Michelin Stars and melting hearts: La Gramola at Tavernalle Val di Pesa

Sourav Roy intends to understand, write about, experiment on, engage with and above all enjoy life in general and the contemporary art world in specific through a lens of Indian history, while continuing to be a student for life. A three-week long  backpacking trip across Europe and a year-long Post Graduate Diploma in Modern and Contemporary Indian Art History put him on this path of  exquisite folly. 

In this piece he brings to itiriti readers his tryst with La Gramola at Tuscany.

 

Like all the memorable things in life, it was a serendipity which began with a disappointment.

It was September 2011, and we were on our luxury vagabond backpacking (meals in luxury, rest like bhikhari) trip in Europe. The train arrived at Florence (Firenze) from Rome and we were told the next day, the Monday, the day we were supposed to have a glut of museums, shopping, the fabled Florentine steak and Lampredotto (tripe sandwich), is a citywide strike, so we can just as well lock ourselves up and cry bitter tears until the Tuesday sunrise. Having come from Kolkata, where strikes (bandhs) are as commonplace as sweetshops, I realised that the bad karma, of being a bourgeois subidhabadi (opportunist) who had always welcomed strikes as extra holidays, had come back to bite me in the ass.

We had a bit of luck here though (which ran out soon). Covetous of a charmed Tuscan village life (in a Rupee budget), we had booked a hostel not in the strike-prone Florence, but in the idyllic Tavernalle Val di Pesa, a village which is a short ride away from Firenze. After managing to get a car, reaching the hostel, realising that the irresponsible brat of a caretaker had gone home for an early lunch and late siesta locking the office and switching off his phone, briefly panicking at my iPad malfunctioning, by the time we were checked in, washed up and ready to go out, our Sunday plan had also been ruined. So we made dinner plans with a vengeance and was ready to spend an obscene amount of Euros consuming a highly impolite quantity of delicious Tuscan food.  Because good food solves everything, right?

After prowling for a few minutes in the village lanes (the village is tiny enough to be covered in foot from one end to the other in fifteen minutes.) we discovered La Gramola.

La Gromola Osteria & Enoteca (Eatery and Winebar) Source : http://www.gramola.it/

La Gromola Osteria & Enoteca (Eatery and Winebar) Source : http://www.gramola.it/

The Michelin stars on the door seemed promising, so did the happy people going in and out. So without delay we went in and seated ourselves. No marks for guessing that after we have had the most accomplished pumpkin ravioli  (even my friend, a lifelong pumpkin hater, said she was a convert, but she rescinded on her return), we wanted our florentine steaks and we wanted them right then and there. The owner and the sommelier Massimo, who was waiting on us as well, ( because the two daughters, the only other waiters in the house were attending to the garden party ) smiled indulgently in a good-things-come-to-those-who-wait kinda way.

La Gramola Couple Chef Cecilia Dei and Sommelier Massimo Marzi Source: www.gramola.it

La Gramola Couple Chef Cecilia Dei and Sommelier Massimo Marzi Source: http://www.gramola.it

When the steaks came (medium rare, of course, they don’t do the travesty of giving you the option of well-done) and we dug in, many things were accomplished  atone stroke. It explained, to a beef-ambivalent wicked Hindu, what was the big deal about beef steak, what was the big deal about guileless Tuscan village cooking and what could be accomplished with a stellar cut of beef, fire, salt and pepper. Because that’s all that amazingly juicy, perfectly charred, confoundingly simple yet accomplished piece of meat had. With that giant piece of meat under our belts, we reached out for the dessert menu and decided to keep it light. But Massimo had something else in mind. He said that a large cheese cake had just been baked for the garden party (which doesn’t happen very often). So he recommended that  as dessert, very highly. We politely declined, saying we had no room for such a heavy dessert, and we would have a slice the next day if there were any left. Massimo shook his head woefully and said that after being kept in the fridge, it won’t be the same cheese cake any more.

When we were halfway through our eye rolling good Pannacotta, Massimo reappeared with two fat slices of cheese cake in hand, and determination writ large on his face. He said that the cheese cake has turned out to be one of the best Cecilia had baked yet (vouched for by their friends in the garden) and he simply couldn’t let us finish our meals without tasting these two slices, which were complimentary. We grinned and nodded, he left the plates, and we obliged. Our knees melted in unison, and we sat stupefied by the sheer simultaneous richness and lightness of it till the bill arrived. We were shocked once again at how affordable it was (as far as Michelin starred places go). That night we became Gramola-slaves and decided to have as many meals there as possible.

The road that runs through the village ends here

The road that runs through the village ends here

One can’t blame us trying to recreate the previous night at  the La Gramola dinner. But my friend made the mistake of ordering Peppa al Pomodoro or the Tomato soup for starter.

Next day was the strike day (in the village as well) so my friend decided to stay in bed longer. (she was very upset about letting go Uffizi, Museum, whose advance booked tickets couldn’t be postponed) So I went out foraging for breakfast. The tiny bakery at the village square didn’t disappoint and I had to stop myself devouring one freshly baked custard pillow after another (thin vanilla custard sealed inside pastry shells and baked whole). While I was leaving, Massimo dropped in to pick up some breakfast as well and I asked whether they would be open for lunch. Sensing the panic in my voice, he spoke in a reassuring tone. He said, he was going to the market right away and if he got good enough and fresh enough ingredients (unhampered by the strike) they would definitely be open. I wished him (and myself) best of luck before taking my leave.

More drama ensued.

My friend (up and ravenous for breakfast by now) was further delayed from her share of custard-pillow-bliss because the door lock malfunctioned and it could not be opened from either side. So she dropped down a bed sheet rope from our first floor window in which I lovingly tied the custard pillows, from the lawn. She retrieved them, unbruised, only to gobble them up, immediately.  After accomplishing this ingenuous fairy-tale feat, I fetched Declan the brat caretaker, who with his master key, opened the door effortlessly and gave us a supercilious smirk.

La Gramola was of course shut for lunch and despite having respected their integrity towards ingredients, we walked around the village shopping and muttering under our breath like disgruntled zombies on a brain withdrawal symptom. The lunch that day, the worst of the entire Europe trip, at the only lunch place that was open in the village, didn’t do much to lift our mood. (Yes, one can have a bad meal at a picturesque Tuscan village too.)

One can’t blame us trying to recreate the previous night at  the La Gramola dinner. But my friend made the mistake of ordering Peppa al Pomodoro or the Tomato soup for starter.

Utterly delicious, and salsa-like in its consistency, served in a voluminous pot, the soup could be a starter only for a Tuscan peasant stomach and even the one-sixteenth Italian ancestry of my friend was no match for it. But that didn’t stop us from ordering superlative pork chops. Being once smitten, we ordered the cheese cake for dessert again and though still utterly delicious, we distinctly ascertained how much more delicious it was the previous night, when freshly baked, and our palates had been recalibrated for cheese cakes ever since.

The next day was the last and only day left for Florence. So we could only visit our by-now-dearly-beloved La Gramola for our last supper. It was also a local tourism fair day, so streets were crowded, stalls were up and we had to sit next to a supercilious American group of diners at the sidewalk.

It would be a lie to claim that while writing this post, three years after that last supper, I remembered exactly what we ate and how I felt then. But it would suffice to say, I felt like a member of the family, even when nothing was said verbally to that effect, the way the American fellow-diners treated the waitress (the younger daughter) felt like a personal affront and when Cecilia laughed at my Vitruvian Homer Simpson T shirt while we said goodbye, I knew she meant it. These were the bonds made over a few days on nothing more and nothing less than serving the best possible food with an open heart and eating it with hearts and mouths equally open.

Coordinates:

Osteria La Gramola

Via delle Fonti,

1, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa,

Firenze, Italy

Tel.: +39 055 80 50 321

Fax.: +39 055 8077368

Cell.: +39 338 60 39 356

http://www.gramola.it

osteria@gramola.it

Lunch and Dinner

Disclaimer: Food, staff and restaurant images taken from the website.

Food Factory

Suruchi Mazumdar is an epircurian and I got to know her over a dinner at Assam Bhavan, Delhi. She is currently pursuing doctoral research in Singapore and has been a journalist in India.

In this guestpost she takes itiriti readers on a tour of Canteens of NTU which she calls ‘the culinary heaven’.  Happy reading!

A cousin who had just become a mother had once told me, “I forget the pains of life and hardships of the world when I look at my baby.” Not long after I too experienced similar feelings – and not once but many times over five years. In my case the surge of emotions fortunately did not entail the effort of motherhood. But the world suddenly seemed very beautiful and I felt blessed every time I entered a favourite canteen at my university in Singapore. The culinary heaven, otherwise also known as NTU, where I spent past few years in graduate programmes, hosts countless canteens – more than 17 approximately (plus numerous restaurants and cafes) – across its expansive campus that serve delightful food round the clock.

I was among the rare breed of fortunate graduate students for whom the key part of higher education entailed the joy of discovering new canteens across a beautiful campus and trying out new specialities every now and then. I became a woman of many loves and loyalties, a woman who had many choices and who felt torn between her choices in times of appetite. For instance, when New World Canteen opened sometime back I felt naturally drawn towards its Chinese stall. I stood spellbound in the queue as chef-cum-waiters kneaded ramen (hand-made Chinese noodles) out of flour mound in playful artistry in the open kitchen. The scene was straight out of one of National Geographic Channel’s exotic food shows. The extraordinariness of my experience was primarily because this extravagance was not a rare/occasional affair but a part of my very “mundane” (well!) existence as a graduate student. I loved my beef ramen – hand-made noodles in a clear beef stew. But as succulent pieces of tender beef melted in my mouth I almost always felt guilty – guilty of ignoring good old canteen 1, another paradise of Chinese food in the campus. I missed the cheerful owner-cum-waitress at a stall in canteen 1 that used to be known as Local Delight and offered delicacies from the mainland. The waitress, who came from the mainland and spoke no English, served me the stall’s popular pick Ban Mian – minced pork balls and poached egg in hot noodle soup. She never forgot that I loved my Ban Mian with a sprinkle of dry fish.

Eating out at no-fuss food courts, comprising of hawker-run stalls, is fairly common in Singapore. The food courts that comprise of hawker-run stalls are a conspicuous feature and somewhat represent the globalised city-state’s signature culinary culture and local heritage. The canteens – which are like a microcosm of the food courts – host stalls around large semi-circular courtyards. The options include Indonesian, Nasi Padang (Malay), Japanese, Korean, Chinese (Beijing, Sichuan, Hong Kah or Hong Kong) and Indian (Singaporean Tamil and common north Indian varieties) fare. The stalls are renovated every now and then for quality food service.

While compulsory renovations usually meant better options of food and services, the process also translated to great personal losses. I permanently lost favourite stalls and relationships with the owner-chef-waiters – many of them very elderly, and fondly addressed by students as aunties and uncles. For instance, when I recently went to canteen B after a long term break I was pleasantly surprised. The service of the canteen had been outsourced to Koufu, one of the three market players that monopolised the local hawker food business. The much-loved siew mai (traditional Chinese dumplings), meat-stuffed big and small buns (pau), spring rolls and crispy prawn dumplings were on the menu, thanks to the outsourcing. But cute Malay aunties and their old Nasi Padang stall were missing from canteen B. I found out later that some stall owners who lost their business because of Koufu found employment in other canteens. But I never knew if our Malay aunties could still serve their signature delightful coconut-flavoured yellow chicken curry and the spicy sting ray fish, the old stall’s all-time favourites, eaten with rice.

With the food being subsidised, a decent meal (including juices/ beverages) would come for about 5-6 SGD (approximately Rs 225-260) or lesser. Some canteens are costlier than others. Extravagant foodies like me routinely spent more than graduate students’ standard budget of food. Finally, at the heart of this personal story of epicurean pleasure and culinary indulgence clearly works a certain process of professionalisation and bureaucratisation in a system that seeks to offer the best service to customers – in this case students. This principle (corporatisation) that sums up the spirit of many ‘global’ campuses in present times has translated to a meticulously-planned localised outcome in our campus – great food across great canteens. And some of us were spoilt!

©itiriti

Indulgences in the time of mourning (with apologies to Marquez)

 ( Sumbul Farah is a comrade in arms in many a meals, coffee-breaks in DSE canteen where we shared anecdotes about Elmas (a tea room in HKV) to Prabasi( a Bengali restaurant in Dwarka) . In this guest-post, Sumbul brings to you her memories around Moharram. Sumbul Farah works on Sociology of Religion. Her areas of interests are Islam, the idea of ethics in everyday life and a new-found enthusiasm for photography!)

Some of my most enduring memories of the month of Moharram1 have as much to do with the sombre and subdued atmosphere of mourning as with the delights of the niyaz(ritual aimed at transfer of merit) of khichda (a variety of meat porridge). Niyaz refers to the ritual of consecration of food in the name of a saint through the recitation of Quranic verses over it.2 The blessings of Allah are invoked by doing so and it is believed that merit is transferred both to the saint for whom the niyaz is offered as well as the believer who offers it. Niyaz is usually a community event where relatives, neighbours and acquaintances are invited to partake of the niyaz food although sometimes the hosts send out portions of the niyaz food to everybody instead of inviting them over.

As a child, I remember the niyaz of Moharram being particularly welcome because of the preparation of khichda. Khichda is not a dish that is prepared frequently in most houses because of the cumbersome process of cooking it. Composed of various cereals, grains and mutton/beef cooked over a long period of time the khichda requires both patience and skill and is therefore considered a speciality. For the niyaz of Moharram, however, it is prepared in almost every household at least once in the entire month. Although niyaz can be offered on any food item for the invocation of blessings, as per tradition the niyaz of certain saints has come to be associated with specific food items and the custom is widely followed. In accordance with such a tradition it is almost mandatory to offer niyaz on khichda during Moharram.

In Bareilly, almost everyone is familiar with the most commonly cited rationale for the preparation of khichda on Moharram even though the version is often contested by ulema (religious scholars). It is believed that after the battle of Karbala, the women and children who were left behind when the men departed for battle were driven to desperation by hunger. Therefore, they brought together all the varieties of grains and meat that was left in their houses and mixed them all before cooking. This dish, many claim, became what is called khichda today. Apart from the khichda numerous sweetened beverages (sharbat) and maleeda3 are almost exclusively associated with Moharram. Stalls dispensing sweet milky drinks or sharbat of different varieties are ubiquitous in Moharram because they symbolize an abundance of water, which is particularly poignant because the family of the Prophet was deprived of water in the Battle of Karbala.

I remember that apart from the invitations to numerous niyaz around the neighbourhood, very often generously laden containers would arrive from relatives and neighbours. The arrival of khichda caused much excitement because it served to spice up (sometimes literally so!) the regular fare that would otherwise constitute lunch or dinner. It was then devoured with much debate over the flavour, texture and quality of meat. Apart from the flavour, the most striking as well as the most closely examined aspect of khichda is the level of spiciness. There is huge variation in the hotness of khichda in different households, ranging from the intensely fiery kind that brings tears to the eyes to the comparatively milder versions. For the most part, it is widely agreed upon that the khichda tastes better when the spice is on the higher side. The consumption of khichda, therefore, is almost inevitably accompanied by involuntary gasping and wheezing sounds that serve to point out the level of its hotness to the others! The more faint-hearted ones relish it with curd, which serves to offset the spiciness the khichda.

Haleem and shola are variations of the same dish with some differences that imparts to them a substantially different character. In the preparation of khichda the cereals are cooked till they are completely softened. It is possible that the word khichda is a derivative of the term khichdi that refers to lentil-rice porridge. While khichda has porridge like consistency it is ensured that the pieces of meat in it retain their shape and stay soft but whole. In haleem, on the other hand, the meat is cooked under pressure so that it softens and shreds throughout the body of the dish. The consistency of khichda and haleem is, therefore, markedly different from each other.

As with all elaborate culinary items, the khichda fell off my mental map after I started college in Delhi and moved out of Bareilly. The Autumn and Winter breaks scheduled by the University never really coincided with Moharram and Delhi never had the khichda on its menu anyway. The khichda and my fondness for it was thus consigned to memory until my PhD work brought me back to the city specially in the month of Moharram. During my fieldwork in Moharram I was invariably offered a bowl of khichda in the houses I visited and I saw families exchanging huge pots of khichda just as I remembered. Sure enough, one day I came back to my house in Bareilly to find a huge tub of khichda sent by a relative.

However, this time around when I came back to Delhi, I had a way out. ‘Shan Masala’ of Pakistan has started to package what they call ‘Haleem Mix’ that has a packet of the cereals pre-mixed in the appropriate proportion and a packet of the spices that go into it. Whether it replicates the ‘authentic’ flavour of the khichda will always be open to debate because there are many who believe that pressure cookers and gas burners had already robbed the khichda of the flavour that was imparted by slow-cooking over wood-fired chulhas. I, for one, am not bothered as long as I have my reasonably good substitute in Shan’s Haleem Mix. The recipe can be tweaked in order to ensure that the dish is closer to the Bareilly khichda and it works perfectly for me. Garnished with caramelized onions and served with wedges of lemon, chopped green chillies and fresh coriander the khichda is a reminder of Moharram, of childhood, of sobriety and of pleasure – all at once. By the spoonful!

Notes

1 Moharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and is significant for Muslims because the Battle of Karbala was fought in this month. The first ten days are spent in mourning for the family of the Prophet who were martyred and those who suffered great hardships in the battle.

2 Anybody familiar with sectarian and denominational differences within Islam in the subcontinent would immediately identify the term ‘niyaz’ with the Barelwi (or Ahl-e-Sunnat or Sunni) form of practice.

3 Maleeda refers to a sweet dish made of crumbled dough, ghee and sugar. It is ritually prepared during Moharram.

©itiriti

Chai near a bus-stop

(I invited Pooja Susan Thomas, a doctoral student at IIT Gandhinagar to write a piece for my blog. When I asked Pooja to send me a bio-note she  shared a brilliant news that she is into writing a non-fiction work on “ How to procrastinate your Ph.D”?

Here’s to years of rambling, discussions, criticisms and laughter over several cups of tea from the past and the experience of having chai on your own...)

From where I stand, across the road, I can see the milk froth into steam as it is poured from the bhagona to the pan. The crowd around the kitliwalla drew closer to the kerosene stove hissing away its displeasure at being overworked. The conversation grew more rapid, the words keeping tempo with that hunger for a cup of chai. Some men seemed absorbed in conversation, a rumour of a property deal, the prospect of farming land that may fetch a good price with the hint of a marriage alliance, damn that bus that does not come, perhaps because of the waterlogging that used to happen in the area, which reminds one of the fight that broke out at the Panchayat office in the evening, a love affair they say of a Patel girl with some Rabari boy.

Even as, from the corner of the eye, they watch him slit another packet of fattened milk (twenty two rupees now), pour it into the pan, add water from a much scrubbed plastic jug, then sugar, and pounded ginger. They watch the milk protest, rise, and threaten to trespass the edge of control but relentlessly, his long broad spoon churns and stirs its very insides till the colour darkens, its waters thicken, and the air is weighed down by the smell of ginger. He wipes his hands, and turns to put his mortar and pestle, still flecked with some of that root, in a basin full of water under the platform on which his stove submits to his workmanship. He washes his spoon and keeps it aside and pulls out the cloth tucked into his waist. He holds the hot pan to raise it and pour gentle amber into the pot covered with a strainer.

There is silence as he raises the pot and streams the chai, fragrant with dust, ginger and some spice, into the pan. He briskly stirs it again with his spoon, triumphantly rings the spoon against the edge of its frayed aluminium, and raises it once more till it froths, fumes and slides into the pot. The men have now stopped talking, in anticipation. The driver of the bus that will never come decides it is time to keep an eye on the proceedings; the conductor walks by slapping his thigh with the steel box of ticket chits and pushes his way to the front, right next to the stove, and asks dryly, ho gaya? He is not from here, his village is in UP, his tongue has yet to find its way around the language of his work.

In response, the man stirs his tea again, taps the spoon twice against the pan and the conversation that had begun to stir is abandoned for the cup of tea. Hands are stretched out to receive a tiny chipped cup in a saucer into which tea spills over in a gesture of plenty. Heads bend over saucers, cups held aside for the moment as the chai cools and is soon sucked up. Some shared their tea, pouring a little bit into an extra saucer. Still slurping, they turned when they hear a woman’s voice. She asked for some chai, in Hindi. They watched her curiously as she tried to pour the extra tea back into the cup. They watched her balancing her cup and recede to the back where she thought she could drink unnoticed. But even the chai walla paused his performance to turn and stare at a woman drinking tea in a stall full of men in the middle of nowhere.

The driver is finally awake. He gives his cup to the boy who is running around picking up after the men who are now satisfied. There is nothing else to wait for, he decides, and walks to the bus to coax it out of its slumber. He looks around and catches sight of the woman who had been waiting for the bus drinking tea. Jaldi, he urges, irritatedly.

©itiriti

Gahana Bori

( Comment: I invited Dr. Utsa Ray to  write about Gahana bori- a speciality of Midnapore District in West Bengal.

Dr Utsa Ray is a historian of modern South Asia with a focus on the histories of class-formation, consumption, and taste. Her broad areas of study include Modern South Asia, Modern World, Globalization, Nationalism, Culinary Cultures, and Gender. Her essays have been published in Modern Asian Studies, Indian Economic and Social History Review (forthcoming), and her book Culinary Culture in Colonial India: A Cosmopolitan Platter and the Middle Class is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

In this piece she traces the history of Gahana Bori, its makers and how it was received. Happy Reading!)

Gahana boris are a decorative and ornamented sundried cones of lentil paste. The chief ingredient for gahana bori is moth bean. Moth bean is primarily used because of its viscosity. Moth bean is soaked in water the night before making bori so that its skin comes off easily next morning. This soaked bean when ground gives out a sticky texture required for making gahana bori. The batter for bori usually has a creamy consistency. It needs to be constantly stirred so that the batter is fluffy and the resultant bori is light and white in texture. At first poppy seeds are spread out on a large plate. Then the batter is tied up in a cloth with holes in the bottom. A cone is then tied to this cloth and moved clockwise on the poppy seeds to create motifs. Gahana bori is then sun dried thoroughly. These are made in winter because moist weather is not conducive to making gahana bori. Mostly gahana bori is designed in the form of paisley or different ornaments like necklace, tiara, earrings or bracelets or lotus. However, animal motifs like elephant, butterfly, deer, peacock, fish or parrot are also not uncommon.

edit1

Gahana bori was and still is specifically made in eastern Medinipur. Women of mahishya caste in Tamluk, Mahishadal, Sutahata, Nandigram and Mayna are adept in making gahana bori. Gahana bori, which was first specific to three families, soon acquired a wider spread. Of course, its popularity had much to do with its eye-catching designs as well as crisp taste. However, the way gahana bori was praised by Rabindranath Tagore, his nephew Abanindranath Tagore and Abanindranath’s disciple Nandalal Bose, one of the finest artists of Bengal school speaks much about its becoming a fine art. This fine art originated in Medinipur but it became a pride of Bengal.

Once gahana bori earned this title of being a fine art, it could no longer remain confined to the platter of ordinary men and women of eastern Medinipur. The bori was no longer a simple delectable to be devoured. It was a product which yielded ultimate aesthetic pleasure and needed to be preserved. Abanindranath Tagore thus wrote in an undated letter: “These ‘nakashi’ boris from the Lakhsa village of Medinipur are not only a visual delight but also whet one’s appetite. However, grinding this bori with one’s teeth or cooking it in the form of curry is equivalent to fry and eat a fine piece of art.” Rabindranath Tagore too exclaimed that “these were to be seen and not for consumption”.1

edit 2

On the one hand we do see this appreciation of gahana bori as part of a larger history of Bengal although the presence of gahana bori before late 19th century is not warranted by any historical evidence. On the other hand gahana bori is still celebrated as the part and parcel of everyday life of a very specific region of Bengal. At that level the making of gahana bori is as much about the nitty-gritty of domesticity as it is about a sense of pride in this local art of Medinipur. To describe this phenomenon of ornamented bori as a form of sub-regional consciousness would be an overstatement. However, there is no doubt that alongside the claim of a universal aesthetic, local appreciations and regional pride never ceased to be associated with gahana bori.

Notes

1 Salilkumar Bandopadhyay, Rabindranath o Loksanskriti (Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 1994), p.237, first published in 1983;

Photo @ Shyamal Bera

©itiriti

Feasting during Sajibu Cheiraoba

( Itiriti : Soibam Haripriya is pursuing her doctoral studies in Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics. She is a poet and recently published her poems in a collection Tattoed with Taboos. She blogs on Ibnlive.com (http://ibnlive.in.com/group-blog/The-North-East-Blog/soibamharipriya/3355.html). She brings to Itiriti readers the feasting delights of Sajibu Cheiraoba celebrations from her mother’s kitchen at Imphal.

Happy reading and  if you want to share your  New Year Feast with itiriti do drop in a line …)

Like most calendar of events and celebrations in Manipur, the Sajibu (the lunar month which falls this year in April-May) Cheiraoba (the Meitei New Year festival) too is observed on two different days either on the first day after the new moon or falls alternatively on the 13th or the 14th of April depending on the religious affiliation –either Meitei Sanamahi or Hindus (mostly Vaishnavs). Sajibu heralds the coming of summer, mild sun or pleasant rains. A few days prior to Cheiraoba, the Khwairamband Keithel  –the popular and much romanticised Ema market on either side of the tasteless Bir Tikendrajit road flyover (a flyover that perhaps is sign of ‘modernity’ more than having any role in easing traffic, one road leading to a dead end i.e. straight to the Kangla gate) that cuts the market sharply like the equator, could be seen teeming with people –mostly women buying gifts for members of their natal home. There is no idea of festival discounts in the valley –‘Make hay while the sun shines’ is an apt maxim.

As is with most celebrations of this kind the day begins early for the womenfolk even though the assortment that would comprise the meal would have been thought of the previous day. The number of dishes should be in odd numbers, my family settled for five dishes –three seem slightly meagre for such a day while seven seem slightly extravagant for a family of small eaters, a condition necessitated by health reasons. Uti, Yongchak aloo eromba, nga thongba, bora and chakhao is what we settled for.

Uti has now become a marker of Manipuri cuisine and every place that claims to stock authentic Manipuri food has to have Uti in the menu. It is a dish consisting which could either be uti ashangba (green uti) which could be made with green peas and sometimes added with a bit of broken rice or the classic Uti, the trick of enhancing the flavour of the latter is to add a wee bit of milk at the end.

Yengchak aloo eromba taste best with small red potatoes and yongchak with fermented fish. Nga thonga (fish curry) could be cooked in a variety of manner, either deep fried fish, lightly fried ones or not fried at all or more popularly the stirred nga thongba which would be rather difficult for a non fish eater to negotiate considering that all the fishes are broken and one needs to navigate an array of bones. Chakhao is simply the deep purple scented rice which is slightly sweet and is either cooked with water or cooked as a kheer with milk, camphor, slices of coconut, bay leaves and dry fruit.

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The dishes are first to be offered to propitiate the spirits, believed to be evil   –a space is mud plastered in the front gate of the house and the back gate –the dishes are offered with rice and three variety of flowers – kusumlei, kombirei, leiri and seasonal fruits of one’s choice and offering of money along with the food. One assumes this to be an innocuous offering; however the function of this offering is to satiate the spirits so that no harm befalls the family. In fact the name of the last demised person of the locality is invoked in order to appeal the former’s longer stay in the crematorium so that no one else gets claimed by the insatiable land of the death. The mud-plastered place of the offering is decorated with flowers.

In our fondest memories of childhood we vied with each other to claim the offering of money when elders disappear for an afternoon siesta or go about presenting New Year gifts to elders and relatives.

Photo : Soibam Haripriya

©itiriti

Gastronomic experiences from KL…

( Comment : By profession, Sayak Bhanja is a Chartered Accountant and by self certification an ‘uber -omnivore’. He brings to Itiriti readers his notes on his gastronomic experiences from his days as a ‘traveling’ consultant. Happy Reading !!!)

It has been some time since I’ve bid adieu to my days of being a consultant of

the traveling kind, although it would be a lie to admit that I don’t miss it sometimes! Living out of a suitcase, like everything else, has its pros and cons, ups and downs, highs and lows (you should get the drift by now). Quite high on my list of, well, ‘highs’ is ‘food’.

Being a self-certified uber-omnivore and limited only by the ever-tightening waistline of my trousers, my travels across lands near and far have introduced me to a myriad of cuisines and dishes.

When my friend, Itiriti asked me for a ‘guest post’ (ahem), I did what most good, honest, hardworking consultants do…copy…and paste!

Originally ‘published’ in a periodical in my former organization, this post features the cuisines from my then ‘base of operations’…Kuala Lumpur .

Petronas

Food in Malaysia is as rich and colorful as the country’s culture with each cuisine reflecting the fusion of the three main sub-cultures (Malay, Tamil and Chinese), while at the same time retaining its distinct ethnic flavor.

Venturing out into the streets of Kuala Lumpur, one is spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding what and where to eat.

From hawker food courts to high-end restaurants, food options prevail in abundance and suit every budget.

Nasi or rice as it is known here, tends to be the staple food of the country, with Nasi Lemak, (a mouthwatering concoction featuring rice steamed with coconut milk and served with fried anchovies, peanuts, sliced cucumber, hard boiled eggs, and a spicy chili paste known as sambal) ruling the roost as the ‘national dish’!!!

Nasi Lemak

Nasi Lemak

For a more ‘substantial’ meal, Nasi Lemak can be served with a choice of Ayam (chicken) or Kambing (mutton) curries, or a spicy mutton or beef ‘stew’ called Rendang

Noodles-based dishes are also very popular and not without reason!!!

With a myriad of varieties, my personal favorite is the Char kway teow, a meal in itself, prepared by stir-frying flat rice noodles with soy sauce and your choice of meat and / or seafood…!!!

Char Kuay Teow

Char Kuay Teow

Some of the best Sino-Malay cuisine is available in the numerous Peranakan or Nyona restaurants in the city…if you’re looking for cheap, street-style Chinese grub, head over to Petaling Street in China Town…go for the Curry Laksa, you won’t regret it!!!

Curry Laksa

Curry Laksa

 

I would also recommend stopping by at a local Mamak (a local term for ‘Tamil Muslims’) stall to partake in the vast expanse of the buffet spread (where you pay for what you eat) and be introduced to some of the finest examples of fusion food that I have ever come across!!!

My meal of choice at a Mamak joint? Parathas (Indian flat-bread) with Mutton Curry and Teh Tarik (literally, ‘pulled tea’), the ‘national drink’!!!

In Malaysia, people with a sweet tooth won’t be disappointed either – ‘must-haves’ are Cendol (‘a million calories of heaven’) and Sago Gula Melaka (tapioca pearls with coconut milk and palm sugar)

Sago Gula Melaka

Sago Gula Melaka

If you have the tendency of counting calories (not a good idea when in a Malay restaurant) or are looking for ‘lighter’ options, step into a Kopitiam (a traditional breakfast and coffee shop).

Here you can treat yourself to some Kaya Toast (Kaya being a jam of sorts made of eggs, sugar and coconut milk) and Kopi-O (aka Coffee black with sugar.

Kaya toast and kopi-o

Kaya toast and kopi-o

Being in the tropics, fruits of various shapes and sizes abound. Enjoy snacking on jackfruits, rambutans and dragon fruits and if you’re the daring kind…. the Durian <cue Jaws theme>.

Durian

Known more for its penetrating odour (many have compared it to ‘fermented diapers’) than it’s ‘almond-flavoured custardy’ taste (I for one agree with that definition), this ‘King of Fruits’ is banned in most hotels and means of public transport!!!

‘Must-visit’ places on your gastronomic itinerary while in KL should include Jalan Alor, a street (Jalan) lined with hawker stalls. I recommend the grilled sting ray and the stir-fried sea shells (despite my near-death experience in discovering that I was allergic to the latter!!!) Also visit Madam Kwan’s, a one-stop shop for some of the ‘top-ranked’ dishes from across Malaysia. The food courts in Suria Mall in the KL City Centre (KLCC), Pavilion Mall and Lot 10 Mall on the hip Jalan Bukit Bintang (JBB) are also quite nice with both domestic and international food choices.

Starhill Gallery on JBB (‘Bukit Bintang’ means ‘Star Hill’ btw) has some amazing (and pricey) restaurants. I strongly recommend the garoupa preparations at The Fishermen’s Cove!

I could ramble on about eating out in KL but all this typing has made me hungry!!! While this post does not cover any significant percentage of the wondrous offerings Malaysia has in the field of gastronomy (Durian deserves a dedicated blog all by itself), I hope reading it has got your taste buds all tingly with anticipation! So until next time…happy eating!!!

Photo : Sayak Bhanja

©itiriti

Blue Poppy @ City of Joy

(Itiriti: I invited Madhurilata to write about Blue Poppy, one of my latest hanging out places in City of Joy.   Madhurilata Basu  is a student of Political Science and is an independent researcher. She loves to travel and enjoys her food.  She takes you on a guided tour into the indoors of Blue Poppy.)

What is the shortest way to someone’s heart? While you keep on guessing, I would give my answer. It is always good food. But in today’s world good food comes with a big price and it becomes a rare occasion, when one can experience the unadulterated joy of having good food at a good price. But courtesy Blue Poppy, the exception has been changed into the norm. Embracing students, young professionals with their wide range of dishes and reasonably priced menu, it is located in Sikkim House in Middleton Street, near Loretto College and Gorkha Bhavan in Salt Lake, near City Centre I.  Young Calcuttans are lucky to have a place which serves Nepali, Bhutanese, Tibetan, Indian and Chinese cuisines under one roof and that too at a great price.

You can start off your gastronomical journey with Momos and if you are health conscious , you can also opt for the wide range of soups they offer. You can safely order Mixed Thenthuk or Mixed Phaktu. These Tibetan delights are homemade noodles served in a hot mixed soup.  However, my personal favourite is Pork Kothay , which is half steamed and half fried Momos. Do not forget to ask them for their famous chilly chutney, which should only be tried by the brave hearts for it is a sure killer. Instead of treading in one direction, my suggestion will be to have a mixed menu. A must have dish is Ema Dasi, that is cheese with chilly, and you can have it with steamed rice. This Bhutanese dish can be followed up with Pork Shapta (a Tibetan dish) or Pork with vegetables. The Nepali Thali is also worth trying.

One thing that is guaranteed is that Blue Poppy will definitely bring a smile to your face. A not-so-posh eating house but packed with young people is sure to make you smile. Blue Poppy opens at 8 am  and also serve breakfast like Egg and Toast or Puri Bhaji, for the boarders at both the Sikkim House and Gorkha Bhavan have breakfast there. Another good news is that owing to its popularity, it has started home delivery services in Salt lake only. However, in order to have the good food in your home, you have to wait till 5 pm.

College students flock the Blue Poppy in Middleton Street in great numbers. Owing to its proximity to City Centre I, where youngsters, in the absence of proper adda places in the region, have addas, for obvious reasons come to Blue Poppy to satisfy their hunger if they have extra cash in their pockets. The staff of Blue Poppy are friendly and their service is satisfactory. Do not be amazed if you find a long line outside. Just be patient, for it takes really less time for the good food to get over and before you can count till ten, it will be your turn to grab a table.  A meal for two can cost at around Rs 400. However, Blue Poppy’s food tastes best, provided you have a good company. Non-stop adda over the food is of course, free.

For menu of Blue Poppy

http://www.zomato.com/kolkata/the-blue-poppy-russel-street/menu; Accessed on 14 February 2013

©itiriti

From Rabri to Paan Masala and beyond…

(Itiriti – I invited Dripta Piplai to pen down her food trail in one of her favourite cities in India, a place she calls her second home- Varanasi /Banaras. By training, she is a socio-linguist at Delhi University and by passion; she is also an independent researcher on musicology. She takes you in the narrow by-lanes and some of the relaxing places in this timeless “city of lights” ( a phrase I borrow from Diana L. Eck’s work Banaras : City of Lights) and gives us a glimpse of what gastronomic delicacies the city has to offer. Welcome aboard! She blogs at http://www.dripta.blogspot.in/)

The city beckons me time and again. I listen to the call and rush back to this timeless city. Yes, I am talking about Varanasi/Banaras- the city that wakes up and sleeps with the Ganges. I see the whole of India at the bank of Ganges. The architecture of different ghats takes me to Nepal or Bihar or Karnataka. Benaras is my second home, and I return to my second homeland again and again.

I can write pages after pages for this city. I can write about different types of journey- boat rides, walks and many more…

Dear friend Ishita asked me to write about the culinary delights of my Benaras tour this time. And I happily accepted her request 🙂

Whenever we talk about food of Benaras, the first thing we do is talk about the kachori-jalebi-rabri of the Dashaswamedh area. In fact, the kachori which is usually served with a aloo-nutrela or mixed sabzi, is widely available at Benaras, be it Gadhauliya crossing, or tiny shop at Manikarnika ghat. The charge is rs 7-10 per plate, and you can have a cheap brunch with this. If it is winter morning, have a big cup of tea at any ghat, to my surprise, Ram pyare chai (apparently a tea vendor by the name Ram Pyare used to sell tea and the tea vendors christened tea as Rampyare Chai) is not widely available at Benaras nowadays.

Benaras offers a variety of Indian food all over the city. The narrow alleys have a number of South Indian snacks shops-where you can have a meal for Rs.10-35. The choices are Sambar-vada, Uttappam, Rasam vada, served with filter coffee. Near Bangalitola, a small Biryani shop suggested by a foodie friend remained unexplored this time. A small restaurant at the ground floor of the Bengali delight Dashaswamedh boarding is serving cheap Bengali thali, the shop just next to it is offering Rajma chawal and chole- why shouldn’t I call the city a mini India?

Though I am talking about the different types of foods of the city, I want to share with you two restaurants that are widely recommended and visited

Dolphin rooftop restaurant is widely recommended by the traveller guides, may be because of the grand view of Ganges. But this clean restaurant at Man Mandir ghat offers a wide variety of Indian non-veg dishes. Tried Akhnir pulao with Mutton Rogan-josh, which was overpriced, but good. They do have a number of kebabs and tandoori dishes, along with some good vegetarian delights, Aloo Banarasi is recommended for the vegetarians.

But the grand and exotic discovery for a foodie at Benaras is the Lotus Lounge located at the Mansarovar ghat. I was specifically nostalgic, as the restaurant is located near the house which was rented by our family in the late 40s.

 

Lotus Lounge

Lotus Lounge

Lotus Lounge offers an excellent range of continental dishes, which are uniquely Indianized in some cases. They have elaborated breakfast menus made with yak cheese, for example. They have a good range of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian soups (the tomato-based cold soup was heavenly). And what was extremely good about them is that, the proportion of meat and vegetarian item is absolutely measured in their dishes. Dinner with braised chicken with orange and butter sauce usually is served on a bed of potatoes and beans, but they quickly served it with buttered spinach as they didn’t have beans on the day I had visited. The dessert menu is quite nice (I settled for Fruit salad). You will enjoy the cozy seating arrangement of the shop and the Ganges view at the not-so-populated ghat.

In fact, a number of small restaurants all over the city serve food from different parts of the world. You will spot a small Japanese joint at a small lane near the holy Viswanath temple. Korean cafés and Italian restos dot the city. The availability of different kinds of food at a same place is quite amazing.

I cannot wrap up this entry if I do not talk about rabri and peda of the Viswanath gali. The small shop at the left hand there is the amazing shop of Rabri and malai (served with milk). Small bowl of rabri costs Rs.30 (for 100 gms), and I am sure that you cannot stop with just one serving.

If you want to have a different type of dessert, you might want to try some pista-badam sherbet? The other choices are: lassi, or badam- sherbet or khus-gulab sherbet.(Available at the Dashaswamedh crossing, beside the state bank ATM.)

After finishing your meal, you must try out the best paan shops that the city offers .Visit any one of the small masala shops at or in front of Viswanath Gali. You can try the famous pan masala (betel leaves with a mixture of chopped or coarsely ground areca nuts), or something simpler, like pudina goli, adrak pachak or aam pachak.

The food-tale and food trail of Banaras is never ending.  All I can say is that, you have to come back to this place, may be for the photographic charm, for the tunes of Banaras gharana, or in search of the Captain Spark’s room, or in search of good food.

Photo : Dripta Piplai

©itiriti

Hauz Khas Village and the Yeti

(Anghrija by training is a lawyer and a dear friend with whom I have shared a special bond over momos and things that are edible. She pens down this  post on Yeti our favourite haunt in Hauz Khas Village, Delhi. Happy reading!)

Hidden away somewhere between the concrete jungle of Greenpark and Hauz Khas are the majestic ruins and the urban village of Hauz Khas.  I remember going there the first time, about 5 years back, as a student.  All I remember from that time are the South Indian restaurant Naivedyam and the North Indian food joint – Park Baluchi, and of course, the sprawling Deer Park.  Apart from the ruins, I did not find anything to note.  Perhaps, it had something to do with the time of the visit (winter night, and pitch dark), or that, as a student, I could barely afford what Hauz Khas Village(HKV) had to offer.

The next time I visited HKV, I could take in the full extent of this urban village.  Streets and by-lanes dotted with quaint shops – silver jewellery, arts and crafts, furniture, clothes – selling “ethnicity” and charm, and scores of big and small restaurants, pull one in.  At the end of the main street, the ruins loom large and impressive. And then, right where the ruins begin, a small signboard, on the left, spells out Yeti – the Himalayan Restaurant.  Bingo!  Anyone who knows me knows my weakness for food that is Tibetan, Bhutanese, North-East Indian, etc.  Darling “Itiriti,” the hostess of this blog, can vouch for my fondness for momos.  In fact, food has been at the background of our friendship, always.

Anyways, the name drew me in, and I climbed up the stairs.  As one enters Yeti, the first thing one notes is the welcoming smiles and the Buddhist chants playing in the background.  Then one notices the brick layering and the rustic charm.  I, especially, love the furniture – square wooden tables and chairs – very neat, spare and comfortable.  And, the place overlooks the ruins!!!  The hosts are typically dressed in “hill” attire, and are typically warm and cute.  The menu is substantial, and can look a bit daunting to the uninitiated (what with the strange and unfamiliar names, etc.).  However, the hosts are quick to explain what the names mean.  And, by way of experience, I would say that you can pretty much order anything on that menu, and it will be good, except for that one time when one of their rice dishes was cooked in stale meat-stock.  The food is served on time.  The drinks menu is not really big by any standards, but they serve beer and vodka.  What I love most about Yeti is the rustic warmth that it exudes; it makes way for friendly conversations between friends and strangers too.  You can almost visibly notice people loosening up within minutes of entering the place.  And, the food is to die for (and easy on the pocket, too)!!!

My Yeti favorites are gyuma (pork sauges), non-veg wai-wai sadeko (wai-wai tossed in lemon, with veggies and chicken), jadoh with dokhleh (Khasi specialty – rice cooked in meat stock with choice of pork/chicken), the buff momos, and the sweet lime. 

Next time that you are at HKV, and are feeling the need to be rejuvenated, and you have a fondness for “hill” food, do visit Yeti.  I promise that you will enjoy the experience.

©itiriti