Xiao Long Bao at Din Tai Fung

Yup, I know that is a mouthful. And to top it, we had to wait for more than 20 mins to get a table for 2. But boy, was it worth it!

The first time I had Xia Long Bao was on the last day of a trip to Hong Kong a few years ago. And the taste lingers. Xia Long Bao are steamed dumplings that have warm broth inside along with the more usual shrimp/meat mixture. The sheer mix of flavours and textures that this gives your mouth is crazy. I love it.

Din Tai Fung is the Taiwanese mecca of Xia Long Bao. And since they make it so well, they have now spread everywhere in Asia including to Singapore. On Saturday I went to their outlet at the Paragon Mall in Orchard.

Thanks to Martin for suggesting this place and accompanying me for an awesome meal.

For a useful lesson on how to eat Xia Long Bao, click on the above photo.

Sufi Persian Restaurant, Koramangala, Bangalore

I hit this place practically every month and have never found more than 4 other people eating here at the same time. Being alone among 50 tables in a huge restaurant is eerie and if it had not been for ther fact that I have always got the craziest food each time I go there and it never fails me, I would never have gone back. Under the circumstances, I always do.

When Mohit was here a couple of weeks ago, I was able to introduce him to Sufi. Now, I have never taken anybody other than Sunita to this restautant before on the fear that they will end up ordering Indian tandoori stuff, which in comparison to the Gafghazi kebab and such other divine stuff, is abomination. So, it was a relief to be able to take another devotee to pay homage. And boy, did we pray!

Three huge kebab platters and one massive Persian bread.  Not even the slightest hint of oil, lightly done veggies to round out the meat. And the meat – ahhh!!!!

Go there if you are seriously into meat. It is on the top floor of the Empire hotel in Koramangala, 5th block.

Roast Duck in Suntec City

(Baby Kai Lan – photo source : Gluttonqueen)

Another satisfying meal in Singapore, this time it was Roast Duck and Roast Pork at Crystal Jade Kitchen in Suntec City. The Roast Duck with a lemon dip and the pork with a more pungent one. Along with Baby Kailan with Garlic. And of course rice.  Yum.

Geylang Serai Market & Arab Street, Singapore

Arab_street_singapore

Over the last few visits to Singapore I trained my sights on  ‘alternative’ food destinations away from Orchard Road, Chinatown and the such. And found Geylang Serai Market and Arab Street.

The Geylang Serai area is culturally Malay. Arab Street is , as the name suggests, Muslim and so intersects with Malay culture in addition to Middle Eastern & North African.

Hogged on the briyanis, kebabs, hummus et al. Next time in Singapore, you must absolutely check out these places.

‘Heaty’ food

It was while having a great seafood meal with Carolynn & Wallace at the  ‘No Signboard Seafood Restaurant‘ in the Vivo City Mall in Singapore, that I first heard the word ‘heaty’. Here is the story.

The Chinese overlay the concept of yin & yang on a lot of things and Food is one of them. So all foods are divided into ‘heaty’ foods and ‘cooling’ foods. Fried Food, for example,  is considered ‘heaty’ which means it gets your body all excited and sweaty. According to Chinese grandmothers (who like all other grandmothers have a direct line to secret-stuff), to make things stable, you have to have some ‘cooling’ food along with the ‘heaty’ ones.

Interestingly, this concept is not particularly alien to me since it appears in many local Indian cultures too. The Konkan coast (ie. most of India’s western coast) for example uses Sol Kadi, a drink made from Kokum, to cool down the body after ingesting huge amounts of ‘heaty’ seafood, particularly shrimp (to experience what I am talking about, try one of the famous seafood restaurants of Mumbai such as Mahesh or Saiba). Ayurveda too makes a lot of this concept and recommends eating both hot & cold foods to balance one’s ‘kapha dosha’.

The most interesting aspect of all of this is, how two of Asia’s earliest cultures (and two of the world’s most ancient systems of health-care) both recognise the primacy of ‘balance’ in well-being.

Read all my Singapore posts here & Food Posts here.

Whither Hamburger?

Hamburger

Hamburger

Let me say this once again. Hamburger has nothing to do with Ham. It has ground beef in it. Unless of course it is McDonalds in India, in which case it probably has a batata vada between the bun and is slathered in hari chutney (which is not me, by the way. It refers to the green of Mint).

Hamburger originated in Hamburg, Germany. Seems the Prussians used to have something called the Hamburg Steak, which was shredded beef rolled in spices and eaten raw. A few generations later, it appeared in a more evolved form inside a bun in America. And the rest is history.

The best hamburger chain in the world now is Burger King – atleast I think so, by the taste of their stuff. I am seriously hoping they never set up an outlet in India – for the inexorable logic of 1.1 billion of us will inevitably lead to chutney et al. I could weep.

Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid & the New Delhi metro enroute to Karim’s

Before we move forward, here is a confession. I am not the world’s greatest fan of mughlai food. As Mohit observed, at times mughlai food seems rich & heavy just to be rich & heavy – and not because it adds immensely to taste. The last time I had wandered around the Jama Masjid area was about 20 years ago on one magical Ramzan evening just as the food stalls were getting busy. And i decided to go back again to see whether I could rekindle romance.

Nope. Karim’s was a sore disappointment. While the Burra did hit a couple of high notes the general sense was of let down. Maybe I ate the wrong stuff or maybe the place is over-rated now. Dunno. But, I did find a small place in Chandni Chowk that served ‘soth india dishes’ including Dosa and Chewmen. So that made up for it.

The highlight of the evening without a doubt was the New Delhi Metro. This is one of those rare times that an Indian will find it in him to praise anything contemporary over the ancient (for, who can argue with stuff so old nobody really knows anything about it). And I must thank Mr Sreedharan and his team at the Delhi Metro for this (and, I suspect Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi, who, from all accounts is a lady determined to leave a lasting impression on Delhi). As any of us who have lived in Delhi can say without an iota of doubt, if a Metro rail can work in Delhi it can work anywhere else in India. It does & so it can. As I watched, the doors opened & closed automatically at every station and the world’s second most unruly crowd got in & off demurely. Atta boy ol’ S!

The Jama Masjid & Chandni Chowk area reeks of history (and a lot more, but that is par on course for all our cities). I am told that there a number of ‘walks’ you can do to get it all in. What I missed however was a good walking map. Wonder why no one has done one.

Janata Khana vs Economy Meal

Ever wondered about the story behind the food they serve to you on trains? I have, often. And, I had my aha moment a few days ago, while idly surfing the net early one Sunday morning. (Yes, that is a dead give away, isn’t it. That I read commercial circulars of the Indian Railways before breakfast on Sundays clearly shows I have no life whatsoever).

Anyway…

I stumbled upon an old IR circular (2003) from the Railway Board to all General managers, that set out detailed instructions for serving food to Passengers.

The most obvious strand running through the circular was the fine balance between wholesomeness and parsimony expected from purveyors of food on trains. Or as Commercial Circular No 33 of 2003 says,  “vegetables supplied along with the meals should be seasonal to make it affordable and also to ensure good quality and freshness.” 

I have always believed that the Indian Railways is the only commercial government entity in India that thinks it has anything resembling responsibility to its customer. (Air India marks the other end of the spectrum). And I was glad to find out that the attitude comes from the top. As the Circular says in point (vi) of its Other Recommendations, “menu should definitely have variety and the same menu on lunch and dinner for the day should never be the same’ (bad grammar, good intent. which is the kind of priority I like.)

However, the mysterious workings of bureaucracy are never far in Indian life. And so it is here too. “The existing Janata Khana and Economy Meal have been merged into one category and is called Janata Meal with increased quantity”

If like me, you too have no life, read the full circular here.

Barasti Bar at the Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina

The Barasti bar in Dubai was recently polled by Worlds Best Bars as THE top bar in the world (the photo above is from their site).  And since I run a site that does ratings, for a living, I know the ‘Best” rating is a bit of a cross to bear. For, being labeled the best restaurant or bar or hotel is like getting a reputation in the old wild west as the ‘fastest gun’. Every cow-poke in the west then wants to have a shoot out with you for the chance to win and attain immediate notoriety. Life can get troublesome.

Anyway, my old project finance friend Anshul (whom I hadn’t met in a long time) decided he would treat me to an evening in the Barasti and so we went. It was a really muggy weekend evening. The bar has an inside area and a nice outdoor patio kind of space facing the Arabian Gulf, all of which added up to a lot of space. Since I live in a country where extreme highs of temperature are the norm, I was not fully enticed by the 40-odd degrees outside and decided to stick to the indoors; air-conditioned, you see.

The booze was fair to good and so was the food, although everything generally took a long time to get to the table and seemed pretty expensive. There was live music and Euro cup on TV. Brits and assorted Europeans overflowed from all nooks and crannies. (This is the biggest change I can see in Dubai; the overwhelming & very visible presence of Europeans).

My verdict is – good, nice atmosphere if you ignore the occasional sensation of a hostel reunion, decent food & booze. Certainly worth a visit if you are in Dubai. But, the best bar in the world. Nah…

Click here for all my posts on Food & Drink

Click here for all Dubai posts

Mediterranean Gardens in Cyprus

(More Cyprus garden photos here)

In the less than the full 4 days that I was in Cyprus, I managed to sneak into a couple of really lovely, serene gardens. Larnaca town is full of these surprising little groves. A really beautiful one was around a local post office. Another gorgeous one was around the local Art college, where I sat with my laptop for an hour on a lazy Sunday morning, writing up my first Cyprus post.

What I found particularly fascinating was the mix of flora one got to see. There were ubiquitous tropical blooms that I am very familiar with from my childhood pottering around my mom’s garden in kerala. Particularly hibiscus, the bright red variety. I do believe they are some of the most beautiful flowers on the planet. And added to such tropical flowers were the trees, shrubs and flowers clearly only found here. It was a fascinating mix.

Date palms, olive, pomegranate and other trees mixed easily with lovely bougainvillea, hibiscus, oleander and a number of other flowers I know by sight and whose names I shall one day learn. What I particularly liked was the effective interplay of sunny spaces and shade – to me one of the critical components of the Art of Gardens.

The sense of sitting inside a grove in the Mediterranean is quite different from that in the tropics. In the tropics, as you sit in the shade of a grove, you feel the perfume of the plants mixed up with the heavy scent of moisture in the soil. It is a heady mix that hits you as one acute sensory overload. In contrast, the dry, thin air of the Mediterranean helps you ‘feel’ the distinct perfume of each type of plant and flower. I almost got the feeling that the difference in sensory perception between the two, was exactly the difference in the sensory perception between having an Indian meal versus a Mediterranean meal. Sorry to jump into this food thing. But, think of the difference. Indian food is, in general, an amalgam of very many scents & tastes all presented in an absolutely overwhelming sensory mix. Contrast this to Mediterranean food, where each individual element stands alone and you can actually taste, feel & smell each part pretty distinctly. I know I have not described it too well, but those of you who have had both might get what I am trying to say.

Maybe I am being fanciful here, but I do find interesting, the possibility that Nature (and therefore Geography, really) has had a big role in evolving the ‘way’ food is consumed in each culture.

Click here for all my Cyprus posts>>

Ofto Kleftiko, Halloumi & the world’s lamb capital

(No, Ofto Kleftiko is not the Cypriot term for an old lady by an oven – it is actually very slow-cooked lamb. Just put this photo in for effect!)

Kleftiko is a form of cooking in Greece & Cyprus in which the raw ingredients are put into a hole in the ground, sealed with mud and slow fired for 6 to 7 hours. Lamb done this way is a particular delicacy and having experienced it at the Mona Lisa restaurant on the other side of the Larnaca fort, I can say this with confidence. Go for it.

The origins of Kleftiko are a bit murky, but the more popular version suggests that Greek soldiers dumped meat & veggies into the ground in the morning, fired it with charcoal and left to fight the Romans. At sundown, those of them that survived the day’s battle would come back and eat up the stuff, which to their surprise had become deliciously tender by then. The good men at Mona Lisa plied me with the softest, most delicate Lamb I have ever had along with wonderful rice and potatoes. Kleftiko.

Halloumi is goat’s cheese and is another Greek/Cypriot favourite. Grilled or Fried, Halloumi makes a great course in itself. And if you don’t believe me, check out oomphy Nigella Lawson’s take on it.

As you can see, there is a pattern beginning to emerge. And it is – yes, Lamb.

The middle east & the Mediterranean are the places to go for those who like their Ovine repasts. If East Asia is the place to go for Seafood and the Americas for more bovine pursuits, Asia Minor is great for all forms of goat/sheep/lamb. Whether it is lamb kebab or lamb pilaf from Turkey or the Kleftiko from Cyprus, Lamb enthusiasts will never tire in this land. And after 4 days of unceasing effort in this direction, all I could say was baa.

Click here for all my Cyprus posts>>

Kerala Fish Curry and India’s Demographic Dividend

(How to make Kerala fish curry – in a nice mallu accent)

Last week I walked into the smallest restaurant in Trivandrum and asked for a ‘parcel’ of fish curry. The man at the counter turned and asked a small boy hanging around – “arre chhotu, dekh ke aa, fish item hai” and I did a triple flip : backwards. In all the certainties of my mind (and there were at least 3 of them at last count), the fact that Kerala was the one place in India that did not have Hindi speaking ‘chhotus’ was up on top. So what was happening here?

The short answer – India’s Demographic Dividend.

As we have been told ad nauseum, India has a young population relative to the rest of the world. What we have not been told that often, but is patently true, is that this young population is concentrated in a few states in the Hindi heartland, primarily Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And Kerala unfortunately has got its Malthusian economics pat and so has a declining population – which gobbledygook actually means Kerala has very few young people. And, with the local economy booming, this means labour is moving in droves from the North of India to Kerala (shades of the migration that is happening from the interiors to the coastal towns of China).

Each subsequent visit to Kerala reinforces this reality of India’s internal migration. So, while famous economists debate whether India’s demographic dividend exists (unlike you & me, they don’t actually open their eyes and look for such answers; they prefer to read long tables filled with numbers : click here at your peril, to know why one says it exists, and another says no) anecdotal evidence is clear. With each passing visit, I find small local restaurants in kerala increasingly invaded by Oriya cooks and Bihari chhotus. Clearly, there are more young people looking for work in Bihar than in Kerala.

As I found while on a six-month stint auditing the dodgy accounts of a cement company in the backwoods of Orissa many years ago, the Oriya people are a delightful group (I actually think Oriya women are the best-looking examples of Indian womanhood – never fails to produce a bored ahem from the missus). But, cooking an authentic Mallu fish curry, I would not count among their accomplishments. And so I reach the inevitable conclusion. India’s demographic dividend has a direct impact on me. With all Mallu cooks gone (mostly evolved out of cookdom; a few stragglers left for the Gulf), my favourite fish curry, heavily laced by a concoction of coconut milk and coconut oil is under threat. And I better tank up before it is fully gone.

Click here for all my posts on Kerala>>

Using chopsticks

usechopsticks.gif

I must have been about 4 or 5 years old, when I sat with my father in a darkened movie hall watching a grainy-white documentary that showed strange men using sticks to pull up strings off the table to stuff it in their mouths. And I loved it right away. By the time I got to my teens, I could not think of anything more sophisticated than insouciantly picking up my roast pork with chop sticks while holding a conversation with an extraordinarily gorgeous Japanese lady. Of course, it hasn’t happened quite that way (the Japanese lady part that is) – but I still think it is way cool to eat with chop sticks. So, a few years ago, I decided to learn how to do it.

It is pretty simple really. Here is how you do it.

You grasp the chopsticks within the fingers of your right hand (ie. if you are genetically left-handed; otherwise, hold it in your left hand). Then push them into a bowl of noodles (always a bowl, never a plate). The chopsticks will immediately come off your fingers. Next, you hold them a bit more steady and try to dig out the noodles harder. The whole caboodle will come out of the bowl and fall on the table. Keep repeating this till your companions at the table (in my case, a wife and two incredulous little boys who could’nt understand why they were not allowed this kind of fun) ask you to go away. Do this for about a month. You will crack it. I did – so I know you can too.

Yup, now I can hear the question. Is there a simpler way of learning to use chopsticks? Unfortunately, No. But, the good part is, this will seem really simple when you realise you need to use chopsticks and the chinese soup spoon simultaneously to get the sang-froid look. That, my friend, is another story.

Click here for all my posts on Chinese Food>>

chopstickswood2.gif

(Both photos in the post, courtesy: http://www.chinatownconnection.com/how-to-use-chopsticks.htm)

Travel writing & the art of writing about Food

peter-mayle-a-year-in-provence.jpg

“we counted fourteen separate hors d’oeuvres – artichoke hearts, tiny sardines fried in batter, perfumed tabouleh, creamed salt cod, marinated mushrooms, baby calamari, tapenade, small onions in a fresh tomato sauce, celery and chick-peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, cold mussels. Balanced on top of the loaded tray were thick slices of pate and gherkins, saucers of olives and cold peppers. The bread had a fine crisp crust. There was white wine in the ice bucket, and a bottle of Chateauneauf-du-Pape left to breathe in the shade”

” The main course arrived – rosy slices of lamb cooked with whole cloves of garlic, young green beans and a golden potato-and-onion galette

“The cheese was from Banon, moist in its wrapping of vine leaves, then came the triple flavours and textures of the desserts – lemon sorbet, chocolate tart, and creme angalise all sharing a plate. A coffee. A glass of marc from Gigondas. A sigh of contentment.”

Peter Mayle can be irritating. Here I had just finished what most observers would call a sumptuous Sunday lunch and settled down to read his “A year in Provence” and before you know it, I am panting for more food. I must say this for the man. He can bring food alive . Continue reading

A couple of new tourism websites

Here are 2 new tourism websites that I recently came across. Each interesting in a different way.

Smallwander

As its name somewhat elliptically suggests, this is a site about travelling to small towns. Currently it covers only four states in the US. In many ways, this site reminds me of HolidayIQ, since over 70% of Indian destinations carried on HolidayIQ can be classified as small towns. This aspect makes is refreshingly different from the run-of-the-mill travel info sites, most of which give you more information than you need about New York City while not giving you any about say, Damascus, Virginia. I would have liked to see a user-feedback section on this site to complete the experience, but I guess it is early days for the site.

Fabsearch

Fabsearch aggregates information about hotels, resorts and restaurants mentioned in top travel and lifestyle magazines, probably making it the first aggregator of such content in the world. A search of places to eat in ‘Bombay’ throws up options selected from articles in Elle Decor, Tatler, Daily Candy & Our Friends. Some of the other publications they seem to track are Harpers Bazaar, Elle, FT, New York Social Diary, Town & Country, Vanity Fair, Vogue, W and Wallpaper. Interesting enough as a concept to see whether it gets traction.

Mallu food at Claypot in Thippassandra in Bangalore

kerala-meals.jpg

(A surreal snap of a mallu ‘sadya’, I found on Flickr – click here for the original)

So you are looking for authentic kerala food in Bangalore. And you want a clean, not fancy place that serves you great food and no attitude. Check out Claypot, the tiny little mallu joint on Rama Temple Road in the midst of the crowded Thippassandra locality just off Indira Nagar in the eastern part of the city. Once there, ask for Benny and say I sent you. Should get you a warm smile. Keeping the determinedly socialist approach of the Mallu, knowing a big kahuna will not change anything else at the place for you – the food will remain the same as for everyone else. Which is good, because the food everyone gets is great.

My personal recommendation is to land up for lunch and to get yourself a mallu ‘meals’ (it is always said in the plural – anyone asking for a mallu ‘meal’ is either a serial-killer or a capitalist or both). Ask for a crab masala or prawn ‘thoran’ – if you can handle tons of lovely grated coconut – and mackerel fry. Say thanks to your God and tuck in.

Times Food Guide 2008 Awards and launch in Bangalore

ilena-award-times-food-guide-bangalore-2008-launch-function.jpg

(Telugu actress – or, Actor as they seem to prefer it - Ileana giving away a prize)

The latest edition of the Times Food Guide, Bangalore was launched over the weekend with much fanfare at the Windsor Manor.  And I found myself in a Page 3 gathering, not my natural watering-hole. For some reason, the good folks who ran this shindig decided that I was to be one of the 20 odd people giving away a prize and so I found myself wedged inside an unlikely group including Kannada actors Ramya & Ganesh , the snooker player Pankaj Advani and Wipro CFO Suresh Senapati among others.

I gave away the prize to Dakshin the south Indian cuisine restaurant at the Windsor. Which was a relief, since I do genuinely like Dakshin. But specialty food in 5 star restaurants is, in general, not for true foodies. Continue reading

New Delhi International Airport, Taj Palace Hotel, Indian Airlines now called Air India and Fujiya

new-delhi-airport-departure-photo.jpg

(Delhi airport. Photo from : http://www.newdelhiairport.in)

I am just back from a quick business trip to Delhi which coincided with the coldest week in Delhi in 28 years. Not good news – but as luck would have it, the first day there turned out to be very cold but very sunny, which is a lovely combination. So, escaped unhurt.

For old times sake (and because they have a bloody early morning flight from Bangalore), I flew Indian Airlines, which has now been determinedly renamed Air India. Unfortunate. Because in the process, Indian Airlines, which I have always had a soft corner for, is really starting to resemble Air India, which according to me is unquestionably among the the 10 worst airlines in the world. So, here is an emotional requiem to Indian Airlines; RIP.

Among the obscene prices for hotels rooms in Delhi, I was able to wangle a slightly less indecent price (fairly crazy nevertheless) from the The Taj Palace hotel by booking a no-cancellation room, way ahead of time on the Taj Hotels website. It is always nice to stay at the Taj, because somewhere they have perfected the art of clean & efficient luxury service without the ‘looking-you-over’ approach of some Indian luxury chains, not the least of which is the Oberoi. Continue reading

Can the Calicut Heritage Forum preserve the best of Malabar food?

chemmeen_prawn-biryani-_calicut_malabar.jpg

(Photo of Malabar Prawn Biryani, from Eastern Spices)

Ever since Sunita’s family introduced me to the absolutely crazy food in Calicut (Kozhikode), I consider myself a staunch honorary citizen. If luscious food weren’t enough, Calicut is also one of India’s ancient cities; the centre of the old world’s spice trade, particularly Pepper trade. So, it has Food & History going for it, which is two strong strikes for that city.

So, when I heard that the good citizens of the city have set up a Calicut Heritage Forum, I was very pleased. Continue reading

Ali’s Bakr-id spread

Ali did it again. His family had been celebrating Bakrid and he offered to get us some of the home-cooked, celebratory repast. And so last night’s dinner turned to be one massive overload. As usual, there were the maida pooris dripping with butter. And for the first time in 4 years, a ‘mutton kheema’ curry. Not the usual mince meat kheema that is a staple in dhabas across our land. This was small pieces of mutton, about a quarter inch square, curried in a heavenly mixture of spices and stock. After that was the trademark Biryani that Ali’s family has clearly carried from the days they first probably came south with Tipu Sultan or the Bahmani kings. Every year for the last 4 years, about 3 times a year, I say a fervent thanks to my God for making that Deccani migration happen. I said it again last night.