A bleak Thursday in January. Since my duties as an attorney demand my presence in office only for the first three days of the week, here I am sitting within the confines of my cozy apartment in Vienna, nursing what probably is a holiday hangover from the fleeting three weeks I spent in my hometown, Trivandrum. As exciting as sitting at home on a weekday sounds, the grey undertones that seem to have overpowered this magical city during the day, make me somewhat uneasy and inexplicably nostalgic. Maybe it is the silence? With just the little ticking clock that I bought cheaply off the internet to keep me company at home, I feel strangely forlorn. Maybe I just miss the sun?
Our customary yearly visit to the hometown this time sure saw a great deal of sun, sand and sea. However, the older I get, the more I realize that the visits you make to your home are not to unwind or to relax or to put your feet up. They are for you to wear the many other hats you are obliged to wear in life. The many hats that have been sitting in the back corner of your closet, gathering dust for the rest of the year. The hats bearing labels such as daughter, sister, grand daughter, daughter in law, grand daughter in law, best friend, the list does not seem to end.
The yearly visit is the one time I get to be there, physically, for the family; to do seemingly silly bank work for my grandma, to run to the optician to get my granddad’s glasses fixed; to take my sister shopping, to get driven up the wall and back with her treading (foolishly, I believe) on treacherous adolescent territory and to give her boundless advice on everything under the sun; to spend hours on the couch with Amma listening to tales from her school, her daily battles, the local gossip. I refuse to take for granted the way my Amma’s eyes light up when she drives back home from work to see me at the door waiting to scan her purse for goodies. I refuse to take for granted how the menu for the day gets fixed depending on what I want to eat, how my mum and I talk into the wee hours of the dawn reminiscing of the good old days when dad was around and duly taken for granted; when life just seemed too perfect to be true.
I admit life did turn out to be very different from what we had all predicted or planned for. But in all honesty, in spite of all the bouncers life continues to throw at us even today on a daily basis, somehow there always seems to be so much around us at all times that warrants a heartfelt thank you to the Universe. As we stand at (pretty much) the dawn of 2018, all I want to be this year is grateful. I don’t believe we focus on the good half as much as we focus on the bad and how we just refuse to see the beauty of our blessings, until the moment they are taken away. A few years ago, who would have thought I would be living in such a beautiful city in Europe, married to the love of my life, doing what I truly love. Not me for sure. I would have expected my life to be confined with fortresses built of fat, black folders piled up on my desk while I burned the midnight oil in some law firm in Mumbai. I just realize I would be an insolent fool to turn a blind eye to everything I have; how important I am in many lives; how fortunate I am to be missed when I am away; how absolutely special I must be because I mean the world to a few but twinkling specks on the globe.
On that note, since my heart is till partly living in Kerala, under the coconut trees by the water, swaying in the cool breeze, here is a recipe that is probably a strong contender for the flag bearer status of Kerala cuisine. The Chicken Stew or the Kozhi Ishtu as we affectionately call it. This dish is exactly what I believe comfort to look like in a bowl.
Things you will need:
Chicken- 500gms (on the bone, cut into medium sized pieces)
Potatoes- 2 medium, cubed
Carrots- 2 medium, diced
Onions- 1 large thinly sliced
Ginger- 1 inch stick chopped finely
Green chilies- 2 slit
Thick Coconut milk- 2 cups
Cashew- 5-6 soaked in two tbsp. water and ground to a smooth paste.
Cardamom- 6 pods
Whole Pepper- – ½ tbsp.
Cinnamon- 1 small stick
Cooking oil (I used coconut oil)
How to go about it:
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a wok. Add the whole spices (cardamom, cinnamon, whole pepper, cloves) to the oil and sauté for a minute or until fragrant. Add three quarters of the sliced onions and sauté until soft and translucent. You do not need to get the onions to brown for this recipe (Hallelujah, right?!)
Add the ginger and green chilies and sauté for another minute or two. Add one cup of the coconut milk and half cup of water to the wok. Add the chicken pieces and sufficient salt. Stir well once and keep the wok closed (on low heat) until the chicken is half done.
Once the chicken is half done, add the potatoes and the carrots. Stir well and let the chicken and veggies cook well.
Once this is done, add the remaining one cup of thick coconut milk and cashew paste to the gravy. Let the gravy boil on medium-high heat for about five minutes or until the gravy achieves a beautiful, thick consistency.
Caramelize the rest of the onions in ghee or oil. Garnish the stew with curry leaves and the caramelized onions.
Being two souls who have never taken to the glitter and the glamour of city life (honestly quite repulsed by it) or the crowd and noise that comes along with it, the Husband and I are eternally in pursuit of places where we can be in sync with nature, far, far away from the madding crowd; where we can sip on some wine, under the blue skies or just as much as while away time under the trees while the sun shines, listening to the sparrows chirping away. If not for these spots that let us be one with nature, it has to be the timeworn, quiet townships with majestic buildings, their grey walls that have stories to tell from the innumerable winters they have witnessed and withstood; with the narrow, cobbled streets that make for countless alleyways. We have invariably turned to the peace, the quiet and the warmth of the countryside whenever we have felt the need to unwind or to get the calm in our systems restored.
It was during one of those erratic work weeks that the Husband and I chanced upon, on the internet, this tiny village somewhere on the hills in the lush Italian countryside; Montelparo. Nestled between the sprawling Apennine Mountains and the calm Adriatic Sea that reminds you of a sheet of cornflowers in full bloom, in the eastern Italian region of Le Marche, Montelparo deserves a lot more literature dedicated to her beauty and serenity than what exists currently. Here we got our share of the countryside with a side of the old, rustic, old town feel. It is not without reason that the insiders refer to Le Marche as “Italy’s best kept secret.”
A quick survey on the internet told us that the fastest way to get to this quaint village on the hills is by car, and voila! We flew to Rome and then rented a Fiat Panda, all set to discover parts of lo stivale which seemed to be unheard of even by the locals. So, with our small suitcases stowed away in the boot, a full petrol tank, route downloaded on Google maps, sunglasses and a bottle of water, we set out on our own mini adventure as early as 7 in the morn. The drive was not supposed to take us any more than three hours as per Google maps. And lo and behold, the drive was one right out of the movies; where the lead characters drive their supercars through the highways lined with the lush green grass, with the towering mountains in the background set against the azure skies with clouds that remind us of cotton candy from the carnivals. The sole difference in our case was that, we did not look anything like the said lead characters; sporting our just-out-of-bed looks, in oversized tees, sneakers and worn out pairs of shorts. So glamourous.. NOT!
The drive was easily the best we have done to date. It was my first time in Italy but no book or research on the internet had me prepared for the beauty that she is. There was this point during the drive that we realized that we were not even talking and instead we were both just gazing endlessly out of the windows as though out of the sheer desperation to hold on to every moment that was flashing by, right in front of our eyes. Talk about living in the moment. There was a stretch of the highway that ran adjacent to the coastline to the Adriatic Sea; the water so blue that it almost made us feel like we were cast in an animated Disney flick. We stopped at one of the quiet coves at Pedaso, for a short break in the sun before we started to ascend the hills to get to Montelparo. We sat by the cove with our feet in the blue water, while the warm sun shone on our bare backs. With our batteries charged, we were ready to get back on the winding road to the village we had been reading about.
We drove by vast fields of golden sunflowers (remember Sting and his gruff voice, although he was referring to fields of barley, what a pity) smiling away at us as we whizzed past, through the narrow hill roads, by the white wooden board with ‘Montelparo’ painted on it in black. We had arrived.
A tiny village on the hills, with houses, the lone church and bungalows, all built in an identical stone that was a light brown in colour; dark cobbled streets running past all these dainty structures; a piazza to serve as a parking area for the entire village (just to shed more light on how tiny the village is); and the utterly breathtaking view. The whole village is so high up that you can see the vast expanse of the countryside laying in front of you for as far as your eye can reach; the green of the surrounding hills, the sunlight bouncing off the valleys, the stone chapel in the distance, the trees; all set against the canvas lent by the blue skies.
We had already made reservations in a cozy looking hotel going by the pictures and the reviews on the internet; Boutique Hotel Leone. Run by the sweetest British couple Madeline and Tim, our experience at Leone was not a step behind perfect, right from the moment we set foot in that cool, airy, stone structure that houses the hotel that fits the picturesque background like a well-fitting glove. The holiday hangover that I am currently experiencing, even after a good one week after the Italian sojourn does not let me keep for later the fact that the whole show behind this luxury hotel is put up by none other than these two adorable individuals. A luxury hotel, with just 8 rooms, the amount of research that must have gone into each of the factors that makes this charming little place an experience in itself, seems unfathomable.
Madeline who was once an accountant is the one who seemingly runs most of the front desk and administrative work, while Tim is the head chef. Just as we entered we were welcomed by the two of them personally, with the warmth one would expect only from family or long lost friends. After a brief chit chat, Madeline showed us to our room and holy moly! Considering the perfection with which Hotel Leone operates, I cannot help but talk about each of the factors that made the experience arguably the best we have had in a long, long time. So here goes.
Décor: Boutique Hotel Leone spelt out two words for me right at the first instance; warm and tasteful. Normally, these are not two adjectives I would expect to go side by side in a hotel environment. But Leone had it all. The furniture, the rooms, the setting the cute little bar, the terrace overlooking the spectacular view, the restaurant, the indoor part of which gives you vibes from no less than an old Scottish castle with the white washed, stone walls and the beautiful dim lighting, spelt out ‘class’. Another aspect that quite caught my fancy was the common living area for the residents, painted in a beautiful hue of fresh green, furnished with a few comfortable armchairs and sofas and adorned with those classic lampshades; the bookshelves loaded with all sorts of books (cookbooks in particular) reminded me of a scene from a long forgotten storybook.
Rooms: Even if we choose to ignore the view out of the windows (as difficult as that might be), the rooms in this hotel are worth every penny you spend. It was almost like every single aspect in the rooms were taken with utmost seriousness right at the toddler stages of the hotel; be it the huge comfy beds, the classy furnishings, the spacious bathrooms or even the mini bar for that matter. I must mention the cute complimentary basket that greeted us in the room filled with fresh fruit and some homemade cookies.
Services: Out of the umpteen hotels we have stayed at, individually and together, Leone is the first place where the rooms were cleaned and the beds made, twice a day; once in the morning and once when you are out for dinner. I mean, how amazing is that! By the time you get back from dinner, your beds will be made, with a little chocolate left for you on the pillow, all ready for you to just snuggle in between the sheets for a good night’s rest.
Food & Drink: As I had mentioned, Tim is the head chef in this hotel and he’s a star (for want of a more apt term.) By now, if you have been following my blog for a bit, you must know as to how seriously I take my food. So, take it from me, the food Tim whips up is phenomenal. The Truffle Ravioli that made for our first meal there was just something surreal. The fresh mussles in a white wine, garlic and parsley broth, the Pumpkin Ravioli and the seafood risotto need to be given honourable mentions. As regards drinks, Madeline is a genuine case of wine connoisseur-ness (again might need to apply for an artistic license) and the most helpful of them all. The husband and I love our wine, but do not consider ourselves connoisseurs and for this reason, we kept describing to the lovely Madeline what we were looking for in terms of taste or flavour and the bottles she picked were always absolutely on point.
Amenities: Keeping aside the fact that Hotel Leone is situated on a gem of a property, the amenities provided leave no box unchecked. Be it the lavish outdoor pool by the trees, the terrace where you can spend hours gawking at the hills and the valleys in front of you while Madeline treats you to the finest local wine, the restaurant with a stunning outdoor area for the days when the sun is out as well as the cozy indoor area or the bar, Hotel Leone has it all.
I realise I can go on forever about this stellar experience that we got to experience out of sheer luck. We were unable to put our finger on even one minute flaw in the whole experience, and that I feel is the result of all the hard work these two lovely individuals have devoted into this project. They had just three staff members whilst we were there. Two lovely interns, who were so on top of their game, making sure every guest is comfortable, warm and friendly at the same time never overstepping the mark even the slightest bit and an efficient and (again) warm, housekeeper. I could not help but notice how even the music played in the restaurant was so on point. That is the attention to detail you can see for yourselves in this little gem.
In case I have left you wondering if all there is to experience in Montelparo is the silence and the beauty of nature, please keep in mind that there are a gazillion old towns in the area accessible by car which are absolutely worth a visit. Also, the beaches are not far at all. Trust Madeline to help you out with all that you will need including maps, directions, recommendations and what not to make your day trips as perfect as your stay.
If ever you do plan to make a visit to the lower part of Italy, and you are looking to spend a bit of time with your loved ones away from the city madness, under the blue skies, sipping on some good wine, head straight to Leone and let Madeline and Tim do what they do best. I promise, you will not be disappointed. 🙂
Since I had decided to spend a quiet Saturday at home, I was just going about making my breakfast, listening to some Bollywood numbers from the early 2000s, singing along with the lovely Sunidhi Chauhan as she breathed out “bhaage re mann kahi..” in her husky, soulful voice. Before I realized, I found myself reminiscing about the umpteen bus journeys I have been on, in those “volvo buses” as we prefer to call all the enormous multi axel buses (irrespective of their actual manufacturer) we resort to, especially for overnight, inter-state travel.
As odd as it may sound to a lot of you, I have always been a fan of overnight travel in these semi sleeper buses. I have lost count of the number of times I have sat through the night, by the window, watching the silhouettes of the trees lining the highway in the dark; the lone house far away with an oil lamp flickering on the verandah; fleeting glimpses of men in groups of 3 and 4 walking back home, maybe after a glass or two of local country liquor (assumptions, assumptions). It was on these journeys that I undertook, most of the time on my own, that I got a lot of my thoughts in order. There was always something soothing, something comforting in sitting by those glass windows of the bus spending sleepless nights, watching the short-lived sights on the highway glistening in the moonlight; something that nudged the child in me while I spent hours racing with the moon; something that whispered to me to stay patient and that the choppiness of sea had to end at some point and that calm would inevitably prevail.
I remember vividly how travelling overnight on one of these buses was my escape route every time I felt the need for some solitude to get the calm restored. Those were the days when I quite literally loved the journey much more than the destination. I would invariably have a list of things to sort out in my head, that would take hours of arguing with myself, beating myself up, shedding a few tears and in the end pacifying myself right before feeling rejuvenated to take on the world and all it had to throw at me, all over again. By sunrise, when the skies turned a lovely hue of violet and blue, before turning into that lovely shade of pink I would without fail have had the rosiness in life restored.
Having said that, there is one other thing I have always looked forward to especially on my journeys from Trivandrum to Bangalore. The food. Amma has always (every single time) packed a yummy dinner for me every time I was travelling from home. More often than not, it would be a couple of soft chappatis and a spicy beef roast. I would be thinking about the tight package in aluminium foil, even before I got on to the bus. And I shall shamelessly admit to you at this point, that I would gobble it up as soon as the driver turned on the engine, which means I would be starving by the time 8PM (which is dinner time for normal souls) came a knocking.
I seldom had reason to fret because the bus would take a halt for dinner and on the Trivandrum Bangalore route, it was almost always at Haripad, the little township in Alapuzha district, home to great, authentic Kerala cuisine. As soon as the bus would stop at a little run down shack on the wayside, I would be the first to fly out of the door, quite contrary to the demeanour that is expected out of a young lady travelling alone in my part of the world. I would just not give two hoots to the looks and the stares that have been meted out to me for daring to look like anything but a docile house cat because only the women who travelling with their husbands or fathers or brothers were expected to step out of the bus as late as..wait for it..8pm.
I would find for myself a cozy nook in the shack and call for a plate of hot, soft, lacy, appams along with a plate of steaming hot, spicy egg roast or chicken curry. I don’t think I have it in me to put into words the emotion that every bite of those super soft appams dunked liberally in the hot gravy engulfed me in. You have to experience the raw culinary skill hidden in these run down shacks to believe it. Nothing I write will do justice to the love that is served as food in these little joints.
Today I share with you the recipe to the Kerala Egg Roast which is almost as the same as the Tamizhan Muttai Thokku. It is a hearty, semi gravy dish with spells out comfort for all the days you are feeling meh. Super easy and totally worth the negligible amount of effort it takes.
Things you will need:
Eggs- Hard boiled and halved- 4
Onions- 2 medium sized, chopped finely
Garlic- 2 big pods minced
Tomatoes- 1 large, chopped finely
Turmeric powder- ½ tsp
Chilli powder- 2 ½ tsp (I use the normal chilli powder, but feel free to use Kashmiri chili in case you are not up for some heat)
Coriander powder- 2 tsp
Garam masala powder- ½ tsp (available in all indian stores)
Cumin seeds- ¼ tsp
Black Mustard seed- ½ tsp
Dried red chillies- (the large ones that is used for tempering) 2 or 3
Curry leaves- 1 sprig
How to go about it
In a wok, heat some oil on medium heat. Splutter the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried chillies and curry leaves. Sauté the chopped onions and sufficient salt till they turn soft and a nice golden brown. Should take about 7 minutes. Please feel free to keep sautéing because well cooked onions is what gives this recipe the flavour.
Add the minced garlic, sauté for about 2 minutes, until the raw smell is lost. Add the tomatoes, mix well and keep the wok closed for about 2 minutes. After that, open the wok and keep sautéing till the tomatoes are mashed well and the onion tomato mixture start to look homogenous.
Add the masala powders to this and keep sautéing till the oil starts to leave the sides of the gravy. Add some more oil if the mixture starts to look too dry. Sauté for about 5 full minutes.
Add half a glass of water to this, mix well. Add the boiled and halved eggs to the gravy. Make sure you don’t stir excessively and mash the eggs up. Be easy on the eggs, coat them with the thick gravy, close the wok and let it simmer for about 4 minutes.
Open the wok, if the gravy looks nice and thick, your Kerala style egg roast is ready to be served with chappatis, appams or idiyappams. Dig in 🙂
Summer seems to have officially made an entry. Before I moved to Vienna, I would have expected the temperatures in the city to not soar beyond maybe a 20 degrees, but I now realize I could not have been more wrong. At a solid 33 degrees, Vienna ensures that I am not spoilt beyond correction or recognition in the little ways she does. With the city that has not embraced the concept of air conditioners (apart from the ones you find in swanky offices) yet, gym visits are not so fun anymore. The idea of a ‘summer glow’ gets oft mistaken for the term ‘sweaty pig.’ The good part is that all the coats and the jackets have all been duly stowed away and the shorts, the tees, easy breezy dresses and the best of them all, open sandals that lets you show off pretty pedicures that cost half a fortune, have been brought out. Well, you win some, you lose some I reckon.
While walking back from the gym, sipping on a bottle of cold, freshly squeezed orange juice with a hint of ginger, watching the sweaty cyclists whiz past and the new moms ambling by in the sweltering heat with their babies in colourful prams, I realized that I am still lagging behind my whole plan of a-recipe-a-week. The past two weeks somehow kept me on my toes. Especially this week with the little nephew bobbing around in the house, with demands no less than Kathakali performances from your truly to keep him from crankiness, I am surprised I found time enough to eat three square meals. No, I am kidding. Food seldom gets jeopardized in a household I run and you must know that by now.
Anyway, since time does not make the effort to find you, I decided to keep dinner plans simple and instead put up the recipe of a dish a lot of you have been asking for; the Kerala toddy shop style fish curry. This is one recipe that can take me back to the Kallu Shaap (toddy shop, and toddy being fermented palm wine which is native to my part of the world, Kerala) by the backwaters of Kuttanaad, on that bright, sunny day in April, where I had my first taste of toddy with my dad. Kuttanaadu is one place, I am sure every malayali holds close to his/her chest with immense pride. Being the point with the lowest altitude in India, the beauty Kuttanaadu encompasses is something I believe no words can do justice to; her vast expanse of green paddy fields under the pastel blue skies; the canals and the backwaters that stretch out for as far as your eyes can reach; the coconut trees swaying in the wind that line the pristine water bodies; the kettuvallams or the houseboats with intricately woven thatched roofs that stand testament to the efforts put in by the natives; kids running by the narrow roads chasing old cycle tyres with sticks; the run down toddy shops serving cold toddy in tall, glass bottles; the peace, the quiet and the serenity; the food.
The toddy shop kitchens I believe are homes to raw, brazen culinary skill at its finest. Home to arguably the most beautiful water bodies on the planet, a dearth of fresh fish and seafood is unheard of in Kuttanaadu. That, coupled with the bold use of fresh condiments make the food served in the toddy shops not only spicy but also an unforgettable experience in itself. Today I share with you the recipe to the fiery, red fish curry, the way it is served in the toddy shops of Kerala. This is one dish for which my marginal utility never dips. If I had to pick just one dish for the rest of my life, it would be this red hot gravy. So, here goes.
Things you will need:
Fish- 500 gms washed and cleaned (I use Trout here. In India, this curry works best with Seer Fish or King Fish)
Onion- 1 large chopped finely
Tomato- 1 large chopped (this is strictly optional. A lot of people I know do not use tomatoes in this curry, but I love the flavour tomatoes lend and the fact that it helps in thickening the gravy, just the way I like it)
Ginger- 1 small piece chopped finely
Garlic- 6-8 pods sliced finely
Turmeric powder- 1 tsp
Kashmiri Red chili powder (not Kashmiri chili powder)- 3 tablespoons (this is for a medium to hot curry. The ratio is 1 tbsp for about four pieces of fish)
Malabar Tamarind- 4-5 pieces (soaked in water for 15 minutes. This is the fulcrum of the dish and is absolutely unavoidable)
How to go about it:
First, in a wok, heat some cooking oil and temper 1 tsp mustard seeds, a generous amount of curry leaves and ¼ tsp fenugreek seeds. Once the seeds splutter, add the ginger and garlic, sauté for a minute.
Next, add the chopped onions to the wok. Sauté till they start to turn golden brown. Add the tomatoes to the wok, keep the wok closed for about a minute for them to cook. Once the tomatoes have softened, keep sautéing till the raw smell goes away. Add the turmeric, red chili powder. Mix well and keep sautéing till the oil starts to leave the sides and the raw smell of the condiments is lost.
Add the tamarind pieces along with the water. Add about 1 glass and a little more of water and add salt. Mix the gravy well and then proceed to add the fish to the gravy. Coat the pieces in the gravy and keep the wok closed on high heat.
Once the gravy starts to boil, reduce the heat to a medium. At this point, shake the wok well to mix the gravy that may look a little watery. Do not use a spoon to stir as that will break the pieces of the fish and the entire dish becomes unappetizing. Keep the wok closed to simmer for about 20 minutes. After that, open the lid and let the gravy boil on high heat for about 5 minutes or till the gravy starts to thicken.
Once the fish is cooked and the gravy has thickened, the dish is ready to be served. This fish curry tastes better a day after it is made. Serve with hot rice or tapioca. Enjoy!
Walking up and down a couple of unfamiliar streets in Vienna with the sun on my nose and the wind in my hair, in search of that perfect corner in that perfect café, I realized that I still have so much left to see in this city. Every nook beholds something new, something fascinating, something that has a story to tell. Be it that old record store run by that old bloke with white, wispy shoulder length hair, wearing a pair of ragged, old jeans (which seemed to have stories and dirt from the 1960s buried in its back pockets) and a black vest with arm holes so huge that the piece of cloth was barely serving its purpose; or that run down, forlorn looking piano repair outfit; or that swanky café by the sidewalk which had a few good looking blonde women sitting at wooden tables, sipping on wine, staining the rims of their glasses with pretty shades of expensive lipstick.
I doubt if I have ever felt at home as much I do here, in Vienna. Of course, there is no disputing the fact that I miss my home and everything it stands for; the people I call my own; all the memories I have gathered whilst I spent my life in Trivandrum. But there is something in this city that makes me comfortable; at ease, at peace with my own being. The quaintness of this city somehow gives me the confidence from within to live life on my own terms; without as much as giving a fleeting thought about the expectations or the results I am obliged to fulfil; no one keeping track of the number of beers I can chug and ones I cannot; doing what I love the most, not worrying (too much) about daunting terms such as finance, security, legal career etc. I cannot help but admit that this feels new as much as it feels good. Until maybe last year, I always felt that my personal space was something so permeable which means I felt that I was constantly being monitored, being judged, my wins and falls being counted uncompromisingly. But now, a lot seems to have changed. For the first time, I have come to learn where my real passion stands with a stone foundation, ready to weather all the typhoons and the rain that may.
I finally seem to have found that perfect nook for myself in this city. Something tells me that you are going to be hearing a lot of my musings; sitting by this window next to a huge indoor plant with uncannily dark, succulent leaves, in the back end of the café (that is supposedly rather famous for its brunches, a quick scan of the place on the internet tells me) that is so tastefully done in shades of pale green accompanied by light wooden furniture. This could also mean that you are going to be bombarded with blog posts in the coming days. Just kidding, remember I have not quit law altogether. Yet.
Anyway, today I share with you the recipe to something I came up with on one (not so) fine day, buried under hundreds of exhibits for a hearing scheduled for the coming week. Butter Chicken Pasta. This is my first shot at fusion cuisine and I must say that I was pretty kicked about the results. This is penne in the thick, creamy gravy of the eternal favourite and second in line for the flag bearer status for Indian food (after Biryani, duh!), Butter Chicken. As always, this recipe of mine does not need anything more than a few ingredients within your arms reach and then, believe me, the end result is going to be totally worth it. So, here goes.
Things you will need: (Serves 2-3)
For the Butter Chicken
Chicken- 250 grams (boneless)
Tomatoes- 2 large or 3 medium pureed
Garam masala powder- 1 tsp
Kashmiri chilli powder- 1 tsp (as per heat tolerance, but not more than 1 tsp)
Ginger garlic paste
Lime juice- 1 tsp
Turmeric- 1 tsp
Freshly chopped coriander- to garnish (optional)
For the Pasta
Penne- 1 cup
How to go about it:
Boil water in a large sauce pan on medium heat. Once boiling, add the penne to the water and let it cook for 11-12 minutes. After that, drain the water thoroughly using a colander preferably and keep aside.
Cut the boneless chicken into small pieces and keep aside. Next, marinate the chicken in two table spoons of yoghurt, 1 tsp ginger garlic paste, lime juice or vinegar, quarter teaspoon of garam masala, salt and a bit of turmeric. Let it sit for half an hour.
In the meanwhile, soak the cashews in 2 tbsps of water for about 15 minutes and then proceed to make a paste out of them.
Next, grill the chicken till it is nice and tender and maybe a little charred. If you do not have the option of grilling, you may shallow fry the chicken instead. Once the chicken is cooked, shred it and keep it aside while you prepare the gravy for the butter chicken.
Place a wok on the stove and heat some cooking oil in it. Add 1 tbsp of ginger garlic paste to the oil and fry it till the oil is fragrant. Next, add the pureed tomatoes with the salt and sauté for about five minutes. Add the chilli powder, 1 teaspoon and a half of garam masala powder and 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder and keep sautéing till the oil starts to leave the sides and the water content in the tomatoes has minimized.
At this point, add the cashew paste to the wok and mix thoroughly.
Add one glass of water to the wok and using a whisk, mix the gravy to make it homogeneous. Keep the wok closed for three minutes to help cook the cashews.
Next add the shredded pieces of chicken to the gravy, mix thoroughly. Your butter chicken is ready!
After both the pasta as well as the gravy is done, add the cooked penne to the hot gravy, mix thoroughly but carefully so as to not mash it all up. Garnish with some freshly chopped coriander leaves and your spectacular Indo Italian fusion dish is now ready to be devoured. 🙂
But I’m takin’ a Greyhound on the Hudson River line
I’m in a New York state of mind”
I lived these lines penned by Billy Joel as we set out on our much awaited get away to the ‘city that never sleeps’. Even today, as I sit by these massive glass windows, as the sun comes streaming in, while the corner of my eye catches a glimpse of the pristine white Viennese structures, with windows so artfully carved that one can’t help but silently bless the hands that added one block at a time, to the beauty that surrounds me today, I will shamelessly admit that I am still hungover from the jolt that was New York.
I recall my first time in the city 4 winters ago rather vividly. The fact that I was travelling alone gave me an extra adrenaline rush. I remember being utterly smitten by the sights and the sounds; the blinding lights at Times Square; the residents, diverse in terms of looks but unified by their impeccable sartorial choices, strutting down the streets on a weekday; the way you have to crinkle your eyes in an attempt to scale the towering skyscrapers. The subway spelt out the word ‘busy’ for me. Every average person on the train, leaving aside the occasional gospel preacher (whose victim, yours truly ended up being, for a good half an hour) seemed to sport the same expression on their faces; pensive with a hint of disdain and a teaspoon of misery.
Since I was still in college then and my trip was on a shoestring budget which was sanctioned by my dad after a day’s worth of negotiations, I clearly remember making the choice to eat at food trucks (no regrets) through most of my trip, excluding the occasional beer chugged at the shady looking pub, so that I would still have enough cash to splurge on my own sartorialism. I recollect the way my face froze on the ferry to Staten Island, to witness the Statue of Liberty for the very first time, that it almost felt like ceramic by the time I got my feet back on the land; the sense of utter (un)belonging, if there were such a word, as I walked up and down Wall Street for I always knew that my calling lay at least a thousand yards away from the term ‘finance’. I also remember walking down Times Square, wide eyed, enamored by the lights and the sights and thinking to myself that I would come back sooner if not later.
And so, I did.
This time, a lot seemed to have changed. I was of course older and not much wiser, but married and travelling with my most favourite travel companion. There is indeed something about visiting a new place on your own and then coming back after a few years to pay the place a visit again with your partner. I cannot put my finger on what exactly it is that feels different; maybe it’s the companionship, maybe it’s that scowl on your face when you know you both need to hit mid ground in terms of your ‘live in the moment’ or ‘be spontaneous’ plans versus his complete order in life, maybe it’s just the change in perspective, but the one thing I can tell you is that, it is nothing short of beautiful.
It was also a planned reunion with my soul sisters. Two beautiful women who stand by me through all the battles I fight; two women who laugh with me while we crack the poorest of jokes seventy five times at a stretch; two women who have seen me at my cringe worthy worst, never judging, their steps never faltering.
For some strange reason, I happened to witness NYC in a new light this time. I wasn’t quite blinded by the lights nor was I as wide-eyed as I was when I first set foot in the city. I had always felt that New York had something about it that makes you feel like a sheep in the big city; something that makes you feel meek; insignificant. Something that tends to suck out every bit of life in you, in your eternal attempt to fit in to a social bracket that is merely a figment of your imagination. I feel so, because time is an exceedingly precious commodity there and no one has enough of it to be wasted on something as inconsequential as you. It is almost as though you have to struggle so much to keep up with the pace at which the city glides that you are left with severe palpitations. If you pay close attention to the people around, you can just about see the slight grey tinge tarnishing their façades that look like they are effortlessly holding their heads above the water. I could sense the pressure that was built up in society to look a particular way, even feel a particular way. I tend to feel a slight constriction in my windpipe when feelings and emotions are dictated by societal norms, and I felt that there.
I shall now take a detour and talk about happier things, in fact, the one thing that I find fascinating no matter where I go; the food. This visit did not see me loitering around food trucks or other street eateries. Apart from spending quality time with my girlies, the sole purpose of my visit was to find a couple of places that would leave a lasting imprint on my palate and you bet I did. Considering the amazing diversity in the population gifted to this massive city, the vast number of incredible eateries offering exquisite varieties of cuisines should come as no surprise. I take this opportunity to confess that I did not chase after great burger joints during my stint there (yes I know, NYC, burger, beer, yada yada yada) and that is mainly for two reasons. One, I am not the biggest burger fan coupled with the fact that I have already found my go-to burger joint here in Vienna, that satiates my burger craving, without leaving any room for error, as and when it knocks. Two, if you are the die-hard burgerholic (just had to resort to a cliche, for want of a better word), you don’t need me to write about it since enough, if not too much has already been said and written on the best burger joints in NYC by other seasoned burgerholics.
So, I shall proceed to take you on a virtual gastronomical tour to a few of the places that left indelible marks on my palate.
1. Laut Malaysian/Singapore Kitchen: One of the first Malaysian restaurants in NYC to be awarded a Michelin Star, Laut was the definition of the usage “blew me away” and I could not possibly emphasize it enough. Although this list is in no particular order, I cannot help but place this restaurant, that gives off a mini Malaysian food street vibe, right at the top. Quite contrary to the popular notion on what Michelin Star restaurants should look and feel like, Laut is a welcome change. The place has a lovely, jovial ambience with people chattering away to their hearts content while digging into yummy looking plates of food, which works best for someone like me who prefers a relaxed, comfortable environment to a place that makes you feel like even the cutlery is judging you.
Even the food was so heartily presented and that I feel deserves more credit that it gets, since it helps in building an appetite in me, as opposed to the fancy-schmancy, sometimes bordering on over-the-top plating which makes me rethink my life choices. But hey! That’s strictly a personal opinion. As I keep harping time and again, I feel food is supposed to bring you joy; it is something that should fill your tummy and your soul. The food at Laut ticked all these boxes for me as I could taste the love and the sheer effort that had gone behind the preparation of every bite on our plates.
What we ordered:
Singapore Chili Crab– Crispy fried, soft shelled crabs dunked in a lovely, sweet and sour chili sauce with a dropped egg adding wonders to the velvety texture of the sauce. Served with fried and steamed Manatau. It would be a crime if you were to walk out of Laut without giving this dish a go. Period.
Nasi Goreng: Nasi Goreng translates to ‘fried rice’ is Indonesian and Malay and is a popular main dish in those areas. The Nasi Goreng served at Laut, with sumptuous amounts of shrimp was by far the best I have had in a long time. The explosion of flavor in my mouth after the first bite will not be forgotten that easily. Huge hit.
Nasi Lemak: Considered to be the national dish of Malaysia, the Nasi Lemak yet again was nothing short of amazing. This was a plateful of food comprising rice, some pineapple sambal, dried anchovies fried, some pickled prawns and succulent pieces of chicken coated in a thick gravy, somewhat resembling a ‘roast’ as the term would mean in south India.
Young Coconut Pudding– The soufflé which was filled into an actual green coconut got my thumbs up even before I tasted it for the sheer beauty in presentation. And when I did taste it, boy oh boy, the silky texture of the soufflé with the right amount of sweetness made it so refreshing and light on the tummy that it felt like the perfect way to end such an incredible meal.
Having said all this, if you have an inkling at the back of your mind that this meal (along with other appetizers) would have cost us a fortune, please rest assured that you are thoroughly mistaken. The Michelin Star is solely in terms of food quality and this is yet another feather on Laut’s cap.
2. Sigiri: This unassuming nook placed on quite an insignificant location on 1st Ave and specializing in authentic Sri Lankan cuisine deserves its own dot on the world map for the brilliant, spicy food it serves. This is a place that focuses solely on the quality of food. The ambience is plain and minimalistic although clean and well kept.
What we ordered:
The Black Chicken Curry and the Fish Curry, both of which were spicy and so full of flavor. The chicken was cooked in fried coconut and has sumptuous amounts of whole spices infused in to the gravy and this got along beautifully with the plate of hot white rice. The fish was cooked in a tamarind paste with basic masala simmered in a thin coconut milk and this reminded me of South Indian cuisine in parts. We ended the meal with a plate of homemade caramel custard which was on the house (additional delight). Must visit for all spicy food lovers!
3. BCD Tofu House: Impeccable Korean food. Period. This was one of the last meals we had in the city and for this reason I cannot stop thinking about it. The fact that this spacious restaurant, nestled in Korea Town, was packed on a Friday afternoon speaks volumes about the quality of food.
What we ordered:
Seafood Pancake– A yummy pancake stuffed with all kinds of seafood. Perfect for an appetizer and tasty.
Spicy Pork Bulgogi– This was one of the best pork dishes I have had in a long time and possibly a strong contender for the best Bulgogi I have tasted. This dish comprised succulent shreads of pork in a semi dry, spicy paste served with stick rice and a super spicy seafood (clams, mussels, shrimp, squid), tofu and beef soup. The ‘Tofu’ in the name stands there for a reason I realise and the reason being the silky, melt-in-the-mouth tofu these guys serve. Coming from a person who is not even a fan of tofu, you may want to take me seriously. You can let them know your spice tolerance levels when you order.
4. Levain Bakery: You haven’t had the best cookie in NYC (or maybe anywhere else on earth for that matter) if you haven’t eaten at Levain Bakery. It can’t get much better than those huge, warm, heavenly cookies oozing chocolate from all sides.
1. Grom– Best hot chocolate ever, I mean seriously. Thick hot chocolate whipped to perfection with a dollop of whipped cream on top. Perfect for those grey, rainy days when all you need is to snuggle under a warm blanket with a book and a cup of this lovely creation.
2. Sprinkles– The cupcake ATM was super fascinating. Lovely cupcakes with a lot of attention paid to the base cake, which I loved. The butter or cream cheese frosting is a tad too sweet for my liking but certainly worth a solid mention.
3. BEA– Beautiful looking bar with bare bricked walls and lots of indoor greenery, perfect for a casual date or a night out with friends on the days your wallet does not feel too slim. Haha. Great drinks and average food.
(image obtained from http://www.beanyc.com/inside/)
Be not fooled into thinking that these are only places we visited in that one week. These are just the places I would want each of you to visit if ever you are to find yourself in New York. I hope you had a good read and don’t forget to let me know your thoughts. 🙂