Thai Safari

Pad Thai

We break down mid-safari. Since this isn’t Masai Mara, we’re ridiculously laid back. Besides, it’s stifling in the bus. So we saunter out, watched by astonished deer. And Japanese tourists. They drive past in meticulously sealed vans. We wave cockily. Till a pair of stocky wildebeest charge at us. Unfortunately our response is more Britney Spears than David Attenborough. Though to be fair, Spears probably wouldn’t have squealed like a little girl.

A passing ranger shoos them away like they’re goats, and the wildebeest obediently take their high jinks elsewhere. Hopefully not too close to the lions. Oh, yes. Did I mention there were lions? And tigers. Lying side by side in a detached stupor barely 200 metres away. (Bangkok’s Safari World is a strange and troubling place.) Apparently it’s a ‘picturesque African wilderness setting’. I’ve seen more realistic African vistas on Dora the Explorer.

It begins to thunder in the distance. Just as the scene gets a little too “Jurassic Park” for our liking, a replacement bus arrives. And a good thing too. Otherwise this column would not have been about having lunch. It would have been about being lunch.

Lunch by the way is as mystifying as our safari. We’re proudly told it’s an ‘International buffet’ set in a tropical forest. We end up eating fried rice under plastic trees. Why is tourism always so bad for a country’s cuisine? Logically, it should be a great impetus to showcase the best you have to offer. However, it’s a universally accepted fact that ‘touristy’ places generally have bad food, sullen service and ludicrously high prices.

Fortunately, it’s just as easy to avoid a tourist trap as it is to trip into one. Google makes planning a foodie-holiday really easy. Read articles, food blogs and follow local websites to decide where to eat. If there’s a restaurant you want to try, you can find the website, check the menu and even make a booking before you travel.

When you’re travelling, keep away from the tourists. Tourists tend to have a herd mentality, and very few of them move beyond the areas they are bussed to. They do all their shopping, eating and drinking around the key ‘sights’ of the city. Walk for ten minutes away from the discounted souvenirs and ticket counters, and you’ll find yourself amid the locals. Then just stop someone and ask for a recommendation.

We take a train into the heart of the city looking for dinner. Walking down Sukhumvit, we’re channelling Mike Tyson’s version of ‘One Night in Bangkok’. That’s how we find Nancy, a wise-cracking, Panama-wearing, cocktail-juggling roadside bartender, who fixes us icy margaritas. We sip them regally, seated besides a main road watching traffic whiz past. It’s unexpectedly relaxing.

Following her directions, we end on a bustling neon street, where vendors sell sizzling satay under bright pink lights. I’m a little wary of satay. I’ve learnt to make detailed enquiries about innocuous deep-fried objects served on sticks in South East Asia. Especially when they’re served beside deep-fried bugs.

Yet, I slip up in Pattaya. We are at a night market, torn between candy coloured sunglasses and oversized hats, when we see the satay seller. It looks delicious, and she assures us its chicken. “Fair enough,” we shrug, ordering two. The first is chewy and tube like. “Intestines,” I squeal, going green. “Yum, Yum,” says my friend, chewing her way happily through them, and simultaneously trying a hat so big it looks like it’s swallowing her head. I try the second stick. Deep fried chicken skin.

We ramble on, and make friends with the sweet corn lady. She shaves it off the cob and tosses it with pepper, salt and slices of coconut, ending with a generous squirt of lemon juice. There’s a street band playing, and crafty entrepreneurs fill buckets with ice and cold beers to sell them to passers-by. It’s 2 a.m., and we’re in oversized hats accessorised with ridiculously pink bows. It seems like the perfect time to eat pancakes. The pancake lady doesn’t bat an eyelash as we approach, looking like a pair of batty escapees from the sets of Pride and Prejudice. She swiftly pours out batter in a pool of golden butter, slices in ripe mangoes and tops it with a generous dollop of condensed milk.

We’ve lost the tourists. To be honest, we’ve also lost ourselves. “Ah well,” my friend The Hat shrugs. “Let’s just get some more intestines.”


This little piggy went to market, This little piggy stayed at the cove, This little piggy got sunburnt…

We notice Joshua’s flaming red flower as he helps us out of the boat at Castaway Island. As we wade through the waves, wriggling our toes in the warm sand of yet another dazzling Fijian beach, he explains the significance. “In Fiji, we have no wedding rings. So wear a flower behind your left ear if you’re single, right if you’re married.”

We thoughtfully sip on chilled Chardonnay cocktails served in tender coconuts as Joshua sums up our first class on Fijian dating. “So, left ear if you’re looking and right if you’re cooking.”

The irony seems a bit unfortunate for the pig-on-a-spit at the Musket Cove Island resort, wearing a jaunty frangipani behind his right ear. Served with tapioca, bowls of bright salad and piles of juicy skewered prawns, this dinner’s an attempt to rediscover the food of traditional Fiji. Destination of choice for tourists from New Zealand and Australia for decades, the islands’ resorts — many owned by expatriates — have spent years focusing on International food with imported ingredients. They now realise it’s time to introduce more local recipes for food tourists and culture-vultures.

Fiji comprises 330 islands in all, of which less than one-third are inhabited. The islanders are so friendly, it’s difficult to believe that this was once a land of fierce cannibals. All that’s left of that lifestyle today are cute brain-picking forks sold in chic boutiques on Viti Levu (site of the nation’s capital city Suva). Apparently they’re great for salads.

Our cooking class is conducted by the beach at Musket Cove Island Resort just before Mr Piggy makes his debut. Under a spectacular island sunset, we learn how to make the much-loved Kokodo. Fresh Mahi Mahi fish is cubed and marinated in lemon, salt and vinegar overnight. Then it’s mixed with finely chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, and capsicum. Finally, the whole concoction is slathered in cool, rich, luxurious coconut cream.

At the local market in Nadi, Viti Levu, we weave between bundles of emerald spinach, chunky taro roots and piles of fat ginger. Though lots of produce comes from Australia and New Zealand, the government is now encouraging local farms, and requesting resorts to buy from them. Fish is plentiful, of course. A long, laden counter glistening with Red snappers and Barracuda. Sea bream and Coral trout. Blue fin trevally, Long-nosed emperors and knots of eels. The small fish are tied on a string, forming a necklace only Lady Gaga could wear, and sold in sets of 10.

Over here, families celebrate major occasions with a Lovo feast, also a staple at almost every resort. The work begins early in the day, as the Lovo pit is filled with wood, then set on fire. Rocks are placed on top of this, so they turn red hot. Then food — wrapped in plaited banana leaves — is placed inside, covered and left to cook for hours. The result is delicious: tender vegetables infused with the flavour of charcoal and spices. Meat so luscious it practically falls off the bone.

On our last day we dive off a boat, to swim in the warm Pacific waters clutching a fistful of soggy bread to feed the fish. They swim towards us indolently and nibble delicately, like socialites at brunch. In the evening, despite our sea-tangled hair and flaming sunburns, we make an effort to glam up for dinner. We’re headed to The Plantation, a fine-dining restaurant at the Sonaisali Island resort. After a flurry of dainty starters, we eat slow cooked pork set on a crab cabbage roll paired with a delicate apple and muscatel confit teamed with glasses of heady red wine. Dessert’s a delicate toffee basket filled with ripe tropical fruit topped with sorbet.

Our host suggests we end our evening with Angry Fijians — a wicked shooter comprising banana liqueur, Malibu rum and Bailey’s Irish cream. He kicks off his shoes and leads us to the Zero Bar at the other end of the property, insisting we walk to enjoy the balmy sea breeze. The perfect Fijian antidote to la-di-dah dining: star strewn skies, barefoot bars and giddy nightcaps.

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.

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!

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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’.

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.

Designs on Dum Alu

“We recommend you dress smart. Even our waiters wear Manish Malhotra.” Shockingly, despite the advertisements, there are no ball gowns or tuxedoes lunching at Influence, Chennai’s latest ‘designer’ restaurant.

Instead there’s the usual smattering of laid-back couples, big families and children skipping around sqeakily, watched over fondly by friendly waiters in the aforementioned Manish Malhotra outfits. Admittedly, cold hauteur would probably have been more appropriate to their designer togs – full sleeved shirts with gold detailing along the collar – but from the looks of it Influence dreams of being far more uppity than it really is.

The restaurant’s press release coyly coos that the “building is a landmark with its resplendent glass exteriors playing up the lighting exotically”. While shimmering glass buildings look impressive in theory — very Manhattan and very stylish — the reality is that they’re quite impractical in India where the sun is relentless. Hence Influence gets overly bright and a little warm since the air-conditioning is constantly battling the onslaught of the sun. The unprepossessing view of Poonamallee High Road, complete with roaring traffic, grimy walls and peeling movie posters doesn’t help. Even with designer sunglasses on. So, go there for dinner.

Inside, Influence is beautiful. Done in cream and gold with dark wood it coveys a feeling of deliciously blatant luxury. Emphasising this are tables laden with heavy silver cutlery, gorgeous gold-laced crockery and towering wine glasses for water. In keeping with the whole ‘designer’ tone, there are a bevy of waiters at your service, and the meal begins with an independent starter and drink menu. We try the Bharvan Dahi kebab, which is excellent — crisp and tangy, bursting with thick, slightly sweet yoghurt.

Also the spinach and chickpea salad, fresh, healthy and glistening with lemon. On the downside, portions are far from generous. And the drink, a ‘pineapple, pomegranate and lemon’ juice resonates with some dreadful artificial flavouring.

Since this is determinedly-fine-dining-designed-by-(hold your breath!)-Manish-Malhotra, there’s another decorative wait, for the main course menu, then the food. Languid dining works at a restaurant where you can languorously sip wine between courses. At Influence, it means you spend twenty minutes contemplating the meaning of life while listening to loud determinedly-trendy decidedly-new age Indian lounge music that would probably be more at home in Goa, but is deemed appropriate for the designed-by-Manish-Malhotra (lest we forget) concept here.

The main course is stylishly miniscule. We mistake the exotic bakarkhani, an Indian bread made with dried fruits, for nachos, as it arrives in four little triangles. The accompaniments, a deliciously creamy methi makai malai and very average Kashmiri dum alu, come in bowls more appropriate for a chip-dip. The Kashmiri dum alu has a grand total of two baby potatoes. Perhaps, that’s how designers eat.

It’s certainly a very ‘super-model-size-zero’ style of cuisine. The spinach crepes are more generous, served with a tasty cream sauce. All the food is styled carefully, and arrives at the table with impressive flair.

The menu includes food from all over the world. It’s surprising that Influence chose not to specialise in a specific cuisine, considering it plans on targeting the ‘fine dining’ crowd. Multi-cuisine, after all, is associated more with coffee shops and clash-and-bang restaurants. Unfortunately, in India people tend to think of ‘vegetarian’ as a genre all by itself. So while the non-vegetarians get to eat Mexican, Thai and Chinese, vegetarians get stuck with paneer masquerading as Mexican, Thai and Chinese, like a culinary Mata Hari, master of disguises.

The dessert menu is short, but includes all the favourites: carrot cake slathered in mascarpone, chocolate cake infused with Baileys and kulfi. We choose a slice of cheesecake, light and fluffy on top, on a sweet, crumbly base. The bill, works out to Rs. 2,000 for two.

Endearingly, they charge one paisa for the Vijayshanthi mineral water, which is served if you opt for ‘regular’.

Complementary dark chocolates end the meal. We’re not sure if they’re in designer packaging. Should you be? Well, there’s always the danger that someone will imperiously ask you to recite the evening specials.

The waiters, after all, are in — yep — Manish Malhotra.

(Influence is at No 91, Egmore, Poonamallee High Road. Call 42974455 for reservations.)

The Coriander Club

The well-worn wooden cart piled high with piles of gleaming brinjals, bright chillies and fragrant coriander leaves might still pass by your window every day. But as more and more people choose to drive their trendy SUVs to one of the massive supermarkets — springing up all over every big city in India — to buy their fruits and vegetables, it could eventually become a thing of the past.

Fortunately, in the United Kingdom, farmers are fighting back. And, perhaps it is because of recent food scares and worries about genetically modified food. Or a mounting concern for the environment. Or, a more selfish quest for food that doesn’t taste travel-weary. But British consumers are now insisting on eating and buying local produce, as they now want to know where, and how, their food originated.

Emerging phenomenon

Which explains why farmers’ markets are getting increasingly popular across the United Kingdom. Started in London a little over 10 years ago, these (usually weekly) markets bring together groups of local farmers, with their produce.

The National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) — which has approximately 7,000 members and 225 markets under its wings — stipulates that all this produce must be from within a radius of ideally 30 miles, but never more than 100 miles. Anything made by the stallholder, such as the bronzed crusty breads and moist carrot cakes displayed enticingly at these markets, has to contain fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. And the farmer or a direct representative must be present at every stall, to talk to customers and answer questions.

At the little Wednesday farmers’ market in Finchley, London, for example, Peter and Joan Clarke never leave their makeshift counter, set up in front of their van. As he unloads crate after crate of appealing vegetables — some plucked a few hours ago at their Kingcup Farm in Denham, which is about 16 miles away — he says their chats with customers are an essential part of their business. Besides urging them to try new, exotic vegetables, (“Baby leeks can be steamed. They’re delicious with a cheese sauce.”) the couple also get ideas about new crops to grow. “That’s how we have mooli and saag, suggested by Indians,” he grins. He grows 70 different varieties of vegetables, 30 of which were spread out in vibrant piles at the market that day.

Peter says that these markets are beneficial for both the farmers and the people who buy from them, as the food they supply is always fresh, and therefore both nutritious and tasty, with intense flavours and colours. For farmers, markets like this aren’t just a way to connect with customers. It also means they finally get to bypass the middlemen, and shun supermarket chains, notorious for their draconian rules.

Big supermarket chains place ridiculous conditions on farmers, such as insisting every apple has to have a uniform diameter of 2.5 inches. A report by “Friends of the earth”, called “Supermarkets and Great British Fruit” (2002), gives the results of a survey done with 100 apple and pear growers, who said any fruit with minor skin blemishes gets rejected, along with “apples that are either not red enough, or too red”. As a result, fruit is left on the orchard floor or simply dumped. More than half the farmers stated that they have to apply more pesticides to “meet cosmetic standards”. It’s not just fruit. Felicity Lawrence, journalist and author of Not on the Label says, that for every 30 tonnes of carrots harvested, just 10 tonnes are used.

More variety

At a farmers’ market, you see varieties of seasonal food you are unlikely to find anywhere else, especially at this price range. Peter Clarke, for instance, has five piles of carrots, each a different colour — creamy white, sunshine yellow and different shades of orange — in his stall.

“Since some fruits and vegetables don’t travel well, like some heritage varieties of tomatoes, which have thin skins, you won’t find them in supermarkets,” says Sue Thompson, Spokesperson and Certification Manager for FARMA. “So farmers’ markets around the world have been a lifeline to rare varieties of fruits and vegetables and breeds of meat.” For instance, there are more than 2,000 varieties of native U.K. apples. But in the world of supermarkets there are may be 20.

Organisers like Cheryl Cohen, director of London Farmer’s Markets (which sets up and administers London’s 15 certified farmers’ markets), actively search for farmers who offer more than the routine foods. “We have some Japanese farmers on the South Coast, who are growing lovely leafy Japanese vegetables,” she says, “And there are a group of Asian women growing Asian vegetables at the Spitalfields City Farm (at London’s East End) who call themselves the `Coriander club’, who we would love to include in our markets.” (These Bangladeshi women, who come from the surrounding borough of Tower Hamlets, grow traditional herbs and vegetables.)

Local sourcing of this sort reduces lorry and plane “food miles”. FARMA estimates that the ingredients for an air-freighted British Sunday lunch creates 37 kg of greenhouse gases. When bought from a local market, on the other hand, just 38.2 grams are released. That’s a dramatic reduction of 99.8 per cent.

But perhaps the best thing about a market of this sort is the chance to enjoy the oasis of warm “small town” community feeling that invariably springs up as farmers lay out their produce, and exchange recipes and storage tips with each other and passers-by.

Vibrant community

On a typical day, you’ll see a cyclist discussing routes with the baker, as he balances his helmet and a slice of spongy foccaccia on one side, while the feta cheese stall owner charms a wide-eyed tourist into tasting, then buying a hunk of his garlicky, crumbly cheese. Kids run between the rows of vegetables, pulling and poking at them in fascination, and in a corner the delicious smell of barbequed burgers rises, as a farmer in a striped apron works his fragrant grill.

And sales talk is both gentle and affectionate. “You can feel the difference here,” says Gina, a young graduate who moved from Australia to the Perry Court family farm in Kent (“because this is so much nicer than the office”) holding out a gang of plump onions for a customer. “It’s in the richness of the flavours… It just tastes so much more real.”

Posh Curry

It is as Indian as palak paneer, and as international as champagne. Traditional, like a tandoor, yet sufficiently avant-garde to keep up with edgy food trends. It incorporates age-old ingredients like saffron, and showcases caviar from the Caspian Sea with equal zest. A whole new genre, this is the newest form of Indian cuisine, currently being created by talented chefs in competitive London. Greasy chicken tikka masala has finally ceased to define India.

At Zaika, where the sleek décor is more about clean lines than the typical mirrors-sequins-and-elephants kitsch, and the music more Talvin Singh than thudding bhangra, Chef Sanjay Dwivedi offers a gourmet tasting menu. This includes a tandoori grouper, served with upma (or “Indian cous cous” as they call it) in a surprisingly invigorating champagne and cardamom sauce. The high drama of the meal is sustained by a succession of beautifully designed courses — seven in all — and theatrical frills, like a waitress spraying a thick foam of coconut cream over spice-encrusted scallops, right at the table. There’s pan-fried foie gras, served with wild mushroom naan and mango chutney. And chocolate samosas drizzled with raspberry sauce.

But Dwivedi’s current piece de resistance is his experiment with molecular gastronomy (the science of creating cuisine by treating your kitchen like a laboratory), a steaming portion of fragrant wild mushroom rice, topped with a scoop of tangy tomato “makhni” ice cream and served with mini-poppadums.

Slick and stylish

Slick, stylish and sassy, Indian food in London has certainly evolved from the days “Indian” meant oily balti meat curries and cheap takeaway. While the British have had an enduring affair with “Curry Houses” for many decades, these restaurants haven’t always been the best ambassadors for authentic Indian cuisine. For one, “Indian” in the British restaurant sector is used generically and includes Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepalese, and Sri Lankan food, according to Pat Chapman who heads the Curry Club and publishes the popular Cobra Curry Guide, currently in it’s ninth edition this year with about 50,000 copies sold. “Most of these restaurants in the U.K., some 85 per cent or 7,200, are Bangladeshi owned,” he says.

Typically their menu includes lamb jalfrezi, aloo gobi, vindaloos and “chicken naan”. “In a curry house, all the sauces are the same,” states Samir Sadekar, chef of the smart new Imli restaurant in Soho. “They just put in onion, carrots, tomatoes add spices and keep it cooking. Then, when a customer orders something, they’ll mix turmeric for a yellow colour, or red food colour for a chicken tikka.” And this holds true, right from Aberdeen to Brighton.

Nevertheless, these places are still popular and can be credited with having made Indian food a part of the British menu. “It’s also the British affinity for India,” says Chef Vivek Singh, of Cinnamon Club as he sips a luxurious Saffron Gin, glinting with gold leaf, in his trendy restaurant set in the old Westminster Library. “It’s the romance of the Raj… the best time of the Empire, and that just doesn’t go. So the feeling towards spices and silk is deeply engrained.” He adds that he constantly has customers who talk of grandfathers who served in India, “They still have old letters, photographs and paintings.”

Yet, he says even about a decade ago, although Indian food was wildly popular, “when it came to the top five, top 10 restaurants in the city, you would never find an Indian restaurant listed. It was still classified as `ethnic’ and it still had a cheap image.” Justifiably so since there was no quality control. “But because these restaurants were also successful — the most successful in the country — they didn’t need to change,” says Singh.

Raising the bar

Then restaurants such as Tamarind, which received a Michelin star for the seventh year running this January, began to raise the bar. Our motto is “change your perception of Indian dining”, says Rajesh Suri, Executive-Operations for the Tamarind Group. “We have high standards and inspect all supplies. If the sous chef is not happy with one fillet we send it all back.” Alfred Prasad, the Chef, adds that “London is the best place in the world for a restaurant, and a chef. But you have to be creative. And original. It’s very competitive.” And although they don’t innovate wildly, believing “there is enough diversity in Indian food. We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. There are so many regional specialities… the opportunities are endless,” they do “push the boundaries,” to quote celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey. Roghan Josh with avocado for example, or “butter chicken with herb butter to calm it down,” says Prasad.

Imli, Tamarind’s sister restaurant, on the other hand is about fast, casual dining,” says Chef Sadekar. “Vegetable brochettes, fenugreek wraps, papdi chaat and mushroom tikkis… What we are offering is lighter food, and great quality at affordable prices. For the common man, this food is a revelation. After a meal here people say, `I never knew Indian food was actually like this’.”

With three-year-old Benares (featuring contemporary food from all over India by Chef Atul Kochar) also being given a Michelin star this year, it looks like London is finally taking Indian food seriously. As a result, there’s tremendous competition and every chef is pushing himself relentlessly, resulting in leaps of creativity. “In India people are still following old rules… recipes that are 200 and 500 years old,” sighs Singh. “In India, unfortunately, we can do anything we want with any other cuisine, but we cannot touch Indian food. Indian people will not take any innovation.” He adds, “I create food that is relevant.”

Not just simplistic fusion

“People are changing the way they eat,” agrees Dwivedi. “We’re making food lighter. I don’t do rasamalai. And I don’t do rasagullas. I don’t eat them. Nobody does, unless it’s at a shaadhi… I’d make a crème brulee or chocolate samosas instead.” He insists it’s not simplistic fusion, but all about playing with flavours, textures and techniques. “When people dine at Zaika for an occasion we want them to remember it for the rest of the year.”

“At Cinnamon Club we’re still cooking with spice, still cooking Indian — but in a contemporary intelligent way,” says Singh. “I do a European fish on a Bengali sauce served with lemon rice, which is south Indian: the whole plate is Indian to me. The customer is comfortable because he recognises the fish, yet there’s still a wow factor.”

All this confidence is being reflected in the pricing too. For a long time, people, used to curry house prices, resented expensive meals at Indian restaurants. “It’s a mindset that’s been around for 40 years — Indian food has to be cheap,” sighs Prasad. “We use the same suppliers as Gordon Ramsey. The same vegetables, the same fish… and that’s a three Michelin star restaurant.” Thanks to years of standing firm, and their unwavering quality, Tamarind and the others now charge as much as any top London restaurant, and still have a stream of happy customers.

“I take offence to India being portrayed as just the land of snake charmers and tigers. There’s a brilliant, modern India too,” says Singh definitively. “We are comfortable with the international world, why shouldn’t our food reflect that?”


March 2023