Sharmi on the Trot

Travelling, Exploring, Eating…

Archive for the month “April, 2013”

The Carbonara conflict

I love a good Carbonara. Which is really weird because I despise runny yolks. I cannot, simply cannot stand eggs sunny-side up or a soft boiled egg on a Nicoise salad because the yolk runs and coats everything on the plate. But a good Carbonara is always an exception to the rule.

Carbonara’s heritage is really concocted. All agree that the dish originated in Rome; the how, however, has various versions. Some believe it was during WWII when American GIs took their ration of ham and eggs to Roman cooks to be made into a meal. Another theory is that this dish was a favourite among the Carbonaro (charcoal burners) and later gained popularity among the masses. Origins aside, the dish came into prominence post 1945 and has gained a tremendous fan following world wide.

When I visit an Italian restaurant for the first time, I always order their version of the simple yet tasty dish of pasta, eggs, cheese, black pepper and pancetta (some recipes advertise cream or creme fraiche). Based on how good it is, (and of course the portion size) I decide whether to go back or not. 

The Colony Bistro

I recently visited this bistro with my sister. We both love Italian food and when I found out that they had received a bar license, well, you can’t really stop a determined person can you. It’s located in the Amar Colony Market in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. You can choose to walk it from the Moolchand or Kailash Colony metro station or take a rickshaw for Rs30.

The bistro can seat more than 30 people at a go and also has a cute two-seater outdoor table, perfect for the evening. The music combination is interesting with Florence and the Machines, jazz and house. The white walls and deep brown furniture gives the place a nice feel.

So far so good. The menu offers a variety of Chinese, Lebanese, Italian and north Indian so we order a plate of onion rings, a peach iced tea and a beer pint to begin with. The beer always lives up to its promise but unfortunately the rings and iced tea didn’t. The batter had no salt and was soggy while the iced tea served up a lot of ice. Then came the mains. Full marks to their portion size but the Carbonara was not the way I like it. It is good for someone who likes a cheesy white sauce engulfing their spaghetti with crispy bacon bits but not for someone who looks forward to the yolk proudly displayed on top. 

I always like a simple Carbonara. Fry the bacon and add the al dente spaghetti to the pan. In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites, black pepper and a LOT of Parmesan cheese. Taking the spaghetti and bacon pan away from the heat, add the eggy mixture so it coats each strand without curdling. As the sauce thickens, add a bit of the salty pasta water to loosen the mixture. Serve with the egg yolk on top, fresh Parmesan shavings and a bit of parsley. It’s THAT simple. 

My sister ordered a creamy cheese chicken served with spaghetti which was far better and worth the money. This bistro is famous for deserts and especially the Banoffee pie. The taste was excellent but unfortunately, the base had completely melted. Thus the cream too had begun to make a mess.

Personally, I would go back a second time. Instead of the Carbonara, I would try another cuisine because I enjoyed the over all ambiance. The music was enjoyable, there was not much delay between courses and the staff were courteous. Plus, their portion size is a big draw and it’s easier on the pockets (pocket pinch for two is approximately Rs1400) than going to a place like Hauz Khas village. But I definitely would steer clear of the Italian items on the menu card.


Chicken salad served with nostalgia

Living alone is great fun. You are responsible for you, you’re the grown up. Bills are your responsibility, so is cooking and cleaning. You don’t look after yourself, you end up sick in bed.

I couldn’t wait to live alone during my teen years. My parents always tried to foster independence and they didn’t fail. I got a job straight out of school, worked my way through college and university to pay for tuition and of course the regular dose of indulgence in various forms. Sure, I could have asked my parents for help, but I chose not to. I wanted to be independent. To be able to learn to fend for myself. And my parents couldn’t be prouder today.

My dad has a favourite saying, ‘Always look at the pros and cons before you do anything.’ Living alone as great as it is, has little cons. Especially when you miss home-cooked food. Even if I try to recreate a classic dish by my mother, grandmother or father, it ends up lacking something. You can follow the recipe to the exact measurements but it never has THAT taste. It’s similar to Indo-Chinese food. No matter how hard you try, but home-cooked Chinese food always tastes different. Even if you try to recreate a recipe by a famous five-star chef with every ingredient recommended.

Yesterday I was craving my mother’s famous chicken salad. The recipe is from the 1970s  when Calcutta was waking up to continental cuisine and restaurants offered A la Kiev and Shepard’s Pie in generous portions. She always makes it the same exact way her mother, albeit my grandmother, taught her. I think she makes it so often because the smell invokes her childhood memories. When she puts a spoonful of the the creamy texture in her mouth, it takes her back to those days when she would help her mother as she potted about in the kitchen. She never has said it in those exact words but you can tell as her eyes light up every single time she cooks one of her mother’s recipes. My grandmother never left her a recipe book but instead, taught her every recipe practically, by making it together in the kitchen,

The chicken salad my mother makes is a basic one. You can have it plain, over a piece of toasted bread or even in a baby lettuce cup. It serves as a great starter, wonderful side with your main or even in-between a course. She uses minced chicken with diced apples, boiled potatoes, boiled macaroni and boiled eggs along with thinly sauteed mushrooms and chopped parsley. These ingredients are mixed with mayonnaise and cream and then seasoned well. Then, the salad is put in the fridge till it’s time to serve. She mixes in prawns and other ingredients like pineapples and cherries when she fancies but 95 per cent of the time, it’s always the basic salad.

Like I mentioned earlier, I had a craving for it yesterday. Unfortunately, my freezer was out of minced meat and the vegetable drawer out of mushrooms. Well, I improvised but it turned out fantastic. And when I spread it out on a piece of toast, the heat from the bread and the cold from the salad hit the right spot! Perfect harmony.

My version of the chicken salad:

Boil three baby potatoes and two eggs and chop them in small pieces. Chop in small pieces 3/4th of a big apple. Put the chopped items in a large bowl. Add about 50 grams of boiled Fusilli pasta. (I didn’t have macaroni). Next, add 150 grams of diced chicken salami. (If you prefer other meats, please feel free to experiment).

In a separate bowl, put five large tablespoons of mayonnaise. Grate the zest of one lemon and add 1/4th of the juice in the mayo. Add of dash of wasabi paste and whisk it all together.

Then, its all about combining the two. Once you have put in the treated mayo on the boiled items, add 50ml of cream. Mix all ingredients together and season well with salt and pepper to your liking. Refrigerate till you want to eat it. It’s a great item to make and store for midnight hunger pangs!


The fishy tale

Bengalis love their food. And their fish. Well most of them anyway.

I never did quite develop a taste for river or sea water fish till the time I actually left home. Till then, I would make a face (at times) when fish in various curries or fried options were presented for lunch or dinner. But it was only after I began fending for myself did I realise, ‘hey, it’s not too bad after all.’ Why you ask. First, it has magical properties I tell you. After a lot of over eating if you stick to fish for a couple of days, people keep asking ‘have you lost weight?’ Well, it could be metabolism, but hey don’t puncture my bubble. Second, its fast and easy to cook. It takes less than half the time when cooking meat or even chicken. In curries, pan fried or deep fried, it takes only minutes to have a simple yet tasty dinner on the table.

Jokes about Bengalis and their love of fish is found everywhere, on all types of social media to bedtime stories. In fact, their deep understanding of the fish transcends all boundaries. Even epic romances turn pale in comparison. Even friends living abroad ask me for fish recipes thinking I know all about the slimy creatures. Honestly, I don’t.

Fish markets are really not my cup of tea. I would rather prefer going to a grocery store and buying a pack of frozen goodness than get up early in the morning just to get the freshest piece of fish for dinner. I remember the Sunday ritual with my father. He would go to the market, I would tag along just for the ice cream treat at the end of it all. He had a routine. First the non edible items, then the veggies, next came the meat and at the end of it all the fish. Back then, I was clueless. Looking at the various fish stalls, I couldn’t make out a Hilsa from a Rohu. The one thing I did understand were prawns. Delicious and rich in flavour, you really can’t go wrong cooking them. (To my dismay when I found out they were crustaceans during a biology class, I was heartbroken. I thought I finally found a type of fish I liked!) 

I’m yet to come across a cuisine which does not use prawns, lobsters or shrimps. Be it Mexican, French or Thai, prawns are prevalent but flavours change. One day you have them coated in garlic butter, the next in black pepper sauce. 

Bengalis love them prawns. And they have devised a fantastic way to way to eat them in the form of a malai curry with steaming rice. Now, my mother makes a mean prawn malai curry with raving reviews. Craving the creamy, coconutty prawn dish but without actually wanting to go through all the processes, every time I try a short cut. To be honest, it doesn’t actually turn out to be an authentic malai curry but comes pretty darn close to it!

How the Malai Curry is made:

In a very small yet compact herb chopper (a life saver from crying while chopping onions) put in one big onion, three cloves of garlic, an inch of garlic and two green chillies. After a quick blitz, add the mixture to a pan with heated vegetable oil (four tablespoons). Add in a bay leaf too if you like the smell. Once the mixture is well sauteed, add a table spoon each of turmeric, coriander powder and cumin powder. Once spices have been cooked, add in 200 ml of coconut milk. Add a tea spoon of sugar and salt at this stage. (Sometimes I even add a chopped tomato at this stage just to experiment). Once the gravy is slightly thick, add in 250 grams of de-veined prawns or shrimps as per what you like. If you’re in the mood for a richer taste, add about 100ml of cream. I always use chopped coriander as a garnish once the prawns are cooked to perfection which takes about 10 minutes. I used a handful of curry leaves instead of coriander this time and it tasted just as good!

Try it with steaming rice and you won’t be disappointed.


Affordable eating in Delhi

There’s something about eating out. I love cooking, but on days when you are left with no vegetables or meat in the refrigerator, or feel lazy (which happens personally about once a week), you either dress up or order in still in your night clothes with your hair in a bun. And on days, a mud pack covering your face.

Now going out to eat is an experience which everyone loves. I’m yet to come across a person who says, “Going to a restaurant sucks.” However, the one thing everyone complains about is the pocket pinch. I talk of the common people of course, not the ones carrying Louis Vuitton clutches, interchanging clothes from Prada and Gucci as frequently as drinking water!

Where I come from, eating out is still affordable. Back home in Calcutta even the most poshest restaurant street will find customers from all walks of life. As college goers crowd the smoky Oly pub, a family of four will wait in line patiently just to taste the Chelo kebabs at Peter Cat. And, I repeat, it’s affordable because a meal for two, including a drink and dessert, will come under R2000. That’s inclusive of taxes mind you.

In my current city, I can’t even think of going to a posh restaurant regularly because just the entrees and a drink will push my bill to over two thousand! Forget posh ones; even a regular, decent eating joint will make you cringe at the end of the meal. Thus, you are left to order food from the little eating shacks which line up every neighbourhood in Delhi, selling everything from stuffed parathas to pan fried noodles. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating in the little places but it does get a bit repetitive.

For food lovers trying out new places are a must. You learn new tastes, understand different flavours, know of different cuisines. It doesn’t always have to be something exotic or from a faraway country. If you’re from northern India, trying flavours from the southern part of the country will seem new and different. The same goes for western Indians when eating north eastern food. That’s the beauty of this country. Each region has a different approach to food. The spices are sometimes similar but their usage becomes varied.

If you’re in Delhi craving food and willing to try different cuisines but have a budget; the various state-run Bhavans (google translates it to mean large building) would be your best bet. You can choose to have spicey food at the Andhra Bhavan (near India Gate) or try the delicious Raja mirch-flavoured pork at the Nagaland House (diagonally opposite the Race Course metro station).

The Andhra Bhavan canteen is always crowded, believe me. Either go early before the lunch hour rush begins or after 2.30 pm when the crowds begin to disperse. With the set-course unlimited vegetarian thali (meal) you can choose to add mutton, chicken or prawn. Everyone is served rice, roti, various vegetables and lentils, yoghurt and sweet. But that doesn’t stop you from adding mutton or chicken fry and prawn curry. With an aerated drink each, a meal for two comes under R400!  My personal favourite is having the rice with ghee (clarified butter) and gunpowder (a spicy lentil powder) with mutton fry. It’s just divine.

Can’t visit Kerala? Why not try authentic food at the Kerala House staff canteen? You can walk to Jantar Mantar Road from the Rajiv Chowk metro station and then tuck in to a hearty meal  of brown rice with sambar and seasonal vegetables. The chilly beef and Mackerel are a must. And the pocket pinch? Under R400 for two.

Love pork? Visit Nagaland House for the ribs. The spices are just right and the meat is sinful. You can have the rice and lentils served with a helping of boiled vegetables along with the famous fish chutney (made with dried fish, tomatoes, chillies and secret spices) but it’s the pork which makes the meal unforgettable. For two, you spend less than R500 which makes it the deal clincher.

Missing the Goa beaches? I can’t promise you the beach view but Goa Niwas in Chanakyapuri serves authentic Vindaloo, Xacuti and Bebinca which takes your taste buds down memory lane. The pork vindaloo is just as it should be while the prawn peri peri calls out your name. And the traditional desert Bebinca hits the sweet spot. Price for two – R500.

When in Chanakyapuri, try out Assam Bhavan too. For a traditional taste of Assamese cuisine, the thalis are a must-have which serves rice, lentils an vegetables. For the a la carte-minded, do try the chicken in bamboo shoot gravy, the tangy fish curry or fish Tenga and the Bhut Jalokia chicken. You will not be disappointed! Again, it’s a reasonable fare, so allow R600 for two if you’re really hungry.

These are only a few examples. There are plenty of other state-run Bhavans to try from. For instance the Banga Bhavan (for the typical Bengali food lover), Jammu and Kashmir House, Maharashtra Sadan, Tamil Nadhu Bhavan, Orissa Bhavan (a must for crab lovers) and Sikkim House.

So go ahead. Eat without feeling the pinch. With great food at such reasonable rates, what’s stopping you?

PS: Check out Magicpin for recommendations on where to eat in NCR

The Rendang craving

The first time I heard about Rendang was in Singapore. In the island nation for four days last year, squashed between two travelling work weeks, the aim was a holiday. I had heard so much about the city. After four days, though disappointed with the city as it fell short of my expectations, the food left me spell bound. And it’s solely for food that I want to go back, just to be able to taste the wonderful street delicacies again. To allow my taste buds to be tantalized with the wonderful and colourful array of street food once more.

I chomped my way through the hawker stalls and food courts in the four short days with friends. From Little India to China Town, East Coast Park to Orchid Road; from the succulent satays to the tender chicken rice, from spicy chilly crabs to delicious soupy laksas, the acquired taste of oyster omelets to the fried hokkien mee… Unforgettable. That’s the beauty of Singapore street food. Influenced by so many different nearby regions, they all amalgamate into food which is simply divine.

The rendang I had was the authentic one (or so I was told). It had succulent spicy beef which had been cooked for hours in coconut milk till all the liquid had evaporated. The process had left the meat so tender that it melted as I put each spoonful in my mouth accompanied by rice. And the best thing — this meal along with an iced juice came just under $10!

Traditionally, Rendang draws its roots from Indonesia. It’s supposedly served at ceremonious functions. But today, its been absorbed into so many south-east Asian cuisines that this wonderful complex meat dish has found abundant followers.

Recently I had a Rendang craving. It’s impossible for me to to find all the spices where I stay. Sure I always keep chilly, ginger, garlic and onions at home but where would I find galangal? Turmeric is a staple spice but going out to get lemon grass on a hot summer afternoon, no thank you. So, I used the next best thing. A Rendang paste which I had picked up in Singapore. When I say I use pastes in my cooking, I always find two kinds of reaction. The first lot categorically state that store-bought pastes are bad. Not authentic enough. They would rather go all over town to buy the freshest ingredients and make the paste fresh themselves. The second group, on the other hand, are always thankful that they can go to a supermarket near by and have an unusually scrumptious supper within minutes. Not only does it save time and energy but also lets you experiment more with different cuisines.

Personally, I have nothing against the people who are fresh fanatics. But I would rather use a packaged paste for Rendang, Green curry, Red curry or anything which is slightly out of the ordinary for regular lunch or dinner. They save me a huge amount of time from having to cut, chop, peel, smash and yet gives me wonderful tasty food at the end of half an hour.

The original recipe calls for the meat (beef or lamb) to be marinated in the above-mentioned spice mixture. I discovered a slight problem two minutes into the craving. My cold storage only had two kilograms of basa fish. So, I thought, ‘why not.’ Instead of actually marinating the fish (since it takes minutes to cook) I put half a packet of paste in a frying pan. (The 500gm packet is for about 1kg of meat so just go about using the paste mathematically). Once the paste was slightly fried I added 200ml coconut milk and let the mixture come to a simmer before adding half a kg of fish. I deviated once again when I added chopped coriander to the pan while cooking. But believe me, once the fish was cooked to perfection, the aroma took me back to Singapore. To the food court near Adam Road where I first tasted it.

Accompanied with fluffy steamed rice (which I conveniently microwaved for 18 minutes) and a slice of lemon, my version of fish Rendang definitely hit the sweet spot. 


The Burmese influence

When you hear the word Khao Swe or Khow Suey what do you imagine? Personally, my mother’s recipe which is the best in the world. Call me biased but hey, I’ve never been to Myanmar to actually taste it. 

If you were born in a Bengali household, it’s impossible to have grown up without having tasted this very very tasty noodle-coconutty dish. Each house has a varied recipe where you mix and match the condiments to appeal to the unique tastebuds. And, every child will firmly call their mother’s or father’s recipe the best.

It’s almost as if Bengalis after having firmly grasped the concept of the noodle dish, began to call it their own. Unfortunately, the name gives it away and thus they grudgingly give due respect to the origin!

It’s weird when I say origin. I tried searching online as to how this particular dish became so popular in India but unfortunately, didn’t get a satisfactory answer. Literally, the words mean ‘coconut milk noodles’. It’s said that Burmese immigrants (not being very politically correct, sorry) after the second world war, brought the recipe over to Eastern India and from there the influence grew. One could even compare it to the far-reaching influence of the Tibetan Thukpa. Both similar one bowl soup dishes. And both loved by the Indian palate.

To be honest, in all these years, I’ve eaten the dish plenty of times but only recall three occasions when I simply fell in love with it.  First as I’ve said above, my mother’s recipe. She makes it with egg noodles and chicken. The chicken has a rich gravy made from coconut milk, turmeric and is garnished with fried garlic, coriander, eggs, prawns, fried onions and chips. It is finger licking delicious believe you me. But again suitably modified for an Indian palate where spices are a must. (Not clubbing every region together but referring to those where spices play a major influence on food).

Secondly, at a friend’s aunt’s place (who turns out to be our neighbour back home). She had made her version with deliciously thin rice noodles and a very light coconut broth. The condiments served were similar to the ones my mother serves. But the taste was so different yet so delicious that I went back for seconds.

Now, I recently went to The Kitchen at Delhi’s posh Khan Market. I was told their specialty was the Khow Suey and I must must try it. So I did. And I was not disappointed. It was different than the versions I was accustomed to. They served it with a thick coconut gravy and egg noodles. Their condiments were laid out in the form of fried onions, fried garlic, peanuts and something which resembled a crispy fried chip. As you squeeze your lemon wedge over the smooth pearly gravy, it gives off an aroma of home. And as you dig into your bowl (large for me), you simply cannot stop eating it. If any regret, I wish it had been beef instead of chicken but well, it’s not a perfect world. But do drop in to The Kitchen if ever in Delhi. The small restaurant has a cozy feeling and with a large bowl sufficient for two, the setting could be perfect for a first date! Just a warning, the prices on the menu are not very steep but then do keep in mind the various taxes the government imposes.


Could I compare the Khow Suey to something like Chilly chicken? The Chinese never really invented the dish. It was created to suit the Indian tastebud. But today, it’s a staple in every Chinese-influenced restaurant in the country. What Indians have done to this Burmese dish is adapted it to suit their tastes. There is no harm in that because if food can’t evolve, neither can humans. In fact Myanmar’s national dish is Mohinga but it’s the Khow Suey which have crossed the borders.

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