Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Day Of Discoveries

Bangalore is changing so rapidly that one even forgets to lament for the loss of old Bangalore ways, so caught up are we in trying to keep track of which roads have suddenly become one-ways, which shops have shut down and what real estate is changing hands.  This week was filled with particularly nice discoveries - exploring some different, new places and finding nooks and crannies where old Bangalore still survives.

Some days ago, I had a lot of miscellaneous shopping to do, so I left home early that morning.  I was headed to an old part of  Bangalore that was once on the outskirts but has now become premium commercial property.  This is the area called Malleshwaram; it has several old shops selling food, utensils, clothes and knick-knacks.  I had to buy some traditional sweets and this time I visited not an old, well known shop but a relatively new place (Maiya's), founded by the younger generation of a famous family of restaurant owners.  This is a modern set-up - glass walled and air-conditioned.  Fortunately, all else remains old-style (including the quality of recipes and service).  This means that when you ask for some sweets to be packed, you are invariably handed a few pieces 'to taste'.  The person serving you rattles off a list of the entire store's contents, hoping to tempt you into buying some more.  He then carries your packets to the billing counter and 'hands you over' to the cashier.  Outside, a smell of freshly brewed 'filter coffee' permeates; customers always have time to stand on the pavement and sip coffee from steel tumblers before they leave.

Also on Malleshwaram's busy and noisy roads, stand some old houses where people still live.  Many of the houses are now rented to commercial establishments or converted into apartment complexes.  But the houses which still exist invariably have some old occupants and on early mornings one can spot them wandering around their gardens, exchanging news with other neighbours or vendors.  This is a sight one rarely sees as the day wears on - perhaps it is too noisy outside or perhaps people get involved in other work.  This morning, I saw several elderly people lingering around, happily immersed in conversation.  I especially enjoyed watching a feisty old woman peering over her garden wall, animatedly talking to an elderly gentleman on the street, who was nodding at periodic intervals, unable to get a word in!

My next stop was a new organic food shop (Buffalo Back) which has a small and eclectic selection of organic foods.  (Apparently Bangalore has the largest number of organic food stores in the country.  Fortunately, these are not chains but individually-owned stores, with a diverse selection of food.)  This particular shop keeps whole organic milk (which has only recently become available in the city), good organic spices and a particularly tasty popcorn.  The popcorn is made with a tiny, local variety of corn and is served without any seasoning.  It makes a good snack for those in between moments.  This morning they also had a basket of small custard apples which looked like they had just been picked.  Very different from the large variety one sees in the shops.  I bought a bagful of these as well.

The next destination was to an American grill store (Weber) - something very new for us and not unwelcome.  We have a long tradition of cooking with wood, charcoal and dried cow dung cakes, but this is no longer viable - environmentally or physically (given the small, enclosed houses of the cities).  While a lot of work has been done in changing the designs of wood fired stoves, these cooking units are mostly developed for industrial or rural markets.  Therefore, having one's own kit of things for home use (something Americans are very good at generating) is very welcome.

I meandered quite a bit while trying to find the store, as the Google map was not very accurate.  In this process, I discovered a tiny lane that led nowhere, with a pretty looking sign in cursive writing, 'Wedding Planners.'  Next to it was an obviously flourishing florist.  I turned back and walked along the parallel street (Haudin Road), which eventually reached the main road opposite Ulsoor lake.  At the corner was a pleasant old house converted into a restaurant (Naachiyaar's).  I stopped to ask for directions and was greeted in the typical Bangalore style of easy, polite familiarity.  I know an old Bangalorean when I see one, and the man in charge of the counter was one such soul.  He gave me clear directions ("Just here, Madam", which is the correct and unfailing answer).  I, in turn, asked what kind of food they made and how long it took to get a take out parcel.  On learning that most things took only ten to fifteen minutes, I promptly launched into a discussion about what I could order (there doesn't seem to be much point in pondering over menus in this kind of a place).  This is a Chettinad restaurant (serving food of the Chettiars - the traders of Tamil Nadu.  Their cuisine is rich in spices and influenced by places the traders would visit, especially eastern Asia).  The cook, who seemed to be hovering somewhere at the back, ambled up and explained what exactly they meant by 'thick curry' as opposed to 'thin curry' and 'dry fry' and I selected some prawns.  I ordered, settled the bill (a very small amount) and headed out.

The grill store was interesting with helpful staff, but all those imported American things were only on display!  However, they reassured me that whenever I needed something, they would make them available at a suitably located dealer or deliver them to my house.  It was interesting to see some of the designs and the accessories and I handed them a small list of requirements.  Though I haven't tried the system yet, everything looks well made, so I hope to be able to grill and smoke and roast food outdoors, on my terrace soon.

I returned to the restaurant and, sure enough, a plastic bag lay waiting for me.  There was no one to check the receipt or ask who had come to collect the food.  The cook had presumably returned to the kitchen.  I took the packet home and opened it out.  There, lined with fresh banana leaves, was my lunch - soft parottas, still warm, and a large number of prawns in a ginger-black pepper ("medium hot", which was the mildest of their preparations!) masala with a bag of thin, ubiquitous gravy on the side.  The prawns were fiery and delicious and went down rather fast!  It was a relief to eat reasonably-priced food that was well cooked and not loaded with red chilly powder.

While I enjoyed these discoveries, I found later, after talking to people, that everyone has a different view.  As with most experiences, these are highly subjective and depend on who one meets, what one does and sometimes, even - the time of day!  But I had a wonderful time, and I will probably re-visit these places in the near future.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Marvellous Maillard Reaction

One of the perks of cooking is being able to smell all the delicious smells that emanate as the food cooks.  This is often more satisfying than actually eating the food; one gets saturated after a few hours of just sniffing and tasting.  I recently discovered that several of the aromas produced during baking or roasting are caused by chemical reactions between amino acids and sugars, broadly classified as the Maillard reaction.  This array of chemical reactions was discovered by the French scientist, Louis Camille Maillard as part of his PhD thesis (discovered in 1912 and published in 1913).  The reactions describe how amino acids (components of proteins) react with reducing sugars (generally found in carbohydrates).  The catalyst is often heat (provided when we begin cooking foods) and the specific reaction depends on the kind of reactants, the pH, the temperature, the water and fat content etc.

The result is a browning (which is different from caramelization) and the formation of many different molecules which have specific aromas and flavours.  These molecules can break down into other smaller molecules (each with different properties of smell and taste); thus a gamut of flavours and textures can be created.  The Maillard reaction is partly responsible for the range of brown colours (formed by compounds called melanoidins) and roasted flavours of many breads, cookies, cakes, beers and popcorn.

I did not realize how important these reactions would become in my life until I began using my cast iron pans regularly.  Of course, these reactions have always been going on in the kitchen, but I did not give them much thought and never dreamt that so many changes would belong to just one family of reactions.  I began to pay more attention to the appearance and smell of food when I bought a book on artisanal breads by Peter Reinhart and began to experiment with a different kind of baking.  These breads are made with very wet dough that is fermented slowly overnight and baked at high temperatures in a moist environment, to give rise to a distinctive outer brown crust and inner open crumb.  The moisture in the dough, the surface tension and aeration are all important as is the temperature at which it will be cooked.  I had to experiment with several different conditions to get a good loaf.

Subsequently Smokey Joe (a small turquoise blue charcoal grill) entered my life and for a while I did not know what to do with it.  In order to understand the process of grilling and barbecuing, I bought a book written by an Argentine chef, Francis Mallman.  This book is titled 'Seven Fires, Grilling The Argentine Way' and it describes seven different ways of applying heat in order to grill foods (and improvised versions for people who do not have access to traditional Argentine grills and large open spaces).  Much of the cooking is done using direct heat of different kinds or in very hot cast iron pans.  I recently began with the simplest possible dishes - crusty potatoes and charred tomatoes, both of which tasted wonderful.  This was largely because while I was throwing in the ingredients, standing back and waiting, the Maillard reaction was doing its stuff - producing crisp, brown, delicious crusts on the outside and leaving the inside tender.

For me, this is a new way of thinking about heat and ingredients - trying to get a perfect roasted or slightly charred surface without burning it, trying to gauge when food is ready by its smell and appearance, trying to retain the lightness and freshness of the food (that is so easily lost on overcooking even slightly).  Of realizing the wonders of high heat, when used in controlled ways.

I am indeed indebted to this wise French scientist and to many chefs and cooks who perfected this art over the years.  Of course, the process does not end here, one can create endless variations by tweaking these reactions.  Molecular Gastronomy is exploring these aspects in academic and commercial ways while home cooks like me are discovering a new way of enjoying the results of this chemistry.

I have no pictures of my attempts at grilling as yet.  I am attaching here some pictures of my experiments with different kinds of breads.  As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, it is unfortunate that I cannot attach the smells as well!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Do Yogis Dream Of Lycric Shorts?

This poem emerges after myriad experiences - reading the April 2012 issue of Vanity Fair (which describes new American yoga empires being set up in the name of famous Indian gurus), watching new yoga schools, styles and stores mushrooming in our neighbourhood and pondering over Patanjali's ancient Yoga Sutras.

This poem was written on the eve of the festival of lights and I wish all my blog readers a happy Deepavali (Diwali).  Interestingly, the word guru means 'one who leads you from darkness to light' (gu - darkness, ru - light).

The title of the poem is inspired by Philip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?"

Do Yogis Dream Of Lycric Shorts?

I read a hand-me-down issue
Of Vanity Fair, two-oh-one-two
Of Yoga schools, apparel new
From Texas down to Timbuktoo
And in my mind arose these thoughts,
"Do Yogis dream of lycric shorts?"

The Brand Ambassadors look so strong
Well tanned, with their hair rather long
"Try our Yoga," they all proclaim,
"Be part of our new branded name."
As I read this, my mind retorts,
"Do Yogis dream of lycric shorts?"

Neon signboards that glow next door
Announce a brand-new Yoga store
Urge you to stop and give a thought
To Yogic gifts that must be bought.
(The things that Yogis really sought
Did they include new lycric shorts?)

I took a journey in my mind
To try and see what I might find,
Dredged up a Yogi I had met
Asked him if he would like to get
A brand new pair of lycric shorts
He smiled at me and said, "Why not?"

"Really," I asked, "What would you do?
If I got a pair for you?"
"I'd give them to a needy soul,
This world is hard and takes its toll.
Creates the haves and the have-nots
Invents Yogis and lycric shorts."

A twinkle in his eye appeared
He stroked a non-existent beard
Said, "Dreams in dreams - they matter not
We aren't Yogis - and these aren't shorts.
We can but try and still the mind
Not hurt others and just be kind.

In our dreams or our wakened state
Hope that our thoughts may soon abate.
Our actions, guided by our souls,
Do not conform to chosen roles.
And when the mind is free of thoughts
There is no I, there are no shorts."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Aimless In The Airport

A late night finishing odds and ends combined with an early morning flight that is successively delayed without intimation, is enough to ensure surreal airport experiences.  No hallucinogenic substances are required to induce that feeling of free floating while still being on firm land.  I drifted through the check in counter with loads of time to spare, wafted gracefully through security without the customary alarm at seeing long queues, then found myself in Bangalore's relatively new terminal with several hours to kill.

It was not as difficult a task as it sounds.  Impaired abilities make it considerably easier to while the hours away.  One needs to look at everything many times over and then jog those neural connections to understand exactly what the eyes are seeing or the ears hearing.  Apart from resisting the temptation to curl up on one of the chairs and fall asleep, I had an easy time of it.  There was one difficult moment, I confess.  A casual glance at a giant wall clock gave me a sudden nasty jolt; I felt I had missed the flight announcement (and the flight) to Delhi - but soon I realized that that particular clock was set to Hong Kong time.  Pretty tricky, all this hi tech, free floating information.

Some of my time was spent browsing in the airport bookshop.  As I was taking so long at every shelf, the sales people offered me a stool, upon which I gratefully sank, and continued my perusal of cookbooks.  Fifty Favourite Karela Recipes - hmmm.  I wondered who would want to eat so much bitter gourd.  Of course, it turned out to be Kerala not Karela, but I had spent a few interesting minutes pondering over this.  The next shelf was labelled 'Self Improvement'.  How I longed to pick up a large number of these books and pass them on to the Air India counter.  But there were other things to do.  Thoughts of food had unconsciously made me hungry.  I surveyed the options.

I decided against the sandwiches and the ready to go meals.  There were two 'live counters' which looked promising.  One was a dosa counter and I peered over the edge of the wooden framework to watch the chef deftly pouring out the batter, which sizzled on the skillet.  Late nights have unfortunate effects on the digestive tract and the thought of eating this dosa with spicy chutney and sambar was not to my liking.

I moved on to the pasta bar which was making omelettes at this hour.  The chef there beat a couple of eggs effortlessly, swirled them into a pan, added onion-tomato-green chilly and flipped them.  A part of the mixture fell on the floor.  I watched with rapt interest.  As he made no attempt to retrieve the fallen out egg, I concluded that hygiene levels were good here.  (I also internally sympathized with him.  I have had my own flipping problems on days.)

I ordered an omelette without green chilly.  "Madam, choose your bread and toast it," the chef instructed.  My eyes widened - a choice of white and brown bread!  I toasted one slice of each.  My omelette meanwhile was ready (perfectly flipped).  I sat at a small table and surveyed it.  It was teeming with tiny slices of green chilly.  Oh well, just another of those tests of Life and Character.  I endeavoured to eat my omelette with relish (the mental kind) and, to a large extent, succeeded.  Physically, I ate it with Kissan's Fresh Tomato Ketchup from a small sachet.  The brown bread was pleasant.  The white bread was exactly the same as the Modern Bread of the seventies - the same tasteless, textureless slices that I remembered; this induced a tremendous feeling of nostalgia and thankfulness that I no longer had to eat this everyday.

I looked around at fellow passengers interestedly.  My mind roamed at random, making up possible stories about the origins of these people.  Hmm - software engineer, land owner, politician, Usha Uthup...  Here my mind came to a standstill.  Was that plump figure dressed in an orange and pink saree with armloads of silver bangles really the popular Indian 'crooner' (as she is called), who has sung in an amazing number of languages - or was it just a dream?  I looked carefully a few more times.  Not many people could carry off that saree - and also get through metal detectors with all those accessories.  Yes, it was indeed Usha Uthup (or a startling look alike).  I wondered if I should take a picture, then decided to be safe and desist.  There was a call for Kolkata passenegers and she drifted away.  I wondered what she was here for.  Perhaps she was promoting the next Super Singer Junior T.V. show. I thought of one of her popular songs - a new version of 'Dum Maro Dum' ; this only added to the general whacky atmosphere that had built up.  (Just for information, the link to the original song is given below.)

Next on the agenda - tea?  I debated this issue for a while then decided against it.  I had had enough previous tea thing troubles.  Decided to go on a longish stroll instead, from end to end of the terminal.  Left the white bread for the sparrows (Bangalore airport is perhaps the only one with sparrows living inside the terminal).  There used to be lots of them flocking to the restaurant area but now I just see them sitting on signboards.  Perhaps they are wary of passengers who try to feed them white bread.

I walked for a while until the flight was announced - the new Air India Dreamliner.  Sounded like just what the doctor had recommended.  I managed to make my way along with hundreds of others, into the gargantuan craft, to find someone sitting on my seat.  He obligingly agreed to get up after I had showed him my boarding pass.  I sighed to myself as I sat down.  It was reassuring that even with new aircrafts and airports, some things never changed.
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