Thursday, December 23, 2010

University admissions and a 12th. grader

We want the right fit for our university” said the earnest looking young lady, a student who had been propped up in an auditorium to address the assembly of parents and prospective students gathered that chilly north-eastern morning.  She had the public speaking confidence that I could not have mustered thirty years ago.  You have to be right for us”, it is the sort of mutual evaluation that went on in arranged marriages --no clear definition for a fit--but if the groom earned enough, and the bride’s parents were solvent enough to kick in some if needed, and nobody was a criminal, then things generally got approved.  A paucity of one quality could always be balanced to some extent by a surplus of another.  There is no clear definition for a “right fit” for college here.  Great grades help, SAT scores help, largesse helps, but everything is always a bit fuzzy—a formula with a ghost variable that needs no accounting.   This was a different beast to deal with, so unlike what I had gone through—a pure meritocracy--a competitive entrance exam at the end of school, your rank determining your placement.  No amount of money could unearth a seat (at least where I went).

The US college admissions process, in contrast, was a multilayered cake.  There were the admissions for athletes, leading in extreme cases to the bizarre instance of the basketball player Kevin Ross sueing his alma mater, Creighton University, for leaving him illiterate after four years of college and a degree.  A big layer of “legacy” admissions for the children of alumni making up 10 to 25 percent of the students, which Richard Kahlenberg called “higher education’s biggest affirmative action program” in a piece in the New York Times. Throw into this mix a slice for those with stellar academic and extra-curricular performance, and you sit there wondering if your wunderkind child is wunderkind enough, where every earnest parent across this room seems to have taken a page out of the raising of Todd Marinovich.  I should have teethed my child on frozen kidneys—maybe he could have been a better public speaker.  The universities profess wanting a diverse and heterogeneous student body.  About 40% of the entrants to the Ivy leagues are from private schools.   The other 60% must be very diverse.  

Universities differ in their outlook.  A small, highly respected college bluntly informs us to expect academic rigor and hard work.  A famous North-Eastern university assures you that everything is flexible, everything is fun. You have the freedom to tailor your coursework--the patient in charge of his regimen.  The kids multi-task with parallel aspirations.  Ask them what they want to do, and you get a panoply of answers.
 I like history, mathematics, and economics”. 
I don’t know, maybe psychology, maybe writing, maybe physics. 
I want to work with horses. 
Such generalized or esoteric ambition is both refreshing and perplexing.  The heavy hand of immigrant parents weighs in at times, “I like English literature, but my parents don’t see a future outside of engineering so the good daughter that I am I will kick ass in circuit theory this freshman year at Caltech”.  Some of us don’t consider a complete human being to have formed until they go through a couple of courses of calculus.

The year ends with much anticipation.  All applications need to be completed by year end. Kids exchange notes.  They mull over strategies.  They go to sleep at 2 a.m. burdened by writing essays on “Why Brown?”, and internet chats.  Dark circles form underneath their eyes.  Their usual monosyllabic answers now condense down to grunts: you hope this diversion of intellectual capital is going straight into their essays, the torture of lapsed communication transcribing grunt for grunt, into searing, honest prose straight into the heart of Providence and “Why Brown?”.

Come mid December, the results from the early admissions start trickling in.  And a dedicated collection of kids, track the progress like that of an invading army.  Michigan declares results at 5 pm.  Chats criss-cross, phones ring.  The damage, or the victory, is instantly assessed. Dartmouth comes out and it doesn’t look pretty. Chicago declares the next day at 5 pm.  But was it East Coast time or Mid-west time? MIT came out at 9 pm last night. The early admissions do not look good this year for the school.  Everyone is an instant analyst. It seems profound to tie observations to global trends.  Early applications into brand name schools are up because of the increased competition for high value jobs. And, like the second law of thermodynamics, you can always point to the rising professional classes (and their rising, professional children) in India and China.

The first round of results are in by mid-December.  Now starts a second round of applications, lists are culled or expanded depending upon the early outcomes, plans for winter vacations put on hold.  The kids have the taste of adulthood in their mouths.  They have morphed out of their meconium days, and acquired a sense of humor.  They interpret racy jokes for you when you don’t get it.  They introduce you to Eminem and Lil’ Wayne.  They will be done with the pediatrician in another few months.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bollywood Bistro

68 Wheeler Ave, Pleasantville,

Bollywood Bistro was started in  downtown Pleasantville a few years ago and this is about the second or third time that we have visited, this time for the lunch buffet. It always has a few customers and seems to be doing well.  Space is a bit of an issue, this is a smallish restaurant—so the buffet items are arranged rather tightly in the entry area.  The store is Bollywood themed with scraps of Indian movie posters sparingly stuck into the walls.  This afternoon’s buffet had a few interesting dishes.  Mushroom Manchurian is a take on the more common “Gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian”, which is itself a take on Chinese cooking in India, with mushroom encrusted in batter, in a sweet and sour kind of mush. Mushrooms are quite uncommon in Indian food, used only in Kashmir and possible North-East India, but this improvisation tasted rather nice with the fleshiness of the mushrooms.  A Ma ki Daal (daal made by mother—supposed to represent comfort food), felt homely, especially with the fresh warm naans that were brought to the table.  There was a Rasam, a South Indian tomato based soup (that is usually had with rice or rotis), that was morphed to a thicker consistency with finely cut tomatoes and vegetables in it, and had a bit more oil than I am comfortable with, but tasted good.  Traditional rasam is almost consommé like in its lightness and consistency.  There was steamed vegetable, not quite Indian food, but one that we enjoyed—an argument may be made that Indian dishes murder vegetables by overcooking.  The Bombay potato curry was ho-hum, there was fresh tandoori chicken brought to the table (we passed, it was a veg day) and the dessert, Ras Malai, was light, fragrant, and infused with the flavors of saffron.  I would have liked it had they used a bit less oil, but overall –if you are in Westchester and had an Indian craving--this place could suffice.
Bollywood Bistro on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Calcutta Wrap and Roll

465 Ardsley Ave., Ardsley,

Last night we visited this new place in Ardsley, conveniently located off the Ardsley Ave. exit on Sawmill Parkway, amidst a gaggle of shops that include a motley collection of eateries named Bubba’s Grill and Tavern, Thai House and a Mexican restaurant; a testament to the cosmopolitan nature of this county.

Calcutta Wrap and Roll is primarily a take out place, but with a few tables for eating in.  It is run by a good friend of mine, and fellow local Bengali thespian, Chitta Saha, so please do take my review with a pinch of salt—I may be biased in my opinions.

Kati rolls and their variants are a type of street food that is very popular in India, meant to be eaten on the go, and originated from a restaurant called Nizam’s in Kolkata (Calcutta) several decades ago.  You can find them in a few places in New York City, but this is the first time I saw them on a Westchester menu, and was the reason for us to go visit this restaurant.  We ordered chicken rolls, finely diced potato crisps and idlis.  A roll is an egg paratha rolled up with chunks of chicken, onions, and garnishes.  The roll is then wrapped in paper, and you eat your way down its length by gradually unwrapping it.  The finely diced potato crisps are a Bengali specialty.  The idlis were standard issue.  The food had the warmth and heartiness of home cooked fare and the price was very affordable.  If you don’t mind tight, sparse seating and self service, the eat-in facilities are fine.

The rolls were excellent and had none of the oiliness that is the bane of Indian food at times.  The mark of good food is the urge to have some more, and we ended up adding to our order in the middle of our meal. I had long hoped that there would be more variety of Indian food in Westchester, more of the informal foods that I grew up with.  That moment appears to be arriving slowly, but surely.
Calcutta Wrap and Roll on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 26, 2010

Jhal Muri

It is a cloudy Thanksgiving afternoon in upstate New York, the season's first light snowflakes mixing in with a slight drizzle. Making fudge brownies from scratch for the kids this evening, Miles, Chandrabindu on the speakers; this curious life of the transplant, levitated between two worlds. It is a day to celebrate this disjunction, the turkey and the goat meat; the fudge brownies and the ginger cake that I made this afternoon, and the jhal muri that I will make this evening.

Jhal Muri is a snack of puffed rice (moori) that we would buy from a street vendor outside our school.  For less than a rupee, he mixed up a flurry of spicy, tarty, tamarind laced, green and red garnished pouty, puffed rice and offered it up in paper bags made of newspapers.  Perched like a jazz drummer, his big bin of muri in front of him, ringed by a constellation of aluminum canisters holding his garnishes, he would scoop up a mug of muri, and then, in rapid jarring succession, scoop up chillies, spices, chopped onions, tamarind, cucumbers; the sounds coming off in rattles, and scrapes, and crunches, his aluminum ladle richochetting off the canisters. We would head to the bus stop, concoction in hand, spicy hot with chillies, tongues crying for a sip water, eyes watering but happy, walking with Debanjan, as he rolls out his latest love letter that he plans to, but never releases, to our classmate and the girl of his dreams, as we go over one more iteration and revision of his draft.

Toney Indian restaurants in New York will offer you jhal muri, with ingredients, clinical in their content, but without its sexiness.  I have sought this sizzle, and over the years have come to the following recipe that I will invariably make as a snack, whenever there is an occasion or guests. 

You will need a bag of puffed rice, which I get from Bhavik groceries in Elmsford. I am partial to the Bangladeshi products, the ones marked “fit for human consumption”, but puffed rice from Swad is fine too.  Some panipuris, tamarind, some hot mixes of the kind Haldiram sells (more on that later)—all available at a standard Indian grocery store.

Take a couple of spoons of the packed moist tamarind, and microwave it with some water till it is steaming hot.  Squish the tamarind around to dissolve it, then pass through a strainer to separate the liquid.  Put about a spoon and a half of chat masala into this and take a taste—it should remind you of a long lost childhood with a shiver down your spine.  If  the shiver fails to trigger, add some more tamarind.  If it feels untempered, add more chat masala.  Make about 100 ml of this solution for about a quart and a half of jhal muri—the dish should not be wet—just barely moist, but here again there are differing opinions.  The muri makers of Kolkata like to make theirs wetter, the purists from Bardhaman, a place where three o’clock in the afternoon is announced by the rattling of metal bowls mixing muri, the muri is spartan and dry, no tamarind is added. 

Once you have your tamarind base ready, set it aside in a little, good looking bowl, like the TV chefs like to display, if you think this is a classy thing to do. Then one needs to add some crunchies.  Today I used “Punjabi mix” from Masala Mirch, “Plain Bhujia” and “deep fried spicy peanuts” from Haldirams.  The amount and variety of added crunchies is a matter of debate, and depends on the level of ostentation one wishes.  In general don’t add much of this, perhaps a cup to a cup and a half of all three of them put together will do--one wants the tongue to encounter an itinerant peanut that passes by occasionally, and not several in one mouthful. I like to stick to a plain base of crunchies that are sort of like a non-spicy DC component, of either the bhujia or plain moong dal (also from Haldiram’s).  I do like to add some peanuts and these could be either the spicy variety or plain ones. Crunch up some pani puris in your palms and add to the muri.  Restraint is key here, five to six panipuris will do.  Then, add a half cup of chopped onions, a few chopped green chillies, some chopped fresh coriander and--if you have it-- a drizzle of mustard oil that gives the muri its slight pungency, and pour in the tamarind.  If you want more of a street food flavor, you could add some soaked Bengal gram, some finely diced cucumber, and  and quarter inch sized chopped boiled potatoes. For a more homely version, cut the tamarind by 75% or forgo it altogether, use plain peanuts, onions and chillies, a bit more of the mustard oil, and skip the rest.  As a last step, mix all of this into a homogenous mixture and dish out.  The mix should be freshly made just before you are ready to eat.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Vatan--vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan

409 3rd Avenue,

It was Diwali, the festival of lights, and U was not having her usual dinner this year.  I wanted a somewhat offbeat, but good Indian restaurant in the city to mark Diwali, and we picked Vatan.  I had been here 10 years ago, and had not been impressed—the food was oily and heavy.  Since then, the place has undergone a sea of change.

 Vatan is a vegetarian Indian restaurant that serves Gujarati food.  The interior is spacious, tastefully designed to look like a village courtyard in western India, replete with a faux banyan tree.  The lighting enhances the sense of space, the dining tables kept apart, unlike other Manhattan restaurants.  The laid back demeanour of the wait staff, the Bollywood art film colors and dresses, and the ambience imposes a sense of comfort. 

London had its Indian diaspora of the 90’s, the Punjabi—Jamaican influence.  In the 2000’s New York City has its own Indian diaspora—gaggles of twenty somethings in black clothes, who hang around the trendy Indian restaurants in Manhattan.  They fuel the financial industry in the city, the men in rectangular glasses, the women-- resolutely straight of hair--scarfed up for the winter.  Sprightly, slim, handsome faces under the fluorescents and the restaurant lights, the glows of the exit signs, they stay for another dinner, another night out, another polished cog in this glistening city, another night to go back to their apartments to read Tom Friedman.  This is the new culture, part dhamaka, part Friedman, Indianism in Manhattan.

Vataan has a 3 course prixe-fixe menu and I recommend this.  The first thali (platter) are the appetizers.  They offer seconds and I recommend that you take them up on this.  The starters are the best part of the menu.  Good food brings back good memories.  The batata vada, spicy mashed potatoes in a batter, fresh as the one made by the street vendor at the Kamala Nehru Park in Pune.   Dahi(yogurt) Puri, of long lost afternoons on Rashbehari at Junior Brothers.  Deceptive battered green chillies that will light a fire on your tongue.  There is dhokla, a Gujarati special, a puffy cake like thing made of rice and dal, chana (a curry made of Bengal gram), that I first had at the public markets in Bhuj.  There is little oiliness, and dollops of authenticity.  The second platter consists of the main dishes--rice, pooris and delicate kadhi--these are fine dishes but they lack the hard-to-find-in-New York quality of the first platter.  It all ends with dessert: mango ice cream that tastes like it was picked up at the corner grocery store.  This is what is incomprehensible about Indian restaurants in New York—their fluctuating quality control.  But then I did not come here for the ice cream.  Vatan dished up absolutely the best batata vadas that I have had in years,  and for that alone, I would be back here again.

It is a special restaurant, with a special décor, left aside for those unique times of the year, like a little Diwali celebration with friends with warmth and good food.
Vatan on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A brief trip to Japan again, October 2010

The onset of fall is always a wondrous time to drive out of Westchester County for travel.  The early morning is chilly, though not unduly so, the light has started to turn, as have the colors on the trees, and the winding two lanes are scattered with the amber, russet, and golden hued leaves, not yet plentiful enough to billow out in huge puffs with the wind.  I have a short trip to make to Tokyo, and on this chilly morning M digs deeper under the covers, as I fix my bags, grab the half eaten bagel that my son forgot to take when he left earlier in the morning, and head out of the driveway.  It is a Saturday morning that begins slowly during the early hours, but by the time the car reaches the city bridges, there is a healthy flow of traffic.

Frequent travel imposes a ritual, like the protocol of a religious ceremony, or the actions of a batsman as he settles down on the pitch.  The ritual of the rental car return, the monorail trip to the terminal, the flurry through the x-ray scanner at the security check.   There is no better screener of personalities than the approach to the x-ray scanner. The calm ones, unflustered, loading jackets, bags and shoes on the belt at an unconcerned pace; the eager ones--preparing for this audition minutes in advance--, hitting the rotating belt in a frenzy of a finish, winning some imaginary race against themselves; the hapless ones stuck in a morass of their own confusion; and finally, those with perfect pitch, whose lives, bathed in flawless suavity, were cast to approach the belt, their carry on possessions just an elastic extension of themselves that leaves no mark, just a whisper, a whisk of a caress, in and out of the x-ray scanner.

I have been here long enough now that the train ride into the city on the Narita express has also become part of this ritual.  We pass by thick bamboo forests, set behind grey embankments built of rectangular stone set at an angle, and green paddy fields.  It was only some months back that I had passed such fields in Assam, the scenery similar yet set against a different background of human construction with none of the trappings of the modern and wealthy society that I see before me.  Impeccably maintained, fairy tale like houses neatly set out in little villages; narrow, uncluttered roads dense with signage.  We travel on, slowing down in deference to approaching villages, then picking up speed once past their little station platforms.  As we approach Tokyo, the paddy fields give way to compact commercial development, baseball practice fields with tall vertical netting, and dense, chicken coop-like housing. 

Tokyo is immense.  Viewing the city from a restaurant on the top floor of a high rise on a clear night, the city spreads out with an enormity that seems unique to the big cities of Asia.  Enormous energy densities of human habitation, it is a city choked in traffic despite its super efficient network of roadways and public transport.  Most people I meet commute upwards of an hour to and from work.  One gentleman lives just 10 kms away, yet it takes him 40 minutes and a train station change to get to work.  On a good day, during office hours it takes him 40 mins to drive his own car.  There are waves of pedestrians during the office going hours, each ensconced in a personal privacy zone, some wrapped with headphones, some thumbing iphones, and others with white filter masks strapped across their noses; stylish young men with styled hair, and pointed suits, and tight slacks of the kind that you see more in Europe than in the States.  I walk in the early morning through Akasaka to my favorite noodle bar for breakfast, and I cross the busy intersection where there is a young man sitting on a chair pushing buttons on an array of counters, carrying out a vehicular market survey.  There are a few homeless men who sleep underneath the bridge—I have seen them on previous trips.  This morning they are neatly folding away the flattened cardboard packing boxes that form their mattress, and tucking them behind a gash in the concrete work. 

Baseball is the favorite sport in Japan and there seems much interest in following the fortunes of Matsui, the homeland hero from the Yomiuri Giants, and a big star with the Los Angeles Angels.  He is a conversational ice breaker, a piece of land connecting different cultures.  Sumo remains intensely popular, though tainted by a recent series of betting scandals.  In this homogeneous country, where there are very few immigrant professionals, Sumo is an exception.  Many of the top wrestlers are foreigners.  In the eighties they would have been from Hawaii, the mammoth Konishiki and Akebono, the first “gaijin” (foreign) Yokozuna (the highest title afforded to a sumo wrestler); today there are no prominent Americans, but they come from countries as far away as Bulgaria or Mongolia.

I experience nothing but impeccably politeness and patience at the foreigner’s air gesturing in asking for directions.  There is widespread unfamiliarity with English, yet the piped music in restaurants or public places is invariably western.   The level of honesty and civic efficiency is jaw dropping.  My young colleague dropped upwards of ten thousand yen on his seat on the Narita Express on the way to the city, which then headed off in the direction of Yokohama after dropping us off.  Missing the money he contacted the lost-and-found section at the immense Tokyo station, and, in a day’s time they tracked the money down—an honest citizen had deposited it at a small railway station some distance away.  Young children, barely 8 or 9 years old walk alone or in unchaperoned groups through busy suburban streets, unafraid and unconcerned, protected by the vast anonymity of surrounding adults. 

These are brief, quick whiskey shot trips, intense in the utilization of time and changes in surroundings.  And so it was, that I soon found myself heading back in a large limousine bus bound for Narita Airport past the grand Disney Tokyo resort, fairy tale buildings rising, as Disney buildings do, in faux grandeur from the outskirts of large cities.  It is time to go through the rituals again, in reverse order, starting with the cleansing penance of the security procedures.  I have come to know this airport only too well, the bookstore with its slim case of English books, the Ramen restaurant, the giant Akihabara duty free store, and the liquor stores that always showcase excellent Japanese single malts, at unwavering price and an advertised discount that is, it would appear, always in strict and constant enforcement.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Quinoa, East Indian food, Bengali food, and the village life

I love rice, the staple of choice for the consummate Bengali.  A pointed heap of rice occupying a good fifty percent of a brass dinner place, a little hole indented into the top to pour gravy, ghee or dal into; such are the memories of meals in Bengal.  The near instant energy that its simple carbs liberate rejuvenated our rural ancestors after the long day of toiling the fields, or herding their buffaloes across the river.  To me and my urban contemporaries who have retained these dietary habits but cast away the physical effort, this indulgence brings nothing but grief.  Rice has a high glycemic index (impact that a food has on your blood glucose content) and glycemic load (that also factors in the carbohydrate load).  This is not good news.  Bengalis have one of the highest incidences of heart disease and diabetes.  So, a good 5 or 6 years ago, with wisdom settling in along with a receding (or rather a deeply incursive and collapsing) hairline, I decided to switch and join M for a couple of chapathis (rotis) every night instead of rice.  Hand made whole wheat tortillas from Trader Joe's.  The healthiest I could find.  This was not fun.  Rotis are fine for a restaurant meal, but not at home for dinner. Yet,  I kept at it.  Rice I recoursed to only for special occasions, sometimes dipping into my sons’ supplies for dinner. Being Bengalis, they too prefer rice, especially the younger one whose predilection for anything that goes from dish to glucose in the time it takes to pass your esophagus, is downright scary—donuts and potatoes included.

Then one day, a scientist friend of mine, and someone with diabetes, told me about some experiments that he had been conducting.  He would ingest various grains and staples, and then do a time dependent measurement of his blood sugar.  Rice was bad.  Whole wheat tortillas were not that great either.  But he highly recommended quinoa (“keenwa”).  M of course already knew about quinoa.  And various other assorted grains and staples with healthy sounding names that seemed to come from the middle east.  Quinoa originates from Peru and it is technically a grass, not a grain.  So next time, at Trader Joe’s, we picked up some quinoa (it is also available at Mrs. Greens).  Get the white colored ones and not the dark ones (I don’t know the technical difference, just go with this optical inspection for now). 

M cooked it like rice.  Two parts water and one part quinoa.  Cooktop or microwave both work.  On the cooktop it take a bit longer to cook (about 10-15% longer).  I use it just as rice, mixed with East Indian dishes.  It is somewhat less firm than rice, so you cannot form it like you can with rice.  And of course it does not have the aroma that some rice grains have.  It take a couple of tries to get used to, like switching from left full back to right full back in soccer.  But the game, and the thrill, are about the same.  Quinoa blends in perfectly with the meats and curries of Bengali dishes and you can even mix in pickles or yogurt.  It goes very well with East Indian food.  I say East Indian and not just Bengali, because M sometimes cooks Assamese food.  A light delicate, tangy gravy called Tenga, a cross between Bengali curries and Thai soups, cooked with fish like Arctic Char. 

The name quinoa itself sounds as if it was made for the Bengali lexicon. In the patois of my forefathers, I can imagine myself hear them say, “Aazkey kwinwa khaitey mon kortasey”, if only the Peruvian trader could have unloaded his produce at the docks by the Ganga, after a new trade route had magically opened up between Lima and Bengal in the 19th century.  M cooked some khichuri the other day, a rainy day food, a mush of cholar dal (a kind of gram) and rice cooked together.  Except this time she substituted half the rice with quinoa.  Even my younger son did not complain.

I do not miss rice, and I feel good these days about quinoa.  It is a grain (nay, grass) whose time has come. It makes you feel healthy, it has that urban health nut ring to it, its grains staring at you from plastic bins in Mrs. Greens, screaming out restraint.  It is an oats swirling, pilates flexing, no antibiotics in my milk world, a return--as a housing development ad screamed at me this weekend in the newspapers--to the “village life”.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani (Elgin Road), Kolkata

In a formal Bengali meal fit for an traditional household with a professional cook in the kitchen, you get an elaborate multi-course meal containing several vegetable preparations, at least three fish dishes, a couple of meat dishes, followed by dessert. You would sit with a metal dining plate surrounded by a constellation of small bowls containing a small amount of each dish, with the sweets making their entry at the end. If you were traditionally from West Bengal, then the mistress of the household ensured that the curry dishes had at least a tablespoon of sugar in it, and if you were from East Bengal, you generally scorned upon this practice.

In Kolkata, we wanted to take a visiting colleague out to a restaurant serving authentic Bengali food, and I asked two sets of close friends for recommendations. Both endorsed Kewpies--a small, homey, restaurant near the Forum Mall on Elgin Road, in a little bylane for foot travel that abuts a wall of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s yellow colored mansion. If you ever wanted to know how the backstreets of Chowringhee and Park Street, that are now clogged with traffic, felt in the seventies and early eighties, then take a walk along this ten foot wide bylane. It is afternoon, it is quiet, the sun is filtered through big trees, and you can take a pleasant walk and converse to the sounds of automobiles from middling distances. This the the quality of the afternoon, the light, and the sound that you could get, at that time, on Little Russell Road, on Camac Street, and on Elgin Road.

Kewpies has been the closest that I have come to authentic home cooked traditional Bengali food that is found in a restaurant. I say home-cooked, because it lacks the ostentation that many restaurants have, relying instead upon authenticity. This is not adventurous food, nor is it any different or particularly better than the food that my mother, or mother-in-law prepares, except that you get an array of such dishes at one sitting. It is a dapper little restaurant in what appears to be a converted residence. The room is tastefully done with a traditional red stone floor and freshly painted walls and ceilings, the bathroom could have been a bit cleaner.

We ordered what is called a “thala” or a platter that consists of an entire, multi-course meal, and M was our navigator with tips on the preparation and ingredients. Food is served in earthenware dishes that are disposed after use, and the meal plate is covered with a fresh banana leaf. It starts with rice, a couple of luchis, and a traditional shukto (a slightly bitter vegetable mush with green plantain, bitter gourd, potatoes, eggplant, and ridged gourd, with a small amount of milk added at the end), dal and a fried potol (snake gourd). Following this opening gambit, arrives an onslaught of meat and vegetable dishes. There is fried bhecti (a type of fish) with a batter of breadcrumbs, an Anglo-Indian legacy; fried and curried hilsa, a shadlike fish with a dense bone structure, the seduction of the flesh between those relentless bones giving it a cult following. Then there are two types of goat meat (what is called mutton), one watery and one dry (kosa mangso). There is daab chingri, where shrimp is cooked inside a green coconut; alu-jhinge-posto, a triumvirate of potatoes, ridged gourd and poppy; dhokar dalna, fried lentil cakes in a gravy; mocha ghonto, a hash made with banana flowers; chital muthia, dumplings of the chital fish set in a gravy, and with a meat-like texture, popular at one time during marriage feasts. And all through this ecstasy, the plate periodically refilled with white rice, the high glycemic index, high energy carb staple that Bengalis consumed by the heap to generate the energy to toil the fields, except that the urban Bengali has now left the physical effort out of this equation. Dessert followed. It was a mishti doi—a unique sweet Bengali yogurt, a small portion of sweet and sour chutney to clarify the palate, and paan, the traditional betel leaf based meal closer.

This was a formidable lineup, truly unique in the way that it is cooked. This food is almost completely unknown in the States outside of places like the Bangladeshi enclave in Queens, New York, but part of a growing trend in upscale places in other Indian metropolises. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Guwahati & Shillong Jul Aug 2010

I was waiting for the lady behind the counter at the coffee shop to finish counting her money and close her previous transaction, but the man behind me seemed to be in a hurry. “Hello—are you waiting to order?”. “Yes”, I say. “Well, you should go ahead and place the order, she is just counting her money—she can hear you”. He was an alpha male type, in a black suit and in a hurry. As I waited to pick up my coffee he proceeded to order a coupled of bottles of Kingfisher Blue and left. I was at the brand new, cavernous, Delhi International airport on the third day past its inauguration, waiting for the last leg of my Air India flight to Kolkata. The airport expansion, timed for the Commonwealth Games, felt unusually sparse for an Indian airport. Airport officials seemed ill prepared for this supersized terminal. Tempers flared. A tourist walks away in a huff yelling at the airline staff, calling them idiots. I am shocked and appalled at the language, but the staff takes the abuse with restraint. It is as if, softened by the heat and pelleted by the dust, we are witnessing the time honored ritual melt-down of the foreign tourist. The airport personnel are generally helpful but often refuse to acknowledge ignorance. I ask around for an ATM machine and I am given six different responses that rout me above the escalator, below the escalator and beyond the escalator. It turns out that the ATMs have not yet been installed.

We reach Kolkata late at night and pass through customs quickly. The night air is warm and sticky and it looks like the rains have flattened the dust. In a sign of the changing times there are no pestering touts. We drive through the empty streets of the suburb of Salt Lake. Families of stray dogs have bedded down in the middle of the street, and the nightwatchman is out on his rounds, banging his baton on the pavement. It is a lonesome sight in this mega-metropolis: bare streets with dark parked cars, a mound of garbage waiting for pickup, warm yellow light filtering out through houses shuttered up for the night, the bustle evaporated out of its bedded down physical shell.

Kolkata owns some excellent old bookstores replete with the ambiance requisite for a traditional old thing like a book, whose format has changed little in over 400 years. I like the feeling of quiet, of mustiness, of volumes piled up in varnished dark bookcases and a manager you can talk to about books. The morning after our arrival, we seek out the venerable Oxford Bookstore on Park Street. In a sign of acceptance of the times, they too will sell you coffees and DVDs, but in addition the place holds a large collection of books in English by Indian authors: from the ones that Naipaul derisively refers to as writing about Chachajis and Mamiji, to the instant fiction by an IITian (this seems to be a fashion trend), to books written by an earlier generation of Indian writers. I am here to look for “My God Died Young”, published in the late sixties by Sasthi Brata. Critically applauded for its honesty, enthusiastically embraced by teenagers for its titillating passages, and viewed with mild amusement in later years for a dated writing style that sought its cues from the English, I wished to revisit the book after decades.

From Kolkata we travel to Guwahati, where I am back after only three months. One evening we drive out of the city, cross the magnificent Brahmaputra river and visit an orchid garden set on a flat of red earth deep in the hills. It is a drive on a narrow two lane road through villages with dense jungles set behind them, much like the countryside that I used to see more frequently as a child. Our host is a young man from the Garo tribe, and he built the nursery in a cost shared project with the state formed to encourage local industry. Inside the huge, climate controlled greenhouse are rows and rows of orchids, set in based packed out of the husks of coconuts, and beneath an elaborate sprinkler system that controls the humidity. He is a successful entrepreneur, his flowers are shipped across the country, and he soon plans to diversify into carnations. There is a little camp built next to the nursery with a small living quarters and a traditional Chang Bungalow, or platform house built of wood on stilts, set at the edge of the plateau overlooking a small gorge and ringed by hilly jungle. It is a beautiful site. We sit there awaiting dusk as they tell us stories of the leopards that come near camp at night to drink water in the brook some fifty meters below, their roars shaking the bungalow. For our hosts, this is the regular course of life. They accept this without fear, even indifference, and the only remedial action taken has been to tether their cows away from the brook for the night. The small residence is neatly equipped with satellite, broadband access, and a flat screen TV. The stories of jungles past when my grandfather was a hunter in these Assam wilds, or the books of Jim Corbett, bring to mind the steely minimalism of the starched, khaki clad hunter of the 1930s with his rifle and his first aid packet of potash and tincture of iodine, are now replaced with this image of the wilderness, where you scroll the web while the leopard roars in the valley below. Our host is a Baptist Christian, as are most of the hill tribes here, converted at the turn of the last century by American and British missionaries. At that time, missionaries formed the fourth leg of the community of the European expatriates, in addition to the administratiors, the box-wallahs (term applied to European businessmen), and the armymen. Their mission and their unique sense of self instilled in them a fearlessness that they carried with them “up-country” where they often perished with infections and ailments foreign to their bodies.

We drive back after dark, through a backdrop of black jungle and paddy fields, passing small villages with threadbare shops, selling essentials, tobacco, and liter sized bottles of gasoline for two wheeled motorists. We pass cow-herds returning from the fields with water buffaloes and cows, cowbells tinkering, moving unchallenged down almost the entire width of the road, like a pack of cyclists in Westchester County. We pass places of worship—Namghars for the Hindus, and Churches for the Christians. Structurally the buildings are similar--Assam type timber framed constructions set back about 20 meters from the road with the churches distinguished by a large cross in the front yard.

I have a meeting with the Guwahati press club the next morning where I speak to them about nanotechnology and solar energy. It is a gathering of young men and women, journalists in the local newspapers. Except for one person, they are all uniformly liberal arts educated, with little involvement in science --yet they listen with rapt attention and ask questions that would not be out of place at a conference in Washington or Delhi.

One morning we hire a small Tata Indigo and drive 100 km up the hills from Guwahati to Shillong, a harrowing three hour journey on a two lane road. The humid heat of the valley turns to temperate up in the hills and the roads and coniferous forests remind us of Westchester. Twenty kms from Shillong we stop by to view Umiam Lake, an enormous artificial lake that was the result of a dam and a hydroelectric project commissioned in the 1960’s by Nehru. Viewed high up from the road above, its calm waters, turquoise in patches, glisten in isolation –largely unchanged from my last visit 30 years ago. The same cannot be said of Shillong, a one time elegant hill-station full of pine forests, wood framed houses with flooring of hard pine (similar, in hardness, to what is called Southern Yellow Pine in the States), gardens and flower nurseries. Today, it has one of the region’s ugliest infrastructures grafted onto this backdrop. As the larger cities like Kolkata have begun streamlining their transportation and civic facilities, the mid-sized cities remain unchecked with their congested roads, open drains , and malignant concrete constructions.

Culturally, Shillong feels like no other part of the country. We wait in a traffic jam for a length of time, but there is no honking. Roadside butcher shops sell pork meat and beef. Dressing habits are more westernized than any other part of India and the indigenous Khasi population of the state is almost completely Christian, speaking a language that has common origins with Vietnamese and Cambodian. Late at night we take a drive through the city and without the traffic, there is a magical transformation. It is dewey and misty, rain is never too far away, we drive fast through deserted streets with embankments that curve and climb next to houses built into the hills—it feels like the Shillong of old, age sheds and slithers off the tail of the vehicle, and both car and occupant—with a stab at the accelerator-- reverie to decades back when this was still a sparse, wooded hill station with suburbs as diversely named as Bishnupur and Lachamiere, and that left you at a loss for adjectives. We stay at the century old Pinewood Hotel, a graceful ageing hotel with three slightly grime encrusted stars in a suburb called the European Ward. The English preferred Shillong because of its weather, calling it their “Scotland of the East” (the comparison is quite appropriate). They came here by the droves from the hot plains in summer, living out their Victorian pretences, with a hierarchy of rank and precedence that was intensified by the distance to home, a lifestyle amplified beyond their stations by a retinue of native attendants, and little work outside of what could be achieved in half a day. The hotel is a single storey Assam style construction with timber framing that holds together walls made of a bamboo reed composite. It reflects its English roots with wooden floors made of wide plank pine, wainscoted walls, working fireplaces, pegged mortise and tenon cabinetry, and foxgloves and hostas planted in the gardens outside.

English ambiance aside, the food to be sought at Pinewood should be Indian. We lunched on fresh warm chapattis, dal fry, a sabzi (a dry vegetable curry) and kebabs that were hot off the grill. I have no idea why Indian restaurants in India do a better job in offering a superior immediacy of taste that the ones in the US. If you are ever eating at Pinewood, however, feel free to ask for the bill at the same time that you place the order. For, in a tip of the hat to colonial English bureaucracy, followed by years of Indian clerkdom, this government run hotel has made a fine art of generating receipts and bills that involves various people checking and making entries, and culminating with the waiter bringing you a sheaf of documents, each bill identifying a different entrée, in the same time that it would take to cook a chicken.

A few days later we fly back to Kolkata on an airline that, about 5 years ago made a splashy entry into the business with a glamour in the skies type of theme. As we wait for the flight to take off, a breathy, purring, “come hither” female voice instructs us on emergency procedures in Hindi—someone unfamiliar with the language would no doubt have confused this with soft porn. I wonder if this same company might benefit from entering the call center business. We sit there, a motley crew of locals, tourists, and folks from the north east hills, seat belts fastened in a nearly empty turboprop plane, the voice now mixed in with the whine of the revving engines, a memorable education in oxygen mask usage behind us, and the promise of a hot vegetarian meal ahead.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

World cup US style

A few minutes after the finals between Spain and Holland ended, I took a walk to the Starbucks in Mt. Kisco, 2 miles down the road.  On my way back, two cars rolled by, festooned with flags and the colors of Spain, music blaring, its waving occupants cheered on by passing motorists.  Remarkably, within an hour of the event, everybody around me was aware of its outcome.  I have been watching World Cups in the US every 4 years since 1986, and this is the first and only time that I have felt its fever starting to grip this nation.

I had an inkling the day the games began, when I travelled to White Plains to run some errands.  There was just that hint of a thinner crowd, not quite ghost town thin, but thin enough to halve your time at the check-out queue.  That was the day South Africa played Mexico.  Then, a few days later, deep into the group plays, I was at the barbershop for a haircut and heard that the shop saw no business during the times that the US was playing.

Soccer has always maintained its popularity among suburban middle class children, buoyed by mothers repulsed by the physical dangers of American football.  But somewhere along the way the sport dissipates, ceasing to hold its magic upon its young practitioners.  Yet, with the steady progress of the home grown Major League Soccer (MLS) league, soccer has begun to emerge. Arguably, the biggest impetus to the game’s visibility in the US in recent years was the addition of David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy roster.  As in a classic Beckham free kick this experiment appeared off target at first--as Beckham sputtered on the field and cavorted off it with his celebrity wife--but then veered back on target, not due to any residual magic in Beckham's legs, but from the media fallout that extracted the maximum visibility for soccer in this country.

A few days after the world cup I was at the check-out counter of a middle eastern deli in Yorktown, speaking to its Mexican waitress.  When Spain played the Dutch, who did she support, I asked her.  “Of course, Spain”, she said, “because we speak the same language.”  What if  Spain had played Argentina in the semis, who would it be I queried, in face of this linguistic parity?  Of course, Argentina--no question about that, she replied, since they were from the Americas.  Aha—so if now Spain played Brazil—where would she hang her hat?  Without hesitation she rooted for Brazil, how could she not support them, she countered.  I went back and relayed this story to my family.  This is just one data point, they argued, not  a trend.

So a couple of days after that, I went to test drive a car and the sales guy was a immigrant from Latin America—an ex-engineer who having lost his job in the downturn of 2008 had changed careers to support himself.  As we breezed along Saw Mill Parkway, I decided to expand my dataset.

Spain vs. Holland” I asked—
"Spain!” he countered.
Spain vs. Argentina?
Argentina!  Are you kidding me?"
Spain vs. Brazil?
They may speak Portuguese my friend, but it would be Brazil—all the way!

As enjoyable as the games were, I relished their coverage.  There were no soap operas in the mold of American style sports programming, no human interest coverage of personal adversities bordering on schadenfreude.  Uncorrupted by timeouts and breaks, no cutaways to sideline interviews of athletes referring to themselves in the third person (prepare for this if video replays arrive). No delayed programming, no jingoism--just the game, expert analysis at half-time by Lalas and company, then back to the game.  At least for now, it appears that the US is adapting to soccer in the style of the rest of the world.

The evening that the US loses in the quarterfinals, outhustled and out-conditioned by Ghana, a team some 30 places behind in the FIFA rankings,  I attend a free concert in Newcastle by Charlie Lagond and his band.  Seated in the auditorium, waiting for the show to start, I hear around me whispered conversations about the game.  A high school boy had come to the show hoping it would lift his spirits, crushed after the loss.  The players were household names by then.  Landon Donovan, perhaps the finest player in the history of US soccer, was a hero, a playmaker, a tireless engine of a man, a visionary.  Perhaps he was good enough to have even made the English team, which had cemented its position in history right next to the US national team of the 2002 basketball world cup.  Folks discussed the lack of a US striker with killer instinct; how twice, the US could have put the game away, but lacked that last bit of moxie.  At first, the team became heros, embraced by an indulgent media.  Then began the process for a more realistic assesment.  Making the quarterfinals was no longer good enough for the US, they ought to have gone further.  This was a team that could just win one game, that too barely.  Was this coach really in the elite category? 

This team did not perform as well as the 2002 squad, yet they possess a certain solidity, like an amorphous mass that is crystallizing but whose effects will take some more time to harden. They lacked the elegance of the Argentinians, or the precision passing of the Europeans.  But they were superbly conditioned, fearless, and played with a workmanlike ethic and an indomitable drive.  You can see traces of these national styles on display even in the low level amateur company leagues here that are stocked with multinational players and in which I participated for several years (where Indian players, I might add, always fell short in the conditioning department, including yours truly).  This US team seemed to have some vision, and the ability for quick and decisive counter-attack.  It is a team that, with a little more added depth, could be one world class striker shy of being an elite team.

Perhaps that might happen in 2014, for the US seems to be committed to this through careful nurturing of local talent.  Barring a few hiccups, such as the ado over Freddy Adu, a boy wonder who at 14 vaulted into the MLS in 2003 with a million dollar plus Nike deal only to fizzle out, most of the development of US players have been gradual rather than mercurial.  Almost all of the players on the US team today grew up in the United States.  While a majority of the starting eleven today play in Europe, most of them reached there following the path of the US divisional college leagues and the MLS, a success story that used measured doses of celebrity players blended with skilled foreigners and local talent, to ratchet forward.  Beckham did his bit for the popularity of the game.  And now it is Thierry Henry’s turn, as he joins the New York Red Bulls at the age of 33.  It is a league that draws its water from wells far and wide, from ageing European superstars, to 22 years olds from FIFA bottom-feeders such as India, when Sunil Chhetri its diminutive Manipuri striker signed up with the Kansas City Wizards.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Pleasantville Farmer's Market

The young man had the windblown hair, fresh faced American look from novels about the American Midwest. He was selling fish from under the tent of his store at the Saturday morning farm market while M and me were debating on the mackerel fillets. He asked us where we were from, then caught us off guard as he continued his conversation in Bengali. Fresh fish from Long Island and the eastern seaboard is sold here every Saturday morning—mackerel, bass, bluefish, tuna, scallops, shrimp—expensive but fresh; and here was this young man, suggesting grilling tips, and then slipping into Bengali. He spends time as a teacher he said, in Khulna, Bangladesh, and he was headed there again in a month’s time.

There are many surprises at the Farmers Market, held in Pleasantville, NY on Saturday mornings. It is popular among the locals, with farmers travelling from as far as 70 miles upstate to sell their produce to a well heeled clientele. Farms from Gardiner and further north bring grass fed beef, farm chicken, sausages, potatoes of myriad shapes and colors, local wines, cheeses and dried nuts, that are taken away in reusable cotton and jute grocery bags. I recall hearing a professor of agriculture from Arizona once comment— “if you want a great tasting tomato, then eat the ones from a farm store or your back garden, but you cannot get a few thousand pounds of them a month in winter, each tasting exactly the same, as you would from a hothouse!”

I wander about, camera in hand. There are other photographers like me, some with serious gear. A video interview is being conducted at the fish store, and the owner offers a primer on discerning quality. Passing dogs, tethered to leashes, measure one another.  Children frisk around chomping vegetables, people with big sunglasses perched on their heads stand in line patiently waiting for their turn to buy. We come across a few people we know and exchange pleasantries. I stop to pick up some meat. I have a beard and am often mistaken for a middle-easterner. As the farmer handed me a packet of pork sausages, he asks me if I am Muslim. “Take a wild guess”, I reply.

And what interesting people man the stalls. The British farmer from whom we often buy our meats was a one-time elephant trainer who spent time in Mysore. The bread store is run by Tibetans from Dharamsala. A Calcutta Kitchens booth run by an American and a Bengali lady with an MBA from IIM Kolkata. When the morning sun is yet mild and there are blue skies beyond the train station, sandal clad localites descend upon the market Starbucks in hand, and little children and barefoot babies in their summer dresses swing at the air in close fists from their prams. A peaceful outcome distills out of the din and turmoil of the bazaar--as if time has stood still, if only for a a few minutes. In rhythm to the ticking parking meters in downtown, the crowd gelates together in a celebration of fresh food, in a happy timeout from Westchester’s characteristic edginess.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Zitoune Moroccan Cuisine on bellydancing night


It was on Father’s Day that we headed off to Zitoune, a Moroccan restaurant in Mamaroneck, with A&U. The four of us have eaten together outside for decades—as carefree undergraduates under the open starry skies of Far East in Kharagpur, at Indian restaurants dotting the East Coast with toddlers in tow, restraining eager little hands intent on playing with cutlery; and now, with tousle headed teenagers bantering across the dinner table as equals. It is unfortunate that it took us so many years to come to Zitoune. The restaurant has a spendidly made up interior, with Moorish tilework whose influence can be found from North Africa to Portugal and Spain, curtains made up of light cloth in stripes of oranges and greens and yellows, a décor that is exotic, without the suffocation that can come from over-emphasis. As we walk in, I do an experiment. The manager (or owner) is at the entrance greeting customers-- I give him the “long lost friend” pat on the arm and he, without missing a beat, retorts “good to see you again”.

We start off with a generously proportioned dish of mussels cooked in a broth that has a deep, complex taste. As entrees we had kebabs, milder than their Indian counterparts, and lamb shank in a light gravy, similar to what is available at Shiraz in Elmsford. It was hard not to compare. The lamb was fine and soft and the gravy had a lower fat content, but did not have the melt in your mouth feel of the dish at Shiraz. The Moroccan chicken was excellent, garnished with raisins and cooked with slices of lemon that we, in our ignorance and lack of—literally—fore-sight in the dim light, initially mistook for potatoes. This was excellent food that did not make you feel heavy as an Indian restaurant does. I am certainly not a specialist in Moroccan food, but it was a delightful experience.

And so, with the dinner winding down, the dimmed lights abrubtly shimmered in anticipation, and the space filled out with rhythmic, modern Algerian music. Seeing a broad smile break out on M’s face, I turn around to see a belly dancer sashay across the floor, catlike in elegance. The next 15 minutes, in what I suppose could be interpreted as a Father’s day special, was an extravaganza of angular momenta variations as this mellifluous, gyrating dancer played with the laws of physics, flirted with axes of rotations, balanced a dish heaped with lit candles on her head, in short demonstrating a singular control in balancing mass and torque around a cylindrical coordinate system as I have rarely observed. The physicist Richard Feyman had, by his own admission, developed the theory of quantum electrodynamics triggered by an impromptu decision to work out the equations of motion of a spinning and wobbling saucer that a Cornell student had thrown up in the air. One wonders what an equally worthy physicist might have come up with that night at Zitoune.
Zitoune on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bhavik Groceries

130 East Main Street, Elmsford 10523,

Bhavik is probably the oldest Indian grocery store in mid-upper Westchester. If you want an immediate primer on South Asian produce and snacks, take about 15 minutes to cruise the rows of well stocked stalls here. Bhavik is a classic example of the kind of small suburban Indian grocery store that has sustained the kitchens of so many south asian immigrants over the years.

There is Bangladeshi puffed rice (moori) with “Fit for human consumption” printed across the package--alarming in its reassurance. Rock solid frozen fish-- Rohu, Hilsa – caught, flash frozen with liquid nitrogen, and then airlifted to the US. Cooked in curries, they taste incredibly fresh, though the extreme chilling does affect the texture of the flesh. The owner of Bhavik who hails from Gujarat, sells this fish with mild bemusement at the Bengalis who are the only ones who know how to do this dish justice. In the drinks aisle, there is Rooh Afzah, from Hamdard Labs—a rose drink legendary in status. Dribbled over crushed ice on a hot, humid Indian afternoon in July, I can see, in my mind’s eye, of years gone by, of Ralli Singh’s rose syrup in Esplanade, of the carmine liquid seeping through the fissures in the cracked ice, accelerated by capillary forces. Or Panha, a western Indian drink made by boiling green mangoes and then filtering the liquid through a strainer. There are stacks of Indian desserts: rossogollas, gulab jamun, or sohan ke halwa, laden with sugar and fat: three good reasons why diabetes is rampant in India.

As Indian foods take away from your health, so do they give, through years of traditional culinary filtering of what works for you. Turmeric—sold whole or ground, is believed to have anti-cancerous and anti-inflammatory properties due to the chemical curcumin. Mustard oil is a traditional oil used in Indian foods which is now controversial—touted for its beneficial properties, yet banned in many countries due to a high erucic acid content. You can find these at Bhavik. And with them are the modern delicacies—candy sized tamarind balls wrapped in plastic made famous over the last 10 years by Jet Airways, Cadbury’s chocolate éclairs shipped from India, by way of a British brand. Neem soap and Neem oil—made with traditional extracts from the Neem tree, and a major ingredient in many modern organic pesticides. Neem’s celebrated anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties were the subject of an infamous patent attempt in the 1990’s at the European Office of Patents, that was successfully challenged by the Indian government on the grounds that neem extracts have been used since time immemorial. And finally, the embarrassing product of modern India “Fair and lovely” skin bleaching cream that promises fairer skin to millions. You can get them all at Bhavik, and more.

Head to the counter and arrayed across are Bollywood DVDs. There has been an upsurge of interest in Indian movies in the US since the mid-nineties catalyzed by two reasons. The first was the emergence of the DVD player, that vastly improved the viewing experience. The second was the network of Indian grocery stores, where these movies could be rented for a nominal fee. The movies themselves were largely revamped by this time with robotically uniform actors and actresses with great physical appeal, the benefits of the economies of scale of limited thought and set piece routines, and the brilliant use of color and music that metamorphosed Bollywood films into a slicker, slipperier, sexier celluloid. So, on a Friday evening, you popped in one of these mega extravaganzas, put your mind on hold and listened to simple stories, and electronic songs, and beautiful men and women marching to some rhythm in an infantile progression of logic. And what thespians these are! There is six pack Salman, credited with bringing bodybuilding to Bollywood, Katrina Kaif, who has raised the bar on her craft by not being able to act in a language that she cannot speak, Abhishekh Bacchhan whose orders of magnitude improvement over the years has only proven again that a small number divided by zero can be a large number. And all of this grandeur, gifted almost for a couple of dollars across the counter by the munificent Mr. Bhavik, grocer and movie critic on demand, dispensing advise on his picks for the evening. (Actually Mr. Kirit, as has been commented below)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Ming Restaurants

1655-195 Oak Tree Road, Edison, NJ,

Driving down New Jersey Turnpike, one comes across a billboard—“Twitter with Verizon 3G”. A little over a decade ago, this message would have been incomprehensible to the viewer, yet today, decades of technology development has been merged together cheaply so that the end user, without a thought, can twitter on 3G at cents to the minute. In the same way, a decade and a half ago, the phrase Indo-Chinese cuisine, would have been incomprehensible here, but today most Indians in the metropolitan US have--within range of a quarter of a gas tank--access to a good Indo-Chinese restaurant. And this brings me, after a lengthy introduction, to Ming, a sparkle of a restaurant, in the heart of an Indian business district--on Oaktree Lane in Edison, New Jersey. There are two concentrations of Indian shops in the tri-state area—the first in Jackson Heights, Queens (see review of Kabab King), is populated by Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh; the second, in Edison, NJ is populated byWestern or North Indian immigrants.

As you enter Ming, there are photographs of the (presumably) proprietor of Ming with Bill Clinton and Anil Kapoor—proud symbols that an immigrant has arrived. And what better character to choose than Bill Clinton, whom Indians are in love with, and have rightly or wrongly, identified as a glutton for Indian cuisine.

Ming has a variety of Indo-Chinese staples. This is not what you would eat at a Chinese restaurant in India run by ethnic Chinese, rather it is the kind of food that an Indian would cook inspired by Chinese cuisine. The three most popular Chinese dishes in India used to be chicken sweet corn soup, chilli-chicken, and Hakka chow-mien. While the word Hakka delivers a certain heft and ring of authenticity, the food I understand has little bearing to food from the original Hakka speaking people who migrated to South Asia. The chilli-chicken at Ming’s tasted somewhat like an indianized version of General Tso’s chicken were the General allowed to run wild with Indian spices. The one, absolutely brilliant dish at Ming is the Coriander soup—one of the most delicious that we have tasted—built up with a vegetable soup stock, garnished with ginger, thickened with flour, and containing what appeared to be finely chopped slices of cucumber. The chow mien and the fried rice were fresh, and not excessively oily. The noodles were soft, with scrambled eggs mixed in, the way my mother used to make noodles. The table had the little bowl with pieces of chopped green chillies floating in vinegar, bringing in the instant recall to dimly lit Calcutta Chinese restaurants where you softly padded in from the din on the streets to the chill of their air-conditioners . This is the second time that we have visited Ming. It is not the best Indo Chinese food that I have had, but it is good food, definitely worth a visit. The place lacks a liquor license but they allow bringing in your own alcohol.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hindostanee Coffee House

34 George Street, Portman Square, London

It has been 9 years that I left my position on The Union that sailed into the London docks in 1801 from Bengal, and 9 years that I am now able to afford some of the pleasantries of life. After the two harsh years of living on Kingsland Road, my fluency with both the language of Bengal and England, my education at the Charity School in Calcutta, and my interest and inquiries into the Natural Philosphies and Chemistry provided me the opportunity of a situation as butler to Mr. Reeves, returned from India, where he was an officer for the East Indian company at Cossim Bazaar. I had the good fortunes of making his aquaintance at the end of a lecture that was given by the great chemist Humphry Davis, at the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street, on the decomposition of alkalis and soda with the passage of electricity. He, being curious of mind, we fell into a discussion of the sciences. Being desirous of the conveniences of a Hindostanee butler from his stay in India, and delighted at the opportunities for conversation afforded by our mutual scientific interests, he promptly offered me a position that I was, of course, delighted to accept. My employer, a man of pleasant disposition, offers me reasonable comfort, a comfortable salary, and duties that afford me occasional free time to explore London and its surroundings. So it was a stroke of fortune that I chanced upon a notice in The Times on March 27, that read thus:

“Hindostanee Coffee-House, No. 34 George-street, Portman square—Mahomed, East-Indian, informs the Nobility and Gentry, he has fitted up the above house, neatly and elegantly, for the entertainment of Indian gentlemen, where they may enjoy the Hoakha, with real Chilm tobacco, and Indian dishes, in the highest perfection, and allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England with choice wines, and every accommodation, and now looks up to them for their future patronage and support, and gratefully acknowledges himself indebted for their former favours, and trusts it will merit the highest satisfaction when made known to the public.”

Gourmandizer that I am, and seeker of wholesome fare from my native soil, it was soon after that, my hunger incited as the consequence of a long walk, decided to proceed at once to Portman Square to the Hindostanee Coffee House. The proprietor of the Coffee House, a Mr. Sake Din Mahomet, originally hailing from Patna, greeted me warmly. The interior was well and tastefully appointed with chairs made of bambou and paintings on the wall of myriad sceneries of life from India. He set forth on my table a tankard of ale, and a measure of gin, and warmly asked after me, being solicitous that I receive all the comforts of his establishment without inconvenience. Most of his customers, he remarked, were English gentlemen returned from tours of duty in India, and eager to enjoy the dishes that had shaped their palates the preceding years. Occasionally a rich Nabob would visit with his retinue, there being a fair number of Indian Princes who maintained establishments around Mayfair and Marleybone.

I was served chapatis, not made in the usual style for the sahib-log with flour and milk, but with wheat. There was carp fish, that is familiar to me by the name of Rui and a delicious Lucknow chutnee that I had not had before. According to Mahomet, while the first curry dishes were available at the Coffee House in Norris Street more than thirty years ago, his is the first establishment dedicated to the foods of India. He had, as promised in his publick notice, the Hoakah set aside, but this was a habit that I was not endeared to. Most of all I enjoyed the pleasant company of Mahomet, who came to England at a young age. He spoke about his desire for starting yet another new business, vapor baths carried out in the Hindostanee style, and about introducing to England, the head massage method of Champi, which his Irish wife Jane calls “shampoo”. With him I met a young boy, William Munnoo only 15 years of age, arrived recently from India, a servant in the employ of Mr. James Hickey, who was dining at the house. Mr Hickey having brought him from India after a payment of a sum of money to his mother, did send him to receive an English education, and treated him with fairness, though as I understood from Mr. Mahomet, Mr. Hickey himself had long enjoyed a life of dissipation and waste.

Of all the dishes that I had, the one that was most appealing was the curry, though upon querying him as to the origins of this dish, Mahomet took me aside and wrote me down a description of the cooking method. This, he gleaned, he said, not from his experiences in India but from the fine book “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy”, by Hannah Glasse, (the reprinted edition he had was from 1774) a copy of which he came across perchance. I append the recipe below, though on this particular evening he had used pheasant instead of chickens.

Hannah Glasse’s To make a currey the Indian way

Take two small chickens, skin them and cut them as for a fricasey, wash them clean, and stew them in about a quart of water, for about five minutes, then drain off the liquor and put the chickens in a clean dish; take three large onions, chop them small, and fry them in about two ounces of butter, then put in the chickens and fry them together till they are brown, take a quarter of an ounce of turmerick, a large spoonful of ginger and beaten pepper together, and a little salt to your palate; throw all these ingredients over the chickens whilst it is frying, then pour in the liquor, and let it stew about half an hour, then put in a quarter of a pint of cream, and the juice of two lemons, and serve it up. The ginger, pepper must be beat very fine.

Indeed the excellent Indian pellow with cloves, pepper, and boiled eggs, Mahomet confided, was also prepared according to the instructions from this same book.

All in all, a savoury meal that cost me about 6 p. for the food, about 1 p. for the quart of ale, and about 1 p. for the gin. I shall be back. Onwards now to Gunter’s in Berkley Square for some confections.

(Note: This, as you may have guessed is a fictitous review. The restaurant, Hindostanee Coffee House, was real and is considered to be the first Indian restaurant in the West. Its proprietor, Dean Mahomet (Din Mohamed),is also responsible for the the introduction of the work “shampoo” in the English language. It was ahead of its time, and Mahomet lost money on this. A version of the restaurant continued, apparently, till the 1830s, though not under Mahomet's management. Much information about him can be found on the web. The advertisement from the Times is a real one that did, apparently, appear. William Munnoo (William Munnew) is a known character, and one of many of the Indian servants who travelled to England when their masters returned to England after their stay in India. His employer, James Hickey, spent time in Calcutta. Searching the web, one can still find genealogical references to Munnew's and Mahoment's descendants. In the early nineteenth century there were also a few hundred lascars, or ship hands, typically stranded in London, living under very poor conditions. The Royal Insititution was started at the beginning of the 19th. Century, and Humphry Davis, the great chemist credited with many discoveries—among them the isolation of sodium and potassium, was one of its earlier employees. Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery was one of the most successful cookbooks from the 19th. century that enjoyed many reprints and is credited to be the first western cookbook with a recipe for curry. The first edition did not contain the additions of ginger and turmeric that the 1774 edition has—this edition may be found online on Google books. Finally the Charity School was the first English language school in Calcutta (what is now St. Thomas School), started in the late 18th. century )

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Masala Kraft

206 E. Hartsdale Ave, Hartsdale,

Masala Kraft is a strictly vegetarian restaurant in Hartsdale, and on the afternoon of Mother’s Day we were there with our old friends A&U, sans our children, who have now reached the age where their varied engagements, keep them fruitfully engaged, away from their parents. About a year old, it is in the small downtown Hartsdale neighborhood, near the train station and somewhat opposite Azuma Sushi, with a convenient parking lot in the rear. It is a small café like space, with modern décor, yellow walls, glossy tables built up with a thick polyurethaned finish, and a counter where you can your order, after which the food is brought to you. We started off with Bhel Puri and Papdi Chat—city street food now conscripted into appetizer service, that is fairly common in Westchester Indian restaurants today. My tendencies lean towards appetizer weighted meals, partly as a survival mechanism against the overspiced oily curries that pass as entries—but at Masala Kraft, the main dishes, as it was gradually obvious, remained king. We ordered dosas and a south Indian thali meal—consisting of idlis, rasam, sambar, vadas, uthappam, and curd rice. The rasam may (but not necessarily) be had as a soup, and the meal ends with the belly soothing effects of curd-rice. The first observation to make from the food at Masala Kraft was the absence of oiliness in the dishes, notorious typically with dosas and vadas, which, in a digestional postscript, hang a two ton weight on your stomach for hours to come. The skill of a south Indian dish lies in the quality of its sambar, a toor dal (type of lentil) based vegetable stew, and the lesser known (in the west) rasam, a watery, subtle, dish made from a tomato base. The food was an absolute delight to anyone craving South Indian food—and—according to our friend U from Bangalore, authentic. Masala Kraft delivered on mother’s day. The food was smooth, the dosas were crisp yet light to the taste, the rasam swam with clarity, and the sambar was fresh and hearty. There are different variants of sambar in the south and this particular example belied its Karnatic rather than Tamil origins according to U (confirmed after a discussion with the owner). And then, when the table was all cleared, the appetites soothed, and a few streaks of sun started drifting through the clouds on this unseasonably cold afternoon with whipping wind, there came two plates of restaurant made kulfi (as opposed to getting them from Queens, NY),deep, delicious, and laden with fat that we shared amongst ourselves. So good, in fact, that in a rare breach of gastronomical discipline in these autumnal years, we went for seconds. Along with Chutney Masala, and Chillichicken, Masala Kraft completes a renovation of Westchester area’s Indian cuisine.
Note added April 17, 2011:
On a subsequent visit here, I can affirm that their in-house kulfi remains first rate.  The place experiments with new dishes, and this is what I like, though the results can often be varied.  This afternoon, tried an Indo-Chinese soup--a valiant effort that will likely not stand the test of time.  Masala dosa and the bhel puri were very good.
Masala Kraft Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine

37 South Moger Ave, Mt. Kisco, NY 10549

There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s that almost every Ethiopian restaurant was called Blue Nile, just as every Mongolian eatery would be called Khan’s Mongolian Barbeque. Such were the inroads of ethnic cuisine into America. Lalibela is most likely Westchester County’s first Ethiopian restaurant and we don’t need to drive down to upper Manhattan, to the Columbia University area anymore for Ethiopian, when the need arises. It is also a commentary on the changing dynamics of global cuisine in the small towns of Westchester—Lalibela stands today, right next to a Jamaican restaurant and opposite a Japanese restaurant. That area, roughly a few blocks of downtown Mt. Kisco, in addition houses Chinese restaurants, South American restaurants, a couple of Asian fusion type places, an Asian tea house, an Indian restaurant and a Lebanese eatery, in additional to an Italian and a contemporary American place.

Lalibela has opened recently, and the owner is a pleasant lady who used to work at the venerable Crabtree’s Kittle House before starting this new venture. This is a small restaurant, and on the Saturday evening that 6 of us went, the place had a reasonable number of diners. Clearly the staff was going through the break-in period—we were asked whether we needed water by three separate waitresses, and while this attention was appealing, each query appeared to add some more time to when we actually received the water. As we decided upon the order, we were served warm, moist bread and a dip of berbere paste, the classic Ethiopian mix of dried spices such as ginger, garlic, rue berries and ajwain. The fiery red paste looks more lethal than it actually is, so one can scoop up generous portions to flavor the bread without concern.

We had Lalibela Kifto, Lalibela Tibs, and Lamb Tips served in the typical Ethiopian communal platter-- chopped beef, beef chunks, and lamb chunks sautéed with vegetables, respectively. The Injeras served with the food were cold (added later:as one reader points out below--this appears to be normal), but otherwise fine—we ascribed this shortcoming to teething troubles. The food felt like it was homecooked, and I mean this in a good way. The vegetables were fresh, the spicing was held back a bit from typical Ethiopian food that we have had, and the dishes were less rich and less saucy than what I have been used to. Do not expect firecrackers in your mouth going in there and you will be fine. Ethiopian food right here in Mount Kisco, is not a bad deal at all.
Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A brief trip to Delhi and Guwahati April 2010

A brief trip to Delhi and Guwahati April 2010:

It started off a chilly morning which, by afternoon, morphed into a harbinger of summer with the skies blue, and the air warm. M, emerging from this swift and bitter winter like a post hibernating bear, plunged into the garden with both hands at this jewel of an afternoon. As I loaded my bags, she interrupted her work, walking up to the front of the house to see me off. I drove down to the end of the driveway. Before taking the turn onto the road, I looked at the rear view mirror. She was gone, vanished in a heartbeat into the sun and green. I began my 60 mile journey to the airport through Westchester roads that carved by lakes shimmering in stagnant silence, reflecting the grandeur of the blue skies and few scattered clouds.

I am in a packed non-stop 15 hour flight to Delhi, settled in in my little capsule of a seat, with copies of Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone” and Bill Bryson’s “”Thunderbolt Kid” for company. As the aircraft taxis, and all electronics items are ordered subdued, my neighbour continues to work the keys of his Blackberry atop his lap, beneath a blazer thrown across for subterfuge. If not for the slight telltale glow of the LCD screen underneath the blazer, I would have misconstrued this unusual motion for something else.

Delhi airport throws a slightly different look every time I visit. Gone are the long drawn immigration checkouts--I am out in 15 minutes, in a car headed to the hotel at high speed on a sparkling 8 lane highway. As Delhi prepares for the Commonwealth games there are big changes underway. The metro rail will extend to the international airport and a new terminal is being built. There are signs of construction everywhere, of half finished work and rubble, and behemoth equipment by the roadside that form dark ponderous outlines against the sodium vapor lit sky. At night, in places, Delhi ceases to look like the Indian city of one’s minds, as you go from parking lot to highway to tollbooths and criss crossing overpasses.

After a quick check in, I have dinner at the Aangan, an Indian restaurant in Bikaji Cama Place. The food is good but it does not talk to me. Perhaps in my tiredness, I am unreasonable, expecting Delhi to cook up its magic to this prodigal son with a hungry stomach. But as the saying goes, that every soldier has a bullet with his name on it, I believe that every restaurant holds a menu item with the diners name: and for me, at Angan, it was finally the kulfi, that did me in. I fall asleep dog tired, in the cold chill of the airconditioner and the lights from a large gas station diffusing through the wall size window next to my bed.

I always enjoy looking out from the hotel window the first morning of arrival. Delhi has historical grandeur, but it is an ugly city with a harsh, gritty landscape, the swirling dust creates a haze that tinges the early morning light into warm colors. You can see treelines extending backwards, divided into distance zones, with each subsequent zone obfuscated a bit by the haze, till at the end they look like outlines of shades of grey in the distance that could be hills. It has been unseasonably hot in the city and the daytime temperature crosses 100 F (>40 C). I take a brief walk at lunchtime and, with the dry breeze blowing, it feels like walking into a thousand solar powered hair dryers at the same time.

Cricket, and the Indian Premier League have cast a spell over the country. One of the largest professional sports businesses in the world, the IPL teams are owned by consortia of the rich, powerful and the good looking. They are named in regional flavors (e.g. Rajasthan Royals, Kolkata Nightriders) and rostered by the best players in the world, recruited via auction. The league is a runaway hit and I see some of the matches on TV. Cameras at numerous angles, microphones and sensors dissect every aspect of the game from the speed, statistical distribution of the ball, and strokeplay. The participants look nothing like the players of the past. Compared to the rail thin Azaruddin or the dapper Gavasker of an earlier era, gods in human size and form, who looked like they could have been regular office goers who traded in their briefcases for pads and white flannel--many of these players are gladiator geared athletic specimens who immediately dispel any professional cricketing aspirations that a regular sized person might have. It may be a trickery of modern camerawork, but I get the distinct impression that the the game is played at a much higher level today (it is a similar matter with kabbaddi-- in Canada, where there is a semi-professional league among Indian immigrants, the game appears totally beyond the kabbaddi we knew, with average players standing six feet plus and 240 pounds).

Pretty people appear highly valued and superficiality is readily accepted. Breathtaking movie stars are feted whose acting talents (or even ability to speak Hindi in some cases) appear less critical than their musculature. A dashing junior minister, who enjoys a bit of a wallflower effect because of his looks and ability to speak clipped English (which always appears to impress, in general, in the ex-colonies) is embroiled in a scandal involving free equity from an IPL cricket team. Newspaper and magazine articles are full of clever sound bites, but lack depth. Today’s headlines introduce me to a new world: “Yuvraj may exit Kings XI after IPL-3”, “100 Crore-patis in Rajya Sabha”, “JEE Goof up leaves IIT aspirants in a tizzy”. The number of ads for educational institutes is astounding—there is clearly an explosion of private universities, and a national knowledgefest is underway. Employment opportunities seem very high for qualified people.

The next day I take a plane out of Delhi headed into a whole different world, Guwahati. Time has been held back somewhat in the North Eastern parts of India. The milieu waiting to board the flight to Guwahati and Imphal stand out at the airport--they are like it used to be three decades ago, of a child with his mother and aunts waiting in a dilapidated Calcutta airport. Shorn of the gloss and the straightened hair of the Delhi elite, they stand with sewn cloth bags, young women with colors that the globally urban might disdain, businessmen with worn briefcases and tired clothes, slightly tentative of the surrounding glitz, like the elderly lady at the Kolkata mall a few years ago who looked terrified in the new fangled department store, reminding me so much of my mother that I felt a protective rush run through me. On the aircraft, there is a comfortable unassumedness in their presence, as two children run the aisles in the airplane frolicking, and multiple passengers, undistracted by laptops, delight and indulgently partake in their fun.

Assam signifies a calm from the aircraft, with its greenery, its mountains, and the magnificent Brahmaputra river that flows in from Tibet. The outskirts of the city, where the airport is, still has remnants of old Assam style construction, elegant with wooden frames and sloping roofs. The aircraft taxis past the corrugated sheet hangar marked “Assam Flying Club”, which has been there since at least the early 1970s. The winds of change have begun to blow through Guwahati. I speak to an elderly cousin of mine in the financial profession, who complains of this new world of electronic tax filings and telephone support with automated voices. He flew recently using an online electronic ticket, changed his flights, was charged a hefty fee, and then mourned the loss of the process in which there could be a physical person whom he could have gone to for redress, coerced into re-adjusting the books. My mother marvels at a felicitory seasonal message texted to her cellphone from the medical clinic, and I explain to her the impersonal mathematics of mass mailings.

At night I am a ringside spectator to a spectacular Assam storm. The night is cool and breezy and swarms of mosquitoes are stuck on top of the mosquito net, trapped by the downward draft of the ceiling fan, as the net swings to and fro, as is in a giant mosquito amusement park. The storm announces itself without foreplay, with sharp crackling thunder, a lull, then the slow rise in volume of the sound of rain, distant at first, then creeping up, till it rings around you as if in the midst of a circular arena. It is a rich, intense sound, as I have only heard in Assam, of a deep, all encompassing, body of water. The sounds are many—falling on the tin roofs of constrution nearby, a harsh staccato, the blotchy drips of water onto large green banana leaves. Each sound has a temporal rhythm and these beat upon one another as the rain and the response of the surroundings to it set a happy equilibrium between themselves. The storm goes away, as it came, suddenly spent as if the heavens turned a faucet off.

In the morning we have visitors and one of them, a gentleman that I have never met before, hearing that I had arrived from the States, asks me about Jerry Garcia, out of the blue. This leads to a wonderful conversation and we talk about rock music in the North East, about Lou Majew, a long haired Khasi singer/songwriter who has been eccentric enough to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday with a concert every year for the last 30 years till the NY Times ran a full page feature on him last year (“I am broke, like shattered glass” was one of his comments). About amazing vocalists largely unknown, playing at music festivals in the hills of Nagaland and Manipur, about Anusheh Anadil a guttural, engine voiced Bangladeshi singer who will be very well known, very soon. Western music is widespread here In the North Eastern hill regions where children learn to play the guitar at an early age, an interesting offshoot of the spread of Christianity among the tribal populations here by Scottish, American, and English priests in the 19th and early 20th. centuries.

On the way back, by the side of the road leading back to the airport, across a field and next to some rural construction is a large billboard with a picture of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, the singer who has held godlike status in Assam over the past 40 years. While studying for his Ph.D. at Columbia University in the 1950s, he was deeply influenced by American music and the blues. Upon returning, he wrote and sang one of the greatest songs to come out of Eastern India, on the Brahmaputra river, based on the American classic, Old Man River. Today, this octogenarian leader of the people and disciple of Paul Robeson, smiles gently from the billboard at passing motorists, peddling products for Star Cement as its brand ambassador. He seems to have made his pact at the mythical cross-roads.