Friday, November 30, 2012

"Coq Au Vin" or "Scotch da Kukkad"?

Off late, I have become a big fan of Fox Traveler. The reason is but obvious - the channel features food shows back to back - Poh's Kitchen, Food Safari, Dolce Vita and Twist of Taste, making it my favourite channel, whenever the television is on at home.
In Saturday's edition of the Food Safari, the presenter, Maeve O’Meara covered traditional French cuisine which included an interesting part on a very traditional French preparation, coq au vin - poulet de Bresse (Bresse chicken) cooked with Burgundy wine, lardon, mushrooms and aromatic herbs.
The secret of an authentic coq au vin, as I gathered, lies in the coq or authentic poulet de Bresse - poultry that originates from the Bresse area of the Rhône-Alpes region of France. Raised in limited quantities, these birds are "highly valued for their gamey flavour, fine, tender flesh and delicious, clean-flowing fat" as Maeve described it.
The Bresse evokes a great degree of French nationalism. The coq is said to represent the colours of the tricolore or the French flag - a distinctive red crown, white feathers and blue feet, a national mascot of sorts! Under French Law, only the chicken reared in a certain area in Bresse can be certified as poulet de Bresse!
Such is the passion the French have for their food! Indeed, admirable!

The poulet is tended for, cared for, in exact and specific standards.  Each bird is allocated a minimum of ten square meters. Diet and slaughter times are strictly controlled. Birds are required to spend their final days in an epinette, a building traditionally used for forced feeding with grain mash and milk. Probably that's what gives the poulet de Bresse its repute!
I just can't wait to visit the Rungis in Paris to lay my eyes on this very sexy bird(!), though buying it is another matter - it is said to cost €15 a kilo, that's over ₹1000(!), which is indeed quite a lot by our standards! 
From what I saw on Maeve O’Meara's show, coq au vin seems to be a rustic but hearty preparation. The origins of coq au vin are ancient - from the times of the Romans and the Gauls! I wonder why Asterix and Obelix never had coq au vin?

The poulet de Bresse is marinated in Burgundy alongwith vegetables and a bouquet garni overnight. The poulet is then seared in lardon or bacon fat, then simmered with the marinade. Maeve's version of the dish involved the addition of finely minced liver to thicken the gravy. At the end, mushrooms were added. As I saw Maeve and her guest chef prepare the coq au vin, I had an uncontrollable urge to have it immediately!

Surely, besides being lip-smacking, hearty and having an avalanche of flavours, the dish itself seems to be quite healthy. French cuisine, while relying on a lot of red meats (coq au vin being an exception) uses wine extensively in cooking.
Wine is said to raise levels of HDL, the "good" cholesterol, and helps reduce the risk of blood clots forming in coronary arteries. Red wine (and the skin of red grapes) contains resveratrol, an antioxidant that has been shown to promote longevity in laboratory conditions and is believed to slow the progress of age-related diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's. Besides these benefits, cooking with wine certainly does enhance the flavour, while at the same time neutralising the ill-effects of the fats that go into this dish.
Julia Child, the legendary American chef and food-writer (who was immortalised in the enjoyable 2009 Hollywood film, Julie & Julia?), is said to have popularised coq au vin across the Atlantic. Probably, its time someone did the same in India. Given India's (or probably the Punjabis') love for the bird, our Indianised version of coq au vin with garam masala and turmeric a good measure of hearty Scotch thrown in to replace the Burgundy, there is a decent chance our Scotch da Kukkad will excite the Indian palette!
As for me, the one closest to the authentic would do! I would rather rush to get a bottle of Burgundy and Godrej Real Good chicken (that's the best I can do here!) and conjure up some French magic in the kitchen!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Timeless Cycle?

As bizarre it may sound, the other day, a friend and I were engaged in an animated conversation on the ancient world and the mysteries of that ancient era that have confounded modern man. 
My friend made an astounding statement - that the Pyramids of Egypt were actually power plants or nuclear reactors
Power plants? Nuclear reactors? That too thousands of years back?
I had to Google this and indeed there were numerous references on the internet of research that had been carried out to uncover this supposedly hidden side of these ancient Egyptian marvels.
That set me thinking - is there a link between the supposed Curse of the Pharoahs and the so-called nuclear aspects of the Pyramids?
Then yesterday, I Googled on one of ancient India's mysteries - the sudden decline and abandonment of the grand city of Mohenjo-Daro. A few references of the possible causes of the sudden decimation of the city was, yes, a nuclear blast!
A nuclear blast thousands of years back? 
Another set of mysteries relating to the Nazca Lines in  Nazca Desert in southern Peru have led to a set of astounding theories. The Nazca Lines comprise of hundreds of individual figures that range in complexity from simple lines to hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish and lizards. These are visible only when viewed from above, say, when flying but not from the ground. There is stretch that resembles a table top runway in the Nazca Desert. Theories floating around are that Nazca was a landing base for "aliens"(!).
Is all this true?
I do not know, but yes, there certainly was a high degree of technological complexity in the civilizations that have predated the history as we know it. A good example is close home in Hindu mythology.
The Ramayan talks of flying machines - the legendary Pushpak Viman that carried Ravan all over the subcontinent. The Mahabharat talks of weapons of mass destruction or Bhramastras. I came across a verse from the Mahabharat which says:

“Gurkha, flying a swift and powerful vimana hurled a single projectile charged with the power of the Universe. An incandescent column of smoke and flame, as bright as ten thousand suns, rose with all its splendor.
It was an unknown weapon, an iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death, which reduced to ashes the entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas. The corpses were so burned as to be unrecognizable. Hair and nails fell out; Pottery broke without apparent cause, and the birds turned white. …After a few hours all foodstuffs were infected…to escape from this fire the soldiers threw themselves in streams to wash themselves and their equipment.” 

Was it a reference to an ancient nuclear blast?
These mysteries perhaps will never be solved. Perhaps there was a high degree of technological advancement in civilizations before us. That knowledge was lost, left for successive generations to recreate from scratch. 
Perhaps this is a timeless cycle that swings between knowledge and extreme ignorance.
Who knows, we can only guess today!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Another Southern Sojourn!

Visiting Bangalore is always exciting for a few simple reasons - great weather, greenery, great food and a great crowd! I don't mind the traffic though, after being so used to it, here in Mumbai!
Couple of weeks back, a colleague and I visited Bangalore and Maddur for a day. After landing in Bangalore, we were to cross the city to get to the Mysore Highway. On the way, our vehicle, a Tavera, had two accidents, one of which was near fatal for a biker. We had it, we just couldn't move forward in the same car.
After an hour or two we got a replacement cab, an Indica. The journey then was pretty uneventful, though we were quite late.
We stopped by Kamat's Lokaruchi for some great local food. We had North Karnataka thalis. I have been a big, big fan of this place for the last 2 years. Alongwith the thali, we were served something called Oora Mirapakayalu or "curd chillies" - red chillies soaked in buttermilk, sundried and panfried, which was absolutely awesome - a different kind of spicy flavour. My colleague and I were absolutely sold out on the "curd chillies".
The rest of trip was quite okay. The weather at Maddur was again great. The place was idyllic. While my heart wanted to stay back, we had to leave!
We touched Bangalore at about 7PM. As we were passing by Jayanagar, my colleague asked the driver to take us to a place where we could get curd chillies. We were taken to a neighbourhood store where we picked up a couple of packs of curd chillies. Alongwith that, I found something very interesting - sundaka vatral, an interesting ingredient for vatral kozhambu, a delectable Tamil preparation that I had enjoyed in Trichy earlier this year in February! I was as elated and excited like a kid in a toy shop.

We proceeded to Residency Road, where we were to stay for the night. After checking-in at the hotel, I was reminded of Nagarjuna Residency close by which serves an excellent Andhra thali! As Navratras were on, I chose a vegetarian thali alongwith. A cauliflower pepper fry. The thali had assortment of greens, sambhar, rasam, daal and a variety of chutneys and pickles. Gongura chutney that I had first had at Rajahmundry was there, so was fresh mango pickle! Both of these were awesome! 
And one interesting bit - though I usually avoid rice, authentic South Indian food makes me want to eat rice!!!!

The food was amazingly spicy, as Andhra food is always supposed to be! My eyes, scalp and skin were watering profusely, due to the "heat"! My only regret - I could not have spicy mutton gravy or chilly chicken, though I was tempted to give the Navratras a pass!
We then took a long walk along Residency Road and MG Road, passing by the newly constructed the Namma Metro line. I stopped by at an open-air Coffee Café Day. Having a hot cup of Assam tea in the cool breeze was a different experience. I would have loved to sit at the café a little more, but we had to leave - we had a flight to catch at 8AM, for which we had to check out at 5.45AM.
I reached Mumbai pleased with myself for getting back a treasure of curd chillies and vatral!
This morning, out came the sundaka vatral and the curd chillies. We made idlis (a premix from MTR), vatral kozhambu using the sundaka and fried curd chilly! What an amazing breakfast that was!

I find it really interesting - despite being a hardcore North Indian, after experiencing authentic South Indian cuisine, in the south, I have fallen for South Indian food in a big big way. For me stuff like vatral kozhambu was a true revelation, an interesting surprise! And having it at home, having family experience it was extremely pleasing!
Perhaps, as they say, travel does in many ways does broaden your horizons!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Plane Spotting at BOM

As we pushed back from Gate A2 from Terminal 2C from Mumbai's CSI Airport for a 0620AM departure, sunrays filled in the skies. What a wonderful morning, that was in mid-October!

After towing my Boeing 737-800, the pushback tractor makes its way back.

A Kingfisher Airbus A320 idles away at the end of a taxiway. What a sad state of affairs.... When they flew, they did scare the hell out of Jet Airways. I hope they do fly again....

An Air-India Boeing 777 long range aircraft parked, probably after a long journey overnight.

A view of the new, under-construction integrated terminal. Looks impressive, but pales in size compared to Delhi's T3!

A FedEx, Federal Express Boeing 777 freighter parked by the side of the new terminal....

An El Al Boeing 767 that flew in from Tel Aviv-Yaffo sometime back. 

An interesting line up of airliners at Terminal 2B against the morning mist!

Wow! A Kenya Airways Boeing 767! Splendid colours, truly the Pride of Africa!

Two Saudi Arabian jetliners - a Boeing 777 and Boeing 747-400! A nice view just before we veered onto Runway 9-27 for take-off!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Special Diwali Dinner!

Diwali is undoubtedly a special occasion, not only because its a joyous event on the Hindu calender, but also because it is one day when all of us, at home, put our heart ad soul into a special dinner that stays alive in our hearts, in our minds and on our tongues for one year, till the next Diwali comes!
This Diwali dinner was another special occasion that has gotten etched indelibly in our memories.
While shopping for the Diwali dinner, at Godrej Nature's Basket, I came across the first strawberries of the season. Next I came across the long green chilly peppers, the ones that go into the delectable mirchi ka salan.
Without question, all that had to bought for the feast.
On Diwali morning, Neeti reminded me that I had to do the maa-ki-daal. The daal had to be immediately soaked in water to ensure ease of cooking later in the day. At noon, I started preparing the making the daal, multi-stage cooking style, the way I had learnt from my Mom, who had perfected this Amritsari style over the last 30-odd years!
The daal was boiled for nearly an hour, without any spices. After the daal was three-fourths cooked, in went whole spices - cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, alongwith finely chopped ginger, garlic, onions, tomatoes. That was boiled for another 10 minutes, after which turmeric powder, salt and a tablespoon of mustard oil were added, and was left to simmer on low heat for next 90 minutes.
While the daal was simmering away to gooey thick consistency, Neeti assumed the role of Captain on the Hyderabadi  mirchi ka salan, and I gladly played the role of her First Officer! Peanuts were roasted, so were cumin seeds, sesame seeds, nigella seeds, which were roasted on a skillet and ground to a fine consistency alongwith fresh coconut. As I ground the aromatic spices, Neeti went about seering the chilly peppers in an extremely hot pan.

Neeti then skillfully brought it all together in her best ever Hyderabadi mirchi ka salan, better than what even a professional would do in Hyderabad.
This time around, for the Diwali puja prasad, we didn't pick up any sweets from the market. Instead, Neeti made one of her specialities - strawberry cream, with the strawberries I had picked up the day before.

Our cook chipped in - she made mattar-paneer and methi rotis. And we topped it off with digging out the delicious bhallas that Neeti's mom had brought in with her when she came here to Mumbai last month. The bhallas were soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and then were added to beaten curd, alongwith a yummy, tangy tamarind chutney.
Just before settling in for dinner, the maa ki daal was given a special tadka or seasoning of asafoetida, cumin, onions, ginger, garlic, pepper and coriander powder!
And what a dinner that was, a remarkable, yummy Diwali candlelight dinner!

Spread the Light, Spread the Warmth....

Diwali has just gone by, the New Year has started. 
I pray that the afterglow of the brightness of Diwali, the warmth of the festive season remains with us for the rest of the year, guiding us to be good human beings.
May be the positivity of this festive Diwali season spread its light, spread its warmth, all year round, till the next festival season!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Roll With The Punches! Tomorrow Is Another Day!"

After a long sleepless night, which is rather unusual for me as I do sleep like a log, I mustered the courage to sneak out of bed and literally smell the coffee.
Here I am sitting in front of my computer. The windows are open - a cool breeze is blowing in. The sounds of the night, those of crickets and other insects are as melodious as can be. And I stumbled upon a webpage, on one of my favourite movies of all times, on IMDB - Jerry Maguire.
The protagonist, Jerry Maguire, played by Tom Cruise, is a successful sports agent. During one sleepless night, Jerry gets an epiphany, a serious crisis of conscience. That makes him pen down a mission statement, which implores his firm to think long term - think of the ultimate interest of the clients rather than milking clients today! 
What follows isn't any surprise - Jerry is fired! And he walks away with Flipper, a goldfish and Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger), an accountant, who also happens to be Jerry's secret admirer and at that moment is deeply moved by Jerry's "memo".
What follows is a struggle that Jerry has in getting his first client, as a solo agent - that client happens to be  Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a football player whose pride and arrogance hindered his path to success. Tidwell's character is a stereotypical Hollywood depiction of an Afro-Americans, but his and Jerry's frequent encounters on "showing him the money" pepper the film with appropriately spaced comic sequences.
Jerry has a hard time convincing Rod to play from his heart, and not to play for the money. Jerry believes that greatness (and money) would follow from playing with the heart. (There's message for us here!)
Rod does achieve his moment from glory after doing just what Jerry had always said - play from the heart! And he does see the money.
Paul McCartney's instrumental piece, Momma Miss America, somehow defines the sense of purpose that Jerry Maguire chases through the movie.
But without doubt, the most enjoyable comic sequences in the films are between Ray, Dorothy's  precocious six-year old kid, played by Jonathan Lipnicki. Ray is an quintessential epitome of cuteness with his spiked blonde hair and round spectacles. (Neeti thinks that as a kid I would have been a lot like Ray!!!!)
Some of Ray's quips are particularly heartwarming and endearing, like the ones here from YouTube.

And then there are those memorable gems by Dicky Fox:
Look I don't have all the answers. To be honest, in life, I failed as often as I succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success. 
Roll with the punches. Tomorrow is another day.
Jerry Maguire is a good mix of entertainment and inspiration and certainly a must-watch for all those who are pursuing corporate careers. I must confess, I have seen this movie at least 20 times over, thoroughly enjoying it end to end. Each time I feel somewhere, somehow, parts of the movie resonate with my life. And I always end up inspired.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Smell The Coffee!

Even though I have largely been a tea-drinker for the last 15-odd years, I do occasionally enjoy a cup of very strong coffee with a hint of cream and just about a pinch of demerara sugar.
Coffee for me has this amazing ability to "wake me up", to heighten my sensory faculties, to leave behind that amazing bitter after-taste in my mouth that keeps me "high" for a few hours. And the aroma of coffee is  nothing but simply magical.
Coorg was the place where I discovered the best coffee. I cannot forget that day in January 2011, sitting in the veranda of that 100-year old colonial plantation bungalow and sipping on an amazingly aromatic thick black coffee liquor. It was a lazy day, bright and sunny with a rather cool breeze blowing. All around were sounds of silence, green plantations and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the air.

That was sheer bliss for me!
More recently, Bru introduced premium world coffees in the market, Bru Exotica - coffees from the Killimanjaro, Brazil and Colombia. I could not resist picking up a bottle of Killimanjaro coffee despite its steep price of Rs. 300 a bottle, simply because this coffee supposedly came very close from my motherland, Uganda.
Talking of Ugandan coffee, which has been very prized for long, during Idi Amin's reign of terror, the economy had collapsed and the Shilling crashed alongwith the onset of spiraling inflation. In those trying times, coffee was the unofficial currency for Ugandans in the countryside. The resilient Ugandans used to risk their lives carrying coffee in their canoes all across Lake Victoria to Tanzania or Kenya for some money that was worth more than wads of Ugandan Shillings. (My Dad has lucidly described the resilience of Ugandans in his blogs). That's how they survived. Today, however, Uganda has regained its prestige in the world of coffee, but climate change does threaten it.
One coffee that I would really love to try is the one from ancient land of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian civilization is quite old. It predates Christ and goes way back to age of Solomon the Great, who supposedly was madly in love with an Ethiopian queen, the Queen of Sheba. (Indeed, Ethiopian women are really pretty - ask me, I recently saw the flight crew of Ethiopian Airlines in Mumbai - they were all lissome and sharp featured!)
Legend has it that Ethiopia has been the cradle of coffee. A sheep herder once saw his flock chewing on some berries and getting high. Those berries, with time, came to be known as coffee berries!
In 1981, our family did pass by Addis Ababa for a few days. I was 5 then - too young to have coffee. But today, I am a big boy(!) and I would love to go back to Ethiopia, smell and drink Ethiopian coffee and also visit the great heritage of this ancient civilisation - rock carved churches at Lalibela, monasteries at Axum that are believed to house the legendary Ark of the Covenant and tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Blue Nile monasteries of Bahir Dar, castles of Gondar and the grand Rift Valley! Ethiopia also has a rich culinary heritage - injera (much like our Indian dosa), fit-fit, wat and many other delights!
It isn't hard to understand why they say "Smell the Coffee". But for me, smelling the coffee right in the morning is a big NO. I would rather wake up saying to myself something I adapted from a dialogue from one of favourite films, Jerry Macguire - "I have rolled with the punches, but today is another day!"
That does keep me going, till about afternoon, when I sometimes indulge in literally smelling the coffee!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Deja Vu in Orissa

Earlier this week, I was in Orissa for a couple of days. After landing in Bhubaneshwar, we traveled northwards towards the coast at Paradeep, back to Bhubaneshwar and then to Angul and Dhenkanal and then back to base.
Orissa has a reputation for being a very warm and humid region, the weather this time around was amazing. Despite the golden warmth of the Sun, the temperature barely touched 30 degrees Celsius. In fact, we were happier putting off the air conditioning in the car.
The route to Paradeep is very beautiful. Green paddy fields on either side of the road made the drive an intensely pleasurable experience, a treat for weary urban eyes gone sore by the sight of concrete all around.
Paradeep is lovely port town. Life in the town centers mainly around the port and a few mineral processing industries. The town itself is well managed by the port trust - wide neat roads and a lot of greenery. A self-contained town, Paradeep has all facilities, including schools, hospitals, markets, hotels and yes, a golf course!
We stopped by at a local hotel to grab some food before our return back - Empires Hotel, which belongs to a local Oriyan business group. The hotel caters to the shipping crew who stop by at Paradeep, and that shows in the tariffs. The hotel itself is very well located, has an inviting decor and is quite compact. The lunch buffet had an amazing variety of Oriyan delicacies. There were a number of local Oriyan delicacies on offer. There were a few vegetable preparations - greens etc., which were delectable. I attacked the Oriya style baingan bhartha, which was more like babaghanoush, aloo bhartha (spicy mashed potatoes) and tomato bhartha (to me that was a lot like Mexican salsa).
And then my Oriya friend pushed me to take bowls full of crab curry, mutton curry and fish curry. The crab was the best - extremely spicy with a generous helping of garlic. The crab was so fresh and succulent - the only hitch was the mess I was afraid of creating, cracking open the shells! Dessert followed - all typical Oriya delights!
On the way back, my friend (and colleague) got me a box of local pedas from Cuttack. Mildly sweet and fragrant, the pedas were too soft to dig into, alongwith a warm cup of Assam tea.
The next day, early in the morning, we set out for Angul in the interior of Orissa, passing through Dhenkanal. Unlike the route to Paradeep, this area is not cultivated. Instead, there are quite dense forests on the way, alongwith rolling hills, grasslands - a varied landscape. And the bright blue sky above, with a few clouds floating around in gay abandon. This reminded me of Zambia! It was almost like deja vu, as though I was back in Zambia!
Adding to the sense of deja vu, I came across a number of anthills and mud huts with thatched roofs! This was it! And as I was seeing all this, Miriam Makeba's song "Africa is Where My Heart Lies..." was ringing in my head!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

There's A Price To Be Paid...

It is over 9 PM right now. I am on my way back from office. I have been stuck in traffic for over one and a half hours now. Luckily for me, the agony of my commute back home has been partly ameliorated by some cool hits being belted out on 94.3 Radio One, truly "soundtracking" my way back home!
But as I sit on the wheel, my foot on the accelerator ready to zoom the moment the car ahead of me moves even an inch, I wonder what causes all this.
Didn't I learn about an interesting concept in physics, way back in school, called Brownian Motion? I bet - if you were you were to fly high above this crazy megapolis, the sight of the roads would be something like this - the big vehicles stuck and the smaller ones like autorickshaws, bikes and small cars moving around, haphazardly crisscrossing lanes much like Brownian Motion!

But just then, I thought a little more. I thought a bit harder.
Aren't roads also like cholesterol clogged arteries? 
Now think of this - a truck breaks down on the Western Express Highway. This truck has no business to enter the city during peak hours. Somehow the trucker greases palms and enters in. Given the poor state of maintenance of truck fleets, they are susceptible to breakdowns, especially on the kinds of roads you have in the megapolis of Mumbai! So, invariably, during the peak traffic hours there would be some idiot trucker, whose vehicle would have broken down in the middle lane.
That's a lot like a clot of cholesterol in the artery!
Now when you have vehicles moving around in fashion similar to Brownian Motion and a "clot right in the middle of an artery", you are bound to spend over 2 hours to traverse 13 kilometers!
Now comes the best part - the traffic cops who are rather "proactive" in non-peak hours simply vanish when you have this disastrous cocktail! They should be out there booking drivers for violating traffic norms during peak hours. So much for the efficiency of this city!
I cringe at the thought of an ambulance carrying a patient stuck in this kind of a helpless situation.
My folks who are just back from Beijing are raving about the orderliness they have experienced on Chinese roads - both urban and rural. If you ask me why we don't have that kind of order here in India - perhaps, there is a heavy price to be paid for a democracy of consensual indiscipline, which cannot hold anyone accountable for any damn thing!
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