Fasting and Feasting – Ramadan and Eid

12 Aug

I was humbled and excited that the lovely team at Dishoom asked me to write a guest post on Ramadan and Eid for their blog. Here is the piece!

http://www.dishoom.com/2012/07/fasting-and-feasting-ramadan-and-eid/

– Rida

Pistachio Rose: Rethinking Indian Desserts

26 May

At a chocolate tasting event in London in February, I met Rekha who was in the process of starting her own range of Anglo-Indian desserts inspired by her bi-cultural heritage. A month later, her boutique bakery Pistachio Rose was born.

Last month, Rekha and I chatted over chai because I felt that her inspiration behind establishing Pistachio Rose resonates closely with the essence of this blog – how cultural heritage and identity influence what people eat, cook and share culinarily with others. Typically, Anglo-Indian cuisine is a term used to describe dishes that adopted aspects of British cuisine and blended them with Indian spices and ingredients during the British Raj. However, Rekha’s inspiration draws not from nostalgia for a past era but her personal reference points of growing up in an Indian-English household.

Born to an English mother and a Gujarati father whose family migrated from Uganda to the UK in the late-70s, Rekha has had a penchant for cooking and baking since as long as she can remember. “For me it’s always been about flavours and delicately balancing them, which requires time and attention” she remarks also recalling how even as an 11-year old she prepared a 3-course meal on Mother’s Day.

Rekha began her career in food buying for a large UK supermarket before transitioning into working as buyer for Amazon. A few years down the road, she no longer found her chosen career path fulfilling and craved a change. A trip to India in 2010 for a cousin’s wedding provided the required impetus for her to consider formalizing her passion for baking and cooking into a formidable product line.

As much as Rekha’s inspiration is derived from childhood memories of spending time on the counter-top of her paternal grandmother’s kitchen in Bracknell nibbling on churma, a major motivation has been what she feels is the underrepresentation of Indian desserts in the London foodscape. As she observes, “often, what you find in the market is Indian sweets that are artificially coloured and sweetened and dripping in oil. I wondered what sort of desserts could be created that are authentic but also clean and simple in their flavour profile.” She believes that Pistachio Rose is all about recreating Indian sweets improvised and perfected over time in a manner that retains their heritage. The English influence is reflective in the clean flavours and presentation and making the sweets less overwhelming.

Rekha started her baking business with cakes such as the eponymous Pistachio Rose cake, recreating the classic sweet gulab jamun  – a deep-fried cardamom-spiced sponge served in rose syrup and sprinkled with pistachios, and then developed a range of chocolate products such as the tarts and naans.

I have tried the chocolate naans and spiced chocolate tarts and was blown away. The white chocolate tart is infused with a blend of crushed fennel seeds, aniseed & menthol and the dark chocolate tart is infused with a signature chai blend. The subtlety with which she has introduced the spices into the tarts is admirable since you can taste a hint on your palate without the flavours being overbearing.

Her latest creation, which I have yet to try, is the mukhwas – a beautifully aromatic biscuit containing a gentle blend of betel leaf, areca nut & other spices, decorated with candied aniseed & fennel (pictured below).

Rekha gets excited at the prospect of being able to create and present an afternoon tea banquet experience featuring her signature desserts and a lot more. She has many other interesting creations up her sleeve that are a twist on the Indian dessert, which I won’t divulge now but remain excited to see how they shape up.

She has participated in the Chocolate Festival in Bristol and the Taste of India in the last two months. To remain updated on where she will be next and what’s next on the horizon you can follow Pistachio_Rose on Twitter or browse through her blog Crumbs and Chronicles

**Note: All photographs in this post are courtesy of Rekha

La Gelatiera and the Renaissance Ice Cream Men

31 Mar

The origins of ice cream can be traced back to the Tang period in China 618-907 AD where the Chinese heated buffalo, cow and goat milk along with grounded rice, allowed it to ferment and then buried it in snow. Some accounts suggest that the Chinese taught Arab traders how to combine syrups and snow, which morphed into an early version of what we now know as the sorbet and it was then the Arab traders who taught Venetians and Romans how to make this novel frozen delicacy.

It is also widely believed that the tradition of Italian gelato began during the Italian Renaissance. The famed Medici family in Florence sponsored a contest, searching for the greatest frozen dessert. A man named Ruggeri, a chicken farmer, happened to win the contest for his tasty frozen dessert of sweet fruit juice and ice. Other popular accounts suggest that gelato was infact invented by Bernardo Buontalenti, an Italian architect who was hired by the Medici family in 1565 to cater banquets. He created frozen desserts from a mixture of frozen sweet milk with egg yolks and other flavorings, which became widely popular but mainly among the elite.  Meanwhile, in the South, the frozen rendition was lower in fat, predominantly water-based, slightly higher in sugar content due to the intense flavourings and was called Sorbetto, known today as Sorbet.

* * * * * * *

Let’s come back to 5 centuries later. My mother is the sort of person who will skip a meal just to be able to eat double the amount of ice cream you should typically have as one helping of dessert. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit her passion for this frozen treat.

But that didn’t deter me from discovering La Gelatiera, an artisan gelateria in Covent Garden, through a Chocolate Walks deserts tasting event in February. Ever since, I have returned every week, sometimes even more frequently not just to enjoy the delectable range of inventive flavours that never cease to surprise me but also the conversations with the friendly staff and owners.

Opened by three friends; Antonio, Simona and Stephane, La Gelatiera is truly a labour of love. Antonio’s paternal grandfather was a gelato maker in Calabria, southern Italy and this new venture is his homage to the tradition of gelato-making that he fondly remembers from his childhood.

One can sense the owners’ passion and dedication towards their craft and the choice of name (which literally means the machine that churns gelato, photographed below) embodies their desire to share the gelato-making process with those who visit. You can also peak into their lab through its transparent roof to catch a glimpse of the gelato churning process.

La Gelatiera

Co-owner Antonio spent a year researching and carefully studying books on gelato-making and he describes the process as being somewhat mathematical since it involves meticulously balancing the sugar, water and fat content in each of the ingredients that is used. It’s as much chemistry as it is an art. This approach lies at the heart of artisanal gelato-making and lends La Gelatiera’s products the depth that communicates the effort and love that went into creating them. 

The owners are inspired by the Slow Food movement, which originated in Italy to preserve traditional cuisine and agricultural biodiversity. La Gelatiera is committed to sustainability not only in the use of fresh, seasonal and organic ingredients but also by using reclaimed wood for the stools and small tables and using a water recycling machine. The milk is locally sourced, organically certified and pasteurized on premises.

With flavours such as black sesame, saffron, prosecco and peaches, wensleydale cheese and blackcurrant, La Gelatiera is pushing the boundaries of creative experimentation. My favourite is the salty caramel that is nearly as good as the salted butter caramel ice cream I had at Berthillon in Paris in January.  The mango gelato is also delightful especially since they clearly know that the best mango gelato can only be made with Pakistani mangoes! The flavours change on a daily basis so there may be days on which your preferred flavour is not available.

I was curious to know whether innovation in gelato flavours is also taking place in the Italian foodscape. According to Antonio, experimentation in avant-garde gelato flavours is not very common but it is taking place largely focused in the North of Italy in cities such as Milan, Florence and Bologna. Antonio draws inspiration from Japanese and French cuisine and he recently collaborated with a French chef to develop a savoury gelato flavour – Delice des Cabasses provencal goat cheese with real truffle & honey. He hopes to continue the practice of collaborating with other chefs to merge flavour profiles and influences. In addition to gelato, you can’t escape the aromas of La Gelatiera’s home-made cakes and desserts such as panettone and tartufo, which are freshly baked on premises and inspired by co-owner Simona’s family recipes from Modena.

Panettone

La Gelatiera

27 New Row

Covent Garden

WC2N 4LA, London

What Makes the Shake Shack Burger Taste So Gooooood?

12 Feb

In the summer of 2008 just after I had graduated from college and moved back to New York, Cousin M moved from Karachi to NYC. In Karachi, she used to rave about the burger from Mr. Burger in Boat Basin, which she liked to call a desi burger – a cross between a spicy bun kebab and your regular fast food burger. Cousin M always knew what would appeal to our palates and she was the Encyclopedia of Karachi Dining as far as we were concerned.

Meanwhile in another part of the world, a roadside burger joint Shake Shack opened its windows in 2004 in Madison Square Park, NYC. But of course, it took Cousin M’s arrival in New York and her continuing tradition of knowing exactly what we would love that I discovered the Shack Burger. Having passed by Madison Square Park regularly, I was discouraged by the impossibly long line of burger enthusiasts inching gradually towards what seemed like the finish line aka the orders window. Now that I have stood in the line countless times, I can assure you it makes for great moments of overhearing celeb gossip and striking up conversation with others who are wondering exactly what you are “why on earth have I been standing here for an hour for a damn burger.”

I don’t claim that Shake Shack has the best burger in NYC but it’s certainly amongst the best and here’s why –  it simply doesn’t try too hard. It takes what you and I conceive to be an average burger and elevates it to a higher level by perfecting the core components of the burger without adorning it with multiple toppings and fancy ingredients. There isn’t too much going on which distracts away from what the burger should essentially be about – the meat, the bun and the sauce.

Here is a deconstructed Shack Burger ($4.50 Single / $7.00 Double) via Serious Eats

The Shack Burger Deconstructed

  • The Meat: 4-ounce patties made from a proprietary blend of sirloin, brisket, and short rib. New York locations use meat ground by Pat LaFrieda. All burgers delivered fresh daily, never frozen.
  • The Cheese: Very melty and mild American.
  • The Toppings: Green leaf lettuce, sliced Roma tomatoes, thin-sliced onions, pickles.
  • The Sauces: Thousand Island-style Shack Sauce, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise.
  • The Bun: Martin’s potato roll, toasted in butter.

Last summer, Serious Eats decided to put an end to the ongoing debate in “burgercentric circles” between the three major heavyweights of the high-quality fast-food burger world by carrying out “The First Bi-Coastal Side-By-Side Taste Test” comparing everything from the meat-per-dollar ratio to the types of cheese and toppings. The contenders being California’s legendary In-N-Out Burger, Virginia’s Five Guys (with branches in NYC and all over the country) and finally New York’s very own Shake Shack, the youngest of the lot.

Having tasted all 3, for me it’s a close call between In-N-Out and Shake Shack but perhaps due to the fact that I’ve had the Shack Burger on numerous occasions, it marginally edges out the other. Not unexpectedly, Shake Shack also emerged the winner of the Serious Eats taste test mainly due to their dominance in the meat department:

“The Shackburger, on the other hand, is a marvel of beefy engineering. The flavor and texture of the beef patty is second to none, with an intense beefiness and cooking method designed to maximized browning, and thus our carnal pleasure. Yes, their toppings and bun are great, but at the Shack, it’s all about the beef”

My recommendation: Pair it with cheesy fries and a chocolate malt shake. And for the men reading this – apparently Shake Shack is Padma Laxmi’s favourite burger joint in NYC.

Ministry of Crab

25 Jan

Last month, Ministry of Crab opened its doors to seafood aficionados in the newly restored and charming 400 year old Dutch Hospital in Colombo. The resteraunt has kept the original design of the building intact, including the high ceilings and tiled floors with the addition of the simple orange and black color scheme for it’s interior. It is co-owned by cricketers Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene and their partner Dharshan Munidasa (also the founder and owner of Nihonbashi – Colombo’s premier Japanese restaurant).

Sri Lankan mud crabs are widely famous, particularly in Singapore but prime quality crabs are rarely available locally. Ministry of Crab is committed to changing that by creating a local market for export quality crabs. The restaurant doesn’t only serve crabs but also other varieties of seafood including calamari, squid and cuttlefish, black tiger prawns or fresh water prawns. All the seafood on the menu is absolutely fresh and nothing is frozen in fact the crabs are kept live in a tank at the back of the kitchen for patrons to take a look before they are cooked.

The open kitchen

According to the “constitution” Ministry of Crab aims to be one of the lowest “food-mile” restaurants in the world i.e. they do not import any major ingredients. This was reiterated by co-owner Dharshan who told us that he prepares his own version of sauces like Tabasco. He laughingly remarked, “good food is like good people, you have to be honest with it.” In the same vein of not using or selling commercial products there is no Coca Cola or other soft drinks on the menu.

After repeated attempts at making a reservation, we finally headed there one evening for dinner in early Jan. Upon arrival, we were handed some sturdy bibs so we anticipated things getting messy!

The crabs come in six sizes, small (700-800g), medium, large, extra large, extra extra large and colossal (1200g upwards). We indulged in the small Pepper Crab (above) on Dharshan’s recommendation, which was accompanied by claw breakers to extract the meat from the claws.  The pepper gravy was thick and generous, not too overpowering and wonderfully seasoned.

The prawn curry (below) packed in a lot of flavour with just the right amount of heat, allowing the rest of the ingredients to shine through. It works well with the redolent garlic rice, which was ridiculously delicious. I could give an arm and a leg to learn how to prepare rice in that manner. We also tried the leek fried rice, but I preferred the garlic rice over this one.

Prawn Curry

Ministry of Crab is by no means easy on the pocket, expect to pay around Rs. 2,500 (US$ 25) per person (without alcohol) but once you bite into the succulent and tender crab meat you will forget the price tag. Also keep in mind you are also being served fresh and high quality produce and ingredients, which are all locally sourced.

Ministry of Crab

Old Dutch Hospital,
Colombo 01
Tel: 234CRAB (2342722)

http://www.ministryofcrab.com/

Photo Essay: Kuala Lumpur and Malacca

19 Jan

Last month, Farva and I spent a few days in Malaysia – specifically, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca. We decided to document our time there through snapshots of the food we had the pleasure of trying and the stories it unveiled.

Entrance to Jonker Walk in Malacca

The Portuguese Settlement in Malacca

We spent a day in Malacca, a nostalgic city with a protracted colonial history. Malacca was colonized by the Portuguese in the 1500s, followed by the Dutch in the 1600s and finally the British arrived in the 1800s. The footprint of the trifecta of colonizers and waves of immigration from China over centuries are reflected in the cuisine most prominently. Peranakan and Portuguese-Eurasian food for instance, is the product of cross cultural marriages between local Malays and Chinese immigrants during 15th and 16th century, and between the Malays/Chinese/Indian and Portuguese during the 16th and 17th century. Malacca’s rich Peranakan culture (the name given to the descendants of early Chinese migrants to Malacca) has given birth to a type of cuisine commonly called ‘Nyonya’ cuisine. As a result of inter-marriages, the Nyonya style of cooking blends Chinese flavours with malay herbs and Indian spices and the recipes have been improved to perfection over time.

Beef Rendang at Restoran Peranakan

At the no-frills family-run Restoran Peranakan (see end of post for details) – we had delicious Beef Rendang, tender slices of beef blended with chilli, lemongrass, turmeric and coconut milk. Beef Rendang is also associated with Hari Raya, the yearly celebration by Muslims that marks the end of Ramadhan. According to tradition, due to the flavourful aroma of coconut milk and spices cooking in a wok for hours, those who were fasting during Ramadhan would crave for the fasting month to be over so that they could indulge in this delicacy on Hari Raya.

A notable culinary remnant from the Portuguese era are the famous Portuguese egg tarts or pastéis de nata (above). Flaky on the outside and creamy on the inside.

The Nyonya pineapple tarts (below) are mouth watering pastries wrapped in home-made pineapple jam with just the right amount of sweetness.


Laksa, which literally translates as ‘many’ from Sanskrit is a reference to the recipe traditionally having numerous ingredients. An aromatic dish of rice vermicelli and yellow noodles in a broth with coconut milk and curry paste (comprising chilli, garlic, Asian shallots and toasted belachan (shrimp paste)), laksa is a Malacca staple.  There are several varieties of laksa but the most popular (and photographed below) is curry laksa.

Curry Laksa

Fruit vendor selling durians, rambutans and dragonfruit outside a Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur

Dragonfruit

In KL we spent an afternoon in Little India where food hawker stalls line the tiny narrow lanes selling everything from shimmery chiffons to the Don 2 soundtrack.

Fried Indian snacks

Ever since I first visited a Malaysian restaurant (Penang in NYC), I’ve been in love with Roti canai. I used to think that the measure of how good a Malaysian restaurant is by how good their Roti canai is. However, I’ve now learnt that what is considered to be an integral part of the menus of Malaysian restaurants in New York or London does not feature on the menus of sit-down restaurants in KL. It’s the quintessential street food to be enjoyed while sipping a chilled soft drink from mamak stalls (food establishments run by Tamil Muslims). The cripsy roti is served with daal curry – a gravy made from lentils with carrots, and potatoes, chicken or fish curry with a dash of sambal for added spiciness.

Excellent Blogs on Food and Travel in Malaysia

Eating Asia

Rasa Malaysia

A Whiff of Lemongrass

Restaurants We Visited

Restoran Peranakan, Malacca
Restoran Peranakan on Heeren Street is the courtyard of a huge Peranakan house. The menu is limited but the food quality is very good. Prices range from RM 10 – 15 per person (US$ 3-5).

Estana Curry House, Jalan Nagasari, KL

You won’t find this place in the guidebooks but it was recommended to us by a taxi driver.  Roti canai is delicious and only RM 1.5 (50 cents). Need I say more?

MEATliquor

12 Dec

I’m always on the lookout for a great burger. Not just any burger but the kind that you crave more and more with every bite. During a trip to NYC in September, my friend, A, and I had a conversation about the best burgers in NYC. The criteria being the texture of the bun, the quality of the beef patty and lastly the choice of toppings. We both had a long list of the best burgers we had tasted in the city based on those attributes but we recognized that we had not been very adventurous with burgers in London. So when MEATliquor opened its doors in London in early November, the brand new eatery was a must on my to-try-list. It’s only been a month and I’ve already clocked in 3 visits.

From the outside, the location is unassuming but the interior is gothic and edgy with black, red and white animal murals painted on the walls and ceilings with and red neon lights screaming ‘LIQUOR!’ The blaring rock music is quite loud so let’s just say this may not the most date-friendly location.

I haven’t tried the drinks so unfortunately can’t comment on the ‘liquor’ half of the establishment but there is plenty to be said about the food. I tried the deep fried tangy pickles, incredibly crunchy and moreish and wonderful when smothered in the accompanying garlicky blue cheese sauce. I liked the shoe string fries that were served on my first visit but by my second visit they just seemed like regular sized fries.

The menu is fairly straight-forward. No mention of the provenance of the meat or types of cheese etc. I, personally, don’t care much for detailed descriptions as long as what is placed in front of me blows my mind. As I took the first bite of my chilli cheeseburger I knew I was in meat utopia. The meat-to-bun-to-condiment ratio is just right and the burger itself is big enough to satiate you but not heavy enough to make you feel like you can’t move after eating it. The sourdough bun encases the patty, which is juicy, chargrilled on the outside, pink in the center; topped with melted cheese, onions, and ketchup and in this case abundant green chillies (very spicy even by my standards).

The burgers are priced between £6 to £8 and the sides are between £3 to £5 making this a very affordable meal.

MEATliquor is a ballad to the meat lover but probably a vegetarian or even a kosher abiding person’s worst nightmare. Be prepared for long queues at peak dinner time. In order to avoid that, I went on a Saturday just after noon and got a table instantly. MEATliquor is closed on Sundays and Mondays but brace yourself for some meat and cheese goodness the rest of the week.

Meat Liquor
74 Welbeck Street
London W1G 0BA

Haleem – A Subcontinental Delight

14 Oct

The advent of Muharram every year was a period of excitement for all the young ones who were fairly oblivious to the religious significance of the occasion but eagerly anticipated the food adventures that awaited them.

Muharram, for the unacquainted, marks the commencement of a period of mourning for Shia Muslims to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, Muhammad’s grandson in the epic Battle of Karbala (modern day Iraq). In Karachi, where I grew up, the first ten days of Muharram witnessed a series of gatherings eulogizing this historical event. At the end of these gatherings, tabarruk, which literally translates as a token of blessing would be given to all attendees. It included an assortment of food items both sweet and savoury including haleem. 

Haleem – words can’t do it justice but at best it can be described as a combination of cracked wheat, lentils and shredded meat (usually beef or mutton) cooked tirelessly over slow heat for hours preferably even overnight and pounded to reach a thick consistency. It is then decorated with caramelized onions, slivers of ginger, finely cut green chillies, and sprinkled with lemon juice and served with naan.

I can’t remember a time in my life where I haven’t craved eating plate after plate after plate of haleem. Partly because of childhood memories and partly because it’s the most satiating dish I have ever tasted – the ultimate comfort food.

It remains unclear why haleem came to be associated with Muharram. A tradition, though unverified, reveals that a member of Hussain’s family ordered the dish to be cooked after the tragedy of Karbala. Even to this day, amongst Shia Muslims in the Subcontinent haleem is associated with Muharram.

The origins of Haleem, however, may not necessarily have been subcontinental:

“According to food historians haleem was a pastoral West Asian dish, primarily Persian, that travelled across continents and time to finally find fame and sophistication in Hyderabad. Given the Persian origin, haleem is eaten during Muharram and Ramzan by Shias, which explains why it didn’t gain popularity in places with predominantly Afghan or Burrani influence, such as Delhi, Rampur, Bhopal.

In its robust rusticity, haleem is much like the other Ramzan dish, nihari, began life as an unsophisticated, one-dish meal prepared by soldiers and sailors. Its popularity in the Barkas area near the Charminar in Hyderabad, where the Nizam’s barracks were, is probably testimony to its military past. Later, as it started being served in the finest homes of Lucknow and Hyderabad, two royal courts with a larger congregation of Shias, the recipe evolved.

(Source: The original ‘slow food’ staple – http://bit.ly/qHvluK )

What is fascinating to me is the inherent contradiction in when the dish is cooked and served. It is associated with celebratory occasions such as weddings and iftaars (the ritual of opening the fast at sundown) in Ramazan but equally with periods of mourning such as Muharram. Yet, no matter what time of the year or time of the day, the narrow lanes of Burns Road in Karachi are inundated with haleem vendors serving plate after plate from ladles dipped in large pots. The hygienic standards may be questionable but the taste never is.

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