Category Archives: Foodie Events

Poppaddum Sadya: A sumptuous lunch invitation

I don’t have any Mallu friends. It is the only reason I can think of for not knowing anything substantial about food from ‘God’s Own Country’. Further absolving myself of all responsibility, I also blame Bombay. With barely a handful of Keralite restaurants, the city is seriously lacking in culinary representation from the spice capital of India.

So when I heard about an economist from Kerala, living in Bombay, wanting to invite ten strangers to share a dining table for a taste of her traditional home cooking… I would have been a fool to say no.

Sneha Nair’s recipes and kitchen tricks are the result of long-distance phone calls with her mother and peering over her aunt’s shoulder as she cooked. Sneha may be a self-taught cook, but my introduction to this glorious cuisine could not have been more perfect. My first ever Keralite meal was – a sadya, the traditional, all-vegetarian feast served at festivals and celebrations.

That Sunday afternoon, ten strangers picked their own banana leaf to eat on, arranged themselves on the floor, and waited for feast to begin. Sneha served us each dish herself, suggesting the ‘correct’ way to eat each item but also encouraging us not to get too distracted by custom.

IMG_2220First came eight chutneys and sides including the raw mango chutney manga peraku, a sweet and sour puliyinchi, lime pickle vadukapuli achar, banana chips, raw jackfruit chips and the moreish banana and jaggery sarkara upperi. The crowd pleaser was most definitely the pachadi, pineapple, coconut and yoghurt transformed into a tangy creation.

Then arrived the vegetables, a riot of colours dancing on my bright green leaf – avial, kaalan, kootcurry, carrot and bean thoran, cabbage thoran; and olan, where two of my favourite ingredients – pumpkin and coconut milk – come together in a delicately textured mild curry.

IMG_2224Next we were served a daal with ghee, aubergine and okra sambhar and pineapple rasam. And last, the delicious payasam ada pradhaman a classic combination of rice flakes, jaggery, milk and roasted cashews.

I was lost in a trance of unfamiliar delicacies, each dish designed to coax the flavours out of the others. There was a time when a sadya used to consist of 64 dishes and I think I speak for everyone when I say we were relieved that Sneha only chose 20! The trick while eating a sadya is to eat the rice sparingly and my only disappointment was that Sneha chose basmati rice instead of rosematta (red) rice that I was later told was more traditional.

When the meal is completed, one is meant to fold the banana leaf. The direction in which we fold the leaf is a signal of our enjoyment of the meal – folding it away is a compliment to the chef.

Even though her mother grew up in a house with three kitchens and spent her summers making banana chips and jackfruit jam, Sneha never cooked in these kitchens. She may have dabbled in some cooking as a teenager, but it wasn’t until she moved to Scotland for a few years in 2010 that her tryst with Keralite food really began.

You never know when your calling hits you, and Sneha can’t pinpoint the exact moment when she thought cooking for others was a good idea. Whatever the reason behind Sneha’s Poppadum supper clubs, Bombay is certainly a better place for it.

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This article was first written for burrp!

Photographs courtesy the lovely Vaydehi Khandelwal.

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Filed under Bombay, Foodie Events, Home-style, India, Indian, Kerala, Pop-up, South Indian, Vegetarian

plusixfive. The traditional trio

By the time I entered London’s supper club scene plusixfive founder Goz was leaving the city to create havoc in Hong Kong. I couldn’t turn a street corner without running into a Londoner weeping in sorrow at the loss of one of their favourite supper club chefs. I met him once, for three minutes – to exchange £5 for a jar of outstanding “proper” sambal. He stopped bouncing only long enough for me to grab the bottle out of his hands. This mad, bouncing, love-the-real-stuff spirit is what underlines everything plusixfive stands for.

Goz started plusixfive in May 2011 (read: coerced at gunpoint by foodaholic and Edible Experiences founder WenLin Soh) when he realised that this was the perfect vehicle to showcase real Singaporean food. He said, “I got tired of fish and chips. I came to the UK when all we had was fish and chips; and Costa was amazing coffee; and Flat White was a description for a paint colour in Homebase. I missed Singaporean food so started learning how to cook it myself, taking recipes off the net and more importantly from my mum. It was ridiculous that all people seemed to know about Singapore was either (a) caning for graffiti (b) caning (and death) for drug smuggling (c) caning for littering in our clean city and (d) caning for chewing gum. Ridiculous to me because in Singapore, food is possibly the most important and central thing to Singaporeans.

IMG_1221A curious incident with a blog post in the night time brought ShuHan (a firecracker graphic designer and chef intent on staying seasonal) into his life; and Jason (eager to showcase his own Peranakan heritage cuisine) was one of the diners at Goz’s first supper club. So plusixfive grew from just Goz to Goz, ShuHan and Jason.

A few weeks ago, under the guise of celebrating some kind of an anniversary, plusixfive, assisted by Javier Leal and WenLin Soh took over the bun steamers at Yum Bun in Shoreditch. For the sweet price of £13 they were serving three buns – ox cheek redang, veg popiah and pork belly – and a beer. It was such a clever idea! They got bun-loving London to try 100% Singaporean fillings without compromising on flavour or tradition.

IMG_1238The pork belly is, or I should say used to be, my bun of choice at Yum Bun. I started with that. It was nice and all but I couldn’t wait to dive into the others. I was completely prepared to be uninspired by the veggie bun – what I fool I was! ShuHan expertly created a typical Nyonya Popiah filling (a Singaporean fresh egg pancake spring roll) with braised turnips, mushrooms and a fiery sweet lime chilli sauce. The “I-can’t-believe-it’s-veg Popiah Bun” was aptly named, juicy and so delicious.

The winneIMG_1220r, by a very small margin, was Jason’s “Ox Cheeky Rendang”. Jason is old school – he’s been known to pound 40 bowls of laksa paste by hand. He picked the rendang as it’s something that is traditionally Nyonya and was his Nan’s recipe. My favourite bun of the evening was a result of 16 hours of hard work over a hot stove. Hunks of meat melted into a rich rempah spice paste and coconut milk in true Peranakan tradition. The luscious result was sandwiched between crunchy cucumber, radish and peanuts in Yum Bun’s doughy pillows.

Goz, ShuHan and Jason have very different cooking styles and techniques but are joined in frustration against what London passes off for Singaporean cooking. I get that.

The longer I have lived away from India the less a “curry” takeaway will fulfil me the way 6 hours in the kitchen over butter chicken does. I know I harp on about the importance of tradition – but that is only so that I don’t help create a generation that cannot make themselves a hot meal, that believes chicken tikka masala came from India, and that Singapore noodles are served in Singapore. Innovation is all well and good, but not at the cost of tradition.

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Look out for the cookbook later this year: plusixfive: A Singaporean Supper Club Cookbook (Or How to Subvert Singaporean Culinary Misconceptions, Avert Stir-Fry Calamities, Make Your Nyonya Grandmother Weep with Joy and Other Badass Kitchen Skills)


Read more about plusixfive X yum bun on Edible Experiences

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Filed under Bar food, Eat, Foodie Events, London, Shoreditch, Singaporean, Small Plates, Supper Club

Darjeeling Express. Food that makes my heart sing

My friends know that all I really want to do is run my own restaurant. I’d love to say it was something I’ve wanted since the day I ate my first butter naan, or the first time I was taken to a restaurant as a child. It wasn’t. And to be honest, I cannot recall the first time I decided that one day I will spend the rest of my days working 24/7, having swapped my enviable shoe collection for… ugh, flats.

I’ve put forward every excuse – no money, no location, no help, no time; except the real one: no inspiration. I could not bring myself to commit to my dream because I had not yet tasted food that I would be proud to serve. There was fear that I would never find the food that would make my heart sing.

That is, until I was fed by Asma Khan. We share a hometown (Hyderabad), a love for Bollywood, and an unconditional passion for authentic flavours. Asma too has a desire to turn this passion into a life of working 24/7, swapping her brocade kurtas for kitchen whites.

But she wasn’t always the fantastic cook she is today. It is safe to say that when Asma moved to the UK in 1991, as the good wife of a Cambridge scholar, she could not even boil an egg. She spent her first two years in the country eating salad and her husband’s chicken curry. In her own words “life was not worth living.” In 1993 Asma travelled back to India to spend time in her ancestral kitchens, and over the course of a few months mastered recipes that have been in her family for four generations. She came back to being a wife and mum and along the way got a PhD in Law. It wasn’t until April of 2012 that Asma decided to turn food into a career.  Somewhere in these last two decades, a skill learnt out of desperation turned into an obsession. Asma became Darjeeling Express and made her debut at London’s Supper Club Summit.

When Asma asked me if I would take charge of her Front of House I squealed a massive “YES!” Having tasted Asma’s glorious food on more than one occasion I was honoured to be part of a team that would bring such joy to 55 lucky guests; and thrilled that I got to play restaurant for a day. This is what we served:

HYDERABADI HALEEM
*
CHICKEN TENGRI KABAB
KEEMA KA SAMOSA
**
CALCUTTA CHAAT SELECTION
***
BENGALI FISH MALAI CURRY
ACHAAR CHICKEN
KASHMIRI LAMB
CHETTINAD PANEER
BAIGAN KA BHARTA
HYDERABADI MIRCHI KA SALAAN
****
SERVED WITH
PEAS PALLAU, LEMON RICE & ROGNI ROTI
CHUTNEY: TOMATO, APRICOT, PRUNES AND DATE
*****
GAJJAR KA HALWA
BHAPPA DOI
FRUIT CHAAT

Every dish on the menu comes with a story. For instance, the haleem recipe belongs to Ali Miyaan who used to cook for Hyderabad’s Nizam family. The samosas were learnt by Asma out of pure desperation. (Shocked at what passed off for a samosa in the UK she would not drink another cup of chai without a proper samosa.) And she learnt that the secret of proper chaat is in its tamarind chutney. Asma went back to her school in Calcutta and and bullied chaatwalla Subodh into teaching her the tricks to a perfect tamarind sauce (he still serves students mouthwatering puchkas!).

Waitressing isn’t exactly new to me. But serving a few dishes to a bunch of tables is nothing compared to what it took five of us to synchronise the service of 15 dishes to 55 people. Having been a diner at other supper clubs I knew that the manner of a guest at a supper club is different from when they visit restaurants. They are more patient to start with, which was a relief because none of us anticipated the trauma of plating up 55 portions of chaat and dessert in under ten minutes! They also had a lot more questions about the food as some of these dishes they had never seen at any one of London’s hundreds of Indian restaurants.

The tiny kitchen was a hive of activity for the four hours that the meal lasted. We saw every drama from breaking dishes and moody waitresses, to running out of clean spoons and a grumpy potwasher. And just as we thought we had everything under control, along came the “last minute vegetarians”. Thankfully, the spirit in the dining room was completely the opposite. Old school friends chose the supper club as a venue for their reunion, and new lovers celebrated a birthday. Happy diners didn’t seem to notice the gap between courses as they licked their plates clean, waiting patiently for more.

The super hit dish of the night was the Bengali fish malai curry. Traditionally, this dish is made with prawns and only at celebrations. Tonight was a celebration of sorts and the chef was allowed to take a few liberties!

At about 11pm I realised that I had not had a sip of water or a bite to eat since lunch that day; that my feet had blisters and I had cuts on both my hands from heavens knows what; that I had washed more dishes than I ever intend to for the rest of my life. At about 11pm, I also realised that I had not been this happy in years; and couldn’t wait to do it again!

I have eaten and served food that makes my heart sing. And just like that, my dream isn’t scary anymore.

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All the photographs are courtesy dashing supper club guest Christopher Goh.

Take yourself to Asma’s next supper club here.

Read more about Aug 23: Darjeeling Express on Edible Experiences

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Filed under Communal tables, Foodie Events, Indian, London, Supper Club

Bukhara. Home is where the daal is

I am the first to admit my double standards when it comes to restaurants that serve Indian food. Most friends who have eaten with me will criticise me for being too demanding of the food and the service. I have always maintained that I go to restaurants for one of two reasons: great food, great service. Ideally both, but definitely one. All that is forgotten though, when I eat Indian food. Quite clearly because it is the food I have grown up on, Indian food to me is about hospitality, ceremony, and a great deal of love.

When I heard that India’s favourite black daal was coming to London I was beside myself. Memories of some of the best meals of my life came flooding back. I couldn’t tell you about the first time I ate at Delhi’s Bukhara, but I can tell you about the last meal I had there with my grandfather, and how we ate bowls of their Daal Bukhara and hot tandoori rotis for hours. I can tell you about the time my friend proposed to her (now) husband over his favourite meal in the world. And I can tell you about the last time I was in the presence of their majestic Sikandari Raan.

Bukhara, India’s favourite restaurant, has decided to visit London for two weeks in a pop up avatar at the Sheraton Park Tower in Knightsbridge. My Twitter-bud Dolce Dini couldn’t make it to their preview lunch and I was more than happy to take her place. Thanks to her I was able to relive some of my favourite food memories from home, right here in London.

The afternoon began with glasses of bubbly in a canopied bar bursting with Indian colour. Kashmiri carpets, silk cushions, Rajasthani chairs… they had managed to squeeze the most clichéd Indian decor into one tiny space and yet make it look beautiful. It’s a shame this bar isn’t a permanent feature at the hotel! There we stood, a group of bloggers and food critics, making polite conversation with each other; but really all we wanted was to get to the main event – the grand menu that had travelled all the way from India.

The room we were led to gave us no indication of the sumptuous meal we were about to receive. We were seated at round tables with token candles in a banquet room that lacked any splendour, glamour, or character. I ignore the bland room, and the waiters discomfort in their kurtas… thalis of the food had started to arrive.

They offered us a sampling of the tasting menus that they will serve over the next two week (Vegetarian at £59 and Meat & Seafood at £79). The first round of sharing platters had the famous malai chicken kababs, king prawns, fabulous paneer tikkas and (cold :-() naans and rotis. Thankfully the Daal Bukhara arrived soon after and everything else was forgiven. The daal tasted exactly as I remember it. Nothing else has ever come close, and I’m willing to bet, no other daal ever will.

Next, the Sikandari Raan. When we have this in the original Delhi restaurant, there is a moment of silence on the table as we pay our respects to the sheer magnificence of this dish. The lamb will be tender and make you sing as you rip into it. The London cousin didn’t inspire much singing but was close enough to the original.

They served two desserts. A decidedly uninspiring phirni and an orgasmic (I don’t use this term lightly) gulab jamun.

I am surprised to say that after the daal my favourite dish of the afternoon was the tandoori aloo, something I almost never order in Delhi. With each mouthful of the fluffy potatoes drenched in ginger, chilli, coriander and stuffed with nuts and raisins, I disappeared from the room a little. I was six and decorating Mamma’s Gingerbread Men. I was seven, on the roof with Papa, stealing ber off our neighbour’s tree. I was nine and had just touched snow for the first time at Rohtang Pass. I was twelve and was waking up from my first night on a houseboat in Kashmir. I was fifteen and kissing my grandmother goodbye for the last time. I was home.

-p

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Filed under Daal, Dilli, Foodie Events, Hotel restaurant, Indian, London