Geylang Serai Market & Arab Street, Singapore

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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.

Using chopsticks

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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>>

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

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

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

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

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(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

Dim Sum

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(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.

Click here for all my posts on Chinese Food.

And, click here for all my posts on Hong Kong & China.

Singapore vs Hong Kong

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(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.

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?

Peking Duck in Dixon Street

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.

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.

Middle-east food

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 in India

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

Saigon vs Nanking

The Crab Shootouts have not produced a definite winner, although Saigon is ahead by a clear length. Ok – let me explain. Nanking on the 2nd floor of Sigma Mall, is the newest chinese restaurant in Bangalore; on Friday, Priya Bala the Time of India food critic wrote of the good crab dishes being produced by Baba Ling the owner. Since I am seriously working on my career as India’s leading “Crab epicure”, it was a remark that needed a response. Continue reading