Mumbai Munchies

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Any one who thinks munchies only strike because of marijuana isn’t a woman. The week before that time of the month, finds me at my most ravenous. The craving for food can sometimes be so overpowering that I have wandered about like a zombie on an eating mission (FOOOOOODDD!!!). Stuffing myself with things I crave as well as things I don’t. As long as I can eat it, I will.

I landed in Mumbai two Fridays ago, with my body on eating auto-pilot. In the city for only two & a half days, I’d packed my itinerary with the only activity worth socialising over, eating. I met a young cousin for brunch at Shiv Sagar, Chembur on Friday. Between stuffing myself with their cheese dosa, picking off his plate (he turned out to be a fussy eater) & coming to terms with the disappointment of one possible-eating-partner-that-would-not-be, picture taking lost its urgency. At my dear friend Ane’s for dinner, conversation was so engaging that it transformed a regular home-cooked meal of chicken curry & pulao into something spectacular.

At my other me-eatings, I managed before & between bites to take a few photos. For times when munchies strike again & good food isn’t within arm’s reach. Thankfully, we also eat with our eyes.

(Just Like) Starting Over

A simple salad of Red Cabbage, Green & Yellow Capsicum, Cherry Tomatoes, Capers.

Where cooking is concerned, neccessity is the mother of invention. Especially when Necessity is the sum of leftover vegetables in your fridge & you’re too tired (or its too late) to step out to the market.

I’m a shopaholic, when it comes to food. I buy more than I need or my little fridge can hold. Many afternoons of indecision have been spent at the sabjiwallah’s, grocer’s & at the butcher’s. I have stood in a state of paralysed excitement, the sight of vegetables, food & meat sending my synapses into overdrive. Inundated by vision upon vision of dishes that could be conjured up, salivating & mumbling to myself like some crazed Oracle in the midst of a trance. & waking, I have run amok, buying too much & buying bizzare combinations.

Recipes from these moments, like prophecies, tend to become more indefensible as time passes & the euphoria fades . Back in my kitchen unpacking my shopping bags, I’ve often chided myself for getting so carried away. In following days, these ingredients are recombined into less dazzling but more practical dishes. The culinary rapture deferred for another shopping trip.

After a few days of cooking, what one is left with is a curious array of vegetables, meats & other food items. Of these I find the vegetables particularly daunting because I belong to that group on the food chain that only eats them with meat.

So when I found a mediun sized red cabbage & a few bell peppers in my fridge late one evening, I immediately opened the freezer to reassure myself that there was some meat that could be had with. Thank god for the half packet of Prasuma pork sausages that greeted me!

I made myself some spaghetti aglio e olio, possibly the most uncomplicated recipe to have a complicated name. Whole wheat spaghetti, crush garlic, chop red chillies & cook in olive oil. Mix cooked spaghetti & garlic, chilli oil, grate parmigian-reggiano (parmesan) on, add salt & pepper to taste. To this, I added chopped & microwaved (1 min) sausages.

Finally, to rid my fridge of the remnants of my last frenzied shopping trip, I used the red cabbage & capsicum to make salad. Here’s how:

1 Medium sized red cabbage

1 large Green capsicum

1 large Yellow capsicum

A handful of Cherry tomatoes

1 tablespoon of picked Capers

For Dressing

1 lemon

1 tbsp of Extra Virgin Olive oil

1 tsp of Brown Sugar

1 tsp of Ground black pepper

Salt to taste

Instructions

Tear cabbage leaves into bite sized squares. Cut Capsicum into bite sized squares

In a large salad bowl, mix cabbage, capsicum, tomatoes & capers. Add dressing ingredients (you can do it directly without mixing them together first). Toss properly & serve.

I would have taken more pictures but I was too tired. As I ate my spaghetti, I enjoyed the reassurance it offered. It won’t be long before this comforting familiarity sends me searching for a rush. I’ll be starting over soon enough. Enjoy 🙂

The Naga Cook: Episode 1 – NorthEast meets SouthWest

Visit any Naga home at meal time & this is what you will most likely find on the table: Steamed Rice, Meat Curry, Boiled vegetables & fresh Chutney or salad. Traditional Naga food is rarely fried, & depends on staples of ginger, chilli & salt for flavour. Unlike in some other cultures where dishes are served and expected to be eaten in a stipulated order, items in a Naga meal are meant to be eaten all together. A mouthful of meat mixed with rice, a pinch of (usually) hot chutney & one or two boiled leaves, or sometimes all of it in a single mouthful. Many a non-Naga friend has cringed at the sight of plain boiled vegetables (No masala??) at the table before savouring the combination of flavours.

Sharing the simplicity of Naga food to those accustomed to the glories of myriad herbs & spices, can often be challenging (especially when our more pungent condiments are involved). But introducing flavours foreign to the Naga tongue can be equally daunting. While I acquired a taste for turmeric early on in life, I still struggle with Dhanya or Coriander. In my kitchen, I have found that the best way to learn a new flavour is to combine it with one the tongue recognises. That way when the unexpected Naga guest arrives for dinner, I can offer them something that is at once exotic & familiar.

One of the most exotic discoveries for my Naga taste buds was coconut milk. Till then, my only encounter with coconut was in raw or dried form, always eaten alone as a snack, in sweets or in paan. There was coconut oil for hair treatments & when I heard that people cooked with it, I couldn’t quite reconcile a head full of oily hair with a plate full of delicious food. I never tried Thai food because the scent of lemongrass was even more alien & repugnant to me than the Dhanya I was learning to stomach.

My first taste of coconut milk was at my Malayali lecturer’s house in 2002. An uncomplicated & exquisite chicken curry concocted by his wife. To begin with, the coconut smell that triggered memories of oily hair was absent. Instead, the curry was lightly scented, the meat endowed with a nutty, sweet sour flavour, the gravy lush & creamy.

It was this revelatory meal that opened my mouth to the wonders of cooked coconut, grated, stewed or as milk. It led me to try that coconut chutney served with Dosas, I had previously avoided. To try Thai curries, red, green, massaman. In particular, it made me very curious about South Indian cuisines.

The only travesty that equals the term NorthEast is the term South Indian. Until 2008, my understanding of South Indian food was Idli & Dosa. Then I moved to Mumbai where I met more people from the southern states of India. Many of whom forgave my ignorance & patiently introduced me to their own cuisines. So I learnt about food from Andhra Pradesh & learnt that it wasn’t just all about Hyderabad. I had my first taste of Goan food. I sampled Mangalorean, Udupi, Coorgi (Oh their divine pork!) food & was informed that these were only three of Karnataka’s various regional cuisines. As I relished my first Chettinad meal, I gladly bade farewell to the notion that everyone in Tamil Nadu only ate Dosas. But as I ate my first  mouthful of exquisite malabari chicken curry I got annoyed because the only two ‘south indian’ friends I had before Mumbai were both from Kerala. & while we had made many a plan to go sample the Kerela food available in Delhi, our plans never came to pass. If only I’d known how flavourful their food was, I would have been more persistant.

Which is why, when I reunited with one of them in 2010, I made learning about food from Kerala one of my top priorities. (By sending her on a huge guilt trip for past opportunities lost.) Susan has been kind enough to share her food (even leftovers) with me. Being Syrian Christian, she has often regaled me with stories of the cuisine particular to her community. Finally, on one sultry August afternoon, she cooked us a proper meal & let the food do the talking.

The pièce de rĂ©sistance of that elaborate meal was her Fish Moilee. A delicate fish stew flavoured with coconut milk & kokum (S’s own touch). Enraptured by the curry, I was too busy to take photos. Some manic eating later, over gossamery lemon meringue & tea, I asked her about her fish curry. Now Susan has a knack of making recipes, even the most complicated, sound as easy as boiling an egg. Just sautĂ© onions & garlic, add fish, add coconut milk, kokum & let it cook for 10 mins. Don’t stir because you don’t want to break the fish. How simple that sounded! & Uncomplicated. Almost like a Naga dish, I thought to myself.

The basic Naga recipe always goes like this: take meat, add salt, chilli & ginger. Place on flame, close lid & let the meat cook in its own juices. Most dishes build on this one. You can add bambooshoot, axone, anishe, ginger leaves, fermented mustard leaves, chicken or beef (yes, we use meats as condiment). The secret of Naga cooking lies in its simplicity. & in our ginger.

For those of you who have tried to recreate a Naga dish & wondered why it did not taste quite like the one you relished, this is probably why. Our local ginger, very unimaginatively called ‘Nagaland local ginger’, is smaller in size & has thin reddish skin. It has a tart pine scent, is juicier & when fresh, is more sharply hot than its cousin from the plains. So much so that my mom tells of a time, before Chillies were widely grown in the Sema tribe area, when ginger, beaten & shredded was used to add heat to chutneys. With its characteristically piquant flavour, red ginger, as we locals call it, complements any dish that runs the danger of tasting bland, flat or thick.

When I tried Susan’s fish moilee recipe, I realised why she had added the kokum. Without it, the gravy tasted flat & thick. But when I added Naga red ginger, it proved too strong a flavour for the fish.

Chicken, a meat sturdier than fish, worked perfectly. So when I wanted to welcome my sister with a Naga meal, I chose to cook her this curry. Something familiar, something new.

Food on Arrival

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Going to the airport to pick up friends & family is always exciting. As I waited for my sister to arrive, my restlessness turned to hunger. I’d already had lunch so I began with a cup of coffee, then moved on to a cup of fresh fruit salad. Now full, I walked around the arrival area, taking stock of the food on offer.

In Search of Food

The best thing about morning is that you have a whole day to eat. Listening to your stomach & trying to satisfy its cravings often determines the course of your day. From the posh to the plebian, the conscientious to the controversial, following food can make every day a wonderfully random adventure.

Today, my search for food led me next door to the Delhi School of Economics, where over a cup of tea, we watched a well attended NSUI rally on the main road. A craving for something gentle, led us back to Chez Nini in Meher Chand Market. Conveniently,  Kunafa, a Lebanese confectionary, S had long been wanting to visit stood two doors down the street. So after walking off lunch, we went in to try what may the only dessert she cannot bake herself, Kunafa.

Nasir Barakat welcomed us to his store (he has an indian business partner). He recommended that we have their mint tea with our Kunafa. As they  brewed the tea, we sat at their wall mounted table & observed two gentlemen who walked in asking first for their best item. Unimpressed when they were told that this ‘best’ item cost 5000, they asked for their most expensive item. We overheard something in the range of 7000 & would have continued eavesdropping if our Kunafa & tea had not arrived then. My first bite of Kunafa was crisp and crunchy on the outside and soft and creamy inside. The mint tea was divine. Lost in bliss, I forsaw many more visits to this place.

In the evening, I went to catch one of this week’s new releases at PVR –  The Campaign. Already hungry when I arrived at the mall, I looked to memories of recent conversations about food for guidance. At dinner a few nights ago, my guests & I had reminisced about the Geoffrey’s at Ansal Plaza. I remembered the All-You-Can-Eat sunday brunch, another recalled their pasta & two friends recounted an evening of drinking on Christmas day, many years ago. We wondered what had happened to the Geoffreys there, since one hardly went or even thought of Ansal Plaza anymore.

So when we walked past the Geoffreys on the third floor of Select Citywalk, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia. The food was good & I suspect our memories of past meals made it taste even better.

Stir Fry Leftover Rice

Because I usually serve rice when I host dinners, I often have leftover rice in the fridge. There’s so much that can be done with leftover rice.

Especially after an exhausting day, stir frying rice with some vegetables is perhaps the most fuss-free and quick meal one can make. I also thought it would go well with the leftover Korean style chicken that I made for dinner yesterday. The fragrance of the sesame oil makes the rice smell and taste more special. You can always add tuna, bacon, ham or sausages to the rice.

Like I said, it was an tiring day, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking 🙂

Why Wai Wai

Anyone who went to boarding school in India, especially this side of the Deccan Plateau will have Wai Wai to thank for their lives.

When I joined boarding school in 1991, there was Maggi, only 5 rupees. Wai Wai was only available at the stores that sold imported foods and cost the princely sum of 30 rupees. Then two occurences changed my food habits forever. Wai Wai became widely available, and cost 10 rupees. Then Nestlé made the bizzare decision to modify both the Masala Maggi seasoning and the noodles. Unable to recognise what our beloved Masala Maggi had become, we turned into the comforting arms of Waiwai.

The added advantage of eating WaiWai was that the noodles were already pre-cooked, making it easier to prepare. (I’ve always secretly suspected that the MSG also helped us get addicted to it sooner.) And so began my culinary relationship with Waiwai.

Over the weekend, I cooked up two of my favourite kinds of Wai Wai. Each concocted to satisfy two different cravings.

The first is a soupy version for when I want to feel full without eating too much (perfect for those cravings at that time of the month). I use only half a packet of waiwai and make up the rest of the bulk with sliced cabbage. The soup fills the rest of my stomach. Depending on the time of the day and how hungry you are, you can always add an egg to the mix.

The second is a dry, crispy version for when I need a heavy protien packed meal. If you let the noodles roast for a bit, they look like onions and make for a better presentation. Add bacon, ham, sausages etc if you want feel full and strengthened without stretching the size of your stomach. I sometimes add veggies if I feel guilty.

I prefer to use Brittania cheese slices because they melt consistently, staying in the soup or sticking to the noodles rather than (like Amul) staying lumpy and sticking to the pan.

What’s French for Delhi?

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Having heard so much about two new French restaurants in New Delhi, I finally braved the summer to go try them out.

I went to Rara Avis first, since its 5 minutes away from my house. It was a lovely summer evening spent on the terrace overlooking the park at GK II, M-Block Market. A group of french tourists chattering away at the next table and a happy couple stealing quiet kisses at another helped to make our dining experience more ‘french’. The oven baked snails were so succulent, that I remembered my camera only after they were gone.

One unrelenting summer week later, I found myself at Meher Chand Market. The Soma store there is better stocked than other branches in the city. Also the market is undergoing a quiet rebirth, what with the number of quirky boutiques, cafes and restaurants that have mushroomed in the past year or so. It may be wise to go visit, before the maddening crowd that destroyed Haus Khas Village descend on Meher Chand.

Chez Nini is a tiny discreet eating joint. You may not find it if you’re driving so park and walk. Since we got there during peak lunch time we had to sit at the large wooden bench outside (they turned the ceiling fan on) for over half an hour before we got a table. Inside, is one small room, a very intimate space. The bread was divine, the entrĂ©es unfussy and wholesome, the dessert a lesson in subtlety.