Category Archives: Food musings

Malvani Masalas, Fusion Cooking now on Word Press

I’ve shifted to Word Press.

Was a bit fed up with blogger. The difficult photo upload feature. The drunken cursor which would go all over the screen eating up words, hiking my blood pressure, causing very embarrassing typos. I tried various things including writing on word and uploading. Just didn’t work. Many suggested Word Press for a while as a more user-friendly interface. I held on. I was quite attached to the Blogger blog. It was personal. Then I gave up.

Urged and guided by Monika of Sin-A-Mom I imported finely chopped and faraway diaries (my dormant travel blog) into the word press blog. Looked very strange. In fact almost felt as if I was cheating when I did this.

Anyway the deed is done. There would be bugs for a while as I get to know the format better. The formatting went for a toss during the imports. The side-bar features are gone. Even I miss the old format. So do bear with me.  And who knows, blogger might get its act right. In which case I will be back.

My friend and fellow food blogger, Sassy Fork, gave us some Malvani Masalas when she visited us this Sunday. I got Banu to use one of them when she called me today at work on instructions on what to cook. Well it wasn’t a true ‘Malvani’ dish. Malvani cuisine , named after the coastal region of Maharashtra called Malvan, uses a lot of coconut … grated coconut as well as coconut milk. I’d asked K to call for a pack of coconut milk this morning but she was too sleepy. So one had to think beyond coconut.

I had to improvise when Banu called me. I asked her to saute curry leaves and mustard seeds and then add the chicken (boneless leg cuts) and about two teaspoons of the Malvani mutton (!) masala and stir and add some curd to it at the end. So was this Malvani cuisine or was it ‘fusion’? Well, I didn’t use coconut milk but I did use mustard seeds and curry leaves which are used in Indian coastal cuisine, especially in the West and the South. The curd gave it a bit of tanginess which often comes from tamarind which is often used in this genre.

The end result was pretty good and both K and I loved it when we ate the dish for dinner. Reminded me a a bit of my Moorg Mango Dolly.

The recipe was my own. I doubt if any Malvani granny from a respectable family would cook the meat this way. But I did draw on the cooking traditions of this region as I thought of the dish.

Which is where I have a problem with the concept of ‘Fusion’ cooking. The chettinad pastas, the shrikhand cupcakes, the Strogannof biriyanis and of course the Paneer Schezwan dosas and the Chicken Teeeka Sandwiches. I must confess that I haven’t tasted much of ‘fusion’ cooking. It is fashionable these days. Especially in fine dining restaurants. But I believe in respecting cooking traditions. Con-fusion cooking doesn’t appeal to me as a concept. And I am not just talking of the apocryphal and libel-worthy ‘vegetarian’ Thai curries.

If a mother in rural Bengal makes noodles with turmeric and potatoes and serves it as a side dish to eat with rice for her daughter then it is love. But if a ‘cult chef’ plays around with cuisines to bastardise them then there is something rotten in the state of Denmark IMHO.

As an uncle had once pointed out, people who really love their drink would never have cocktails…they would go for the real thing. Which, in has case, is dark rum and water.

Perhaps, I am being too heretical.

After all the first tomato alu bhaji in India would have been a fusion dish too. Both vegetables being brought into India by Europeans.



Filed under Food musings, From the hip

Cooking up for a ‘Curry Queen’. Lunch with Maunika Gowardhan

Not that you needed  a reason but when a culinary achiever, and a very pretty lady to boot, looks at you intensely and says ‘you are the world’s best cook’, then you ignore the hyperbole, the generousness and the politeness for a while, and feel that it was all worth it.
Maunika Gowardhan who tweets as @cookinacurry and I finally met up when she dropped by at our place last Sunday. A trip which followed a promise to treat her to Bengali food cooked by me the next time she was at India. Well the trip to India did happen and the plans to meet were refreshed.  A glitch in between in the form of a bad back and I activated Plan B by trying  to ‘outsource’ lunch.
But it didn’t feel right. Especially after Maunika and I spoke for the first time and she said that she was really looking forward to eat my cooking. I cancelled the order I placed. The caterer, luckily a friend and a good egg, was most sporting about it. I roped in Bunkin Banu, my sous chef. Got her to cancel her plans to bunk on Sunday. Told her how M was asking about her. Which was true. Ordered the mutton the previous day. Marinated it. Booked a hilsa with Poonam on phone, for me to go and pick up the next day. Called a couple of friends over, @qtfan and @sassyfork , and it sounded like we had  a plan.
Poonam called me next morning and woke me up to tell me that the fish had arrived. I went to pick it up. Waiting impatiently for the Bong uncle with huge man boobs to stop haggling with Poonam. I was on a clock. But the truth is we Bengali men need our time in the fish market to unwind. I understood where this gentleman was coming from but I needed to scoot. Banu, bless her soul, did turn up as promised. Chopped and cleaned while I shopped.
I got back hit the pots and pans, instructed Banu on the prep work. Tweeted as I cooked. Clicked photos. On the camera. On the Blackberry for twitter. Trimmed the flowers that I bought for the vases. Answered Banu’s questions on what sheets to put out. Four dishes to cook between us. Rice and parathas too. One and a half hours to do it all.
Thankfully @sassyfork and @qtfan arrived just as I finished cooking. Blogger and twitter friends who are like family now. I put the house in their hands as I shaved, showered and transformed into a Bengali bhadrolok (gentleman) for the parar rockbaaj (local ruffian) that I looked like earlier in the morning.
Maunika arrived and in a way the earlier chaos was something that she would empathise with. For Maunika Gawardhan, referred to as Curry Queen in this blog post that Sassy googled, is a private Chef based at the UK where she has lived for 14 years now after she left India to do her MBA. Spurred by a desire to show England that there is more to ‘Indian’ that chicken teeeeka masala, this self taught cook, gave up her corporate job to start a catering business. She sold her company a couple of years back and now does private orders. Trying to introduce the UK to the cuisines of Maharashtra, Bengal, Goa, the South of India and Punjab of course. Finger foods such as mini bata vadas, Malvani fish curries, mishti doi with fruit compote… this enterprising lady with a very busy diary cooks up her wonders for her clients. And between all of this she looks after her two year old son, writes her blog, Cook In a Curry, hosts radio shows, cookery classes, works on cook book ideas. A lady who has followed her dream and is supported by a very proud husband.
K joined us  and the five of us chatted away through that Sunday afternoon.
For lunch I made kosha mangsho. The special occasion Bengali mutton dish at whose heart lies slow cooked caramelised onions. The theme of my initial dinners when I used to call folks over. It is meant to be a slow cooked dish but I use the pressure cooker. Something Maunika approved off.
Mutton marinated over a day
The caramelised onions at the heart of the kosha mangsho
Traditionalists would balk at the use of the pressure cooker
Kosha manghso
Parathas that Banu made to go with it
I wanted to make my doi posto ilish (Hilsa in yogurt and poppy mix) which I am rather proud of. Poonam didn’t let me down. The fish was of excellent quality. I had told her I had a guest from England. Interestingly everyone praised the ‘mustard’ fish while in my head it was a posto (poppy seed) fish. The measure that I used was 4:1. Goes to show what a powerful personality that mustard has.
Fish is normally fried in Bengali fish dishes unlike in fish recipes of the South or West of India
With the marinade. Maunika said that frying the fish helps the fish absorb the marinade better
Doi posto ilish…
I picked up goat’s brains from Khar Market to make my version of bheja masala (brain masala). A Mumbai icon and far removed from the world of Bengali cooking. And as Bourdain said, the Muslim cooking of Mumbai does better justice to organs than what the French cuisines does. Maunika told me that her grandmom used to make it for her. I stepped in that afternoon.
Sorry Dr Lecter but these are goats brains
Bheja masala
No invite to our place is complete without Banu’s shammi kebabs. And today the her fans from the world of twitter came in and met her and praised her as she giggled bashfully. I don’t do desserts so they desserts were out sourced. Sassy got khir kodom from Sweet Bengal. And I ordered parsi laganu custard from my friend Kurush of Dalal Enterprises.
Banu’s shammi kebabs begin to take shape
Kheer Kodom from Sweet Bengal
Laganu Custard from Dalal Enterprises
Banu and her many fans
The afternoon eventually had to end as do all good things in life. With some very kind words as dessert for me.


Filed under Bengali food, Food musings, People, The world of blogging

>The Kolkata Diaries… Ultadanga, Sanjha Chulha, South City’s phuchkas & Kookie Jar, Mom’s cooking


Caveat: A very long post. Indulge me. It is about a very long day

I am not a big fan of the show “Man Versus Food”. I see myself more as a ‘grunge eater’ than a ‘binge eater’. Excess grosses me out. Except when I am back at Kolkata, my home town.

Emigrants would know how trips back home are always packed beyond twenty four hours. Relatives to be met. Places to be visited. Or as in my case, and in the case of most Bengalis, food to be eaten. 
The first day of my recent short visit to Kolkata was  as packed as it gets. It had a touch of politics, whiff of a rural idyllic world,  the hopes and aspirations of folks including those of a reality show obsessed mother looking for a socio-economic escape route from for her very talented little daughter, mishti (sweet) shops photo shoots, rides down a highway, a visit to a dhaba, street food and warm conversations with absolute strangers, a modern mall and an excellent lemon tart, shopping for spice mixes, home cooked food… Kolkata has many faces after all.
Re-discovering Kolkata: Ultadanga
 My work took me to a place intriguingly named Ultadanga or the ‘opposite end’. As a South Kolkata boy my Kolkata had ended at College Street. This was new territory for me. Ultadanga was a schizophrenic locality with big city malls and high rises, tiny lanes with little houses and the odd pond thrown in in between the hustle and bustle of large buses and bright yellow taxis.
In the middle of all of this I bumped into a building called Gandhi Bhavan. I did not know that this even existed in Kolkata. Turned out to be the house where Mohandas Gandhi had camped during the post partition riots to calm the city. I was lucky enough to meet the trustees who were doing a splendid job to maintain a part of our history with the support of the government. And this is where I have a problem. Hardly anyone knows of the existence of Gandhi Bhavan locally and yet Obama talks of how Gandhi inspired him continents away. 
Now, I hold no truck for politics but what takes my goat is the lack of effort in our country to pitch ourselves from a tourism point of view. It pains me when I go to, say a KL, and visit their museum where the ‘history’ starts in the 1970s or a Singapore which sells Little India! Why isn’t Kolkata’s Chinatown, Tangra, flogged to tourists, for example? The answer possibly lies in the local airport with its long-winding queues and stinking loos. I think that we have missed the tourism bus as a country. And one can only live in hope.
The visit to Ultadanga was interesting. Politics runs in the veins of Kolkata and as in every part of Kolkata, it came alive here too. In terms of Gandhi Bhavan, a memorial which probably captured the state of the Indian National Congress Party here. Bengali freedom icon Subhas Chandra Bose whose name  was everywhere in the form of statues, airports, theatres, stadiums and yet had figuratively become ‘just another brick in the wall’. The political graffiti on the walls, no ugly politician’s mugs here unlike at Mumbai. The CPI(M) and their exhortations of ‘Brigade Cholo’ or lets assemble at the Brigade Grounds. And the symbol of the challenger, the Trinamul Congress … the sapling. They say that green is the new red at Bengal these days.

The real Indian Icons: Mohandas Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose
 Gandhi camped here during the post partition riots. These are his belongings
The very well preserved Gandhi Bhavan
The trustees who worked hard to preserve our heritage including the venerable Mrs Uma Banerjee
The Communists who ruled Bengal for ever
Trinamul Congress…the challengers. Green is the new red apparentlt
A pond in the middle of the city…a more common sight earlier, a welcome quasi rural relief
A leader once, now another brick in the wall
Ironically I went without food till almost 5 pm that day, after breakfast at home, as I was out on work. But this didn’t stop me from brandishing my new Sony Nex 3 and try its ‘defocus ‘ function at a mishti or sweet shop at Ultadanga.
Jolbhora gurer shondesh
Norom paak gurer shondesh
Sanjha Chulha on EM Bypass
I took the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass once my work was through as I headed Southwards. An intra city highway with far more green and variety than the barren concrete wastelands of the Western and Eastern Express Highways of Mumbai.
I stopped at Sanjha Chulha. A ‘Dhaba’ or highway pit stop which was practically within the city. But then that’s us. Bengalis, as a race, are the armchair specialists of the world. Though I must admit that when it comes to travelling you are likely to find Bengalis at every corner of the world.
My brother had treated us once at Sanjha Chulha. So I phoned him up at Gurgaon since the waiters here didn’t have a point of view on what was ‘special’. ‘ Tangdi kebab in dry and kalimiri chicken in gravy’ was junior’s recommendations and I went with it. Happy that I was being served lunch at 5 pm. My only company a gaggle of young girls discussing their Facebook profiles. The decor was Spartan… tables, chairs, air conditioning, functional restrooms, a view of the highway… a dhaba brought alive within city limits.
The garlic naans that I ordered were hot, well made, buttery and piquantly flavoured. Ideal for wiping away the grime of a long day. The chicken kali miri (black pepper chicken) was better than any chicken gravy dish that I have eaten at North Indian restaurants at Mumbai. The chicken was very tender. The gravy had a resounding heat of crushed pepper.  Ideal to liven up weary travellers. With enough oil in it to help us hold out if Libya goes completely bonkers. In fact, there was so much oil in the dish that the little kadhai or pan in which the dish was served slid across the table. 
Makes you cringe? Well you have greater chances of finding oil free steamed vegetable in the highways of India than fidelity in a house of vice.
garlic naans
chicken kali miri
Striking oil
The EM Bypass from Sanjha Chulha
Football, once the sole passion of the city, till there was Sourav Ganguly. Well, back to square one now?
The Phuchkawallahs of South City
I stopped at the  South City Mall on the way home. I had planned a coffee break here.
I suddenly thought of stepping out of the mall to go to the phuchka vendors stationed outside. Phuchkas have spoilt Kolkatans for the paani puris and the gol gappas of the world. Once you have had phuchkas you can never really give your heart to the street food of any other city.
Phuchkas are hollow balls of flour, stuffed with mashed potatoes and chillies and masala, dipped in tamarind water and popped into the mouth. A description which does as little justice to phuchkas as eating them in a sanitised environments does. For phuchkas are the stars of the streets of Kalkata. And unlike paani puri you don’t need vodka with phuchkas.
I had a ‘plate’ of phuchkas. A term which evoked howls of protests from Bengalis on twitter. ‘Phuchkas are not sold by plate’. Well pardon the Mumbaikar in me which made me interpret ‘ 6 for Rs 10’ as a ‘plate’. Quibbles apart, the phuchkas were so good, that I ate one more ‘plate’ despite being stuffed to my nostrils at Sanjha Chulha earlier.
The phuchka wallah saw me taking photographs and began suggesting camera angles to me. His name was Ravi. He was from Allahabad at Uttar Pradesh, Amitabh Bachchan’s birth place. Well the vendors of the street food at Kolkata, like their peers at Mumbai, belong to Uttar Pradesh in Northern India.
 Ravi and I discussed the merits of phuchkas versus pani puris of Mumbais and gol gappas of Delhi and something called Batashe at Bangalore, a term he introduced me to. He took great pride in the way phuchkas were displayed at Kolkata which, as he pointed out was unique. He also said that the charm of Kolkata’s phuchkas come from the fact that they are made with flour versus the more crusty semolina of the Mumbai’s paani puris. And, as I pointed out, they don’t overload phuchkas  here unlike their cousins in other cities.

A scene from ‘My Big Fat Greek Fat Wedding’ followed as Ravi introduced me to the other street food vendors outside South City. They were all from his home town, now settled in my home town while I had moved out… all of us in search of a better life. They were all his cousins. His brothers. His family in a foriegn land.
He pointed out Ram Kumar and Raj Kumar, two brothers who according to Ravi made better phuchkas than him. He made them make one for me. Ravi’s were good, these were even zestier. I made a phuchka for Raj Kumar. He took a bite and from his smile it was clear that I had a long way to go and he was just indulging me.
So I continued clicking. Momos, the Tibetan favourite, now cooked by UPites from the plains for Bengalis. Bhel Puri stalls. A Mumbai intrusion in the city of jhaal moori. Earthen bhaars or glasses in which sikanji or soda based drinks would be prepared. All laid out for me to photograph for you.
The street food hawkers of South City opened their wares for me even though I was too full to eat another morsel. Happy to share their simple treasures with the world. They came to the city with their dreams. Some like Ravi had been here for more than a decade. Running his own stall for four years as he proudly told me. Ravi was hungry for more. Wanted to know the feasibility of opening a phuchka stall at Mumbai. I told him about the hoards of us who would be happy if his dream came true but had to temper my tales with the reality of real estate prices.
But Ravi is hungry. Something tells me that the footpath in front of South City is not big enough for him.

Bhel Puris of Mumbai.
Chopped coconut a Kolkata touch
The world outside South City Mall
On ‘plate’ number 2
Ram Kumar and Raj Kumar. brothers who make even better phuchkas than himself according to young Ravi
My attempts to be phuchka wallah
Another day in India…special parking available for very important people
A lil Kookie Jar Lemon Tart by my side
Well, I wasn’t hungry but I couldn’t go without saying hello to the lemon tart at Kookie Jar. I went up to the Kookie Jar store beside the food court at South City. Picked up my lemon tart. Was happy the see the thin gentleman at the counter with curly hair and glasses smile at me in recognition. 
I picked up a very robust cappuccino from CCD and sat down at a table. I played around with the macro function of the camera as my coffee cooled. The tart, for once, disappointed. The lemon butter curd was slightly clingy and sticky and didn’t have its usual bouncy freshness.
But then there are good days and there are bad days when you are in love. And my heart lies firmly with Kookie Jar’s lemon tart.

Man Versus Food: Mommie chapter
I reached home stuffed and then there was my mom ready with her prawn curry that both K and I love. A dish I tried to replicate at Mumbai.

The fragrant smell of Basmati, the short grained Bengali special occasion rice, shrouded the house. Reminding me how she must have planned and cooked for the few meals I would eat at home. Miraculously the day’s food snuggled in my tummy making space for the dinner my mom had cooked. A few more meals of daal with fish head, fish curry, fish fry, fired potatoes, chicken… eating even when my body wanted to give in… and it was time to go.

As my Mom, said sometimes these short visits were more painful than just being away. I guess this is the ‘hoozoon’ or sense of melancholy that Orhan Pamuk spoke of when he spoke of his Istanbul.

Mom’s prawn curry
Prawn curry with Gobindobhog rice
Potato fried in batter
Crisp rohu fry
Last meal before I left
Fish curry
And now she gets down to write her England diaries for you.


Filed under Bengali food, Calcutta reviews, Food musings, People, Street stars

>A royal send off from Kolkata. Nizam’s annexe, VIP Road, Kolkata


It is not unknown for flights out of Kolkata to smell of rose water, meat, garam masala or even fish.
For emigrants from Kolkata, or Probashis as we are known, often carry back rolls, biriyani, mishti (sweets) or even frozen raw fish back to our adopted hometowns. I have done the rounds too. Mishti for office folks, prawns cooked by Mom for K, rolls and biriyanis packed from Bedwin,  or Zeeshan on the way to the airport, loads of Mukhorochak dalmut,  pastries from Flurys and Kookie Jar  and yes, I confess, even frozen fish.
Well, not so much these days after I have spent more than a decade outside. Since then I have discovered good fish markets close to home at Khar. There’s a Sweet Bengal at Bandra which I am fairly OK with. And now that Hangla’s has opened here, I have a decent roll and biriyani option too. Yes, they are more expensive but have you seen the cost of a ticket to Calcutta?
So I was driving to the Kolkata airport in a cab. It was Sunday. Traffic was less and we took the good old VIP Road instead of the circuitous but zoom down new Rajarhat Road. I had dozed off. I suddenly opened my eyes I saw a shop which said Nizams to my left with VIP Sweets to the right. I stopped the cab and walked back. Yes, it was a franchise of the famous Nizam’s of Kolkata’s New Market. The place where Kolkata’s legendary kathi rolls were apparently invented.
I walked in found out that the biriyani prepared in the central kitchen was ready. I picked up some for me. And mutton rolls for the Missus back home. With fried onions and chopped green chillies the way K likes her rolls.
I took out my camera and an impromptu photo shoot followed. It was almost as if the food Gods of Kolkata had come out to bid me farewell. I told the owner that I was planning to take the food by flight to Mumbai. He said that his rolls were often delivered to air hostesses at the airport. Let me know if you figure out the connection.

I chatted with the cooks as they took out the biriyani and clicked away as they made the seductive looking rolls. They were tickled to see me pack the stuff to take to Mumbai. “You can make these at home”, said the guy who made the rolls. I said that I did make chicken rolls with packaged  frozen parathas at home. “But how do you make the biriyani at home?” I said. He looked at me and nodded sagely and sadly.

I got into the cab with my loot just as I heard the radio commentator say that Tendulkar had reached his century in the World Cup match against England
I then headed to the Kolkata airport which for long has been the most clogged airports around. It took me close to an hour to get security checked. A thing to keep in mind if you stop to buy rolls. And the fact that you are likely to miss Nizam’s if you take the Rajarhat Connector which cabbies love.
How did the food stay? Well the rolls tasted fantastic when we heated them in the microwave. The biriyani was good though a bit too dry for my tastes these days. At the risk of turning off fellow Bongs I must say that I prefer the Lucknowi Biriyani of Kakori House or Peshawari or the mutton pulaos of Parsi weddings which are slightly more luscious and have more meat in comparison to the Kolkata ones now. And yes, Hangla’s was of similar quality to this. Lot more expensive than Nizam’s of course.
But then hey, when was food just about food?
I had got a piece of home back home after all.


Filed under Calcutta reviews, Food musings, Street stars

>Goodie Bag … KL, London, Michigan, LA to Bandra


So Christmas is gone. New year too. Another birthday is breathing down my neck.The odd white hair trying to douse the petulant angst at not being able to go to Goa. Possibly for the first time in about six years. Unless there is a miracle.

In between the big dates, gifts have been flowing in. I guess good hearted people don’t look for occasions. There was the desperately craved for Old Town White Coffee which Ipsita sent from KL through a trail as complex as the old Silk Route. And a very distinguished diary from Starbucks to boot.

The sweet, cheerful sophisticated yet spirited pink champagne chocolate truffles from Harrods that Xanthe Clay got me. They so exemplified her as I found during our afternoon at Fort.

Soma, my junior in college, whom I actually got to know through Facebook and blogger, got three exotic air cured meats all the way from the US when she came to India for a week. Got them thoughtfully packed and shipped to me from Calcutta. You have read about the chorizzo. Tonight K and I ate the air cured pepper crusted dry salami with crusty bread and cheese for an amazing dinner.

K returned from LA today bearing a pan turner (no more twisted omelets), a cheese slicer (a cheese addict’s chillum), butter spreaders with dinky cheese motifs, a book on quotes food by cooks and a Monterey Jack and Cheddar infused cheese.

Loved the last line

The cheese was recommended ‘for my husband who is a food blogger’ by Christopher Keks. A German who was a model in Italy. A soap opera star in Germany. Now a production assistant in LA waiting to make it to the movies. 

At times I feel amazed by all these stories I come across. An ad agency girl quitting and following her wanderlust, living her dreams through her  ‘Broken Compass’. Or another girl who studied law at Oxford. Practised law in the UK and in Tokyo. Apprenticed in a coffee shop at London. Returned to India ten years after leaving Delhi. To set up a coffee shop at Mumbai!

This is the city of dreams. If you have the stomach for them.

Or as Cervantes says, (quoting the new book) ‘The best sauce in the world is hunger.’


Filed under Finely Chopped Knights, Food musings

>An afternoon with Xanthe Clay at my Fort


With Xanthe Clay & Heathcliff on the streets of Mumbai

Warning: Long post ahead 

Xanthe Clay

Well, this is another Twitter story. Pamela Timms and I know each other through twitter. She tweets as @eatanddust. (I am, er, @finelychopped on twitter). Pmalea is an expat at Delhi who writes a food blog called Eat And Dust. She writes for publications too and you would never guess that she is not a local when you read her write ups.

Pamela wrote to me a few days back asking me if I could hook up with someone called Xanthe Clay who was coming to India to do a story on the local food. Now, I must confess that I had no idea who Xanthe was. More a testimony of the fact that I don’t read as much as I should than anything else.  Xanthe and I exchanged a few mails. She wanted me to show her my favourite eating places at Mumbai. The answer was obvious, take her to Fort.
We met at her hotel around lunch time on Friday. Xanthe told me that she met Camellia Panjabi, the Grand Dame of Indian food writing, the previous day. I felt like an amateur Karaoke singer about to perform after Lata Mangeshkar.
 Xanthe was the only person I know whose name starts with X. As I later found out, her parents had given her a Grecian name. A Google search on the phone the previous night and our chat during the day revealed that Xanthe was a big food writer in the UK. She’s written three books and now is onto her fourth. Her books, from what I gather, try to focus on demystifying and simplifying cooking. “I don’t write about difficult cooking”, she said. Well, that sounded like my sort of cooking. Xanthe tweets as @Xanthecooks She is also a food columnist for The Daily Telegraph in the UK.
Turned out that she personally knew Simon Majumdar, food blogger turned food author turned food reality show judge and someone I admire, for a while. According to Xanthe, Simon was someone who ‘calls a spade a spade’. That’s exactly what I’d like to be known as. That’s why Finely Chopped was born. And yet, Simon is the nicest, and only, celebrity I know and he sincerely answers any questions that I have.  
Well, that’s all about Xanthe professionally. The first thing that strikes you when you meet Xanthe the person is that she is one of the sweetest people you could meet. Extremely charming, gentle and with a very disarming smile. She is just the kind of person you would run to if you were stuck in a room full of bawling Kindergarten kids and didn’t know what to do. She was extremely non-fussed and walked the crowded streets of Fort without a tremor and sampled food and drinks from the street side stalls without flinching.

All of this is real, Xanthe dug in to everything without a second thought
Accompanying her was Heathcliff, the photographer. His work has taken him to all parts of the world. It was amazing to see how he drew similarities with what he saw at Syria when I showed him a Parsi Fire Temple here. Heathcliff too had no hang-ups while trying out the food and seemed to be as into the assignment as Xanthe. It was amazing to see Heathcliff walk around with three bazooka like cameras while I ended up with sore shoulders with my tiny little Sony cyber shot at the end of the day. 

The khao gulley or ‘Eat Street’ of Fort

I won’t get into the details of the street food because that’s what Xanthe’s article will be about. This is more about what happened that afternoon.
We started our Fort walk with a homage to history. Laxmi Building, and its plaque announcing its inauguration by Sjt Subhas Chandra Bose in 1938. And then ‘The Bombay Store’ which Xanthe found to be quite ‘posh’. I showed her the ‘Bombay Swadeshi Stores’ plaque and gave her a lecture on Bal Gangadhar Tilak and how he opened this store to take on the British who dumped their goods at India. More than a hundred years back. Thank god for Amar Chitra Katha history lessons. ”The British were the bad guys”, I looked pointedly at the fairy godmotherlike Xanthe, and Heathcliff who was quite an anti-imperialist himself.
We headed to one of the many Khao Gulleys of India that sustained its middle class worker bees. I had discovered this one at Fort on a rainy day on the way back from Puncham Puri. A few centuries back. 
We first bumped into people eating red rice with brown dumplings on plastic plates… I introduced our visitors to the concept of Schezwan…the Indian cousin of Sichuan. “Always red”.

Bhel puri stall next, except sev puri photographed better according to our visitors. The bhel was consigned to a corner as we munched on sev puri and ragra pudi and dahi puri. In any case I prefer sev puris or ‘Indian canapes’ as I described them. The unhealthier and more deep fried the better for me.  I gave a free Hindi lesson here. Sukha is dry. Bheega is wet. Khatta is sour. Meetha is sweet. Kam Teekha is less hot. There is a new Vinod Dua in town.

Vada pao shoot followed and then my lecture on the difference between kandapakora (‘tomato tomato’). We headed to the Pao bhaji stall to see the making of ‘tava pulao. “Not ‘pilaf’. That’s Persian”. And then a chai stall where Xanthe enthusiastically sipped a glass of cutting chai and learnt about the concept of ‘cutting’. “Half a cup so that you can drink many through the day. Rs 4 versus Rs 8 for a glass”.
Mewad ice cream followed which both Xanthe and I liked. Reminded me of the lunches at Nariman Point when I used to work there. The photographer in Heatchliff made him choose falooda for its kaleidoscopic balance of textures and colours. We then crossed over to the Apoorva gulley. Lunch time was over. Saw the remains in the vessels of a Maharashtrian Moushi’s cart run by the Amres. Two carts down was Swamy who came to Mumbai from Coimbatore fifty years back.  He served more than 38 types of rice at this spot for twenty years now. Heathcliff clicked away at sheera (sweet semolina), upma (salt), idli, curd rice or tair sadam, tamarind rice, lemon rice and sambar rice. And then we set off for cut fruits.
Our street food walk brought us across the various faces of Mumbaikars. Enthusiastic bystanders who joined in the conversation with explanations and suggestions. Street fruit vendors who kindly let us click away without even knowing that we were actually going to pay for what we ate (this was not a PR shoot or a press junket). The odd strain of post Headley suspicion in a vendor and a lawyer who didn’t want to be photographed. The fruit seller who was fine with us photographing as long as we didn’t disturb his work. This was business hour for him in the city’s former commercial centre. And the proud Maharashtrian food vendor who asked me to take our visitors to ‘good healths’ rather than showing the ‘cheap street stuff’. Mumbai is a world city after all.

The bystanders joined in with their suggestions. They were Maharashtrians & told me that Ragda puri is apparently a Gujarati invention…loved by all

‘Ragda’ or chickpeas

The faluda won Heathcliff’s heart

My take on faluda…would love to see Heathcliff’s pics

Memories of mewad ice cream

“Rapidex’ Hindi lessons

Cutting chai

Swami and his rice cart

With my family at Fort

I was touched by the way I was welcome back by all ‘my people’ at Fort. I had just been there for four months after all. It started right with the parking lot guys. Dipu the sandwich wallah, the last person I said goodbye to when I left Fort a fortnight back. Then the welcoming smell of Ustaad’s jalebis. The Vidya Dairy Farm refused to take money for the jalebis and samosas that they served us. The Prodigal Son had returned. Ustaad who was taking a post lunch break gamely came out and started making jalebis for Heathcliff to photograph. Man, does the old man love the camera or what? Never realised that our Pehelwan was so short. 
We didn’t go to Apoorva or Swaghath as Xanthe and Heathcliff were interested in street food. I took them to Ideal Corner though and I packed dhansaks for dinner. It was good to meet Walter and the manager again. Parvez had just left. The waiters smiled and giggled when I asked them if they’d give me a job. Will there ever be a proverbial ‘rich uncle’ in my life?
Our tour continued and a trip to the paan shop in front of Lalit where the security guards of an unknown ‘important person’ picked me up for taking photos on my second day at Fort. And then we went to the smiling juicewallah where I had a strawberry milk shake after ages. He didn’t approve of Heathcliff’s choice of beet, carrot and apple though.
Our next stop, Yazdani Bakery, where I introduced Xanthe to the Iranis and Parsis. “A bit like the way the Brits look at the French, idiosyncratic, quaint, love food”. We chatted with one of the owners, Mr Parvez Irani, whom I met for the first time. He told us about how a Japanese consul member came and told him that Yazdani stood where a Bank of Tokyo branch once stood in the hoary past. And of the German baker who came visiting in the 80s and said that Yazdani made the best bread in the world. Then Tirandaz Irani came to the shop and allowed me into the hallowed baking area for the third time. Xanthe was awestruck, as I was each time that I went in, by the deeeeeeep oven. On the way out she joined the bakers in rolling dough, synchronised as if it was a West End musical.

Ustaad loves the camera. I really miss him

10 kilo maida, 250 g besan, chini, colour…sounds so simple

Took a while before the juice wala gave in to Heathcliff’s request of beet, carrot AND apple

The right way to drink Brun Maska

Xanthe Charms Mr Rashid Irani…not the easiest of tasks

The Fire Temple for those who love to bake

‘My Fair lady’, now playing at Yazdani Bakery

Tirandaz Irani in the corner… this is the third time that he let me into the bakery. Third time that I asked him to
A last walk down the street that led to Fort House. Suresh’s vada pao shops where the vada pao maker remembered me. He got bashful when bystanders told him that his photos would come out at London. The bearded guy at the counter of Fountain Plaza waved out at me as he always did. 
A final sev puri stop. Xanthe said that she had a ‘feeling’ about it. She was right. We had a remarkable sev puri and did a little video clip where I nodded away like a cheer leader while Xanthe described the making of sev puri.

The gentleman in blue most sportingly let us photograph his lunch

Shoo you evil eye

Puris…who could not love them

‘Sev’ comes to the party

Getting ready for the shoot

 At the Queen’s Necklace

Off to Marine Drive where Heathcliff wanted to shoot the sunset. I took a few photos too as I had never been here with a digital camera. Xanthe and I chatted for a while as I got to know about her work. I had done most of the talking so far. “Indian food is about existence and not indulgence. That’s why we don’t focus on plating” and that sort of stuff had made up our day.
Xanthe told me about her belief in blogging as a way to get noticed as a writer. And about how she felt that content was more important than worrying too much about Google searches. An interesting perspective for Heathcliff too who was trying to figure out how to balance a blog with socio political views with a more ‘effective’ photographer’s portfolio blog. 
It was soon time to part but not before I answered Xanthe’s questions on etiquette. “Do a Namaste only to doormen, chauffeurs, etc. If you are meeting someone from the English speaking urban ‘elite’ then a simple handshake would do. A folded hands Namaste would seem facetious”.

The Queen’s Necklace

Warming up to India

‘In conversation with Xanthe Clay’ as K Jo would say

Xanthe wanted to know what my favourite from the street food of Mumbai was. After a bit of thinking I said that it would be the ‘Mumbai sandwich’. It was unique and had a sense of buttery indulgence. As I explained, we were extremely loyal to the street food of our little corners of India. As a former Calcuttan my love for phuckas and rolls would never let me get impressed by vada pao, sev or bhel puri. The Mumbai sandwich was suitably neutral and Western and didn’t compete directly with my favourites.

Mumbai Sandwich
And thus ended an afternoon where I got to do what I love the most. Introduce the world to a Mumbai which lies somewhere in between the depths of Slumdog Millionaire and the excesses of Mukesh Ambani’s Antilla. To the real India. A tiny part of it.

The afternoon opened a number of doors in my mind. Left me with deep thoughts. Largely to do with whether any British paper would send Nigella to do a food piece at Mumbai.


Filed under Food musings, Fort, Mumbai highs, People, South Mumbai, Street stars, Vintage Bombay

>Joynagorer Moa Memories


Photo Credit: Sudeshna Banerjee of Cook Like a Bong

Credits: Thanks to Sudeshna Banerjee of Cook Like a Bong for awakening some very sweet memories by sending me these spectacular photos

It’s not easy being a fat kid. Children can be very cruel as an author once wrote. Add to that shifting countries. And cultures. It was not even Calcutta. We were in a suburb to the South of Calcutta.

A world away from England and pre Islamic Revolution Iran where I spent the first seven years of my life. To start with, there was no Coke. Or Pepsi. Or rocket lollies (ice creams).  No television. No Muppet Show. The clothes were funny compared to my fairly swish wardrobe. The food was strange. My parents had to make fish and chips, chicken and chips, spaghetti and ‘Spanish Omelets’ for me. No daal, rice or Bengali food for me.

Everyone would pull my cheeks. Including the mosquitoes. I learnt about power cuts or load shedding, a strange concept. The people around me seemed different. We lived in comparatively smaller towns of England and Iran before this. My parent’s social circles were dominated by locals. My exposure to Indian culture had been minimal. I didn’t speak Bengali when we moved to India. I picked up Farsi in Iran a lot faster.

I missed my friends, my teachers. It took time to relate to even my own family. The local kids would mock my accent which was a mix of British and Iranian. And ridicule my chubbiness. From a four feet old’s point of view everything was strange – accents, languages, clothes, complexions (!).

I was unsettled.

The connections one makes at that age are strange. I can never explain why I clung on to a ragged yellow blanket every night. Or the soft corner I developed for ‘Joynagorer Moa’. Not in the same league as roshogollas, shondeshes, lyangchas or pantuas when it came to Bengali sweets or mishtis. Joynagorer Moas  were not ‘sweets’ in the truest sense. Not the usual cottage cheese or chhana based delicacies which Bengal is famous for.

‘Moas’ (Mow -aa-s) are rice crispies rolled into balls and held together with gur (jaggery). A popular snack in Bengal. Joynagorer moas were different from other moas. While regular moas were crisp, these were soft and as mushy as an Uttam Suchitra Bengali love story. These are, if memory serves me correct, made with gur (jaggery) from Joynogor, a suburb to the South of Calcutta. The speciality of this is that you get it only in winter. Come November and little stalls would set up in local markets selling joynagorer moa and patali gur. The latter is the most prized of Bengali jaggeries. Again a winter speciality. They would both slowly fade away as February ended bringing in Spring and Summer together.

The moa shops could be cigarette shops converted for the season. Or annexes of existing shops. You would traditionally not find Joynagorer Moa in sweet shops or ‘Mishtir Dokans’. Though they did make an entry into sweets shops in the late 90s. You would normally get two varieties. Regular and Special. The latter would be slightly larger and have a couple of extra raisins on them. They would be sold in white paper boxes. If you were buying a dozen. Else in paper bags made with newspapers. They used to cost 50 and 1 Re and then 1 Re and 2 Rs before I left Calcutta in the late 90s.

Joynagorer Moas were excruciatingly sweet. Appealed to the most unspoilt of taste buds. Had a touch of nectar to them. They were soft. Virginal and cherubic.You could almost bite them and then slowly swallow them barring the odd dry rice husk. Bite into them and you could only feel love, warmth and joy around you. Simple and pure pleasures. Plump, cuddly, little bursts of joy.

Joynagorer Moas were my constant companions through winters as I grew up under some fairy dramatic changes of fortunes. Winters meant incessant sneezing, cricket matches, vacations, Christmas, New Year, my birthday, Saraswati Puja and, always in the background, were joynagorer moas.

I never went back to Calcutta in winter once I left the city. Memories of wheezing through nights of its smoky and polluted winters haunted me. I had made it a point never to go back during winter.

It’s been close to twelve years since I have seen Joynagorer Moas. Or tasted them.

These excellent photographs kindly clicked and sent by Sudeshna who runs the very impressive blog, Cooks Like a Bong, brought back memories of a very dear old friend.

Photo Credit: Sudeshna Banerjee of Cook Like a Bong


Filed under Bengali food, desserts, Food musings, From the hip