Category Archives: People

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.
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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

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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.

Phuchka
Ravi
Momos
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.

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

>Meet my new Sony NEX 3

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It’s really difficult to choose your own birthday gift. Sometimes surprises are better. So it was two weeks from the day when K offered me either a camera or an oven for my birthday that I finally picked my new Sony NEX 3.  In between got lot of advice from facebook and twitter folks. There are a lot of Canon fans out there. Finally chose the Sony, my original choice after two trips to Sony shops. Two to Croma. Always a bad idea if you don’t know much about what you want to buy. Got side tracked at the last moment by a new Sony point and shoot with Deepika Chopra’s photo at the Bandra Sony Shop before I finally picked the NEX 3 to K’s relief. The clincher? The defocus function.

Played around with  it at home last night. As K said, ‘enjoy your new toy’. We went to Candies for breakfast. The best place to try out a new camera. Food. and a holiday resort-like feeling. It was rather crowded downstairs. There was no cappuccino downstairs and K went upstairs in search of her cappuccino.

She called me up and we discovered the lovely section upstairs including a place where they serve food. All empty. Custom made for my friend Rahul who never gets served at Candies. Very beautifully designed. And the coffee here was much better according to K.

I discovered the pitfalls of having a ‘real’ camera. One of the counter girls, who has been seeing me for years, asked me not to take photos when I shot the cup cakes downstairs which are now the blog header. I got really irritated and asked her if it’s a new rule. Rather painful given the number of times I have romanced the food at Candies with my camera on the blog. And the number of times I have defended the place against people who get frazzled by the crowd there. Anyway I soon forgot the sour note as I headed out to the Candies Sky Garden and shot the bright colours all around.

And then I got a call from the guy at Sony who wanted to come for a demo. I must say I was really impressed given that it was Sunday and that I bought the camera just a day back. He came over and we discovered the camera together as I gave instructions to Banu on what to cook. Between the two of us we managed my doiposto ilish very well.

And here’s dinner. Indoors with two 100 watt bulbs. Garlic, pine nuts, cheese and basil pounded in my Chiang Mortar and pestle and drenched in olive oil from Ranjit’s basket for pesto. Soma’s Michigan Italian salami tossed in a pan, Ranjit’s Italian spaghetti added to it and then pesto mix with a touch of salt. Won over the non spaghetti loving, creamy pasta loving K too.

And this is just the beginning folks and thanks K for insisting that I pick this.

Reminded me of a chubby spoilt eight year old who made his Dad buy him a Yashika SLR at the Dhaka Airport because his Dad had a Pentax. He needed to have his own. Same trip where the fat kid also got a Casio Digital watch and would then keep calling out the time every half an hour at class.

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Filed under Anniversaries, Candies- my favourite eating place, People, photo blogs

>Banu takes a Master Class on Shammi Kebabs

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Those on the  Finely Chopped Facebook Page friends would have heard of‘Bunkin Banu’. As would people who read (‘follow’ is so egoistic) my tweets at @finelychopped.  Those who know me in real life and live at Mumbai might have eaten her shammi kebabs. Muslin-like melt in the mouth works of art which would give the most Nawabi of Gulauti kebabs an inferiority complex. These are the kebabs that guests in my house talk about well after a three or four course dinner cooked by me.
Banu came into our lives as a maid whom we inherited from the gentleman we bought our flat from. He had warned us that she bunks like mad. He was right. Many are the times that I wanted to sack her in the initial years when K stopped me. And as Banu pointed out the other day, she has been with us for eight years now. She even shifted with us when we moved houses down the lane.
I was quite pig headed about not keeping a cook in the early years of our marriage. Banu, and her predecessor Rani, would just clean and chop. I would cook. Occasionally K would. And so it went night after night for almost five years. Then I don’t know how it happened but between K, her mom and my mom’s machinations Banu started making rotis for us. And she makes excellent rotis. 
Soon we increased her job description and made Banu my ‘sous chef’. I would instruct her and she would cook. She calls me every day at work and has the memory of the grasshopper. I need to repeat recipes every time. Often in the middle of meetings.  I haven’t told her that the alu khus khus that she makes is alu posto, kanda wala machhi rui kaalia, mundi wala daal machher mudo diye daal, hara moong daal the daal torka of the dhabas of Calcutta. With her repertoire of Bong dishes her market value would be pretty high. 
For long we thought that Banu couldn’t cook to save her life. Then K had a brain wave and asked her to make kebabs. Muslims are supposed to be good at that. K was right. She had struck oil. For all her uneven and rough cooking skills, Banu’s kebabs like Bianca Castafiore’s emeralds were beyond compare.
Many have asked me for the recipe to Banu’s shammi kebab. So I asked her the other day. The thing about Banu is that she loves to chat. Whenever I am home and trying to write I will suddenly find Banu in the study with her litany of demands …rice is over, dish washing soap, flour too, potatoes are over, we need a new scrub, the newspapers needs to be sold… and then assorted clutter from across the house, ‘is ko feku’ or ‘should I throw this’. I try to ignore her and type away.
That day was different. A very little prodding and I found out that Banu’s father was from Kolhapur. A place where they add crushed peanuts into every dish according to her. She however was a Mumbaikar as she proudly said. Born in Bandra. Working from the age of 13 where she babysat children for Rs 20 a month. Her father used to earn Rs 100 (2 USD) a month. Banu is close to 40 now. Grandmother of two as far as I know. Living by herself. Raising a younger son. Supporting her daughter and grandchildren. One more of those incredible women of India.
“Where did you learn to make kebabs?” I asked her. “By observing others. Learning at people’s house. Just as I learn in yours”.  She smiled as I told her about how famous and sought after her kebabs were. And then we went into a long debate about how much rice should we make for the party at night. She was right. I had over- estimated.
Banu begun making her kebabs. I clicked. She said ‘saab my pictures turn out very bad. I saw them in a CD in a wedding I went to recently’. I explained to her the difference between photos take au naturalle versus posed ones. I explained that I would put these on the Internet. That the whole world would see her.  She knows that I write. The neighbours in our earlier building had told her that as she proudly told us once. 
I wish I could tell you the exact recipe for the kebabs but this is what I could figure out by talking to her and observing her. Try your luck or drop by at our place some day. We have an open kitchen.


Banu’s Shammi Kebabs…
  • Boil 500 g of minced meat and 2 sliced potatoes in a pressure cooker. Banu is used to mutton. We give her chicken mice. Traditionally they would add channe ke daal, chholar daal or Bengal Gram. K doesn’t like it. Hence only potato in our kebabs
  • Take out the boiled mix. Add chilli powder, regular packet garam masala, black pepper powder , salt– sab masala or all masalas – as she put it. Add chopped green chillies and coriander leaves to it. You are on your own here when it comes to the mix of spices
  • Put this mix into a food processor and blend it. I guess that the softness comes from this stage.
  • Dip the kebab into a mixture of a beaten egg. 1 egg is enough for a kilo of meat
  • Put the kebab balls into a pan of hot oil on a flame. After a few seconds turn the kebabs over. Then take these out. Put the next batch into the hot oil.
  • That’s it.

 

A great starter. Goes well with roti and green moong daal for dinner too. Tastes excellent even if you heat them in the micro a day later.
Most importantly, the only dish, I don’t need to give her instructions for. Now I hope and pray that banu doesn’t do her other thing this weekend. Bunking.

PS Banu told me that she went to a wedding to work yesterday. She learnt how to make new stuff like hara bhara kebab. I told her that she can keep the knowledge to herself as we will not eat veg food using loads of oil. She said that there is hardly any oil as you dip and take it out. She also said that they took many photos of her. btw she didn’t bunk the whole weekend. A record

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Filed under People, Recipes

>An afternoon with Xanthe Clay at my Fort

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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.

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

>Could Sunday mornings get any better? … Chocochip pancakes by Gia

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Have you ever been lucky enough to experience the celestial aroma of pancakes forming on a pan?

I was this morning.

I nearly swooned as the heady fragrance of pancake batter hugging the saucepan wafted through the kitchen. What a wonderful way to bring in Sunday after a night of long soulful conversations and robust food. So what if the newspapers were missing this morning? As was Bunkin Banu. Still, the kitchen smelt like heaven. The secret apparently lay in the cinnamon powder in the batter according to the Sorceress at work in our kitchen.

She made pancakes for us a few weeks back, the morning after another long night. I had cooked that night and the kitchen was a war field. Yet she was undeterred. Ours isn’t a baking house. So I was dispatched, sleepy and bleary eyed, to get flour, baking powder, honey, cinnamon powder, butter…yes we are quite unequipped on this front. She cooked unfazed by the unwashed vessels around her. But the absence of baking or desserts basics such as egg whisks, flat spoons, flat pans got to her and she initially forgot to add eggs to the pancakes.

Still, tasted great to me.

But she wasn’t satisfied. Over her next visits to our place she quietly got in an egg whisk and and a flat ladle to ‘flip’. And last night she came with Mediterranean salad spices for me and chocolate chips for the morning after.

If the aroma of pancakes were divine, then the sight of chocolate chips melting into the batter was intoxicating. The dark chocolate chips slowly easing into the pancake was one of the most beautiful sights in the world. You almost felt as if you had attained salvation and reached the Promised Land. Except that this was even more desirable. And yet K, went “add more chocochips Gia, add more woman”. The little woman does get a bit manic when there is chocolate around.

The taste of the pancakes lived up to the promises of its aroma and visual arousal. It was everything it promised to be and even more. Not too sweet. Complimenting the dark chocolate chips. With a subtle crunch which made the experience oh so wicked. Our grins of contentment grew wider as the chocolate swirled in our mouths. With just a tablespoon of oil across more than six plates of sin.

Pancakes, like fried eggs, are meant to be had at home. They need warmth to glow in which is so missing when you eat them outside.

But then you should be lucky enough to have someone like our friend Gia coming over to make them for you.

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Filed under Breakfasts, desserts, People

>Of being ‘Fort Enchanted’

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Ustaad with his rangeen photos

 
I would often cross the sweet shop on my way to lunch. The smell of fresh jalebis inviting me from way ahead. I would always stop to wish ‘Ustaad’. He would extend his elbow to me to shake. Hands covered in jalebi mix. And then, from behind the swarthy moustache, the squeaky voice would say “aap mujhe rangeen photo dena”.

I had given him a black and white print out of the post I had written about him. But ‘pehelwan’ (or wrestler), as some called him, wanted coloured prints. Something we had forgotten in the age of Picassa and Flickr.

Today, on my last day at Fort, I fulfilled my promise.

I don’t know know what made me fall in love with Fort the way I did. Was it the approach to Fort? The poetry of Muslim architecture by the J J Flyover. The Victorian Majesty of VT, the BMC and Times of India buildings. The chutzpah of the art deco buildings by my office. An office building which was inaugurated by a certain Sjt Subhas Chandra Bose in 1938. Opposite a shop opened by Bal Gangadhar Tilak when he raised his cry of Swadeshi (self rule) against the British. The same British who had helped plan a charmed business district with enough trees or shade for the weary traveller to rest by. Was it the winding walks with each lane opening into a new wonder? Stumbling into a Garden of Eden one day. Also known as Horniman Circle? Or the parking lot guys who would park my car when chubby, my driver, was bunking. They were all from the same gaon or village apparently.

The friends I would meet, old and new? Amba, Kaniska, Gia, Mama, Ranjit, Viraj, Ashish, Berges, Andrea, Shaheen. Drawn to Fort like bees to a honeycomb. Or was it the many afternoons of getting lost? Of  ‘hearing one’s inner voice’ as Tony Bourdain once put it.

VT or CST

Bohri Masjid

Tilak’s Bombay Stores & the art deco buildings
Horniman Circle

An Irani cafe in Japanese building


Laxmi Building

Was it all the fresh, wholesome, honest food with prices from another century? Dhansak at Ideal Corner. Ironically my first and last lunch at Fort. Their atheli chicken pateta and gun powder pork. Ulundu and Mysore Sada Dosa, kick in the butt filter coffee at Swagath. The breads of Yazdani Bakery. Apple pies and Christmas Cake too. Apoorva’s stews, appams and Gassis. Banana leaf vegetarian meals at Deluxe with delectable Surmai  fries. Beef and paratha at Rahmaniya. Deepu’s sandwiches. Madhukar’s Lassis. Muzzafar’s palak bhajiyas. Puris at Puncham Puri and Mathura Sweets.

Ustaad’s jalebis

Suresh’s Palak Bhajiyas

Chicken stew at Apoorva

Chicken fry and parota at Garden Plaza

Those jalebis again

Banana leaf meal at Deluxe

Moti Lassi with malai

I had most of my lunches here

Ideal Corner’s dhansak my first and last lunch at Fort

Evenings at Swagath…Mysore sada dose

Yazadani’s breads

Puncham and his Puris

Bombay Sandwiches

Kick in the butt filter coffee at Swagath

Or did the spell of Fort lie in its people? Parvez Irani and Tirandaaz Irani of Cafe Ideal Corner and Yazdani Bakery who broke the myth of grumpy owners of Irani Cafes. Krishna, the owner of Apoorva who would often sit down at my table to chat with me. And hand out a ten per cent discount. Dipu the big hearted sandwichwallah who would wave at me every day. The last person I said goodbye to today at Fort as I handed him a printout of the post I wrote on him. The scion of Mathura Sweets, unshaven with an ear stud, wishing me in perfect English. Muzzafar and his colleagues at Suresh’s Batata Vada shop, smiling at me when I would go by. As would the bearded man at the counter of Fountain Plaza opposite. Or Madhukar the Maharashtrian lassiwallah at the Punjabi Moti Halwai, who posed for me one day.

My regular waiter with curly hair at Swagath Udipi. Patiently explaining to me the difference between set and ulundu dosa. As we got to know each other he would wrap my coffee glass with a tissue paper, the way I liked it, when I sipped on a hot filter coffee on the road. His colleagues at Swagath, all excited to see the blog post on them on their ‘Idea Mobile’ (no not a plug). The three waiters at Cafe Ideal who would always serve me with care. The waiter from Udipi at Aoorva who would take my order with a bashful smile, embarrassed when I shook his hand after new year. The waiter in the AC section at Deluxe who would meticulously explain each item in the Keralite banana leaf thali. Getting me steaming glasses of rassam on the house on days when I wouldn’t go for the full meal. “Have it. It is fresh”. The waiter at Puncham Puri who told us about the fact that the venerable Mr Puncham had set up his puri shop way before CST station existed. A rare breed in a city of restaurants with inept untrained staff.

With the Yazdani Bakery Gang. Photo: Shaheen P

The folks at Swagath read the post on them

Muzaffar at Suresh’s

Our man from Udipi at Apoorva

Intense discussion with Krishna of Apoorva on Thai food

Madhukar at Moti’s lassis

Tirandaz Irani of Yazdani enacts the Rin ad shot here

Third generation scion of Mathura Sweets

Dipu the sandwichwallah with the heart of gold

The every smiling Parvez Irani of Ideal Corner with his merry band

 
Or were it the bakers from UP at Yazadan Bakery? Posing for me not once, but twice when I came in for shoots.The earnest father and daughter who ran the humble Pradeep Gomantak? The cart owners at Khao Gulley who posed for me one day as I took photographs. Or the trips to Colaba? To Ling’s and Johnny and bacon pot rice and pork belly. To Olympia and its super fantastic kachhi biriyani and mutton masala fry. Or to Samovar and its parathas.

Biriyani at Olympia

The super sweet Johny at Ling’s Pavilion

 
Would it be the strangers I shared tables and conversations with at Rahmaniya, Garden Plaza, Deluxe, Yazadani, Ideal Corner, Swagath and Apoorva? Strangers who became lunch mates for a few magical moments.

Or was it just all about Ustaad and his fresh, hot jalebis?

Ustaad. AKA Pehelwan

Gosh, I must have done something really good to have deserved this. Maybe there is an angel looking after bloggers.

I bid my goodbyes at Fort today. To Ustaad. To the dhansak at Ideal Corner. To the folks at Swagath.

As Jim Morrison said,“When the music’s over … Turn out the lights”

When the music’s over

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Filed under Fort, From the hip, Mumbai highs, People, South Mumbai, Street stars, Vintage Bombay