Thursday, 28 August 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: Priya Paul Dishes up a Chettinad Experience on Banana Leaves

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

Tucked away in the Chettiar heartland,
The Bangala has preserved a cooking
tradition that can turn the humble chow
chow (above) into a taste sensation.
Image: Rohit Chawla
IT IS NOT often that the Capital's Stiletto Set eat out of banana leaves in a five-star hotel. Priya Paul made sure they did a couple of evenings ago. Those with manicured nails used cutlery; those without, including some of the city's most influential people, from image makers to fashion designers, dug in with their fingers. They did it to celebrate the launch of Sumeet Nair and Meenakshi Meyyappan's The Bangala Table: Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad, a brilliant showcase of a regional cuisine that is as well-known as it is misrepresented.
Paul, whose passion for food matches her head for business, was dressed like a Tamil daughter-in-law, which she is, being married to Sethu Vaidyanathan, and she succeeded in pulling off yet another culinary coup. Some time back, she got the high and mighty literally to dine 'under the table' -- giving the expression a new meaning altogether. This time around, Delhi's elite ate with their fingers, re-establishing the lost connect between their thumb and the brain.
What they ate was a Chettinad spread that turned our notion of the cuisine on its head. I have had Chettinad food in Chennai, but the delicate interplay of flavours, and the ability to turn even a humble vegetable such as the chow chow (an ugly cousin of the squash) into a sensation for the palate, which I got to experience at The Park, just blew my mind.
The spread had been laid out by Abishek Basu's team at The Park New Delhi and the cooks of The Bangala, a heritage hotel that Meyyappan opened in 1998 at Karaikudi, which is the cultural centre of gravity, two hours from Madurai, of the fabulously wealthy, well-travelled and cultured Chettiar community of Tamil Nadu. Their business took Chettiars all over south-east Asia, from Burma to Cambodia, which reflects in the depth of their culinary repertoire and the catholicity of their taste buds.
A mobile camera view of the banana
leaf treat laid out at The Park, in the
true Chettiar wedding feast style.
The spread will be available at the
hotel's 24-hour restaurant, Mist,
till Saturday. Image: Courtesy
of Mini Shastri
The former chairman of the Murugappa Group, M.V. Subbiah, who, incidentally, got his Padma Bhushan in the same year as Paul got her Padma Shri, shared a telling example of how foreign influences show up on the Chettinad table. The example was that of the kavanarsi, or black rice, which in early days used to be imported by the Chettiars from Burma, where they had extensive business interests. And the rice, which is used in a host of preparations, including a halwa, got its name because it used to be served first to the governor of the Madras Presidency in the days of the British Raj. Governor became 'kavanar' in popular usage, so kavanarsi is literally the 'governor's rice'.
Subbiah, whose humility left a lasting impression on me, and the Meyyappan family members went from one end of each long table to the other, urging the guests to have second helpings and explaining what the dishes were, as we negotiated a spread consisting of a procession of pachadis, kootus, curries and pepper fries. None of the dishes was allowed to be overpowered by spices, which are stone-ground every morning, or red chillies -- subtlety, as in the Chettiar lifestyle (or in Rohit Chawla's available-light photography for the book), is the essence of Chettinad cuisine.
This is most evident than in the Uppu 'Dried Mutton' Curry, where you'd expect a chilli attack, because, as Nair had informed me in an earlier interview, 40 pieces of goondu maligai (berry-shaped round red chillies) are added to a kilo of mutton. The chillies are mild, so you don't end up with a numb palate, but the complex flavours lend a distinctive edge to Chettinad dishes. This interplay of fresh flavours also defined the Pepper Curry, where fresh green pepper and mor mulagai (green chillies soaked in buttermilk and then dried) are the main ingredients. The dinner favourites, though, were the Chicken Pepper Fry, where black peppercorns and goondu maligai did a little waltz, and the tamarind-infused Fish Curry.
Subbiah spoke glowingly about Meyyappan achi's contributions to the revival of Chettinad heritage. Together with Nair, she has put the region's cuisine, as it is meant to be eaten, firmly on the country's culinary map.


IT CAN BE disheartening to wake up one morning and learn that an old favourite restaurant has been gutted as a result of a short circuit in a freezer kept at the entrance. Yes, that's exactly how I felt -- disheartened -- when I read about the fire at The Embassy in Connaught Place. It was the second fire in two days at Connaught Place.
What followed was utter shock when I learnt that restaurants in the city are not required to get a fire clearance if they seat less than 50 people. It has become common, as a result, especially for the pigeon holes of Khan Market and Hauz Khas Village, or Paharganj (where restaurants and bars are not on the radar screens of the elite media), to under-declare the number of seats they have. It saves them the struggle to acquire the fire licence -- getting one licence less can be a blessing! The subterfuge also saves them the money they would have to spend on the licence, the fire safety equipment, and the inescapable 'facilitation' expenses.
Can someone explain the rationale of letting restaurants with less than 50 seats get away with no fire licence? Each restaurant is a potential fire hazard unless approved fire safety equipment, in working order, are in place. Are lives less valuable in restaurants with less than 50 seats, or those that claim to be so, but cram twice that number of people in, especially on weekends? It's almost a rule for smaller restaurants to abuse the 50-seater rule to dodge the fire clearance.
I have an uncomplicated three-step solution to this life-threatening legal sleight of hand. One, introduce one-stop, online licencing for restaurants to reduce their incentive to dodge the process. Two, make annual fire safety clearance mandatory for all restaurants and bars, irrespective of the number of seats. Three, industry bodies need to work overtime to sensitise their hotelier/restaurateur members to the nature of the time bomb they are sitting on. They must, in fact, mandatorily be made a part of the inspection teams to ensure no compromises are made on the issue of safety. The industry owes it to the consumer.


AFTER the Uphaar fire tragedy, it has become mandatory for cinema theatres to educate their customers about fire exits. Well, the next time you go to a restaurant, look for a fire exit. Consider yourself lucky if you find one. When you are in the third floor of a Hauz Khas Village restaurant, it is not comforting realise suddenly that in case of a fire, the only escape route is the window on the far side. Most restaurants also don't have water in the tank that is meant to be kept permanently filled for use in case of a fire emergency. The daily struggle for water makes this basic fire safety requirement a low priority for restaurants.


Guppy by Ai's Ramen Burger packs in pork
belly, bacon, fried egg, lettuce and tomatoes
BACK IN 2009, Keizo Shimamoto, a young American of Japanese origin, quit his computer programmer's job and hit the road in the mother country of his parents to get to the bottom of the amazing story of ramen noodles. His blog became an international hit and his invention, Ramen Burger, edged out the cronut as the big food trend of 2013. In a ramen burger, the regular buns are replaced by two chewy and not crunchy discs of compressed ramen noodles made according to a proprietary process perfected by Shimamoto.
It may be a year late, but Guppy by Ai at the Lodi Colony Market, my favourite neighbourhood Japanese restaurant, can justifiably claim to be the first to put ramen burgers on the menu. Shimamoto used only a soy-based 'secret sauce', arugula (rocket), scallions and a chunky, juicy beef patty with a higher fat content than the standard burger patty. At Guppy by Ai, the options for fillings include beef, pork belly and bacon, chicken tsukune (meatballs), fried egg, five kinds of mushroom, sake-braised onions and Kewpie, Japan's most popular mayonnaise.