The night air’s soft and balmy. People lurk near squat fountains, bathing in the mist as if to dissipate the heat of the summer evening, people watch other people and a sudden bit of quiet descends upon us in the midst of the surrounding skyscrapers. Are you with me? Then here is the conundrum. Can an oasis of green and tranquility sit within the chaos of Manhattan? Here lies Bryant Park, a heartbeat away from Times Square.
Then, Magnolia Bakery in Rockefeller Center, a vintage dream woven with cupcakes, puff pastries, brownies and blondies, cookies and macarons. All American-style. Slobbering and giving into temptation with four measly cupcakes when a whole world of goodies wink at you. Oh heart, clad in an iron armour, to not melt in the face of such luscious beauty.
But maybe you have had your fill for the day because why you have just tripped out of Indian Accent, that fine-dining modern Indian restaurant sitting on 56th Street.
Food memories. The dishes you have had growing up have been put on the menu by a renowned chef. His modern take on them is calculated to baffle the senses. Works.
The concept is degustation. Tasting menu. You eat a bit of everything. My usual grievance of not possessing four stomachs is taken care of. One stomach will do just fine.
Every dish, in the four-course menu I opt for, tastes different. Indian dishes do often run the danger of tasting somewhat the same. Adi goes for a three-course menu, so between the two of us, we have a plethora of tastes to sample.
The well-felt pinch on the pocket is redeemed by two dishes on the house. Miniature discs of naan that you pop into the mouth. Chew and a warm molten centre of Danish blue cheese is released into the mouth, piquant and sharp. And before you can crave more, pumpkin soup in a mini mug. Moreish.
It is difficult to choose from the line-up of dishes. Everything’s familiar yet there are unfamiliar pairings which stoke the taste buds and the imagination. The soya keema – that was often a constant on the table at home when I would throw a fit at the daily diet of fish – arrives in a small, deep pan topped with quail eggs. Oh, the taste of childhood all over again, but teamed with a mouthful of butter-slathered fresh mini paos (buns) that are redolent of lime leaves.
Nuggets of cauliflower? Did we order cauliflower?! Ahem. The dismay of the non-vegetarian. But then the realisation as you dig into them that they are crab claws slathered in the time-tested winning combination of butter, pepper and garlic.
Oh let’s not think any more.
After a long drawn affair involving smacking sounds and sighs of pleasure, the final stroke of goodness. A magical affair with a candle sticking on top to celebrate Adi’s birthday.
It looks like cake, but it is not cake, my darlings. Oh no. This is a token of a closely-guarded secret from the narrow alleys of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, where the narrow lanes are upholstered with shops selling silver, spices, antiques, sweets and fried food diverse enough to leave the food lover in a tizzy. This is where you want more than four stomachs, my friend. But to return to the frothy matter at hand, it is called Daulat ki Chaat. An ethereal concoction of milk, saffron, sugar and nuts that disappears into the mouth, offering you a glimpse of paradise. Light and airy.
This is how we sail out of Indian Accent – floating on a cloud of heavenly saffron and potent Belgian ale – you could go with wine. Know this that we had already been drinking beer the entire evening and a few glasses of wine would have sent us into the arms of deep sleep. Plus who wants to have just arrived in NYC and already kickstart the process of getting thrown out of restaurants, you know. All in good time.
What a strange combination. I am not asking you to chop postcards into biryani. Though I quite appreciate paper in my mouth. As a child I used to tear paper, make little balls and pop them into my mouth. Then chew, chew, chew. Did you too? I cannot judge as you can well figure out.
Wednesday has rolled in with the promise of a long Easter weekend. Yippee. We have extended it by a few more days and the mission is to soak up the sun in Cornwall. That is our favourite haunt in the country. Cornflower blue seas, full-fat ice creams, fish & chips, amphitheatres overlooking the sea, caves and cliffs, how can you not fall in love with that kind of a holiday? What are your plans for Easter?
Before I start with the (slightly lengthy) process of biryani making and listing out the ingredients, I want to thank you all, dear readers, because you make this journey of living full of fun and frolic. I look forward to it every day and enjoy my random conversations with you. When I am 80 (if I get there), all this will count in making a toothless me grin. This biryani is my way of saying thank you. If you put yourself through the process of making your own biryani spice mix, cook it and dish it out to your family, you might just get shut eyes and mmm sounds.
I also wanted to send out extra love and thanks to Kristyn, Angela, V and Michaela who nominated me for blog awards which I had already participated in. Nonetheless it makes my day to be thought of by any one of you. These girls have lovely blogs, so please take a look at them?
Now, to get down to biryani brass tacks. It is a slow-cooked aromatic rice dish from India. As you know India is not exactly small, plus its various regions have diverse styles of cooking, which makes it like a treasure house of delicious recipes. The biryani itself has some 20 avataars. My favourite one is the style that belongs to my city of Calcutta.
In an area called Metiabruz there, the 10th (and also last) nawab of the former princely state of Oudh/Awadh arrived in 1865, freshly stripped off his royal privileges by the British. With him travelled his retinue. But of course. This nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, was conscious of his image and he wanted to feed them well. Yet it was difficult on the stipend he received from the British. His Awadhi style of biryani was cooked using potatoes to add volume to the rice dish – which would also supplement the absence of enough meat.
Potatoes at the time were a delicacy because the British were growing the crop in Dehradun. For Bengalis, potatoes (or alu as we lovingly refer to them) are a staple that will not be left out from most dishes, no sir. You will possibly not have biryani anywhere else with potatoes in it.
This particular biryani reminds of the wonderful Arsalan, an eatery in Calcutta that dishes out the best biryanis and Mughlai dishes you will ever sink your teeth into. If you are in Calcutta next time, or for the first time, you know where to head.
Calcutta Chicken Biryani
Chicken thighs 700-800gm
Basmati rice 400gm
Large potatoes 2
Hard-boiled egg 4
Beresta (fried sliced red onions, using 3 medium ones)
Plain yogurt (beaten) 3-4 tbsp
Ginger-garlic paste 1 tbsp
Lime juice 1 tbsp
Red chilli powder 1 tsp
White pepper powder 1/2 tsp
Biryani masala 1 1/2 tbsp (Dry roast each of these spices separately on a medium flame and grind them into a fine powder – 10 pods of cardamom, 10-12 pieces of clove, 3″ cinnamon stick, 2 bay leaves, 2 nutmeg, 5 mace, 1 1/2 tbsp of caraway seeds)
Green cardamom 5-6 pods
Alubukhara/dried plum 2-3
Milk powder 2 tbsp
Kewra water 1 tbsp
Rose water 1/2 tbsp
Few strands of saffron (soaked in 2 tbsp warm milk)
Milk 1 cup
Salt, to taste
Ghee 3 tbsp
Cooking oil (mustard/ rapeseed) 3-4 tbsp
Marinate chicken with salt, ginger-garlic paste, yogurt, chilli powder, white pepper powder, 1 tbsp biryani masala, 1/2 tbsp kewra water and 1 tbsp cooking oil for about 2 hours. For even better flavours, marinate overnight.
Peel potatoes and cut them into halves. Coat with salt and turmeric. Boil them till they are half-cooked.
Smear boiled eggs with salt and turmeric powder. Shallow fry them in 1-2 tbsp of oil.
Heat 1 tbsp oil in a big pan over medium flame and cook the marinated chicken in it with half the beresta. Cook till oil separates from the mixture. Add approximately 1 1/2 cups of hot water, cover with a lid and let the chicken cook. As the chicken becomes tender, remove it from the pan and keep it aside. In the meanwhile, reduce the gravy to about 3/4 cup measure.
Wash and soak the rice in cold water for at least 10 mins. Boil it with 2 1/2 tsp salt, green cardamom and cloves. Cook the rice till it is half done and then drain the water and discard the spices.
The Final and Easy Instalment
Grease a heavy bottomed pan (with a narrow-ish mouth and a lid that fits well) with 1/2 tbsp ghee. Pour the chicken gravy into it, add lime juice, dried plums, remaining biryani masala, 1 tbsp ghee, 1/2 cup milk, chicken pieces and mix well. Then place potatoes over the chicken and sprinkle the remaining beresta.
Now spread half of the rice over it. At this point you can add 1/2 tsp turmeric powder blended into 2 tbsp milk (if you want to add colour to you rice). Pour in saffron milk, rose water, kewra water, milk powder and remaining ghee over the rice.
Finally, top up with the leftover rice and milk. Bung in the eggs. Cover the pan and put it on medium flame for 6-8 minutes. Lower the flame and let it be for 30-35 minutes till the rice is properly cooked. Check for liquid at the bottom. If that extra liquid has almost dried up, your biryani is ready.
Savoury French Toast with chillies and onion is one of the best snack-y dishes you will have in life. Because who can say no to fried bread with some spices thrown in. If you can resist the temptation, let me know. Not that I would hang you upside down or force-feed you, okay? So do not run away, my pretty.
The idea of this post was suggested by Dolly. She wrote a post on French Toast (that rhymed and I declare myself a poet) which brings together the Romans and this fried bread dish. Being the inveterate opinion giver that I am, I had to put in my two bits on her post, to which Dolly responded with an invitation to do a guest post for her. So here I am with two slices of French Toast in my tummy, feeling like a veritable Roman gourmand and typing away whatever comes into my French toasted mind. Now Dolly does not just put recipes – she gives you a backdrop to it which tickles the imagination. When I learnt that the French Toast, which we have corrupted in India with our typical obsession with spices and heat, was actually the product of a 1st-century Roman fellow called Apicius, I was chuffed. Who would have thunk, right?
Below is how you go about making it for yourself. Since I made it for just myself this morning (I foresee the husband protesting and pouting at being left out), it is enough for one.
Bread, 2 slices
Half of a small red onion, chopped fine
A chilli, chopped into thin discs
A handful of coriander, chopped fine
Milk (optional), about 1/4 cup
Cumin powder, 1/4 tsp
Garam masala, 1/4 tsp (recipe for homemade garam masala is to be found at the end of the post)
Red chilli powder (a pinch or two)
Heat a skillet well and drizzle it with the oil of your choice. I am democratic, yes. I used mustard oil because it adds a wonderful flavour to Indian dishes. I did not go crazy with the oil – just enough to drizzle both sides of the slices. You can always opt for a bed of oil because they do crisp quickly with more oil. As a result of the less quantity of oil, I had to leave the slices to toast for a fairly long time.
While the skillet is heating, whisk the egg with above chopped ingredients and spices. Dunk the bread slices in them and coat both sides of each slice well with the mixture. The chopped veggies do not always stay put (perverse things), so you will have to spoon them onto the bread while frying. Now ease the slices into the skillet and toast both sides till they are crisp.
When they are ready to be ravished, just add some ketchup or Tomato Hot & Sweet sauce, because really, this sauce is a beauty. If you like it hotter, go for a sauce like a Bhut Jolokia hot sauce and let steam vent from your ears.
How to make fresh garam masala
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp cardamom seeds
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp whole cloves
2 dried red chillies
2 tbsp ground turmeric
Toast the whole spices (except turmeric powder) on a skillet till they are fragrant (roughly for 2 mins) and grind the spices in a coffee grinder.Add the turmeric powder to the mixture and you have your garam masala which will stay well for up to a month in a mason jar.
How is this Sunday going for you? I have been smelling the pages of old books that I laid my hands on for the smashing overall amount of 2 quid yesterday at a second-hand bookshop in Ludlow, and, inhaling a box of cookies I had stashed away and suddenly found on Friday evening in a dark corner of the pantry. Hidden treasures are not to be scorned, especially the buttery kinds, no?
Below is a shot of two pages from an autobiography by Nicolas Bentley, a 20th century British author and illustrator. It is an unusual autobiography. You do not come across those very often. Bentley said with a self-deprecating tinge: “..as I have very little imagination, not being a fisherman, and practically no memory, I realised that my autobiography, if it was to be written at all, must be written while my eyes though no longer innocent saucers were yet undimmed by the rheum of antiquity”. I was even more kicked to realised that he was the illustrator for a book – How to be an Alien (1946) by George Mikes – I have stacked into the library room of my childhood home in Calcutta. Travel – it makes you meet your childhood at unexpected places, or maybe I should have expected it because Mikes was writing a book on classic British humour (an instance of which is a chapter on sex that goes thus: ‘Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot water bottles’).
Lastly, because I have been routing through my box of postcards every weekend, here are some tidbits for you.
What a strange combination you might comment. It is, but then I am a little strange too. I mean, I like to make up my own rules when cooking. I team up dishes from various parts of the globe together. It is closely related to travel. I end up picking up on tips on introducing dishes to my repertoire of cooking while dancing around in the kitchen with a ladle and knife (I really do, I groove to music while cooking). These dishes take me along with them to where I was when I first tried them and the feeling of pure bliss I experienced when I dug into them.
Tonight I am in the mood for Aglio e Olio. It is the classic spaghetti dish, the ultimate feast food really. Put that in front of me and I could gobble up more than my stomach can hold. The rustic Italian dish is made with the simplest of ingredients such as generous lashings of olive oil and crushed garlic pods along with a smattering of peperoncini – because it is said to have originated in the once poor region of Abruzzo in Italy. I substituted white spaghetti with wholegrain spelt spaghetti. And I love my greens, so in the backdrop is a side of stir-fried asparagus with salt and freshly crushed black pepper.
The other star of my dinner is the Norheimsund Chicken. You see, one rainy day in Norheimsund, a village on one of the many mysterious fjords of Norway, we were presented with organic chicken breast and thyme by the host of the apartment we had rented. She runs an organic farm on her farm which is just one of her many talents. The others include dancing a jig while explaining the name of her Pointer dog, Charleston, and then suddenly positioning her arms like she was about to launch an arrow off an imaginary bow into the air — to tell us that he points just so when he goes hunting. I could see why Charleston would not leave her alone. And I could also see why she so appealed to me.
Anyway, to get back to matters more related to what lies on the plate, I slit the chicken breast, slid a sprig or two of thyme in with two cloves of garlic, a slice of Babybel cheese (because I like to have them on me for snacking when I am travelling) and some butter. It went on to a cast iron pan on the burner and voila, the chicken that came out was a winner. We call it Norheimsund Chicken, because it is something that we just came up with out of necessity and fell in love with. If you try it, do let me know.
I am tucking into the goodness of it with a ruby-red Malbec — the spaghetti making me feel greedy for some more, but the chicken saying, ‘Go on, ignore me. You know how it thrills me’ — and I cannot help thinking that Sophia Loren had a point when she noted, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti“.
What is going to be on your plate tonight? What are your favourites from your travels that you have incorporated into your daily meals?
And that is not how dawn today looked. It is a shot from a couple of days before, taken by the husband before he set out for London for his daily commute to work. I do not get to see many sunrises because I am one of those people who can sleep so much that you would think that I am dead.
The sky is uniformly drab and colourless and there are tiny drops of water speckling our bay windows as it drizzles away at a constant rate. I switch on all the fairy lights in the room, put on the cosy lamp at the corner of my round table and settle down to a large mug of cold coffee (because there is nothing that starts my day better than coffee). Hygge, hygge my friend. Did you know that people nowadays do coffee detoxes? Lordy lord, I do feel sorry for their caffeine-deprived souls.
I want to pep up my mind with some random thoughts on this dull, dull day (before I get cracking with my other writing).
I do not mind rainy Fridays as long as I am inside, tucked in with lots of books and a blanket.
I am currently into making dark chocolate barks. I have realised this kinda goodness is easy to put together in the kitchen. Really, try it out. Melt some dark chocolate cooking bar, sprinkle it with your preferred things. Chilli, dried blueberries and pecans, cranberries and hazelnuts, sea salt, orange zest. Not all together in one bark, please, however.
I cannot wait for the skies to turn a glorious hue of blue again. Even if a smoky one will do. So that I can get back to my beloved park nearby and get going with clearing the cobwebs in my mind while running. Apart from the fact that I am a glutton, I also am a thinker. Nothing gives my mind more free reign than when I am surrounded by the idleness of people loitering around with their dogs, dogs meeting other dogs, toddlers playing in the park with their parents, school children passing through, old men and women out for vigorous walks with their hands intertwined, other joggers sharing benign smiles as they pass me by. The joy of life are simple, no?
I hate being pitied. Much as I hate the expression, ‘Poor you’. I can abide with empathy but not pity. Also, I hate it when women emphasise the fact that they are helpless beings. It destroys the very tenet of why women all those years ago fought for the likes of us who came thereafter.
I am re-reading Three Men in a Boat. Jerome K Jerome is a hoot. I am inclined to think that Bill Bryson (who I love reading because he makes me shake with mirth) is quite inspired by Jerome K Jerome. I find a similar tone of humour in his travel books. Try this from Three Men in a Boat: “I can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk round with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can’t help it.”
Where shall we head out tomorrow? We love our English countryside wanderings. There is nothing like the sight of a field full of busy sheep and a curious horse or two, followed by rummaging in vintage stores and a cup of tea and cake to make my day. Fortunately it seems that the rain gods will take a break tomorrow before they start with their job on Sunday afresh.
Should I make pizza for the husband today (with a cauliflower crust)? Psst: This is just to alarm him. Once I did make him one and it turned out that I had not drained the cauliflower rice well enough. That is okay, right? We live and learn.
I am into Nordic noir. It is like biting deep into a delicious piece of crime fiction and there is no looking back. My obsession started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. Now I cannot put down the likes of Henning Mankell, Hakan Nesser, Jo Nesbo, Asa Larsson, Leif GW Persson, Samuel Bjork. So I have these two books on my bedside table to be picked up soon and I am loving the deliciousness of the wait. Are you a reader of the genre too?
I cannot stand whinging. Yes, I know, we are all human and we like to complain, but not all the time, okay? We all have our share of problems and worries but it does not overtake the essential goodness of the fact that we are alive to feel all of the above emotions.
I hate gossip mongers. Period.
I used to blog once upon a time. It was an anonymous one till it was not anon no longer one day. It also landed me in hot water (which I do not regret however because I am trying to work on myself. Ref: the point below)
I was born with the disease to please. It will take the rest of my life trying to shake it off.
I can see the spires of two churches from our window. They make me happy when I look out on any day, however crappy the weather might be. One is the steeple of a 12th century round church (there are only four such churches in England). The other is the turquoise domed spire of the 17th century church that was rebuilt after a great fire ravaged Northampton in 1675.
I cannot wait for our satellite dish to be set back alright (Doris came visiting, you see) and get back to watch The Kettering Incident, an Australian drama series which is quite intriguing. Plus it has Elizabeth Debicki and she is my new favourite.
How is it going for you in your part of the world? Is it cold, warm, sunny…? I would love to hear your thoughts on this Friday too. Once in a while it is nice to pen down these completely random thoughts and look back at it from another time and place. Do you know what I mean?
In my bright red coat I stand in the Old Town square in Prague on the first morning of our year-end holiday. It was stinging that cold, but the savoury aroma of sausages and the sweet smell of hot wine was in the air. The world seemed to have come together in that square to natter away.
Time should get stuck at your command on holidays.
Have you noticed how after that first day of any break, every other day just flies by? It started on a note of Christmas markets at the historic square in Old Town where the Tyn Cathedral (in the backdrop) with its spires aspires to reach the skies. The Astronomical Clock Tower of Prague announces itself too with its tall, tall tower and a clock that has kept time for 600 years. There is a legend about the clock and I cannot help but be fascinated by lores. Master Hanuš built the clock in 1410. The city councillors were delighted but suspicious. What if Hanuš replicated the clock anywhere else in Europe? They blinded him on a dark, dark night. But then I also think of the Mughal emperors in India who are known to have chopped off hands of architects and workers who built them their glorious tombs and structures.
Maybe the legend is not that hard to believe after all.
Walking tours are my preferred way to get to know the inner workings of a city. In Prague an outfit called Sandemans does a neat job. We were taken on a walk in Old Town by Terry, a tour guide whose husband as it turns out is from Northampton (six degrees of separation is not a myth). For three hours, she entertained us — without making us snore. But there are exceptions to any rule. In this case, it was a quartet of Indians. They took a half a dozen selfies with the group, took more selfies, and when we all stopped for a break in an eatery, they looked around furtively to check if Terry was around and then proceeded to slink away midway. They had had their selfies, thank you.
Into Talmudic Legends & the Jewish Quarter
I was introduced to the story of Golem one night as we slipped into bed after a long day of walking in the city. We were putting up at the InterContinental Prague, a heartbeat away from the Jewish quarter. Every night, I would find a little bedtime story waiting on the pillow — making me feel like a child with her nightly ritual.
Way before Hitler came into the picture, anti-semitism in Europe was rampant. During the 16th century when Prague was ruled by Emperor Rudolph II, a rabbi decided that the Jews needed protection in the form of a massive creature made out of clay called Golem. He did not look anything like Gollum (ref: Lord of the Rings) if you are confusing the two. His creator was Rabbi Löw who breathed life into Golem by combining the elements of fire, water, air and earth. As it happens the best conceived plans in life go awry. Golem wreaked havoc upon the city and had to be destroyed by the rabbi. There are whispers that Golem was hidden in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue.
The Jewish community used to live in the quarter which came up between the river Vltava and the Old Town since the 13th century. It served as a ghetto from the beginning, though from time to time, the walls of the ghetto were razed down by various administrations. Its startling feature is the Old Jewish Cemetery supposed to be the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. There are up to 12 layers of bodies stacked over the other, thousands of gravestones vying for space inside the cemetery which is home to the dead from the 15th-18th centuries.
The incongruous addition to the quarter is Paris Street or Pařížská. Wandering beneath buildings that were pulled down and rebuilt in the 20th century blending together many architectural styles from the Neo-Baroque to the Neo-Renaissance, it is easy to lose yourself in the grandeur of it. The windows in each building are just massive displays of haute couture. Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel, Bottega Veneta, Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo, Prada, Gucci. The roll-call of designer boutiques are here.
The quarter did have residences yet it was completely in contrast to the Jewish Quarter of Budapest. The Hungarian Jewish quarter was hip, bustling with bars and eateries. Its Czech counterpart was as quiet and sombre. A mood of contemplation steals over you as you walk through it. It is difficult not to tear up listening to stories of the Holocaust anywhere. It is no different an experience in Prague. Plus there is the hair-raising fact that Hitler wanted to keep Prague’s Jewish Quarter intact as a ‘Museum of an Extinct Race’.
Points of Pride
It is difficult not to come across these famous Czech personalities when you are walking the streets of Prague. You know them.
There is Franz Kafka. The man who penned works in German such as The Castle and The Metamorphosis. I understood little of him when I read him, a long time ago that is. His morbid thoughts were a disquieting read for my young brain. The man who craved solitude ‘not like a hermit’ but ‘like a dead man’ for his creativity, was born to a German-speaking Jewish middle-class family in the Jewish quarter of Prague.
I do not have photographs of Alphonse Mucha. But I did buy beautiful postcards that depict the Art Nouveau style of art work by this Czech artist who was born in a Moravian town in 1860. Mucha’s art work is what you see when you see most Art Nouveau pieces. Beautiful, dreamy women decked up in Neoclassical robes, surrounded by lots and lots of flowers on a pale pastel palette. Mucha lived in Prague in his later years and dedicated his time to decorating the Theatre of Fine Arts in the city and putting up murals at the Municipal House.
The third personality is one of my favourite writers and probably yours too if you have read him. Rainer Maria Rilke. The Bohemian-Austrian poet was born in Prague. There must be something about the air of the city you might be inclined to think, because just like Kafka, whose father beat him up often and considered him a failure because of his creative bent of mind, Rilke had a bad childhood. Rilke’s mother dressed him up as a girl probably in an effort to console herself for the loss of a daughter who had died before Rilke was born. Later in life, despite where his talent lay, Rilke was forced to join a military academy. A few lines from Rilke that make your heart ache with the beauty that lies in them.
“Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you
with my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,
I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.”
Christmas the Czech Way
The Vintage Way of Going Around
These cars are apparently vintage cars produced in the Czech Republic during the 1920s. You can take expensive tours around the city in these. But they are not bank breaking either.
The places I have talked about are all inexpensive and yet they serve up sumptuous food. If you are in Prague, do have a look in. You might come out with a wide smile and a sigh of content.