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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Zucchini Fritters



Have you noticed how large zucchinis grow to be. I like adding them to the mix when making stir fries but there is only as much squash you can add to mushrooms and peppers and babycorn. Which means I usually have half a zucchini leftover after a stir fry meal. Most days, the half zucchini is left to languish in the fridge but I think I have finally found the perfect recipe for it.

It's zucchini fritters, made on a pan without much fuss at all. Now most recipes for such fritters call for eggs as binding agent but because even one egg will be way too much for my half zucchini, this recipe also features a secret ingredient - mayonnaise. Think about it - mayonnaise is really just egg and oil and flavour so you can't go wrong with this replacement.

Ingredients1 cup grated zucchini
2 tbsp cornflour
1 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp grated cheddar
salt and black pepper, to taste
olive oil to fry, about a tbsp

Put grated zucchini in a colander. Add 1/2 tsp salt, mix and leave over a bowl or a sink for 10 minutes. Squeeze zucchini between both hands to drain off as much moisture as you can.

In a bowl, combine zucchini with cornflour, cheese and mayonnaise. Add as much fresh ground pepper as you like but because most of the ingredients have salt already, you may not need to add any more salt. Add more cornflour if the batter feels too wet; more mayo if it feels too dry.

Heat a non stick pan and brush with olive oil. Scoop out about a tbsp of zucchini batter and flatten to make a thin patty. Pop onto the pan and cook for 1-2 minutes until it's nicely golden. Brush the top of the fritter with olive oil, flip and cook on the other side for 1-2 minutes.

These fritters don't keep so eat immediately.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Lakshadweep Diaries



When someone asks me why I chose to go to Lakshadweep, the only answer I have is “because no one ever goes there”. It really was on a whim. I’m not an adventurous traveller; I started off traveling for business, with a friendly secretary booking flights and nondescript hotels and I have pretty much stuck to the “nice hotel-good restaurants-catch a show-go to museums” theme for my leisure travel.

Lakshadweep is none of these. Set hundreds of miles off the Indian mainland, this tiny group of 36 islands doesn’t register on any tourist map. Almost no information is available on these coral islands online and because they are ecologically sensitive, visitors need a permit to enter. There are no hotels or restaurants on the islands, only government run cottages set right on the beach. I discovered during one of my internet searches that only one of the six islands offer ‘AC cottages’ so I booked myself into Kadmat Island, got a permit and set out to fly from Kochi to the airport at Agatti Island.

You will never forget the fight landing at Agatti. The island is a narrow strip of land, with beach and greenery on either side and just enough space to build a runway in the middle. It’s a four hour boat ride from Agatti to Kadmat but first, you get into a tiny dinghy that takes you to the bigger speedboat parked in the sea. As we lined up to get onto the boat, I looked askance at the lady standing next to me, looking equally scared at getting into something so fragile amidst such choppy waters. My hiking shoes held their ground, I didn’t slip on either of the boat transfers and landed safely on the jetty in Kadmat.

I spent the first four hours of boat ride and the next four days marvelling at how turquoise the waters were and how white and pristine the sands. The cottages are set right on the beach and by the time we landed, I’d figured that the friendly Scandinavian lady, the loud Australian family and the newly wed Gujarati couple were all headed the same way. You make friends quickly when you run into each other multiple times on your way to the boating jetty and meet the same folks thrice a day in the same dining hall.



But first things first, we landed onto a scattering of beach chairs and someone immediately started sending fresh coconuts our way. You will notice right away how friendly the entire resort staff is; a feeling that will keep reinforcing itself over the next few days. While we were sipping on refreshing coconut water, the general manager of the resort came out and started allotting cottages. It was almost like you’ve come to someone’s house as a guest; not as a tourist to a resort.

I’d been warned that there is limited phone connectivity on Kadmat but there was absolutely zero phone signal here. So even before I headed to my cottage, I asked where wifi was available. Alas, they had an outage and no internet was to be had during my entire stay at Kadmat. But the general manager very graciously offered the use of his landline so I could call home and give them an emergency number.

The cottage, when I finally got to it, was neat without being luxurious. With not much else to do, I headed out to figure out what the island had to offer. There are plenty of water sports – scuba diving, snorkelling, jet skiing, fishing – and the staff will expertly guide me into the water and to see beautiful corals and the sea life over the next three days. But on that first day, I didn’t quite want to go back into the sea. You will understand how non-touristy the place is when I tell you that at this point, one of the staffers offered me their bike to go explore the village. For a princely rental of 500 rupees (about $8), fuel included.



Kadmat is one of the larger islands and has a bustling village outside the resort (others, like Bangaram have resorts built on uninhabited islands). The 11 km drive to the other end of the island took me through a forgotten idyllic time – cottages by the sea, children back from school actually out playing and not glued in front of the TV, small shops with their limited selection and consumerism still far at bay. I saw a grand total of two cars on the entire island and they seem to be largely for show than have any practical utility. You don’t need any directions because there is only one road that stretches the length of the island.

It was getting to be early evening by the time we turned back towards the resort. Because Kadmat is so narrow an island, you see the beach at every point on the road. And there were moments so tranquil, like when I saw the sun getting low in the sky, lighting up a group of children playing football on the beach.



I got back to the resort just as the sun was about to set. For the next hour, the sky and the sea were painted in colours so vivid, it almost didn’t feel real. As I hung about in the hammock outside my cottage watching the dusk turn to night, the resort staff started setting up tables by the beach. Soon, the tiny lights were lit up and all the residents came out to eat dinner by the sea. No alcohol is permitted on Lakshadweep, so we bought cans of chilled coke from the tiny tuckshop in the resort and ate the meal of lentils and rice and vegetables like locals do. The menu remains pretty much the same for lunch and dinner each day, and there is always whatever fresh fish they caught that day.



The next three days at Kadmat were more of the same, with a smattering of water sports and another trip to the village. By day 3, I knew all the diving instructors by name and could even persuade the cook to make something other than dal and rice for lunch.

I couldn’t live the slow life forever and I missed the internet like crazy but for all that you lose at Lakshadweep, you gain the memories of pristine, untouched beaches and the friendliest people you will ever meet. It’s not the easiest place to get to but go now before it becomes yet another tourist trap. Go now because you will always remember that sunset, those fireflies dancing by the dinner table and yes, the frantic search for wifi amidst the tranquil island life.

Some Practical Tips:
1. You can choose to fly into Lakshdweep from either Bengaluru or Kochi or take a cruise ship.

2. Book directly through Sports. The prices are all on their website and they promptly reply to emails. They are also the ones who issue permits so it’s a one stop shop.

3. Your booking includes transfers to and from Agatti so don’t worry about boat bookings etc.

4. You have to pay extra for water sports but it’s way cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been.

5. Only a couple of islands – Kadmat and Minicoy - have the option of AC cottages. It’s a big deal in 40 degree heat.

6. On the other hand, Bangaram and Thinnakara have phone and internet. Choices, choices!

7. Book early. Each island has a limited number of cottages and they sell out quickly. I booked three months in advance and just about got in.

8. You will be tempted to visit more than one island. Don’t, especially if it’s a 3-4 day trip. You will spend a lot of time travelling between islands. The beaches are all pretty and there really isn’t much difference in the dive/snorkelling experience.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Blueberry Yoghurt Cheesecake



India is a country that lives on carbs and dairy. We love our milky chais and eat dahi with meals. But yoghurt is traditionally a savoury accompaniment to rice and curries. Misti doi and mango shrikhand apart, the fruity, sweet yoghurts are a relatively new phenomenon, brought to the Indian markets by the likes of Danone a few years back.

Last week, Danone added greek yoghurt to their product mix. Thicker and creamier than regular yoghurt, greek yoghurt makes for a great snack right out of the pack. Specially when it comes in blueberry and mango variants that Danone has launched. I got invited to the launch party last week, which is a great way to meet all the blogger friends in the city. This one has an added bonus - they had a chef friend of mine, Varun, showcase recipes with yoghurt. And he came up with some interesting ones, including flapjacks and an instantly frozen mango parfait.

Danone sent us home with a hamper full of yoghurt and newly inspired by the cooking I'd seen, I decided to create my own dessert. I made blueberry cheesecake. It's a simple enough recipe and super delicious to boot. My recipe fits a small 3 inch tart pan so multiply everything x3 if you are looking to make a regular 8-9 inch cheesecake

Ingredients
6 Butter Cookies (I used Good Day Cashew)
20 grams butter
1 package blueberry Greek yoghurt (80 grams)
60 grams cream cheese
1 tbsp caster sugar
Fruit of your choice for topping

Break the cookies into 3-4 pieces each. Drop in a plastic bag and use your rolling pin to turn them into crumbs. Heat butter until just melted and pour on the crumbs. Mix well, then spread in a 3 inch tart tin to make your biscuit base. Put this in the fridge for at least an hour to harden. At the same time, take cream cheese out of the fridge to soften.

After an hour, mix the cream cheese with caster sugar and whisk until well blended. Add the blueberry yoghurt and keep whisking until you have a smooth mixture. Spread on the biscuit base, making it as even as you can and leave to set it the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

Top with a colourful mixture of fruits just before serving. I was just back from a shopping trip so mine got topped with everything tropical - figs, pomegranate, strawberries, grapes and cape gooseberries.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fabelle: A Willy Wonka Story



There is a new Willy Wonka in town and her name is Bhumika. Just like Mr. Wonka of yore, Bhumika and the team at ITC Maratha have created a chocolate wonderland called Fabelle. Luxury chocolates, made with pure cocoa and devoid of additives and chemicals, are rare in India which is why ITC's initiative to create chocolate boutiques is such a fantastic idea. There are two kinds of chocolates you can buy at Fabelle - the boxed variety that is manufactured in the ITC factory in Bangalore or the brilliant creations the chefs come up with inside the boutique. No matter which of the two you go for, this is chocolate at par with the likes of Valrhona.

Fabelle invited me yesterday for a chocolate tasting experience. We kicked off with their square ganaches - these are essentially your cocoa and cream squares coated in cocoa powder - what others called truffles.



The ganache squares come in three variants - milk chocolate from ivory coast, dark chocolate from Ghana and an apple and cinnamon variety. The last one was my instant favourite; chocolate is the star here but apple and cinnamon flavours shine through. You can buy these truffles in boxes of 20. Or you can buy the next set I tasted, called the elements.




The elements are pralines - hard shells filled with a variety of flavours. I loved the earth, coated with a crunchy textured chocolate. But the star of this box and the whole afternoon of tasting for me was Fire - white chocolate, candied mango, ancho chilli - this is a flavour bomb. Apart from these two, you can also get single origin bars and hazelnut and milk chocolate pralines suited for folks looking for something sweeter. You can buy these gorgeous looking boxes as is, or tell them to create a variety of hampers for you. They are nice that way!

Throughout the tasting, Bhumika and I chatted away about the origin of these chocolates and the process of chocolate making. For someone as young as her, she seems to have mastered the art of chocolate really well. Which is why, when we moved to the next part of our tasting, I left it all in the chocolatier's hand. At Fabelle, they let you create cups of your choice. So you can pick empty chocolate shells and fill them with a variety of toppings and flavours. Bhumika made mine in dark chocolate and filled it with berries, white creme, almonds and a hearty sprinkle of salt. It was layers upon layers of flavour.



Fabelle has also created a whole range of desserts made out of their chocolate, including cheesecakes and eclairs and a gorgeous black forest cake. But I had had my fill of sweets by then so I settled instead, for a final cup of hot chocolate. Mark my words, if you have been looking for good hot chocolate in Mumbai, this is it! Pure milk whipped with two kinds of chocolate and topped not with marshmallows, but with house made pistachio nougat, there isn't a better chocolate drink in town. There is a camera right above Bhumika's workstation so you can even see her making your chocolate or plating your dessert on the TV inside the cafe.



India is a country that grew up on Dairy Milk. Luxury chocolates have always been something you bring back from trips abroad. But if dutyfree Lindt truffles are your primary reason to travel, Fabelle may just be all the cheer you need. Of course, the hot chocolate is my reason to make Fabelle a constant favourite.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

TAG-away

I've been eating out and reviewing restaurants in Mumbai for close to nine years now. New restaurants open here all the time but over the years, the dining out options have come to form a rather off-putting level of predictability. Maybe it's because diners look for something familiar but for a while, every new place to open was a 'deli' or a cafe with the same old set of sandwiches, pastas and the lone chocolate fondant on the menu. New trends also come in waves. For a while, you couldn't go anywhere without spotting a new frozen yogurt place. And last couple of years, modern/molecular Indian has become a fad, no matter how terribly executed.

In this mediocrity that has come to define dining out in Mumbai, Ranveer Brar's newly opened TAG is a revelation. This pure vegetarian restaurant puts its faith on tapas, the one trend that never caught on in Mumbai. I am a huge fan of eating lots of small flavorful dishes rather than go the starter-main course-dessert route but not many chefs think that's the way to go in Mumbai. Ranveer clearly thinks my way if the small plates menu at his newly opened restaurant in Kamala Mills is to go by.

We ordered five small plates between the two of us and four of these were brilliant.



We opened our meal with watermelon sashimi sitting atop a yam guacamole. I kept thinking throughout the eating of this dish how delicious this yam was, and how much money I would save from buying avocados if I could replicate this. The lime ice that sits on top is brilliant and you will only wish there was a whole lot more of it.



Next came a creamy burrata, dusted with miso and served with a green tomato chunda and salad greens. This was the dish of the day for me; the burrata simply the best I've eaten in the city.



A kale papdi chaat followed and you will notice at this point how each dish is unique, with flavours and spices perfectly balance. The fried kale on this one sits atop a potato mash and the sweet yogurt foam is a beautiful complement to the crispy bits.



We felt it was the time to order something heartier so our next dish was mushroom galouti. The kebabs were nice enough but the bread that comes alongside is simply spectacular.



We ended the meal with a beet and rhubarb risotto. It's actually an arancini - the risotto shaped into round patties and fried. This was also my least favourite dish. It was kinda sweet and the flavours didn't all add up. But it could also be because we were pretty full by then.

TAG for me is a place worth a revisit. I didn't order any dessert and there are enough interesting savoury dishes left for me to try the next time. But as brilliant as the food is, I wish TAG had an ambience to match. The open kitchen and the kitschy chairs belong to a food that's far less refined than what TAG serves. The service is well-intentioned but servers lack in-depth knowledge on the dishes beyond the catchphrases that seem rehearsed. But the place seemed full even for late lunch and I hope it's a trend that catches on; dining out in Lower Parel is competitive and I would hate to lose out on the option of eating that burrata anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Pancake Day



Today is Shrove Tuesday, more commonly known as Pancake Tuesday in some parts of the world. I didn't realise what a big deal pancake day is until I went to London where they have pancake races in the Parliament Square and every restaurant offers a pancake special. Apparently the pancakes are to use up all the butter and other good stuff in the house, this being the last tuesday before Lent begins. Pretty much like my mom's "eat up the eggs beta, it's navaratras from tomorrow".

Now you can easily whip up a pancake batter, pour some syrup on top and you are good to go. But to me, pancakes are like a blank canvas. There are infinite possibilities on what you can do with a pancake batter and there is one variation that's been on mind for a while. So for pancake day this year, we are making peanut butter and jelly pancakes.

What I did was whip up my regular pancake batter, but replacing butter with peanut butter. And a jam syrup. It's all super fun. Just read on for the recipe.

Ingredients1 1/4 cup flour
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 egg, separated
1 1/4 cup milk
1/2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
3 tbsp peanut butter
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 tbsp jam
2 tbsp raisins (preferably soaked in wine the night before)
5-7 almonds, flaked

In a bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder and baking soda. In a second bowl, whisk together milk, egg yolk, peanut butter and vanilla essence. The peanut butter will take a bit of patience and the resultant mix will be grainy but that's all right. Pour the liquids over the dry ingredients, add vinegar and whisk until just combined. Finally, add the egg white and stir until it mixes in with the batter. Set aside for 5 minutes.

Heat a non stick pan on low to medium heat and brush with melted butter. Drop 2 tbsp of batter. Wait a couple of minutes for the pancakes to brown, then flip and cook the other side.

While the pancakes are cooking, put the jam (I used apple and cinnamon but any berry flavour will work well too) in a small pan with 1 tsp water. Heat on a low flame until the jam is melted and all syrupy.

Stack the pancakes on a plate. Pour jam syrup on top and sprinkle wine soaked raisins and flaked almonds to finish.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Kochi in the Times of Biennale



For visitors to Kerala, Kochi is a transit point. It's the city you take the train or flight to, before embarking on your journey to Alleppey or Munnar or wherever. But for three months every two years, Kochi becomes a destination in itself. From December 2016 to March 2017, Kochi is once again playing host to the Biennale Art Festival. Whether you love art and culture or are simply the curious kind and have a free weekend in March, I'm telling you to put Kochi on your travel list. Here's what you are missing if you haven't been to Biennale yet and how to make the best of it.

Let's start with our star attraction. Until March 29, the whole city of Kochi, and specially the Fort Kochi area, will be one big art gallery. There are 12 official venues but that's just your starting point. Spread all over Fort Kochi and Jew Town are plenty of other collateral events and venues. My favourite venue and the one I spent the most time at was Aspinwall House. Enough has been said already about the immersive experience called the Sea of Pain. Other installations are no less haunting.

There is Yael Efrati recreating the memories and textures of her grandparents' house in Israel



There is Naiza Khan showcasing boats from the journeys never made, recreated in the minds of artisans from Karachi.



There are layered paintings, memories of houses lived in and shared multi-sensory experiences that are going to haunt you the way only very good, immersive art can.

How long a trip should you plan? There are a whole lot of cultural and cinematic events happening around the festival and there are guided experiences that only happen a few times a day. Plus, taking in all the art at once can get a bit intense so you might want to spread it out. I would give it three days at least.

So I've done Biennale; what else is there?
Let's sort out the basics first. Kochi is spread out between the main city (Ernakulam) and the Fort Kochi area. You are better off staying in Fort Kochi because everything will be within walking distance or a cheap rickshaw ride away. Be warned though that most properties are old and you are more likely to get 'old world charm' rather than the comforts of a modern hotel. But no matter which hotel you pick, check and double check that they have great airconditioning. Kochi is hot and when you are done walking around the art venues, you are gonna need cold air and ice cold drinks to revive you.

Now that you have a roof and an airconditioner over your head, let's talk about what else you should be doing while in the city:

1. Walk Around: Fort Kochi is full of beautiful buildings. And I'm not even talking about the touristy sites like the Mattancherry Palace either. Just regular streets in Fort Kochi and Jew Town can take your breath away.



You should obviously walk to the shore and see the Chinese fishing nets that have come to define the Kochi skyline. But don't count on any life changing views here - you walk to the shore, you see the nets, you say okay and that's that. The other place I loved walking around in are the crazy, shopping filled streets of Jew Town.

2. Go to the city: From Fort Kochi, you can take a ferry or an uber to downtown Ernakulam. I loved walking on the marine drive and taking in the views. Kochi's not much touristy anyway and Ernakulam is somewhere few tourists get to. Which means that even at peak tourist season, on a weekend evening, we had the walkway and the views almost entirely to ourselves.

3. Eat: Fort Kochi has a whole lot of cute cafes and bakeries. You can find several of them selling the traditional Kerala plum cake and that's definitely worth a try. But I discovered Qissa Cafe in the 18 Hotel early on in our trip and pretty much made it my base.



This cheerful cafe was my point of call every time I was in search of a cold ginger ale or a late sandwich for lunch. They bake a mean carrot cake too. If you are in the city, however, look for Gokul near the Marine Drive. It's a chaotic local joint that serves snacks and meals and my favourite Kochi discovery - puttu kadala or rice flour cakes with chickpea curry.

My final suprise recommendation is actually inside a mall in Ernakulam. I had my final meal in Kochi at Calicut Paragon inside Lulu Mall and the rasam and the malabar parotas there were my favourite of the trip.



4. Shop: When in Kerala, you must buy spices grown in the area. You will see shops selling pepper, cardamom and cloves everywhere in Jew Town but on a local friend's recommendation, I went to the spice shop inside the bustling Lulu Mall (which also accounts for the lunch above). The spices here are fresh and nicely packaged. I would recommend buying all sorts of peppercorns - my favourite was dried green pepper - as well as the locally grown black and green cardamom, cloves, vanilla beans and allspice. These spices last forever if you leave them whole in the fridge and grind as you need them so you are sorted for at least a couple of years.

Go ahead then, plan that trip now. You won't get to see art that impressive until Biennale comes back to town in 2018.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Tale of Four Cocktails



I have a big thing for molecular gastronomy. Foams, spheres, gels and anywhere else you use science to create unique food experiences remains a big plus in my book. But as the trend took off, there came a wave of subpar molecular restaurants in Mumbai. Only one group of restaurants have consistently managed to combine good flavours with all the fancy footwork that goes in creating the magical molecular experience and that's the Kalras. I'm a big fan of Masala Library, I adore Papaya and after my experience at Masala Bar a few days back, I'm adding it to my favourites in the city.

Masala Bar opened about a year ago but I only made it over there this week as part of a whole group of bloggers who were there to witness the launch of big bang nights - their new menu and offers like 2-for-1 on all drinks on tuesdays. But we'd get to food and drink in a minute. Let's talk about the place first.

Masala Bar sits on the first floor on a corner of carter road. And they have plenty of window seating to maximise the sea view the place offers. Inside, the bar is gorgeously romantic, the whole place lit only by candlelight. Set in sconces by the walls, put up in holders on each table and sometimes bunched together, the candles give Masala Bar an ambience like no other.

For such a beautiful setting, both the food and drink menus are an apt match. The bar counter looks like a science set, with even a mini distillery on the side. My first drink of the evening was Berry Cooler, a non alcoholic drink made with watermelon and passion fruit. It looked pretty but turned out to be too sweet, leading me onto the special cocktails they had for the night.

First came malabar point with notes of apple and camomile. The drink gets topped with a thyme foam and I was particularly intrigued by this gizmo that was constantly churning out more foam as the bartenders made the drinks. After these smooth caramel notes, my next point of call was Bandstand Songkran, with a refreshing jolt of lemongrass.

The final drink of the night was Bollywood Bhang. No, there is no actual bhang in this one but the concoction has mascarpone cheese and enough basil to make the herb stand out. Super texture on this one!

The appetizers were no less a match with a selection of baked potatoes, sushi and paneer topped khari. For someone who doesn't like spicy food, my surprising favourite at Masalabar turned out to be cheesy deep fried jalepenos.

Now if that doesn't make you plan out an evening at Masala Bar, a final note on the bartenders. They all seem to know what they are doing, and the service, even in the crazy group setting was fantastic. Overall, a great, great place to catch the sunset.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Quick Gun Murugan



Sometime last week, I flew into Chennai, spent a day doing meetings and made a long trek to reach my hotel at 7 pm. At this point, most people would order room service and crawl into their beds. But I had friends who were heading out to dinner to Murugan Idli. I'd never heard the name before but it came highly recommended and I am easily persuaded. Thus came a one hour cab ride in Chennai traffic and a bit of a wait outside the T Nagar branch of this famous chain. Then we sat down and the world turned a whole lot brighter.

The moment you sit down, they spread a banana leaf in front of you and spoon in 4 kinds of chutneys. These are your usual coconut and tomato relishes though I was particularly taken in by the tamarind one. From here on, I left it to my friend to order. The folks at Murugan don't linger so just a few minutes after we ordered, we had food coming onto our banana leaf plates.

The plain idli is super soft but just you wait until you taste idli-podi. It's the same idli; just completely covered with a layer of ghee and gunpowder. We also had crisp medhu vadas and delicious paniyarams. I was pretty full at this point so I just tasted a bit off my friend's onion uttapam. And that brings me to my unfinished business in Chennai and Murugan.

I count my life by 'aha' food moments and Murugan Idli certainly qualifies to make my top ten. That onion uttapam, my friends, is really what's right with the world. Perfectly crisp and topped with podi and deeply caramalised onions, it has to be the best uttapam I've ever eaten. So if you see me making another trip to Chennai, it's likely because I want to polish off an uttapam, or five, and top it up with Jigarthanda.

What's jigarthanda you ask! I wondered too, on how you would name a drink cold heart. Apparently this one is a milkshake-ice cream hybrid and a pretty popular one too, if the queues are anything to go by. We finished our meal with filter coffee so Jigarthanda is on the calendar for my next trip to Chennai. This is one trip you should take too, and soon!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Have a Healthy 2017



It's almost the end of first week of January which means that most new year resolutions to eat healthy and lose weight have already been broken. But if you are still going strong or will like to get back on the wagon, this is the right time to talk about a fun way to eat healthy - grain bowls. Filling and full of flavour, grain bowls offer so many possibilities that you will never be bored. Plus, unlike salads, these can be warm or cold depending on your liking, the mood and the weather.

So what's a grain bowl. It's half a bowl of cooked grains, combined with an equal quantity of some combination of proteins, vegetables and other toppings, plus a dressing that brings the whole thing together. The possibilities, as I said, are endless so let's put together a template for what a good, hearty grain bowl should look like for your lunch.

Start with a healthy grain: Millets, quinoa and wheatberries are my favourites but you could also go for brown rice or couscous. Cooking times vary and if you are going for something hardy like the millet above, you need to plan ahead. I soak millet the night before, then pressure cook it until it's cooked through.

Add a protein: Even as a vegetarian, there are many options to pick from. You could add slices of tofu or paneer (Indian cottage cheese). Lentils work well too. If all else fails, just top off the whole thing with a poached egg.

Now for the veggies: Preferably, add some greens to add color and flavour. Spray or brush a nonstick pan with olive oil, then stir fry spinach or swiss chard or kale until wilted.

Something fresh: So far, everything's cooked or stir fried in your bowl so add some sparkle with tomatoes. Orange and grapefruit segments work well too. And if neither of these complement the flavours you already have in the bowl, add a handful of fresh herbs.

Something crunchy, something fun: Now that you have the key elements of the bowl in place, go crazy with the toppings that add another layer of texture. Nuts, toasted seeds, crispy seaweed, olives, capers, sundried tomatoes - these are elements that pack a punch even though you will add them in tiny quantities.

Finally, dress your bowl: The goal is to eat healthy so the dressing has to match. Depending on what you have in your bowl, even a dash of balsamic vinegar or lime juice may suffice. Or you could go for a vinaigrette. My bowl was looking fairly oriental with millet, kale, tomatoes, nori and toasted sesame seeds so I concocted my dressing by mixing up soy sauce, sriracha and rice wine vinegar.

Happy eating, everyone! May all your goals for 2017 come true.