Category: Stories & Photos

CR | Chutney

After two years spent almost entirely in College Station, Texas, it was safe to say that I was thoroughly disillusioned with what was served in the name of Indian food in the United States, to the point where I only sought it in homes. While there had been shining successes by few, notably by my brother-in-law and my good buddy Pratik, to determinedly find me good Indian food in the nation’s capital and New Jersey respectively, those brief interludes did little to shake my despondency since my trips to the East coast were few and far in between. Little did I know that I’d end up living in San Francisco, a superlative Mecca of cuisine.

Somewhere in between the super-fancy restaurant found here and the “hole-in-the-wall” phenomenon that is also abundant is the kind of restaurant that promises nothing and in doing so, reconfigures what you’ve come to expect. Such was my feeling about the restaurant Chutney in San Francisco. There is nothing to distinguish it on the outside from any other restaurant in its vicinity but the Pakistani-Indian food it claims to deliver, it does so in aces. The food here is what most Indians would recognize as North Indian, a notable difference being the presence of beef, something you are highly unlikely to find in an Indian restaurant back home of this kind. I took one bite of the garlic naan and paneer tikka masala and was instantly transported in time and space. I had found heaven in the middle of one of the gritty neighbourhoods in the city.

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Going out

Friendly as I am with food in general, restaurants and I have almost always been on terms of an especial camaraderie. So many memories are created when you feast on foods in fine eating establishments in good company. My past is littered with events that allow sentences to begin with “Remember when K threw artichokes at Prof. H in Cheddars……?”  (no really, he did! That is the correct course of action when the professor in question throws you out of class for….but I digress.) Then there is the added comfort and convenience of someone else waiting on you and having to clear the table and do the dishes.  But wait; don’t go away thinking I’m some kind of eatery style snob. Some of the finest eating establishments I know provide you with the food, a paper napkin, a curt nod and expect you to make the best of it. I am intimately familiar with this type too and will happily adjust, if the food in question tastes first-rate and the napkin is clean. (Mama raised very germ-conscious children!) I don’t ask for much from a potential food provider.

Touching briefly on a pet peeve of mine, here in the US, things are different from India when it comes to the actual restaurant space. Good (read expensive) restaurants in India are magnificent in their opulence. Scale, proportion, sound control and material are used with liberal abandon to make you feel like the money you are spending is worth it. And it does achieve its objective often. That is not necessarily the case with expensive restaurants here, especially in cities. You can end up spending a fortune in a tiny little joint where there isn’t enough room on the table for your food, the salt shaker and the customary single flower vase; and the noise levels require you to play the lets-see-whose-louder-game with the table next to you. These are restaurants, mind you, not clubs. You expect it from one but get horrible headaches and rising blood pressure when you find it in another. The higher the price tag on such an experience, the more robbed you feel. While restaurants here have introduced me to several different worlds, culinarily speaking, the designer in me wonders what they were thinking. I’m sure there’s a strata of uber-expensive restaurants that might offer me this, but those would probably be as inaccessible to most people, as they are to me.

Regardless, there are a host of wonderful restaurants out, no matter what country you are in. And that’s a good thing when you can’t be bothered to cook. In future posts, I will share some of the ones I’ve been to.

Also….raising my glass  to the seasonal teeth-rattling we had today. This earthquake was exceptionally perky in the city. Escaped near-loss of finger nail when set-square came crashing down on hand. Stats say magnitude 4.3, bit north of Morgan Hill. Nothing to get ones noodles in a knot about, yet with – as I realized – pregnant with disaster potential.  

Randomness

When the wave of ’25 random things about You’  tagged to me on Facebook, I had a hard time trying to come up with them. Maybe I have to work at the memory thing or at coalescing thoughts enough to form a cohesive list. Once done though, it was surprising to see how many of them had to do with food. This took me a while. Here goes….

1. I love spicy food. I have been known to eat chillies raw.
2. I love Indian, Indian Chinese (I kid you not, it is its own fabulous cuisine), Mexican, Thai and Italian food in that order. The only thing topping all of these is my mom’s food. No one cooks like her. NO ONE!
3. I hate fish, but the smell of fish being fried the Goan way by my mom is pretty high on my list of favourite smells.
4. I have lots of cook books but I’ve never followed a recipe completely, except when I’m baking. I learned early that you can’t muck around with that.
5. I miss Bade Miya and Ling’s Pavillion more than I can say.
6. I flipped my first omlette when I was 10, made my first mayonnaise at 12.
7. Being in the US taught me to appreciate milder cuisines like French. Though it is not a favourite, before then, I’d have been loath to even try it.
8. I could never value religion over human life. Religious fervor is the scariest thing I know.
9. My last meal wish would be a proper Chicken Shwarma like they make in the U.A.E and a Veggie Frankie.
10. Everything is better with Maggi’s Hot and Sweet Tomato Chilli Sauce (it is different!). (Or this green habernero sauce I discovered in Michigan of all places!)
11. I love to drive. The destination doesn’t matter as much as the trip.
12. I am highly thankful I wasn’t an only child. I am also thankful I am the middle child.
13. My elder sister taught me to read and ride the bicycle (and not to do it at the same time. :)
14. I find the evolution of various cuisines fascinating. I often wonder what Indian food was like before chillies were introduced to it 400-500 years ago. Also if China is (apparently) the largest potato producer in the world, why are there very few, if any, potato dishes in Chinese restaurants??
15. My fondest wishes are to see the Pyramids of Egypt and to learn to fly a plane.
16. My best friend from school and my best friend in college share the same birthday, down to the year. My best friend in college is now my husband.
17. I love languages. I am fluent in three (spoken and written), and haltingly speak and understand three others.
18. I love dogs. I love cats. I’ve turned my husband into a dog lover. We are working on cats now.

Not my husband or my dog :)

19.  I adore Michael J. Fox. I think I was 10 when I first saw Back to the Future.
20. I need books and music like I need air to breathe.
21. I am deeply interested in astronomy, geography and history.
22. I grew up near the sea and live near the ocean now. The two years I spent away from it drove me stir-crazy.
23. I love roller coasters. I think I’d love sky-diving. This is despite the fact that I have some degree of vertigo.
24. I understand why texting is the way it is but it bothers me when people write everything that way.
25. The insularity I see in some communities foreign to a region surprises me. Why leave your country when you want to spend all your time only with people from it?

Looking back

Sometimes it’s hard to quantify what I see as my food heritage. I’m a British national of Indian origin whose palette for all practical purposes developed and matured in India. My mom is an absolutely tops cook with remarkably adventurous tastes for an Indian woman of her generation and happily absorbed all new culinary experiences that 70s- England had to offer in the time she lived there. She very fondly remembers food she ate there, as do my elder sister and dad. Growing up listening to them reminisce about the food they ate when they lived there, I am to this day, confused when I hear that English cooking is supposedly awful. I mean, how bad can it be when three people with wonderful palettes (scratch that, two people, my dad will eat anything appreciatively, he’s easy to please) thought it was pretty good? I mean to go there and find out for myself someday. Meanwhile I find the recipes by English cooks that I try are holding their own, so even despite skepticism for the early brainwashing, I’m inclined to agree with my family.

My mother’s mother is a sublime cook and there are things that my grandma’s experienced hand can turn out that just never taste exactly that way when I cook them. My grandma raised three children. The two daughters are both great cooks, something they both shrug away saying it was expected of their generation. But my uncle going into catering was unusual for the time. He has the same great palette and his food is nothing short of exceptional. This family knows food.

Growing up in a family like this meant that you started an early love affair with food, or at least with eating it. My siblings, cousins and I were always a well-fed bunch, though we were picky. But there was always something everyone could eat served at the table (though we rarely ate at that table). I remember begging my mom to be allowed to help when I was a child and was extremely excited about the first time I was allowed to boil noodles, make chapatti dough and make an omlette. My enthusiasm waned a bit over my teen years as other things like college came to the fore. But the interest never did.

Today I think it’s safe to say that, despite our parents’ strong fears that we would be contrary, the next generation has turned into pretty good cooks. My cousin took up the cause of food like his dad and is a chef in New Zealand. His sister is a deft hand at cooking. Both my sisters are good cooks with different styles influenced by mom but all their own. My aunt’s daughter lives in Bangladesh and wields a mean chicken curry. And my husband thinks I’m an awesome cook. I think he’s biased.

Sic infit…

Yet another food blog?? I’m afraid so….I love food. I begged my mom to be allowed to cook as a young child and was thrilled when I was tall enough to be finally allowed to fry my first omelet. I learned a lot about cooking from my mom, who is one of the most talented cooks I know and some more from her brother, who is one of the most talented caterers in Bombay city. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have friends who appreciated food as much as I did and many an afternoon and evening in college has been spent arguing over where the best food was to be had in the city

Coming to the United States was tremendously exciting. Among other things, it has introduced me to several other culinary cultures. And all these brilliant chefs! I love Italian in San Francisco, just as I loved Tex-Mex in Texas. I’m lucky to live in a fabulous culinary city now just as I was fortunate enough to grow up in one.

I hope for this blog to be a memory of my culinary journey, as I try new things and revisit my old favourites. I love to cook for friends and family and share my food with people. There is a special joy watching people appreciate what you have prepared. My husband Amey is my favourite person to cook for. He happily applauds every new thing I try and has gamely worked his way through some of my truly awful food disasters. And he has been urging me a long time to also explore my love of writing. This is my attempt to try to combine two things that I enjoy. Will it endure?? I don’t know. But join me won’t you, as this experiment takes off, exploring wonderful flavour and ingredients. Never stale, (except for the occasional recipes that might require stale bread) and always diverse. And so it begins..