Category Archives: food & drink

Where are you, Mr. Pandey?

Weddings in North India are moments of great celebration. Families and friends from far and wide join the bride and groom over many days of fun filled merriment. Food is an integral part of this experience. For the Mathurs (a North Indian Hindu community), food defines the purpose of a wedding! We live to eat, marry to eat and eat our way through moments in life, both happy and sad!
Most traditional Mathur families had their favourite cooks, who would be called in when the occasion demanded. The cooks would arrive a few days before the ceremony and would chart out an elaborate menu. They used to carry their own cooking implements that had been passed down through the generations. It is said that the pots and pans added their own unique flavour to every dish. After much discussion and deliberations (typically over several mouth watering meals), the Mathurs would decide on the menu. What followed was a frenzy of activity where the finest of ingredients would be sourced. Being fond of their food, most families had a direct connection with the source of ingredients and freshness and flavours would consistently be second to none.
The cooks had an amazing repertoire of capabilities. From snacks to pickles to the most delicious deserts and everything in between they had the ability to make every meal a celebration. Our family’s cook was a delightful old gentleman by the name of Gopal Pandey. His age was indeterminate. I thought that he was quite old but his slight frame was a power pack of energy. A meal for a few hundred guests would be prepared with amazing speed and panache. In fact, it was quite a sight to watch his small team orchestrate a sequence of frenetic chopping, vigorous stirring and frying. The old man, bent with age would go about his craft like a virtuoso.
We loved him especially for his ability to weave magic with the meats. His piece de resistance was a dish called badam passanda, which was a sublime combination of blanched almonds and the finest cuts of goat meat which was slow cooked to perfection. The fragrance of the dish was so over whelming that suddenly neighbours who often looked at weddings as social disturbances would be at their civil best. The tragic part of this dish was that no generous estimate could ever satiate its demand and as a kid I was always left wanting a lot more! As a family, I don’t think we ever managed to get the estimates right!
Over the years, I remember Gopal Pandey continuing to cook up a storm and improve his craft further as we navigated through our journey of celebrations. In the early 2000s, the trend shifted to hosting weddings in hotels and farmhouses and his appearances became few and far between. As we got busier, our weddings also got less elaborate and the convenience of hosting it at a hotel or a farmhouse was just too tempting. I don’t recollect having met him for the last decade.

In my recent visit to India, I learnt that as he grew older, his sons decided post their education to get proper ‘office’ jobs and looked down upon their rich culinary legacy. I guess progress is also about moving on and forging a new beginning. However I can’t help but feel nostalgic. The wonderful smell of the badam passandas still lingers…

The joys of gelato

I had the pleasure of having the most outstanding gelato recently in Milan. The smooth and creamy rich dark chocolate was sublime. The cone in which it was served was a perfect accompaniment and I was in heaven! I even had an ice cream burger- two scoops of delicious ice cream in a freshly baked bun with a merengue and dark chocolate sauce topping. A delightful example of human craftsmanship. Nowhere else have I had ice creams that have tasted better. The Italians have a rich history of gelato making and every town has its own traditions and flavours. There is a gelato store called GROM that’s opened recently in Dubai. Their cappuccino ice cream makes a frequent appearance in my dreams!

Of late my social conversations have  been a bit gelato obsessed as you may have gathered by now. I was gushing about gelato with a rather knowledgeable foodie friend the other day who after hearing me patiently evangelising about the great Italian tradition of ice cream making had the following to say:

“The Chinese invented the ice cream in 300BC. As for the cones, they were invented  in America by a Syrian immigrant who was a street hawker selling pastries. One day he came to his neighbours rescue who had run out of plates while selling his ice cream. He just folded a pastry in the form of a cone and gave it to his friend who placed a scoop of ice cream on it and the rest is history. The Persians had an ice cream culture too and so did the Romans. In those times it was a privilege of the rich until the industrial revolution in America enabled the commercial scale production of ice. The Italians have learnt well!”

So the journey of the Italian gelato has a Chinese origin and an American/Syrian/Roman influence. All I can say is that it’s an absolutely delicious consequence. I am a fan!

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A champagne moment

“This calls for a champagne”, an exclamation that is frequently expressed to celebrate the highs of life. A lot of my memorable moments in life have been savoured over a glass or two (sometimes more!) of champagne. In our recent Tanzania trip we concluded a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti and enjoyed the migration with a glass of champagne in our hand. My daughters 16th birthday was a recent champagne moment as well. This morning I read about how an hyper exuberant champagne cork forced an Easyjet plane in Europe to make an emergency landing. The cork tore through the roof of the plane and the cabin pressure got impacted that brought the oxygen masks out and the pilot had to force the plane to land immediately. Whew!

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It’s not uncommon for people to shy away from opening a bottle of champagne. Typically in a party a magical helping hand often appears that would come forward and help the grateful host in the popping process. People ducking the cork and excited gesticulations are almost a part of the ceremony that goes with opening the bubbly.

After this freak episode I learnt about a syndrome called placomusophobie which describes people who are scared of opening champagne bottles. I have always wondered why do people have random phobias! Sometimes it’s hard to accept but perhaps there is a reason for everything. Cheers🍸

The Empire strikes back!

A sharp ray of sunlight bouncing off the floor caught my sudden attention. The floor as I looked closer was unlike any that I had seen before. The multi hued mosaic was almost reaching out to me to whisper a story. I could not hold back and exclaimed to the commanding officer of the army unit that the floor looked rather unusually pretty. He chuckled and answered that it had an equally unusual story.

We were on a holiday enjoying the hospitality of the Indian army in a beautiful cantonment in the interiors of North India in a hill town called Landsdowne. I must admit that in the chaos of India, the beauty and the tranquility of the military cantonments stand out. Many were set up during the time of British India and stand testimony even today to the keen British eye for town planning and architecture. Landsdowne is a fine example of a well maintained and beautiful army cantonment even today. As I eulogised about the beauty of the cantonment, the army officer began to display a curious sense of mirth, until he shared with me the story of the floor.

The British loved their china. Their precious crockery collection was preserved by a carefully trained set of native bearers who would bring it out only for the officers with due ceremony. The life of the bearers would shine with the china and spotless was their upkeep always. The club was strictly for the British officers and only they had the pleasure to eat off the fine china. It was no surprise that the club with its precious china was a constant bone of contention between the Indian and British officers for decades! Until the Indian independence got announced. As a special farewell was organised for the departing British officers, the grand finale was a feast. It was an evening to remember. The treasures of the land were put out with flourish on the table. The camaraderie was infectious. As the evening progressed the British officers were particularly caught up by the beautiful floor that miraculously adorned their favourite dining area. They wondered how did this magical feature appear almost overnight? The wonderful colours were constantly catching their attention and they could not resist asking the Indian officers how it was made. They learnt to their utter horror that the glaze that caught their fancy was from the remains of the fine crockery that they had preserved all those years. It was cast in cement for posterity so that the Indian officers could walk all over them.

Sometimes revenge is best served on a plate learnt the officers as they gazed at the floor!

A mug of coffee..

An excellent cup of coffee this morning brought my attention to the mug in which it was served. There was nothing special about the mug actually. It’s just like another everyday object that serves a purpose quietly in our lives without making a fuss. As I started reading about it I found that mugs were among the first utensils made by man as the potters wheel was beginning to take shape. The earliest mug known was discovered in an excavation in Greece dating back to 4000 BC!! What a brilliant invention it must have been at that time. Who thought of this? Did this individual even comprehend that the idea would stand the test of time and one day become a part of everyday human existence?
Did he have any idea about the joy that this simple idea would bring into so many lives for times to come? If you jog your memory you will be filled with ‘mug shots’ from your life of having a mug of beer with someone special, or a mug full of hot coffee on a cold winter morning or a mug full of soup in the hills watching the sun set…
It’s such a simple object and also so versatile. If you glance though any retail area you would find a bewildering variety of mugs in different shapes and sizes. In essence it is a great example of a timeless classic! I wonder which of of our modern day inventions will outlast a mug in their utility and purpose!
Our world is full of unsung heroes who did their stuff, lived uncelebrated and left a strong legacy baked in anonymity. Next time you lift a mug raise a toast to its history and take a sip from a timeless human invention. A nod of respect it certainly deserves!

South Indian Filter Coffee … Made in Yemen !

The next time when you savour the aromatic flavours of a cup of South Indian filter coffee spare a moment of prayer for the peaceful resolution of the current state of unrest and strife in Yemen.

Popular Indian lore says that on a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 16th century Baba Budan, a revered sufi saint from India, discovered for himself the wonders of coffee. In his zeal to share what he’d found with his fellows at home, he smuggled seven coffee beans out of the Yemeni port of Mocha, wrapped around his belly. On his return home, he settled himself on the slopes of the Chandragiri Hills in Kadur district, Karnataka. The locals fell in love with their coffee and it has since become an integral part of our taste graphs.

A lot can happen over a cup of coffee. Amen!