Essential New York

Never Google "quintessential New York", because you’ll be immediately sent to Forbes, or Conde Nast. If you are to believe Forbes, then the iconic New York snack is delicate sandwiches in the Star Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton. For the one-percent, maybe. But as my friend Mike would say, "Get outta here!" And if I wanted to get something back for The Family, I would not take the advice of Conde Nast and go shopping at A Détacher on Mulberry Street either. Mark Twain may as well have said quintessential is nothing but essential with a college education. Googling "essential New York" does not do much better.

New York City: breakfast at a diner

I turned to my favourite oracle: the wisdom of the crowd, and messaged all my nieces. The clear winners were an I-love-NY t-shirt (the kind which you can also buy on the streets of Mumbai or Delhi) and a hot dog from a street stall. I’d run this question past Mike a few years ago, and he told me to go to a diner. Other favourites included lox, bagels, pizza, doughnuts, pastrami, and cheesecake. There’s just so many calories you can take in a day. So I stuck to the phone-a-friend suggestions, hot dog on the street (featured photo, outside the Grand Central Terminus) and a diner for breakfast (photo above, on the East 60th Street). These were wonderful things to do.

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Chewing it over

How can you remake pastry into an Indian sweet? Every time we talk to a chef at one of our favourite innovative restaurants in Mumbai our questions turn upside-down. Should we have asked "How do you take a traditional Indian taste and turn it into a sweet?" A few months ago we ended a meal with a tarte tatin reimagined with guavas. Yesterday we ended with a pastry filled with unripe mango, salted and with a dusting of chili flakes on the plate. See the red powder in the featured photo? Pastry chef Namrata Pai is on a roll.

Apart from the food, the main thing which keeps us coming back to this mid-town restaurant is the constant change in the menu. As the seasons change, different produce comes fresh into the market. Chef Thomas Zacharias prides himself on bending with the seasonal winds. The pastry in the featured photo is a late hold-over from the summer menu. The rest of the menu has moved on to the monsoon. This places the restaurant smack in the middle of the global farm-to-table food movement. A wonderfully flavourful tiny fish, mandeli, is back on the menu.

One lovely thing that is not easy to spot in the photo above is the fact that the hot kitchen has a significant number of women chef. This is a healthy trend. I worry about the elitism inherent in organic food and the fresh food movement, even the word sustainability, but gender balance cannot have downsides.

The Boqueria market

When you walk down Barcelona’s La Rambla, you feel that it could not have changed much through its history. Your feeling may be correct. As far back as 1217 CE, there was apparently a pig market near a gate which stood where Miro’s mosaic can be seen at Pla de l’Os. This was then part of a larger market, which now seems to have taken over the whole of La Rambla. But if you want to see a real food market, you have to duck into the Boqueria market, whose entrance is on this road. Among the things we didn’t know about it was that you can find Catalonia’s oldest nougat here. The sample we had did not taste 242 years old!

The Boqueria market

The meat stalls stand at the entrance to the market. The variety of hams hanging there left me stunned. Most of the sales people seemed too busy to have a chat about the differences between the meats, even if we had a shared language. The pig market was moved here in 1840 after a convent was removed. As you can see in the photo above, the current structure is very modern, but atop it stands a high structure of iron struts which is clearly older. At the edge of the photo you can see the even older stone pillars, which mark out a covered gallery running around the market. This older structure houses lots of restaurants and tapas bars.

Vegetables at the Boqueria market

We moved into the crowded fresh produce section of the market. Although I saw nothing which I have not seen before, all the produce looked extremely fresh. The chilis that you see in the photo above are wonderful when they are grilled. We had a plateful of that much later in the evening. Some of the fruit stalls have fresh juices available. It was still extremely warm and the fluids looked welcoming. We took our time selecting the juices we wanted to drink. Fresh pressed orange juices were our breakfast staple in Spain, but here there was a large variety: from tropical fruits like guavas to European summer berries.

Relaxing at the Boqueria market

We moved on, and found the usual selection of cheese. Stopping there would have been sad, not just because I don’t know much about Spanish cheeses, but also because we did not have the leisure to select a few of them to taste over days. I wish we had the time to go back and walk through the market a few more times at leisure, sampling a larger variety of tastes. It would have helped us enjoy what the city calls one of the world’s largest markets if we had access to a kitchen while in Barcelona.

The friendly San Miguel market

We walked out of Plaza Mayor in Madrid through the north-west exit, and we were in the San Miguel square. In front of us was a wrought iron and glass structure from the beginning of the 20th century: the market of San Miguel. In recent years Madrid has converted many indoor spaces to the equivalent of food courts, from this to the upmarket Platea near Plaza Colon. We were in Madrid for too short a time to try more than one.

The main business of the market started behind the stall with fruits and vegetables. The sides of the market are lined with shops selling interesting tapas: fish on toast, cheese on toast, hams, stuffed olives, and so on. We diffused through the market slowly. The central aisle had long tables where you could sit and eat what you had bought. This part was crowded, and we realized that we would have to wait a while to find a place.

A very pleasant discovery was a counter for wines. I had my first tasting session of wines from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas here. We had discovered the grape varietal called Tempranillo a year ago in Portugal. We met it again. My previous experience with Spanish wines was inadequate. I resolved to repair this gaping hole in my experience during the trip. There was also a counter with sherries and vermouths, which could serve us over another evening, if we had one.

Decades ago, I had my first view of live performances of Flamenco in Tokyo. The cultural compliment seemed to be returned here. I tasted something called Gulas which adapts Japanese cutting techniques to create a dish which looks like eels on toast (click on the thumbnail above to see the details). Later I found a stall selling sea urchins. I’d only ever had it before as the wonderful raw goo that is called uni in Japan. This is different, as you can see in the photo above (if you haven’t seen sea urchins before, click on the photo of the things which look like hairy doughtnuts).

The Family found a stall with Sangria, and I got myself a Rioja. We found seats at a table and settled in for a bit of tapas: some fish, some ham. I’d not had much experience with the cheese of Spain. This was a good opportunity to try out the varieties available here. Madrid has an olive which I had not tasted before: this variety looks bright green, and has a different flavour (you’ll see it in the bottom rack below the stuffed olives if you click on that photo). The sweets did not seem specially Spanish. There were macaroons and chocolate of various kinds, and the Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, all of which looked and tasted authentic.

We thought it was a nice place to have an early evening’s drink. Dinner, as always in Spain, comes much later, well after sunset.

Rabo de Toro

We knew of the Spanish fascination with bulls well enough to discuss whether or not we wanted to see a bullfight (our decision: not). But we did not think its tail would play an important role in the cuisine. After a long day of walking about Madrid we settled down for a sundowner: The Family with a Sangria and a Tio Pepe for me. After a few sips, and some nibbling at the large plate of croquettes and olives which came free with the drinks, we thought we needed a little more to munch.

The lady who served us suggested a plate of little pies made of Rabo de Toro. What is it? She explained that when you cut the tail off a bull, you can remove the meat and cook it. "What happens to the bull?" one of my nieces asked on Whatsapp. We were not worried about these little details. We ordered a plate. That’s what you see in the featured photo. The red is grilled chili, and the brown sauce is the house speciality. Considering that the house is more than a century old, I had no hesitation in dunking my pastry in the sauce. The filled pastries were brilliant, as was the sauce.

We had lucked on to a wonderful place. Although it is at the edge of the tourist area of Madrid, the food and the drinks were good, and the servings were generous. This was our first encounter with the notion of a free tapa with drinks, something that we encountered again later. Perhaps we should have sat there for dinner, but our Indian habits are not far from the Spanish style of eating late. We finished our nibbles and drinks and wandered off.

I encountered Rabo de Toro as a stew later on, and was impressed again. My advise to you, young niece, is not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Looking for something to drink in Spain?

Soon after the late breakfast coffee is finished, people in Spain seem to begin to look for something to drink. In this season the heat begins to sap your energy already by noon. So a glass of Sangria is never unwelcome. There are as many recipes for Sangria as there are bartenders, so apart from the constant red wine and sour fruits, the proportion of triple sec, brandy and sugar vary widely. The Family had a large variety ranging from a nice bitter pre-lunch drink to a sweetish late-afternoon cooler. I tried the Tinto de Verano a couple of times. It is similar to the Sangria but seems not to have the sugar.

Late in the trip I discovered Cava. When you walk into a restaurant and they offer you a free glass of Cava, it is hard to refuse. Later, as I contemplated whether to ask for a glass of red wine, a waiter came by saying the bottle of Cava had to be finished. Again, an offer hard to refuse. Dry sparkling Champagne-like wines are not my favourite accompaniment to food, but the Spanish weather makes them more acceptable.

In a trip through Spain you will have to make a special effort if you want to miss sherries. I had an fresh tasting Manzanilla while watching the afternoon sun baking the walls of the Alhambra. In less exotic surroundings I tried out a nuttier Amontillado. I did put in an effort to avoid this and try the regular wines instead.

My trusty fall-back was the Vino Tinto, typically a Rioja or a Ribero del Duero. The ones I liked best used the grape known as Tempranillo (aka Tinto Fino), often mixed with small amounts of other varieties. A few places had Riojas made with Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz (Syrah), which also turned out to be interesting and worth trying. I was pleasantly surprised by Granada wines. They have recently been awarded the Designation of Origin (DO) status which protects their special local character. My exposure to Spanish wine is less than two weeks old. It has been a wonderful learning experience.

Interestingly beer is a common drink in Spain. It seems that Spain is the forth largest producer of beer in Europe. I found this surprising, given the deep roots wine has in the culture. The beer of Spain is light, and had in small quantities. I ordered my first beer on a blazing afternoon in Seville, and it came in a small 20 cl glass. San Miguel 1516 is a common brand, bitter and light. I was told to try the Alhambra 1925. It is very individual, and a little heavier. The bottle is very distinctive, as you can see from the featured photo.

I wish I had found good teas in Spain. There are many tisanes, but I love aromatic black teas. This is not a Spanish drink. I’m sure there’s much more to find. I cannot possibly have explored every drink in such a vast country within two weeks.

Spanish bread

The 17th century Spanish painter, Murillo, caught the texture of his country’s bread perfectly. While looking at a large canvas, I saw this detail in one corner and took the featured photo. It seems that Spanish bread has not changed in three or four centuries.

If one is used to baguettes from France or the crusty broetchen of Germany, then this seems very different. But the main difference seems to be that the crust is very soft. It is possible that this bread is baked in an oven whose temperature is much smaller. The bread is a little more doughy, which could also be due to the same low temperature baking. As a result, this bread is perfect for soaking up olive oil.

The wonderfully fresh food of Spain

This lovely plate of fresh food was part of our dinner. Olive oil is drizzled over the toast. Then it is covered with avocado and topped with salmon in one case, and a base layer of tomatoes topped with Iberian black ham in the other. Some more olive oil is poured over everything. The taste of the food preserves the freshness of the ingredients. That is what I think of as Mediterranean food, and Spain has it in spades.

As for the olives, Spain has extended the variety of olives beyond what I’ve eaten before. The ones in the plate here are spicy (you can see a bit of bay leaf in the photo).

While we shared this plate The Family said, "They deal so effectively with the hot weather in their food. Why can’t we do the same?" I held my tongue. After all she insists on scalding hot tea irrespective of the weather. She thought for a while and said "Our tomatoes are not so tasty." That was something I could agree with.

A Tapas Experience

Our first evening in Barcelona was spent in a lovely bar in the Eixample district. I understand that the notion of tapas started with bars serving little eats to customers so that they would stay on for a second drink. Unfortunately, these little eats are no longer free, or even cheap.

We sat outside the friendly neighbourhood bar. After the heat of the day, The Family wanted a Sangria. I decided to have a glass of Rioja. The little dishes kept coming: anchovies, local ham, a couple of tostadas, grilled chilis, a wonderful blue cheese. We stayed on for another glass of wine. People from the neighbourhood dropped into the bar in ones and twos. A small birthday party was in progress in a neighbouring table.

As we munched a fresh and light tostada, The Family said "It’s all so fresh and light." The toast, for example, had tomatoes, greens and smoked salmon with olive oil. Later the waiter got us a simple thing he wanted us to taste. "Totally local", he said. It was bit of toast soaked in fragrant olive oil and some grated tomato on top. Light and simple.

It was a lovely relaxed evening, exactly what tapas is designed to create.

A Summer of Tigers

Spain has lodged in my imagination since I read Pablo Neruda as a teenager, and was led through him to the Spanish poets Quevedo and Garcia Lorca. Before that was an exposure to the painters Goya and Velazquez, and then, inevitably, Picasso. So when I found I had to attend a meeting in Spain, I thought we could make a longer trip. The Family agreed.

En el fondo del pecho estamos juntos,
en el cañaveral del pecho recorremos
un verano de tigres,
al acecho de un metro de piel fría,
al acecho de un ramo de inaccesible cutis,
con la boca olfateando sudor y venas verdes
nos encontramos en la húmeda sombra que deja caer besos.

In the bottom of our hearts we are together,
In the cane field of the heart
A summer of tigers,
Lurking in a meter of cold skin,
Lurking in a bunch of untouchable skin,
With the mouth smelling of sweat and green veins
We are in the wet shadow that rains kisses.

Pablo Neruda
Furies and Sufferings

The easiest question to answer is "Will it rain in Spain?" In June it’s unlikely, unless you are in Bilbao. The temperature, on the other hand, is harder to discuss: between 26 and 18 Celcius in Barcelona, an average variation between 29 and 13 Celcius in Madrid and Granada. I was surprised that Seville could swing as high as 32 Celcius. It sounds much more comfortable than Delhi and Mumbai in the last couple of months.

The Family and I discussed what we associated most strongly with Spain. The one thing I definitely want to do is to visit the Prado in Madrid and see the painting called Las Meninas by Velazquez (picture below). The Family is looking forward to the Miro collection in Barcelona.

We ruled out bull fights; not our cup of blood. Football is definitely on the cards. We watch the football World Cups fairly regularly, but don’t watch club matches. Still, we will try to see a game.

Carlos Saura’s movies, Flamenco and Carmen are stuck in our memories. A little reading told us that Seville or Granada are likely to be best for Flamenco, although Madrid as the capital will also attract talent. We’ll try all of them. We have to start looking for tickets.

Madrid and not Barcelona? Not possible; it’s the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, and also city of Gaudi, Cadafalch and Muntaner. We agreed that it would be a great place to spend a few days walking around and enjoying the Tapas and Vermouth. A cousin who used to go for meetings in Spain every few weeks told us that there are more pickpockets in Barcelona than in Madrid. This turns out to be widely reported. There is even a guide on how to report thefts to the police. There are warnings about taxis in Barcelona as well. This begins to sound like Delhi. We do enjoy Delhi in spite of many problems.