Category Archives: food

  1. Turbulent Trays: The rise and fall of airline food

    Good airline food is an oxymoron. An improbability further diminished by strange reheating apparatus and plastic containers. They do promote food in the non-coach classes. But it is just better cutlery and wine.

    Few years back, my city airport was not a serious international hub. It resembled a state tax office with a wind sock and a large striped scoop looking for its mother on top. I had to do all my international connections at Bombay. Those were times when I did ten days at a stretch to America with visit USA coupons and a crammed itinerary of a city a day. I took bleary red eyes that dumped me across the coast and it was morning as I get ready to sack out. These carriers were filled with large belligerent stewardesses who slammed a pack of pretzels (who invented this outrage?) and a heavily iced plastic cup of soda onto my gullible hands.

    I spent overnights at long-stay hotels with no restaurants. The breakfast was not warm and dinners were microwave packs from the lobby vending machine. I would not call these trips a culinary delight except for weekends at a grill in Dallas with my brother. When I was done I took that long haul through Zurich back to Bombay.

    The lights of home were always inviting as we landed after midnight. I had to wait a few woozy hours on uncomfortable chairs for my Jet connection to Bangalore. That flight made me appreciate a good airline breakfast after days of insipid fodder.

    There was a fluffy folded omelet with translucent onions and cilantro – well cooked outside and gooey inside. The eggs were served with sauteed mushrooms glistening in the streak of morning sun and golden hash browns. A bowl of cold fruit, a croissant and good cup of coffee made it a complete meal tray. The vegetarian option was upma. At times I used my loyalty status and devilish smile to charm those sweet in-flight staff to get me both. And Jet Airways stayed consistent with their quality. I thought I would never say this, but I loved airline food.

    Things have changed. Air Carriers all over the World are bleeding. Travelers have to pay for their meal. Jet airways invented a new low-cost variant called Connect and collected money for your meal on-board. Recently I traveled a standard Jet flight and they were benevolent enough to serve breakfast. The masala scrambled was 99% spice and 1% egg. The grilled vegetables were more like chewing jerky. Stale croissant and an old bowl of papaya did not reach home either.

    Airline food is back to their grandeur of low esteem.

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  2. Good Infographic: Know what you are counting

    I will not allow a relevant infographic pass by without sharing it with you. This is one such asset. Enjoy and do post if you have seen good ones. Thank you.

    The Cost of Calories

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  3. Too wide a spread for forty

    I am officially over the hill. I am forty. I have started squinting at small text, watch what I eat, pass time intensely listening for aberrations within my body, talk about it with others, workout as if life depends on it (does it?), examine my belly whenever time permits and try to upgrade to business with no specific purpose. Overall I have become more self obsessed with a veneer of maturity. I am growing old. This post is not to lament about my age and related inconveniences. It is about one breakfast on a rainy Wednesday.

    Marriott in Hyderabad, used to be Viceroy earlier, perches over the Hussain Sagar lake. If you can manage to coax the guy at the lobby to give you a lake facing room you have a fabulous view too. Let us cut to the breakfast.

    I have not seen such a wide spread in any other boarder. There were house baked goodies – Danish, Croissants, Prune cakes (bowel movement catalyst for the ET reader), cream doughnuts and more. There was South Indian – Pooris, Idlis, Vadas with Bhaji, Sambar and Chutney of astonishing texture and taste. There were parathas and eggs to order. There was another section with no specific nomen clature that had baked beans, potato wedges, grilled mushrooms, baked eggs, breakfast pizzas, bacon, sausages, and grilled chicken with veggies. You walk further to fruits and drinks. There was a well appointed coffee counter with a bored barista who could whip out espresso shots to lactose intelorance nightmare coffee. I was in an intimidating food wonderland.

    Yet I stayed sane and limited my breakfast to six whites omelette, grilled veggies, one croissant, one idli and an espresso shot chased with still water.

    As I said earlier, I am way mature for a wide spread.

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  4. The Jalota Jungle

    Picture this. You walk out of the elevator into a low-lit slatted wooden ramp with rope nets on either side. The ceiling is covered with plastic foliage – stiff, oily and shining. The floor is mottled with halogen shadows of the leaves. You can hear high treble noises of the jungle through some tinny speakers that you cannot see. You walk further to be greeted by a suited maitre’d of this restaurant on a roof in Banjara Hills. This is Serengeti – a bizarre world of awadhi cuisine served in a tacky copy of Amazon jungle named after an African plain.

    The waiters are all dressed like desi Dr Livingstone with pith solar hats and starched khaki gear. They resemble malnourished native helpers standing along with sahibs in faded old retro photos of the Raj.

    There are also strange animatronic and partially truncated menagerie to add to this chaos. If you are eating smoothly minced fried Galouti kababs at the second level you will observe a life size shiny giraffe moving his head jerkily towards you. The Galouti dropped from my mouth and you better hold on to yours. The giraffe stands at the level below with his head poking through the foliage to the level you are on exercising his right to watch you eat every once in a while. Do not tell me that I did not warn you.

    There are more animal accessories like a mutant python with an extra large head (or was it an anaconda?) languorously wrapped on fiberglass branch above the bar stools that are illustrations of animal rumps. We should stay on the bar stools a little longer. I once saw a large man sit on the bar stool that was a zebra hip down (if the zebra was standing on his hind legs) from the back. In that darkness with thin spots of halogen it was very authentic. I was sure that it was a striped centaur ordering a Bacardi Breezer at the bar, in a plastic jungle, on the roof of a hotel in Banjara Hills. Very authentic!

    The awadhi food, though very rich, is not so bad. The music is always ghazals with a preference to Anup Jalota. Bon Appetit!

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  5. Pearls of fine dining

    Often I have noticed that an out of gamut question like ‘who designed this place?’ to a waiter in Bangalore will intimidate him/her to blurt out a sequence of guttural noises as if I asked him the square root of an eighteen digit number in Swahili. Having said this I should add that the fine dining restaurants in Hyderabad are well designed. They are typically designed by architects with an eye for the appropriate (in Bangalore they are probably designed by butchers or venture capitalists). The waiters are informed, hospitable and have a few things to say about your choice of food too. A remarkable change from the quizzical daze back at home.

    I have nothing to do after seven in the evening when I travel. So what do I do? I find better places to eat dinners.

    I am in Hyderabad on a long running project and that is exactly what I have been doing. So here I am propounding on a relational study of fine dining between hometown and this new winding swish avatar of the twin cities.

    Lebanese was the unanimous choice last night and we landed up in the swank place on Road #2 Banjara Hills in a mall – Zafraan Laguna was the name. The mezze platter was immaculately presented with deep marinated meats three delectable dips of eggplant, chick peas, sour cream and Tabouleh – fine cut parsley mixed with onions, cinnamon, lemon zest and olive oil. The chicken was crispy outside and soft flavored inside. The last I have eaten a similar meal was at Fadi’s Mediterranean Grill in a Dallas suburb. We also got ourselves a grilled river sole, Lebanese style. This did not disappoint us either. Without much ado the fish was cajoled to fill our soul. The adjective here is succulent.

    Today we were assaulted by chopped green peppers, comparable to the formidable habanero, hidden in our working lunch sandwiches. I had to call the fire brigade.

    This does not deter us from our search for the perfect dinner. We were not too hungry and opted for Malaysian soup and starters – Amana on Road #12 (what’s with these numbers?). The waiter knew that traditional Malaysian carpenters designed the place. Though located in an upmarket wannabe mall, the restaurant from the inside is put together like a renovated heritage home – as spacious as a colonial bungalow. Double height ceiling with a look-down mezzanine, a dark wood bar tucked under it and large fake windows mounted on the walls to complete the mis en scene.

    The saltwater jumbo prawn satay was a work of art. The peanut sauce was well textured and perfect. I supplemented this with a crab soup with coriander and egg whites threaded in. The most optimal, satisfying and yet easy-on-you dinner I have had in the near past.

    At that point I realized that the Nawabs have moved on with their traditional haleem and biryani for a new set of fine gourmet diners in this city of pearls.

    There was also an exception. I will not pollute this post with a rant. Watch this space.

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  6. On killing fish…

    Indian cooks have this bad habit of overcooking seafood. They kill the fish. Kill it till the flavor is lost and the fish looses identity. I like my seafood coaxed into the pan, gently cooked and identifiably served – pretty and palatable.

    I like Japanese food. But I am not a great fan of sushi and it has nothing to do with the food. Once long back as I was traipsing out of a tube station in London a Korean kid in a sushi brand t-shirt offered me a free (promotional) sushi from a blister pack and I took it. Yes I know. I should have thought twice about raw salmon on the roadside. That mouth size packet of the fashionable global delicacy slammed me to my bed in an attic in North London and kept me there for two days. It was a foul case of food poisoning. So no raw fish for me, thank you.

    However I took to lightly cooked seafood from other Southeast Asian cuisine – Korean, Vietnamese and Thai. There are two Indian instances where I know my seafood order.

    The masala-fried prawns in a local restaurant in Panjim called Anushka are to die for. Anushka is a restaurant in the car park of a house right after Miramar beach. This is a place where locals land up for Kingfisher stubbies and seafood munchies after a hard day at work. (How does one work hard in Goa?) The family that owns Anushka is from Salcette and Salcette cooking is imaginative – a bold mix of spices, vinegar and jaggery. The prawns in Recheado masala are large enough to hold by their unshelled tail and crunch into the juicy meat with vinegar packing the punch and jaggery soothing you all at once. The prawns are cooked right always. They are crunchy and not rubbery.

    There is friend of mine in Mumbai who loves her seafood. We love going to a Gomantak (Goan non-christian) cuisine restaurant called Gazalee (means conversation in Konkini). Of course, we end up eating a significant part of the ocean food chain. But we never miss the steamed white Pomfret. Elsewhere, I am not a great fan of white Pomfret as a fish. It is a fish designed for the uninitiated. I prefer black. However, the steamed Pomfret here cannot be disregarded. This is filleted fish with a spicy paste of coriander leaves, mint leaves, green chillies and coconut generously applied across the de-boned split. Without much ado the fish is steamed. I guess it is very difficult to overcook when steaming (unless the chef has passed out or is watching a 70s candy floss love comedy on the tube).
    When it comes to the table the fish is intact in little bit of soupy sauce all ready with a squeeze of lemon on top. The fork (always) flakes the fish into pristine white bites of heaven.

    Next time you cook fish, coax it and cook light. Enjoy!

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  7. Indian Chinese – The invasion of a hybrid cuisine

    Long back when I went to visit my brother in Dallas he took me to a restaurant called Bombay Chinese – Bangladeshis serving horrendous food. Till then I did not believe that there was cuisine that the non-residents yearned for called Indian Chinese. This is what we Indians living in India know as Chinese food – the peppery, fiery, double schezwan style cooking with powdered coriander and sometimes garam masala. Indian Chinese is the cheaper version of the Chinese cuisine available at mid range hotels in downtown India.

    Gobi Manchurian, as the name suggests, is an epitome and a cherub offspring of such a cultural culinary merger. I know places in hinterland Karnataka where Gobi Manchurian is a form of entertainment than a food. Ask a guy from Mysore what he does in the evenings, he will proudly proclaim ‘I go to Ashoka Road and eat Gobi Manchurian’. For an Indian this cuisine is as easy as understanding ‘cauliflower pakodas in sauce’.

    The geographical variations of Indian Chinese are astounding with additions of ajwain and mustard oil in the north, vegetarian fervor with sweet and chaat masala in the west, more sweet and poppy seeds in the east and coriander powder garnished with hair oil in the south. The penetration of this cuisine is deep and wide – weaker only to the behemoth Punjabi cuisine (that is another story). I know restaurants in Belgaum and Chingelput where the menu is generously sprinkled with haka, hunan and schezwan along with traditional local food. The best (?) such dish that I have come across in schezwan chilli idlis. Let me explain this here.

    You dice a few idlis and throw them into a kadai (the Indian wok) along with generous portions of schezwan chilli sauce (yes, the one in conical bottle with fake Chinese fonts all over it), sautéed red chillies, a lot of tomato ketchup (preferably Kissan), sesame seeds and curry leaves. Let the edges of the idly crisp a little and it can be served on a square piece of plaintain leaf over a stainless steel plate along with a small cup of chutney. The locals think that this is departure and the visitors think that it is a local variant. It is a win-win.

    Later when I was starved of spicy food I went to a vague Chinese restaurant in Charlotte and discovered the American version of Chinese – it was $8 buffet. All the dishes where cooked in fat, were heavy, bland, reeked of old fish, barbecue sauce and excess monosodium glutamate. I understand desis and their yearning now!

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  8. Mid West Mid Life

    The room windows open out to the wrong side of downtown – open with a big sky. Small mounds of snow on terraces, a faraway belfry and the comfort of the room with outside temperature at 12 degrees below zero on the Celsius scale.

    I was way too tired to keep awake in the United Airlines from Chicago to Minneapolis. I slept from Bangalore to Frankfurt and was unable to sleep on the spanking new A340-400 from Frankfurt to Chicago. I was pacing up and down, watched movies, read a book and was wondering about the dope that designed the toilets in that plane. (All the toilets are one flight of stairs down accessible through a narrow passage making it difficult for old people and parents with children to reach. What was Airbus thinking?)

    Later I woke up for the landing at Minneapolis, had no mood to take the train and bought a shuttle ticket to the Hilton. The lobby was a typical Midwest overdone horror house of mirrors and the cat-threw-up marble. The rooms were good and I pass out. Woke up very early to see the brilliant view.

    Breakfast at French Meadows – an organic breakfast bar little away from the downtown that serves Granola, yoghurt, organic farm eggs and good coffee. Pleased. I finished my morning meeting and met Brad at noon. Brad had been talking about this place called Bullwinkles and they serve the best Coney Island Hotdogs on this planet. And the place was a legacy, an institution that made people come back after years. A Coney Island Hotdog is a long sausage in warm fresh hot dog bun with Chili, hot sauce and onions. I loved it and washed it down with Bass Ale. We went straight into a meeting in a conference room at Pete’s office. This involved intense discussions. We were done late that evening and were due at Runyons.

    Runyons is an old bar with dark woodwork, tall ceilings and walls full of framed pictures of the patrons wearing Runyons t-shirt all over the world. There were a few at the Taj, Agra. More Bass Ale and nuclear wings. We were supposed to meet Brad’s friend Jarvis there. Our parking time ran out. We went out to put some more coins into the parking meter and on our way back Jarvis is standing on the other side of the road. He locked his keys in the car with headlights on and the engine running. A small chaotic introduction, planning and Brad decides to wait at the car. Jarvis and I head out to his house to get the spare keys. Jarvis is a middle-aged friend of Brad who runs an energy management company in Minneapolis. In that short ride we talked about the similarities between Judaism and Hinduism. I already liked the man. Post reclaiming his car Jarvis takes us to The Yacht Club that is deep inland and has no indication of any water body around it. This is a seriously local bar with middle-aged regulars. A basic happy place with talkative dumpy bartender, lone neon sign on a white wall, a pinball machine at the far end, a pool table, wire mesh shutters on doors and plenty of bar stories. Very American and very warm.

    One such story involved sumo wrestlers being invited to the bar by a regular and the whole place was filled with people wanting to see them perform. There was another guy called Big Frank – a massive native American who used to sit at a corner. Somebody decided that Big Frank would fight a sumo. There was an uncomfortable silence and somebody ordered a round for everybody. This made the air lighter and the tense mood slackened. Then there was party.

    As I left Jarvis gave me a dollar bill and asked me to give that very bill to somebody who needs it back in India. I will carry that with me.

    This was a good sample of a typical mid west local bar. I will remember this for long.

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  9. The days of good food karma

    Work demanded a recent visit to Ahmedabad. I was back with money in my pocket and that was a change. I did my design education there and was pretty much a pauper right through the stint.

    Design education was not a standard academic option that South Indian middle-class youngsters would choose those days. It is not like my father dreamt that I would grow up and be a graphic designer. The truth is, till date, he does not know what I do for a living. Our design school campus was in Ahmedabad, a dusty quasi-capital of Gujarat where short-frocked milkmen flirted with camels. The campus however was self-sufficient fortified dream capital with clean air, love and bad food available in plenty. Other than structured courses that demanded us to go out and document through conversation and drawings, we students were immune to the grime and grit of the city. The proverbial ivory tower of the self proclaimed cerebral knights.

    I had a hand written boarding pass and clambered over seven software engineers, two media women with black lipstick, a vegetable dyed NGO lady, a gaggle of clipped cackling British guys and an unattended Samsonite to identify my lonely blue bag on the windy tarmac – the systems were down. It is needless to say that I had no friends in that flight to Mumbai. I gate crashed at Vivek and Monisha’s house, ate up all their food and subjected them to Woody Allen banter further bored-down with my own. It is a miracle that Monisha was still willing to join us in Ahmedabad the next morning. But her pursuit was more epicurean and less camaraderie.

    That night I slept with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and dreamt of samurai sword carved lamb in a strange seaside restaurant.

    Vivek and I took a ruthlessly early flight to Ahmedabad with foul coffee and no breakfast. I have this nasty habit of growing hair all over my face, incessantly drooling and tearing through my shirt when I do not have breakfast. But I held on. The early morning Ahmedabad air hit me with deep nostalgia and a mild hay fever. We were driven to a guesthouse, an apartment with late Victorian Gujarati baroque décor where chartered accountants and mills men were dished out custom breakfast of upma, cereal and tea. The cook was good and he baled us out. But we did miss the coffee. We had factory visits the entire day and I was dreading the lunch. But that was not bad either with an unnecessarily spiced spinach soup, cottage cheese in get-as-fat-as-you-can gravy, high calorie rotis and a thimble full of rice. More of factories and I reached my threshold – breaking point. I almost skipped a fantastic dinner at this highway restaurant done up like a supposedly rustic charming village for visitors from faraway land called Vishala.

    Monisha had flown in later with the sole purpose of eating at Vishala and Lisa accompanied to join us for the factory visit. Winter darkness arrived before you can say ‘jamvamaté jaun chu!’ – ‘I am going to eat’ in Gujarati. We landed at this oil lamp lit walkway of Vishala village bumping into each other in darkness. A turbaned young man, who in broad daylight could be an ex-collector’s son from Srirangam working in Ahmedabad for a living, ushered us in. (Later I should tell you this story about Palaniappan who wears Pathan suits and serves in an Afghani restaurant called Kabul in Amsterdam.)

    We started with jaljeera. I hated this drink in my earlier days in Ahmedabad. I could not understand how a drink that tastes like dilute cough syrup and smells like acute flatulence in livestock could be refreshing. I learnt to like it over years and I had a few glasses now. I also learnt that the cattle flatulence ingredient was rock salt or ‘kala namak’ as it is popularly known. We were walked further into the village and were seated on mud washed floor against a low table in a thatched roof cupola. Then it all started. It was as if their leader did a strong propaganda speech around the corner in militant Gujarati and the gist of it was ‘FEED THEM! SHOW NO MERCY!’ The turbaned youth brigade got into action. They brought leaves and pre-formed cups made of dried lotus leaves. First there was a sea of salads with sprouted chickpeas, peanuts, sweetened cucumber pickled, tomatoes in limejuice and more. Then they brought the vegetables – bataka nu shak (semi-dry potatoes with turmeric, cumin seeds and a little tomatoes to make it moist), mind-blowing undhyo (an amazing, tasty oily dark gravy with unrecognizable vegetables in it), and lots of deep fried fritters, thin rotis, butter and gooey jaggery to go with it. All this served with so much love and persistence that I ate too much, my legs went off to sleep and I needed help to get off the ground. It was wish fulfillment, manna from Amdavadi quarters of heaven, a nostalgic awakening, culinary excellence that surpasses a Gujarati invoked Bull Run – I was satiated and had a dreamless sleep that night. It was not over yet.

    The next morning and I was still craving for coffee. The ignorant cook at the guesthouse showed me a bottle of Nescafé. He did not know that instant coffee is not kosher among people in Bangalore. Alternatively he offered milky white ginger tea that can launch lactose intolerance in R2D2. I realized that coffee is not necessarily a core competence in this part of the world. I had a fleeting glimpse of a café as we drove in the previous night. This is one of those places where very nubile young things and very young thugs courting nubile young things are draped on chairs looking vacant (read cool). I walked across middle-aged Gujarati men riding scooters sidesaddle and located the café. I asked the man at the counter for two double espressos, little milk no foam, to go. He looked at me as if I just ordered the 1952 version of Clark’s Logarithmic Table in Hebrew. I slowly deconstructed my order and drove it home. He was a slow barista and that is an understatement. The wait at the café felt longer than it was. There was an impervious early morning Roman orgy well underway in one sunlit corner involving a lot of thugs and things. If this coffee was not happening I was planning to go intravenous, sent right where it matters. Finally I was violently sucking at a paper cup filled with my coffee and took a couple back to the guesthouse. Then there was a boring breakfast and more factories to visit before our noon flight.

    We boarded. Vivek had an epiphany somewhere over Surat. We were going to Highway Gomantak for lunch. Highway Gomantak is a small restaurant on the service road in Bandra that promises a good seafood meal. They somehow manage to gently coax every living creature in the sea to convert to a delectable curry dish or a rava fry on my plate. I let Monisha and Lisa decide between a hoard of dishes with names that sound like the entire process of cooking – ‘slowly twist the head and pull the inerds out as you sing an upbeat excerpt from a Konkani song’ could pretty much be a name of a dish. The place was teeming with inspiring eaters who with a sleight of hand could devour a crab with a lot of rice and sunset yellow gravy in coconut sauce. I probably had a significant part of an underwater food chain that afternoon – clams, mussels, silver fish, shrimps, pomfret in their many styles. I loved the food and hated the fact that I was going to work and Monisha to sleep at home.

    I was back in Bangalore that night. This trip was an epicurean deliverance. Thanks to Vivek, Monisha and Lisa who brought in the good food karma.

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