‘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.

Times Food Guide 2008 Awards and launch in Bangalore

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(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

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

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(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. 

Non-vegetarian

I attended a very interesting event held by the Economic Times last week in Bangalore. It was the first ‘ET CEO cook-out’ where they invited 3 expat CEOs to cook for and share their favourite recipes with a small group of Indian corporate types. Much bonhomie and a wonderful dish of ‘sea bass’ down, I started reflecting on the whole evening. And reached ‘Non-vegetarian’.

‘Non-Vegetarian’ is one of the commonest words in Indian food conversation. Funnily enough, in all my travels, I have never come across this word anywhere outside India. ‘Vegetarian’ yes. ‘Vegetarian Food’ across the world means the active presence of vegetables in food. But nobody outside seems to have heard of ‘non-vegetarian’.

Food in all cultures outside India is predominantly based on meat or fish. Take Asia. North, East & South-East Asia are all pork & seafood lands. West Asian food is kebabs and pilaf and other aromatic delicacies of meat. Or Polynesia and the Pacific Islands where fish swimming in coconut milk is pretty much the staple. Of course, the west (Europe, North America & south America) are all meat & fish food cultures too. So is every other part of the world, leaving aside the faddish vegan cultures in California or London.

India is different in food. While 3 out of 4 Indians above the age of 15 are meat & fish eaters (so says the 2004 Baseline Survey Report of the Census of India) , a significant minority, concentrated particularly among the historically advantaged classes are ‘pure vegetarian’ in their food, by which I mean, they do not eat meat or fish. It is this significant number (though numerically still in a minority) of ‘pure vegetarians’ in India that makes us so different from the rest of the world in our food. Is this the root reason why we Indians still find it very difficult to integrate fully into other societies, often even after staying there for decades? I don’t know.

Outside Race, no element of a culture so determines its cultural identity as its food. And any outsider that can easily take to a society’s food will soon become an insider. If not, he is doomed to remain outside the culture, looking in through a window.

Hey, don’t get me wrong on this. I am not passing a judgment on the merits or otherwise of vegetarianism. I am merely observing that the vast difference in the food mores of Indians, particularly the preponderance of ‘pure vegetarians’ in the diaspora, possibly makes it difficult for Indians to integrate into a world civilisation.

And while on this subject, I also think that this inability to truly integrate makes us relatively ‘adversarial’ in our view of other people & cultures. Remember the concept of ‘mleccha‘ that we held on to for many centuries. In ancient, insular India, travel abroad & associating with foreigners was a process of accretion of impurities and much penance had to be done after such travel to regain our ‘normal purity’. I wonder whether vestiges of such ideas remain in us, deep-rooted and mostly dormant, but there nonetheless.

Incidentally, I also wonder whether this type of uniquely strict ‘food aristocracy’ where advantaged classes deign to avoid certain types of food, is at the root of our rulers’ inability to empathise with the vast majority of our own people. Is this the real reason for our inability to uplift the vast majority of our own people even after 60 years of independence? Is this why China can progress so fast in bringing huge masses of its people from poverty to ‘medium prosperity’, while we are still talking (and only talking) of the aam aadmi? I wonder.

All this thinking has made me hungry. I have now absolutely decided to soon visit the Bewakoof chain in Giridih, Jharkhand for Mutton Curry & Rice at 23 bucks a pop. The last time I was in Giridih was 27 years ago and Bewakoof they tell me is a relatively recent innovation.

Here is my post after attending the last ET do in Bangalore.

Gopi Manjoori

I was at the ET Awards do in Bangalore last evening. Everyone but everyone was talking about the big daddies of the future world – China & India. How they will drive growth, how they will reshape geopolitics, how they will change everything. The mood was generally upbeat, as it would be when there is an armchair discussion inside a five star room full of well fed & ‘well drunked’ rich men (mostly).

But I view things with altogether more concern. For I can see the big battle brewing between these two powers that I think will shake the foundations of world civilisation as we know it. I am referring of course to the battle to become the world’s epicurian default setting. In the next decade, lightly done & midly aromatic chinese food with fresh vegetables & mixed meats will meet the the sensory overload of fried + spiced, strongly vegetarian Indian cuisine in an all-out war for hungry mouths worldwide. And the best part is, I have no clue which will win.

But in a ressurective spirit of Panchsheel, let me propose a partnership. As all of us who have travelled to the deepest interior of our land know, there is a diabolical dish whipped up by ‘chotu’ chefs across a million dhabas, that has the potential to bring these two warring parties to the table and create a whole new cuisine that can quite effectively take over the world without shedding an unnecessary drop of ketchup. I am obviously referring to Gopi Manjoori (nee Gobi Manchurian), that versatile creation that I can never have enough of.

Kanji to Congee

One of the enduring memories of my childhood is of having to slurp down thin rice gruel whenever I fell ill. Kanji, as rice gruel is called in Malayalam was pretty much the staple food of Kerala for a very long time. But, by the late sixties & early seventies, it had reduced to being the staple food of the less-well-off or the food one had while ill. Of course, it has now been fully supplanted in Kerala by Porotta & Chilly Beef but that is another story.

Cut to another time & another land – seated at the breakfast table. A chinese waiter points to a menu & asks whether I would like to have Congee for breakfast. I decide to try it. Turns out to be the same rice gruel, except it has bits of various meats floating around.

It became clear that the Kanji of my childhood and the Congee of my travels were basically the same thing. So I decided to do some historical research to figure out where it all started. The question was : did Kanji start in kerala and move to china or vice-versa?

The answer turned out to be a surprising one – neither. It seems, Kanji was an ancient dish of the Tamil people. During the colonial conquests of the Tamils, Kanji was shipped out to South East Asia. It struck firm roots in the Malay lands, where it was picked up by Chinese settlers. It is these Malay chinese who took the Tamil kanji to their homeland and made it Congee.

Tamil culture is one of the most ancient in the world. With their strong history of colonising adventures across Asia, the Tamils have spread Indian cultural idioms across the East Asian region. Kanji is just one of those. So, if you have’nt had Kanji yet, do try it. It is vintage India.

Roll call

Kaati rolls (or their cosmopolitan cousin, the Bombay Frankie) are getting ubiquitous in big-town India. At is simplest, the Kaati (or kathi) roll is just cooked pieces of meat or paneer or vegetables wrapped in a roti. Fast to make and simple to eat, they have the potential to to do to Indian food what the Salwar-Kameez did to Indian women’s clothing – provide a simple, functional, albeit not-so-attractive option to the beautiful, but elaborate Indian saree (actually I think the salwar is a deeply inelegant garment – but that is another story).

There are efforts on to try to develop a major brand in Kaati rolls (something on the lines of a McDonalds for Hamburgers). Will it work? Ok, let me ask you another question. How many major brands of Salwar-Kameez manufacturers do you know (similar to the positioning taken by Levis for blue jeans)? None. Does it mean that the opportunity for branded Salwars has not been exploited? Or does it mean that branded kaati rolls could be very tough to do? I dont know – do you?

Street Food in India

Could not find a video of Mumbai Vada Pav – so here is an alternative – of it being made in Ahmedabad

Last night I saw Vinod Dua do a show on Chandni Chowk’s Street Food. Brought back memories of street food across India that I have had. Delhi has a cornucopia of riches in street food. Samosas & jalebis from Chandni Chowk, kababs at the inner galis of Nizamuddin, the Mutton Biryani & Mutton soup (strong mutton stock that settles down to wait in your stomach) at the inner circle in CP, Rajma & Rice in Nehru Place…

Mumbai is another great place for street food. Near keerti College, in the small lane leading to the sea in Prabhadevi is a Vada pav guy with an awesome alchemy. Of course, the Dosa man in Nariman point who dramatically cuts up a bar of Amul butter and daubs it on each Dosa is a legend. There are so many more, as I discovered in my 2 years of living there and of course over innumerable trips before & after.

Here is a special mention for Kerala food lovers. Vanitha, the mallu woman’s mag has this special edition that gives details (and recipes) of some of the best street food across the length and breadth of kerala. An absolute collector’s item for ‘street foodies’ – the catch is that it is in Malayalam.