Himalayan Kiwi

As we drove up from the plains towards Tawang we realized that Edmund Hillary was not the only Kiwi in the Himalayas. There is also Kiwi, the fruit. As we crossed the first pass on the way, Nechi-Phu La at an altitude of 1708 meters, we began to notice bags of Kiwis being sold. The explanation of this wonderful collaboration between New Zealand genes and Himalayan climate came when we reached the beautiful valley of the Dirang river.

The road to Tibet passes through the crowded Dirang bazaar. If you drive down towards the Dirang river from the cross roads at the center of the bazaar, and take the first turn right immediately after, you’ll come to a stilt bridge across the river. Cross this, bear left, drive on until you think you are lost. Then drive a little longer, and you suddenly see an orchard full of Kiwis sloping down the hillside.

A harvest was on when we arrived. Crates of Kiwis were being loaded on to a truck. The workers were happy to talk to us. We were told that the crated fruits were harvested before they were ripe, so that they could ripen as they travelled. If we wanted good Kiwis, we were welcome to walk through the orchard. One of the ladies at the harvest told us that ripe fruit would have fallen off the branches, and we would do well to look for freshly fallen fruits.

We walked through the orchard, looking for ripe fruits on the branches, or on the ground. The Family found lots of small Kiwis on the ground, but they were not ripe. We saw a couple of large ripe ones, but they had been lying there for a while and insects had discovered it before us. As we returned, the workers told us that we could walk up to a house above the orchard, and could perhaps get some ripe Kiwis.

The four of us walked up to the house: clearly someone’s private bungalow. The Family and Mrs. Victor walked in, found a distinguished looking Monpa gentleman and asked him whether they could get some ripe Kiwis. The Victor and I stopped eyeing the fleet of SUVs which went with the house and followed the ladies. The gentleman farmer was very gracious, and told us that he could not sell us any ripe Kiwis, but invited us to sit down. He was proud of the fact that he had introduced Kiwi farming to the region. As we chatted about Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh, the roads, and Kiwis, a plate of peeled and sliced Kiwis appeared on the table.

I’m not very fond of Kiwis; each and every Kiwi I’ve eaten has been sour. So I did not reach for the plate. The Family tasted a slice and told me I should try it out. I did, and for the first time in my life I tasted ripe Kiwi. It was sweet and had the flavour I associated with Kiwi, but something about the consistency of the sweet green flesh reminded me of bananas. This was a Kiwi I could get to like. The conversation continued to the difficulty of getting crops across the mountains over the bad roads, the increased vagaries of the weather in recent years, and the interesting monasteries we would see on the way. Eventually we thanked the gentleman, and got up to leave. He wished us a good journey, and saw us off to our car. His two strong men had followed our conversation silently, but did not come down the steps with him.

We bought a bag of the fruits in the bazaar. They were the usual sour mess. I guess I need to visit New Zealand or go back to the same gentleman’s house to get a taste of real Kiwi.

Rock concert in Meghalaya

2013-10-26 18.38.33

On a really wet day we drove out from Shillong to Mawsynram, a village in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. The village is known as the rainiest place in the world. We couldn’t see a thing because of the rain.

On the drive back The Family remembered a rock concert which was supposed to be held in a large ground on the way. There was no way we could miss it: the highway was jammed with cars going to the concert. Eventually we made our way there. The music was pretty much what local rock bands produce: okay most of the time, dipping below now and then, and soaring sometimes. The rock concert attracts a lot of young locals, and the major politicians. Between songs there were occasional speeches in Khasi.

Since we didn’t know the language, we felt free to walk over to the food and drinks stalls. It was late and they had run out of dohneiiong: pork cooked with sesame seeds. We got some jadoh: the basic rice and meat, with some wonderful soya chutney. Raju, our driver, told us that the rock concert was held every year, and was started not too long back by the local member of the Parliament. That explained the speeches.

We walked back to listen to the music again. We’d spent a long time on the road, and the traffic had not improved. Listening to the music was a better option than spending time in the traffic, we thought. Raju was sure that staying longer would not help. He was right. We spent a long time stuck in traffic on the highway afterwards. But we had all eaten and enjoyed the vigourous music.

Contemporary Chinese food

I visited an old friend, The Pleased, now living in Shanghai and went out for lunch. She’d picked a restaurant in the French Concession: very chic, all daylight filtered through bamboo groves and undressed concrete walls. After a week of large dinners, I was ready for the modern China. It is different. Take the dish above: not a chocolatey dessert. It is smoked eggplant, with bacon shavings on top. I liked the presentation. The taste is familiar to any Indian who has eaten baingan bharta, but the smoky tone of the original is no longer available in most restauarants in Mumbai. This was very definitely smoky. The black bean sauce was a good addition. I liked the way the pungent taste exploded in the mouth.

The restaurant was a nice introduction to the new China. I’d only seen its art work till now. This lunch introduced me to its food. I’m sure I want to explore more of this.

There is Vegetarian Chinese Food

2015-10-05 18.05.15I’ve said this before: there is hope for vegetarians in China, but nobody believed me. So when I was in China last week, I took photos of completely vegetarian food that appeared for one dinner. This is not food that is available next to every Buddhist temple in China, although that is definitely a good option for vegetarians. No, this is every-day food, your garden variety veggies. The photo above is of two vegetarian dishes: sauteed Chinese cabbage, served in a soya gravy, and bread with a molasses dip. Both are wonderful dishes.

2015-10-05 18.07.13The next thing is not gobi Manchurian. That is about as authentic as Jain Bombay Duck. This is a stir fried cauliflower with Szechuan chilis. Nice and warm on the tongue. I love cauliflower made Indian style, and I loved it Chinese style. This is definitely something you can find every day.

2015-10-08 18.11.42This is one hell of an exotic dish: boiled celery and red peppers with cashew. Everything in this dish has a terrific crunch. It was a dish that I helped myself to every time it came around. I haven’t even mentioned the various things called pancakes in China: these are what would be called stuffed parathas in India.

2015-10-05 17.32.33Those were four dishes clicked during one single dinner! There’s also rice, and other great stuff like lotus stem: pickled in brine and chilis, or stir fried, or even made into a soup. The soup may be a little suspect, because you do not know what stock has gone into it. But there is always this ultimate in vegetarian delights: the red wine. The Great Wall which we had was not super smooth, like some of the new Indian wines, but it is quite palatable.

A couple of months ago I invited a staunch vegetarian for a beer, and I was surprised when he refused. "Beer has yeast", he told me by way of explanation. I reminded him of various breads, including naan, which I’ve seen him eat. He refused to believe me. I told him that yeast does not belong to the animal kingdom. That did not cut ice, either. So, if you are one of those who do not drink fermented alcohol, then take heart: the Chinese love distilled liquor. Say the magic word baijiu (白酒, meaning white alcohol) and you get a bottle of grain distilled alcohol immediately.

2015-10-05 18.09.02Be warned that some dishes are suspect. During the meal where I took the other photos, I also got the noodle soup whose photo is just above. I love the floury taste of this kind of plain noodle soup, but I’m certain that this is not vegetarian. These noodles have certainly been boiled in a meat stock.

With a little bit of common sense, and a picturre menu, a vegetarian can live very well in China. I talked about this to my fellow learners of Mandarin. There are many vegetarians in the class, and some have been to China. They all agree.

Indian Chinese tea

I’m not talking of things which are called Chinese in India and are unheard of in China: like the gobi machurian. This post is about Chinese tea from China: three which I like, and use regularly are Tie Guan Yin (a sweet green Oolong), Da Hong Pao (a smoky red tea) and Yun Wu (an exquisitely aromatic green tea). The names are evocative. Guan Yin is named after the Buddhist goddess of mercy, derived from the male bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara. Da Hong Pao means big red cloak, after an emperor who cloaked the tree whose leaves cured his ailing mother. Yun Wu is the name I like best; it means mist and rain, and you can almost smell it in the brew.

When I first encountered them in tea markets in China, they were all infused in boiling water for very short times: sometimes less than a minute. This is enough to release the flavour of the leaves, as I could tell on sipping the scalding brew. I learnt a lot about Chinese tea habits from these expeditions. But I’m an Indian tea drinker: not necessarily of the milk and masala variety, but I definitely like the brew to tickle my tongue as well as my nose. So I’ve had to experiment with not losing flavour while adapting the brew to my taste.

A blog by Gingko Bay assured me that good leaves are ones which are good in many ways. I usually make Yun Wu by steeping the leaves in absolutely boiling water for about two minutes, covered to preserve the aroma. The resulting brew is a golden yellow in colour: deeper than most Darjeelings and wonderfully fragrant. When I treat the leaves this way I get only one brew from the leaves. This has become my favourite post-lunch tea at work.

I adapted the traditional recipe when making Tie Guan Yin. I pour cold water into the leaves, and immediately pour it out into the drinking cups to remove any other aroma which they might have had. This preparatory process is called face washing in China. Then I pour the boiling water into the pot again to brew the tea. In China the tea is steeped for 30 seconds. I leave it in the pot for thrice as long. The resulting tea has a pale yellow colour, like Darjeeling, and an aroma to die for. The brew is strong enough for me, and it tastes sweet! The dried tea leaves are shaped like little balls which open up into wide leaves after the steep. If I start this brew in the morning, then about 10 grams of leaves gives me tea for the whole day. That’s why I use this on weekends when I’m home.

Da Hong Pao is a red tea, which I have come to brew slightly against tradition. The amount of water I use is somewhat less than what the traditional Chinese recipe calls for, and I’ve increased the brewing time from 45 seconds to about twice as long. The tea comes out dark red in colour, with the tannins which I like in an Indian tea, but with the smoky taste of the original intact.

As you can see, I’ve Indianised the recipes by brewing the tea a little longer than the Chinese would, and by covering the tea while it steeps. I wonder whether there are other techniques for Indianizing these lovely aromatic teas, while still staying true to the flavour of the Chinese.

Our daily sweet

sweets

Odisha and Bengal are the two states of India with wonderful sweets, and when you travel through here, it seems that every street corner has a sweet shop. The morning’s shopping is not complete without stopping at one of these for the daily titbit. I was reminded of this when I was in Bhubaneshwar last week. I passed a shop early in the morning and saw the lady in the photo above come shopping. She’d bought her vegetables and fish already. She placed them on a high stool outside the shop (you can see the plastic bag to the left of the photo, if you look closely you can see she has bitter gourds in there) and then turned her attention to the sweets. It was clearly a daily stop, because the shop keeper chatted with her while he measured out the chhanapora.

In India most sweet making is too technical for home cooking, so there are specialized shops for sweets. Odisha and Bengal have different traditions. In my experience, Bengali sweet makers tend to be innovative: constantly trying out new tastes and combinations; even the corner shop will innovate. But the classics, roshogolla and mishti doi, are not always well made. The sweet shops in Odisha which I’ve been to tend not to innovate, but make their reputation on technique.

The four Oriya classics which I love are:

Chhanapora (literally, burnt chhana, ie, cottage cheese) is the one Odisha sweet you should not miss. A mass of paneer is kneaded with sugar, and sometimes with cinnamon or chopped nuts, and then baked in a coal-fired oven. The smooth, smoky tasting, caramelised mass is available in every sweet shop in Odisha, but seldom outside the state. I have great memories of a mildly cinnamon infused, and very smoky, chhanapora from a shop in Puri, not far from the Jagannath temple.

Rasabali is a deep-fried sweet chhana patty soaked in a saffron infused thickened milk syrup. It’s the kind of thing designed to burst your arteries. I was introduced to it in a little bazaar between Konarak and Puri. The sweet shop was fly infested, and I nearly left without trying anything. But Sky, my friend and local guide, insisted that this was the best place within tens of miles for the sweet. I’ve been a fan ever since that first taste.

Kheer sagar looks like the north Indian rasmalai, but tastes quite different. It consists of balls of chhana dipped in a thin rabri. Again, the combination is not good for your cardiac system; but then I get to eat this less than once a year. I judge it by the smoothness of the chhana and rabri. I’ve had some really nice Kheer Sagar in Bhubaneshwar.

Chhana jhili is meant to be Odisha’s answer to the north Indian jalebi. The version I first ate in a shop between Bhubaneshwar and Puri was a patty, like a rasabali, in sticky sugar syrup. Later I had versions which look a little more like a jalebi. Whatever it looks like, it is designed to kill.

When I go to Odisha for work, I ask taxi drivers about the best place for sweets. They’ve always been helpful, and very often taken me to places which I later found are generally supposed to be among the best.

Awadhi Vegetarian Food

During last week’s visit to Lucknow we tried out the two kababs which are special to Awadhi food: the Kakori kabab, named after the village of Kakori a few kilometers from Lucknow, and the Galawati kabab, whose name suggests that it is melted so that you don’t have to chew on it. We tried these two and the shami kabab in all the places which we ate in. After this extensive comparative tasting, we came to the conclusion that street food can be quite nice, but for the subtle craft of spicing one needs to go to some of the more refined kitchens in the city. These were the expected flavourful delights.

What was quite unexpected were two excellent vegetarian dishes we found. One was a kofta with khubani (apricots). Khubani is an important part of Hyderabadi food, and it is not hard to imagine that it entered modern Indian cooking through Hyderabad and Awadh borrowing it from Mughal food. The aromatic gravy with nuts and spices which came with the kofta was clearly related to the spicing of the galawati kabab. So it was not hard to imagine that this was a reasonably authentic dish, or an invention by a cook who was well-versed in the style and technique of Awadhi food.

The other vegetarian dish gives me more to think about. This was a dish with paneer and a paste of figs cooked in a rich curry with aromatic spices and nuts. The curry was again something one could well accept in any Awadhi food. The spare use of the fig paste could have been derived from a Mughal kitchen, and I’m willing to think of it as genuinely Awadhi ingredient. It is the paneer which I am conflicted about. Awadhi food contains a lot of hung yogurt, cream and ghee. Is paneer an authentic ingredient in this kitchen? By the 19th century paneer and chhana had definitely entered the Indian kitchen.

Wikipedia asserts that paneer was known in India in the first century AD on the basis of the following sentences from this paper “People during the Kusana and Saka Satavahana periods (AD 75–300) used to consume a solid mass, whose description seems to the [sic] earliest reference to the present day paneer. The solid mass was obtained from an admixture of heated milk and curd”. This description fits the process for making yogurt. Harold McGee’s famous book describes yogurt, buttermilk and soured creams as being recorded during this historical period in large parts of the world, but gives a later date to the emergence of various kinds of cheese. I think the last word has not been said about the widespread introduction of paneer into Indian kitchens. It is possible that the Mughal kitchen had access to it, and the Awadhi cooks inherited paneer as an ingredient; but the dish that I ate felt more modern.

One of the important components of Awadhi food are the rotis. The layered shirmal roti was hard to find, but the one which we eventually found was lovely and soft, although more infused with ghee than we would tolerate every day. We never managed to find a baqar khani roti, apparently you have to order these in advance. But we found a couple of parathas which seemed to be made in the same style as the shirmal roti. While the roomali roti of Delhi has become common fare even in the heart of Awadh, the art of Awadhi roti is alive.

The late Mughal and early Company years are very intensely studied by historians. I hope someone, somewhere, is thinking of writing a history of food during this time.

Life around Rumi Darwaza

rider

Rumi Darwaza was built in the time of the first Nawab of Lucknow, Asaf ud Daulah. The monumental structure of lakhauri brick and surkhi mortar was the entrance to the Nawabi capital city, the gate to the fabled hospitality of Awadh. The arch is topped by an octagonal cupola which was originally meant to contain lights. Around the exterior of the arch one can still see the pipes which made up an immense fountain. If this ever worked, then the underlying hydraulics would have been wonderful indeed, so I’m surprised to find no references to it at all. One can see a gallery half way up the interior, and I read that there is a staircase to access it. I did not search for the stairs. I walked through the gate, which now is a conduit for a constant stream of extremely variable traffic.

taxi

On the outside of the gate is a busy road, in process of being widened. At the corner of every road which feeds into it is a taxi stand. The variety of taxis and rickshaws was incredibly large. If you ever need to count how many different kinds of vehicles can be made into taxis, just come to one of these cross roads. I’m sure it will be hard to exceed any count made here.

kachori

One of the most interesting things about the area is the food. Lucknow is reputed to be a place for refined food: kababs which melt before they pass your lips, slow-cooked biryani, figs and apricots in curries, multiply-layered roti. But around this gate I found carts which were full of simpler puri, kachori, and alu tikki, all doing good business at lunch time. Interspersed with them were the carts where you could get grilled corn: bhutta. In the middle of the day they did not seem to attract customers, but the fact that there were several carts meant that later in the day their popularity would rise.

bhutta

There are no tourists outside the Rumi Darwaza, they stay on the Lucknow side of the gate, where the Bada Imambara lies. In spite of the fact that there are interesting buildings on the outside, like the Picture Gallery and the Chhota Imambara, this seems to be the domain of the locals.

What is Awadhi cuisine really?

Awadhi cuisine refers to the style of cooking which developed in the Awadh region after the capital of the kingdom shifted to Lucknow and until Wazir Ali Shah was overthrown by the British East India Company in 1857. But is there really an Awadhi cuisine, or is it the product of a marketing campaign? Between the hype and the plagiarism which one finds on the web, it is very hard to make out the truth.

Two bits of hype

Wikipedia’s article on Awadhi food repeats the story of the famous Tunday’s kabab shop being a hundred year old. If this were correct, the eponymous one-armed cook would have set up shop only in 1915; sixty years, and two generations, after the reign of the Awadhi nawabs ended. The article also says that the kababs are famous because of the 160 ingredients which go into the secret recipe. This is directly contradicted by an article in Indiamarks which states "Awadhi cuisines are not a concoction of hundred odd spices instead the difference lies in the preparation of the food by preserving all the nutrients in the cooking [sic]". Clearly both sources cannot be right.

The second article seems to plagiarize other sources on Awadhi food. It is difficult to decide which is original: the article quoted above, these slides or this self-published article. Perhaps none of them are.

Then there are the famous chefs, whose pronouncements are always made with an eye to a bottom line. An article in the Times of India discusses the Awadhi cuisine produced by a big-name chef, then at the Hilton, including "khatti macchi (fish braised in yoghurt gravy) [sic]". The mixing of yoghurt and fish is such a strong taboo for Muslims (and Jews) that this cannot be an Awadhi speciality. The real Lakhnawi khatti machhli is quite different.

A search for the truth

Awadhi food is important to us because it is the beginning of modern Indian cooking. Most of the ingredients we use today would have been available two hundred years ago, and the techniques developed then would still be in use. So the taste of Awadhi food is perhaps not very different from what we think of as our "fancy cooking".

Awadhi food developed on the Mughlai style. One of the source books for Indian food, namely K. T. Achaya‘s Indian Food: A Historical Companion tells us that although many of the Mughal emperors were abstemious near-vegetarians, their courtiers would have eaten naan, keema, kababs, rice and phirni. Travelers mention do-piyaza, meat and rice cooked together, khichdi, lemonade, dahi and dinners with fifty dishes, including fruits, wild animals and birds.

One way to trace the history of food is to follow the names of dishes back as far as one can. A search of Google ngrams reveals that in the Google corpus the name shirmal roti debuts in 1959, seekh kabab in 1947, shami kabab in 1921, and dum aloo in 1966. In this corpus, the word kabab can be traced back to an English cookbook printed in 1831. According to this source, the minced meat for the kabab has to be marinated in a mixture of salt, ginger, coriander, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, onions and saffron mixed into a paste of hung yogurt, cream and a whole egg. The marinated meat is to be cooked in ghee. This mixture of spices recurs through the book. Moreover, this kind of garam masala is precisely what we would turn to in our own kitchen now and then.

Until a modern Achaya publishes research into 19th century Urdu, Hindi and Indo-Persian texts on food, I can only dredge my own memories of what an occasional brush with a khansama or bawarchi in my childhood would bring: baqar khani roti, shami kabab (not the version described in Wikipedia), pasande, murabba, and zarda.

The truth is never simple, but the search for it can be amazing. I plan to be amazed by my search for true Awadhi food next weekend in Lucknow.

Seagull’s eggs

I’m an avid collector of Japanese sweets, but this is the first time I brought home the Japanese sweets called Kamome no Tamago (Seagull’s eggs). So I was very surprised to find how popular it is (see here, here, and here). Apparently the factory which makes this sweet was damaged in the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, but has clearly sprung back into production. I learnt that the chocolate and cake covering over the white bean paste was a revolutionary idea when it was first made, but the sweet is now a very common omiyage (travel souvenir).

I didn’t know that, but I’m happy. So is The Family, and so will my niece be, when she recovers enough from her flu to bite into this. If I have anything to complain about, it is that the white bean paste seems to be a little sweeter than the more common red bean paste. If you are worried about calories, the company has the full nutrition facts on the web.