Sunday, February 28, 2010

Matunga mein mini-Madras!

To be politically correct, the title should have been ... Matunga mein mini-Chennai, but I don't think anyone in Matunga or Chennai would care too much. In fact I am pretty sure that the ones in Matunga may even take offence at the politically corrected title.

Matunga runs a sub-culture that has a piquant Tam-Bram flavour, laced with a undertone of an unlikely Gujarati seasoning. While the restaurants here are mainly run by South Indians, all other shops are dominated by Gujaratis (who, incidentally, speak pretty good Tamil). Though the dominant restaurant cuisine here is South Indian, the customers are mainly Gujarati. I've even been to a DVD shop run by a Gujarati, who knew all the latest Tamil movie hits. Such is the bipolarity of Matunga.

Originally the South Indians who settled here were Tamilians, but very few restaurants are run by them. Perhaps because Tamilian Brahmins are traditionally risk-averse job-seekers, most of the restaurants here are owned by the more entrepreneurial migrants from Udupi. There's perhaps a restaurant for every 500 residents of Matunga, but despite the high density, the search for the appropriate place to eat in Matunga can be quite a task.

The most famous place to eat in Matunga is arguably Rama Nayak's Udipi Shri Krishna Lodging situated adjacent to Matunga station. Tomes have been written about the place and its food (where you can ask to be served on a plantain leaf). The food here is very tasty, but has more Udipi overtones than Tamilian. There are two main food-types available here; limited and unlimited (which implies that one can have any amount of anything, barring the dessert) and takeaways are also welcome.

Judging from the crowd outside this place, Madras Cafe could be adjudged the second most famous place in Matunga . This is a small place in the road corner in King's Circle which you may even miss if you dont pay close attention. The variety, quality and consistency of the food here is delectable provided you manage a place to sit. Peserrettu (a coarse grain dosa) is my personal favourite and this place undisputedly has the best kaapi in all of Mumbai.

Rama Nayak (Air Conditioned), on the Kings Circle, is the third place I frequent to satiate my inherited tastes, especially for a late Sunday breakfast (because very strangely, this place only opens at 11:00 am). Their rice preparations are light and tasty and I quite often pack myself a few curd-rice (this is the place where I learnt the combination of fried cummin seeds in curd rice) and bisibelahuli anna (a rice dish mixed with vegetables and sambar like gravy) to last me a few meals at home. There are several others which also make grade like Sundar's, Mani's, Mysore Cafe and Idli House (a place which exclusively serves idlis).

I've had rasam, the ambrosia of South Indians, at all these restaurants and am quite amazed at the variety available, with each place having its own unique taste and flavour.  Change a few ingredients and type of rasam-powder, and your end product is unrecognizable. When I make rasam at home, I use a recipe given by Gouri, my younger sister. I had called her when I was going through rasam-pangs one day and she recited this to me. It  don't know where she got this recipe from, but it seems like a family hand-me-down, because I din't even find similar ones mentioned in  the bible of Tamilian cooking 'Cook and See' (Samayatha paar).

The traditional use of rasam is to mix with rice (like sambar), but it can also be a delightful drink with its hot and tangy flavour. This concoction is also a cure for a bad cold/cough, or even for a day which has gone below expectations. Of all the types of rasam I know, this one mentioned here is the easiest and fastest.

Mulaga-Jeera-Poond rasam (Pepper-Cummin-Garlic rasam)

Main ingredients

- 2 medium-sized tomatoes, cut into quarters
- 1 green chilli
- Extraced juice of one small lime sized tamarind ball
- 600 ml water
- Quarter teaspoon of asafoetida
- Half teaspoon of rasam powder (or sambar powder, though preferably the previous)
- 10-12 fresh curry leaves
- Salt to taste
- Quarter teaspoon turmeric powder
- 10-12 pods of black pepper, 1 tsp of cummin seeds, 6-8 medium garlic pods (crushed together)

Other ingredients

- Two handfuls of finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
- 300 ml water
- 1 tsp of ghee or groundnut oil
- 1 dried red chilli
- 1/2 tsp of cummin seeds


1. Take all the main ingredients and half the chopped coriander leaves and bring it to a boil in a open container. Let the water reduce to half.
2. Add the balance 300 ml of water, and keep at simmer for 10-12 minutes.
3. Just before talking off the fire, add the balance coriander leaves
4. Heat ghee/groundnut oil, add the red chilli for 10 seconds and then add the cummin seeds till brown. Drop  this into the container and cover.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Puffed up!

If you're from the North of India, you probably would understand the term 'bread puff'. In my ealiest memory,  the puff-maker was a bread toaster, with two concaved rhombuses to hold the bread and the stuffing. It had two long handles, one from the top and the other from the bottom, which locked near the end with a small hook-like contraption that could be swung to a tight closure.  This would be placed over an open flame, being turned often, and opened as often, to see if the bread was done. The perfect bread-puff had to have a brown hue and crustier sides (the part which I enjoyed most).

During my school days, this was a staple tiffin, my recess lunch, the stuffing usually being the remaining dry subzi of the previous night. Aloo was everyone's favourite. My personal combination was to have cheeni puff after every aloo puff. The cheeni puff had a thin layer of white sugar in between the bread slices. Though this puff would be thinner than those with other stuffings, it would also become crispier and sometimes, the sugar inside would even melt a little, remaining half-crunchy, half-absorbed into the spongy bread.

For best results, the bread had to have a generous layer of home-made ghee on both sides (in my later years I have begun to use flavoured olive oil), and the aromas of softly cooking bread, ghee and stuffing made a heady, redolent mix. After I shifted to Mumbai, I only saw the puff-maker at roadside sandwich-walas. When I shifted from a PG into my own place, it was the first kitchen equipment I wanted and I ended up getting the electric-type, with twin slots. Though the outcome is quite tasty, it never matches the puff-taste in my memory. I use this electric, twin-slot puff maker at least thrice a week for a quick breakfast, but I am also searching for a flame heated puff-maker to pander to the taste buds of my memory.

Here is one of the simplest, yet tastiest breakfast meals.
Potato-mash puff

For all puffs, you can lightly spread some olive oil on the outer layer of the bread.

Main ingredients

- 2 potatoes, boiled and mashed well (with the skin)
- 1 medium onion [chopped fine]
- 1 green chilli [chopped fine]
- 1 small cup of coriander leaves [chopped fine]

Other ingredients

- 1/2 tsp Chaat masala
- 1/4 tsp of aamchur
- 1/4 tsp of red chilli powder
- Salt to taste
- 1 tsp Olive oil


Mash all the ingredients well to make the bread stuffing and puff till outsides are brown and crispy.

One can experiment with almost anything in a bread puff. If it can be eaten, it can probably be 'puffed'.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Drinking your food

There's hardly a vegetable I don't like - but if someone asked me how I like my food best - then it must be hot, it must have lots of liquid (almost drinkable), it must be savoury(and must make your mouth water in anticipation). For example, it could be a light dal, a dish with lots of gravy, or even a good soup.

During my first dozen years in Mumbai, I used to eat most of my meals in restaurants. Every dish had to be the way I liked it, Mutter paneer was "Bade paneer ke tukde, fry kiye hue. Double uble hue mutter. Aur, pani ki tarah gravy." [Big pieces of fried paneer, double boiled peas and water-like gravy] Such would be the standard instruction to anyone who waited on me.

I remember when I went to a friend's house for lunch in Chandigarh a few years back. Her grandmother had made some plain ghar-wali daal. There was enough to last the evening meal too, but when I started with it, I unabashedly drank cup-after-cup, much to the grandmother's delight,  and my friend's exclaimed shock. They had to make fresh dal for dinner.

I think I like fluid-foods because I love to drink much of my food. If my food quenches my thirst, while satisfying my hunger, I think I like it best. If it is rasam-saadam (the south indian staple, Rasam rice), the mix would be in a large cup with little rice and lots of rasam. Dal must be drunk, and I must feel the liquid gravy of the subzi flow down my gullet. Soups are a natural favourite, and many times, I have made a satisfying meal of upto 4 cups of french-onion soup alone.

One good variant of a nutritious soup emerged from my need to finish some cut vegetables at home. The  soup made with the main ingredients of tomato and peas, has become a staple with me every time I want a quick, tasty and nutritious meal.

Tomato-Pea vegetable soup

 Main ingredients

- 1 large garlic, crushed well
- 1 small onion [chopped fine]
- 1 small boiled potato (or half of medium potato) [cut small]
- 1/2 cup peas
- 1 small tomato (cut small)
- 1 tsp scoop of butter
- 1 tbsp fine-flour (maida)

Other ingredients
- Fresh Oregano [few leaves]
- Fresh Rosemary [one sprig]
- Fresh Basil [few leaves]
- Sea Salt and Pepper to taste (freshly ground)


1. Heat the butter till it froths and the garlic
2. Add the onion and fry till transluscent
3. Add flour and stir (but do not let it get brown)
4. Add the peas and saute for 2 minutes (till a little soft)
5. Add tomatoes and fry till little soft
6. Add the cut potato pieces and turn for 1 minutes
7. Add 3 cups of vegetable stock and the herbs.
8. Bring to boil and cool down partly
9. Remove 90% of the ingredients and do a rough puree
10. Add back to 10% and simmer for 10 minutes
11. Add Sea-salt and herbed pepper to taste.

Serve hot with breadsticks or garlic bread.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

From Delhi to the Kitchen

Who knew I would get to love the kitchen so much. Naturally, there are several parts to my love story with the Kitchen, but here, I'll just give a background to one such.

I came to Mumbai in 1991 from Delhi and have been a Paying Guest (PG) for most part of that time in the city (till 2007). Though mostly this arrangement was a choice of convenience, I must add that I also did not have the requisite funds (or the creditworthiness) for most of this part, and these lackings quickly and efficiently extinguished any unsurfaced aspirations for my 'own' space. Being a PG in Mumbai gave me almost no opportunities to engage in the kitchen, save once. This was during my stay with an old couple in  South Mumbai who gifted me a small electric plate, some pots and pans and provided me an opportunity to try my hand at cooking.

During this phase in Mumbai , I was also a NPG (Non-Paying Guest) for 3 years, having stayed as a guest with a family, the relationship with whom is not the easiest to define. Soumitro Mukherji, my gracious Bengali host, is technically my cousin-in-law. His cousin is married to my sister (or my real sister, as we would say in Delhi). My sister has never met him, and its likely that she may not meet him in this lifetime. One day after about 4 to 5 months of my NPG-life, I was speaking to this Wisconsin-settled sister over the phone, and I answered her concerned query about my place-of-stay. When I said, "With Soumitro and family", I think she may have misunderstood this to have been an overnight arrangement, for, after I explained that I was staying with her extended in-law family for considerably longer than she imagined, she was quite livid. She understood only after I explained to her that my proximity to this family was despite her.

Shomi (pronounced Show-me), his wife, Mousumi or Mou (pronounced to rhyme with Joe, with an accent and extension on the last alphabet.), their two lovely daughters, and I, lived in this luxurious 3-bedroom duplex flat in Lokhandwala.

It was in this house in Mumbai that I first publicly demonstrated my recently-learnt skills in making a lachha paratha. Mickey (or Sourabhi as she now likes to be addressed), the elder of the two girls loved the paratha reinforcing my kitchen-courage.

The lachha paratha is a wonderful fluffy bread, made with a simple technique and can be had with almost any Indian tari-wali subzi. I prefer it most with Railway canteen ke aloo, a simple yet tasty dish which is the result of experiments on tips from the cook in a railway-station canteen. The recipe that goes so well with the lachha paratha is given below.

Railway canteen ke aloo

Main ingredients:
- 4 semi-boiled, medium-sized aloo (potatoes) [roughly broken by hand into two/three pieces]. Retain the
- 1 medium sized onion [chopped fine]
- 2 medium sized tomatoes [chopped fine]
- 1 bunch tender coriander leaves [chopped fine]
- 3 large garlic pods [crushed well]
- 1 index-finger size ginger [grated fine]
- 2 green chilli [full]

Other ingredients:
- 1 tsp cummin seeds
- 2 tbsp mustard oil
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1/2 tsp red-chilli powder
- 1/2 tsp cummin powder
- 1/2 tsp coriander powder
- 1/2 tsp of homemade garam masala
- 1 Maggie veg masala
- Salt to taste
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 clove pods

1. Heat the mustard oil till it begins to smoke and then add the cummin seeds.
2. Add bay leaf. cloves
3. Quickly after it, add the pierced green chillis (to avoid it bursting)
4. Add ginger, stir for a few seconds.
5. Then add the chopped onions. Fry till transluscent
6.Add chopped tomatoes and all masalas. Fry till the paste begins to leave oil at the sides
7. Add the semi-broken potatoes and fry for 1 minute
8. Add 2-3 cups of water depending on the consistency you prefer (use the water that was used for boiling the potatoes)
9. Add 3/4 of the chopped coriander
10. Cover and bring to simmer.
11. Add 1/4 tsp of garam masala, 1/2 tsp of coriander powder (optional)
12. Add remaining chopped coriander as garnish.

Serve hot with lachha paratha, rice or bread.