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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.


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)


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:


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:


The Orchard Suites (Sankey Road)

# 105, 1st Main Road,


Bangalore – 560020

The Orchard Suites (Sarjapur Road)

#1/13A, Haralur Road,

off Sarjapur Road,

Bangalore – 560034

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On the JLF fringes

By Anoothi Vishal

A bunch of determined protestors offended by a book-that-shall-not-be-named stalled proceedings at the Jaipur fest; others, denied access to overcrowded sessions, sought their festive fix in laal maans and kachoris

Like someone sensible tweeted, the Jaipur Literature Festival should just drop its middle name and be true to what it really is: A festival; full of noise, food, booze, consumption and people dressed up in all their finery as any true-to-type Indian festival is these days, in our recession-defying, money-having-moved-east moment under the sun. Despite the mega bytes and displays of impotent anger on his behalf, it was not Rushdie, after all, who was the star of the show. Oprah was. Despite winning the DSC prize for literature for his debut work, Chinaman author Shehan Karunatilaka hardly created any buzz. The $ 50,000 prize money did. And despite this being a supposedly literary venue, choking with self-importance, no one really wanted any books signed, forget read. They just wanted the glory of a “cultured” thappa that seemingly comes from attending this jamboree.

And as socialities and schoolkids, grandparents, parents, and in at least one instance, even a month-old baby, rubbed shoulders with the media, critics, authors, wannabe authors, networkers, and plain bored souls wanting a bit of an outing on a weekend, one thing became clear: The Diggi Palace Hotel has become much too small a venue for such a mass of humanity. It is, of course, a mystery to those of us witness to all the antics how could a bunch of “protestors” offended by a book written almost 20 years ago (and which they hadn’t even read), manage to enter the venue. Considering that even valid card-holders were barred from entering and roads were blocked to prevent added influx into the venue, in danger of imploding, it should have been impossible for these hyper-sensitive men to even reach the august venue, forget making any threats. But that’s another story.

This post, considering it is on food and travel expressly, will focus on other things: Such as kachoris, laal maans and lassi, worthy sideshows to the megashow. With each cup of coffee inside the venue costing several long minutes wasted in queues and sessions held in impossibly tiny venues outside which a sea of those who hadn’t managed to scramble inside waited without the benefit of big screens and televised proceedings, the only thing to do in Jaipur during the JLF, was, of course, to lunch and dine and snack. Each restaurant and street stall that we visited during the time in the city was full of festival-crashers.

At Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar, the famous kachori-sweets-and-chaat shop, tables were put out in a small small, back-of-the-house room annexed to the main restaurant to accommodate the extra crowd. Of course, should you have chosen to sit there, like we did, you would have abdicated any right to reasonable service. A solitary waiter went around taking orders and arrived with a single kachori after 30 minutes to be shared by a table. It was a smart strategy as he served up lunch to all patrons in tiny bits and pieces punctuated by long intervals of kitchen scrambling no doubt. In the end, we even had to beg for the bill, so that we could be free to attend the evening literary sessions over Sula, priced, per glass, lower than in Delhi restaurants.

At the Penguin party that evening, the scale was equally astonishing. As unlimited snacks, cheese, Glenfiddich and wine did the rounds, who cared about books and authors? In suitable high spirits, no one minded eating biryani (and strangely kulche) from soup bowls and pretty little gulab jamuns from soup spoons (though, it does look inelegant, doing so).

At Niro’s, the next afternoon, being an early bird that arrived in haste, post-Oprah, had its advantage. We found a table amidst all those who hadn’t been in fact able to reach JLF thanks to blocked roads and who had decided to settle for lunch instead. Niro’s speciality has always been laal maans, the fiery, slow-cooked mutton special to Rajput cuisine. But perhaps keeping the sensitive literary stomachs in mind and to cater to all the international travelers on special literary tour packages or Dilliwallas who had turned up to spend their Sundays well, the recipe had been “tweaked”. Out went the chillies, in went tomatoes (that bane of restaurant food in India) so that the end gravy was more sweet than chilli.

Having missed a polo match a couple of hours later (another fringe event on the JLF sidelines) thanks to shopping at Gulabschand (and tall kulhads of lassi) we decided to settle for an elegant tea service at Rambagh. Camomile was all it took to soothe fraying literary nerves. The protesters should have tried it. And the politicians too.

The Gamechanger?

As the exclusive New York brand Megu opens its first outpost in India, will it redefine luxury dining – and service– in India?

Last week saw the opening of what is certainly going to be one of the most high-profile restaurants in the country for a while. Megu, the exclusive, New York-based contemporary-Japanese diner made its debut in Delhi in an exclusive tie up with the Leela group of hotels. And plans are now afoot to take it to Mumbai (in the next year and half or so). But what does that mean for the Indian diner? Does the launch of Megu (and others of its ilk, set to follow its steps into the bustling Indian F&B market) mean that we must now reconcile ourselves to ushering in an age that will see the Louis-Vuittonisation of eating out– where a consumer pays absurdly high prices for what is essentially just a monogram/ tag or brand?

Certainly, like its pedigreed cousins Le Cirque, Hakkasan and so forth, aspirational brands for the top one per cent of India’s middle-class consumers who supposedly spend on luxury (and luxury dining), Megu will hold a distinct charm, if not for the value it offers, for the brand name alone. When I visited on just the fourth day of its opening its doors to Delhi’s eager beavers, the main dining section and the bar were both teeming with known and unknown faces, with media, multiplex and motorcorp barons dining with families and friends within elbowing distance of one another.
But if you visit Megu merely to people-spot, site-see (we’ll come to that later) or to just indulge in the competitive society sport of paying jaw-dropping prices for a meal, you will be doing serious injustice to the restaurant and all that it seems to be heralding.

What Megu really does is to raise the bar for upscale, casual dining in this country by not just some but many notches. High-profile restaurant launches are a bit of a gamble usually because the substance rarely lives up to hype. Megu is that rare exception where it does. Luckily.
As the food starts rolling in, you realise this is theatre in motion. There is an incredible amount of detailing. Each dish is dramatically presented and not the least because there are separate, specially-crafted serving platters for almost all of the 100-plus dishes on the menu. Equally, a lot of attention has gone into sourcing often exclusive Japanese ingredients for each dish, which, though contemporarised, play around with authentic flavours.
Though this was a rather exceptional dining experience for me in that everything that I tried had a certain wow element to it, I will mention the four top-listers of my meal. The first, without doubt, had to be the yellowtail (hamachi) carpaccio seasoned with kanzuri chilli paste, the key ingredient. Kanzuri are red chillies from Nigata, one of the snowiest regions of Japan, where the chillies are put on ice beds for months to rest and mellow before being made into a fermented chilli paste.

The second was again carpaccio—waghyu beef sliced impossibly fine, put on a base of seasme-mayo and topped with micro basil leaves to offset the texture which totally elevated the level of this preparation. The third was the salmon tartare topped with a soya and wasabi jelly, which was melted on the table by the server using bincho-tan, or the white charcoal that has been used in traditional Japanese cooking. And last, but not the least, was the phenomenal Shira Ae, a vegetarian special (about half the menu is veg, in keeping with the local market) created specially for Delhi, where beautifully-sliced squash, our humblest of veggies, was put together like a flan of sorts.

The last apart, all my favourites for the night turned out to be classic Megu dishes, the same as in its other outposts round the world. But a chunk on the menu is also devoted to “India dishes” (vegetarian and those like the crispy kanzuri shrimp, likely to go down with fried-shellfish loving, splurging patrons).
There is a competent sake (including a sparkling one) menu in place (that tells you, perhaps, for the first time ever in any Japanese restaurant in the country) what exactly is it that you are drinking. And finally, all the stunners from Megu New York (that places as much importance on looks as on the food) are lead motifs here too: A giant bell, the Buddha statue (not carved in ice daily as is done in NY but made of glass neverthless) et al.
However, all these are but pieces of the jigsaw. The glue that holds these together (apparently as much in the Big Apple from the reviews that I have read) are the people running the show: the chef (Yutaka Saito), an incredibly savvy restaurant manager (Rajat Kalia), who has the gift of being chatty and informative at the same time, so rare to find in India, and above all, Aishwarya Nair, the Leela heiress, but very much a regular, working girl.
A committed foodie and a trained chef, Nair looks after F&B for the hotel group and has been personally involved with the Megu launch down to the minutest detail. As she shows off the antique kimonos used to panel the private dining room and as she enthusiastically recommends the wasabi cheesecake (fitting for someone with her own bakery brand!), I finally understand what makes this one so different from so many other soulless super expensive/exclusive ventures.

At the Indian Megu, it is Nair’s innate sense of hospitality and good-cheer that seem to have permeated into the entire service so that dining at this uber-chic restaurant is not the pompous, stiff affair that most Indians actually expect of any “five-star” experience when they are doling out such high prices for the wine and food.

One problem with brands or chains when they evolve from single chef/owner/creator-driven operations is that they lose the personal touch, charm or quirk that may have made them so successful in the first place—because, after all, eating out at the highest restaurateuring level is so much more than putting mere food on the table. (Though, I should also stress that without the latter, no amount of frills succeed. It’s a given in the business.) Megu navigates this treacherous zone with elan. For a luxury restaurant, it is an incredibly warm, young and casual space to be in. Hopefully, that will be the real gamechanger in the Indian context.

(The article appeared in Financial Express on Sunday, on Jan 22, 2012)

12 things to eat in 2012

By Anoothi Vishal

Beginning-of-the-year food forecasting can get downright absurd. This year, for instance, popcorn has been deemed a big trend, at least in the US, where popcorn patrons are expected to consume buttered, honeyed or otherwise versions in copious quantities, just as another trend anoints customized French fries as the new “It” thing. Similarly, turmeric that goes into all Indian khana unfailingly is set to be “discovered” globally; though we can’t really be sure as to the dessert that will finally push cupcakes and brownies, the two have-beens, off pop charts….

My advice: Junk the lists. Just look out for interesting new things to try out in the new year- — break the clutter, go against established norms, discover tradition as much as exotic new ideas. There is, after all, a brave new world out there—waiting to be sampled.

1. A for… Ayurveda-chic: In 2012, rediscover this part of our heritage. In our mad rush for imported “luxury” feasts (caviar, by the way, is now being farmed everywhere from Spain to China and is thus certainly no luxury item), we have kind of forgotten all the fresh, seasonal ingredients that have always been the basis for Indian cuisines. Charaka’s “science of life” that has spin-offs in every culture, including the Chinese yin-yang, characterizes all foods as based on their taste and property. Each ingredient is thus suitable to not just different seasons and times of the day but to different people. As emphasis on health grows, learn to be Ayurveda- chic: There’s also at least one super luxe restaurant opening up this year based on the principle. Watch this space.

2. B for… Barramundi (er, not Basa): The Vietnamese catfish (also being farmed in India) has invaded the Indian restaurant space in recent times. And though basa filet is perhaps cheaper than most local fish in the market, we still tend to look at the “imported” fish as a luxury and exotic ingredient. This year, try Barramundi, the Australian, flaky, white-fleshed fish, whose stock has been rising globally —- not the least because this is the same as our very own Bhetki!

3. D for… Dirt! No, don’t baulk. We don’t mean real dirt, or soil or whatever it is that fancy chefs choose to call it. As plating gets more sophisticated even in India and chefs play around with flavours and textures, everything from a sprinkle of ground coffee beans to a smear of black olive paste is dubbed “dirt” on your beautiful platters. Learn to read the menus.

4. E for… Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Someone please tell those retailers to stop conning us with “good-for-frying” olive oil that has neither the supposed health benefits nor flavour of extra virgin olive oil. Like wine, EVOO tastes different depending on its terrior and varietals. This year, try to discover what your preferred taste is: Spanish Picual on that slice of red meat, Arbequina on an egg or salad? Better still, if you are travelling in the Continent (Spain, Italy, Greece) at the end of the harvest season (typically January in many places), bring back a bottle on unfiltered EVOO and discover the phenomenal taste. Though be careful to note the date of manufacture and consume the contents of the bottle within two years (for EVOO), or one (unfiltered).

5. F for… food, as drink…: Junk that Cosmopolitan or Appletini, try culinary cocktails with flavours of jalapeno, ginger, miso, mustard, sage, cucumber, japanese ginger, and coriander roots, suggests young chef Nishant Choubey. In America, it is bacon and grilled cheese flavours that are a novelty but we may give those a miss—yet.

6. … and fruits in maincourse: No, no one is suggesting that you go on a perpetual phalahar, literally, a fasting diet of fruits. But do try fruit infused kebabs, raspberry (or mango) “chutney” with that pan-fried foie gras and so on. Fruits and meat do meet, rather well, as some of our trendiest restaurant chefs are proving.

7. H for Hand-pulled noodles…: Noodles— udon, soba, pad thai, Singaporean, you name them—in a bowl are the stars on the many pan-Asian-café menus that have sprouted in the metros in the last year. Now, try the traditional fresh, hand-pulled Chinese noodles that are slowly also making their way into restaurants. Although these noodles are making their way to Asian cafes worldwide, the best way to truly experience a country’s dish is to travel there yourself. If you want to try authentic udon or soba, travel to Japan, and if you want to try authentic Singaporean noodles, take a trip to Singapore. Companies like Expedia can help you stay there cheap.

8. … and Heritage dishes: Hyderabad’s delicate sufiana biryani and haleem, old Delhi’s dorra or boti kebabs not to mention yakhni pulao, Lucknow’s sheermal, kakoris, nimish… Look hard enough and you will find these not just in hard-to-get-invited-to homes but exclusive restaurants too. Luckily, we are just about beginning to market our heritage.

9. K for Korean: Chennai, not surprisingly given its status as a manufacturing hub for so many Korean companies, has an astonishing number of authentic Korean restaurants. Catch a flight for spicy BBQs and the addictive bibimbap.

10. L for Licorice: Though licorice candy and desserts are quite common, it is, of course, possible to entirely hate the strong flavour of the herb that we also know as mulethi in India and by other local names. But, recently, I had home-made pasta flecked with licorice, also used as a seasoning for Chinese savoury sauces and the result was hardly unpleasant.

11. O for old grains: Refined maida is the bane of our existence. This year, go slow, and rediscover some old grains that are still around despite wheat and polished rice. In the Indus Valley, barley, for instance, accompanied wheat as a staple. It is the only grain mentioned in the Rig Veda even though it is a minor cereal today. It would be a shame to lose it and others like the amaranth (ram dana) that you still get in the form of chikki during northern winters. If you don’t want to stick to Indian grain, try other ancients like spelt (Italy), couscous and quinoa (a nut really native to south America), all being increasingly used by trendy, go-slow chefs.

12. X for Xtreme contrasts: Any cutting edge dish should startle you out of your comfort zone. And there’s nothing like contrasting temperatures. Ice with warm chocolate foam, or indeed a warm, cheese risotto with cold beet foam—two dishes I tried very recently at Rossini in Bangkok. Look forward to such inventiveness in India too

(The column appeared in Sunday Economic Times on Jan 1, 2012)

My Gymkhana meal (with S and A) and Delhi’s best Club food

By Anoothi Vishal

Over my monthly lunch with S and A (this time though it was more like a quarterly lunch), I discovered the best soup in Delhi. S is a member at the snobby Gymkhana; so we sat around a table in the dining hall, trying to look older and distinguished enough to fit in with all the other diners, to speak in hushed whispers and to not give in to the temptation of looking into our silenced-cellphones to check whether there could have been any other calls at all from non-random PR people.

When S turned 18, her father, a member of long-standing and repute, brought her to these hallowed portals for a meal. It was a rite of passage. And ever since then, she, a vegetarian, has possibly settled for paneer a la kiev that the club turns out in a paen to 1950’s-style clubby “Continental” food. When S ordered that once again at lunch yesterday, I was tempted to laugh, but looking at the butter and cheese oozing out of the roll, hastily changed my mind and begged her for a small bite, which, despite the paneer, is entirely edible.

For our part, A and I settled for fish—she for a simple grilled version, I for the famous baked tomato fish the dining hall here is famous for. And indeed this turned out to be the best food I have ever had at any Delhi club. We finished off our meal by sharing the famous caramel custard—the real thing, not out of a packet. But it was really the first course of beet soup that is going to get me all nostalgic. Never the one to choose anything healthy, I can, nevertheless, slurp on this soup all winter long.

Considering that standards at the other dining hall that I used to love going to—at the IIC— have been drastically slipping over the last couple of years, the Delhi Gymkhana now has no clubby rival to its food in the city. The last meal I had at the IIC was with author Chetan Bhagat (and his mother) over an interview, amusing for many things (including the grandiose, old waiters trying to bully poor Chetan) but certainly not the food. Even the apple pie that one had religiously sought on every occasion of IIC-eating had begun to lose its allure. I haven’t been there ever since.

Where I do go pretty frequently—given that that’s the only club I am actually a member of—is the Indian Women’s Press Club and I am indeed partial to its homely charms, even though sometimes they border on the plain ridiculous, like when serving up the comforting Indian-Chinese honey-chilli potatoes with a watery gravy. Nevertheless, for ghar ka khana, or bhelpuri and sarson ka saag IWPC has no rival. The food at the general Press Club, especially the snacks that you had with lots of subsidized booze (egg-on-toast, masala peanuts and so on), used to be pretty decent at one point. But I no longer have the will or taste to go to the Den, having acquired some grown-up sophistication at long last.

Panchsheel Club, newly-made over, has some decent food going, I have sampled some birthday fare at Friend’s Club that is nothing to write home about though the lovely location makes up for everything, but the Sarvapriya Vihar Club used to serve a mean rogan josh and kebabs at least till some time ago. There is, of course, the Delhi Golf Club (always memorable because I had my first glass of Rose wine there), where food and company have both been immaculate. Most recently, I attended a spectacular wedding on the lawns overlooking a heritage structure and the golf course. (Highly recommended to any one looking to get married or remarried.) It was understated, elegant, with a live jazz band and first-rate food that comprised everything from dim sum to a seafood buffet. I doubt whether the meal was catered to by the club though it would have been an interesting exercise.

(Do write in with your own Club favourites.)