Monday, November 28, 2016

An Equal World for Diabetics

Diabetes is a disease that afflicts millions of Indians. It doesn't kill, but it asks for lifestyle changes that usually take away most of the fun from your life. I come from a family of diabetics and things that normal people do - eating out, going to pubs - become a challenge when every food and drink option you have out there is laden with sugar.

Seema Pinto is a diabetic who had the same problem and instead of sitting around eating a green salad at parties, she decided to do something about it. Last year, Seema started Diabetic Food Trail. In its second avatar, the month long festival is bigger and better. What Diabetic Food Trail does is encourage regular restaurants to come up with diabetes friendly menus. This year, the menus run from 12-30 November at 61 restaurants in Mumbai and many more in Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai and Pune. There are also fitness bootcamps, cooking masterclasses and dessert trails.

When Seema invited me to try out the diabetic food menu, I wanted to pick a restaurant that typically serves heavy, calorie and carb laden food. Which is why I went to sample the special menu at Made in Punjab. I was curious to see how these purveyors of butter-laden curries and dal makhani will cope. As it turns out, they cope really well, serving a menu that retains the fine dining Indian food persona but is easy on calories, carbs and glycemic index.



We started with a buttermilk that came swathed in smoke from the dry ice it was sitting on. The soup was a spinach consomme - light yet flavourful with mint. For starters, a green salad and a veggie kebab full of green vegetables. The mains let go of the signature dal makhani in favour of a lighter mixed dal. My friend tried out both the chicken and mutton curries and pronounced them as good as the ones they cook at home. I love theatrics in my food and there was drama aplenty in the strawberry sphere that came as palate cleanser and the phirni that was shockingly cold and smoky from, you guessed it right, dry ice.

I added up the calories and even with a rich multi-course menu, we came in at 900 calories. This has to less than half of what a regular lunch at Made in Punjab sets you back. Plus the chef told us there wasn't a drop of cream or butter in everything we were served. Despite these omissions, I felt the food was higher on the taste quotient than anything I've had at Made in Punjab before so I only hope Seema can convince these restaurants to run such menus all year round and not just for three weeks.

Now, I couldn't go round tasting food at all the other 60 restaurants but I got quite a taste of what they had in store when Seema took us around on a dessert trail. An apt thing to do, since desserts are the bane of a diabetics' life - you end up sitting around when everyone is eating something tempting at the end of the meal. We headed downtown one Sunday afternoon and covered five of the participating restaurants in Nariman Point, Cuffe Parade and Kala Ghoda.



During the course of the afternoon, we sampled everything from light panacottas to flavour laden matcha crepes. Then there were cheesecakes, so many cheesecakes. The desserts ranged from average to simply sublime but none were bad and all are a progress in making diabetics happier at the end of their meals.

If I have one complaint, it is that way too many restaurants took the easy route of replacing sugar with Splenda or Stevia. Which is why the one dessert that stood out to me was the sweet potato and chocolate cake at the Sassy Spoon. It builds on the natural sweetness of the ingredients, eschewing artificial sweeteners and making for a delicious, hearty dessert.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Sassy Chef



First, there was the Sassy Spoon, a rare fine dining cocoon in the bustling business district that is Nariman Point. Then came another one in Bandra's Hill Road and a few months back, a cute Juhu bakery called The Sassy Teaspoon. Even if you didn't make it to the restaurant, you couldn't help notice their charming Tata Nano zipping around the neighbourhood, apparently to pick up and drop off customers. I've had many a lunch at the Nariman Point Sassy Spoon but hadn't managed to make it to the Bandra outlet. So when they went through a recent menu change, this was my opportunity to sit down with the very talented yet super modest chef behind the brand - Irfan Pabaney.

The Starter

The Sassy Spoon in Bandra has that mix of quirkiness and old world charm. When I walk in for lunch, the outdoor seating space is bright and cheery with the sunshine. Service, always a high point in the Nariman Point branch, is equally warm and welcoming here as I sit down to talk about Irfan's life story. But first, the food. Irfan's first pick of starters from the new menu at Bandra is a bright and vibrant raw papaya and mango salad. There is crunch from peppers, freshness from the greens and richness from fried onions and a gorgeous dressing. Every element perfectly balanced.



As I munch on my starter salad, I discover Irfan is a quintessential Bombay boy. He spent his early years in Philippines, and the Asian influences still show in his food. But he finished high school in Mumbai, at which point he wanted to go into hotel management. He somehow got late sending in his application and ended up doing a regular graduation. He still wanted into hotel management though, and went for a post graduate course over at Sophia's. That's when he finally figured he wanted to be a chef, not just a hotel manager. A 20 year restaurant stint followed, starting with a 5 star hotel but a lot of it working with the legendary Rahul Akerkar, someone Irfan counts as a friend and a mentor.

We reminiscence about Irfan's move away from Rahul's continental food at 'Under the Over' and into Asian cooking at that now-shut Bandra hotspot, Seijo and the Soul Dish. From Seijo, Irfan moved back to do continental cooking with Rahul at Indigo and then more Asian with the Hakassan group. By this time, it was 2012 and Irfan was itching to break out on his own.

The Mains

A chef's journey is a lonely one, and your choice of partners often determines that thin line between success and failure. For his maiden venture, Irfan teamed up with investor and baker Rachel Goenka. The first Sassy opened in February 2013 with an eclectic menu that's basically all of Irfan's cooking philosophy on a plate. There is no one cuisine - the flavours a mix of pan-Asian, European and Indian - but every plate is perfectly balanced and flavourful. This is no molecular gastronomy and no fussy, foamy stuff; just simple yet modern cooking that makes sense. As an example, Irfan brings out a sweet corn soup that they set, then batter and deep fry so it's like eating fresh sweetcorn. Both the texture and the sauce work perfectly.



My mains of mushroom tortellini come in one of the most flavorful porcini broths you can imagine. Fresh, honest and balanced seems to define not just the food at Sassy but the chef as well. Even as we talk, Irfan is busy phoning the Sassy staff in Nariman Point, organising events they are looking to host over the next few days and getting logistics in place. He is clearly a chef who knows not just the kitchen but also the business of food very well.

The Dessert



Rachel Goenka's desserts perfectly complement Irfan's food at the Sassy Spoon. I often find red velvet cake too sweet but here it comes paired with a capuccino cream that breaks the sweetness. I also sample an excellent basil and pinenut ice cream, and make a mental note to come back for their famous scones and afternoon tea.

As we wind down our meal, we finally get talking about Irfan the person. Naturally, the talk quickly veers to what he himself likes to eat when not at Sassy. He doesn't cook very often at home, he says. And eating out is often a social occasion that gets controlled by what the family wants. But even there, he likes simple Indian flavours best. His favourite is the thali at Shree Thaker Bhojanalay. And anything mutton - he reminds me of the childhood in Philippines where seafood and chicken were the most obvious choices. He still enjoys fish, but will eat a good mutton curry every chance he gets.

There is already a fantastic Goan bread on the Nariman Point menu and more Indian influences in the Bandra menu, so I really hope there is an Indian restaurant in Irfan's and Sassy's future. I sure will be the first one to queue up to eat at the Sassy Indian.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Gnocchi



They say you have to be an Italian grandmother to make light, pillowy gnocchi. Now that's the kind of statement that keeps you from trying out making your own potato gnocchi. But I happened to have some boiled potatoes at hand and an extra hour to kill so I finally gave the recipe a shot. And won't I surprised at how easy it turned out to be. Plus for a first attempt, not bad at all.

So go ahead, boil a potato or two and give Italian grannies some competition in the gnocchi department. You can also make your own tomato sauce (and the recipe for that follows) but this gnocchi will be equally good tossed in some butter and herbs or mixed with some creamy alfredo if that's more your thing.

Ingredients
For gnocchi
2 potatoes, boiled
3 tbsp plain flour
salt and pepper to taste
For tomato sauce4 tomatoes
1/2 cup tomato puree
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 tbsp oregano
1 tsp red chilli flakes
1/2 tsp garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
10-12 basil leaves

The sauce takes longer to cook so lets start with that. Peel the tomatoes - you do that by blanching them in boiling water for 30 seconds, then putting them in cold water so the peel just slides off. Quarter the peeled tomatoes, take out the seeds and puree the deseeded slices in a blender. Put the puree in a saucepan alongwith canned tomato paste/puree, vinegar, oregano, chilli flakes and garlic powder. Add 1 cup water and bring the whole mix to a boil. Then reduce the heat to a simmer and let the sauce cook on its own for 45 minutes to an hour until it is reduced to a consistency you like. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mince half the basil leaves and mix into the sauce, reserving the rest for garnish.

Time for gnocchi now. Peel the potatoes and grate/mash them. Add salt and fresh ground pepper. Add 2 tbsp flour and knead lightly until you have a dough. You might need to add some more flour, depending on your potatoes. Just mix until the potatoes and dough are combined, taking care not to handle the dough too much. Divide the dough into two halves and roll each half into a rope about 1/2 inch thick. Cut off 1 inch pieces of the rope and press each against a fork to create indentations on your gnocchi.

Boil water in a saucepan and add 1 tsp salt to it. Drop gnocchi into boiling water 5-6 at a time. They will rise to the top in 2-3 minutes; keep cooking for around a minute after that. Remove with a slotted spoon and pop straight into the simmering sauce. Mix lightly until the gnocchi are coated with the sauce. Serve garnished with basil leaves and if you like, parmesan cheese.

Friday, October 21, 2016

A Whiskey Affair


The very first thing I loved about international travelling were the glitzy shopping malls that seem to be a part of every airport. My first trip out of India, I was amazed at how Heathrow mimicked an expensive London high street, with everything from Hermes to Harrods. Many travels and airports later, I still wonder about duty free shopping. Is it really that cheap? Do people really have time to spend wandering the halls full of stuff when there is a flight to catch? And why do we have such huge duty free shops in Indian airports when everyone always talks about bringing cheap alcohol back in, not take it out.

Luckily, all of these questions are about to be answered. Duty Free Shopping (or DFS, as it is called in Mumbai) invited a group of bloggers over to their Mumbai international airport stores last week. We talked a bit about duty free and then, we talked a lot about whiskey. Why whiskey, you ask! Well, they had a whiskey festival on and the Johnny Walker brand ambassador was around to give us a run of the shop.

So yes, duty free shopping is cheap. Alcohol, tobacco and beauty products are the best sellers in duty free shops around the world and our host Nidhi told us that prices in Mumbai are some of the lowest. That still doesn't explain who buys this stuff - surely European travelers are taking back souvenirs from the Culture Shop but I don't see them carrying back bottles of wine. Turns out it's the Indian folks who reserve their shopping on the way out and pick it up when they land back. 

And this being India, most of them pick up bottles of whiskey. Which is why DFS has a whiskey festival on, offering not just discounted whiskeys but also special glasses to drink them in. So let's talk whiskey. Or rather, as someone who doesn't drink it but found the tour by the super cute Diageo brand ambassador Nick fascinating, let't talk Johnny Walker.



One of the most iconic brands in the world, you unconsciously think of Johnny Walker as synonymous with whisky, even if you don't drink it much. But as Nick walked us through the store and spent an hour talking about the brand and the history of the drink, I discovered several nuggets of information I found fascinating. Here are my favourite takeaways:

1. All JW whiskeys are blended. Johnny Walker took inspiration from tea blending to create a new category of product, separate from single origin whiskeys which were the norm way back in the 15th century.

2. Mr. JW was one heck of a traveller. In the time before airplanes, he took ships all over the world, getting inspiration for his blends. JW has these really cool bottles that illustrate his travels. The one for Mumbai is super cool, even though it costs a pretty penny.

3.  It was Mr. Walker's sons who were next in line to be master blenders and they took the brand global. A series of master blenders ensues, all of whom go round buying casks of whiskeys and selecting the ones that go into the blends.

4. Believe it or not, the current master blender is called Mr. Beverage.

5. These things are expensive. You can google all the science and lingo behind single malts and blends and what not. But Nick insists that oldest in not always the best. It's expensive because as the whiskey sits in casks, it loses about 5% volume each year, so you have precious little left at the end of 20 years. But it is on the master blender to find the best tasting 20 years olds of the many he tastes, which is why something like a founder's blend they have gets quoted for around 5000 dollars.

Truly fascinating, ain't it!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Palaces and Pop: A Mysore Dasara Weekend


For the last 400 years, Mysore has celebrated the victory of good over evil with a 10-day festival. Indian festivals are complicated - the same day that Durga Puga is celebrated in West Bengal and North India celebrates the victory of Lord Rama over the evil Ravana, Karnataka celebrates the killing of an entirely different demon - Mahishasura - by the goddess Chamundadevi. But whatever demon you think was killed this time of the year, most of India has 10 days of festivities a month before Diwali. In the 15th century, Mysore's kings decided to make it into a state festival and the tradition continues till date.

This year, I found myself in Bangalore on a Friday for a work trip. And because this is a short 3 hour drive to Mysore, it seemed like the perfect timing to check out the Dasara festivities. From that festive weekend, here are my top picks and tips on making the best of Mysore:

Take in the lighting: The whole city lights up for the festival and the Mysore Palace is a beautiful sight. This is peak tourist season which means there are queues to get into the palace at night and it takes a while to get in, but make it inside and it's really quite something to see the magnificent palace all lit up. The Palace grounds are host to a cultural festival and we caught an excellent dance performance the night we were there. But this is not the only performance location. The Maharaja College caters to a younger crowd with 'Yuva Dasara' and a host of pop/rock performances. They even had a coke studio concert this year.

The 10th day of the festival is when the big parade happens through the city. The royal family brings out the icon of Goddess Chamundadevi that sits atop a decked up elephant. There are hundreds of thousands of people who line the streets to watch the procession so it can get a little intense. We didn't stay in town long enough for the parade but even a couple of days early, you will see the elephants out for practice runs.

Walk, cycle, fly or drive: I make it a point to look up walking tours when I get to a new city and Mysore has a great option in Royal Mysore Walks. They offer walking tours of the illuminated city as well as cycling tours. What we opted for, though, was a drive in their vintage jeep.



Not only did Faizan show us the city, tell us about the evolution of Dasara but he also pointed out two unique traditions. One is wrestling - during the festival, wrestlers from all over the country come to Mysore for a championship. The other one is a doll display that houses put up. We visited a doll shop that had ceramic and clay dolls will themes ranging from dasara festival to weddings to Disney cartoon characters. Most households who follow the tradition pick a theme, then add figurines each year to match.

If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you also have the option of a helicopter ride over the city.

Stay in a heritage property (not!): When picking hotels for stay, I am partial towards newer properties. Which is why I immediately zeroed in on Grand Mercure, a 5 month old property in Central Mysore. It's beautifully built and staff is super eager to help. Our room came with free breakfast and a choice of either free lunch or dinner, and the buffet meals didn't disappoint. And this is where we stop and talk about food in Mysore.

Eat a dosa, or few: You can't really go wrong ordering a dosa in Mysore and the ones in our hotel breakfast were nice enough. But to grab one of the best dosas in town, you need to make way to Vinayaka Mylari in Doora. They make only one kind of dosa, filled with some hard to describe masala. But these dosas are the softest I have eaten and quite unique.



Outside of dosas, mysore has plenty of dining options in Doora and JLB Road. But remember that Mysore is a sleepy town and everything closes early. By the time our coke studio concert ended at 10.30, pretty much everything in town was shut. So eat early or eat at your hotel.

I can't complete a Mysore chronicle without talking about the iconic Mysore Pak. I personally find it way too sweet but if it's your thing, or you want to at least try it once, make your way to Guru Sweets, just outside the bustling Devaraja Market. And if you are exhausted with all the crowds by then, you still ought to grab a cup of filter coffee at Indra Cafe before you head back out to Bangalore.

Vinayaka Mylari Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Chestnut Story



I first discovered chestnuts as they were roasting in a British christmas market on a cold, snowy day. The warm bag of chestnuts went all over with me over the next hour; a comforting feeling as we walked across aisles of Christmas trinkets, games arena and a meeting with Santa. It occurred to me then how strange it was that we never ate chestnuts back in India. Didn't we have all the chestnuts trees up in the Himalayas.

Back home, when Big Basket put chestnuts on their menu a couple of years back, I naturally assumed these were an imported variety. Turns out I was wrong. Chestnuts arrived early on Big Basket this year and they have clarified that these are the homegrown Himalayan chestnuts. The first time I bought them, I spent hours figuring out the right way to oven roast my stash. For this season's purchase though, I reckoned I will try a completely Indian manner of cooking and put them in a pressure cooker. Turns out it makes the chestnuts a pleasure to cook.

First off, wash your chestnuts and score each with an X on the flat side. Make sure you pierce the outer skin or you will have these bursting in the cook. Put the chestnuts in a pressure cooker and add enough water to cover. Bring the water up to boil (that's one whistle on the pressure cooker), then reduce the heat and cook for 7-8 minutes. Once the chestnuts cool down enough to handle but are still warmish, peel them. This is the hardest part of cooking with and eating chestnuts - you have a hard outer layer and an inner skin. If you scored them right and they are cooked through, putting some pressure on the X will make the skin pop and you can peel it off. Not all of them worked well for me though and depending on how each one behaved, I got a few intact and several that broke into tiny pieces as I peeled them. A couple still had the inner skin attached and rather than try to win them all, I gave these up as lost causes. Overall, out of my 250 grams of chestnuts, I ended up with about a cup of peeled, edible fruit.



You can now just eat them while warm, which is what I did with about half my batch. But the remaining half cup I then turned into this sublime chestnut butter. This is a shortcut and not much of a recipe but it was so good I figured I may as well tell you about it. So in went the 1/2 cup chestnuts into a blender. I had a jar of salted caramel sauce lying around and I put 2 tbsp of that in the blender, then whizzed the two together until the consistency was that of chunky peanut butter. That's it folks - a non recipe really but it's so good you may as well make it today.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Smoky Almonds



Every time I fly Indigo Airlines, I make it a point to buy a tin of their smoked almonds. Salted, roasted and with an intense smoky flavour, these are some of the best almonds I've tasted. Now, it does seem kinda silly to pick which flight to book based on what snacks they sell onboard, so I felt this was high time I made my own smoked almonds.

Smoking, if you haven't looked at it before, is a cool way to add charred flavour to everything from tea to meats. You do it by exposing food to smoke from burning wood, a technique favoured in most of US, Europe and Australia. India has its own smoking tradition - the whole school of dum cooking based on exposing food to smoke from red hot pieces of charcoal.

If getting access to wood and charcoal and burning stuff in a typical Bombay flat sounds complicated, fear not. This smoked almonds recipe is based not on any of the traditional smoking techniques but on smoke you can buy in a bottle. I use liquid smoke to give smoky flavour to everything from grilled mushrooms to kebabs so that's what makes for these smoky almonds. Armed with a spray can, this recipe is a breeze.

Heat your oven to 180C. Put 1 cup almonds in a bowl. Add 1 tsp salt and to up the ante on smokiness, 1/2 tsp chipotle powder. Add a tbsp of liquid smoke or if you have a spray can, enough to coat the almonds. Toss to mix; because of the liquid, the salt and chilli powders will stick to the almonds. Spread the almonds in a single layer on a nonstick baking tray and pop into the oven.

After 10 minutes, take out the tray and give the almonds a stir. Add another spray of smoke for good measure and pop the tray back into the oven until the nuts are roasted, another 10-15 minutes. Let cool, then store in an airtight jar.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Family Secrets



Garam Masala is the cornerstone of Punjabi cooking. It's a mixed spice that gets tossed into every curry, every lentil dish, pretty much every thing we cook at home. My family even tosses some on top of a toast. Not surprising then, that every Punjabi household has their own garam masala recipe. I still use my mum's - not her recipe but the actual spice mix. I bring a batch back with me every time I go home to use until the next trip.

Part of the reason I don't venture into making my own garam masala is because it was so hard to get my mum's recipe. But finally, after much guesswork and prodding to measure things just one time, we have the official Sareen family garam masala recipe.

Ingredients
100 grams cumin seeds (jeera)
50 grams coriander seeds (dhania)
20-25 nos. black peppercorns
8-10 nos. cloves
5 nos. black cardamom

Heat a pan. Switch the heat to medium, pop in the cumin seeds and roast, stirring continuously, until toasty and fragrant. You are only looking to lightly heat the seeds so take them off before they change color. Remove the cumin seeds from the pan and repeat the process with coriander seeds and then with the remaining three ingredients.

Wait 15-20 minutes for the spices to cool. Grind cloves and cardamom to a powder; then grind cumin, coriander and peppercorns separately. We aren't doing it at the same time because cloves and cardamom take longer to get to a fine powder and you don't want to grind the other three for that long.

Mix up both set of spices and that's it folks, the garam masala for every curry you ever need to make. A final word on how to use this. Never, ever add garam masala when you are cooking a dish. It's always sprinkled at the end, just before serving, to maximise the flavour impact.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Study in Mango



Inspired by a dessert that's currently being served in Indian Accent in New York, and featuring my three favourite mango varieties, here comes a study in mango:

- Aamras (made with Dashehri mangoes)
- Mango slices (langda and chausa)
- Aam papad; sweet and sour
- Basil shrikhand
- Basil meringue
- Basil leaves to garnish

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Thai Brown Curry



For the longest time, I debated on whether to share this recipe. After all, this is not your good looking Thai Red Curry or Green Curry. It's in fact, a very boring shade of brown. But then, this is brown for a reason. The red color in the traditional curry comes from a mix of dried red and fresh bird eye chillis. If you are a chilli wimp like me, the brown curry is the one for you. It's got all the flavour of the red curry but much, much less heat. This version's also adapted for my vegetarian tastes, and has no fish sauce or shrimp paste. So go ahead, make this piping hot bowl of comfort for a rainy day lunch.

Ingredients
For spice paste
1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted on a dry pan
1lemongrass stalk, without the woody end - finely chopped
1/2 tsp whole peppercorns
1 inch piece of galangal, peeled and roughly chopped
2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
2 kaffir lime leaves
2-3 cilantro stems, roughly chopped (don't use the leaves)
2 bird eye chillis
1 tsp non-spicy chilli powder (called kashmiri lal mirch in India) - can substitute with chipotle
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
For the curry
1 tbsp sesame oil
100 ml coconut milk
1/2 cup vegetables of your choice, chopped into bite sized pieces. I used a mix of zucchini, babycorn, thai brinjal and mushroom



Now the list above looks daunting but once you have prepped everything as mentioned, this is super easy. Pop everything for the spice paste in a grinder and blend to as fine a paste as you can get. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan and fry the spice paste until completely dry. Add the chopped vegetables and stir for 2-3 minutes until the spice paste coats the veggies well. Add the coconut milk and 1/2 cup water. Mix, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and let cook until the curry is of a consistency you like. I keep it quite soupy but really, make it as thick as you want. At this point, check for seasoning - we haven't added any salt so far because there is usually enough in soy sauce but add more if you need it.

Serve the curry with steamed rice. To add an extra texture, you can top your curry with something crispy. I used fried shallots but crushed peanuts work equally well. A dash of lime is also a very good idea to balance out the flavours.