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How to cook a Musa Pseudostem August 6, 2008

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.
Tags: , , ,
29 comments

C Y Gopinath discovers how to cook the delicious dish that killed the tender coconut tree but completely re-colonized his gut.

Take a medium-sized banana. Chop the pseudostem finely and boil till tender. Spice it and eat while costive.

There, that’s how you do it. I’ve given the recipe away. You can amaze your friends too now by making Banana Tree Khich Khach at home. They’ll laugh at you, of course, and nudge each other and whisper into their respective ears, ‘Goodness, he or she doesn’t know which part of the tree is the edible one. Next thing, he or she will be serving us Coconut Trunk Quiche.”

Don’t be daunted by the mockery, because all that will happen is that God will make them costive, and that will be the end of them all. When I was little my mother took me aside one day in my grandfather’s huge sprawling rubber estate in Kerala and said, “See these trees, son. Some of these are rubber, but a lot of these are banana. And every growing boy needs to eat a banana tree now and then. It is excellent for the bowels. The rough fibres of the banana stem act like a powerful broom, cleaning out the folds and crevices of your perineum.”

My bowels nodded agreement, and that was how I first tried out Banana Tree Khich Khach, for want of a better name.

I fell in love with it , and wanted to eat it every day. I told my mother, “Mother, mother, this stuff is so good for my bowels that I want more and more of it. I don’t want no banana fritters, I don’t want no bananas, I don’t want no banana leaf, all I want is some of that ol’ Banana Tree Khich Khach.”

“Once a month is all you get,” she said sternly. “No one should eat it more than once a month, and less than once a month is asking for trouble. Besides, it is a lot of trouble to cook, and I don’t love it that much. Overbesides, your bowels aren’t that bad.”
You can get banana pseudostems in Matunga in Bombay or Karolbagh in Delhi. They look like pale white plastic plumbing pipes, shiny and smooth outside, and usually cut into one-foot segments. I dialled my mother in Chicago and asked her exactly how much a person should buy. She’s terrible with quantities, like all mothers, and she thought for a minute, while the dollars ticked by. Then she said, “About one-and- a-half talcum powder tins, to feed about five.” How perfect – a banana pseudostem does resemble a cylindrical talcum tin.

Buy the banana pseudostem carefully. Check for discolorations – there should be none – and ensure that it is tender and white. Cutting it is an art best mastered through a little practice. Oil your hands, because the pseudostem exudes a sticky pseudo-goo that soap cannot touch. Peel away about two layers of the outer skin, about a centimetres depth, to expose the tender white rind within. This is the part you will cook and eat.

Cut into discs about four millimetres thick and plop into water. My mother’s voice whispers that you should add about half a cup of sour buttermilk to that water, to prevent the stem from getting discolored.

Here’s how you cook the stuff:

Ingredients:
1.5 banana pseudostems, prepared as described and cut into discs
1 cup tuvar dal
A little ural dal
A pinch of turmeric
A pinch of salt
1 tablespoon rice
3 or 4 red chillies
1/2 coconut, grated
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 tablespoon jeera or cummin seeds

Finely chop the banana pseudostem. Pay attention to the lengths of ‘string’ that unwind as you cut. They should be assiduously removed and discarded.

Pressure cook the banana pseudostem, with one cup tuvar dal, some turmeric and some salt.

Take a tablespoon of rice, three red chillies, and fry in oil till just before the rice begins to redden. Grind to a paste with 1/2 the grated coconut

Combine this paste with the boiled banana pseudostem, add a little water if the result feels too thick, and then let the Khich Khach come to a boil over a slow fire. The banana pseudostem absorbs the various subtleties in the coconut paste, and emerges dressed for a party.

Throw a half teaspoon of mustard seeds into hot oil. When it begins to pop, add a half teaspoon of urad dal. As the dal begins to turn a lovely golden color, add a few whole red chillies, just for a few moments, and then throw the whole thing over the dish as a garnish.

It is now time to answer the question that has been distracting you.

What, you are wondering, is the meaning of the word ‘costive’, mentioned so casually in the first paragraph. No, it is not another word for the price index, but simply means — oh, I couldn’t possibly. Go look it up, everyone has Google these days. If you’re too lazy for that, try eating a little Khich Khach.

Read and see July 12, 2008

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.
36 comments

For decades, this classic set of three books has been the last word on authentic South Indian cooking, says C Y Gopinath

This unassuming and classic trilogy is for many the last word on South Indian cuisine

May I offer you some light tiffin? No? A cool drink then?

What about a curd bath? It’s guaranteed to cool you off.

According to the instructions in the third book of the Cook and See trilogy, the offer of a curd bath may fearlessly be made to Brahmin priests during certain auspicious days. The complete bath must include rice, buttermilk, sweet jaggery water, and a coconut chutney, among other things. Towels and soap are not mentioned.

Before you leap to the conclusion that this blog has degenerated into bathroom humor, what with the lavage of priests and all, let me add that bath merely happens to be how the venerable Meenakshi Ammal spells bhath, meaning rice, in her three-part classic set, Samaithu Paar (or Cook and See). As any self-respecting Punjabi knows, curd-rice is what gives the average Madrasi his or her keen edge and legendary stamina.

Similarly, both light tiffins and cool drinks are de rigueur when you are getting your daughted hitched to a suitable boy and the wedding guests are at the door. Page 162 of Book III goes further, offering a ‘List of Items Required for Preparing Food Etc’. In smaller type immediately below this are the words ‘For About One Thousand Persons’, followed by a list of 46 items that includes 12 kilos of coffee powder, 8 litres of ghee, 40 kilos of idli rice, and about 750 kilos of firewood.

Trust me, this is valuable information, available nowhere else on the planet but in S. Meenakshi Ammal’s revered trilogy. Spoken as it would be in Tamil, samaithu paar is a disarming invitation to try your hand at some fun stuff in the South Indian kitchen, make a few mistakes, create a complete balls-up of in all but on the whole have a very good time doing it.

If you are wondering, as you should be by now, where cooking comes into what has so far sounded like a one-stop marriage manual, the answer is Books I, II and III. I doubt there is any recipe or procedure featuring any vegetable or grain you can name that will not be found somewhere in these two volumes, starting on page 1 with four different ways of making sambar, and going on to such obscure but crucial life skills as the method for grinding Australian wheat into flour, preparing a perfect cup of south Indian filter coffee, and how to beat rice flakes into submission. For the latter, there is the helpful tip that “when two people pound it simultaneously by alternate strokes, the flakes turn out better”.

Samaithu Paar is simply the most authentic set of recipes I have ever seen  on classic South Indian cooking. I was fortunate to find a fresh reprint at a Higginbothams book shop in Chennai. Amazingly, you will find its 1968 edition listed on amazon.com, but with a small line confessing that it is out of print. The single customer review there describes how indispensable it is to someone struggling to learn South Indian cuisine, even if navigating the book takes a little getting used to.

The books look today as they doubtless did when they were first printed in 1951. S. Meenakshi Ammal’s writing has not been value-added by the pens of modern recipe-makers. The ingredients and the instructions are offered in unhelpfully blocky paragraphs, no effort made to separate ingredients into lines. The tone of voice is that of an older woman advising a younger and inexperienced one. And this, it turns out, is pretty much what Meenakshi Ammal set out to do.

When she wrote her first volume, it was a planet that had not yet felt the need to coin a word like foodie. There was no great demand for cookery books, and no one thought it a great idea for a woman — imagine that! a woman! — to write an entire book of recipes. Meenakshi Ammal had many detractors and only a handful of supporters. One staunch encouraging voice was that of  her uncle, father of the Library Movement in Madras State, the late Rao Bahadur Sri S. V. Krishnaswami. And her own indomitable will, of course.

The set I finally purchased had been revised by Meenakshi Ammal’s son, P. S. Sankaran, to include modern weights and measures rather than pinches and pugils and fistfuls. The publisher, in her introduction, explains:

“. . . it was also a time when with the opening up of more opportunities for women and the dawning of the realization that education was for both sexes, a vast majority of girls were not able to find the time to learn cooking in the traditional way from one’s mother. This proved a problem subsequently when, after marriage, they had to build their own homes and manage their own kitchens. In was to address this need that the author with a lot of foresight, embarked on her venture to bring out a cookery book which would serve more as a manual for daily use”.

Where a modern cookbook might have a single sentence, ‘Boil a cup of tuvar dal (pigeon peas) with turmeric’, Meenakshi Ammal has an entire paragraph, titled To Cook Dhal. It is vintage Meenakshi Ammal, cooking instructions as stream of consciousness, not a thing linear, afterthoughts interwoven with forethoughts:

Choose a stoneware of vessel with a very narrow mouth. Wash dhal. Clean and remove stones, if any. Boil water in a vessel. Add dhal, a pinch of turmeric powder and 1 teaspoon of gingelly oil. Cover with a lid or cup, filled with water. (Add this water to the dhal, if needed.) Cook till very soft. (If the dhal is cleanly husked, it need not be washed.) (Some dhals do not cook soon. If so, add a pinch of baking soda. If baking soda is added, do not use the turmeric powder, as the color of the dhal will be spoilt.)

Yes, I know. You want proof of the pudding. So here are three of my all-time favourites from her set. Not only are the recipes simplicity itself, but the spice mixtures I describe may be used for pretty much most other vegetables other than the ones I have described.

Potato Podi

Potatoes 350 gms (choose big ones)

Red chillies 6 or 8

Red gram dhal (tuvar dal) 2 tsps

Black gram dhal (urad dal) 2 tsps

Asafoetida (hing) a pinch

Black mustard seeds 1/2 tsp

Method

Fry the spice ingredients in 4 tsps of oil to golden brown color, and grind to a coarse powder along with 1 1/2 teaspoonfuls of salt.

Cook the whole potatoes in their jackets, and peel. Spread the spice powder on a board and place the potatoes on top of it. Press the potatoes with a roller to break them up. Keep breaking them up till the pieces are roughly the size of large marbles and thoroughly mixed with the powder. Serve with chappatis or rice, and sambar or dal.

Crumbled Arbi Curry

Arbi (colocasia) 250 grams

Juice of an areca-nut sized piece of tamarind in 1/4 cup of water

Whole black pepper 2 tsps

Cummin seeds (jeera) 2 tsps

Black gram dhal (urad dal) 2 tsps

Sprig of curry leaves

Salt to taste

Method

Heat a vessel with enough water to cover the arbis. When the water is boiling, add the arbis (washed and cleaned well) and cover with a lid. Turn it occasionally. When it is cooked, remove from the fire and peel. Cut each arbi into two or three pieces and keep aside.

Roast the whole black pepper, cummin seeds (jeera) and black gram dhal (urad dal). Grind into a coarse powder. This is known as curryma powder.

In a vessel, heat 4 teaspoonfuls of gingelly oil, and add a teaspoon of black mustard seeds. When they start spluttering, add the cut arbi pieces. Add about a teaspoon of salt and scald, turning frequently. Add the tamarind juice and boil till the raw smell of tamarind goes away. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of curryma powder, curry leaves, and mix well. Keep cooking until the liquid has evaporated, and the arbis become a mass.

Serve with rice and dhal, or sambar.

And in closing, let me add that if some dedicated and selfless person were to take on the task of presenting the priceless recipes in Meenakshi Ammal’s books in a more user-friendly way with clear ingredient lists and instructions, and gorgeous drooly pictures as is the norm these days, on lovely glossy paper — why, I do believe there may be a modern classic here waiting to be lapped up.

Of course, you should make sure you have a word with P. S. Sankaran first. (more…)

Lessons from lasoon November 27, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.
29 comments

It might keep teenage vampires away but when you use it well in the kitchen, the unassuming garlic can unite the most diverse people 

 

SMITH AND JONES GRIND GARLIC AT NASHIK. In case you think this is one of those phrases administered to suspected drunks to check their sobriety, it is not. Smith & Jones happened to be a brand of readymade garlic paste, one of latest products of ravenous, emerging giant India. I spied it on the mixes and spices shelf of one of the new breed of US-style self-service supermarkets in Mumbai.

Picked it up at once, of course, attracted by the Victorian-style graphics, the words ‘Traditional English Style’ written below in a pennant. Was this one of the newest Indian-made Foreign Imports coming out of a collaboration  between a spirited desi entrepreneur and some expansive expatriate? Would Smith & Jones together wipe out Bedekar and Parampara? Was this the future of garlic, to be smashed and bottled and sold in disguise? Did Englishmen, by the way, eat garlic? Did Britannia rule with waves of garlicky breath? Hmmm.

I checked the fine print and discovered that Messrs. Smith and Jones operate out of a Nashik address, and instantly all was clear. Smith and Jones are probably the working names of some Sawant and Joglekar who have cannily realized that the future lies in garlic.

Made me start thinking about CYG and garlic. Allium sativa had not been a part of my strictly Dravidian childhood. Encountering it in Calcutta and Delhi, where I was shaped from boy to proud manhood, I felt formal towards garlic, like a Japanese towards a Gujarati. Gainda Singh, cook at my college , was a romancer of garlic, but since he shone in all other respects, I, as head of the Canteen Committee, tolerated this aberration.

When the corporate world tamed the garlic and bottled it as pearls, promising there would be no odour and yet the heart would glow with health, I checked that out. This is how garlic ought to be, I thought, unrecognizable, odourless, untastable, unseen. In brief, I was a garlic hater. I thought it behaved like the opposition in the lower House of Parliament, always disrupting proceedings.

I was wrong on all counts and today I stand ready to face the music.

The unforgettable Ishtiyaque Qureshi, ex-chef of the erstwhile Searock Hotel and later the Leela Kempinski, once fed me a kheer in which, I learnt later, the floating almond-like pods were really garlic. Garlic pudding! Aaaaargh. But it tasted somehow like a mild Lebanese paradise. “The trick is to subjugate the garlic by cooking it in milk long enough at the right temperature,” said Qureshi.

In Cairo, a taxi-driver’s wife ground raw garlic and green chillies together with salt and lemon juice, sandiwched it in the mouth of a small fried aubergine and fed it to me with whole fried Cornish chicken and a pasta salad. The one hero of this warrior-like meal was, believe it or not, the garlic.

Though my conviction that garlic was garlic was on the wane, for many years I maintained that it was best consumed in pearl form. Lest your social life take a plunge, you know.

But as of  October 17, I have changed forever the way I perceive garlic. In large measure, this is because of a simple soup that was created by my wife Shilpa one sunset when no one felt like cooking and the evening stretched like eternity ahead of us. She threw a dart, it hit a Mexican cookbook, and another dart found page 72, Toasted Garlic Soup, serves 4 to 6.

“Don’t” I said, alarmed. “This marriage will be on the rocks!”

She ignored me. A woman who loves garlic knows what she wants.

I watched as she took a fistful of more garlic than I would have eaten in a month of Sundays, and toasted them. The aroma, forbidden and strong, filled the house. The child began to wheeze. The domestic help began muttering about paid leave. Then the vapours settled and more disciplined, suddenly more exciting, grew out of it. More things happened. I watched, face buried in my hands, nose twitching.

An hour later, I was tasting one of the most rogueish, ill-mannered and utterly charismatic soups I have eaten in a long time.

To get the entire recipe free of charge, all you have to do is click on the Bloggers Choice Award website link on top of this page and, only if you believe with all your heart that Gopium deserves one more vote, go and cast your vote.

On second thoughts, vote anyway. Who cares what you really believe in your heart?

On third thoughts, I’m not that kind of person. Here’s the full recipe:

INGREDIENTS

¼ cup cooking oil

1 large or even huge head of garlic, cloves separated, peeled and coarsely chopped

½ a baguette bread, cut diagonally into ¼” thick slices

4 medium-sized red tomatoes, peeled and seeded and coarsely chopped into chunks

7 cups stock (chicken, preferably, but Maggi vegetable cubes if you insist)

Salt to taste

½ cup thick cream

 

Method

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet until it is smoking. Add the garlic and stir over medium-high heat for a minute or so until the garlic cloves are lightly toasted. Transfer the garlic to a large soup pot.

2. Add as many slices of  the bread to the skillet as will fit in one uncrowded layer. Fry over medium heat for a minute, turning once, until they are lightly golden on each side. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Continue until all the bread has been fried, and set aside.

3. Place the chilli peppers and tomatoes in the skillet and stir over medium high heat for a minute until they wilt. Transfer to the soup pot with the garlic. Add the stock and the salt, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the garlic has softened.

4. Ladle the soup into individual bowls. Garnish each bowl with fried bread and a dollop of cream. Serve right away, piping hot.

The sorry story of the uttappam October 6, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.
Tags: , , ,
34 comments

The uttappam was feeling threatened by globalization — who am I? why does the pizza look like me? what should I do? C Y Gopinath counsels

 

It was a humid day, the sort that dampens all urges towards food.

I was sitting in my clinic, toying desultorily with some listless peanuts, when I sensed that someone was watching me. For a few years now — in fact, ever since parsley and iceberg lettuce began appearing in the local market — I have been running a small but successful practice counseling various culinary items who felt their identity threatened by the influx of Chinese, Italian, Lebanese, and Mughlai cuisines into India. My regular clients today include aloo chops wondering about the meaning of life after the MacAloo Tikkis; vermicelli upmas intimidated by chow mein; puri-bhaji that have been told that the railway platform now belongs to burgers; and others such paranoid entrées. I once had to make peace between some cloud-ear mushroom and a cabbage who feared displacement.

This particular evening, as the nation raced towards the millennium, I was certain I was being watched. I turned around, ostensibly to knock the ash out of my meerschaum, and casually glanced up. There it was. An unprepossessing uttappam about 10 inches across, it surface flecked with a few cowardly onion flakes.

“Ahem,” it cleared its throat. “I was wondering if you could help me.” I said nothing.

“It’s about the pizza,” it continued.

“What about the pizza?” I asked.

“Well, it’s pretending to be an uttappam,” replied the hapless dish. “But smarter. People think it’s an imported uttappam, and they go for it in a big way.”

I thought it was time to take this miserable little flip-flop in hand. “Listen,” I said. “You are an ancient rice batter preparation with history on your side. The pizza is a bread with some ketchup, odds and ends baked with cheese on top. How could anyone confuse you with that?”

Trouble started, said the uttappam, when the Udipi restaurant owner began to sprinkle Amul cheese over the uttappam just before frying it. The cheese would not melt or brown over, but merely turn a little crisp. “We were humiliated,” said the uttappam. “No one has done that to us before. And it’s all because the pizzas are baked with Mozzarella.”

In the meantime, atrocities were being committed upon the uttappam’s cousin, the dosai. The Dosa Manchurian was invented in a small tattukada in Cochin, in which the dosai was made to hold its own weight in chow mein, instead of the usual warm spiced potato mash. Indeed, every conceivable filling and covering was being indiscriminately inflicted upon the dosa — from heron’s egg omelettes to prawn malabari to chicken dopiaza to vegetable stew. The dosai was so crushed by these assaults that it surrendered its identity meekly.

Even Chinese cuisine, once Chinese, latterly Indian, and now victim of the Indian cook’s attempt to please all and sundry, was being mauled. In a small eatery in Mumbai, I had myself tasted the Chow Mein Manchurian Mussallam, in which finally the mainland meets the hinterland in a clashing war of opposite tastes. All lose, only the cash register wins. I had beheld horrified the dawn of the Hakka Afghani, the Tandoori Croissant, the Amritsari Upma, with chunks of Reshmi Kebab in it.

I even understood why it was going on. This country could not stand globalisation. The Indian abroad hides behind papads and garam masala. The Indian at home carefully checks the ‘imported’ dishes coming in through Immigration, and then cleverly renders them insignificant by ‘adapting’ them. The adaptation process is simplicity itself — he must sprinkle garam masala over it, substitute ghee for olive oil, rev up the red spices a little and sprinkle the dish with coriander just before serving. The pizza thus vandalised could be fashionably re-named La Pizza Indiana, and be hailed as a triumph of thinking global but acting local.

My wretched uttappam was sniffling. “What shall I do?” he moaned. “I have lost my self-respect.”

An idea struck me. “You have lost nothing,” I said firmly. “You have only gained. Listen carefully: the pizza is undergoing deep changes. I expect that its base will soon be substituted by a thick dough of rice and lentils. Tomatoes may become optional. This is your chance: you must strengthen your foundation with a strong baking dough made from good baking flour. I want you to welcome all sorts of toppings, even non vegetarian ones. Don’t flinch under bacon or tuna or ham or mince. And when they bake you, smile as though you love nothing more.”

“But — but —“ spluttered the uttappam. “I won’t be an uttappam any more!!”

“You won’t, perhaps,” I said reasonably. “But the pizza will be the uttappam. The more it resembles the uttappam the bigger the market for it.”

“And I? What will I be?” whined the uttappam.

“Why, you silly little pancake,” I said, my patience snapping. “You’ll be a pizza, of course. You’ll be the king.”

A chip of the old Nayak June 28, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.
18 comments

In a clear case of judicio-culinary activism, C Y Gopinath is put on trial for declaring Rama Nayak’s wafers to be the best in the universe as we know it.

Yes, M’lud, I am reasonably certain that it was not an Indoor Locker.

Or Indoor Laukar, as they tell me its erroneously called in the teeming wholesale veggie markets of downtown Maharashtra. Or Indore Locker, for all I know. In fact, Your Grace, your best money won’t get you a decent Indore Locker till after Christmas is gone and you’ve rung the new year in. After that, it’s Indore Locker season all the way till May, with the occasional Talegaon showing up.

But if it’s December — and it will soon be — then the potato of choice for frying wafers is not the Indore Locker or the Talegaon but the Mahabaleshwar potato. And I stand guilty as accused of having declared, in a public place and in a loud voice, that the wafers made at Rama Nayak’s 50-years-plus Udipi Hotel, just outside Matunga East station, deploying the magnificent Mahabaleshwar, are the best in this quarter of the universe. Or at least the Asia-Pacific rim.

All I ask, before this august court sentences me to a lifetime of dry dum aloo with no spices, is a chance to defend myself.

The problem, Your Excellency, is that you’ve never held a Rama Nayak potato wafer between your grubby judiciary fingers, else you wouldn’t be trying me for nepotism. It’s really very thin, you know. Wafer-thin would be the exact phrase that’s eluding me. Hold it up against the sun, and God will shine a light through it, coming out all translucent and glorious on the other side. In color, it will be a uniform pale gold, though the occasional one will be streaked with a reddening that got past quality control.

Pop one in your mouth and close your eyes as you chew. It’ll crumble all crisp, like the credits of some modern movie, releasing only texture and a fleeting certainty that nothing is wrong with the world at the moment. The feeling disappears in an instant along with the wafer, but if you want it back just pop the next one in your mouth.

They come in packets of Rs.20 each, Your Rectitude. They are not vacuum sealed or foil packed. And they are completely touched by human hands every little inch of the way.

One the day that I took it upon myself to personally inspect the wafer-making process at Rama Nayak, the human hands in question belonged, respectively, to Ratnakar, potato peeler from Kundapur, South Canara; Uday, potato slicer from Bhatkal, on the border between South and North Canara; and Ramaiah, deep fryer from Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu.

It is nearly a religious experience, Your Wittiness, watching wafers being made. The Mahabaleshwar is a sturdy, soldierly potato with a parched-earth tracery on its red-brown skin. Early in the morning, Satish Rama Nayak, who runs the show, or his nephew-in-training Pravin Kumar, will already have chosen the best Mahabaleshwars in the market, going by shapeliness, girth, and absence of sprouting eyes and discolorations.

“Plus hardness,” says Satish. “A good Mahabaleshwar is full of water, which makes it hard. Soft potatoes go phut so we try to retain the water but get rid of the starch.”

Starch is enemy number one in Waferland. It makes the wafers stick to each other, it absorbs oil, it creates grease and glaze, and it causes, eventually, cardiac arrest in loyal customers. After being peeled, Rama Nayak’s Mahabaleshwars are dunked in cold water for two starch-sucking hours. Then, after Uday the potato-slicer has done his stuff, they do two more hours in a metal tub, where they float pale white and luminous like dream flakes. This water will presently grow milky with starch, while the wafer, losing weight, gains a certain formal bearing.

And it’s ready to boogie.

It will not have escaped your sharp notice, Your Perspicacity, that potatoes start cooking at 113°C but brown at 188°C. It might, however, never have crossed your fine sub judice mind to ask how on earth they measure temperature in a 50-year-old Udipi kitchen without thermometers? I’ll tell you, m’lud. The deep-fryer from Tirunelveli sprinkles a little water on the oil. If it merely crackles unhappily, then the oil isn’t hot enough. If, instead, it shatters the airwaves with a resounding whipcrack, then it is ready to host the Mahabaleshwars.

Into the wok they go. There is a celebratory effervescence as the wafers begin to surrender their remaining water. Then, for exactly three minutes, they jostle around happily like tourists in a 5-star jacuzzi, getting their hides lightly tanned.

They out they come. The surface oil drips away into a colander. Ceiling fans are switched off lest the wafer start losing confidence. There is a light summer shower of salt, sometimes red chilly powder as well. And Ratnakar the potato-peeler turns into Ratnakar, wafer-packer. Does about 60 packets a day. No bulk orders accepted, now or ever.

Your Pulchritude, I’m all admiration for your gush of judicio-culinary activism, pressing charges against a harmless wafer fetishist like myself just because I feel kindly towards Rama Nayak’s wafers, but do you really have a case? Here, try one of these. Want another? Go for it. What about this spiced one? Don’t close your eyes, Your Magnitude. Concentrate on the accused. You have a case to judge.

And you should really stop this injudicious slurping.

And don’t speak with your mouth full.

Your Honour.

The loafers of Cowasji Patel Street February 17, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.
11 comments

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.”

An evening with Grover & Son February 17, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor, Wine.
3 comments

EVEN AS I REACHED for the cheese I knew it was a mistake. Grover and Son had kept their hands off it, must be some good oenological reason for it. Kapil Grover had helped himself to a butter biscuit, though; perhaps that was allowed with white wine. Clairette, it said on the bottle.

You monumental fool, what was your hurry? I said to myself, but I wasn’t listening.

I swirled the wine about in the port glass, and sniffed. I looked forward to making some elegant remark about the bouquet. In case my face was being watched for a reaction, I kept one eyebrow up in a look that could stand for anything,. Couldn’t really catch any bouquet, but that could be because of my deviated septum. I said a pensive Hmmm. Grover & Son & Guest sipped in silence.

It was the best white I’ve had in India.

“I’m a red man myself,” said Kapil, and I looked up at his face in alarm, the word sangloté flashing through my mind. Got it. He means red wine. I rejoined with, “I must confess I’ve always been a white man.” Kapil nodded, understanding my plight. I hoped Grover Sr. would not say he was a Rose Man.

“I’ve always believed that it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and confirm it.,” said he, with a look in my direction. What did he mean? Was my preference for white giving my own pedigree away?

“It was in Florence,” I began expansively, waving airily with a cigar that wasn’t there. “How can I forget? The evening, Piazza Michelangelo, a bottle of the best white wine I’ve ever had, Chianti, original Chianti, you understand, chilled. . .”

“Of course, Chianti is really known for its red.” Kapil, succinctly.

I recovered swiftly. “You mean you’ve never tried their absolutely outstanding white? Very, how shall I put it, gouleyant. Almost gras. You know?”

Three more port glasses, and an outpouring of the Rosé. The Grover Vineyards, already the most written about in India, grow exclusively French grapes but on Bangalore soil. Grover Sr., the sort of squire who you expect will say dem fool or silly gel any moment, knows his liquor, and more recently, his wines. Over three years, 30 varieties have been experimentally planted, 21 have been eliminated as unsuitable, and the first cases of true Indian-made French wine have emerged this year, for sale only in Bangalore and Bombay.

I thought it a good time to ask Grover Sr. about the Clairette’s bouquet. He might describe it as frank and supple though a little short; I would tag it as definitely velouté, though a little nervous. “What is your own opinion of the bouquet, if I might ask?”

“No dem bouquet in that white,” he growled. “Got to fix that. Got to fix the aftertaste too.”

I raised my skilled eyebrow: what aftertaste? “Now the thing that will give it an aftertaste is also the thing that will give it its bouquet,” continued Grover Sr. enigmatically. A vintner knows what a vintner knows.

The Rosé disappeared, more port glasses appeared, and the red was poured out. “The rosé has only a very faint bouquet, discreet but discernible, but you will find that the red has a clear presence ,” said Kapil. I took a deep sniff — no doubt about it, that was the mother of all bouquets — and took a glug. Swirled it around the mouth a bit in the expected manner. I’m not a red man, but this red was clearly distingué. I was here face to face with the Cabernet Sauvignon itself, the famous grape that stands behind the world’s great clarets, the “aristocrat of the cellar”. Do note how well I have mastered my Larousse, even if the wine occasionally dribbles down my chin.

“It’s time for a bit of that cheese now,” said Grover Sr., reaching for the cheese knife. Learn something, you galactic moron, I chastised myself. Hard cheeses go with red wine.

Well, the game was up, I knew that. I had given myself away with the white Chianti bit and the inappropriate reaching for cheese. But by now the wines were doing their magic, and the evening was acquiring a certain harmonious glow.

“I have a dream,” Grover Sr. was saying. I leaned forward to hear the rest of it: people’s dreams are always interesting. Grover’s is to identify the specific wines whose temperaments can forge durable alliances with Indian cuisine. You know the booze basics: beer goes with chow mein, full-bodied reds go with red meats and game, whisky goes with seekh kababs, all that.

“Well, surely,” I averred, “a heavy-handed cuisine like ours, where taste is overlaid in broad, coarse sweeps rather than in fine brushstrokes could not be married to anything as refined and subtle as wine?” I thought I had finally asked a question that was exactly á point. A true wingdinger.

Grover Sr. smiled into his glass, nodding to himself. He was clearly going to give the thing a go anyway. I decided against telling him that the French themselves hold that heavily spiced Oriental cuisine doesn’t and couldn’t dance with French wine, and had best be accompanied by local lagers and rice wines. What the hell, man has a right to dream, I thought to myself tolerantly.

Kapil’s voice spoke into my tolerance: “Now that you’ve had the three, which would like to continue with?”

“Well, the red is still dancing on my tongue,” I said, dancing with my language, “so I know that’s what suggests itself —”

“Excellent, excellent!” said Grover & Son, all approval. I had clearly passed some test. But I was already hurtling towards a terrible destiny. Even as they reached for the Cabernet, I bulldozed ahead: “I do believe, however, that I will after all go back to the white, if you don’t mind.”

You stellar baboon, I muttered to myself, you’ve just blown it. See the looks on their faces. You simply have no vintage whatsoever. Of course, it was too late to make amends. Grover & Son were grimly pouring out what to me is the most outstanding white wine in the universe, and I was feeling too happy for remorse.

“Best dem white I’ve had,” I babbled genially. “ I’m a white man myself.”