive.

Monday, 23 May 2011


It’s one of those perplexing days when I can't seem to stop eating. I’ve had breakfast and I’ve had lunch, I've had dessert and I’ve had 2 large cups of tea, and that’s all I’m willing to admit publicly…
I think it’s the weather (ha! always blame the weather, what an English thing to do!) But I really do think it's the weather: It's one of those typically undependable London days when the sun can’t decide whether to come out or stay in. Like the sun, I can’t decide what to do with myself. I have half a mind to go out just to keep me from thinking of food, but who in their right mind wakes up a blissfully sleeping baby? So, I’m thanking the nap-gods for bestowing kindness upon me, and staying in, watching the shadows dart back and forth on my kitchen wall as the English sun plays tricks on me. And while I have no choice but to sit here, and think of food, I might as well make myself a snack and write about it. No?

I’m making myself one of my all-time favourites - an easy, can't-go-wrong, low-risk, ready-in-a-jiffy snack. It's a delicious black bean dip that is hearty, wholesome, and I hope – filling! It’s just the thing for a day like this, as dependable as the English sun is not!

Here's what you need:

-       1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
-       1 tspn olive oil
-       ½ cup chopped onion
-       2 cloves garlic, minced
-       ½ cup diced tomato
-       1/3 cup salsa
-       ½ tspn ground cumin powder
-       ½ tspn ground chilli powder
-       ¼ cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
-       ¼ cup chopped cilantro
-       1 tbsp fresh lime juice

Empty the beans into a large bowl and partially mash them. Heat oil in a skillet on medium heat. Add the onion and fry until translucent. Now add the garlic and sauté until tender. Combine beans, tomato, cumin, salsa and red chilli powder to the onion and garlic mixture, stirring consistently until thickened. Remove from heat, and add cheese, stirring until the cheese melts. I'm using Monterrey Jack because it has a mild, mellow flavour that beautifully complements the sour-spice of the salsa, but also because it melts well, making it ideal for cooking. Finally, add cilantro and lime juice. Serve warm with tortilla chips. Done!  Easy, can't-go-wrong, low-risk, and ready-in-a-jiffy!

Amazingly, the nap-gods are still on my side and I’d be mad not to take advantage of this rare pleasure of snatched time. I’m taking my chips and dip and curling up with a good book. Crunchilicious!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Didima's Most Beloved

“Funny how you haven’t blogged any of Didima’s recipes yet,” Sid says to me in passing last night. And so I count. 20 posts now since I started writing, and of course he’s right. Not a single one is Didima’s recipe.  

Which is odd, all things considered. For Didima, my maternal grandmother, is my single biggest inspiration (and I mean in spheres of life that stretch far beyond the kitchen), the best cook I know, and probably in the top 3 of all-time favourite people in my life.

It’s also precisely why I haven’t attempted to document her cooking yet. Both the endless spectrum of everything she can cook, everything she has taught me, as well as the intensity of my own emotion every time I think about her, overwhelm me. And I simply don’t know where to begin.

I feel like there's no middle ground here. I either go with her most basic dish or her most beloved – one end of the spectrum or the other. So, I think a long while and decide to take the plunge. I'm reaching across the rainbow and digging for the pot of gold. I’m starting with the most beloved of her dishes. Because – like cracking those first 40 seconds of a job interview - if I get this right, the rest will follow effortlessly. I hope.

So here you go with what is perhaps my single most favourite dish in the world. It is rich, it is creamy, it is the perfect balance of heat and sweet. It is a Bengali Classic. And it is Didima at her finest. It is Prawn Malai Curry.

I put on some U2, take a deep breath and here's how I do it:

- 1 kg Jumbo prawns, peeled and deveined
- ½ cup plain yogurt
- 2 tbsp onion paste (1 large onion roughly chopped and blended should do the trick)
- 2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tsp of chopped ginger
- 4 green chillies, slit lengthwise
- 1 can of coconut milk
- 5 bay leaves
- Whole garam masala: 5 pieces of cardamom, 5 pieces of cloves, 2 sticks of cinnamon
- 2 tsps red chilli powder 
- 1 tspn turmeric powder
- 1 tspn cumin powder
- 2 tspn sugar
- Salt, to taste

First, I marinate the prawns in yogurt, a little salt and turmeric powder and set them aside for 30 minutes to an hour. While the prawns are marinating, I blend together the ginger and garlic to make a paste. I heat oil in a frying pan and fry the onion paste until light brown. When I can no longer get the smell of raw onions, I add the ginger-garlic paste to the mixture. Next, I add all my whole garam masala to the onion-ginger-garlic paste and stir until the masala starts to crackle. I reduce the heat to a simmer and add my prawns, along with its yogurt marinade, stirring continuously to make sure the yogurt does not break. I add the red chilli, turmeric and ground cumin powders along with the sugar and salt. I pour in a cup of water and bring my gravy to a boil. I am starting to get a heavenly aroma from my pot now! I continue cooking until the gravy thickens and then I add in the green chillies. Finally, my last step is to add the coconut milk, and simmer for 2-3 minutes. The coconut milk thickens my sauce nicely, combining the natural flavour of the prawns, the spice of my dry powders and the aromatic heat of my whole garam masala into a rich, creamy, and totally irresistible gravy. Bono is singing “With or Without You” in that mesmerizing voice of his. My malai curry is ready.
I hum along with Bono as I ladle myself a generous serving over some long-grained white rice, take another deep breath, and taste it. I stop humming then, cause what I taste, baby, makes my taste buds sing!
In all seriousness, I'm excited that my dish tastes as good as it does. I am a confident cook, but I am insecure when it comes to replicating my grandmother's cooking. She's that good in my eyes. In every regard. If I turn out to be half the woman she is, I’d have achieved something huge.
I decide to call her. The phone is answered on the second ring, by the nurse who now looks after her full time. Even that takes getting used to. This woman, so full of energy and vitality just a few years ago – bustling in and out of her New Alipur kitchen, tending to the garden in our Madras house, bossing people around, brushing my hair (100 strokes every night), tirelessly making 20 hour transatlantic trips to New York to meet her son, walking the length of Madison Avenue... now needs help sitting down and standing up. Her body has betrayed her over the years. I realise this now as I picture her in my mind’s eye, thin and frail, back hunched over, making her way to the phone with baby steps. I realise it starkly. It is a betrayal of epic proportions. 

“Hello?” she says, her voice quivering. It is a question.
“Hi Didima!” I say cheerfully
“Hello, who is it?” she asks
I try not to let my heart sink. To put it in perspective. To be thankful for the privilege of still having her, to call when I feel like, even if she can’t recognize my voice anymore.   
I try again. “It’s me, Didima. How are you?”
She pauses as she tries to place my voice. Then –“Hello dear. I’m okay. I'm missing your baby.”
I smile then, to myself. What a funny thing to say. She’s missing my baby – my baby who I carried to her in my arms when he just 3 months old, a whole 91 years younger than her. But if she’s missing my baby, then at least she knows who I am.

“I made malai curry,” I say excitedly.
"Couldn't hear you dear" she says.
 “I made malai curry,” I repeat
"Couldn't hear you dear" she says.

I repeat the sentence, pausing after each word now; slow, deliberate.
“Didima. I. Made. Malai. Curry.”

"Couldn't hear you dear" she says.

I give up. Change tack.

“Have you had dinner, Didima?”
"Couldn't hear you dear" she says.

I'm mostly over being frustrated. It was hard a few years ago, when her hearing first weakened. I would get frustrated with repeating myself over and over again, at screaming futilely into the phone with no effect. I would get irritated with my mother for not fixing her hearing aid so it worked – “It’s impossible to have a conversation like this,” I would say. I would feel anger, at the pace of her deterioration, at this notion of aging but I didn’t know who to direct my anger to. And then I would feel sadness, that dull, throbbing sadness that comes with resignation. “It must be so isolating for her,” I would think to myself. But over the years, I know everyone’s tried and tried and tried. New hearing aid, new battery, new model.  Different hearing aid, new battery, latest model. Same result. There’s only so much technology can do. It’s humbling. So now I'm mostly over it. But I when I feel it – the frustration – slowly creeping in again, I know it’s time to say goodbye for now.

“Ok, Didima. I have to go now”
“Couldn't hear you dear," she says.

I sigh.

“Bye Didima,” I say. “I love you.”
I silently mouth the words "Couldn't hear you dear" and wait for her to speak them out loud.
But she doesn’t
And as she has done before, so many times, in the 30 years I have known her – this woman braver and stronger than anyone I know – she surprises me again.
Her voice is unexpectedly steady now as she answers. The quiver has vanished. She sounds secure. Confident. Young.

“I know dear,” she says as she hangs up.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Matunga Mango Madness

If cricket is India’s national pastime, the mango is India’s national obsession. So, with the Cricket World Cup proudly won and jubilantly celebrated just a month ago, it’s all eyes now on Mango Season.

And so, this year, as every year, when May arrives, all of India (and for that matter, all Indians the globe over) go Mango-Mad. From old-school (commercials and billboards) to new-age (Twitter and Facebook), the mango talk is ubiquitous. Facebook posts discuss everything from the price of mangoes in Singapore to the benefits of an only-mango diet (I’m not kidding!), photos show kids eating “the first mango of the season,” smiling widely as the delicious yellow juice drips messily down their chins, and – closer to home, I make Sid drive me to Neasden where I pounce on a box of Alphonsos, £10.50, a dozen. Which is a bargain, given that in India, I hear, boxes of a dozen are now selling for as much 2,500 Rupees. Gold dust. Literally.

I still remember vividly, years ago when we lived in Bombay, my father bringing home the first box of Alphonsos of the year (at a considerably lower price of course,) and the entire family going crazy after that for weeks.  We’d eat the fruit for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in every possible form – the whole fruit, as part of a barrage of mouth-watering desserts, in lassi, in milkshakes, as the protagonist of an otherwise boring fruit salad...all the way till the end of mango season. When we moved away to Madras, and later to Bangalore, Alphonsos became harder to come by.  And then, when I moved to the States for college, they became a rare luxury, enjoyed on the occasional trip to India that happened to coincide with mango season, or brought over by a well-meaning relative, bravely willing to risk US Customs by sneaking one or two into dark corners of suitcases. And so, in my mind, the Alphonso is woven tightly into the fabric of my memories of Bombay.

Bombay.  That frenzied melange of extremes where dreams are made and hopes are crushed, all at the same time. A heaving mass of humanity, an island of loneliness. Bombay, with its glitz and its glamour, its wealth and its filth, an inebriating cocktail of poverty and possibility, stress and solace. A city that evokes intense passion in some and unbridled repugnance in others; a city that, for all its faults, I will always love.

I spent a considerable part of my childhood in Bombay, but even after we moved, we still visited often, mostly on account of my dad’s job. I stayed on these trips with my uncle and aunt and my two cousins, Mini and Bena. They lived in Matunga, in central Bombay, in a small but airy ground floor flat, where my father was born and raised. I never knew my paternal grandparents, my grandfather having died when my father was barely twenty-two and my grandmother joining him soon after I was born. But somehow, strangely, in that house, I felt their presence, and staying there was always curiously comforting.

That aside, I absolutely loved visiting my cousins – it was like going on holiday, all by myself. I didn’t have my parents to tell me what to do, and, as an only child, it was wonderful to have the company of someone my age. Mini, older than me by a few months, was the good one. She would study hard, do as she was told, read, and was generally so sensible, diligent and obedient that we all looked up to her. Bena, the youngest of the three of us, was the total opposite. She would run around all day long, playing games with the boys in the colony, eating kaala khatta off the streets much against her mother’s wishes, and come back home in the evening – hair tangled, mud on her face, invariably cut or bleeding or bruised. I loved her!
And so, I spent my days with these two Rao sisters in reckless abandon and total happiness.

When I think back now to the many fun times I spent with them over the years, my memories are fickle, leap-frogging all over the place. Incidents, tastes, events, conversations come back to me in flashes, but I can’t isolate them to a specific trip, age or time. It’s amazing what one remembers and how much one forgets.

Anyhow, any description of Matunga is incomplete without a discussion of the food. And there is no debate on how clearly I remember the food. My aunt, that lovely lady who I haven’t seen in way too long now, cooked so many scrumptious things for us (singlehandedly and with so much love) that it’s taken me a while to decide what I wanted to write about. Her kitchen always smelled delicious, and her food was always simple, fresh, and tantalisingly tasty. She would always wait for my uncle to return from work to serve dinner and the foursome would eat together as a family, with me as the extra appendage, if only for a few nights.

After dinner, we would spread out blankets and duvets on the living room floor and lay down together, three abreast, talking late into the night. Mini, always the conscientious one, would repeat patiently, “Enough now, chup, go to sleep, you two.”  But Bena and I, we always had a never-ending stream of things to discuss, I don’t even know what we talked about half the time, but we talked and we talked and we talked.  

Often, in the summer nights when it got too hot or muggy, we would all tiptoe into the air conditioned bedroom where my aunt and uncle were fast asleep, waking them as we jumped into the bed with them, giggling loudly at our audaciousness.

We were blissfully oblivious to the concepts of “personal space,” or “privacy,” or “me-time” in those days; the notion of complex relationship-defining terminology just didn’t exist. This was family closeness at its most natural – genuine, unconditional and without boundaries. Somehow, life was just simpler this way.

So for simplicity’s sake, I am writing about a dish that may have been the simplest one to come out of Matunga’s kitchen but also – or perhaps because of it – the most memorable. This is something that on sight alone, would always make my eyes light up. It is Aam Ras-Puri. For the uninitiated this must feel like an awfully strange combination, but trust me, this duo of perfectly round, crispy hot puris, and chilled golden yellow, sweet syrupy Alphonso nectar, is absolute heaven on earth.

This is how you do it: 


-  2 cups wheat flour
-  1 tsp oil for puri mixture and some more to deep fry
-  Salt, to taste

Add wheat flour, oil & salt in a bowl and mix. Add warm water to the wheat flour mixture to form a firm dough, and knead till smooth. Cover keep aside for about 15-20 minutes, and knead again. Now, divide into small balls and roll out each ball into a small, round shape. Heat oil in a wok. Fry the puris, one at a time, holding them under the oil on the first side until they puff. Turn and fry till golden brown. Drain any excess oil and serve immediately.
Aam Ras (roughly translated as mango juice)

-  4 ripe Alphonso mangoes
-  ½ tsp powdered cardamom
-  1 cup milk

Peel the mangoes and extract the pulp (toss the pit after a good suck!). Blend with milk and make a thick paste. You might need to add a little sugar depending on the ripeness of the mangoes, but I generally don’t think you need any added sweetness. Finally add the powdered cardamom, mix well. Chill before serving.

I don’t know how much Aam Ras and how many puris I would go through at one sitting, but given how maddeningly addictive this stuff is, perhaps it was wiser not to count! This was pure madness. Matunga Mango Madness.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Antiguan Old Timer

I feel great kinship with my Caribbean compatriots. Because, you see, Caribbean Standard Time (CST) is even more capricious than Indian Standard Time (IST). And while IST always means “late” – the only surprise element being how late, CST is far more wonderfully vague. CST could mean early or late, filling one with suspense-filled wonderment. Early? How early? Late? How late? What’s better than one surprise? Four of course! Keep ‘em guessing! 

Take for example, our very own experience. Just last week, we were sitting at Barbados airport at 6pm, for a 7:30pm flight. We were sipping cocktails and twiddling our thumbs, all at the same time, and having ourselves a jolly good time. When suddenly, we hear our names being called on the PA system. Uh oh, I think. This probably means something very, very bad. The PA person sounds cheerful. Not that that means anything given that everyone in the Caribbean seems to be in a perpetual state of cheer. With that weather, who wouldn’t be? Anyway, so we abandon our cocktails and head to the ‘white courtesy phone’ with great trepidation. To our immense relief, however, the person on the other end is merely requesting us to board our flight. It’s 6:15pm exactly. A bit early for a 7:30pm departure, but I can handle this; early boarding – not totally unheard of.  At 6:25pm, we are sitting in our seats, twiddling our thumbs (sans cocktails) and wondering what we’re going to do for the next hour and five minutes, when, exactly three minutes later at 6:28pm the flight pushes off from the gate! On anxious enquiry, the explanation from the very-smiley stewardess is as such: “Well, everybody was at the airport and everybody boarded the flight, so we decided to leave early.”
Got to love CST!
So: to make a short story long, given the wonderful vagaries of Caribbean Standard Time, we are not too bothered when we are already 30 minutes late for an 8pm dinner reservation at Sheer, one of Antigua’s best fine-dining restaurants. The reason we are 30 minutes late is because we are completely lost. Sid is the designated driver and I, by default, am the designated navigator. I am a bad driver (despite having passed the notoriously failable UK driver’s test on first attempt), but an even worse navigator. Evidently. I am sitting in the passenger seat of our jeep with a map of Antigua spread-eagled on my lap. The map of Antigua is amoeba-shaped with lots of bays with pretty names dotting it’s circumference (Non Such Bay and Runaway Bay and Half-Moon Bay and... you get my drift) and a few random lines going through the amoeba. Yes, I understand these are roads, but for the life of me, I can’t find a single line that joins where we are, to where we need to go. I rotate it left and stare at it for a few seconds. Nothing. I rotate it left again. Still nothing. I do this a couple of more times and then realize I am back to where I started. Sid is looking patiently at me waiting for an answer, which of course I don’t have. I sigh. “You better ask someone,” I state, sadly. We are now 45 minutes late, pushing the boundaries of CST, even. And more importantly, we are oh-so-hungry.
We pull into the nearest Texaco and notice, immediately, a rocking chair on the side by the entrance, and perched upon it, a benevolent looking gentleman with a grey beard, eating his dinner. He looks somewhat like Morgan Freeman, but more importantly, he looks local. And we are so hopelessly lost at the moment that local is good. In fact, local could not be better. He is our man. The Caribbean Santa Claus for lost tourists. And from that moment on, he is forever etched in our memories as “the old timer” from Antigua.
We pull up next to him. The first thing I notice is that whatever he is eating – something in a white take-out carton – smells amazing. I’m trying to look at his face and not his food as I ask politely – “Excuse me, can you please tell us how to get to Jolly Harbor?”
He stops eating. Clears his throat. His voice is deep, resonant. I imagine he is a great baritone. - “Ya wanna ga to Jaally Aaber?”
We nod, yes. I hand him the amoeba-shaped piece of geography with which to direct us, which he politely glances at and then promptly proceeds to dismiss.
“Aarite,” he says. “I can tell ya by traffic lights. Ya see that first light, ya take a left. Then ya see a flashing neon sign – that’s Leroy’s car wash. Ya take a right at the next light, then ya count two lights. And ya take a left. Then ya don’t go right and ya don’t go left – ya just go straightees.”
I am trying hard not to laugh - “straightees?”
But I am also hoping that Sid has been paying attention to the directions because I’ve been focusing all my attention on the contents of the old-timer’s white take-out box. Chicken in some wonderful sticky Barbeque sauce and rice & peas (which in Caribbean lingo is yellow rice and kidney beans.) The steam is still coming off the rice, the chicken looks hot and freshly grilled, and the barbeque marinade is giving off the rich, smoky aroma of molasses. Really quite tormenting given that my stomach is about to eat itself.
We pull out of the Texaco and Sid and I are in both in splits of laughter - we’ve just been directed to our destination by counting traffic lights! Imagine that happening in London? As we drive off obediently towards the first light, Sid slowly sneaks it in: “Dude, his food smelled sooo good!”
“I know!!!” I agree. “I kept staring at it. In fact I hope you counted the lights, because I was looking at his dinner. I think it was Barbeque Chicken.”
“Should we skip Sheer and just go ask the old timer where he got it?”
For a moment, we are tempted. Terribly so. Because we’re ravenous and because I truthfully couldn’t tell you when I’ve smelled anything better.
We stop the car, stare at each other. Then I cave – “We can’t go back and say, sorry we don’t want to go to Jolly Harbour after all, but excuse me, where did you get your food from? I mean, I have no shame when it comes to food, but that kinda looks pretty bad. Plus, he’ll probably say his mother made it.”
After a few minutes of deep thought, Sid sensibly agrees. After all, the old timer did take the trouble of stopping mid-bite and counting lights for us. We owe it to him to go.
So, we count our lights, and go straightees, to Jaally Aaber.
And boy, are we glad we do!
Sheer is magnificently situated.  It sits on the western most point of the bluff, directly on top of the ocean. The seating area consists of stylishly designed, very private, tiered wooded decks, separated by white-gauze curtains that dance sensuously to the evening breeze. When you look down, you see the waves crash against the cliff; further out, the sea is illuminated by the moon, sparkling silver. It is stunning and utterly romantic.
And then – drum roll please – the food arrives.
There are times when words just cannot describe situations adequately. This is one of those times.  Let’s just put it this way:  If I went into labour while I was at this table, I would wait to finish my plate, in full, before I gathered my skirts and waddled to the hospital. It was that good. Maybe better.
But, regrettably perhaps, this post does not re-create our meal that night. Chef Nigel Marten of Sheer (now at the Non Such Bay restaurant), is of the Masterchef variety – gourmet, plus, plus. His food is simply exquisite. So I am not even going to attempt to go there.
Instead, I dedicate this post to the old timer, without whose perfect directions – by traffic light – we wouldn’t have found our way.
And although, his dinner was less fancy than ours, I am sure it was equally good. To the old timer, then – this is Barbeque Chicken and Rice & Peas:
Rice & Peas:

- 1 medium sized can red kidney beans (Caribbean for Peas!)
- 1 can coconut milk
- 1 cup water
- 2 cups of long-grain rice
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1/4 tspn dried thyme
- 1 tbsp oil
- Salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onion until translucent. Drain the liquid from the tin of beans into a large saucepan, and add the coconut milk and water.  To the mixture, add the onion, thyme, and garlic to the saucepan with the beans and bring to a boil, stirring to mix well.  Add the rice and salt and stir until it comes back to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover tightly and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the rice is cooked.

Barbeque Chicken:

While Barbeque connoisseurs are entitled to feel quite passionately about the “right” way to make the perfect marinade, there are many, many variations of Barbeque sauce – different flavours and different styles, originating from different parts of the American continent; from Kansas City to Memphis, from St Louis to Jamaica. Here’s my method for a sauce has a touch of heat, a touch of smoke, and, I like to think - a lot of flavour:

- 2 cups ketchup
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup minced onion
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp water
- 3 cloves garlic crushed
- 1 tbsp vinegar
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tspn dry mustard
- 1/2 tspn cayenne pepper
- Fresh ground pepper, to taste
- 8 chicken drumsticks

Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan on medium, and sauté onions and garlic until lightly browned. Now, add the rest of the marinade ingredients, reduce heat and simmer over low for 20 minutes. Leave to cool.
Meanwhile, make 2 or 3 deep cuts in the meaty part of the drumsticks with a sharp knife - this helps them absorb lots of flavour from the sauce. Coat the chicken with the marinade, turning it around so all sides are well coated. Leave in the fridge to marinate for 3-4 hours.
When you are ready to cook the chicken, heat the oven to 200 C. Place the marinated chicken into a large roasting tin and space the drumsticks apart. Cook for 20 minutes or until golden brown. When the time is up, remove the chicken from the oven, brush it with the sticky glaze in the roasting tin, then return to the oven for 15 minutes more.
Enjoy, Island style, with a heaped serving of Rice & Peas.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Deepa's Chutney

My friend Deepa and I go back a long way. See, we keep following each other in turns. We first met at Sophia High School in Bangalore. She then followed me, slightly further, to Aditi's, in Yelahanka, New Town, for pre-university (the school is posher than it sounds, honestly). I then followed her out of India, to the United States for university (she was the brain, I was the drain). Then, several years later, she followed me to Harvard, to get her Law degree, while I was getting my Business degree (yeah, yeah, we all know which one is harder: she passed the Bar, I was passed out at the Bar...)

Which would now make it my turn to follow her. Where to next, D? Can I suggest Tahiti? We could become cocktail waitresses...?
How about if I name a recipe after you? Let's give it a try, shall we?

So, this goes back to the years in-between graduating from university and starting with our respective Masters programs. For me, it was that decidedly unproductive time in my life where I would sit for 16 straight hours, from 9am to 3am (and they say a baby makes you sleep deprived. Try investment banking.) manipulating excel spreadsheets in some frigid cubicle in the corner, artificial air, artificial light, cold take-out Chinese on my desk - canya think of anything more dull??

The only silver lining in that great, big, black, bursting-with-rain cloud was that I got to travel to San Francisco on business about once in two months. Now, I absolutely love San Francisco. Liberal, cosmopolitan, bohemian and utterly beautiful, the City by the Bay is an easy place to leave your heart in. And, at the time, it also happened to be home to some dear friends of mine from school, including Deepa.

On one such visit, D invited me to her beautiful apartment in a charming restored Victorian in the heart of the trendy Haight-Ashbury.  Her kitchen was lovely, big and homey with brightly coloured flowers trailing down hanging pots, and we sat there for hours – cooking, eating and talking.

It was one of those perfect afternoons, sun streaming through the windows, bright but not hot, no sign of the trademark fog that usually blankets the city in chilly folds. And I spent it in the best possible way, with a person I have always loved talking to, who I can risk not keeping in regular touch with because I know we can pick up exactly where we left off.  Because D is that person who you always learn something new from, who takes you to an intellectually higher place than where you first started, who can engage you, quite effortlessly, for hours.

So, we sipped lemon-water with ice and I helped her make lunch. She had already cooked some rice and dal, she told me, and with it, she said, she was going to try a red capsicum chutney that she’d never made before. By the way, I love when people cook for me. I only cook for people I love, so I know how much it means. There is a value to the thought and the effort behind the gesture that cannot be measured in numbers or words – and D, I hope you know how touched I was. And so, we cut and chopped and she cooked and I watched and we chatted and before I knew it, we had created this yummy, tangy-spicy-sweet relish that served as a perfect accompaniment to our lunch of rice and lentils.

And it is the culmination of all that – the city, the person, the conversation and the cooking – that makes this recipe special.

Try it, this is Deepa’s Chutney:

- 2 large red capsicums, de-seeded and cut into chunks
- 2 dry red chillies (use more if you'd like more fire in the chutney)
- 1 fistful of channa dal (split Bengal gram)
- 1 tspn mustard seeds
- Zest of lemon, to taste

Making it took us a few minutes! Heat the mustard seeds in a teaspoon of oil until they begin to sputter. Now add the channa dal, capsicum and red chillies, and fry until the capsicum becomes soft. Take the pan off the heat and keep aside until cool. Add the cooled ingredients to a blender and blend until you get a smooth paste. Add lemon juice to taste. And Voila!

Incidentally, as I was researching the bell pepper for this post, (yes, I do research the material in my posts for factual accuracy, especially ones that involve recipes from my lawyer friends...) I was amazed to see the whole host of ailments it is antidote to - from heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis to lung health and better eyesight, the bell pepper and its fiery cousin, the red chilli, both of which we use in this chutney, are packed full of nutrients. Both varieties contain vitamins B and C, thiamine, beta carotene, folic acid and lycopene.  And thanks to capsaicin, the stuff that gives the chillies their characteristic pungency, they also contain significant amounts of phytochemicals, which in turn have exceptional antioxidant properties. So by polishing off all the chutney in one (albeit long) sitting, we were actually doing wonderful things to our bodies without even knowing it. (Please tell me you didn’t already know this, D!)

Closer to my heart – on taste – this chutney checks all the boxes - the red chillies provide the heat, the bell peppers - the sweetness, (the red bell pepper has a tangibly different flavour to the green one in that it is much sweeter, almost fruity), the channa dal provides the characteristic grainy chutney-texture, and the lemon juice rounds it off with a tangy hurrah!

What do you think, D?  To Tahiti then?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Mama's Moong Dal

Somehow, I just can't seem to get this dal to taste like mama's. I've probably been making it for 10 years now and try as I may, I just can't seem to match it. Mine's not bad, but hers just tastes infinitely better. I use the same ingredients, I follow the same recipe, but I still don't quite get there. I can't figure out why or what she does differently. Maybe there's je ne sais quoi in it. Maybe it's just because it's my mama's.

It's the same sort of illogical logic why as a child, food tasted better when mama fed me with her fingers than it did from a spoon. Apparently, I didn't eat as a child unless she fed me (I more than make up for it now, trust me). And as the story goes, my grandmother needed to resort to gimmicks such as standing in front of a mirror with me in her arms, one hand holding a spoon to my mouth, the other pointing to the mirror and saying, "see, that baby is eating, you also eat!"

I don't really remember this, you know, but I do remember, that ever since I was little, one of my favourite dishes in the world remains mama's yellow dal. Tasty, nutritious and easy to make, this is one of her trademark dishes, one that she is not allowed to leave without making, whether she visits for two days or two months.
"What shall I make?" she asks several times during her visits.
No brainer. "Yellow dal!" I reply.
"Again?" she asks, hands on her hips, brown eyes smiling with laughter, the way hers do.
But the she promptly goes into the kitchen and gets started on her labour of love, emerging some time later with a "it's done, want to taste?"
And I run giddily into the kitchen with childlike excitement. I lift the lid of the pot and am greeted with an aroma that makes my taste-buds tingle in anticipation. And then, I "taste." I serve myself large ladlefuls of this hearty, creamy, wholly-satisfying yellow lentil stew and feel like I am five again.

It's funny how certain tastes come back to visit you again and again, at different points in your life. I guess we've named them "cravings." Food-mad that I am, interestingly, I only had one craving through my entire pregnancy (lebanese shawarma in my fourth month, if you're curious), but in the few weeks after the baby came, my eating habits took on a life of their own (two new lives, just what we need). I'm not a picky eater - in fact there's nothing that I won't try - but in those days, for some reason, my body wanted very specific foods - familiar, comfort foods - the kind I'd grown up with. It was tough in those early days with all my energy and my sole (soul) focus dedicated to the wellbeing of the little life I'd just created. I felt I deserved a gold medal on the days I was able to work in a 10 minute shower, let alone cook the stuff I wanted to eat.
Luckily for me, mama was here. And as I fed my baby, she fed hers.

So, without further ado, I present to you, verbatim from mama, her Moong Dal:

- 1 large cup moong dal
- 2-3 medium sized tomatoes
- 1 tspn ground turmeric powder
- 1 tspn red chilli powder
- 2 tspn jeera powder
- 2 tspn oil
- 1 tspn sugar
- Salt to taste

For 'tarka/phoron' :
- 1 tspn whole jeera
- 5-6 pods garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

Dry fry the moong dal till you get the delicious, appetite-whetting aroma of roasting seeds. Be carefull not to burn, a light toasting is all you need. Cut the tomatoes into small pieces. Scarily, the perfectionist that she is, my mother's tomatoes are cut into identical small pieces. Rest assured, mine are not! (I mean they all get mulched in the pressure cooker anyway, so what's the point?). Boil the dal, together with tomatoes and all the spice powders, salt, and a little oil in about 4 cups of water. Boiling is best done in a pressure cooker for 3-4 whistles. Mix the dal well when ready. Add the sugar.  Finally, prepare the tarka by frying the whole jeera and garlic slices in oil, until light brown in colour. Add the tarka to the dal.

Lesson Learnt: If the dal is too thick and you prefer a thinner consistency, add boiling water to dilute it. On one of my early attempts, I unknowingly added cold water from the tap and had to go through hoops to rescue my dish! 

The secret behind the distinctive flavour and the nutty, warm aroma of this dal lies in the tarka (or phoron as the Bengali's would call it) of jeera and garlic. Jeera or cumin is a wonderful spice, apparently the second most popular spice in the world, after black pepper. These little seeds might look unassuming, but as you will realise, they pack a punch when it comes to flavour. I always use whole cumin for my tarka as it tends to be far more flavourful than its powdered form, and adds that teeny bit of crunch to my dal. This, combined with the earthiness of the burnt garlic as it fries in your pan, is the essence of your tarka, and really, this dish.

The dal, when it's ready, is a wholesome and complete meal in itself. Serve with rice, papads and if you like - some hot mango pickle.

Simplicity never tasted so good. I can promise you'll love it, but I can't promise the je ne se quoi, that might just be a mama thing!

Monday, 9 May 2011

Uday Park Chicken

I am so excited that Arjun and Radhika are moving back to London. Arjun is Sid's first cousin and Radhika is his wife, which I suppose, would make her my cousin-sister-in-law?! Anyway, so they were here briefly at around the same time I moved to London from the US (for love).  And with all the excitement of new job, new city, new life, new love (but then, that one never gets old)...sadly we didn't get to hang out nearly enough before they returned to India. Well - I'm REALLY excited you guys are headed back because one of the times we did  hang out was when you were kind enough to invite us to dinner to your immaculately kept flat in St. John's Wood. And, that meal is high, high up in my list of memorable foodie encounters (Hint, hint.)

The night progressed somewhat like this:

"I don't know how to cook, hanh, I'm warning you guys, I'm very bad...Arjun cooks much better..." was her opening line. No hi, how are you, huggie, kissie etc. Straight to the point, a girl after my own heart.
Radhika looks, by the way, like the Kareena Kapoor of the Yuva days (this is a compliment), and her pretty face looked visibly worried.
Naturally, Sid and I dismissed her concerns with the obligatory "I'm sure it'll be great," coupled-with-polite-smile combo. But then, equally naturally, her statement made me utterly curious about what she, "Ms. I'm a very bad cook,"  had cooked.

As Arjun, the bartender-cum-better-cook (allegedly), made us a (woah, strong) drink, Radhika started laying the table. If memory serves me right, I counted about 6 large dishes.
"Are you feeding all of St. John's Wood?" I asked her.
"No ya," our heroine replied, frowning with concern. "It's nothing. I really don't know how to cook, I hope its okay!"

Okay?? Haha. Talk about understatements.
You know, having married into a Punjabi family, I have learnt that there a few spheres of life where the Punjabis will never let you down. Ever.
1) The party-till-you-drop-absolute-and-unmatchable-fun at their weddings
2) The potency of their drinks
3) The taste of their food

As far as Arjun and Radhika are concerned, I was fortunate enough to vouch for #1 a few years ago, and now I was getting the opportunity to put #'s 2 and 3 to the test. And I, wholeheartedly, stick by my list! The less said about the potency of my drink, the better (Arjun, don't know about better cook, but you're a mighty good bartender). And, Kareena-of-the-Yuva-days, your food that night was brilliant!

It is one dish in particular that I am writing about, not only because it was soooo good, but also because as I was serving myself, it looked vaguely familiar. Which was odd, considering we had never tasted Radhika's cooking before.
But with the first scrumptious biteful, there it was - instant recognition, if there is such a thing.
I looked at her in surprise - "Is this Ammi's chicken?"
She smiled, looking relaxed for the first time that evening, "Have you had it before? Ya, it's Dadiji's"

Dadiji to her, Ammi to me - this recipe belongs to that wonderful woman who I wish was still around to read this. She was legendary, not only in her cooking, but as a person. Larger than life, full of energy, I am yet to meet someone with more Joie de vivre; she loved going out, she loved dressing up, she loved good food, and she loved us.

And so, this is for all the good times we had with you and because of you. With love.

Here's how you do it.

- 6 chicken breast fillets (roughly 800g)
- 6 onions
- 1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
- 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tbsp garam masala powder
- 1 tbsp ground black pepper
- Salt, to taste
- Butter

Marinate the chicken with W. sauce, ginger-garlic paste and garam masala for 4-5 hours or overnight. Saute onions until browned, add marinated chicken and cook over low heat until the chicken is cooked through. Now, the "naughty bit" (as Ammi would say) - add a little butter to a pan, add the pepper, the salt and the cooked chicken. Serve with rice or a side of french fries. Finger-licking delicious!

Ammi, I would have called this recipe "Ammi's chicken"
But it's more than that now. It is Radhika's, and now it is mine. 
And so I have named it for the place where I tasted this dish for the first time, the place you loved and called home.  This is "Uday Park Chicken"
And something tells me, you would prefer it this way.