Some Like It Hot

Whatever happened to puddings?

Nobody seems to make them at home anymore. You remember the old staples of course. Chunky comforting bread and butter pudding, made every time there was an avalanche of bread in the refrigerator. Obstinately unfashionable cheesecake from the days before people even knew what ricotta was, smothered in lashings of condensed milk on an unsteady base of crumbly Krackjack biscuits. And that never-fail chocolate biscuit pudding, a tower of Marie biscuits softened in milk, all layered with a gooey cream of decadently over-sweetened chocolate.

Now, desserts seem to be all about the swank-factor. If it’s not ridiculously difficult to make, involving hours of back breaking labour in the kitchen, it better have exotic ingredients. And exotic in the times of New York-today-Tokyo-tomorrow world is not an easy requirement to fill. At the very least it requires something along the lines of semi-naked tribal people gathering under the moonlight and singing to the mountains as they process/ pluck/grow the ingredients. (Also difficult in this day and age. You’ll need to confiscate their BlackBerries for one. And I don’t mean the ones you use to stuff an old-fashioned piecrust.) So how do you keep up with the Joneses in such competitive times?

Return to the good old days, of course. When puddings were made with whatever was in your larder. When cakes were expected to be more tasty than pretty. And portions didn’t come accompanied by calorie counts and hysterical health warnings. The main difference really seems to be the fuss involved.

Suddenly baking is seen as an occupation for just chefs. People who can easily whip up an elaborate meal for an entire family go into a tizzy at the prospect of making dessert. So it’s either outsourced to a caterer or bought from a bakery/restaurant/hotel. The thing is, a pudding is actually far easier than making a chicken curry, or biriyani or payasam. Anything you make at home is likely to taste better than what you buy, even if it’s just thanks to the superior ingredients you’re likely to use. Besides, you don’t have to worry about desserts necessarily being elaborate, hip or wickedly lavish. That’s a current trend that’s likely to die a natural death. Just like tightly permed hair, hot pink tights and those hideously uncomfortable, vertigo-enhancing platform heels.

I went to a boarding school in Ooty where pudding was the natural ending to every supper, and they managed to dish out a different pudding every day of the week for hundreds of hungry students. Admittedly not all were great. There was the ghastly Grape Mould, which arrived warm and frighteningly purple. The exasperatingly healthy Blancmange, made from all the extra milk delivered. And a dry sponge cake, dribbled with thick jaggery. But their trifle pudding, a delicious jumble of cake, jelly, fruits and custard was clearly the hot favourite. Ironically, it was also probably the easiest to make.

That’s really the best thing about puddings. Often, the most memorable ones require very little work, and yet look astonishingly impressive when they’re done. Think of a fruit filled melon. Or a chocolate fondue. Or even bits of cheese and pineapple chunks stuck into a big, unpeeled pineapple. Homemade puddings don’t even need to be exceptionally pretty, because everyone loves culinary nostalgia. Besides, your biggest fans are likely to be children. And it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find a child that draws himself up snottily and demands chilli-tinged chocolate mousse, specifically from Ghana, when he’s handed a still-warm pastry shell, laden with tangy, golden, sweet lemon curd.

Shake, Rattle And Roll

Vodka in a bucket. It used to be the quintessential college hostel drink in India. One ugly (more often than not) plastic bucket. Chipped coffee mugs. Ice. This is where it gets startlingly creative. Juice. Water. Cheap Rum. Syrupy wine. Dodgy vodka. Anything goes. It tastes of nothing — and everything at the same time. And it kicks like a mule with a black belt.

Of course, now the bucket’s probably listed in history right besides Jello shots. Once a staple at boisterous American-style parties, these semi-solid shots, made with jelly and vodka, were as much of a fixture as mini skirts, bad behaviour and semi-soggy potato crisps. Now it looks like this is the age of the evolved cocktail. It’s grown up, it’s multi-ethnic. It’s edgy.

The world is now discovering that cocktails have the unique ability to simultaneously express local culture, even as they remain powerful symbols of pop culture. Add to all these factors the easy availability of both exotic ingredients and know-how (in the form of the Internet, talented bar tenders and footloose mixologists), and perhaps it’s inevitable that a large section of people prefer to experiment with cocktails instead of merely adhering to the monotony of a single signature drink.

The popularity of mixologists is certainly a big factor in this new wave of cocktails, which are vibrant, sophisticated and twanging with fresh flavours. Yes, the term sounds almost unbearably pretentious. After all, bartending today does involve a lot more than listening to my-girlfriend-dumped-me-for-a-Prada-handbag stories these days. Thought it must be pointed out here that discreet sympathy has always been a duty of the bartender, judging by this extract taken from the archives of the Museum of the American Cocktail. According to Herbert Green, in an 1895 article titled Mixed Drinks, a “sensible clerk will not appear to listen to what (the customer) is saying, and if he hears anything in spite of himself it should find an eternal grave in his heart — never to be resurrected even (for) money.”

Today’s mixologists are bar scientists, really, constantly innovating, refining traditional techniques and experimenting with modern technology and ingredients. They’re expected to be cocktail historians, capable of concocting American Eggnogs, fragrant Nordic Glogg or Classic Sidecars. And they’re expected to be wildly inventive.

Take Aisha Sharpe, who even grows her own Blue Agave, a base ingredient of Tequila. She’s founded a New York-based company called Contemporary Cocktails, which believes “that a bartender should put the same effort into their cocktails that a chef puts into his or her cuisine.” Her Thai-gave, for instance, unifies the kitchen and the bar with its blend of cilantro roots and galangal with lime juice, agave nectar and Partida Blanco tequila.

It’s a revival in every sense. Cocktail bars are back in vogue. San Francisco, home to cocktails since the late 1800s, even boasts a speakeasy, Bourbon & Branch, reviving the Prohibition of the 1920s, when alcohol was illegal. They operate from a site that was an actual speakeasy from 1921 to 1933. It features five secret exit tunnels for getaways, including a special ‘ladies exit’ which granted safe passage to women tipplers, who could stagger out graciously at a street one entire block away. Today, you still need a password (available on their site) to enter their secret cocktail library bar.

Drama. That seems to be the bottom line. Cocktails have drama that elegant wine, snobbish whiskey and hip Vodka can’t ever really hope to achieve. Besides, who can resist a drink with such a colourful reputation? Beginning right from its first mention in a New York newspaper in 1806, when Thomas Jefferson was president. The editor’s note states “It is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also; to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.” Which makes you wonder, really, about what his opinion would have been on tequila shots.

Byte Sized Pakodas

Sauté onions till brown. How brown? I’ve-spend-a-week-in-Goa brown? Smoke-alarm-shrieking brown? Or I’ve-been-using-Fair-And-Lovely brown?
Recipes can be infuriating for amateur cooks. All those annoying professional terms: chiffonade the herbs, add a bouquet garni, julienne the vegetables. How many times have you been bent over a glossy cookbook, double-boiling and basting away like some 21st century witch, wishing that you could hubble, bubble, broil and etouffe the writer? Fortunately the YouTube generation has come up with a solution.
Between all the videos of apparently unbalanced young men having astonishingly idiotic accidents and stammering adolescents showing us how to use iPhones, there are now heaps of kind chefs and accomplished home cooks who record their recipes, thus demystifying the kitchen for once and for all. (At this point, we must point out this does not include the bright sparks at ‘Will It Blend’ who feature an intently serious man attempting to pulverize everything from golf balls to the Iphone in a Blendtec ‘Total Blender.’)
People like Chef Sanjay Thumma, who has found himself catapulted to stardom thanks to you tube, are quietly revolutionising the way people cook. Sanjay began recording and posting his recipes online just two years ago on Today, his name throws up about 20,000 results on Google. His lemon rice alone prompted 10,000 instant hits. Sanjay says that he now gets an average of one lakh viewers a day, from all over the world.
Cooking styles have certainly changed. The dog-eared, turmeric stained, well-loved family cookbooks, passed down for generations might just become a thing of the past. I, for instance, take my dinky iPod Touch into the kitchen and balance it on the microwave when I cook. The ability to view Sanjay, and cook simultaneously, makes following a recipe as easy as boiling an egg.
Sanjay says written recipes are really for professionals. “Home cooks tend to make mistakes,” he says. “With a recipe, one in ten people can make it good. With a video 99 out of 100 can make it good.” Especially with Indian food. As anyone who’s ever tried to learn how to cook from their grandmother knows, Indian food involves a lot of “one pinch of this, a handful of that and a fistful of curry leaves.” Sanjay does precisely the same thing – but you now have the option of pausing, grabbing the mustard/ turmeric/ salt and then mimicking him perfectly.
“Indian food all about adding things at the right time, cooking to the right texture, to get the right results,” Sanjay adds, explaining why it’s beneficial to actually see for how long he fries onions, blends cucumber or churns yoghurt.
Sanjay’s an interesting example of how much professional Chefs can do to reach out to the public in these times, when the Internet makes all barriers obsolete, whether they’re geographical, professional or culinary. He studied hotel management in Hyderabad and then worked for the ITC hotels in Gurgaon, Chennai, Agra and Jaipur. He then moved to Chicago in 1998, where he eventually started his own restaurant ‘Sizzle India.’ It was successful enough to become a chain, but 4 restaurants and 7 years later, Sanjay decided life was getting monotonous. “I decided to sell all of them and take a 2 year vacation. Food is my passion – doing business is not… All I wanted to do was cook.”
During the vacation, he bought himself a video camera. By September 2007, Sanjay had set up a slick studio in Chicago and began recording his first 150 recipes. “I just used the restaurant favourites,” he says, “Because everyone wants to know how to make butter chicken, chicken 65, chicken tikka.” Then came the basic cooking: pakoda, sambar, chutneys. The show is largely based on requests from his large and loyal fan following.
Now, he’s moved back to India, to Hyderabad, and his website’s finally making money, though the videos are still free. “People who like the recipes donate money. And there’s also some advertising on the site.
The best part? The excited e mails from people all over the world. We’ve always known food can break barriers. Teamed with YouTube, it’s clearly unstoppable.

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.

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.

Easy Exotic (or The Day The Emu almost Ate Me.)

Eat an emu? After coming beak to nose with one of the more nasty
representatives of the emu dynasty, I’d rather eat my hat. (Reebok.
Pink. Goes great with my new running shoes. Just in case you need the
whole picture.) It’s a good thing I had those pink running shoes on,
in hindsight. I had been absent-mindedly rambling around the Melbourne
zoo when I heard a furtive little emu cough. I turned and froze with
terror. Emu and I were beak to nose. Apparently he wanders about the
zoo, sneaking up on unsuspecting visitors for fun. He stared. I smiled
apologetically. He deliberated on which of my ears to bite first. I
politely pointed out the chubby chimpanzees. He squinted. I ran.
Eat an emu? You’ve got to be kidding. They look like they’ll make
quick notes on your appearance, send it out via some creepy
ornithological Blackberry system and, before you know it, organize
rabid gangs of their feathered flightless friends grunting
threateningly at your door.
Yet, it makes sense to eat an emu. Or a kangaroo. Or an alligator.
(Try a barbecued emu, alligator tail steak sirloin, kangaroo pie.)
Increasingly, a section of the world’s environmentalists are urging
people to expand their food horizons for the sake of diversity. This
way species that are threatened because they are so popular on the
table, like the blue finned tuna fish, get a break. And, lesser known
species get farmed more.
Unfortunately, it sometimes translates into a whole new form of food
snobbery: Who ate what. With snotty gourmets trying to outdo each
other, it’s inevitable that you sometimes end up being in the middle
of a situation as outrageous as the movie, The Freshman (1990) in
which Mathew Broderick ends up babysitting a komodo dragon for a
ridiculous gourmet club where exotic and endangered animals are served
for dinner.
In a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction, the National
Geographic recently reported on how a rare quail from the Philippines
was photographed for the first time before being sold as food at a
poultry market. This buttonquail, known solely through drawings based
on dated museum specimens collected several decades ago, might just
have been the last of its species!
Slow Food, an influential, inspirational worldwide organisation that
promotes sustainable eating is gearing up for its dramatic 2009
edition of ‘Slow Fish’, which will be held between April 17 and 20 in
Genoa, Italy. Elisa Virgillito, of Slow Food, talks of how Slow Fish
promotes responsible fish consumption, which keeps in mind the the
health of sea and fresh water ecosystems.
Of course, it’s not easy to change ingrained food habits. Which is why
Eliza says that this year they even have “an expert who can accompany
visitors around the fish market, assisting them to discover the wide
variety of the fish available and to point out lesser-known species
that are also highly tasty.”
The movement succeeds because they focus on the pleasures of eating
good food, instead of using emotional blackmail to get their message
across. So, to stop people from eating bluefin tuna and swordfish,
both of which are over-fished, they are gathering talented chefs and
food artisans to demonstrate recipes with lesser-known species like
palamita (Atlantic bonito), blue whiting or scabbardfish, which taste
as good, if not better, and often cost less too.
Since Slow Food focuses on eating local, representatives from around
the world will be talking about local flavours made with ingredients
that have never seen the inside of a plane. Italy will be showcasing
sandwiches made from butter and Monterosso anchovies, marinated horse
mackerel, grilled cuttlefish with purple asparagus and the finest
farmed mussels with extra-virgin olive oil. From Spain, the region of
Galicia, which has used seaweed in its cooking for centuries, will
exhibit a kaleidoscope of recipes featuring seaweed.
We certainly live in a weird and wonderful world. So keep an open
mind. And if you can dodge the bad-tempered emu gang, perhaps you’ll
enjoy a gorgonzola stuffed emu roast or — here’s a surprise — emu

Does it add up right?

Girls, the next time you dine out, check the bill before you pay

Girl gang lunches at a posh restaurant. You’ve shredded the lady at the next table wearing — ugh — animal prints. Someone’s pointed out that the guy in blaring yellow seems to have painted his jeans on. Everyone’s been eavesdropping on the couple behind, sniggering madly at their yuckie-duckie terms of endearment.

The bill arrives. One of the girls drops her snazzy gold card into the folder. The credit card slip is signed. And you leave in a final burst of giggles. Probably tripping over poor Ms. Zebra Stripes on the way.What did you forget? I’ll bet this season’s Prada handbag on the fact that not one person really checked the bill beyond glancing at the final number. Unfortunately, as sexist as this may sound, this seems to be a problem that happens more with women diners. I know I do it all the time.

Then, I learnt my lesson. Last week, I was at the routine girly lunch during which we happened to land an exceptionally dense bunch of waiters. Once we finally managed to gently persuade them to take our orders, there was a long, mysterious wait.

The food arrived from the kitchen in bits and pieces, brought in proudly and gingerly like a progression of Egyptian artefacts from an especially obscure — and exceptionally cursed — Pyramid. I was so annoyed that, I — gasp — actually checked my bill. And, in that laundry list of low-fat smoothies and calorie-laden ice cream, there were at least four items that we hadn’t ordered.

A little research revealed that a shockingly large number of restaurants do this to women diners. Remember that every restaurant is under pressure to achieve a certain profit target every month. So, if you think about it, a kitty party crowd of 20, for example, is just perfect for this kind of fraud. Assuming they’re ordering a drink, main course and dessert each, that adds up to about 60 items.

Nowadays, since everyone just splits the tab evenly regardless of who ate what, it’s rather unlikely that any one of the ladies is going to meticulously check the bill. For two reasons that are unique to women. We tend to trust our waiters and restaurants, especially if we’re regulars. And for some strange reason, many of us are vaguely embarrassed when it comes to money.

Asking around, I hear all kinds of stories. The girl who paid a restaurant bill and then discovered they had added an extra zero to the total when she got her credit card statement. (I can only hope that exceedingly wicked move was a genuine mistake on the part of the restaurant.) The girls who got their bill corrected and then found that the restaurant had the nerve to sneak in two more coffees, convinced that they wouldn’t run a second check. The alcohol bills at bars, which are very often inflated by the end of the night because clients (and this applies to both men and women) are too woozy to study the numbers.

Ironically, as I was giving two friends this lecture over lunch, I signed yet another credit card slip, and then realised that I had been grossly overcharged for my meal. When I asked why, I was told that they mistakenly charged me the dinner rate for my dish. Yeah, right. I’ve been a regular at this place for more than five years. I cringe to think of all the bills I’ve paid.

My father taught me to check and double check anything before I put my signature on it. So, I should know better than to cheerfully sign anything put in front me. When I ask friends, they tell me their fathers, husbands and boyfriends always scrutinise the bill, even if it’s at a business dinner for 40. My — admittedly unscientific — survey also revealed that a good number of women barely look at the bottom line.

Honestly, all of you should know better too. Check your bills. Need an incentive? You can use the money you save to buy more shoes.

Valentine’s Day for Dummies

The leering pink teddy bears are bad enough. Then there are the furry red hearts that leap out at you from every corner. Not to mention the moony-eyed Levis and lettuce brigade, giggling hysterically over milkshakes, mushy poems and Michael Learns To Rock.

To top it all, there’s the threat of acquiring either a random rakhi brother or a husband over Valentine’s Day. Talk about sticky dinner dates! (Though as an especially urbane friend pointed out, it could just be the quickest way yet to marry a millionaire. “Grab him as soon as he emerges from his Mercedes, and hold on till the priests arrive.” (Eat your heart out, Marilyn Monroe)

And now, to add to all that you need to navigate the rocky restaurant route. Rocky? To all the smooth young men who are suavely sniggering into their lemon yellow Ralph Lauren shirts (‘Because real men wear Yellow’), don’t be too sure of yourselves. I have a story that will strike fear into your blasé hearts.

A friend was recently taken out on a dinner date by one of those sophisticated Young Turks. You know the kind: they seem to spring up everywhere where there’s a shower of sparkling Pellegrino. He airily asked her to pick a wine. And like any nice girl, she pointed to the top of the list and casually asked the waiter to bring her what she assumed was the house wine.

Traditionally wine lists begin with the house wine, which is the cheapest, and then get more expensive as you move down the menu. But, this hotel had their list arranged the opposite way.

They were so pleasantly surprised at how astonishingly ‘drinkable’ this wine was that they ordered another bottle, and took it to the bar to share with friends. Their bill? Each bottle was priced Rs. 65,000. Talk about high-maintenance.

Restaurants have a monthly target to accomplish. And waiters generally get 10 per cent of the bill as a tip. It’s in their best interests to inflate your bill. So, unfortunately, a waiter is more likely to steer you towards spending an obnoxious amount of money on dinner. As far as he’s concerned, it’s his job to make you spend like Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive. It’s your job to stay alert.

Unfortunately, you’re probably at your most vulnerable when you’re on a date.

First comes the nasal recitation of the menu, blanketed with French words and Italian expressions, which is unnerving enough. (Here’s a tip, if you can’t pronounce it, just point and smile.)

Then, comes the Evian, opened with a dramatic flourish. (For heavens sake, it’s just water. If you’re dying to be posh, add a wedge of lime to your Bisleri.) Once you get the wine list, consider ordering by the glass instead of loftily doing an Old King Cole impression, calling for bottles and bowls and all the resident fiddlers.

It’s at this point that the chef/ waiter/ smooth-talking manager will slide over and offer to whip up ‘something special.’ Let’s be clear: Something special almost always means something expensive. In some places it also stands for that-stuff-we-couldn’t-get-rid-of-yesterday-now-served-in-a-white-sauce. (Oh yes. Keep a sharp eye on all white sauce.) Pick something off the menu, unless you’re familiar with the restaurant and its staff. And stay away from those jumbo prawns all waiters seem to love with a passion. The way they’re priced, you’d think each prawn has a personal masseur smothering it with love and garlic butter every hour.

While we’re on the subject of food doused in over enthusiasm, keep a sharp eye on the buffet. In theory it sounds like a great idea. In reality, you’re not going to eat that much. If you do, you’re just going to feel like a blimp once you’re done. A la carte is not just far more civilised on a date (who wants to watch someone plough through Old MacDonald’s farm grilled, steamed and batter fried), but it’s often much tastier since the food is fresh, hot and, thankfully, uncongealed.

And, for heavens sake, keep the coochie-cooing to a minimum. Some of us will be trying to eat. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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).

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.”


October 2022