This appeared in Silkroad magazine’s Feb 2012 issue
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
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
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
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.
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 <>|
|Date:||09/14/2009 02:26 PM|
|Subject:||“Raise a cup to chicory—-“|
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!
*********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.
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
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan
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.
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 vada, sarapatelor 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 email@example.com
Great review in the New York Times about Next restaurant in Chicago. I met Chef Grant Achatz when I dined in Alinea, and would fly to Chicago just to snag a seat at Next. Kudos!
I wrote this piece over six months ago when Bangalore was hot, hot, hot. They publish it now
Icecream for The National here and pasted below
Amid a rainbow of flavours, I am still frozen in the past
Jul 19, 2011
On a hot day in Singapore not long ago, a friend took me to an ice cream shop that she had been raving about. Island Creamery presented us with a smorgasbord of flavours – milo, chendol, teh tarik and others. But something was missing. What happened to plain old vanilla?
As any child today knows, the ice cream of the 21st century comes in a kaleidoscope of choices. In India, kulfi ice creams with saffron, pistachios and mango are hugely popular. In Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh, falooda made with vermicelli, tapioca pearls, milk cream and ice is slurped down all summer long.
And modern innovations have made their mark on this favourite desert. Dippin’ Dots, for instance, uses liquid nitrogen instead of conventional freezing methods to give its multicoloured pebbles an ice cream-like texture. And the UAE’s Al Ain Dairy uses camel-milk flavoured with rose water for its ice creams, a healthy – if acquired – taste.
There was a time when manufacturers showed some restraint when it came to this age-old confection. Not any more.
Today’s new flavours begin at the other end of the taste spectrum. Red chilli ice cream? Why not? Olives? The more the merrier. In this environment, green tea ice cream seems almost passé. Some Chinese, apparently, even like fish-flavoured ice cream.
What bugs me is that in the race to innovate, ice-cream makers are ignoring its hallowed history. Why mess with 3,000 years of tradition and create flavours that have no connection with the past?
The first ice creams were elegant in their simplicity. Persians poured pomegranate juice into bowls and sunk them into snow. During the summer months, mountains of ice would be stored in the underground chambers of domed structures called yakhchal, or ice-pits, used to cool fruit juices.
The Chinese used ice to cool mixtures of rice, milk and fruits as early as 200BC. When the Mughals arrived in India, they had relays of horsemen bring ice from the Hindu Kush mountains to satisfy their penchant for ice cream. One can only imagine fleet-footed horses with dripping ice tearing through the mountains and valleys to ensure that their cold cargo reached Emperor Akbar in Delhi.
Three hundred years before him, Kublai Khan is supposed to have enjoyed the cold sherbets passed on from his ancestors in Samarkhand.
The heart of the matter today is the balance between tradition and innovation.
There are two approaches: the evolutionary approach of gradual changes while maintaining a link, however tenuous, to history.
With most food, this is the approach that works. You definitely should not make mango ketchup, for instance. In order for a dish to be called ketchup, it has to have some connection with the humble tomato.
Similarly, for a dish to be called ice cream, it should conform to certain conventions: it should be rich, creamy, ice cold and have a certain sweetness. This is why bitter ice cream is an oxymoron in my view.
Not all agree with this thesis. The revolutionaries, for instance, believe that innovation requires a clean break with the past. They are the ones propagating red chillies and sour lemons as flavours. The sad part, for purists like me, is that they are gaining ground.
There are many ways to cool off on a hot summer day. Jumping into the pool is one. Sweating it off with some hot tea is an eastern approach. Eating ice cream is a third, and to in my mind, the most pleasurable.
As an avowed fanatic, my hope is that the revolutionaries in food science will stay away from my ice cream. A proper ice cream should be eaten in a cup and contain one, maybe two, flavours and no superfluous ingredients.
Try it and see. You may become a convert to the purist theory of the culinary form.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author of Monsoon Diary
My French neighbour has introduced me to some of the coolest places in Bangalore. Is there something wrong with this picture, or is it just how it is? Expats come to Bangalore and discover the city in a way that many of us who have lived here for years don’t. I have never been to City Market, its flower market, on a Lalbagh walk with a naturalist, and that musical fountain near the planetarium (the last one is not on my to-do list). So anyway, Elisabeth and I were shopping for that oxymoron that is common in furniture shops these days– antiquey new furniture, custom-made to specifications. This shop called Geetanjali was selling a cool mobile-bar for Rs. 40,000. Just above was Pho-bidden fruit. Ran into photographer Sudeep Gurtu there (yes, related to Trilok). Of course, I had Pho. And momos, which were great. The Pho was okay. There is this whole category of foods that have just a whiff of meat in them that I wish I could imbibe. Pho in its native land is not meat-heavy. If I could do away with my mental block, I am sure I could enjoy this dish in its original glory. But that is not to be so no use speculating over meat-I-will-not-eat. The vegetarian Pho was crunchy and brothy. This whole crunchy vegetable concept needs a complete overhaul. Simply throwing in diced celery, carrots, or scallions into broth and tossing in some lemongrass for fragrance doesn’t do it for me. Crunchy vegetables only work when there is fat, some fried stuff, some peanuts, at least some cheese. As in bhel puri, Thailand’s raw papaya salad and those amazing salads that Marcus Samuelsson used to make when he was at Aquavit New York. The Rogue Elephant makes a mean salad too.
Went to Karthik chaat shop in Indranagar. Used to love this place when it was on CMH Road. The location has changed to a quieter road behind the BDA complex. They have cleaned it up now with gleaming stainless steel counters. Samosas at 12 a pop were a ripoff. The samosa chaat was good though, with thick dahi instead of that ridiculously thin concoction that they serve at Anand Sweets in Commercial Street. If you must cut costs, at least work for it, man. Dice vegetables thinner to make them look like they have some girth. But adding water to dahi? Any babe can do that. Hell, I can add water to my dahi if I like the Kerala sambaram consistency. So anyway, I have stopped having chaat at Anand Sweets for this very simple reason. The Pani puri at Karthik’s was ok. You know, when the servers hand out pani puri, there has to be a sense of largesse to it. You may be alloted a measly five puris for your Rs. 25, but the giving of it has to be generous, or at least pretend to be generous. This guy at Karthik’s was counting the puris. Pissed me off. They should take a lesson from Tiwari Brothers. The pani puri guy there acts as if there is a bottomless pit of pani puris and it’s all yours for the taking. Still searching for a samosa to topple Bhagatrams, which still holds my number 1 spot for the best samosa in Bangalore. At Rs. 7 a pop and spiked with ginger, they are terrific. Plus you get to chat with the owners, who, in one of the commonplace oddities of Bangalore are North Indians by the looks of them, but they speak fluent Tamil.