Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The story of an insightful conversation

                  Having been in the profession, cooking for 19+ years, I have met many a culinary chefs, some of whom are chefs by profession, some are chefs by choice, while some are chefs by virtue of the legacy they uphold. And to be honest, I enjoy the company of street chefs and cooks, who have had this gift passed down from generations and hence I have always held a bias towards the modern fusion cooking-oriented Indian chef.
                 On my last visit to Ahmedabad, the way I thought about a lot of things changed during a conversation that extended over three hours. Here I met a very proud 70-year-old halwai, Kamlesh bhai, who is the seventh generation torch bearer of Kandoi Sweets in Ahmedabad. Started as a small weekly mithai stall in Manik Chowk, one of the oldest markets in Ahmedabad, they have come to be known as one of the biggest sweet makers in Gujarat. 

                 His son also into the business, is an MBA, who was forced to learn mithai-making early on in his childhood, a practice he doesn't regret. When I spoke to Kamlesh bhai on the presence of flavoured chocolates in every mithai shop in the country, I was expecting the usual outburst about how our traditional Indian food is being messed up. Instead Kamlesh bhai smiled, looked at me and said, "I keep chocolates in my mithai shop too."
                   He shared how he's made a promise to his father, that "I will pass this legacy down to my son in a manner that is interesting and contemporary, so that he is excited to take the business forward and further the promise to his kin, who will be happy and proud of this culinary inheritance."
                   He pointed out, "The only reason our business has survived for all these years is because we have handed over the reigns to our prodigy in the most appealing and current form. My son loves this business and is happy to take over from me not just because of the family pride but because its an evolving business. It is definitely not what it was 170 years ago."

Kalmesh bhai insisted, "We have to be trendy if we want to be a part of history. However, while doing all this, we continue to hold onto the essence of our basic values."
In a typical humble Gujarati way, he ended the conversation with the fact that still plays up a smile in admiration when I think about it. "The Rossagulah and any other Chenna sweet would not have been created if Bengal had chosen to ignore and not adopt the Dutch and Portuguese art of cheese making." Insightful....

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cooking the good old clay way

                      "Trending" has become the keyword in today's day and age. In the space where I am the topic that is trending these days is #claypot. Cooking in clay seems to be in. 
Tagines from Morocco , the Spanish Cazuela used a Lot in Basque cooking , the Chinese sand pot (Saw Kuo) and the Palayok of the Philippines are showing up in menus and in the news of late. So lets give this a thought and some research. 

                      Needless to say after humans figured out that fire cooked food and made it tastier. They possibly looked for a medium to cook in to extend their knowledge of pit and spit cooking, according to my friend and an eminent food writer Rahul Verma, the first cooking utensils were tree barks, essentially to hold some liquid and provide a layer of separation to avoid food chaaring. It was soon replaced by clay (around 15,000 years ago!) and clay pot cooking has stayed on ever since.
                    Let's bring this humble clay and pair it with the humble cuisine of our country and what we get is an understated yet sure winner. The long slow cooking that is inherent to our cuisine allows little to go wrong when cooking in claypots. Also the spices that we add to our food tend to mature over a period of time and taste better thanks to the porous nature of unglazed clay....

                    Whether it is the sarson ka saag and urad dal that is cooked in the "Taudis" of Punjab , the fish Curries cooked in the "Kundlems" of the local dhabas (Khanawats) of Goa (some of them still remain in Bicholim Taluka) or the Malwan fish curry and the dish that I hold a special bias towards - the Syrian Christian fish curry which tastes the most superb the next day, left in the chatti that its cooked in. (Have to mention the kullarh waali chai, the raarha doodh and Mishti doi). 
                  I have always believed that our relationship to food is an extension of our relationship to life and aspects around us. Earth and clay have been our bond to nature; philosophically from time immemorial earth has always stood for life and rebirth. 
                   As a chef seeing a claypot is a comforting sign because it shows we're going back to our roots yet again. All that this humble chef asks is to look inwards at our cuisine as well when appreciating "foren claypot cuisine", as "mitti" has always been the essence of Indian food and philosophy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Turmeric...of old Havelis and the Ageless wonder

Ahmedabad is a 5000-year-old city and has a lot to offer to a travelling chef. 
            Old 'Amdavad' is a culturally (culinary) rich and an architecturally opulent city. The old city bustles in a mish-mash of narrow streets and 'pols' enclosed in a 12-gate fort. Each Pol typically has a corner shop selling Chawana and farsan, and is a world in itself because these super narrow streets house some of the most beautiful and humongous havelis that you will ever see.
            In one such Haveli I met Abhay Mangaldas, who has taken upon himself to restore these architectural gems and lure the people of “new” Ahmedabad into the old city by opening restaurants and cafes in the restored Havelis. One food conversation led to another, and a lunch seemed inevitable. At the lunch table Abhay made me taste a salad that stuck in my head forever.   
                  A raw turmeric kachumber that was fresh, aromatic, mildly astringent and divinely combined with 'fafda', a pulled lentil crisp that gave it a perfect balance of flavours and a perfect contrast of textures. Surprisingly, raw turmeric and peanuts - even though underground veggies - are acceptably used in Jain food. There’s a lot more to this rhizome that one finds out on the slightest scratch, literally.
            Native to Tamil Nadu, this pre-Aryan spice has been known to mankind for over 4,000 years. The term 'Haridra' (haldi) is believed to have a Munda air to it; Munda is an ancient aborigine dialect. Even in the early Vedic times the only four spices recorded are mustard (Baja),a sour Citrus (Jambira), Turmeric (Haridra) and long pepper (Pippali). 
           Out of these, turmeric was regarded as the most auspicious because it was the most useful for the entire body. Turmeric stands tall as a cure in Ayurveda, Chinese, Unani and Siddha medicine thanks to Curcumin, a compound that is now also widely accepted in the West as a cancer buster.
           Yet all I say is forget the past and experience the present, grate some fresh turmeric and raw papaya together, toss it up with chopped green coriander, lemon juice and black pepper and top a papad with this salad for a taste you will savour forever. A chef’s promise!
For a little more complicated recipe try this:

Turmeric-scented Mango Sago Pudding

Ingredients :
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup soaked sago
¼ cup mango pulp
½ tsp raw turmeric paste

For garnish
Mango pulp according to requirement
¼ mango
1 mint leaf

Method :
1. In a pan put water, coconut milk, turmeric soaked sago and cook. Now, add mango pulp. 2. Take mango and coconut sago mixture in a glass. Keep it in the fridge to cool. 

3. When cooled take it out from the fridge. Then in the same glass put mango pulp. 
4. Cut a mango wedge and keep it on the glass. 
Garnish mango and coconut sago with mint leaf.