It was after some time that I was flying Kingfisher. On the way to Mumbai, they served chinese which included chicken in black bean sauce. Now, I have never really found black bean sauce in India with the pungent aroma that it has in the far east. This came close, what with the fermented black beans, the rice wine and the sesame oil strutting its stuff. Except for the excess of corn flour, it was quite well done and very good for an airline meal. I like Kingfisher food.
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.
(photo from : http://www.jenzcorner.com/gallery/dragoncity.jpg)
Fuk Yeun Hotpot seafood restaurant (yes, seriously – that is the name) in Mongok, on Kowloon island introduced me to the pleasures of the Hong Kong Dim Sum. The last time I had Dim Sum somewhat close to this good was in the chinese restaurant at The Oberoi in Delhi. Dim Sums come in various types, shapes & sizes. Steamed buns, fried spring rolls, dumplings of all persuasion, veggie concoctions et al. Fuk Yuen rolled out the whole lot. And the real surprise in the package was this Capsicum & Eggplant number.
Moving on. For me, Wontons are the royalty of dim sum. Delicate dough hiding clever concoctions of meats & seafoods steamed in Bamboo steamers. Seems the cantonese word for Dim Sum also means ‘swallowing clouds’ which I guess is as apt a description as possible. Trust the ancients to get it right.
In all of this, I could not get to try out the vast array of live seafood on offer at Fuk Yuen. Tanks filled with lobsters, shrimp, clam, garoupa were all, unfortunately left behind. Next time.
Here is the confession : an out-of-the-closet beachaholic like me can simply never have his fill of littoral landscapes. So last week I hit a number of beaches in Hong Kong The pick of the lot was in Lantau which is one of the outlying islands of Hong Kong. Took a placid 50 minute ferry ride among the Hong Kong islands to reach Silvermine Bay Beach. Unfortunately the first sight you see as you walk off the pier in Lantau is a McDonalds. But give time and the calm little island grows on you. The beach in Lantau is picturesque. If you are keen to float in a kayak in the south china sea ringed by green mountains with only the sound of small waves for company, this is the place to go. And the fact that the silvermine bay beach is just next to Canton’s quaintest ‘cooked food market’ makes the experience just that bit more edgy.
Here are links to two of my other recent beach visits :
(Chinchalok egg, a Peranakan/Nyonya dish – photo from Singapuradailyphoto)
The raging question of our times is obviously : Is Singapore or Hong Kong better for street food? Standing on various corners of Causeway Bay in Hong Kong earlier today, I can see the battle to be pretty close. On the whole, my guess is Singapore is a length ahead for two reasons. The first is the fact that Singapore street food offers 4 distinct cuisines (Chinese, Malay, Indian & Peranakan/Nyonya) whereas Hong Kong has mostly chinese (although Cantonese + all other great chinese cuisines are on offer). The other is the wide range of food courts that Singapore offers for hungry travellers. These food courts combine the visual variety of many different cuisines with the legendary squeaky-clean environs of that city state. Yup, one length ahead.
Incidentally, there is a rumour that Michelin Guide is on its way to Asia.
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.
God, save me from cut-jeans bimbettes taking us on the world’s most boring journeys. Why, oh why do we have the extraordinarily yawn-inducing travel shows on Indian television?
Good travel shows have a few obvious elements. The first is an interesting anchor – someone with a personality; which means he or she has had a life, has seen the world, has a fresh viewpoint on things and still has the nous to tell a tale. 25 year old cheerleader types from the chattering classes of Delhi & Mumbai DO NOT fall into this category. Neither for that matter does tired editors of news channels. The next requirement is an underlying theme. Food is a great theme. Hotel detectives, the idea of checking out hotels incognito, is another theme that works. Why not also (Frater’s) ‘Follow the monsoon’ or (my very own) ‘Follow the Indian mango trail’ as themes for a uniquely Indian travel show? Or maybe something around Nostalgia. I can think of at least 10 other interesting thematic possibilities. Hey guys, there is no harm in thinking. The last requirement is a storyline that incorporates real human beings in believable situations. Considering India is bursting with interesting characters at every turn, this should be not too difficult to do.
And just in case money is the problem, here is my plea to the bean counters at TV channels, – please release more budgets. Indian travellers are growing up, they are big-spenders, your advertisers salivate at the prospect of reaching out to them – so well made shows with enough money spent is a good investment.
Kunal Vijayakar & the Times Now team do a reasonable job with the Foodie Show, which is the only Indian travel show I can stomach (so to speak). I am waiting for more like this.
(Hogmanay in Edinburgh – photo from stuckonscotland)
So you have done well this year. The bonus has been good, your spouse is making good money & the stocks you invested in have zoomed up with the index. It is time to reward yourselves. How about a Mont Blanc Pen? Or maybe a set of fancy wheels? Or maybe a ballooning trip over the African veldt? or book yourself for one of the first sub-orbital flights with Virgin Galactic?
In my regular conversations with users & members of HolidayIQ, many of whom have the classic ‘successful’ profile I outlined in the first para, I now find that unique experiences are taking over from fancy products as the real self-indulgences. And it is clear that in the early 21st century India, unique travel has become THE way of self expression of the successful. Move aside, Mont Blanc & Maserati. Welcome to Masai Mara & the Moon (soon, hopefully).
Over the last few years, I have given up on business travel and got into some serious holidaying. So I get asked this question quite a lot – what are your suggestions for a holiday this season? So, in answer to the key existential angst of our time, here is my personal list of 5 great travel escapes for Winter 2007.
- Watch the whales migrate at Byron Bay, Australia. One of the world’s most scenic spots, home to a great ‘littoral rainforest’ is also the setting for one of nature’s amazing events.
- Soak in the atmosphere of true ‘ancient India’ on the banks of the Betwa and Maheshwar, ancient rivers of Madhya Pradesh. Stay in classily refurbished palaces & forts right on the waters edge.
- Bring in the New Year at one of the classiest cities on earth. Be a part of Edinburgh’s Hogamanay, from 29th Dec 2007 to 1st jan 2008
- Do a ‘Cantonese crawl’ – explore haute chinese cuisine starting in Hong Kong, Shenzen & Guangzhou and taking in various parts of the chinese coast around the south china sea
- Scuba dive in the pristine coral island of Agatti, Lakshadweep. Discover the million shades that lie between Blue & Green.
Take 1 sheep’s lung, 1 sheep’s heart, 1 sheep’s liver & 1 sheep’s stomach. Add oatmeal, onions, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, salt & pepper. After much gruesome pummelling of all of this, voila, you get Haggis. Haggis is the national dish of Scotland, a dish that I had a few times during my sojourn there.
Serving Haggis is pure theatre. A kilt-clad scotsman walks in, bearing a platter on which sits an innocuous , steaming lump. He sets it down and begins a loud recitation (‘An ode to a haggis‘, by Robert Burns) all the while strutting around the platter. As soon as the poem gets over, a long sword is produced and with much ceremony, the haggis is cut.
It must have been the extreme cold in Scotland; but, I didn’t find Haggis unpleasant at all. Interestingly, while all this was going on, my thoughts turned to my homeland. In times long gone by, the colder regions of the world had to necessarily eat ‘aromatic’ concoctions of meat to stay alive. It was the desire to improve palatability of this stuff that lead westerners half-way across the world in search of spices, notably black pepper. In that quest lay the first seeds of globalisation and the eventual rise of a little sliver of land in the southern coast of India to medieval-world eminence : Malabar (Kerala).
I dug into another helping.
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.
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?
Dixon Street is the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown. And with Carolynn, a Singaporean-Chinese as a guide, I landed up at a family-restaurant for a meal. We shuddered at the start – literally. Apparently, right under the floorboards of the restaurant was this massive exhaust fan which boomed & rattled a portion of the floor. So we shifted.
The Peking duck was fine (incidentally, click here to see an earlier post with an interesting Peking Duck video). The first course was the crispy skin, served with just the right amount of meat underneath. The second course was a bit different from the usual – the rest of the duck was served up in an interesting concoction of bean sprouts.
And I was told that, “for an Indian, you are ok with chopsticks” – which was a bit of a relief, considering the number of man-hours spent on training.
Sydney is among the 10-odd china towns I have been to – it is one of the cornier lists I keep. Carolynn who travels a hell of a lot on business, tells me that San Fransisco is probably the best Chinatown in the world. So that is one more objective for me.
Here is another Chinese food video I found on Youtube – this time of Fried Squid Balls being made in Sydney’s Chinatown.
Hungry Jack’s as the name suggests is the trencherman’s fast food. Get a massive bite of beef in a bun and off you go. Except, I didnt go. I decided to commit that most unnatural of acts – sit in an early 21st century fast-food counter in Sydney, Australia & reflect.
The experience was a bit like meditating underneath a moving train – at best an acquired taste. A steady stream of gaunt, famished faces walked in, rapidly chomped and walked out, all in a blur.
So, after a half hour of training I gave up. Modern capitalist society, as Paul Theroux mentions somewhere, practises various forms of natural selection on the reflective. Hungry Jack’s is clearly part of the conspiracy.
Great hamburgers though.
Just finished reading a recent post from a Kuwaiti blogger. The lady is evidently western-educated, most-likely western-reared and the post was about watching Indian movies. She does not like Indian movies and is forced to occasionally watch them, because all her friends in Kuwait do. Here is a classic case of the western sensibility at odds with the new, increasingly confident, Asian ‘feel’. As many of us have heard by now, Rajnikant, the Tamil movie superstar has a loyal following in Japan – another instance of an Asian-Asian cultural nexus that bye-passes the west.
I have noticed a similar dichotomy in user opinion on travel. On HolidayIQ, a lot of traveler comments are from Indians. I now find it really interesting to compare these comments with stuff on predominantly ‘western’ sites such as Tripadvisor & Igougo. The difference is palpable. For the same destination and often for the same hotel, reviews on HolidayIQ are quite different from the traveler views in these other sites. The sensibilities are different & therefore, so are the opinions.
More than anything else, this brings home to me the reality that the world is no more west-centric; the multi-polar globe has arrived. The old certainities built on a hierarchy that puts everything ‘western’ on top is clearly under threat. Young, confident & well-off people across vast swathes of Asia & (eventually) Africa will increasingly determine a new set of realities.
It is in this world that Indian films and Indian tourism stand to gain. After all, the sensibilities of the billion (largely young) people of India seem to find a resonance in many parts of the globe. All we need to do is to conscientiously service this demand.
For HolidayIQ, I think the opportunity to create a pan-Asian viewpoint on travel is, I believe, very real.
The Restaurant magazine has listed Bukhara at Delhi’s Maurya Sheraton among the world’s top 50 restaurants and the best restaurant in Asia. I have done my rounds of Bukhara & yes, it is a pretty good restaurant; but the best in Asia? Proves once again that nifty ‘selling’ is a key component of such awards.
I consider myself a foodie – for me nothing in a restaurant is as important as its food. Not the ambience, not the location, nothing else. Which is why I believe that the best food in the world is still authentic street food. So, maybe Bukhara does stew its Dal for 18 hours & maybe Bill Clinton could’nt have enough of it. But for an authentic “royal” experience of food in Northern India, I would much rather trawl the streets of Delhi or Lucknow.
Incidentally, India is one among the 15 countries to figure in the top 50 list. France tops with 12 restaurants in the top 50.
I am particularly fascinated by the Aussie Outback and surf often for vignettes. Here is the latest I found – a video. Not what you’d expect..
Remember how sea-farers of antiquity fell prey to the temptress Medusa? Well, a little known mythological fact is that Medusa had a younger step-sister who mysteriouly disappeared at birth (a bit like Nirupa Roy who was forever losing Amitabh Bachan or Sashi Kapoor at birth all across the 70s). Many centuries later, Nostradamus – yes, him again – predicted the imminent reappearance of the lost step-sister in a little island in the middle of the ocean, bearing chinense, a temptation of unknown evil.
Last night, the step-sister appeared before me and she gave me what I now realise, was chinense. With less than 8 hours left before I am carried away to the mystery island never to return, I am fighting time to set out the secret of this evil temptation for all to be-ware.
And the extent of its evil power has finally been found – somewhere between 150,000 to 325,000 scoville units.
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.
Here is a video of a Fattoush – a lebanese salad
A few days ago, Kunal Vijaykar’s show on TimesNow showed a Parsi family making an Iranian mutton dish called Khoresh Badenjan. We tried it out last night. Turned out to be very good – the trick, like in almost all middle-east food is in getting good mutton. And Ali has a good eye for mutton. So, it turned out great.
Mesopotamia, Persia, Euphrates, Tigris, Egypt – the middle east has had no dearth of ancient civilizations. And food is most certainly one of the region’s great contributions to world civilisation.
One of those lingering memories of my life is of a simple turkish dish in a small eating-house in a city called Al-khobar in Saudi Arabia. A plate of lightly roasted chicken served on a fresh platter of mixed herbs – I can smell the divine aroma after 15 years.
“Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) is a type of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food. The word “teppanyaki” is derived from teppan (鉄板), which means iron plate, and yaki (焼き), which means grilled”, says Wikipedia
Teppanyaki is that point where a lot of my “lifestyle obsessions” come together. This is where my love of east asian cusines mixes with my fascination with the spareness of japanese presentation, melts into the warmth of having a social meal around a fire and rounds off with the theatrical convivality of its chef/presenter. I love the alchemy.
Last night I had a great Teppanyaki meal at the Zen restaurant in Leela Palace hotel in Bangalore. Continue reading