Eating through Hong Kong

Egg tarts as sweet as sunshine

 

Springy, bouncy, wiry noodles in steaming soup

 

Flashy Mongkok by night

It’s midnight and we’re prowling through the dark, chilly alleys of Kowloon, Hong Kong.
As Temple Street’s night market quietens down, people flaunting fake Louis Vuittons, triple piercings and shiny leather pants elbow past looking for a late night snack. In true flashy big city style, the neon boards and electronic signage act like disco lights, covering the scene in surreal red-blue-green swathes.
We’re looking for Tim Ho Wan, the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. This tiny eatery, run by the former dim sum chef of the Four Season’s hotel is so popular we’re warned there’s a three hour wait for tables. Yet, in Mongkok, the locals – busy eating pungent tofu, Siu Mai and a Hong Kong style fried chicken covered in sesame seeds – don’t seem to know its exact location.
By 1 a.m. we stumble upon an alternative: a petite, steamy, bright eatery bursting with teenagers wearing their angst and iPhones as badges of honour. After much gesticulation the owner brings us a warm basket, filled with succulent fish dim sum and a bowl of sharp soya sauce. It’s teamed with sticky fried rice studded with disconcertingly sweet, fatty sausage.
Our Hong Kong food adventure’s off to an interesting start.
The next day we wake up to delicate stir fried vermicelli noodle crunchy with peanuts and a stodgy congee. It’s time to tick off the two next items on our ‘best of Hong Kong food’ list: silk stocking tea and egg tarts.
Hong Kong’s Central Business District is chic and busy, bustling with fashionistas in elegant winter coats and edgy hairdos. At the Good Spring Herbal Pharmacy, young bankers in sharp suits and startlingly feminine manbags delicately sip on ginseng tea, dispensed from an ornate, steaming brass pot. Inside, pharmacists read Chinese prescriptions written in graceful calligraphy, rapidly choosing roots and powders from heavy wooden cabinets and wrapping them up in crisp paper.
After a glass of Sweet Flower tea, tasting of honey and gardens, we trip into the Lan Fong Yuen tearoom. This heaving café claims to have invented Hong Kong milk tea, strained through a silk stocking. Serendipity sees us seated with charming Ad executive Jacqueline Ho, who logs onto Hong Kong’s popular OpenRice website on her iPhone to show us the best places to dine. After cups of the thin, smooth milky tea, served in heavy Lipton cups, she walks us to the Tai Cheong Bakery next door for egg tarts.
Ten minutes in line, and we’re rewarded by a warm, wobbly egg tart. Set in a flaky, buttery, golden pastry shell, the deep yellow tart is silky and just sweet enough to be satisfying. The city’s last British Governer, Chris Patten agrees. The store front boasts a blown-up picture of him pasted across the window, declaring his allegiance.
Day three’s dedicated to noodles. And, hopefully, that elusive Michelin meal. Back in central after a lot of walking, much of it uphill thanks to the city’s steep inclines, we find ourselves staring at an unexpected bonus – the Michelin ‘approved’ sign outside a random restaurant in the CBD. Inside, it’s quiet but for the steady sound of slurping as the family at the next table enjoys their bowl of noodles. Our noodles, however, lack punch – they’re watery and tasteless. The sticky rice served with soy and honey glazed pork is delicious, however. The pork’s so succulent and well done, it can be taken off the bone with just chopsticks.
Ever since travelling-celebrity Chef Antony Bourdain ‘discovered’ Mak’s Noodle in Wellington Street, it’s been a tourist magnet. However, following Jacquline’s advice to pick crowded restaurants, we head to Tsim Chai Kee, opposite Mak’s and positively bursting with the local lunch crowd. Inside, the community beach is so narrow and packed I’m a little worried my hungry neighbour will mistake my elbow for his lunch.
Tsim Chai Kee serves just three kinds of noodles: shrimp, fish balls and beef. My bowl of translucent wantons stuffed with king shrimp set on a generous squiggle of wiry, springy noodles arrives quickly. The noodles, wallowing in a fragrant broth, have to be teased out with chopsticks and a soup spoon.
Nobody bothers with small talk. Everyone’s here to eat, and eat well. Who needs a pat from Michelin with food so good.

Kylie Kwong’s China

Kylie makes cabbage look alluring. Kylie works saucepans like she’s at a DJ console. Kylie makes chopping carrots look glamorous.

Not surprisingly, her show, “Kylie Kwong: Cooking with Heart And Soul” has succeeded in inspiring couch-potatoes around the world to get their aprons on. It has deepened the all-pervasive fascination for Chinese food. And, triggered vociferously friendly Internet discussions on everything from her recipes to her chipper personality.

Reassuringly, she sounds just as chirpy over the phone, calling from Sydney, in a conversation with MetroPlus about her show “My China”, on Discovery Travel and Living.

“We wanted to create much more than a cooking show,” she says, “People respond to raw emotion.” Kylie adds that it’s easy for her to connect with the audience since she really believes in what she’s talking about. “I’m not an actor. I can’t pretend,” she says. “What I can do is get in front of the TV and tell the world how much I love Chinese food…”

Besides, she states she’s inspired when she discusses subjects she loves: “I never stop. I’d drive you mad,” she laughs.

Since most of the world has had an enduring affair with Chinese food, “My China” is a logical follow-up to “Cooking With Heart And Soul”, which showed Kylie recreating classical Chinese recipes, many learnt from her mother, in her slick kitchen. But because, she is a professional chef, her techniques are more sophisticated than rustic, and her results look like glossy advertisements from a gourmet magazine.

Her restaurant, Billy Kwong, has 60 dishes on the menu, all of which are based on traditional Chinese recipes. “The difference is in the quality of the produce I use. I use organic vegetables. No chemicals. No MSG, or oyster sauce out of a bottle. If I want plum sauce, I make it out of fresh plums.” (Following Kylie’s beliefs, Billy Kwong aims to “to leave as small and light an environmental footprint as possible, to give back to the community whenever and wherever we can, and to think globally and act locally.”)

This show includes, what Kylie calls, “travel, history and raw emotion…” since it covers her travelling through China, reconnecting with her roots. A fourth generation Australian, she’s calls herself a 29th generation Kwong. “But, I felt connected with China when I visited.”

The series opens with her visiting her family’s ancestral village in Toishan. “I’m nearly 40 now…, she says, talking of how important the homecoming was to her. “It was amazing, very emotional. I felt like I was returning to the clan… It was very primeval.”

For additional colour, there’s Kylie’s great grandfather, who seems like quite an interesting character. “My great grandfather moved to Australia during the gold rush. He had four Chinese wives, and 24 children.” Kylie’s grand return included a visit to her grandfather’s house (It’s still there!) and spending quality time with her long lost Chinese relatives. “They spoke no English, and I speak no Cantonese or Mandarin.” But, they communicated. “We cooked for each other. We laughed. We ate.”

This show’s about more than making a perfect bowl of noodles. “You can call it a cooking and travelling show. Nine episodes. Nine different provinces,” she says talking of how they have tried to show how the physical landscape and geography of each place. “The physical look of the local fare. The local market — because that is really what says everything about the local community… It’s very textured. Far more than just a pretty cooking show.”

Bourdain on Cooking and Cobras

He’s eaten the live, still beating heart of a cobra in Saigon. After munching through a handful of crisp fried tree worms he likened them to “a deep-fried Twinkie. Only wormier.” He travels the world with an astonishingly open mind: whether he’s in a gun club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the menu includes a sampling of firearms, or a secret Russian fight club, where diamond draped blondes sip vodka and watch men beat each other senseless. He’s executive Chef of Les Halles, a traditional French restaurant in Manhattan. Oh, and, he’s pretty hot, with his bad boy leather jacket and attitude.

Forget delicate creativity, starchy linens and artistic flair – Anthony Bourdain’s more about kitchen machismo, fiery opinions and flamboyant food making him a sort of a culinary rock star.

With his travel show, featuring extreme cuisine, and action packed books, the chef-turned-author-turned-TV presenter, has been tripping around the world years, followed intently by a large brigade of foodies, travel buffs and – let’s be honest – breathless women.

In a telephonic interview, organised to promote his show No Reservations on Discovery Travel and Living, he seems thrilled with his life, cobra hearts and all. “I am very aware of what a great job I have,” he says, “With the freedom to go where I want, when I want and say what I want. I’ve been given free reign to discover the world… It’s an extraordinary and amazing job.”

Bourdain talks of discovering India, wandering through Rajasthan, Kolkata, the Sunderbans and Mumbai. “My first impression was that India is both beautiful and frustrating. It is so big that you can’t rid yourself of the sense that you’re missing most of it.” Saying that although he and the TV crew tried to see as much as they could, he adds, “I could easily spend the rest of my life making television in just India.”

While his travels threw up a number of surprises (“Royal food in Rajasthan, and the fact that though I’m a vocal proponent of the carnivorous diet, India is possibly the only place I can eat a vegetarian meal”), he seems most excited about eating vada pav on the Mumbai streets. “I’m a big fan of the Bombay burger — potato in a bun.”

Unfortunately, Bourdain was forced to leave out south India, as another TV show was recently shot there and the producers felt it would be repetitive. “I was very frustrated about that,” he says, “I haven’t ever been there. It was one of my first choices. I’ve heard so much about the seafood…”

On his quest for the perfect meal (“I wanted the perfect meal… I wanted adventure. I wanted kicks… I wanted to see the world. And I wanted the world to be just like the movies”) Bourdain tends to concentrate on everyday food because “people are proud of their local food; it’s the purest expression of a culture”.

Categorically stating he’s not interested in fine dining (“The world is so globalised now. Fine dining chefs tend to cook like fine dining chefs, irrespective of where they live… fusion food in Mumbai isn’t too different from fusion food in Melbourne”), he says, “People from all income levels are beginning to crave the authentic. They’re less snobby about fine dining.”

Meanwhile, his forays into extreme cuisines, he insists, certainly aren’t for shock value. “People eat very differently around the world. What someone in America finds shocking is everyday food for people in Thailand. I’m interested in whatever is good.” He also believes that food and travel are inseparable. “I don’t think you can enjoy or even experience a country without a willingness to sit with the local people and eat and drink.”

His writing is equally down-to-earth. “I don’t try to be an authority or an expert. It’s not a priority for me to describe the entire history of the food. I come from an oral storytelling experience in the kitchen… I try to give people a sense of what things looked like and smelt like at the time.”

And when he’s not describing a desert feast with Blue-clad Berbers in Morocco, or bodysurfing beside a fishing village in Vietnam, he writes crime novels to escape. “I write about me and what happens to me all the time. So, it’s a relief to escape to a world of imagination from time to time.”

But food is clearly his first love. Discussing the world’s best chefs, he names “Thomas Keller in California and the chefs at French Laundry in Napa Valley”, and then adds “every chef who shows up at work every day and cooks well… Anybody’s mother who cooks well. I think cooking’s a noble activity.”

As for that perfect meal he’s been chasing for so long? “I’ve had so many,” he says thoughtfully. “You can’t look for the perfect meal: it finds you. It might be a simple bowl of noodles soup in Vietnam, or a plate of roast bone marrow in London. It’s not about the food. It’s context that’s important. Like who’s cooking it… A Bombay burger is as much a perfect meal as dinner in Paris.”

Fudge Cake Among The Karma Chameleons

Irresistible? The Brad Pitt of the salad world.


We stumble down by torchlight.

Past wobbly wooden fences enclosing whispering gardens bright with lettuce, lemons and pumpkins. It’s windy at night by the glacial Ganga. So finally inside the cosy thatched ‘ theatre,’ featuring a stage strung with fading bed sheets, we’re intensely grateful for the offer of steaming honey-lemon-ginger tea.

This is Rishikesh’s most charming secret. An endearingly earnest attempt at ‘Supper Theatre’ by Ramana’s Garden, an orphanage run by expatriate turned India-insider Dr. Prabhavati Dwaba.

Ramana’s draws support from Rishikesh’s unique blend of international tourist truth seekers, karmic collectors and almost-worryingly bendy yogis by reeling them in with a crafty mix of inspiring eco-warrior theatre, soul-satisfying organic brown rice and wicked amounts of fudge cake. The play, a fiery treatise on how big dams suffocate ‘Ma Ganga’ is irresistibly inspiring thanks to its stars, a bevy of feisty kids unapologetically hamming it up. The orphanage uses the inevitable donations this play prompts to hire lawyers and file PILs against dam construction every year.

Then, it’s time for dinner, a triumph of vegetables so vibrant they taste of sunshine, at Ramana’s Garden Gallery Cafe. We file in, soaking up the atmosphere — low wooden tables, haphazard strings of tiny lights, warm brick walls.

Glowing with a combination of salad, fresh air and crafty lighting!

Our meal opens with the Picassos of the salad world: crinkled lettuce, deep green argula piled with delicate carrot sticks and juicy piles of grated beetroot. It’s all topped with a generous dollop of creamy avocado. The sophisticated blend of flavours, texture and colour is fascinating. Especially given the fact that it’s been dreamt up in an unpretentious kitchen, worlds away from the influence of five star chefs, fancy equipment and edgy culinary schools.

Local, vegetarian and planet-friendly, this food bursts with equal amounts of colour, virtue and nutrition. “The menu changes everyday based on what is in the garden,” says Dwaba, adding, “It tastes so good because everything you are eating was growing an hour ago.”

When Dwaba first came to India 30 years ago (seeking enlightenment in a time-honoured tradition) she says her “guru” told her to live in silence “in a cave for a year”. That’s when she noticed the malnutrition among children. “It was outrageous. It made no sense. If you drop a seed here, you get a vegetable. If you tend it you get ten,” she says, explaining why she began this project. Meanwhile we’re working our way through thick wedges of lasagne, stuffed with lush pumpkin, zucchini and mushrooms, surrounded by buttery tagliatelle and oozing with creamy cheese.

There’s also nutty brown rice, punctuated by spurts of broccoli. “We started the cafe four years ago to feed the kids,” says Dwaba, “because sometimes we’re so financially strapped we have trouble. With this restaurant we make money everyday.”

Tonight Ramana’s Café is buzzing, thanks to a flood of guests from the International Yoga Festival at Parmath Ashram. Dwaba adds with a grin, “From tonight we hope to eat for a week!” Her project includes a mountain retreat, where a lot of their produce is grown both for the orphanage and the restaurant. Apples for instance, which can be eaten fresh, in pies or in their popular apple-ginger jam.

The seasonal menu incorporates a range of English vegetables, unusual varieties (our salad for instance includes four kind of lettuce) and innovative ideas, though the food is unfailingly simple. Over the year, guests get to try stinging nettle soup, walnut-cashew pizza and plump momos, besides home-baked croissants, cakes and cookies.

Which brings us to dessert. A fudgy chocolate cake, bursting with cocoa and good intentions. The little boys who staged the play are wandering around, posing for photographs.

Our Indiana-Jones styled scientist seems to be hitting it off with the startlingly cute Germs (who dressed in evil sequins and Bwa Ha Ha-ed through the play). In an unusual twist one of the Germs offers to cut my slice for me, sawing it into mush in his enthusiasm. I’m proudly handed a pile of unsteady crumbs, accompanied by an unwieldy old spoon and a big toothy grin. Best food presentation I’ve seen so far!

(For more information look up check http://www.sayyesnow.org/)
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The making of the Reluctant Gourmet

“Shame on u Shonali, u r a saddist … by the way we the people have a misconception of fine dinning in fact there is nothing called fine dinning, its good dinning. Appreciate what’s created rather than sounding to be a saddist” (sic)

(Anonymous hate mail from restaurateur, circa 2009)

I try. After all no one wants to be a ‘saddist,’ which I’m presuming is a crafty mix of sadism and unhappiness. It’s so much easier to be charming. Restaurateurs love you. Beaming chefs unveil complimentary desserts. Cheerful waiters hover fondly, sending occasional flying kisses. (Okay, so wistful imagination runs away with me occasionally.)

It must be admitted, not everyone loves The Reluctant Gourmet (RG). Ironically, in hindsight, that seems to be what makes this column work.

Just as our grammatically-challenged ‘saddist’ friend points out, people do “have a misconception of fine dining”. (But then she said ‘dinning’, which might just be a completely different thing.) As the country’s culinary scene grows at an exhilarating, not to mention bewildering, pace, pretentiousness sometimes overshadows quality. Ambition overrides ability. And, pricing derides common sense.

How does a food column make sense of all this? Especially when its writer is neither a cook nor a restaurateur?

Well, when the column launched, in response to the growing interest in food among Chennaiites, we decided to make it sound like an unabashedly honest friend. The kind of person you call for an opinion on where to eat. Or what to wear. Or to check whether yellow looks good on you. Brutal honesty offered with chatty updates became the RG tone. It worked, and the column eventually went national.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do try. So, instead of preachy lectures, RG canters excitedly into the colourful world of food, tugging its readers along — so far we’ve plodded through muddy vegetable markets, animatedly broken warm bread with baker-convicts at Chennai’s Puzhal jail and nibbled nervously on ‘hashima’ custard, thickened with the ovaries of a snow frog in a hip Singapore restaurant.

Restaurant reviewers have to be tough, because people should get what they pay for. It’s infuriating to go for a celebratory meal only to get lacklustre food, snotty service and a ridiculously high bill. This is my way of fighting for culinary justice. At the same time, I realise fairness is essential. After all, a lot of work goes into every restaurant opening, every menu and every meal. As everything in life, the truth is never black or white, instead, a perplexing range of greys.

Judging by the endearingly friendly mail from readers, this approach seems to work. (On the flip side, the RG tone’s proved so comfortingly familiar I’m called constantly by friends, acquaintances, friends of acquaintances and acquaintances of friends to provide hour-by-hour restaurant updates, food explanations and cocktail suggestions.)

As the opening letter shows, some of the restaurant folk are less enthusiastic. My friends are terrified to eat out with me, because they’re worried about chefs spitting in our food. (For the record, I think chefs are fabulous people. Shiver!) There’s the occasional threat from furious investors. And, after a review that’s less than flattering is published, I tend to stay away from the restaurant for about three months. I figure that’s long enough to ensure I don’t get a steak knife artfully positioned between my ribs. (It would just ruin my lovely Miu Miu evening wear.)

Actually chefs are astonishingly open to criticism. Many even have a reassuringly quick sense of humour. I once referred to a chef as Shylock, because his portions were tiny. The next time I was at his restaurant (after the obligatory three-month wait) with friends, a chocolate cake was delivered to our table. It has just three words across, in happy vanilla icing — “With Love, Shylock!”

In fact, The Reluctant Gourmet works, thanks to the many chefs, cooks and foodies, who’ve patiently explained ingredients, techniques and recipes to me over coffee, hot stoves and meticulous cookbooks. That’s also how it gradually acquired its politics — pushing local flavours, promoting food diversity, supporting sustainable eating. And, of course, its recurring theme — exploring the amazing way food from every part of India is so uniquely distinct. In this deliciously diverse country, food styles vary every 100 km or so, and every single household has an individual recipe for even something as basic as dal.

The restaurant scene changes almost every week in Chennai alone, which is where I’m based. In 2006, we wrote a MetroPlus food guide to the city, which went into reprint after reprint. Today, it would be a very different book. The city now has water sommeliers, wine libraries, and sashimi counters. The same things are happening across the country.

Things can only get better.

Meanwhile, I try to stay incognito to get an authentic experience. Sometimes I fail. So I’ll admit it: my prawns are bigger, my parathas fluffier, my pizzas more generously laden with cheese.

Think that’s fun? You try eating with a dozen hostile men in suits studying you all through dinner, like you’re a particularly twisted lab rat.

Though it must be admitted, drama like that makes for a good story. Even if that does make me — sigh — a bit of a ‘saddist’.

Tweet Yourself Thin

Do fudge brownies gobbled with your head in the fridge count? After all, if nobody sees you, it’s okay to discount the calories, right?

Sigh. Not anymore. Thanks to Twitter (the micro-blogging service that’s captivating much of the online world) and the kaleidoscope of imaginative applications it’s inspiring, it’s becoming next to impossible to live your life under a veil of convenient secrecy.

While Twitter might be dramatically revolutionising business, politics and pop culture by changing the way people share information, it’s also creating all kinds of upheavals in the world of food.

One genre of applications are changing the way people cook, dine out and eat by enabling users from the across the world to share pictures and information on their every meal. Since twitter is so democratic, it means that anyone anywhere can post a picture of anything they want anytime. Which — as you can imagine — leaves a lot of room for experimentation, pushing boundaries and plain goofing off.

An application like Nom.ms, for instance, which encourages users to tweet pictures and a couple of lines of text on every thing they eat is fascinating for so many reasons. The most obvious, of course, is that for foodies it’s a fun way to learn about food, ingredients and recipes, by seeing how people around the world eat. User Trendy, for instance, had Angel hair pasta with tomato sauce for dinner. She cooked it with red banana peppers, onions, green beans and shrimp. She’s also addicted to what she calls the ‘Everything but the kitchen sink cookies’ — “My dad gets ‘em from the farmers’ market — they’re amazing. Oatmeal, milk and white chocolate, macadamia nuts, walnuts, raisins…” Talk about getting a real, unbeatably immediate and artlessly evocative slice of life!

Of course there’s the danger of getting overly inspired, and eating your way into an obnoxiously large pair of jeans. Enter TweetWhatYouEat.com (TWYE), an inventive way to keep yourself honest using the convenience of twitter. Which brings us back to you brazenly scoffing fudge brownies with your head in the fridge. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

An online food diary, TWYE, enables you to enter everything you eat instantly, making it extremely difficult to cheat. Alex Ressi, founder and lead developer of the application, says the site has more than 8,000 followers, 30 per cent of whom post regularly. He says that it’s the accessibility of twitter, “being able to post updates from your IM, mobile phone or the web,” that drew him to the platform.

To make calorie counting easier, the application even has a ‘CrowdCal system’. Alex says this is the Internet’s first completely crowd-sourced calorie database. When active, it auto-fills food entries with the appropriate calorie value based on what other users in the community have entered. It’s an ingenious way to cover a huge variety of foods from every country.

Of course, since this is twitter, the biggest impetus comes from the community. People clearly find it easier to diet with a supportive group — even if it consists of people across the world who they’ve never met. The forum is alive with everything from cries of help (“pineapple upside-down cake. Anyone has alternatives?”) to shrieks of despair. (“I’m sorry — but there is NO SUBSTITUTION for McDonald’s Medium French Fries when you’re stressed!”)

“People need to be able to share in their success and lean on others,” says Alex, adding that they’ve had some inspiring weight loss stories. “I’ve had people write in and share stories about 20 pound, 40 pound and the most dramatic — a 70 pound weight loss using the Tweet What You Eat tool and working in conjunction with a nutritionist.”

Besides, it’s encouraging to feel that you’re not the only one with so little self-control. Take “Heyimskye” whose bio states she’s “losin weight one fat cell at a time.” She began yesterday with “salad with romaine lettuce.” A little later comes the entry: “mini muffin you will be the death of me!”

Now where’s that fudge brownie?

Baingan Bhartha meets Olive oil

Mustard oil is good. Mustard oil is bad. Coconut oil is dreadful. Coconut oil is fantastic. Olive oil, on the other hand, is consistently virtuous. Apparently, it will fix your heart, make you thin, heal your family and walk your dog.

It’s astonishing how vociferous health gurus can get about cooking oil brands. Much of the hysteria is dedicated to making sinners and saints out of various blameless oils. Take mustard oil, loved by Bengalis for its intense, almost nutty flavour. Till popular opinion decreed that everyone should stop using it because it’s bad for the heart. Then came the discovery that it’s rich in omega-3 and antioxidants, which made it good for your body.

Confused? Well, that’s nothing compared to the coconut oil saga. For decades Malayalis happily fried everything in the fragrant, rich oil. Then, talk of saturated fats started doing the rounds, and suddenly it became the symbol for all that is perceived to be unhealthy about desi cooking. (Though one look at the old and vigorous Ayurvedic practitioners brought up on a steady diet of asli ghee, full-fat milk and coconut oil easily proves otherwise.) Till very recently, cooking with coconut oil was guaranteed to make most people recoil in horror. Now suddenly there’s a buzz about virgin coconut oil and all its fabulous benefits. This version of the oil (extracted from fresh coconuts and processed with no chemicals) is said to — believe it or not — actually boost your metabolism.

However, the popularly-acknowledged kingpin of all healthy oils is olive oil. If all the muscle behind its marketing is to be believed, it’s the panacea for all ills. It prevents heart disease. Lowers cholesterol. Virgin olive oil has a strong antioxidant effect, protecting against free radicals and the formation of cancer.

While it is true that olive oil is one of the healthiest of oils, it’s certainly not a complete solution. Every gram of oil — regardless of what kind of oil it is — contains nine calories. Which means one tablespoon is roughly 120 calories. What you really need to do to get healthy is reduce your intake of oil. Weight loss and health, unfortunately, all boil down to that same old mantra: fewer calories, more exercise.

The biggest problem with olive oil is that it is far more expensive than any of the other oils available in the Indian market. Honestly, if you can’t afford it, that’s alright. The truth is, as all our grandmothers have always known; there are plenty of other options. Try alternating between oils like refined peanut, rice bran, corn, gingelly and sunflower, just to name a few. Nutritionists now recommend consuming a mix of about three kinds of oils as each provides you with different essential fatty acids.

The second big hitch is that Indians feel olive oil’s flavours don’t work with Indian food. That’s probably true with dishes where the oil is a main component of the flavour, like the Bengali mashed potatoes with mustard oil or Kerala avial, which is topped with a spoon of sizzling coconut oil. But with a number of regular Indian dishes it actually works reasonably well.

Celebrity adman Prahlad Kakkar, a self-confessed “man of great excesses,” is an enthusiastic promoter of olive oil. On a cooking demonstration, which was part of a road show organised by the International Olive Council, he said “When you warm brandy, you release its secrets. It’s the same with a good olive oil: it’s fruity, it’s pure, you know it’s good for you because it lingers.” As he sautéed onions and garlic for baingan bhartha, their delicious aromas filled the room. “Olive oil’s like pure desi ghee,” he said, “It makes you remember home.”

Even if you don’t come from Spain, apparently.

Toss, Turn and Twitter

1:11 am. @gordon_ramsay: Bollocks, sorry for not using this. Someone’s showing me how it works. Hopefully this will…”
1:11 am (seconds later) @gordon_ramsay: “Fuck me. It worked.”

(Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey’s first posts on Twitter)

The world’s never been this small. Access has never been this easy. Celebrities have never been this real.
Twitter has opened up a whole new world of food networking, effortlessly bringing together Chefs, Food celebrities, home cooks and foodies. With more traditional forms of media, people like Gordon Ramsey, Martha Stewart and Jamie Oliver seemed distant, despite being everywhere. You could read about them, watch their shows, even read their blogs, but as familiar as they were – for all practical purposes – they were really just about as accessible as Mr Potato Head. Suddenly, thanks to twitter, they’re morphing from two dimensional, larger-than-life, pedestal-occupiers to real, living, breathing people with tempers, quirks and spelling mistakes.
The food world’s never been more exciting.
Now you get recipes directly from Martha Stewart. She’s even managed to master recipes that fit into Twitter’s 140 character limit. Like “GUACAMOLE Mix juice 1 lime, 4t crushed garlic, 5 chop scallion, 1C chop cilantro, 1 mince jalapeño + 3 ripe avocado.” Jamie Oliver, who comes across as warm, friendly and incessantly upbeat can help you figure out why your last pudding failed. Gordon Ramsey’s as refreshingly brash on twitter as he is on his shows, making for some fabulous stories from behind the scenes. “April Head chef at Claridges set the fucking kitchen on fire, we had to evacuate, Clooney and Pitt stood outside saying ‘fucking chefs’.”
Then there’s Heston Blumenthal, who made waves in the culinary world with his award winning Fat Duck restaurant, famous for food like Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream. He transforms from celebrated culinary alchemist into a quirky real person on Twitter. While his first tweet ever announced “pickled herring with lemon rice garnished with grated brie for lunch,” he goes on to state not all his meals are cutting-edge culinary experiments. “Ever since my TV shows everyone expects me eating hogs heads and sheep brains for lunch. Ha ha… I usually end up with a simple soup and a roll at lunch if I am working. Soup is under rated you can make almost any flavour and its light.”
Most of these celebrity Chefs follow each other. Except for Gordon Ramsey, who follows just one person, despite having about 6,400 followers. This person’s Lennie Nash, or Chef Sandwich, who says he’s “writer blogging about retraining as a chef.”
In an e-mail interview Nash says Twitter has helped him as both a chef and food writer because it’s enabled him to get in touch with chefs across the world who would normally be very difficult to contact. And certainly impossible to stay in contact with on an everyday basis. “Just within food blogging there are many spheres – and you are able to find people with your exact outlooks and experiences. It’s also good for getting ‘breaking news’ and rumours on restaurant/cheffing topics,” he says.
Gossip? It’s simply delicious on Twitter to be honest. There’s Nash’s story about how Prince Philip phoned Heston Blumenthal to ask for his fish and chips recipe after eating at the Fat Duck. Then there’s the tweet about Curry Lounge, in Nottingham, creating the “world’s tallest poppadom tower. 1,052 poppadoms and 4ft 11in tall, beats record by an inch.”
Since the celebrity Chefs are on Twitter, and Twitpics, without their entourage of PR people, makeup artists and publicity managers, they seem so much more fallible, and thereby endearingly real.
Jamie Oliver for instance has two principal weaknesses. His cute daughter, who surfaces on twitpics besides pictures of his painstakingly hand labelled Gooseberry jam and freshly made potato pizza. “Bless look what my little daisy cooked. A daisy pudding. And she loves it and loves eating it even more.” And his spelling, which is far from perfect. (A word of advice though. Don’t point it out to him. The last person who did got this “Get lost you idiot I’m dislexic and I can’t spell so stick that in your pipe and smoke it!!! It’s better than being smug.”)
Blumenthal’s worried about his waistline. “Going for a suit fitting tomorrow. I hate it. There always seems to be more tape measure required every time.” And he’s also far from impervious to the inevitable twitter boors. “Half of the tweets are just insults and I have a temper problem at times and don’t want to get anything heated,” he says.
So why stay in?
Well, for starters everyone seems to be having so much fun. Blumenthal says he loves reading what other people are doing around the world. “Everyone’s doing and thinking something different.” He adds that its size and diversity also makes it a great sounding board for ideas.
Nash says it’s great from capturing and connecting with a specific audience or online community because it is so direct and immediate. “You can just put an idea out there, and it can quickly snowball into a ‘trend’ with everyone able to throw in their ideas rather than just celebrities or pundits. It is much easier to gauge what interests people, rather than just what interests you.”
So Blumenthal tells us when he’s “trying a new way of smoking deer with a blueberry smoke and serving with lemon and thyme covered garden peas.” And Ramsey gives us the inside story on his TV shows. “Taking live cook-along to the US, on Fox network, but I’ve been warned to watch my language. No cursing, that’s the deal. Bollocks.”
While the celebrities are the most obvious face of food networking, they’re just one slice of the pie. As Nash says this is “definitely the best tool I’ve come across for food networking because it is largely recommendation based – and therefore the best sites tend to shine through and attract followers. The mobile aspect using iPhones etc means people can blog or send pictures directly from an event rather than wait to get back to the office to write them up.”
As a result there are a bevy of colourful food writers who keep the site alive with great ideas. Like PuddingQueen who talks of wedding cakes made with Buttermilk, wild strawberry and more than 24 eggs. Or “Lemon and lavender sandwich biscuits with lemon cheese and lavender lemonade – its going to be a floral tea this afternoon!”
Things can only get better. Already Blumenthal’s running a competition on his page. “Doing a Harry Potter themed meal around October time for about 50 people 10 of which I will choose from twitter (UK only).” He’s likely to get flooded with replies, considering how many food nuts there are on the site, judging by the handles: MsMarmitelover, GingerGourmand, ThePorkyDrunk, TheMeadmaker and even LambshankRdmptn!
As for happy endings? Who can resist the story of Gregg Wallace, TV star ingredient-expert, who’s calls himself the “cooking woman’s crumpet.” and goes by Pudding Face on Twitter. Pudding Face made contact with Heidi Brown, who’s 17 years younger, on Twitter. “@Heidipopps You’re very special./ @Heidipopps missed you, but then you know that. Xxxxxxxxxxxx.”
They’re now married.
So what’s a celebrity foodie romance like? Champagne and caviar on a private jet? Not quite, according to Pudding Face’s twitter update. “Very romantic evening with my lady. Dinner from Tesco Metro, eaten on a balcony in Crewe overlooking Mc Donalds. Sun setting on Large fries.”
Honestly, who needs reality TV?

Seeking culinary Utopia

Writing love notes in History class? After all, you figure, the past can bury its dead. It’s far more important to get yourself a date for dinner, right?
Well, it might surprise you to know how dramatically your dinner – irrespective of what you’re eating – has been influenced by history.
Every kind of cuisine — whether it classic French, hip Californian or traditional Indian — is shaped by its past. By invaders, traders and rulers. Peace, wars and politics. Love.
Think that sounds like the voiceover to some cheesy historical drama (preferably accompanied by a sweeping Oscar-winning musical score)? Well, then take the story of Catherine de Médicis, a princess from Florence, Italy. When she married King Henry II of France in the early-1500s, she moved with an entire entourage of talented Italian Chefs, who proceeded to impress everyone with their sophisticated food. Of course what was served and eaten at the palace set the tone for dining tables across the country.
Food is arguably the most powerful expression of culture. However since food customs are so sensitive to external influences, traditional recipes, ingredients and cooking methods are rapidly being influenced by quick-fix methods and the addictive all-pervasive trend of global cuisine. The most accessible foods of every culture — Mexican nachos, American burgers, Indian curry — are conquering dinner tables the world over.
But, simultaneously, taste-tourists are travelling the world in search of food thrills, culinary epiphanies and cooking discoveries.
So where’s the next food frontier? Try the relatively undiscovered countries of South Eastern Europe. Also known as the Balkans, stretching across Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro etc.
Countries like Bulgaria unwittingly managed to preserve much of their traditional food culture thanks to Communism, says gorgeous Chef Vita Bozadzhieva, who travels the world introducing people to the food.
At the Raintree Hotel, in Chennai, where she’s conducting a Balkan food festival, she talks of growing up in a very different environment where people worked hard, ate at home and used only local products and produce. “I am 33 years old now,” she smiles, “When I grew up, it was like Coca Cola, ‘Wow!’ Restaurants then served mainly either Turkish or Balkan food. “The Turkish were in our city for about 500 years. So we have super-mixed culture,” she says, adding that nevertheless, even now the Balkan countries have a cuisine culture that is distinctly different from the rest of the world.
“Our country is not so economically developed,” she says, “Still we believe that the wife must cook for her husband. I’ve grown up in that culture.” As a result, she says, their food is more homey. After all, it evolved in kitchens, not restaurants. In the hands of housewives not Chefs. And because of Communism, it marinated in tradition, undisturbed by outside influences for about three decades.
“Till about 15 years ago, it was very closed,” says Chef Vita, “People were not travelling so much. It was also very difficult to go out of the country.”
Hence the cuisine, influenced by a host of ancient invaders including the Romans, Greeks and Turks, had time to steep and simmer for a while. Appropriately enough, that’s how a lot of their food is prepared. “We use lots of herbs, and the food takes a long time to cook, to soak in all their subtle flavours,” says Chef Vita. “We also bake a lot. Every kitchen has lots of ovens.” They’re also one of the few places left in the world, besides India, where they set their own curd, instead of just buying tubs from the supermarket.
This food is necessarily rare right now. After all the Chinese and Indian emigrants travelled the world with baggage bursting with of home-made spices and recipes, thus getting huge chunks of the world enamoured with their food. Meanwhile, places like the USA, Britian and many Europian coutries (think Greece, Spain, Italy) gain converts thanks to mix of pop-culture and tourism Meanwhile, dishes like Chef Vita’s fragrant stewed lamb, served with chunky potatoes in thin gravy, remain undiscovered since it’s only recently that the people of the Balkan’s started to travel, and welcome visitors. There’s one more hurdle. “We’re a small country. For example you take a car and drive for six hours and you have reached the other end,” laughs Vita.
This, however, means Chefs like her have a distinct advantage that sets them apart.
“For me, I believe we are born and grow up, where we must be born and where we must grow. If I was born in a Communist regime, it was because that was what was right for me,” she says. “Now I realise it is an advantage. I’m different!”
Which is really the most exciting thing about food cultures, when you come to think of it. This is history that you can actually taste.

Smoky kebabs in a Kashmiri Tent

Cross-legged attack on Wazwan. Our quick mid-kebab pose for the camera.

Cross-legged attack on Wazwan. Our quick mid-kebab pose for the camera.

Singing and spinach make for a charming, if unlikely, combination.

It’s a bracingly cool morning in Srinagar, where we’re attending a friend’s wedding. We’re cross-legged on the lawn helping her aunts and grand-aunt de-stalk crackly-fresh spinach leaves for the wedding lunch. As the community unites, from different parts of the country or city — which involves braving bandhs, curfews and random stone-pelting — to celebrate, preparations to feed about a thousand people are already in full swing.

The women sit in a circle singing beguiling folk songs, steadily working their way through baskets piled high with the leaves. All the while, a kahwa lady hands out cup after cup of the soothing sweet green tea, fragrant with saffron, spiced with cardamom and afloat with crisp almond slivers, from a silver samovar, which bubbles ceaselessly through the three-day-wedding thanks to cleverly concealed cavities holding glowing charcoal. Beside it, there’s a basket of tandoor-baked soft Kashmiri bread from down the road for breakfast. It’s necessarily light. After all, everyone’s gearing up for wazwan — an elaborate, formal, overwhelmingly generous meal integral to Kashmiri Muslim weddings.

A huge tent has been set up next door to the house for the preparation of this meal, which is served for lunch and dinner through the wedding and features anything from 20 to 44 different courses — most of them meat, mainly mutton. The mathematics is precise and has to be adhered to, following tradition. Shahid Mir, brother of the bride Shaila, explains it, as he walks us around the quaint kitchen-tent, which bustles with activity — hoards of oversized furiously bubbling pots, crackling wood-fires and about ten cooks preparing the meal with the kind of regimental precision, poise and co-ordination that can only come from having done this hundreds of times before.

“For thousand people, they use 120 goats,” he says, “and about 1,100 chickens.” Wazwan is served in huge plates, each of which is shared by four people. “Every plate holds around 4 to 5 kilos of meat.” The brilliance of the cook really comes into play here, because every dish tastes distinctly different. Like the conductor of an orchestra, the head cook directs and guides the team. With minimal talk, responsibilities are divided. One group cuts the meat, ensuring it’s halal. The next lot sits in a row, pounding endlessly to tenderise it. The steady thud’s rhythm is surprisingly cohesive with the folk songs, also sung through the wedding. Another group does the blending, boiling and frying.

With 24 courses on the day of the wedding, this is — of course – far more than most people can comfortably eat. However following long-established protocol handed down through generations, Kashmiri families ensure that there’s no reduction whatsoever in the amount of food served.

After we grapple helplessly with a couple of meals, wasting embarrassing quantities, Shahid’s mom Shamima explains the mystery of how the rest of the wedding guests seem to be clearing their plates. It’s a delightfully practical solution. To really enjoy the nuances and flavours of every course, guests are given bags, so they can just pack up the excess food and take it home.

As the tempting scents of smoky kebabs, spice-laden curries and smoking-hot ghee begin to weave their way across the garden, we sit down for our first wazwan experience. The boys in the family do all the carrying and serving, so one of the cousins sets down the tash-t-nari, a quaint silver basin accompanied by a jug straight out of Arabian nights so we can wash our hands. Then comes the plate, piled high with rice, topped with a dash of cooked spinach curry and a dense, meaty gravy made with lamb liver, kidney and intestines.

Then, the wazwan starts moving faster. Scalding chicken red curry served with a huge ladle is carefully poured on the rice, along with a huge meaty piece of chicken for each of the four people sitting around the plate. Then come the tender sheek kebabs. Rogan josh, fiery with red Kashmiri chillies. The delicious tabak maz, which are flat rib cuts cooked in spiced milk and then fried in pure ghee till they’re dark and crackling. Delectably spongy paneer in a rich tomato sauce. Gushtaba, soft mutton meatballs cooked in a gravy of fresh curd, end the meal.

Not surprisingly we loll about like pythons once we’re done. More kawah. More singing. The thudding from the tent begins again. After all, there’s wazwan for dinner.

Sho-Buzz

October 2020
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