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

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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.

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>Some other time. Someplace Else. The Park, Kolkata

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I bumped into my childhood friend Rupu when I was at Kolkata this time. We were both visiting the city at the same time. He’d been in San Francisco for a decade and I had been at Mumbai for a little bit longer. We hadn’t met since the end 90s after having grown up together.
We chatted for a short while about our new lives and reminisced about the past including about how we could never stay out late during our college days. There was hardly any transport for middle class Calcutta those days in a city that slept very very early.
Then came Someplace Else the new discotheque at The Park Hotel at Kolkata’s Park Street in the mid 90s. They hit upon the formula of afternoon discs on Sundays. Suddenly the place was packed with sweaty teens and raging hormones, all packed together in a tiny dance floor, impervious to the supersonic sound system…the smoke…the crowds. As one used to jokingly say, you would enter as casual acquaintances and come out as an intimate couple. You were packed tighter than sardines in heat. The famed, bursting at the seam, Virar locals of Mumbai seemed child’s play after that.
It was a very basic disc which was Ibiza for a generation of Calcuttans.
Then I moved out to Mumbai, a city which never slept. I heard that Someplace Else had become a pub and that The Park had a new disc called Tantra.
I was close to the Park the other night at Kolkata when we went to  Oly Pub . Oly Pub apparently took its last order at 11 pm. We wanted desserts and went to Flurys early. Turned out that it was shut. It was 9.45 pm. Disappointed we headed to  Barista where we were served some very stale desserts. The Kolkata folks in our group disbanded but there were two of us Mumbaikars and one ex Mumbaikar who didn’t want to call it a night so early.
So we headed to Someplace Else. Turned out that The Park was buzzing with life. At night this time. It seemed to have two (!) discs now. Tantra. And Roxy. The crowds poured in well after Someplace Else shut down. In their Saturday shimmery best. Including an elderly sugar daddy with a tall nymph in a skimpy black cocktail dress who was definitely not his granddaughter. Or his nurse. He put his arm around her waist and led her into Roxy.
The three of us from our group were at the tamer Someplace Else. A pub now. 
A flood of memories hit me as we walked in. Nothing had changed. The sofas at the corner where you would rest after some fevered jiving were still there. The bar- counter where you would count out precious Rupee notes to buy a beer looked the same. The stained glassed ceilings which now reminded one of Apoorva, the humble Mangalorean joint at Mumbai. The sofas redolent of Geoffrey, the British themed pub of Mumbai. All had a very familiar feel.
The tiny dance floor where the youth of Kolkata once bumped and ground was now the stage for a live band. On asking I was told that the band playing that night was called ‘Saturday Night Blues’. Some powerful rock guitaring and some soulful serenading followed. The sort of music which made two of us in the group happy while the younger one declared the music to be ‘so boring’. But as all good acts do, it ended with a favourite of the Rock Nights at Milieu, the fest of Presidency College Kolkata, Roadhouse Blues.
We got up and I headed out of Someplace Else with my friends from my new life, my new city, walking with memories from across the years that blended into each other in a kaleidoscopic haze.
Pity that they never told us back then that life is not all black and white.

PS: The nostalgia continued as I was close to home at 1 AM in a cab when I got a call from my mom. “Where are you”? 

Beats Oil Of Olay

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>A rites of passage long delayed. Oly Pub, Park Street, Kolkata

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Quite a few eyebrows were raised when I recently tweeted about my plans to visit Oly Pub at Kolkata’s Park Street for the first time in my life.
Folks couldn’t believe that I had grown up at Kolkata and yet never been to Oly Pub. For Oly Pub was the favoured place for school and college kids of Kolkata to shed their Bacchanalian virginity. Oly Pub was the watering hole even for the more experienced as it was cheap and that too in a city which redefined ‘inexpensive’.  Plus I remember that Oly Pub, along with Blue Fox, was rated highly for its steaks in the 90s. Time hasn’t been kind on Blue Fox and this grand dame of Park Street now sports the Golden Arch.
But, yes, I had never been to Oly Pub in school or at college or during my post grad days. Yes, I admit to being a ‘bhalo chhele’ or good boy then. Well, not entirely a science club nerd but no, I hadn’t been to Oly Pub. I did try to go there last year with a college batch mate. Turned out she was the only woman around there that night and we beat a hasty retreat.
But I was not giving in. The thirties were running out and this was a rites of passage long due. So I began rustling up an expedition party. A Facebook friend and food aficionado who assured me that Oly Pub was quite woman friendly too. His wife, an Oly Pub, regular joined us. As did my classmate who had accompanied me in my last attempt. We were reunited sometime back through FB. Adding to our posse was a chef, raconteur, archaeologist, a Parsi married to a Bong, a Finely Chopped Facebook page friend from Mumbai. We had never met there but turned out that we were both at Kolkata at the same time. And his wife was a Oly Pub fan too. Add a recent twitter contact from Kolkata, an Oly Pub regular, who joined us as we met for the first time and later discovered that we shared the same lane at Kolkata. Closing the ranks was my blogger friend who had moved to Kolkata from Mumbai sometime back and had never been to Oly Pub. Whom I managed to convince to join us after shedding her inhibitions about going to a grimy place, with strangers and being the only non Bong among Bengalis. Add to this the blog reader who recognised me and came up to me at the Park Street Metro to say hi, and you have got the plot of  an evening put together by‘The Social Network’. And, unlike the film, in Oly Pub, we had a winner.
We entered Oly Pub and trooped up the stairs. The ground floor was for men only apparently. We went up to a two sectioned area lit by bright tube lights. Much brighter than earlier said my kid brother wisely when he saw the photo. He obviously was no Oly novice. Oly ‘Pub’ screamed ‘bar’ all over. It was a drinking place and made no bones about it.
My first impression of Oly Pub was an all pervasive smell of pee. It slowly subsided thankfully and I saw that we were sitting close to the ‘Ladies Toilet’. Where, intriguingly, a number of men were headed. This puzzle was solved later in the evening as we figured out that behind the door was a passage to smoke in and the promised little girl’s room came after that.
Ladies Toilet?
The view from the smoking passage

A riddle solved

 
Talking of ‘ladies’, there were quite a few mixed gender tables upstairs that Saturday at Oly Pub and one table with just two or three members of the fairer sex.
Not a male bastion… Jaggo who accompanied me in my last attempt, Ash and Oly Pub lover Monishita show the way

Sukanto, a tweep who shoots

Kaniska & Manishita, The couple who made this trip happen

 

Kurush,Chef, raconteur, archaeologist,  Parsi married to a Bong, a friend from Mumbai whom I met for the first time that evening at Kolkata

Oly Pub, as I said, is a drinking place though none in our group were big drinkers that night. You had waiters assigned to individual tables and no one else would serve you. The service, when you caught your man’s eye and when he was free, was competent. Drinks were poured out of bottles brought to your table and into peg measures. What was in those bottles was anyone’s guess. As a wise man once told me, ‘go for the basic denominator in places you are not sure off’. I wanted a good old Old Monk but had to settle with Mc Dowell’s. There was beer, fresh lime soda and the odd vodka on the table. A request for orange juice was met with orange squash. In a peg measure. Lady you don’t make Screw Drivers at Oly Pub!
Two non Bongs are witness to a Bengali rites of passage completed and documented

But it was the food at Oly Pub that really stood out. The quality and taste and sheer wizardry of the food was so unexpected. There is a Bengali idiom which goes ‘gobore poddo phul’ or a lotus blooming in a heap of dung.  With no disrespect to Oly
From the unlimited dalmoot which came with the drinks on the house. The potato fries which reminded you of chubby babies whose rosy cheeks people couldn’t stop pinching…crisp, soft with a mischievous dash of pepper. The fish fries which were recommended online by the Bengali wife who  our Parsi friend had left behind at Mumbai. The fish fries were served with the special house Kasundi or the thick local spicy mustard dip. 
Unlimited dalmoot. i was heckled by our table for taking this snap. Food snob I was dubbed

cherubic fries

Kasundi served with fish fingers
The steaks were everything that the newspapers of the 90s had promised. We tried the pepper steak and the mixed grill. They didn’t ask whether you wanted it medium, rare or well done. They got it for you ‘just right’. Very soulful and poetic meat served in a sea of boiled peas.
And then there was more meat. Cocktail sausages. Spicy sausages. A sort of British Raj meets the natives dish. Very respectable pork studded with fat peppered with a near garam masalaish flavour. You just couldn’t get enough of these.
Pepper steak

Mixed grill

Garam masala sausages
We finished off our order with the highly recommended chicken a la kiev. Never has been a dish so out of place in its surroundings. For, the chicken a la kiev at Oly Pub, belonged to the world of fine dining. Or even to the world of style and haute couture. Immaculately shaped. ‘The trick is to eat it while it is hot’ I was urged as I clicked away. I took a knife and fork and did the honours. One firm cut and I realised that the dish was hollow inside and out oozed a stream of butter across the batter coated chicken into omnipresent boiled green peas. The chicken a la kiev at Oly Pub blended in as well into its surrounding as a court dancer of Shirazuddaulah, the last Nawab of Bengal, would blend into a country liquour bar meant for masons and farmers. This was haute cuisine… even if slightly art deco. A warm buttery end to an evening of boisterous conversations, simple hardworking alcohol, smoky passages and spectacular food… all of which came to Rs 250 (5 USD) per head for a group of seven.
Unveiling the chicken a la kiev at Oly Pub

I can still taste it…epiphany

The Finely Chopped Knights Table at Kolkata
On the way down we spoke to the manager and found out the Oly Pub was opened in 1947. The year of India’s independence. Ironic given the number of students who came here to seek their freedom. We found out that Oly Pub was started by a Parsi family and till this day was run by a Parsi lady named Mrs Z S Tangdi. A discovery so unexpected in the middle of Calcutta that both Mumbaikars,  the Parsi gentleman married to a Bengali and the Bengali married to a Parsi girl, were stumped.
I guess there stories are all around you at Oly Pub. All you have to do is ask.

Note: The last order at Oly Pub is taken at 11 PM

Digging up the Oly Pub story

paans outside Oly Pub

Park Street J’etaime

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>Any idea about the Vashi Spice Market?

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Hello Kalyan,

Trust you are doing good.
The reason for this mail is that one of my friends is visiting us from
USA. He got to know about some spice market in Vashi which we plan to
visit. I checked it online and it looks like a wholesale MKt. I
believe there are 5 markets and market 1 is the spice mkt. Would you
have any idea about this place ? Is it worth visiting ?
Thanks,
Neelam

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>The second easiest daal recipe in the world…pressure cooked moong daal

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I had earlier written about the microwave masoori daal which K makes inspired by mom and has now taught Banu and me. This is the easiest daal to make in the world.

Well, I discovered the second easiest daal to make today. This was inspired by something K cooked in the early years of our marriage when she shocked me by not roasting the moong daal before cooking it. I remember getting quite agitated then.

Today’s daal was so easy that I managed it with a bad back and when I was blind with hunger. I didn’t want to have the rotis and Bengali cabbage shobji which Banu made yesterday and which were in the fridge by themselves. It seemed to dry. I needed something to go with it.

So here’s what I did:

  • I soaked half a cup of moong daal in 3 times the water in a pressure cooker. I added half a teaspoon each of turmeric and sugar and some salt to this
  •  I broke two basic rules. I didn’t roast daal unlike in the Bong bhaaja (fried) moonger daal. Nor did I soak it for a while as other daals should be. I was hungry. I switched on the gas. Waited for 3 whistles of the cooker and another 2,3 minutes then on low flame. In an ideal world should have given it more time. Lifted the whistle of the cooker with a spoon to let out the steam and opened the cooker. I was in a hurry and ideally shouldn’t have been in the kitchen
  • I placed a pan on the gas and melted a teaspoon of ghee, added some shada jeere or cumin seeds
  • When it crackled I added a dry red chili and a split green chili, brought the daal to boil, added a pinch of red chilly powder and jeera or cumin powder to it
  • I let the daal in the pan to bubble on a high fame for 3,4 minutes and switched it off as the daal thickened
The result was fantastic and I am not even a big daal lover. It was warm, the ghee added just the right touch of indulgence and coquetishness with the latent heat of the chillies adding to the mystique. The touch of sugar added balance. The under spiced daal did bring alive a rather simple lunch of roti and cabbages. Credit goes to the ghee or clarified butter to a large extent if you ask me.

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Filed under Bengali food, Lazy cooking, Lonely Hearts cooking, Recipes, vegetarian stuff

>’Highway on my Plate’ book review …for the armchair traveller

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I finished the book ‘Highway on my Plate’ last night. Ironically while lying flat on the bed. My back has been acting up again. Not being able to write irritates me. Makes me cranky. Almost like when I am hungry. Almost.

What makes it worse is that I have come back with so many stories from Kolkata. Of photographing mishti while I was dying of hunger, of stumbling onto ponds and the Gandhi Bhavan at Ultadanga, a Highway on the Plate lunch at 5 pm at Sanjha Chulha, of getting to know the phuchkawallahs outside South City Mall, of the lemon tart at Kookie Jar at South City and the guy at the counter who smiled in recognition, of the young lady who came and introduced herself to me as a reader in the middle of the Park Street Metro station, of a rites of passage long delayed at Oly Pub – the fantastic food and the secret behind the men in the ladies’ toilet there, Someplace Else for a nightcap and reliving fond memories in the compnay of new friends, of food food and more food cooked by mom, a visit to Grand Parents and the pain of eating kochuri alu and mishti ordered from a shop… a pain which would be microscopic compared to what granny (Didu) would have felt at mnot being able to cook something for me… old age is bloody cruel, of the seven packs of Mokhorochak Chanachur I carried back and of a last impromptu stop at Nizam’s at VIP Road to pick up rolls and biriyani on the way to Mumbai and a photo shoot that followed.

The stories will be told. Till then check out this album from the Finely Chopped Facebook page for some photos of my trip.

And how was the book?

Well ‘Highway on My Plate’ on NDTV Goodlife is the only Indian food and travel show that I like. Harsha Bhogle’s too but then he hardly eats. I know of people who are are surprised about my choice of HOMP. “There are too loud”. “The food they like doesn’t look appetising enough”. “They like everything” “It is not a food show.” “It is not all about food”

Well, nor is Finely Chopped.

What I like is that  the hosts, Rocky & Mayur, bring in a lot of energy to the show. They look like they are enjoying what they are doing. They are spontaneous. That they travel to all parts of the country. That they are not food snobs. That they are fellow ‘grunge eaters’. And yes, they do take some getting used to. Their humour is over the top, but they make no qualms or pretenses about that. And, as a reader pointed out, one is a non vegetarian and the other a vegetarian so you get both sides of the story. The vegetarian, as always, gets bullied.

And how was the book?

Well it was almost like a Lonely Planet of food. The scope of the book was huge and therefore it lacks in depth. The book covers just 2,3 eats in a place. In one or two paras each. But manages to hold you despite the limitations of its form. It makes your mind wander into the far reaches of the country. They do the hard work for you – I am sure lot of bumpy roads, dirty toilets, bed bugs and stomach runs would have gone into the making of this book.

You will have snippets on the history of a restaurant, or of its owners, or of some incident during their travels, of fellow eaters, clear statements on what to eat AND what to avoid. You can use the book as a guide. Or, as I story book, as I did.

It was a much needed book which helps break myths such as ‘all South Indians are Madrasis, eat vegetarian food, viz dosa and idli’. Well get prepared to be lost in the search for chettinad food in Tamil Nadu, in the dreamy toddy shops of Kerala and the fire in your belly digs of Andhra. The book reminds us that India has a North Eastern corner. Learn about Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal, Nagaland and Manipore like you never did. And remember to smile the next time you see some of the staff at Candies or the salon or Spa or neighbourhood restaurants. The book reminds us that they are Indians and not ‘Chinkies’… unfortunately too many of us need to be reminded of this. Read about the fresh fish from the ponds of Assam, missal pao in the midst of Mahrashtra…the best place for chicken and mutton at Haridwar and why Britannia in Amchi Mumbai got its name…The prose is simple and colloquial. Don’t expect any esoteric descriptions of the food. In fact there are a few smilies thrown around … and yet managed to fire my imagination. That’s what good conversations are about I guess.

I am sure that one can dig many holes in the book but this is one of the best food and travel books that has come out of India recently. Well, all right, I love these guys, so pardon the hyperbole.

May they never have backaches.

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Filed under Food Books and shows, Kolkata in my blood