I am a columnist for The Indian Express and NDTV Food and write for other publications. I have recently published a book called The Travelling Belly I am based in Mumbai.I love to travel and share my experiences from all over the world. This page is where I share my articles on food, blog posts and experiences from the world of food which appear on my blog. You will find recipes here. Feedback..
The 'sweet seventies' at Soam. I took the picture after they had their first round of appetisers and before I had mine. Hence the empty plates! My mother in law Pervin is in green & my mother, Rekha, is in a purple Venkatgiri sari that I had once got her from Hyderabad
This is a post on a trip to south Mumbai with my mother and my mother in law to the launch of Ananya Banerjee's new book, Bangla Gastronomy and a Gujarati dinner that we then had at Soam, which was followed by a trip to the Gateway Of India.
On reducing my carbon footprint in Mumbai
I love to travel no doubt as my recent Mangalore post would have told you, but I hate travelling when I am home in Mumbai these days.
Travelling within the city has become really tiresome with bad roads and endless traffic jams. Reaching anywhere takes ages. Unlike in my early years here, I do not take the local trains anymore. Plus the city is not as linear as it used to be where once upon a time everything of interest to me was located outside the stations of the Western Railway line.
Thankfully I work from home and do not have to travel to work. I am fortunate enough to live in Bandra and get pretty much most of what I need over here. And with time, I have learnt to say no to events and gatherings which add no value to my life. Yes, I have burrowed myself into a cave you could say. As I grow older I value my time more and also with a weak back travel doesn't suit me always. I keep it confined to the essential and try to plan my travels, when needed, to make the most of them.
The flip-side of this is that my mother, who is visiting us right now, does not get to go out much beyond our corner of Bandra, but she has learnt to make peace with this to an extent and dotes on the park next door, the trees and plants there, and the friends that she has made.
Or so I tell myself.
Welcoming Ananya Banerjee's new book, Bangla Gastronomy
Ananya Banerjee with the Sweet Seventies at the launch of the Bangla Gastronomy
We did go on a bit of a south Mumbai expedition a few evenings back when I hired a driver for our car (I hate driving in Mumbai too) and headed out to the Crossword Book Store at Kemp's Corner one rainy evening. The occasion was the launch of Ananya Banerjee's second book, Bangla Gastronomy. I had bought 'both' the mummies along for this. Mine and my mom in law, while K was at Cannes hunting among the Lions, but more on that at the end.
The two moms had a ball of a time meeting our friends from the world of food who went up to both of them and said, "we've seen you on Facebook and read your stories."
We've seen you on Facebook. Not all were in the picture but here you see from left to right: Nagesh, Bhisham Mansukhani, Sameer Malkani, Antoine Lewis, Sheetal Kakad, Rupa Nabar, Smita Hegde
During a quiz session conducted on the occasion (we are Bengali, we quiz and debate and don't do fashion shows), which was as chaotic as the average Durga Pujo planning committee meeting, my mother did jump up rather often as an eight year old to shout out answers, while I was trying to maintain a straight face on the stage.
When food writer Antoine Lewis, a non-Bengali, tried gamely to conduct a panel discussion and quiz among a group of Bengalis who though they were at the Coffee House. Pic: Sameer Malkani
Both the mothers were girl-crushing on how well groomed Ananya looked. Ananaya and her husband, Robi, were the perfect hosts of course. I have often tried Ananya's food in the past and I have found her to be among the most proficient of the home chefs around, specially the Bengali ones, and I was glad that she had written the book and shared her recipes there.
I find Ananya's story to be an interesting an relatable one though she's usually a lot better groomed than I am. She was forced to study law by her parents in Kolkata though she wanted to study art. She practised law for a couple of years and then like a good Bengali headstrong child said, 'chuck it' and decided to take up painting instead. A few years back her life and her creativity got a second wind when she decided to give expression to her love for food through her books, her YouTube videos and her home cheffing initiatives.
Yes, the worst the thing you can do to a headstrong Bengali is to tell us what to do. We won't!
I later did a quick dekko through the copy of the book that we bought and found it to be one which offers an array of Bengali dishes with what seemed like easy to follow recipes on how to make them, accompanied by little anecdotes on why they were special to her.
Each recipe has a picture of the finished dish, rare in Indian cookbooks, and can help demystify Bengali cooking for those who find it intimidating.
Joining the two mummies, Ananya Banerjee & Pritha Sen for a launch pic
Following the Nano trail from Bengal to Gujarat
From Bengal we moved on to Gujarat, just as Ratan Tata once had to, as I took both the mummies and drove down to the Soam Restaurant at Babulnath.
I have been asked since then about why I took a Bengali and a Parsi lady to a vegetarian restaurant.
Well, before you begin writing the script for Baghban 2, let me point out that my mother only eats vegetarian food at night these day and that my mother in law turned vegetarian after my father in law passed away as he was fond of his meat and fish. A gesture of love and not a socio-religious diktat in her case. She does have eggs though. Mom in law had grown up in a family of simple means in Surat in any case where vegetarian food dominated the family diet even though they are Parsi. As for my mother, she's Bengali. Her choices are driven by the dictats of digestion. My father passed away when my mother was young but my grandparents were insistent that she lead a regular life and wear regular clothes (not whites) and eat regular food (not veg) so that my younger brother and I didn't feel unsettled and insecure and I think we've turned out fairly fine.
My mother and my mother in law like to call themselves the 'Sweet Seventies.' I wonder which of the two come up with the term. Something tells me that it is my mother in law!
There eating styles are very different though and thankfully Soam had answers for both.
For my mother in law, it was sugarcane juice followed by cheese and spinach samosas. For her mains she had declared that she would have just bhajiyas and pakoras. Preferably alu. Her secret to a happy life is lots of cheese, potatoes and crunchy deep fried food. Some hot chocolate helps. I can't fault with that formula.
My mother, on the other hand, is very disciplined about her health and which is why has most admirably been able to keep her diabetes under control. I ordered the delectable steamed rice flour crepes pankhi for her (this was the first time that I really enjoyed the dish) and then the baked gramflour and gourd batter cake, handvo, soft steamed white idlis, a ragi millet uthapa with just a drop of oil and a most soothing Gujarati kadi chawal with delectably flavoured coulcasia leaf steamed dumpling. She paired this with chhaas or unsweetened buttermilk and with no salt too. When she thought we weren't looking, she nibbled on the odd pakora and bhajiya too.
These seventy year olds I tell you!
On growing upI had stayed away from Soamfor years as it is a vegetarian restaurant. Even though many of my non-vegetarian friends had suggested that I go there. I finally went to Soam a couple of years back and have fallen in love with it since then.
To start with, this happened as I grew more 'tolerant' of vegetarian food as I grew older and as my body began to ask for it and then of late I have learnt to appreciate it too!
Soam today is one of my favourite restaurants in Mumbai and let me tell you why. There is always a happy buzz there when you step in. It is clean, the colours of the decor are warm and the service even warmer. The toilet is clean too (!). Volume levels pleasant.
The food speaks of the love of food being sent out from someones kitchen. Yet, is different from what we eat at home. The food is seasonal and fresh and through the menu I get to know so much about the world of the Gujaratis. The menu is an a la carte one and this is great as I find the frenetic frenzy of eating at a Gujarati thali place very unsettling. The food is light and wholesome, and the Bengali in my has to point out that it never gives me an angsty belly. I don't miss the meat.
Above all, the food at Soam tastes delicious!
And yet, they do is so quietly. You won't find the on Instagram every day or Twitter or Facebook, sermonising or gloating. They just go around doing their work quietly while people queue up and wait to eat.
With the Sweet Seventies at Soam
It's not India Gate!
On the spur of the moment I decided to take the girls and head to Colaba to the Gateway of India. I know my mother loves this and we were reasonably close that night and going there was much easier than coming just from Bandra just for it.
My mother in law possibly has no fascination the for the Gateway but she loves going on drives. She loves Ola Pools, for example, as she gets to see many parts of the city while other passengers are being dropped. Something, K and I can't relate to as we just want to get over with our travels as quickly as we can. Goes to show the different ones frame of mind makes to how we look at the same situation.
We took the regulatory selfies at the Gateway which, as my most out of towners do, my mother called the 'India Gate' and headed back to our respective caves.
Post script: K was a back a couple of nights later with a Cannes Lion for company doing us all proud!
This was the Grand Prix for Creative Effectiveness.
I insisted on clicking a picture of K with the Lion before she took him to her office.
Crab masala ghee roast plus fish thali at Machali, Mangalore
This post is about three great seafood experiences in Mangalore. Two Konkani. One in a restaurant, the other in someone's house. The other was in a Shetty restaurant. The community that runs many restaurants in Mumbai.The quest for peaceful coexistence
Europeans will tell you that seafood should be treated with respect and that the best way to prepare is to not do much to it.
In India we believe that spices are core to our cuisine and this applies to the way seafood is cooked too. Yes, yes, not all of India I know, but that is the prevalent kitchen philosophy here and many would be more than happy to tell the ‘respect your produce’ folks to take a hike.
Can the two schools of thought coexist is what I asked myself the other day. Can masalas and seafood both retain their individual brilliance and yet coexist in harmony in a dish?
These thoughts, strangely enough, were sparked off when I headed home from a Buddhist discussion meeting. The topic that day was 'inclusiveness and its role in establishing peace'.
Coming from the land of paatla maacher jhol (fish cooked in a light gravy the Bengali way) as I do, the seafood dishes available in the Indian restaurants of Mumbai do seem a bit unnerving to me at times. Be it Malvani, Malayali or Mangalorean, the jewels of the sea often seem to be tucked away behind truck loads of spices and ground and milked coconut when put on to a plate here.
Then my trip to Mangalore came up. This was something my friend Dr Pradeep Rao and I were planning for a while. What was meant to be a road trip in Mumbai during winter ended up with our finally taking flights to Mangalore a couple of weekends back and that's where I tried to look for some enlightenment on the issue.
The ownership of most of the well known seafood restaurants of Mumbai ... Trishna, Mahesh, Apoorva, Ankur, Bharat Excellensea, Gajalee and Jai Hind and countless smaller lunch homes ... trace their roots to the Shetty community of Mangalore after all. I was keen to go to the source to see how cooking traditions there compared to what plays out in Mumbai today.
To cut a long story short, I came back pleasantly surprised.
If there is one place where masalas and seafood have made their peace with each other, I realised, then it has to be in Mangalore.
Let me give you three examples to show you what I mean.
Machali is located next to the Ocean Pearl Hotel where we were staying. Along with Giri Manja, which is older and more basic in its ambiance I am told, Machali was the restaurant that most recommended for trying out seafood in Mangalore. Pradeep, who planned the trip for me, chose Machali too for us to go to to during the trip. So we headed there for lunch one day with his wife and children and a young restaurateur couple I had met earlier that day through Instagram.
We reached the Machali at 2 pm and yet there was a huge, and I mean really huge, queue to get in with people sitting patiently in the balcony with a sense of orderliness that one associates with the south of India. Thankfully we got lucky as our new friends, Shriya and Varun, knew the folks who own the restaurant well and they soon managed to help us find a table.
The restaurant consists of a bungalow divided into many rooms and in to each of which many tables were fitted in. I did see the odd air conditioner around and it did not feel too hot or humid that day and it was overcast outside.
We found out that despite the teeming millions around, the service was prompt, competent and seasoned with smiles.
Fish thalis at Machali and lots of seafood to go with it
The deal here is that you have to order a fish thali first and with which you get a choice of fish curry gravy, dal or rassam. The dal is a thickish one and is typical to the Konkani community whose food Machali serves. The thali comes with loads of red rice and a vegetable on the side and a fish bone infused curry.
Pradeep ordered everything in sight as he is wont to when he likes a place. This was not his first visit here.
Dr Pradeep Rao, a friend you would want to have in your corner for life
We had some fried fish to start with. Tiny kane or ladyfish with a very thin coating of rava or semolina. The coating was enough to hold the fish together but yet not so thick or crunchy that the end result would be all batter or no fish. The latter does happen in Mumbai at times and that upsets my wife no end. She likes to have her fish without anything coming in the way.
Then came the ghee roasts at Machali and those are what blew my away.
I had first heard of ghee roast when I had begun exploring south Indian non-vegetarian food in the early days of my blogging. I had tried it back then at Deluxe, a Keralite restaurant in Mumbai’s Fort precinct. It was the only time that I didn’t like a dish at Deluxe, a restaurant to which I had returned many times after my first visit as it became one of my favourite restaurants in Mumbai.
There was a brown swamp on the plate at Deluxe that day and some tiny prawns hidden in it somewhere. Why roast? Why ghee? Why prawns? The answers to these questions were beyond me that afternoon and I had always been suspicious of ghee roasts since that fateful afternoon.
Till Machali made me change my mind with its ghee roasts.
Squid ghee roast at Machali
We had surmai slice ghee roast (the least impressive of the lot) and prawns, crabs, squids and gaboli (fish roe) ghee roast too. The ghee roast masala was moist and coated gently on the seafood. It hugged the seafood gently but did not drown it. The masala added a dash of chilli heat to each dish and this was beautifully balanced by the mellow notes of the ghee (clarified butter). The combination worked well even for someone like me despite my low tolerance level for chillies.
Shobha Kamath, whose culinary genius I will tell you about a bit later in this post, told me that moistening the masala with water before cooking the seafood with it ensured that the spices would not burn while the proteins were being cooked.
A trick that I had learnt from my mother in Kolkata as she too would always add some water to spices before adding them to the kodai (wok) while making a maachher jhol. An example of the shared heritage of the kitchens of India.
What struck me about each ghee roast dish was how well the seafood was showcased. I marvelled at the beautiful texture of the squids for example. They were not chewy at all unlike what is often the case in restaurants that I have been to across the country.
The crab meat in the crab ghee roast, once your cracked upon the shell and reached out to it, was enchantingly poetic and sweet and mellow.
The ghaboli (fish roe) ghee roast, with its sheer buttery indulgence, would now rank right up there with seared foie gras now as one of the most hedonistic food experiences that I have ever had. The roe of small fish was used here. It was fatty and silken and combined with the oomph of the ghee to tell the story of fifty shades of the sea.
Move over foie gras. Gaboli ghee roast is here
On the other end of the taste spectrum from the ghee roast was the Konkani fish curry that we had. A coconut milk based one which had many layers added to its taste structure thanks to the onion and ginger infused in it. The texture of the fish used, lady fish, was quite pliant and was in perfect harmony with the demureness of the curry.
The curry was just the the dash of the milk of human kindness that was needed to balance the fiery passion of the high spirited ghee roasts.
The Konkani curry
Six of us ate for the princely price of Rs 2,000 or so at Machali and with no service charge levied for the exceptionally warm and efficient service.
What struck me about the meal was that each dish was a beautiful confluence of the spices used and the seafood too with neither dominating the dish, nor was either outshouted by the other.
A true culinary example of the Nicherinf Buddhist phrase, ‘many in body and one in mind.’
The post Machali smile
Exhibit 2: Shetty's Lunch Home, Kundapur
Kane frenzy at Shetty's Kundaput
We had driven down to Shetty’s Lunch Home at Kundapur from Mangalore, over a close to two hour drive, for a chicken dish and not fish one to be honest. That sounds strange as an entry for a seafood piece I know but hear me out.
Shetty’s at Kundapur, Pradeep told me, is considered to be the pre-cursor of the Shetty community owned restaurants of Mumbai. We travelled all the way there for one dish. The chicken ghee roast and that did turn out to be truly outstanding but there were many more surprises there and let me tell you about one here.
Pradeep’s brother in law, Girish Kamath, who was with us that afternoon and who is a regular at Shetty's ordered a number of other dishes apart from the chicken ghee roast. One of which was Kane or lady fish. I am not sure if it was a fry or roast.
We got to enter the remarkably clean and cavernous kitchen of Shetty thanks to Girish while our food was being prepared. I watched the cooks seemingly torch pieces fish on a huge flat pan over a longish period in loads of Chairman Mao's Red Book-like masalas.
“There we go,” I thought. “That’s going to be another over-fried spicy disaster.”
Finding Nemo in the red sea
I was soon made to eat the humble fish though and I was happy to have had my apprehensions proved wrong.
The first taste of the Kane fish that I got was a searing bite of masala as the skin of the fish met ones tongue. Then it was unstinting love all the way. The fish was soft and juicy, well seasoned and not spicy at all. This turned out to be one of the most well balanced fish dishes that I have had in my life.
By ‘soft’ I don’t mean ‘spoilt’ soft of course. Velvety would be a better descriptor perhaps.
What carried the dish through was its freshness of the fish, the beautiful balance of spices and the TLC and dexterity with which it was cooked.
The dish smacked of mutual respect.
The majestic kane fry at Shetty's Lunch home
We later tried the mackerel at Shetty's and that was not as pleasant. This was because we were here after the fishing ban had been started for the rains and the mackerel was not fresh and was from the freezer.
Waiting to be ordered by the odd tourist or by regulars who were many Monks down.
Exhibit 3: Shobha Kamath's Konkani Artistry
Shobha Kamath and the wonders of the sea that sailed out of her kitchen
“This is the wrong time to go to Mangalore. The fishing season is over,” was the constant strain of the responses that I got from folks when they heard that I was heading to Mangalore.
“Well, I do want to try out the pork and the vegetarian dishes there too,” I replied defensively if not apologetically.
My two dinners at house of the Kamaths and which were cooked by Shobha Kamath, Pradeep’s cousin, showed me that I should not have worried about coming to Mangalore in the monsoons.
The first dinner featured a million vegetarian dishes. Figurative of course but the array was rather wide.
The second dinner had an equal, if not more, number of seafood dishes. Pradeep had told Shobha that she should not worry about our missing pomfret, surmai and rawas as we come from Mumbai where we get plenty of those.
So what Shobha did was present an array of dishes that the fish loving Konkani GSBs have when monsoon sets in ... when the fishing boats stay put and when deep sea fishing is given a rest and the fish are left to spawn in peace.
Shobha had kept dried fish such as prawns, anchovies and shark as a back up plan we later learnt but had luckily (for us) found prawns, oysters, lady fish, sardines, mackerels, silver fish and fish roe in the market that day and proceeded to cook up a storm for us.
Let me share the menu of the meal that she had cooked for us.
- Sungta human: prawns cooked in a coconut gravy with asafetida
- Bangude phanna upakari: mackerel cooked with onions in a thick spicy and tangy gravy
- Motiyala alle piyao ghashi- silver fish cooked with onions and ginger in a coconut gravy - Pedve kothambar methi - sardines in coriander, fenugreek coconut gravy. - Kalva maasa humman - oysters in coconut gravy. This was truly heady - Kubbe sukke- clams in dry spicy coconut masala. My mom tells me that in Bengal, those belonging to the poor sections of society would have clams. This dish was pretty majestic though - Gabbali ghee roast - fish roe in ghee and chillies. This was a different versio from Macchalis as the roe used was that of sardines and was more grainy.
There were a variety of dried fish dishes on the table too such as
Rohu tossed in Mangalorean ghee roast masala with sliced capsicum and aubergine Served with Manipur red rice sown in Assam. An Indian mash up
The Travelling Bengali Bhuri (Belly)
As stereotypes go, it is said that Punjabis like to spend their money on land, Tamilians on gold and Bengalis on travel.
I confirm to the stereotype of my community.
On a separate note, you might have heard us Bengalis mock those belonging to other communities for their not being experimental enough with their food when they travel. The thepla carrying Gujaratis and the MTR boil in a bag pongal carrying Tambrahms are our favourite soft targets.
Now here's the thing, this image of the brave Bengali who travels with No Reservations is a carefully crafted culinary stereotype which is not entirely true though. The truth is rather inconvenient and different.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. I was at Vizag towards the end of the last year. It is a popular destination for tourists from Bengal I am told. On the beach I noticed guest houses set up for Bengali tourists. Emblazoned on them, in Bengali script, were the words, "Bangla khabar pawa jai" (Bengali food is available here).
The intrepid Bengali seeks out his or her favourite fish wherever they go. To be fair, my mother does try out dishes from other communities when she travels though a visit to the local fish market does make her rather happy. Here she is at the Khar Market, June 2018
So long and thank you for the fish
'Bangla Khabar' here is code for maachh bhaat, fish curry with river fish and rice, of course. Yes, the traditional Bengali tourist has always needed his or her share of maach bhaat while travelling. Most popular traditional tourist spots of India are known to have places which offer simple Bengali food for Bengali travellers.
The New Bengal Lodge near Mumbai's CST station had a mess on the terrace where we would go for Bengali food when I was new to Mumbai. We would be surrounded by boudis in maxis and dadas in white panjabis (kurtas) and white parallel ankle length pyjamas walloping away plates of machh and bhaat after getting off the from the Howrah Mail.
My late grandfather loved to travel and would stay in Railway or bank guest houses wherever he would go to. He would then go to the local market and buy fish, rice, dal and veggies for my grandma to cook. He refused to eat food cooked by anyone else and this was before the age of Air B&B and serviced apartments with kitchens.
I love to experiment with my food when I travel though and would urge you to do so too.
The Bengali traveller is happy when she finds fish of her choice. In this case, rui, pabda, tyangra and bhetki at Poonam's at Khar Market. Mom was quite happy with the quality of the fish. June 2018
Rohu ghee roast with black rice
My lunch yesterday featured memories of both my most recent travels and the rui maach (rohu) fresh water fish that we Bengalis dote on. This, and the kaatla, which are now farmed in Andhra Pradesh in any case, is the one 'Bengali fish' that is likely to be available across the country.
Before our cousins from the east protest, let me quickly add that the Axomis, the Odisyas and the Biharis love their rohu too!
I had decided to make some of the rohu, which I had bought from Poonam at the Khar fish market, for lunch. I wanted something different though. Not the same old bhaaja, jhol, kaalia or doi maach though.
That's when I thought of using the Aruna chicken ghee roast masala pack that I had bought from the 94 year old Dwarka Prakash Mills at Mangalore.
I heated a tablespoon of ghee, Jharna ghee from Kolkata of course, in my cast iron pan and added a liberal amount (4,5 teaspoons) of the masala into the pan.
The masala began to smoke on the high heat before I added some sliced capsicum and chopped aubergine to the mix. Once they got cooked, I moved them to the side of the pan and then added a teaspoon more of ghee and added 3 pieces of fish. I gently turned these around after 30 sec. The kitchen was smelling intensely of the masala by then. The dish took just a couple of minutes more to cook.
I had this with the black rice which I had cooked in parallel. We plan to try cooking it in a pressure cooker the next time as it takes quite a while to cook. Black rice is said the be native to Manipur. This one was grown in Jorhat in Assam though though by a company called AgrOrganic who had sent it to me to try.
Rohu ghee roast
The fish was cooked just right and was pleasantly moist inside . The masala was rather fierce but the nuttiness of the black rice balanced the taste. The capsicum and the aubergine added bulk to the meal.
You might look at the picture and think that the food was burnt but this was not so. It's just that the masalas had burnt a bit and that is because I had not added the copious amounts of ghee that a ghee roast calls for.
The great Indian mash up
I cleaned up the plate at the end. My mouth was a bit numb from the spices and I had some chilled kesar mangoes from the fridge to set me right after that.
The mangoes are from the farm of a young chef and entrepreneur, Devash Jhaveri. The farm is in Valsad in Gujarat and he most kindly sent a big bag of mangoes for me. The cast iron wok is made in Haryana and I bought it from the Maharashtra Saras, a festival meant to celebrate largely the produce of Maharashtra. The rohu was from the shop of Poonam, Sangeeta and their mom Hira Bai at the Khar Market. They are Kolis from Mumbai. The fish has probably come here from Andhra Pradesh. The Bengali DNA in me craved for it and I bought it for my mother too along with some bhetki (from Jamnagar in Gujarat), pabda and tyangra. Bengali freshwater fish favourites. The use of black rice, a reflection of my love for the food of the north east of India sparked off by my recent trip to Assam. The ghee roast masala a reminder of the great food that I had in Mangalore when I went to the city on a food trip with Dr Pradeep Rao last week.
The meal is not the best dish to have come out of my kitchen I admit. However, I did wipe the plate clean and will give this recipe a shot again.
Squid, prawn and fish roe ghee roast at Machhali, Mangalore
You won't get all the ingredients that I used in this easily to be honest. Plus here are things I need to correct in the recipe next time. I had used too much of the ghee roast powder and not enough ghee. Given that I had starved the pan of ghee, I should have possibly added the masala after adding the fish and the veggies rather than the before to have prevented it from getting burnt.
Given all these loopholes, why am I telling you about this dish you ask?
Well, remember that I did not say that I will give you a recipe here. I just wanted to show how it helps to open our minds when we travel.
It expands are lives and our bellies too as this Indian mash up lunch taught me and it sure was not the 'same old.'
Experimental rohu ghee roast
The more traditional maachh bhaaja or fish fry that I had eaten with dal, red rice and lauki, the day I brought back the fish from the market. "Bengalis don't put the fish from the market straight into the fridge," wrote my mother, Rekha Karmakar on Facebook. "They cook a portion first." She had suggested that I have a fried fish with my meal. She had a bhetki curry made by our cook, Banu.
There was some leftover cooked Manipurblack rice in the fridge and leftover Assamese boiled chicken and a Mediterranean dukkah, walnut and Spanish extra virgin olive oil hung curd dip that I had made too.
I sautéed lots of greens which were in the fridge too and which were chopped originally to make bhetki in Thai oyster sauce with - capsicum, spring onions bokchoy - in olive oil and let it cool. I then mixed the black rice, the chicken, the dip, the greens, salt and pepper in a salad bowl and added some more of the Spanish extra virgin olive oil at the end and sprinkled some sumac and sunflower seeds on top to make a nice and summery salad. A true global citizen of a dish with prominent flavours from the north east of India.
It tasted pretty good. I ate half. Left the rest for a snack tomorrow.
I am given to understand that salads and boiled dishes are big in the cuisine of north eastern India with local herbs being used to add flavour rather than oil or spices.
The funny thing is that the salad bowl that I used tonight was gifted to me by the missus from one of her international work trips. Given that we never make salads, we had used it so far as a bowl for keys and stuff and I had to wash it thoroughly first. It’s staying in the kitchen from now!
A friend had messaged me just before dinner saying that she’d made the Assamese boiled chicken from the blog today. She said that she had added some coconut oil at the start and had really liked the final dish. She told me that emboldened by the results, she has now decided to cook everyday.
What makes this story special is that she is battling cancer and that the last time we had messaged each other she had told me that the chemo had made her nauseous.
I felt so happy for her to hear about her chicken story that I rushed to the kitchen to experiment more and rushed to the phone to post this after I saw that the experiment had gone off well.
Please join me in saying a quick prayer for her and in wishing her all the best for her next chemo session which is on Monday next.
Here’s the final dish and yes, it did me say ‘what a good boy am I’ and makes it to what I call my #LittleJackHornerMeals series of healthy meals which make me happy too.
PS: I must thank the folks at Kitchen Garden by Suzette who, through their udon noodles with miso salad, have showed me that salads can be tasty too.
My north east meets the world black rice and chicken salad
The sandwich I had myself this morning with the dip and sautéed vegetables
Last night’s bhetki in oyster sauce with sautéed vegetables dinner
Manipur black rice, grown in Assam in this case, and an Assam inspired boiled chicken. Both cooked at home in Mumbai.
Note: If all you want is the recipe, then please scroll straight to the bottom of the post. I hope you will not do so though.
The Travelling Belly in Mangalore
Food mementos are my favourite souvenirs to get back from my travels.
Take for example my recent trip to Mangalore from which I came back with a load of spice and chutney mixes, flours, jackfruit papads and condiments from Dharma Prakash Mills, a 94 year old shop there.
That's Avinash, the grandson of the founder in the picture below. Surprisingly, I didn't have to pay for excess baggage on my flight back despite all my purchases.
I have used the ghee roast masala from the shop so far and made chicken wings with them when friends dropped in home the other night for the pork baffad that I had got back from the Mangala Bar and Restaurant in Mangalore and the gudgud alambe mushrooms too.
Chicken wings ghee roast
Pork masala/ bafad from Mangala. I brought back a frozen 1 kg block and thawed it in Mumbai
The gudgud alambe mushrooms are available for just a week after the first rains and grow in the cracks that appear in the soil that in the forest land around Mangalore when the rains hit them. They are then foraged and sold. Each mushroom has to be peeled and then eaten. They require minimal time for heating. These were packed for us by Shobha and Girish Kamath. Shobha had prepared these for dinner for us in a mellow onion flavoured coconut gravy. Back in Bandra, we just heated the mushrooms and had them and enjoyed their flavours in their full glory. The raw mushrooms in the picture below are from a shop just outside the Shri Krishna Matha in Udupi. Gudgud means thunder as Dr Pradeep Rao told me.
Shobha Kamath's Konkani gudgud alambe curry
Not quite wild boar, but works!
My Guwahati Nights
This post traces its origins to Assam though and is about another type of food memento that I love. I am talking of instances when I come back home and recreate recipes based on memories of dishesthat I have had during my travels. This is something that I have been doing for years.
I made a chicken stew/ curry with no oil for my lunch yesterday. The dish was inspired by a flavourful dish that I had eaten at Chef Atul Lahkar's Khorikaa Heritage Restaurant in Guwahati. During my dinner at his restaurant, the smiling chef had explained to me that he uses a variety of cooking techniques in his kitchen. Techniques which are inspired by what he sees during his travels across the state of Assam. The dish in question is what he had loosely referred to as boiled chickenfrom rural Assam.This is a light and fragrant chicken dish, white in colour. The gravy had a distinct garlic note in it which balanced and blended beautifully the meatiness of the chicken and the herbs used in the dish.
With chef Atul Lahkar at Khorikaa Heritage. The big bowl in front contains the boiled chicken. Pic was taken by Sisir Kumaar of Guwahati Foodie who had insisted that I come here for dinner though I was tired after the road trip back from Manas and full after the momos at Chinese Hut. I am so glad that he had done so!
Not your usual curry and rice
The preparation reminded me a lot of the chicken 'stew' that my mother made us when we were kids and which I often make at home now in a pressure cooker. We would also get this this stew at the small cabin outside the College Square swimming pool in Calcutta. This is when I was in Presidency College and when we would often go and stand outside the tiny cabin and fill our tummy with a bowl of the stew and a small loaf of bread. We would opt for the vegetable stew which had papaya, potatoes, carrots, onions and beans in it. This would cost around Rs 3 (yes, three) in 1992 -95 if I remember right. The chicken stew was beyond our reach and cost Rs 5. We didn't really get a separate spending allowance and this money would come out whatever one would save from the travel allowance our parents would give us.
Gautam Bhattacharya had recently written on Facebook about how one would get this stew at the grounds of the football clubs of Kolkata in the Maidan there.
Recreating the Assamese Boiled Chicken in my Mumbai Kitchen
I decided to make the boiled chicken yesterday after Babita Baruah, a friend of ours who works in an advertising agency and is based in Gurugram, sent me packs of black rice. Black rice is indigenous to Manipur. What she had sent was grown in Jorhat in upper Assam though, by her nephew and niece, Supriya Bordoloi and Manisha Dutta. They run a company called Agrorganic where they retail produce from their farms.
A quick Internet search told me that black rice was referred to 'royal rice' in the past in China as it was reserved for the royalty. It was also called 'Forbidden Rice' because commoners were not allowed to eat it during the rule of the Ming and Ching dynasties in China. This is because it was believed to aid the longevity of ones life and was hence reserved for the royals. Black rice does not undergo any refining or processing from what I understand and is hence said to be rich in fibre, has a much lower GI than white rice and is rich in antioxidants too. Today commoners can have it too. Provided one can access it!
The first time I had black rice was in the payokh (rice pudding/ payesh/ kheer) that Kashmiri Nath had made in her Assamese food pop up in the Trident BKC. I am not sure if black rice is consumed commonly in Assam or at least in Guwahati. Possibly not, if one goes by whatever limited experience I had there. However, it sure is an important part of the rich bounty of nature that the north east of India is blessed with. The beauty of which, those of us in the rest of India are just beginning to learn.
Enjoying the black rice payokh that she had made with Kashmiri Nath at the Trident BKC with some pitha too
Babita's suggestion to me was to have the rice with either a dry dish or with a light broth and not with a heavy curry or even a dal. She said that the colour comes out from the rice when mixed with anything liquid on the plate and this looks rather unpleasant and hence it is best not to pair it with a curry or dal which has its own distinct colour. She also said that the rice has a distinct nutty taste of its own and should not be combined with something whose taste clashes with that of the rice.
My plate at the end of lunch. As Babita said, the colour of the rice does blend into that of the broth
Babita. suggested doing a green chili version of the bhoot jholakia chicken where chicken is boiled with ginger, garlic, salt, bamboo shoots (at times) and the fiery bhoot jholakia chillies. She suggested using chopped green chillies instead which worked for me as I can't handle dishes which are too hot and I stay away from the likes of the fiery bhoot jholakia.
I had also seen food blogger Sanjukta Dutta, whom I had met for breakfast while at Guwahati, post a picture of a dish similar to that of Atul's on her blog. I looked up her post of the boiled chicken and saw that one difference from the stew that we make at home is that she had added a lot of coriander leaves in it. She had slow cooked the chicken in a wok with onion, ginger and garlic, tomatoes, potatoes and vegetables such as ash gourd and squash. This was another difference from the way I make my stew as I use a pressure cooker. The amount of water added in hers seemed to be less than mine too.
I decided to make a version of Sanjukta's boiled chicken at home to go with the black rice. I used poultry while she had used country chicken.
My boiled chicken recipe
Ingredients for boiled chicken for 2
Chicken on the bone (500 g), diced onions and tomatoes (1 each), finely chopped fresh ginger and garlic (amounting to 1 tablespoon in total), 1/2 a bottle gourd (lauki/ lau) peeled and cubed into large pieces, 2 finely chopped green chillies, a handful of freshly chopped coriander leaves, 1 teaspoon of salt, I skipped the potatoes and crushed black pepper but you can add both. No oil is needed. You can reduce chicken to 300 g and add more vegetables if you want to.
Add the ingredients to a heated (I used my cast iron wok) wok and gently stir the contents.
The chicken releases a bit of its natural juices so you jut need to add half a coffee mug of water to this after a few minutes.
Cover the wok with a lid and let it simmer on a low flame for half an hour, at the end of which the stew will be read ready.
While no oil is added to the dish, the fat released from the chicken adds a beautiful glaze on the surface of the curry. The curry was intensely flavoured despite the simplicity of the ingredients. A true example of the benefits of slow cooking. This tasted a lot more robust than the chicken stew that I make AND I have never enjoyed lau so much in my life. To give context, this is a vegetable I have hated all my life and have only recently begun to allow on my plate. This one, I loved!
I kept some of the boiled chicken for K to have at night and she couldn't stop raving about it and asked me to make it for her again. The chicken was not overcooked at all and I strongly feel that slow cooking the chicken and adding very little water to it is what added intensity to the flavour. The addition of fresh coriander helped.
I remember Sisir telling me that they hardly use oil or spices in their food in Assam. The boiled chicken showed me that it did not need it.
And now the black rice
The Internet suggests soaking black rice overnight as the rice takes a long time to cook. I soaked it for an hour and then boiled it in lots of water. The water turned black but unlike red rice which turns white eventually, this remained black till the end. The rice took around half an hour or so to cook on a moderate flame and I drained out the excess water at the end.
The rice felt a bit sticky and stuck to each other when done. The taste was nutty indeed and was quite distinct from the white rice or even red rice that one eats, and had a lot of character. The ideal way to enjoy the combination is to have a bite of the chicken stew and then the rice and enjoy the flavours of each and make it a complete meal. Black rice after all, is not like white rice which often just offers a foil for the curry with which it was mixed. This is a rice with a personality of its own. I like the texture. It was chewy and yet wasn't tiresome.
I could see this rice become a part of my repertoire and all thanks to Babita and the folks at Agrorganic who sent it to me.
So my lunch in Mumbai yesterday had flavours drawn in from Assam and Manipur and which were brought together by a Bengali. A true case of national integration in the kitchen!
I am so happy that what I call my #LittleJackHornerMeals , meals which are aimed at making me eat healthier, is making me experiment so much in the kitchen and thereby come up with lovely additions to our repertoire.
This lunch was even more special as it drew on what I have learnt through my recent travels within the country. It owed its existence to the wonderful people that I have met during my travels, friends I have made during this journey.
The meal left me satiated and yet hungry for more...for discovering more wonderful dishes from across the world and, more importantly, from across our country and I know that this is just the beginning.
Black rice, in focus
Do watch this video where I talk you through the recipe and please subscribe to my YouTube channel:
Healthy Delicious, the North Eastern Chapter. Boiled chicken and black rice. - YouTube
Faced with an empty pantry at home after an out of town trip, I did what my mother would do for us when we were kids and my aunt for my cousins, and countless other Bengali mothers for their kids, and possibly other moms across India too.
I took the two rotis which I didn’t have for dinner last night and converted them into faux egg rolls for breakfast!
‘Real’ egg rolls out of home would be made with maida paratha and not aata (wholewheat), not egg white as I did today, nor would Canola oil be used. Dalda I guess.
These rolls do not taste the same as what you eat outside, but have their own personality for sure and I do enjoy them now as I did when I was a kid.
How to make it?
Add salt and pepper to it and beat an egg.
Pour half a teaspoon of oil on a flat pan and then pour out the egg (I used whites so 1.5 per paratha). Sauté some onions at one corner of the pan. Place roti on the egg while it’s still liquidy. Once the egg forms, turn the roti over and let it crisp a bit on the other side.
Take the roti off the pan and place it on a flat surface, egg facing up. Put the sliced onions in a line at one end of the paratha. You could add some chopped green chillies too. Add a bit of ketchup, chilli sauce and lime juice. Roll it up and your egg roll is ready. You can add some diced raw vegetables like carrots, beet root, cucumber if you like. Some suburban roll shop folks in Kolkata used to.
Works as a snack at any time of the day.
This is from my Instagram feed and part of a series of lighter recipes that I am sharing there
Lunch cooked by Banu using an internet recipe video as a base. The chilli was used just for the picture and then put back
Me (In Hindi): Please make the cauliflower bhaaji that you made the other day. It turned out well.
Banu (our cook & again in Hindi) with a bashful giggle: I learnt how to make it from a video on aunty’s (my mother in law’s) phone. I then called up my daughter & told her to check it on her phone and then tell me again how to make it. I can’t read you see. That’s how I made it. Now I’ve bought a phone where you can see videos. I don’t know how to use it
Me: Bhaabi (the missus) will teach you.
Digital India has entered our kitchen you could say & hats off to all the YouTubers etc sharing videos out there.
I think Banu started giving importance to the meals that she cooks for us after her daughter spotted me on TV in a couple of cookery show episodes I had appeared in long back on Food Food & which keep getting repeated on TV, and which she showed them to her.
Well, as they said in the movie, ‘whatever works!’