Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dahi Bara Alu Dam

Yes, such a thing exists, and it is exactly what the name suggests: dahī baŗā and ālū dam tossed together. But to explain why I'm writing about it (and more importantly, how is it that people actually eat such a concoction), I'll have to start from Cuttack's reputation as a street-eat Mecca of sorts. Or rather, why I think this reputation is largely bunk. Odisha's culinary heritage is notable by any standards. Its confectionery in particular is justly famous. But much of its junk food is derivative, at best regional variants of stuff whose provenance lies elsewhere. Cuttack's famous rolls are merely a harshly-spiced version of what one gets in Kolkata. Gupchup is only a variation of the pānipūri concept ubiquitous throughout the country. Singra is likewise only a version on the pan-Indian samosā theme, itself a distant progeny of the Persian sambūsak. Ālū Chop? Try the ones in Kolkata to see where the Cuttack variant comes from. And about Chowmien and Chilli Chicken, the less said the better.

Dahi Bara Alu Dam, then, can be considered Cuttack's one true contribution to street-eatery. But oh dear! it's nowhere near so simple. Once yet again, none of its three chief components originates from Odisha. Dahī baŗā (dahī bhallā, thāir vaŗāi), or fried urad dāl doughnuts soaked in a cold yogurt-based sauce, is popular throughout India as a snack or breakfast eat. Ghuguni, chickpea stewed in a thin, spiced gravy, is likewise common to most parts of eastern India. Non-Odiyas spell it with only one 'u'. Bengal boasts several variants, including one containing shredded mutton; the Odiya version is closer to the stock Bengali preparation. Ālū dam, potato slow-braised under steam in a mild gravy, is not even a snack. It is very much a serious eat, and served as a main course in Bengal, Kashmir, Punjab, most other parts of North India, and even Odisha.

So if all three components are prevalent outside too, then how is it that Dahi Bara Alu Dam itself is considered exclusively to Odisha? Perhaps the fact that such a combination is so strange as to be unimaginable has something to do with it. All three components are considered stand-alone preparations in their own right. And the thing about stand-alone preparations is that you usually tend to eat them separately, and not mix them up in one bowl. For good measure, ālū dam and ghuguni are both supposed to be eaten hot, while most Dahi Bara Alu Dam vendors don't even carry any heating equipment with them. Think cold Irish Stew added to pineapple pizza, and then equally cold pasta in marinara sauce poured over it, you'll get some approximate idea just how ghastly it sounds (sounds, mind you - how it actually tastes is another matter). Which is fine, but how did the combine come to exist in the first place? And why Odisha, specifically? Those, alas! are questions to which I don't think anyone has any reliable answers. I am convinced no conscious human thought-process could have come up with something like this. My own speculations tend towards serendipitous origins, maybe some idiot upsetting ālū dam into a basin of dahī baŗā or something.

Some modifications to the basic concepts have been incorporated over the years. Most versions of dahī baŗā use a yogurt sauce the consistency of, say, creamy soup - runny but not excessively so. But here it is thinned down to the consistency of chhāch. Then generally, it's the ālū in ālū dam that is supposed to predominate: the quantity of gravy varies between moderate, to a thick, viscous coating, to near-bone dry. Punjabis prefer to lace it with cream, tomato, even crushed cashew; the Bengali version is more restrained in its flavour, relying principally on aromatic spices like cumin. In Kashmir they tend to make copious use of mild dried chilli, but barring that one exception ālū dam is generally supposed to be mild. The Odiya version in particular is a blameless, innocuous little number that leans towards Bengali traditions. Or at least the ālū dam your next-door Aunty serves up when she invites you for lunch. The one you get with dahī baŗā varies on both counts. It is made up of potato chunks swimming in vast amounts of runny, vilely spiced gravy with great patches of chilli powder-stained oil floating on top.

It is no exaggeration to say the preparation is Cuttack's staple street-eat. People eat it for breakfast, as a snack, at times even as a lunch- or dinner-substitute. The city is full of Dahi Bada Alu Dam vendors. Over time some have risen to such prominence and prosperity as to set up regular shops. There's one in Kanika Chhak that ranks among the best you can get. I've been there once, thoroughly enjoyed the experience too, but that's not what the post is about. Here I talk about the itinerant vendors who ply their wares all over town. A few affect 50cc mopeds, but the overwhelming majority prefers bicycles. In fact the bicycle forms an integral part of their equipment. Two large spherical aluminium pots, containing dahī baŗā and ālū dam respectively, are suspended from either side of the handlebar. A smaller pot of ghuguni hangs down from the crossbar. Slung over the side of the real wheel is a jerrycan of water, useful for rinsing spoons and enabling customers to clean their hands. Other peripherals - canisters of chopped onion, sev, spices; metal spoons; a sheaf of donās or disposable sāl-leaf bowls - are tucked about in various crevices along the frame.

A ten-minute walk from our University lies Naraj Barrage, at the spit where the river Mahanadi and its distributary Kathajodi separate. It is a place of much scenic beauty, and is well-known as a venue for leisurely, low-octane, hanging-out. Several Dahi Bara Alu Dam vendors congregate there, including this surly character who charges from his makeshift shop an exorbitant thirty Rupees for six baŗās. To place this into perspective, my favourite vendor, Sh Rabi Sahoo, charges twenty for a plate of ten baŗās, albeit slightly smaller in size. A most affable man who comes over every morning from a neighbouring village, he prefers the traditional method of dispensing the stuff right from his bicycle. He also follows the classical procedure of assembling the thing together. The first thing he does is take off the pot lids and wedge them between the bicycle's frame and chain-guard. Then he takes a donā and scoops baŗās onto it with a long-handled ladle. Once he's got the right number of baŗās, he presses hard on them with the back of his ladle to squeeze out excess dahī into the pot. Next he spoons out a large helping of ālū dam, then a touch of ghuguni, and then sprinkles chopped onion, sev, some spice mixture, and there you are, that's it.

Now the crucial question, how does it taste? Yes, and this is where the weirdness of the whole thing reaches its pinnacle, it tastes bloody good. Some newcomers don't like it much, or complain it's nowhere near what it's made out to be. I don't know about that, I've always found it most satisfying. As to how that incongruous mishmash of standalone dishes yields something so tasty, don't ask me, I offer no rational explanations here. The baŗā's mild tartness contrasts well with the spice levels of the ālū dam; then chickpea combines well with the mushy potatoes, imparting a nuttiness to the latter; the onion and sev add pungent, crunchy counterpoints, and that's it. That's as far as my powers of analysis go. All I can say is, it makes for a delightful snack, and a fairly nutritious one too. Potato, yogurt, chickpea and all are healthy stuff. And while the Baras are deep-fried, they certainly do not exude oil, perhaps they have oil squeezed out of them too. Spice levels are kept to a minimum, since only small amounts of ālū dam and ghuguni are used. Hygiene is another matter altogether, especially given the copious amounts of (untreated) water used for the yogurt sauce. Then again, I don't ever recall Dahi Bara Alu Dam giving me an upset tummy. And hey, if you don't live life on the edge a little, then what's the point of having street food in the first place?

Oh, and one more thing - a minor announcement, in fact. Adding pictures to blogposts has posed a perennial problem. Lugging my DSLR around every time I encounter interesting street eats is clearly infeasible. On the other hand, the phones I've owned all tended to feature lousy cameras. Recently, and most certainly keeping the blog in mind, I've got myself a new phone, for once a model with a decent camera. It's a Samsung Galaxy J5, a joy to use due to its superlative AMOLED screen and capacity for memory cards of up to 128 GB. And I am happy to say that all pictures on this post were taken with it. The camera is decent, like I said, but could have been better. Especially in low light. Why they cannot improve phonecam low-light performance I have no idea.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sucharita, or that Random Road-Trip to Konark

One of the nicest things about my marriage is the ease with which we have been accepted as a couple. Avanthi commands a much higher standing among my relatives than I do. And her relatives have been unstinting in the love and affection they have lavished on me, something I am most thankful about. More to the point, our respective friend circles have not merely accepted but duly absorbed the other into them. And over time we as a couple have befriended other couples. Sucharita Sengupta and Adnan Farooqui are an instance. They both teach political science at the Jamia Millia Islamia - bright, socially motivated, warm-hearted, and generally terrific people to hang around with. Suchi and I share a common interest in photography. She also happens to be distantly related: her first cousin once removed married a first cousin to my grandmother. So going by the nomenclature prevalent in India, that makes her my aunt. Anyways, Auntie and husband had a wedding to attend at a resort just outside Puri. Which was excellent news, because it had been a while since I had met them. Then Adnan welshed out, so that left only Suchi and self, since Avanthi and the little 'un were in Bangalore.

Even then we nearly didn't meet. Suchi's hosts had organised a bus for her and other guests directly from Bhubaneswar airport. And another bus to take them straight to the airport once the festivities concluded. Which didn't exactly leave much bandwidth for meeting up. That's when I had this splendid idea of taking a day's leave from the University, borrowing Millan's car, picking up Suchi from the airport, showing her a bit of Bhubaneswar and, eventually, driving her down to Puri. She cheerfully fell in with the idea, Millan readily agreed to part with his car for a day, and the rest of the plan fixed itself up almost by default, as it were.

[A word about Millan's car, now. It's a little Maruti 800, a bit long in the tooth, but well maintained. The engine especially is in good nick, certainly sound enough to sustain a day-long romp to the coast and back. I share an emotional relationship with it. When buying it he took me along; at that time he was not confident of handling the traffic around Badambadi. So I was the first person who drove it after the purchase. And Millan is most generous about lending it out. We have this informal arrangement: whenever I need it I let him know a day or two in advance, and if not inconvenient to him he happily chucks the keys over.]

The day didn't start too auspiciously. I got late reaching Millan's house, not a big surprise. So I was about halfway to Bhubaneswar when Suchi called up to say she was waiting for me, and that too outside the airport building. Damn! I did manage to reach the airport in half an hour. And the revelry started in earnest right away. I suggested getting some mandatory sari-shopping done first. She declared she was most impressed with Avanthi for having me trained so beautifully! To her credit she didn't take a whole lot of time over it. A quick snack later, we were on our way. Actually, no. Suchi said she had never seen Konark, something she badly wanted to do. We didn't have a whole lot of time with us, so that's where we headed directly. In the process forsaking Bhubaneswar's numerous attractions (which for the most part fell within the genre 'touristy', so the loss was not a big one).

The journey was delightful. Beautiful if slightly congested roads, the car behaving beautifully, and the sheer joy of catching up with a valued friend, all added up to yield a most memorable experience. We didn't take too many photographs, we had so much to talk about. Particularly foulmouthing our spouses, who had chosen to miss out on this wonderful experience. And besides I needed to keep an eye on the road and unruly traffic too. One picture I did take was of a minivan laden with bananas. Laden is too mild a term, it had bananas everywhere: crammed full on the inside, and then more on the roof, bunches stacked one on top of the other with long bits of stem curving up and outwards like so many improbably green-coloured flamingoes. It brought back memories of Belafonte's definitive 'Banana Boat Song': "Six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch!! / Daylight come and me wan' go home".

Konark was another delight. It was well past midday now, and fairly hot, but to the camera-obsessed, such considerations are at best peripheral. We spent the better part of two hours there.

This was followed by the most picturesque part of the journey. The East Coast Road connecting Konark and Puri is a dream. Beautifully maintained, largely bereft of traffic, and replete with interesting twists, it acts as a lure to local hotbloods bent on showing off their driving skills at high speeds, often with tragic consequence. But who would want to drive down such a picturesque road at high speed? And not take in the vast, untidy charm only mangrove patches can claim for their own? Or the pristine deserted stretches of beach interspersed between the mangrove clumps? These beaches were so beautiful that at one point Suchi insisted we stop and take pictures. A wise choice, and a particularly attractive stretch of beach at that. I was charmed, but then in the last one year or so I had encountered plenty of beaches. The impact it had on Suchi, on the other hand, was nothing short of electrifying. She was thrilled, absorbed, engrossed, and she went beserk with her camera. So much so that she didn't realise she had gained an admirer. Woof! And any time I need to pull her leg, this is the photo I remind her of. It never fails, believe me.

By this time we were quite hungry too. Suchi craved seafood beyond anything else (Adnan's vegetarian, which means she can't make it at home too often either). I had promised to take her to Chung Wah, one of Puri's finest attractions. Which was fine with her; the place is justly famous for its Chinese-style seafood. But as we were bouncing down the East Coast Road, she spotted a signboard advertising fresh seafood. Further signages led us to the Lotus Resort at Ramchandi Beach. By mutual consent we agreed to keep things (very) simple: crab, prawn, and any other species of seafood the place could yield. No rice, chapati, noodles, vegetables, or other inessentials. Perhaps because we had arrived at an odd time, they could offer only a limited selection. We opted for um, don't recall what it was called, but it was in substance crab fried in some sort of spicy chilly sauce. Suchi loved it. So did I, but with some minor reservations: I did think it was a trifle overcooked, and also not as big as I have encountered in so many eateries in Odisha. The prawn, on the other hand, was an unqualified success. At the manager's suggestion we asked for it to be gently fried with a touch of coriander. It did come laced with an incongruous assortment of vegetables, stir-fried and raw, which didn't quite fit in. Then again, they did not succeed in undermining the flavour of the prawn either, so could be happily ignored. The chopped garlic and coriander, on the other hand combined to subtly influence the prawn in the nicest way possible. The prawn itself was fresh, and cooked just right. So it retained its crunchy texture, and its unique flavours. And oozed rich, aromatic, downright intoxicating juices the moment you sank your teeth into it. It revived us no end, we had  become quite tired by then.

The rest of trip was uneventful. I dropped off Suchi at the wedding venue. We spent some time out there, once again spewing maledictions at our respective spouses for not joining us. I then set off for Cuttack, promising Suchi I'll be ever so careful. Not that she needed a whole lot of reassurance; the day's worth of driving had left her most appreciative of both car's and driver's capabilities. The car's behaviour all through the day was particularly remarkable, and fully justified the confidence reposed in it. At no point did it create the slightest fuss. On the return journey too it behaved magnificently, and ferried me home with aplomb. Which places me in a dilemma: should I let Suchi know it didn't have a spare tyre?


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Jungle View: Bamboo Mutton and Emu in the Odiya Hinterland

Odisha's a strange place when it comes to food. Especially urban centres like Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. Not that they are starved of eateries, far from it: I guess food lies in the second rung among lucrative business ventures, right after clothes. But invariably, the array of preparations they turn out tends to be - call it what you will, homogenised, standardised - I call it boring. The same old stuff: mostly misbegotten "Mughlai" and faux-Chinese, a few hackneyed Odiya dishes like Dalma and Mutton Kassa, perhaps one or two equally hackneyed Bengali fish preparations, and that's it. The State's rich, diverse culinary heritage gets showcased so rarely in these joints that it's futile to expect them to display any true identity or personality. At best they'll have a couple of signature items they do really well, and then beyond that the same old gunk. Even Jungle View, one of the few truly offbeat eateries I've encountered in the vicinity, now stoops to quasi-Chinese preparations. Incipient Kaliyuga, that's what it is.

The place's name is entirely appropriate: it is sandwiched between Nandan Kanan and the adjoining Chandaka Elephant Reserve. You may not get to see (or 'view') much jungle, but that is a minor nit. The point is, it is located miles away from anywhere, literally, even the most recently urbanised parts of Bhubaneswar. So how do they manage to run a prosperous eatery business so far away from cities, that too cities not especially known for offbeat dining? Tourists from Nandan Kanan cannot contribute all that much by way of custom. As a matter of fact, most diners seem to come all the way from Bhubaneswar or Cuttack, or even farther places, just to eat there.

It started out as a nondescript dhābā , then evolved to offer a nice little line in local meaty preparations or, as this blog calls them, 'rustic tribal delicacies'. These include mutton - technically chevon or goat meat - cooked in bamboo logs, in earthenware pots, and wrapped in leaves of some sort. Over time the place's reputation began to spread through word of mouth, it expanded its repertoire to include Japanese quail (locally called gunduri) and emu, apparently sourced from a farm in Ganjam. Also, to accommodate its steadily-growing upmarket clientele, it took over an adjacent tract of land and converted it into an open-air dining space where you get the same food at marginally marked-up prices.

Let's face it, the upmarket side of things is tacky in the extreme. Mainly due to the excessive use of moulded concrete masquerading as unfinished log. Right at the gate you encounter this rude post-and-lintel arrangement made even more hideous by the two concrete birds perched on top and looking slightly bored. Inside, you have a garden with two thatched gazebos, each capable of seating about twelve. Rather pretty, really, and for once the concrete used there looks like concrete. Beyond lies the central dining area. This comprises a vast awning propped up on concrete pillars trying their best to look like bamboo clumps. Beneath the awning lies a marble dining table large enough to seat thirty-five comfortably. Around it are concrete benches looking vaguely like split logs. The backrests are even more strange, featuring moulded concrete trelliswork made to look like er, what? Mangrove roots?

After you cross this you encounter another stretch of garden with more creative landscaping, notably a hill made of concrete and boulders, which reminds me irresistibly of grottoes I have seen at some churches. This stretch also contains cages full of birds, mainly gunduri, which also features prominently in the menu. Along the left edge of the tract run a series of air-conditioned prefab cabins, available to groups at no extra cost. Each can seat about twenty or so. Spartan furnishings notwithstanding, they do provide a modicum of privacy and comfort especially in the summer months.

So much for the decor - it's obvious that's not why we keep going there. We go there for the food and, despite the distance, we've been there so many times I've lost count. Most of the photos posted here are from an impromptu visit last March. There were five of us, including colleagues Bishwa, Millan, Ram, and Sudatta. We had little work that afternoon, the weather was still pleasant, so it was not difficult to persuade the rest of the gang, particularly Millan who readily agreed to get his car along. The drive was most pleasant, two long halts at level crossings notwithstanding. On this occasion the air-conditioned cabins were not available. We sat beneath the central awning instead, and passed time most convivially taking pictures and cracking stupid jokes till the food arrived. Emu was off that day, much to our disappointment. We contented ourselves with Bamboo Mutton, quail, some Dal with egg in it, some Dal without egg. And Naan and rice.

The mutton is clearly the place's signature dish, and also the most expensive at around four hundred a serving. Small chunks of mutton are liberally smeared with spices, ginger, garlic and (very discernibly) mustard oil, and then stuffed into hollow bamboo logs. The logs are then sealed, tossed into smouldering embers, and left there for the meat to cook. Once done, the logs are fished out of the embers and brought directly to the table, where a waiter ceremoniously scoops out the meat onto a plate. Cooked this way, it remains chewy, even tough at times. It absorbs the smokiness of the embers, and the bamboo imbues it with its own subtle grassy fragrance and moistness. The mustard oil's pungency also remains discernible, albeit subdued. The result is surprisingly harmonious, perhaps because the individual notes are all understated. All in all, the preparation as well as the final results are not something one is likely to encounter elsewhere. Definitely a high-point of my stay in Odisha.

I am not so fond of quail. It is a bony bird, with not all that much meat on it. Its flavour is interesting but not remarkable, at least not to my palate. The chefs at Jungle View coat it in a spicy paste, and then cook the bird whole in loads of oil (not mustard oil, though). The spice levels do little to help matters; for one, they tend to block out much of the meat's intrinsic flavour. Still, an interesting preparation, and justifies an occasional foray if only for novelty value.

On subsequent visits I had occasion to sample the other stuff on the menu. The Emu wins hands down, beautiful stuff it is. They serve it boneless, braised in much the same spices as go into the quail. But the meat's darker, discernibly more gamey flavour goes well with the spices. It is pricey at about 260 Rupees for a small plate, but more than worth the spend. The mutton cooked in earthenware pots is also excellent. Once we tried some prawn. It turned out to be so spectacular we promptly ordered another plate. I don't know how they cook it, but it was soft, not over-spiced, and had this distinctive smoky flavour. I have not managed to try the leaf-wrapped mutton yet. Certainly the next time I go across I shall make it a point to try it out, and also renew my acquaintance with all the stuff I have only mentioned in passing here. Do stay tuned for an update.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Cafe Thulp, Bangalore

Let me end the year with a long-overdue post, about a place I've wanted to write about for quite some time. Bangalore's Cafe Thulp chain specialises in hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, pastas, mammoth breakfasts and the like. It is predominantly meat-oriented; it draws inspiration from a vast swathe of culinary traditions - Malayali, Goan, Italian, American, and South-East-Asian included; and its Koramangala branch remains one of my most favourite eateries in Bangalore. This might sound like an extravagant claim. Bangalore is home to numerous restaurants, which vary considerably in cuisines offered, prices, quality, and magnitudes of pretentiousness. And this place appears plenty pretentious at first glance. Its menucards and interiors are done up in a cheesy comic-strip style. The preparations are given strange names intended to convey informality and hip-ness simultaneously (try Sheikh Yerbooty, or what we'd normally call milkshakes). And the so many cuisines contributing to the menu raises apprehensions of bog-standard Indian-Chinese-Tandoori-Mughlai-Continental mishmashes you find in street corners all over India.

Two factors save the place from collapsing under the weight of its own over-the-top-ness. First, their food is excellent, (barring a few disasters now and then). And secondly, they understand cooking, including the nuances of each cuisine they have sourced their dishes from. So even if they deviate from 'authenticity' (whatever that be) and modify a preparation, they do so intelligently and not merely because, say, some ingredient is inconvenient to procure. This intelligence, and commitment to quality, is what makes their food truly eclectic and not simply uninformed.

I confess I am touchy about southeast-Asian cuisine. Nasi Goreng and Phở are not exactly haute cuisine. I wouldn't go about, like Wodehouse's Bingo Little, 'telling the head-waiter at Claridge's exactly how he wanted the chef to prepare the sole frite au gourmet aux champignons, and saying he would jolly well sling it back if it wasn't just right.' Yet I would want Nasi Goreng to taste like Nasi Goreng and not some ersatz watered-down substitute. If you replace kecap manis with local variants of soya sauce, and altogether omit oyster sauce or fish sauce, what you end up with is not Nasi Goreng but something indistinguishable from your roadside Indian-Chinese fried rice. I have no problems with Indian-Chinese food. Where I draw the line at is seeing it palmed off as authentic Malaysian/Indonesian cuisine, and its inevitable corollary, having to pay the premium prices such 'exotic', 'foreign' preparations command. Low-cost eateries tend to massacre the cuisine too, like the paneer-studded 'Singapore Cheese Noodles' I once encountered in Delhi, but at least they are not hypocritical about it.

Thulp does not serve Nasi Goreng, or Phở. Nor does it make pretentious claims to authenticity. But it sure does a mean ASEAN-inspired 'slow-braised pork belly with mushroom, bok choy and oyster sauce'. It is so good that as far as I am concerned, all the other things the place is supposed to be famous for - hamburgers, Sheikh Yerbooty, the lot - simply fade into insignificance. The menucard calls it 'signature', and it used to rank among their most expensive preparations. I say 'used to' because inexplicably, they have pulled it off their regular menu. It makes occasional guest appearances on their 'daily specials' chalkboard, which is not nearly the same thing. Back in the days it was a regular cast member, I ordered it on numerous occasions, and each time it much more than lived up to my expectations.

[Update: Regular reader and (so far the only) guest-blogger here on FoodScapes Anita Dixit points out in her first comment that they do slip up now and then on the satisfaction front. I had taken her there once when she was visiting Bangalore. Her (beef) steak was disappointing.  And worse, by the following morning she had developed a bad tummy upset, in all likelihood caused by the steak. As for me, that was the first time I had tried the pork belly. A thumping success all the way through, and my stomach behaved with admirable meekness the next day.]

The last time I had the pork belly was when some five of us went there for lunch. The group included sister-in-law Adithi, cousins Sayan and Swati, and Swati's husband Arnab. In celebration of their brotherhood-in-law, comedians Arnab and Sayan both landed up in Superman t-shirts.  Their appetites were sadly underwhelming, though. Arnab's in particular undid much justice to his apparel. He opted for about the smallest hamburger on the menucard. It was wider in circumference than the ones you get at fast-food outlets, and its patty, while not particularly thick, was certainly juicier and more flavourful. Not surprising, because fast-food chains in India ply only chicken burgers, while this was made of stuff pious Hindus tend to avoid. It came with a scoop of cole slaw that would barely cover a playing card, and a similarly austere helping of french fries. Beautifully cooked stuff, whatever little of it there was. Arnab had asked for a small burger, so the limited portions were entirely acceptable. It was his insistence he was full up that had me worried.

Sayan and Adithi ordered something called El Pollo Loco, in substance crumb-fried chicken strips. Adithi's not a big eater and doesn't touch pork or beef, so her choices were predictably constrained. On the other hand, Sayan I felt was being distinctly unadventurous. Still, there it was, and the chicken was good too. Really good. It was soft, juicy, neither rare nor overcooked. The crumbed coating was particularly delectable, crispy without having soaked up too much oil. It came with a big chunk of cheesy mashed potato, and a bowl of what they called 'creamed spinach'. Much more cream than spinach if you ask me, in fact I first thought it was a dip or sauce of some sort. But none the worse for that; it was exceedingly good. I know because I helped myself to a forkful of chicken slathered with it.

Swati started out with a coke float. A strange way to begin a meal, but she enjoyed it. Her entrée was one of the few true, full-blown disasters I have encountered at Thulp. It was called The Clucky [sic] Luciano, or 'breaded escalope of chicken parmigiana with marinara sauce and mozzarella - served with garlic mashed potato and salad.' She got all that, and also a bit of pasta tossed in the same marinara sauce. This sauce was the problem. I have encountered very few Indian cooks who can handle tomatoes. Even the best and wisest lose their sense of restraint confronted with them. And the serving was a very painful reminder of this. It was sour through and through, blotting out all the garlic and the delicate herbs that must have gone into the dish. The pasta proved inedible beyond a few forkfuls, and Swati was reduced to scraping sauce off the chicken with a spoon.

The menu, usually so voluble about its preparations' provenance, is uncharacteristically silent about the cooking styles that inspired the braised pork belly.  It is generally associated with various cuisines of south-east Asia, and arguably more popular in that part of the world than anywhere else. The oyster sauce reinforces this suggestion, as does the Bok Choy, a variety of Chinese cabbage. China boasts a profusion of green leafy vegetables, which includes apart from Bok Choy also Kai Lan, Choy Sum, and Sui Choy. Spoilt for Choyce? Certainly, and all the more so because they are all delectable. Incidentally, this site here claims Choi Sum or Chye Sim are nothing but mustard greens. Eh? So many years I spent exploring Singapore food, and all this while they fed me Sarson da Saag?

The pork belly came a goodish bit later than the other main courses. It did say slow-braised, so I cannot complain, really. It was an elaborate affair. So elaborate that it needed two separate plates to hold everything together. A conventional plate housed the accoutrements - a helping of fried rice, a bowl of light soya sauce with shredded chilli, and some salad largely made up of carrot, white radish and cilantro. The pork itself came in a sort of soup plate lined with three or four Bok Choy leaves. That was the only role Bok Choy played in the entire affair, I don't know why the menucard gave it star billing. The mushroom and oyster sauce had a more central function. They combined with the meat juices and the braising liquid to form a thin but intensely flavoured gravy, which alone was worth the price of the dish. But all this paled before the pork. Superb it was, no other word for it. The meat was chewy in a good way, firm and with a strong flavour of its own. More delectable were the fatty bits. Now these days I find I cannot eat too much fat: one small chunk and I start feeling queasy. But this fat was light on palate and stomach alike. It did not taste very oily or greasy, neither did it clog my appetite. I was confident I could polish off another helping without much discomfort, something I cannot trust myself to do after say, three slices of bacon.

Dessert was a surprisingly drab affair. Thulp sources cupcakes from neighbours who like to bake on the side, gifted amateurs mostly, or at least those who think they are. Arnab and I decided to split one; the others were too full to join us. That day the suppliers' confidence exceeded their capabilities. The cake was dry, chewy and a little over-sweet. Apart from this hiccup, and the bigger one involving the Clucky Luciano, the meal was very, very enjoyable. Maybe a time will come when I tire of their food, or when their cooking deteriorates beyond tolerance levels. Maybe, but I don't think it's going to happen any time soon.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Patel Bakery

Cuttack's Buxi Bazar on Diwali night exhibits a curious mixture of gaiety and desolation. Shop-fronts festoon themselves with decorative lights, even the ones in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods. But since this is primarily a business district and people tend to celebrate Diwali at home, you find few people around barring stray groups of revellers lighting crackers on the empty streets. This is so dramatic a contrast to the unending, viscous stream of noisy, unruly traffic that you usually encounter on these streets, it is actually disorienting. Disorienting, but not disconcerting. That is an epithet I reserve for the rows and rows of closed food shops that greeted this very hungry soul that evening.

Finally I located a seedy joint offering Biryani (turned out to be ghastly) and Chicken Tikka dyed bright red. As I came out of the place, I saw Patel Bakery, still open at close to 9 PM. I was suprised. Not because of the late hour (shops in that locality stay open till ten normally); not even the fact that apart from that seedy eatery it was the only shop in that row open that day. No, what surprised me was the utter absence of customers queued up.

Patel Bakery is an institution in Cuttack. It is a singularly unglamorous looking shop. And its bill of fare is restricted to simple, homely stuff like bread, sweet buns, rusks, and tea-cakes. But over the years it has built up such a reputation for quality that right from early evening you see long queues of customers seeking to buy its produce as fresh as possible. Even near closing time you'll find customers' queues haunting the place. So when that night I found, for the first time ever, the place bereft of customers I thought they were in the process of closing. But no, they were still open, and I was welcome too.

I took advantage of this dearth of customers to get chatting with the proprietor, a sweet, thickly bearded old gentleman by name Abdul Rehman Patel. And from this conversation I was able to gain some insights into his personality. He was a disciplinarian of the old school, who simply could not tolerate any dereliction from what he considered minimum norms of etiquette. Standing in queue and waiting for one's turn was an uncompromisable aspect of this credo. It was made clear to me almost at first-hand, when another customer barged past me and tried to shout out an order. In an instant Mr Patel's mild-mannered affability transformed into a snarling belligerence I have rarely seen outside of the Delhi Police. He stood up, made it amply clear to the transgressor he could bloody well get lost if he didn't have the patience to wait; and then, once the customer cowed down, treated me to a homily about Indians' lack of civic sense, and why it is holding the country back. So, I inferred, was keeping his shop open that day a facet of his innate self-discipline. Never mind the lack of customers, never mind it's a holiday, the shop must remain open as long as it is supposed to.

This little interlude was so startling I quite forgot to place my order. I hastily remedied this lapse, and asked for rusks, buns, some tiny teacakes (the shop assistant solicitously informed it had egg in it), and a packet of fresh bread the place is so famous for. Then I asked Mr Patel if I could take some photographs. He was initially a little surprised, didn't seem quite sure how to respond. But then his natural bonhomie prevailed, his sternness melted away, and he sat back and smiled that warm, fuzzy smile of his.

His black cap and sharp features gave him the appearance of a Parsi patriarch, but that was unlikely given his Muslim name. My initial guess was Dawoodi Bohra, but he clarified he was a Cutchi Memon and hence a Sunni. That explained several things. His business acumen for one. Then his love of regimen and his austere deportment (only slightly dented by the cigarettes on his desk). And also his deep and yet enlightened commitment to religion, evidence of which abounded all over the shop. The cabinets at the back were liberally festooned with little advertisements for Hindi and English translations of the Quran. His own desk was surrounded with piles of religious texts for sale, the Ramayana and Gita as well as the Quran. I spotted in one corner a guide to Urdu. Now gaining familiarity with the Nastaliq script has been a long-standing dream, a dream I've not even come close to achieving despite numerous efforts, and books bought in good faith. This one looked interesting, though, and so it proved well worth the hundred and twenty I paid for it.

After reaching home, I decided to start on the rusks first. I was struck by their curious shape. Or should I say the curious diversity in their shapes and sizes. Then it struck me, they were made from buns! Chop up into thick slices buns left over from the previous day's sale, run them through the oven once again, and there you are! as neat a recipe as any for at the same time minimising waste and upholding your commitment to freshness - well, fresh buns anyway. Frankly, the rusks weren't up to much. I personally prefer the ones made of atta (coarsely-ground flour) or wholewheat flour, which impart a nuttiness refined flour can never approximate. You make rusks as a derivative process, you're bound to lose out on something, in this case flavour. The buns fared much better in this regard, certainly in some measure because they started life as buns, not as derivatives of something else the way the rusks did. They were fresh, soft, not oversweet, and generally a decent accompaniment to sweet milky tea. So were the teacakes pleasant to eat, if not particularly special.

But the bread stole the show. They were freshly made like the buns and the teacakes were, and if anything smells more appetising than bread warm off the oven, I haven't come across it. They were also cut into thick slices, and slightly irregularly, the way bread used to be cut in old-fashioned bakeries. I didn't think much of it initially, but then I realised it is actually an advantage if eaten the old-fashioned way it is probably intended to: toast it on a tawa till the outsides are crisp and hot to the touch; slather butter on it, lots of butter; then wait for the butter to melt and seep through the bread a little before you start eating, preferably with tea or soup. And if the bread is fresh and soft the way this bread was, it yields a superlative maska toast experience. Three cheers, Mr Patel, you made my day. I don't intend to visit you often, not so much for the queues as for the extra butter your bread will force me to consume. But whenever my resistance reaches breaking point, why, I shall cheerfully give in. Stand in queue for hours even, if you want me to. And wallow in butter and toast for the next few days, and then blame you leading me into temptation. 


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dracula Romanian Food

Hungrygowhere reports the demise of the improbably-named 'Dracula Romanian Food', a hawker-centre stall at Singapore's Alexandra Village neighbourhood. The title on the page is now prefaced with a curt 'closed', and any time you try to access a review you're festooned with annoying popups screaming at you, in case you missed the point, that 'This establishment is no longer in operation'. One review, dated just a month after my last visit there, indicates some reasons why: a tedious story involving cost-cutting, substituting experienced staff with cheaper (and correspondingly less competent) replacements, and (horrors!) so steep a drop in food quality the reviewer actually contracted food poisoning. A sad way to go for an eatery I used to be rather fond of.

I came across the place towards the end of my stay in Singapore. At that time I was staying at a condo called Gillman Heights, one block of which NUS used as a graduate students' residence. (Gillman Heights is also history now. Thanks to an en-bloc sale, we had to vacate the place within weeks of my last visit to Dracula. The old flats have been pulled down now, with something called 'The Interlace', which looks like a tribute to disjointedness, coming up in its place.) Dracula was walking distance from Gillman, just across the Ayer Rajah Expressway. But because it was tucked away behind an HDB block, it took me till June 2009 to discover the place, almost a year since I had shifted to Gillman.

My first impressions were not particularly favourable. Invoking the Dracula name smacked of blatant attention-grabbing (but then this was before I found out several other joints exist all over the world both named and themed after that (blood)sucker). The faux-ness was underscored by a tacky plywood cutout of a castle stuck in front of the counter. Or to be strictly accurate, one half of the counter; the other half was given over to an Italian joint called 'Funny Lasagna by Peter Bontoi'. A menucard was stuck onto the quasi-drawbridge, you gave your order through this large slot masquerading as the castle entrance, and then collected your food through the same aperture.

A copy of a newspaper report framed and displayed prominent gave me some background info. Bontoi was born in Romania and worked as a chef in Turin for many years. He then shifted to Singapore and got into the restaurant business, but after facing partner troubles he decided he was better off running hawker centre stalls instead. So he set up Funny Lasagna, specialising in Lasagne, Pasta and Pizza. The article does not mention when the Draculanian side of things was started. But I presume at some time he must have realised there was a market for Romanian food too, so he partitioned off his stall into two halves, and so forth.

The first time I went there I ordered Cirnati de Pork, or handmade Romanian pork sausage. Somewhat expensive at S$8 for one large sausage on a flatbread, a small portion of salad, two slices of tomato, a few scraps of leafy veg, and also a complimentary bread basket containing about four slices of good multigrain. The flatbread was the most intriguing. Its name was not mentioned, but in all likelihood it was an unstuffed Placinta (nowhere near as gross as it sounds like). It looked very much like a Paratha, if a bit more severely circular in shape, but its taste was different, denser and fattier, presumably because they used refined flour and also greater amounts of shortening. The salad was excellent. The sausage left me marginally let-down; maybe the exotic surroundings and the Romanian antecedents had goaded my expections to unduly high levels. It was certainly good, no doubt. Just that it didn't taste very different from any other well-made sausage. The portions also generally tended to be on the smaller side, especially given the price. Apart from these nits, I enjoyed myself enough to go back three days later.

On this occasion I opted for a Friptura de Pork, or Romanian pork chop. They took some time to prepare it, time I spent most enjoyably chatting with the manageress and the lady who ran the drinks stall next door. I got a little more bang for my buck (ok ten bucks) this time round: two generous pieces of pork smothered in mushroom sauce, a roll, a helping of salad, and again those bits of tomato and leafy veg. Three bucks extra fetched me a potato salad, which was nothing short of excellent, but then I've always had a weakness for potato and sour cream. The pork chops were excellent too, very soft, excellent meat, well cooked. As was the gravy rich and flavourful. But once again, not much different from any other decent chop anywhere else.

That was my last visit to Dracula. In less than two weeks Gillman Heights shut down for good, and we all had to relocate. I left Singapore in end-August. These last few weeks were extremely hectic, so I couldn't go back for another visit. It remains one of my most vivid memories of Singapore, and I wonder why. The food was certainly good, but not wildly exciting. I guess it was the fun of the whole thing, the quirky name, the gimmicky castle, and the very nice people running the show. Yes, an easy conviviality, an informality, that you don't often come across in Singapore. I shall miss it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Chopshop at Professorpada (and that lovely Ambassador car) - II

[Continued from Part I]

After the chicken pakoda interlude, I asked Satya to drive. I was feeling fatigued, and also slightly feverish (not so surprising; within two days my temperature hit 103.8 Farenheit). Satya exhibited a much more practised touch, had no compunctions gunning the car down crowded roads. Eventually we hit Professorpada, turned left at the canal, proceeded down the road for a few hundred metres, and then Satya stopped the car, asked us to get down, and pointed to a narrow lane on the left. Going further down this lane we discovered two adjoining shops, both selling chops. Satya directed us to the one closer to us, which was apparently the more favoured (and better known) purveyor.

The outfit had been carved out of a tiny alcove within a large, old house (the exposed beams on the ceiling gave you a feeling of just how old it was). This, however, served only as a store-room. It was kept meticulously clean, and had been fitted out with several shelves and benches. On these rested an array of sauces, condiments, spices, and trays full of uncooked chops. The action took place outside. All the cooking was done on a gas burner mounted on a stand, on which stood an ancient cast-iron Kadhai filled with oil. Customers stood around this arrangement, donas (leaf-bowls) in hand, the way people surround gol-gappa vendors. Chops were brought out from inside one tray at a time, and dunked into the sputtering oil. Once ready, they would be served straight out of the kadhai onto customers' donas. Amazingly, this whole process was a one-man affair. From frying the chops to serving them, to keeping count of which customer had how many of which variety, to handling the cash till, the proprietor did it all, singlehanded, faltering only rarely.

The chops were a surprise in several ways. Their size, to begin with. Chops generally tend to be oblong in shape, at least three inches long and about an inch and a bit across. These ones were tiny, at best three quarters of an inch across, and nearly spherical in size. Then the variety: the place has at least six or seven types on offer. They are cheap too. The mutton, chicken, liver, and prawn versions sell for three Rupees each. Also on offer is a vegetarian version, pointless from a religious viewpont since they are fried in the same oil as the meatier ones are. Egg chops are larger and pricier at ten bucks. Apart from chops, the shop also sells chaap, or breaded, deep fried cutlets. Mutton chaaps come for fifteen Rupees, and the chicken version for ten (I suspect the chicken chaaps are actually lollypops rather than chaaps in the true sense). Another interesting feature is the way they are served. About five to ten of them go into a dona, accompanied not by the stale raw onion you get at most chop vendors', but by a delightful green salad made up mostly of coarse-chopped unpeeled cucumber, just a little bit of shredded onion, and a few stray segments of lime. A masala is sprinkled, and then lime juice squeezed, over chop and salad alike. We were also offered tomato and chilli sauce, which we firmly and unanimously rejected.

Proceedings started with mutton chop, ten pieces to a person. Frankly, not up to much: too much potato, barely any meat. They tasted good, true. The breading was done just right - crispy, neither too oily nor too heavy. So was the lightly spiced potato filling tasty in its own right. But the dearth of meat filling was galling. All said, there's only so much potato you can chomp through in your quest for elusive bits of meat. In this regard the liver chops in the next round fared much better. Each piece had a substantial chunk of liver embedded. I suspect they pre-cook the liver, because for sure a few minutes' deep frying won't soften it enough. The bits in the chops were firm but impressively soft to chew, and they blended with the potato beautfully. A very, very satisfying experience.

In between the rounds, we got to talk to the proprietor a little. He said his name was Muna Panda, but people generally knew him as Kalia. His father had started the venture and he himself drifted into it in due course, largely because he was never serious about studies. He sometimes feels should have followed his brother, who qualified as an engineer and is now very well settled in Qatar. Kalia is determined to give his son a good education, and not let junior follow him into the chop business. I wonder what happens when he hangs up his Kadhai for good. Will he sell off the business? Will he share with the buyer, presumably an outsider to the family, the secret recipes and techniques he has amassed, the secrets that make his chops so singular? Or will he refuse to part with them, and have the Professorpada chop die with him?

And there were plenty of secrets too. We got a taste of them in the very next round, comprising of prawn chops. At three Rupees apiece, you cannot expect the highest grades of prawn. And indeed, the prawns used were pretty small, and a little on the stinky side too. However, they were cooked just right, and spiced just right. The spicing was gentle, and yet just assertive enough to soften the stink to comfortably tolerable levels. Once again, the prawn blended beautifully with the potato and the crisp breaded exterior. So which one did I like the more, liver or prawn? On hindsight, perhaps I'd go with the prawn, but for sure the liver version would come a very, very close second. Choosing between them is not easy.

The prawn chops were where we stopped. We had demolished several plates of chicken pakoda earlier, and then followed it up with about thirty chops per head. And thirty chops, even ones as small as these, make for a lot of meat, potato, and deep-fried breadcrumb. Raja continued to give Kalia brisk business for some more time. He had a round of chicken chops, then some mutton chaap, perhaps a few egg chops too. By this time I was feeling distinctly out of sorts.

At Dolamundai the others visited a well-known mixture shop. I took the opportunity to treat myself to some cough syrup. Then we went to a legendary tea stall near Barabati stadium. The delightful old gentleman running it greeted us with a perplexing remark, he said we ought to have come earlier, now he can serve us only dalda, not desi ghee. We had to talk to him for some time before we were able to understand what he meant, namely that his stock of good quality tea had got over for the day, and so he could offer us only second-great stuff which came nowhere near the quality he was famous for. Second-grade or not, the tea he served was excellent, and all the more so as far as I was concerned because by this time the virus had me firmly in its grip.

Bishwa took over the wheel for the last leg. I was too sick to drive. But not too sick to pose for pictures at the wheel of the car. We spent a good fifteen minutes taking photos, mainly because I wanted souvenirs to commemorate the first time I drove an Amby. It was a very silly idea, agreed, but the others cheerfully got into the spirit of things. Several shots later, I finally staggered up the stairs and flopped down on the bed without preamble. I was tired, sick, shivery, feverish, but it had been worth it in the end, every single bit of it.