Category Archives: Street food

Calcutta. Of pujas and puchkas

Calcutta felt like a wedding. Every street dressed up in lights; everyone resplendent in their traditional best; music pouring out of every household; and food stalls at every corner. The entire city was pulsating with celebration, coming together as one, to pray at a festival dedicated to Goddess Durga.

But this is a very romantic notion of Calcutta, one that I only witnessed briefly. If I had visited during any other time I would have come in search of the Calcutta of poets and philosophers, of colonialism and character. And I would have been disappointed to find that these don’t live on its garbage ridden streets anymore. I had come to Calcutta for its famous puchkas and for the puja, and wasn’t going to let the city get in my way.

My first port of call was Aaheli. Every first time visitor to Calcutta should do themselves the favour of a delicious meal and outstanding service at this Bengali restaurant. Even though I was referred to as “single madam” by the entire service team I enjoyed my Bhuri Bhoj Thali of topsey bhaja, begun bhaja, Gobindo bhog, dal raibahadur, bhaja masala alur dum, phulkopi kadaishuti, chingri malai curry, ilish paturi, shorshe bhetki, kasha mangsho, pualo, loochi, kalojam, and doi. My favourite from this feast was the ilish – the magnificent hilsa fish cooked in a banana leaf.

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IMG_3441The next day I ate a very similar meal at Kewpies, housed in a restored bungalow. The city’s food lovers seem to be divided between the two. I, unlike the locals I consulted before my travels, am firmly in the Aaheli camp.

Calcutta is an awkward city and most interesting neighbouroods are drives away from each other. The trick was to follow each meal with a walk. So Aaheli was followed by a stroll in the city’s Esplanade area and its absurdly popular New Market; I explored Park, Camac and Russell Streets and Shakespeare Sarani after tea at Flurys; and a much-awaited Calcutta chaat evening was preceded by a walk through Rashbehari Avenue and its innumerable saree shops.

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IMG_3488It is true what they say about killing an experience with anticipation. That happened with me and Calcutta’s street food. I ate all the right things at all the right places – jhal muri on Russell Street, dahi papri chaat outside Lighthouse Cinema, puchkas at Vivekananda Park, alur dum outside Dakshinapan – but give me Bombay’s bhel, Delhi’s gol guppas, and Benarsi papri chaat any day.

It wasn’t until I was picking my way through bloody intestines and goat’s hooves that I realised Saturday – dedicated to animal sacrifices to Goddess Kali – was not the best introduction to the city’s revered Kalighat Temple. There is nothing spiritual, or religious about going to most temples in India. There are more shops than devotees, priests sell their blessings for a quick buck, and people like me treat it like a tourist destination. But when I looked past the crowds, and silenced the cacophony of temple bells, mobile phones and mantras, what I was left with was the power of utter devotion.

IMG_3482I saw more of this power at the seven Durga Puja pandals I visited that night. Each one more exquisite than the next. Preparations begin eight months in advance and each neighbourhood puja committees fights for artistic supremacy, but the majesty of their devotion is undeniable.

One of the best meals I had was at Shiraaz – a simple meal of mutton chaap and chicken rezala in a room crowded with families on plastic chairs and laminated tables, takeaway orders, and too many waiters. It was also the restaurant where I was informed by a disapproving cashier that I was their first ever single, female diner. I loved it!

IMG_3491I drove on Howrah Bridge, walked across Dalhousie Square, got drenched in Victoria Memorial Park and paid my respects at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the way to my last stop – mishti at Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy. What I thought would be a quick stop turned into a 40 minute chat with the man in charge – Pranab Nandi. Seeing how lost I was before the sweet counter teeming with sandesh in every shape and flavour, he took pity on me and I was invited to wait in their kitchen. Over limbu cha and a sandesh tasting he spoke about his love for Bombay, of Calcutta’s milk being the best in the country, and how I had the eyes of a Bengali actress.

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IMG_3577I had only three days in the city, and so I must come back. For the rolls at Nizam’s, and a proper Calcutta paan; for a tram ride and a drink at the Tollygunge Club; to visit Dakshineswar and a first chai at the Mullick Ghat flower bazaar; a sherbet at Paramount after a stroll down College Street, and an afternoon in Tangra.

I must also come back to give puchkas a second chance.

Will the second chance I give Calcutta be an honest one? Do I really believe in second chances? In life? In love? I’ve had my version of the-one-great-love. Recently, I experienced something different. Something better. But will I free this new future from comparisons with my past? Will he?

-p

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Filed under Bengali, Calcutta, India, Indian, Street food, Travelogue

Kolapata. Making peace with Bangladesh

Recent events have caused me to take stock of my life’s contents. Family (still mildly insane); cookbook collection (Amazon share prices on the up); Maggi Noodles (Ma will have to replenish stocks); and friends (97% foodaholics).

One such friend has wanted to introduce me to the “best Bangla restaurant in London” for ages. I finally agreed when he promised me it wasn’t on Brick Lane. And so on a particularly dreary Friday, we played hooky and made our way to Whitechapel in east London. We arrived only to discover that every kitchen was closed until namaz ended at 2pm. (This was clearly a much better plan in our heads.)

We spent the hour walking up and down a street of endless money exchanges, bras for £1.50, and sweet shops that wouldn’t serve us. When we finally saw crowds leave the East London Mosque, we began to make our way to Kolapata.

JhalmuriJust outside the mosque, flashing me a very toothy grin, was a tiny man making jhalmuri. Sheikh Bhai is a Bombaywallah who moved to Bangladesh in 1993 after the riots. My half-Bengali friend and I found it unbelievable that an Indian Muslim felt safer in Bangladesh than in his own country! Bangladesh gave Sheikh Bhai a safe home and the perfect jhalmuri recipe. My half-Bengali friend said it was as good as the muri he had on the streets of Calcutta. At £1 for a large cup, this was the best start to our several hours of eating.

Kolapata is where Bangaldeshi film maker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki goes to eat when he visits London. It’s where my friend’s mum said she had the best elish in town. It is also the only restaurant that will get my postcode snob companion to take three trains to a meal. We took all these as positive signs and ordered.

BorhaniThe Bangladeshi Borhani (£1) is far superior to anything from the lassi family I have ever tasted. Shafiq, who was serving us, made me a glass himself, with half milk-half yoghurt, mint, coriander, black salt, cumin, green chillies, and sugar.

Next arrived some unremarkable foscas (£2.95) followed by the rest of the meal. I was most looking forward to Shoirsha Elish (£5.50) – the national fish of Bangladesh. Even though Shafiq told me that the fish had arrived frozen, from his country’s Jamuna river, it tasted fresh, was soft, flaky, and so delicious. The mustard sauce it was prepared in was sweeter than I was expecting. Next time I will remember to ask for it spicy. The Bagun Bhaji (aubergine, £3.50) and Sag Bhaji (spinach, £2.95) are prepared in very little oil and a bare minimum of spices. I could taste the delicate flavours of the actual vegetable instead of packet masalas that usually assault one’s palate in such restaurants.

Bhaji ElishI strayed from the Kolapata Chef Special list of dishes and ordered a haleem (£3.75). Don’t.

KaalojaamOn our walk back to the train station we made an essential detour to the Moubon sweet shop. The original object of our affection (kheer kodom), was unavailable and we settled for a box of kaalojaam (£1.50 for two juicy pieces).

The incredulous story of a jhalmuri maker, a gentle request by a chef to come back for lamb chops, a drink that rocked my world… and I finally made my peace with Bangladesh.

I let my heart do all the eating. Now to let it guide all my other relationships…

-p

Kolapata on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Bangladesh, Bengali, Dessert, Fish, London, Open kitchen, Street food

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Roti Chai. Do you have soul?

A few weeks ago my boss and I were preparing for an interview. One of my questions to him was what he feared the most; he replied “failure”. I’m not sure what I would have said just then if he had asked me the same question. My fear is that once I admit my fear I will also be accepting my dream. So here goes everything…

My greatest fear is that I may never gather the courage to run my own restaurant. Now that I have admitted this, it brings up a spell of related fears. Topping that list is the fear that when someone walks into my restaurant they won’t find its soul.

A lot like how I felt when I walked into London’s latest entrant to the Indian food scene. Roti Chai calls itself an Indian Street Kitchen. How exciting! Even if you have never been to an Indian street, or its kitchens, I bet the words conjure up an assortment of vibrant and delicious scenes. My high expectations were not unwarranted.

I walked past Roti Chai the first time. And even when I turned around I was hesitant to walk in. A half-dressed table with bags of token Indian brand names, an empty reception desk and a wall sparsely decorated with more Indian stuff greeted me… am later told that they are trying to figure out how to sell Indian favourites like Frooti, Lays and Parle G. But until then these are for “display only”. Why a restaurant would want to display a constipation remedy (Isabgol) is anybody’s guess!

Nothing about the restaurant says Indian, Street or Kitchen. Its deathly quiet and if it wasn’t for two other tables of people I would have walked out and come back another day. It’s a squareish dining room with nondescript tables, the odd splash of colourful backrests and an ugly ceiling (I’m sorry but exposed ducts and wires were done and gone in the 90s). Far too much shelf space has been given to a service bar and a monster coffee machine. The kitchen is hidden behind a black wall and three uncoordinated posters. Change the three Indian posters with pictures of sombreros and this could easily turn into an ordinary Tex-Mex canteen.

The chai (£2.20) I ordered arrived just as they remembered to turn on the music (Bollywood). It is brewed for a few minutes one cup at a time, and as long as they do this it will never have the ferociousness of flavour and gentle warmth of proper Indian chai. Theirs tastes very similar to the Twinings Chai in my larder. If you call yourself Roti Chai you better have bloody good roti & chai – don’t you think?

The man behind Roti Chai used to manage the Cinnamon Club restaurants. I wanted to believe that there was more to this restaurant than disappointing chai, a “Bread Selection” (hidden under Sides), and half-hearted attempts at cuteness (all sorry cousins to Dishoom, especially the staff Chaiwallah tee-shirts). The menu is small – I like small menus. I ordered:

  • Bhel Puri (£3.90) – light but slightly low on tang. This version has tomatoes… a giveaway that the chef is North Indian.
  • Papri Chaat (£4.50) – nice! And miles better than the version served at Mooli’s. I wish though that it didn’t look so sterile on the plate.
  • Chicken Lollipops (£4.80) – succulent and moreish. Just as the menu promises.
  • Bun Kebab (£7.50) – the lamb is the best thing I tasted that afternoon. Moist and bursting with flavour (served with an unfortunate side salad).
  • Green chillies & chopped onion – at £1 this is not expensive but if the vendor on the streets of Delhi has the heart to offer me onions on the house maybe Roti Chai could too?
  • The Italian manager brought me some red chilli sauce (too spicy to put on the menu apparently) – now that I would quite happily pay for.
  • Mango Frooti (£1.50) – classic! This brought back memories of pocket money spent in school canteens.

The food presentation is Western, bland and does no justice to the flavourful dishes. Everything I ordered tasted good and I’m sure as the kitchens spend more time cooking the menu the food is going to taste great. The service is excellent. Unfortunately Roti Chai’s under construction website has more character than the restaurant itself. Soft opening or not, you have only one chance to make a first impression…

To quote from a Simon Sinek book I am reading: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” When I begin work on my restaurant I hope I won’t be too scared to surround myself with people who will always challenge my why. I would rather have my feelings hurt than create something that has no soul.

-p

Roti Chai on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Cafe, Indian, London, Street food

Simple. Nice.

Bombay felt different this time. I recognised it less; missed what it used to be. It was more blasé, less grateful and few had the time for a heartfelt smile. Coffee now costs Rs. 200 at a fancy deli and three girls on a night out wear more bling than a jewellery shop can hold. OK, I exaggerate a little, but only a little. I have nothing against change. The need for change made me change homes and I am probably being very selfish expecting a city to stay the same while I travel the world looking for something different. Still – just this once, I longed for a day when meeting for chai took us to Bastani café and dessert was fresh strawberries and cream at Bachelor’s.

I was definitely not going to get this in Bombay. A request for Brittania’s chicken berry pulao was answered with watermelon and feta salad at a home store’s overpriced café; the average cost of a birthday present was in five figures; and everybody I spoke to was ready to get out of the city.

I did too. I went to Delhi – a city where I spent nearly every childhood summer. Delhi is by no means any more “real” than Bombay has not become, but I knew that cocooned in the home of my family here I would have the time to remember everything I loved about growing up in India. Time almost stands still in the Suri household. It immediately feels like the summer of 1988 and I am once again part of some of the most honest and loving relationships I know. We also all still love food above most things.

We start with chaat (of course): Papdi chaat, dahi bhalla, alu tikis, gol gappa, chhola bhatura and paneer tikki at Shah Jahan Road, Bengali Market, Vasant Vihar A Block Market with old Bollywood songs providing the perpetual soundtrack to our chaat expeditions. My grandfather introduced me to Delhi chaat – my comfort food.

And then I went to Amritsar. Indian food cooked outside this city pales in comparison to the unbelievable deliciousness produced by the kitchens of this ancient city of India. Once I saw the real foodies of Amritsar I was ashamed to call myself one. You have honestly not eaten good Indian food until you’ve dined in Amritsar.

Guided by a fantastic Amritsari, my whirlwind trip started with a “light” breakfast of chhola bhhatura (and you can’t eat just one). We break for jutti and bangle shopping and then get back to business. My only request that I eat where normal people eat everyday. Alu tikki (Rs 7) and chaat (Rs 5) at Brijwasi is followed closely by stuffed kulchas (Rs 10) at Chungi Road and gulab jamuns (Rs 2) at Sharma Sweets. I spent sunset at the Indo-Pak border with over a thousand patriots on either side of the border who came there to feel a little extra patriotic that day.

My final day in Amritsar began with a meal like none I have ever, nor will ever experience anywhere else in the world. The langar at Harmandir Sahib (community kitchen at the Golden Temple) is the greatest equaliser I have witnessed. The massive kitchen is open 24/7 and feeds free vegetarian meals to almost 1,00,000 people each day (going up to 7,00,000 over the weekends).  The kitchen is staffed by devotees who ask for nothing in return except the opportunity to serve and the meals are gratefully accepted by people of all religions, castes and gender. This was a revolutionary concept in the 16th century and in my opinion still is a marvel in a world so consumed with materialism that it allows social status to dictate most interactions.

I probably sound slightly ABCD and to be honest I did feel like an outsider who’s idea of India was shamefully restricted. I allowed the new face of a city cloud my memories of an entire country. But as I ate among strangers, I felt relief. This is also India, it is still home. Simple. So nice.

-p

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Filed under Amritsar, Bombay, Dilli, Eat, Food, Golden Temple, India, Indian, Street food

This time…

…leaving London was incredibly difficult; coming to Bombay, easier than usual. The entire country waited with bated breath for a US President to mention the P-word. Meanwhile, journalists wasted far too much newsprint on the First Lady’s (lack of) fashion statements. This time, going through the phonebook to put together several tables of two, four and five was easier than usual; finding a Table for ONE, incredibly difficult.

It isn’t that I was never single in Bombay. I just never had to be alone. I met my first boyfriend through a neighbour. We hung out with groups of common friends and one day realised we were dating each other. The next few relationships followed a similar pattern. With the exception of one short-lived relationship (that is now a very strong friendship) I don’t remember going on a date in the city. Bombay is a frighteningly sprawling metropolis; but scarier still is how small it is. It is nearly impossible to walk into a restaurant or bar and not sit next to someone you know. And more difficult is to get set up on a blind date. Everyone seems to know everyone already.

That is, until you decide to pack your life into two suitcases, swap BEST for TFL, Indian Idol for X Factor and build on your collection of recipe books in a kitchen far, far away.

I have come back to India to find that Ma knows someone who sort of knows someone who is interested in “meeting a few girls”. Then there is another someone; and the possibility of a third someone, for when I come back in December. It clearly pays to get out of town… or does it?

The date was fine. We had tons to talk about but I spent most of the evening picturing several other people sitting before me. I won’t be able to keep that up for another meal so there will be a date No. 2. If I were doing this in London it is unlikely I would have told anyone about the date. And when I was done, if I chose not to write about it, I could spend the rest of my life never having to discuss it again.

But I am in Bombay and surrounded by friends who insist on asking questions. I love it! When I left the date I had 3 missed calls and a few text messages asking incredibly nosy questions. No matter how peaceful and fulfilling my life is in London, I know I will never have these friendships there. I needed reinforcements before I could convince my friends that I wasn’t being my “usual self” in turning down the sweet man. It’s a rare day in Bombay that I find myself on my own… Table for ONE, here I come :-), finally.

I cannot remember the first time I went to Bade Miyan. I also cannot remember a trip to Bombay that doesn’t include Bade Miyan. The chaos at this street vendor is more organized than the service at most five star hotels. I ordered a sheekh kabab roomali roll (Rs. 90) and wait for it to arrive, double parked behind a few other cars, also parked illegally. The tiny, filthy lane is fragrant with the smells from a feisty tandoor; my mouth waters inevitably.

Bade Miya was started in 1940 by a 17 year old immigrant following his dream all the way to Bombay. My fellow-blogger and lovely person Sam often talks about chasing dreams. Something he wrote recently has always fascinated me. He says, “The tricky part is that you’ll never know whether a person is walking away from you or walking towards (someone/thing else).”

I’d like to stand still for a while.

-p

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Filed under Bombay, Date, Indian, Street food