Thursday, January 28, 2016

2016 A Year of Learning. Hands On.

I try to have a focus for every year from the point of view of food blogging and this year it's learning. Exciting or interesting food so far has been mostly about chance encounters - a meal at a restaurant, a meal at a friend's place, a meal at a wedding, a pot luck somewhere, goodies sampled at a food event, food explored while travelling, recipes recreated in my kitchen, recipes developed for Katy's Kitchen, etc. There has been a randomness attached to my food experiences and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. But as I encountered food in this random fashion I developed a thirst to look beyond the immediate experience of eating and subsequently finding out the recipes. The way I was looking at food was changing, my questions were changing. I discovered a need to delve beyond the obvious and a need to learn more than the superficial.

My visits to Kolkata were the usual trips to meet family, have fun with the cousins, eat out at the usual haunts, check out the new joints, and shop for a predictable few things. A few years ago out of sheer boredom I went to wander around in produce section of Gariahat market instead of the usual shops that sell clothes, jewellery, cosmetics, etc. It was an experience I will never forget. I saw vegetables, fruit, fresh meat, fresh fish, household paraphernalia, accessories used in pujas and rituals, and lots more. I was looking at it all differently because I went with a camera. I came home with innumerable terrible photographs but the experience was a revelation - I looked at produce differently. I paid attention to the names, I looked at the appearance of the ingredients with more attention, I literally saw things with a renewed eye. I hadn't realised it then but a new journey had just begun.

Of course I had been to Crawford market a zillion times before, especially to shop for the business, but I never really looked at things. Not properly. Not with this kind of interest. No questions popped into my head. I have, since that time in Gariahat market with my camera, found great joy in markets. I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in the subsequent years and I have trawled the markets in Cochin, Guwahati, Shillong, Goa, Old Delhi, Gurgaon, many villages in the Konkan, and of course, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Navi Mumbai.

But the point was not in wandering around and clicking photos. The point was to look and to learn. And I did. The sheer variety of produce available in this country is mind boggling and I can confidently say I have seen new things, stuff I'd never even heard of before, in almost every market I have visited. The next obvious step was finding out about the new things - what is it called, how is it eaten, what does it taste like, where does it grow, and so on.

The curiosity about Indian foods, ingredients, and cuisines meant I was also looking for reading material and so I started buying cookbooks that focused on regional cuisines of the country. In no time I had a huge pile of new cookbooks frowning at me from the book shelves. So this year I will move the learning from my comfortable chair where I read these books and drool over the photographs (and props!) to my kitchen. There's no better way to connect with a dish or a cuisine than cooking it yourself. When you do it all from scratch, follow the processes, handle the ingredients, and ultimately taste the results, your connection with it is stronger, your understanding is better.

This year it's time to cook. And learn.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The CKP Food Festival, Thane

Stall owners dancing to the catchy music while serving customers

Food festivals are becoming increasingly common in Mumbai and the ones I look forward to the most are those that showcase the cuisine of a particular community. I've been to numerous Koli food fests and even a couple organised by the Pathare Prabhus (in fact I missed their last event because I was away, holidaying in north India). I heard of the CKP festival from my friend Manisha and made a mental note to attend this one for sure.

The Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus are supposedly the descendants of a King Chandrasen of Kashmir. Commonly known as CKPs, the community is now concentrated mainly in Maharashtra and in parts of Gujarat and Central India. I have always known them to be a well entrenched Maharashtrian community and I was delighted to see their love for robust non vegetarian food at the CKP festival! 

The fest was at the CKP Hall in Thane and what I really loved was the welcome visitors received - a man in full costume blew a blast of his tutari as a ceremonial welcome. It just set the mood for the good time ahead!

Photo credit - Kurush Dalal

We had a quick browse through the business (non food) stalls where I chanced upon one selling the prettiest clutches, purses, and handbags covered in traditional Paithani saree fabric. Yes, I made the hubby buy me one.

We moved on to where the real action was - the two food courts spread across the entire first floor of the building. The blast of aromas that hit the nose as soon as we stepped out of the lift gave us an indication of the deliciousness that was to follow. We decided to move systematically from stall to stall instead of randomly roaming around and that was a great decision as we got to taste a whole lot of preparations without repeating stuff or missing out on anything. It also helped that we were four of us - we could taste that much more without feeling stuffed too soon! 

There was a mind boggling variety of food, most of which I had never eaten or even heard of before. Like the Kheemyache Modak - modaks stuffed with goat mince. And the Kaleji Dabeli - liver stuffed in pav - which I suspect was a smart innovation and not a traditional dish. It was delicious so it doesn't really matter! 

These are the mince stuffed modaks. The only modak I knew about was the traditional sweet filled one that's offered to Ganpati - not on my list of things I like to eat. But these! Oh yeah, bring them on!

The kaleji dabelis. These are prepped and ready to be toasted in a ton of butter on a hot griddle before serving. Lots of liver, crunchy onions and plenty of fresh coriander made these one of the best things we ate at the fest. As we waited for our dabelis to be toasted the music came on and the atmosphere in the hall changed completely - everyone around started to shake a leg and that included stall owners too. Our dabelis did taste so much better because the chefs had such a blast while making them :)

We moved on to the next stall where we had kolambi pattice and kolambi fry - Potato covered prawn patties, and masala fried prawns with a rawa coating. Both were simply superb. We resisted having seconds only because there was so much more food to explore as we went on.

See those tiny shrimp in there? Packed with flavour, perfectly cooked, these patties were great. The only fly in the ointment was a near absence of salt in the potato casing and in the filling. I could only imagine how awesome these would have been if they had been seasoned properly.

Prawns are tricky and if not properly fried they can turn into awful rubbery bullets. These were done to perfection and we wolfed them down in seconds. Finger licking good they were.

At the next stall we had some paya soup. It was a nice change from all the fried goodies and went down a treat.

Next up was some fried fish. We'd had a slice of Jitada fry earlier so now we opted for a slice of surmai, and another lot of prawns which looked quite different from the ones we'd had earlier. The surmai was lovely, soft, moist, and flaky - but once again there was a serious lack of salt and that did ruin the pleasure considerably. The prawns were seasoned better and were delicious.

Somewhere along the way we picked up a cup of dessert - Ninav Cheesecake. Ninav is a dessert made mainly with wheat and gram flour, jaggery, ghee, coconut milk, and some other ingredients. The ninav was made into a base topped with a cheesecake mix. Quite innovative, I thought, and the hubby liked it.

There was so much more to eat but we were already quite stuffed.

Assorted fried fish.

As we walked around the stalls I saw a sign advertising something called Shevala Kheema. It reminded me of a post Kurush had written about Raanachi Bhaji or forest greens that are popular in Maharashtra where he mentions shevaal, a seasonal plant that is relished in season. I tasted a tiny bit and immediately knew we had to pack some to enjoy later at home. Here was another dish I had never eaten before.

One of the last things we tried was this clam curry. It was the only thing we didn't like among all that we ate. It seemed bland and boring and appealed to none of us.

As we proceeded further among the stalls we packed a few things to take home and eat later. Unfortunately we had to also skip a lot of dishes - there was just so much! Here are a few photos of the other food on display.

Crab curry

Chicken. I just fell in love with this copper vessel! 

Bhakris and chapatis

Prawn Curry

 Mutton Sukke

Mutton Liver Masala
One of the few vegetarian dishes on offer - Vaalachi Khichadi

Prawn Bhajiyas

And that's us at the end of our eatathon at the CKP food fest! 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Haat in the Heart of the City- A Real Farmers' Market in Gurgaon

I was packing at the end of my holiday. Things were strewn all over the bed and my suitcase and rucksack were on the window-seat in my room. As I juggled clothes, packets of spices, a bunch of black carrots, and other miscellaneous bits of shopping, I happened to glance out of the window to the vast open ground across the busy road. I saw a temporary market coming up - tarps were being laid out, small pick up trucks and tempos were being unloaded, bright LED lights were being set up. I dug out the DSLR and zoomed in to have a look - the camera works very well as a binocular! It was a weekly bazaar - a haat. I couldn't wait to go check it out. If I could trudge across from Gurgaon to Khari Baoli in Old Delhi there was no way I wasn't going to hop across the road right here at home.

My cousin Atanu was happy to come along with me and we set off to take a look. I'd seen piles of cauliflower, carrots, onions, potatoes, and loads of fresh greens, and I was hoping to see some less familiar produce too.

The place was teeming with people - labourers, craftsmen, housemaids, rickshaw drivers, but no one from the many high rise towers that are just across the road. The sellers had set up their shops on the ground and there were piles of vegetables in front of them, just haphazardly placed. There was quite a cacophony of voices and we stood out like a pair of very sore thumbs! We went around 9pm and things were already dying down by then; the market started earlier in the evening around 6 o' clock. This is a weekly haat and seems to be quite a popular one because there were at least 30 to 40 vegetable sellers and a line up of snack sellers on one side catering to the crowd.

I ignored the snack stalls and jumped into the fray with the crowd, looking to see what vegetables were up for grabs. I was hoping I would find some more of those famous 'kaale gajar'. I'd bought a conservative 500gms at Khari Baoli and I yearned to buy more.Fingers crossed! At first glance it seemed like a sea of beautiful, juicy, red carrots, fresh white cauliflowers, and an array of glistening green leafy spinach, methi, mustard greens, etc.

As we wandered around among the vendors I saw huge beetroots, lotus stems, colocasia roots, little hillocks of green peas, and something called maati aloo which I have never seen before. I regret not buying any though I did take a photo.

There were huge flat 'papdi' beans, white turnips with a purple blush, mounds of garlic, onions, potatoes, cabbages, and many varieties of brinjal - one was big, round and purple, while another was like large green mottled eggs. And then my heart stopped - kaale gajar! There were just a few left - so I bought the lot.

We also came home with a bag full of tender finger-like red carrots, some arbi, a cauliflower, and some big fat gorgeously green papdi or 'seem' as we Bengalis call them.

There was too much frantic activity around so I couldn't ask much about the market but I can tell you it's in the field opposite Jalvayu Towers in Sector 56, Gurgaon. If you know the Tau Devi Lal Biodiversity Park, it's just behind. Follow the perimeter of the park and you will see the lights of the haat in the evening. The haat is on every Thursday in the evenings all through the year.

Ditch the air-conditoned aisles at Spencer's and come get your veggies from here next week. You'll find more at the haat. This is what a real farmers' market is, not those ones that are held on 5 star hotel grounds.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Breakfast at Chandni Chowk

What a way to begin a new year - a holiday in Delhi! So much to do, so much to see, so many people to meet and, most importantly, so much to eat! Quite at the top of my list was breakfast at Chandni Chowk and it was one of the first things to get ticked off my list.

We set off early on morning in search of bedmi pooris, aloo subzi, nagori halwa, parathas, nihari, and other legendary goodies. The idea was to try out whatever we could find as long as our appetites held out. Our taxi dropped us off at a corner right in front of a jalebi-wala. It was a good place to start. The area wasn't crowded at all, there was a light fog and a general sense of well being permeated the area.

Hot jalebis were being fried. Who could resist that?!

We asked for 100gms of jalebis and I was hugely amused when we got one whole jalebi! Of course, we asked for more and then eagerly tucked in to these hot fresh babies. These jalebis were fat and airy, not crisp and nearly hard like the thinner jalebis one sees in most sweet shops. There were slightly spongy bits and light crisp bits which together were simply magical. As soon as you bit into one syrup just flowed out. It was less sweet than I expected and I was delighted. The only reason we didn't have seconds was all the other food still waiting to be tried. As is evident, I forgot to take a photo of the jalebis after they were ready to eat.

We proceeded to the Fatehpuri Masjid at the end of the main thoroughfare and then doubled back in search of Shiv Mishtan Bhandar where we would get a taste of nagori halwa, bedmi pooris, and other delights.

Here we gorged on bedmi pooris with aloo subzi and chhole, and little crisp and delightful nagori pooris with halwa. Once again we had to hold ourselves back in anticipation of the other gastronomic attractions of this area. Given a choice I'd go back for another round of the nagori pooris for sure. Somewhere between a luchi and the poori for a pani poori in size, the nagori pooris were unique in flavour and texture - not so crisp as to be labelled hard, these were that imprecise level of crisp that is 'just right'! We expected the pooris to be served only with halwa but they were also accompanied by an aloo chhole which I suspect was a mix of the aloo and chhole subzis that came separately with the bedmi pooris. No complaints, it was delicious!

We decided to head towards the Jama Masjid for some nihari. I wanted to wander a bit so we decided to meet back at the jalebiwala, and I trotted off down the road looking at the old buildings, the hubbub of people ferrying goods, cycle rickshaws, pedestrians, honking cars, a huge Gurdwara, and finally reached the jalebi shop to find the hubby tucking into a bowl of the famed Daulat ki Chaat!

We hopped back into our cab and headed off to Al Jawahar in the lane right in front of Gate 1 of the Jama Masjid. The first sign that this would be an epic experience was the list of available foods - "paya, nihari aur roti" said our waiter. When it's so focused I guess there's a high probability of success. We ordered nihari with rotis and waited eagerly. The food arrived and there was a palpable aura of impatience around me - I had to take photos first before I would allow anyone to even touch the food! Finally we tucked in. There was a reverent silence and an occasional sigh of happiness. And that is all one needs to know about the nihari at Al Jawahar- just go there and eat it for yourself.

This was just the beginning and it was beautiful. Delhi, I am so looking forward to more from you.