Saturday, July 22, 2006

Another Round Of Summing Up

David asked me what on earth is Chettinaad cuisine.

Well, let me be vague on this point and tell him it would be difficult to explain.

Brings to my mind the story of a blonde lady accosting Einstein in a party and insisting on explaining his famous theory of relativity.

Einstein the irrepressible wag in him surfacing immediately, said : ' Dear lady, once I met a blind man. He asked me what I was having. Milk with sugar, I said. Sugar I know but what is milk? He asked. It is a white liquid, I said limply. Liquid I know but what is white? He persisted. It is the colour of a swan, a bird that lives on water of lakes. Lake and water I know but what is a swan. I lost my patience, put my glass of milk aside and twisted his arm, to bend it from his elbow and the wrist, and said this is what a swan looks like....' The blonde lady got the hint and left him alone.

To define Chettinaad cuisine in its absolute terms for David my dear friend from Washignton, would be a calamity for he would not be intersted in the recipes nor the ingredients nor the methodology of cooking. To tell him it reminds me of Malvani food from the famous Konkan coastal areas of western India would be to put him in the class of the blindman that Einstein got so thoroughly confused... or Goan food, to stretch it the analogy a little more, would be equally a limp act.

David, suffice it to say that Chettinaad food stands out like a typical Indian Muslim butcher dressed in his chequered lungi with a huge knife in his hands, amongst a kutcheri of pious Brahmins chanting their holy mantras... though it is not a cuisine of the Muslims at all. Best Chettinaad items are all sea-food, or other non-vegetarian dishes and those stand apart from the overwhelmingly vegetarian dishes in Tamil Nadu.

Perhaps the effect of the food may illustrate my point better, David dear? Again what comes to my mind is Dr. Gunther Mark of Munich who came to meet me at Mumbai and both I and my the-then boss Ravindranath, decided to spring a nasty surprise on him. We took him to Ghazala, the Malvani seafood joint in the adjacent building.

'A little spicy food will do, Dr. Mark?' I asked tongue-in-cheek, and the jovial fellow still snickering over the latest incidence of misunderstanding , agreed to have it. What had happened was, he was unfamiliar with the basically South Indian trait of shaking the head from side to side in approval. The typist-secretary, a chirpy young lady named Savitha had been doing that, and he had been repeating the same instruction again and again, thinking she was saying No! She meant to encourage him, by nodding her head.... so, now he kept spluttering till the food arrived, dressed to kill. He didn't suspect whom.

He finished one roti, struggling with the spicy fish curry, his handkerchief totally soaked with sweat, and he called the waiter to know why the air-conditioner was not working. The waiter put it on the coldest setting, and in five minutes he was sweating again. His pink face was purple and he looked like a dying fish himself. We kept our faces like poker players with difficulty. Water water, he kept yelling, though he had already consumed four glasses. In desperation, he took two gulps of Soul Kadi, the innocent looking pink appetizing drink which made his tongue loll out and eyes go rolling....he nearly passed out. He could not talk for an hour later on.

David, Chettinaad cuisine is like that. I have felt my tongue smarting for half an hour after the dinner with desserts was over...and unprintable stuff emanating from me [from the right end] next morning. But the food is celestial. Five stars, I would give it. Once in a while, I put my head on the block in such a restaurant, and willingly get robbed -for it is quite expensive. They have inventive menu too, I mean, Kheema dosa [stuffed with minced lamb meat, with a surplus of spices] or chicken or fish dosa are really very imaginative items, though the vegetarians may cry foul.

A restaurant called Karaikudi, I suspect in honour of the place which used to be the capital city of the Chettinaad empire in the hoary past, near where I live, serves heavenly crab soup. It is built on two levels, and the sprighlty young fellows dressed in spotless white dhoti and kurta [don't yet know what they call these in Tamil] bustling about give it a very authentic ethnic flavour.

More later !

(c) Max Babi

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Three Whole Months....

Just completed three whole months in Chennai... the realization gives me a weird mixture of feelings from bright silver of hope to deadly gray of despair. First of all I am sorry for a long spell of silence, for no reason -I guess everyone needs a break. Who knows I may post faster and more regularly now onwards, who knows, my erratic posting may get worse. There is travel on the cards, first postponed by the deluge in Mumbai and now teetering on rescheduling because of riots... Looking back at my first quarter here : What did I enjoy the most -the squirrel, the singing squirrels of Chennai. I failed to notice for weeks that the sweet songs in the morning were not from the birds, there are a good many here, but from the squirrels to my great surprise were producing those incredibly sweet long drawn-out musical notes. I failed to see squirrels in Pune or other places in Maharashtra, but they were plentiful in Gujarat where I grew up. On a couple of occasions I befriended them. There is a legend there about them, that the squirrels have five black strips on their body because the first one had been caressed lovingly by Lord Rama himself when he was sitting and brooding over his lost Ladylove in some forest. I found them most irritating creatures, making loud chirruping sounds, with the bushy tails going up and down in time, beating time helplessly. These melody-makers here, gave me a pleasant surprise and I love listening to them exchange lovey-dovey messages from dawn up to coffee time when the heat cools them off…

I enjoyed discovering the simple pleasures of life, with a gentle throwback to my frequent trips to this city in 1970s. Like the roadside vendors masterfully tossing the green coconuts in left hand whilst chopping it in slices with a force that makes me watch with bated breath. None have chopped their palms nor fingers off as yet, and they manage to babble forth whilst producing a readymade green coconut replete with a hole to push the plastic straw and suck to your heart’s content. The pulp, whenever it comes out, is scooped with a spatula fashioned by these violent absentminded strokes, tastes like heaven. Reminds me of my childhood vacations in Cambay [now Khambhat] where the palm-fruit used to taste exactly the same, though thicker, more pulpy and sometimes harder too.

The really heavenly taste of the vada sambhar made in Chennai cannot be compared with the bet of the restaurants anywhere…there is something in the air and water which makes the sambhar so heavenly and the crisp vadas so irresistible. Every morning, they taste exactly the same. To my great surprise, I have found I hanker to chew on those tiny black bomblets, black pepper seeds. All my life I’ve been pulling curry leaves [kadi patta] out of such preparations, along with the eye-wateringly strong pepper seeds. Not so here, and for a reason too. My grandpa used to tell me listen to your body, and you will never go wrong… if you crave for mangoes in summer, eat them. Watermelons and raayans too [those are tiny black gooey berries which are sweet but if unripe, your lips get stuck so bad, it takes minutes to get back to reopening that vital orifice.
I read somewhere, black pepper is an important ingredient here because it helps you dry up the moisture deep inside you. Makes sense. I have never felt healthier in my life, as compared to Chennai… because, strong coffee and these spices, keep my blood sugar under check. In fact, if I am not careful, I teeter on the dangerously low blood sugar [always cross check with my glucometer whenever the whole world starts to close in, on to my head…] which means the diet out here is most scientific anywhere. Kudos to the slim Madrassi [now a vanishing breed, thanks to Gupta Sweet Mart and Goyal Sweets and Sharma Sweets and junk foods aplenty…even the ubiquitous Chaat from North is here].

Amongst the non-vegetarian delicacies, seafood always tops the list for me. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that the cheap rice-plate, ‘meals’ as they are called here provide me a sumptuous feast every day during lunchtime. I have had to curtail the rice quantity, by one third, I cannot hope to finish a small mountain of white rice [give me yellow, brown, green, even purple but not white-some childhood phobias refuse to go] . But the eight or nine tiny vessels with sambhar, rasam, three vegetables and a surprise fish curry are enough for me to last me till evening… I usually finish off the insipid sweet dish, for it contains minimum sugar and gives me a kick to get my spinning head back to balance in no time.

Chettinaad cuisine is famous, and it took me a while to visit one. These restaurants are unnecessarily expensive, warned an ex-IITian friend who himself is a vegetarian. People must express second-hand, third-hand opinions, if they are negative, I have seen… and so, I splurged once or twice. It’s the medium class restaurant that makes one feel so. The upper grades have food too delicious to have the customer complain about the prices. Karaikudi within a stone’s throw from my place is an experience. In fact my first visit saw me conjure up an idiotic menu according to my low sugar-suffering brain’s needs… Crab soup, Kheema dosa and fruit salad. Wow, what a meal. I shall cherish it in my memory for years to come. In fact I sent out copious sms messages all over to friends and relatives to make them hang their tongues out with temptation whilst mine was lolling out due to over-indulgence in spices…

Discovery of pavement booksellers and the specialist shops should come next, for Chennai is a booklover’s paradise. I have indulged myself in that department shamelessly… by now in three months, I have acquired more than 40 books, which I could not do in years at Pune.

Cheerio !
(c) Max Babi 20th July 2006