Saturday, January 20, 2007

Shakahaari: How to Fill your Stomach without Bloodshed

There has been a profusion of cholesterol and violence whenever any mention of food has been made on this blog. This is primarily due to my hereditary and cultural predilection for non-vegetarianism.
My father vehemently feels that vegetarianism a fate to which only the most unfortunate are condemned. This could be because he spent most of his early years with his grandmother who was a widow and hence, vegetarian. Because of that, he never learnt to pick fish bones and cannot stand the smell (aroma?) of fish. This strong association of vegetables with denial of pleasure has made him quite incapable of understanding the concept of voluntary vegetarianism. And, he has decidedly passed on those genes of his to me and my sister!
Apart from that, ever since Jagadish Chandra Bose proved conclusively that life exists in plants, Bengalis resigned themselves to the fact that murder for food is inevitable. Might as well kill the better tasting food, they thought!
In order to present a more balanced view, I felt there is a need for a piece on some of the excellent vegetarian food that I have had.

One of the most abiding memories of any Bengali child’s growing up is the Sunday breakfast. After a week of toast and eggs gulped down with milk, one looked forward to the leisurely Sunday breakfast.
It usually consisted of luchi (the Bengali equivalent of poori) and a dry potato preparation. The hot luchis, served fresh and steaming, were milky white since they were made of maida. It has been empirically proved that there is absolutely no limit to the number of luchis that can be eaten by a Bengali male. No limit, at all – for it has been reliably confirmed that people have gulped down luchis in hundreds.
The potato preparation varied from family to family – as people seemed to have their own favourites. It could be a simple aloo bhaja (a crisper, thinner version of French Fries) or any dry sauté of potato (using tomato/turmeric/garlic/ginger/methi/chilly as flavouring). Luchi-aloor torkari, served with a little bit of pickle on the side, is something programmed into my DNA and has very few parallels – non-veg food included!

A very long time ago in Delhi, a restaurant opened and called itself Bukhara. It served North-Western Frontier cuisine and cooked their kababs in a glass-walled kitchen for all to see and drool on. While their mutton, chicken and prawns were being raved about all over the world, their signature dish turned out to be their daal. I first tasted Daal Bukhara – a black daal redolent with butter – in 1986 on a trip to Delhi and even at the age of twelve years, it got etched on my mind so deeply that when I went back to Maurya Sheraton another twelve years later, I had a lunch only of this daal and roomali rotis. I think this qualifies as that one vegetarian dish, which is sinful enough for me to renounce my kababs and tikkas. At least for some time!

Living in Calcutta, the opportunity to eat great vegetarian food in restaurant is non-existent. Firstly, why waste money on greenery when you can graze in the Maidan for free? Secondly, there are no vegetarian restaurants to speak of. It was only out of Calcutta, that I ate completely vegetarian meals out of home.
The first experience of this was when I was in Jamshedpur for my MBA, there were at least two vegetarian places that provide nourishment not only for the body but for the soul as well.
The first was Madrasi Sammelan (called Mad Sam in student lingo) – whose biggest utility was that it opened in the wee hours of the morning. After a night of tiring and dehydrating oneself in drunken binges, one could hardly wait for the Mess to start serving breakfast (at eight)! So, groups of four trooped into autos (sharing the 40-buck fare) and reached Mad Sam at the stroke of six to gorge on the steaming hot idlis and dosas. Since, I never had a meal at Mad Sam, which was NOT within one hour of having my last drink, I am unable to state very authoritatively whether Mad Sam served the best dosas in the world. But, at 6 a.m. in the morning, they were God’s messengers, distributing ambrosia to the heathen.
The second place in Jamshedpur was Karnail Singh Da Dhaba. Now, they certainly qualify as the makers of the best stuffed paranthas I have ever had. Aloo, gobi, mooli, methi – you name it, Sardarji made it. And served it with huge dollops of white butter at such speed that more parathas materialized before you could finish the first round. Asking him to stop with your mouth full was again a difficult task and so, a lunch at 1 o’clock meant a siesta long enough to miss the 7 p.m. class at least – if not the 9 p.m. one!

On my first job, I was banished to the South of Vindhyas and I learnt for the first time that Madrasis were actually a small percent of South Indians and they spoke at least four languages (not counting the dialects). I also learnt that Chettinad cuisine is one of the best-kept secrets of Tamil Nadu, probably to keep job-seeking Bengalis away!
But Saravana Bhavan dosas – while crisp and tasty – were not stuff to die (or kill) for. So, on my first stint in Chennai, I had to survive on Saravana Bhavan and raid Karaikudi (a Chettinad joint) and Panjim (Goanese) for their chicken and pork respectively.
However, when I went back for a second (extended) stint, I made two discoveries.
1. The best Andhra thalis are not served in Andhra Prdesh, but in Bangalore.
2. Idlis can be magical. Almost as good as Chicken Rezala.

Bangalore’s Nandhini group of restaurants introduced me to the most wonderful Andhra thalis – and despite their ubiquitous presence, the lunch-hour rush was inevitable.
But the best Andhra thali – complete in its fiery hedonism – has to be the one at Bheema’s (Church Street) beating out RR (on the same street) by a whisker. RR, incidentally, was the first ever Andhra style restaurant opening in Bangalore, which re-opened in 2003 after being shut for some time.
Both served the full complement of Andhra delicacies in varying degress of hotness. Starting from the gun-powder (eaten mixed with rice and ghee) to the daals & sambars, the beauty of both these places was that you did not feel the full impact of the spices when you were having the food. It was only when you were walking down Church Street, you felt a slow volcano building up and erupting through nostrils, reddened ears and enlarged sweat glands! One man's bliss is another's masochism!

Murugan Idli Shop was the institution to have brought about the second of the above revelations. A tiny shop - up a few stairs - on G. N. Chetty Road of T.Nagar in Chennai is where I went for a working lunch one day. One bite of their 'soft idli' (served with four kinds of chutneys) and I came back every single time I was in Chennai. Even at the cost of waiting for pretty long periods of time, the fluffiness of their idlis remained a un-missable allure. And if I remember correctly, the idlis were priced at Rs 4.50 each and the ghee masala dosa was at Rs 22. Even after stuffing myself to the point of bursting (along with a colleague), the thambi always managed to get back some change from a 100-buck note! The only grouse against Murugan is that they serve their sambar directly on the banana leaf (and not in a bowl), so you almost end up licking it off to prevent seepage onto your trousers!

The last stop of the Veggie Express has been identified in the city of Kanpur - during my exertions to launch a Hindi newspaper there. It is Gyan Vaishnav, a sattvik eatery, situated right next to a traffic junction (which, in turn, is very close to railway crossing). So, even if you do not get run over by a train, Sumo or scooter while trying to enter the restaurant, you will find eternal bliss in their ghee-laden preparations of aloo gobi, daal tadka and fresh rotis. And they some how manage to gauge your fullness. So after a while, the benign waiter smiles and provides tissues and water - without trying to hard-sell their mithais!

There, the alternative viewpoint. But remember - "If God didn't want us to eat animals, He wouldn't have made them out of meat."
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