July 22, 2010

From God’s own country!

It was one of those odd rainy days when instead of wanting to curl up with a hot steaming cuppa, I was in the mood for another kind of steaming kappa; only this one is called tapioca. And when my part Palakkad roots start tugging for attention, I can’t help but give in. To make matters worse, I had just finished seeing Michael Madana Kama Rajan and Kameshwaran and Tirupura Sundari’s kitchen adventures/misadventures were fresh in my memory.

So, being the glutton that I am, I called up two of my fellow musketeers and ex-colleagues, and set a date to feast on some authentic Kerala cuisine. The destination of choice? Well, Ente Keralam it had to be, after all what’s more authentic than a place that translates to ‘My Kerala’ right?

I’ll be honest here. I’m really not one who is rooted in tradition; my loyalty to Kerala lies in my patronage of toddy, my views on the Marxist party and a few Mammootty and Mohanlal movies. But what I absolutely love about Kerala is the cuisine. I don’t know how better to explain it, so I think it would suffice to say that everything tastes fresh, pure and unadulterated.

Anyway, coming back to where it began – Yes, my craving! There I am, standing like a buffoon, rain drenched and waiting for my friends, fuming, my eyes doing a poor imitation of the Kathakali, when the two of the finally arrive, profusely apologetic. Determined that nothing should come between my kappa and me, I brush aside their apology and we enter the warm abode of Ente Keralam. The antique oak wood pillars and fragrant flowers beckon you and the palatial old-style bungalow serves as the perfect restaurant setting, even as ‘chechis’ and ‘chettans’ smile warmly and offer you a seat.

We start of by ordering some banana flower cutlets, karimeen polichathu and chicken fry. All arrive piping hot and while we make a mad dash for crisp, spicy and juicy chicken and cutlets, it was the karimeen that had my Bong friend raving! Three down and many to go, we decided that main course would be Moplah biryani, my revered and beloved kachi more, kappa and meen curry, white rice and mushroom curry. The biryani which arrived looking like a bed of plump white rice sprung a surprise when we found it be decadently layered with subtle spices and meat. While I wolfed down the kappa, my friend went at the meen curry and white rice; her verdict? “If this is not living the good life, then what is?” And not only did the rest of us agree, we decided to be brave, show solidarity and order some more.

And then arrived the creamy jackfruit ice-cream! Now I’m really not a big fan of this spiky guy, but honestly, this is what I love about Ente Keralam. That even the most ordinary and smelly fruit can be made to something so luscious and wonderful! Cheque paid, the three of us sunk into their comfortable seats and sipped on our suleman chai, not talking, but just listening to the music instead. And what do you know, with food so good, even the usually horrible Malayalam rap music was music to our ears!

July 21, 2010

Mistress of spices?

When Penelope Cruz served up the spaghetti with juicy tomatoes and stringy cheese, men world over heaved a collective sigh. She was clearly the Woman on Top as the sexy, saucy and seductive chef Isabella, who had the men lusting and drooling. In today’s world women chefs may be few and far in number, with male chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Anthony Bourdain dominating the kitchen, but TRPs soar when the women preen, pose and stir up a storm.

What is it exactly that has women chefs scoring over men when it comes to TV? Ask any guy and he will simply say, “When Nigella Lawson gets on TV and teaches me a thing or two about how to chop onions, believe me I have my eyes glued. She is easily one of the hottest chefs I have seen and is it any wonder then that I’d rather watch her than a constipated Gordon Ramsay?”

We live in the golden age of chefs. Between your Batalis and Bouluds, your Vongerichtens and Riperts, your Masas and Morimotos, the arena is brimming over with cooking legends who not only practise world-class gastronomy, but also manage to turn themselves into million-dollar mega brands and names to reckon with. But sparing the occasional mention of a Martha Stewart or a Betty Crocker, the new range of celebrity women chefs seem to rely more on their glamour quotient to sell food. It is no wonder then that famed English chef Nigella Lawson has constantly been under the scanner for her flirtatious manner of presenting, and has been titled the ‘queen of food porn’ by critics. Also named as one of the world’s most beautiful women, Nigella has been accused of relying heavily upon her attractiveness and sexuality as a device to engage viewers.

When ex Lady Rushdie, Padma Lakshmi exploded on to the cooking scene; the viewers just couldn’t make sense of what they were seeing. Here was the ultra glam, highly sexy supermodel, who one would believe couldn’t make a proper cup of tea, telling us how to splutter mustard seeds in order to make the perfect sambhar! I’m sorry but when I think of Padma Lakshmi telling me how to cook the perfect meal, I just can’t take her seriously because these women only seem to sell their food through their fab looks and perfect 10 bodies. Hell, give me a Sanjeev Kapoor any day!

Also joining the bandwagon are chefs Anjum Anand and Rachel Ray. While yummy mummy Anjum’s well spoken Indo-Brit accent and flirtatious manner have led to her being dubbed the Nigella Lawson of Indian cuisine in Britain, Rachel Ray's foxy manner of presentation with her oohing, aahing and lip-smacking, has the men cheering loudly.
Lets face it - the women seem to be able to sell themselves mainly due to the glamour quotient; it helps when we have a scantily clad Padma Lakshmi talking to us about the merits of peanut oil, or when a voluptuous Nigella Lawson tells us how to make the perfect molten chocolate cake. It would be fair to say then that these women are primarily TV personalities and chefs later. That being said, I don’t see the men complaining; they may whimper, but it’s certainly not out of remorse!

July 20, 2010

Flavours of the Orient

They say that all girl children are the apple of their daddy’s eye and all guys are mamma’s boys. In my case though, it is exactly the opposite. I’m my mother’s daughter and can safely say that whatever I am today - good, bad, ugly, the credit/discredit should go directly to her. My mother was a rebel in college and organized one morcha after the other; I spent a majority of my time outside class, playing marbles with the watchman and protesting parking ticket fee hike.

While my dad and brother would much prefer their ubiquitous north Indian, south Indian, East Indian (basically all things Indian) cuisine, mom and I are the experimental foodies in the family. So when Benjarong opened ten years back on TTK road, about two streets away from my house, the radar immediately went up. Off we trudged, cheerily, my mother and I, to discover the ‘Lingering taste of Thailand.’ There has been no looking back since.

I fell in love with the delicate, fiery, subtle, spicy and sensual experience that Benjarong embodies to me and can say with full gusto that it is a love affair that has continued over a decade; perhaps my most long-lasting one. I always try, and fail miserably every time when I try to point out that one special feature that makes this Thai restaurant a magical experience for me.  

Maybe it’s the d├ęcor…nah can’t be; sure it is nice, but that’s not what lends this place the midas touch. I could argue that it is possibly the amazing staff that makes you feel like you belong, but then again, no place survived on good service alone right?

Benjarong to me is special because it is unpretentious. It is simple, plain, sometimes rustic even when it comes to the food, but I guarantee you one thing – the chefs here do no cook because they have to, they cook because they want to; because if they if they did not serve you that perfect thick, creamy red curry with succulent pink prawns, or a bowl of glistening stir-fried greens just right, they would not be able to forgive themselves. The passion shows, the loves overpowers that.

So when I came to know that Benjarong had completed ten long years in the fine-dine business, my mother and I set off to be part of the celebrations, this time with me at the wheel (I was 15 then so I did not have a driving license) and promised to relive our first meal, only this time, we swore that it would be chopsticks all the way.

Did we use chopsticks? No. Did we eat the same meal that we have ten years back? No. But what we did have was some of the best, if the not the best Thai cuisine ever, with the stewards egging us on to try some new dishes on the menu. Well, there may be additions and a few subtractions from the menu, but like my mom said, “The heart and soul that goes into the food still remains the same.” And who am I to disagree? After all, ‘Thai’ (read: mother in Tamil) knows best right?

July 17, 2010

Aamchi Mumbai!

They say Mumbai changes you forever; the sights, sounds, smells, people, pick-pockets…everything is an integral experience that makes this place ‘Maximum City.’ Born in Mumbai, but a true blue south Indian at heart, I much prefer my ‘thayir sadham’ to the ‘aloo gobi, gobi aloo, paneer butter masala’ category. That being said, my heart skips a beat and my tongue starts drooling when I think of Mumbai street food/junk food.

Yeah! Bring on the chaats, pile on the vada pav and serve me some piping hot channa bhatura please! But sigh! In a city where chaat is most commonly thought of as a form of communication (think ‘chat’) between young boys and girls, it is not very often that one can find an authentic place that rustles up this kind of food with ease.

And then I discovered Kailash Parbat .Yes, yes, It’s the famed Mumbaiyya chaat place that I have loved and longed for in namma Chennai. Nestled in a quiet corner on Harrington road, Kailash Parbat (KP as I now fondly call it) is your one stop shop for all things tangy, masaledar and yummy. We started off with the crispy corn basket – plump niblets of corn sitting pretty on a bed of tomatoes, onions, a sea of spices and papdi. Topped with crisp sev, a squeeze of lime and multitudinous chutneys, it set the mood for things to come.

Next on the menu was a delightful sizzler, surprisingly authentic and tasty for a chaat place, with generous portions of chilli paneer, vegetable Manchurian, hakka noodles, rice, fries and so much more! But the piece de resistance was the heavenly cheese channa bhatura. With creamy cheese that oozes out of a crisp golden bhatura, spicy and piquant channa, a pickled mirchi and some salted onions, could one genuinely want more?

Well, I did and so with much reluctance, my colleague agreed, and I smiled in glee as the steward brought on the kulfi falooda. There is something really childishly exciting about eating a dessert that possibly has all colours of the rainbow; what’s more, it was delicious too! Supremely satiated and thankful that I was not wearing ‘fitting’ clothes, we walked out of Kailash Parbat with a promise to come back for more. And all this while, my head was singing…yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan!