‘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.

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>>

Travel writing & the art of writing about Food

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“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

Mallu food at Claypot in Thippassandra in Bangalore

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(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.