Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tandoori delights

Have you seen a tandoor? It is a clay oven that is used to cook and bake food by generating fire within it. The food cooks in its own fat and juices as it is exposed to high temperatures inside the tandoor.

This method of cooking, called the tandoori method, is often associated with Mughlai food or the food from the Mughal era. This also refers to dry foods especially meats cooked in a clay oven over a high heat. The chicken tikka, mutton tikka, kebab, tandoori murg, paneer tikka are some of the grilled delights that come out of a tandoor.

The earliest tandoors were discovered alongside the remains of the Indus Valley civilisation. It is now a strongly held belief that the tandoor travelled with the migrating Aryan race.

The Aryans, who originally belonged to India, would travel often in search of grazing lands. Some of their travels took them to the Caucasus Mountains and also brought them back after a couple of centuries and so the tandoor travelled from India around Asia and back again.

If you were to look at the origin of the term tandoor, history would take you to the time of the Mesopotamians. Some also believe that the term had its origin in Pashto where tata means hot and andar means inside.

The evidence of the use of clay ovens set in earth have been found in Ladakh in the uppermost reaches of India as well as in Egypt when they were mummifying bodies and building pyramids. History tells us that in Afghanistan, tandoor was used as a community oven and people could bring their dough and get it baked for a fee.

Amongst our medical treatises written as early as in the Vedic Era, the food cooked on an open charcoal fire has been lauded by the father of surgery, Sushrut. Charvak, another renowned physician, also praised this method of cooking which aided the digestion of marinated meats.

Imperial poet Amir Khusro in some of his works noted that flatbread cooked in a tandoor, popularly called naan, was relished by the royals.

Some varieties of the tandoori naan were enriched with the addition of the choicest nuts for the esteemed consumer.

In Punjab and Rajasthan, the tandoor is also called bhatti. Bhatti is derived from the name of a tribe of the Thar desert. These people developed a variation of the tandoor in the deserts to optimise the heat trapped in the sand to cook their food. Smart, wouldn’t you say?

During the rule of Jehangir, tandoori food gained prominence. He took his love of the tandoor to the places he conquered and introduced it there. This led to the invention of portable tandoors. Some food historians do believe that tandoori chicken originated during these times. It was popularised by Kundan Lal Gujral and his partner Kundan Lal Jaggi who settled in the Daryaganj area in Delhi after Partition and opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal specialising in tandoori delights. The rest as they say is history and today tandoori is a favoured choice of millions around the world.

(This post first appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on September 21, 2012. Here is the link to it:

Culinary delights of Amritsar

Continuing on our food journey, let us today explore a destination that has given the taste of India to the world to sample. You must be familiar with the name of this city which is also an important place of pilgrimage for the Sikhs. It has held great significance in the annals of history owing to a massacre.

Amritsar is known throughout the world for its rich culture and cuisine. Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple is the most prominent religious place for Sikhs and in 1919 the holy city saw many lose their lives at the Jallianwala Bagh.

Today let us venture into the gullies of Amritsar and explore the foodie delights they have to offer.

Amritsar lends its name to a fish preparation that is not only exquisite but also has had a big hand in putting the city’s name on the food map of the world. We are talking about the Amritsari fish. A simple dish of fish that is fried in a mix of very basic ingredients like besan and yoghurt has caught the imagination of chefs around the world. The result being that Amritsari fish is served with slight innovations in hotels and restaurants almost everywhere.

The food item that is next on my list is the Amritsari kulcha. There are different kinds of breads but hardly anything comes close to the divine Amritsari kulcha that comes as crispy as can be. Generally served with a spicy preparation of chickpeas, called chole in Punjabi, the chutney that is served alongside adds to the experience. There are shops that are specifically in the business of churning out kulchas and the variety that they have to offer will blow your socks off. You get plain kulcha, of course, but then there are also the stuffed kulchas which often travel through as many as three tandoors to make it to your plate. The kulcha-chole combination or the humble aaloo kulcha are a vegetarian delight up for grabs in many restaurants boasting of authentic Indian flavours.

All this food talk is making me thirsty, and that brings to mind the next thing that Amritsar has lent many international menus — lassi. This sweet drink that is highly refreshing has seen many forms. A perfect way to deal with the scorching heat, lassi, comes in many flavours. You get to choose from a wide spectrum including kesar, malai, mango, strawberry and almond. For those who prefer something salty, a jeera version is available. Keeping in mind the changing preferences of people, the lassi shops in Amritsar have started to offer a diet lassi. Usually served cold, this frothy drink is rich in consistency and creamy in its taste. Another famous drink from here, which I think must have been invented to fight the cruel Indian summer, is the shikanjvi. A close and a little tweaked version of the regular nimbu paani shikanjvi is richer in terms of having herbs, especially those with cooling properties like mint, and masalas that aid digestion. With all that talk on food I think I need to get a glass of that shikanjvi.

(This post first appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on September 7, 2012. Here is the link to it:

Sweet sweet Diwali

Bengali sweets have often found a major following everywhere they go. K C Das canned rosogollas and finding a confectioner who doesn’t sell them even today will be a tough task. The tradition of exchanging sweets during the festival season is indeed a sweet tradition. It serves to remind us that not only is there an unfathomable joy in sharing but also that all that is actually worthwhile in our lives are the sweet moments of togetherness.

For children, these times are made even more memorable by the uninhibited supply of sweets along with an unrestricted access to them. Diwali, to my mind, is one festival that the whole country celebrates with the spirit of unity. The various elements of Diwali — sweets (of course!), bursting crackers, donning your best clothes, rangoli — are much the same from the top of the country to the bottom.

So let us look at the five sweets that add that extra special flavour and sweetness to this festival of lights.

Gajar ka halwa: Doesn’t just the mere name of this particular preparation bring to you a delicate aroma that warms your heart? Prepared with carrots in ghee, milk, sugar or jaggery and an assortment of nuts, nothing can beat the home made gajar ka halwa at being a popular favourite.

Kaaju katli: A rich preparation made with generous amounts of ghee and cashew, the kaaju ki barfi, or kaaju katli as it is also known in some parts of the country, is the lovable diamond shaped barfi that is a sinful indulgence for many. This sweet is also often prepared during the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. It is also one of the most expensive barfis available.

Gujiya: Diwali and holi are almost incomplete without a fair amount of gujiya hogging. Why I use the word hogging is because you can rarely stop at eating just one of these. Also known as karanji in the state of Maharashtra, ghughra in Gujarat, karachika in Tamil Nadu or kajjikayi in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, gujiya is made of flour and is stuffed with sweetened khoya and nuts or in states like Goa with shredded coconut, nuts and jaggery.

Gulab Jamun: Considered to be a popular Diwali sweet, gulab jamuns are made from khoya or concentrated milk solids, refined wheat flour, sugar, chenna or pressed milk curd, rose water and cardamom. The term gulab jamun originates from the Persian word for the flower rose, gulab — as rosewater syrup is often used in the preparation of this sweet — and jambul fruit. Gulab jamun is also a hot favourite during the Muslim festivals of Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The sweet offering holds a special place in the menus of the weddings of almost all regions of India.

Puran Poli: The Mahrashtrian delight that is also famous by the name of obbattu in the state of Karnataka is a flat roti that is stuffed with a sweet filling made of coconut, dry fruits and a pinch of turmeric for extra flavour.

Besides these five delicious sweets, which I have not assembled in any particular order, rosogollas, ladoos, Mysore pak, adhirasam are popular and mouthwatering Diwali mithais which are eaten by one and all.

(This post first appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on November 9, 2012. Here is the link to it:

A sweeet rush

One festive season has just gone by. I am sure you brought out your brightest and nicest clothes. Some new ones must have been purchased for an important puja or your favourite day of festivity.

It is awe inspiring how various festivals celebrated by people belonging to different religions and communities follow one another so closely, and we spend so much time in gaiety and revelry.

One thing common to festivals, be they of any religion, is the tradition of exchanging sweets. Durga Puja, which just concluded, brought me closer to the wonderful world of Bengali sweets and that is what we are going to delve into today.

Rosogollas, sandesh and mishti doi rule the roost, yet there is much more to the Bengali sweet. The lovely chom-chom, the aromatic kalakand, the shapely langcha… you name your preference and the Bengalis will present you with something that is apt for your sweet tooth.

A wonderful thing about most Bengali sweets is that they make for a healthy choice. The main constituent of these sweet preparations is milk, used in the form of chenna or sweetened cottage cheese. These milk preparations are a winning choice also owing to the fact that they are rarely fried. For example, consider the sandesh. The sweetened cottage cheese is simply dried and pressed into a shape, often that of a ball, to make the basic avatar of the sandesh called kaanchagola. Thanks to the innovative minds in the food industry this sweet now has many variants on offer, made with the addition of syrups, fruit and even chocolate.

The rosogolla also has been touched by chocolate. The internet informs me that the Bengali rosogolla had its origin in Odisha where it was popularised by a local confectioner Bikalananda Kar. Nobin Das, a Kolkata confectioner who is also fondly called ‘rosogolla’s Columbus’, tried to simplify the traditional Odisha recipe. He also wanted to increase the shelf life of this highly perishable item. The end result of the various trials that Das Babu carried out was spongier and could be kept for a longer duration without fear of its getting spoiled. Rosogollas were earlier sold in earthen pots, a trend that has made a healthy comeback over the years, but Nobin Das’s son K C Das saw a business opportunity in selling canned rosogollas. This led to popularising the sweet as it became easier to transport. So much so today any sweet shop, and many selling confectionery items, can be seen selling either their in-house preparation of the rosogolla or a product of one or other major brand in the sweet business. The sweet has even crossed the seven seas.

Rosogolla served as a predecessor to many chenna-based preparations like chom- chom, kheer sagar, pantua and, even rasmalai.

(This post first appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on November 23, 2012. Here is the link to it:

Trading tastes

A little obscure village on the left bank of river Hooghly, now known as Kolkata, became the city of Calcutta under the influence of its many rulers. The Portugese landed in the village Kalikatta in 1517. In 1580, Akbar, gave them a charter to settle here. Basically traders by profession, the Portugese would buy things like muslin, spices, cotton, rice, and other agricultural products here and then sell them off at high prices at various ports in the East. Initially the Portugese would stay in Kalikatta during the rainy season, trade and then head back to Goa where rains would be over . With time this practice gave way to permanent settlements and records say that by 1670s ‘there were at least 20,000 Portuguese and their descendants in Bengal’.
Though the political influence of the Portugese diminished after the arrival of Dutch and finally the East India Trading Company yet even today it pervades the life in Bengal in many other ways. One of the ways in which the Portugese influence continues is through the usage of spices, various ingredients and techniques that they brought with them.

You will be surprised to know that many plants that you might have thought belonged to us Indians were introduced by the Portugese. Let us take the example of a versatile- a sort of star vegetable- potato. It was 1780, when a basket of potatoes was presented to Sir Warren Hastings in Calcutta. Called batata on the west coast of India, aalu was being grown in the foothills of the Himalayas in 1830s and by 1860s potato had become a popular part of the Bengali food being incorporated in its dry form as well as a gravy avatar. Today a proper Bengali meal begins with shukto which is incomplete without its fair share of potatoes alongside a melange of other colourful vegetables. So much so, shukto is often the measure of a good cook here in Bengal. The addition of potatoes to curries alongside meats and seafood is also an example of the carrying on of the Portugese influence.
Many fruits like Pineapple, Papaya, Guava and Litchi were brought to Bengal by the Portugese. The Portugese name for Pineapple- ananas- is still retained and in much use.

A legacy of the Portugese baker that still lives on in Bengal as a mainstay of the cuisine is the luchi. Generally plain boiled rice is served alongside the meal but if bread is served it is the luchi, made of white flour or maida.
The sweets too have been much influenced by the Portugese. The basic method of curdling milk with yogurt or lemon juice to produce chenna is often attributed to them. This is an important ingredient of countless sweets like rosogulla and sandesh.
The Portugese also bought the influence of Goan dishes into the Bengali cuisine and today you can find these listed alongside many native dishes in any cookbook on Bengali food.
It will not be wrong to say that Calcutta’s cosmopolitan food and culture owes much to the Portugese.

(The post first appeared as a column on October 19, 2012, in The New Indian Express. Here is the link:

The magic of Kolkata's cuisine

In another month’s time I will complete one year of being in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. Many dishes typical to Kolkata are identified as the main stay of the Bengali cuisine.

Bengal of yesteryears included the present day state of West Bengal and Bangladesh, often referred to as East Bengal. This undivided Bengal had been ruled by Mughals who made Dhaka their central seat. Kolkata rose to prominence under the British raj. Besides being a major trade centre, Kolkata was also a major centre of education, science, culture and politics.

Your History books will tell you how Lord Curzon partitioned the state of Bengal in the name of administrative reforms in the year 1905. The creation of East Bengal and West Bengal was a highly unfavourable move and Bengal had to be reunited in 1911. A second partition took place in 1947 when Pakistan was formed. East Bengal came to be known as East Pakistan and in 1971 was declared as an independent state of Bangladesh.

Till date the Bengali cuisine proudly bears various influences it has inherited owing to the trade relations with distant nations and as well as the impact of the colonizers. Many traditions from these varied cultures and communities have stayed on even after the original followers have left. Today these very traditions form an essential part of the Bengali kaalchaar.

Let us take the example of the tea ritual. An absolute English tradition, this must have been adopted by the Bengali babu with great √©lan. Today this tea break is an immensely important and revered time slot. Observed with great seriousness and often referred to as ‘Tiffin’ time, this tea break is accompanied with delicious preparations, generally of the savoury kind. The pound cake and the puffs are generally preferred over anything else at this point of time. Be it the maids, known as moushis, or the office folk, ritualistically catch up with the day’s gossip during the Tiffin time. The British also brought with them the chops and rolls and you will find a shack here and there all over the city selling these mini delights. These are up for grabs in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian segments though the non-vegetarian varieties generally find more takers.

Like I mentioned earlier, trade in its wake brought people from many communities to Kolkata. Among these, Jews was one of the prominent ethnic communities to call Calcutta home. Unfortunately the Jews of Kolkata are almost on the verge of becoming extinct and so are the bakeries that their families had once established all over Kolkata. The one that still stands tall is the Nahoum's Bakery in the New Market Area. Established in 1902 and housed in the same shop in the Hogg’s market since 1916 Confectioners Nahoum and Sons is famous for its fish pantras, cheese/ mutton samosas and rum balls. Packaging is not the sale mantra here, taste, flavour and aroma is. Nahoum’s is synonymous with Christmas in Kolkata but I am looking forward to repeating my experience a few times before that mega event.

(The post first appeared as a column on October 5, 2012, in The New Indian Express. Here is the link:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Not now, not here

It was here just now.
This idea that I wanted to write out.
This story I wanted to tell the world.

It was here just when
The door bell rang
And a bunch of chirpy girls
Tumbled in
Bringing laughter and demanding snacks

It was here just
When the cooker called from the kitchen
When the doodh-wala came to ask for his dues
When the neighbour rang to ask for spare potatoes
When the guard called a wrong number to announce guests
When the friend pinged on gmail

It was here, in my head
Then for a while
It swam in front of my eyes
Getting hazier with every passing moment
And I chased it
as I read the newspaper
as I sipped my tea
as I watered my three potted plants
as I sat in the loo trying to recall it
as I watched a serial, about the best surgeons in the US

I failed to grasp it
Simply could not clasp it

Now it won't return
Says has another concern
About others in the fraternity
For them it worries and asks me
'Whether they will find a voice
Or will it too become
homeless like me?'