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TABLE FOR THREE

Three friends and the food they love

Author

thetableforthree

Friends who eat. Friends who cook. Friends who write.

An Immigrant to the World of Food.

More than a decade ago, when circumstances brought me to the city of Singapore, all I knew was that it was a clean, efficient gateway to the world with glitzy malls and a superb airport. The years have flown by and as I have my eaten my way through the passage of time, Singapore has rewarded me with food experiences that will remain an integral part of my life for a very long time. Along the way, my food horizons have expanded significantly.

Sitting on a Singapore Airlines flight in 2003, I may have predicted a few events and gotten them mostly wrong. But I would not have predicted craving a morning breakfast of Kaya Toast (Kaya is a local jam made with coconut, eggs, pandan and love) dipped in runny soft boiled eggs, spiced up with pepper and soy sauce and washed down with Kopi (the local coffee with its own set of alphabetical suffixes, Kopi – C, Kopi –O. Almost like vitamins, only more nourishing). I would not have thought that poached chicken with rice prepared in chicken broth with dollops of garlic and chilli sauce could set right a hectic morning at work. And not in my wildest imagination would I have thought that craving for late supper would mean Ba Kut Teh (a peppery pork rib soup that is accompanied with salted vegetables, rice and chilies) on Balestier Road.

Yes, the city is a global ‘hub’ of anything and everything. That reflects even in the sheer variety of cuisine available in the restaurants ranging in affordability from astonishing value for money to eye-wateringly expensive. But if you are the sort who loves a local meal, Singapore could reward you with a different meal every day of the year and have a fair bit to spare. In a city of immigrants, what is local is difficult to define. But there is something unique about being an immigrant in Singapore. You feel like a local not by what you do or how you speak. You feel local by how you eat. The day you stand in queue at a hawker centre and order your first plate of prawn noodles, have it served to you in minutes, help yourself to the sambal in the sauce pot, queue again to order a fresh fruit juice or a cold barley, and then train your eyes to spot an empty seat –you’ve settled in. You start having favourite hawker stalls, because the prawns are good, because the aunty gives you a familiar smile and knows your preference, you think nothing of selecting dried tofu skin and extra fish balls for your yong tau fu as if you have done it all your life. There is no easier way to settling in. It helps if you are ready to eat anything. It helps if anything is mostly delicious local food that is an amalgamation of centuries of different cultures, carried to its shores by commerce and conquest.

I used to be a regular at the Serangoon Gardens Hawker centre in Singapore. It’s a large, bright hawker centre that offers a wide variety of fare. Lunch hour brings out office workers in droves to sample the many delights dotted all over Serangoon Gardens. As I walked around, I would contemplate my choices. I could opt for a plate of fried Ipoh Hor Fun (flat rice noodles with some greens and fried dumplings), or maybe some Nasi Lemak (Malay-style rice served with a selection of meat, vegetables and dried anchovies). Ultimately, I may settle for a Black Carrot Cake (made entirely of radish and eggs with chilies and dark soy sauce) and washed it down with a glass of fresh sugarcane juice.

Continue reading “An Immigrant to the World of Food.”

On Track to Food Nirvana

It’s summer. This is when so many of us use the holiday season to criss-cross the country back to visiting our favorite (and not-so-favorite) relatives. The oft-repeated saying at the airline terminals across the country nowadays is that the queues have started resembling ‘railway stations’. For those of us of an earlier vintage, we know exactly what that means. Growing up distinctly middle class in a Socialist era with one airline meant that I took my first flight at the age of 10. By that age, I had already journeyed thousands of kilometers across the length and breadth of the country carried by the railways. There was the annual summer 40-hour dash across Central India from Pune to West Bengal, a whole tour of Southern India undertaken mostly by train and a few train rides on the magically named Deccan Queen and the ordinarily named Deccan Express. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than sticking my face against the window grill trying to catch sight of the locomotive, as the snaking train approached a bridge over a mighty river. And there is no shortage of mighty rivers in the country.

The mightiest river in the country is undoubtedly the Ganga. By the time, it reaches the town of Allahabad, it is a swollen body of water, prayer and myth. The journey to West Bengal was always undertaken on the ‘Howrah Mail (via Allahabad)’. The train number was never important. Allahabad was an extremely important pit stop on the second night. As the train thundered over the iron bridge, you could hear tiny metallic sounds as people threw coins from the train windows as an offering to the river, also a goddess. For me, as a young, excited, train-loving kid, it was also the time to look forward to dinner. It would be hunger, the experience of eating something other than home-cooked food, and it could be that the taste of chicken curry and rice served at Allahabad railway station stands out in memory: An annual food experience from 30 years ago still imprinted in memory.

Continue reading “On Track to Food Nirvana”

Much ado about a Mango

AlphonsoPicture this – a 70+ year old great-grandfather admonishing his 50+ year old daughter, my grandmother, to stop worrying. What was she worrying about? A 4-year old me shimmying up the Alphonso mango tree at my great-grandfather’s house in Pune! I have been fond of mangoes ever since I can remember. And it helped that my family was equally obsessed about the fruit, therefore aiding and abetting many of my endeavours.

There is no fruit that creates as much passion and debate amongst Indians as the mango. And that’s probably because there is no such thing as a mango. In India, you have to be specific and get down to a variety. In the great Indian debate on mangoes, in my opinion, the victor is the Alphonso mango or Haphoos as it is more commonly known. Apart from being mad about its taste, and I will come to that shortly, the Alphonso is grown on the West coast of India, from where I can trace my family roots. So yes, I may be biased.

The Alphonso only arrives during the peak summer in India, usually between March to May. So perhaps it is the contrast of the unbearable heat against the sheer joy provided by this variety that makes it so popular.

Mangoes spawn many rituals around buying, storing and eating. When I was a child, the Alphonso used to arrive in wooden crates at the market or better still delivered home by our fruitwallah (fruitseller). The crates would typically hold two dozen mangoes and you had to wade through a thick layer of hay to get to the first of them. The Alphonso has such a wonderful smell that it would pervade the dining room and kitchen of my grandparents’ home as the first layers of hay came out of the crate. And what a heady aroma it was! Sweet and rich and inviting, almost enticing you to come and take a bite.

And that bite…there is simply nothing that can compare to its succulent, indulgent taste. A good Alphonso mango is a medium sized, plump, firm, ochre yellow fruit that yields golden yellow flesh simply bursting with flavour. It must reach that perfect golden yellow color and fullness, so you know it’s time to cut it open. A day early and it might be a bit tart. A day late and it could become over ripe. But as a child, you are so eager to eat it that you spend most of your day pulling apart the hay and gazing lovingly at each piece. Which is why, not one mango ever goes waste.

The depth of experience that an Alphonso offers is the reason why all other varieties of mango fall far behind for me. The experience, however, doesn’t come cheap. Therefore, mock gasps of indignation from my grandmother would be common every time the fruit seller came home to deliver another crate. It never stopped her from buying them. But woe betide she ever found a rotten mango deep inside the crate.

At home, mangoes were had as dessert usually after lunch. My grandmother was in charge of cutting the fruit as it was important to cut it in a way that ensured every bit of it could be eaten. Since everyone at home enjoyed the fruit, 4 to 5 of them would get cut and served on a large steel plate which would be laid in the centre of the dining table. And then we would all dive in, grab a slice with our hands and with our teeth pull the fruit off the skin, as the juice invariably trickled down our hands. There was no shame in tugging at the skin to ensure the last bits came off till you finally tasted the bitter skin and decided to stop. The last bit of the mango left on the plate was always the big seed and usually my grandmother and mother went for that, shamelessly eating it till they reduced it literally to its hard shell.

There’s a joke that the best way to eat a mango is to sit in a bathtub, so that it doesn’t stain your clothes. But since bathtubs are an uncommon phenomenon in India, mango stains rule.

Mango season meant a slew of treats. On Sunday mornings, my sister and I would be treated to a glass of ice cold mango milk, which was diced mango and milk blended together and chilled. A special lunch would include aamras, which means the juice of a mango. The mango is squeezed into a pulp, chilled and eaten with deep fried, hot puris or puffed bread. Many Indian restaurants will advertise this dish during mango season. Some may be bold enough to offer “unlimited” aamras, but will need to brace themselves for the onslaught of aunties and uncles keen to make most of the bargain.

In Mumbai, you made evening trips to Gokul or Naturals to taste fresh mango ice cream or fresh mango with malai ice cream, which was just as good. Imagine ice cream made with only fresh cream. A dollop of that on top of an indulgent mango like Alphonso was a double treat.

Another big favourite was aambyachi barfi, an Indian sweet made with mango pulp, milk and sugar and solidified into gooey chunks sold at local sweet shops. No one made it better than Chitale Bandhu (Chitale brothers) and invariably a trip to Pune would mean a trip to their shop to buy multiple boxes for friends and family back in Mumbai.

But nothing compared to the joy of eating a freshly cut Alphonso mango. And while I was used to defending the Alphonso versus other varieties like the Totapuri, Langra or Dusseri, it greatly upset me to discover that people outside India hadn’t even heard of it, let alone tasted it. I discovered that in most of Asia, people like to debate mangoes as much as we do in India, but the debate is between the Philippine and Thai mango. That India has mangoes is unknown and usually a big surprise.

And so I survived meals in Thai restaurants with everyone fawning over mango with sticky rice. Or being in elevators in the middle of Shanghai and seeing an animated discussion between my Filipino and Thai colleagues over which country had the better mango. I tried to throw in a bit about Indian mangoes, only to be met with incredulous looks. Travel to Thailand and the Philippines and you will see shelves at airport stores laden with mango products. I even had an Australian colleague try to throw their mango into the mix. If you’ve ever seen it you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought it was a small rugby ball. It’s that huge and has the colour palette of an angry tropical bird.  

Having lived with this inferiority complex, but sadly never having done anything about it, I decided I would put the Alphonso to a fair comparison versus other Asian mangoes. A trip to Mustafa in Singapore helped secure a box of Alphonso mangoes and some from Myanmar, while a trip to Cold Storage helped secure a Thai Honey Bee, a Philippine mango and the angry tropical bird also mysteriously called the R2E2 mango. I must admit at the outset that none of the pieces I managed to procure were the best representations of that variety. And so as the saying goes, amongst the blind, the one-eyed man, or mango, would ultimately be king.

On appearance, the Australian R2E2 dominated in size being double the size of the Alphonso I had managed to procure. Followed closely by the Thai mango which was slim and long. So size went to Australia.

On to colour. Both the Thai and Philippine mangoes were pale yellow in colour, somewhere between a daffodil and a slab of butter. The Australian mango couldn’t decide what colour it wanted to be. The Myanmar mango was surpringly very close to the Alphonso in size and colour, a deep golden yellow. Grudgingly, the vote on colour had to be split between Myanmar and the Alphonso.

How did they all smell? It would take an airport security dog, well actually any dog, to detect the smell of a Thai, Philippine or Australian mango. My olfactory nerves detected a faint whiff on the Myanmar mango. But bring the Alphonso into the picture and we had a clear winner.

Next step was to wash and cut the mangoes. I cut a nice slice from the side of each of them and laid them out on a large white plate. The inside flesh stayed true to the outside skin and both the Thai and Philippines mangoes had a pale yellow flesh. The R2E2 from Australia luckily was not multi-coloured but turned out to have a sunny yellow shade. Even more surprisingly, both the Myanmar and Alphonso had a deep, golden reddish-yellow color. So, again we had a tie.

And finally the most important part of the test, the taste. I went with the Philippine mango first. It had a smooth texture but was fairly tart in taste. Not the sweetness that you look forward to in a mango. The Thai mango was next. Again a smooth texture with a mild sweetness. It reminded me of another variety I have tasted in India but cannot recollect. Overall, a pleasant experience but nothing that made you jump out of your seat. The R2E2 was sweet but didn’t have much depth to its flavour. The Myanmar variety surprised me yet again with its taste, which I must admit was actually very good. A nice rich, sweet taste with far more depth than I had expected.

But at that point, without needing to taste the Alphonso, I knew that it was still the best. However good the others looked and tasted, they paled in comparison to the richness and depth of flavour offered by the Alphonso.

Not wanting to waste the slice I had cut, I picked it up and bit into it, closed my eyes and tasted my childhood all over again.

Priya

Spicy Chicken. Fried Rice. Heaven.

When in Seoul, the thing to so it stuff yourself with meat. Grilled beef (another post), fried chicken, bone soup, raw meats, spicy sauces – it all makes for a wonderful assault on the digestive tract. Downed with sochu and beer. Go on, admit it. We all love it.

Exhibit #1: Dakuroga. Tender, marinated pieces of chicken barbecued at your table. Dakalbi, as it is known in Korean. With garlic, onion, chillies, special sauce and toppoki (Korean rice cakes). I challenge you to stop eating. Even when you are feeling full. And when you are close to bursting, you must order the Bokumbab. It’s cooked on the same grill using all the leftover goodness from the chicken. Again. I challenge you to stop eating.

In Korea, everything useful is shared on Kakao Talk. So I am taking the liberty of pasting a few images from my friends messages guiding me to the right place. Thanks June! And all of you can thank me later.

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This is what you show the taxi uncle.
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This is what it looks from the outside.

Mingles. Seoul.

Do not trust ‘world best’ lists. Turn up your nose at the thought of fusion. Or just say that fine dining means lots of frou frou, very little substance for a big fat bill. But if you went to Mingles, one of the world’s best restaurants, ‘mingling’ traditional Korean food with European techniques in undeniably fine dining setting, you will be forced to revisit your notions.

The menu changes every few weeks, every course is a surprise and every bite a delight. As someone who spends a fair bit of time in Seoul, it is delightful to see the boldness in thought and practise that is sweeping the Korean restaurant scene. Chef Mingoo Kang has boldly established himself at the forefront of New Korean cuisine. The European cuts of meat, presentation styles are unmistakeable. The use of fermented Korean sauces, vinegars, seasonal produce, weeds and herbs plants this restaurant firmly as true to its roots.

Mingles4Fine dining for me must belong to it’s physical surroundings. In what is served, in how it delights. Mingles checks all the boxes of an outstanding meal, and unchecks some notions.

http://www.restaurant-mingles.com

 

 

 

I Dreamt. I Ate. I am Dreaming.

‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ is one of those must watch documentaries that explains the passion of one man to his craft. We know the strict codes that apply to guests who are lucky to find a seat at the high temple of sushi. There is a moment in the film where the father encourages the son to take wings and fly. A perhaps lesser known fact that is that they operate as two branches of the same establishment. The fish is sourced each morning by the two sons together.

Knowing that we had no chance of landing at the original in Ginza, we were lucky to score reservations at the Roppongi branch. So the inevitable question – was it worth it? How good can sushi get? My answer – never has my tongue felt like it was simultaneously in a temple and a decadent geisha house.

The set up is stark and immaculate. The service is quick. It is omakase. Around 15 pieces of sushi (please notify in advance if you want some sashimi). Each piece is customised so that the clientele can eat comfortably, not struggle with the size of the bite, feel full but not stuffed while alternating between silence, sighs and blabber.

Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi is also foreigner friendly with English conversation, explanations around each fish, the rationale behind the flavouring or the cut.

When you leave with your heart filled with joy, your mind processing the incredible experience you’ve just had, you whole being feeling elevated at having experienced one of the great dining privileges on this planet, your watch will show that you were there for a mere 45 minutes. But time stops still at Jiro’s.

Jiro2
The Master. And his craftsmen. 

Whisper whisky

Apparently cocktails and mixologists are all the rage. Speakeasies have had a revival for so long that it can be called strictly mid life by now. As is the single malt. Airports seem to stock an ever increasing variety of impossible-to-pronounce Scottish distilleries. And the run on Japanese malts, or the populace who has declared Taiwan as the new Japan. All of these trends come home in one classy, trendy, cool bar in downtown Seoul. Language barriers are not a problem, all the bartenders speak in one tongue – that of knowing how to mix a good drink. Going off piste is not an exception, it is the norm. You have to try a little hard to find it. You cannot reserve a seat. You knock, and they let you in if they have space. But once you’re in, welcome to the world of drinks that delight, a relaxed vibe and crackers that you cannot stop eating.

As is my practise at all bars, I order an Old-Fashioned with rye whisky, less sugar. There are very few bars where bartenders do not bat an eyelid at the request and deliver an Old- Fashioned so perfectly balanced in taste, strength and colour. In my Old-Fashioned index, there is no bar that has touched the heights at this bar. All my friends who have been there rave about it. It features regularly as one of the worlds best bars. The only thing not discrete inside the bar – signs forbidding patrons from whipping out their phones to take pictures of the beautiful drinks.

The name?  Speakeasy Mortar. 

Try finding it. The rewards are many.

A little basket of Thai condiments

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Every street restaurant table in Bangkok has this little basket of condiments called Khreuang Puang.

This basket usually contains 4 key ingredients – sugar (naam tam sai), fish sauce (naam plaa), chilli powder (phrik pon) and fresh chillies in vinegar (phrik dong). There are the most common but there can be other variations also.

Everyone has their own way of using them and their own ratio to mix these and put them over a plate of noodles. And Thai food isn’t quite the same without this little basket 🙂

Priya

A restaurant frozen in time…

The next time you are in Mumbai, spare some time to go to Ballard Estate in South Mumbai and savour some excellent Parsi and Irani food at Britannia & Co. Dig into their famous Beri Pulao – an indulgent rice dish served with bilberries from Iran. Tuck into the rich Salli Boti – mutton cooked with apricots soaked in vinegar and topped with potato shoestrings. Enjoy their soft chapatis with kheema – spicy mutton mince with peas. Wash it all down with the very pink  Raspberry soda and end on a sweet note with their Caramel Custard.

The third generation of the Kohinoor family still manages the restaurant and the decor at Britannia & Co. hasn’t changed much, probably since the restaurant first opened. Red checked tablecloths covered with glass and the classic wooden Irani chairs. But it is charming and well worth the trek to the other end of the city.

Priya

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