Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bangalore Diaries - 1

It's been a couple months since TH and I moved, lock stock and barrel, to Bangalore. The first thing that we did as soon as we landed was, of course, find great places to eat. Food helps us settle in at a new place. Since TH is busy for the most part of the week, we have to cram all our food-scouting trips into the lone Saturday each week. So far, these are the places we've visited. Some are gems, some passable - none has been outright bad. Bangalore's looking good !!

1. Habanero

This Tex-Mex place caught our fancy because a) we adore Mexican food and b) it's a 5-minute drive away.  We ordered nachos, a chipotle chicken burger and grilled chicken with salsa and cheese. The food was quite good - better than we had expected. The nachos were delicious - especially with the spicy pineapple salsa. The chicken was tender, and the chipotle burger juicy and spicy. The manager greeted us when we arrived, and our server was polite and adequately knowledgeable. All in all, good experience. P.S. - very sorry about the lack of photos on this one. Next time !

2. Hard Rock Cafe

I had been to HRC in Delhi and Mumbai and liked them both; TH hadn't had a chance to experience HRC in India yet, therefore this was an easy decision. We had to wait about 10-12 minutes for a table, and there was no seating at the bar (!!!!), but hey, it was Saturday night. We ordered a chicken burger and mac and cheese (no points for guessing which was mine). The burger was rated "ok" by TH, but it was the mac and cheese for which I'll gladly make the 40-km round-trip again. Divinely cheesy, with a crisp breadcrumb topping and generous chunks of chicken - it was one of those totally-worth-it calorie bombs that I never regret. I did end up bagging half of it (very large helping), and that's where the weirdest thing happened. Our server dumped the remainder, even as I was yelling at him not to ! He appeared to be a little high, or deaf, because I was barely a foot away from him and screaming not to drop my precious food into the dustbin. He did. The manager was gracious enough to pack another portion for me to take home, but this was the strangest experience I've had in a restaurant.

3. Nagarjuna Cafe

We had been in Bangalore for over a month now, and still hadn't set foot in an Andhra food joint. For no good reason (I love Andhra food !). So we hunted down the best-rated Andhra place, and arrived one fine evening - only to find a very limited selection of chicken dishes. On the plus side, they served their meals on banana leaves !!! Yay for authenticity ! We ordered what sounded good on the menu, and to their credit - they do justice to the dishes that they do have on the very short menu.

The fish curry was spectacular - coconutty, not too spicy, very flavorful. The chicken had us in tears and blowing our noses (and that's how I like it) - spicy, peppery and falling off the bone.

From the far left - mixed pakoras, meen moilee (fish curry), Andhra chicken and paneer tikka masala (that clearly did not belong here).

4. Taco Bell

Yes !!! Bangalore hosts India's first Taco Bell. Curiosity got the better of us - I had to compare the fare offered here to the stuff I ate back in TB's home country. We ordered 2 burritos, quesadilla, cheesy potatoes and nachos. While slightly Indian-tasting, the burritos and quesadilla were very good. The cheesy potatoes, unlike in the US, had veggies on them along with the cheese, which put me off a bit. The nachos/salsa was the biggest disappointment though - the nachos were stale, and the "salsa" was ketchup with some chopped onions and coriander. No thanks. Will return, but no more nachos for me !! 

5. Toit

Bangalore's premier craft brewery, Toit is the hangout for some of the coolest crowds in the city. It's located in an area saturated with eateries, but we still had to wait a half hour for a table on Saturday afternoon. The atmosphere is fun, relaxed and upscale, and I loved the backdrop of brewing equipment on display. We ordered a beer sampler (4 small glasses), cheesy nachos, a chicken burger (TH's order is starting to get predictable) and Banger and Mash. The beer was goooooood - we picked out our favorites to order next time - as was the burger. The nachos were ok - crisped up wedges of pita (not corn chips) with melted Amul cheese on them. Would've liked a better cheese blend - cheddar, mozzarella, bleu or American. The burger was plump and juicy. The "bangers" were plain, store-bought chicken sausages, and the "mash" quite mediocre and bland. I could've whipped this up at home, better and cheaper. Will return for the beer though !


6. California Pizza Kitchen

This US import, which I incidentally never sampled over there, was discovered while mall-hopping one lone Thursday. I ordered the spaghetti with tomato, garlic and basil, and boy, did that turn out to be an excellent choice !! Fresh, garlicky tomato sauce, with shredded and infused basil, beautifully grilled chicken and perfectly cooked pasta - I slurped up this one in no time ! A bit on the pricey side, but absolutely worth it. I don't know if I'll ever order anything else here. Can't get enough of this !

Honorable mentions - Chili's (old favorite), Nando's Peri-Peri Chicken (super spicy, but not exciting enough) and Krispy Kreme. KK in particular seems to score over Dunkin Donuts, for the simple fact that they have an on-site bakery, so you get fresh donuts all day. DD, however, has a central production facility that makes donuts in the morning and distributes to the store, so if you go in the evening the donuts tend to be stale. 

Anyhoo, Bangalore is now home (for the foreseeable future), and I will dig out every single note-worthy eatery here. I promise !!

Friday, December 21, 2012

An Ode To USA

The USA. The States. America. And for the just-relocated-from-the-pind crowd, Amreeka. Call it what you may; for me, the US will always be a food-and-fashion haven. No other country gets both right. Yes, Milan rocks the fashion world. But Italian food = monotonous and mostly one-note. Paris has its share of runway shows and trendsetters, but French cuisine = tiny portions of expensive, pretentious food. India gets the food right, but one look at the people will take all thoughts of fashion out of your head. 

Which brings us back to the US - where food and fashion both abound, and both are available in super-cheap ("economy") as well as break-the-bank variants. 

This past year, I was fortunate enough to live in a city replete with enough options to satisfy even my appetite (for food, not fashion; that's another story). Here, then, is a condensed list of my absolute favorites in this country - with both newly-discovered treasures and old sweethearts.

1. Korean BBQ nothing like its American counterpart (which I'm not a fan of). That sizzling plate of chicken bulgogi with sticky rice did indescribable things to my palate. It is a completely new flavor, unlike any other Oriental cuisines. I was an instant fan, and ate nothing but the bulgogi every single time we visited. It was that good.

Chicken Bulgogi lunch box, $9

2. Zaxby's
The (dare I say) superior cousin of the KFC, Zaxby's (a small Southern chain, only in 6-7 states) takes fried chicken to another level. The crust oh-so-crispy, and the chicken so tender it actually melted in my mouth. And they serve it with buttered toast, not biscuits !! Genius. Even though my loyalty to KFC remains, if I see a Zaxby's, that's where I'll be headed. Sorry KFC !

Chicken Finger Plate, $6
3. Cake
Just plain old cake. As some of you know, this year I traveled far and wide in search of the perfect red velvet. I found many versions worthy of a post by themselves, but the larger realization was that we're being cheated in the cake department in India. Cake can be so, so glorious ! A wonderful bakery next door (Strossner's) produced fresh, seasonal delights like strawberries-and-cream, pink lemonade, apple cinnamon swirl and German chocolate, while in India, our options seem limited to either those horrid white "pineapple"/black forest things or the sickly-sweet and done-to-death chocolate truffle. We deserve better.  

4. Cheesecake and cupcakes

'Nuff said.

5. Thai
Both the cheap, greasy, food-court version and the light, brothy, flavorful delight served up by the sweet old lady at Bangkok Thai. Why didn't I appreciate this before ??

From the local mall's food court, $5
6. Gourmet mashed potatoes
The lowly mashed potatoes have seen a culinary revival of sorts; they're popping up everywhere ! I used to be content with the "side" portion at KFC, but after tasting the magical chive-butter-and-garlic loaded versions at Liberty Taproom and The Meatball Shop, I now know what comfort is supposed to taste like.

7. Mexican !!
Another why-haven't-I-discovered-this-before gem, a good bowl of rice, refried beans, chicken, chipotle ranch and hot salsa became my go-to meal for days I wanted all the flavor without the calories. A small bowl (quite enough for lunch) at Salsaritas (another small, southern chain) ran me only 480 calories, and was so good I could've licked it clean.

Honorable mention - Sushi 
Used to hate it, now like it (haven't fallen in love yet).

Spicy crab roll, $10
Indians are known for quickly adapting to the latest in international cuisines, and I'm sure most of these will be very appreciated in desi-land. So now, I wait for these delights to make their way across the Atlantic. 

And drool over memories in the meantime.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The (un)Joy Of Shopping in India

Ok, so this post might digress from being just about food, and hit on my other obsession - shopping. I'm in the mood to rant.

Having lived in the US long enough to have been completely spoiled by the retail experience here, I'm now secretly dreading the prospect of shopping in India.

American store-owners actually want you to buy from their stores. Indian store-owners ("lala ji"), on the other hand, seem intent on making your shopping experience feel like war.

What is it about our country's businessmen that makes them so indifferent, so callous to the needs of the customer ? Why is the mantra of any business in India to rob the customer blind until they wise up ? I've seen a million cheap imitations of American products that don't come close to the original for quality. Not to say the US doesn't have its fair share of duds, but in India, the duds, by sheer volume, crowd out the few good products. 

The "Made in India" clothes that I buy in the US will last me years, while (pricier) clothes I buy in India will unravel in months. Why do we not deserve the same quality in manufacturing that is provided to US companies ? I'm genuinely perplexed - is it the cost ? I'm willing to pay more; no one offers me the option ! Or is it just indifference towards the domestic customers, because we are second-rate in our own country ?

And it's not just retailers; this trend extends to almost every industry. A Domino's pizza in India will taste so different from one in the US that you won't know they both came from the same parent company. Same for Coke. Same for Kitkats and Dairy Milks. McDonald's in India will continually reduce portions and increase prices, while their counterpart in the US is doing the opposite and still making money. 5-star chefs will continue to peddle a frozen, gelatinous mess as "New York cheesecake". At the local Subway, I pay for double meat to get the amount of chicken I normally get in the US.

Kirana-store uncles will always add up your total incorrectly, and when you catch them, laugh it off ("Beta chashme ke bina 3 mujhe 8 dikh raha tha"). Strangely, 8 will never look like a 3 to them, ever. A look at the Facebook page of the recently-launched-in-India version of Forever21 will show numerous messages from customers - none with a reply. On the US webpage of the same store , every question has been answered, every message replied to.

It's our money that drives these businesses, yet we never demand better from them. We've resigned ourselves to being treated like crap and settling for second-best. Why ?

A few recent imports from the US give me some hope - Chili's has great food, US-sized portions and decent prices (let's see how long that lasts). The Quiznos in Hyderabad had my favorite baja chicken and had not (the last I ate there) yet converted half its menu to alu tikkis. Zara India stock their entire international line, not just "India appropriate" clothes. I'm praying for Gap, H&M & the Cheesecake Factory to wake up and smell the opportunity that is urban India.

Till then, I'm relying on my network of friends and family to stuff their bags for me every time they head to India. Please, guys. I need your suitcase space more than you do.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Island of Dreams

Aaah, New York.

Despite having been exploited for all it's worth, with everything written about it that possibly could be, ubiquitous Central Park photos splattered all over the web, New York City still moves me in a way that's almost indescribable.


I can sense the train pulling into Penn station every single time; it sends a shiver down my spine and makes me sweaty with anticipation. The sheer joy of being the world's greatest city (yes, it is), being surrounded by culture, food, art, fashion and history, and of course the shopping - all of these combine into the heady cocktail that is New York. Its narrow alleys set me free; its towering skyscrapers make me giddy, and its pulse finds an echo in the beats of my heart.

Ok, I'll stop.

This trip was probably my last sojourn to NY (as tour guide to my visiting mother), so I decided to tick off another few things on my to-do list (I could never, of course, hope to tick off ALL of them). My focus so far had been on history and fashion/shopping. This time, I wanted pop-culture NY - and I wanted food. So I scoured the Food Network for affordable, interesting places, and this is what I came up with.

1. Magnolia Bakery Any fan of Sex And The City would recognize this name immediately - it's where the ladies got their cupcake fix. Since the show aired, this place has become a destination in itself, known more for the show than the actual cupcakes. I got 2 - red velvet (my absolute favorite), and Chocolate Coconut.

Now, I've been on the hunt for the perfect red velvet for ages (more on that later). This one, while good, didn't come close to that vision. The choc-coco had great texture and soft, sweet coconut, but slightly dry cake. All in all, Magnolia did just about ok in my book.

2. The Meatball Shop A Brooklyn original, it recently branched out in Manhattan (thus saving me a tedious subway trip), and serves beef, pork, chicken and veggie meatballs. You can order them "naked", on a slider (one ball, small bun), as a burger (2 on a bun) or as a hoagie (3 on a hotdog roll), with an assortment of sauces and cheese. I got chicken burger, spicy tomato sauce and pepperjack cheese - and it was goooooooood. The meatballs had just the right consistency, were flavorful, and piping hot. Would go again. 

3. Waffles and Dinges A traveling truck that dispenses authentic, hot Belgian waffles. Found out it was parked in Times Square (perfect). A long line of post-lunch, craving-something-sweet people greeted me. I got a plain small waffle with just powdered sugar...........and couldn't figure out what people raved on and on about. It was nice, yes, but nothing to write home about. Ah well, maybe it takes a more sophisticated palette ! I was on a busy sidewalk with sugar all over my fingers, so no pics. So sorry !

4. Red Hook Lobster Another traveling truck, and this one went gourmet ! Serves lobster rolls, lobster mac and cheese, and even live lobsters ! It was the most expensive of my jaunts - a $16 lobster roll ain't cheap - but oh, was it worth it ! Cold, sweet chunks of lobster, a hint of spicy mayo and a perfectly buttered bun - H.E.A.V.E.N. 

NYC never fails to surprise and amaze me. This was my 8th (9th ?) trip to the little island, and I discover something new every single time. 

That's why I keep going back for more.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pub Mein Kukkad......Blimey, Mate !

Brits do a lot of things well - fashion, museums, the tube, and of course, the staple of British alleys and nooks - pubs. I'm a fan of fish and chips, and for me, that's about as far as pub food went. I know of some great Colonial pubs in Manhattan, but never expected to find one in our little cubbyhole town.

The credit for this discovery must go to the husband, really. We seemed to have exhausted our usual routine, familiar restaurants (the kind where we no longer needed a menu to order), and wanted to try a new place. After a little digging, the husband came up with a quaint pub downtown. I was reluctant (fish and chips = diet disaster), but followed along when he promised an extensive menu.

Surprise, surprise ! In addition to some lovely, unusual dishes (spicy lamb burger, The Starving Artist - a hodge-podge of rice, beans, salsa and gravy), the menu featured........Butter Chicken. 

Wha.................... ?

It is unheard of to find an Indian dish on the menu, outside of Indian restaurants, in the US. Curiosity piqued, I ordered it (the husband went with the spicy lamb burger). Both dishes arrived looking beautiful, and smelling delicious.

The butter chicken

The lamb burger
The lamb burger was flavorful enough, but the husband had eyes on my butter chicken from the start. And for good reason - it far surpassed my expectations ! It had all the right spices, wasn't drenched in butter, and was boneless - so it checked all the boxes I grade chicken on. Sadly, Karim's memories never let me enjoy a good naan; if it isn't great, it doesn't count. But other than that, it was perfect; we wiped the plate clean.

Unexpected pleasures really are the best.

P.S. I'll be back (have to try the Starving Artist !).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Mofongo Khush Hua !

While researching for our upcoming trip to Puerto Rico, I stumbled upon what seemed to be the favorite local food - the Mofongo. Every website I stumbled upon had tourists raving about this delicious tropical staple, some going so far as to say they only ate mofongos during their entire trip.

As scary as it sounds, its description had me intrigued - a bowl made with fried, mashed plantains, and filled with your meat of choice. My love of all things fried is legendary, as is my fondness for poultry, so naturally, this seemed like food made just for me.

Now, I knew plantains were a distant cousin of the banana, but I had no idea what to expect as far as taste goes. Luckily, lard blocks out pretty much most of the original taste of anything, so all I tasted in the plantain bowl was kind of fried-dough-taste, which served as the perfect backdrop for tender chicken chunks doused in garlic aioli.


It was also, however, so filling that I couldn't move for the rest of the evening, and much of the next day. Because our vacation was only 3 days, I didn't dare try it again. Both the husband and I did try out a few more of the most recommended local dishes, but none compared to the mofongo.

Regretfully, it was so dim in the restaurant that I couldn't take a decent pic. I'll try to paint a verbal picture - a 4" wide, 1" deep fried bowl, the color of a good samosa, filled to the brim with meat, doused with sauce, sometimes sitting on a bed of veggies or rice. Sounds good, doesn't it ?

It's actually quite easy to make. The plantains can be substituted with mashed unripe bananas mixed with a little flour. Roasted/grilled chicken/tofu/paneer/shrimp/fish chunks and your sauce of choice complete the mighty mofongo.

Have you tried any exotic foods ? Are there any that you'd want to try ? 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Meri Maggi: A Bowlful of Memories - Part 1

Hot and soupy, straight from the pan. Cold and congealed, in a plastic lunch box. With veggies. With chopped-up boiled eggs. With ketchup (yeah !). With chicken curry. Al dente. Starchy soft. In a bowl. On a plate. Masala, Tangy Tomato, Sweet and Sour.

No matter how you liked your Maggi, everyone in India under the age of 40 has memories of it. Each one of us remembers waiting for that one day of the week when mum would oblige us with Maggi in the lunch box, or for dinner, while grumbling about its lack of nutrition. I even had a pact with my best friend - she would share her Maggi lunch with me, and I would share mine. That way, we could enjoy Maggi twice a week. Such cunning !

It's the stuff legends are made of. Dorm cafeterias and university dhabas boast of "their" way of cooking it. Hot plates and electric heaters are smuggled into hostel rooms for the sole purpose of making a (very) late snack of it. It is sustenance for the millions of hungry souls inhabiting the colleges and universities of India, and increasingly abroad. It is what I still yearn for on a rainy day (and on days when the maid fails to show up). After exhausting evenings of partying and dancing, a shared bowl of Maggi stifled the rumblings of our collective stomachs.

It's a simple food - flour noodles, and a packet of seasoning. Boil water, add noodles and seasoning, cook until soft. And to this day, I haven't managed to cook it in the stipulated "2 minutes". It usually takes me 8-10. 

But I digress. False advertising aside, Maggi delivered on its promise of being a tasty, spicy, quick and easy meal (it never claimed to be healthy, until a whole-wheat avatar was launched in 2008). While many households reserved it for an evening snack for the kids (after a vigorous game of tag), many a harried mother has given in to its temptation as full-blown dinner on days when chopping veggies, frying onions, making curry and rolling out chapattis seemed to be just way too much.

We never had much say in when and how much of it we could eat; we could salivate for weeks before the elders deemed it ok - "Chalo aaj Maggi bana lete hain". Ahhh ! The joy ! The anticipation ! The aroma wafting from the kitchen as the saucepan bubbled !

And then came college, with the inedible dorm food and the perennially broke situation. We all turned to our only savior - the only thing that remained edible no matter who made it - and we all over-did it. Maggi for lunch, dinner, and late-night snack. All week. All month. All semester. Towards the end of my 4 years was the only time in my life that I was slightly revolted by it.

To be continued........