Food Side Story

about Ambala, Haryana 4 comments:
Food, sometimes, is not just about food. Sometimes its about the stories behind food and once in a while the story is as big as the food. Here is one such story. Its just story, no food was harmed in the process…

I didn’t know very much about Ambala, but I had the vague idea that it was in Punjab (it's in Haryana) and that it was somehow associated with dhabas (The only time I'd heard of Ambala before was when I went mutton-hunting in Los Angeles and discovered Ambala Dhaba). Obviously, dreams of mutton again swimming in my head, I went looking on the Internet for famous dhabas in Ambala. So the story starts.

It turns out Ambala does indeed have a dhaba that’s famous. The Hindustan Times warned me that the famous one is full of copies – apparently there were over ten of them (even a reference to one in Chandigarh). This piqued my interest – anything with this much imitation must be worthy of flattery) - so we headed to Ambala.

On the GT Road (now all expressway-looking) right off the bus stand we came face to face with it. Only, it wasn’t quite what I expected – it wasn’t just some dhabas noisily claiming to be the ‘original’ Puran Singh but an entire eco-system with dhabas, shops, an auto repair shack, a grocery and even a hotel all claiming ‘original’ links with the big man. All in all, about fifteen shops of various kinds. This man must have been something special – apparently he’s been dead nearly a decade (and childless) but the craze for his legacy continues. Dhabas of all shapes and sizes insist on being either mashoor or asli or both, and one even insisted that we not pay any attention to other people’s baimaan and dhokebaaz claims.

Our driver pointed out the one that apparently had the best claim to original – the dhaba at the corner called Puran Singh da Mashoor Vishaal Dhaba. Adorned by a life-size picture apparently of the man himself – Puran Singh enthusiastically stirring a pot with two other people who look like the family he didn’t have – this dhaba is the biggest of the lot. And of course, just like the driver had warned, the sign said rather prominently that it shuts at four. We were there just before six…
But the battle for the dhaba does not end here. Painted at the back was an intriguing sign pointing to Asli Puran Singh da New Dhaba that made the most complete claim yet. Apparently (the sign says in great detail) the original Puran Singh (may his soul rest in peace) sold his asli mashoor dhaba and moved to this, asli new dhaba that there is now the asli asli dhaba. It also closes at four, and unlike the booze ads that adorn the others, this one leans towards family-friendly Coca Cola. Next to it a sign for a toilet mentioning (just like everything else here) the asli Puran Singh - I guess this is where the great man produced asli pee.

It seems, from my deep and researched analysis of all claims and some backfill from google that the big one in the Blue Corner - Puran Singh da Mashoor Vishaal Dhaba- is the original dhaba, but is no longer owned by his family. They seem to now own the contender in the Red Corner - Asli Puran Singh da New Dhaba – but the ownership change seems to have happened after the big man died giving the Blue Corner, in my mind, the upper hand. Of course, food joints are decided by recipes rather than owners, but alas neither was open for me to try. Not even the toilet.

We decided to try one of the pretenders – and the most interesting was the one claiming that we should not believe the traitorous and fraudulent claims of the others sounded like the cheekiest. This resulted in a standard dhaba meal of pleasant mutton, good dal and roti. Nothing worth driving to Ambala for, which makes me think - was the big man’s food so great or is it just a fabulous exercise in branding? Punjabis certainly know good food and the GT Road is basically a thousand-mile stretch of food joints, so there must be something to the place to have overcome so much competition to gain (and retain for decades) so much popular appeal.

As every imitator of Schwarzenegger says at some point – Ai will be buck…this time before four.

Cooking in the Hills

about Himachal Pradesh, India 11 comments:

I was up in the hills drinking in the scenery, but of course food needed to be on the agenda too.

Himachal Pradesh, the land of apples and mushrooms, is a dramatically beautiful state. After a few hours of the flat Punjab plains, twisty roads started spiralling into the heavens pretty much from the instant we crossed the border. Straight-line distances lose their meaning, and the drives (specially if you have a camera) take forever.

It seemed only logical that we should be eating Himachali food, but like the aforementioned twisty roads the path to ‘local’ cuisine was anything but straight. The dhabas lining the drive up had proved Himachal to be foodwise quite firmly under the Punjabi thumb (given that it was once part of Punjab, this was hardly unexpected). Enquiries about Himachali food wasn’t met with the most encouraging of responses; one person even told me flatly that there was no such thing – it was all Punjabis anyway. It seemed from where I was standing that Himachalis drank only juice.

Shimla’s Mall yielded no joy either, it could have been a street in any large city in India with its burgers and Chinese, Baristas and Sher-e-Punjabs. Occasional noises were made about momos (rather unusually, the fillings had spices with green chutney and raita on the side). The veg pakoras had aloo cut frenchfry style, fresh coconut was being sold on pine leaves, but nothing added up to anything substantial enough to be called a cuisine. Enquiries about restaurants got us referred to the oddly named Hotel Combermere’s multicuisine restaurant (it claimed familiarity with least four continents in red neon) or the Peterhoff, apparently a luxury hotel run by HPTDC.

The original Peterhoff The Peterhof

The trek to the Peterhoff was a long one, to the far end of Mall Road. Supposedly a heritage luxury hotel, it turned out to be a frayed government-managed affair in a hideous modern building. The original Peterhoff (the building pictured above in black and white) had an eventful history of viceroys and murderers, but burnt down in 1981 and was replaced in 1992-3 by something that must have been drafted by a sleep-deprived government architect (the colour picture above). In the process, it lost an ‘f’ too – officially it is now the Peterhof.
We landed up on an unfortunate day; the local Lions club had decided to take complete possession of the premises to hold their elections. Posters extorted us to support Lions this or that. The kitchen, we were informed, was closed for the event. The doorman, however, was an affable fellow, with a nudge and a wink he took us into the kitchen to see what could be organised. Seated on slightly scruffy baroque sofas in a neonlit, windowless room, we opened the menu.

And, there were those magic words - “Himachali Speciality”. They didn’t occur with much frequency (in fact, there were just two entries) but they were undeniably there. The descriptions, straight out of the menu, are below.

Chhah Meat: lamb cooked in a Himachali lassi called Chhah along with traditional spices.
Sepu Badi: made from ground washed urad cooked in curd and palak.

Not much by way of information, but we were going to try it anyway. The mutton (not lamb) wasn’t available, but Sepu Badi did indeed land up. My first thought on seeing it was Dhokar Dalna (a Bengali dish that I’m quite fond of). This one (the description said) was in a curd and palak gravy, and of course tasted quite different from Bengali. We had it with rice. Here’s the only recipe link I found for it. I suspect you can use the vada of dahi-vada in place of the badi. Some odd references say this is a speciality of the Mandi region.

Sepu Badi

One dish does not a cuisine make, so we asked around a bit more including our friendly neighbourhood doorman. He pointed us to Chail Palace, also run by the HPTDC and also with Himachali specialities on the menu. And so, the next day, that was where we headed. Unlike the Peterhof, Chail Palace was a genuinely heritage building (though a mansion more than a palace) and it did have a restaurant offering the magic phrase – Himachali Speciality – but available at lunch/dinner only. We had landed up for breakfast.
Again, the waiter came to the rescue. Barog, on the way back to Chandigarh, was the place to go. Hotel Pinewood, also run by the HPTDC, offered what we were looking for. And so off we went, much to the disgust of our now exasperated driver.


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A tiny place on the way to Chandigarh, Barog apparently is named after an engineer who botched up the railway tunnel nearby and committed suicide (the guy who finally built the tunnel is forgotten). Its biggest attraction seems to be the Hotel Pinewood, the HPTDC property we were headed towards as well. The tour buses at the hotel occupied more space than the rest of the town put together, and disgorged disturbing numbers of untanned skins onto the flowerbedded grounds of the hotel. We bagged a table just before the conquering hordes, and aah – the menu had all that we expected, not just the odd dish, but a whole section called Himachali Cuisine.

Hotel Pinewood The Menu

Sepu Badi was done and not even a fancy name was going to induce my friend to Rajmah, so we ordered Chhah Meat, Kheruo and Himachali Pulao (photos below in order).

Chhah Meat KheruoHimachali Pulao

The mutton was, well, mutton curry - tasty, but not particularly distinct. Kheruo resembled Punjabi kadhi, but thinner and generously laced with jeera. Himachali Pulao had fruits, in particular a melon of some kind that made it a little sweet. The Kheruo was listed as a soup in Chail Palace (they called it Kheru without the ‘o’) but we thought it’s tangy jeera taste went wonderfully with the slightly sweet pulao. Interestingly enough, we seemed to be the only people ordering the stuff – it seemed the rest of the tables, packed with tourbus crowds, preferred Chinese.

That was my Himachali food experience, involving three different restaurants and hours of walking and driving. At the end we managed to eat most things labeled Himachali - leaving only the two below out.

Murg Anardana - chicken cooked in anardana with Indian gravy.
Rajma Madra – boiled rajmah cooked in curd.

This isn’t quite all there is to Himachali food – google does manage to dig up a few more. On the whole, though, it wasn’t a great culinary experience. The dishes, the ingredients, the methods of cooking not very distinct – without assistance from HPTDC’s labelling one would never have noticed.

Later research tells me why this is so (and here’s my amateur history lesson). Himachal Pradesh is a modern creation; it came into existence as a geographic convenience only after independent India was formed. Unlike the other states, Himachal Pradesh has no linguistic or ethnic identity. It was part of Punjab for most of its history, and there does not seem to be a dominant community or tribal race other than the Punjabis (and of course the Tibetans of Dharmashala). Large chunks of the state are uninhabited and most of the population still lives along the Punjab border. Himachal’s rulers have also been a mixed bag, Rajputs, Punjabis, Mughals, Gorkhas, Tibetans and the British – local kingdoms and dynasties seem to have either been too shortlived or too small to evolve any cultural identity. What resulted, therefore, were local foods rather than a local cuisine.

Here's an IBNLive video on Himachali food that's interesting. Its also by (who else) a Bong.

Meat Eat

4 comments:

Recently, an article in the New York Times made the somewhat surprising claim that “goat is the most widely consumed meat in the world”. Now I’m the first one to go drooling after some top-class mutton, but given how difficult it is to get the goat on menus around the world, this was a somewhat surprising statistic. I turned to trusty a google search for some answers, but except for the odd dissenting voice on a forum everyone seemed to agree that it was, indeed, the case.

I was intrigued but not quite convinced. My diffidence did not prevent me from stating the statistic with great authority to a few more people, but I was met with similar reactions – possible, but a little counter to experience. China is said to account for 70% of the production and consumption of mutton, yet in Chinese restaurants everywhere (even the ones I’d seen in China) had far more chicken, pork and beef than mutton. However, when disagreeing with the New York Times, one had better be sure.

Hence in the interests of truth, knowledge and world hunger, I decided to dig really deep and eventually came across the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). They have a full website dedicated to the statistics of food – FAOStat - and it was particularly comprehensive (if in true government-style rather inconvenient to use). A little clicking about in the middle of a Saturday afternoon finally yielded what I guess must be the final word in the matter, straight from the maw of the United Nations – and its not the goat. Seafood is the number one source of meat followed very closely by pork. Mutton in fact comes out last among all common meats. The pretty graph is my inner consultant expressing, not standard government issue.

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The dominance of pork is interesting; its the subject of strong religious taboos that exclude a huge chunk of humanity. Obelix undoubtedly plays a role (pork is Europe’s favourite meat) but the big daddy here is China, accounting for nearly half the world’s consumption. Of the regions where both pork and beef are consumed without religious restrictions, pork usually wins by large margins – except in the USA, which may just be a McDonalds phenomenon. Even Kobe-beefing Japan eats over twice as much pork as beef.

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India presents a very different picture, with a couple of surprises. Overall Indians consume very little meat by world standards (I had to change the units in the graph from million to thousand) but what they consume is revealing. Pork, the number one in worldwide is nearly non-existent here. Seafood consumption was expected but the number for freshwater fish was not; obviously we Bengalis eat more than we think. The bigger surprise is beef – nearly twice as popular as chicken (it is, in fact, more consumed than even egg, which does not figure on the graph). As a percentage, 19% of India’s meat consumption is beef compared to a mere 6% in China, which of course reflects the religious biases of the meat-eating populations of the two countries.

There are some interesting theories as to why different traditional centres of civilization (the Middle East, India as opposed to China and Europe) developed such drastically different consumption strategies (ok big words, another expression of my inner consultant). The most interesting one I’ve read, an economic and ecological argument regarding food choices, is a book called Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris.

The New York Times article also made a claim about the health benefits of mutton that also seems a little counter-intuitive. We think of it as rich and heavy, but goat meat is apparently leaner and lower in cholesterol than all popular red and white meats, including chicken! This claim, however, does seem to be borne out – below is a rather detailed chart comparing the meats, and a reasonably authentic-looking study can be found here with references to data from USDA sources (no, I didn’t check it out further; why question a good thing). Go goat!

Mountain Chaat

about NH22, Himachal Pradesh No comments:
Himachal Pradesh offers stunning views, pretty much from the instant you cross the border at Parwanoo and start your twisty way up into the Shivaliks. Every twist and turn brings new vistas and the temptation to stop and stare, but man does not live by scenery alone.

Food, as in much of India, was pretty much everywhere.  HPMC juice stalls and dhabas littered the place, but the odd Chinese or burger joint, or even a bakery sometimes poked its head in. We stopped at a few miles from Parwanoo, picked at random by our driver who wanted a tea. The tea - standard stuff - came with something called fan, which turned out to be a khakra thinking itself a footlong.

We stopped at a roadside strip with four stalls. Two juice stores were sandwiched by two dhabas tin a mirror-image arrangement, hanging precariously off the edge of the road. The dhabas boht had the same menu; the HPMC stalls sold juices, wines and pickles of the same kinds. I never cracked the mystery of the mirroring, but we gave some business to all the stalls. Apple and litchi juices were duly consumed, but there were also some very unusual pickles on offer - garlic with some strange root, bamboo, and the most interesting - fern pickle. Yes we did buy it, but it is yet to be tasted. Our interested was heightened by our driver, who was particularly keen on fern and bamboo; he bought a packet each too.

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This story is progressing slowly, not unlike the car ride. Don't worry, we've barely moved. Across the street from us was this promising young man selling chana kulcha out of an eye-catching copper vessel on a bicycle; it was basically chana chaat with a round bread that he called kulcha. I suspect the shiny, large, oddly shaped vessel is used to catch the eye more than anything else, because our local Mishraji dishes out similar stuff with no more than some newspaper to help him.

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The chaat - boiled chana mixed with various things including shredded raw cabbage and topped with a spicy chutney - was quite good, though I couldn't quite figure out what to do with the bread. Noticing that he also had bananas, we asked him what that was used for. He calls it fruit chaat, though the only fruit in banana-aloo-cucumber-tomato chaat was the banana (ok, technically tomato is also a fruit). Apparently papaya should also go in, but he didn't have any that day. Very good, the stuff was.

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The cycle the guy came in was quite worth a study by itself. The middle of the cycle was dominated by that huge copper pot, but there was, on the side, a small gas stove that he used to warm the kulchas and even heat up some of the chaat stuff. In the front, ahead of the handles, was storage – serving plates, tools, vegetables like cabbage that wasn’t put out on the display – all in all quite an integrated vending vehicle.

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That, then, was the first Himachal meal.

Burger My Thoughts

3 comments:

A McDonald has finally opened below my office, and it set me thinking about how nothing quite defines the American food experience as much as a hamburger. Indeed, some say that's the only thing American about food.  I grew up thinking burgers to be a snack, but Americans seem to chomp it down for breakfast, lunch, dinner - sometimes all of the above and a few in between.

image Pizza, taco, fried chicken are all world-dominating American inventions but in sheer sales and in cultural significance all pale in front of the Hamburger. They've have seeped into every inch of American life. Fine dining to backyard barbecues, birthday party to funeral, sports game to board meeting, there is little of culinary significance in America that does not have a burger connection.The key is probably simplicity and versatility and (usually) its cheap, quick, satisfying and portable. The basic burger has exactly two core ingredients - a chopped patty (usually beef, but even potato has been known to work) and bread. Even a one-armed student who thinks instant coffee is cooking can make a burger, yet one need not end there - almost anything can be added to a burger (and has been, at some point).  At the other end of the cooking scale, Parisian chefs with strings of Michelin stars transform it  with unbearable exotica, delicate technique, funny names and price it more than Google's IPO.

The $175 Richard Nouveau BurgerIn case you're wondering about the picture on the right, its the $175 "Richard Nouveau" version from the Wall Street Burger Shoppe, topped of all things with real gold flakes. Its the most expensive burger in the world that's on regular offering. In case you're wondering, yes they still have it on their menu, though there seem to be plenty of $4 choices too.

Its only to be expected that the origins of the burger is disputed; most popular foods boast of obscure origins and this is no exception. The origin of the name, too, is somewhat in dispute - some insist it is Hamburg, NY but its far more likely to be Hamburg, Germany - a pre-eminent port that before air travel most Germans migrating to the Americas passed through. What is undisputed is that there's no dearth of people claiming credit for the invention; being the first to put a flattened meatball in a bun is apparently a big deal. Even legislatures have gotten into the act - at least four US states (Oklahoma 1995, Connecticut 2000, Texas 2006, Wisconsin 2007) have official proclamations declaring (the state in question) to be the official home of the hamburger. A nice article on the history of the American Hamburger can be found here. And here's a whole blog just about burgers.

The significance of the burger, though, is more than in just as food. A burger defines what we have come to think of as fast food - neither traditional street service, nor a proper sit-down restaurant experience. Its like a street vendor brought into a restaurant. On the back of the hamburger, White Castle invented the modern fast food chain in 1921 - look where that led. McDonalds came along some years later, and look where THAT led. The burger should probably be credited for spreading Americana worldwide more effectively than Barbie dolls, Bush jokes or MTV. Its a food that everyone loves to hate. American obesity, unchecked capitalism, animal cruelty, the corruption of youthful tastes - much has been loaded on the shoulders this humble round variant of a sandwich.

The problem is, a decent burger is one of those things that never fail to inspire lust and greed (even among the principled haters of fast food, of which I usually am one). I'm feeling the pangs just looking at the picture. Well, there's a Mac downstairs...

Bangla Bhojan

about Kolkata 1 comment:
Kolkata, I discovered on my last trip, is full of Bengali food.
No, I'm not an idiot. Till not so long ago, Bengali wasn't on the menu if you wanted to eat out in Kolkata. Chinese they did, Continental they kind of did, Italian, Punjabi, South Indian all check but Bengali; there you had to be nice to your grandmother or persuade someone to get married (not to you though, the bride and groom don't get to eat anything at a wedding). Bengali snacks and sweets clogged every nook and corner, individual dishes (such as kosha mangsho) was available in places but a full Bengali meal had always been out of reach of the dining-out crowd. For a very long time, Suruchi was the only restaurant serving Bengali food, and that too only at lunch. Aaheli came along a decade and a half ago and remained the sole option for a while; Oh Calcutta finally came to Kolkata too, but much more has changed in the Bengali food scene since.
Kolkata, as I discovered on my last trip, is now full of Bengali food.
IMG_0642 IMG_0639 IMG_0643
The latest trend seem to have been started by Kewpie's (named after the author of the one cookbook that made me a respectable chef in New York - Bangla Ranna). The restaurant seems to have set a template for the new crop of Bengali restaurants. First, take an old, vaguely mansion-looking house in a tiny, out-of-the-way lane. Then, fill it with art on the walls, bric-brac in the nooks and waiters dressed in dhotis. Finally, focus on a full-service menu; not just a couple of favourites, but more of an all-round introduction to all the pieces of Bengali cuisine from snack to sweet and all the really important stuff in between. This crop of restaurants are firmly about fine dining - atmosphere, ambience and fancy presentation tagged to some very good food.
I'm presenting it as a 'new' trend, but my visits to Kolkata are hardly frequent - think decade rather than months. Kewpies was born in 1988, and I first ate there in 2006 but what can I say - I write slowly. I've been to Kolkata only three or four times after that, and managed to stuff myself at three of these new-format restaurants - Kewpie's, 6 Ballygunge and Tero Parbon.
I'm not really going to write separate reviews of all three. Though each has its relative merits, all are very worth a visit for gharoa (homely) cuisine elevated to fine-dining. Prices are steep by Kolkata standards, but the average Mumbaikar will feel very good about it all. Best of all, its outstanding food - real honest top-flight bengali, from standards like bhapa ilish and chingdi malai curry to rare jewels such as chital muthiya or mochar ghonto. Go with the flow of the food (coursewise only, please), overeat till you look like a Bengali and come out stupefied.
image IMG_0644
You can read a lot more about Kewpie's here.

There are now many others Bengali restaurants - Bhojohori Manna, Prince, Share Chuattor were some names I heard. Next time...

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