Take the mountains’ word for it

We took a weekend trip to Darjeeling. A work thing. Mixed with tons of sleep. And food.

Well, I mean, look. Just look.

Fish Au Gratin, Glenary's - The Subjectivist

The last Friday night was spent swaying in a train, as we made our way to Darjeeling. At one point, the time when my folks honeymooned there, Darjeeling was quaint, cold and romantic. It is still cold. It is no more quaint. And the romance is stale and fragrant-less.

Now it smells of horse-shit, from the ponies that carry children around the market square. It also smells of smoke from the roasted peanut stalls that dot the viewing decks. A stroll at 6 a.m. in the morning would give you a good glimpse of Kanchenjunga. This is July, so naturally it’d be shrouded in clouds and fog. But a lucky spot can fix that. Families, locals, school children in maroon frocks and pigtails walk by the tourists, like they have for years.

Kanchenjunga, Darjeeling - The Subjectivist

Photo Courtesy: Tiirthankar

Later in the morning, we had to give sightseeing a miss for work, and a visit to an abandoned hotel (that had burned down in 1978!). The hotel stood in silence, dressed in wet green moss. A history-steeped piece of architecture that the world has forgotten.

Ruins - The Subjectivist

After traipsing around an unkempt site – all for the sake of work, I promise – we took lunch at Glenary’s. A fish au gratin, pictured above. Flaked white fish smothered in bechamel and salty, bubbling cheese on top that crusted beautifully at the edges. I could have wrapped the dish back to my hotel room and snuggled with it all night.

Not in a weird way.

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Glenary’s, Darjeeling

Au gratin, of any kind, bothers me a bit. Yes, the caramelized cheese and the creamy bechamel makes any au gratin worth the name. I don’t know if it’s just me, but downing more than five large spoons of bechamel sauce becomes a chore fraught with queasiness. Does that happen to you? Does the creaminess get to you too?

We ordered some roast beef and roast pork sauce to offset all the cheese. The roast beef came in irregularly cut minute-steaks swimming in gravy, which I can only assume was some sort of pan juice mixed with brown sauce. The pork was untrimmed and floated in an insane amount of fatty sauce. Don’t get me wrong, the dishes were far from bad. Fork-soft and just the right amount of spice. They were diluted versions of English meat-n-gravy plates that had gotten lost in a cross-culture marketplace – influenced by European classics and overshadowed by Tibetan cuisine.

Pork Roast in Sauce - The Subjectivist

Roast Beef in Gravy - The Subjectivist

We also loaded our laptop bags with boxes of tarte au citron, liquor filled chocolates and Paris Brests. If you’re ever in Glenary’s, try their rum-n-raisin chocolates and pork fat buns. You won’t be disappointed. It was a to short a stay. In less than 48 hours, with the rain dripping non-stop, we took the car back to flat-lands. On our way back, we made a stop at the Kurseong Tourist Lodge.

Tarte Au Citron, Glenary's - The Subjectivist

Sitting precariously on a mountain ledge, the cozy lodge is mostly a wooden structure. In a dark kitchen stands a lone chef at the stove, frying plump chicken momos for the diners. We were seated at a table in a wooden room with high ceilings, and windows looking out over the ledge. While the cook prepped steamed momos and coffee for us, we sat looking out at all the…fog.

Yes, fog.

No mountainside, no pretty valleys. Just fog. Out of which stood the silhouettes of dark pine trees. It would have been nice to catch a glimpse of the mountainside. We ended up pretending like actors on the sets of GoT. We’re happy with that.

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Kurseong Tourist Lodge (at 3 p.m. in the afternoon!)

Kurseong and Darjeeling are pretty much perfect for a quick break. You might even consider Darjeeling for a writer’s retreat, because it just is that kind of a place. Chilly, foggy, nestled between the mountains. Colourful locals in colorful shawls, breakfasts at the edges of precipices. We will be going back over and over again. Take the mountains’ word for it.

In the spirit of guzzling meat, I picked up a set of lamb neck fillets a day after I got back.

A good sear, some tomatoes and wine and 2 hours in the oven, led to a melt-in-the-mouth stew. Granted, I don’t have a photograph of the final dish. You’re just gonna have to take my word for it.

Lamb Neck Stew

The quantities are for two lamb neck fillets. You can easily halve or double it.

Ingredients:
2 lamb neck fillets (ask your butcher to trim it well)
Oil, to sear
1 tablespoon of salted butter
2 large white onions, chopped
1 large dried bay leaf (if you have fresh bay leaves, then use two instead of one)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 teaspoons of cinnamon powder
2 teaspoons of cumin powder
2 tablespoons of tomato puree (only the thick, concentrated kind)
2 cans of chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup of white wine
2 teaspoons of dried oregano
Salt, sugar and cracked black pepper to taste (I say sugar, because sugar neutralises the acidity of the canned tomatoes)

How-To:
Pre-heat the oven to 170 deg C.

Dry the lamb neck fillets with paper towels to clear of as much surface moisture as possible.

Heat oil in a shallow pan, on high heat, till the oil starts smoking (don’t let it burn!). Reduce the heat to medium-high and sear the fillets for 45 seconds on each side. If your fillets are round-ish in the beginning like mine were, you may need to hold them in place with tongs to get an even sear on all sides.

In a deep-bottom pan or a braising pot, heat oil and butter till the butter melts. Fry the onions in the oil, on medium-high heat, till translucent and glossy and slightly brown at the edges.

Add the bay leaf and garlic and stir for 30 seconds. This takes the pungency off the garlic.

Lower the heat to medium-low. Add the cinnamon and cumin. Stir to coat the onions and let cook for a minute.

Stir in the tomato puree, tomatoes and wine. Remember to swirl the cans with a bit of water. Add the water to the stew as well. Season with salt, pepper and sugar. Put the lid on and cook the stew for 1.5-2 hours at 170 deg C.

Once the stew has cooked, take it out of the oven and do a quick taste check. Adjust salt, pepper and sugar accordingly. Depending on how dry your oven bakes, sometimes the stew can be a bit wet. This works well if you’re planning to eat it with steamed white rice. If you want the sauce to be thicker, heat the pot, without the lid on the stove-top for 15-20 minutes till some of the liquid evaporates.

Serve with rice or roasted potatoes.

 

 

 

You are what you put in your omelette

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I spent much of 2014 getting nibbled on by a heart surgeon.

Tall, curly hair that fell onto his Michael Caine-ish glasses and a waddle that could give Donald Duck a run for his money. I’m not even joking.

He was charming, which I found to be a novelty because I haven’t been around too many charming doctors. Unless you count those who come up with uncomfortable puns depending on whatever illness you’ve gone to them with. Maybe learning how to pun is part of the Gross Anatomy syllabus, who knows.

Our first date was in China Town where he watched me gorge on golden fried prawns and siu mai. On our second date he watched me down three gimlets and a plate of tandoori chicken. On our third date he explained an extremely complicated heart procedure — that he was apparently quite good at performing — over cherry ice-cream. By the fourth date he knew my dating history and I knew that his first cousin’s brother-in-law’s best friend had a questionable mole on his right cheek.

On the day he wanted our families to meet, Rana brought his mother, Asha, his brother and grandmother over for tea at my parents’ apartment. My brother, Rio was home from college and he was sent out to get sausage rolls from the neighborhood bakery. We’d serve them with All-Indian chai and Bengali sweets. We stood by the door, smiled wide and said our hellos. I was nauseous for the most part.

I think all parents go to the same school where they are taught techniques on how to narrate embarrassing stories of their children to complete strangers. And my mother is obviously not an exception. She started with the funniest stories in her repertoire. Stories that we have laughed over numerous times at various family gatherings. Stories that we keep close to our hearts, however embarrassing and cringe-worthy they may be, and whip out at the slightest persuasion.

The conversation rose a few notches and I brought out a tray piled with plates of rolls, sweets, and matching cups of Darjeeling’s finest. Asha’s eyes fixed on the rolls. We didn’t know she was on a veggie-based diet that did not allow her to eat meat. For a moment she looked confused when I set the tray of food down in front of her. I announced that it was a spiced lamb sausage roll from a bakery that we love. Then she looked up at me as if I had suggested that I sit on her lap wearing a gold bikini.

I should have taken that moment as a sign of times to come. But at the time, I was in love and I’m sure you know how it is, when you’re flitting between laughing at his chopstick-using skills and wearing his underwear.

Rana looked at me nonchalantly and said, “Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that.” Then he proceeded to suggest that his mother only eat the sweets put in front of her. Classic Indian man who’s never had the privilege of being an awkward host of a tea party in his life. I decided not to hold it against him. I was, after all, accomplished as a dinner party host — enough for the both of us, I reasoned.

“If you’re allowed to eat eggs, I can make you an omelette,” I offered.

“Sure,” It sounded more caustic than she meant it to be, I’m sure.

I rushed to the kitchen hell bent on making the best omelette on the face of this miserable earth.

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In a previous life, when I was much much younger, I had daydreamed about working in a professional kitchen just to find out if I had what it takes. Obviously, the head chef would test my omelette making skills. He would look at me doubtfully and with a smirk on his lips. His doubt would turn into wonder as he’d watch me jerk the omelette into 2 folds. And then after tasting the fluffy yellow cloud, he would know that I was going to be his prodigy. He obviously wouldn’t say that out loud. Instead, he would put me through hell, give me doses of tough love and push me to the edge of my mental and physical caliber till I emerge well-seasoned and extensively praised by critics.

I digress.

I rapidly put a pan on high heat, broke 2 eggs in a glass bowl, added a pinch of salt and beat them up, while I waited for the pan to smoke. As soon as the air above the pan started to shimmer, I popped a generous pat of butter in the pan and swirled it a bit. The eggs went in before the butter had completely melted. The edges stiffened and the center bubbled up happily. I reduced the heat a bit and busied myself with chopping green chilies and mint.

Soon enough, I slipped a slightly overcooked, a slightly leathery looking, a slightly burnt at the edges omelette onto a plate and proceeded to crack some white pepper on it. It was slightly more polished than what a bachelor might survive on. I silently cursed myself for not being able to make a fluffy egg cloud that would have announced my culinary greatness.

I carried the plate out to the living room and handed it to her. The conversation continued and everyone sipped their teas, as she lifted the plate and whiffed the air above the omelette. Her face didn’t budge. She started eating.

At this point, everyone had stuffed themselves with meat rolls and sweets. Asha had left everything untouched, even the sweets. I imagine she was hungry because the pace at which she had started to eat quickened after the first bite. Soon the omelette was gone. And in her vinegar voice, she thanked me for a “nice” omelet. She didn’t smile. But she didn’t have to. She didn’t think anyone needed special skills to whip up an omelette. To her, I knew, it was just an omelette.

You don’t need to hear from me, how omelette has donned every role in the culinary world — from a chef’s test to camouflage for a badly made dish. They’ve been stuffed, wrapped around, chopped, sliced, curried and subjected to poetry. And all for good reason.

Omelette is probably the only item in the food world that is never out-of-place no matter where you may place it.

You could be making one at 1 a.m. in the morning on getting home after a trans-Atlantic flight, famished and struggling to keep your eyes open. Or you could be serving one with an extra gooey middle, on top of stir-fried beef and Bulgar wheat. It will just sit there and go with its surroundings.

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Lately, after all the caramel-induced revelry, work has kept all of us busy. I’m going to be making a work trip to Darjeeling soon. That doesn’t mean I won’t be eating well (pork momos and handmade liquor-filled chocolates, here I come!). I am also planning a trip to China. Or maybe Malaysia. No China. Weeellll…Malaysia doesn’t actually sound that bad. Oh well, whatever. I’m not committed to that plan too much yet, so I’ll leave it up to you.

But I have been committing to eggs. On Monday, I came back home from work, ignored the roti-sabzi cook had made for me and proceeded to whip a whopping amount of four eggs into submission.

You know how they say “You are what you eat”? Chances are that you are also what you put into your omelette.

In the last few cases however, I haven’t been putting anything in it. Rather on top of it. A hot and herbed tomato sauce that can be made in a flash. It is just as much a part of the omelette as it would have been if I had tumbled the tomatoes into the egg batter. It is both a lifter and a topper.

If you are what you put in (or on top of your omelette), then I only want to herby, slurpy and hot. I want to be a lifter and a topper.

I’ll leave you with a beautiful piece of animation from Madeline Sharafian that is unmistakably all of us after a bad day.

4-egg Omelette with Tomato Sauce

The recipe uses 4 eggs. If you’re brave or hungry enough, you might be able to polish it off on your own in one sitting. I definitely have, multiple times. If not, then share.
There’s hot sauce in their with the tomatoes. I love Tabasco, but
Gochujang orSriracha will work well. The amount mentioned is 1 tablespoon, but it’s subjective really. I can take a super-hot sauce (blame it on my Indian origins), so I use more than a tablespoon. You can do the same after throwing some caution to the wind. The heat is balanced out beautifully by the tanginess of the tomatoes and the unctuousness of the eggs.

Ingredients:
– Half an onion, or a small onion, finely chopped
– 2 cloves of garlic, minced
– 2 teaspoons of white granulated sugar
– 4 medium-sized tomatoes, chopped in 1/2 inch cubes
– 1 teaspoon of dried thyme (You can use fresh thyme leaves just as easily, the notes for the sauce will be more grassy than smoky. Which is OK. Don’t freak out.)
– 1 tablespoon of hot sauce of your choice (see note above)
– 1 tablespoon of dark soy sauce
– 1 tablespoon of butter for the eggs
– 4 eggs
– Salt and white pepper, to taste
– Freshly chopped mint or coriander

How-To:
Heat oil in a pan. Add the onions and garlic and saute on medium-high heat till the onions go translucent. Add the sugar and fry till the onions are brown.

Add in the tomatoes, thyme, hot sauce and soy sauce. Stir well. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for 5–7 minutes, till the tomatoes are soft and oozing.

Add salt, to taste. Remove from heat and keep aside.

Beat the 4 eggs in a bowl and add a pinch of salt, to taste.

Heat a cast iron skillet or non-stick frying pan till the surface starts smoking a bit. Add butter and swirl it around.

Reduce the heat to medium-high and pour in the eggs before the butter has fully melted.

Let the egg sizzle for a 10–15 seconds. Lower the heat to medium and cook till the sides start to stiffen and come easily away from the edges of the pan when prodded. Flip the omelette when the center is just set but still gooey (if you have great flipping skills), or just fold it in half (as in the picture above).

Slide it off on a serving plate. Spoon the tomato sauce all over it. Garnish with mint or coriander leaves. Season with freshly cracked white pepper and serve.

When all else fails

If anyone tells you that you can’t spend an entire weekend in half-prostrate on your bed with your laptop balanced on your stomach, surfing through food blogs for inspiration with your left hand stuck in large bag of Cheetos, then cut them out of your life. You don’t need that kind of negativity.

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Before anything else, let me warn you that I don’t have a recipe today. If you’re leaving then I’ll see you again in a few days!

Over the last couple of years, my habit of surfing through food blogs has largely dwindled. Sometimes when the load is light at work, I tilt the laptop screen at an angle that makes it difficult for my co-workers to notice what website I’m on. And then I go visit the food blogs that speak poetically about onions and bean soup, pieces on food tech start-ups, food movements in China and I especially pore over the ones by travelling gluttons. But gorgeous websites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting has remained largely untouched for the last two or three summers.

The last two days however, have been enlightening. I’ve learnt that I’m one of those unmarried, childless, single women who love reading mommy blogs.

Yes. It is creepy.

Why? What’s your point?

As much as the photography and creativity (and baby photos) of fellow food enthusiasts make me slobber on my keyboard, more often that not, I find myself intimidated and gawking in wonder. I stare at their perfectly laid out tables and the carefully curated cutlery pieces that are either inherited or from flea markets, and Anthropologie or the likes.

I stare at their children’s activity table made of beige-coloured wooden slats and colourful hand-painted motifs. Words like “paleo”, “gluten-free”, “raw”, “vegan” make their appearances at intervals. I burp out loud every time they appear, which is no mean feat. The backgrounds are muted shades of marble or slate or wood. I inhale their running routines, pilates moves and then immediately regret it, because I haven’t had a morning exercise routine in three long years. I did however, take a morning walk across Tower Bridge a month back, but that doesn’t count. Then comes the food — the cauliflower rice perfectly garnished, the chocolate mirror glaze glistening at all the right corners.

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Here’s an old picture for your benefit.

I scroll once and then twice and then my perverse addiction for all things that look decadent, I scroll a few more times. Every screen greets me food photography that will make your eyes pop and your tongue hang out. Recipes, recipes, recipes. And before I know it, I’ve been sucked into the world of dishes that are fantastic to have in your repertoire, like this pom-glazed chicken (look at those freakin’ drumsticks) or this raw coconut blueberry fudge, which I may never make, but they’re good to have on your bookmarks list — for showing-off purposes. And occasionally I’ll come across something completely mind-blowing and rule-defying like this charcoal bread. Yes, charcoal! In bread!

But it’s not all glossy. Some of them come with stories that I do dig. But most are explanations and recipes that seem dry and perfunctory. Maybe that’s the way it should be, we are the sovereigns of food blogs, after all. But every time there’s food on the table, in a picture, I wonder where it’s come from and who’s made it and why was it made in the first place. Maybe it has a boring past or an interesting past. Maybe the recipe was picked out of mum’s old cookbooks or clipped off the internet. Little bits of information which will not only feed me but feed my need to be a first-class snoop.

More often than not I end up disappointed and hungry, meting out empty burps. It’s a constant conundrum of drool-worthy photography and zero background. Don’t get me wrong, it takes work and a bucket-load of talent to set any table that beautifully, to make sure the lighting is near perfect and to handle the camera like a pro. Talents that makes me sharply aware of my own dismal capabilities. But it feels as if it’s always about the recipe or the elaborate table setting, or the lack of dairy, animal products or wheat flour.

Anywho, when all else fails, I have my Cheeto-stained fingers to lick. And these jewel finds:

This is what Anthony Bourdain thinks about air plane food. I can agree and disagree with him at the same time.

– Seriously, check out these pom-glazed chicken drumsticks.

– Do you love food? Does this look familiar?

– When it comes to being in your 20s, Catherine Mevs hits the nail right on the head with this New Yorker piece.

– I’m only but a wide-eyed spectator of Donald “Build a Wall” Trump’s hair and American politics in general, but you may enjoy this.

– Take some time to go through these profound photos from around the world.

Happy Monday y’all!

A chicken roll that won’t let you forget

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“Isn’t it to die for?” My friend gushed breathlessly between bites of Kati Roll.

I was meeting her after 10 long years smack dab in the middle of rain-infested New York City, and she’d dragged me to Greenwich Village to taste a popular Bengali import (or export? Import, if you’re anywhere out of West Bengal).

The chicken roll.

Except that the Kati Roll Company is calling it the Kati Roll.

Versions — diluted, exaggerated and almost always awful — of the quintessential roll in various parts of India, do actually go by that name, so I can’t blame them.

Gujarat (and the Indian West Coast in general) has a version, inexplicably known as a Frankie, where the chicken is tomato red in color and amount of spice will produce a hole in your chest. Delhi’s back alleys produce “rolls” that are made of succulent kebabs wrapped in flimsy rumaali roti. Note how the word “roll” is within quotes.

I once also had a Bengali cook at an Indian food stall on Portobello Street make me chicken roll that had a white yogurt-based sauce that brought forth the same kind of emotions that underwear stuck in your butt-crack brings.

“Isn’t this the best chicken roll you’ve had outside of Kolkata?” She gushed again, this time looking directly at me. I nodded vigorously, making sure my mouth was too full to speak and hoped she couldn’t make out how much I wanted to dump that roll on her head.

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We are of the seafood

Very rarely would you find a Bengali hauling a bag of squid or octopus home, to have for lunch.

It could be faintly surprising to outsiders considering how religiously we’re devoted to our seafood. No, really. We mummify dead fish, with shiny scales and twinkly eyes and exchange them as gifts at weddings. In case of a death in the family, it is customary to break a 14-day mourning period by eating, that’s right, fish. The bonier the better.

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We put fish, fried, braised or steamed, on our plates everyday, at least for one meal. At least. We know and love our seafood as much as we love our Darjeeling and our afternoon naps. We pick the bones out with our fingers, eat them with our hands, suck and chew on the soft fish heads, lick our fingers clean and heave a giant burp out of our full bellies when were done. We are of the seafood.

Are you slowly backing away out of here yet?

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If not, then you’re in for a treat.

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3-spoon wonder

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It is always either a pleasure or a horror to go through old photos on Facebook. Also, one of the best ways to avoid the mountain of work awaiting to consume you.

I stumbled across a particularly random-not-so-random one yesterday — the beauty above is of one of our classrooms back in the Department of Built Environment in the University of Nottingham. I think it was one of those droopy Autumn afternoons when the room quickly cleared after an especially long lecture, and I found a quick second to capture the light outside.

I suddenly realize that I don’t attend lectures as much anymore. I only give them now. To students and subordinates at colleges and construction sites.

I may finally be a grown-up.

Winters in Nottingham are not harsh, but bone-chilling. It’s wet and damp at times, and slippery. But altogether enjoyable if you like a spot of snow, red winter coats and woks of mulled wine with housemates. Yes, woks. Our grad-student frugality didn’t allow for too many deep-bottomed pots or pans.

I wish I had spent more than just two winters in the city. She doesn’t have the jazz and glamour of London, or the cheery disposition of Swansea or the ancient-ness of Edinburgh. But Nottingham was home, at a time when I learnt from my Italian housemate how al dente pasta should actually be. Or exactly where to find perfectly sauced doner kebabs at one in the morning.

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A caramel worth its salt

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It is perfectly understandable that I cannot just come back to this space after two whole years and let a crème caramel wobble under your noses, just like that.

You’ll want an explanation. You’ll want to know why I disappeared. And all that is fair.

But before I tell you how I’ve spent the last two years travelling and eating and starting a new travel venture and getting my heart-broken, I have to tell you about crème caramel.

In case you happen to be a child from the colorful 70s or the padded-shouldered 80s, you will remember crème caramel with the fondness with which you recall the pink of prawn cocktails, or the nauseating cheesy-ness of an au gratin. Or chunks of white bread soaked in warm, sweet milk that mum made on a wintry evening, right before she’d tell you to do your homework.

With its Gallic roots, crème caramel can be quite the charmer. If the inner-thigh quibble is not enough to convince you of its sex appeal, then think of bittersweet caramel mindlessly dribbling down its sides into a wet, sticky pool around that eggy custard. You wield your spoon and the custard surrenders.

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