Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Mistress of Moplah - Abida Rasheed at the Taj Land's End

One of my best food experiences ever was the Moplah feast served up by the Mistress of Moplah herself, Abida Rasheed. I was fortunate enough to be at the preview dinner for the Moplah food festival that is on at the Taj Land's End, Mumbai. Not only did I get to taste this fabulous cuisine, I also got to meet and interact with one of the most charming celebrity chefs ever.

A relaxed 20 odd minutes with a smiling Abida had us all up to date with what Moplah food is all about - The Yemeni and Arab influences, the matriarchal society, the incredibly rich variety using quite a sparse repertoire of ingredients, the lightness of the cuisine in spite of it being mainly non vegetarian - Abida filled us in, eagerly answering our questions as we sat around in an informal circle.

We moved on to the Masala Bay for dinner as Abida disappeared into the kitchens. I wish she had been with us while the meal was served, explaining the intricacies of each dish that we sampled.

Here are some pictures of the delectable food served up by Abida herself.

Mixed poppadums...

Kanji - a rice soup served with a fabulous coconut and chilli chutney.

Mushroom Ada - a flat rice dumpling stuffed with mushroom

Meen Porichathu - A fiery fried fish that set my palate on fire, along with Chemeen Porichatu - fried prawn that was perfection on a plate.

Kozhi Kakathil - A dry chicken fry in a spicy tomato base.

Atti Erachi Ishtew - an ambrosial lamb stew, lightly spiced with perfectly cooked lamb shanks.

Meen Biryani - Fish biryani. The rice and the fish is served separately so you can have both in whatever proportion you want. Clever!

The fabled Mutta Mala accompanied by Chakkara Chor - Fine sev like noodles in sugar syrup made purely from egg yolks on a sweet egg white base served with a wheat porridge sweetened with pine jaggery and finished with coconut milk.

Abida Rasheed, the lady who made the evening more special than we imagined possible.

The experience at this dinner at the Masala Bay left me with mixed feelings. The food was faultless, the guest of honour an absolute pleasure to be with. Abida Rasheed is a name that always pops up when Moplah cuisine is mentioned. She is the reigning queen of this rich, yet delicate cuisine that comes from north Kerala. She served us a variety of classic Moplah favourites and the food was an absolute treat.

The evening would have been superlative but the Masala Bay let Abida down. The service was slow. The waiters were like turtles on valium. We waited endlessly in between courses and service was indifferent at best. If one guest was served one item, the others saw it after 15 minutes. If a guest was waiting for a paratha they waited interminably while food congealed on their plate. If they weren't alert, a waiter dumped biryani onto a plate that was already crowded with food. One felt like one was at a fast paced thali joint where turnover at top speed was the order of the day or as if one was forgotten in a remote corner of a vast hotel.

I felt completely offended on Abida Raheed's behalf. All the hard work she put in was wasted just because of indifferent shoddy service. How tragic.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Dum Pukth at the ITC Maratha - A review

A couple of weeks ago I received an invitation to a dinner at the Dum Pukth at the ITC Maratha. Rushina told me this was a dinner designed for the meat lover and the cuisine that would be show cased was the Avadhi cuisine of the Nawabs. Of course I accepted!

The Dum Pukth is one of the biggest feathers in the ITC cap. The restaurant had had a makeover and we were invited to participate in what was the soft launch while the absolute final touches were being done. A lot of thought had been put in to designing the space, the d├ęcor, the place settings, and the staff had been trained in Nawabi tehzeeb too.

As we were welcomed with a gracious 'adaab' we beheld a splendidly laid out table with glittering cutlery, gorgeous china, delicately embroidered linen, and sparkling crystal. It was a sumptuous setting, a hint to the sheer luxury that was to follow. And believe me, it did.

Rini and Aishwarya, our hosts for the evening, explained how much thought had gone into every detail resulting in the splendour we saw before us. I loved the wave pattern on the marble floor, supposed to recreate flowing water.

As we were seated with more 'adaab's greeting us, the sheer beauty of the crockery hit me. In these days of  melamine and Corelle convenience the sight of the fabulous china was sheer delight. Custom designed china paired with beautiful silverware and glittering crystal, for me this was half the pleasure of the evening.

A silver base plate topped with an exquisite charger plate. Eating off fine china makes a world of difference and at the Dum Pukth, they've really chosen well. I'm a fan already!

As we were seated we were handed our individual menu cards...

As I glanced through it I realised I was going to be really stuffed at the end of this fact, I wondered if I could actually eat that much! Any way, that's what I was here for and so I waited for the meal to begin.

The starters began to arrive. First up was the murgh chandi tikka. Around 7 scary looking cameras were whipped out and the frantic clicking began. Yes, us bloggers are as obsessed about taking pictures as we are about eating. Food to us as much visually beautiful as it is on the tongue. This went on as every new dish was presented and I must say, the gentlemen who served us were very, very patient.

Going back to the murgh chandi tikka, it looked appetizing topped with silver varakh and all. Along with it arrived the Mahi Dariya and soon followed one of the Dum Pukth's signature dishes, the Kakori kebab. The tikkas were decent enough but the Mahi Dariya and the Kakori Kebabs stole the show. Flat fillets of Bhekti lightly spiced, battered and deep fried to crisp perfection. I would go back just for those. The legendary Kakori Kebabs were redolent of cloves and were smooth and soft, velvet on the tongue. Even though I knew there was lots more to come, I couldn't resist having seconds of both.

As the dinner began and the guests were served, we were gently welcomed to enjoy our meal with a softly spoken 'nosh farmiye'...

We were also plied with Seekh Nilofari, kebabs made with lotus seeds and lotus stems, flavoured with fresh herbs and spices. This was accompanied by a Navratan chutney, a green chutney with anaar daana. The kebabs on their own were okay but with the chutney they escalated to another level entirely. The Dudhiya kebab, discs of paneer with a spiced mash potato filling were also quite nice. But then I'm a carnivore, and I couldn't give these their true due...

Then came the Shorba Purbahar. A beautiful soup plate was placed in front of each guest and in the centre was then sprinkled a tablespoon of tender mung sprouts. On the sprouts was then poured the shorba.

A neat gimmicky presentation and a genuinely delicious shorba.

As we enjoyed the starters we were served a beautiful Sauvignion Blanc from South Africa. It went perfectly with the food, suited my fundamentally Indian palate and taste and I had glass or two...

Next on the menu were the main courses. I was quite stuffed already. Avadhi food creeps up on you and at the Dum Pukth every dish is cooked in pure ghee, not something one is used to at all! We took a bit of a break as conversation flowed across the table. There were discussions ranging from Islamic calligraphy, the Nawabs and their food to the what camera setting worked best for the food shots for the evening!

The main course started with the Jhinge ka Salan. Huge prawns in a yoghurt based methi and turmeric sauce. The thing with prawns is that you have to get them just right. The thing with the Jhinge ka Salan was that the jhinga was overcooked. The sauce was well made but the prima donna was not at her best.

The Shahi Nehari (lamb shanks) was a delight with the flavour of saffron the easily recognisable star of the show.

The Murgh Khushk Purdah made its grand entrance and of course the cameras clamoured to get a good shot of this celebrity. The food paparazzi was in full form! Chicken Pot Pie, Nawabi style. The puff pastry was spiced and flavoured and was as delicious as the chicken that nestled under.

We were also served Maash Qaliya - split green mung cooked with spinach and spices. This was another preparation that I could go back to Dum Pukth for.

These main courses were accompanied by a variety of breads. We sampled khamiri roti, Taftan dum pukth, warqi parathas, roghani roti, and with our starters we'd had the most delightful little sheermals.

Finally it was time for the biryani. Now I am mad about biryani and can have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is probably the first time I didn't savour it because I was just too stuffed. Such a grand dinner was simply too much! I wish I was 18 again, I could have eaten it all and then some! But, stuffed as I was, I couldn't resist so I had a teeny bit anyway. I'm glad I did.

Fragrant rice, succulent pieces of lamb, what more does one want? A dash of mace, a splash of ittar and a whiff of kewra - it was all there. This is what makes a Bengali weep with joy and though I've grown up in Mumbai with a preference for the richer, more robust Hyderabadi style of biryani, the more sophisticated Avadhi style is growing on me. Another reason to come back to the Dum Pukth.

Since I have diabetes I don't pay much attention to the desserts. There was a saffron and pistachio kulfi, a variation of the gulab jamun called the shahed e jaam, and on demand, they also served Shahi Tukda (which is double ka meetha for the Hyderabadis). 

I did sip on the Hungarian dessert wine that was served but I found it too sweet. That is probably because I eat very little 'sweet' and am not used to the taste.  

The experience at the Dum Pukth was luxurious. One was cosseted and very well taken of. The staff was most sporting especially with all the manic photographing that went on all through the dinner and probably delayed things in the kitchen endlessly. I can understand that because we work the kitchen end ourselves and interruptions in the course of service are not what one really appreciates.

Dum Pukth. If a taste of a royal cuisine is what you are looking for, this is the place to find it.

Dum Pukth. ITC Maratha. Sahar, Mumbai.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What Katy Did

There was a box at home that was slowly disintegrating. It held pottery that my mother in law had excavated even before I was born. As I sat sorting through the beautiful painted sherds of Harappan pottery, packing it anew, I missed her all over again. It will be two years since she has gone and there is so much to miss...

Katy Dalal with her two daughters in law (Farah and Myself) and her daughter Freny

One individual and so many personae! The wife, the mother, the boss, the caterer, the archaeologist, the bookworm, the mother in law, the friend, the teacher, the daughter, the did she fit it all into one lifetime? She just went ahead and did.

I first met Katy Dalal in St. Xavier's College, Mumbai. She was to teach three papers in my TYBA course. She was the most generous teacher I have ever met. She Xeroxed entire books and distributed them to every student in the class. She took class in the college canteen and plied us with tea and samosas as she explained Indian Philosophy. She took class with three of us students at the Rangoli at the NCPA once. We were fed a sumptuous lunch and then she insisted on giving us taxi fare to go home, all the way to Andheri! This was just before the TYBA final examinations and she didn't want us to waste time waiting for buses and trains. We were welcome to go over to her house whenever we needed to, in case we needed help with any of the papers, even the ones she wasn't teaching us. Such was her love for teaching...and her son Kurush is just the same. How could he not be!

Katy studied archaeology at the Deccan College in Pune and did her PhD under the guidance of Prof. V.N. Mishra. Many years later Kurush went to the same college and also earned his PhD degree. Prof. Mishra was his guide too.

Armed with a thorough grounding in History and Archaeology Katy returned to Mumbai but found that there were no suitable jobs. Though acutely disappointed she wasn't one to sit around moping. She saw opportunity and grabbed it. What started as a favour to a family friend soon grew into a Parsi Catering service of great repute. There was a time when she ran the kitchens at the Free Masons Hall and the Ripon Club simultaneously while  catering private parties and sending daily tiffins to peoples' houses and offices at the same time. She was also bringing up three kids alone as her husband was away at sea. In the later years she also taught at a few colleges in Mumbai, whenever the opportunity arose. The older members of the staff say "bai kab sotatha malum nahi".

Lunch with Katy in Lonavala :)

Once Kurush came back to Mumbai with his PhD completed she said she's had enough, the business was all his. She sat back, always keeping an eye on what he was doing, and settled down to fulfil yet another dream - write a cookbook. The first book, Jamva Chaloji, was a runaway success and she went on to write five more.

She was a very sensible and practical woman and when Kurush and I decided to marry, she made space for us to have our own home, separate from her household. We were just upstairs, at hand when required, but still independent. She loved her children to bits but she was mature enough not to cling to them and strangle them with her love.

In the early days I worked alongside Kurush helping him with the catering business. The 'glamour' of being in the food business had always attracted me but now I got to see the dogged hard work, day after day, that went into producing flawless, well presented food every time. I learned to pay attention to detail from Katy. Go straighten those napkins, arrange the serving spoons properly, taste everything before it is put on the counter, why does that waiter not have a bow-tie...the list was endless but that's what made all the difference.

As we got used to each other Katy and I became friends. In 2007 I started writing professionally. After a couple of starter jobs I got the chance to work freelance for a company based in the UK. The money was excellent and I loved the work I was doing. No one was prouder of my achievement than Katy. She would always scold Kurush "don't waste her money buying silly things. She is working hard, save it!" All of us know the joy of indulging others with money you have earned yourself..Your first pay check - the saree you buy for Mom, the iPod you buy for yourself... I took Katy shopping and we had such a blast! Though she did scold me for 'wasting' money she was thrilled. And very proud of her daughter in law.

Katy blessing Kurush and me 

Katy was addicted to romance novels. If you happened to drop by to meet her you would always find her with a pile of Mills & Boons nearby. On one birthday, her husband Feroze bought her as many Mills & Boons as her age that year. Yes, she was a spoiled wife and she was worth the spoiling!  She was always happy to share her books with me and would even tell me 'this one is quite spicy!' with a twinkle in her eye! She and I shared a great love for Georgette Heyer and once I discovered other historical romance authors, half the joy in buying their books was in sharing them with Katy. That is something I keenly miss today.

Her love for romance and for history led her to start writing a romance novel set in India at the time of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Her heroine was a Parsi girl. Katy was in her element! She was so taken up by the history of the Mutiny that she delved deeper and deeper, forgetting her novel and just enjoying the research and all the little unknown facts she unearthed. She would carry her notes and her books in and out of the hospitals too - she was never too ill to read, to research and to learn. She didn't finish that novel but finishing it wasn't the point.

Katy with Kurush at our wedding

Katy lives on in her children and her grand children. And she lives on in me too. I like to believe that.

You can read a few things her friends and family have said about Katy here and here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bhetki in Mustard sauce at warp speed

It was one of those days that began early, the coffee was perfect, the weather was great, the birds were twittering obligingly in the Ashoka tree outside my window and Abida was singing. Work was flowing and I was having one of those magical mornings.

However the innumerable inevitable distractions that a working Monday brings with it made their presence felt and I lost pace. Work became a burden as I struggled to finish writing those last 200 words that would signal the end of the assignments to be submitted today. I finally finished at about 3pm and I realised I was ravenous. (Of course it was also one of those days when the watchman came by to inform me that there would be a water cut for most of the day.) So what to cook really quick without involving too much prep and resulting in minimal dishes piled up in the sink?

I rooted around in the fridge and found these beautiful boneless pieces of Bekti or Bhetki (as we Bongs refer to it) that were already marinated in salt and turmeric. Bingo! A quick call to my Mom and lunch was sorted.  Sorse Bhetki with hot rice was ready in a jiffy and a few minutes!

Here's how -

Boneless bhetki pieces (or on the bone)
green chillies
tomato (optional)
Kalonji or nigella seeds
mustard oil
Fresh cilantro or coriander leaves
Sunrise Mustard Powder
salt, turmeric to coat fish pieces

Soak a generous tablespoon or two of the mustard powder in a small glass bowl, depending on the quantity of fish you will be cooking and whether you want lots of gravy or less.

I used this mustard powder. It is my latest hot favourite short cut in the kitchen and Mom got me about 10 packets when she came from Kolkata last month. It's also available here and there in Mumbai including at the amazingly well stocked Bong speciality Pooja Bhandar outside the Chembur market. It packs a reasonable mustard-y punch but is not so strong that those not genetically programmed to feel absolute delight with mustard can also enjoy it.

Take a large flat cooking vessel and heat the mustard oil. Add the fresh green chillies (snap into two or three pieces) and the kalonji seeds. Add in the fish pieces and fry gently. Keep the flame on simmer or just a little more. You only want to gently sear the fish, not fry it hard.

After a few minutes add in the chopped tomato if you're using them. Stir gently and cook covered for a couple of minutes. Once the tomatoes are mushy but not completely disintegrated, pour in the mustard paste/solution.  If you're not using tomatoes just pour the mustard in and proceed. Stir to coat all the fish properly. Add water according to the consistency of gravy you prefer but make sure there's enough to cook the fish.

Once the fish is cooked through switch off flame and take the pan off the hob. Sprinkle liberally with fresh chopped coriander and pour a tablespoon of mustard oil over the surface to finish.

I didn't  have coriander so I skipped that bit.

Serve with hot rice.

Done and dusted in barely 20 minutes - a simple meal, few flavours but sheer poetry! Enjoy :)