The Power Of Clove

Dried whole limes at the Dubai Spice Souk

Turmeric, Myrrh, Frankincense, Cinnamon, Indigo

Turmeric, Myrrh, Frankincense, Cinnamon, Indigo

To my eternal fascination, I recently met a girl who’s frightened of cardamom.

We were at a dinner party in Abu Dhabi, standing in a friend’s kitchen discussing shoes, news and all things important when she spotted a menacingly large jar of cardamom on the shelf beside her. She recoiled in horror and then, between shudders explained that the little pods really scared her. Biting into one mid meal was clearly the stuff of nightmares: “They’re all smooth and creepy and ugh.”

To tell you the truth, i feel the same way about cloves. 

Spices really do have strange powers.

Once back in Dubai, it seems appropriate that we have to take an abra (Arabic for a traditional wooden boat) across the dark, restless creek at night to hunt down the city’s enchanting spice souk. We’re seated next to a group of Emiratis, in abhayas and kanduras for whom the crossing is clearly routine. Beside them, there are excited Japanese tourists recording every minute of the journey with blinding camera flashes and squeals.

Clearly, spices, like tourist attractions, tend to bring the most diverse people together.

We’re hugged by a cloud of tantalizing fragrances as soon as we get off the abra: cardamom, pepper and cloves intertwined with other, more unfamiliar, scents. Following our noses, we walk into the 18th century. A row of colourful stalls bustling with people of all nationalities shimmer with the delicious scent of frankincense.

The souk, set beside the creek, trades in spices that have traditionally arrived by sea from all over the world, mainly the Far East, India and Sri Lanka. Today, while the rest of Dubai exults in air-conditioned malls boasting gourmet hot chocolate, caviar and Christian Dior, the souk remains obstinately unchanged.

We first notice the rocks. Huge salt rocks and astonishingly bright bars of indigo, used to dye clothes. There are baskets of dark volcanic rock, to be used as pumice stones.

Then come the fragrances. Frankincense and myrrh, conjuring up images of kindergarten Christmas plays and the biblical Three Wise Men, carrying these as gifts as they travelled through the desert on camels, following a star. The more mysterious myrrh is a collection of dark saps from different trees in Yemen, and billows into a thick, sweet cloud when set on red-hot coal.

Of course there’s saffron, from Iran. A favourite with the American, Japanese and European tourists for whom rare saffron really is the ultimate in exotica. I’m more interested in the huge sacks of inviting nuts, set in rows. We chat with shopkeepers who earnestly urge us to try handfuls: cashew nuts dusted with fresh pepper, pistachios encrusted with rock salt and crisp almonds. They’re followed by chocolate coated dates with nut centres, which are chewy, gooey and crunchy at the same time.

We buy stunning pepper jars, filled with peppercorns in different colours — red, green, grey and black — from a variety of countries ranging from Brazil to India. We also discover the fabulous bezar, used in Arabic cooking. It’s a mix of cumin, fennel and coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, pepper corns, dried red chillies and turmeric powder, all roasted till they’re golden and then ground together.

Bundles of the biggest sticks of cinnamon I’ve ever seen are set beside fascinating sacks bursting with dried limes – black and brown from Oman. They’re popped whole into stews and soups. Or pierced, peeled or crushed before being added to biriyanis, meat dishes or seafood.

There’s red and white ginseng. Fresh vanilla pods. Intriguing bundles of red and pink dried rosebuds.

Rosebuds? They’re perfect for tea. Especially if you want to pretend you’re a heroine from one of those ridiculously enthralling Mills and Boons -type stories set in the desert. Arabian stallions, campfires and a cup of cinnamon and rosebud tea makes for an ideal combination.

It also works pretty well after one too many tequila shots. Bet the ancient seafarers who explored the world for these spices would be surprised at how far their bounty now travels. And how differently.


Green Curry meets Chicken 65

Baked beans on toast. Hardly the heights of fine dining in these days of culinary high jinks, where caviar is handed out with all the nonchalance of popcorn, and death by chocolate is more of a steadfast purpose than a menacing threat.

Yet, in the 1970s, when Spencer Plaza was Chennai’s ‘It’ place, I have it on reliable authority that once of the coolest things to do as a college kid was to stylishly spoon up baked beans on toast.

The ultimate British comfort food? Well, it’s hardly surprising. Wikipedia states that the mall goes right back to British Raj. It was established around 1863-1864 and was really the first departmental store in the Indian subcontinent, comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Hence this quintessentially item, which was
one of many on their bangers-and-mash menu.

Then, in 1983, Spencer Plaza burnt down and had to be rebuilt. Things began to change. By the 1900’s India was accelerating rapidly, and so was good old ‘Spencers.’

Today it’s arguably the best place in the city to take a reasonably tasty culinary journey across a diverse array of cuisines With two bustling food courts and a variety of little stalls and restaurants boasting everything from coconut water to fresh waffles, you can travel from starter to dessert in fifteen minutes – depending on how
fast you vaccume it all up of course. Just don’t go there on the weekend when the all the city’s languid and lethargic people seem to converge into one aimless, amorous mass, which then proceeds to conquer every corridor, lift and store.

On other days Kolkata Chaat’s really the place to be if you like the whole elbow-to-jowl brand of socialising that’s rampant in these kind of joints. It helps that many swear this place makes the best pani puri in the city: crisp outside and deliciously mushy inside, accompanied with a burst of cold, tangy tamarind-spiked pani puri

Then there’s the ever-popular Thattukada, which already has die hard fans despite being a relatively recent addition, thanks to it’s peppery chicken roast ‘porizha Kozhi’ served with soft chapattis, If you’re feeling more indulgent try the scalding chicken curry that arrived with their signature Kerala parottas, which are simultaneous crisp, flaky and fluffy.

However, what really seems to be grabbing attention now is Su Wai, which is a surprisingly authentic Thai place, set in the midst of the babel, chicken biriyani and filter coffees of the Akshaya Food court in Phase one. Run by a Thai family, the food is cooked and supervised by the owners who are also on hand to serve and explain the food.

We try the aromatic green curry, paired with a astonishingly fragrant pineapple fried rice. The highlight however was the basil chicken, deliciously succulent and laced with the powerful flavour of bright basil leaves. The pad Thai was less endearing, since the ingredients here don’t really pop with that enthusiastic freshness that
characterises most Thai food. However, considering it operates from a tiny kitchen, Su Wai really is quite a remarkable little place. The menu’s reasonably extensive, featuring all the favourites: Vegetables in garlic sauce. Drunken noodles and the intense Tom Kha, bouncing with lemon grass.

The best part? It’s in a food court. So you can pair it with combinations that will make food connoisseurs go white with horror.

Some Ponnuswami chicken 65 for instance. Or maybe a curd rice from Sarvanna Bhavan? 

We’re relatively boring. We go for the Brain Stimulator juice, to deal with some issues of absent-mindedness, and a vitamin C enriched drink. 

I wonder what the new age equivalent for baked beans on toast would be anyway? Organic lima on whole-wheat bread served with a dash of salmon roe? And if it’s Spencer, it will probably come with a liberal helping of masala chaat and sweet-and-sour ketchup.

Globalisation can be quite fascinating. Especially when it plays out in a crowded foodie mall.

French Fries in the Desert

Desert rain is almost unbearably alluring. I’m on holiday in Dubai, and yesterday the city was lashed with a tempestuous storm. After the shimmering heat of the day, it was tantalizing. The kind of rain that tempts you outside, inviting you to soak in its’ dramatic, mysterious glamour.

Of course we did nothing of that sort. Dubai’s far too hip for such deliciously hippy notions. The romance of Arabian Nights, complete with images of plush flying carpets, mysteriously smoky hookah bars and glimmering Ali Baba caves, takes a backseat to swinging nightclubs, soaring skyscrapers and Christian Louboutin-studded malls.

However, we do get to soak in the flavours of the world. With a population that’s reportedly 80 per cent expatriate, there’s no better place to take a culinary flying carpet around the globe. There’s Starbucks pushing its skinny macchiatos topped with a crisscross caramel lattice, the German Hafbrauhaus delighting in potatoes and celebrated Japanese Nobu, appropriately set beside an astonishing aquarium, glistening with dancing Stingrays and intimidatingly languid sharks at the unabashedly sparkly Atlantis hotel.

This pot pourri of cultures can be surprisingly addictive. We begin our day with Bikram yoga at a trendy little gym called Stretch, in a room heated to 44 degrees, presumably to eliminate those pesky little toxins. That’s followed by a delightfully-titled ‘Disco Chai’ at the sleepy Al Hara teashop, specialising in the rich, milky, fragrant tea twanging with spices and bobbing with smooth cardamom pods. The days whirl by in a flurry of designer shoe shops, frequent cappuccino halt and some avid star gazing at Tiffany’s, in the best of Audrey Hepburn traditions.

At night, of course, there’s clubbing. Stunning open air 360˚ at the Jumiera Beach Resort that sticks into the sea, providing hookahs and a view to die for, set to addictive house music. The trendy Kewa lounge, with icy mojitoes spiked with generous amounts of fresh mint leaves. And Chi, refuge of the eternally cool, with it’s spicy, bite sized, crisp chilly chicken.

Yet Dubai works hard on maintaining a traditional Arab ethos, which makes for interesting dining. Sometimes bizarrely so. We eat risotto at the Madinat Jumeira hotel, watching European tourists turn tomato-red as they balance gingerly on  traditional abra boats, and then bump into a falconer complete with his wicked looking feathered friend in the hotel’s reincarnation of a souk.

Then, to celebrate the desert rain we head to the popular Reem Ul Bawadi, wrapped in the gorgeous aromas of smoky barbeques and ringed with a parking lots boasting sunshine yellow Ferraris, gleaming Audis and deadly Ford Mustangs. Inside, it’s satisfyingly Arabic. Men in crisp, white kandouras with flowing ghoutta head dresses sit wrapped affectionately by thick rings of hookah smoke. Women in stunningly smoky eye makeup drift by. The ceiling’s covered in a sack cloth, and
liberally dotted with swinging lanterns. The deliberately rough walls are covered with an assortment of swords, ceramic and painting suffused with the golden glow of the sun on sand dunes.

Not surprisingly, the food’s fantastic. Creamy hummus, bounding with flavour and topped with a golden pool of olive oil, teamed with succulent barbequed chicken and a pungent, creamy, addictive garlic dip. They come with fluffy kuboose. A picturesque ink-blue hookah completes the picture, bubbling cheerfully below chunks of glowing

The menu, interestingly, isn’t completely free of the insidious fingers of globalisation. The chicken comes on a bed of French fries for instance. Between the baba ganouj, kibeh and za’atar on saj, there’s penne arrabbiata, margarita pizza and even filet mignon.  Even the hookah comes in every flavour from mint to cappuccino. And yes, there are cheese samosas.

Yet, as the fruity smoke blends with the flavours of the barbeque and the restaurant fills with people of a dozen nationalities, speaking a babel of languages, it still feels like a scene out of the Arabian Nights. Clearly Aladdin and skyscrapers don’t make for a bad combination after all.

Next stop, the Spice Souk, I plan to take a traditional abra across the river to hunt down exotic Arabic spices. 

You have a good week at work. Bwa ha ha.

Venn Pongal goes places

Young Kurumi Arimoto balances carefully on her toes, and stirs the carrot mundhiri payasam. Maiko Shimizu fiddles with a nifty camera, capturing the moment. Meanwhile, Akemi Yoshii, ponders over translating araithu vitta thakaali vengaaya sambhar into Japanese. In the middle of the kitchen, cookbook writers Padmini Natarajan and Viji Varadarajan simultaneously try explaining everything from ghee-making to how American frozen spinach cubes make for mulagu kootu that’s “out of this world.” Welcome to the new global culinary classroom. Kurumi, the daughter of Japanese cookbook writer Yoko Arimoto, has written one recipe book and is currently working on another. Her fascination for Tamil Brahmin cooking is what led her to Viji’s kitchen and kadais. Maiko is a professional writer, photographer and radio presenter. She runs the website One doodle land ( and is working on recording and collating Kurumi’s culinary adventures in Chennai for a travel-food story, for her website. The link that brought everyone together is Akemi, Japanese translator with a Chennai software company, she’s also a freelance food writer with a Masters degree in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide, Australia. This is their first introduction to home made Indian food. Yet, all three state that while Viji’s cooking is exotic, it isn’t unfamiliar. As Kurumi deftly makes kuzhakattais stuffed with moist coconut and crumbly jaggery, they talk of how similar these are to Japanese wantons, and those ever-popular dim sums found in every chinatown in the world. Kurumi plans to work on popularising this kind of fresh, easy South Indian home cooking in Japan once she’s back, because she feels it fits in well with Japanese traditions. “Our staple diet is rice… and our food taste is also mild and fresh.” Despite Indian food’s reputation for being high on spice and chillies, Tamil Brahmin food relies more on the taste of individual vegetables, cooked gently with carefully matched seasonings, which fits in comfortably with the Japanese culinary ethos. As recipes and kitchen tips are swapped, Kurumi and Viji cook their way through an elaborate lunch. Eventually everyone’s tucking enthusiastically into the sutta kathirikkai gotsu, made with carefully smoked brinjal and twanging with the distinctive flavour of hing paired with fragrant venn pongal. “We don’t eat Japanese food everyday,” says Akemi, talking of the various kinds of cuisine available in Tokyo. “Indian food is our favourite and we even have our own curry!” However, South Indian restaurants are rare in Japan. The few Indian restaurants that move beyond the flaming red curry route tend to limit themselves to dosas. Although chicken tikka and greasy curry tend to represent India in places like London and New York, these cities are also cosmopolitan enough to nurture change. In many of the world capitals, Indian food is ceasing to be defined by the curries, naans and kebabs of North India. Regional food is getting popular, as Indian chefs introduce the world to the likes of Kerala beef fry, Goan prawn balchao and Chettinad chicken. However, the fact that Kurumi’s in Viji’s kitchen, learning how to make a perfect semiya upma is indicative of the fact that we are poised at the beginning of a new wave: foodies travelling the world to learn cooking from individual households, recipe hunters leaving no page unturned in their quest for something new, cooks tracking down each other to swap techniques. Thanks to the Internet, with blogs, You Tube and websites, all this knowledge is quickly available to everyone. Who ever thought a vendaikkai thayir pachadi could travel so far, so fast, so flamboyantly. (Viji Varadarajan and Padmini Natarajan recently won the Gourmand Jury award for their book Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine.)


April 2009