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Czech food magic

Food (and beer) from this part of Eastern Europe can be soul satiating this Christmas

Anoothi Vishal

If you are looking for a magical Christmas experience this time of the year, try the mystical Bohemia, with its castles and churches, solemn music, beautiful countryside, boisterous bars and captivating nights in the smallest of towns. Or simply book yourself a holiday and visit Prague, one of my favorite cities on this planet– literary, stunning, haunting and romantic all at the same time. Not for nothing has it been called the most emotional city in the world.

But you can’t feed off atmosphere only, can you? Bodily nourishment is needed and holidayers everywhere are right when they want to choose their intended destinations based on the quality of food and drink available. In Prague and other towns of Bohemia and Moravia, you will not be stuck for choice. There’s plenty of modern European food going and then there’s Czech pub grub plus those authentic warming stews and breads.

But first the beers. The country is a haven for beer lovers; it has the highest beer consumption in the world and was one of the first to start brewing the brew.
You may be already acquainted with all the famous brands like Budweiser, Budvar, Kozel, Pilsner,Bernand, and Staropramen. They are all Czech and loved the world over even if people don’t actually know the provenance. Interestingly, what many people also don’t know is the fact that Pilsner, the popular pale lager takes its name from the Czech city of Pilsen in Bohemia, where it was first produced in 1842, and from where it spread around the world.

In all the pubs that I visited during my charming but ah-too-short vvsit to the region, I sampled some fabulous beers. The white wheat beers and also the dark, slightly chocolaty “lady’s beers” as they are populary callled in Czech bars.

Czech food on the other hand is simple breaded deepfried fish,beef croquets,sausages,sour cabbage and boiled potato salads .The most distinctive feature are dumplings made from flour or potatoes that are served up with stews and meats,with a little cream and pureed fruit sauce for garnish. Plus, there’s goulash.

Recently,I came across a young chef from the country,Michal Jerabek,who was cooking at the Eros in Delhi,and he taught me a couple of simple recipes you can replicate at home.

Chef Michal , currently a Sous-Chef in Hotel Hilton Prague, had been especially flown in to New Delhi to create traditional Czech dishes and culinary specialties at Blooms, the cofffeeshop at the hotel.

Th recipe that he gave me for the stew is as follows: For a kilo of meat (a mix of chicken and pork),you would need a kilo of onion,plus garlic,salt and pepper,caraway seeds,paprika,tomato puree and marjoram.Fry the onions and the meat brown and season these.Then add the puree and paprika,and add water to boil.Cook on a low flame for an hour or so till the meats are tender and the flavours well blended
.
The Czech chicken broth also uses the technique of slow cooking.But it is as simple as putting pieces of chicken,celery,onion,carrots,bay leaf and all spice in water and letting it all simmer for two hours.You can add home-made noodles for a one-pot lunch or dinner.
Finally, let me leave you with a little bit of Christmas magic. There are certain ingrediients that have always been held to possess special powers this time of the year in Czech cuisine. Add them to your life and who knows your Christmas may be as magical as anything in Prague!

Garlic: is an essential part of Christmas that should not be missing
at any Christmas dinner. It is believed to provide strength and
protection. A bowl of garlic can be placed under the dinner table.

Honey: is believed to guard against evil. A pot of honey can be placed
on the dinner table.

Mushrooms: health and strength. Mushroom soup can be
served before dinner.

Grain: A bundle of grain dipped in holy water can be used to sprinkle the
house to prevent it from burning down in the next year.

Váno?ka (Christmas bread): Feeding a piece of váno?ka to the cows on Christmas Eve will ensurethat there will be lots of milk all year.

My Goan cooking Class

One of India’s biggest, but unacknowledged, exports to the world is the curry. From Africa to the Caribbean, south-east Asia to the UK, the curry in various forms and flavours, bears testimony to colonial trade and the major part that spices from India played in it. Yet, curry itself is not quite an Indian term. Nor is the concept, as understood largely the world over, really part of our regional cuisines.

As any food historian will claim, the term itself came into being when British settlers took up the Tamil word kaari, meaning pepper water or pepper infused, and popularised it as standing for the typically spicy gravy they tried to replicate in their own kitchens. For this they used a generic spice mix, ‘curry powder’ that you will still never find in Indian stores.

Indian regional kitchens, on the other hand, have always thrived on their masalas. Not just individual spices but different combinations of spices, yielding wonderfully diverse flavours. It is the judicious use of these masalas that differentiates a good cook from the bad. And it is surprising how culinary creations even from the same region or micro-region can be using the same spices but in different combinations.

Last week, I had the opportunity to take a relaxing cooking class by the sea that unlocked for me the secrets of the Goan kitchen. Chef Zorawar Singh, a tattooed, enthusiastic young chef, originally from Jaipur, but who now looks after the kitchen of the boutique hotel, The Park on The Beach, taught me the basic Goan masalas in a wonderful cooking class on a rainy day, as the sea outside raged on.

While so much is made of seafood in the shacks, few people, aside from those that have vacationed to and spent time in Goa hotels, really understand the finer nuances of Goan food—much of which can be categorised neatly according to the basic masala used in individual dishes. In fact, Goa is interesting not just because of a coming together of Portuguese and coastal Maharashtrian influences in its cuisine, but also because the spice combinations used in different curries are so well defined, unlike in many other regional kitchens.

You can easily do these at home. Here are the basics:

Cafreal: This is a fresh green masala. Blend together fresh coriander and mint leaves with a little capsicum (for colour), ginger, garlic, turmeric, green chillies, onion and sugar. All the Goan masalas have a pinch of sugar added to balance the salty-spicy flavours, says Zorawar. But the most important ingredient in all the Goan masalas is the coconut vinegar (fermented toddy) that gives the cuisine a distinctive taste. If you don’t have this, substitute with tamarind. According to Zorawar, this is an African influence on the state’s cuisine.

Goan curry: Ever raved about the fish curry you had in a shack? Well, you can recreate that in your own landlocked home by blending freshly grated coconut, turmeric powder, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, a ball of de-seeded tamarind, red chillies, ginger and garlic paste and, of course, sugar. All the Goan masalas are colour coded—this one ranges from yellow to orange, depending on which home you are having it in. Clearly, a Saraswat (coastal Hindu) influence, the masala incorporates more haldi and no onion and garlic if it is in a Hindu home, and milder Kashmiri red chillies to give it an orange colour in Christian homes, Zorawar says. It is also a fascinating look at the sociology of food in the same microcosm.

Xacuti masala: This one is a favourite because of its wonderful complexity thanks to the roasted spices. First make a dry masala roasting and blending together cloves, green cardamom, star anise, fennel, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, Kashmiri red chillies and rice powder. Next make a wet masala: heat coconut oil and add onion, green chillies, ginger and garlic and fresh coconut. Add curry leaves and coriander leaves and a pinch of turmeric. When sauted, blend and then mix with the dry spice mix. This becomes a masala to coat the heavier meats—pork, and beef, typically.

Peri Peri: These are small Portuguese chillies, but you can make this with any chilli. Zorawar’s recipe comprises Kashmiri red chillies, cloves, cardamom, cumin, peppercorn, cinnamon, ginger and garlic, turmeric, sugar, onion and Goan vinegar in which all these need to be soaked overnight. Grind everything together. This is a bright red paste and the basic masala for sorpotel (to which pork fat is added), vindalloo and even for Goan sausage.

Next time, don’t be confused, order right, even at your favourite touristy shack!

(The article appeared in the Financial Express on Sunday)

Clothes, cakes and a chat: Wandering in Paharganj and the bargain

By Anoothi Vishal

Should the so-called “tourist traps” necessarily be avoided? As a traveler with some pretensions, seeking out the local, looking for immersive experiences wherever I go, even if it’s a short, three-day affair, I have been disdainful of touristy hangouts. “But these obvious kind of places is really where you meet all kinds of interesting people,” suggested a co-traveller once and I have finally found that to be true.

Paharganj, Delhi’s backpacker district, would never have featured on my agenda—especially since I do live in Delhi. And do not need to do touristy things like take a tour guide to see the Red Fort and the Qutab Minar. Or, even just “see” the Red Fort and the Qutab Minar. It’s sad but true that we get so used to living our own versions of reality in the cities we inhabit that we never do land up seeing them with a new set of eyes. And we certainly do not make the effort to take in their architectural, cultural or even culinary splendours the way an Outsider does; well, because all those in some ways also reside in us. If men live in cities, cities live in men too, I read somewhere. And again, that’s true.

But there are corners of the city that lives in me that I have never been to. Paharganj is one of them. I have of course boarded countless trains from the station there. Despaired at the chaotic traffic in its general vicinity, had visions of seedy hotels, drug-dens and ageing hippies in its narrow lanes, but never, never set foot inside the place.

This Sunday, on a whim, I decided to alter that state of affairs and begin my adventures closer home. So I find myself on a hot afternoon disgorged from a friendly autorickshaw on the arterial street of the Paharganj market.

First impressions: It is certainly less chaotic than I have been expecting and much less crowded than some of the other places I have been to in the circus called India. There is far less hustling by touts/shopkeepers than in some other towns in the country. But I am amused nevertheless when sellers of all manner of things from apparel to kites sporadically direct their “hello, madam” greetings at me, urging me into their stores to buy whatever they are selling in the mistaken belief that I am some kind of a lost foreign soul on these shores. I have that kind of a face: In Europe, they think I am European; in India, if I dress in a studenty way, they still think the same.

I do stop by at a tiny shop selling incredibly cheap clothing and land up buying quite a stylish shirt for just Rs 125. I normally pay 10 times that for similar stuff at the malls where middle-class Indians like me invariably land up going these days to fuel the cycle of endless consumption that is keeping our economy going apparently. I haven’t visited flee markets and those selling export surplus like Lajpat Nagar and Sarojini Nagar in years now. But even there, I doubt, whether I’d be able to buy cheaper.

Happy with my buy, I browse at a couple of second-hand bookstores. It would be easy to spend an entire day buried here. One of these doubles as an astrology centre, the other as a café and I am tempted to check out both, but end up wandering, observing all the other tourists speaking in so many different tongues conduct their business here. What is definitely strange is that even here, there are more Indians than foreigners visibly buying up things—fruits, locks, the like. But with a population of one billion plus in this country, we can hardly expect to be outnumbered even in these foreign-traveller-ghettos, unlike, say London.

The Gem Bar, on the other hand, seems to be a destination only for the tourists. It is a dark, cavernous space, lit up by coloured lights. I contemplate going in and buying myself some cold beer on this hot day. But then there’s no guarantee that it will not be warm or served in a tea pot (apparently some places here do that!) and any way I chicken out at the prospect of going to such a dingy place alone.

This is after all is still India and years of living with caution in a country not known to respect its women catch up suddenly. The German bakery, on the other hand, holds no such qualms and terrors. I sink into a chair, order myself lemon-grass tea and a wedge of the tempting, homely lemon cake I have seen in the window. And I write in my little diary. What a perfect afternoon…

The café is filling up and strangely enough I find that most of the backpackers seem to be women travelling in twos. Voyages of discovery by the sistahs, are these? Fueled perhaps by Eat, Pray, Love.

But my mind is already wandering to Europe, as it invariably does when wanderlust strikes, thinking about French fries and other things in Ghent that I visited just a couple of months ago, when I notice a hesitant trio come in: two women, one man. They squeeze into the table next to mine, look around, look at my tea, consult and look at my tea again. “It’s lemon grass, very refreshing,” I offer, they promptly order the same.

“So where are you from?” I check off that box on my list. “Belgium,” they say. Synchronity is not strange if you pay attention to it. “Oh, I was there two months ago, it’s so lovely,” I say, checking off another box. “Where did you go?”; Ghent,” I say, still thinking of the fries. “That’s where we are from,” they chime, one Dutch-, the other French- speaker, excited now. And thus begins an afternoon of pleasant conversation. Strangers colliding into each other’s orbits for that tiny fraction of time. Things that happen only in touristy places.

‘Milkshakes and limousine eyelashes’…

And why it can be as liberating as a Masque

By Anoothi Vishal

“So, did you get Bohemian crystal?”, “… the hand-crafted silver jewellery?”, “Did you check out the Selfridges sale….” “Did you shop?” Period. Asked with obvious glee.

I dread the interrogation each time I come trudging back from one of those meandering trips. These are questions that I look upon with such obvious disdain that it is a wonder that the askers do not just shrivel up and shut up. They never do.

The great Indian middle-class is relentless in its quest for acquisition—and for comparing whether it is better off than the neighbour. So when I say “no, no, no…”, it just becomes the perfect launchpad to stories about how, where, when did X, Y, Z acquire that perfect bottle of whisky, coat or LBD, or even the biggest, most flaunt-worthy piece of “art”.

Travel is somewhat new to the argumentative Indian. Despite our prodigal Railway network and enterprising communities that have set up bread stores, taxi empires and restaurants in the remotest corners of the world, middle India is still taking baby steps as global travelers. It is natural to want to show-off; tell your neighbours, family, Facebook friends that you checked out the Eiffel or Masai Mara and, yes, bought six months’ wardrobe from Harrods on sale. (Though, of course, stick to monogrammed bags to keep up society image!)

I don’t really mind the Facebook pictures so much. They help you keep in touch with other people’s lives, even if it’s only the airbrushed versions. Heck, I am guilty of the same self indulgence. And on days that I am awfully bored, stuck with a story in my head that won’t just write or with a long list of must-dos, I go back to these and escape into memories of more exciting moments … perhaps people who bring back souveniers and fridge magnets from each of their trips do it for the same reason: It is a validation of their lives. Our lives; that all has not been lost in the unutterable mundaneness of being. That we Did. That we Lived.

My fear though is that most of us today don’t think so much. Perhaps we don’t even feel too much. Travel, like shopping, is merely a badge of acquisition. We have, so we must possess, and tell others about it too. Because, what’s the point of travelling or buying if you do not have a group of people you could narrate it to?

I am not sure whether the same logic applies to all those people who make firm itineraries and tick off every must-do monument/museum/activity on it. This type of frenetic travel may only be a function of the desire to experience all that you have read or heard about. To maximize life’s little moments…

India’s post-liberalisation travelers though may have other reasons to seek out newer lands and experiences. Partying in Ibiza or doing Turkey with friends from the university come invested with undeniable charm, as do road (or backpacking) trips of self discovery, common now with students, arty types or restless execs questioning the rat race.

Two of Bollywood’s most successful films capturing a young, urban lifestyle use this as a trope: The path-breaking Dil Chahta Hai and its sibling Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara both focus on life-altering road trips and indeed the idea that travel, even if it’s just one trip, can alter the course of your life. This is a hugely seductive idea. We find it increasingly in pop literature, in those chick-lit Metro reads, where young women fleeing from bad bosses or/and bad boyfriends/husbands take to the road to find destiny waiting round the corner. In any case, it isn’t quite a bad idea to check out that corner—at the very least, you may just find summer romance!

Travel, of course, does change you. Perhaps not in the drastic ways of fiction but subtly, gently. It does something to your own perception of your being when you find yourself in an alien country, where no one quite comprehends what you ask, managing to find your way back to the hotel despite an inability to read maps. It empowers you in strange ways when you, the small-town girl, perches on a high bar stool downing your nth drink, talking to a stranger. You can almost feel that skin of fear and insecurity that encapsulates you as the disadvantaged sex in a still-feudal world order peel off.

Travel is liberating too. You let go of your prejudices; you discover that the bum on the street can actually write poetry—“…limousine eyelashes and milkshakes…” as it goes in the film—and offer that up in return for a coin.
You discover that people are inherently the same and that it’s possible to have an instant connect with someone separated not just by miles but by thousands of years of culture as well. You discover that there is something to national stereotypes – Frenchmen will talk about wine and foie gras and wear pointy shoes, the Spanish will be routinely charming, Indians will be noisy, with badly behaved children and will always want to jump queues… But that quite frequently there will be those who will flummox you like an always-hugging Finn! And that women mostly all agonise like Bridget Jones….

When I was much younger, Enid Blytons were still very popular in my school run by the good Irish sisters. But I never could appreciate the antics of Amelia Jane, the naughtiest girl in school. I did not thought much about the politics of golliwogs either. What I did love was the Magic Faraway Tree—where a new land came on top of an ancient, magic tree in a wood in rural England. It was the most marvelous idea as three children and an assortment of pre-Potter magical beings traversed through various lands—of surprises and soups, giants, spells, upside down things and so on. I wanted to live that life. Now, when I physically travel, I do exactly that.

The thing about travel– at least if you are travelling solo– is that it is like a masque. It allows you to be who you want to be. It is as good as landing a role in a film of your choice. You may have the most boring desk job on the planet but when you are footloose, you are literally fancy free to reinvent yourself in whatever image you like. A backpacking White man in India can try his hand at anything from vipasana to playing Bollywood extra… A responsible Indian journalist can become a totally ridiculous, creature, betting with a burly stranger that she could lift him if he paid for her drinks. (The friend in question, who had run out of money on this particular trip, won the bet incidentally.)

You can pretend to be literary in Paris, a foodie in Italy, a musician in Vienna, forget the drudgery of buying bread or paying the dhobi as you walk the sea in Maldives and escape your life as you take a break, walking barefeet in a mournful, shadowy city. It’s a really an alternate life that you’ve been presented. A chance to exist simultaneously in many realties.

Lahori vs Amritsari: A comparision between Punjab’s two great cuisines

The two foodie cities are less than 50 km apart, separated by an international border. But despite common Punjabi roots, the cuisines are distinct

By Anoothi Vishal

“Everything is Allah’s karam and the blessings of my mother,” says Babur, a cook from the Lahore Gymkhana club. It is a sentiment that touches the right chords – and one that may well be echoed on this side of the border, with the same earnestness. At the end of the day, political boundaries cannot neatly carve up the ethos of a region, or its culture; and the truth of this gets underlined once again as I meet a contingent of cooks from Lahore at the ITC Maurya last week and sample their cooking.

On the other hand, food, like everything else in the Subcontinent, is a complex matter. Each region has its distinctive flavours. But even within the same region, cuisine is a product of both caste and religion.Which is why, nothing can be more fascinating to study the food of two of our biggest gourmet cities—both less than 50 km apart, known for their street food, hearty appetities, culture, hospitality and the warmth of their people, but separated by an international border. Yes, I am talking about Lahore and Amritsar. Here are some observations and analysis after sampling the creations of the visiting Lahori cooks:

? Lahori food is more subtly spiced that Amritsari food: This is a surprising discovery. One reason could be the different varieties of chillies used. But, commercial Indian cooking (and even home cooking) tends to use many more spices too. The use of chaat or garam masala, for instance, seems more pervasive in our cooking than in Pakistani food.

Lahori food also seems to be less dairy rich — despite shared Mughal roots. While ghee was the cooking medium traditionally, the use of yoghurt as a souring agent seems much less frequent. Richer preparations such as qormas use it, but, by and large, lemon is the souring agent of choice (including in the Sindhi biryani that I try, that has crossed over to this Lahori menu because of its popularity).

My analysis is that while commercial/restaurant cooking in northern India is closer to the courtly Avadhi, Mughalai styles (and therefore also incorporates expensive ingredients such as nuts and dried fruits in the dishes), in Pakistan, Punjabi food, is still closer to its rustic roots.

? Amritsari vs Lahori fish-fry: Think Amritsar, and you think chickpeas and, well, fish. These are also stars of Lahori food but taste completely different. I tried the Lahori fried fish, which is a subtler, simpler version of the batter-fried Amritsari one. For its marination, it incorporates red and green chillies, garlic and onion, cumin and lemon juice. It is not batter fried like the Amritsari counterpart wrapped in besan; instead, it is fried in “burnt oil”— oil that has already been used for frying something (never mind the health warnings)! The Amritsari marinade is more seasoned (with ginger, ajwain, and sometimes even curd for more tartness) on the other hand.

Chole-kulche is a popular breakfast in Amritsar; nihari kulche is the Lahori special. And chickpeas, when they are cooked are stewed in chicken and coriander stock.

? Contemporarised Pakistani: If we have basil chicken and paneer tikkas, Lahore has an equivalent in “Jalawat kebab” that I try courtesy Babar. These are your average seekh kebabs that are grilled first, cooled, filled with Feta cheese and cream, dipped in egg-white and deep-fried! No, not cuisine at its most pristine, but a popular, high-calorie snack alright.

? Give us our breads: The most striking thing about Lahori naans is the way they look! If I can be excused the generalization, Islamic (or, more correctly, Persian-inspired) cultures tend to have an ornate sense of design evident in, say, embroidery or architecture. Here, the dexterity comes across in breads. The naans could be topped with kalaunji or sesame or garlic but all have a pattern made by fingers on the dough. It looks so pretty that you are almost afraid to disturb the symmetry.

? Karahis: Needless to say, Lahori food is a carnivore’s delight; all vegetables are cooked with meat. I had a regular cauliflower subzi cooked with chicken. And Butt Karela, bittergourd stuffed with mince, fried, curried and steamed, is a special from the region. But there are also the various karahi, or “wok” dishes, that are more robust, spicier and more rustic than kebabs or formal qormas. Black pepper and curd along with ginger juliennes and tomatoes all seem to go into these; the cuts of meat are smaller. And when I think about it, either the Indian Butter Chicken finds its genesis in these Karahi roots or vice versa.

? BBQ sparrows…: So what are the dishes you should look out for across the border? Bbqd sparrows from Gujranwallah are a rage apparently. You should try the chargah (Lahori style roast chicken), paya and zuban. Also kunna ghost, curried, sliced-off lamb shanks with the central bone intact.

(The article appeared in the Sunday Financial Express)

Flanders’ nouvelle chocolat!

Innovation and startling new flavours are the driving trends in the world of super luxury Belgian chocolates

By Anoothi Vishal

In the world of luxury foods where provenance is more important today than it ever was, one tiny country that spells decadence and indulgence is, of course, Belgium. Think chocolate and you are bound to think of premium chocolatiers like Neuhaus, Godiva or Guliyan. Yet while pralines, ganaches or those delicious dark squares now deemed the “new” superfood (with enough antioxidants to promote not just happiness, lower blood pressure but even weight loss!) from these top-of-the line labels sell stupendously the world over, what is really interesting to see are the new innovations happening at the smaller, boutique places in the world of Belgian chocolates today.

Innovation and the story of Belgian chocolate goes hand in hand in any case. The country that exports over 100,000 tons of chocolate (even as its own per capita consumption is 12 pounds a year) became the big chocolate daddy of the world only in the late 19th century — almost 500 years after the bean was discovered by Columbus and much after the Azetcs had used it as a magic, bitter beverage. In fact, the world’s best known dessert got its sweet moorings when Spanish aristocrats started mixing it with sugar and cream (each family had its secret recipe for the drink) in what must have been an equivalent of today’s hot (or, more correctly, warm) chocolate.

Once Belgium got access to Colonial plantations in Africa in the late 19th century, confectioners started borrowing French recipes to make their own chocolate but it was only in 1912 when they invented the praline (small chocolate bites filled with the likes of hazelnut) that marketing history was made. And chocolate inevitably got associated with luxury and luxury gifts — particularly since what was also invented was the now-famous ballotin, the now all-pervasive cardboard box in which chocolate is layered (it was earlier sold in paper cones).

In Bruges, a small, medieval town in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium with its own distinctive culture), I finally discover—and taste— the next generation of innovation happening in the world of nouvelle chocolate. The small town has an astounding 52 chocolate shops plus a museum where you can watch hand-crafted chocolate being made. It makes for an ideal place to indulge in a chocolate walk. But The Chocolate Line, a praline boutique, is one of the most astounding places you can arrive at. Dominique Persoone is quite a well-known name in the world of luxury chocolate. He describes himself as more a chef (he is a trained chef after all) than chocolatier and his cutting-edge creations reflect that sensibility. With a chocolate bar tattooed on his forearm, Persoone goes about making the strangest of fillings for pralines including oyster juice and smoked eel with cauliflower and oranges, bacon, cherry-and-cabernet sauvignon (that Michelin Star restaurants buy up from him for their patrons) and so on. In fact, I even found a “Bollywood” chocolate in his window—flavoured with curry powder and saffron.

If Persoone has made the wackiest of flavours super trendy, Laurent Gerbaud is another name to look out for if you are seriously into chocolate. With a shop in Brussels, Gerbaud is now at the forefront of the new movement, experimenting with non-dairy, non-sugar chocolate and combining not just salt and pepper but also lemony Japanese flavours like kumquat and yuzu with the best of chocolate. There are other chocolatiers too who are experimenting and it is possible to order a box of seaweed chocolate!

Flanders is very much at the forefront of this new trend. But, it is equally possible to sample some old, quintessential luxury bites. In Antwerp, the city famous of its diamonds and diamond bourses, mini chocolate hands (the symbol of the city) spell decadence, particularly since they are filled with the local liqueur Elixer d’ Anvers. Plus, there are also chocolatiers that scale everything up making chocolate statues and palaces and sculptures.
You can drink chocolate, pure, liquid gold, as they call it, and wonder why it is that chocolate in India never tastes the same — though, of course, the bars we usually grab are all mass-produced, mid-market products. But one reason I discover is lies in the quality of the beans. All top chocolatiers in Belgium use African produce (the gold standard in cocoa is Ghana, while chocolate from other parts of the world is equally distinctive: from Equador, it is smoky, musky; from West Africa, fresher; from Indonesia, earthy…). In India, on the other hand, most commercial brands use around 50 per cent Indian cocoa.

Moreover, Indian chocolate is “tropicalised”, as it is called in the trade, to keep it stable in the heat. In Flanders and Belgium, on the other hand, only pure cocoa butter is used. Indian chocolate is also milkier because dark chocolate has fewer takers in our country. Of course, that is another trend that’s changing.

(The article appeared in the Sunday Financial Express)

Arctic escapades

Rovaniemi, the unofficial capital of Finnish Lapland, is enchanting alright

By Anoothi Vishal

“Rovaniemi”. I roll it in my mouth, silently. It’s a mysterious, lyrical name alright. Almost with the same haunting quality as “Rebbeca” or “Rowena Ravenclaw”, the Hogwarts witch with a lost diadem…

I can’t help but be drawn to this image that I have created in my head of a semi-magical Finnish town, situated on the Arctic circle, a portal to snowy northern realms. Some names have the power to bewitch; undoubtedly Rovaniemi is one of them. But as I repeat it, I have to acknowledge that at least part of the fascination is because this is the official hometown for Santa Claus; the place to meet our man in red whatever the day, whatever the season; a land of 24X7 Christmas.

Inevitably when I reach, it is not quite how I have imagined it. There are no spires and domes or magical chimneys and elves don’t quite frequent the streets. There are fairly chic shoe stores and bookstores instead, cafes, bars and restaurants and a high street. That is, besides all those buildings designed by Alvar Aalto. Most of Finnish Lapland, the northern-most region of the country, was burnt and razed by retreating Nazi forces between 1944-45. So, Rovaniemi, despite being an ancient town, has fairly modern architecture, some the contribution of the brilliant modernist Aalto. Because it has been steadily snowing, the town is carpeted in white. And as the downy flakes float into my face, I decide that whether it fits the Grimm stereotype or not, Rovaniemi is magical.

That evening, we check out the nightlife – and there’s plenty here.

My new family of friends (Sonia, Faisal, Jari, Papori) and I troop down to the downtown to eat at the celebrated Nili that offers specialities from Lapland. Nili means “larder”— a traditional Lappish structure built on a tree to store food, out of reach of ransacking animals. It charms me as soon as we enter with its old-fashioned booths, chandeliers with live candles and leather and wood look. In fact, the interiors and all the handicrafts are almost entirely done out of traditional Lappish materials—wood, reindeer antlers and skin. We decide to check some of these out later at the stores and perhaps take back reindeer skin for comfort on a cold Delhi evening. (When we do shop, the next day, however, it is for a traditional kuksa, wooden mug that we are advised to anoint it first in potent alcohol before using it—and not share it with anyone else. A kuksa is strictly personal, after all.)

Salmon, reindeer, mushrooms and the Arctic berries are Lapland’s most famous ingredients and they are all on the menu. Salty salmon with sweetish cranberries, reindeer slivers with cheese, rye-bread-crumbed white flaky fish, even small buckwheat blinis with sour cream and roe, even vegetarian options by way of rutabaga pie and mushrooms, it’s a special-occasion meal for a special occasion. Since it is Jari’s birthday, there’s much alcohol happening. After a red Italian, we move on to Spanish Cava and then embark upon a Portuguese dessert wine: All of Europe in a kuksa!

Besides, how can we not have enough of Finlandia and brandy shots going round? The Finnish love their drink, almost as much as the all-pervasive warm berry juice. Who are we to decline? But the evening is young and this is the country that also likes it karoke. So Jari takes us out to have some fun and even if we do not yoik like the Saamis (the Lappish tribe of reindeer herders with their chant-like music), I can and do sing Eagles (badly)!

Surprisingly, I am clear-headed the next day. It’s time for the Santa safari. We are off to a reindeer farm and because Sonia and I are too chicken to ride our own snow mobiles, we opt to snuggle under a warm rug in a modern-sledge. Since there is no wind, it isn’t really that cold but we are well insulated nevertheless in our hired gear that makes us feel like astronauts on an outer-space mission.

The reindeer are much smaller than you would think — free to move about but fed by the herders. I see an elusive white one, before being pulled in a traditional wooden sledge by a couple of highly-trained others, so that all you need to do is hang on to the reins, sit back and enjoy.

The Arctic Circle cuts through the farm and there is a special ceremony—and certificate—to mark the fact that we have officially crossed over. In the old days, this feat was supposed to imbue you with youth and longetivity. Do I notice fewer laughter lines and fewer crinkles near my eye? Perhaps…

Sonia, of course, is hyper-excited. Her childhood dream has to be, er, sit in Santa’s lap and at his workshop in the Santa Claus Village that is exactly what she intends to do. Aaliya, my child, where are you?

The first thing to do then is to go to Santa’s post office where you can buy special stamps and post letters to all the children you know and think of, that yes, dear Tom or Tara, Adam or Aaliya, Santa exists and is listening to you…

Conversely, what you can also do is read post marked to “Santa, North Pole” that arrives here from all over the world. There are friendly elves to show you around and take out the bundles of letters. I cry reading some of them. They are real pleas from real children. Hope someone has been listening.

Excited little moppets are dragging parents to stores where a variety of Christmassy and Lappish stuff is available. Sonia keeps dithering over a red poncho and evil-looking gnomes, Faisal looks diligently for something silver and I buy Lappish dolls and soft blue blankets… Then it is time to keep our appointment with Mr Claus.

It’s hushed and dark as we make our way to the special office. Is this how you feel when you walk the hall of fame to the Oval Room? We wait at the door, before they magically open and we are face to face with Father Christmas.

“So, you are from India? Delhi? Mumbai?” he asks looking at Sonia and me.

“So, he does know everything,” we think silently and simultaneously. Yes, indeed we are from Delhi and Mumbai.

Sonia sits on his lap, I make inane conversation, we all giggle self-consciously, Jari, who has been here before (this Santa is his friend, he tells us later) stands patiently, indulgently watching us being silly. But heck, this is Santa Claus, the real one.

We back out and notice the huge wheel of Time just outside the office. Time and Reality can be altered. It feels as if they’ve been. Of course, it may well be a set out of Harry Potter. And then I realize something else: I haven’t quite conveyed Aaliya’s message!

Perhaps, I need to go back. There’s some unfinished business.

What to do, where to go

Sleep: Scandic Hotel, Rovaniemi. With about 160 hotel s in the Nordic region and northern Europe this is a reliable chain geared to take care of business and leisure needs. The rooms are comfortable with showers and bath tubs, there is a fairly extensive breakfast spread and the staff all speak English. The hotel is also centrally located and so is a good choice should you want to walk it to the high street with its cafes and restaurants and entertainment options.

www.scandichotels.fi

Eat: For traditional Lappish menu, do check out the wonderful Nili. We also ate buffet meals at the Santa Claus Village that are filling and suitable to all palates, including the vegetarians. These may include salads, a stew of some sort (I had a chicken stew quite like our own chicken curry), rice, pasta (the salmon pasta I tried was delicious and suited to even children), tea or coffee and dessert. There are plenty of cafes with delicious and European pastries and the Finnish love their ice-cream. So children should have no problem. www.nili.fi

There are also snow restaurants in Rovaniemi—made with snow, with ice sculptures, tables and chairs inside. Visit these for a drink at least. For a longer meal, you will need to be kitted out in the special gear provided. www.snowland.fi

Shop: For books, shoes, clothes in European styles. But look out for traditional Lappish handicrafts like jewellery made from reindeer antler, reindeer throws, leather handicrafts and so on. Do buy a wooden kuksa. The Santa Claus Village has its own shops full of Christmas stuff—reindeer and gnomes, candies, candles et al. Check out the craft work at www.hornwork.fi

Visit: The Arktikum Museum provides a unique insight into the way of life, culture and history of the north. It is a museum, science centre, conference house as well an architectural sight in its own right. You can buy books on Lapland and its culture and myths here as well as other traditional artifacts. www.arktikum.fi

(The article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Travel + Leisure magazine India and South Asia)

Cremona, Anyone?

By Anoothi Vishal

In an Italian cheese town, we discover violins and, well, Punjab.

You wouldn’t find it on usual touristy maps. But should you decide to stop by at Cremona, an ancient town in Italy’s Po river valley, home to some of its best cheeses (as also the Roman poet Virgil, who went to school here), chances are that you will feel quite at home. For one, despite its distinct Continental air, Cremona reminds me, well, strangely enough, of “Main Hoon Na”, the Shahrukh Khan movie.

No, there are no actresses in chiffon shooting here — everyone is well-clad and jacketed-up in the biting winter of northern Italy. And when we do catch strains of music, inevitably inside local bars where Spritz, a student-y concoction made of wine, sparkling water and robust country liqueurs flows freely, it’s not Bollywood. Yet, just like in the spoofy film, there are violins everywhere. And that explains why SRK’s scenes pop up in my head.

Musical history

Cheese apart, Cremona is known for its musical history — home to some of the best-known makers of violins (the violin was invented in Cremona in 1564, according to records), including Stradivari in the 17th century, whose hand-crafted instruments have long been held as the epitomy of perfection around the world. So it is fitting that we see so many violins all around.

The town square has a famous Stradivari statue. Then, there are those luthier shops you are tempted to peep into, still manufacturing and repairing instruments by hand in this electronic age; but, equally, there are violin-shaped chocolates, cookie boxes, not to mention nougat shaped like violins.

Culture, cattle and good food go hand in hand in this Lombardy town, the dairy capital of Italy. Its cheese (the hard and grainy Grana Padano that can sit on top of pasta and the superb Provolone in mild and piccante flavours are special) and ham (the Salame Cremona PGI, with its soft, slightly garlic-flavoured paste, is one of the most famous salami, while the cotechino from here is also highly regarded) feed a million mouths.

I also come across the mostarda di Cremona, a quirky concoction, where mustard seeds are combined with candied fruit! It is a fitting accompaniment to a local meal of boiled meats that comprises local gastronomy. At a restaurant bustling with local families and farmers on a Sunday afternoon, we sit down to a meal of Bollito Misto (mixed boiled meats) — calf’s head, veal tongue, pig foot and cheek are all on the menu — for a ridiculously low price. The meats sit on a trolley that comes rolling to each table and unlimited portions of whatever it is you may wish to sample are judiciously carved out.

Touch of cheese

What can be better than visiting a cheese factory post this? We visit the Auricchio plant nearby, a 120-year-old family managed company, to see tonnes of Provolone being stretched, rested in brine, shaped by hand, aged and packed. And discover Suchcha Singh.

With a lion tattoo inked on his arms and rapid-fire Italian, Suchcha could be just another Cremonese dairy worker. But one look at us and his face creases into a huge smile. He breaks into chaste Punjabi, asking, funnily enough, a Tamil-speaker among us whether she was from Jullander. He is a trifle disappointed when he learns she is not but we are the people from “back home” and that is good enough.

Suchcha is hardly the only son of the soil around. Cheesemaking, apparently, had come to a halt briefly one day, when, some months ago, a “beauty queen from India”— the Italian managers are unable to say who she was — had stopped by to take in the astonishing scale of production. All the lads from Punjab milled around for a dekko — and considering that the dairy industry in Cremona is dependent on them, it was a substantial crowd.

Sikh immigrants have been arriving in Cremona in steady droves for the last two decades. But unlike many other places in the world where such cross-cultural collisions are fraught with tension, in Cremona, they are looked forward to. With local youth having given up farming, it is these workers from India’s own dairy country who are driving the production here.

The region, according to some estimates, produces, about one million tonnes of milk in a year (a tenth of all produced in Italy). Extreme care needs to be taken to ensure steadfastness and quality of supplies what with cheesemaking being an artform here. Indian farm workers, already, used to tending cattle at home, are generally deemed more than fit for the task, putting in 12-hour shifts, working weekends and bringing in extended families and friends into this very Italian circle of work and life.

The region now has ostensibly the biggest Gurdwara in Europe. Though we couldn’t visit it, Gurdwara Kalgirdhar Sahib, inaugurated last August, has been designed, interestingly, by an Italian (Giorgio Mantovani). It is a centre for the community that seems to have seamlessly amalgamated with local life.

As we sit on the high table, nibbling on the big cheese, it would be well to realise the desi twist to it.

(The article appeared in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, on Feb 4, 2012)
http://www.thehindu.com/arts/magazine/article2860190.ece

Khana from Sailana

Custodian to a huge repertoire of elusive, regional recipes, the royal family from Sailana is finally serving up the secrets thanks to revival efforts by the Park hotels

By Anoothi Vishal

Unlike France, where culinary maps, strictly-followed recipes and clearly etched-out techniques define the practice of cuisine and, even, say Thailand, where funeral books are strangely popular not in the least because they carry prized family recipes, India has never had a tradition of codifying recipes. Recipes have always been passed, word-of-mouth, from one cook to his descendants, mother to daughter and so forth. And the only community I can think of where these have traditionally been written, and passed on as legacies is perhaps the Chettiyars. But even those accounts are tough to come by and remain zealously guarded in the familial domain.
All this, of course, means that traditional recipes in India typically die out with the passing of an older generation and our cuisines, so diverse and varied, eventually languish. The last one-two years have seen some change in that the boom in Indian publishing and interest around food have come together to give us a bevy of cookbooks on elusive community cuisines. But apart from family lore and recipes from mothers and grandmothers, what is really the kind of material available to any researcher into the evolution of Indian cuisines? More often than not, the handful of early accounts that we do have are courtly tomes, dealing with elite food concocted for kings and princes; not really the cuisine of the common tables.

Of course, it is not to say that these accounts are not fascinating and invaluable. Ain-i-Akbari, for instance, talks in detail about the Mughal kitchen, about Akbar’s great belief in the water from the ganga (in which all food was cooked), in a separate category of vegetarian food that the emperor had on days he would ritually abstain from meat and so forth—all giving us a picture of a Mughal India where cultural amalgamation had perhaps taken place and become a way of life. The Mansollasa, a Sanskrit text, purportedly dating back to the 11th century and written by Chalukya king Somesvara, has chapters on cooking and lists several varieties of fish, for instance. Lesser known works include the Sarbendra Pakashastra from Tanjuvar, written by a 19th century ruler, complete with recipes, including for south Indian kebabs!

Undoubtedly, as patrons of the arts (including the culinary art), the erstwhile royal families are custodians of a huge slice of culture. Amongst those who have managed to hold on to some of that is the Sailana family.

“The Cooking Delights of Maharaja Digvijay Singh”, or the Sailana cookbook as it is known to its fans, was first published almost 30 years ago. It is by far one of the best cookbooks ever to have come out in India —and not because of any glamorous pictures or marketing pitch. Instead, the recipes collected and perfected by the former ruler of Sailana, a small princely state in Madhya Pradesh bordering Rajasthan, speak for themselves. Each of the 164 recipes are precise, flavourful and guaranteed to give perfect results (I have tried them). Which is why, perhaps, the tome, now out of print, is rated so highly and there are enough women who will tell you how this formed part of their wedding trousseaux (it did of mine).
Last week, I was fortunate to come across Vikram Singhji, Maharaja Digvijay Singh’s son, and as passionate a cook as the late ruler, who not only told me the incredible story behind the Sailana recipes but also cooked a whole host of these himself. A Sailana festival is being held across India at the Park Hotels (in four cities, in succession) and will feature Vikram Singhji cooking himself; a second cookbook is on the anvil, featuring another 160 recipes and there is to be a short film on the culinary legacy in conjunction with Apeejay Surrendra Park hotels.

The Sailana recipes are unique because they represent a personal passion rather than just another regional repertoire. The process of collecting the recipes started almost a century ago when Sir Dilip Singh of Sailana was stranded on a hunt without the services of a cook. The game was ready to be cooked but no one quite knew how to. This made the ruler wake up to the importance of preserving and documenting recipes and he started the process in his kitchen. His son, Digvijay Singh, turned out to be even more passionate about food. As a princely ruler, he would cook one dish a day and when he travelled to other parts of the country, he went along with a small jeweller’s scale and a small box of masalas! When he liked a particular dish, he would ask the cook to make it, watching, taking notes and noting down precise measurements for spices with the aid of the scales (a practice as unusual today in the Indian kitchen, where everything works on andaz, as it must have been then.)

The result is a collection that not only has family and regional recipes from the princely state but the best recipes the widely-travelled family ever encountered. In Kashmir (the Sailanas are related to the former royal family there), Digvijay Singh tried the rogan josh at three-four homes but liked one version best and recorded it; in Lucknow, a cook called Salim, made him a special raan that he tried out later in his own kitchen and so on.

The meal that Vikram Singh cooked for us, certainly, was unusual in the kind of disparate flavours it presented on the same thali. And in the uniqueness of the preparations: The Shikampuri kebab he served were different from the usual Hyderabadi ones in that the recipe uses a filling of cream instead of yoghurt within the mince. There were the totally fabulous goolar kebabs made with figs, murgh Irani, a dum recipe from Iran, with rich almonds, a Bengali-influenced dahi machi, whole moong dal with a dash of mustard, a totally unique kaleji (liver) ka raita not to mention a hare channe ka halwa that you may never have even heard of.

Because the Sailana recipes represent food from all over the country but with a distinctive individual touch, what a meal comprising of these, above all, exemplifies is not merely recipes that are no longer part of our kitchenlore today, but the mindboggling scope of Indian cuisines and seasonal ingredients, vegetables, fruits, grain, that would be used in our cooking so effectively and innovatively but, alas, have lost out to global marketing forces.

(An incomplete version appeared in the Financial Express on Sunday on Feb 5, 2012)

Top ten serviced apartments in Bangalore

A serviced apartment is a type of furnished, self-contained apartment designed for short-term stays, which provides amenities for daily use.

Serviced apartments can be less expensive than equivalent hotel rooms. Since the beginning of the boom in cheap international travel and the corresponding increase in the level of sophistication of international travelers, interest in serviced apartments has risen at the expense of the use of hotels for short stays.

Here is a list of Top ten serviced apartments in Bangalore.

Brigade Homestead Serviced Residences:

Locations:

Homestead 1, Lavelle Road

Phone: +91-80-2222 0966 / 67 / 68

E-mail: enquiry@homesteadbangalore.com

Mayfair, Cambridge Road

Phone: +91-80-4178 3600 / +91-99723 05351

E-mail: sanat@homesteadbangalore.com, enquiry@homesteadbangalore.com

Jacaranda, Indiranagar

E-mail: renjith@homesteadbangalore.com

Homestead 2, Jayanagar, Ashoka Pillar

Phone: +91-80-2657 8020 / +91-98804 05244

E-mail: hs2@homesteadbangalore.com, renjith@homesteadbangalore.com

Homestead 4, Jayanagar 8th Block

Phone: +91-80-4005 3333 / +91-97413 07421 / +91-98804 05244

E-mail: hs4@homesteadbangalore.com, renjith@homesteadbangalore.com

Contact Details:

# 82, 2nd floor, Hulkul Brigade Centre,

Next to Bangalore Club,

Lavelle Road, Bangalore 560 001

Ph: +91-80-4043 8000

e-mail: kavitha@brigadegroup.com

Website: www.homesteadbangalore.com

Room Tariff: Rs 3,000 to Rs 6,000

Halcyon Condominiums:

P.B. 4708, No. 9, Drafadilla Layout

4th Block, Koramangala

Bangalore 560 0047

Tel: +91-80-41102200

Fax: +91-80-41102400

Email: halcyongroup@vsnl.net

Website: www.halcyoncondos.com

Room Tariff: Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000

Melange Bangalore Service Apartments:

21, Vittal Mallya Road

Bangalore – 560001

Phone: 91 080 51120399

TEL: 22129700 /01/02/03/05/06/07

Fax: +91-80-22129700 / 01 / 02/03/05/06/07

E-mail: info@melangebangalore.com

Website: www.melangebangalore.com

Room Tariff: Rs 3,000 to Rs 8,000

The Orchard Suites:

Locations:

The Orchard Suites (Sankey Road)

# 105, 1st Main Road,

Seshadripuram,

Bangalore – 560020

The Orchard Suites (Sarjapur Road)

#1/13A, Haralur Road,

off Sarjapur Road,

Bangalore – 560034

The Orchard Suites (Infantry Road),

No 40, Lady Curzon Road,

(entry from Infantry road),

Bangalore – 560001

The Orchard Suites (Koramangala),

#25, Intermediate Ring Road,

Behind LG Showroom,

Koramangala,

Bangalore – 560047

Contact Details:

Ph: +91-80-41234444

Fax: +91-80-41234333

E-mail: reservation@theorchardsuites.com

Website: www.theorchardsuites.com

Room Tariff:Rs 3,000 to Rs 10,000

Oakwood Premier Prestige Bangalore:

Vittal Mallya Road

U B City

Bangalore – 560001

Ph: +91-80-22348888

Fax: +91-80-22347777

Website: www.oakwood.com

Room Tariff: Rs 9,600 to Rs 35,000

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