Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Here's another food-song. In 1997, Weird Al Yankovic, an American entertainer came with with this gem. The song names nine Italian dishes! I think that's the highest amount of food any song has ever hogged. Here is the song and the lyrics. Or should I call it the lunch menu?

You want some lasagna magnifico!
Or a-maybe spaghetti
Ay, you supper's a-ready now, where you go?
Mama mia bambino,
Mama mia bambino, 'samatta you
'Samatta you, 'samatta you?

You should taste my lasagna
Ay, you no like lasagna?
That's okay too,
How about calzone?
Some-a nice minestrone, 'ats good for you
Have some marinara,
Have some marinara, I know you like
I know you like, I know you like!


Would you like some zucchini?
Or my homemade linguini, it's hard to beat!
Have more fettuccini.
Ay, you getting too skinny, you gotta to eat
Ay, mange, mange!

Ay, you pass the lasagna
A-don't you get any on ya, you sloppy pig!
Have more ravioli
You-a get roly poly, a-nice and big
Like you cousin Luigi
Luigi, Luigi, capisce paisan?
Capisce paisan, capisce paisan?


Actually Weird Al's song was a parody of a Mexican folk song La Bamba. The song was popularised in the USA for the first time in 1958 by Ritchie Valens. Another version was recorded by Los Lobos in 1987 for a film by the same name as the song. Both were smash hits in America, from where Weird Al Yankovic's song came up, in their own times. Here are the links to these two numbers:


Musically good? May be. The initial bit of guitar quite catchy? Yes, I'll give that to you too. But far less exciting without all that cheese and meat choking your heart down, won't you agree?

Monday, May 27, 2013

'Coz what is this life/ If there's no chowmein?

Remember that wonderful neighbourhood joint where you used to go all the time? And then it shut down one fine morning and you began to wonder, what's the point of this life anyway? Well here's a wonderful number from the early 1950s recorded by The Gaylords that may resonate your feelings.

'I could cry all night in sorrow,
I could moan all day in pain,
'Coz the Chinaman gave the place up
And my life just ain't the same!'

Here's the link of the song: Chowmein | The Gaylords

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Calcutta Biryani

Biryani is one of the greatest cultural gifts of Islamicate culture to South Asia. In the Hindu or Buddhist kitchen, no example of a mixture of meat and rice is known. Jains are vegetarians, so there's no point talking about them in the first place. In larger parts of the subcontinent, the average Hindu upper caste person faints at the smell of onion or garlic, leave alone meat. The entirety of upper caste North India always looked down upon the Bengali brahman because of his fish-eating habits. Imagining anything close to the sublimity of the biryani exuding out of such a taboo-dominated kitchen is nothing but a day-dream. But even in the middling or lower castes, I wonder if any parallel of the meat-rice combination could have been known independently of an influence of the Islamicate kitchen. In the far south, in Christian and lower caste sections of Malayalis and Kannadas, there is a thriving tradition of preparing fabulous dishes by cooking meat and rice together. But with all due respect, that isn't biryani.

Biryani was invented in the North Indian military camp sometime around the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries. At the end of a hard day of marching or military operation, soldiers would probably get together, throw some meat in with the rice to save the labour of cooking separate dishes and prepare something for themselves. By the early-seventeenth century, biryani attained a certain degree of eliteness by virtue of being absorbed into the Mughal kitchen. Nuruddin Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), the fourth Mughal Padshah, writes in his memoirs Tuzuk-i Jahangiri: 'Arriving in Sultanpur at dawn I remained there till noon. By chance, at this place and hour the victorious [Mughal] army encountered that ill-fated band [the enemy]. Muizzu-l-mulk had brought biryani, and I was turning towards it with zest when the news of the battle was brought to me. Though I had a longing to eat the biryani, I immediately took a mouthful by way of augury and mounted, and without waiting for the coming up of men and without regard to the smallness of my force I went off in all haste.'

After Aurangzeb Alamgir's death in 1707, Mughal political authority crumbled. Among the multiple polities that emerged in South Asia around this time were three successor states founded by Mughal mansabdars. The Mughal Wazir, who was administering the subah of Awadh, and the subahdars of Bengal and Hyderabad – all declared independence in the eighteenth century. While all of their dynasties continued to function inside Mughal cultural paradigm for a long time to come, they also interacted with and assimilated elements of regional culture into their courtly life. The Mughal biryani took on a new life in each of these regional royal kitchens and by interacting with local culinary practices, took distinctly different paths. Consequently we now have three different types of the Mughal biryani in South Asia – the Lucknavi, the Hyderabadi and the Dhakai. The Hyderabadi biryani was doing fine until it lost its way somewhere down the line by opening its doors to curry pata. Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, has preserved its tradition of the sublime kachchi biryani. It tastes entirely different from what we have now in India, and if you haven't visited Bangladesh yet, consider it to be a reason enough. There is also a most offensively atrocious dish that is served around Delhi by the name of biryani; but we need not dignify it with a discussion here.

Yes, that's the expression Dhakai kachchi biryani brings to your face!

When the English East India Company deposed Nawab Wajed Ali Shah in 1856, they packed his bags and sent him to Calcutta. The sad Nawab came along singing “Jab chhod chaley Lucknow nagari/tab haal adam par kya guzri?” and settled down with his entourage in Metiaburuj (meaning 'clay bastion' in Bengali) in the English port-city. With him, the tradition of the Lucknavi biryani also reached Calcutta. What remained behind in Lucknow, judging by what you get in the old parts of the town today, was fantastic stuff. It was perhaps a tad more spicy than how its successor in the new imperial capital of South Asia would turn out to be. Here it took on a new life. The Calcutta biryani came to find its ideal companions in the boiled egg and the boiled whole potato.

In Calcutta, even neighbourhood joints are serving biryani these days, as are the different multi-cuisine mumbo jumbos. Obviously there is no reason to take them seriously. The headquarter of the city's biryani craft is the Muslim-dominated Park Circus-Mallick Bazaar area in South Calcutta. It houses several restaurants that serve quality biryani. The more famous ones are Shiraz and Rahmania in Mallick Bazaar, Zeeshan and Arsalan in Park Circus. Among these, Shiraz and Rahmania are really by-gone glories. Arsalan is the best among these joints. For some time now, the Arsalan biryani is among the best in the city. The suppleness of the meat, the aroma of the rice and the brilliant kabab accompaniments will surely make anybody's day. No wonder it has three outlets between Park Circus 7-Points Crossing and Park Street and more in other areas.

Further south, there are a couple of good joints around the Gariahat-Golpark area. The older ones, Hatari and Bedouin serve standard quality biryani. But two new joints are grabbing the limelight these days. One is Ta'aam, right next to Priya Cinema on Rashbihari Avenue. The other is Southern Aminia right next to Mouchak at Golpark (this one being named after the leading biryani joint of the past -- Aminia -- in the Esplanade area). Ta'aam may be a tad more expensive than the other places, but they make it more than worth your money. Also, the prices of biryani has increased quite a lot over the past 6/7 years. But in terms of the quality of meat, the subtlety of the taste and the aroma of the dish, these two places will leave you starstruck. If you are wondering when or where the hell these cropped up from, you are backdated buddy. You may call them upstarts, but I am telling you, the best biryani of the city is rolling out of their kitchens even as we speak.


Some of the more upscale restaurants of the city, like Flame and Grill, Sigree and Barbeque Nation, also serve very good biryani. Much of their biryani is genuinely delicious, and the flavours are quite light and subtle. But for me, the unlimited tide of kababs that these places serve in the beginning of the buffet always spoils the biryani fun. By the time one reaches the biryani one is already struggling to make space in one's stomach by reshuffling the hurriedly gobbled kababs. In any case, the high price of the buffet means that for the average food-enthusiast, it can't be the everyday option.

Barring the Dhakai kachchi biryani, all this while we have been talking about mutton biryani (who eats chicken biryani anyway?). Beef biryani is considerably rare in Calcutta, although one gets it at the small Muslim-owned joints around the Park Circus area, like Nafeel or al-Habib. To be honest, they are not very good. However, the bloody best biryani I have ever had is in fact outside the city proper. It's on the railway station premises of Baruipur, a half-an-hour train ride from Sealdah. The place, called Asma, serves the most delicious beef biryani and beef chaanp in the world. You can't even begin to imagine how delicious it is, so don't waste your time. The rice is nothing extraordinary; in fact one may argue that Ta'am or Southern Aminia's rice is better. But their beef is the softest biryani meat I have ever had. The supple, succulent and tender beef is so good that it will make you want to sleep with it. The aroma of the beef spices up the entire rice and makes you want to brave the crowded trains of the Sealdah-Baruipur route day and night. If possible, catch a train and see for yourself what you have been missing on.

Recently the Calcutta biryani has also taken the national capital by storm. The Kolkata Biryani House at the Market 1 in CR Park, with its assortments of biryani, chaanp and rezala, is already a rage in the Bengali circles of South Delhi. Word in the street is that the research output of budding Bengali social scientists of the nearby Jawaharlal Nehru University has increased manifold since the opening of the joint.

One needs to acknowledge that given all the diversities of biryani traditions in South Asia (obviously not including the various pseudo-biryani traditions of the north and the south), there are rival claims to culinary greatness. Against this backdrop, we can either be tolerant and stupid and say that 'to each her own', or we can be brutal and truthful and admit that the Calcutta biryani is the greatest of all Mughal biryanis. The choice is yours.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lets add spice! [Guest post by Sebanti Chatterjee]

Choco Cafe at Anwar Shah Road, diagonally opposite South City Mall is definitely the place to be.
Aztec chilli chocolate at Choco Café is sure to transport you into a world of exotic wonder.With every sip, the dark cacao and hot chilly would excite your taste bud. It is sure to energize the spirit and stimulate the brain. This traditional special beverage served in a truly Mexican manner makes me say- Muy Sabroso! Deseo mas.. It’s different and my favourite cup of chocolate. I bet it will become yours too!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Conquered by Kakori

Delhi is a city with heavenly kababs and tandoori food. However, apart from the regular dishes, one kabab, from Lucknow, would surely seize the crown. This is the Kakori kabab of Alkauser in South Delhi, at Malai Mandir. Notwithstanding the mesmerising mutton dam biryani, which is served in the same sealed clay pots in which they are cooked, this one is the show-stealer of this open-air restaurant. Kakori kababs originated in kitchen of the Wizarat of Lucknow in the nineteenth century, apparently to cater to the demands of an aged toothless Nawab. Made of pasted meat, these are some of the most tender kababs that you'll ever find. It will literally melt in your mouth. Take my word for it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Nimatnama: Recipes from the Royal Kitchen of 15th Century Malwa

After the demise of the imperious Tughlaq dynasty in Delhi, Malwa (roughly corresponding to the central part of the modern Indian state of Madhya Pradesh) saw the rise of its own independent sultanate in the 15th century. In 1469, Ghiyath Shah ascended the throne of Mandu, the capital of Malwa. This heck of man was a bon viveur and eccentric par excellence. As soon as he ascended the throne, he deputed his son, Nasir Shah to run state affairs and promptly busied himself in the pursuit of sensory pleasures and satisfaction. Nimatnama or the Book of Pleasures was the outcome of his unremitting exertions in this direction. The work comprises of recipes of various food and drinks, for preparation of perfumes and essences, as well as for aphrodisiacs and medicines. It also elaborates on the preparation and benefits of betel chewing and provides advice on what to take into battle and instructions concerning hunting expeditions.

The recipes of Nimatnama are detailed and delightfully alluring. Take this one for example:

Another recipe for the method of saffron meat: wash the meat well and, having put sweet-smelling ghee into a cooking pot, put the meat into it. When the ghee is hot, flavour it with saffron, rosewater and camphor. Mix the meat with the saffron to flavour it and when it has become well-marinated, add a quantity of water. Chop cardamoms, cloves, coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cassia, cumin and fenugreek, tie them up in muslin and put them with the meat. Cook almonds, pine kernels, pistachios, and raisins in tamarind syrup and add them to the meat. Put in rosewater, camphor, musk and ambergris and serve it. By the same method cook partridge, quail, chicken and pigeon.

Did you know that they had samosas in the 15th century? Well the Nimatnama provides recipes for several types of samosas. Take this one for example: 

The method for samosas of tender meat of mountain sheep (parbatī) or of deer: mince (the meat) finely (f.3b) and add turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, coriander, cardamom and cloves and mix them together. Flavour sweet-smelling ghee with asafoetida. When the ghee has become well-flavoured, put the mince in it and leave it so that it becomes wellcooked. Add lime juice and pepper and then put in a quarter of a sīr of dried ginger (zanjabīl) and one sīr of chopped onion and remove it. Add one rattī of camphor and one rattī of musk. Prepare a few large samosas and a few small ones the size of one mouthful. Having stuffed them with the mince, fry them in sweet-smelling ghee and, when they are to be eaten, sprinkle them with vinegar or lime juice. Serve them and eat them.

A new mirco-oven at my home and a new-found medieval cook book. Hm, wondering whether I should start putting 2 and 2 together!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cullinary Chronicles of JNU

Food in JNU is a way of life. With the hostel messes churning out quantities of bland, boring and essentially banal food for the lesser mortals, the heart of the glutton roams around the dhabas and the canteens in search of solace. Thankfully, JNU does not disappoint these haunted souls and stomachs. 

This is a cozy Tibetan joint located in the KC Market. Overlooked by a photograph of the Dalai Lama, the place can host only 14 people at a time, but the food is quite lovely. For us, the residents of the Sutlej Hostel, it’s practically our out-house kitchen! The place specialises in lamb and serves several less know dishes. Take Fouyangs for example. These are pancakes made with noodles and egg, chicken or lamb, as the preference of the customer might be. Shafali are lamb or chicken fillings inside palm-sized fried jackets. Lamb comes in chowmeins, chopsueys, curries and fried rice. However, the trademark, and most sought after, Kiechha special is surely the Lamb Dry (around Rs. 70 a bowlful) – chunks of lamb fried to a dark reddish brown colour together with onions, green chilies and capsicum. Ooh!

In JNU, every school building has its own canteen. The debate on which is the best one usually involves those of the School of Social Sciences II (SSS II) and the School of International Studies (SIS). My pick is the second one. Every day, during lunch hours, the place is thronged with students, out to grab a bite between busy hours in the classes and library. Manned by Babu bhaiyya, a Malayali gentleman, it specialises in South Indian food. But amidst the rolling out of bland sada dosas, onion dosas, uttapams and vadas, a dish will steal your heart. This is the keema curry (around 30 rupees a plate). Have it with paratha or rice, it is bound to rejuvenate the heart of the carnivore in the middle of a work-day quite magically.

This is the JNU Staff canteen, but usually goes by the name of its Bengali chef, Shambhu. The menu is predominantly Bengali – rice, several dishes of fish, vegetables and chicken or mutton curry is what one can find here on any random day. But the best dish is mourola maachh bhaja (fried mourola fish). These are the dwarfs of the fish world – one hardly exceeds 5 cm in length. These are caught in great numbers, garnished with some turmeric and salt, and then fried to a mouth-watering crispiness and a golden yellow colour. They are served in little bowls which have 20-30 of them, and cost around 30 bucks a bowl. Best had with rice and dal (lentil), mourola maachh bhaja represents a welcome flash of the culinary culture of the Indian coastland in a fish-deprived culinary desert.

Tossed in some God-knows-what spices, this is one of the best liver dishes I have ever had. They come in little bowlfuls, containing 4/5 pieces. Priced around 35/40 rupees, the taste is pleasantly uncommon. The quantity is not much; hence this is essentially a side dish between spoonfuls of some delightful noodles and honey chicken. The chicken sataey is also worth trying. 

This is a trademark JNU drink – simple, yet tangy. A deadly combination of soda, lemon juice, salts and some crushed ice, banta is just what our bodies and hearts yearn for during the sizzling hot evenings of Delhi. Best thing – it comes for just 10 bucks. Damn refreshing, we invariably end up having several glasses.

The dhabas are the nerve-centres of JNU campus-life. These road-side open-air joints form the general rendezvous points for students after class hours. From the afternoon till well past midnight, these bustle on. The 24.7 dhaba remains open practically throughout the whole day and specialises in Punjabi food, among which, chicken malai tikka is surely the best. These little angels come in twelve pieces a dish, served on a warm buttery sauce and accompanied with pudina chutney and onion flakes (Rs. 160 for a plate of 12 pieces). Grilled to a soft tenderness and gentle yellowish off-white colour, a plate should be just about enough for the true food lover, but has been known to be sufficient to fill up a couple of lesser mortals. Rolled on the butter before being put in the mouth, one cannot but get flashes of chicken ala Kiev while having these, but the smoky tandoori flavour of the JNU delicacy immediately sets them apart.

Not too delicately spiced, but incredibly soft and tender, the mutton sheek kabab is the bloody best mutton dish one can find on campus. Best appreciated with the plain, and rather big, rumali roti, the kababs (Rs. 100 for a plate of 4 pieces) are made of ground mutton, together with herbs and spices, and then grilled to darkish brown. Mughal Darbar also serves wonderful chicken dishes, of which the spicy and oily chicken jahangiri, with its slight sour taste, deserves special mention. Soft and tender tandoori rotis, the gently sweetish sheer mal and the kheer are also worth trying. Oh, and also chicken afghani! Heaven!

Afterword: Once you have had the mutton sheek kabab, don’t wash your hands with soap. Let the lingering fragrance of spiced meat continue to titillate your palate for some more time.


Finally, dessert. Sweets are rare in JNU; the only sad option being the packeted Haldiram ka soan papdi or the school canteen's awful gulab jamuns. Although there are several ice cream shops and carts, my choice is jalebi/jilabi/jilipi. The Nilgiri dhaba in front of Godavari hostel also makes these. But my vote goes to the ones that Chowdhury ji furnishes at his small KC shop. The sweetness is less on your face. Plus, these are definitely crispier. Have it, and you will find yourself smiling ear to ear in the same way like the kid of our childhood Dhara ad: "Jalebi?"

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gar firdaus bar-ru-ye zamin ast, ham-een-ast, ham-een-ast, ham-een-ast

The dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, the 14th century Sufi saint of Delhi, is one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in the city, both in pious and touristic circuits. Apart from the tomb of the Sufi saint himself, the dargah complex houses those of several other religious and political bigshots from the medieval times, who chose to be buried here due to the religious halo associated with it. One of the most prominent ones is that of the celebrated Persian poet Amir Khusraw, a disciple and close associate of the saint. When I was taken here for the first time by my friend and fellow medievalist Kashshaf Ghani, he reminded me of a celebrated poem by Khusraw:

Har qaum raast raahay, din-e wa qibla gaahay,
Man qibla raast kardam, ba simt kaj kulaahay.
Sansaar har ko poojay, kul ko jagat sarahay,
Makkay mein koyi dhoondhay, Kaashi ko koi jaaye,
Guyyian main apnay pi kay payyan padun na kaahay.
Har qaum raast raahay, din-e wa qibla gaahay.

(Every community has a faith, 
a direction [Qibla] to which they turn [to pray],
I have turned my face towards the tilted cap [of Nizamudin]
The whole world worships something or the other,
Some look for God in Mecca, while some go to Kashi,
So why can’t I, oh wise people, fall onto my beloved’s feet?
Every sect has a faith, a Qibla.)

Three years down the line, my qibla is not more than 500m away from where the saint with the tilted cap lies now. (Not bad, eh Khusraw?) It's a small joint which goes by the name of Ghalib Kabab Centre. It derives its name from the street on which it stands. Turns out that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, arguably the greatest Urdu poet of the 19th century Delhi, also wanted to be buried in the Nizamuddin comlex. However, the dargah authorities denied this last wish of the poet, citing his drinking habits as un-Islamic. Consequently, he had to be buried outside, though near, Nizamuddin's tomb. The road leading to his tomb has been named Ghalib Road. It is on this bustling, crowded and cacophonous road that sheek kababs having been rolling out of that sizzling oven for the past forty years and in absence of the Auliya saint, soothing many a thirsty heart and salivating tongue. 

Like every religious ceremony, our visits to the joint has a specific sequence of cullinary rituals. We begin with a few plates of beef sheek kababs. As they arrive in no time, along with the rumali rotis, our lust virtually gets out of hand and there ensues a mad squabble for the meat. There can be no words for describing these, so I will not try to find any. They simply melt in the mouth, and the tastes of the meat and spices simply dissolve into each other leaving behind a strong sense of sensual pleasure.

From here we graduate onto some beef tikka kabab. This comes to us as platefuls of meat chunks. Though not as tender as the sheek kababs, tikka kabab is equally generously spiced and grilled to an alluring dark brown colour. Lemon, chopped onions and the pudina chutney come as perfect accomplices of the delicious meat.

The dessert sessions usually consist of a flurry of firni. Again, best firni I have ever had. Stopping below two/three usually proves difficult. 

Then comes the real problem -- getting up. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Beef Divine

Couple of months back, two of my friends and me boarded a south-bound train from Sealdah. As the geography of the city around us changed rapidly, we held our breath and waited for what we had heard to be the best beef in and around the city. We alighted at Baruipur in less than an hour and started looking for this piece of heaven called Aasma. It turned out to be a humble, though bustling, joint, in the market adjoining the station, just beside the rail tracks. A big fat man sat just outside the place, stirring occasionally the sinfully spicy-looking meat sizzling on a gigantic pan. The scent of beef turned us on instantly! 

Salivating, we headed into what was a large hall, cramped with long tables and benches on both of their sides. There was hardly any empty spot around and we barely managed to sit down and grab some table-space. We ordered for beef biryani and beef chaap straightaway. These arrived in no time and in we went at once! Man, the biryani was just too good. Not only the quality of rice, or its titillating fragrance, which could compete with any Park Circus restaurant, but also the meat! It was remarkably nice, tender and juicy, inspite of it being the tougher red meat. The spices had seeped into the meat really well and brought the entirety of the rice alive. However, the goodness of the biryani  was closely contested by the quality of the chaap, which to say the least, was divine. Oil, the spices and the meat gelled so well that they were practically inseparable. The suppleness of the beef surprised us here as well. We binged on like hypnotised slaves until we could literally hold no more.

On our way back, we thanked the Cow, our Holy Mother, a million times for sacrificing herself everyday for the upliftment of our food-craving spirits in so delicious a manner! Hail the most tasty demi-god of the Pagans! 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Phuchka: Crispy Devils of Calcutta

You may have had panipuri in Mumbai, or even golgappa in Delhi, but if you haven't tasted phuchka (not puchka) in Calcutta, you have not yet known the ultimate combination that can be prepared with the crispy fried balls. The panipuris I had on Juhu beach in Mumbai were too bland and somewhat sweetish. I dared not touch many of the Delhi golgappas; the notice that some of the sellers were flaunting simply scared me off: 'served with mineral water'! For the record, phuchka cannot be served with mineral water. It would be like serving a dish of biryani without that boiled potato, or serving an egg roll without onions! If you are afraid of water-borne diseases, don't have phuchka. But if you must, have as they serve it here in the east: no mineral water crap. Mashed potatoes, some tamarind, salt, slices of green chili, some decimated phuchkas, chili powder -- all mixed into a granular paste with bare hands. No fancy gloves and all, please. Then bits of this paste are put into phuchkas, one at a time, which are then dipped straight into that container of tamarind water, and served on the small plates that one was holding all this while in one's hand. Well, go on, gobble it up!

Puchkas, like rolls, are everywhere in Calcutta. One master of the art puts his stall at the south-east corner of Deshapriyo Park in south Calcutta everyday. The other day, with dinner with friends due in an hour, I happened to pass him by. Long story short, I ended up having 25 of those crispy devils and spoiling my appetite for dinner!