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 d├ęcor 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.
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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 ├ęclairs 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.