Friday, September 22, 2017

Summer Garden



Think of healthy food in Mumbai and Bandra immediately comes to mind. When these Bandra hipsters are done hanging out at Yoga House and head to work to Lower Parel, there are the likes of 212 All Good to lunch at. But try eating healthy food outside of these two neighbourhoods and your choices are a couple of sad salads tucked in the corner of restaurant menus.

Summer Garden is changing that for Powai. Set a tiny bit away from the busy Central Avenue, the outdoor cafe is right next to Hakone entertainment centre. It twinkles with fairy lights at night and pets are welcome all day (they even get their own treats!). We sit down with our freshly squeezed juices to chat with the young and bubbly chef Suchin on her food philisophy.

Cute handwritten menus aside, there is much to love about how they cook at Summer Garden. Nothing comes our of a jar or a bottle. There is no refined flour or white sugar or refined oil in any dish. They soak their whole grains and bake their own bread and juice their own coconuts. Even when they source something like an icecream from a supplier, it's preservative free. In the world of fast, processed foods, this refreshing approach to clean, slow cooking impresses us.



We leave our ordering in Suchin's capable hands and she starts us off with a trio of appetisers. The mushroom cigars, hot off the fryer, show a light hand with an obviously fresh pastry. Fries, cut in cubes over here, are made with a mix of potato and sweet potato, and come in a playful paper boat. My favourite though is a delicate, well-balanced salad topped with locally sourced feta.



For mains, I get myself a Mediterranean thali. My friend declares the pea hummus the dish of the day, and there are equally good pumpkin butter and baba ghanoush competing for your pita attention. I spend most of the time drooling on the sabudana studded with pomegranate.



All the time we were eating our meal, my eyes were set on the blackboards set high above advertising the day's special. It promises a caramel broiche and when Suchin brings out the toasted brioche with jaggery caramel, studded with peanuts and sitting alongside a bowl of almond ice cream, my admiration of the cafe is complete.

Summer Garden is a true labour of love. When restaurants with unique dishes and concepts open in Bombay, I am always curious to see how the general public reacts to them. This is one new entrant I will be rooting for, if only so I can go back and try out their avocado toast.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Living Roots Trek



I met Wesley at noon on a sunny day in May at the entrance to Tyrna village. The meeting had been three months in the making. Back in February, I had seen the pictures a friend posted from a trekking trip to Meghalaya. I'd been so taken in by the double decker living roots bridge that I immediately called Chalohoppo, the travel company she had gone with, and booked a trip for myself.

I'm not a trekker which means that instead of the rugged trip my friend had taken, I had arrived at a compromise. We will start the trip with the trek and then spend the rest of our stay in Meghalaya at a nice lakeside resort just outside Shillong. Which means that the day before I met Wesley, I'd landed in Guwahati and been met at the airport by a friendly Chalohoppo driver for a four hour drive to Cherrapunjee.

On arriving at the Sai Mika resort, nestled in the middle of mountains, I called the number I'd been given and was greeted by a friendly, enthusiastic voice of our guide for the trek. Wesley told us that Tyrna village, where the trek will start, was about 45 minutes from the resort, and it was imperative we start by early afternoon so we reach the end of the road before nightfall. At the end of the road was, of course, Nongriat, a tiny Khasi village where the tribals have mastered the art of guiding external roots of a rubberwood tree into a bridge. There are many living roots bridges in Meghalaya but Nongriat has the only double decker one in the whole world.

Well rested and well fed after the overnight stay at Sai Mika, we left our bags in the car and packed tiny backpacks that only contained a change of clothes for the night, raincoats, mosquito repellent and a bottle of water. Wesley lives in Tyrna and was waiting next to the car park. He had a bag too but unlike ours, his carried two life jackets. For the swim at the pond when we reach Nongriat, he said. That sounded promising.

But between the swim in the natural pool that sits at the end of the trek and the starting point in Tyrna, there lay 3700 steps. I don't think I had paid much attention to what the actual trek will entail until this point. I knew soon enough. The 3.5 kilometres trek is mostly a walk down into the valley on a staircase. The steps are steep and narrow and patently dangerous at points. Wesley told us he could make the trek on his own in our hour. But it was with much good humour that he slowed down to match our pace. There is plenty to see on the trail and every few minutes, our guide will point out a rare plant or a group of butterflies. Most points offer a breathtaking view of the valley and the waterfalls that naturally spring up in the place where it rains most of the year.



We took two hours to get to the halfway point where most of the steps were behind us. There is some plain walking then and some more steps up and down. But there are also two suspension bridges. I'm reasonably sure they are safe but it doesn't feel like that when you are in the middle of the shaking bridge above roaring water. Wesley sauntered through those and we took small shaky steps and at the end of second bridge came the first view of Nongriat.

It's a tiny village of about 20 households. We had planned to stay overnight at one of the homestays. Don't think of even basic ameneties here. The room had two single beds but instead of matresses, you had the traditional khasi jute bedding. Our room had a bathroom but no running water. We were too tired to care or notice though. Plus as soon as we put our bags in the room, we went over to the waterfall and the pool by the bridge.

Have you heard of fish pedicure that became the rage a few years ago. The fish naturally come to you as soon as you dangle your feet in water at Nongriat. And while people pay good money for it in salons, I had no intention of having fish nibble at my feet. Instead, we spread a towel by the waterfall and ordered tea and chips from the tiny tea stall. We stayed by the water until mosquitoes drove us inside. Our host family had a meal ready and we popped painkillers, mentally scared of the trip back up the next day.

The previous day was hot and sweaty so we left for our trek back early next morning. Somehow, the climb up felt a little bit easier. This time, we stopped far more frequently at the tiny shacks that dot the trail, picking up litchi juice and snacking on maggi. Three hours later, just when I thought I could not walk another step, I climbed up the last rung and into the car park at Tyrna. We clicked a selfie with Wesley, thanked him for all the patience and smiles of the past 24 hours and drove away to the comforts of Shillong.

Some Practical Tips:
1. You can drive to Tyrna from either Cherrapunjee or Shillong. Start early as it gets really hot and sweaty later in the day.

2. It rains most of the year so wear sturdy no-slip shoes and quick dry clothing. Decalthon is a good place to shop for everything you will need.

3. A lot of folks do the trek and back the same day. Don't - it's really nice by the bridge with the waterfall and the pool and it's really not worth the effort if you're gonna start back after an hour.

4. You can do a much longer trek by adding a day to go to Rainbow Falls, but you will need a lot more stamina than I had.

5. Respect the environment. The khasis are really protective of the forests so make sure you don't litter and take all your trash back with you. Also, a lot of plants are considered sacred and it will be wise to ask your guide or a local before plucking a flower or anything of that nature.

6. We were offered a bamboo stick to help with the walking and while I didn't have one on the way down, they are a huge help when climbing up. You can buy them in Tyrna at the start of the trek or at one of the shacks on the way.

7. This is not a competition. Stay hydrated and stop as many times as you want. There are plenty of litchi juice and glucose packs available to buy on the way.

8. Do not forget to carry mosquito repellent, medicines and muscle pain balms/sprays. There are no shops in Nongriat and you can't buy anything critical you are missing.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Summer Rice



Summer in India is mango season. Even when my other favourites - litchis, cherries and apricots - show up in May, mango remains the fruit of choice. In Mumbai, restaurants put aamras (essentially sweet mango puree) and mango lassi on menus across the board. Now I love sweet mangoes as much as the next person, but what I really like experimenting with is the flavour of the tart raw mango.

We made pickles and chutneys with the raw mango, and I've added it to Asian style salads and to curries in the past. So this time, I decided to move base to south India and try my hand at raw mango rice. The rice itself is fresh and summery and to up the flavour quotient even more, I served it with badanekayi bajji, a unique eggplant relish I first saw on Madhuri's blog. Get the recipe for the relish straight from Madhuri's while the recipe for the raw mango rice is given below.

Ingredients
2 cups cooked basmati rice
1 raw mango, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 cup fresh grated coconut
1-2 green chillies
handful of coriander leaves
2 tbsp oil
8-10 curry leaves
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tbsp chana dal
1/2 tbsp urad dal
asafoetida
salt

Grind raw mango, coconut, chillies and coriander leaves together to a paste. Heat oil in pan. Add a hearty pinch of asafoetida and the mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start to splutter, add curry leaves and the two dals. Stir around for about a minute until the lentils are fried and crunchy, then add the mango-coconut paste. Stir fry on medium heat for 2-3 minutes, until the paste is cooked through. Add rice and salt to taste and mix well. That's it folks, it's as simple as it gets.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Made in Punjab

The Kalras are the first family of the food industry. Where people find even one success story hard to achieve, Zorawar Kalra has managed win after win with Masala Library, Farzi Cafe, Papaya and most recently, MasalaBar. But much before they hit the stride with molecular gastronomy, there was Jiggs Kalra and solid Punjabi cooking. Made In Punjab, set inside Mumbai's Inorbit Mall, continues that legacy.



We settled in with a watermelon shikanji, a delightful combination of watermelon and lime. If that's not your style, there are drinks aplenty to pick from, including a thick Amritsari lassi, complete with malai or cream pedas. To go with the drinks, Made in Punjab brought out a selection of starters for us to review. Now I'm gonna point out that I only tried the vegetarian food but their chicken is apparently legendary.

The starters you see above are the usual combination of mushrooms, paneer and tandoori potatoes. But there was also a yam kebab. These four were spicy and each came with their own set of dips. Yet, given my penchant for subtle flavours, it should be no surprise that my favourite appetiser was the creamy almond broccoli.



On to the mains then, with the trademark Jiggs Kalra dal. That and the paneer lababdar make an appearance on most north Indian menus. But I want you to pay special attention to the bottom right quadrant where sits lasooni palak with chenna. If you grew up thinking greens are boring, this garlicky, creamy spinach combined with fresh curd cheese will change your opinion forever. Little touches apply to most everything at the restaurant and I refer not just to the edible flower garnishes but the added layer of texture in lasooni palak with some crisp, fried spinach.

Made in Punjab also makes an excellent morel biryani, with authentic Kashmiri morels and a burrani raita (yogurt with fried garlic) to die for.



We were really full up by then but the restaurant suggested we try their not-too-sweet rasmalai and it did make a great end to the meal. I've tried their warm desserts on previous visits and both the rabdi-jalebi and the chocolate stuffed gulab jamun should be on your lists of foods to try.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Spaghetti. Mushrooms. Oregano.



Often times, when brands approach me for a review, it's a process of discovery. But not when Borges asked if I will like to create some recipes with their pasta. Olive oil may seem like a very Indian thing now with hundreds of brands dotting supermarket shelves but there was a time, only a few years ago, when using olive instead of refined oil was a rarity. I recall I started buying this Spanish olive oil back then and pretty much stuck to the brand. And since I had Borges olives and olive oil already in my pantry, this seemed like a good time to give their pasta a try as well.

Borges' pastas are made in Italy with durum wheat, the traditional hard wheat for pastas. I'm starting you off with a cheesy spaghetti but expect a summery penne coming your way soon. Now pastas have become super common on restaurant menus. But often times, they come fully smothered in a heavy white or red or god forbid, pink sauce. They are stodgy and spicy and you may as well be eating curry.

Not this one. For my spaghetti, I made a light yet cheesy bechamel sauce. The creamy pasta is complemented with sauteed mushrooms. And to add another layer of texture, I added some crisp fried oregano leaves at the end. It's all very simple really, just like good pasta should be. The recipe that follows is for one person because I was cooking for myself, so multiply by the number of people you are cooking this for.

Ingredients
50 grams dry Borges spaghetti
4 tbsp Borges olive oil
1 tbsp cornflour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
100 grams mushrooms
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp white wine vinegar
salt
black pepper
handful of fresh oregano leaves

We will start with the mushrooms that you should thoroughly wash and slice thinly. Also peel and finely mince the garlic. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a nonstick pan. Add the garlic and let it brown, then add the mushrooms, spreading them out in a single layer if possible. Add vinegar, salt and black pepper. Keep stirring constantly - at some point, the mushrooms will give out a lot of water but it will all evaporate eventually and you will be left with sauteed mushrooms.

While the mushrooms are cooking, fill the largest pot you own halfway with water and set to boil. Once the water comes to a roaring boil, add about a tsp of salt and drop in the spaghetti. Cook for the time indicated on your package, until it's what Italians call al dente i.e. cooked but with a bite. Drain and set aside for a moment.

For the cheese sauce, heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan. Add the cornflour and stir until the raw flour smell goes away but don't let the flour get brown. Reduce the heat to minimum possible and slowly add the milk, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let thicken a bit to the consistency of cream. Add cheese and stir until it all melts into the sauce. Add plenty of black pepper. The cheese will probably give the sauce enough salt but taste and add more if you like.

Finally, heat the remaining 2 tbsp oil in a small pan. Add the oregano leaves. They will splutter and in about 5 seconds, will be crunchy. Turn off the heat and remove the fried leaves with a slotted spoon. Leave on a paper towel to drain off the excess oil.

To serve, add spaghetti to your simmering cheese sauce and let it heat through for about a minute. Pop onto a plate - you can try twirling with a fork but as you can see, I didn't do too neat a job of that. Top with mushrooms and fried oregano.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Upgrading Aloo Posto



There was a time when north Indian food formed bulk of my food experiences and barring an occasional dosa, I had very little understanding of how other regions of India eat. I gradually picked up dishes and ideas but this expansion of palette happened in no particular order and was often influenced by people I met and stories I heard. Sometime I would hear the name of a dish and find it fascinating. Aloo posto was one such dish. We don't use poppyseeds in our curries and using a new spice as the base for a potato curry sounded exciting.

Hence, the first time I found myself in a restaurant that had aloo posto on the menu, I eagerly ordered it. I was never more disappointed. What I expected was some form of spicy, crunchy potatoes. What I got instead was a bland, blah dish. I never got to like aloo posto but I continued to believe that poppyseeds and potatoes will make for a good flavour combination.

In my mind, there are two basic flaws with aloo posto. By soaking poppyseeds and making them into a paste, you take away the essential benefit of using them - the crunch they add to a dish. And then the color - except for a rare black nigella seed, the dish is a boring beige all over. Both these flaws are fixed in this new and updated version of aloo posto, using blue poppyseeds both for crunch and color. Here's the recipe for a comforting dinner dish.

Ingredients
3 medium sized potatoes
1 tbsp mustard oil
2 tbsp blue poppy seeds
1 tsp nigella seeds
10-12 curry leaves
1/2 tsp asafoetida
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp dry mango (amchur) powder
salt, to taste
coriander leaves, to garnish

Wash the potatoes, wipe them dry and cut into medium thick rounds. Heat oil in a nonstick pan. Add asafoetida and curry leaves. After 10-15 seconds, add poppy seeds and nigella seeds. Wait until the seeds start to splutter, then add the potatoes and salt. Add just enough water to cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Keep checking every few minutes. By the time the water evaporates, the potatoes should be cooked through. Increase the heat and let the potatoes cook for another 1-2 minutes until they get a bit of a color. It's essential you use a nonstick pan to prevent potatoes sticking and getting difficult to remove.

Move the potatoes to a serving platter. Sprinkle red chilli powder and amchur and garnish with coriander.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Dulce de leche Brownies



David Lebovitz is my favourite blogger. He's witty and charming; he lives in Paris and goes travelling for food around the world and he runs chocolate tours and writes ice cream books. David's list of places to visit in Paris was my travel guide when I visited and I wasn't disappointed at a single place that he recommended. His blog is also chockful of some brilliant recipes and I've made a few of them my favourites over the years. So when I found myself with a jar of dulce de leche, courtesy my friend Rachana, I immediately thought of David's recipe for dulce de leche brownies.

Dulce de leche is caramalised condensed milk. You cook the tin of condensed milk slowly, until it changes flavour and colour to become a jar of candy you can scoop out with a spoon and eat. Which is what I did with most of my tin of dulce. Added flavour bonus if you also sprinkle some sea salt before digging it. But I still have half a tin left after a few days and that's what went into these brownies.

The brownies themselves are intensely chocolatey and dense, with pockets of caramel running through them. You can look up David's recipe for the full batch of 12 brownies. I made 1/3rd the recipe and got myself 4 incredibly decadent brownie cupcakes.

Ingredients
35 grams salted butter
55 grams dark chocolate (I used Callebaut 72%)
1/2 tbsp cocoa powder
1 egg
1/3 cup caster sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup dulce de leche

All ingredients should be at room temperature so bring out anything that's in the fridge a couple of hours early. I use callets but if you have bars of chocolate, chop that too. Line four cupcake tins with paper liners.

Melt butter in a saucepan. Add chocolate and stir constantly over very low heat until the chocolate is melted. Remove from heat and whisk in the cocoa powder until smooth. Add the egg and whisk to combine, then stir in the sugar, vanilla and the flour. Finally mix in the nuts.

Fill each of your cupcake moulds halfway with the batter. Drop a spoonful of dulce de leche into each and stir with a knife to swirl it. Top with the remaining batter, then drop dollops of dulce de leche on top of the cupcakes and use a knife to swirl the batter again.

Bake for around 30 minutes, until the brownie/cupcakes look firm and cooked through.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

What's in a spoon



A few months back, I was invited to a bloggers event by Kishco. This is a cutlery and cookware brand set up in the 1950s. But only in the last couple of years has the brand image been revamped by the second generation of founder family; in this case the fitness expert Namita Jain. Namita's launched a beautiful range of stainless steel cutlery and at the time of our event, they had also added a whole lot of 'healthy cooking' pots and pans that are being sold out of Kishco's flagship stores and a bunch of online and offline retail channels. We spent a pleasant enough afternoon drinking tea and admiring kitchenware and talking table etiquette. But in the end, I wasn't sure how to tell you all about the event or the brand. After all, a spoon's a spoon right?

Not quite so, as it turns out. Namita gifted us all half a dozen soup spoons. I don't drink much soup so at first I thought I will have no use for these. But over time, I've found that these spoons - both prettier and sturdier than what I had before - have become my defacto choice in many situations. Like scooping out curry into a bowl, or stirring custard, or a few other things that have nothing to do with soup whatsoever.

Now I couldn't really show you just the empty spoons right. So I have for you instead a spoon-sized, cute little appetizer. I call it 'textures of fig'. I started with kind of a fig chutney; in fact, a jam made with dried figs called lekvar. And because fig chutney is such a cheese board classic, this spoon has both cheese (feta) and crackers to give you the feel of a mini cheese course. To round off other textures of figs, there are both caramalised and fresh figs.

Here's how you put the whole shebang together:
1. Start with a dollop, about a tsp, of fig lekvar. Use this recipe, replacing apricots with figs.
2. Cut one fig into small chunks and arrange in a line midway through the lekvar layer.
3. Cut a fig into 1/8ths to give you thin slivers. Roll both sides of the slice in brown sugar, and pop onto a hot nonstick pan. Sear on one side for 15-20 seconds, then turn and cook the other side. Remove and arrange to one side of the spoon on top of the lekvar.
4. Cut feta cheese into small cubes and arrange on top of the spoon
5. Finally, add a small piece of lavash or cracker of your choice to round out the flavours.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Latin American Feast



Mumbai is the place to be when you want to try food from farflung corners of the world. If there aren't specialty restaurants catering to your tastebuds, there will be one of the countless popups serving your cuisine of choice. Except there are blatant misses. There is hardly anything from Africa. And while Mexico is well represented, there is almost nothing else from rest of South America. Rachana, over at second helping, is tackling this gap with the launch of her Latin American popup - Tan Bueno. It's a particularly brave venture given that her menu is completely and fully vegetarian. Rachana invited me over to taste her new menu and I can't help but tell you about this fabulous feast.

At Tan Bueno, Rachana welcomes you with that refreshing Mexican summer drink, an agua fresca. Her version has pineapple and mint in it and we sipped on this delicious drink all through our meal. A meal that starts off with three brilliant appetizers. There are empanadas filled with minced vegetables and carrying heat from ancho chillies. I particularly liked the pink guava and chipotle sauce that came with the empanadas.

Next we had corn arepas, crisp on the outside but pleasantly plump and full of beans. Rachana serves these Columbian street favourites with sour cream and a side of home made plantain chips. Rounding up the starter season were crisp tacos, left flat and stacked with beans, lettuce, cheese and dollops of guacamole and salsa. We were feeling pretty full by then so it helped to be in company of fellow food and travel enthusiasts so we could talk for a while before Rachana brought out her mains.



The mains have two very different and unique dishes. From Peru, Rachana brings in a potato bake in a cheese and walnut sauce that she serves with tortillas. And there is a spicier curry from Jamaica, of vegetables in peanut and chilli sauce, served with a Columbian coconut rice.

We skimped on the mains because we suspected the desserts will be worth looking forward to. And they surely were - a creamy Jamaican trifle served with fresh fruits and my personal favourite, the tres leches cake.

At Tan Bueno's popups, they play beautiful Latin American music to match the food. And they even sent us home with a bottle of salsa and a jar of home made dulce de leche to carry over the experience for the next few days. If you haven't experienced Latin American food beyond nachos and tacos, this is the perfect place to make acquaintance with some brilliant dishes. Or if you are looking to bring back memories of that last vacation you took there, as one of my fellow diners did, Rachana's food is sure to transport you.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

An Ode to Plain Rice



I grew up in Punjab. Which means only one thing rice-wise - we eat basmati. We don't eat a lot of it since Punjab is largely a wheat eating state but when we do - be it with curry or the lentil porridge (khichdi) or the rice pudding (kheer), the choice of rice is always the long grained, fragrant basmati. Now basmati is a great rice for things like biryani but it's not a cure all and over the years, I've found several new favourites to match the recipe I have in mind. After trying everything from black rice to the nutty wild rice, here is my pick of the top 5 varieties to always have in stock.

1. For Plain Rice: The kind of rice you eat with a curry. You need the grains to be soft and short, and it doesn't hurt for rice to be smushy. This is one category with multiple contenders but my favourite at the moment is the Bengali Govindobhog rice. I first discovered it at Lavaash in Delhi and it took a fair bit of hunting but Govindobhog is now available in my local hypercity as well as online. To cook govindobhog or pretty much any plain rice, you wash and soak it in plenty of water for an hour, then cook it in 2x the volume of water to rice until the water is all absorbed and the rice is cooked through. At this point, you add a tsp of ghee and that's when govindobhog goes from ordinary to brilliantly flavourful.

2. For Biryani: Nothing does the job better than the aforementioned basmati rice. Look for varieties that have been aged at least a year. Like fine wine, basmati gets better as it gets older.

3. For Khichdi: I've found that the frangrant indrayani rice, native to my adopted home state of Maharashtra, gives the most bang for the buck when making this lentil porridge. It also does a passable job in rice puddings but I've got you a better option for that.

4. For rice puddings: Yes, arborio rice is mainly meant for risottos and then frying those risottos as arancinis. But try cooking it in milk for a decadent rice pudding. Add some chopped chocolate at the end and you have a spectacular dessert at hand.

5. For fancy dinners: Nothing beats the short, sticky sushi rice. Roll yourself a sushi to impress your guests or if it's your lazy day, make yourself a grain bowl with sushi rice.

I just peeked into my fridge and apart from these five, I also seem to have stocky red rice and a purple variety. But wild colored rices are a story for another time.