Master Chefs and Magicians

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

The king, apparently, was in his counting house, counting all his money. The queen was in her parlour, eating bread and honey. Not a bad combination at all, honestly. Besides, considering the royal chef’s wicked sense of humour, I don’t blame her for sticking to the straight and narrow. Who knows what horrors lurked beneath the murky depths of pea soup.

There’s an legend about an Indian chef who did the same thing. Apparently he would bake live birds into pies, so that they flew out the moment guests began their meal. And my guess is, when the pie was opened the birds certainly didn’t begin to sing. It sounds more like a scene from a blood-chilling Hitchcock movie than a pretty historical anecdote. But apparently it was quite charming and clever in those days. (Clear evidence, of course, that a society without ‘Sex and the City’ disintegrates in horrifying ways. Tsk. Tsk.)

Yet, it’s undeniable that royal chefs could — and still can — capture imaginations and create romance. So when I recently met Mohammed Ashfaque Qureshi, of the iconic Qureshi family that’s produced master chefs from more than 200 years, of course I brought up the birds.

Chef Ashfaque says his family “worked for the king’s kitchen: the Nawab of Awadh.” (The nawabs governed in the in the 18th and 19th century. The region is in the centre of what’s Uttar Pradesh today). But he’s still rather cagey about the avian pie.

“Well, if Tan Sen (of Akbar’s court) could create rain, or light lamps with his song, then yes, a chef could create a pie filled with live birds,” Ashfaque says, adding, “Chef means leader in French. The top most guy. In Hindustani they say Maharaj, meaning king. In Arabian countries it’s Rabakdar. A person who can create food out of nothing. The word magician actually comes from chef.”

He adds that since food is really the only art form that is consumed it’s hardly surprising that there’s a romanticism to it.

His father started out as a nine year old cooking for royalty. When I met the senior chef Qureshi a few years ago, he was delightfully blasé about the whole VIP thing. He talked of how his ancestors, famous for their fragrant kebabs, rich biriyani and heavy dals, cooked for different kings, since royalty then borrowed each other’s cooks for weddings and important banquets. The cooks worked in shamianas, with large charcoal and wood fires, making kakori kebabs, mutton raan and chicken draped in gold leaf.

Chef Qureshi went recreating many of the same dishes at the ITC hotels, where he worked for more than three decades. He’s cooked for “All the prime ministers, all the presidents, the entire Nehru clan.”

Five of Ashfaque’s four brothers are chefs. He himself started cooking at the age of 6. “I was making simple things like alu tikki, or gajar halwa.” Simple? For a six year old? Most of us are still scribbling crayons on walls at that point. There’s obviously something in the Chef-Magician theory.

“Well, taste is about 70 per cent ingredients and 20 per cent methodology,” he smiles, maintaining that anyone can create a pretty good kebab. But that final 10 percent? That’s the spice, herbs and secrets. “And yes, in that 10 per cent you can create the magic.”

Though Ashfaque insists that you don’t really need to travel back in time to experience the glories of a rabakdar. “The best example really is a housewife. To create three and four meals a day, everyday,” he says, “Well, that is magic.”

(The Qureshi brothers are in Chennai for a North West Frontier Festival at The Crown restaurant, Residency Towers Hotel. The festival is on for dinner till February 9. Call 28156363 for details).

Terroir Uncorked

So there’s this tale about a Brigadier from the Indian Border Security Force who suavely asked for a glass of wine with his meal. “White or red?” the waiter asked, as waiters do. “Red,” he said, adding helpfully, “with ice and soda.”

The story, told by Arindam Kunar, General Manager, at the glittering launch of ‘Terroir: The Madras Wine club” amid sparkling glasses of Kir Royale, fresh oysters and Casino Royale-style dressing, evoked a ripple of laughter. After all, in just about ten years India’s swish set’s moved rather rapidly from the whisky-soda/rum-and-coke route to the rarefied world of oaked complexity, where the finish is crucial and appellation isn’t the name of a heavy metal band. A world where strawberries can be forward, vanilla elegant and in which smoke, minerals and herbs commune within a single glass. Where it’s essential to swirl your glass and use your nose to really savour the romance of a product that manages to capture sunshine, soil and rain, and distil them into a vintage with more than a hundred descriptions, a dozen flavours and a single, distinct personality.

Which is why Terroir is such an appropriate name for a club that’s dedicating itself to unravelling the complexities of wine. Captain Arjun Nair, president of the club, said the club grew out of an informal discussion between friends over glasses of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Terroir, he added, denotes the characteristics that geography bestows on wine. The club, he said, is a loose association of individuals who will be meeting for lectures and wine-tasting to learn, share and develop information on wine.

Over a glass of elegant Chateau Belair Saint Emilion 1999, resounding with big flavours and rich fruits, Sudhir Rao, treasurer, added that the club’s objective is to really develop a culture of leisurely appreciation of fine wine in the city. Secretary Sabu Balagopal, in many ways the catalyst for its formation, hoped that this launch would provide the platform for the club to grow in strength.

After all, as Reva Singh, Editor of Sommelier India, who came from Delhi for the event, pointed out, wine clubs are gaining momentum and popularity across the country. There currently are three in Delhi, and one each in Chandigarh, Bangalore and now Chennai. Some are exclusive, some commercial. She’s even a member of a wine club exclusively for women.

Aman Dhall, Executive Director of Brindco (India’s biggest wine importing company) swirled glasses and compared notes with the gathering, as they flitted between France, Italy, Australia, Chile, Spain and Portugal tasting 37 high-end wine labels, of which 12 were Grand Cru — all supplied by Brindco.

While no one could have possibly tried the entire range, which stood in alluring clutches grouped according to country, under lush decorative grapes, pretty cheese arrangements and suitably swish canapés, it was certainly a fabulous opportunity to compare flavours, pick up some appropriately impressive wine terminology and learn about vintage.

Among the staggering good wines were the two dark and brooding Bordeaux (Chateau Belair and Dourthe AOC Range: Margaux), a stunningly sensuous Pinot Noir (Maison Louis Latour Pommard), a vibrant and fruity Super Tuscan (Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi ‘Mormoreto’) and an astonishingly powerful Amarone (Speri) suffused in the aromas of chocolate and dark spice.

Discussing how India has been opening up to wine over the past ten years, Aman mentioned that India has some 55 wineries apart from well known names such as Sula and Grover.

While some of these players are essentially “dream makers — farmers turned winemakers who don’t really have the technical know how” — he maintains that the best Indians wines can now hold their own in any blind tasting, with entry level international brews.

Have a problem with knowledgably swapping notes on pepper, bark and the feisty spirit of lemons in a glass? Arindam Kunar promised to make wine more accessible by eventually introducing it at the Coromandel, priced like Coke, or mineral water. Which prompted a member to call out, “And can we quote you on that?” Apparently, we can.

The world’s a kitchen

There are many ways to see the world.

The most intimidating are the most rewarding. After all, picture-postcard sightseeing is so unsatisfying. Perfect beaches, craggy mountains and starlit nights are delicious. And generic. What travellers want now is to really get under the skin of a city. To understand its pulse, no matter how rapid, erratic or elusive.

Understanding a country’s food is possibly the most delightful way to unravel the unfamiliar. After all, for every country, city and family, its own recipes, herbs and spices are a primeval, intense, palpable way of keeping the past alive, and defining who they are.

Of course, where there’s money to be made there are a kaleidoscope of delightful options offered by everyone from cosmopolitan tour operators to housewives, all willing to throw open slick kitchens and butter-stained recipe books.

Today, you can picturesquely pick lemons on the Amalfi Coast to make a sorbet under the guidance of an appropriately-glamorous chef to the stars. You can cook couscous in traditional Moroccan houses, riads, (complete with Philippe Starck-designed bathrooms) in Marrakech. And of course, you can learn how to fry a mean Karimeen on a languid Kerala houseboat. But this isn’t the kind of gritty, intense, challenging travel that will simultaneously terrify and thrill you. The kind that voyagers ache for — travel that inevitably results in epiphanies.

“Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything” by Elizabeth Gilbert, the tediously-touted bestseller is fascinating simply because its author has managed to accomplish what so many people dream of, but don’t have the courage to actually do. She walked away from a safe, comfortable, conventional life and travelled at whim, guided by instinct and impulse. Exulting in gorgeous pizzas topped with fresh mozzarella and radiant basil in Naples. Finding peace in the obligatory India route and austere vegetarianism. Falling recklessly in love among the rice fields in Bali.

Gilbert’s not the only one. Around the world, there are people bravely chucking up well-paid jobs and well-settled lives to travel and learn the rough, tough, infinitely more fulfilling way. They’re eating in local homes. They’re waiting tables in different cities every month. They’re cooking in kitchens starkly different from everything they’re used to. And loving every minute.

Take 28-year-old Marc Vaccaro, for instance, who after six years of culinary school and cooking for a restaurant, liquidated all his assets, and bought a one-way ticket to Mumbai last September. Since then, he’s travelled through India, Nepal, China, and Malaysia.

His goal is “to cook, learn, work, and eat my way through as many countries as possible… Working in restaurants, cooking, eating at markets, and getting involved with local communities is something I have been dreaming about for a while,” he states in his couchsurfing profile. (Couchsurfing’s a travellers’ website.) And he’s not worried about having to peel mountains of potatoes in the process. “I am no stranger to hard work… I’m willing to peel potatoes, chop onions; hell, I’ll even scrub dishes if it will get me into a learning environment.”

Clearly, this optimistic, hearty, open-minded way of travel works. Marc’s currently in Phuket, Thailand, “working along side a very gracious chef, who has let me into his house, kitchen, and restaurant, an experience that has changed my life.” He plans to travel through Australia, New Zealand, and North Africa, down to South America and then work his way back home.

Marc’s just one example. The world is rife with nomad cooks and travelling gourmets, all willing to roll up their sleeves and really learn how to cook from the original sources of the world’s favourite recipes. And while they’re at it, to learn much more than the ubiquitous pastas, pizzas and curries.

It is, of course, an added advantage if you can actually cook well. Like 22-year-old Josh, who exults in the fact that his skills are as useful in Reykjavík as they are in Reno. “Everybody has to eat,” he says, “So I have the ultimate job security. And I can cook anywhere in the world.”

Welcome to Wonderland

At least Alice had her rabbit hole. Colourful escapes are essential. Even if you don’t have the privilege of being aided by a hookah-smoking caterpillar.

Unfortunately, the only way you are going to be socialising with pro-tobacco caterpillars in the real world will be with some help from a magic mushroom very different from the Wonderland variety. (Though the fact that Alice went on to talk of a March hare with a buttered pocket watch, a pepper-addicted duchess and a dormouse who dreams of treacle does make you wonder.)

Nevertheless, some of us need to check out of the humdrum clutter of life without necessarily having to a climb a tree or dig a hole. After all, it’s most unglamorous to do a Tarzan in high heels. And imagine the swish set watching you trying to burrow between the potatoes like a particularly committed beagle.

Which leaves cafes. As strait-laced as they may sound, after the prospect of buttering bread with a flamingo-wielding Queen, a quirky café is one of the most chic ways to get a quick dose of tranquillity in the middle of a crazy week.

Fortunately, Chennai’s been lucky lately. With every restaurateur attempting to be ‘different’ we have acquired a reasonably diverse range of cafes over the years.

Good Earth’s new café, ‘Latitude 13 by The Park’, is a charming addition to this medley. And it even manages to look a little magical.

Blandly prosaic from outside, the café’s set in a canvas tent. Very Harry Potter, really. Because, just like the tiny Quidditch tents, which open into lush three-room apartments, Latitude 13’s flap reveals an unexpected space, complete with glossy stone floors, a laden pastry counter and a surprisingly high fabric roof.

With its soft fabric walls and bright tea light mini-lamps, it would be reminiscent of a fortune teller’s tent at the circus if the kitsch wasn’t so carefully restrained. Imagine a marquee for the ladies who lunch. More dainty scones and artful sparrows than hearty Hungarian goulash and the thunder of elephant hooves.

I’d call it a sophisticated garden gazebo, if the term wasn’t so reminiscent of nauseatingly stilted garden parties, bristling with soggy cucumber sandwiches. Because Latitude 13 is delightful, really. Just don’t put your elbows in the soup. Which, by the way, is rich, creamy and delicious.

The food, as you’ve probably deduced by the subtly constructed name, is by The Park. While a unique menu has been created for ‘Latitude 13 by The Park’, the food does have the 601 signature. It’s stylish, determinedly hip and consciously continental.

So the antipasti is an alluring palette of vegetable crudités and crisp breads, served with a wickedly creamy yoghurt feta dip and gently spiced aubergine dip. The foccaccia sandwiches were neatly packed with tuna subtly laced with spice.

Though Indian elements do make an appearance, they’re reticent. So the flavours of the achari tuna and the tandoori chicken salad don’t gallop through the food like they would in a dhaba, but trot about prettily instead, minding their Ps, Qs and the cutlery.

Portions aren’t huge, and like any posh nosh worth its fleur de sel, sandwiches arrive with just enough French fries to spell ‘Latitude.’ Considering the café’s aiming for chic dining, there are still some hiccups. The butter, for instance, arrives as hard as Voldemort’s heart. And the waiters, who are a charming lot, tend to get lost in Wonderland occasionally, so your food may arrive in bits and pieces on a rough day. That said, the desserts are gorgeous, and the coffee, which comes from Coorg, is strong, dark and powerful.

Right now, Latitude 13 is a deliciously tranquil sanctuary. But it’s undoubtedly going to be a hit with the size zero brigade and their Schwarzkopf slicked boyfriends. So, get there fast and daydream over quiet lattes, before the hipsters move in and conquer.

(Latitude 13 by The Park is at Rutland Gate, Nungambakkam and is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. A meal for two will cost approximately Rs. 600. Call 28330989 for details.)