Break an egg

You can’t break an egg without making an omelette. This lesson learnt peeping over a table at an impressionable young age has stayed with me. So when I put the brown paper bag with half a dozen eggs down too hard on the kitchen counter, it was time to scoop out the cracked egg, chop the onions, tomatoes, chili, and coriander leaves, beat the egg to an absurd frothiness, fuss over whether to use butter or a vegetable oil in the pan, and then fry the omelette. I’ve lost the skill of flipping it neatly, which tells me that I need to break more eggs.

A good omelette takes panache

Harold McGee, “On Food and Cooking”

I’d jumped when I read about an omelette in Pantagruel. “That old, is it?” I thought, and then realized that it must be older. It has to have been discovered over and over again every time an egg fell into fat. Although the home-cooked Indian version is absolute comfort food for me, I also love the one egg version available across the country as street food, usually bundled between two slices of bread heated on the same pan. And, of course, it doesn’t stop me from liking the French version. Although French cookbooks make a great fuss about omelettes, these delights are not to be tamed. The version right next door, in Italy, is a little different, and when it travels across the Atlantic, it can mutate even more. But the ultimate in omelettes have to be the Japanese versions, layered and fluffy, little pieces of which I first found in sushi, and then at breakfast, and finally even as a full meal. “Are there new worlds to conquer?” I hear the sigh of eggs, words which surely must have inspired Alexander of Macedonia.

Kolkata style Hakka noodles

“Didn’t you want to take a photo?” The Family asked after we’d nearly finished eating our plates of the Kolkata style Hakka noodles which I’d whipped together. Indeed I did. So I dug up the smallest plate I could find, and scraped the last remaining bits off the dish into it for the featured photo. After all, a blog about food is no good without a photo of the food. But then, does a photo with three strands of broken noodles make a good introduction to a blog about noodles? Or is it a little like introducing Hakka people and their culture with a dish that many Indians now associate with Kolkata?

The recipe is simple and quick, as any street food should be. Boil and cool the egg noodles. In a kadhai fry some onions and garlic, and drop the prawns into it. When the prawns are nearly done, add the finely chopped green and red capsicum into it, tomatoes if you like, green beans if you are fond of them, and, finally, a green chili slit lengthwise. All this is done quickly and at high heat, as a stir fry. Now, into the sizzling hot kadhai drop a generous splash of dark soya sauce and, immediately, the noodles. Toss them around, making sure that they smoke and burn just that little bit to add the authentic taste of Kolkata’s eclectic street food tradition. Top it off with a garnish of chopped spring onion. Street food is best if it is served immediately.

The addition of green chili, generous amounts of fried onions and garlic, are Indianization of the cuisine. The Hakka settlers, possibly from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China, arrived in the late 18th century CE as traders and labourers to the then-thriving entrepot of Kolkata. They were followed by waves of other Chinese immigrants, whose traces you can find in the Cantonese and Szechuan additions to Indian-Chinese food. I haven’t had Hakka food in China, so I have no idea how closely the Indian Hakka noodles hew to the original. In my student days, weekend trips to Kolkata wouldn’t be complete without visits to the Chinatown in Tangra. Those gave me the impression that the food could be reasonably authentic. I did not realize then that the bustling Chinatown was already a shadow of what it was in the days before the Indo-China war of 1962, and would be largely a memory by the 21st century.

I see the last of the Kolkata and Mumbai Chinese when I visit my favourite Chinese restaurants. Young members of the family have no connection with China; they speak English and Bengali. Now and then you see a visiting Chinese businessman or tourist who would like authentic home style food. An old matriarch will then appear and try to communicate with the customer in her broken Hakka or Cantonese. If you continue to pay attention to such a table, you will notice the eventual appearance of whole steamed fish, stir fried greens, and bowls of rice, not at all what we Indians love to eat in a Chinese restaurant.

Strawberry fields

Large mugs of strawberries with cream were a la mode in Mahabaleshwar this season. I managed not to exceed two a day, but sometimes one of these mugs could be a little larger than your garden variety. I wasn’t really looking for the strawberry fields. But when The Family and Leafless decided to set off for one, I could not leave them to it. That is how we chanced on a high density farm: the farm of our future. It was set in the inner courtyard of a typical semi-urban two storey family house, the front given over to a little restaurant and shop. When The Family asked for boxes of strawberries, the woman in charge asked, “Anything else?” A look of indecision on our faces opened the door to a little wonderland.

She led us to the courtyard and its dense farms: drip irrigation, natural light, organic manure, hand control of pests. She offered a herbal smoothie. We tried one. Then we tried another. Wonderful combination of sweet and peppery herbs, with bits of leaves we could identify, others that seemed familiar but elusive. We took a guided walk between the rows, looking at the wide variety of things that were growing there.

Strawberries were in flower and fruit, pak choi and Swiss chard were looking great. I saw the leaves and plant of wasabi for the first time (we later found that the leaves make a great addition to our daily salad). Iceberg lettuce. Chinese cabbage. Kale. A whole corner full of microgreens. The ladies said they regularly fulfill orders from Mumbai. The two women were really chuffed to have The Family and Leafless ask how to make this or that, and we were given samples of cooked exotic greens, Indian style, from their kitchen. They also had jars of jams: strawberry and blackberry. We left with several kilos of leaves, with their assurances that they will stay fresh for a week. They did.

Easing back into a changed world

Chef Floyd Cardoz was the first person in my world who died after a COVID-19 infection. We’d been to his restaurant in Mumbai the day before it closed to the pandemic. We stilled the small panic in our hearts and visited it again the day after it opened. There are major changes now. Chef Thomas Zacharias, who had introduced me to the farm-to-table philosophy, and taken the time to demonstrate ways of retaining fresh flavours in food, has decided to move away. Chef Hussain Shahazad is now designing the menu. I was not very comfortable in a closed dining space, even though the staff was masked and tables well separated. The pandemic has not finished with Mumbai; people we know are still falling ill, and eating in a restaurant is not the safest thing to do right now. But we were tired of eating at home. We’ve had fancy food delivered, but even that requires us to assemble each dish. And, no matter what, there is always cleaning up afterwards. So we gambled, as we do sometimes.

There were many changes to the menu, now much smaller. A wonderful invention is the dish called Paya with Momo. I had encountered tangbao, soup filled dumplings, decades ago in a long-vanished Chinese restaurant called Nanking in Colaba, and encountered them again in our travels in Shanghai and Nanjing. Chef Shahazad has reimagined them as momos filled with paya. A momo covering is thicker than the tangbao that I’ve had, and Chef Shahzad goes with the momo. The paya (soup of trotters) was wonderful, quite comparable to the local slow-cooked version that The Family and I enjoy so much. The topping, a tangy and spicy chutney, is a lovely complement.

Chef Heena Punwani has added a very small selection to the menu; that day we saw only two of her creations listed. We decided to try what she calls Strawberries and Cream. A simple description would be a chhana poda doughnut sliced through to hold a lime infused cream, roasted pistachios and slices of strawberries, topped with a strawberry sorbet. Chhana poda, or baked paneer, is heavy, frying it into a doughnut would make it heavier. The Family was a little reluctant, but went along because of the strawberries. The whole thing was surprisingly light and delightfully fresh. Well-roasted nuts are almost a signature with her, and the sorbet was wonderful. I’m looking forward to more from Chef Punwani.

I will miss Chef Cardoz and his singular focus on exploring and popularizing India’s culinary heritage. I look forward to seeing Chef Zacharias doing something new. But I’m glad that a place that we have haunted for years continues to reinvent and showcase the immense variety of Indian food.

Al fresco

I wonder where the phrase dining al fresco comes from. But that is what we did on our little workation. The first time was a shock. The Family ordered up chai with pakoras, and we sat out in the little garden waiting for it. When a man walked up to us with a full tray, I had a moment of confusion. Both of us were without our masks with a stranger near us. This had not happened in more than nine months. I curbed my instinct to dash in to get my mask. We were outdoor, with a nice breeze coming down from the hills behind us, and the server was wearing a mask and a shield. It was reasonably safe. A little chit chat as he set up the table stabilized my heart, and I was able to concentrate on the food. The perfect sweet and milky chai and a plate of hot pakodas with a spicy hot coriander and mint chutney, things we haven’t had for months! Time to take a photo of a world renormalizing, and dig in.

We were even more adventurous for dinner. The Family said we should go down to the restaurant. I’m still unsure about meeting more than two strangers at a time; when I go in to work I don’t take a lift if it has more than two people in it. I was a little reluctant. Our compromise was that we would sit outdoor. We need not have worried, the resort had set up its dining entirely in a garden, with tables distinctly more than two meters from each other. In the lovely glow of stars overhead, trees lit up, we relaxed into a mood where we could begin to come to terms with a changed world.

In the light of the little oil lamp on our table I began to put into practice the intellectual understanding that I had reached earlier, as we planned how to reopen during the pandemic. Similar thought had gone into the adaptation of this space. Guests, like us, were isolated islands in a large open space with a nice breeze coming through it. The weather was colder than I’m used to Mumbai, but everyone was prepared for it. People were put into tables according to the size of their bubbles; we were escorted to a two person table, larger family groups had tables of up to eight people. The service personnel wore masks and shields; they were more at risk than us, since they were forced to meet strangers. There was a singer on a little podium placed away on one side, about four meters from the nearest table. There was only a low bush between her and the edge of the cliff, so there was always a breeze around her. It was all very well thought out, and I could dismiss my concerns once I’d looked around and taken it all in. The rest of our time there was very relaxed. As we walked back to our cottage I looked up at the clear sky. We were not yet passing through the Geminid meteor shower. Perhaps next week, I remarked to The Family.

Ghoti, population 30,000

On our drive back to Mumbai we stopped at the little town of Ghoti to buy vegetables. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai come from Nashik district, where the town lies. Ghoti is one of those places which has grown too large to be called a village, but has still not realized that it should really have a municipal corporation. The Indian bureaucracy has a name for such places, it is called a census town. We had expected the market place to be crowded. It wasn’t. Nashik district was pretty badly hit by the coronavirus, and people have learnt to stay at home and avoid crowds. Those who have the money to buy their groceries in bulk do it, and visit the market infrequently.

The market straggled along the main road to the highway, but there was a clear center. That was where the fresh vegetables were to be seen. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai comes from Nashik district. This was obvious from the freshness of the things on display. A variety of chili, many kinds of beans, huge bundles of greens and gourds, all at a price about a fourth of what you would be charged in Mumbai. The periphery of the market had grains and kitchen utensils (different vendors for metal and plastic!).

Less than a fourth of the people I could see were using masks, and many of them were not using it properly. Masking has become so common in cities that it is a little disconcerting to pass through small towns and see that masks are not yet in regular use. I suppose communication needs to improve. I don’t watch TV very often, and seldom in Marathi, so I don’t know whether it is just the frequency of messaging should be addressed, or something different needs to be done. Masks are such a simple and effective preventive that I really do think the message should be spread even better.

Sweet and sour curry

I find the Cantonese version of sweet and sour sauces a little too sweet. This is not the fault of Chinese immigrants in India; the version you get in Guangzhou today is quite as sweet. The version you get in Shanghai is slightly different, but, if anything, it is sweeter. While I was making liver some months ago, I decided I would try an Indian twist on this. I’d already marinated the liver in a paste of ginger, garlic, and an extremely sour tamarind, because I wanted a change of taste. While cooking the liver, on a whim I reached across to where The Family had cubed some overripe papaya, and tossed some into the pot. The Family looked on bemused, “Do you know what you are doing?” she asked. “Of course I didn’t; I’d thrown sweet overripe papaya into liver. It was an invention worth running with. The next time it was overripe pear. Then The Family took over and did one version with tamarind and honeydew melon.

Sour tastes abound in the Indian kitchen. Apart from tamarind, we also have a jar full of dried kokum. The mouth puckering sourness of amla also can be seen in our kitchen now and then. Sugar was invented in India, and sweet and sour chutneys are common, as are candied sour fruits. But I don’t know of any Indian dishes which use the common souring agents with fresh fruit to make a sweet and sour curry. The somewhat stodgy taste of liver could do with a bit of life. So our sweet and sour liver, Indian style, is now a regular addition to our family kitchen. I can also imagine that unripe jackfruit can be curried this way; its something that I will definitely try next season.

Is this a rediscovery? Are there regional Indian sweet and sour curries that you know of? Let me know.

Diwali eats

In recent years I’ve resigned myself to putting on a little weight between the end of monsoon, when the Ganapati festival kicks off a season of festivals, and January, when the last of the indulgent feasts are done. Unless you are particularly unsocial, you cannot fend off the many invitations to parties from family and friends, or the boxes of goodies presented to you by neighbours and colleagues. Of course, social customs need you to reciprocate. This seasonal increase in weight across India must be sufficient to make the earth wobble a bit in its orbit.

I wonder how long ago Indians started stuffing themselves with sweets during the seasons of sharad and hemant. In my childhood I remember that push carts full of neon coloured lumps of sugar, molded into animal shapes, would make an appearance on the streets during Diwali. As a child these took up more processing space in my brain than all the crowded mithai shops around town. There would be a permanent space for laddus on the dining table, sadly with a strict count of how many had disappeared when adults were not keeping an eye on the box. This was also the time when several coconut based sweets were made at home. So I guess the tradition stretches back at least to the late 19th century.

I found it easier to trace this history in my own memory than by searching on the net, because of the confusion between history and mythology that is now rife in writing on this subject. I could not find mention of these festivals in the writings of late medieval or early modern travelers, although that could just be because they were not perceptive enough. I must really start to read more memoirs from early colonial times to see whether they mention these customs. So, for the moment I’m happy with these photos of the last of the chakli and laddu.

Tofu improvisation

If tofu is the only thing you have, you cannot make teriyaki tofu. I learned this only after I drained the tofu and my hunt for rice powder and teriyaki sauce yielded nothing. My brother was fifteen minutes away, and the Youngest Niece is always excited and hungry when she gets to our place. I had to finish the tofu fast.

Step 1: Lightly dredge in potato starch and fry till teh cubes are golden outside and soft inside. Replace rice flour by besan. Medium heat for the oil is needed to do a quick cook. This step went well. Cook one side thoroughly before flipping the pieces. (Forgot to order the tongs!) Cook till all sides are brown.

Step 2: Drop teriyaki sauce into the pan, add katsuobushi, and let the sauce coat the tofu cubes and thicken. Impossible. Improvised a mixture of soya sauce and a spicy fig chutney to get a sweet and sour taste. Can’t add this to the pan, so I plated the tofu and poured this over the cubes. I realize I should have added more soya to make it run. But when I taste the scrapings from the mixing bowl, I like it.

Step 3: Garnish with shopped spring onions and gari (pickled ginger). Woe is me. I run to the balcony to pluck a few leaves off the ajwain plant to replace the missing spring onions. I look at the sorry gari I made, but go with it. The bit hits of taste: chunks of ginger and ajwain will be easier on the Indian palate.

I can hear the guests at the door. My hands are not very steady as I put the garnish over the tofu cubes. I haven’t seen my niece in almost a year, since I got back from Wuhan. She enters the kitchen, and I hand her the plate. Big grin. My heart melts and drips on to the plate.

This is not teriyaki tofu, but that was the inspiration. I’m happy that it goes so fast. It is a recipe I’ll use again.