Restaurant Week India

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Organised twice a year in March and September by Desi Restaurant Week Events Pvt. Ltd., Restaurant Week India or RWI is a niche culinary event held in 5 major cities of India, Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. I got introduced to the concept in 2013 while visiting Delhi with two of my closest friends. The concept was new to me then as the top hotels and restaurants were offering their best recipes at the fraction of a la carta prices. That was done by hotels of course as part of their brand building, but it suited to my palate and purse quite well. When else one can imagine to have a three course dinner at a top five star restaurants for 1000 bucks!. The dinner we had at Varq, Taj Palace in Delhi in 2013 was really memorable and we enjoyed the ambience and the dishes both while being pampered by the staff of the restaurant.

At Taj Palace Delhi, 2013

At Taj Palace Delhi, 2013

After a gap of two years, I joined the event once again this year on a social visit to Delhi. I booked a table for my brother and sister’s family at ITC Sheraton’s restaurant Dakshin, known for its authentic south Indian recipes. It was my first time there and the occasion was special for my younger brother. RWI offers you fixed price menu. We had to choose from an elaborate menu which had all possible options. We were helped by Avinash, the affable restaurant manager. Since we were a large group and all were vegetarian on the day(Ganesh Chaturthi), we had the opportunity to taste almost everything on the RWI menu of Dakshin.

The appetizers were served first. It included Cauliflower Melagu Peratti, Kuzhipaniyaram and Vadai of the day, washed down with ever dependable butter milk. The freshness and taste of them, sat the right tone for a great evening. There were lots of spice condiments to tingle the tongue including the curd marinated and fried red chilies, a southern delicacy. I placed most of them in a neat order on my banana leaf lined thali and kept on using them to spice up the food. The main course consisted of Ennai Kathrikai (eggplant), Tomato Pappu (Lentils), Ambat(Lentils with Spinach) and Urlai Varuval(Potato). These were relished with appams, parrotas and neru dosas.  While Appams were crisp, Neeru Dosas were soft and delicate. Although I had been avoiding rich diets recently, I threw all cautions to the wind and immersed myself literally in the food paradise that was laid out for us at Dakshin. Everybody ate to his or her heart contentment. The company of brothers and sisters and a pretty to-be-new member of my family was no less the reason for enjoying these gastronomical delights in a great spirit.IMG_5350

IMG_5346The main course was followed by some mind blowing sweet dishes pronounced as Basundi(Rice), Elaneer Payasam(Coconut Milk) and Adai Pradhaman(Rice and Jaggery). We tasted all of them in smaller quantities as our stomachs were rounded well by then. The helpful staff including the chief chef and waiter Babu were taking a good care of us. The beetle leaves were last to come and I did not miss them either. Just as we were about to leave, my brother in law smelled the aroma of fresh filter coffee being prepared for some other guests. The aroma was amazing and enticing and though we had paid the bills, we sat back to enjoy the final delicacy of the day, the filter coffee served in South Indian style in small steel glass and a steel saucer. It was one of the finest coffee I ever had in my life. What a great evening it turned out to be! I thanked God and my sister and brothers for a memorable evening. I think, I had the best of Restaurant Week India!rwi_banner

Food Delights of Indore

Savoring Kesaria Peda at Savanriya Sweets, Indore

Savoring Kesaria Peda at Savanriya Sweets, Indore

Roaming around cities in India, you frequently come across some small around- the-corner food shops and stalls which offer you amazing gastronomical delights. During one such visit to Indore, I came across the ‘Savanriya Sweets’ selling only Kesariya Peda(soft dumpling of milk-khoya). The shop is in a very small corner of Bajrang Mandir of Subhash Chowk, Rajwada, Indore. The gentleman there was selling some saffron tinged small yellowish peda. I was attracted by his confidence in selling a single sweet product in this busy market. Only if one has that deep confidence in your product, one will do that.

I asked him to let me taste his product first. I popped one into my mouth and rolled my tongue over it. It was really soft and yummy. I have earlier tasted pedas of Mathura and Lucknow and relished them a lot always, but this too was really good. The saffron tinge was really making a difference. I liked it a lot and ordered a portion more. Everybody else in the group looking at our facial expression in favor of peda, tasted themselves and relished it equally if not more. I thanked the shop keeper for making and  selling this sweet delight.

After savoring the peda and satisfying our sweet tooth, I moved to try one more very popular recipe of Indore at ‘Joshi Dahi Wada Wale’. This shop right in shoppers’ paradise of Indore-Sarrafa Bazar(Jewellers Market), is doing tasty dahi wada for decades. I too reached there with my group. We entered the shop and there were few persons already eating them in big paper bowls. The size of dahi-wada too was one of the biggest, we had seen or eaten anywhere in India. We ordered too and soon were offered big paper bowl of that, with curd almost overflowing. As soon as I had the first bite of it, I realized that this was really good and one of the best I had ever. The perfect balance of hardness and softness of it was really the key thing. It was really yummy and no amount of explanation in words will suffice for the satisfaction I had by actually eating it. I was really happy at my choice.

One more interesting recipe I noticed it at shop was, ‘Bhutte-ki-Khees‘. I was enticed by the name of recipe first and decided to try it myself. It was made of grated corn and is a Malwan specialty. The taste was really good. I had never had any similar dish in any part of India. The preparation was simple and perfect. I read about  this recipe afterwards, in Tarala Dalal’s writing too and was happy to have relished it at one of the best shops in India. I had my stomach full by now and had decided to skip the lunch, more so perhaps to retain the test of the gastronomical delights, I just had in Indore.

The sacrifice of lunch was followed by one more food joint-Ice Cream. The Kamat owned ice cream brand of Mumbai, Naturals is increasingly getting popular all over India, due to its philosphy of real fruits instead of just flavours in ice cream. The brand has its outlet at Indore also and we decided therefore to relissh few fresh fruit ice creams before leaving the mini-Mumbai city of Maharashtra. The ice creams we had included, Kala Jamun, Cheeku, Tender coconut and many more. I was so bold by the taste of them that I decided to get few packed with dry ice in thermocol box to carry them back to home. I really relished them all. In fact all food delights of Indore including the old and new ones left a memorable taste in my mouth.

I miss that in Lucknow.

Naturals at Indore

Naturals at Indore

The Gulab Jamuns and Me

Gulab Jamuns

Gulab Jamuns

If I presently weigh some short of 100, the most responsible person for this state of affairs is man who before his death, left a legacy of churning out the yummiest and softest Gulab Jamuns you can think of. His name was Tularam, the man who set up the famous Tularam Gulab Jamun shop at Nagina, Bijnor in 1945 at NH 74 linking Uttarakhand’s Garhwal and Kumaon via Nagina.

Nagina though a sub divisional headquarters, is a small town. It is also famous for inlaid wooden craft and the material carved here, is sold out across all parts of India. The sweet shop of Tularam would had been set up of course for the local consumption and particularly for passengers coming to and fro, to the smallish railway station located at the entrance to it. If you are not a local or not aware about the shop in advance, you may easily miss the shop as there are thousands of such road shops in thousand various mofussils and cities over entire India.

I was introduced to this delicacy when I was posted as Sub Divisional Magistrate at Dhampur, a town very close to Nagina. I had a sweet tooth always and 15 years ago was not forever calculating calories while eating these recipes. As SDM, I had a Tahsildar, one Tewari Ji who had mastered the art of VIP duties. He used to stay at Nagina as he was earlier posted there and despite being transferred to Dhampur, continued to keep living there. He was a smart man and a typically successful Tahsildar, by his instinct to judge the officer’s liking and disliking in all fields including food of course. He once came to meet me and as is customary, came with a well packed earthen bowl containing Tularam’s Gulab Jamuns. Uninitiated to the taste,  I was oblivious to their speciality. He told me that, I might like those Gulab Jamuns as they were from one of the most famous and old sweet shop of Nagina. I said nothing and did not realise that, that first earthen bowl full of Gulab Jamuns will become my weakness soon and will also add few inches to my waist soon.

After Tewari Ji left, I retired to my house and had dinner. As I used to have sweet dish after dinner daily at that time, Gulab Jamuns were suggested as the sweet dish. I was offered two Gulab Jamuns only. I scooped a part from one of them and kept it in my mouth. As soon as I rolled my tongue over it, it melted like cream. It was really tasty and very soft. I had not ever tasted softer than this Gulab Jamuns despite being from Lucknow, a city famous for food and cuisines. I had more and very soon devoured almost 7 or 8. I would have eaten more if I had not finished my dinner just then. I had few more next day and my wife could get only a few of them. Soon there were no more left.

Tewari Ji came to meet me again soon and this time came with some different sweets and fruits. In anticipation however, my eyes were looking for that sweet earthen bowl but that was not there. Being his boss, I could not ask him directly about that, as that would have exposed my weakness. Our discussion continued for some time over official issues and after some time he left for his office. However, before leaving he asked me whether I had liked those Gulab Jamuns or not? I was perhaps waiting for this opportunity to express my appreciation for those softy Gulab Jamuns. I appreciated them with a conservative tone, but my smart Tahsildar got enough clues about my love for them. He said nothing however and left.

Next day, Mr Tewari was again at my residence in the morning and was this time with an even bigger earthen bowl of Gulab Jamuns. I was really happy to see them though I tried to conceal my enthusiasm. He said nonchalantly that he was coming to Dhampur that morning and in the way noticed the fresh and hot Gulab Jamuns and thought of gifting them to me so that I could eat them as hot and fresh. I was really happy. I came inside the house and tasted few more and realised that fresh and hot Gulab Jamuns were even better. I left for office only after getting enough of them.

Mr Tewari sensing my love for Gulab Jamuns now decided to send them to my house every alternate day. Those were really not so expensive and could not be categorised as any undue gratification and therefore I continued to relish them as often as I could. Little did I realise however that, that was adding a good weight to my body and particularly around belly. The smart Tahsildar sensing my only weakness perhaps, continued to supply them aplenty. I continued to relish them and brushed aside any suggestion of my wife to control my urge. This continued for next one year and by that time I had devoured a lot many Gulab Jamuns. I was not aware that my waistline was also smiling more.

This happy and yummy but calories loaded streak got interrupted only, when I was transferred from Dhampur to some other sub division. I, however continued to get them occasionally by sending my man all the way to Nagina. The cost of getting them to my new place was perhaps more than the price of Gulab Jamuns. Few times when I passed through Nagina during course of my official duties and otherwise, I landed at the shop and tasted them, there itself. Tewari Ji too being a true bred revenue department officer, whenever came to visit me out of courtesy, came with a good load of them. No need to say that I relished them a lot. The habit however eased a bit later on but by that time, I was had put on substantial weight due to them alone. I tried to somewhat control my urge in eating them in the larger interest of my health.

Recently, I happened to travel to Dehradun from that road and was with my family. My daughter who was born around the time I tasted them first in 2000, was also with me. I told her about the shop and its unmatched tasty Gulab Jamuns. She was not keen to taste them however. I still stopped my vehicle and   entered the shop. My daughter unwillingly followed me and entered the shop.  I was at the shop after almost  a decade and was little nostalgic about the place too. I ordered Gulab Jamuns for every body. The taste of them was great as always and I was feeling happy and lucky to have passed through this route that day. However I was shocked to see my daughter ordering one more plate of Gulab Jamun. I was really bemused to see her eating Gulab Jamuns with same happiness as I used to 15 years ago. Was History repeating itself?  After all daughters do admire their fathers more. I smiled at the turn of events and left the shop but not before getting a mobile pic clicked in this shop. The Tularam had now made inroad into mind and belly of next generation. What a legacy really!

At Tularam Nagina

At Tularam Nagina

In fact my daughter still keeps on asking me, ” Papa,  when are we going to Nagina again?” I smile at her being my daughter truly and refresh my memory with aroma and taste of Tularam’s Gulab Jamun. Tularam is dead, but long live Tularam, through his Gulab Jamuns of course.

Agashiye, the food paradise of Gujarat

Agashiye, House Of M G

Agashiye, House Of M G

The quest for food is the fundamental one and as a frequent traveler, I have been exposed to huge range of foods from many parts of India. Only a few of them have been as memorable as one I had at Agashiye. It is one of the restaurants of the heritage hotel House of M G, situated just opposite to world famous Sidi Saiyyad Mosque in the walled city of Ahmedabad. The restaurant is housed in 1924 built haveli of Seth Mangal Das Giridhar Das who was one of the wealthy supporter of Gandhi during freedom struggle. It has now been converted into an heritage hotel. The restaurant Agashiye on the terrace of this building serves authentic vegetarian Gujarati food, and it does that in style.

Last week while visiting Ahmedabad, I went there along with my sister’s family to have dinner. After paying at the counter on ground floor we were ushered by a topi clad boy in a lift to the terrace of the heritage hotel. As you step outside the lift you feel a charming fragrance of incense sticks (which are manufactured in house by them in two fragrances, Pakeezah and Tulasi). You then move to the left to reach at the welcome area where a statue of a lying Ganesh is placed besides a water body. To the left of this you notice few wooden park  benches where we were seated first.

Lying Ganesh at the Agashiye Courtyard

Lying Ganesh at the Agashiye Courtyard

My group of four included my niece, sister and Jijaji (my sister’s husband). We sat on the benches and were served with a refreshing sharbat first. It was made from cucumber, pudina and some salt and sugar. It is a traditional Gujarati welcome appetiser drink. The sharbat tasted good and rejuvenated us. Next we were served batata vada(stuffed potato filled in the gram flour coating) and some Dhokala type dish, with sweet and green chutneys. Feeling hungry we polished off some good portion of them quickly. After some time we were escorted to our next slot of food paradise. Here the food is prepared in all visible arena and you find a large number of boys and men in neat white kurtas and a Gandhi topi to serve you. We were seated at a wooden sofas with a table for four. The cloth napkins at the table were topped with a red rose each, which being desi (indigenous variety), were smelling sweetly.

Our hands were washed with lukewarm water being poured on them and chilamchi just below, gathered the used-water to be thrown away. The big plates were laid on the table and were silver coated. There were many small bowls and betel or paan leaf too. On being asked they told that the thalis are silver coated and since they served a many chutneys and pickles as part of Gujarati cuisine, the betel leaves were used to place chutneys and pickles on them to avoid spotting of thalis. This also enhanced the taste and presentation of food. It was really a nice thali view!.

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The Agashiye Thali

 

The serving boys soon came to our table and poured in many types of cooked vegetables in our big thalis. The katoris(bowls) were still empty. The next boy came up with his hand held multi-service bowls to fill all katoris with pulses and kadhi and sweet milk preparations. Our thali was full now but there was no respite and the boys kept on pouring papad, chutneys, pickles, halwa and what not. The last one came with ghee laden chapatis and bhakhari( the smallish chapatti made with coarse grain flour). These bhakhari were to be eaten with Lahsun(garlic) ki chutney and the fresh butter. After pondering for a while about wherefrom to start, I started with bhakharis first. It really tasted well and with spiced support of garlic ki chutney and with fresh butter, I felt the tinge and the flavour both. Then we moved on to polish of various vegetables and kadhi etc. The kadhi in Gujarati tradition was sweetened. As a person of North Indian food habits, I did not like sweetened Kadhi and moved on to relish halwa and other specialties of the day. The service boys were unrelenting in serving us all of the dishes in big proportions. In between we also tasted some great chutneys and papad etc. We were really in a food paradise.

The tables around us were too filled up with people and everybody was virtually engrossed in their respective food tasks. The variety was too huge to handle and there fore I reclined backward on my sofa cum chair to get some fresh air into my lungs, which were feeling a little out of breath. The service boy came again to help with with chhaachh or buttermilk and said that would take care of even over eating. But it was not just over eating, it was over stuffing actually like the passengers squeezed in Vaishali Express to Bihar. I gulped in one whole glass of buttermilk and decided to clear my thali. I did that in few minutes and then realized service boy was back to my table gain with Kichadi(preapred by mixing rice with pulses) to be eaten with dollops of Ghee! In nort India Khichadi in itself is a light meal and now here we were supposed to eat that after the meal. I took some portion of it after constant persuasion from the waiter and by the time it was finished, my tummy was almost bursting at its seam, wherever these seams are. However, there was no respite still as now a sweet dish in form of traditional Kesar-Pista ice cream, churned in an earthen pot for hours, was served to us. I finished it too so as to douse at least some stomach fire stoked by spicy Gujarati food.

The next to follow were many little glass bottles having digestives of various types like tamarind, zeera pills, ginger etc. I tasted few. The next in line was paan (betel leaves). These were locked with cloves and were served with amla (gooseberry). I was told that amla was digestive and coupled with paan leaves, it really benefited us a lot. I had it too. The taste of paan with many condiments in it was really good. The amla was half boiled in salted water and eaten just before paan (betel), helped to be a palate cleanser actually.

Paan with Gooseberry

Paan with Gooseberry

 

Still next in the menu was coffee, which I decided to give a miss, as so much had gone into stomach and in so many tastes and colours that I found it little too much un-justice to my poor stomach. I decided to leave before I was threatened by any more recipes. All of us left the place heavier by at least 2 kg each. There is little wonder that Gandhi ji in his eleven vratas for a meaningful and soulful life prescribed, aswad as one of important discipline, literally meaning only eating irrespective of taste as much as was required for the body. We broke the rule that day to enjoy the gastronomical delights of Agashiye and enjoyed every bit of it. It’s really worth it.

At Agashiye with my group

At Agashiye with my group

Sanai ke Phool(Jute Flowers)

One fine afternoon, crossing a bridge on river Gomati in Lucknow I noticed a very old lady selling vegetables on the pathway. She was sitting besides a heap of red and green pile of seasons’s special, water chestnut called locally as singhara. My taste buds clubbed with the pleasure of buying freshest from the source itself, forced me to stop. I focused on green and red singhara and after some minor bargain to satiate my Indian bargaining instinct, settled to buy two kg of them. While the lady was packing them in a polythene bag, I noticed there was a small heap of yellowish buds and flowers too. I asked her what was that?. She looked back at me with a hint of disappointment at my lack of knowledge and said in a feeble voice that those were the Sanai ke phool. I took hold of Singharas and stressed my memory cells to recall if inside me there were any memories of  that . I had heard this word from my mother sometimes perhaps and it was probably used as a vegetable in the kitchen. But even at my age, I had never eaten them. I paused for few moments and though was not sure about it, decided to give it a try. I bought half a kg of it as the buds and flowers even at this weight were a polythene bag full.

I came back to my house and handed over the singharas and the bag of Sanai ke phool to my mother. She had a look on both of them but her eyes got stuck at sanai ke phool. She looked back at me and said, “Where have you got them from?”. I was little bemused by his query and told her the sequence of my purchase on the bridge. She smiled first and then her eyes got little moistened. She said in an emotional voice that sanai ke phool were prized recipe in her younger days and she had not cooked them for decades. I was little amazed by my found now. Not cooked by her for decades! But what she told me next was even bigger shock. She told those were actually jute plant buds called as sanai ke phool in northern India. She told that in villages in her times people used to grow jute for their native uses like rope making and fuel wood and its buds were used for the seasonal recipe. So was I going to eat jute?. Is it possible to eat jute , from which ropes and other products are made?. Yes, she said. I was fully bowled out by now and understood the disappointment of old lady vegetable vendor. My mother now asked me to wait for the evening to taste what she had not cooked for three decades. My taste buds were salivating already at the prospect of a never eaten recipe of my life.

Jute Fibres

Jute Fibres

Waiting for the evening to unfold , I decided to enrich my knowledge by googling. Jute is broadly classified into white jute or corchorus capsularis and  tossa jute or chorchorous olitorious. It is grown widely in India and Bangladesh and after cotton is most widely used natural fiber. Its buds and flowers are used for culinary and medicinal purposes. It is rich in beta carotene, calcium and iron. Being rich in Fibre, medicinally it is said to be useful in curing constipation and in treating other stomach ailments. Dried up stems of jute are used as fuel wood too. Globally, India is the leading producer of jute, followed closely by Bangladesh.  Recently, The Center for Science and Environment, an NGO run by indomitable Sunita Narain has published a book titled First Food: A Taste of India’s Biodiversity. It enlists the various traditional but now forgotten recipes including the pictured below Jute Pakora prepared from Jute Leaves.

The Jute Pakora

The Jute Pakora

Fed and appetised by so much of knowledge about sanai, by evening I was raring to have a go at the recipe. My mother sensed my eagerness and prepared dinner earlier than other days. The table was set. I decided to taste it first by taking a small spoonful and put in my mouth. I closed my eyes and tried to imbibe the taste and fragrance of the recipe. It was simply mouth watering and amazing. The taste of it was like no other recipe I have ever had. Mother was looking at my face and offered me now a bowl full of it. I polished it off in no time, with few hot chapatis. The taste of it was of course enhanced by the love of my mother. I was really having for the first time, one great recipe of my culinary life. She watched me with the satisfaction of a mother nursing his child. I can’t forget those moments ever. I was also wondering how come earlier, I had not tasted this recipe in my life!. Other members of the family got a leaner portion of the recipe but everybody was happy to see me smiling and my mother thanked me for letting her travel down memory lane after decades. What a day it was for me!. I thanked that old lady who was selling this rather forgotten culinary jewel of India.

Do you feel hungry? Trust me. Throw all caution to winds and just go for it!

Sanai Ke Phool