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Vikram

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Posts posted by Vikram

  1. One that has been missed out is the ubiquitous Kaju Katri which is made from Cashewnut paste, sugar and flavouring agents. I find it highly overrated  and can't imagine how it's become so popular, give me roasted Cashewnuts any day.

    Kaju Katlis, which are simply cashew marzipan, are made so bad so often, and stored till they are dry and tasteless, that I would have agreed with Episure if sometime back I hadn't eaten a fresh one and it was BRILLIANT! It was at a tiny shop really deep inside Bhuleshwar where my sister insisted I buy pedas to send home to Madras. The pedas were OK, but the freshly made kaju katlis - they were rolling out the paste for more when I went in - are amazing.

    BTW, Episure, I found some peppered roasted cashewnuts in Crawford Market today. Not bad.

    Vikram

  2. Around six years back I lived in Cairo for a month and I certainly don't remember any Indian restaurant around. True, I wasn't exactly looking for them, but since Egyptian food in general is not particularly inspiring, after a point I was looking for any other type of restaurant and if there was an Indian one I didn't find it, beyond perhaps a fast food operation (a chain, I think) called Chicken Tikka that dished up erstaz tandoori chicken.

    Paradoxically, Cairo is one place where you're likely to find quite a lot of people who know about Indian food and probably cook it at home. As Bhelpuri notes Oberoi's have a really big operation in Egypt - three hotels at least (including the Mena House), a couple of restaurants in Cairo and party barges on the Nile. And a lot of Indians are sent there for training, so its very likely that you'll find them cooking Indian food for themselves in some corner of the Oberoi kitchens. Mongini's, the Bombay cake and pastry chain, also have a Cairo connection - one of the brothers settled down there and opened a couple of pastry shops. It was really startling coming across such a Bombay name in the middle of Heliopolis.

    Also, lots of Egyptians have worked alongside Indians in the Gulf and sharing the plight of being poor migrant workers in the rich petrostates, they often really bond with the Indians. Cairo is the only place where I found cabdrivers with a smattering of Malayalam, and at Felfela, one of the few decent Cairene restaurants, a chef took my order for shawarma sandwich, asking me if I wante ghosht (lamb) or murgi (chicken). And there's also the whole khichiri-kushari thing to prove how Indian foods can be recreated in Egypt very easily (I think this has come up on eGullet, but if anyone wants more info, John Thorne has a pretty good essay on this subject).

    All this doesn't answer Rushina's question, but some inquiring around the Oberoi's kitchen should provide a solution,

    Vikram

  3. Are there English names for jowar and bajra?

    Achaya gives sorghum for jowar and for bajra he gives its Latin name pennisetum americanum. Ragi, the third in this group of less commonly used grains he describes as finger millet. He also has another entry for millets that describes several other less commonly used types. Some months back this subject came up on this forum and someone posted a link to an excellent FAO document that went into the subject in even more depth, check it out,

    Vikram

  4. Many thanks sleepy_dragon, very interesting grouping, seems to make a lot of sense. Reminds me of my mother's way of cooking. She makes no pretence of the fact that she hates cooking - at least of the daily, dhal-roti kind - and has always insisted on having a cook. But on the occasional times when he's on leave and she has to whip up something, its often something using these vaguely similar groupings of spices and the results are always excellent.

    Vikram

  5. The eno fruit salt is just a handy acid-alkali mix for the housewife who has unexpected guests.

    Yes, Eno's is an old Brit antacid remedy that was widely marketed and available from any chemist, so more likely to be at hand than baking powder.

    Vikram

  6. A friend who was recently diagnosed with diabetes reports wonders from switching to a non-wheat, non-rice diet. She's only eating grains like jowar and bajra and the lucky thing of being in Bombay is that you can get very tasty options with both. Try the jowar khichidi at Swati, or the puffed jowar that's sold in some health food shops (makes a good snack). She's even eating the multigrain bread from Yazdani which is wonderful, in fact that's become my staple bread.

    Vikram

  7. somehow i don't think the presence of the sea or the esplanades is essential to the bhutta experience.

    Sorry Mongo, the presence of the sea is vital, especially the stormy monsoon sea when its battering Bombay. Its something about how the salt in the spray complements the salt on the bhutta. I'm not particularly fond of bhutta, but I definitely eat it then.

    Rushina, I've heard the pau bhaji story too and its plausible enough, but I doubt if we're going to find out for sure. The street foods book doesn't have that sort of info though.

    Vikram

  8. Rushina, not sure I understand your query. Is this a group that's going to SA and wants to know what veg food options are available? Or is it one of those kitchen-tours where they take along their own chef and you're looking for suggestions for menus he could make? Or suggestions for the hotels, restaurants they might be visiting?

    I don't need to tell you that Indian veg options of some kind will be available in most large SAn cities, though its not always that easy to access them - you might need to ask someone there to do some scouting around in the Indian areas for restaurants or caterers. It is my impression - quite possibly inaccurate, since when I was in SA I didn't exactly go around looking for Indians to spend time with! - that many SA Indians are now non-vegetarian, but then again I have distant Gujju relatives there who are strictly vegetarian still.

    The plus side about vegetarian in SA is that the quality of the fruit and veg can be outstanding, especially in the Cape area. One could happily subsist on just the wonderful fruits and breads and pastries. Those vast malls that most SAns retreat into for their leisure activities also would generally have some places with decent veg options - I remember many Greek/Italian style cafes where you could certainly get excellent salads, veg pizzas and quiches and so on.

    There are also excellent and stylish places like the Primi Piatti chain and local delis like Melissas in Cape Town or a place in Melville in Jo'burg called the Service Station, I think, where there were lots of very good ready to eat options with plenty of choice for vegetarians. On Long Street in Cape Town there's a small, cafe called Lola's which is vegetarian - not outstanding food, but a really cool and funky place. In Cape Town there is also a restaurant called Periamma's run by a very cool Indian woman who cooks a set menu every evening including lots of good veg basics, and presumably she could do more is warned in advance. And if they're willing to spend, then the really top end restaurants will all be able to provide good veg options.

    Despite all this, the truth is it can get quite bleak for vegetarians. While the bf was living there, he went through a phase when he turned mostly veg simply in reaction to all the meat he was getting on a daily basis. At which point he was faced with one veg staple - butternut squash which he found being served up every lunch and every dinner, and if they could have found a way to give it for breakfast they would have. After a point he simply could not face butternut squash again!

    Vikram

  9. Perhaps instead of listing what we like about cookbooks, we should list what we definitely do not. Like I said that the italics in the Sanjeev Kapoor book were a definite turn-off, and I would add that too many pictures of the author are also not desirable. Two more pet peeves:

    - books that are just a random collection of recipes. You know what's happened, someone is a good cook, his or her family says you must print these, some publisher lets them do it as vanity or because their arm is being twisted and before you know if here's another addition to a long list of books that should go straight to the pulper. I think we're going through a particularly bad phase of this here in India at the moment.

    - OK, my big peeve, the one irrefutable way of proving that a book is a stinker is when it has a section on.... fruit and vegetable carving. I'm sorry, fruit and vegetable carving have no place in cooking and while I am willing to tolerate it as a display in a Thai restaurant (preferable to the side and out of sight), you know that any Indian book that has it has been written by someone you could rather not know. The one I'll list is Jyoti Nikunj Parekh's book called something like 'The wonderland of vegetarian cooking', yes I know the indication is there from the title and if any further proof was needed its there on the flyleaf which says the author is also an expert on bonsais... I can't pass this book without shuddering.

    Vikram

  10. Responding randomly to observations on this thread:

    (On the Rushdie cookbook)

    1) how she conveys information like an experienced member of your family would with regard to times and quantities being imprecise, but at the same time, not to worry about it too much and trust your judgment, because it'll be ok in the end, just let the right side of your brain take over. Besides, the truth is, a lot of it is impossible to quantify like that anyway because the ingredients won't always be on the same level day by day. Maybe this would be nerve-wracking to some people, but it feels liberating to me. I can dispense with all the noise in my head around tracking exact temperatures and such. Cook until tender, brown, etc. works for me!

    2) her grouping the spices in four rough categories, with the caveat that it's not a categorization written in stone, but is a good place for the rest of us to start out in order to make sense of what goes with what.

    This sounds like the sort of cooking I would love to do, but as of now I am still depressingly likely to go by the book (male tendencies, what to do). But as an example of why Ms.Rushdie's approach makes so much sense, I really like her idea of grouping the spices like this. Recipe books tend to make you think its all laid down in stone, but of course its not and that's why variations happen and food becomes interesting.

    If its not too much trouble Sleepy_dragon (if you're the one who posted that, sorry can't read down the thread far enough) could you post a rough indication of her grouping?

    I love reading Prasad, as intimidating as the it may be. Kalra is such an engaging prose stylist, and he puts forward an infectious enthusiasm for celebrating the potential for Indian restaurant cuisine to recognized as a world-class and for giving its chefs the recognition that they for so long had been denied.

    Yes, but there's a thin line between infectious and undescriminating, and my problem with Jiggs has increasingly been his inability to consider anything he is dealing with less than outstanding, amazing and the best in the world. Where I started viewing this with some cynicism is when I realised how these enthusiasms were invariably related to whichever product he was professionally promoting at the moment - somewhere along the way the slide from food enthusiast to food public relations guy had started to happen and something was definitely lost.

    the pioneering 35 year-old book by Santha Rama Rau, Cuisine of India, part of the great Time-Life Foods of the World series.

    This really is good, and I know this has been said on eGullet many times, but what a brilliant series that was. I have been collecting it odd volumes at a time from the Bombay footpath and just bought Scandinavia last Saturday and was delightedly reading it most of Sunday. Of course, parts have dated - the pictures and layout above all, but its still very good. That same footpath expedition yielded up a hardcover copy of Mrs.Balbir Singh's cookbook which is also looking very promising.

    right, i meant an indian audience. however, i'm not sure why a non-indian audience requires contextual gloss to "do justice to indian cuisine". do you really need to know the significance of the harvest festival in northern punjab to enjoy a paratha with ghee? if so, i fear most of us don't to do justice in a similar manner to american, french, italian cuisine etc.

    I think this might help in 'selling' the recipe to the reader. As I said earlier, there are so many cookbooks and recipes and only so little time. So what makes a recipe stand out if you're not specifically looking for it? Possibly its the ingredients -if they are something you already have or particularly like. But next it could be things like the contextual stuff that make it interesting for someone to decide to try it out.

    even among recipe books there are many that in my opinion get it right: see most of the books in the penguin regional series. they give a cultural background that enables an understanding of the role particular foods play in their regions (though none of this is necessary to cook any of the dishes well--you don't need to start by understanding the introductions); but none of them read like copy for the next festival of india--it is the latter kind of thing that bugs me. but at this point i'm repeating myself so i'll stop.

    This is SO true. There is a kind of vapid PRspeak way of giving context which is much worse than no context at all, and increasingly many books are doing this - they're presumably been told by their publishers that readers want a bit more than the recipe, so they add it in, but they don't know how to write (and their editors don't know how to rewrite) and the results are most dreadful.

    If you're writing a book perhaps the best thing you could do is just do a lot of reading of the books that do it right. And really, you have to start with Elizabeth David. Anyone who wonders about her status has just never read her. French Provincial Cooking has been my bedside reading ever since I picked up an old hardback copy in New & Secondhand for a song, and its not because I'm planning on turning out elaborate charcuterie, but just for that quiet, but matchless authority.

    Many of those recipes aren't that detailed, but god, do you feel you could do each and every one - and that each and every one is worth doing! She gives a fair amount of context, but doesn't load each recipe with it. Its given where its appropriate and while she describes the country and the visits she makes and where she got the information from, its always clear that the recipes are the ultimate reason for doing all this.

    Vikram

  11. I'm with Mongo, I prefer the vague instructions because more than anything else they convey that sense of authority about which I wrote in my earlier post - the feeling that the person really knows this recipe and that hopefully some of that authority will pass on to you. Of course, it shouldn't be totally vague, but one or two imprecise instructions won't kill a recipe.

    I am tempted to say... OK, I'm saying it, my guess is that Episure doesn't like this vagueness because his style of cooking is so instictively male, he wants it all nice and precise and scientific because for him the interest in the cooking is the recipe and his passion is to perfect it (and you better believe he perfects them - read the recipe for raan he sent ages back). Whereas most of the women who actually had to do the cooking were more interested in just bunging something out to put on the table!

    Vikram

  12. Hey does anybody know about this book?Seems the right one for this topic

    Yes, quite a nice book, I recommended it recently in another thread here. There are some nice touches, like the cover folds out to show the different types of containers that are traditionally used for Indian street foods - the ones made with leaves or earthen pots. Well worth buying.

    Vikram

  13. This time in Ahmedabad I ate the most wonderful kind of sesame brittle - it was wafer-thin and scrumptious! Can't remember what it was called though

    Til-papad. Its my favourite type of chikki sweet and even better than the version made with white sesame seeds is the one made with black sesame. It looks sensational - wafer thin, jet black sheets and has a wonderful, complex taste and is also supposed to be very healthy for you. Also, please note for those on the non-dairy thread, absolutely no dairy in it, just sesame seeds, caramel and some chopped pistachios maybe. Its a wonderfully elegant sweet and something I think should definitely be used in different contexts - as a base for other desserts maybe, or broken into fragments on top of ice cream or something like this. Its the Indian equivalent of a tuile!

    Vikram

  14. I think starting with good yoghurt is key. When I moved to my new house I started by using some yoghurt from a neighbouring dairy which has amazing yoghurt and paneer and the result is much better than I was making before. I think another trick is to actually use very little of the started - I just smear a very little amount on the sides of the pan and then leave it to set all night.

    Vikram

  15. think there are three main categories. Other than what's already been covered:

    Besan-based: In addition to Besan ki Laddu, Jalebis - made with water in batter, not curd, Mysore Pak.

    Rice+Jaggery based, as baque25 mentioned. Pongal is another example.

    Sweet "breads" - imartis, sweet idli and vadai.

    Halva and halva-like: gajar halva probably doesn't count as it traditionally contains khoya, but e.g. halva made from petha

    O.K, four main categories. Five?

    Anil Kishore Sinha's "Anthropology of Sweetmeats" tries to do a classification of Indian sweets, in fact it does multiple classifications based on different criteria and at the end of it, it all seems almost as confused as when it started. But here briefly are the parameters he looks at:

    - According to colour of sweetmeats (just giving a couple of the examples he lists in each case) - White (rossogulla), Red (gulab jamin, raskadam, belgrami), Black (kala jamun), Green (barfis), Yellow (bundi laddu), Brown (balushahi), Saffron (kesar peda), mixed colour (those lurid tiranga or tricolor barfis we'd see around Republic and Independence Days).

    - According to milk - distinguishing beween sweets made with cow and buffalo milk

    - According to contents - plain (rossogulla), stuffed (kheer kadam), sandwiched (cream chop), cream covered (manohara), made from vegetables (morabbas)

    - According to syrup (meaning the form the syrup takes) - sweetmeats in syrup (rossogulla), sweetmeats soaked in syrup but not presented in it (jalebis), dry (meaning the syrup crystalises outside the sweet, as with shakarpala), syrup in the core (belgrami).

    - According to sweetening agent - sugar, dry fruits, jaggery, artificial sweeteners.

    - According to shape - round, disk, triangle, on a paper dish, small pieces, square, egg shaped, parallelogram, moulded, barrel shaped, amorphous

    - According to size - this is a bit weird. He talks of rossogollas that are upto 200 gms, which sound more like a gimmick than anything that would be fun to eat.

    - According to basic ingredient of sweetmeat - this is on the lines of what SKChai suggests, though he doesn't mention besan, but he does mention bhang!

    Vikram

  16. There are lots of Indian sweets that don't use milk, particularly in South India. I'd go so far as to say that Malayali sweets that use milk like pal-payasam are almost the exception (though many others do use a little ghee at some point). There is a really long list of sweets that aren't much known outside Kerala, not least because there isn't a community of sweetmeat makers to make and disseminate them. They come in all forms - custard like, porridge like, cake like and, my favourites, a whole range of small biscuit like things.

    The best known of these are probably achappams or rose cookies, which are lovely to look at and not hard to make, but you do need a special mould which is used to dip into the batter and put it in the hot oil. I googled for a pic of the mould, but can't find one - its like a flower shaped design made from metal which is attached to a long handle. You dip it in the batter, put it in the oil and the achappam crisps up and floats loose. They look really nice and I've often thought they would be the ideal cheap extra to serve along with a restaurant's bill at the end.

    My favourite though is something called pottiyappam in my family, though I think a more common name is 'diamond cuts'. This is a stiff, very slightly salty batter with lots of sesame and black cumin seeds that is rolled out, cut into diamond shapes and deep fried and then quickly dunked into sugar syrup and left to dry hard. The contrast between the salty, sweet and nutty sesame flavours is awesome - and makes them frighteningly easy to eat all at one go!

    These are the two I'm really familiar with, but there are many others described in recipe books which seem vaguely familiar. Mrs. Mathew's book lists unniappams, which are sort of banana dumplings, which I've had and are OK. Jackfruit elayappam is steamed in leaves and sounds great, though jackfruit is a taste I am never entirely sure whether I like or not. Vatteappam I've never had and it sounds interesting - a coconut flavoured cake raised with yeast. Ethekka appams or banana fritters were a favourite teatime snack for my grandfather.

    Ummi Abdulla's book on Malayali Muslim cooking lists lots of sweets made without milk and I am kicking myself I never took her up on an offer to eat at her place when she was living in Madras (she's now retired to Calicut). There's thariyappam (semolina pancakes), kalathappam (rice cakes), pinnanathappam (made with egg whites), kadalakkapam (made with chickpeas), and many more. In general they all revolve around coconuts, bananas and eggs.

    One sweet she doesn't list, but which I did have at home was puran poli in the south Indian version, which is like a thick paratha filled with besan (chickpea flour) paste. I didn't much like this, so didn't investigate them and it was only years later I realised there were very different and vastly better types of puran poli. There's the Parsi type which is thick and cake like and filled with dried fruits as well. There's the Gujarati type, small and rich and laden with ghee.

    Best of all is the Maharashtrian kind which is like a large, very delicate and dry chapatti filled with crumbly dry sweet besan. They are apparently very difficult to make which is why many housewives don't make them themselves, but get them from ladies organisations which specialise in making them. The reason they are so dry is because they are meant to be soaked in a cup of milk and then eaten. At the end, you're left with a residue of milk soaked sweet besan at the bottom of the cup, which is eaten by itself. Bliss!!!!

    Though by now I realise we're very far from the milkless desserts query this started off with. I think if someone really wants to do milkless Indian desserts their best bet might be to try these Malayali recipes.

    Vikram

  17. There were several festivals in the last couple of weeks. Last Wednesday was Vishu (Malayali new year) and also, I think, Baisakhi (Punjabi new year). The big part of Vishu at my Malayali grandmother's house was the special lunch she'd cook that would end with five types of payasams (custard or porridge like sweets): pal-payasam (sweet milk and rice), wheat payasam, pradamam, which is made with dhall, jackfruit payasam and one other which I'm forgetting.

    This year my grandmother tells me she scaled back a bit, and only made the pal-payasam, but hers is so good that the lack of the others would hardly have been felt. Meanwhile, according to this story below, the desire for pal-payasam in Kerala is sto strong that people are now demanding it outside the usual festival times. This has lead to the setting up of a delightful sounding concept - payasam parlours, where you go and eat payasam like other would eat ice cream.

    If for nothing else, check the link for the huge MAGNIFICENT urli or pan that the man is using to make the payasam. Purists like my grandmother insist that only the thick and heavy urli is the right dish for making most Malayali sweets.

    Vikram

  18. Finally. After a whole bunch of people who seemed intent on going to that awful city in the north, someone with the sense to come to Bombay. As Bhelpuri says you're going to have a blast and I'm sure you can count on the resident eGulleters like Rushin and me to help you, though Episure's defection to Bangalore has left a huge gay in the ranks of the food obsessed in this city.

    Bhelpuri is also right in saying that this isn't, in some ways, an easy city to live in. Its got many things going for it - people get things done, there's a live and let live attitude, crime is low and so on, but it can't be denied that the extreme crowding of this mega city into a narrow peninsula of land does make things tough.

    Traffic, for example, can really be insane, so all your decisions about where to live are dependent on how far your husband is willing to commute to work or your kids to school. The latter is probably even more important than the former - I know families who settle for living closer to the school, even if it means the parents have to commute forever to work. No real point giving random advice on this here - your husband's office will probably be giving him specialised help on this.

    I'd disagree with Bhelpuri though on living in South Bombay - though as someone who till as recently as a year back was a South Bombayite to the core I can understand where he's coming from. But having finally made the shift to the suburbs, to Bandra, I can't imagine why anyone would live anywhere else! The suburbs are now the really happening places, as people and companies slowly start abandoning South Bombay. (The American school has also shifted to this area, I think).

    As regards food styling, you should definitely be able to pick up work. This is a discipline that's been growing by fits and starts and there is still a dearth of really good food stylists - but lots of demand for their work. It should be quite easy to do a round of the major ad photographers, ad agencies, magazines that write on food and get some opportunities. (PM me closer to your time of arrival, and I'll send you some contacts of this kind).

    The problem I think you'll face is in actually doing the job. Styling, to the limited extent I've been involved with it, seems to require a pretty good knowledge of local ingredients and products, what's available, where to get it, how to get props (since that often becomes part of the stylist's job as well), etc. and this might be hard to learn at first. But its not an unsurmountable problem, and there are probably ways of getting round this.

    Any more info you need, just get in touch with me directly,

    best

    Vikram

  19. Good news on this topic - a friend at Penguin India tells me that an anthology of writings on Indian food is in the works and, even better, the person working on it is another friend, Nilanjana Roy (who was one of the semi-finalists in the Outlook competition about which SKChai has posted on the forum sometime back). Nilanjana is an excellent writer, one of the best read people I know and an avid cook and lover of food, so this should really be a book to look forward to.

    Vikram

  20. I have just been reading Achaya's entry on iddlies in his Historical dictionary of Indian food book and its very interesting. He suggests a southeast Asian origin for iddlies. First he gives several ancient references to iddlies in Sanskrit and Kannada literature, where it appears under the term iddalige or iddaraki. But then he goes on to say:

    In all these references, up to c.AD 1250, three elements of modern iddli-making are missing: the use of rice grits along with urad dhal; the long fermentation of the mix; and the steaming of the batter to fluffiness.

    In AD 1485 and AD 1600, the iddli is compared to the moon, which might suggest that rice was in use; yet urad dhal flour is itself off-white, and moreover there are references to other moon-like products made only from urad flour. The Andhra area still has cakes of steamed urad flour called vasina-polu. The Indonesians ferment a variety of products (soybeans, groundnuts, fish) and have a product very similar to the iddlie, called kedli. It has been suggested that the cooks who accompanied the Hindu kings of Indonesia during their visits home (often enough to look for brides) between the eigth and twlefth centuries AD, brought innovative fermentation techniques to south India. Perhaps the use of rice along with the dhal was an essential part of the fermentation step which requires mixed microflora from both grains to be effective. Yeasts have enzymes which break down starch to simpler forms, and bacteria (which dominate iddli fermentation) carry enzymes for souring and leavening though the formation of carbon dioxide gas.

    Xuan Zang was categorical in stating that in the seventh century AD India did not have a steaming vessel. But steaming can be achieved by such simple means as tying a thin cloth bearing the material to be cooked over the mouth of a vessel in which water is being boiled, the antiquity of which would be impossible to establish.

    One other interesting point with iddlies is the difference that the vessel in which the batter is steamed can make. The mixture can be spread between banana leaves or as a compromise the banana leaf is used to line the iddli moulds (particularly for butter iddlies, I think). But apparently its in Karnataka that people really make a big thing of iddlies steamed in different types of leaves. A small Jaico published book I have called 'South Indian Tiffin' by Vijaya Hiremath lists several kinds, all with what sound like Kannada names.

    These include iddlies made in containers jack fruit leaves (kotte), a kind of stiff palm leaves (moode), teak leaves (hoye kadabu). Achaya, who has the rather endearing trait of never missing an opportunity to laud Kannada cooking (its endearing because absolutely no one apart from Achaya seems to share this feeling), calles these leaf moulded iddli type preparations as tharagu-kadabu and has quite a bit to say on kadabu in general.

    Episure do you suppose these different types of kadabu are available in Bangalore?

    Vikram

  21. I like my iddlies large and flat and barely set - when its only just made the transition from batter to iddli. At that point, if they're made right, they have the perfect soft, slightly granular texture. I'm going to add here that I have a view on iddlies that nearly all my Tamil friends disagree with violently and that is that the perfect iddlies are almost never made at home, but in restaurants.

    My friends tell me vehemantly about the wonderful iddlies their grandmothers make and they are very good indeed, and for that matter my grandmother makes nice light iddlies herself. Yet I never feel they are quite perfect and the reason I think is that you can only get perfection when iddlies are made in large quantities - there's something about the mass of batter that needs to ferment, or perhaps its that with restaurants they can discard the first few iddlies that are less than perfect or perhaps its just the result of working at the speed and with the experience you get in large restaurants, but that's what I think leads to perfection (are there other dishes best made in quantities like this?) The only people who are even better than restaurants are wedding caterers.

    I am not a particular fan of semolina iddlies or Kancheevaram iddlies (the extra large ones, with a lot of other stuff added in), I feel the extra stuff distracts from the essence of the iddli which is all about texture, and being the perfect medium for the sambhar or curry and the taste of the iddli itself is an unnecessary distraction. One doesn't often realise it, so closely are iddlies linked with vegetarian Tamil Brahman cooking, but they are much used in the other non-veg Tamil tradition, like Chettinad cooking, and they perform brilliantly to sop up the fiery meat gravies. I remember one tiny place in Madras that was known mostly for being open late to cater to the late night, post-nightclub crowd. It didn't do any cooking - the Chettinad curries it dished up were brought in from outside and kept warm in chafing dishes. But it was served with the most wonderful big iddlies and it was total bliss late at night.

    The other type of iddlies I like are the small ones called panniyaram, though that's a slightly confusing term. Old books refer to panniyaram as a light fritter that was a Tanjore speciality, but at some point it was also applied to small iddlies made in a special pan which had several little moulds for them (or perhaps that's how the Chettiars always referred to them):

    http://www.kishorehomeappliances.com/nonstick.asp

    These are also rather annoyingly called cocktail iddlies and I really have eaten them at cocktail parties served with chutney as 'coconut dipping sauce'. I do not recommend this. But panniyarams are somehow rather endearing and the pan has even more to recommend it. I was recently told by a Bombay designer who's also a very good cook that she has taken to using a non-stick panniyaram pan big time to make low fat versions of fritter type dishes that would otherwise require deep frying. Instead of the tons of oil, you just lightly brush the panniyaram moulds and drop the same batter into them and they come out perfect and with much less oil. She gave me dahi-wada and falafal made this way and I have to say they tasted pretty good, crisp enough, but not drowned in tons of oil.

    Vikram

  22. Ambai's story is called 'A Kitchen in the Corner of the House' ('Veetin Mulaiyil Oru Samayalarai', which is also the title of her first collection of stories). I've been rereading it and its excellent - get your hands on it (in her collection of stories in translation, 'A Purple Sea'). Its all about how kitchens and the preparation of food instill in women their position in the social hierarchy and also with relation to each other.

    Here's an extract that shows this in the context of that perennial Indian family battle between mothers in law and daughters in law. Bari-Jiji is the former, Jiji the latter, and Amba is the family deity. What's interesting is that this shows how women were bound by the traditional customs (regarding widows in this case) and how sometimes they could use those same traditions to get around the bounds:

    It was a food war. The chief protagonists were: Jiji, Bari-Jiji. When grandfather was alive, Bari-Jiji ruled absolutely and tyrannically. Jiji kneaded mountains of chappati dough, She sliced baskets of onions and kilos of meat. She roasted papads in the evening while Bari-Jiji drank her Kesar Kasturi. She made the pakoras. Then grandfather died. Within ten days Jiji was sworn into power. Bari-Jiji lost her rights to kumkumam, betel leaves, meat and spirits. Everyday there was meat cooked in the kitchen. In a more democratic spirit, the vegetarians in the family (actually only Bari-Jiji) were served potatoes. Bari-Jiji celebrated her loss in the battlefield with loud belching all night, by breaking wind as if her whole body was tearing her apart, and then whimpering in the toilet. Before she could be attacked again, she then started a second offensive of her own. Once in six months, Bari-Jiji began to be possessed by Amba.

    Amba always chose the moments when Jiji and Papaji were seated at evening times with their papads and their drinks. At first there would be a deep “Hé” sound which came from the pit of her stomach. When they came running to her, panting with fear, she would yell in anger, “Have you forgotten me?” The instant Jiji bent low and asked reverently, “Command us, Ambé,” the orders would come. “Give me the drink that is due to me. I was Kesar Kasturi. I want a kilo of barfi. I was fried meat... ah... ah.” When she was given all these things, she would say, “Go away, all of you.” And for a while there would be loud celebratory noises emerging from Bari-Jiji’s room.

    The next morning Bari-Jiji would appear in the kitchen lifting her alcohol-heavy eyelids with difficulty and smiling her toothless smile. “Amba tormented me very much,” she said.

    It might have been possible to bandy words with Bari-Jiji, but Jiji did not have the courage to question Amba.

  23. Moving the Swati Snacks thread here since we were really straining the tea thread. Here's the article I wrote on the place after interviewing Asha Jhaveri, its very reticent owner. It was one of those rather frustrating interviews where you'd ask a long question and she would just reply 'yes' or 'no' - not from unfriendliness, that's just the way she is.

    One thing I didn't mention in the article is why she's able to run the restaurant the way she does - she's apparently from a fairly well off Palanpuri Jain (meaning diamond trading) family, so its not like this is the main source of income. Shortly after I wrote the article though, she finally did give in to the pressure and has just opened a restaurant in Ahmedabad. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the quality doesn't fall now.

    Vikram

    Swati Snacks

    Vikram Doctor, Mumbai

    You’ve all had an grandmother or aunt, famous for her cooking, to whom everyone says, “you really should open your own restaurant!” They tell her it will be absolutely no problem: just a small space, manageable and your cooking will pull the people in. They tell her about the profit margins in the restaurant industry, and how food is a product that never goes out of fashion. And they tell her how bad the food in most restaurants is, and how people are desperate for simple and simply delicious home style cooking like she dishes up. It can’t fail, they assure her.

    Some of us know women who have actually done this. They’ve opened their own place to warm reviews, a few weeks packed with family and friends and every indication of success. But then what happens? The reality of running a restaurant open seven days a week, of always having to be there, of never taking breaks slowly starts setting in. They face up to the hassle of government officials who want bribes, of contractors who don't finish on time or vanish when repairs are needed, of staff who absent themselves without warning and suppliers who cut corners at every opportunity.

    And then there are the customers, the real ones, after the family and friends stop coming. These customers are less complimentary and more complaining. Slowly the sheen rubs off on the restaurant dream. Now staying at home and cooking from your own kitchen starts to seem more attractive. Do you really want the hassle of a restaurant? Slowly you cut corners, go less often, perhaps put in a manager. Or if the initial reaction was favourable enough, you might take the high road. Go all out to push the place, increase scale, open more branches, maybe even franchise it. Either way the result is the same: the restaurant’s quality slowly slides until ultimately it goes out of business or is so transformed into the standard, identikit eatery that essentially it might as well have.

    Two Mumbai restaurants could be said to have resisted this slide. One of them, Samovar, in the downtown Jehangir Art Gallery has managed mainly because of its location and the hip, bohemian crowd it attracts. Its food, while very tasty and enjoyable, has never been the single reason for going there. The other restaurant, Swati Snacks in Tardeo near Grant Road Station (opposite Bhatia Hospital) has had it harder. Asha Jhaveri, its owner, recalls it started off in the standard way, when visitors to her family house who loved the pani puri and other snacks served up by her mother, encouraged her into starting a small space to sell them.

    That was 43 years back and its prospects didn’t seem bright then. Its was not in a fashionable location, and while it is now, thanks to a total makeover a few years back, all stylish looking stainless steel and polished wood, for years it was just a very basic, non-air-conditioned and Formica table topped place. Tardeo is very middle class Maharashtrian-Gujarati area and the food Swati serves is based on the home food of these communities - in other words, exactly the sort of food that people in the neighbourhood aren’t likely to go out to eat, when they can get it at home.

    Nor is Swati particularly cheap. While not off-puttingly expensive, but its not the dead-cheap place that might have been imagined, given the simplicity of its food and cheapness of its strictly vegetarian ingredients. So why is Swati packed, every day of the week, with long lines waiting patiently outside at lunch and dinner (the restaurant is open continuously from 11 am to 11 p.m.), or even just for takeway? And why are these people mostly exactly the middle class Maharashtrians-Gujaratis who one would expect would want something more exotic when they go out to eat? And how has it managed to do this for 43 years?

    It has to be just quality, and the effort that goes into maintaining it. Jhaveri has been running the restaurant for the last 24 years and she’s down there every morning. “Every day I taste all the dishes, to make sure the quality doesn’t go down,” she says. She’s there everyday quietly supervising the staff from the background - the self-effacing Jhaveri is emphatically not the kind of proprietor who goes from table to table forcibly fraternising with the customers - and making sure that things go smoothly despite the long queues. (Given the length of waiting time at peak hours, there’s remarkably little bad temper on display - perhaps most people are just happily anticipating the food). And Jhaveri has steadfastly refused any temptation to expand or franchise. “Every week we get proposals to expand or open new restaurants, even abroad,” she says. “But how will I be able to maintain the quality then? This is the most that I can do from a kitchen this size. It can’t be larger than this.”

    Swati’s food is also interesting, since it falls into no easy classification. Its eclectic, borrowing from several cuisines, but it steers clear of the excesses of ‘modern’ vegetarian food. True, she has a Falafal and ‘Cheese Mex’, best described as a Gujju pizza, buts its still far from the broccoli and babycorn brigade which picks veggie ingredients from around the world (add refried beans and its Mexican, add pineapple its Hawaiian), uses exotic vegetables and covers everything in chilli and cheese. Jhaveri does fusion food of an entirely different kind. Her base is the traditional cooking of the Western states - Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Kutchi. She takes elements from these cuisine, revives lesser known dishes, uses ingredients falling out of use and combines them in creative ways.

    For example, take the Thalipith with Pitla, both standard Maharashtrian dishes, but not usually served together. Pitla is loosely a thick curry of besan (chickpea flour) with vegetables added, but her version, she explains is really a thicker, richer form of jhunka, the thin besan gruel that the Maharashtrian rural staple. Jhunka is usually eaten with thick jowar bakris, as everyone learned when the Shiv Sena came to power and made a famous promise to offer jhunka-bakri at Rs1/- only. That promise and its ignominious collapse, made jhunka-bakris a joke in Mumbai, but what escaped most people was that whatever the cost, it could be quite tasty. Jhaveri had realised this earlier and gone one step further - she dropped the rather boring bakris and paired it with thalipith, a thick and tasty flatbread made from a mix of grains like jowar, bajra, wheat and rice. The hearty, spicy thalipith combines with her garlicky, ghee laden pitla to create something truly outstanding and unique.

    A lot of Swati’s best dishes are made of these combinations dreamed up by Jhaveri. A sticky jowar khichidi, for example, is served with a thin kokam sauce, or thick harhar dal (urad) rotis are served with chowli (black-eyed beans). This ‘traditional-fusion’ approach enables Jhaveri to achieve something important: a balance between Maharashtrian and Gujarati cuisines. Gujarati food by itself can often seem too rich, the natural flavour of the ingredients drowned in added sweetness and ghee. Maharashtrian food is the other extreme: austere and simple, sometimes to the point of dryness. Combining the two traditions makes for an ideal mix, very tasty, but never over the top. Swati’s food emphasises the qualities of the basic ingredients, particularly the less popular grains like jowar and bajra that Jhaveri likes using, not least because they’re much healthier. They are also much tastier as her bajra uttapam demonstrates. Made like a traditional uttapam, but lumpy and dark coloured from the bajra grains, it looks unprepossessing, but has a wonderfully satisfying, stomach filling taste.

    This is not an easy trick to pull off; these are peasant dishes and could easily seem crude and out of place in an upmarket environment. But Jhaveri prepares them with enough of a style to make them seem elegant, but not patronising. Jhaveri’s other trick seems to be to pick up very traditional dishes that are no longer made much in home. One of her absolute must have dishes, and the best to start with, is Panki, delicate and lacy crepes made by steaming rice flour in banana leaves. Its a Jain specialty, but not regularly made these days because of the hassle of getting banana leaves at home. Served at Swati, with green chutney and the restaurants wonderful stuffed and fried chillies (not too hot to eat), it comes as a revelation. Jhaveri also serves a dill flavoured version. This is probably a large part of the reason for her success with the traditional Maharashtrian-Gujarati: there’s a strong nostalgia value in eating at Swati as I discovered when I once packed their jowar khichidi and sent them to my Gujarati father in Chennai. For days he was raving about how close it was to the way his mother used to make it.

    Swati doesn’t only serve traditional dishes. She also offers the full range of Mumbai snack foods, from the standards like bhel puri, pani puri and sev puri, to the more Maharashtrian ones like dahi-missal and even the unashamed Bombaiyya street specialties like pav bhaji and ragda pattice, all impeccably made (and safe too: the restaurant uses only UV treated water, so this is the place to bring people who are nervous about eating from the roadside). Since South Indian dosas and iddlies are now also part of the city’s street food now, she offers them as well including local variations like the cheese dosa. Happily she draws the line at the other ubiquitous part of Mumbai restaurant cooking - the mandatory ‘Chinese’ sections. “People keep telling me to do this, but I don’t want to,” she says firmly.

    For the sweet toothed, Swati’s offerings are few, but select. There’s an ultra-creamy malpua and a Gujarati style puranpoli dripping ghee (my one crib: I wish she’d offer the much more elegant, Maharashtrian puranpolis, delicately dry and flaky and to be eaten dipped in milk). In keeping with the street food focus, she offers ice-golas to satisfy our most childish instincts, but with shaved ice made from bottled water and special home made syrups. The restaurant is particularly famous for its jalebis and home made ice-cream, the items with which Jhaveri’s mother started the place, along with pani puri and other snacks.

    Swati today is a far cry from those days, but Jhaveri clearly wants to maintain a link with that tradition. She’s recently started a scheme where every Sunday housewives are encouraged to sell their specialities through the restaurant. They have to come to Jhaveri with their samples and if she approves, she’ll give them a Sunday when their items are added to the menu along with their names and phone numbers. “Many of them have got excellent and repeat orders after we featured them,” says Jhaveri. Its offering them a first step and who knows - perhaps some of them might learn from Swati and set up their own restaurants some day.

  24. Everything I ate there in those two visits was superb, perfectly made, totally traditional but so unusual as to appear artful and innovative. There was a mild curry, made with ripe guava. There was another, made with kokum, which was served with a perfect jowar khichidi. There were ragada pattice, crispy and totally un-greasy, which a restaurant in NY could make its reputation on. And there was the sugar-cane juice, served with a promise that it was 100% clean and would result in no stomach ailments.

    Swati is simply outstanding. I've interviewed Asha Jhaveri and written on her at length, but can't remember if I've already posted this or not on eGullet. I could post you the piece if you like.

    If someone has little time in Bombay and just wants to do one or two meals, I tell them to go to Swati. Its one of the few restaurants where I feel there is someone really interested in food behind it. A lot of what Asha Jhaveri does is really interesting and different - she's doing fusion in a way that puts to shame the bastardised way its done by everyone else.

    She's fusing across Indian traditions - that thalipith doesn't normally team up with the besan pitla, but how simply fantastic it is - and the results are outstanding. As you saw with the ragada pattice, she is also looking at ways to make food in a healthy way, hence her interest in whole grains like the (outstanding!) jowar khichidi served with kokam osaman that you had.

    And she's reviving dishes that were common in houses, but either no one makes them any more because they are too fiddly (the panki, rice crepes steamed in banana leaves) or too specific to a particular community. That ripe guava curry you ate, which simply blew my mind when I ate it, is an example. Its an old Gujju Jain dish - my Jain friends groan when I describe it, "I can't believe it, you were eating jamphal-nu-shak, what's so special about that?" And I'm like, "well excuse me, I've known you for so long, and how come I never ate it at your place?"

    I recently took a fairly well known American chef, Michael Nischan there and he was just raving about it. He said he's been in India quite often and thought he was getting a hang of Indian food, but these were taste sensations he had never come across.

    Vikram

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