Eating during a pandemic

One of the nice things about the pandemic is how we have been thrown back to basics. Our food consists of whatever is available at that time. The Family has newly discovered a knack for cooking, and the two of us have finally found that we can work together in the kitchen. So one day, when she found a large packet of liver at the back of the freezer, I cleaned it out and marinated it while she chopped up a quick salad. While the liver marinated, I took a bunch of spinach leaves off to the dining table to clean. Just as The Family has discovered a knack for cooking, I’ve found that I don’t mind the tedious jobs of cleaning leafy vegetables and shelling peas. So the spinach was ready by the time the salad and marination was done. We managed to use two burners simultaneously, she sauteing the spinach as I cooked a liver curry. It looked nice on the plate, and it tasted good.

Multigrain bread is not available in our neighbourhood, so we have to make do with toasted white bread. In any case, our target through this lock-down is to lose enough weight to get close to the lowest healthy BMI. Between eating moderately and working out daily, I think we may reach our target in a couple of months. And if the lockdown ends earlier? We may not have reached the target, but we’ll still be in a good healthy range. Lovely, the ways you can find to distract yourself.

The intense social life under lockdown

Our culture is changing so rapidly now. Some of it is bad: a constant worry, leading to a tendency to be prescriptive in our little lives and dictatorial in powerful circles. But others are wonderful. The Family and I are in much closer contact with our globally dispersed families.

Apart from calling more often, we have family meals together at least twice a week. We find ourselves having dinner as others join us on video with an evening’s tea, or an elaborate afternoon meal, or a mid-morning break for tea, or even brunch. Sometimes these are formal occasions, where everyone dresses up (except an occasional hilarious couple who have just woken up and appear looking disheveled). We chat about our daily lives (I’d never pickled onions before), while the children run around and come up now and then to monopolize the conversation for a bit (they have seldom had such large audiences). Sometimes two or three of us wander off for a private phone chat, and join the conversation later. It is all a bit like a messy family weekend that I remember from my childhood.

Is this the shape of our lives for a while? I will be happy. WHO recommends that we do physical distancing. That’s what it feels like: social togetherness and physical distancing.

A personal loss to the epidemic

We never met Chef Floyd Cardoz, so we weren’t alerted by calls made to the people who met him just before he left Mumbai on March 7. If we had, we wouldn’t have been so very shocked by the news that he died of COVID-19 on March 25. For five years now we’ve made his restaurants a regular fixture on our calendar. His interpretation of Indian food is (was!) something we loved, like many others. The amazing Egg Kejriwal, the surprising Arbi Tuk, the playful deconstructed samosa, the seasonal fried fish, the superb Desi Taco, you name it, and we’ve tasted and loved it. Chefs Thomas Zacharias and Hussain Shahzad will continue to do the marvelous job that they are known for, but we will miss Floyd Cardoz.

He started learning at Les Roches in 1986, was at the Taj Mumbai and The Oberoi the next year, eventually becoming a Sous Chef at Raga, New York. It was as a Sous Chef in Lespinasse New York that he began introducing innovative Indian dishes on the menu. In 1997 he opened Tabla, and a decade later Paowala, both in New York. His ventures in Mumbai started five years ago.

Here is Cardoz on Indian food: “There were other cuisines we enjoyed when we went out to eat at restaurants—especially Mughlai, Chinese, and South Indian, or sometimes street fare of Chole Bhature. To most of us this was what we called Indian food. The food at home was never considered “Indian cuisine” as it was more Goan or Kashmiri, or Maharashtrian. The nicer restaurants predominantly served “restaurant food,” which was primarily Mughlai with a bit of tandoori or Punjabi food thrown in. Over the years the cuisine slowly evolved and Indian restaurants spread to other parts of the world, making the diners believe that this was Indian cuisine.

“When I started to cook, I had no interest in cooking the Indian food that restaurants had made popular.

A new take on sweets

“I love Indian cuisine, the variety it offers, the cooking techniques, and the use of flavor and texture. I want the world to enjoy and celebrate this multiplicity in food that India has to offer. However, the use of an all-encompassing term “Indian Cuisine” does this wide range a disservice. We don’t group French, German, Italian, and Spanish cuisine into a broad group of “European cuisine.” Calling our food “Indian Cuisine” does not cover the depth, or showcase the nuances of the wide variety. I want to champion this diversity and beauty of regional Indian food. There is so much to discover, so much to acknowledge.”

The sour mango cream with salt and chili in the dessert whose photo you see above is part of the wave he started.

Sweets of Jamnagar

I walked into a shop with tall glass and steel counters filled with trays of sweets. Just another sweet shop. But instantly the little boy inside me took over my eyes and legs, and I began to look at the sweets one by one. The adult keeps hold of the wallet, so the little kid doesn’t get everything he wants, but the eyes belong to him. The thick disks of kaju katli topped with beaten silver sheets of warq, always tastes good, not as sweet as marzipan, and also richer and creamier because the almonds have been replaced by cashew. Behind them you can see a few stray pieces of kesar peda, rich with almonds and pistachio, dyed in saffron. It is another staple of Gujarati sweet shops.

Less common are the thabdi penda, basically sweetened milk with added fat, boiled until it turns into a brown mass. Crushed cashews and almonds had been added to it to give you the healthy statins that would keep your heart from immediately seizing up when you eat this. Very considerately, slivers of almonds had been added to the laddoos on display. I am overwhelmed by the generous spirit of mithaiwalas, the way they keep tweaking recipes to make it healthier for you. The Family had finished buying the farsan to take back with us. The boy was happy. It was time to go.

How to put on one kilo in three days

Now that the idea of a lockdown no longer seems remote, one needs many suggestions on what to do in those long hours you’ll have to spend at home. In order to help you out, I’ve put together this small post on how to gain weight. I cannot claim that this is a method I’ve invented, but it is certainly one I tested in a long weekend in Jamnagar.

Let’s start at the very beginning. The day starts with breakfast, You’ll certainly have jalebi at hand. If not, make some.

Then make gathia. Take besan, add ajwain, powdered pepper, red chili powder, and salt to taste. Knead till the ball is elastic, neither too soft, nor too hard. Then, with a smooth practiced motion, roll out ribbons of gathia. Fry them in hot oil.

The same dough gives you fafra too. You’ll need a flat-bladed knife for this. Also, remember to fry some of those delicious big chilis to go with the sweetness of the jalebi. Deep frying everything is important for your goal.

Remember, you don’t need to fill yourself till you are sick. Just eat enough that you feel you don’t need lunch. Of course you will have lunch, but this is just a measure of fullness. If you’ve overdone it, then just take an extra glassful of that lovely strong, sweet, and milky tea,

Streetside chocolate

We’d met these chocolate shops in Munnar: small enterprises who make their own flavours. They are called home-made, but the quantities are too large for that. The word of hour is artisanal, but I don’t think the people here would like some of the assumptions behind that description. I will go with “home-made” with the scare quotes. Walking about Jew Town in Kochi, we saw this cart of “home made” chocolate. So what if it was much sweeter than what we normally eat? We were on holiday. We got a small quantity of dark chocolate with almonds and cashews, and ate them for the rest of the week as we walked about Fort Kochi. When traveling, eat local. Except that this local depends on a centuries old supply chain which spans the globe. Change that to eat traditional.

The end and the beginning

Niece Tatu passed through and spent a night with us. We decided to take her and Niece Moja out for dinner to our favourite restaurant. This generation refuses to be surprised, so Niece Tatu researched the place and pronounced herself satisfied. When I mentioned this to The Family, she said “Who does that remind me of?” Don’t look at me, I don’t do that with restaurants. Okay, maybe some times. But how do you go beyond the curated experience? Our simple solution was to order every dessert on the menu. Fortunately, this restaurant turns over its menu rather frequently, so while there were a few old favourites (deconstructed and dressed up, like the gulab jamun and ice cream in the featured photo) there was also enough new to keep me interested.

By the time we got to the desserts, it had been a long evening, even though Niece Moja managed to come in earlier than her usual (she must have cancelled a few appointments). Before she breezed in, we’d worked our way through the first round of cocktails. Niece Moja had chosen to follow The Family into non-alcoholic terrain for the second round. I wanted to settle in with something solid and interesting, but new. After some quizzing, our evening’s guide through the menu suggested that I try an Eight Finger Eddie. The bottle and Niece Moja arrived together. She inspected my drink, decided to be my poison taster, and then ordered something else. The proven-safe drink turned out to meet my expectations. It was new to me, but not to the youngsters. They were fun kids, but so much more interesting as adults.

Instagram food

We had some memorable meals in Kochi: Malabar biryani, a Dutch bread, and wonderful sea food. On our last night in Kochi we could go back to the place which we’d liked most till then, or explore a new place. We opted to explore something new which had good ratings. The reviews on various restaurant sites were good, and the photos of the dishes also looked good. It was only when our order came to the table that we realized that the chef spends all his energy on making the food instagrammable. The seared octopus that you see in the featured photo looked wonderful, and I took a photo before digging in. There was no seasoning at all. The dark grains were carbon. The crisp black and white wafer was sago granules in carbon. Talk of food turning to ashes in your mouth! The rest of dinner proceeded along the same line.

To the adage “Never judge a book by its cover” we must add “Never judge food by its photo”.

Breakfast in Jamnagar

Our train arrived in Jamnagar in time for breakfast. This is a big affair anywhere in Gujarat. Before we could get to the food I needed chai. Lots of it. There had been precious little of it on the train. It wasn’t a problem here at all. These guys were set up to serve the perfect Gujarati tea: milky, boiled with dust tea, lots of sugar and ginger, a perfect early morning drink really: the sweetness of fruit juice with a kick of caffeine.

A cup in hand, I was ready to look at the legendary cook who makes the best breakfast in the neighbourhood. He sat surrounded by his parapharnelia, kneading a twist of besan mixed with ajwain. In a short while he’d rolled out strips of fafra and thrown them into a kadhai full of hot oil. Thin strips of gathia followed. The fat chilis were already fried and waiting on a thali in front of him.

Jalebi and dhokla appeared from jars next to him. Unlike the north, where jalebi is eaten hot, Gujaratis eat jalebi cold. This cook is a specialist; he makes his living selling breakfast in this tiny but extremely popular stall. Our table was soon piled with plates full of all these things. “The chilis make this a high fibre breakfast compared to what we had in Hampi,” I remarked to The Family. It was going to be hard not to put on weight if our breakfasts continued to be like this.

A cat’s heaven

“Get it over with,” was The Family’s verdict. “Let’s go to the beach and sea the fishing nets.” The fishing nets were much less impressive than icons of tourism have any right to be, but just before you reach them is heaven. At least a cat’s version of heaven: a sea food market with all the wonderful catch from boats pulled up between the shore nets. Everything you want is there: lobsters, squid in its own ink, octopus, shark, shrimp, shark!

A large fraction of the people at the beach were examining the fish with interest, but it didn’t look like much was being sold. There was much I couldn’t recognize, so I sent off the album to my family, large parts of which have dedicated their lives to fish. After the clamour died down there were IDs for four varieties of fish: small pomfret, rays, blue runner and the pearl spot. The many varieties of edible marine arthropods that you see in these photos remain unidentified down to the species. Sea food fans, if you have any further IDs, please leave them in the comments to the photo. Otherwise just enjoy, like the cat in the chair.