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Don’t curry, be happy February 21, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

A South Indian, a Punjabi, a Frenchman and an old East India Company hand meet to figure out what curry really is. C Y Gopinath was a fly on the wall

ONE DAY, APPUSWAMY, CHOPRA, SMITH AND BEAUVILLIERS finally met to thrash out a matter that had been troubling serious cooks all over the world: what was the correct recipe for the world-famous Indian curry? Each was a curry expert in his own right, and each disagreed vehemently with the other three.

Appuswamy staunchly maintained that the only place on earth where real curry was South India, and that it was spelt cari.

Chopra claimed that it was actually spelt kadhi, and was a delicious preparation featuring spongy chickpea flour dumplings in a buttermilk-based gravy.

Smith, who claimed it was his real name, said that England had countless Indian curry restaurants, adding that he had eaten in them all. “At least one of them must be serving genuine Indian curry,” he argued.

Beauvilliers would generally burp and hold his peace, as though what he knew could not be shared with commoners.

I knew trouble was brewing when Appuswamy one day produced a dark green tin labelled Original Madras Curry Powder. “Woriginal!” he spat out. “Myself woriginally from Madras. We are not having any such powder. It is a plot.”

“But old fruit,” said Smith patronisingly and with galling logic, “how could you possibly not have it? It says right here in big letters ‘MADRAS’ — so it stands to reason that it must have come from Madras. N’est-ce pas, old frog?” The last line was addressed to the lofty Frenchman.

Beauvilliers burped off-handedly, which Chopra took as his cue to reveal more virtues about Punjabi kadhi.  “In Bhatinda,” he confided, “they put double hing in kadhi. It is the secret why girls from there make good wives.”

Finally, of course, they had to call me in to settle the dispute. I, in turn, lugged in my trusted copy of the Larousse Gastronomique. “Curry, gentlemen,” I began reading, “is a dish flavoured and coloured with a mixture of spices (curry powder) of Indian origin. In India, the ingredients of curry vary according to the individual cook, the region, the caste, and the customs.”

I stopped. Clearly this was a circular definition. According to this, anything cooked in India or by an Indian or with Indian spices could be called curry. Curry was all things to all people. Everybody wins.

“This is a bleddy nonsense written by some French porukki,” rumbled Appuswamy. “In the south, curry is cari and it is not having any spices.”

Chopra looked miffed that curry had been spelt with a ‘c’ again. “In Ludhiana, they eat kadhi three times a week. That’s why the men finally sing on Channel V.”

Smith, tiring of this Third World balderdash, spoke with the air of one settling the issue once and for all. “I say, old fruits,” he said, “sorry and all that, but you simply mustn’t think curry as we know it has anything to do with India, you know. In the Westend, where the best curry places are, we categorise curries as mild, hot and very hot. A standard British curry would contain turmeric, coriander, cumin, cloves, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, tamarind and chili pepper, and sometimes fennel, caraway, ajowan, mustard seeds, cinnamon —”

“Yes,” said Chopra eagerly. “We make this in Amritsar also but we call it garam masala.”

Appuswamy blew his nose in disgust. “Not a spice powder, saar,” he said. “Yit is a circus. Ye yabomination.”

“Excuse me,” I said to Smith. “How do you know so much about Indian curry powder?”

“Bloody ruled you for years and years, didn’t we?” he said. “Don’t forget, we and the Dutch are the ones who made curry famous over Europe. And if there was a fixed formula for curry powder, you can thank the East India Company for it.”

Beauvilliers stirred. France, land of fussy gourmets, was going to speak. “Messieurs et dames,” he said. “I zink you know who I am. Ze famous Beauvilliers. My father is ze one who, in 1814, proposed the first official recipe for curry powder. But it was in 1889, at the Universal Paris Exhibition, that the composition of curry powder was set by decree. Please remember, France is the home of the ISO standard. When we say thees ees eet, eet ees eet. Voila.”

He proceeded to detail the official recipe for Indian curry: 34 gm tamarind, 44 gm onion, 20 gm coriander, 5 gm chilli pepper, 3 gm turmeric, 2 gm cummin, 3 gm fenugreek, 2 gm pepper and 2 gm mustard.

“Zat ees what we in the west call curry powder,” said Beauvilliers, with a fey flourish.

With that, India’s least known contribution to western cuisine, disappeared from our land forever. Appuswamy, shocked out of his Dravidian wits, sat stunned.

It was Chopra who finally broke the silence. “Main keya,” he said in good Chandigarh brogue, “why worry, dear? It’s only curry.”

The Royal Picnic of the Full Moon February 21, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

In a certain month of the year, the Pandiya kings of the south changed into gourmets under the full moon, discovers C. Y. Gopinath

do on full moon nights in April?

According to an unusually reliable source, they would take their wives and children to the riverside and have a great old picnic. While the moon grew fulgent and gravid in the sky, they would entertain themselves in kingly ways, singing old kingly Pandiya songs, telling Pandiya tales of valour and conquest, and finally, in a frenzy of Pandiya hunger, eat some royal Pandiya food.

This royal picnic fare, whose precise cooking details have just reached me, would have been prepared to exacting specifications earlier that April day. Because it would almost certainly be quite cold, or at least tepid, by the time it was dished out, it had to be conceived so as to be quite delicious even when cold.

Because of the unelectrified lunar light it would be served by, the food had to be independent of visual appeal. It had to be dry and gravy-free but should not render royal gullets arid during its passage. It should not require consumption in any particular order, nor call for any particular accompanying dish.

Finally, it should please a king.

The cuisine that met all these criteria was called chitrannam, and carried to the riverside during the month of Chitra (14 March to 15 April) on the day of Chitra Purnima (which, by the way, just passed us all by on 15 April). As I write this, the next full moon is on 15 May, and that too will be a thing of the past by the time you read this. However, 14 June is not far.

Chitrannam is made entirely from rice.

The things Pandiyas did to glorify rice, without recourse to a single vegetable or meat, surpass the merely amazing. A typical Pandiya picnic hamper might have included tamarind rice, lemon rice, coconut rice, sesame rice, mango rice and curd rice (and, of course, some payasam or kheer to sweeten the aftermath). In addition, there would have been papads, and perhaps pickles. I had best get down to details now, as each rice is slightly different in its preparation.

The basic chitrannam is boiled rice with a certain garnish. However, because the garnish varies marginally between the recipes, you have to prepare each rice separately. Also, the red chillies in the garnish merely add pungency, so do modulate their quantity according to taste. Below, I furnish the recipe for the basic garnish; with each recipe, I will indicate the ingredients that must be left out or added to the garnish. Finally, there will be the special ingredient — lemon, sesame, coconut and so on— that will distinguish the rice.

Of the six recipes, tamarind rice is unique in requiring a special gravy to be prepared in advance, so I have provided this recipe last of all.

To make rice to feed 4-6 people
3 kgs of basmati rice
3/4 sprigs of curry leaves, finely shredded
2-3 tbsps unrefined sesame oil
Salt to taste

Boil the rice, and let it cool a bit. Add the curry leaves, salt and oil, and mix it into the rice with a wooden spoon. Break it into roughly six parts and keep aside.
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp chick peas (chana ka dal)
1 tsp urad
4 sprigs curry leaves
1/2 cup of unrefined sesame oil or ghee (clarified butter)
10-12 red chillies (or according to taste) broken in halves

Heat the oil, and then throw in the mustard seeds, chick peas and urad. When the mustard begins to crackle, add the curry leaves, red chillies (and any additional ingredients as indicated with each recipe). Stir the mixture for a while, and then add the rice. Salt to taste. Mix it all together well with a wooden spoon. This garnish must be prepared afresh for each recipe below; certain additions and subtractions must be observed as indicated.


Garnish (as above)
Use sesame oil

A fistful of cashew nuts, broken into bits
3-4 chopped green chillies
A little chopped ginger
1/2 tsp turmeric
Juice of about 4 lemons

Prepare the garnish, throw in the rice, stir awhile. Remove from the fire, and add the lemon juice. Mix well.


Garnish (see above)
Use ghee
A fistful of cashew nuts, broken into bits
3-4 chopped green chillies
A little chopped ginger
1 coconut, grated

Prepare the garnish, and keep stirring till the grated coconut and the cashew nuts begin to brown a little. Throw in the rice, stir awhile. Remove from the fire, mix well, and keep aside.


Garnish (see above)
Use ghee
3-4 chopped green chillies
A little chopped ginger

Red chillies (leave out of the garnish, or reduce in number, as they are part of the powder)
Make a sprinkling powder using
1 cup sesame, roasted
10-12 red chillies, or to taste, roasted
A small cube of asafoetida, roasted

Prepare the garnish, and when it is ready, throw in the rice. Stir awhile. Sprinkle the sesame-red chillies powder. Remove from the fire, mix well, and keep aside.


Garnish (see above)
Use sesame oil

3-4 chopped green chillies
A little chopped ginger
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 raw mango, cut into small bits

Fry the mango shreds in hot oil for about 2 minutes, and then keep aside. Prepare the garnish, and when it is ready, throw in the rice. Stir awhile. Sprinkle the fried raw mango bits. Remove from the fire, mix well, and keep aside.


Garnish (see above)
Use sesame oil
3-4 chopped green chillies
A little chopped ginger
1/2 tsp of methi (fenugreek)
A pinch of dry ginger root, powdered
A small cube of hing, soaked in water for about 30 minutes
2 cups of fresh milk, lukewarm
1 cup of fresh curds

Prepare the garnish, and when it is ready, throw in the rice. Stir awhile. Remove from the fire, mix well, and keep aside to cool. Add the milk, curds, sprinkle the ginger powder and the water the hing has soaked in. (If you’re wondering why, the answer is that the Pandiyas were wondrous wise. They knew that if they used pure curds alone, the rice would have soured before it was eaten.)


To make the tamarind gravy
Garnish (see above)
Use sesame oil
1/2 tsp of methi (fenugreek)
A fistful of shelled peanuts
1 lemon-sized ball of fresh tamarind
Grind into powder
4 tsps sesame seeds, fried in a little oil
A small cube of asafoetida (Hing), fried in a little oil

Soak the tamarind in warm water for about five minutes, and then squeeze out the juice. Keep it aside.
Prepare the garnish as described above, including the peanuts and methi with the other ingredients of the garnish. Add the tamarind water, and salt to taste. Simmer the mixture till it thickens somewhat. Sprinkle the sesame seeds powder over the thickened tamarind gravy. Add the boiled rice to the tamarind gravy, mix well with a wooden spoon, and keep aside.

I have early childhood memories of chitrannam, though we called it a vennila picnic — or White Moon Picnic — because it was not the month of chitra and besides, we were not Pandiyas. Only once was the venue faintly reminiscent of a river. We rented a boat at Delhi’s Boat Club lawns and rowed down the man-made waterway just about wide enough to catch a full moon’s reflection. An uncle rowed, his ebony biceps rippling, and my mother served that wonderful food. Bats flitted about peacefully, night owls chuckled, and we yawed and pitched gently, eating, eating, eating.

The Syrian Christian coconut February 21, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

C Y Gopinath presents a possibly imaginary sweet that is made only once a year by certain Keralite families no-one seems to know about

ONCE UPON A TIME, long ago, in the enchanted part of India known as the Backwaters, there lived a simple villager named Mohan. Thin but wiry, with jet black hair and intense eyes, Mohan had one great passion — cooking. It was widely acknowledged (or at least undisputed in the stretch of the Backwaters where the Onam Boat Race is held annually) that when it came to wizardry in the kitchen, there was nothing even Mohan’s mother could have taught him.

Whenever there were visitors to his part of the waters, Mohan would brusquely shoo away the womenfolk and take over their kitchen. The women, who knew they would never be a match for Mohan, would outwardly mutter and groan and feign inconvenience as they left. Later, after he had conjured up a perfectly magical feast, Mohan would summon them to serve the food. He himself would modestly retire to a vantage behind some coconut tree, probably to study the expressions on his guests’ faces as they ate.

The thing that I do not know about Mohan is whether he was capable of cooking up recipes in his head as well as in the kitchen. Some cooks are like that, you know. They can effortlessly imagine into existence a dish that perhaps no-one could possibly ever make.

And this is why today, nearly six years after I met Mohan, I still do not know if the Syrian Christian Coconut is for real or something Mohan dreamed up to make me smile as I left Allepey.

It was a film shoot. It was a hot and humid day, with bright, clear sunlight and sweat glinting on foreheads and knuckles of the unit members. Lunch, when it was finally served on plantain leaves in a shady backyard, was a welcome break.

As the women bustled about, tittering courteously and serving, I began to wonder who among them had created such amazing food. There was a dish featuring mussels and yams in a coconut gravy; another featuring jackfruit and tiger prawns; a sort of spicy sambar; crisp fried tapioca wafers. And that was when Mahesh Mathai, the film’s director, introduced me to his friend Mohan.

Mohan spoke no English, and I barely understand Malayalam, but when people are united by affection for the craft of good cooking, words hardly pose a barrier. In the boat on the way back to Cochin, I used an interpreter to probe Mohan’s love of cooking.

His answers, it seemed to me, were somewhat distracted, as though he had some more urgent mission. Suddenly he asked me: “Shall I tell you about the Syrian Christian Coconut?” And that was how it unfolded.

Once a year (said Mohan), just after the paddy harvest, certain families of land-owning Syrian Christians go through the ceremony of parboiling the rice in ancient stone vats in their backyards. During the several hours that the grain boils, they take advantage of the extreme heat within the vats to have a brief and passionate extra-marital affair with the coconut. The result is an exotic, lyrical dessert that you will be lucky to find only once a year, provided you are in the right Syrian Christian home at the right time.

The coconut should be well-chosen, neither so tender that the inner flesh is pulpy and loose, nor so mature that the white has hardened into a shell. Once such coconuts have been selected, a slice is neatly removed from the top, and the sweet water drained through the opening.

Each coconut is now stuffed with a delicious mixture featuring flattened rice (pohe in Mumbai, aval in Kerala), jaggery, a few cardamom pods, some jeera  and a spoon of clarified butter). The coconut’s lid is now replaced, and the entire gizmo is bound up tightly with cloth — and tossed into the vat where the rice is boiling.

Here, in the intense heat of the cauldron, the treasure within the coconut is transformed by a process that is neither boiling nor baking nor entirely pressure cooking nor anything else. For a few hours, the coconut dances about in the water, like an impatient egg in an incubator. When the rice is finally parboiled, the coconut too is all set to deliver.

If you’ve done it right, according to Mohan, then you should be able to tear away the outer husk of the coconut, which would have tuned loose and fibrous. Sitting within it like a nearly perfect pearl, should be a hot, white ball filled with a heavenly sweetness. Through the hole in the top, you’d probably get wafts of cardamom, cumin and butter. You merely let it cool, and then serve it.

Mohan disappeared into Kerala’s dusk, and I never met him again. Back in Mumbai, I valiantly tried to recreate the Syrian Christian Coconut at a friend’s house, using a pressure cooker instead of a stone vat, but all I got was a misshapen pulp and a demolished coconut. Since then, I have collared many a Syrian Christian and asked them to tell me yea or nay about the Syrian Christian Coconut. They have all heard me out patiently; some have shaken their heads sadly; others have smiled tolerantly.

They didn’t say it, but I could tell they thought I was nuts.

A pulao with olives? February 21, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

That’s not the only surprise in store when Ishtiyaque Qureshi decides to take over the kitchen, discovers C Y Gopinath

ISHTIYAQUE QURESHI CONTROLS FOOD. The way a pet-lover controls his pet.

If he doesn’t want his onions to brown just yet, they will patiently await his further instructions. If he wants the meat not to stick to the bottom of the pan, then the meat will obediently float around in its oil, sticking not even to its closest friends. If he wants the garlic to go to sleep, it will go to sleep, pretending it’s actually an almond. To understand which djinn gave Ishtiyaque his awesome powers, you must go both into his genes and genesis. Genes first.

Ishtiyaque’s father, Imtiaz, was already a legend in the gullies of Lucknow before he was discovered by the Maurya Hotel group. In those bylanes, he had improved his own mastery of ingredients and proven his mettle in simple, nearly impossible feats — such as mixing sugar into rice. The accolade went to him who could mixing the largest quantity of sugar into cooking rice without sacrificing the flakiness of the final product. Imtiaz, the story goes, could effortlessly blend 3 kilos of sugar into a kilo of rice.

The architect of the famous Dum Phukt Restaurant — whose Bombay edition closed down after a bomb blasted the Searock Hotel — was hailed, on the inside flap of the menu, as being illiterate and unschooled, but that was wrong. Imtiaz’s studies were more precise than most engineers’ and more sophisticated than most artists’. And it was this extraordinary skill of mastery over the cooking process that he passed on to his eldest son Ishtiyaque, who never thought he’d one day be a virtuoso in a kitchen.

I asked to meet him after tasting his butter-like, utterly yielding kakori kebab, revived from the dhabas of Uttar Pradesh. As our acquaintance grew, I was privileged and delighted to be his guinea pig in a number of experiments. In one, he served me what seemed like an almond kheer, except that the ‘almonds’ were pods of garlic whose ego he’d subjugated by careful ministrations in simmering milk, converting them in the process into something quite nawabi and aristocratic.

On another occasion, he satisfied a picky vegetarian companion of mine with a stupendous biriyani which she promptly labelled a sham. But it was not. The ‘meat chunks’ were blocks of jackfruit, cooked so that their texture, taste and consistency was indistinguishable from mutton.

The third time, at the Leela Kempinski’s Indian Harvest, Ishtiyaque decided to experiment with morrels, the exotic and costly mushroom-like fungus that is so prized in French cuisine. He delivered an array of delicacies to our table, all Indian as they could be in taste, yet ineffably refined by the subtlety of morrels.

Now for the genesis. Ishtiyaque is one of the few unsung heroes of the Indian kitchen. He’s the maestro who will never be the witty host of his own food show on Star TV, the chef who will never write his You-Too-Cook-Be-Like-Me best-seller. In fact, this extraordinary artist shuttles around in the twilight zone between the cooking and the food processing industry. He disappeared for a spell to Bangalore, exploring the frigid world of frozen kebabs and biriyanis. Then, tiring of that, he re-entered normal life at the Leela Kempinski in Mumbai. Then there was another disappearance to Ahmedabad, another disenchantment, and another homecoming. You may see him today triumphantly re-inventing one of Mumbai’s most illustrious Mughlai restaurants. The Bandra edition of the Copper Chimney, renamed the Charcoal Grill, is currently a showcase of Ishtiyaque’s talents.

He made his olivon ka biriyani in my humble kitchen. In contrast to my panic-driven method of putting together my merely passable meals, Ishtiyaque cooks as though he had all the time in the world. The onions will not char while he turns away from them to play with my son. The meat will not separate into fibres because he was busy pounding garlic for the raita. With Ishtiyaque, cooking is an act of will, man against masalas, and the winner is always the same.

“But olives in a biriyani!” I exclaimed. Spain meeting Hyderabad, bullfights in the haveli, torreros and tandooris. How could they mix?

Ishtiyaque smiles. And that reminds me: until someone imported potatoes into India from South America, whoever had heard of batata wadas here?

Olivon ka Pulao

150 gms ghee
1/2 kg Basmati rice
2 Bay leaves
1 gram saffron
3 big cardamoms
3 small onions, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 green chillies
2” piece of ginger, julienned
Yellow chilly powder (to taste)
Salt to taste
50 gms fresh mint leaves
20-25 pitted green or black olives
Juice of lemon or 1 tsp aamchoor (dried mango powder)
5 gms garam masala
1 1/2 cups of soya bean nuggets (optional)
A generous fistful of dough

1. Wash the rice clean in several changes of water, and soak it water until needed.

2. Heat ghee on a low fire, and brown the onion rings in it, stirring frequently until they are golden brown and crisp. Use a slotted spoon to drain the oil off the onions.

3. If you are planning to use soya bean nuggets, fry them light golden in a little oil, and keep aside.

4. To the same ghee, add the crushed garlic, bay leaves, big cardamoms, green chillies, ginger, and half a cup of water. Sauté for about three minutes. If you are using soya bean nuggets, add them now, and then add a litre of cold water, or enough to cover the rice. When the water comes to a boil, add the soaked rice and salt to taste.

5. When the water comes to the boil again, add the pitted olives, mint and saffron and stir it gently.

6. Using the dough, seal the rim of the cooking vessel and place the lid firmly against it. Put the vessel on a tava and let it cook on slow heat. When the steam begins hissing out through a weak spot in the dough, the pulao should be ready. If it is not, add a little more hot water, reseal the vessel, and let it cook a little longer.

7. When the pulao is done, garnish with the crisp fried onions, sprinkle with garam masala, and serve hot, along with a little raita.

The cauliflower becomes a real man February 21, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

The cauliflower has an identity problem but Suman Bakshi knows exactly how to solve it, says C Y Gopinath

YOU SURELY KNOW THE STORY of the poor, deluded cauliflower.

He tried to join the World Wrestling Federation, but was rejected on account of his ridiculous assertion that he should be treated as equal to beef. Claimed that though he had been plucked fresh from a vegetable patch, he had the soul of tenderloin.

This explains his current identity crisis. He feels macho yet curiously out of place when they marinate him in tandoori masalas and cook him along with seekhs and reshmis. On the other hand, he feels embarrassed but oddly at ease in a salad in the tittering company of baby corn and snow peas, all dressed in olive oil.

Most of all, the cauliflower is realising that without some cosmetic intervention — either complete immersion in some fancy French sauce or lots of garam masala — he will never be one of the boys. And this must be one of the reasons why cauliflowers, in season or out of it, are specially fond of Suman Bakshi neé Hattikudur, Mangalorean by heritage, Kashmiri by marriage, Mumbaiya by upbringing, a lady from neither here nor there and therefore at home everywhere, but particularly in her kitchen, where she casually re-incarnates old dishes into riveting new avatars.

For example, she’d added something devilish and tart to the cauliflower dish which I had christened Caulifornia after just one sampling.

“Aamchoor?” I asked expertly, but she shook her head.

Then what? Tamarind? Surely not. What was it? Suman ignored the question.

I first tasted Caulifornia some months ago out of a lunch box Suman had packed for her husband Jayant Bakshi. Now JB is not only is taller than Godzilla, but he comes from Kashmir and is a perfectionist who makes perfectly round chappatis. Which even Suman can’t do.

I knew, with my first mouthful of Caulifornia, that the phool gobi had finally become a somebody. An Oscar nomination was on its way.

I called up Suman and asked her whether she could make the dish for me.

“But which one do you mean?” she fretted. “I do so many different things to cauliflowers. Did it have tomato in it?”

No. But I remembered seeing bits of green leaves.

“They’d be cauliflower leaves. Was it red or —”

Definitely not red. Maybe no red chilly powder.

“Hmm. What about coriander leaves?”

I could not recall.

“If it had coriander, that would be a Kashmiri touch,” she said anxiously. “I change it around by adding Kasuri Methi leaves instead. Any paneer?”

Paneer and cauliflower? I was mortified. “No,” I said evenly. “Definitely no paneer. But green peas, yes.”

We couldn’t reach consensus on which cauliflower version had captivated me that day months ago, so Suman put together two entire cauliflower entreés, just in case. In the second one, the cauliflower is pressure cooked whole, immersed upto its ankles in a mesmerising tomato gravy. I named that dish Don Cauleone, but that was definitely not the cauliflower of my dreams. That honour went to Caulifornia.

Caulifornia is not a quickie dish. It has Kashmiri touches, such as the soont (dried ginger powder) and saunf (aniseed) powder. It also has a tangle of spices, with a little bit of everything — or so it would seem. But it is my considered insight that the trick is in the ginger and aniseed powders, the Kasuri Methi, and the browning of the cauliflower before the show starts. If you try it at home, and you should, then do remember that it connects outstandingly with hot chappatis and some plain, garnish-free masoor or tuvar dal.

“So,” I said, licking my fingers. “What’s the little extra you added which gave it that sharp undertaste?”

Suman looked distinctly uneasy. You see, she understands the cauliflower’s predicament: he hates dressing up. He likes to be seen with the boys, do the manly thing, even though he feels more at ease with the ladies in the beauty parlour. And now here Suman had dressed him up in saunf and dried ginger powder and made a proper parlour queen out of him. This is why, I now believe, in a fit of utter thoughtfulness, she tossed in a full teaspoonful of Dijon mustard paste along with the dried spices.

And thus converted the cauliflower from being a low, limp-wristed cousin of the cabbage to sheer majestic royalty.


Ingredients (to feed 4)
500 gms cauliflower
250 gms paneer
Half cup curds
2 green chillies finely chopped
1″ ginger cut into fine shreds
1/4 tsp hing (asafoetida)
Powdered spices
1 tsp jeera (cummin seeds)
1/2 tsp haldi (turmeric)
1 tsp jeera (cummin) powder
2 tsp dhania (coriander) powder
1 tsp soont (dried ginger powder)
1 tsp saunf (aniseed) powder
1 level tsp Kasuri Methi leaves
Vegetable oil for frying and cooking
Salt to taste

Garam masala: Grind together
1 big elaichi (cardamom)
1/4 tej patta (Bay leaf)
1” dalchini (cinnamon)
5 laung (cloves)
5 elaichi (green cardamom)
Some jaiphal (nutmeg) scrapings
5-6 whole black peppers

1. Choose a fresh, firm cauliflower with crisp green leaves. Keep the leaves aside after washing them thoroughly. Cut the cauliflower into big flowers, including about an inch of the stem with each flower). Wash thoroughly and then soak in salt water for about 15 minutes to flush out worms, if any.

2. Heat oil about an inch deep in a frying pan, and deep fry the cauliflower until they turn lightly golden. Place them on kitchen paper to drain the oil thoroughly. If you are using cauliflower leaves, fry them separately for a few seconds in the same oil.

3. Cut the paneer into squares of 1.5 inches and 1/4” thickness. Fry them briefly in very hot oil, until they begin turning light brown. Remove them with a slotted spoon, letting the oil drain out, and keep them in a bowl of cool water.

4. Heat half a cup of vegetable oil in a kadai. When the oil is very hot, add the hing. After a few seconds, add the finely shredded ginger, stir briefly, and then add the jeera (seeds). As they begin browning lightly, add the green chillies. Mix the curds in, and stir briskly till all the moisture has been absorbed.

5. Add half a cup of water and cook for about 2 minutes on a medium fire. Add the cauliflower, the Kasuri Methi, the garam masala, and another half cup of water. Add the paneer, and turn gently with a wooden spatula, so that they absorb the gravy. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the cauliflower are cooked though still crunchy. The gravy should be thick and moist.

NOTE: Peas may be used instead of paneer.

Don Cauleone

Ingredients (to feed 4-6)
1 large cauliflower
2 tbsp tomato pureé
2 tbsp chopped coriander leaves
1/4 tsp hing (asafoetida)
2 tsp cornflour
1 cup milk
Whole spices
1” dalchini (cinnamon)
5 laung (cloves)
5 elaichi (green cardamom)
5-6 whole black peppers
1 tsp whole jeera
Powdered spices
1.5 tsp Kashmiri red chilly (degi mirchi) powder
1/2 tsp haldi (turmeric)
2 tsp jeera (cummin) powder
2 tsp dhania (coriander) powder
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp garam masala (see recipe for Caulifornia)
Vegetable oil for frying and cooking
Salt to taste

1. Trim the cauliflower, discarding the leaves. Cut the stem, creating a flat base, so that the cauliflower will sit straight. Soak in salt water for 15-20 minutes to flush out any worms and insects. Drain and dry, and then deep fry in about 2 inches deep oil, turning it over carefully so that it browns on all sides.

2. In a pressure cooker, transfer a half cup of the oil in which you fried the cauliflower, and heat it. When it is very hot, add the hing, followed by the whole spices and the jeera. A few seconds later, add the tomato pureé and continue frying till the oil separates from the tomato. Now add the powdered spices and sugar, salt to taste and half a cup of water, and let it come to a boil.

3. Stand the cauliflower upright into the pressure cooker, sprinkle chopped coriander leaves over it, and add a cup of water. Replace the lid and pressure cook for 1 whistle, let it cool, and open it.

4. Make a solution of the cornflour and a little milk, and add it to the gravy, followed by a cup of milk. Stir to thicken the gravy somewhat while bringing it to a boil.

5. To serve, carefully transfer the cauliflower to a dish, and pour the gravy over it. Just before serving, streak the dish with cream and a sprinkle of garam masala (see recipe for Caulifornia).

The search for gnocchi February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

Even if you can’t pronounce it, you can’t stop it from being a surefire hit, says C Y Gopinath

THE SEARCH FOR GNOCCHI IS OVER. It ended about two weeks ago, on page 512 of the Larousse Gastronomique. Silly of me not to have thought of it before, but I’m known for that sort of addle-patedness. In the meantime, over ten years had passed. The world had undergone radical transformations: empires had fallen, princes had been brought to their heels (but not their senses) by national scandals, the USSR had humbled itself but still been unable to improve upon its national soup, borsch. Here in India the famous Jain pizza had been perfected, with cholé topping and no garlic.

Meanwhile, I had grown old and tired searching for the original gnocchi. I remembered very little about it except that it had ingredients that could turn greedy little pigs into gourmets: lots of cheese, bluggles of milk, globblops of butter, flour and such. In addition, I recalled effortlessly the rich brown aroma of the baking session that ended the cooking. The final dish, bubbling with hot butter, had little bits of pink sticking out through the molten cheese. What could it have been? And there was something green too. Whatever could that have been?

I made gnocchi (meaning ‘lumps’ in Italian) first in 1982 in the house of an unsuspecting friend (who, since exiled to Russia, carefully avoids mentioning borsch in her despatches). I distinctly recall that the recipe did not come to me in a dream, but was laboriously copied from a book, and that too one not on Italian cuisine. There were perhaps 20 invitees to the party, and they thought ganochi, as they called it, was a specialty of Kathiawar. However, there was perfect silence, broken only by nutmeg burps, while they ate. I was an immodest hit, and was approached immediately by several eligible young women , who wanted to know if I thought a man’s place was in the kitchen.

For years after that I forgot about gnocchi, and gnocchi forgot about me. I went to Italy where, at an open-air restaurant by the Tiber, I washed down frabjous thin-crust pizzas with white Chianti. I learnt about farfalle, or butterfly-shaped pasta. (I also picked up an interesting little phrase, figlio di putane, but less of that later. Figlio means ‘son’, di means ‘of’. I can’t tell you more.)

Two weeks ago, I was doing my morning exercises — lifting the Larousse Gastronomique 20 times, first with the left hand and then with the right — when it fell open to the page with the word quenelle, meaning dumpling in the area of the world called Alsace. As you know, I am fascinated by strange deja vû words. In quick succession, I discovered knödel, noque, knepfle, all meaning dumplings in various European languages. One thing led to another, and suddenly I found myself staring at an ancient 7-letter word starting with ‘g’. Small dumplings, read the description, made of flour, semolina, potato or choux pastry. My heart leaped. Gnocchi. At last.

Three kinds of gnocchi are listed in the Gastronomique, and two of them may be safely kept aside. The one that we are concerned with is gnocchi á la romaine. Here’s how you could make an extremely high-calorie but unputdownable gnocchi dinner for four. It’s normally enough to serve it with a fresh, wet, green salad, perhaps with bits of celery or parsley.

Pour 125 gms of white flour (maida) into 2 cups of boiling milk and stir it till you get a very smooth porridge. Add salt, pepper and grated nutmeg, some freshly ground black pepper, 1 cup grated Parmesan or Mozzarella cheese and 2 tablespoons butter, and blend into the paste. Allow it to cool and then add 1 lightly beaten egg and 1 yolk.

You should have a fine paste in front of you. (If you include fresh spinach among the ingredients, the paste gets coloured a pleasant green).

Spread this out on a large moistened slab and leave it under a fan till it is completely cool. Separately, prepare some Bechamel sauce — melt 3 tablespoons butter over low heat in a heavy saucepan. Add 6 tablespoons flour and stir briskly till the mixture is smoothly blended without the colour changing. Add 2 cups of milk and whisk with a wire whisk to prevent lumps forming. Season with a salt and freshly ground black pepper, and cook it slowly till it is medium thick.

With a pastry cutter, or a knife, cut the cooled paste into rounds of squares. Arrange these in a buttered baking dish, with alternate layers of Bechamel sauce and ham. Sprinkle lots of cheese over the top, pour dollops of melted butter over it, and then brown it slowly in an oven.

Eccola! Gnocchi!

And by the way, it isn’t pronounced ganochi. It’s nyoki.

Mamma mia! And not married yet? February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

If you’re a hungry bachelor and can make a Mama Mia dinner all by yourself, you might never need to think of anything else, says C. Y. Gopinath

I WAS A HUNGRY BACHELOR ONE SUNDAY EVENING IN DELHI. It was winter, bracing and very cold, when the stomach like to pretend it is celebrating its birthday and that everyone should be nice to it. I have always treated my stomach well, and am known to take some trouble to hunt down unusual delights to please my gastronomic machinery.

Masala Manor was the name I had given to my humble terrace flat in South Extension, though no-one but I knew this. The kitchen was large and airy , and on its shelves were all manner of fresh spices, lovingly bought at the INA market, a mere autorickshaw’s throw away. Curds would be set plump and firm every day in an earthen vessel, and on special days, breakfast would consist of ajwain ka paratha, gobs of butter and pachranga pickles from Ludhiana.

The day I invented the Mama Mia Dinner, I was, as usual, wondering when dinner would be served. And what it would be. And why on earth no aromas were about yet. Then I remembered — my amazing cook Chhotu had left on annual leave that morning. The conclusion was inescapable — I would have to make my own dinner.

It was during the next few minutes of desperate introspection that I remembered the fuzzy outline of an Italian dish that I had read about in a cookbook long ago and far away. I had tried making the dish at someone’s house but, being young and clumsy, had failed miserably. Many people who ate it that evening then completely severed ties with me. Papaya, they told me, ought never to be deployed in an Italian salad.

I have named the following trio of dishes the Mama Mia Dinner. It contains no papaya, will not affect your social life, and is designed specially for bachelors and other people who have a little time in the morning and hardly any in the evening. You have my word that it is colourful, unusual, very wholesome, full of open-sesame surprises and will make you feel warmly towards Italy.

There are three parts to it: the cold soup; a fettucini entreé; and the tour de force — the salad.

Let me run you through the the cold soup first: its ingredients are buttermilk, walnuts, lots of garlic, cucumber, sea salt, lemon and parsley. The walnuts, garlic and cucumber, the former crumbled and the latter two chopped, must be pureéd, being merged with buttermilk. Chill the ensemble after squeezing some lemon juice into it and adding salt. Throw in a sprig of parsley before serving.

Being a bachelor, you must take the first few steps towards the Mama Mia entreé in the morning. You will need some large, purple aubergines (baingans). Slice them into circles, salt them liberally, and leave them in a shallow dish for about an hour. Being hygroscopic, the salt will draw the bitter water out of the vegetables. Pat them dry, and leave them in a warm place or out in the sun to dry. By evening, when you return home, they ought to be ready.

Julienne the aubergines into strips about an inch long. Heat some cooking oil — it should be pretty damn hot. Throw in the aubergine and let it fry to a golden brown crispness. Keep aside. Cut as much ham, or salamis, as you want into strips.

In a vessel, boil some fettucini (ribbon pasta; you can get it in most grocery stores). Don’t expect me to tell you how to do this, the packet carries instructions.

Separately, cut ham or salami into small strips. I am somewhat primitive about this, and prefer to shred them with my bare hands. The entreé is done when you combine ham, aubergine crisps and fettucini in a bowl that has been lightly buttered. Sprinkle some freshly ground black pepper. The final dish will be a pleasing, robust combination of pink, light cream, deep purple and golden brown.

The salad — cube the following ingredients: apples, peaches, cucumber and Gouda table cheese. Shred some capsicum. No papayas. Toss the lot together, with a little salt. Now do some magic — take some sesame seeds (white til, the sort used in til laddus). In a tablespoonful of oil, fry them till they begin to turn golden. Toss them over the salad — and know that you have done something few have done before.

Give the whole thing a good shake. If you have called guests over, then have an answer to questions like, “What is that taste? It just came for a moment and then disappeared. Is it something in the salad?”

If you have wine, bring it out — red is usually appropriate. Being a bachelor, light a candle, sit all by yourself, eat contentedly, feeding the dog a bit now and then. When the meal is over, lean back, release an Italian-type belch and ask yourself if “Mama Mia!” does not somehow seem like the best way to express your feelings.

Understanding rasam February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

It’s all connected with pattern recognition.

For instance, you can tell the difference between a pizza and an uthappam without straining your corpus callosum. One is based on dough, the other has batter; there’s wonderful melted cheese on one, but if the other has cheese, it’s a fake, there’s stuff under the cheese in one, there’s chopped onions on the other. One is baked, the other is fried. Once you understand the pattern, you’re on firm ground. You know that only someone living in the suburbs of Bombay would eat an uthappam and pay for a pizza, and not feel like a yap.

But take the wonderful south Indian concoction called rasam, and suddenly you will be in a tamarind quagmire, where rules collapse unpredictably and identities change casually, so that even if you know where rasam begins, you’d be a genius to know where it ends.

Rasam, for those new to the concept, means juice, and in this case, it refers to the juice of the tamarind, on which any self-respecting rasam is based.

Or ought to be, at any rate. The thing is, there’s simply no telling with rasam. You may suddenly stumble, in a later paragraph, on a rasam that has eschewed tamarind but has not been disowned. Or one that has no dal and yet fits into the family. Or, scandal of scandals, one that has no rasam powder but also no identity crisis.

Rasams, more in kind and number than I could count on the fingers of a hand, were a standard part of childhood, coming usually with tales from the Panchatantra. The ingredients were a mother, a storybook, and a plate of steaming rice. Rice would be mashed by mother’s fist with boiled tuvar dal laced with aromatic clarified butter and a touch of salt. A little hill would be made, a valley bored down from the peak, and hot rasam poured into it, coriander leaves trailing. The children would get their fists into the meal, while the Panchatantra whispered. Later we learnt that some of the distinctive flavour of the rasam came from the alloy of the vessel in which it was prepared. Iyam, them called it.

No one uses iyam vessels very much any more, ever since they found out they contain lethal lead, but in my humble opinion rasam doesn’t need help from alloy or compound. You will now remind me, and rightly, of pattern recognition, where all this began. How does one, you ask, recognise rasam without losing one’s sense of well-being?

Not possible, in my humble view.

You could say that it’s rasam if it contains tamarind but then so does sambar, and that isn’t rasam.

Well, you argue on bravely though foolishly, then let’s say it should have tuvar dal too. No good. You’re still in sambar territory.

So add rasam powder, you say, taking the cheap and easy way out. But even there rasam slips away: the Unsuspected Pepper Rasam is made without rasam powder. For that matter, the Hardly Known Gottu Rasam is made without tuvar dal; and the Amazing Lemon Rasam is made without tamarind. To top it all, the Splendiferous Paneer Rasam, which has nothing to do with cottage cheese is served exclusively at weddings, is made of rose petals.

It’s time I let the secrets out of the bag, starting with the fundamental rasam powder itself. When made negligently, with arrogance and overconfidence, rasam powder can be the death of rasam. So do be diligent, as follows:

Take about 15 red chillies, remove the stalks, dab some cooking oil over them, and dry fry over a low flame till they puff up with self importance every so slightly.

Now dry roast 4 tbsp coriander seeds, 2 tbsp channa ka daal, and 2 tbsp urad dal, till the urad turns golden.

Finally, dry roast 1 tbsp tuvar dal, 1 tbsp whole black pepper, and 1 tbsp cummin seeds, till the black pepper begins crackling with excitement.

Grind these to a coarse powder.

Generic rasam: To make this, cook a cup of tuvar dal to a mellow softness with a little turmeric powder and salt. Soak a lemon-sized ball of tamarind in 2 cups of lukewarm water, and then, with your own clean hands, squeeze out the juice and discard the pulp. Add 1 tomato chopped large, 2 tsps rasam powder, 1/2 tsp turmeric powder and 2 springs of curry leaves to the tamarind water, and boil till the level comes down by about a 1/4″.

Pour a cup of cold water to the tuvar dal, and add this to the tamarind water. You should have soaked a little bit of LG’s asafoetida in water an hour earlier. Add about a teaspoonful of this to the pot, and heat it over a medium flame. Remove it just before it comes to a boil. Garnish with fried mustard seeds and fresh coriander.

Now the circus variations.

Pepper rasam: All steps as in Generic Rasam, except that you leave out the rasam powder entirely. Instead dissolve 1.5 tsps black pepper powder, 1.5 tsps sugar and 1 tsp red chilly powder in a 2 tbsps of water, and add it before bringing to a boil at the end.

Lemon rasam: No tamarind. Instead, in 2 cups of water, boil 1 large chopped tomato, several pieces of sliced ginger, several halved green chillies, and 2 tsps rasam powder. Rest as ;in Generic Rasam. Curry leaves instead of coriander as garnish.

Paneer rasam: Make the Generic Rasam, but let it stand for a while and separate the thin liquid that stay on top. Add 2 tbsp of rosewater, and a few petals of the Edward Rose. No asafoetida, please, there are ladies in the room.

Eat like a child. Use your hands, home-made clarified butter, and make sure you spend a long time mashing rice, ghee and tuvar dal together before adding the rasam. And enjoy the Panchatantra.

What Mrs Ehlwe cooked February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

The best little meal in Cairo may be had in the shadow of the Sphinx, where lives a taxi-driver’s wife who knows just how to treat chicken

WITHIN TWO HOURS OF REACHING CAIRO, I was tucking into a hearty Messianic breakfast with a faintly self-congratulatory smile on my face. CYG, I said to myself, you old goat if only your friends could see you now. Eating feta cheese with olives. And Ramses knows what else. Having a regular international experience, you are.

The fare consisted of items that you yourself will possibly have encountered in the Bible and Lawrence Durrell. Yoghurt with honey. Goat’s milk cheese with black olives. The flat, round unleavened bread called pita. Fried egg with some thin slices of Egyptian bastirma, their version of pastrami. Turkish coffee in those cute, fist-sized demi-tasses — exotic but, by Osiris, wait till you get to the grinds at the bottom of the cup. What a choke.

I mention all this so that you may know what is not the real thing. This is merely a 5 star caricature of Egyptian food. And it costs a Pharaoh’s ransom — 16 Egyptian pounds (about Rs.106).

My search continued, now on the streets of Cairo, downtown Cairo, where life is a good deal more uncertain, and the flavours and aromas in the air far less familiar or identifiable. I found myself a room in an old, but spick and characterful hotel called Windsor, which grew in a bylane not far from Tahrir Square, the heart of town. In the small teahouse across the lane, as evening dawns smoky and warm, Egyptians men convene on chairs outside, and play rounds of the dice game called tawala, punctuated by many many cups of dark kahwa (coffee) and puffs at hookahs.

Well, this felt like more like North Africa, all right. But where was the food?

The food, it turned out, was in the humble home of one Omar Ehlwe, who mainly drives a taxi around Cairo. As far as I am concerned, his pretty wife, Mrs. Ehlwe, knows exactly how to treat a chicken.

Omar, 25, comes from a reasonably well-off Cairo family. I stumbled into him at his little bookshop on the promenade along the Nile River, and after that, we were inseparable. We went all over the city in his beat up old Toyota taxi, listening to his beat-up Egyptian pop music cassettes. Omar symbolises the best of his country’s hospitality, the non-touristy, non-huckstering kind. So it was without any misapprehension that I made bold to invite myself over to his house for a meal.

“Are you married?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said.

“One wife?”

He laughed. “Only one. I am not a greedy man.”

“Is she a good cook?”

He considered. “There is only one way to find out,” he said.

“I accept,” I said graciously.

We drove up to his house, which stands almost in the shadow of the Sphinx and the three great pyramids of Gizeh. His house, gloomy but roomy, contained an extraordinary number of ancient, gorgeous, brocade-covered sofas. Sitting on one of these, I awaited a common but typical Egyptian meal. But what finally reached the table was one of those masterpieces, whose excellence lies in their utter simplicity, style and charisma.

There are three players in the Ehlwe Symphony, and the simplest is a salad assembled from diced tomatoes, cucumber, conchiglione (shell pasta), parsley, with lemon juice and salt. Make this rightaway and tuck it away in your fridge. Meanwhile, rub salt all over the fowl, and leave it to tenderise for about half an hour.

The third instrument in the opus is the small, round and purple aubergine that the Egyptians called betingan. The piece de resistance. . Preparing this is simplicity itself — take about 12 aubergines (to feed about four) and make a single horizontal slit three-quarters of the way along each, so that it appears to have a mouth. Now deep-fry the aubergine in very hot oil till it becomes soft but not pulpy, and turns a golden brown inside the mouth.

Leave them on kitchen towels to drain the oil, and then cool them awhile in the fridge. While this happens, prepare a pureé a equal parts raw garlic, hot green chillies, some salt and some lemon juice. Spoon a bit of this into the ‘mouth’ of each aubergine.

It was from Omar, later, that I received an account of how Mrs. Ehlwe addressed the chicken in her kitchen. She deep-fried the fowl in oil that had been spiced — with cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, bay leaves, mace, whole black pepper, things like that. By the time the chicken turns golden brown, it has absorbed the subtle fragrances of all those spices. Leave this part for the last, so that the chicken is served hot.

Well, I have put that meal on my tongue, and I can tell you I now know what Messianic really means. When betingan joins that succulent, subtly spiced chicken, an extraordinary duet begins. The aubergine with its spicy filling lands on your tongue like an Ottoman warrior, full of energy, fire and piquancy. The bland chicken suddenly meets its mate, and a remarkable pas de deux is set up, with each dish highlighting the other. Throw in a spoonful of the juicy salad after it, and the aria will be complete.

I left in a respectful silence. At the door, I asked Omar if I could thank his wife. He hesitated, smiled, as though allowing gratitude was somehow at odds with true hospitality. “It is OK,” he said. “She knows you liked it.”

A pause. “Besides, she does not understand English.”

Vada way to go February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

Shanti Oberoi makes better dahi vadas than Sushil Jolly makes better dahi vadas than Vaishali makes better dahi vadas than LMB at Jaipur

VAISHALI MAKES BETTER DAHI VADAS than the Jaipur’s Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar.

But her mother-in-law, Sushil Jolly, makes even better dahi vadas than her and Vaishali is the first one to admit it. In fact, when she weighs mother against mother-in-law, there is no confusion in her mind about who is the dahi vada queen.

However, Vaishali’s mother-in-law’s mother, Shanti Oberoi, makes the best dahi vadas of them all.

It is possible that she makes the best dahi vadas in the whole world. I’ve never eaten them, but I have always known instinctively that there is a dominant gene in most Punjabi women that enables them to construct superlative dahi vadas. Punjabi men, I suspect, have a gene that makes them physiologically incapable of refusing to eat dahi vadas once they have been constructed. This explains the success of a street such as Delhi’s Ajmal Khan Road.

I myself ate the best dahi vadas in the world in 1970-something, when I was sent to Jaipur, and stayed at a hotel called Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar. Despite the oleaginous name, the establishment is a landmark of the pink city. It stands like an old and tattered monarch, surrounded by monkeys and enormous Rajasthani doormen. A halvai sits outside the lobby making phirni and samosas in pure ghee that flavours the entire street. On the ground floor there is also a pure vegetarian restaurant where these dahi vadas — or bhallé — as they are called, are served. You get about 6 to 8 on a plate.

But they have bits of cashew inside, dear friends. And I know now that Vaishali might disapprove of that. Sushil Jolly might look pained, and Shanti Oberoi might faint with horror. Indeed Punjab might go into a deep depression.

Vaishali has learnt her craft from the custodians of tradition. I ate nothing else at her house where she’d made the rest of the dinner as well, and I marvelled deeply at what one must do to get such a wonderfully spongy creation at the end. Why are some women doomed to make worse dahi vadas than the rest? I thought I should ask Vaishali this question.

Vaishali said that she was the first doomed woman, because her mother, mother-in-law and her mother in turn were all perhaps better at it than she was. Next, without fuss or bother, she got into nitty gritty details.

The trick, according to V, is that you have to beat the vada batter. Not like a disciplinarian but more like a sports coach. The batter is made without fuss: you leave urad dal and mung dal (three parts of one to one part of the other) to soak overnight, and then bung them into a mixie to grind in the morning. The spicing (salt, coarsely ground peppercorns, hing, cummin seed or jeera) are added separately. At least that’s how Vaishali does it. She now uses a spoon to ‘beat’ the mixture till it is the desired consistency.

Her mother-in-law’s mother, swears Vaishali, doesn’t use a spoon to mix the blend. She moves her fingers in the batter, processing the vada batter till it is smooth and ready to fly. At this point, if you take a drop of the batter and throw it into some cold water, it should float. If it doesn’t, you may be sinking.

Now heat some oil and make the vadas. Take the trouble to roll them by hand separately first, so that you get reasonably round vadas, and for God’s sake, don’t roast them golden brown, you are not an Udipi restaurant are you. Now, next, soak the vadas in hot water for about 10 minutes. Then squeeze out the excess water, taking care not to break or distort the vada in the process.

Toss it into fresh curds into which you have already added salt, black salt (very important!! If you want to be real), jeera, black pepper power and red chilly powder.

For a while. Your untutored palate might feel something amiss, and it will be right. The chutney is absent. And here might be the solution. To get it right, you need to take a little aamchoor and sugar and mix them in the ratio of 3:1. Mix the aamchoor in a little water, add the sugar, boil it, with the judicious addition of salt, black salt, cummin, coriander powder and so on. Anything to take it closer to God.

Pour this stuff over that stuff, and you have dahi vada, Version Vaishali.

Vaishali’s dahi vadas meet ISO9002 requirements. Position numbers 9003 and 9004 have already been taken by her m-in-l and her mother. Vaishali, humble and accomplished, speaks with awe about Shanti Oberoi’s dahi vada. Indeed, as I was signing off, she muttered, almost regretfully, “By the way, I added bicarbonate of soda. Is that all right?”

Of course it’s all right, silly. We’re just waiting for dinner now.

The future of Gobi Manchurian February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
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It turns out Manchuria had been unaware that its name had been appended to the phool gobi

“WE HAVE NO CHOICE,” said the Manchurian National Security Advisor. “This must be considered an act of war. By annexing Manchuria to a cauliflower, India has breached every protocol known to international politics.”

There was silence in the conference room. Though the new millennium was well under way, the temperature outside had not changed; it remained –26°C. The heating system was yet to be installed, so it was shivering cold inside as well. The only one unaffected seemed to be the shaggy horse on which the Manchurian Premier had arrived; it now stood in a corner of the room, attacking fodder while snorting and farting by turns. Other than the Premier, there were also his three military chiefs, his Press Advisor and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who had built up the case against India.

At the far end of the table, leering openly, sat the Indian delegate, MLA Ram Lakhan. He drew himself up to his feet, emitted some paan into his portable paandaan, and spoke up now in his country’s defense.

“This is nothing but a small misunderstanding, Your Honor,” he said. “We do not have Chinese cuisine anywhere in India.”

“A complete fabrication!” said the Minister for Foreign Affairs. “Let the Indian delegate explain how I have seen the so-called Gobi Manchurian served only at labeled Chinese restaurants all over India?” As Exhibits A, B and C, the Minister now placed some quite cold and congealed specimens of Gobi Manchurian gathered from restaurants in Tangra (Calcutta), Colaba (Mumbai) and Ludhiana (Punjab).

“The Honorable Minister is in error,” said the Indian delegate mildly. “Those are not Chinese restaurants. Those are actually Punjabi Mughlai restaurants which specialise in South Indian cuisine. Within them, you can get such historical delicacies as Mattar Paneer, Methi Chaman Bahar, Chicken Makhani and Maharani Dal, in any combination with Masala Dosa, Cheese Uthappam, Medu Vada and Kanjeevaram Idli. There is nothing Chinese about any of them.”

The Minister for Foreign Affairs withdrew Exhibit D, the signboard of a shop that had recently come up in Girgaum, Mumbai, for a multi-cuisine restaurant called simply Buckingham Palace. All kinds of Mughlai, South Indian, Punjabi and Chinese food available.

“Another grave error,” said the Indian delegate, sniggering. “We say Chinese so that our customers may know that the waiters are Chinky-looking. We recruit them from Darjeeling, the Kumaon hills and so on. Gives the place an international feel.”

“Lies!” shouted the Minister.

“And nothing Chinese about anything else in our restaurants either,” continued the MLA equably. “We may call it Prawn Sichuan , but it is garnished with black mustard seeds and curry leaves, so that our Mangalorean clients don’t find the taste too alien. We also add a little garam masala to our Roast Lamb Hunan Style so that our clients from the film industry feel at home. In fact, in Chennai, a little sambar powder and coconut is added to all chow meins so that the local sensibilities are not offended.”

There was a silence. “Then why bring Manchuria into it?” asked the Premier gently.

“The dish in question has never been called Gobi Manchurian, but Gobi Man Churaya,” explained the MLA. “In Uttar Pradesh, from where most of India’s leaders emerge, this is a phrase meaning steal one’s heart away. Gobi Man Churaya refers, simply, to a cauliflower dish that can steal your heart away. In fact,” the MLA said, suppressing a snigger, “we were not even aware that a country called Manchuria existed till we got your letter.”

The Manchurians rose to their feet at this gross insult and rejection of their sovereign wilderness. “In that case, Mr. Ram Pal, we have no choice,” said the Premier. “It is war. You have defiled our cuisine, now we must desecrate yours.”

Historians note that in the decades that followed Manchuria avenged themselves by launching Sambar Cantonese (featuring hoisin sauce instead of tamarind and five-spice powder instead of chaunk ); the Beijing Baingan Bahar (in which the aubergines are buried for six years before being cooked and eaten), the Soy Bean Masala Lassi; and finally the Ming Biriyani, cooked in the purged stomach of a Chinese running dog of capitalism for five hours.

The Indian MLA, history has it, went back and victoriously reported to his masters that Indian cuisine had once again expanded its frontiers and invaded Manchuria as well.

The curious tastes of Ishtiyaque Qureshi February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

C Y Gopinath profiles one of the most inventive cooks in Mumbai

“TRY SOMETHING NEW,” said Ishtiyaque Qureshi. “Milk pudding.”

The 25-year-old chef was wearing his deadpan face, the one he used when he had done some devilry in his kitchen. The pudding looked perfectly ordinary: I stirred it, noted some blanched almonds floating in it. It tasted as it should, touch of crocus there. There was something wrong with the way the almonds tasted, though. There was a tantalising edge to them, too subtle to identify but too distinct to miss.

“What’s this?” I asked Ishtiyaque, holding an almond up in a spoon.

“Can’t tell you,” he said. “You might not eat the dish if I did.”

And that was how I had my first ever garlic pudding, over six years ago at the end of a memorable dinner at the erstwhile Dum Pukht restaurant of the Searock Hotel. The man who had subdued the garlic enough to make it sing within milk comes from a rich culinary heritage in the nawabi gullies of Lucknow.

Now in a Lucknowi gully, the cook of calibre is one who can dissolve the maximum sugar into his rice. “Some people can manage just a kilo of sugar to a kilo of rice,” said Ishtiyaque. “A champion could do upto three.” I must have looked blank, because Imtiaz kindly began to explain. To cook correctly, with each grain standing separate, a portion of rice needs a portion of water. Accommodating more sugar, however, means adding more water, and thus increasing cooking time — and risking the rice being reduced to mush. In Lukcnow’s gullies, the man who can melt sugar into his rice without turning it into goo is hailed as a virtuoso.

Last week, when I reached the Leela Kempinski Hotel, where Ishtiyaque’s vast innovative skills are utilised (or underutilised), Ishtiyaque was doing something with rice. I recognised it at once — the mythical Syrian Christian Coconut, which I had extolled in this very column a fortnight earlier. A dish I have heard described but never seen being prepared, this enticing coconut dessert is said to be made after the Kerala rice harvest, when the grain is parboiled in large stone vats in the backyards of landowning Syrian Christian households. While the rice parboils, fresh green coconuts stuffed with a mixture of flat rice, jaggery, cardamom, cumin and ghee are bundled in cloth and thrown in to cook in the water’s heat.

“The principle involved is the same as in Lucknow’s dum cooking,” said Ishtiyaque. “That’s why I decided to try it.” To simulate the environment of a Syrian Christian stone vat in a 5-star kitchen, he added rice to the water. To better seal in the coconut, he plastered the shell with wheat dough, the way a handi is sealed in dum cooking. The result, when he finally dismantled the coconut, was a superbly subtle sweet in which the cumin stood up unexpectedly within mouthfuls.

I have always been a little in awe of the way Ishtiyaque marries his instinct for authenticity with his spirit of inventiveness. He once served my vegetarian wife a delectable mutton biriyani — which she refused to touch until he assured her that the meat was actually chunks of jackfruit. “In texture, bite and taste, jackfruit comes closest to mutton, especially after marination.”

After a particularly dazzling dinner once at the Leela’s Indian Harvest, whose menu he has slowly refashioned, he asked me if I could guess why the gulab jamun was called as such, when it featured neither jamuns (blackberries) nor gulabs (roses). After being rewarded with a vacant look from me, he served us the original gulab jamun. The syrup, dark, thick, slightly sour and fragrant, had been brewed from the juice of true jamuns mixed with honey, and charmed by the juice of fresh rose petals. Another Ishtiyaque original.

Last week, for the first time in all the years I’ve been fed by Ishtiyaque, I asked him to cook something perfectly ordinary, something he hadn’t invented, something anyone could cook, something typically Lucknowi and something delectable. He easily created the Bawari Handi. A bawar, in old Lucknow referred to the fertile banks by a river. When a crop of fresh vegetables reached the market from a bawar, you could savour the Bawari Handi in hundreds of Lucknowi dhabas.

While Ishtiyaque watched his Bawari Handi, I watched him. Like a Zen archer, who closes his eyes and blanks his mind at the moment of aiming, Ishtiyaque when cooking seems to become one with his creation. Here, at age 30, with his distinctive pigtail of hair behind his toque, was a consummate chef with supreme control over his ingredients, their quantities and their behaviour. His hands, unexpectedly podgy even in a charitable description, work like calipers, precisely assessing quantities of turmeric, chilly powder and salt, the only three spices in this dish. As the mutton simmers cheerfully in its own juices, you will come to believe that the meat has indeed met its master, and will obediently do as he bids it.

At the height of creation, the cook disappears in sheer pleasure. The mutton and vegetables start enjoying their own transcendence to heavenly status. Cooking, for a while, stops being a task with an objective — and at the end, the Bawari Handi seems to emerge almost by itself, perfect in every nuance, its wafting aromas heralding its birth.

Pigging it in Bhusaval February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
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If the pigs can have such a feast among Bhusaval’s fresh vegetables, C Y Gopinath doesn’t see why he should be left out

The Vangi Man

WORD SPREAD RAPIDLY among the pigs of Bhusaval’s Bamb Colony that two young fellows were going about removing uteruses. You will not be surprised to learn that Bhusaval’s pigs remained indifferent to this information; they calmly continued poking their snouts into ripe garbage. Pigs are like that; they feel invulnerable when they’re in the sewer. They wake up only when they realise that someone’s got a firm grip on their trotters and a knee in their gut, while someone else has slit their underbelly and is pulling out their hopes for posterity with two fingers. Then the squealing begins.

According to a human source, there are 1,80,626 voters in Bhusaval. There is no count of the pigs because pigs do not vote, so everyone leaves them alone. The esteemed Leva Patil community also ignores them, because fortunately, the pigs don’t much care for the green baingans, which the Levas love to eat, and bananas, which they love to sell.

So you will see Bhusaval’s pigs everywhere — floating like dinghies in the healing vapors of the sewage canal; trundling through main street traffic, uterus intact, with a grunting conference of piglets in tow; investigating the shit along the railway tracks; celebrating among mountains of wet, steaming biomass at the mandi, where amazingly fresh vegetables arrive from the countryside every morning, to sell out by forenoon.

“But,” avers Suresh Reddy, Bhusaval’s famous reporter, raising a gloomy finger, “it is a useless town. ” He is referring to Bhusaval’s crowning glory — that there are more ways to depart from it than any other town in India. Fully 82 trains, up and down, pass the historic junction, not forgetting the more important 65 goods trains, many of them carrying bananas from Leva Patil farms.

“Nobody is interested in Bhusaval town,” says Suresh. “They only want its station to improve.” Living proof of this is that all the line switches were automated over just three days in January this year. The rest of Bhusaval, with its 1,80,626 people, lies unloved, its roads craters, its air full of highway gases, its streets murky and unlit, and its electricity erratic. These days, even the water comes for only an hour at dawn and dusk.

“Some politics is going on,” he adds darkly. He feels the Banana Lobby is at work again.

“Other cities have sugar lobbies, or a jute lobby or a tobacco lobby,” he notes. “We have a Banana Lobby. They control everything. Very rich fellows. All Leva Patils.”

My own theory, that Bhusaval has a powerful baingan lobby, was blown to bits by this. Among the vegetable market’s most distinctive offerings is the luminous white-streaked green baingan, available in several sizes from the plump, fist-sized one that may be slit and stuffed with spices, to the large, coconut-sized numbers that are charred over dung-fires, and transformed into the delectable mash called bharit.

I had already been served Bhusaval’s bharit once, during dinner at the Vaikudes. As I arose, congratulating the Vaikudes with my mouth full, my wife murmured, “Naturally it’s excellent. Leva Patils love green baingans.”

I went cold. The dreaded Banana Lobby. I could just see them on their banana farms, entire families of Leva Patils, ceaselessly harvesting tiny bananas, using as little hired help as possible because of industrial sabotage. The Banana Lobby is constantly aware of its vulnerabilities, specifically to elaichis (cardamoms). A couple of pods planted among the bananas in a goods wagon is sufficient to start a rapid decay. By the time the bananas reach their destination, they will be nearly liquid. And the Levas will never know who did it.

Here, of course, is where the glowing green Bhusaval baingan triumphs. It is immune to elaichis. It isn’t scared of pigs. It hates traveling except, reportedly, to Dombivali, where Mumbai’s Leva Patils are clustered. It enjoys nothing more than a good blistering over a coal fire. And when it grows up, it would like nothing better than to be turned into bharit.

A self-respecting bharit will dominate the meal with its smoky presence. Unlike Punjab’s baingan bhartas, where oil and spices submerge the aubergine, the bharit honors its chief vegetable. It is a five-piece orchestra, smoked, mashed aubergine singing the aria, and solos played by chopped spring onion greens, pounded garlic, green chillies, fresh coriander and, a distinctively Maharashtrian touch, peanuts. A blessing with hot home-made ghee somewhere.

The rest of the meal might include dal, perhaps some chillies dipped in a chick-pea flour (besan) batter and fried, a little pickle, and of course, bhakri steaming hot off an iron tava.

The moment you are served, a strange thing will happen. In an instant, forgetting upbringing, manners, social protocol and goodfellowship, you will abandon all pretense of civility. And turn into one of Bhusaval’s pigs.



(To serve 4-6 people)
Green roasting baingans 1 kilo
Coriander leaves 250 gm
Large green chillies 12
Garlic pods 10 or 12
Peanuts 3 tbsps
Grated coconut 3 tbsps
Oil 100 gms

Separate the coriander leaves from their stems. Fry the green chillies in a little oil, till they blister. Coarsely pound the green chillies and garlic, with a little salt.

Over a coal fire, if you have one, or over a gas flame, roast the aubergines till the skin chars and cracks, While it is still hot, quickly peel off the charred skin. Mash the aubergine pulp to a fine paste, making sure that there are no lumps in it.

Add the chilly-garlic mixture, the shredded coriander leaves, and a little salt to taste. Continue pounding the ingredients together, till you have a smooth and even preparation. Right at the end, heat the oil, and in it, fry the aubergine mash for few minutes. And there it is — bharit as the Vaikudes of Bhusaval make it.

The spud and the dud February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
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They’re a historic pair, the puri and the alu bhaji. If only they’d learn to get along better

By C. Y. Gopinath

“YOU’RE A NOTHING!” said the potato to the puri. “A cipher.”

The puri sank a little lower into his plate, and a little steam escaped from a crack. This was certainly not the first time the crude thought had been put to him that he had a serious personality defect. Usually the remark would come from his constant companion, the insufferable boiled potato.

But it was true. The puri was almost unbearably fat. Just a few minutes in the heat had done it to to him: turned him a warm golden brown. A clear liquid, definitely oil, dripped off his sides and gathered in a pool. You felt like poking a finger into him, and allowing the pent-up stuff to escape. With a hiss.

“It is my deeply held belief that you are the ugliest and most arrogant thing that ever grew under the mud,” spat out the puri, with whatever dignity he could muster. It is not easy to look respectable while steam is escaping from a crack in your hull.

The puri and the potato are (appearances to the contrary) actually old friends locked in a complex relationship, which works sometimes and fails at others. Each knows that it is nothing without the other, but the potato knows he has the edge because he can always go to parties dressed up as a spicy wafer. The puri has no such illusions. Whoever wants a crisp puri?

The potato took off his jacket and burped. “Say what you like,” he said equably. “Around here, I’m the dude. You’re the prude.”

It was so true it hurt. For as long as the puri could remember, no one had paid heed to him or his illustrious family, which included the little, dark-brown, thick-skinned fellows that were fried up off cauldrons at weddings; the dal puris, noble and golden, like old soldiers, almost perfectly spherical, spiced on their inner surfaces; Bengal’s white-faced luchis, made of refined white flour, and full of pulchritude; and the clumsy oval puris served up at Udipi restaurants, along with yesterday’s reheated dishes.

The puri, reminded of his own heritage by such thoughts, swelled up a little bit and said, as loftily as he could, “You’re not a dude. You’re just a muddy spud. I’ve seen many like you, and most of them, by the way, are better than you. I remember, in the Mathura railway station. . .”

The puri’s eyes misted over at the recollection. For years, the puri and the alu bhaji at the Mathura station platform had been the closest of friends, like Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Sholay. They had been made with rustic love, in good ghee. The puri knew he would always turn out becomingly warm and browned, if a little on the oily side. The potato, comfortable in his gravy, knew he tasted better than he looked. He was dressed to demolish.

One day, the puri suggested that they should move to nearby Delhi, where only kulchas and bhaturas ruled, accompanied by those thugs, the choles. “We could take over the territory,” said the puri temptingly.

The potato declined. “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that,” he said.

Looking back now, it seemed to the puri that they had let a good opportunity go by. “You were a dum fool,” he said. “It could have been so good. We can do so much together, if only you’d stop pretending you were Al Pacino.” Deep down, the potato knew he was just a pompous windbag himself. Under the skin, he was just a puri of a different kind. People were kind, they treated him like a personality, but whenever there was puri, the potato knew he sang better.

I had been listening covertly for a while now. I could see that things were not well between the puri and the potato. I cleared my throat and said, gently, “You know, I think you fellows should give it another go.”

They looked up, both of them, instantly suspicious. “Are you from Mcdonalds?” asked the potato. “Are you going to standardise us and franchise us?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just a potato lover with a soft spot for puris. And I have something for you. If you’re interested, that is.” And I told them about the puri-masal.

The puris should be the best you can make, thin crusted but not flaky, about six inches across. It takes about 20 minutes to make the masal. To cook for four, boil about six potatoes, peel off their skins, and then, lovingly with your fisted knuckles, mash them into soft pebbles.

In some oil now, toss in the following: 1 tsp urad, 1 tsp chick peas, 2 dried red chillies torn in halves, curry leaves and a little asafoetida. Stir till the urad turns a golden brown.

Now throw in 2 onions chopped medium fine, finely chopped ginger, green chillies, more curry leaves. Stir till the onions turn translucent.

Make up a medium-thick solution of 1 tbsp chick pea flour with a quarter tsp of turmeric powder with water. Pour this in, and quickly follow with the potatoes and salt. Stir it till the potatoes have mixed in well, and add some water so that a gravy forms. Let it simmer for about five minutes, or till the gravy is not watery any more. Squeeze in the juice of two limes.

That’s it — masal, waiting for its puri.

“How do you like it, boys?” I asked the puri and the potato.

The puri, easily pleased, smiled . The potato looked huffy. “It’s all right, I suppose,” he said. “But this guy’s still the dud. I’m the stud.”

Sarvis with a smile February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
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Sarvis is near Bombay’s red light area, it’s 90 years old, and it makes the best kebabs in the universe

By C Y Gopinath

HIS NAME WAS DIMTIMKAR. I don’t know anything about him.

He must have been someone special, because they finally named a small one-way street in Bombay’s Nagpada after him. Perhaps he was a fire-eater. Or a ventriloquist. Or a very tall man who could effortlessly memorize 98-digit numbers. Or perhaps he was a freedom fighter, one of that disillusioned lot who wonder today why they bothered at all. Me, I just like the name Dimtimkar, it sounds like a cloudy night with just a few stars barely visible.

I will never forget Dimtimkar: three weeks ago I discovered a restaurant called Sarvis, which stands exactly where the square bifurcates into Dimtimkar Road and Nagpada Road.

You can only stumble upon Sarvis if you’re the kind that visits Bombay’s red light area, Kamathipura. Fortunately, I’ll go anywhere for food. So one still, humid, and joyless evening in late April, my friend Utkarsh and I went walking down Falkland Road, looking for some flesh. Before your mind jumps to some reprehensible conclusion about my libido or value system, let me state that the sort of flesh we were seeking is usually served skewered on spitzes in roadside restaurants. Kamathipura, it is said, crawls with these brisk and burly eateries.

“It’s only logical,” said Utkarsh, who once played the leading role in a street play about AIDS, performed for a hall full of prostitutes. “People come here to satisfy their senses. Good food, cheap liquor, quick sex. How can you get bad food in a place designed for the senses?”

“Makes sense,” I said. “Shall we go to the Sher-e-Punjab then?”

Utkarsh made a moué.

“What did you have in mind? Anant Ashram?” I asked. “It’s not exactly in the red light area.”

He shook his head. “Sarvis,” he said.

“Well,” I argued, “You can’t be too fussy about service in an area like this, you know. . .”

“Sarvis,” he repeated. “Not service. There’s a little place called Sarvis. I went there once long ago. I think I can find my way back if I try. They used to serve exceptional kebabs.”

* * * * *

You could say Sarvis has no class at all. They have clearly learnt nothing about hoteliering in 90 years of serving food. But the reason why we are foregathered here today, my comrades of the night, is that they have also forgotten nothing in 90 years. Especially the art of making kebabs. On the Dimtimkar Road pavement a young lout wearing singlets and a white smile on a coal-black face is patting beef mince around flat spitzes and turning them into kebabs over an angry coal brazier. The flat, gauche-looking kebabs that he will toss on to a small saucer are without doubt the best in the galaxy. In my opinion (and the opinion of the Chief Chef of the Oberoi Flight Kitchen, who I took there on another evening).

Utkarsh and I seated ourselves at one of the round marble top tables. A mangy kitten immediately wrapped herself around my ankles. A muscular, gladiator-like fellow called Kalhan, completely bald, and with the amused insolence of a Spartacus, was somehow managing to serve all 19 customers at Sarvis that evening. All were eating the same thing: dal kheema with hot, round and soft rotis, a small saucer of chutney and fresh onions on the side. No drinks, not even soft ones like Thums Up or Pepsi: remember, one Pepsi equals two kebabs, and to anyone at Sarvis there’s no doubt which is the right choice, baby. The patrons are people who work with their hands: carpenters, cart pullers, taxi drivers, perhaps bachelors living in the vicinity. Sarvis is a perfect place for class conflict.

When a man can eat plain kebabs and rotis, with sprigs of fresh mint, and not feel the need for something a little juicy, with perhaps a little gravy, then that is a prince among kebabs. Even Dimtimkar would agree. The simple succulence of the Sarvis kebab, its softness, its warmth, its even-handed and subtle spicing, its sparing use of oil, all combine to create a specialty that needs help from nothing else.

As to the softness now. Several discussions have already taken place, and serious foodophiles have bent their minds to it. Anjan Chatterjee, owner of Only Fish, is convinced that papaya is blended into the beef mince, and this is all that explains the tenderness. I myself wonder if they have not taken a page from some Middle Eastern book — in Turkey’s unparalleled lamb chops, called pirzolas, the meat is marinated in a mixture of lemon juice and onion juice.

Turns out Sarvis had a Middle-eastern clientele once. “In the early days,” said the hefty boy at the counter, “this area was different. There were many Jews, many Iranians, some Armenians, and such. Sarvis catered exclusively to them.”

Turns out staff turnover is high. On the wall, large letters written in cheap paint read: OUR WORKERS ARE PAID DAILY WAGES. How do you ensure consistent softness in your kebabs? I asked if you don’t have continuity in your kitchen staff?

The young man smiled like Mona Lisa. “Secret,” he said.

Papayas, I thought.

I should warn you that Sarvis closes at 11pm. And that they don’t serve sweet dishes. If you’re really interested, I suppose you could walk to some other restaurant and have something sweet. As long you stay away from the tarts.

A very simple rajma February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

Inderjit Singh does nothing to his rajma. That’s probably why it tastes so special

Like any self-respecting sardarji, Inderjit Singh’s distinguishing quality is that he himself doesn’t know what he’ll say next. This makes it something of a challenge to extract a recipe for anything from him. As I discovered shortly after I broached the subject of his amazing rajma with him.

“It is definitely one of the best rajmas I have ever eaten,” I burped at him once, after finishing my number fifty-something meal at his unusual, all-vegetarian, utterly home-style and wildly popular eaterie at Lokhandwala Complex. Guru da Dhaba, it’s called; Guru is ostensibly Inderjit Singh himself. Gnome of a Sikh, with glasses on, and a definite attitude when it comes to food.

His rajma is the second purest I have ever eaten. The purest was at the home of a schoolmate in Old Delhi decades ago. I remember steaming rice, a clear hot spoonful of ghee, and an overwhelming rajma — medium brown, not submerged under a cavalry of cardamoms, cloves, gingers and garlics, not mashed, not forced to join hands with black dal. The red kidney bean, allowed to speak for itself, emitted a mellow purr, mumbling first but growing in confidence with every mouthful.

Guru’s rajma came very close — a thin, dark red gravy within which rested perfectly cooked red beans. With the sardarji’s chapatis, arbi masaledar and boondi raita, you were very near a perfect meal.

“Do you cook it yourself?” I asked him.

“Mr. Siddharth has already written about me,” he said, as though the end of the world was nigh. The article in question was framed and hung behind the cash counter. next to the aluminium container with chilled chaas.

“Oh, well then,” I said, turning away.

“But I cook it myself,” he said to my retreating back. “My kadhi is even better. Best in and out of Punjab. Rajma and kadhi. Never forget.” Guru in a nutshell.

The sardarji is from Rawalpindi; his young life was spent not in Punjab but in Dehra Dun. Later, in Mumbai, he chugged an autorickshaw around for years, found it wasn’t enough. Started making and selling tea, with moderate success. Spurred by his wife, the legendary Ranjit Kaur, Guru graduated to simple lunches that she cooked at home and sent to the shop in a dabba. One thing led to another, dabba became dhaba, and that led to today’s Inderjit Singh.

It was only when Ranjit fell ill that Inderjit really began to emerge, a veritable Neptune rising from the foam, colander in one hand, perforated spoon in the other, methi all over his beard, ready to cook or be cooked. His wife, the Guru’s own guru, taught him all that he knows, turning a three-wheel dilettante into a passionate chef.

I know. I’ve watched the gnome at work. Around 9.30 am, he will alight, all sweating and profane, from someone else’s autorickshaw, laden with the day’s requirement of fresh vegetables picked by his own hands. Then he will get in there and start cutting and chopping with the boys. Every day, Guru presides over the rebirth of his own menu. Never tires of it.

“What’s so great about my rajma?” he asked me suddenly, as though he didn’t know. “There’s nothing in it. It’s just boiled with red chillies and salt.”

“What about the gravy?” I asked him. Surely that was more than spiced hot water.

“This is the uncle,” he said unexpectedly to his young son, “who is going to take pictures of me for the papers. He says people are more important than food.”

“I need a shot of you cooking rajma — or something,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t get some unrelated oddball answer.

“I may not even be here,” he said, suddenly combative, as though I’d tried to sell him a defective eutectic freezer. He decided to dismiss me. “You go. Come back tomorrow at 11 am. Shoot what you can. The rajma will be on the table. You can’t have everything your way. ”

But the sardraji was there, and he did create his extraordinary ordinary rajma which respects the bean it boils. It is elegant, simple to make. Even you can make it. Try.


500 gms rajma
150 gms onions, sliced into rings
150 gms tomatoes, chopped coarsely
Salt to taste
1 tsp red chilly powder

Don’t soak the rajma overnight. Simply put it to boil for 30 or 40 minutes, until it is tender. If you use a pressure cooker, that’s six or seven whistles. Now in two tablespoons of oil or ghee, fry the onions golden brown. Throw in the tomatoes, stir a bit, then add red chillies and salt. Stir some more. Now grind this to a fine paste. Pour this over the rajma, add hot water till you have a medium thin gravy and simmer, covered, for another half hour or so. (Or allow six to seven whistles more on the pressure cooker). That’s it.

Do not mash. Do not garnish with coriander. Do not garnish with anything. Do not add garam masala. Do not speak while eating.

Chholé ke peeché kya hai? February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

Saroj Kumar tames the mean, bad, utterly addictive Punjabi chholé

The chick peas had been soaking in cold water since morning, and feared the worst. Four hours had passed. Chief Chickie, the largest pea in the bowl, was muttering.

“Your minutes are numbered, boys,” he said to the gang. “It’s going to happen again. It’s bhalle bhalle time.” He released a dignified burp which bubbled up through the water like an afterthought.

“You mean they’re going to —” began a small pealet.

“Not they,” said Chief Chickie ominously. “She.”

Following his gaze, their eyes came to rest upon the determined face of Saroj Kumar, schoolteacher, outstanding cook, sister of three, mother of two, wife of one Captain Kumar who flies airplanes. “By the time she’s through with you, you probably won’t be part of no legume family. You’ll be a dark, mean Punjabi chholé masalé.”

The chick peas in the bowl collectively shivered, some began to whimper; several involuntarily released bubbles of harmless gas.

“You mean like that stuff they sell on the pavements in Delhi,” asked a nitrogenoid little nodule.

“Probably,” said Chief Chickie. “Probably worse. I have it on good word that she’s never lived in Delhi. Jabalpore for half her life, and the remaining two-thirds in Mumbai.”

“But you promised me I could be a Lebanese hummous when I grew up,” whined the pealet.

“Let’s not get carried away here,” said a ponderous old pea who had begun to sprout. “I understand madame here does something quite amazing with peas like us. I have reason to believe that we’re about to be magically transformed — uh-oh, here she comes —”

He dived for the depths even as Saroj Kumar’s hands entered the bowl and assessed the chick peas’ state of readiness for the higher life. They were firm, fat and ready to rock and roll out of anonymity to become her not exactly unknown chholé masalé.

I have met several people who swear that Saroj’s chholé masalé is the best they have ever eaten. The ex-secretary of the building society, who had lived in Delhi for 15 years, said it was an improvement on the capital’s original.
Saroj herself claims that she doesn’t care what Punjab’s famous chholé masalé tastes like. “Mine takes less time to prepare, has less oil, and no-one call tell the difference,” she stated. “And people say they like it. Most people.”

Saroj first made her experimental chholé variant nearly a dozen years ago. She felt the original dish called for too much ghee, so she substituted that with oil. She thought altogether too many things like onion, ginger and garlic were being fried for altogether too long, so she boiled the lot instead. She believes tamarind isn’t good for the glands, and God knows what they add to amchur, so to impart colour and tartness to her chholé, she roasts pomegranate seeds with cummin seeds instead and grinds them coarse.

I climbed five storeys to her house and asked her the question that was uppermost on my mind: “Is it true? About the effect of chick peas on the social circle?”

Rumour had it that indiscriminate consumption of chholé masalé drastically reduced your chances of winning a national award. Also, after a while, you had no friends left in high places. I had won no national awards, and had no friends in high places, and I was deeply concerned. I had been greedily putting away chholé masalé since my schooldays in Delhi.

“Some people say it causes gas,” said Saroj boldly.

I looked away, staring at a spot on the carpet.

“But we have never had any problems of that kind in our family. Kabuli chanas cause gas only when they’re inproperly cooked. I also put a little ajwain (thymol) in mine to improve digestion. Taking no chances, you know.”

Saroj’s chholé, with bhaturé attached, make a bewitching serve, with tempting red tomato quarters and long green chillies floating on the thickish dark gravy of one of the finer entreés of everyday life, a culinary pirate who will invade your palate and take you captive.

Definitely worth giving up at least two state-level awards and a half dozen friends in high places for.


Saroj’s Chholé Masalé

1/2 kg chick peas (Kabuli chana), well cleaned andsoaked for 4-5 hous in cold water
150 grams chana dal
3 tbsps ginger-garlic paste
10-12 black peppercorns
6-8 cloves
1 stick of cinnamon
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp ajwain (thymol)
Salt to taste
2 medium onions, grated
2 medium tomatoes, grated

Boil all the above ingredients in a pressure cooker, using about 4 glasses of the water in which the shick peas were soaked. After the first whistle, lower the heat and let it cook for 15 to 20 minutes. The chana will soften rapidly, and give the gravy its consistency. If the chick peas are not yet soft or the gravy is too thick, add a little more water and cook a little longer, using your judgement.

Meanwhile, roast 4 tablespoons of pomegranate seeds and 3 tablespoons of cummin seeds (jeera) until the cummin is dark brown and the pomegranate seeds nearly black. Grind to a powder.

In 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, fry the pomegranate-cummin powder for a minute or so, and then add 3 heaped tablespoons of coriander (dhania) powder, and red chilly powder according to your preference. Add this to the chick peas in the pressure cooker, stir well, and cook on a low fire for about 10 more minutes.

The final dish should have a medium thick gravy. Upon cooling, this gravy will thicken further, becoming nearly dry. Garnish with tomato wedges and entire green chillies. Serve with hot bhaturas.

Knead 1/2 kg white flour with 1/4 kg curds, salt to taste, a pinch of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), until it has the consistency of elastic. Cover with a wet cloth, and leave for 7-8 hours. Make into puris, using your palms to spin them out into circles about 6-7 inches in diameter.

A completely alarming cook February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

Urmila Z demonstrates the art of fine Kashmiri cooking without using spoons or measures

Urmila Z dipped her fist into a large plastic bag she’d brought from her home, and extracted what seemed like a fistful of freshly ground aniseed powder. I involuntarily ceased breathing.

“Kashmiri cooking,” she said, looking meaningfully at me, “is not Kashmiri cooking unless it has the tastes of saunf and soont — that is, aniseed and ginger powders.” She swung towards me, nearly making me duck, and casually flung the powder in the direction of the cooking vessel. I watched with extreme tension as the aniseed powder settled obediently over the cubed mutton that had just dried over a slow fire.

“It is very important that the meat does not brown,” she said, ignoring my turbulent condition. Her eyes still fixed on me, she groped for a plastic pouch in which she’d brought soont. Her hands found some bag — what if it had contained Drainex or perhaps talcum powder? I thought — and she pulled out another fistful, duly flung it over the meat. “In Kashmiri food, colour is very important. Many of our dishes have a rich red colour.”

It was time to speak up for human rights.

“Excuse me,” I said, my voice quivering with feeling, “do you have a thing against using spoons and measures and things like that? For example, how do you know that you’ve put in the right amount of those various powders? Or, for that matter, how can you be sure that you haven’t put in some Drainex or some talcum powder into the dodmaaz? Why don’t I just blindfold you?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Urmila Z, not sorry about anything at all. “I never use spoons and measures.”

And there you have Urmila Z in a sentence. Since I’ve known her, everything has somehow always come out right, making her the single most resplendent Kashmiri culinary artist that I know. Child of a distinctive culinary tradition handed down from India’s most exquisite state, Urmila carries with her a perfect sense of what makes Kashmiri cooking what it is. Her fingers have effortlessly dispense ethnicity, texture, colour and flavour.

Kashmiri cooking is a food-loving state’s inspired response to geography and climate. It is a cold state, with seasons of plenty but also seasons of want. Vegetables, when they are in abundance, are glorious and rich in their flavours and tastes, but because they have to last all year, Kashmiris have perfected the art of preserving by drying.

Meat, particularly mutton, is the favourite meat by far, and Kashmir can teach Hyderabad a thing or two about showing due respect to red meat.

“Even when we’re cooking vegetables, we don’t like to drown it spices,” says Urmila. “Sometimes all we do is cook it briefly in hot oil with a bit of hing, and a little salt, and leave it at that.” This method, for instance, serves to create a work of art from even the lowly spinach.

Hindu Kashmiri cuisine, distinct from the equally tantalising Muslim version, creates magic without resorting to onions or garlic. It creates redness without touching tomatoes. It gives wide berth to eggs and chicken. You’d see a dal only if you were ill and needed something nourishing in bed. In brief, Urmila’s cooking comes from a robust and yet spartan tradition that prides itself on economy and style.

The art of quick and dirty Kashmiri spicing entails using heaped teaspoonfuls of aniseed powder and dried ginger powder, along with the usual combo of turmeric, red chilly powder and coriander powder. Try it sometime. Try it on, say, karelas.

The two mutton entreés she is making in my kitchen today, dodmaaz and maathz, need, not green, but a rich, exciting red. Dodmaaz is a cubed mutton dish sweet and rich with the tastes of almonds and milk; in maathz, minced mutton acquired personality in the form of kebabs in a light aromatic gravy.

Urmila’s hands start groping for some other condiment, red chilly powder perhaps, and I start feeling faint and trembly once more. I clutch the counter for support. But in a moment, the crisis is past. The maathz is acquiring a dangerous revolutionary red.

“Oh God,” says Urmila Z fervently. “I hope everything has come out right. Maybe I should have used spoons and measures. I don’t know.”



1 kg leg or shoulder of mutton, cubed
3 cups/Half litre full cream milk
30 almonds, blanched, skinned and then ground to paste in a cup of the water used for blanching
2 tsp aniseed (saunf) powdered
2 tsp ginger powder (soont)
Few strands of saffron
Half tsp shahi jeera
Salt to taste
A pinch of asafeotida (Hing)

Coarsely grind:
Half tsp pepper
4 green cardamoms
4 cloves
1 stick cardamom

1. Heat 4 tbsp of oil, and add a pinch of asafoetida (hing) to it. Then add, the meat cubes, salt and shahi jeera. Cook on a medium flame till the meat is completely dry but not yet begun to brown. Add the powdered aniseed (saunf), ginger (soont) and a half cup of water. Keep stirring the meat so that it doesn’t stick or start browning.
To the milk, add the strands of saffron, and after a few minutes, add to the meat. Add the coarsely ground spices. If necessary, add water to prevent drying out, and cook until the meat is tender. If using a pressure cooker, use your judgment, depending on your pressure cooker, but typically, you should let two whistles blow and then cook for 15 to 20 minutes on a slow fire.
Serve with plain rice.



Half kg mutton minced fine
4 tbsp curds
4 heaped tbsp aniseed (saunf) powder
4 heaped tbsp ginger powder (soont)
Salt to taste
5 masala elaichi (large cardamoms), ground coarsely
Half tsp asafoetida (hing)
3 tsp Kashmiri red chilly powder

To the mince, add salt, ground cardamom, 2 tbsp curds, 1 tbsp oil, and 2 tsp each of aniseed and ginger powder, and 1 tsp of red chilly powder. Mix thoroughly. Now grease your palms and, taking a fistful of mince, gently roll it into long, smooth kebabs.
In a pressure cooker, heat some oil and add the asafoetida (hing). On a slow flame, add two heaped tbsp of curds and 2 tsp of red chilly powder. Stirring continuously so that the chilly doesn’t turn brown but instead remains red, add water a teaspoonful at a time. Keep stirring till the oil and the spices separate.

Add the remaining spices, continue storring for a minute or so, and then add a glass of lukewarm water. Bring to a boil. Add the kebabs to the gravy, and cook till the meat is done. If using a pressure cooker, you should normally allow two whistles, and then cook on a slow fire for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with hot parathas or steamed rice.

The loafers of Cowasji Patel Street February 17, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.

Tamé soo joyé ché?” screamed Parvez Irani in a voice that might make yeast rise.

His target was an over-excited, bald Gujarati customer, half-risen in his seat, and debating whether or not to hit Ramuda the waiter. Who had apparently got the order wrong.

“I asked this oaf for two maska paus,” shrieked the customer. “He brought me two plates!!”

“Then?” yelled Irani, raising an arm towards the waiter to keep him leashed. “If you want two maska paus, you must ask for one plate, ni?” Irani quickly looked towards me, to check if his logic had impressed me. His fierce mask dropped briefly to reveal a demented grin. “You are an old customer, ni? You should know such things, ni? One plate has two maska paus. This time, I’ll take it back. OK? Hey you, take the gentleman’s maska pau back.”

“You eat our maska pau, you’ll go mad,” Irani said to me confidentially. “The maska pau at Yezdani is the best maska pau in Bombay. You write that down.” He gestured towards my open notepad.

Actually, I had just finished eating Yezdani’s maska pau, watched closely by young Zyros Zend. This one is the new generation Zend, with a one-day stubble on his cheeks and a diploma in catering from Sophia Polytechnic. Yezdani today is run by four rough and gruff Zends, two fathers and two sons. There is ferocious-looking Parvez Irani, and his son Tirandaz; there is the redoubtable Zend M Zend and his son Zyros.

Now Zyros scratches his beard and addresses me, saying, “What you must understand, Pereira, is that our bread is different from all these new-fangled modern breads. Here, we make real bread.”

“My name isn’t Pereira,” I said mildly.

“How do you like our maska pau?” he asked, and then added, tangentially: “In the old days, we used to make Iranian tea too. You would have gone mad, Pereira.”

“My name is actually quite different from Pereira,” I muttered politely, my mouth full of maska pau. It was my first ever maska pau and I was marveling how something so simple — a plain sliced bun with butter — could taste so glorious. The pau was still warm from the oven, brown and crisp on the outside, but within it was mother-soft, healthy, happy bread.

“No additives, no preservatives,” said Zyros. “Not like these modern Garden-type breads. They’re pure chemicals, additives and preservatives. You can’t make a toast with those, but it will last for days and days. Our bread, you can’t eat it if it is more than a day old.”

Yezdani, God bless its soul, is not in a mood to change with changing times. It is a bakery that actually prefers its ancient wood-fired ovens to modern electrical computer-controlled ones. It prefers real bread to long-lasting supermarket bread. It is, in brief, a bakery out of time and distinctly out of sync with today’s pre-processed mindsets.

Part of this stubbornness stems from a heritage that stretches right back to the last century, when an Iranian baker called Zend wends his way to India. In the beginning, you might say, was the Zend. The first family bakery was where the movie house Alexandra stands today, on Belassis Road.

When patriarch Zend’s son, Mehrwan Zend, took over the business, he bought the current premises at Cawasji Patel Street, a bakery replete with one wood-fired oven. The year was 1951, when the range of bakery products Yezdani is famous for started: pau, brun pau, Fancy bread, marble bread, Shrewsbury biscuits, apple pie, cakes. A diesel oven was bought; a new wood-fired oven was built; the old wood-fired was broken.

There are only two differences between a wood-fired oven and the modern kind. First, nothing stops a wood-fired one, not even a power cut; second, baking in a wood-fired oven is an art. Imagine an oven that takes four hours to heat up to 300°C, and then cools down slowly over the next 12 hours. In a wood-fired oven, you don’t control temperature, you exploit it. As the temperature drops, you may put different items in to bake, starting with the ones that need the most heat, such as pau, to the ones that need only a little, like biscuits.

Yezdani’s shift begins at 2 am and continues till 11 am. The breads are the first to emerge, by around dawn. If you were there, you would see burly Biharis and UP-ites, sweating and heaving in an inferno made hazy with flour, reaching deep into the belly of the ovens with long tongs to whisk out trays of bakes two at a time. The trays with hot paus clatter down a ramp placed at the mouth of the oven and hit the floor, where another fellow waits to dab them with butter.

By 4:30 or so, the breadloads leave for destinations such as the Taj Mahal Hotel (where the staff will enjoy them at breakfast) to clubs such as the US Club and the National Sports Club of India, and innumerable Udipi eateries which will soon be dishing out breakfast.

“You ask my uncle about how grandfather Zend used to push the bread out in a handcart at 4 in the morning and deliver home to home upto Parel,” said Zyros conspiratorially.

But I had another question for uncle. “They say you have a special bread that increases fertility and produces male babies. Is it true?”

P. M. Irani roared behind the cash counter. “That’s a bloody joke we make about our world-famous Seven Grain Bread,” he said.

Zyros, wiping his eyes, said, “You have no sense of humour, Pereira. Thanks for coming.”

Dosa days February 17, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.

It’s not even called a dosa where I come from, if you really want to know. And it isn’t supposed to be all crisp and papery, like a Lijjat papad. In my neck of the woods, it is rejected as a hypocrite and a trollop if it emerges in that lovely golden brown that you’ve begun believing is its true colour. That’s not the real thing at all. The real thing is much more, well, real.

The reason I’m writing all this, however, is that there are many more of them dosas than meets your untrained eye.

There are 13 commoners, let me count them for you. You have the Paper Dosa, an impostor to the rim. You have the Ghee Paper Dosa, which is a way of making a fast buck by adding a spoonful of ghee. The Paper Masala Dosa, the Ghee Paper Masala Dosa, ditto ditto. Then there’s the Uttappam, which is not dosai so much as a distant uncle long forgotten by the rest of the clan. The Uttappam is the Dravidian answer to the pizza, and comes with toppings of onion, tomato, both, both and coconut, and neither. The Rava Dosai and its masala and ghee permutations, say some, are better value for money that other dosas, but rava batter has a way of honeycombing itself into holes, like an old fin de siecle singlets. To me that’s paying money for nothing. Finally, there are two things called the Peserate Dosa, and the Mysore Masala Dosa, which are equally unintriguing.

I intend to pull, out of an old South Indian lady’s treasury, three dosas you will never have heard of, and certainly never have eaten before (assuming all the while that you are not a Drav like me). These are, respectively and respectfully, known as the adai, the maida dosa, and the arisi dosa. Some Udipis feature the adai on their blackboard menus as the one item they will say is not available that particular day.

First we clear the debris: a food lover’s home-made dosai — note the ‘i’ at the end — is generous, slightly crisp and crunchy outside, and warmly soft underneath. It is unassuming and never hopes to make it in life, awaiting only the kiss of the right chutney to turn it into a queen. To get that totally dishonest sunset brown colour, restaurateurs add chick pea flour — which would turn my old grandma a sunset brown colour, bless her soul. The true dosai dough mixes 1 part rice with 1 part urad dal, soaked overnight, and then smoothly ground to paste.

Now we go to school. That is, I go to school. My age is what you suspect, 13 or so, and I am hungry. I want a dosai, but my mother, as yet unaccustomed to my whimsical tantrums, does not have the dough ready. She thinks a bit, and casually invents the maida dosai. You need 4 cups of maida, salt to taste, and enough water to make a batter of the consistency of custard batter. Into this, add a little hing, and a garnish of 2 seedless red chillies, 1/2 tsp mustard, 1 tsp jeera fried in a little oil. When the mustard starts spluttering, add two chopped green chillies. Sprinkle a few curry leaves over the batter.

A tip: Prepare the tava by spooning a little oil on to it, and then spreading it around using a half piece of onion or potato. This, say the Dravs, imparts certain non-stick properties to the tava, and much facilitates the birth of a good dosai.

Another tip: Unlike commoner dosais, which are spread on the tava centre outward, the maida dosai must be laid down from the outside in. Spread a circle of batter and then fill out the inside, keeping it very thin, very thin.

Dosai Number 2 is the adai, which for long I believed would create dyspepsia in my sensitive constitution. This is not true, however. An adai is a man of the world, robust and nutritious, and addictive into the bargain. To make it, you must soak overnight 2 parts parboiled rice, and 1 part each of the dals urad and tuvar, and 1/2 part chana dal, together with 5 or 6 red chillies. The next morning, make the dough, including in it some ginger, chopped green chillies, curry leaves, some hing and salt to taste.

This one is fun only if the batter is coarsely ground. Lay it down on the tava to a thickness of about 1/4 inch, and spoon oil around the rim. Part a small hole in the centre, and pour some oil there as well. The result ought to be a lovely amber brown, thanks to the chana in the mix. The adai does not need the help of no pickle, madam. I have it with good plain curd, and it leaves me completely fulfilled and fed up, as they say in Bengal.

The arisi dosai is the most unexpected of this trio. You must soak three cups of rice overnight, with salt to taste. The next morning, make the dough, making sure you include a cup of finely grated coconut. Into the batter mix in a cupful of shredded drumstick leaves. Grind into a coarse batter. The arisi dosai is made like the adai, about 1/4” thick.

Like the dosai, the suggested accompaniment is simplicity itself. Into good plain curds, mash in a bunch of green chillies, using the strength of your hands. Add salt to taste.

And that is the the, as an absurd friend of mine used to often say.