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 http://vahrehvah.com. 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.

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The Skinny On Lattes

I avoid skinny lattes dusted with cinnamon. I look askance at caramel macchiato. When a tall cappuccino slithers past me in styrofoam, I merely nod coldly. Global coffee is convenient no doubt, but it’s also completely devoid of romance.

Coffee shops have traditionally been the refuge of writers, thinkers and colourful troublemakers. Today they’re more about Rihanna than revolution. More for slick investment bankers than grungy poets. Containing more Armani suits than flowery Give-Peace-A-Chance bandannas.

These chic chains have been taking over the world. Once upon a time, you travelled to experience new cultures — for adventure, personal growth and novel experiences. Today, you can boat right into the heart of darkness, like Conrad’s Marlow, and then, instead of muttering “The horror, the horror”, just hop off and order a Brazil Ipanema Bourbon coffee “popular for its mellow, pleasant notes of cocoa and almonds” and “as light and lovely as a classic bossa nova tune.” It gives a whole new twist to living dangerously.

I did make an earnest attempt to boycott all chains for a while. I figured that if a reasonable number of people do that, it means the small, quirky and — most importantly — local coffee shops would have more of a chance of survival. It worked brilliantly in places such as Edinburgh, where locals and tourists exult in cafes with character and names such as Under The Stairs, The Witchery or Loopy Lorna’s Tea House. You wouldn’t expect less from a city where even love is deliciously wacky, judging by a recent gum tree posting: “Guy with light Asperger Syndrome seeks girl in Edinburgh that lacks social skills?? I like coffee shops, scenic places, folk music, art galleries…”

However, finding people and places that are this fiercely individual is getting increasingly difficult in Chennai. Especially now, with the city getting determinedly international and hip, as fast as it possibly can. Which means that it’s hard to find a cafe where you can have a conversation, read a book or write a poem, without being subjected to Ricky Martin, the fashion police in the form of skinny girls in skinny jeans and a menu that bristles with Italian coffee and French terminology.

Fortunately, the few places we have, such as Amethyst and the Eco Café, are so popular with the locals that they’re inspiring other restaurateurs. Such as Shafee Ahmed, who has just opened Beanstock on Anderson Road. It’s obstinately old-world, with antique furniture, pretty hanging lamps and bamboo. Set beside a decidedly edgy new boutique called Ambrosia, the café’s designed to be a space for a quiet pause.

Shafee calls it his “garage café,” since it sits beside a house, under a roof of pretty Mangalore tiles. Everything’s low-key here. There’s no air-conditioning; so, the café relies on its canopy of trees to keep it cool — which is working well, so far. There’s a funny little passage that connects the main part to another seating area, which feels a bit like a secret garden. And the cakes aren’t perfect, thank goodness. “I didn’t want a very nice-looking cake,” says Shafee, pushing forward a plate piled with moist blueberry and apple-cinnamon muffins, “I want food that looks like it was cooked at home.”

That’s why he’s got a supplier who bakes everything at her house (with real butter, if you please.) Right now, Beanstock is still working on its menu, so it’s rather basic with sandwiches, milkshakes and a couple of pastas. They have ambitious plans though, including a huge Beanstock in Kottivakam, next to Bella Ciao and Chennai’s latest addiction, the Paintball grounds. Maybe, it’s the beginning of a trend.

Here’s raising a toast to coffee shops where you can drink filter coffee cross-legged in delightfully frumpy pyjamas and write really bad poetry. Or, a really good book.

Beanstock is at 31, Anderson Road. Call 42188181 for details.

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
coal.

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
kebabs.

Sho-Buzz

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