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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.

______________________

Bharit

(To serve 4-6 people)
Ingredients
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

Method
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.
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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.

Rajma

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

Method
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.
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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

Ingredients
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

Method
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.

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.
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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.”

____________________________

Dodmaaz

Ingredients
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
Oil
A pinch of asafeotida (Hing)

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

Method
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.

_________________________________________

Mathz

Ingredients
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
Oil

Method
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.
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.”

Dosa days February 17, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
3 comments

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.

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.”