Sunday, October 28, 2012

Chaat-ing Around On The Streets of Delhi!

Today when we were out shopping for our weekly groceries at Star Bazaar at the Crystal Point Mall in Andheri West, we saw a chaat counter as we exited. Naturally Neeti and I were tempted, tempted beyond any imaginable control!
Before we could think rationally, we ordered a plate of paani puris (or gol gappas, as we North Indians call them) - six of them shared between the two of us.
Was it the same thing that we have so loved? No way!
Agreed High Point in Lokhandwala Market is far better than what we had at Star Bazaar, but nothing matches the gol gappas you get in the North.
My first introduction to the chaat kind of stuff happened in 1984 at Hauz Khas, in Delhi. It was a "sinful" treat that my good old granny, or Ammi as we lovingly used to call her, used to give us, me, Neelima and our cousins, off and on. Too much of it was bad, we were told - it could make our throats go bad and give us a temperature too. That used to keep us from pestering her most of the times, but most of the times, she would lovingly lead us to Shiv Stores, a neighbourhood restaurant known for its South Indian fare, chaats and sweets.
I loved the dahi papdi chaat a delectable melange of crunchy papdi, sweet and sour tamarind chutney and cool curd. Thus began our love affair with this sinful North Indian concoction.
Times have changed quite a lot. Today the owners of Shiv Stores have closed their restaurant business and have gotten into the much lucrative business of property redevelopment. In place of the erstwhile Shiv Stores, a swanky new new office has come up from where their redevelopment business is managed.
Changing times have not changed my liking for these sinful delights. Any trip to Delhi is an event to look forward to for one significant reason - having chaat, gol gappas and tikkis.

It is always a treat to see the vendors behind their elaborately illuminated counters picking up the gols, putting a bit of boiled chickpea, mashed potato, onion, tamarind chutney and dipping in the spicy paani! These guys do it so stylishly - it has to be seen to be believed.

And girls go crazy on the gol gappas. It's sheer madness when they have all this. They shriek with joy and plead with the vendor, "Bhaiyya, ek aur!" or "Thoda saunth dena!".
Unfortunately Mumbai's Gujju-ised, sev-laced chaat variants are no match for the very magical authentic Delhi chaat. People in Mumbai go crazy about the stuff you get at Elco's on Hill Road in Bandra or at High Point in Lokhandwala. These poor souls, in Mumbai, haven't really tasted the real thing. The Mumbai variants lack the robustness in flavour that the Delhi version has. Plus the besan sev spoils the whole fun.
The tikki chaat in Delhi is another yummy delight. The aroma that wafts from the wide iron skillet with the sound of fat tikkis sizzling on it is simply magical. And then when it's time to eat, imagine two fat crispy tikkis sitting on your plate with mint and tamarind chutneys and bit of beaten curd. The Mumbai version of the tikki chaat, Ragda Pattice, comes a poor 10th, let alone second, third, fourth or whatever for various reasons. I personally find the name hard hitting and not appealing at all. Secondly, the size of the tikkis make them look anemic like pygmies, when compared with the Delhi ones! Thirdly the chutneys lack the robustness and character that chutneys in the North have.

Make no mistake - this is no rant about Mumbai. But somehow for any true bloodied, self respecting North Indian, its hard to accept Mumbai's Gujju-ised variants as palatable. Having chaat in Mumbai is as bad as having pav-bhaaji in Delhi (for Delhi chaat eateries pav-bhaaji is an absolute must on the menu!). It's just not the real thing. That does explain why for my first 2-weeks in Mumbai I had pav-bhaaji every single night!

And yes, I forgot the aloo chaat that is ubiquitous in Connaught Place - that's another yummy heartwarming treat for a cold winter day!
Probably, the best place to have all this is in Old Delhi, in and around Chandni Chowk, where certain shops have a built a sterling reputation vending chaats for centuries!
As I am writing this, I am already plotting my next move - a visit to Old Delhi, to tingle my palate, to go chaat-ing around on the streets of Delhi!

Starbucking Has Just Begun!

A few years ago, while visiting Hong Kong, Starbucks (Staabaa as the locals called it in Hong Kong!) was the preferred place for us to have a steaming hot cup of either coffee or tea, alongwith a few green tea cookies which we absolutely loved.
Then, almost a year after that we visited Coorg, where it was enthralling seeing how a uniquely aromatic coffee is grown in lush green estates of Tata Coffee, alongwith spices like cardamom and pepper. That inspired Neeti, a pure tea-drinker to write about flirting with coffee, which she had covered in her blog.
Little did we realise at that moment that Starbucks was going to partner Tata Coffee to get the chain to India, sourcing coffee from the same lovely green plantations that we had visited about two years back.
About 10 days back, their first outlet opened at Horiman Circle followed by two more, one of which was closer to home, at Oberoi Mall.

We made a serious attempt to visit the outlet for breakfast today - the anticipation of having green tea cookies again kept awake till long last night! But we overestimated ourselves. Breakfast at Starbucks was tall order, as laziness ruled the weather, at home, this morning.
I thanked my stars when we finally left home at nearly 1PM. In about 20 minutes we were at Oberoi Mall. But the time we saved in getting to Starbucks was all wasted in the long queue full of excited people - mostly young, some elderly and few expatriates for whom having Starbucks coffee surely must be nostalgic.

After about 30 minutes of waiting, we got a table. We were to place our orders - frappucinos, double chocolate chip muffins, mushroom chicken pie and a corn brioche.
I must admit that the frappucino was intensely flavourful. The pie was flaky, crusty and fresh - the chicken inside was meaty without an overbearing spiciness that is so common at a Café Coffee Day or a Barista. The muffin too was much better than what I have had elsewhere. As Neeti put it, it was again, another flirtation with coffee!
But to my dismay, there were no green tea cookies!

As we moved out, the Café Coffee Day outlet hardly had a soul in it. So did Gloria Jeans. This was the Starbucks effect for sure.

While the stuff here at Starbucks was excellent, it is indeed too early to give a verdict. Today Starbucks has only three outlets, all in Mumbai. Will the quality still be the same when they have over 50, 100, 200 outlets? I wonder! It will be a challenge - in the Indian restaurant and café business quality does indeed take a plunge with an increased reach.
Despite enjoying a decent snack, my mind was still on the green tea cookies! And I could not resist calling my sis to send in some from Starbucks in China! Our real Starbucking has just begun!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Immature Indian Airlines!

As though depressing news wasn't enough, it was sad to hear of the DGCA canceling the licenses of Kingfisher Airlines.
But then the likes of Jet Airways and IndiGo are somehow surviving. The best are the foreign carriers which are thriving flying in and out of Indian skies and laughing all the way to the bank.
The Wall Street Journal had a story on the oddest air routes in the world. And one tiny carrier, with just 11 aircraft, from the nation of Armenia, nestled in the Caucasus highlands, Armavia is flying the Sardars from the pinds of Amritsar to Birmingham, via  Zvartnots International Airport at Yerevan.
My folks recently traveled to Beijing from Delhi, to meet my sister. they flew on Air China. Air China too picking up Punjabis and giving them free transit hotel rooms in Beijing and flying them onward to Trrannto (Toronto) and other places in Cannadda (Canada). Other Chinese carriers are also swamping Indian airports - China Southern, China Eastern besides Air China which is adding a 2x daily frequency to Kunming from Kolkata, yes, that's right Kolkata of all places!
Jet Airways recently pulled out of New York's JFK Airport, while it continues to fly in to Newark. The void left behind Jet Airways is being filled in by Virgin Atlantic, which starts flights to New York from Delhi on October 25, 2012.
The best is Emirates, which has been called as India's "national airline" by the Economic Times flies Indian passengers from mini-metros like Ahmedabad and Hyderabad to far flung places like Rio di Janeiro, Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires, besides the whole of Africa and Europe.
I feel Indian carriers suffer from a classic problem - a short sighted management which fails to see opportunities coupled with a stupid and stifling bureaucracy-politician nexus.
The managements of airlines have no long term vision - they just seem to be content with living the day rather building a future. They simply fail to see the opportunities within  that the Armavias and Emirates and Air Chinas are capitalising on. Indian carriers are mentally ill prepared for a long gestation period before they can actually cream the long-haul market. The worst offender on this count is Jet Airways which hastily pulled out of the India - Shanghai - San Francisco and India - Johannesburg sectors, routes where South African Airways and Chinese carriers are flourishing.
The government should be working on building multiple Indian carriers of quality and repute to feed in passengers from the West into hub airports and fly them to the East - India is strategically located to do that. But do they have the vision?
But has anyone given a thought to the tragic ordeal of Kingfisher employees? Certainly not the Mallyas who are cooling their heels abroad as Mallya Jr tweeted about the club life at 5AM in London. How tragic and immature!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I Want to Fly... I Want to Soar!

I want to fly...
I want to soar...
See the world,
From the skies above...

It's a different world, up there...
Away from pain, deceit and despair...

The splendour of God's colours...
So pristine, so pure...
Are there to be seen,
To be cherished.

But it anguishes me, to think...
"What have done,
Down below?"

I want to fly...
I want to soar...
See the world,
From the skies above!

Jiyo Malala!

Two days back, the Taliban in Pakistan's Swat Valley targetted schoolgirl activist, Malala Yousafzai - she was shot in her head.
Her crime - supporting the cause of female education much to the chagrin of the Islamic fundamentalists.
Television channels were prominently featuring this news since then. This morning news is in that Malala is out of danger - doctors in Peshawar have successfully removed the bullet from her skull.
NDTV carried a clip of the feisty Malala speaking of how determined she was to study!
I was impressed. Girls like her will make the world a better place to live in...
Interestingly, the Pakistani journalist, Nadeem Paracha tweeted "Alas, the only real man in Pakistan turned out to be a 14-year-old school girl."
Just after that heartwarming news, there was another news of continued atrocities against women in Haryana. Supposedly, a minor had been raped in my hometown, Yamuna Nagar. I was shocked. And then the stupid comment from the strongman politician, Om Prakash Chautala, justifying underage marriage as a solution to these ghastly crimes.
How can we have these guys with a Talibani mindset govern us?
Forget politicians, I really give up on Indian men - men who have this mindset confining women to a narrow role, despite being well educated and claiming to be progressive.
While Indians may like to pan Pankistan for atrocities against women, we in India too have a long way to go. Hope India too gives birth to millions of Malalas - nearly 50% of the nation - women who have progress on their mind. They will make India a better place, an economic growth engine.
Jiyo Malala!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

We Feel Lucky!

No matter what is said about earthly possessions, there really are those things that mean a lot to you for various reasons, mostly sentimental. Loss of these things can be really hurtful, as Neeti and I figured out over the last few days.
Neeti had a very cute and pretty bracelet which was gifted to her by folks when we tied the knot. She really loved it a lot, she rarely moved out of home without it. But the other day, while on an official training trip out of Mumbai, while doing a jungle trek, it fell off and was nowhere to be found, despite the effort she had put to search for it. She was crestfallen when she reached home.
I too had a similar scare. Yesterday morning, while getting ready for work, I could not find my watch - the same old smart watch that Neeti had gifted me for our wedding. I remember that Sunday afternoon when Neeti had dragged me to Delhi's Sarojini Nagar Market to prod me to buy something! And Neeti took an instant liking to this watch that I also had liked. This watch has been with me ever since, for daily use, telling me the time, but also reminding me of that exciting courtship period.
I was shocked. I thought I had dropped it on my desk in office, or dropped it while returning back home. There was some hope that I might recover it on my desk. I kept the hope alive till I reached office, but I was disappointed. The watch wasn't on my desk! Was it picked up by the outsourced janitors or the utility people? These thoughts were running in my mind as I looked at everyone suspiciously.
I messaged Neeti that I had lost it. I too was crestfallen. Devoid of energy, I somehow pulled myself through the day till I returned home.
As I settled back in, I saw something shiny under the blanket. (I sure did chide myself for the immature thought of suspecting others of picking up my watch.)
My God! That was my watch! We were somewhat lucky to get it back. But the bracelet is still lost....
Despite the loss of something sentimental, I still feel we are lucky to have the love, togetherness and blessings of the family...

Monday, October 1, 2012

Be Healthy, Be Earthy - Eat Italian!

Great food need not be complicated at all.
That's what I realised when I saw David Rocco's Dolce Vita on television that other weekend. David Rocco, a Canadian actor and producer of Italian descent, very nicely brings out the treasures that his native Italy has to offer.
On this particular show, David Rocco made an exciting, yet simple pasta - spaghetti al limone, a side dish - zucchine alla scapece and a lemony tiramisu.
That particular show left me inspired enough to rush to Lokhandwala market, the next morning, to immediately buy the ingredients. Barely able to control my excitement and anticipation that had clouded my attention span all that while, the tingle in my tummy grew intense with each passing moment till dinner time.
The spaghetti went in for a boil till done, al dente

Garlic cloves were pounded into a thick paste, lime juice was extracted and extra virgin olive oil was mixed in. Then lime zest was mixed in.
While my spaghetti was getting done, I shallow fried up slices of zucchini. That's when I remembered that David had mentioned that scapece can be made with aubergines as well - aubergines is the vegetable that  both Neeti and I equally and absolutely adore. So melanzane zucchine alla scapece it had to be, my variant of David Rocco's! After the zucchini slices were fried, went in the aubergines! 
By then the pasta was done. To stop the intense heat from seering through the spaghetti threads, I put in a generous 20-odd ice cubes into the spaghetti.
By then my lovely aubergines had turned marvelously golden (Man, the aroma was something!) and they too were put into the dish alongwith the fried zucchinis. I mixed in pounded garlic, mint leaves with the fried aubergines and zucchinis, sprinkled a dash of salt and then went in a tablespoon of white vinegar!

Now, the spaghetti was done - the water was drained. The spaghetti was then mixed with the garlic-olive oil-lime juice-lime zest emulsion. A vigorous mixing ensured every single strand was coated with the aromatic emulsion. A good measure of parmigiano or grated parmesan was sprinkled, alongwith freshly chopped parsley leaves.

And we were good to go, the spaghetti al limone was good to eat!
To be honest, Neeti devoured the scapece, but found the spaghetti a bit blandish - perhaps thinly sliced peppers would have given it an exciting crunch! That's a version I have to try next!

But undoubtedly, with the goodness of lime, garlic and olive oil, the spaghetti al limone and scapece made for healthy, earthy Italian dinner!
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