Deepavali Snacks

In my home, we are talking Deepavali snacks.  My help, Geeta, is an instinctive and brilliant cook.  We are debating what to make.  I stumbled on this lovely cooking site, Rak’s Kitchen, when searching for Deepavali (I prefer this to the Anglicized Diwali) recipes.  I like Rak’s kitchen because of the nice photographs that give easy step by step directions.  I hate cooking videos.  Have no patience for them.  This is an area where photos really trump videos in my view.  Based on Rak, we are making thenkuzhal and badam halwa today.  Perfect for a cold Bangalore day.

Culinary Crutches

Met Chef Imitiaz Qureshi today.  What a guy! Very authentic and knowledgeable about Awadh style cooking.

Listening to “There she goes” by Taio Cruz.  Here is my last Mint column

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 Two years ago, Olive Beach, a restaurant in Bangalore, made a special tasting menu for a group called The Bangalore Black Tie, of which I am a member. Typically, these are off-menu dishes that the chef specially crafts for the group, paired with wine. Each member pays a fixed price. What was unusual about this meal was that the chef, Manu Chandra, had made it vegetarian. Not just that, he had used Indian ingredients such as drumstick, jackfruit, lotus stem, and even bathua, a local green, if memory serves me right. That’s the thing: memory; food memory; the thing I obsess about.

What makes a meal memorable? The element of surprise makes for a memorable dining experience: paan shots at the Pink Poppadom restaurant at the Ista Bangalore; sake bombs at Edo in the ITC Gardenia; Brahmi juice for Sunday brunch at The Gateway Hotel are some from recent memory.

Eat, experiment: You are bound to be surprised by the results. (F Poincet/courtesy Shangri-La hotel, Paris)

Eat, experiment: You are bound to be surprised by the results. (F Poincet/courtesy Shangri-La hotel, Paris)

For professional restaurateurs and chefs, introducing the element of surprise is tricky because the spontaneous creativity that leads to surprise goes against the cardinal rule of a restaurant kitchen: consistency. Customers come back because they like your grilled fish or Chettinad chicken. Change the recipe and you may incur their wrath.Amuse-bouches are one great way to ask your chefs to be creative. It is off the menu; can be created on the whim of a particular chef on a particular day depending on what ingredients are available; and it forces chefs to be creative. Another method is to remove a chef’s crutch or cushion. This thought occurred halfway through a sublime vegetarian tasting menu at L’Abeille at the Shangri-La, Paris. The restaurant, named after the bee, which was Napoleon’s favourite emblem, is the signature fine-dining restaurant of this relatively new hotel. Owned by the Kuok family of Malaysia, the hotel has undergone a massive renovation to return it to its original state of being the home of Roland Bonaparte (Napoleon’s grandnephew).

Thanks to an introduction by a French fashion journalist, the restaurant invited me for a free vegetarian tasting a few weeks ago. We had delicate white and green asparagus, which were in season, and several courses of excellent vegetarian dishes. Here’s the thing. I know I enjoyed the meal but I can’t remember individual dishes unless I look at my notes or reach for the photos I took. But there’s one thing I remember right off the bat. The dessert was listed as “exotic fruits and vegetables”.

Oh, come on, I thought to myself. I didn’t come all the way here to eat the fruits I get in my homeland. I don’t want mangoes, pomegranates, or whatever it is that the French consider “exotic”. I want rich chocolate and painstakingly prepared pastries.

The dessert plate was ceremoniously placed in front. Along came a violet—the flower that is; on the plate, among cut fruits. I could eat it, said the waiter. I have never eaten a raw violet flower in a fine-dining restaurant. I have had squash blossom flowers in American restaurants, some of which were deep-fried like a tempura. As a child, I ategulmohar flowers and roses. But I haven’t seen flowers served as part of the meal at any of our Indian fine-dining restaurants. Why not?

Since I am vegetarian, I dined at L’Arpège, in Paris. Most of the vegetables come from chef Alain Passard’s 2-hectare kitchen garden outside Paris. The meal for three cost about €450 (around Rs. 31,050 now). It isn’t cheap, but it was wonderful. I remember several elements about the meal, but the surprising thing for me was how sparingly spices were used.

Every culinary tradition has a signature touch: an ingredient, cooking style or technique that is essential to their notion of what makes a good meal; something they cannot give up. Put another way, every culinary tradition has a signature crutch; something that suffuses their dishes; something that they cannot give up. These are the culinary stereotypes: pasta for Italians; sushi for Japanese; French sauces; Indian spices.

Really great restaurants—and meals—rise above these stereotypes. The way they do this is not by reinventing an entire cuisine, which some do. One way they do this is by removing culinary crutches. So the next time you have to challenge your chefs at a restaurant or hotel, ask them to prepare an Indian meal; or at least one dish; or even just an amuse-bouche—without the usual spices. You, and your diners, may be surprised by the results.

Shoba Narayan is wondering why Indians don’t use our abundant betel leaves to create a dish besides paan. She is chewing on a paan as she writes this. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


Sherbets

This coming Saturday is Mint Lounge’s Summer Special issue.  I wrote a column on cooling summer drinks, which, I discovered is already up on the site.  So am posting it here.

  • Columns
  • Posted: Thu, Apr 5 2012. 8:12 PM IST
The cooling draught
There is no better summer drink that the traditional Indian sherbet from your childhood

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 When my Chinese room-mate got acne on her face, she ate a porridge made of green mung beans. Soaked mung beans are considered cooling foods in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). They support the yin earth and disperse yang heat. Indian Ayurveda, too, has its own theories of heating and cooling foods. Ripe yellow mangoes are considered heating. My grandmother always ate mangoes with some yogurt to balance the fruit’s intrinsic heating properties. The mango theory didn’t make sense to me, I told my Dad. Nature, after all, doesn’t make mistakes. If it bestowed a bounty of mangoes all through the summer months, the fruits had to be there for a reason: to cool us off. No, said my Dad. Mangoes were indeed heating fruits; and yes, nature didn’t make mistakes. The reason mangoes came to us in the summer was answered in a pithy Sanskrit saying, “Ushnam Ushnena Shamyati”, which is akin to the Latin “Similia Similibus Curantur”. Like cures like, in plain English. Heating fruits like mangoes help dispel the heat of summer.

Stirring up memories: Sherbets are the drinks of an Indian childhood. Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.

Stirring up memories: Sherbets are the drinks of an Indian childhood. Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.

Healing foods are a complicated business. Mangoes are heating but only the ripe ones. Green mangoes are cooling—witness their ubiquitous usage in summer sherbets, including the famous aam panna, which incidentally includes some cooling cardamom, should there be any residual heat in the mangoes. Yogurt is cooling and damp. Many elderly Indians will not eat yogurt at night because it causes kapha or mucus. A better option is buttermilk, particularly blended with heating spices such as ginger, pepper, curry leaves and asafoetida. This chhaas, or sambaaram as it is called in Kerala, is a soothing digestive. Sugar cane, which thrives in the summer, is heating, so you balance it with some cooling rock sugar or kalkandu.

Panakam is another drink that is served around this time of year. Made with jaggery, pepper, dried ginger and cardamom, it balances electrolytes and quenches thirst. The bael (Bengal quince) fruit is famously cooling. Starting now, bael sherbets will be sold in by-lanes all over India. The green fruits, about the size of a small football, will be stacked like a pyramid. The yellow insides will be scooped out, made into a pulp and served with spices and sugar.

Sandalwood is cooling; and chandan sherbet infused with rose or mograpetals is another visually arresting cooling drink. In my home, I am making a short-cut sherbet. I have submerged a stick of sandalwood in water and floated some mogra and rose petals on top. For good measure, I am preparing this concoction in a copper vessel. In two months, I expect that the fountain of youth will have found me. Either that, or my hair will turn yellow from all the sandalwood I am imbibing.

Are sherbets being overtaken by mocktails? Most restaurants serve mocktails but few include sherbets in their menu. Nimish Bhatia, regional executive chef (south), The Lalit Ashok Bangalore, serves sherbets at his Baluchi restaurant. “We have tukhmalanga sherbets made of those round seeds (called “sabja” in Mumbai) that are part offaloodas,” he says. “These are perceived to be thirst quenchers and coolants.” Other Baluchi sherbets are infused with hibiscus and rose flowers.

Before mocktails were marketed by hotels and restaurants, we all drank sherbet: made ofkokum, mango, screw pine or kewrakhus or vetiver, and sugar cane.

Raj Sethia, chef and CEO of Gangotree restaurant in Bangalore and Chennai, is a sherbet purist. He says that mixing a number of ingredients does not a sherbet make. Milk too is a no-no in the sherbet category, but forms the basis of the thandais that we all drink. “Anything that is an amalgam of many ingredients comes into the mocktail category,” says Sethia. “They are not sherbets.” He speaks effusively about the sherbets of his childhood—such as keri ka panna and bael sherbet—their history that began when the Mughals came to India, and how sherbets can trace their lineage and names back to Arabia and Turkey. But you know what? He is writing a book on mocktails—not sherbets. Mocktail seems to be the drink of today, and sherbet, a summer drink from yesteryear.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to summer drinks. The West reaches for instant quick fixes: ice creams, slushes, “soda” or fizzy drinks and chilled juices. The East is more convoluted. Most of our sherbets are made with three ingredients: fruits and flowers, spices, and herbs like mint. I posted a request for sherbet recipes on a Facebook page that I highly recommend called Foodies in Bangalore. The name is self-explanatory but the people populating it are from all over India. Within a couple of hours, I had a hundred responses. I found a lot of information on the Gourmet India forum, an online community, as well. The enthusiasm of the responses suggests to me that sherbets are the stuff of summer nostalgia. These are drinks that transport us to our childhood, when we came home to chilled juices and sherbets made of seasonal fruits and spices—red rhododendron in Himachal Pradesh; a delicate green aam panna in Rajasthan; spiced buttermilk in Gujarat and Kerala; red jil jil jigarthanda in Madurai, made of rose syrup and sarsaparilla; Rooh Afza and Rasna coolers all over India; chocolate-coloured panagam in the midst of south Indian weddings; kesar faloodasat Crawford Market in Mumbai along with the ubiquitous tender coconut water; bael panna in Lucknow; the prized Bengali kaancha-mitha mangopanna; and a variety of red watermelon-based sherbets in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. These are the drinks of an Indian childhood, along with sucking on chuskis and ripe tamarind fruits that grow so profusely on the roadside in south India. Climb up a mango tree, lean back on its branches, allow the wind to rustle your hair and suck on a ripe mango or tamarind fruit. Better yet, drink an imli (tamarind) sherbet, Bhojpuri barley satturagi kanji or fresh lime soda. Arrey, lace it with vodka, if you must.

Shoba Narayan is currently drinking green Brahmi sherbet.

Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Rice

My Life: Shoba Narayan on rice

Shoba Narayan

Feb 1, 2012

 

People want different things on a cold winter night: a piping hot bowl of soup or the seductive richness of, say, foie gras. I crave steaming hot rice. It could be Malaysian nasi lemak, Saudi Arabian kabsa, Iranian pilaf, Pakistani biryani, Indian tamarind rice, Qatari or Kuwaiti majboos. I don’t fuss as long as the main ingredient is earthy rice. For Asians, rice is the equivalent of American chicken soup.

Said to be cultivated since 6,000 BC in the middle Yangtze valley, rice feeds two-thirds of the world’s population. More than 120,000 varieties of rice exist. There are the fragrant Thai jasmine and the basmati, tiny sweet mochi gome, sticky Filipino malagkit, and plump Italian arborio. Sake is brewed from nine types of Japanese rice ranging from yamada nishiki to omachi. Colours range from brown rice to Chinese black rice, to Indonesian purple and pink rice. White rice is the most popular. Far East Asians like a sticky texture, while Arabic cultures prefer separate, somewhat undercooked grains.

India used to have more than 100,000 varieties of rice. Most were hand-pounded rice with the nutritious husk left intact. Today, the bulk of Asia eats polished white rice bereft of its mineral-rich skin. In Kerala, red rice is popular, while North Indians like basmati rice. A fortnight ago, South Indians celebrated Pongal, the spring harvest festival. My family served a savoury rice dish – also called Pongal – along with freshly harvested sugarcane, turmeric and other gifts of the harvest. When I lived in Manhattan, I frequently made Pongal using Thai jasmine rice that I bought in Little India.

Asia produces and consumes 90 per cent of the world’s rice. In Myanmar a single person eats 462 pounds of rice a year, relative to an American, who eats 20 pounds, according to Riceweb, a compendium of rice facts. Most Asians travel with a rice cooker, and spend a good part of their day testing and debating the merits of various brands and types of rice. For us, rice is the centre of a meal, and everything else, just condiments. In America, rice is considered, if not a condiment, a side dish.

The US farms about 20 varieties of rice, mostly in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana and Texas (where the aromatic Texmati rice originated). The type known to most is wild rice, which is not really rice – it belongs to the genus zizania, not oryza – and Uncle Ben’s “Ready Rice”, which I would argue is not really rice, either.

Vietnam ties its economy to rice grown in the Mekong Delta and its culture to rice wine (ruou nep), a ceremonial drink offered to honored guests and used to dissolve tonic medications. Indonesians base their Rijsttafel (rice table) feasts, consisting of 100-odd dishes, on rice. In Bangladesh, China and Thailand, a common greeting is “Have you had your rice today?” to which an appropriate answer is “No, come and share some rice with me.” Filipinos consider the Banaue rice terraces in Northern Luzon to be the eighth wonder of the world and make bibingkas – sweet rice patties – for holidays. Koreans offer songp’yon (rice cakes) to their ancestors and believe each bowl of ttokkuk (rice soup) eaten on New Year’s Day adds a year to their life. India and Pakistan feud on almost everything except for rice pilaf recipes.

As for me, I don’t feel like I’ve eaten till I eat rice. I may enjoy stinky cheeses, artisanal breads, rich creamy desserts, dark chocolates and cheesy pizza. But at the end of the day, or night, I have to eat steaming hot rice, served with a dollop of ghee. It is the taste of home.

 

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India


Food piece for The National

My column for The National’s M magazine, edited by the divine Rick Arthur and Helena Powell.  Click here for the latest one.  Also pasted below.

Great meals forge a connection to their place and time

Shoba Narayan

Nov 16, 2011

Foods have a connection to place but not an obvious one. To explain, I must make the distinction between good food and memorable meals. Good food is best found where it originates. You expect to have spicy samosas in India, terrific borscht in Russia, rich raclette in Switzerland and fresh sushi in Japan. What makes a meal memorable is an element of surprise combined with a longing for a particular food. Surprise and longing produce memory.

The best Lebanese meal I had was in Prague; the best pasta I ate was in Zermatt, Switzerland; the best avocado juice I tasted was in Singapore; and the best flatbreads I ate were the gozleme in Turkey. What made them memorable was that I didn’t expect to find them there.

Take the gozleme, a Turkish flatbread with a variety of fillings – spinach, feta, potatoes, onions, mushrooms – that peasant women cook on a griddle. I didn’t even know gozleme existed till I drove from Istanbul to Cappadocia. My guide, Abdul, suggested a roadside diner for lunch. He knew I was a vegetarian and said it served terrific gozleme. After days during which I ate mostly cold feta, cucumbers and cabbage, the hot sizzling gozleme with warm spinach and feta brought tears to my eyes. I still remember the dusty diner and Abdul’s grin as I bit off a large piece of hot, sizzling, cheese-dripping gozleme.

In Prague, my husband and I were out walking one winter evening. After four days in eastern Europe – Warsaw, Auschwitz, Budapest and then Prague – we longed for familiar food and warmth. When we saw a restaurant serving Lebanese food, we ducked in, knowing we would find vegetarian mezze. The owner, a rotund bearded man wearing a chef’s cap and a chequered apron, welcomed us as if we were family. When we said we were vegetarian, he sent a slew of tiny plates to us. There was warm pitta and tangy dips – hummus, baba ganoush, tzatziki, falafel, marinated carrots, feta, tahini paste. We ate and talked, and later sang and danced.

 

The National CooksFrom cool summer salads and soups through to delicious deserts, here is our extensive recipe collection.

I lived in Singapore for two years and frequented the hawker markets. Near Newton Circus was a tiny stall serving chilled avocado juice. It was the best thing to drink on a hot summer’s day. I would pack some in a plastic bag and bring it back home.

Whenever my husband went to London on work, I would try to go along. During one trip several years ago, I set out to discover the best afternoon tea in London. We were staying at the Dorchester, which served a perfectly acceptable afternoon tea. Friends recommended the Ritz for its pomp and circumstance, not to mention the serenading harpist. Fortnum & Mason was a must, mostly to buy its jams and clotted cream to carry back home. Purists said Brown’s served the best afternoon tea. I still remember the formal demeanour of its waiters as they led me into a small inner room with green wallpapered walls and heavy curtains. I didn’t enjoy the hushed tea service but I do remember the magnificent detail of the environs.

We went with our daughters to Zermatt one winter for ski lessons. We stayed at a charming wooden chalet. One evening, we took our tired, cranky girls for dinner. The steward heard two words: vegetarian and pasta. He brought us a mound of spaghetti surrounded by four bowls, each with a sauce – pesto, marinara, cheese and aglio olio. The four of us dived in without saying a word.

They say great meals soothe the soul. The four-sauce pasta that a kindly Swiss waiter brought to us surely did.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India


Beer Story for Cathay Pacific

This is a story called Bengaluru Beer.  There is a fear that Delhi might over Bangalore as the Pub City of India– or has it already?  The one person who I wanted to interview for this piece but couldn’t do it by deadline was a man from a company called Ambicon.  They make equipment for brewing beer, which to me, is a sign that craft beer in India has come of age.

BengaluruBrews

Tea

My main source for high-quality teas is my friend Kishore Mariwala of Bombay.  Kishore is a connoisseur of many things: Hindustani music, tea, single malts to name three.  Our friendship began when he wrote to Mint two years ago, commenting on a piece I had written on coffee.  I have, with his permission, reproduced the letter below, mostly because it gives helpful tips about how to drink fine tea: water temperature and such.

Kishore, as you will see below, has a eye for detail and is perfectionist about his teas– somewhat like my other foodie friend, Stanley Pinto, who runs ragged to orchestrate fabulous meals for The Bangalore Black Tie.

Kishore: you should click the link above to “meet” Stanley.

Every now and then, Kishore will courier me some tea he has found.  To the point where I cannot drink normal milky tea.  I drink Kashmiri Kehwa at my friend, Kavita’s house, and recently, Kavita has joined my pantheon of tea experts by producing a fabulously complext tea.  It comes from a box, and yes, (Kishore’s comment below notwithstanding), it has teabags, albeit pyramid-shaped.  Kavita sent me Lipton’s tea infusions.  I have tried several at her house but the best is Moroccan Mint.  I don’t like Mint tea but this one has all kinds of other spices in it: fennel? cinnamon? I have been enjoying a big pot of it every morning and evening.

Now read Kishore’s letter. He is a chemical engineer.

—– Forwarded by Bhavna/bizpaper/del/htl on 09/14/2009 03:10 PM —–

From: Kishore Mariwala <>
To: thegoodlife@livemint.com
Date: 09/14/2009 02:26 PM
Subject: “Raise a cup to chicory—-“

Hello Shobha,
I am Kishore Mariwala, a regular reader of your column “The Good Life” in yesterday’s “Lounge”.  I particularly enjoyed the yesterday’s column  “Raise a cup to chicory, all ye coffee snobs” . In that article you ask if “chaiwallas” dissect their chai like the coffee wallas who dissect their coffee.  

I am, considered  a “Tea, Coffee and Single malt whisky snob” in my circle of friends and relatives.  I can comment at length on all the three of  my favourite beverages. However, since my name does not even remotely sound like a South Indian, I will refrain from commenting on coffee. The single malts are in  another class altogether so thy also are out!
I will restrict my comments on Tea only. 
Firstly, just as it is sacrosanct to dilute single malt with water and a blasphemy to dilute it with soda, it is blasphemy to dilute tea  with milk, lime  or sugar. 
The only exceptions are

  • a well made cup of  masala chai  on a rainy day, to have such chai  with onion pakodas.

Secondly, Blended teas to be avoided except under special circumstances (described below).
Tea Bags can not enter my house!  I consider them obscene! 

Over the years I have categorised Teas on the undermentioned scale:

Top rung:   Undoubtedly Single estate First Flush or second flush teas. 
For mornings, Second flush (or autumn flush). It has a little stronger flavour, good to wake up with;  for afternoons, first flush which is milder but  distinctly aromatic- touch of floral- 

Source: After many many years an trying out many sources, I have zeroed in on: “Tea Emporium” at Darjeeling. 
When I see my jar(s) running out, I call up Sanjeev Mitra. We discuss the merits or demerits of the last consignment. 
He then  who rattles off a list of latest arrivals with his recommendations.
Having known my taste for many years now, he knows exactly what I would like. At times he calls up on his own if he thinks that he has struck quality gold, he calls up immediately to inform me that he has despatched a packet to me. 
To any one who agrees with my assessment of Darjeeling teas I recommend him strongly. 

Second rung (far below the first one) : Nilgiri, High Range, Sri Lanka. 
No match to Darjeeling but tolerable. Some tea from Tata Estates in Munnar are good! come close to Darjeeling but not very close. 
Chinese: Good for green teas but have not yet come across a black tea comparable to Darjeeling. 
Assam: Low on flavour, heavy liquor. Has a special use described below.
Kenya, Kangra etc. ; Not to be considered! Good for Russians. 

Japanese make a lot of sense in evolving the institution of “Tea Ceremony” ! It has to be a ceremony if  you want a real good cup of tea!
 
Tea leaves: my proportion is 1/2  tea spoon per cup but varies depending the flavour strength of a particular variety, which flush it is from.
Water:  Water: has to be very fresh; soft; salinity below 200 ppm. Heat it just to boiling. Stop heating, letit cool for a minute or two and add measured quantity. 
Brew for 3 to 5 minutes (depending on taste) .
Never use metal tea pot. Has to be glass or ceramic. I prefer clear glass since I like to see the liquor and the beauty of the leaves as they unfold and assume their original shape and colour! 
So that is how it goes. 
Now let me talk about the Masala Chai ceremony to go with Onion Pakodas in monsoon. 
Tea: a blend of 1/3  to 1/2 Assam Tea. 2/3rd to 1/2 Darjeeling tea (need not be the most expensive one)
Other ingredients: Freshly grated fresh ginger; some leaves of lemon grass chopped into 1/2″  to 1″ length and including some thick portion from near the roots; a few mint leaves (avoid stems)
Boil in water for about 5 minutes. Strain out all the leaves, ginger Add  required prpoortion of sugar..
Add skimmed milk . (Skimmed to ensure that the cup when offered does mot have that unsightly skin often seen in chaiwalla’s chai. Proportion of milk to water: 1/2 & 1/2  or personal choice. 
Bring the milk-water-sugar to boil on high elame. When boiling and rolling, add 1 Tea spoon of the Assam- Darjeeling leaves mixture per cup.Stie it in. 
The concoction will foam and try to come up. Just as it approaches the top edge, lower the flame and let foam subside. When it subsides, restart high flame and let it get another boil over. When it reaches the top edge, switch pff heating and cover the cessel with a lid. Let it stand for 3 minutes and strain it out in a cup or a preheated pot, Enjoy with onion pakodas. 
This masala chai does not belong to the category of Darjeeling tea. For me it is another beverage altogether !
So Shobha, that is the discourse from a Chaiwalla !
You may have found it a little too long but then I was talking about my Goddess! 
Regards,
Kishore
*********END OF KISHORE LETTER*******

I have preserved this letter because it has two of the three things necessary for good op-ed writing: deep knowledge on the subject and strong opinions.  The third neccessary thing, of course, is the desire to write and be published and the polishing of your craft, which Kishore doesn’t have time for mostly because he is sailing his yacht on Bombay harbour.

I am going to email this post to Kishore Mariwala and Stanley Pinto: connoisseurs and dictators both.  May their tribe increase. Oh, and will email Kavita too: my latest tea connoisseur.

 

Survival of the Tastiest for Mint

Headline writing is a fascinating exercise.  When I write a column, I try to come up with headlines.  Mint’s team always do better (naturally).  What is the skill that one needs to be a good headline writer, I wonder.  I mean, you have to take the essence of an article and combine it to make a catch few words.  And you’d think that since I am the writer of the piece, I’d be good at making up a headline, right? Wrong.  So I’ll keep trying and the day I come up with a better headline that Mint’s for my pieces, I am going to forward it to them.  Here is my latest column

Survival of the tastiest?

If a Tamilian can eat a ‘samosa’, why don’t Punjabis demand ‘vathal kuzhambu’?

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

You don’t realize this as you tuck into that breakfast, but India is in the throes of a grand culinary experiment. What are you eating, by the way? Is it a dosaparatha,samosabrun maska or luchi? Your answer could determine the future of your favourite dish.

Why do some dishes travel so far from their origins and why do other dishes stay locked within a region? Take the pizza, for example. It originated as a Mediterranean flatbread. The term was probably first used in 10th century Italy. After World War II, American troops brought it back home; the franchises took over, and the dish has taken over the world. We have Brazilian sweet pizza with fruit toppings, Israeli kosher versions, and toppings reflecting the nation, such as bulgogi, tandoori chicken and sambal paste.

 

Essentially Tamil: (clockwise from left) Idli, easy to cook and pronounce, has travelled well, but not vathal kuzhambu (below); and Naren Thimmaiah, executive chef, Gateway Hotel, Bangalore, shows us how to make vathal kuzhambu. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.

Essentially Tamil: (clockwise from left) Idli, easy to cook and pronounce, has travelled well, but not vathal kuzhambu (below); and Naren Thimmaiah, executive chef, Gateway Hotel, Bangalore, shows us how to make vathal kuzhambu. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.

 

Pizza has the three factors that allow a dish to travel: It is dry, allowing for easy packing; its ingredients allow for local adaptations; it is not complicated to cook; and can be made using a simple chulha (coal stove) or a brick oven. In India, the samosa fits these criteria, which is probably why it has travelled so well across our land, not to mention lent its name to the hilarious website Samosapedia. 

Consider, in contrast, the humble vathal kuzhambu, from the Tam-Brahm heartland of Thanjavur district. It uses primarily two ingredients: dried vegetables, called vathal; and lots of tamarind water. The vathalsare simmered in tamarind water till the gravy becomes thick. Spices such as asafoetida, salt and chilli powder give it flavour. I am simplifying the recipe, but you get the picture. My question is this: Why did a recipe that originated in Iran take over the Indian subcontinent while a far easier recipe with far fewer ingredients failed to travel beyond its borders? In other words, if a Tamilian can eat a samosa, why don’t Punjabis demand vathal kuzhambu?

Also Read | Shoba Narayan’s previous Lounge columns

It is a dilemma that would do Darwin proud. The evolution of dishes; survival of the tastiest; cross-border migration; deep-fried or else you are out.

Common wisdom holds that the reason Punjabi dishes have spread all over India is because they travelled the road with Punjabi truckers. Then why hasn’t the supposedly ubiquitous Malayali tea-shop owner cooked and sold his appam and stew wherever he set up shop? If demand drives markets, why isn’t there a market for kori gassi,sabudana vadasarapatelor yakhni?

 

 

 

Sociologist Arjun Appadurai has suggested that some of this has to do with regional character. Subtle cuisines and softer people are often overtaken by more assertive cuisines and aggressive people: Telugu by Tamil; Oriya by Bengali; Kannada by Marathi; Rajasthani by Gujarati; and Kashmiri by Punjabi. You could argue the specifics but it is true that some regional dishes are not as popular as they should be. With canned coconut milk available all over India, you could argue that solkadhi should be more popular than it is. With today’s emphasis on healthy food, shouldn’t sprouted Maharashtrian usal have taken over Indian kitchens? And please, don’t tell me that a samosa is easier to make than an idli, which fits all the parameters of a travelling dish: It is dry, easy to cook, and open to regional adaptation—witness the idli Manchurian. Then why don’t people in Binsar or Raichur eat idlis, choosing instead to painstakingly fry asamosa

Some of it has to do with marketing. While the dosa and sambhar that I eat four mornings a week (if I can) is known to all my Punjabi and Gujarati friends, who modify it with pinches of garam masala and sugar, respectively, no Tamilian has marketed the vathal kuzhambu. The name itself is pretty difficult.

Here I come to my core theory of culinary supremacy. It’s all in the name. Any dish with more than three syllables is doomed. Dharwad people sing the praises of badane ennegai (stuffed brinjal—seven syllables) but do you think it stands a chance next to the four-syllablebaingan bharta? Do you think a Dilliwala can even pronounce amezhukku varati, let alone desire to order it? Do you think a south Indian like me can memorize kobi bataka nu shaak as compared with a short and simple dhokla? You Mumbai folk might be able to say patra ni macchi with elan, but I tried ordering it for a friend and didn’t get beyond the patra, which is a leafy “ghaas-phoos” (vegetarian) dish made with Colocasia leaves.

Want to predict the future of Indian dishes? It’s all in the name.

Shoba Narayan loves her biryanis (four syllables but still famous) and her samosas (three syllables), but cannot live without her dosa (two syllables). Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com