Gastronomically satisfied: Diary entry # 1

Tracing my gluttonous journey over seven months, from August 2016 to March 2017.

Egypt (August 2016)

The Pyramids and the Sphinx, camels and sand, pharaohs and hieroglyphics. And food.

Egyptian have a large heart and they love Indians! ‘We love India!’ is the common cry no matter where you turn. But Egyptians have a larger stomach. No, I don’t mean the bulk, but the palate. I was lucky to sample quite a few things off it with a visit to the warm country and its warmer people in August 2016. Egyptian cuisine draws similarity with Mediterranean cuisine. Breads and meats dominate their meals; rice-stuffed vegetables or whole meat, grape leaves, shawarma, kebab, kofta, dips, and baklava and kunafa are a few common items on both palates. Here is all that I picked at. (Quite surprising though that I did not take many photograph of the food, just three, which are pasted below! How unlike me.)

Koshary. As I read elsewhere, ‘Koshary is now a cultural phenomenon [in Cairo], with entire shops dedicated entirely to serving this delicious yet inexpensive meal.’ Considered the national dish of Egypt, it is a strange mix of everything: rice, lentils, pasta (macaroni, primarily), chickpeas, garnished with fried onions. It appears and feels heavy yet is known as the poor man’s dish. It is to be had with a special tomato-lemon sauce, bottled up in large quantities on the table, just like we have green chilies in vinegar and soya sauce at restaurants in India. I tried the koshary in Zizo, Cairo.

Egyptian cuisine involves a lot of legumes, fresh vegetables and fruits since the Nile region produces large quantities of these crops in high quality. Falafel, a deep-fried mixture of fava beans, is a well-known staple in the country. The popular fava beans are replaced with minced beef in its non-vegetarian version. Roll it up in pita bread and dip in hummus and baba ghanoush. Ful medames are mashed fava beans cooked with chopped parsley, garlic, lemon juice, and salt. Traditionally eaten with pita bread and onions and pickled vegetables. Fiteer baladi, the Egyptian pizza, is buttery and rich with toppings which included pickled vegetables.

My breakfast plate on the Nile cruise: breads, cold cuts, olives, cheeses

Egypt proved to be a non-vegetarian’s delight. Kebabs are juicy chunks of charcoal-grilled minced beef. Yum! Kofta, no, nowhere near the malai kofta, is a ball of minced meat, lamb or beef, with chopped vegetables and spices. It is rolled on to a skewer and grilled over charcoal. Like our seekh kebab. Because it is dry, it should be had with gravy. The lamb kebab and kofta platter at Fish Market, right by the sea in Alexandria was exceptional. The one dish I was most excited to try was Mahshi hamam as it was going to be an addition to my list of meats eaten. And I had it at Abou Tarek in Cairo. Pigeon: the rather annoying bird that wakes me up every morning jumping on top of my room’s AC. Literally, ‘stuffed pigeon’, this dish comprises the whole bird stuffed with small, round rice and herbs. The whole thing is first boiled until cooked, then grilled to perfection. The skin of the pigeon turns crispy while the meat remains soft and juicy within. The platter came with a side of an assortment of crunchy vegetable sticks. Shawarma, a popular snack available in the streets of Delhi, is a wrap of shredded beef, lamb, or chicken cooked on a spit rolled in pita bread with Tahina sauce. Samak mashwi is grilled fish. Like most fish dishes, this is a specialty of Alexandria, a coastal region. Bamia is a stew prepared with beef and vegetables, such as carrots, onions, tomatoes.

As Colette informs us in Ratatouille, ‘How do you tell how good bread is without tasting it? Not the smell, not the look, but the sound of the crust…. Oh, the symphony of crackle. Only great bread sound this way.’ Egyptians take their bread seriously. An integral part of any meal, there is a whole range to offer. To scoop up food, to dip in sauces, to wrap up kebabs and falafel. Pita bread with dips such as hummus and baba ghanoush, and torshi (pickled vegetables such as cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, peppers) is served on the table as soon as you sit. The Indian equivalent I can think of is papad with chutney.

A local bakery, on the streets of Edfu, that has just baked fresh bread

Desserts offered a variety. Basbousa is a light and crumbly semolina cake, baked and topped with syrup and almonds and cut into a diamond shape. Baklava is several layers of pastry stuffed with nuts and soaked in a sweet syrup. Kahk is like a shortbread biscuit covered with icing sugar, which may be stuffed with dates, and walnuts. Kunafa is made of thin pastry strands and stuffed with nuts (usually pistachios) and dipped in sugary syrup. Luqmet el qadi are small round balls which are crunchy on the outside and soft and syrupy on the inside. Um Ali (literally, ‘mother of Ali’) is a bread pudding made with puff pastry, nuts, and milk. It is light and milky, and, full of goodness.

An assortment of desserts (left and top) and a plate full of meat: slice off a lamb shoulder, sliced duck, pork sausages, some fish (right), at Cairo

Dates. Fresh, yellow dates which are sweet and crunchy, unlike the dried ones we are used to, and in abundance in the capital city of Cairo. We made a quick stop near the Pyramids to sample a few before buying these as souvenirs for friends and family back home.

An interesting combination which I have had at restaurants in Delhi is Turkish coffee and kunafa. The Egyptian variety is so much better. A sip of the extremely bitter black coffee followed by a bite of the extremely sweet dessert. Bitterness cutting down the sweetness? Sweetness cutting down the bitterness? Result: a revolution of flavours in the mouth.

Given a choice I can go on and on about all the good food I sampled in Egypt. But I should move on to my next destination, Hampi in Karnataka.


Hampi (December 2016)

Boulders and coconuts. Sunsets and sunrises. Hikes and boat rides. And food.

My earlier post on the temple town of south India (A walk through the City of Victory) notes the few things I had had. Not much to add to it, here it is again.

Mango Tree, a popular (vegetarian) tented restaurant in the heart of Hampi Bazaar, is run by three generations of the same family. It serves a combination of south Indian, Israeli, Italian, and Chinese cuisine. A range of thalis (north and south Indian), dosas, chapattis and curries, and snacks is served. I tried only two things off the menu. Shak-shuka, literally, ‘a mixture’, it is a dish of poached eggs in a tomatoes sauce, spiced with chili and cumin. And Falafel; the ones I tasted in Cairo were so much better. Both were much over-rated. I was told the pasta (spaghetti in tomato sauce) was somewhat palative. Of course, I gulped down a couple of glasses of the very-soothing buttermilk, as good as it can get.

To reach Laughing Buddha, on the other side of the river, we had to jostle for space with sadhus on a motor boat. Not the most pleasant of experiences but food awaited me on a very sultry winter afternoon. But the food experience did not meet my expectations. Over-rated, again, the chicken momos were dry and heavy on garam masala. Schnitzels, originating in Austria, is a thin, pounded slab of meat, coated with flour, beaten eggs, and bread crumbs, and deep-fried. Laughing Buddha’s variation of schnitzel was more of an Indian cutlet served with French fries. Not all that dry, but definitely not as juicy as expected. The pancakes, however, were fluffy and fresh. Pizzas were balanced with the right amount of cheese and chicken. Laughing Buddha, however, offered a very relaxed environ: recliners facing the river was a welcome relief, away from the noise of the river bank.

Apart from eating at these two restaurants, I sampled a variety of berries and ample coconut water from the street vendors.

Coconut water galore at Hampi

There ends my diary entry on Hampi. Next, Sri Lanka, visited in the first month of the new year.


Sri Lanka (January 2017)

Coconut. Coconut. Coconut. And more c-o-c-o-n-u-t.

Coconut is used in Sri Lanka in everything, be it curries or sambols (sambol recipe ahead). The yellow king coconut is widely available in Sri Lanka, stacked at street sides: one hack by a machete, and the water, as sweet and refreshing, beats the heat and tiredness. Sri Lankan cuisine is shaped by factors such as historical and cultural. Dutch colonialism left its imprints, so did other foreign traders, and south India also has a major mark in shaping the cuisine here. Spices, produced and exported in large scale from Sri Lanka, find way on to their plates.

Almost 80% of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese (mostly Buddhist), and the food generally noted as ‘Sri Lankan’ is what they eat. Tamils (mostly Hindus), in the north of the island, use different spices to prepare their curries. Muslims (comprising the east coast of the island) bring with them biryani, while the Burghers (descendants of colonial Europeans) introduced Dutch and Portuguese desserts.

The central feature of Sri Lankan cuisine is steamed rice, served with a curry of fish or meat (chicken, mutton, or beef), vegetable curries, and coconut sambol. Sri Lankan curries have a distinct taste and colour; the colour is determined by how various spices are used. Crab curry is a fiery blend of orange of the crab and the yellow of the curry full of local spices. Pork curry, light yellow to a nearly black shade, is often made with golaka, a dried fruit like tamarind, which gives a sticky, sour note to balance the otherwise fatty broth. Jaffna curry, deep-red, is often made with mutton (spicier leaving the strong taste of the meat behind) and seafood.

Strawberry dipped in chocolate in Nuwara Eliya

Kottu is a popular, and a very simple, street food of the region. Chapattis are chopped into small pieces, stir-fried with vegetables, and served with a dollop of meat curry on top. For the vegetarians, there is cheese kottu, served with a generous amount of melted cheese over the mixture. Hoppers, a lot like appam, is a pan-fried or steamed batter of fermented rice. Egg hoppers are a popular street food, similar to pancakes or crepes; hopper batter is spread thinly over a wok and an egg is cracked at the bottom. String hoppers, idiyappa, are rice noodles stacked in layers, thereby forming a noodle pancake. Lamprais (from the Dutch words meaning ‘lump’ and ‘rice’) is a packet of meat, rice, and sambol wrapped and steamed or baked in banana leaf. Breakfast is a lavish affair. A traditional Sinhalese breakfast I had in Sigiriya comprised string hoppers, chicken curry, dal, and coconut sambol, along with fresh fruits and fruit juice and coffee.

Rotis are common in Sri Lanka, but not what we get in north India. Thengappu roti has shredded coconut is mixed into the dough. And the spicy Uraippu roti has chopped onions and green chilies mixed in the dough.

The ‘short eats’, or snacks eaten on the go, include a wide range of Vade, such as parippu vade (dal vada), ulundu vade (urad dal vada), isso vade (shrimp vada), and crab vade. A variety of rolls, Chinese style, are available, stuffed with minced meats, potatoes, and vegetables. Vegetable or fish/meat roti is quite like the Indian samosa, except, it is not deep fried. Fish or meat is stuffed in a roti which is then rolled into a triangular shape and then baked. Shrimp or crab fritters are also quite popular, especially the hawkers on the Colombo beach, who will fry them when you order.

In desserts, the region has a lot to offer. Among the range, a few are noted here. Bibikkan is a rich, cake-like sweet made from grated coconut and wheat flour. Kokis is like a biscuit made from rice flour and coconut milk. Pushnambu is made from coconut treacle and wheat flour.

All too excited to experiment food from another land on my vacation, after five days of incessant rain and coconut in everything, I gave up and craved comfort food. Thankfully the vacation ended with a plateful of yummy baked lasagne. Phew. After the coconut sambol recipe (for those interested in making this, that is), I will move on to my next stop. Coorg.

How to make Pol Sambol

Ingredients: Fresh grated coconut – ½ cup; Red chilli flakes – ½ tbs; Onion – 1 medium-sized; Lime – ½; Salt and sugar as per taste.

Method (won’t take more than 10 minutes): Add coconut, chilli flakes, salt, and sugar in a stone mortar. Pound till soft. Add sliced onions and pound until the onions blend well with the mixture. Voila! Add lime juice. Best savoured with rice and string hoppers and anything and everything.


Coorg (February 2017)

Coffee and pepper plantations. Brooks and forests. And food.

A long weekend and I stay back at home? Nup, not possible! So I packed my bags and headed off to Bengaluru, had dinner with a friend, crashed at her place, and early morning the next day sped off to Coorg.

Let me give a brief note on the history of the region. Kodagu, or Coorg, the colonial name, was held by several local, south Indian chieftains. But Tipu Sultan also reigned in the region in the late eighteenth century. To ward off this evil, Dodda Vira Rajendra, the king, signed a treaty with the British on 25 October 1790. He was promised protection of the kingdom against Tipu Sultan’s onslaught and even offered him independence to run the kingdom by himself. In return, the king had to fight along the British forces in their war with Tipu Sultan. In 1791, after a prolonged siege, Tipu’s forces evacuated Mercara Fort and Dodda Vira Rajendra regained his entire kingdom. Tipu finally fell in 1799. Then followed Coorg’s British annexation in the early 1830s, and was under their rule until the Indian Independence. In the present day, Coorg is part of the state of Karnataka.

The culture of Coorg has always remained independent of the influence of the neighbouring districts, and has successfully maintained a unique identity. This uniqueness is also reflected in the region’s cuisine. The use of local ingredients and spices with meats is unique to Kodava cuisine. The most famous dish being Pandhi Curry (recipe at the end of this piece). Although authentically boar meat was used, what is served now is pork (pandhi). Marinated in kachampulli, it is a vinegar extracted from a local fruit called kodambuli (fruit of garcinia gummi-gutta) and used peculiarly only in Kodava cuisine. Pandhi curry best goes with kadambuttu (steamed rice dumplings) or akki roti (rice roti).

I lapped up several helpings of pandhi curry in the homestay I stayed in (Silver Brook Estate); sumptuous home-cooked food and amazing people. I’d recommend anyone visiting Coorg to stay with the very hospitable Revathi and Yogesh, the owners, and Shivraj, who knows exactly what you need even before you call out his name.

Pandhi curry and kadambutta at Silver Brook Estate

At Coorg Cuisine, tucked on the first floor of a very busy market in Madikeri, I sampled their take on pandhi curry and pandhi with bamboo with appam. More spicy than the meal at the homestay, but very tasty as I was not familiar with the spices they use. The last breakfast in the land of coffee comprised adhe, which is like a dosa, and should be had with coconut chutney and gunpowder. Fresh fruits, poha (south Indian style), alu-poori (north Indian style), curd, and black coffee brewed from home-grown coffee beans were the accompaniments.

As I headed back to the madness of the city, temperature soared, traffic thickened, palate changed. As crossed districts, the signposts read Channapatna: Land of Toys, Ramanagara: City of Silk. But I was on the lookout for a local shack, a hole-in-the-wall, Jai Bhuvaneshwari Miltry Hotel on the Bangalore-Mysore Highway. Mission: ragimudde served with mutton. I jostled for space with partially drunk, borderline-violent men and seated myself facing an elderly couple who eyed me with suspicion. Since neither could converse in the same language, we exchanged smiles and focused on the plates instead. A large disc-shaped steel plate; a huge ball of ragi, finger millet; a bowl of a chunk of mutton; a dice of raw onion; a sliver of lemon; gravy split all over (result of a minor collision the server had while on his way to our table). The very tasteless ragi ball and the juicy, spicy, aromatic mutton was a strange combination. Nevertheless, a new thing was tried and I was left happy.

Ragimudde with mutton at Jai Bhuvaneshwari Miltry Hotel

An overall good food trip this long weekend was. And here is the recipe for Pandhi curry for those who may want to imitate; but Shivraj and his team cannot be beaten. No chance!

How to make Pandhi Curry

Ingredients: Fenugreek seeds – 1 tsp; Cumin seeds – ½ tsp; Coriander seeds – ½ tsp; Pepper – 1 tsp; Onions – 2 ½ small, chopped; Ginger – ½ inch; Cloves – 7; Curry leaves – 10-12; Green chillies – 4-5; Red chilli powder – ½ tsp; Mustard seeds – ¼ tsp; Coriander leaves – handful; Oil – ½ tsp; Pork – ½ kg; Haldi – ¼ tsp; Salt to taste.

Method: Add pork, water, salt in a pot and let it simmer for 40 minutes.

For the masala, mix fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and pepper, and Roast till it changes color. Once roasted, powder the mix and keep aside.

In another pan, add onions, ginger, cloves, curry leaves, and green chillies.  Once onions turn brown add a handful of coriander leaves and oil.  Grind this paste and keep aside.

Now take a pan, add oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves, masala paste and mix well.  Then add half a cup of water, masala, some pork stock, haldi, and red chilli powder. Once fried, add pork, turmeric extract and salt. Add water. Cover the pan and cook it till the pork is tender. Garnish with coriander leaves.  Serve hot with steamed kadambuttu.


Kolkata (March 2017)

Mach and mangsho. Doi and mishti. Food and more food. And some more food.

Weddings are sheer madness. And to find time off the events for oneself, close to impossible. But I made it possible. I went to attend my cousin’s wedding only on the condition that I need my time. My time to see Bandel and Chandannagar. And my time to visit the city: Victoria Memorial and the Lower Circular Road Cemetery.

Wedding menu was elaborate. Mainly fish. Bhetki maacher paturi (slices of Bhekti fish, with a generous paste of mustard wrapped in banana leaf and fried/steamed; I ate only this, not fond of maach), topshe maach bhaja (fried fish), ilish (the Bengali delicacy, hilsa), chingrir malai curry (a preparation of lobsters), mishit doi (sweetened curd authentically set in mud bowls), and more. Not touching the vegetarian side as I did not take even the slightest peek at the other side of the table. No Bengali festival or custom is complete without mutton biryani, and I was not disappointed. Juicy chunks of meat mixed well with the rice. Delicious. No photographs. Should I balance my plate or direct the camera at it? You decide!

The town of Bandel was founded by Portuguese settlers in the seventeenth century. The Basilica of the Holy Rosary, popularly known as Bandel Church, was founded in 1599 and is amongst the oldest Christian churches in the state of West Bengal. Whereas Chandannagar (formerly Chandernnagore) is a French colony, established in the late seventeenth century. The Sacred Heart Church of Chandannagar (established in 1720) and the Chandannagore Museum and Institute are the main attractions. En route Chandannagar from Bandel, we stopped for lunch at Standard Hotel for a meal of very salty mutton curry and tandoori roti. Could have been missed, but we were hungry. Glasses of sugarcane juice were also gulped down to beat the heat.

The last food stop was on the last day of my stay in the city. At Flurys, with my cousin and niece. The website notes, this ‘legendary tearoom on fashionable Park Street in Kolkata was founded in the year 1927 by a Swiss expatriate couple Mr and Mrs J Flurys. Presenting fine European traditional confections, it soon became a popular meeting place for all ages. It introduced the city … and its many generations to authentic Swiss and International delicacies…. Flurys has been setting continuous benchmarks in the gourmet Bakery and Confectionery segment in India.’ We sampled some chicken and cheese sandwiches (they had run out of quiches; I wonder they even baked any!) and I had their ‘special’ tea (marked ‘Heritage’, their specialty) that came accompanied with butter, cream, and preserves, and some extremely stale scones. My cousin had ordered coffee which came with, again, extremely stale cookies. Disappointed.

So here ends my food trip of the last seven months. Let me accumulate more tales for my Diary entry # 2. Till then, wish me Happy and Gluttonous Travels! Chao!

All photographs © Madhula Banerji


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