Memories are made of buttermilk

It is hot now in Bangalore, which, I guess, is what prompted this piece.

Memories are made of buttermilk


My first memory of buttermilk is warmth and darkness.  I must have been five or six years old.  Still confused by the mists of sleep, I walked into my grandmother’s kitchen, drawn by a comforting swishing sound.  My grandmother was sitting on the floor, her legs spread-eagled and resting on the wall.  Soft light filtered through the window in front of her.  In between her legs was a heavy mud pot that was held firmly in place by a coiled towel.  A tall wooden “mathu” or butter churner was inserted inside this pot.  Although I didn’t know it then, it was the older version of a blender. 

I stumbled inside the cool kitchen.  My grandmother turned.  Her diamond nostrils glinted in the shaft of light.  Her beautiful face crinkled into a smile but she didn’t say anything—she was engrossed in her task.  Her hands held the two ends of a rope that was coiled around the butter churner.  They moved back and forth rhythmically.  My grandmother sat like a yogi, alert but relaxed.  I had seen her in this position many times.

Unbidden, I slipped under her hands that were level with her shoulder.  I rested against the C-shaped curve of her body, my back against her soft, squishy belly; my legs spread-eagled like hers; my hands flush against hers.  Together, we pulled the rope, back and forth, coaxing the milk into giving up its butter.  It wasn’t milk really.  It was the thick yogurt that she had collected for a couple of days.

The wooden churner was a marvel of engineering.  It was held in place by two simple pulleys, facing opposite directions.  The first was a U-shaped coil of rope that was tied to the window-grill permanently.  When we began the butter-churning process, we slipped the wooden churner in between this coil.  Then came the second coil of rope that we pulled from the other side.  The churner couldn’t touch the bottom of the pot because that would generate friction when we churned.  Instead, my grandmother placed it expertly so that the churner was a few inches above the bottom of the pot, held aloft by the pressure of her churning.

I loved sitting within my grandmother’s body, matching my arms to hers as we pulled the rope together.  I could smell the buttermilk and feel my grandmother’s breath on my nape.  She didn’t say a word but it was the closest that I came to feeling utterly secure and comfortable.  Some minutes later, we could see the heavy butter lumps begin forming.  My grandmother poured cold water into the mud pot.  We continued churning.  Within minutes, butter lumps floated on top.  Then we stopped.  My grandmother collected all the lumps together in her hands and tossed them together into a round ball.  I sat still and expectant, waiting for the best part.  Once my grandmom put the big round ball into a vessel filled with water, where it floated like those white planets that we drew in our geography book.  Then, she collected the smaller lumps of butter that were still floating inside, made a small ball and glanced at me.  Obediently, I opened my mouth.  In went the freshly churned butter.  It tasted of the saltiness of my grandmother’s hand, the sweetness of cow’s milk and the slight sourness of the yogurt cream that we collected.

Fast forward, a decade and my grandmother still made buttermilk, except with her trusty Braun “mixie,” that my uncle gifted her from the U.S. It made her churning a lot easier. She put thick yogurt into the blender, added ice water from the fridge, and pressed a switch. Five minutes of spirited whirring and the yogurt would foam on top. The bubbles were my grandmom’s cue. She added a little ice water and pressed the switch once again. Soon, lumps of butter would form. After that, it was the same ritual. She would collect the large lumps and toss them expertly with her palm into a large round ball. The dregs of butter went into my mouth. They still tasted like buttery heaven.

Every part of India uses buttermilk. In Kerala, we simply water it down, toss in a few fresh curry leaves and drink it as sambaram. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, buttermilk is spiced with ground-up green chilies, ginger, curry leaves, some asafetida and salt, all of which are pounded and added to the buttermilk. We call this majjige or neer-mor. Much of North India uses roasted cumin and mint leaves to spice their buttermilk or chaas, as it is called.  A combination of roasted and ground cumin, some salt, a dash of lemon juice, and pounded pudina or mint leaves, are added to the buttermilk for flavor. This watery, delicious and light drink is excellent for digestion and cooling the body. Punjab, of course, has its famous lassis, made with thick buttermilk blended with fruits like mango. Mango lassi is available all over the world at Indian restaurants.  Bengal, I think, doesn’t have buttermilk.  They prefer their mishti dahi, not the watered down version.  

The beauty of buttermilk is its egalitarian nature. No matter how rich or poor, all of India consumes this drink. Down the road from where I live is a pushcart vendor. All she has on her cart is a red earthen pot filled with buttermilk that she sells to auto drivers, bicycle messengers, and anyone who needs a cool drink on a hot day.

As for me, I prefer buttermilk to yogurt just as I prefer light black coffee to thick cappuccino. If I had a choice, I would drink my grandmother’s buttermilk but she is dead now. I still have her wooden churner though. Every now and then, particularly on hot summer days, I think of bringing it out and setting it up with two coils of ropes, just as it was in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Shoba Narayan likes Amul Masti Dahi. 

New book, not by me: The Udipi Kitchen

Geetha Rao is someone I got to know through Stanley Pinto’s The Bangalore Black Tie.  She always wears gorgeous saris and is now President of the Karnataka Crafts Council.  I have written about her sari collection for Mint– search for Kodali Karuppur sari and Geetha Rao.  Now, Geetha has a new book out, co-written with her mother.  She was kind enough to invite me to be part of the launch.  K. Jairaj will release the book.  I am to speak on Food as part of culture.  Priya Bala will converse with the authors as they give a demonstration.

Incidentally, Geetha’s husband Surendra L. Rao is a renowned economist and a mentor for many.  Rama Bijapurkar has praised him in her first book.  Please buy Geetha’s book.


Train Diary 4

The last of my beloved train diaries. For now.

Train diary No.4: strangers and friends

There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert
Shoba Narayan

There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert. Every compartment usually has both. There are the silent types who stare unblinkingly as you enter their compartment. There are others who smile and make room; and just when you are thinking of them as good prospects for sharing the night’s dinner, they ask you to exchange their upper berth for your lower one. That is when you look at the strong, silent type and wish you’d followed his example.

Indian train compartments are beautifully designed for the most part. There are hooks from which to hang the odd plastic bag filled with fermenting black bananas that are bursting with what seems like pus. There are electrical plugs to charge your mobile device; metal rods into which you chain your bag or suitcase in case midnight robbers make off with your belongings; and seats that fold out into sleeping berths.

Although we like to pretend otherwise, human beings are deeply attuned to pace and proportion. To go from Bombay to Britain in 8 hours is possible by plane, and we do this all the time. We get off feeling groggy and disoriented and attribute it to melatonin and jet lag. What we don’t talk about is the psyche and its adjustment—or lack thereof– to air travel. It is only when you travel by trains that you notice how their speed and size are suited for human beings: fast but not disorienting; cozy but not cramped, at least in the air-conditioned coaches. The one defect has to do with height: train berths are designed for dwarfs. Sit up and…well, you can’t sit up particularly in the upper berth. You have to scrunch in a foetal position, both when you sit and when you sleep. As a teenager, I scrunched so much that I fell off the top berth. True story. Apparently, I didn’t even wake up. From then on, my mother repeated this exploit as if it were an achievement. “She got 97% in her Unit Tests. And you know, she fell off the top berth and didn’t even wake up,” my Mom would say, flexing her muscles in a way that would give the Phogat sisters a run for their medals.

Sometimes the train stops, as mine does– at 9:15 on a dark night, in a field before Dharmapuri. After a few minutes, I walk to the door. There are a couple of men smoking cigarettes. It seems civilized to blow smoke-rings into the great wide open. In contrast, smoking booths in airports look like cages in a zoo. The smokers inside speak on the phone as they hold their lights, as if the phone conversation makes them look and feel less alone. Here, the two men speak desultorily about why the train has stopped. Something about “shunting,” and an inter-city train crossing ours.

Inky blackness envelops the sky. No homes; no lights save for those from the train, and no dwellings. I climb down the steps—the only woman amidst a few men. My family would have had a fit if they saw me alone in the middle of nowhere, with darkness all around, waiting outside a train with a couple of strangers sharing a fag; beside a train that could take off any minute. The thought is thrilling. The light turns green. We all climb back as the train pulls away. There is something about a running train (or bus) that makes climbing in an adventure. Perhaps it is matching your body to a moving object; Newton’s law of physics and what not.

The train picks up speed. The toddler in the next compartment is fussing. She walks down the corridor, anklets jingling, followed by a smiling, adoring Dad.

“She has a cold,” he explains to us.

We make clicking sympathetic voices. “The only thing that works is Waterbury’s Compound,” he says. He pulls out a tiny Johnny Walker bottle, opens the cap and pours the fluid down his toddler’s mouth. Nobody blinks. Instead, we fan ourselves with Maalai Murasu, Dinamalar, and Kalki, Tamil publications all.

At the next station, the gruff pharmaceutical executive who shares my compartment meets his family. They stand away from the crowd milling at the entrance of the compartment and catch up. I know what they are talking about because I have done this so many times with relatives while growing up. Some uncle or aunt would take the time to bring us food at random stations and we would have a few minutes of conversation. But what can you talk about really amidst the tension of a train that could leave any minute? Mostly you ask questions without waiting for answers? “How is Farida/Charles/Baby aunty? How is your health? Did Ahmed/Unni/Fatty write his exams? When are you coming to Delhi?” Connection through questions, as a way of saying thanks. Indians of yore didn’t say thanks. They viewed it as an insult almost. “You can put your thanks in a parcel and send it to Honolulu,” my Mami used to say loudly when we sputtered thanks, thanks to a convent school education. It was easy to imagine a line of thanks winging their way through the oceans to sunny Honolulu. It is these vignettes of life that make travelling on Indian trains a memorable experience. Minister Sadananda Gowda should capitalize on this collective affection that Indians have for train travel by making some improvements: cleaner toilets and stations that reflect and sell local food specialties would be a start. But first, he has to sort out the mess at home.

Shoba Narayan loves train travel.


Am really enjoy seasonal fruits now. We drink watermelon and musk melon juice everyday. These are the pleasures of seasonality. Thankfully, watching NDTV with my father in law about being “Single in the City” with Vikram Chandra. From Mint Lounge this week

Sat, Mar 30 2013. 11 22 AM IST

Luxury in food is about being seasonal
Seasonality is a concept that was understood instinctively by people of the previous generation, regardless of country
Shoba Narayan

Seasonal fruits, like mangoes, are popular for their health benefits. Photo: Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times.
The watermelons are here now. Glorious green round balls with dark green veins piled a block high in Cox Town, Bangalore. Chop them open for translucent flesh the colour of nail polish—pockmarked with pits that children spit while imagining whole orchards sprouting up around them.
The grapes are here too. Fruit vendors roll carts piled high with that single fruit—one harvest’s bounty. Summer will soon be here—the relentless march of grapes, melons and watermelons, all culminating in the marvellous swansong that is the Indian mango. In two months, we will see mounds of golden mangoes—one variety after another till the hot season ends. I wait for the Imam Pasand and think the Alphonso is overrated, but you are welcome to your opinion too.
Years ago, I interviewed iconic chef Alice Waters about her cooking philosophy at Chez Panisse, California. Waters, who revolutionized the way American chefs cooked, said simplicity and seasonality were her bywords. This same word—seasonal—was repeated by uber-chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller. At the time, I didn’t understand this word or the concept. Why was a seasonal menu so important to them? What did it even mean in the US, where you could buy luscious mangoes imported from Mexico at the Korean deli down the street in the dead of winter? Wasn’t luxury the ability to eat anything anywhere anytime? Wasn’t there a particular pleasure in buying grapes from Chile; sugar snap peas from Georgia; pomegranates from West Asia; and mangoes from India all through the year at New York grocery stores such as Zabar’s, Citarella or Kalustyan’s?
Let me explain this overused foodie word as it plays out in the Indian context. Seasonal is what you cannot have. In Bangalore today, you cannot have chikoos for love or for money. Papayas too are waning, as are pomegranates and oranges. You still get them but they aren’t ubiquitous. The humble mosambi (sweet lime) is coming into season, while loose-jacket oranges are slowly going off. Grapes are in their prime now and will last a week, tops, before the watermelons have their aria. This specificity is the luxury of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
It has to do with taste, time and geography. To eat a cauliflower in Delhi in the winter is to experience this vegetable in its prime. Certain fruits and vegetables are delicacies that make their appearance like shy heroines at the behest of nature and climate.
Macrobiotics formalized these concepts by suggesting that people ought to eat only those foods that were indigenous, local and seasonal, for health reasons. Among the elders in my family, it was traditional to eat agasti leaves or agathi keerai (Sesbania grandiflora) on the 12th lunar day or dwadasi—after the previous day’s ekadasi fast—because it had vermicidal qualities. So you’d fast on one day, and detox on the next. These days, we go to Ananda in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand, or Canyon Ranch in the US to achieve the same effect.
Perhaps because of norms such as these, seasonality is a concept that was understood instinctively by people of the previous generation, regardless of country. Americans who grew up in the Depression era of the 1930s understood the concept of seasonality because they were used to forgoing certain types of food. Indians even to this day understand seasonality and how it is linked with taste and cost. Fresh figs will arrive in Delhi during certain times of the year and it is best to devour them before they disappear. Strawberries from Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar will arrive in Mumbai, drawing envy from down-southers like me. Mumbaikars will devour them and soon they’ll be gone.
Among the Rajputs of Rajasthan, seasonality is interpreted as eating the choicest game at the perfect time. So says Harsh Vardhan Singh, who runs Chhatra Sagar, a luxury tented camp in Nimaj. Ducks are most flavourful after their migration from Siberia. Foie gras was eaten before the geese migrated back because their livers would triple in size in preparation for the trip. In neighbouring Deogarh Mahal, Shatrunjai Singh Deogarh told me that venison tasted best in spring because that was when the four-horned deer, famous for its saddle meat, would have eaten fresh berries and fruits, lending its meat a lovely tartness. “And most of Rajasthan will not eat meat in the monsoon or during breeding season,” said Singh.
This interplay between feasting and fasting is the essence of living seasonally. Today, we do both. We go to Le Cirque in Delhi or Wasabi by Morimoto in Mumbai to dine on Wagyu beef or Parma ham that has flown thousands of kilometres to graze our plate and palate. We also come home and slurp on some strawberries, figs or grapes in the peak of their ripeness to enjoy local, seasonal, low-impact foods that don’t require us to buy carbon credits.
Shoba Narayan is eating local green grapes to offset the carbon credits of her Kesselstatt Riesling that has flown in all the way from Mosel, Germany.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Living in Paris

To French wine, cheese, bread, but sadly, for a vegetarian– not French food.  Thank you, dear Elisabeth– our lunches together give me a taste of France right here in Bangalore.

How the French do it

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First Published: Thu, Dec 06 2012. 08 20 PM IST
Dessert wines and candy shops, all within walking distance in Paris. Photo: Jorge Royan/Wikimedia Commons
Updated: Thu, Dec 06 2012. 08 34 PM IST
Down the street from my home in Paris are three cheese shops, four beauty salons, five bakeries, six wine shops and seven bistros, revealing, in no uncertain terms, the French approach to priorities in life.
It isn’t my home, really. It belongs to Elisabeth Guez, my neighbour in Bangalore. In a twist in the decades-old tale of entrepreneurship and immigration, Elisabeth’s husband, Michel, moved to Bangalore four years ago to start a firm and seek his fortune. When he first told me his company’s name, Smartesting, I thought it had to do with IIT coaching. But the website says that it is about “business critical applications testing”, which you probably understand, even though I don’t.
In Bangalore, Elisabeth and I bonded over her Mariage Frères Earl Grey tea and my south Indian coffee. When they heard that I was visiting Paris, they gave me the keys to their chic apartment near the Champs Elysèes and allowed me to pretend, if just for a week, that I actually lived there.
Living in a residential neighbourhood helps a tourist learn the rhythms of a new city. Some are universal: harried parents hustling children to school in the morning; suited office workers grabbing a croissant and a coffee before jumping into the Metro; vegetable vendors unloading the day’s produce. The details differ. Where we have mangoes, they have fragrant peaches, nectarines and apricots. Where we have delicate lady’s finger, they have white asparagus. The Oriental lilies that I love cost Rs.100 a stem in Bangalore. In Paris, they cost €12 (Rs.850) each. Beauty salons advertise a variety of treatments that will zap cellulite, contour faces and take out wrinkles. Cheese and wine are incredibly cheap relative to India.
Every evening, people walk into wine stores and discuss choices with the caviste behind the counter. The caviste begins with the same question: “Blanc ou rouge” (red or white)? Each customer lists preferences: dry, burgundy, and approximate budget. The caviste walks through the store, picking out bottles from different wineries and then, after some discussion about the vineyard, the type of grape and the vintage, a selection is made. The customer pays and takes it home for that night’s dinner. The same scenario repeats itself at the cheese shop. Short of telling you the name of the goats that were the source of that Clochette, the cheese monger can tell you pretty much everything about her cheeses: which part of the country it is from and how long it has been aged. The French have a word for this obsession with the source of things. They call it “provenance” and it illumines how they live and what they do.
Indians have this obsession too—or rather, we used to, before we became too busy to care where our food came from. My sister-in-law, Priya, who grew up in Kolkata, tells me that Bengalis buy (or used to buy) everything fresh every morning—even cooking oil. South Indians buy fresh vegetables every day, but the day’s oil? That’s a bit extreme, I thought. Buying the day’s fruits and vegetables is, of course, a great Indian tradition. Walk down the streets in Mumbai’s Chembur, Bangalore’s Cox Town, Chennai’s Gandhi Nagar, or Delhi’s Greater Kailash, and you will see women come out of their homes and choose their vegetables. They expertly pick out the most purple brinjals, perfectly ripe tomatoes, cauliflowers without black spots, and the tenderest greens, bargaining all the while for the best price. The scenario repeats itself for fruits, except that neighbourhood aunties and uncles walk to the vendor carrying plastic woven baskets reminiscent of Bottega Veneta’s intrecciato style.
Women of our parents’ generation go a step further. I know homes in all four Indian metros that still grind their flour in the chakki (flour mill). My aunt in Delhi mixes a bit of ragi, oats, jowar and bajra with her wheat to make home-style multigrain flour that is heartier than the “chakki-fresh” Aashirvaad or Annapurna atta that I buy. In Chembur, Sion and Matunga, south Indian women still walk to the neighbourhood mill to grind their sambhar powder—made with dried red chillies (the Byadagi chillies of Karnataka are the best to use), coriander seeds, pepper, mustard seeds, fenugreek, cumin, asafoetida, fresh curry leaves, and two types of dal. You wait in line for the chakki-master to pour the raw ingredients into the cement-mixer-type instruments. It snarls like a banshee while the spices are being mixed. You pour down some extra lentil seeds (tuvar dal) just to make sure that the remnant of the powdered spices are mopped up. In Bangalore, they charge us Rs.30 per kg at the local chakki. Most women make 5kg batches of sambhar powder that they store in giant stainless steel “drums” for use through the year. Fresh local seasonal vegetables cooked with home-made spice mixtures—that’s provenance, Indian style. Pity we are losing it.
Shoba Narayan enjoys her local chakki, but she wishes she had a caviste in her neighbourhood too. Write to her at
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First Published: Thu, Dec 06 2012. 08 20 PM IST

Cupcakes in Chennai

In the early 1980s, if you said “cupcake” in Chennai, guys would have assumed you were talking about a pretty girl, possibly a voluptuous one—like Helen, Jayamalini or Silk Smitha. As for cups, in my household, they were kept aside for servants who sipped their coffee rather than poured it down their throat without touching the lips using a davara-tumbler.

What’s new in Chennai dining, I ask fashion designer Venkat Nilakantan. “Why don’t you write about all the cupcake bakeries that are sprouting up all over Chennai?” he replies.

Toto, I don’t think we are in Chennai any more. Not my Chennai anyway; the city I knew as Madras. We ate cakes even then, except they were hard and had icing like fresh concrete. We stood in line at McRennett Bakery on Burkit Road in the heart of Thyagaraya Nagar, ignorant of the irony of buying cakes from a fake colonial shop in a street named after a Brit in the heart of traditional T Nagar.

Established in 1903 by the entrepreneurial Maanikkam Pillai, McRennett is as European as Sonia Gandhi is Indian. Pillai realized that he had a better chance of selling his baked goods to his colonial clientele if he had a shop with a pronounceable name. So he wrote down a few European-sounding names on chits and had a child choose one. The child picked McRennett. My brother and I bought their cakes either at the Thousand Lights branch or the Burkit Road one—named after a corporation commissioner in the heart of T Nagar, where we shopped at Nalli, Kumaran, and later, Sundari Silks.


Big bite: Kavita Chesetty, owner of Cupcakes Amore. Nathan G/Mint

Big bite: Kavita Chesetty, owner of Cupcakes Amore. Nathan G/Mint


The old and the new coexist in Chennai today in a way that warms the cockles of its erstwhile inhabitants. Madrasis have turned cosmopolitan but still retain their mordant wit. A typical greeting when you attend a Chennai wedding and one that visiting non-resident Indians (NRIs) are unprepared for is: “How fat you’ve become”, followed by a gentle pat on the beer belly that you—actually—don’t have. 

Mathangi Srinivasamurthy, who runs Chamiers, a boutique and café, is emblematic of the new Chennai. She and her partner, Kiran Rao, also own Amethyst, a beloved Chennai boutique-cum-café. “Chennai people don’t forget their roots even if they add modern layers,” Srinivasamurthy says. “For example, I can dance all night at Dublin to nonsensical rock music and do Vishnu Sahasranamam the next day.”

The difference between Chennai and, say, a Mumbai is that Chennai doesn’t have too many stand-alone bars. When I ask Srinivasamurthy—who openly says that she is divorced and this isn’t taboo in the new Chennai—where she goes to dance, she lists Chipstead at the Taj Coromandel, and the bars at the Somerset and Hyatt Regency Chennai hotels. The only freestanding pub that makes her list is called—weirdly—10 Downing Street. Naming a chain of bars after a prime minister’s residence can happen only in India.

Most people point me to a Facebook page called Chennai Food Guide (CFG) when I ask them for dining suggestions in Chennai. Run by Mohamed Ali M. and Nishanth Radhakrishnan, CFG isn’t exactly unbiased but it comes close. When I asked for their 10 top picks for Chennai dining, CFG’s Ali sent me a list, but he also bcc’ed (blind carbon-copied) the restaurants that were on the list. I know this because several of the restaurants emailed Ali afterwards, thanking him for the inclusion, and asking if I needed more information.

Facebook foodie pages are potent ways to discuss, debate and recommend restaurants, recipes and ingredients. The key is to keep them transparent and egalitarian, something that foodies in Bangalore seems to have done, at least so far. Walking the tightrope between support and sponsorship is hugely difficult for all foodie sites, run as they are on a non-existent or shoestring budget.

So I call CFG’s Ali and have a half-hour chat with him. He wants to organize the world’s largest potluck in Chennai in 2013, and is looking for sponsors to fly the Guinness World Records people in to verify. They’ve organized a lot of events, including a barbeque inside a pool—with knee-deep water, it turns out.

So which are the best restaurants in Chennai? Silk List, an Internet group I belong to, often meets at Azulia, Cascade or 3 Kingdoms for decent food and good beer. Here are CFG’s not-entirely-unbiased recommendations for good food:

• Crimson Chakra, Gandhi Nagar, Adyar (south Indian fusion non-vegetarian/Continental)

• Tuscana, Wallace Garden Road, Nungambakkam (Italian pizzeria)

• Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory, Wallace Garden Road, Nungambakkam (chocolate/desserts)

• Jakob’s Kitchen, Khader Nawaz Khan (KNK) Road, Nungambakkam (authentic south Indian non-vegetarian)

• Paprika, Courtyard By Marriott Chennai, Anna Salai (Sunday brunch buffet)

• Lotus, The Park, Nungambakkam (authentic Thai)

• Golden Dragon, Taj Coromandel, Nungambakkam (Chinese)

• The Great Kabab Factory, Radisson Blu (north Indian/kebabs)

• Zara, Cathedral Road (Tapas bar)

• Rayar Mess, Mylapore (authentic south Indian tiffin).

As for the cupcakes, there are plenty of choices, many of them made by homemakers. If you have time, you should ask the CFG to recommend homemakers who do customized cupcakes. If you are zipping in for a day without notice and are craving Chennai cupcakes, you would be best served by going to The Cupcake Company, Snowflake Cupcake or Cupcakes Amore in Adyar, where I grew up.

Shoba Narayan loves cupcakes—of the baked, and the big-screen kind. The best Tamil cupcake to her mind was not Silk Smitha but Jayamalini. Write to her at


New Zealand Food Tour for FT

Articles > Newspapers > Financial Times > New Zealand Food Tour
New Zealand Food Tour
– By Shoba Narayan

(This article originally appeared in May 2005)
For being such an isolated faraway country, New Zealand is a veritable culinary cornucopia. There are olives for the pressing, berries for the picking and wines for the sampling all within a span of miles and sometimes within the same village. Happy sheep bound about the bucolic countryside feasting on the verdant meadows, all of which, no doubt, add flavor to New Zealand’s prized lamb. Salmon, trout and whitebait frisk and frolic in pristine lakes and rivers yielding meltingly fresh seafood that grace many a restaurant’s platter. Bluff oysters, Akaroa salmon, Nelson’s King scallops, West Coast whitebait and Kaikoura crayfish—these are the bounty of New Zealand’s waters. There is beef, ham and venison too from cattle reared on rolling hills and wide-open pastures. I’ve never seen such happy animals as I have in New Zealand and they all probably add to the taste of its cuisine.

This is an old land but a young country. The Maori chanced upon it in 1350 A.D. when they rowed across the Pacific from Hawaiiki. The Irish and English discovered it a mere two generations ago bringing with them a hardy ‘food as fuel’ philosophy that was reflected in hearty roasts, potatoes and dark ale. “Used to be that a big night out would be to Barry’s Bistro for Steak Diane and a big cask of Muller Thurgau,” laughs Debbie Baldook, executive chef of the Millbrook Resort in Queenstown. In the last ten years however, Kiwi cuisine has gone from being ‘roast of the day’ to dishes that are startlingly inventive or completely out-of-control depending on your point of view. Mussel soup with passionfruit mousse anyone?

Devoid of a culinary tradition—the Maori hangi feasts don’t seem to have made a dent in the current cooking scene—New Zealand as a country embraces innovation. Chefs are encouraged to experiment and come up with fusion-combinations that borrow from the cuisines of the Pacific Rim. The results can be incredible or inedible. One restaurant served up a giant flax leaf wrapped around a tiny bowl containing an infusion of some sort. I wasn’t sure if the foot-high flax leaf was a wrap or ornament. So I simply sent the dish back. As Chef Michael Maguire at the Lakes restaurant in Christchurch says, “Sometimes you end up paying $36 for what is essentially several layers of garnish.”

Maguire himself is wary of such histrionics. His food is as earthy and harmonious as the Canterbury countryside on which it is based. He scours the world for spices and condiments but uses them sparingly. His pan seared scallops with pineapple salsa and coconut sorbet is a fine reflection of his teenage years in Singapore and his apprenticeship with three-star Michelin chef Marco Russo in the UK. Like most chefs, Maguire has to please two sets of mutually exclusive diners— older Christchurch locals who are wary of spices and a younger, more worldly clientele that seeks nouvelle cuisine. “I run a very flexible kitchen,” says Maguire. “There is no grandstanding. Basically, we’ll cook whatever the customer wants.”

For being a medium-sized city with a population of 366,000, Christchurch has more cafes and bars per head than anywhere else in New Zealand. Moroccan, Mexican, Indian, Turkish, Spanish, Old English, you name it and they have it. Christchurch is also a city that pretends it is in old England with hedge-lined squares where boys in white play cricket and a Victorian tramway that ambles along cobblestone streets. Men in hats can take you on a ‘punt’ along the Avon River in traditional English flat-bottomed boats and Hagley Park is a picture of manicured perfection.

Christchurch’s café and bistro scene, however, is decidedly modern. Black-uniformed wait-staff briskly take your order and come back with sandwiches or paninis stuffed with ingredients that are sourced from around the world: hummus, tzatziki, couscous, kale, miso and curry are all proffered and accepted. Vegetarians and vegans are graciously accommodated without much fuss. And restaurants, even the finest ones resist brocaded stuffiness. The service at 50 on the Park at the George Hotel, one of the city’s oldest dining establishments, for instance, is formal yet friendly. Nathan Bates, the executive chef sources the world for his spices and inspirations and works with over 40 local suppliers including foragers, bakers and beekeepers for ingredients. The results show in his sparkling if pricey cuisine. A duo of Canterbury lamb cutlet and cut of loin costs $32 while mains at the seafood-focused Pescatore restaurant upstairs start at $41.

There is a reason for this high price and it is one that locals rue: the best lamb, seafood, wines and oils are exported. If local chefs want them, they have to pay export prices. Most chefs make do with the B-grade stuff which is quite good by global standards, while the chefs at top restaurants pass on the expense to their customers.

For those willing to pay the price, however, New Zealand offers a bounty of produce, dairy, seafood and meats in the most startling of places. At the tiny mountain village of Geraldine, en route to the glaciers of Mount Cook, I encountered some exceptional cheeses in a tiny store. Talbot Forest Cheese, they were called, and they were all produced locally. I sampled some perfectly ripe Chevre le Blanc—a camembert made from goat’s milk, some aged Gouda, a creamy brie called Canter-brie in a nod to the region, and a smoky Manuka before buying the whole lot for the road.

Right next door, Barker’s Berry barn offered a variety of jams, preserves and chutneys neatly lined up in bottles alongside free samples for tasting. The apricot, boysenberry and blackcurrant jams were fresh and tasty as were the wildberry and orange preserves. But what caught my eye were the chutneys: capsicum and apricot, green tomato and jalapeno, tamarillo and plum and spiced beetroot. I can’t say that I liked all of them but the interesting and sometimes outrageous combinations typified New Zealand’s culinary sensibility.

After fifteen days of driving around the South Island, we realized that the climate and scenery seemed to encourage artisanal products. In obscure small towns, we found chocolatiers, cheese-mongers, herb and lavender farmers, butchers, bakers and icecream-makers practicing and perfecting their craft. Beesonline mixes vinegar and honey and sells its ‘honeygars’ nationwide. Prenzel Distilling Company sells apricot, peach and sour apple schnapps with butterscotch cream at the Grape Escape gourmet outlet in Nelson. Kinaki Wild Herbs sells herbs that the Maori used such as koru, pikopiko, horopito and kawakawa, all of which can be infused into native avocado oil to give an instant Kiwi flavor to dishes. Pacific Harvest company promotes kelp and seaweed. And Salumeria Fontana seasons sausages with Sicilian sea salt, black pepper, Southland elephant garlic and Italian wine. Organic vineyards such as Sunset Valley in Nelson follow biodynamic sustainable viticultural practices.

Outside Queenstown, we found a line of berry and fruit orchards lining the road and stopped to pick cherries and sun-ripened strawberries. We sampled extra virgin olive oil at numerous presses all over the country, a legacy of the late Israeli horticulturist Gideon Blumenfeld who planted his first olive trees in 1985 and is now considered the godfather of New Zealand’s burgeoning olive oil industry. Athena Olive oil serves up some wonderfully fruity lemon-infused olive oil that are stocked in the Canterbury region. Up near Nelson, we stopped in at the Stafford Lane Estate, which grows olive and native fejoia trees beside its vineyards. I bought a peppery picholine olive oil which worked well for the Indian cuisine I cooked. As for the fejoia jam, all I have to say is that it is an acquired taste. Stafford Lane also stocked Dukkah, which is an spice-mix made of hazelnuts, coriander, cumin and sesame, somewhat reminiscent of the Israeli Za’atar. But all these were expensive. A small bottle of olive oil was $12.95.

Bread is booming in New Zealand perfected in family-owned bakeries that have, in some cases, carried sourdough starters from the old country. Rachel Scott breads have a cult following around Christchurch, while Redwood Bakkerij specializes in moist ‘half-baked’ baguettes. A minor revolution is the widespread availability of savory scones, pies and muffins. Unlike the US where muffins are cloyingly sweet, New Zealand has mastered the savory counterpart. At the Founder’s Organic Brewery in Nelson, where I sampled pints of micro-brewed beer with chirpy names like Tall Blonde, Redhead and Long Black, the in-house café sold a delicious feta cheese and sundried tomato muffin. At the Riverside Café which is part of the Riverside Community that “promotes peace through cooperative and sustainable living,” we wolfed down some savory spice-encrusted muffins while waiting for our lunch. When our crisp French fries and thin pizzas finally arrived, we could barely do justice to them. At the Hislops café in the whale-watching crayfish-eating haven that is Kaikoura township, we became smarter and lunched on a tasty burger along with some onion and cheese muffins, all washed down with a few glasses of sauvignon blanc.

Wineries are of course a major driver of the food revolution in New Zealand. After all, when the quality of the wine improves, you need food to go with it. Many wineries have in-house cafes and restaurants that serve to showcase their product. The in-house restaurant at the Pegasus Bay winery takes its cuisine very seriously and was in fact shortlisted for one of the top ten restaurants in New Zealand by Cuisine, New Zealand’s foodie magazine. The food at Pegasus Bay was deep on flavor and a perfect foil for their wines. We walked in without reservations and were told that there was a 45-minute wait. The same was true at the Carrick Winery restaurant near Queenstown. After a while, we got the message: if you want to lunch at these immensely popular winery restaurants, you’d do best to call ahead. At Pegasus Bay, our wait was rewarded with a cool apple and celery soup with truffle scented Athena oil and a handmade pumpkin and marjoram tortellini with a summer vegetable nage, all washed down with Pegasus Bay Reisling.

The Gibbston Valley winery goes one step further. In addition to the wine-tasting and full-service restaurant, there is an in-house cheesery that sells a variety of homegrown cheeses. We sampled their cheese board that offered its washed-rind cheese called ‘Monk’s Gold,’ its savory cheddar and soft brie.

Artisanal cheeses are being perfected all over the country ranging from the venerable and large Kapiti cheeses from the North Island too smaller producers like Whitestone, Talbot and others. With milk and butter being so abundant, cheese is only the natural next step. Most New Zealand cheesemakers go for the more straightforward cheeses however, rather than the more obscure ‘smelly’ European cheeses. They seem content perfect a smooth brie instead of attempting a complex gruyere. And why not? This after all is most definitely not a nation with 536 varieites of cheeses. New Zealand has 53,000 sheep and for the Kiwis, perfecting a few world-class sheep’s milk cheese is just as satisfying as trying their hand at the tricky ones. In his website, Kapiti cheese’s chairman says,
So there you have it, two culinary trends running parallel to each other. On the one hand, the Kiwi inclination towards self-effacement, restraint and quietitude and yet, on the other, this inventive playfulness, this constant innovation towards extreme-cuisine as it were from a nation that invented bungy-jumping and thrives on extreme-sports. The taciturn mountaineer a la Edmund Hillary, the national icon is just as much a Kiwi stereotype as is the voluble adrenaline-junkie Prime Minister Helen Clark who didn’t know about the Asian tsunami disaster because she was heli-skiing in Norway over Boxing Day. The question for the future is which will win out—extreme cuisine or restrained roasts.

Debbie Baldook, executive chef at the Millbrook Resort thinks that her country is over fusion, Pacific Rim and incessant invention. “Now it is all about putting clean, clear flavors on the plate,” she said while at the same time appealing to the ever-growing sophistication of the Kiwi palate. Perhaps because they are so isolated, New Zealanders are more attuned to global goings-on than other countries. They travel the world and sample its wares. They are open-minded and accepting of new things, be it spices or flavors. Baldook for instance, offers tahini sauce with her veal tenderloin and none of her clients—local or tourist—bat an eyelid, she says.
“New Zealanders are much more innovative than, say in the UK,” says Alan Hibberts, originally from London. “They are open to new flavors in a way that the English aren’t.”

“We are a shy people,” says Richard Tanner, chef-owner of Malabar, an Asian fusion restaurant in the alpine spa-outpost of Hamner Springs where vacationers come to take in the waters at the region’s hot and thermal springs. Tanner has lived and cooked in 88 countries across the globe including New York, London, Spain, India and Thailand. Originally from Hanmer Springs, he came back home to roost and roast here. His cuisine reflects his global travels and Kiwi moorings.

Chefs such as Tanner reflect the new Kiwi: world-travelled, sophisticated, open-minded, blessed with a bounty of ingredients and finally knowing what to do with them. “For the first time, I think we aren’t looking to Europe or America or Asia for inspiration,” says Bates. “We aren’t look inward. We are figuring out what we as New Zealanders can cook and eat.”

And my, what a feast that will be.
This article originally appeared in may 2005.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Gourmet Magazine

Gourmet magazine has a page of my pieces here.

In India, where I grew up, rice gains mystical—even mythological—proportions.

TRAVEL + CULTURE: Masala Klub, Taj West End, Bangalore
Opening an Indian restaurant in India isn’t easy. Indians are famously possessive about their food, and chefs face severe repercussions from the Authenticity Police.


It’s that time of year again, when the sweet scent of mangoes fills the air. Hungry Indians everywhere slice and slurp their way to ecstasy.

This 20-room rustic hideaway bills itself as India’s “only 100 percent eco-friendly back-to-basics lifestyle resort.” In plain English, that means solar power, windmills, and composting.


The practice of herbal medicine is alive and well in rural India.



For some reason, well-meaning Delhi-ites always try to dissuade you from visiting Chandni Chowk.

The Imperial is one of those Delhi hotels that everyone loves, including my husband. But frankly, I was a little underwhelmed.


A cool, calm, and mostly Italian Diva. Everyone in Delhi has an opinion about Veda, and most of them are bad.

I am not sure that I would eat the food in Chandni Chowk, but I know Americans who have and survived.

India’s Supreme Court banned hawkers from cooking food on the street. No doubt, street-hawkers will protest about how the government is taking away their livelihood.
keywords culinary culture, asia, india, legislation, shoba narayan

Dosas are commonly described as South Indian crepes, but the description doesn’t do them justice.
keywords culinary culture, asia, indian, restaurants, shoba narayan

Your most memorable trip this year? The Yunnan province of China. We flew into Kunming and then drove up close to the Tibetan border.
keywords shoba narayan, the year in travel

They offer diners the chance to sample many dishes. But before you order that tasting menu, you might just want to read on.
keywords shoba narayan, restaurants, danny meyer, daniel boulud, mario batali

In this Indian family, destiny begins in the kitchen.
keywords indian, culinary culture, best of gourmet, shoba narayan

NPR Commentaries

Years ago, when I lived in New York, I did a series of commentaries for NPR.
You can find the NPR Link Here.
My producer was this fabulous lady called Davar Ardalan. Basically, I would write a commentary and email it to Davar. She would coach me on how to speak it so that it sounded conversational, not stilted. I had to change the words because the written rhythm is quite different from the speaking rhythm. Then I’d go downtown to the NPR studio. Davar would phone in from Washington where she was based. I would speak my commentary into the mike. The local producer and Davar would correct certain words and then, we’d do a take. Radio is an accessible conversational medium. Now that I am thinking about doing podcasts, I am thinking of my first voice coach, the fabulous Ms. Davar.

‘Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes’
April 26, 2003 Shoba Narayan has written about her journey from southern India to the United States in her new book Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes, celebrating food …
all things considered

Hindus and Muslims
December 29, 2001
New York writer Shoba Narayan grew up in India. She offers this personal account of the complicated relationships between Hindus and Muslims in India.
all things considered

Indian Chic
January 23, 2000 With the popularity of all things Indian — henna, silk saris, and body piercing — essayist Shoba Narayan finds that her Indian-American niece is suddenly cool …
all things considered

Sari Essay
October 03, 1999 After a decade of wearing western style clothes in America, writer Shoba Narayan experimented with wearing a sari for a month on the streets of New York. …
all things considered

Who Wants To Arrange a Marriage?
March 11, 2000 New York writer Shoba Narayan had an arranged marriage eight years ago. … She has some advice for the producers of the controversial TV show, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire.
all things considered

India’s Population
August 29, 1999 India has just surpassed the one billion population mark. Writer Shoba Narayan of New York says traditionally in India, pregnant women are considered symbols of prosperity and fertility has always played an important role in the country’s psyche. But she says now it’s time for some changes.
all things considered

An Internet Wake
August 13, 2000 Essayist Shoba Narayan recalls spending “quality time” with family on the Internet…where they recently held a wake for a deceased relative. …
All Things Considered

Cricket Memories
March 19, 2000 Essayist Shoba Narayan remembers playing cricket as a girl, and she still marvels at how a game can bring together sworn enemies. …