Cheesecake

“Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” Freud is said to have said. In the same way, this attractive cheesecake is only cheesecake.

I took this photo two weeks ago, when we met a friend in a deserted restaurant for lunch. I’m happy that this Lebanese restaurant has continued to produce good food even after two years of scarce diners. I saw that there was only one other table occupied for lunch on a weekend. The omicron wave was just beginning then, on the first Sunday of January. “This won’t be good for business,” I thought to myself.

I scanned the menu and the rose flavoured cheesecake seemed to be the most interesting dessert. Not only was the flavour interesting, the cake was also light enough to round off a long lunch. The brass plate, the rosy dessert, the light, everything looked like a photo would come out well. So for once I remembered to take a photo before digging into the food.

For the last two weeks the wave of infections, now tens of thousands of new cases daily in the city, has kept people at home. Traffic has thinned out, shops and restaurants barely have customers. The number of new infections may be levelling off, but the number of deaths has just started increasing; it takes two weeks or more for critical cases to resolve. Hospitalization rates have been low, since the city is almost fully vaccinated. So one expects that deaths will be much lower than in previous waves. That is what the vaccine was meant to do. Nice to know that it is working.

Some dhabas and restaurants in Amritsar

Amritsar is a food lover’s destination, as I wrote in an earlier post, when I took you on a tour of its street food. I’ve also written about the langar ka khana at the Golden Temple. Let me whisk you through lunch and dinner today. Our stay was too short for us to try out a larger number of places. I had short listed a few eateries before starting, based on reading other travelers’ stories, but it was too long. Coincidentally, a couple we know were traveling at the same time, and, by exchanging notes with them, we eliminated a couple of places where their experience was not so good, or very close to what we had already tried. We didn’t only go by what other travelers recommended though. There’s nothing like the advise of locals, and we incorporated them.

Paratha

There are several places which people recommend for parathas, but I’d read about Kesar da Dhaba in old memoirs of Amritsar. It dates from well before Gandhi’s Salt March, and its location in the very atmospheric lanes east of Darshani Deori added to its charm. We wandered through those lanes, and picked up some local achar, before reaching the dhaba. We were not at all disappointed by the butter-soaked parathas and the dal (featured photo). It was not easy to have that plate and finish our superbly creamy lassi. The dal is cooked for twelve hours, we were told, but the paratha is absolutely fresh from the tandoor.

Amritsari Fish

The locals agreed with travelers about Makhan’s Fish. The Amritsari style of fish is either baked in the tandoor or lightly fried. Two kinds of fish are commonly used, Sangara (red snapper) and Sohal, which, I was told, is a local fresh water fish. Our server advised a fried Sangara and a tandoori Sohal. The preparation was typical of genuine Punjabi cooking, light on masala, and emphasizing the freshness of the ingredients. I overdid things a little by adding on a plate of the mutton tikka. This was an amazing dish, the pieces of mutton cooked in ghee until they were soft and melting. The Family went light on the mutton because she wanted to end the dinner with a kulfi. We hadn’t had kulfi in Amritsar before, but I could only have a little taste of their delicate saffron infused version.

Kulchas and Puris

Amritsar Kitchen is not on any traveler’s list, because it opened in early 2020, just before the lockdown. But their food is amazing. The Family had kulchas for breakfast, but I tried out their puris. They came with a choice of one of four accompaniments, but the servers were happy to let me taste all four: the usual potato sabji, another of pumpkin (sweet from the pumpkin and a slight sourness of amchur), one of chana, and one of sprouted moong. Anirudh gave me a taste of something they were trying out: a masala gur. A nice accompaniment.

Paya and mutton paratha

We almost didn’t get to what I consider the high point of this trip, as far as food was concerned: Pal Dhaba. We arrived for dinner on a Tuesday, when it is closed. So we went back for lunch the next day. I’m glad we did. They have a superb paya (goat’s feet, it’s called kharora here). Its rich taste told us that it had been slow cooked for a long time. Another delight was the keema paratha. The old man who served us sat down at the next table and told us about the keema. The minced mutton had been slow cooked till it yielded up its fat, then cooked until it had been absorbed again. I fell in love with it, and ordered a second one. I did not need a dinner that night.

The delicious in 402

Two more days to go till the end of year 402 ME. Enough time for me to stop making these count-my-blessings sort of end-of-the-year lists. I’ll postpone that, since the earth still has to travel more than 4 million Kilometers (4 Gigameters!) before it reaches that point in its orbit when it is closest to the sun. That’s when it’ll be time to break out the long-preserved cashew feni, chilling now for days at 20 Celsius below freezing, and have a shot to celebrate the new year. In the mean time, I can savour the aroma of winter’s fruits.

When you look at a simple bowl of oranges or apples you realize what a riot of colours you have in front of you. The apples range from a green streaked with red to a black. It’s not just the diversity of colours from one to the other, but also the riot of colours in each: the streaking that tells of the diffusion of the plant hormone ethylene from the branch into the fruit, the consequent activation of genes which produce pectinases, amylases, and hydrolases, and their action in breaking down the long-chained carbohydrates of the fruit into simple sugars. The thicker skin of an orange cannot completely hide this diffusion either. If you look closely, there are differences in the orange hue across each fruit.

I tried out a recipe which I hadn’t used before. I quartered the apples, put them face down on a buttered baking dish, sprinkled them with nutmeg and garam masala, and baked them for 40 minutes in an oven which had been brought to 150 Celcius. Then I transferred them to a bowl, dusted them liberally with powdered sugar and poured some Mahabaleshwar strawberry wine over them. Let them stand for a couple of hours. When you take them on a plate, pour cream over it. It is a high calorie dessert, just what you need to balance out those long walks you take on our spinning ball as you wait for it to travel a few Gigameters more.

Khaugarh

A vendor in Amritsar told me to forget about my diet, now that I was in Khaugarh, the city of food. This is good advise, and you probably know it already. Before my trip I did the usual bit of due diligence: did a search for what to eat in Amritsar. The result was a set of web pages which had clearly copied from each other. Take the suggestions as guides, they are quite good. But be prepared to improvise. If street food is your thing then you’ll find amrit, ambrosia, in the maze of lanes around the Golden Temple. This was a walk I’d been looking forward to, and I can do worse than to present it by time of the day.

Breakfast

The featured photo shows a kulcha maker sizing me up as a potential customer. The kulcha is the default breakfast in town. There are whole lanes devoted entirely to kulcha and chhole, teeming with people in the mornings. But the shops run all day, turning out kulchas by the minute, as a big handi of chhole slow cooks constantly. I loved the variety, the doodhi kulchas and the stuffed ones. If you don’t fancy chhole, try it out with a bowl of the wonderful yoghurt that these places have.

A mid-morning snack

Why not a kulcha again? I loved the aggressive lean of the chhole-kulcha guy in the little stall he’d set up in an alley. There’s also lovely stuff like samosas and fried bread. We chickened, and had a chai. This wasn’t for the faint-hearted; it was thick with milk and cream, the tea leaves boiled to extract the last bit of tannin from it, and intensely sweet. A local told us disdainfully that this guy mixes water in the tea. A different stall nearby would have boiled the tea leaves in milk. If you want to eat healthy there are carts which will press juice out of the fruits of your choice. I always long to mix carrot with sugarcane and lime, but I passed it up.

We passed up kulfas (large servings of kulfi) and had the fantastic lassi only once. These would have been very filling, and we did want to try out lunch and dinner in some of the dhabas and restaurants around the city.

Early evenings

A while before sunset on a winter’s day you could begin to feel the need for a little sustenance. There are multiple options. A group of farmers who’d just returned from Delhi were having gol gappa. I have not doubt that the Amritsari version is special, but I gave it a pass. Pakoras were being fried, yams were being roasted, and two carts promised a special bhel puri from Bombay. But we headed to the jalebiwala. I chickened when I saw people buying them by quarter kilos for a roadside snack. But The Family went ahead and asked for one to taste. Noticing the bliss on her face another customer told her “I’m forbidden from having them, but I come here once a week.” Every vendor has their adherent. These fans are not wrong. The cooks who last are very good.

Pre-dinner snack

When you walk through the lanes here, looking for good angles for shots of the famous and less well-known Gurudwaras, it will be time for dinner before you know it. But to keep you going from the time you realize it is time, to when you actually get to your dinner, there are options. One guy was making what he called veg burgers. In Mumbai we would call it vada pav. But the star of the evening was clearly milk with saffron: kesari dodh. People had it in large glasses by itself, and with kulfi, jalebi, gulab jamun, or pinni.

For us it was time to look for an interesting dinner. There are so many options!

A christmas pizza

Two kinds of raisins, dried blueberries, shredded date soaked in a pool of rum for a day. The 300 grams of dried fruits soaked up about a hundred and fifty grams of the liquor. I was impressed. Then I mixed generous amounts of powdered nutmeg and cinnamon into about 150 grams of flour. I thought a while, and decided to drop in some crushed star aniseed, and a masala spoonful of garam masala into the mixture.

I beat four eggs to a froth in a different bowl and mixed in 150 grams of butter. Making a frothy paste of this took a bit of effort. Maybe there’s an easier way of doing it? I added in splashes of rum and lemon zest. Sometimes this mixture begins to curdle, and you can cure it by adding in a little bit of the flour, but I was lucky. It remained uncurdled. It was time to bring everything together. Don’t forget the candied orange peels now.

The sticky, sweet, aromatic batter went into a buttered cake dish. I’d pre-heated the oven to 150 Celsius, lined the tray with newspaper to prevent the bottom of the cake from over heating. Don’t worry, the paper will not burn. As the title of Ray Bradbury’s famous book, Celsius 236, tells you, paper kindles at 236 Celsius.

The cook was long, and the house was full of the smell of rum and butter before The Family came back from work. It was another hour after that, before the testing fork came out of the cake dry. Was it done? The label on the packet of flour said it was self raising. Why hadn’t the thing puffed up? The Family looked at the use by date on the packet and said that it was very old. Sad. Still, better a rum soaked traditional Christmas Pizza than nothing at all. The Family says it tasted good, but presented a case for calling it a traditional Christmas Biscuit. I think calling it a pizza gives it more (what’s the word?) pizzazz.

Where to eat in Amritsar

Amritsar is a city for food. You cannot walk two paces without seeing some street food which looks incredibly good. And if you stop to taste, your palate will confirm the impression of your eyes. It might seem that it would be hard to choose where to eat in Amritsar. But there was no question in our minds. Our first stop for food would be the langar in the Golden Temple. This is reputed to serve food to 50000 people on a normal day, twice that number on some days. The numbers have decreased during the pandemic. Volunteers not only cook, but also clean, and there has been no instance reported of contamination.

Langar is one the central concepts of Sikhism. Charitable donations of food may be common across India, under every known political system, but the langar is different. Guru Nanak developed the idea of continuously running kitchens, where food is donated by the community, the work is done entirely by volunteers, and which is open to absolutely anyone. This last idea was innovative, and expressed the central value of the religion. Such a kitchen, the langar, can be found in every gurudwara, and it has run continuously in the Golden Temple, since the founding of the Harmandir Sahib. The ingredients are donated or bought with donated money. The building and its maintenace also depends on donations. The cooking, cleaning, serving, run mainly through the work of volunteers. What automation there is (sieving machines for flour, a chapati making machine which is used on specially crowded days) has been donated.

We walked barefoot into the langar, heads covered, and were handed a metal plate and bowl by a volunteer. We were directed to an upstairs hall, to which we were admitted after a very short wait. We filed in with pilgrims, sat at the first empty place that we found. There is some concession to the pandemic, with groups keeping some space from others. My knees creaked as we sat down on the mats on the ground, and I knew it would be difficult to get up at the end of the meal. We were served two rotis immediately. You are meant to receive things with both hands. If you forget, you are reminded about it with a smile. Dal and a curry of paneer and peas were ladled on to the plate. I held up the bowl for the rice kheer and it was filled without comment, but I saw that around me people took the kheer on the plate, and filled the bowl with water.

The food surprised me, while remaining true to everything I’d heard. There were no spices, but the food was as exquisitely tasty as it is reputed to be. The dal, especially, was something special; the half day long cook brings out the flavours of the lentils so that you don’t mind the absence of onions or spices. The kheer was also remarkable: mildly sweet but with the slow boiled milk infused with the aroma of rice. This was Punjabi khana rendered down to its essentials: fresh ingredients, slow cooking.

Colourful

The decade younger me would have asked why the steamed vegetables? I think I have a reasonable answer for him. Perhaps The Family, nor me, has shed the Diwali weight, but I haven’t. And we have a trip coming up tomorrow (that means that for a few days my posts will be automated). We plan to visit a place where we will not want to limit our eating too strictly, so we have been on a low-calorie diet this week. Also, I now have a steamer to play with.

It is a simple matter to cut up a head of pak choi and load it into one tray of the steamer. Some capsicum, string beans, and onion had to be cubed for the other tray. Shall I toss in a bit of sweet potato? Why not? Add a bit of star anise too, while I’m at it. After fifteen minutes it was done. Decrease the time if you want the veggies crunchier. The sweet potato was also cooked, so that experiment succeeded. I’d steamed and stored some carrots before, so I chopped in a bit of that. The Family had just sauteed some broccoli. That would have garam masala. Throw it in. Drizzle a spoonful of light soya sauce for an umami flavour, and it is done. Another quick-cook.

Shak nu khichri

Whenever a cyclone develops in the Bay of Bengal, it changes the weather a thousand kilometers away in Mumbai. It rained a lot this week, and in one single day the temperature dropped by nine degrees Celsius. I didn’t feel like having a cold salad. Searching for a quick way to change it just before I sat down for lunch, I decided to turn it into Shakshuka. I understand that the word means a mishmash, khichdi, in Arabic. The original contains a lot more tomatoes than I had ready, so I wouldn’t really be able to make the authentic shashuka. But it takes less than ten minutes to make, a malleable recipe like this is something good to have up your sleeve.

I had a bowl of tomatoes, cucumber, and capsicum chopped up for assembly into a salad. I heated a pool of olive oil in the pan and tempered it with a pinch of whole jeera before tossing the veggies into it. I chopped some fresh ginger and haldi and threw it in, stirred it till the capsicum looked soft, then added powdered garam masala and stirred a little more. I turned the heat down, made two holes in the mass, and broke an egg into each. I let it cook until the white had set, and the yolk had stopped jiggling when I shook the pan. I slid the flat piece whole into a plate, and, le voila, I was ready to eat a hot salad. Since I mangled the recipe a bit, maybe I’ll mangle languages and call it a shak nu khichdi. Gujaratis will forgive me if it is neither khichdi nor shak.

East-Indian sausages

East-Indians are a less known community centered around Mumbai. If you haven’t heard of them before, you might be tempeted to think that they are smaller in number than the Parsis. But, in fact, there are six times as many East Indians in Mumbai as there are Parsis across the world. The East Indians were the original inhabitants of Mumbai. They are Marathi speaking fishermen, the Koli, of Thane, and Vasai who converted to Christianity after the arrival of the Portuguese, and with whom they had extensive dealings. This was at the time that the Portuguese used Vasai as their second most important port in India. I was quite puzzled by this name for the inhabitants of the western part of India, until I realized that I had to think like the confused Portuguese. For them this was India to the east, whereas Central and South America were India to the west.

The gratuitious featured photo shows two Indian Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris canidia) which I photographed in the ruins of the Vasai Fort. It is a place worth visiting. East Indians live in the villages around it, still farming and fishing as their ancestors did.

Their method of making sausage yields a wonderful product. Salt-cured shoulder of ham and bits of the neck are chopped fine and mixed with the a mixture of ginger and garlic, turmeric and cumin. A little red chili is added, but the much less than the fiery heat of the Goan chourico. The mixture is pickled for a night in toddy vinegar, yielding a fresh and mildly sour taste. I wolfed down a plateful with toast, pausing only at the last sausage to take a photo. It really is that good.

Small cheese

During the anthropause the seas fell silent for the first time since the invention of the propeller. The positive side was that dolphins were seen in Backbay for the first time since the 19th century. One of the minor inconveniences though, was that Brie and Reblochon, Gorgonzolla and Tomme Vaudoise became hard to find. I began to exchange notes with others, and found a little business in Mumbai which had began to home deliver their soft cheeses: Eleftheria, a Greek noun meaning freedom, sometimes used as a woman’s name. I found that the business was set up by a young lady called Mausam Jotwani-Narang, who’d earlier worked for a tech company. Could the name of her creamery be a declaration?

I’m not a tremendous fan of soft cheeses, but I liked their fresh chevre and mozarella, and began to buy them now and then. One day found a brown semi-soft not-exactly-cheese called a Brunost on their website. You see a block of it in the featured photo. I was unfamiliar with the Nordic whey based foods called mysost. They utilize the runoff left over from making a cheese. The Norwegian variety called the Brunost is a harder version of this. Jotwani-Narang compares this with Indian khoya, and indeed it is like that in consistency. Is it a cheese? No, because it is made from the left over whey. But I liked what I tasted. Apparently so did the tasters at the world cheese awards. I’m happy that the judges agree with me, but I would have continued buying this even otherwise. None of Eleftheria’s products satisfy my craving for a ripe Reblochon, but they have their place. For people like us, perpetually listening to the whispering calls of the roads, this less connected world is a gift; a time to discover niche tastes.

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