Thursday, 16 January 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: Vikas Khanna's Gastronomic Romp Across India for Fox Traveller

This is my column, Fortune Cookie, which appears in Mail Today on alternate Thursdays. You can see the original of today's Fortune Cookie at http://epaper.mailtoday.in/epaperhome.aspx?issue=1612014 on Page 15.
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
Vikas Khanna, executive chef of
New York's Michelin-starred 
Indian restaurant, Junoon, has
just completed a television series
on the country's coastal cuisines.
Twist of Taste will aired on
Mondays and Tuesdays on Fox
Traveller, starting on Jan. 20.



HE MAY have fed the Obamas and Junoon, the hugely popular New York restaurant whose kitchen he helms, may have got a Michelin star, but Vikas Khanna doesn't require much goading to slip into charming rusticity of the kind that he says his core audience of "mummyjis and auntiejis" finds reassuring. His travelling food show is about to be aired and he's most nervous about how his GEC (General Entertainment Channel) followers would relate to him.
Being far removed from the GEC demographic, and not being a part of the fan club of MasterChef India, where Vikas is the star anchor, I got down to talking food with him. I am obsessive about chatting up people who travel around the country to discover its food secrets. They come up with the most interesting stories. When Vikas was talking about Ratnagari, I expected him to hold forth on the port city's most famous export, Hapoos, or the mango we know as the Alphonso (followers of Amitav Ghosh, of course, will also remember the city for its rundown Thibaw Palace).
Vikas deliberately missed the mango season so as not to take the road oft travelled. Instead, he met a woman who specialises in making the city's most famous dish, puran poli, a sweet flatbread with a stuffing of boiled chana dal cooked with jaggery. It inspired him to make a crumble cake using the same ingredients -- chana dal, plain flour, jaggery, cardamom and nutmeg powder, and ghee. "I tried to make puran poli the way she was doing it, but just couldn't keep pace with her. You can't beat the master of the trade," Vikas said with his characteristic nervous laugh.
He was also excited about finding another woman who makes tawa-baked cucumber cakes with a cup each of sooji, grated cucumber, milk, jaggery, dahi and ghee. Describing the home-style woman's baking method at length, Vikas exclaimed: "It's amazing how jugadu Indian women can be!" He reinvented this dish for genteel taste buds to make an upside-down cake with cucumber. Wonder what it must have tasted like! From Ratnagiri, Vikas travelled along the country's coastline up to Pondicherry for his Fox Traveller show, Twist of Taste, whose first episode will be aired on January 20. And each stop took him to the doorstep of an extraordinary discovery.
In Goa, he met Odette Mascarenhas, daughter-in-law and biographer of Miguel Arcanjo Mascarenhas, the legendary 'Chef Masci' who had left Goa in 1919 to be a dishwasher at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel and went on to become its first Indian executive chef, appointed by J.R.D. Tata after the Italian who held the position had to leave the country because the British authorities suspected he was spying for his country. At the Mascarenhas household, Vikas learnt how to make a dry prawn currying using mango seeds as souring agent.
Farther south in Kundapur (Karnataka), he met the daughter of the woman who had made the one-horse town's chicken ghee roast an international celebrity. The dish would have disappeared with the death of its creator, had the mother not written letters to her daughter with the family's recipes. In Kerala, Vikas discovered octopus being eaten by common folk. It was his personal a-ha moment because when he put tandoori octopus on Junoon's menu, critics slammed him saying it wasn't an Indian dish. "There's nothing in this world that is not eaten in India," Vikas declared triumphantly.
His most touching moment, though, was when he returned to his alma mater in Manipal, Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, where he failed in the second year and was later honoured with a lifetime achievement award! Manipal was special because he spent whatever time he could at the Sri Krishna Math in Udupi. It was there he learnt how to sing in Kannada, make wood carvings and cook sambhar. In honour of this special relationship, Vikas invented the idli-sambhar jar cake. A befitting tribute from a global soul.

DELHI RETURNS TO REAL PUNJABI FOOD
DELHI OWES its post-Independence identity to Punjab migrants, but ironically, it hasn't had restaurants that serve genuine Punjabi food. As most Punjabis who have grown up eating what their mothers and grandmothers cook will tell you, butter chicken and dal makhni aren't real food -- these are inventions of Punjabi migrants from Peshawar, notably Kundan Lal Gujral, who established the original Moti Mahal at Daryaganj.
In the past three months, Punjabi food served in the city has seen a dramatic turnaround, thanks to three restaurants nursing the ambition of going national. The first off the block was Made in Punjab, a restaurant chain floated by food impresario Jiggs Kalra's son Zorawar. Of course, it has departures from tradition such as the scrumptious Salmon Tikka or the burrah kabab reinvented as the melt-in-the-mouth Tandoori Chaamp, but by introducing the moveable counter that allows tadkewali daal to be made by your tableside, it has freed us from the monotony of deathly dal makhni.
Punjab Grill of Lite Bite Foods, a company floated by Dabur scion Amit Burman and Rohit Aggarwal, has gone the whole nine yards and its winter menu starts with rarities such as Kali Gajar Kanji matured in earthen pots for 72 hours and applewood-smoked Shakarkandi Kamrakh Ki Chaat, bringing back memories of our childhood, and moves on to a heart-warming gelatinous soup made with goat trotters, followed by Bheja Masala, Methi Chicken Tikka and hand-pounded Sarson Da Saag, and Gurhwale Chawal and Bajre Ki Choori for dessert.
This is real Punjabi food, and it has now found a hip protagonist in Dhaba by Claridges, promoted by Sanjeev Nanda. From the witty signs on the walls and the riot of colours everywhere, to the youthful vibe, the fast-paced music and lovable gimmicks such as vodka drinks being christened tharra and served in quarters, Dhaba by Claridges may just succeed in making Punjabi food less intimidating to young people. It has also brought real Punjabi flavours back in fashion with its subtly spiced Dhaba Murgh Roast, fiery Balti Meat and the inventive Kanasteri Baigan Bharta. Great to see restaurants that are proud to be true-blue Punjabi.

CARE FOR A SMOKING HOT MARTINI?
AS LONG as our species has been cooking, smoked food has enjoyed a pride of place on tables across cultures. The smoky flavour touches the subliminal layers of our consciousness, for barbecued meats were the first cooked foods humans savoured after the discovery of fire. And in our culture, smoked foods have had a long history, from the Rajasthani lal maas and the wood fire-baked shakarkandi (sweet potatoes) that you get at this time of the year to the Goan chourico sausages.
Smoked cocktails were bound to follow. Delhi might have been a little late in catching up, but smoked cocktails gradually finding their rightful place on restaurant menus. At Somkey's BBQ & Grill, Masjid Moth, I was mighty impressed by Sherine John's Lock, Stock & A Smokin' Barrel (the name brings back memories of Guy Ritchie's film, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels), where smoked pineapple, teamed up with vodka, vanilla pod and cardamom, does the trick.
On Sunday, K3 at the JW Mariott, New Delhi Aerocity, lines up wood-smoked martinis for patrons of its indulgent brunch. I had the pineapple martini, where roughly crushed pineapple juice and vodka were infused with wood smoke. It wasn't mind-numbingly sweet because fresh fruit had been used. And the smoke gave it a new taste dimension.

THE 1111 DAL MAKHNI FORMULA
MOST people assume that Dal Makhni is an original Punjabi dish, which was brought to our tables by post-Partition migrants from the other side of the border. Ask any Punjabi mother and she'll rubbish the claim. Dal Makhni is an invention of restaurants that sprang up after peace and order returned to Delhi. My friend, restaurateur and caterer Varun Tuli, shocked me the other day by sharing the 1111 Dal Makhni formula -- one kilo each of whole urad dal, full-fat cream, Amul butter and tomato puree followed in most establishments that serve this sludge. Did someone say this was dal?