Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kashmir Delights

“Gar firdaus ae baruhe zamin ast

Haminastu hamin astu hamin ast”

If there is heaven on earth it is here, it is here it is here. These are the words spoken a few hundred years ago by a besotted mughal emperor for Kashmir and they ring true even today.

If you watch the episode on Srinagar to Jammu on ‘Highway on my plate’ closely you will see a sequence of us trying to hitch a ride on a beautiful stretch of the highway. The day is bright and sunny, there is a cool breeze, snow is clearly visible on the far hills behind us and floating cotton seeds fill the air and resemble heavily falling snow. In areas where there is water, the cotton seeds build up in large piles as they do on the bases of trees and all over the grass. It looks just like snow but it is actually the cotton and it is everywhere. The camera too seems to know it is in a special place and picks up colors and textures better than it does in the hot plains….. or does it? That is the magic of Kashmir, everything looks a lot better and dare I say tastes a lot better than it does elsewhere.

There was a slight sense of hesitancy when I heard we would be shooting in Kashmir. Late night schedules, hectic traveling along the highways and venturing often off the beaten path are subjects that did raise a few red flags in many minds. “Is it safe” was the standard question asked by all I knew. My answer was always the same. It is our country and our country men there as well. Safe or not, they have astonishing food and where there is food there will be …….Rocky and Mayur. Need I say more.

Kashmir did not disappoint. In every way it exceeded our expectations. The food was brilliant. There is a whole culture around the food and how it is eaten. People have more time and the pace of life is a little easier. It could be the lilting scent of Vazwan on the evening air the gushtabas, ristas, the botis and seekhs to mention just a few or the heavenly glass of sweetened Kahwa (pronounced kehwa in pehalgam) with its dry fruits and heavenly touch of saffron. We seemed o be starved all the time. It was that happy hunger that you tend to get high up in the mountains where food does taste a lot better and we could not have asked for more. The real vazwan though is still only enjoyed in completeness at a local wedding. Sadly for us it was not yet the wedding season and we had to do with what we could get and where we could get it. The offer to invite us to your kashmiri wedding is a standing one as we would be there happily to be a part of the wedding and more importantly (for us) to tuck into the vazwan.

The people we encountered across Kashmir spoke a different language and looked a little bit different from the majority of this country but were just as affectionate, understanding and above all emotional as the rest of the country. A positive comment on the food or the place was met with a smile. The warmth was not in the Kahwa alone but in the very core of the people. We did run into a couple of fellows here and there who definitely felt no warmth towards us but that is par for the course wherever we go in India. The sights, smells and sounds of Kashmir deserve a lot more in terms of tourism than they are getting currently.

A double edged sword is the massive military, paramilitary and police presence. I am sure they are there for a good reason but there presence is a little overwhelming even for us tourists. I can only begin to imagine how it must be for the locals. We played a little game throughout Kashmir. We tried to count how many seconds we could go without seeing a security personnel, the longest we could get to was 8 seconds. To realize the full portent of what I am saying please keep in mind that we traveled a few hundred kilometers and the presence was continuous. I hope the situation returns and stays normal at the soonest.

A mention must be made here about the many splendid breads you get in Kashmir. From the humble lawas which is best eaten with butter and noon cha (salty red tea) early in the morning to the freshly baked variety available at the Khayyam Chowk early in the evening as well. The number of breads exceeds 25 at one bakery alone. There are also traditional breads like the one made by an old man sitting in a narrow shop with his fire blackened walls behind him. His equally aged companion lay in the back after having cooked the evening’s quota of the bread. Not only was the bread delicious and unlike any other bread I have eaten here but closely resembled the famous bagel, a Jewish bread made famous as a popular breakfast in New York City with crème cheese. Yummy

The shikara on the Dal lake is a must do even though the experience is a little jaded. The view though may just be worth the slow ride and the best part are the vendors who paddle up to your boat to try and sell you every thing from ice cream to jewelry as you float lazily in the cool and clean waters of the Dal. The number of house boats is astonishing. The size of the fish the local fishermen pull out of the lake is surprising as well. In season I believe there are thousands of water fowl who come here and the lakes fish stocks support theses many hungry mouths. To wind up thank you Kashmir for being so beautiful and for supporting our two very, very hungry mouths.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sivaji's South

We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink” or “He who eats alone, chokes alone”

‘Anonymous’ is credited with the above and I can tell you he/she must have been a prolific writer if you think of how many quotes, comments, and musings are credited to him/her J. As with most others this quote has hit the nail on the head. If you think on it I am sure you will agree that the best meals usually include excellent company as an essential ingredient.

Rocky and I are thus ahead of the game in that on the show (and often at home over the past 32 years) we always have each other to share food, opinions, jokes and sometimes good-natured jibes. Each meal together is a true ‘experience’ and our joy has doubled nay quadrupled with the discovery that the world of food breeds some very interesting ‘characters’ and no I am no talking about normal, sane people like Rocky and I J

This blog is a little muse on people we met, conversations we had and things we learnt (e.g. the energetic Prem Koshy of Bangalore’s landmark restaurant Koshy’s invented a fabulous soup after his son put salt in coconut juice by mistake.) and most of all the memories we carried away. I can still close my eyes and remember the warmth and love with which Bhattji fed us his famous ‘ghee dosa’ and the ebullient Mister Tony of ‘Tony da Dhaba’ fame who served up as many expletives in his conversation as he did different types of birds(9) or ‘rotis’ in his dhaba.

What is it about food that brings out the real flavour in people closely involved with it whether they are focused on production or consumption? Passion I can understand but what is it that makes them tick a little beat off the tune and look for that perfect taste or special experience. What makes a ‘normal’ medium sized man in Mysore challenge someone with my gargantuan appetite to a Kesari Bhath eating contest. I mean I had wolfed down 5 helpings while he was patiently nipping away at his first piece but he wanted to take on Rocky next. What about the heavily bearded restaurateur and exotic dog collector at the ‘Zamindara Dhaba’ who graciously serves unlimited quantities of free ‘chaach’ or buttermilk because he feels that as a Zamindar/landlord it is his duty and his pride? Or back again to Tony who has an enclosure with Emus (the slightly smaller cousin of the Ostrich) on his premises. There is emu meat on his menu but that is ordered and arrives from a thousand kilometers away because he does not have the heart to condemn his ‘Emu pets’ (as he called them) to the diner’s table.

Life is a stage and ‘foodies’ for some reason are always the character actors. Remember Maharaj Pushpraj Singh of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh? A true foodie also a performer par excellence who effortlessly took over the whole sequence we shot with him and shared his recipes with many a funny aside including digs at me for being a ‘poor vegetarian’.

Prem Koshy of Koshy’s deserves another mention not just for his vast (more than 300 recipes and counting) and varied menu but also for his unstinting efforts in the area of conservation. He has a court order protecting a giant tree near his restaurant and hands out packets of seeds to any interested customers so they can plant more trees. A lovely poster of Owl species that need this species of tree to nest in and survive often accompanies the packet. At Koshy’s we also met a couple of chaps who have passionately written a book about ants and spent half an hour talking about them while Rocky listened patiently (and ate steadily J)

How can we forget the famous Mattha Pandey aka Ram Avatar who ran away from home when he was 11 and arrived in Kanpur to much later set up a famous roadside shop and brand called ‘Thaggu Ke Laddu’. This ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi decided to be true to his customers and tell them straight up that he was robbing/thugging them of their health by feeding them laddus which had sugar that Gandhiji had termed as ‘white poison’. Thus was born the famous by-line, which loosely translated means “There is no relative left that we have not cheated.” That’s not just it though as this interesting old man also makes and sells fabulous ‘Badnaam Kulfi” which he named because he said anything found or sold on the street is ‘badnaam’ (of questionable character). Other interesting food he has experimented with and sold in the past are the ‘Communist Puri’ and ‘Apradhi Atta’ (The Criminal Dough). The dodgy names notwithstanding everything we ate (and yes we did eat everything J) here was of the highest quality and very tasty to boot.

Pervez Irani at the Kayani Bakery in Pune who make the famous ‘Shrewsbury Butter Cookies’ had a simple answer when we asked him what made his cookies so tasty. He smiled with a twinkle in his eye and said with a chilike glee “lots and lots of maska” (that’s’ ‘butter’ for those of you who like me thought maska/flattery is what you needed to get and extra share of biscuits). What I loved was that during the grand tour of the bakery Pervez enjoyed sharing titbits (not just of the cookies ;) like the fact that the bakery was earlier an Italian dance hall and that the original Italian marble counter is still in use.

I could go on and on because hey that is what I do but hey this is the start and many a blog will follow. Before I wrap up I would like to also mention the 4 brothers that run the Ayodhya Restaurant in Mangalore and serve around 12-15 different traditional dishes on their menu. On asking how they had such a wide variety of dishes they replied that this was their contribution to keeping alive traditional cuisine which young people living away from home (and granny) would not get to taste otherwise.

This is just a start and I am sure our adventures will bring us across many such colourful characters with different motives and inspiration but with the same final conclusion….another yummy meal on Highway On My Plate.

All said and done it’s finally about the food so tuck in and enjoy. For Rocky and Mayur its all about work but food is the focus so we never work before breakfast but if we have to work before breakfast then we eat our breakfast first……..go figure and keep watching.

Oh in case you’re wondering about the title its because I watched Rajnikanth’s movie ‘Sivaji’ and the man in question is truly a ‘character’ who had me enthralled by his unique style of eating chewing gum on the rebound from his hand. Many hours of practice later I still haven’t got it J

Fat is where its At

Fat is where its at

There is a fat person lurking in us all and when you eat on the highway like we do, that fat person bursts out with abandon. Between the two of us (Rocky and Mayur) we have gained 45 pounds or 20 kilos since we started shooting for ‘Highway on my plate’. I am sure our regular viewers would have noticed this but I must say it is a job hazard and ‘OH’ what a hazard it is. I have found great joy in the search, pursuit and single minded demolition of the most famous foods of this country. Believe it or not, we sometimes eat for the camera, get done with it and then eat for ourselves again. Any sane person will tell you that if you eat 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches and 2-3 dinners you are bound to have side effects. The side effects of our eating are becoming more and more apparent on our ‘sides’. The plusses are that we do fill out the screen even more and there’s over 200 kilos of anchor for you in every show now. Can we sustain it …watch us try.

While people are switching to healthy wholesome foods across the world Mayur and I have had the privilege of eating what can only be described as traditional DESI food. And I must point out here that no DESI food can ever be complete without DESI ghee. In fact the general approach is that if you are a dhaba owner and you care about your clients you will do your utmost to pump them full of DESI ghee till their arteries scream out in congested anguish. I think that’s a good thing. Some people say “You are what you eat” and therefore I studiously avoid fruits, nuts and vegetables. Some people also have a problem with eating all kinds of meat well to them I say that I have not fought my way to the top of the food chain to be vegetarian. The world has no control on what comes out of peoples mouths so lets get a little relaxed on what people put in them.

We have eaten arguably and we Indians live by that word – arguably (arguably) the tastiest food in the country across almost all the states ( North east get ready, we will be there soon)and oh what a ride it has been. The one conclusion I can make, and a lot of you may support it, is that food tastes best when deep fried in DESI ghee. There, I said it. I can hear the gasps but hey, lets face it, food does taste better with ghee. The rotis are a lot tastier when they are ‘chopadoed’ with ghee. Dals are better with a dollop of ghee in them, sweets (mithais) taste best when prepared with ghee etc. etc. etc. You get the picture. I for one have not been man enough to resist any of the food and neither do I intend to. Having been an established foodie all my life where else do I get a chance to express my love for food better than this?

I dedicate this space to those hard working dhaba wallahs out there. They are the last bastions for some of the traditional food in our country. They uphold a proud heritage of what is the richest diversity of food any country can offer on this planet. There are recipes that are now the proud and secret reserve of a single family ( as in Tunda kebabs Lucknow, Karims Delhi, Sandra Rajasthan etc. ) and are lost to the common man without people of those families. You would be surprised how many famous dhaba owners go the extra mile to get a single ingredient. You would be amazed at how unforgiving some of them are when it comes to making a single mistake in the preparation of their food and you would be surprised at the back breaking work some of them put in to dish out those amazing foods at the same high standards day after day. Then there are the indifferent dhabas along highways that just don’t care. My advice – If you are on the highway, do a bit of research on the food stops in between. Seek out the special dhabas and when you are there eat like there’s no tomorrow for the evolution of man is heading from the apes to humanoids to homo sapiens and now to fat homo sapiens. We were rarer earlier and are now becoming more common. It is our time. Be evolved, get fat J and above all ENJOY and Bon Appétit.