Sunday, 14 April 2013

My grandmother's cooking is better than your grandmother's cooking

Every time my grandmother cooks its an event. Not only because the whole family descends upon her place but also because of the kind of stuff she puts together - always meat. Even though she is a vegetarian! Most of her recipes were honed keeping up with the ever adventurous demands of my grandfather. If ever he ate something that took his fancy he would describe it to my grandmother or have her get the recipe - even in restaurants or when they were out travelling - and a recreation would follow. My grandfather wasn't one to mince his words. If it was crap, he would let it be known. Over a few attempts the dish was perfected.

The other thing that my grandfather was notorious for was playing a sort of recipe book roulette. He'd come home, sit around for a bit and then start going through recipe books. Once he'd find something that seemed worth a try, it would be all hands on deck - my grandmother's hands that is. Now the kind of stuff that he enjoyed wasn't exactly the kind of stuff that you can pull out of a packet. And he was a stickler for not cutting corners - if something had to be cooked over a wood fire, that was the way it was going to be. Most evenings were dedicated to the discipline of dinner.

This particular recipe is from our family food bible - a cook book from the House of Sailana. A fairly simple recipe this. Goat meat with lots of coriander, green chilies, ginger, garlic, all put together in an earthen pot and cooked slowly in its own juices over a wood-burning open fire.

Despite the fact that this particular recipe, as well as others, are printed in a book, there exist handwritten notes for each and every one of them. And I'm not just talking about odd scribbles here and there. Besides my grandmother's experience, I am convinced that the pot, which I remember from my childhood, and the wooden spoon, that has more than half a century on its side, definitely have something to do with how good this dish turns out every single time.

This dish goes great with bread.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Ras el Hanout Spit Game

I've been wanting to build myself a spit for some time now. I wanted something simple to begin with - something that could be put into the boot, taken along and set up without much of a fuss. Of course, fairly sophisticated ones with motors, gears, et. al. are available but it's overkill if you ask me. The iron crucible isn't part of the set up - it had to be used to keep the lawn from burning out. It's not particularly large either - a couple of large chickens or a quarter portion of a small goat.

Alfresco cooking is a therapeutic. There's something about an open flame that makes cooking a whole lot better. Not to mention that great charred, smokey flavour that it imparts.

Ras el Hanout is a Moroccan rub that is used on meats or stirred into couscous. Pretty versatile. I don't think there is any one recipe for the rub. It's one of those things that everybody has their own variants to. Mine came out of a bottle. Some interesting ingredients though - lavender and rose petals!

I made a wet marinade using ras el hanout, sumac, orange juice, lemon juice, pepper and vinegar. The vinegar was to tenderise the meat whilst it marinaded. Leave the cut of game to marinade for 24 hours.

Once the meat was put on the spit, I stirred in a bit of honey into the remaining marinade to make a glaze.

With the meat, a simple tomato salad, some green, home-made bread, Hummus and Baba Ganoush.


Thursday, 31 January 2013

Coorg - Pork Heaven, Piggy Hell

There are few things that are more miserable than a lean piece of pork. Fat makes pork. In fact, fat makes most food. It is the best carrier of flavour. Nothing breaks my heart more then seeing someone sitting across the table, picking out the fat off a lovely portion of pork chops and pushing it to the periphery of the plate. Why? WHY? Don’t like fat? Eat chicken then. Or better, chew on a courgette.

When I was in Coorg I must have gone through ten kilos of pork in less then a week, half of which was fat. And did it make me happy. In fact, in Coorg cuisine, which is basically no more than pork and rice, in one form or the other, fat is prized. But then, imagine, back in the day, a culture of warriors, traversing hills, living in the dense forests, hunting for food – I don’t think a smoothie and celery would have kept them going.

Ask anybody in Madikeri or there abouts  (Coorg is a district, with many hill stations, Madikeri being the most popular) what the best place for local food is and chances are that every body will point you to Coorg Cusinette. A functional place; tables, chairs and a sink to wash your hands. And while the food they serve would have been ‘functional’ to the people is has sustained over the centuries, to someone like me it is nothing short of gourmet. This is one of those place where the food is sold out by 8 pm, so head there early.

The menu doesn’t run into pages and having tried every meat dish on the menu I can tell you that the Pandi Curry (Pork Curry) and the Pandi Beev Barthadh (Pork Chops) are pretty similar. But then they would be; they both have the same magical ingredients – fatty cuts of pork and lots and lots of pepper. Now, I am sure there are subtle differences, barring the cuts used, but the proportions of fat and pepper don’t leave much room for these to stand out. I have managed to get the recipe for a Pandi Curry, not from this place but from the chef at the resort where I was staying, so I will be giving it a shot at some point. The Pandi Malukootunadh (Chilli Pork) was also superb. Dry, sticky, crisp in part, spicy. Basically, fried bits of fatty pork tossed in a spicy sauce. I do think that this is not that traditional a dish as the other two. Or maybe it is, but doesn’t go back that long. I just got the impression that while it sort of made sense on the menu it wasn’t authentic – like Butter, Pepper, Garlic Crab at the Mumbai Lunch Homes.
Pork Chops

Spicy Pork
The pork was served with rice rotis and rice dumplings. I apologise for the photograph of my half eaten plate of food. Though I am notorious for not letting people dig in till the time I have got a shot the the food first, I forget all about my camera this time around.

11 o clock to 6 o clock - Pandi Curry, Pork Chops, Spicy Pork, the Rice Dumpling, Rice Roti


Monday, 28 January 2013

Of Coffee Beans and Pepper

Flame of the Forest - Butea Monosperma
After more than a year, and a stone the heavier, there was a culinary journey really worth writing home about. After almost an hour in an auto-rickshaw, zipping down the slops of the hills around Coorg, through coffee plantations and dense forest riddled with flowering trees, we arrived. This was a smaller plantation relative to the others around; more a summer retreat. The 10 acre property was cultivated with Arabica and Robusta coffee beans, some Cardamom and Pepper. The clusters of Pepper dangled from vines twisted around trunks of the Oak trees, in the shade of which the coffee flourished.

Piper Nirgum

Funny thing about Pepper - Black and White Pepper is the fruit of the same plant, picked at different stages of ripeness. I always thought that they came from different ones - because they taste so different and you often read recipes that call for both together. Black Pepper is allowed to dry on the plant itself, giving it a spicier flavour. Pepper is the original spice in Indian food. Chilies only came to India with the Portuguese, the the 1200s if I am not mistaken (not going to  run a Google check). Of all Indian Cuisines, Pepper is most abundantly used in the South. In fact, Coorg, even Chettinad, cuisine is best defined by their generous use of this spice. Pepper gives you a much more balanced, wholer, heat and this, I think, gives it a stand-out flavour. Not always the case with Chilies.


Coffee Plant

One major disagreement I have with the way they do things down South is to do with the way Coffee is consumed. I am a 'black coffee, no sugars' man myself and I have a tough time digesting the concept of filter coffee the way they do it. I really don't see the point of harping on and on about how great the coffee from the region is when you are going to bugger its body, flavour and aroma with the copious amounts of milk and sugar. Too sweet for my liking, but I did enjoy a few glasses. More a dessert if you ask me.

Coffee - ready for picking
The Arabica coffee fetches the farmers a better price than the Robusta variety. Not sure which was cultivated more widely. The plants are pretty similar, but spend a couple of days around a plantation and you can tell the difference - something in the leaves.
The smaller plantations sell their beans as they are to the larger plantations, that have process plants. The plantations are very clever in their ability to generate cash flows all year around. While Coffee is indeed the main crop the other spices that co-habit ensure that incomes are not only confined to the coffee harvest months. Though I was there during the harvest season, I am told that the plantation in full bloom is a sight to behold, with white flowers splattered till the eye can see.
A few hours walking around the plantation is enough to work up a substantial appetite for a feast of Pork! - watch this space.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Ish liebe Deutchland!

I know it's been a month since my last post, and let me assure you it is not because I haven't eaten since. I've been rather uninspired. Bloody bored. But there's nothing quite like Bavarian food to brighten your spirits. Well, the last time I was out for Bavarian food, it involved a whole lot of chanting, dancing on tables, and then spending the next 3 weeks nursing a broken ankle. Wouldn't blame the brew though. Or would I? Can't remember.

I was looking at ze menu and I couldn't help thinking - "ah this is some solid, rustic, wholesome food". Rustic, wholesome, and ze likes, often used to describes food, describes more accurately what ze food is not, rather than what ze food is. In nouvelle cuisine ze main feature is more often than not placed in the centre of the plate, as though drawing upon itself a sort of planetary importance, boulstered by other elements of ze dish circling around like moons. Nice at times, but too perfect most others. You never look at something like that on a plate and think to yourself - "I can't wait to dig in." It's more like - "It looks great. Genius. Maybe I'll look at it some more before I send ze perfectly symetrical, dandy arrangement into a  worm-hole-like chaos." A distraction, in a way, for a glutton like me. If nouvelle cusine is a selection of the best bits from the whole world arranged as a delicate system of balance on a plate, then Bavarian food is ze whole damn universe! And in my mind, in food terms, the whole universe contains, and should only contain two things - meat and starch.

On occasions, when ordering something off a menu, my expectation of how large ze dish is going to be does come into consideration. There is nothing worse than ordering something that is not enough, Not the case with German food. Order even a salad and they plonk a entire garden on your plate. With all the wildlife ofcourse. I ordered a Liver Dumpling Soup to start.

Good soup this. A meaty, marrowey broth. Well seasoned, as all good food should be, sprinkled with Parsley. The Liver Dumpling, no different to a Faggot. Just right considereing what I had coming.

Ze Leberknodel !
For ze main course, it was ze Roast Pork with a Potato Salad. The Pork was cooked to perfection. Ze best hunk of pig I have had in a long long time. Skin and fat left on. Would make a madallion look like baby food. The Potato Salad, good too. Tangy, like most Germany accompaniments. Goes well with the fattiness of ze meat. Had some crispy lardons of bacon on top, just for good measure. It's almost like the more fat they can introduce, to what's already a super heavy dish, the better. I like a lot. Fat's got a bad name. It's the best carrier of flavour. And that's the most important thing about food - the way it tastes.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Duck curry - Kerala Style

In India Chicken is about the only poultry you can lay your hands on without much scouting. Chicken is boring. I will go as far as saying that chicken should be downgraded to the status of a tubor. Managed to lay my hands on a duckling yesterday. Really. Only about 400 grams. The size of a partridge. And how happy it made me. I ate Braised Duck while I was in China last month. And would you believe it, I sat there thinking, as I stuffed my face with the worth-while foul, how it would taste curried. So I decided to find out with my little duckling.

This is a 'nadan' Kerala recipe. Nadan means local - if you are thinking of using the word to impress a Mallu, don't do it. You will never figure out how to pronounce it. It took me about 10 minutes just to get a Keralite to understand what I was saying. - It basically implies that it's a very simple one, nothing fancy. And it's true to the name. Though I want to shoot myself for describing it like this, it is like a very simple chicken curry. Barring the use of coconut oil. And nothing else will do! For that 'Nadan' taste it's got to be coconut oil. That's what the recipe said, and that is what I did.

Skin the duck and if your's is as small as mine - I am referring to the duck - cut it into four pieces. The neck into two. Coat in plenty of salt and turmeric and set aside.

In a kadhai fry one sliced onion and add some ginger, garlic and half a dozen peppercorns when brown. Three times as much ginger as garlic. In 5, add a paste of chili powder, coriander powder and garam masala. Some salt too. Once the paste is cooked whack in a sprig of curry leaves and the duck after rinsing and draining. Cook on medium till oil seperates and then simmer till tender. Add hot water as required. Season. Garnish with fried potatoes. Easy as. And you wouldn't believe the taste.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Down in Shanghai Town

China never fails to amaze me. Order a critter and get served it's blood in a glass along with its man rocks? Classic!

This time round I skipped a visit to the Heart of China in favour of the commercial capital. And I learnt very quickly that the food culture in the two cities is worlds apart. The kind of street carnival-esque setup that I experienced in Beijing is not to be seen here. At least no where near the city centre. So in the hope of some local food I headed, with a friend, to a haunt, not very far from the ex-pat district, that serves up some killer food. Don't ask me the name of the place. I haven't a clue.

The Pickled Monkey Ear Fungus (Auricularia) was an easy one to pick off the menu. I have had this before. But this serving was sharper, with more vinegar. The texture reminded me of the cartilaginous Sliced Pig Ears that I have eaten elsewhere. But with less bite. A texture that you can't really get bored of.

Pickled Monkey Ear Fungus
In the name of novelty - maybe for me, but this is a very popular Chinese snack - I ordered some Pickled Duck Tongues. Now, I am all up for eating everything, but this was probably one of the most pointless things I have every eaten. Almost as pointless as a vegetarian sausage. I think they would have been a lot better fried of grilled with some of that super sticky Chinese sauce. Nonetheless, a first.

Pickled Duck Tongues
Then cometh something that was very close in flavour to the Chinese we get back home. Sweet and Sour Fish. The fish was first deep fried and then tossed in the sweet and sour sauce. Topped with pine nuts. A lot more pungent than the stuff we are used to. Owing to the generous lashings of vinegar again. Quite a superb dish. The frying of the fish made the skin crunchy, adding a great contrast to the gooey, sticky sauce.

Sweet and Sour Fish
And then, a local speciality. Braised Pork Belly. With boiled eggs, which I was told were boiled in Green Tea. Couldn't really taste the tea through all the fat and flavour but the thought of that being true made the whole thing seems a little more special. It is the style of cooking - braising in a heavy iron pan - that makes this dish so characteristic to the region. I had the same dish again in city nearby Shanghai, where once again, it was introduced as the local speciality. The sensible ones, including locals, do not eat all of the fat. I was in considerable discomfort that night for not following suit. But I'd do the same again.

Braised Pork Belly