Category Archives: Foodie adventures

The last one

There is a time and place for every meal. Like at the end of a day full of suckage, in the middle of a heartbreak, when I’m homesick, and especially when I’m sick of home, absolutely nothing sets my world right like a bowl of Maggi noodles.

There have been trysts with the likes of Spuntino, Bombay Canteen & M. Wells on the days when nothing could go wrong. And travels for one that led me to adventures in Café Jardin Majorelle, Los Salones del Piano Nobile and Joseph Leonard. I’ve spent afternoons at Dishoom and Bar Termini and been transported to another place and feeling.

From the very first table for one at Viajante, to my first rodeo with Michelin dining on my own at Daniel, the right meal always came along when I needed to break through a (usually self-imposed) barrier.

Over the past six years, these meals have been a witness to my life. I fasted and feasted through stories, patching up old wounds and documenting new ones, with my writing always keeping me safe, like a trusty Band-Aid. I never quite had the courage to check if the wounds were still open; or worse still, if they had actually begun to heal.

But there is a time and place for everything. As I bring in the last of my 30s in the city where they began, it seems to be the right time to rip off the bandage.

This is the time to say goodbye.

-p

p.s. Life is too short for a bad meal and old bandages.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Foodie adventures

Turning pages at Pepper Trail

We are at the stunning Pepper Trail retreat, a 200 acre coffee, tea and spice plantation in northern Kerala. From the moment you drive through the retreat’s gates one is enveloped in a cacophonous hush. Days begin with the sounds of morning dew crashing into leaves, and end with songs of a thousand birds. Time stands still, even as the plantation breathes new life into each day.

IMG_4715

Anand Jayan is a third generation plantation owner and welcomes each visitor as if we were guests to his home. From personalising every single meal and guided tours of his gardens, to offers of coracle rides in their private reservoir – he spoilt us rotten. No request was too outrageous and we were especially looking forward to a cooking class arranged with the plantation’s cook. Mani has been with the family for over two decades and is now the keeper of their several culinary secrets.

I was chopping smoked kodampuli for Mani’s fish curry when WhatsApp pinged his message of rejection. Decades of being turned down doesn’t seem to be practice enough and my eyes pricked with an all too familiar emotion… or perhaps it was the red chilli tadka being prepared for our jackfruit thoran. I was grateful to be standing in a kitchen full of distractions – Mani’s Malayalam cooking class translated into English by Anand’s mother, the vague recollection that kodampuli is often mistaken for kokum, and the desperate need not to cry in front of my younger sister.

The irony of being rejected whilst at one of the most romantic hotels I’ve been to was not lost on me. And so, as I walked up to our treehouse, balancing myself on a ramp that meandered through the tops of enormous jackfruit trees, I swore not to succumb to the seduction of self-pity.

We spent languid days not turning a single page of the several books we thought we would need, only sitting up for the delicious meals that arrived at regular intervals. We feasted on heavenly breakfasts of idiappams and stew, puttu, kadala kari and fried bananas; lunches and dinners of kodampuli fish curry, olan, mezhukkupuratti, and appams and curry; and tea time always included banana fritters and surprisingly awful filter coffee. And needless to say, everything featured coconut. (See end of the post for descriptions of these meals.)

We only managed to drag ourselves away from the plantation’s serenity and steaming plates of food for a few hours. And only to buy some smoked kodampuli and mountains of banana chips. Anand drove us into Sultan Bathery, the erstwhile dumping ground for Tipu Sultan’s artillery. It’s a small town by any standards – we were told that stores began selling ice cream only a few years ago – but large-hearted enough to string new year decorations between temples and mosques. And tolerant enough for the morning azaan to give way to temple bells even as traffic quietened around the churches.

12479216_984569261616896_482684271_n

It was only on the drive back to Calicut airport did I allow myself the luxury of self-reflection. About the kind of pain I was willing to accept in my life. None, you say? Then surely the only alternative is an even more painful ‘what if’. Like not turning the page of a book because I may not like how it ends? As always the Dalai Lama comes to my rescue – seek passionately, let go lightly he says. And let’s keep turning those pages.

-p

We ate very well…

Idiappam: also called string hoppers in Sri Lanka is a breakfast favourite and a snack. Noodles made from rice flour, and served with sweetened coconut milk or meat/chicken stew. The earliest mention of this food was in the 5th century Perumpanuru as a snack sold on the seashore.

Puttu and kadala kari: A traditional breakfast item for the original warrior class of Kerala, the Nairs. Bamboo-steamed rice and coconut served with a curry of black chickpeas.

Kodampuli: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/02/spice-hunting-kodampuli-gambodge-malabar-tamarind-kokum.html

Olan: A Nair dish of white pumpkin and dried beans cooked in coconut milk.

Mezhukkupuratti: a delicious vegetable stir fry, always cooked in coconut oil. Ours was a mix of plantains and green beans.

Appam: rice pancake traditionally eaten with meat stew by Syrians and the mixed vegetable dish, aviyal, by the Nairs and Nampoothiris.

(Source for all historical food facts: KT Achaya)

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Breakfast, Coffee, Cooking class, Foodie adventures, Home-style, Hotel, India, Indian, Kerala, Outdoor dining, South Indian, Vegetarian

London’s Bombaywallahs. The chefs of Dishoom Shoreditch

London's Bombaywallahs

1993, Bombay: Ten-year old Yashpal Gusai begins plotting a career that would not involve mathematics or science.

1996, Gurdaspur: Rishi Anand peers into a tandoor that stands taller than him as he plays sous chef to his father in their back garden.

2005, Kathmandu: Tanka K.C follows a friend into a part-time job, cooking Indian food for tourists visiting the Pashupatinath Temple.

2011, Varkala Beach: Agra-born Saleem Khan gets on a plane to Heathrow, leaving the beach shacks of Kerala for the love of his life.

2013, London: Fourteen strangers work together as long lost friends, recreating the spirit of Bombay in a Shoreditch kitchen.

Fourteen chefs that were handpicked from across the Indian subcontinent by Dishoom’s Executive Chef Naved Nasir. With each one he was looking for three things – skill, personality and the talent to work a tandoor. “My chef interviews begin with making bread,” Naved shares. “The moment they touch the dough I know whether to take them or not.” As a result the kitchen has a strong team of tandoor experts that knead, roll, twirl and flip over 800 roomali rotis each week.

Growing up in Meerut, one of India’s most ancient cities, Naved never imagined he would one day be responsible for a team of chefs in London that serve 7,500 guests over 21,000 portions of food each week. Not even when he, at age five, took over his mum’s kitchen, cooking the family his favourite meal of mung daal khichdi with desi ghee and dahi. Naved fell into hospitality by accident. Adamant not to follow his father’s footsteps into medicine, he took up hotel management as a lark. Sixteen years later, as he begins to recounts some milestones – training in the hallowed kitchens of Dumpukht and Bukhara; working with Master Chefs Mohd. Shareef and Imtiaz Qureshi; leading a banquets team serving 3,000 guests a day; ITC Hotels’ youngest Executive Chef of the time – he almost sounds as if he is talking about someone else.

On a balmy Monday morning not so long ago, the exceptionally talented and unassuming Chef Naved treated me to a day with his chefs in their Shoreditch kitchen. This was my one chance to understand just what makes one of London’s busiest kitchens tick.

7am: I am assigned to Chef Sandy Shanmughan in the curry section, responsible for the daal, curries, biryani and chai. After “opening” the spotless kitchen, his first task of the day is to begin brewing the tea with Dishoom’s secret combination of masalas. He next turns his attention to the masterpiece on their menu – the Dishoom Black Daal. Their daal – the process for which begins at 6pm the evening before – takes nearly 24 hours to make.

Dishoom Black DaalBy the time Sandy has got to the daal this morning, it has been washed for an hour, boiled for a couple more, and then left to cook in its steam overnight. Without giving away much more of their secret recipe that I had the privilege of witnessing in action, he never strays too far from his vat of daal for the rest of day. It’s been a long journey for Sandy, from his mum’s Kerala kitchen to joining Dishoom three years ago. Listen to him explain the nuances of cooking his favourite dish on the menu – 50 litres every day – and it becomes clear how he is in the job destined for him.

9am: Breakfast service is in full swing and I adjust myself into a safe corner to watch Chef Tanka K.C expertly manoeuvre his way from fryer to grill to tandoor as he sends out order after order of Full Bombays, Bacon Naan Rolls and House Porridge.

11am: I now get to hang out with the only woman in Dishoom’s kitchens – Chef Sapna Macal – their powerhouse of a pastry chef. I aIMG_2930m mesmerised as Sapna swiftly kneads, cuts, measures and rolls 150 pillows of pau, whilst telling me about growing up in Hyderabad and spending afternoons watching Sanjeev Kapoor cook food on TV. Sapna barely pauses for breath as she tells me the story of how she earned her spot on the Dishoom team with her version of a chocolate mousse, all the while baking a Pineapple Crumble, piping cream on to a Memsahib’s Mess and serving up a dozen Mango Kulfis. (I compare this to how all the other (male) chefs had to stop what they were doing to answer my questions!)

More chefs begin joining the kitchen. Each one announcing himself with a distinct war cry. Each one flying the flag for a different part of the Indian subcontinent. Dishoom’s kitchen is a poster child for national integration – a lot like you see on the streets of Bombay.

Chicken Berry Biryani1pm and a food trial: Every Monday, Head Chef Yashpal Gusai, Manager Rob Ferne and Bar Wizard Carl Brown test a few dishes and drinks from the menu. The Chicken Berry Biryani didn’t quite cut it this week as the chicken pieces were too large. And the Chilli Cheese Toast lost a lot of points for “uneven browning”. This is a tough panel to please! From the cocktails we tried, my favourite was the Monsooned Cobbler (“Malabar espresso, bamboozled with spices, Cognac”) that you drink in two stages. First, black, as it arrives. Then you add cream, taste and pause as the drink transforms itself in your mouth. Genius!

I return to the kitchen with Yash. Even though he grew up watching his father cook, it wasn’t until he was faced with a potential career as an engineer that he considered a hotel management degree. A similar story to Naved’s, Yash shares, “I hated maths and science so decided to become a chef. Only, I didn’t realise how much time I would have to spend out of the kitchen and in the classroom!

The handsome chef towers over the rest on his team, taking in every station at all times, jumping in to help when the number of orders gets the better of a particular station. As the head of the kitchen Yash’s day is taken over by admin more than anything else. “I couldn’t change a light bulb before, but now am a mechanic and magician all rolled into one.” The only time he does cook is when he goes home to his mum’s kitchen, “but they don’t appreciate my restaurant-style cooking.” He was head hunted for Dishoom while working in Bombay’s Kabab Factory and almost didn’t go for the interview “because the name – Dishoom – was a bit weird.” But three years on he hasn’t once regretted his decision to move to London and Dishoom.

Chef Mobarak2pm: I am at my favourite station – the tandoor. Chef Mobarak Sheikh wowed Naved with the technique and speed with which he made his roomali rotis. The Orissa-born roti genius is all smiles all the time and even humoured me with a lesson in roomali rolling. He is joined by Chef Purna Prasad. You can hear and smell this section before you see it. The two chefs work like magicians, filling each order that comes in with soft roomalis, crisp naans, and my favourite – the moreish cheese naan. Growing up in Kathmandu, Purna always wanted to work in Bombay one day. That he is today working in a Bombay Café in London is such a lovely irony!

5pm: Dishoom is one of the few restaurants that has a dedicated grill chef. A genius move considering the 2000+ portions of kababs they sell each week. As I helped Chef Jaffer Khan skewer over 20 kilos of the Dishoom Chicken Tikka (for dinner service) he told me about his life as a computer operator in Delhi before his career took a more delicious turn. When he isn’t prepping for the Murgh Malai and serving up mountains of Paneer Tikka, Jaffer is on Skype with his new bride, counting the days before she joins him in London.

I return to the curry section to meet Chef Saleem Khaan.  A Dishoom success story, Saleem began as a kitchen porter and in two short years was promoted to a section chef. He takes over from Sandy and begins the Black Daal process for the next day. Like every other chefs, he also made sure I was well supplied with chai and chat even as orders flew in.

The kitchen’s second in command is Chef Rishi Anand. At 24 he is one of the youngest chefs in the room, but comes with experience that belies his age. He grew up making tandoori chicken at home with his father but went on to specialise in Pan-Asian cuisine first with Indian hotel giants Oberoi and then at Tamarai in London. He joined Dishoom to open their Shoreditch restaurant but still misses cooking Chinese food sometimes. His Orient-inspired staff meals seem to be everyone’s favourite!

The next few hours are a blur as dinner guests flood Dishoom Shoreditch and the kitchen is enveloped in a melodic flurry of sounds – claps of rotis, hissing kababs, crackling calamari, bubbling daal, and the chefs secret language to make sure that every dish in an order is finished at the same time.

Naved ensures his team is always involved in the creation of new dishes, “They have to produce the dish for the thousands who walk into our doors – I need my chefs to be happy. My only instruction to them is to ‘Think of Bombay and dream up an honest dish’.”

Can I now explain what makes one of London’s busiest kitchens tick? Can I explain what “Bombay food” is? Probably not. Bombay has many foods, each with a distinct personality. Yet the city has made that food its own. A lot like the fourteen chefs who travelled the world to make the kitchen of Dishoom Shoreditch, their own.

-p

This feature was first published in the online magazine The Non-Resident Indian. Read the original post here.

3 Comments

Filed under Bombay, Daal, Foodie adventures, India, Indian, London, Open kitchen, Restaurant, Shoreditch

Bengal in Bandra. A food walk

I grew up in Hyderabad but all my meals came out of a Punjabi kitchen. The few exceptions were Sunday morning breakfasts of dosa at Hotel Harsha, sweet corn chicken soup at Hi-King, post-swim sandwiches at Hotel Banjara, and Maggi Noodles. I had such a Punjabi palate that meals at Mamma’s Bombay Sindhi kitchen were just painful. (You still can’t get me to eat sai bhaaji or sindhi curry.)

Kaali daal, sarson da saag and mountains of paneer aside, I was raised with a timid palate. It wasn’t until several years later when I had my first Hyderabadi biryani in Bombay that I realised what a food wonderland I had left behind. And it wasn’t until I left India that I really appreciated what a fantastic food heritage I came from. Now when I go back home I would rather eat Maggi Noodles than at the latest “Continental” restaurant.

Last week I hit the jackpot. One of India’s favourite food bloggers (and an excellent chef), Kalyan Karmakar was hosting a Bengal in Bandra food walk and I managed to bag a last minute spot.

The sweltering evening began with Kalyan introducing the spirit of the walk. He was going to guide us through some of his favourite Bengali dishes available in Bombay, and share stories about where they came from, how he would eat them back in Bengal, and the compromises he makes in his new home. (No there were no puchkas in our luck as Kalyan assured us we would not find even remotely authentic ones outside Calcutta.) He couldn’t have had a more ravenous dozen hanging on to his every word.

We began at Hangla’s (which is Bong slang for “greedy for food”); a street stall on Bandra’s throbbing Turner Road with chefs from Calcutta handpicked by the owner. We ate egg and mutton rolls (my favourite), fish chops (delicious with kasundi (mustard chutney)), veg cutlets, and Calcutta biryani. Our group had a healthy mix of Frankie-loving Bombayites and kathi roll enthusiasts and Kalyan played a (very) biased referee while explaining the differences between the two.

As we made our way through a bustling Bandra to the next stop, Kalyan regaled us with Bong food stories and tips – about not using ketchup except in egg rolls; about how the Brits caused the biryani to travel from Awadh to Calcutta (losing some meat and gaining eggs and potatoes on the way); and how dessert isn’t strictly a post-meal indulgence.

In true Bengali style, we next marched into Sweet Bengal between our appetisers and mains. Until today I had never ventured beyond Bengali classics sondesh, rossogolla and mishti doi. Kalyan’s picks were a revelation! My favourite was kheer kodom – a juicy rossogulla enveloped by delicious khoya. I paid little attention to the pantua vs. gulab jamun debate as was completely distracted by the kalo jaam, dorbesh, gurer sandesh and excellent kachoris.

Kheer Kodom

Not being trained to eat sweets whenever it suits our fancy, the non Bengalis in the group struggled to keep up with the rest. We moved on to the third stop, hoping that the walk will help make room for the final dot on our food map tonight.

Bong Bong is bijou. We were greeted by the owner Surjopriya who explained that her restaurant served food the way she cooks Bengali food today. Read: not traditional.

Panch Phoran Potatoes

Kalyan’s chose a menu that included panch phoran potatoes (their version has yoghurt. I was told Bombay is mad for these but they weren’t to my taste at all), fried fish, prawn malai curry (excellent), mustard fish (strictly OK), Calcutta version of Anglo Indian pork vindaloo (I prefer the Goan version), lachha parathas and mango pudding. The vegetarian on my table was less than happy with her veggie alternatives.

Kalyan’s food walk is so much greater than the sum of its parts, and totally worth the Rs. 2,000 (£24) I paid. His stories infused so much local flavour into the menus, I met fantastic people I would have never come across otherwise, and I now know that the Malai Sandwich is as Bengali as Chicken Tikka Masala is Indian! Kalyan sent us off with bursting tummies, and a goody bag full of Calcutta snacks mukhorochok dalmut and jhalmuri.

Bong Bong was my least favourite stop of the day. Not because their food doesn’t taste good to most, but because I am old fashioned about Indian food. I have been on either side of the immigrant debate and I understand why people feel the need to modernise tradition. This is more than my memories being frozen in time – it’s about preventing a day when I won’t discover a kheer kodom because nobody remembers how to make it; about not wanting my children to grow up thinking tofu-almond butter-masala is traditional Indian food; about wanting to preserve my heritage before it disappears completely.

It’s about genuinely being worried that I can’t know where I will end up, if I don’t protect where I came from.
-p

Read Kalyan’s blog on the walk here.

7 Comments

Filed under Bengali, Bombay, Foodie adventures, Indian, Small Plates, Street food

Circle of friends. A Birthday Month celebration

I turned thirty in London. It was a potentially horrid day – not only had I seen enough girlfriends turn thirty, depressed and surly, it was going to be the first birthday I would spend with absolutely no family or best friends with me. Until this year I never really gave birthdays much thought beyond presents, guest lists and a dress budget.

There wasn’t much I could do about turning thirty but I was determined not to get depressed or surly. So I came up with Birthday Month – why wait an entire year for just one day when I could celebrate an entire month filled with my favourite things? This year Birthday Month featured a day on London Underground’s Circle Line. The original version of this concept included youngsters getting out at every stop on this tube line for a pint. Instead, I picked favourite restaurants, cool bars and added a few boozers (as homage to the original concept). I also made up a few rules:

  • Eat or drink only one thing at each stop.
  • Everyone must have one alcoholic drink at least every third stop.
  • We won’t stop at every stop…
  • …and may walk for some of the journey.

Emails sent, announcements tweeted, phone calls made… this Table for One was looking forward to sharing her table with a new circle of friends.

Stop 1: Liverpool Street: Dishoom Shoreditch

I was seven minutes late for our 11.30am start, and boy was I glad not to be punctual. Arrive on time and I would have missed out on this debonair welcome party!

2013-03-16 11.42.38

Stop 1 had us eating Bacon Naan Rolls (Nayan, Martin, John and Thomas), Vada Pav (Naman), Nankhatai and Jeera Biscuits (Serena) and Akuri (me), There were also many cups of chai, a bloody mary and a few Kingfisher beers on the table.

I may have said this before but I’ll say it again. Dishoom’s Bacon Naan Roll is one of the most delicious pieces of genius I have ever tasted. A fluffy naan, crispy bacon, chilli jam and cream cheese. What’s not to love?!

Stop 2: Farringdon: Vinoteca

My original choice for this stop was Burger & Lobster but they didn’t open until 4pm and we had to improvise. Many thanks to our resident winemaker Nayan, for suggesting Vinoteca. It was only right that he chose our drink for this stop – a beautiful prosecco that went down (too) well.

A common Twitter acquaintance introduced me to Nayan Gowda and my first meeting with him was spent in a (different) wine bar. I have to admit, that if you had asked me then whether Nayan and I would become friends, my honest answer would have been no. He was charming beyond words and I spent the entire afternoon wondering if I may be a tad boring for him. Our worlds seemed so different… until I decided to take us both out of these tiny boxes I had trapped us in. Today I am thrilled to be able to call Nayan a friend. A great one.

Stop 3: King’s Cross St. Pancras: Wine Pantry

The Wine Pantry is the cutest new wine and spirit bar and serves purely British products. It is also where I came up with my version of the Circle Line day. We lost Serena to a working Saturday, and were now the Joy of Six who drank Sheep Dip Whisky (John), Old Salt Rum (Naman), Kernel IPA (Nayan), sparkling wine (Martin) and Rhubarb Chase Vodka (me). Thomas cheated and brought in a coffee from next door. Thomas Mielke is my most grown up young friend. From our first holiday together (Budapest in 2007) to our forthcoming trip to NYC (next week) he has been an unwavering pillar in my life. I have not felt so close to someone I am so dissimilar from. Six years later we sometimes resemble a crotchety old couple, and have agreed to disagree on many things (except perhaps my drawing skills).

Just as we were ready to leave we were joined by newlyweds Giulia and Sandy. We were now the Hard Eight!

2013-03-16 14.11.54Stop 4: Euston Square: Mestizo

We had every intention of walking to Euston Square. London rain had other plans for us and the Hard Eight took a rather long tube journey for a rather short distance. Mestizo, one of my favourite Mexican restaurants in town, was chaired by my favourite bartender John Leese. I first met John when he was making cocktails at the Match bar across from my office. Short version of our story: I flirted, he asked for my number, I gave it to him, he took two years to call me!

We may have never been on a date but (now that I have forgiven him for taking his time to call me) I know I can count on John. And I don’t just mean for good cocktails.

2013-03-16 14.46.07

John ordered the group (except Thomas who chose beer, and Martin who wussed it out with water) shots of Olmeca Altos tequila. But this beautiful tequila deserved sipping, and we all had strict instructions not to touch the salt or lime. John seemed to need a personal moment with this drink – as a result of which we got a mini master class (and iPhone-aided slideshow) on agave, mezcal and tequila. We ordered the customary guacamole (photo above by star photographer Giulia) and all agreed that today it was infinitely inferior to the free salsa and chips at the bar.

Stop 5: Great Portland Street: Queen’s Head & Artichoke

Grey clouds gave way to a burst of sunshine and we walked to Stop 5. Giulia and Sandy left us for furniture shopping and we were joined by a frozen Laxmi. It was a round of Timothy Taylor’s ale for everyone at Queen’s Head & Artichoke – a beautifully restored Victorian pub with the friendliest staff I have seen at any pub in the city, and a much needed fireplace.

2013-03-16 15.17.20

Stop 6: Bayswater: Mandarin Kitchen

We lost Thomas to a phone call and John to his job. What you have now, ladies and gentlemen, is the final group that will from hereon be known as the New Famous Five.

It was 4pm and I was craving MSG. The original plan for an Egyptian meal at Edgware Road was abandoned for greasy Chinese at Bayswater. Naman took care of the veggies (aubergine and tofu fried in garlic), Nayan ordered the minced pork with red chillies and Martin made an executive decision about an oyster omelette. All shockingly delicious, considering our location.

2013-03-16 17.07.29
What was shockingly un-delicious was Naman’s choice of rice wine. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and so….

2013-03-17 14.18.27
This momentary lapse in judgement aside, Naman Ramachandran’s expertise in food and drink cannot be faulted. I first met Naman nearly ten years ago when my mother published his first book Lights Camera Masala. I have only recently reconnected with him and his fantastic better half Laxmi Hariharan. Many weekends are now spent cooking in each other’s kitchens and I am especially looking forward to my birthday lunch of real Bengali food, personally guided by half-Bong, Naman.

Stop 7: Notting Hill: Kensington Wine Rooms

After the ghastliness our palates were subjected to at the last stop, we demanded proper wine. Good thing Notting Hill Gate and Kensington Wine Rooms’ extensive wine by the glass menu were only one tube stop away. Nayan took charge again and ordered us a delicious bottle of red. I wish I could remember which one it was… It’s the seventh stop and the rules have been well and truly abandoned. Nayan spotted a South African wine made by his friend and ordered a second drink!  We’re definitely not yet drunk but the New Famous Five were now reduced to giggles for pretty much the rest of the day.

Stop 8: South Kensington: Comptoir Libanais

We were hungry again – the Chinese meal had not made a dent in anyone’s appetite. Thankfully Laxmi’s hummus cravings began exactly when we were whizzing past South Kensington and its Comptoir Libanais branch. I have nothing against chains except that unfortunately most abandon any hint of taste or flavour in favour of mass-produced mediocrity. Comptoir Libanais is thankfully different. The hummus and falafel were excellent, Martin, Nayan and Naman were happy with their arak and I loved my Mona cocktail with rose and prosecco.

I announced a new rule at this stop – no phones. So we had no photos, tweets, or people disappearing from the table. For the first time all day I had the chance of a proper chat with Martin. I don’t know if my words can do justice to our relationship. In the six months I have known him, Martin has seen me experience great joy, hit rock bottom, reach out to him, and shun his help. All through this he has been a rock and the best mirror I could have asked for. What more can a girl want? (p.s. Martin Lumsden outblogged me with his artistic view on our Circle Line day; read here.)

Stop 9: Victoria: The Shakespeare

You don’t get more touristy than The Shakespeare at Victoria station. The pub was filled with St. Patrick’s Day revelers and we got our very own four leaf clover.

IMG_0746

Stop 10: Embankment: Wahaca Pop Up

I have a soft spot for Mexican food (it’s the only cuisine to have featured twice on this Circle Line day) and all month long have been looking forward to Wahaca’s pop up on South Bank, and more specifically its fried grasshoppers.

Wahaca is the only restaurant in London to serve this Mexican delicacy. The grasshoppers have an earthy taste flavoured with garlic, smoky chipotle chillies and lime, and served as a baby lasagne smothered with cheese. The insect eaters in the group were not too impressed. There was just not enough grasshopper (or maybe way too much cheese) to have a real notion of what grasshopper must really taste like. Even the other dishes we ordered – guacamole, mushroom quesadilla and pork pibil tacos were strictly average today. We are all Wahaca fans and can only write this off to limitations in their pop kitchen.
2013-03-16 21.42.25The tamarind margaritas on the other hand were ace as usual and Nayan and Martin approved of their mojitos.

One of my favourite views of London is on the walk between South Bank and the Embankment tube station on the Hungerford Bridge. I’m glad this Circle Line day ended here, with my circle of friends, exactly 12 hours since it began.

2013-03-16 20.51.23-2
I have now had six Birthday Months and wonder why I was so worried about not being with family and best friends. Life always does come to a full circle. It doesn’t happen the way you planned it. But, always better.
-p

You can view more photos from the day here.

4 Comments

Filed under Bar, Bar food, Birthday Month, Brunch, Chinese, Cocktails, Foodie adventures, Lebanese, London, Mexican, Oysters, Small Plates, Street food, Wine, Wine Bar

Sammy the Billingsgate seal, Geoffrey the pigeon & fish we didn’t call Wanda

Fish is my least favourite food (closely followed by okra and cauliflower). The only difference between fish and the two vegetables I was force fed as a child is that I want to like fish. You see, I do like some fish – shorshebata ilish, Hyderabadi pomfret tikka, Goan fish curry. But ask me to grill/fry/bake/steam/poach/curry my own and the meal has always ended in (my) tears (and pizza out of a box).

It’s my Birthday Month and I have decided to gift myself – among other things – the love of fish. It’s a bit ridiculous to ban fish just because I haven’t learnt how to cook it properly. Turns out that all I needed was to spend a fish day with someone who loved fish, cooked fish, ate fish, and was quite a dish himself.

A chance meeting last year with lawyer-turned-chef Edward Smith (aka Rocket & Squash),  somehow led to us spending a day together as teacher and student. In addition to writing a fantastic food journal, Ed also caters events and conducts private cooking tutorials in your own kitchen. Once I made him promise not to even try and make me like mackerel, the world was my oyster… urr, fish market. Careful consultations later we had the perfect Saturday planned. I had just given myself the first birthday present of the year – my first ever private cooking class.

Ed was going to pick me up at 6.20 am (he said he wasn’t a masochist and we didn’t have to get there for the usual 4 am start. I beg to differ.) He had warned me to wrap up, wear sensible shoes and be prepared for freezing smelliness of the Billingsgate Market, UK’s largest “inland” fish market. A few iPhone alarm mishaps, caffeine-deprived map reading, and road works related detours later – we were there!

2013-03-02 08.12.192013-03-02 08.18.11You definitely smell it before you see it! I saw octopus, squid, lobster, and more varieties of fish than I knew existed.

2013-03-02 09.30.502013-03-02 08.32.05

Ed walked me through the stalls explaining the various seafood, teaching me what to look for, and even regaled me with stories about the market’s pet seal – Sammy. Once done with our shopping we popped into their café (so local; so fab) and stopped for a quick chat with one of the fishmongers.
2013-03-02 08.34.34

We then drove to a less malodorous shop – the Chelsea Fishmongers. (I have a feeling I may visit Rex Goldsmith’s labour of love more often than the sprawling Billingsgate for my weekly fish supply.)

A few hours later we were in my kitchen. I even got my very own Rocket & Squash apron and a detailed fish prep manual and recipe booklet. The next two hours were not pretty – I learnt how to skin a fish, clean its guts out, fillet it and cut it in a few ways, always careful not to eat the eyes (they’re bitter you see). Ed was so patient with me – gently helping my knife skills along and filling the class with enough juicy cooking tips and tricks to keep me wide awake despite the ungodly start.

To add to the drama of our day my class was interrupted by pigeon coos. My heart nearly stopped as Ed suggested that the pigeon may be inside my spice cupboard. A hesitant search of my kitchen confirmed that the poor baby – now named Geoffrey by the chef – was stuck inside the chimney!

We had together cleaned and prepped salmon, lemon sole, sea bream and squid. We were finally at the part I was looking forward to most ! The next few hours were magical – Ed taught me how to create delicious meals from the simplest ingredients. He gave me a peek into his world of clever twists to standard recipes. We grilled, stewed, fried and poached our way through six mouth-watering dishes.

2013-03-02 13.25.38

Braised squid with chorizo and butter beans

2013-03-02 13.39.58

Grilled salmon with courgette and broad bean salad

2013-03-02 14.21.33Pan-fried sea bream with fennel and blood orange salad – my favourite!

He also taught me how to make the classic sole à la meunière with a brown butter and caper sauce; proper wilted spinach;  and the most moreish side –  creamed leeks, peas and pancetta.

The best thing about the man – he cleaned up after himself (and me)!

EdI loved this day so much! Ed let me take my time, answered every question, and gave me the confidence to go out the next day and buy more fish. I can now safely say, that fish is no longer my least favourite food.

-p

 

5 Comments

Filed under Cooking class, Fish, Foodie adventures, Seafood

Planet of the Grapes

The first wine dinner I ever went to was at Bombay’s Indigo restaurant. Chef Rahul Akerkar’s food was sublime, but what I mostly took away from that experience was: “snob fest”. There is only one word that describes the ponciness that surrounds most wine events in India – contrived (and poncy, I suppose). My lovely friend Rajeev Samant and Sula are doing a lot to change that but…

Now in London, I’ve experienced less ceremony around wine. It’s easy and accessible and one is allowed lecture-free dislike of something they have tasted. One of the first fun wine events was when my friends Matt & Erica invited me to their annual blind tasting party. As the only Indian guest I offered to bring an Indian wine. And so began my search for Sula in London. I looked far and wide and many unhelpful wine stores later experienced the relief (and subsequent joy) of meeting Matt and Marc at Planet of the Grapes.

Our relationship began five years ago and they have remained my most generous educators in all things wine… reminding me to always, always have fun above everything else. And to not always choose a wine by its price.

I recently visited their Bow Lane bar for an Etienne Guigal tasting, and Stef the Chef had food to match. For all the vintages of wine I have ever drunk, I cannot speak to you in “wine notes”. I cannot speak of barrels, oak, nose, nor ear. And so, what I have here is the scene each sip evoked:

On Arrival : Cotes du Rhone Blanc, 2011 (canapés)
Utter dread. I was the only person who had come to this shindig on my own. This usually isn’t a problem, except on this occasion it turned out that every one of the 20+ diners knew each other. There is only so much bag-adjusting, floor-staring, pretend-phone-talking one can do. Consequently I hated the bready canapés and the wine.

First Course: St. Joseph, Blanc, 2009 (filo wrapped Pollock, courgette, piquillo peppers)
I was seated with a smaller group of strangers to deal with. Fortunately they turned out to be fun and funny. With the first sip of this wine I felt myself relax into this meal. It tasted of honey, and summer afternoons on a hammock. The starter was a burst of flavours at first bite. Wow – those juicy peppers!

Second Course: Crozes-Hermitage Rouge, 2007 (potted Welsh-black oxtail)
The oxtail is among the most flavoursome cuts of beef (and inexpensive too). Stef’s potted oxtail was nearly half a day in the making and caused major oohing and aahing at my table. I wasn’t a fan and the wine reminded me of eating mud as a child (not the fun memories but the after effects of having been found out). Both the food and the wine left me wishing for a second starter. I did love the tarragon and fennel salad it came with, but the next course could not come soon enough.

Third Course: Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde, 2005 (char-grilled onglet steak, potato gratin, braised Swiss chard)
NOW we’re talking! Stef originally wanted this course to be some kind of game. Unfortunately it was too early in the year for that and so he prepared a classic onglet steak as, in his words, “a savage feast”. This cut of beef sits quite close to the liver and kidneys, and so has a musky offal tang to it. Drinking the wine was like flirting at the Candlelight Club. Or in Paris. This entire course was rich, flavourful, and very sexy.

Cheese Course: Chateau D’Ampuis, Côte-Rôtie, 2001
I was in heaven. No… better. I was kissing my favourite boyfriend in front of a fireplace in Le Portetta in Courchevel. I couldn’t tell you what cheese was served, and frankly, I didn’t care. The absolute joy that came in this glass was all consuming.

2012-09-18 21.26.14Back on Earth, the gentleman from Guigal guided the entire evening with anecdotes and tasting notes. While I didn’t quite enjoy that part of the evening I realised soon enough that I didn’t have to. Even though the Planet of the Grapes has an extremely serious selection of wines, it also has a wonderful sense of humour about itself. Enough to put even the reluctant novice at ease.

As the evening wound itself down I found myself not wanting to leave this crowd. Funny how that happened. I guess all it took was for me to allow myself to have some fun. To choose not to feel intimidated. To trust that my good friends at Planet of the Grapes would have never asked me to something they didn’t think I would enjoy.

I didn’t really want the biscotti from the tasting menu, and so I charmed two other Planetarians, Beans and Fabio, into bringing me dessert instead. I ended the evening with Stef’s handmade peach sorbet and white chocolate ice cream. I ended the evening feeling like a five-year old girl doing jumping jacks in her pyjamas.

Joy.
-p
Planet of the Grapes on Urbanspoon

4 Comments

Filed under Bistro, Foodie adventures, London, Wine, Wine Bar