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.