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........

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ghar Ghar Burger Shurger Hoye !

Beef - the official food of the USA.

Ok, I may have made that up; but it isn't too far from the truth. The average American adult consumes 270 lbs - yes, more than their own body weight (or is it ?) - of beef each year (source: NPR). McDonald's - the premier hamburger giant - is the largest publicly traded food company on the stock exchange, closely followed by Burger King and Wendy's. The beef section in the grocery store spans 4 aisles. There are restaurants that have only one item on the menu - beef.

My point is - USA is beef country.......

.....with a Hindu population of 1.2 million. 

While some desi immigrants have taken to beef, most still consider it taboo, for reasons both religious and cultural. Even for largely non-religious people like me, beef remains out of bounds, simply because trying out a new food is tricky territory. Some of my food adventures (raw oysters, caviar, smoked salmon) have left a bad taste in my mouth long after the meal was over. It also represents a kind of cultural leap - from being a "desi" desi to being a transitional American - a leap I'm not willing to make.

A small but growing population here in the US is beginning to realize that there are other, healthier meats out there - poultry, seafood, turkey - that have remained under-utilized for decades. But none of these comes close to replicating the mouth-feel of a good, juicy burger - chicken and seafood can't be ground up and made into patties; turkey dries out and is bland.

The Indian answer has always been the potato patty - the delightful "tikki" - mashed up potatoes, peas, onions and lots of spices, grilled on a flat pan and handed out with generous doses of chutney, sometimes sans the bun, often as a tea-time snack. I wonder how long it will take McDonald's to realize that its Indian version sells a potato-patty burger that could be a delicious veggie option on their US menu.

The American answer to the beef substitute isn't potatoes (they use potatoes as a side anyway); it's the humble bean  ! Black, red, soy or kidney - ground up beans can hold flavor and moisture, and can be made into a patty ready for the grill. The patty looks surprisingly similar to a beef burger, goes perfectly with cheese melted on top, and fits snugly into a toasted bun. Vegetarian heaven !

Black bean burger at a local joint in G'ville
About 6-7 years ago, when I first visited USA, I could only find these patties at specialized stores, frozen. I would bring them home, along with a bag of buns, and get grilling. To my surprise and delight, they have made their way into mainstream culture, and can now be found at most restaurants. I don't see bean burgers at fast food chains yet, though (Mc Donald's current "vegetarian" burger is lettuce and tomato on a bun). 

Ah well, someday. Until then, I'll head to the frozen section.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Grocery Conundrum - Why I prefer the friendly neighborhood desi kirana store to the US versions

Who would've imagined dowdy, boring grocery shopping to cause so much melodrama every week ! But it does, at least in the US.

It's easy to do grocery in India - pricing usually takes a backseat in deciding where to shop, because all packaged goods have the same retail price across the nation. You go to the nearest market, pick a kirana store with a sweet uncle ji/aunty ji manning it, and soon enough, they know your weekly list by heart and will have Chotu bring out the 2-lt Thums Up, no-sugar-added juice and bag of roast peanuts as soon as you set foot inside. Some chit-chat and gossip exchanges later, you're all set for the week. 

Photo courtesy Outlook magazine
Not so the US. As with everything else  in this country, you have way too many options on where you want to get your aata-dal from. For most people, it comes down to cost differences - the price of the same product can vary greatly from store to store.

The lowest-price retailer in any area tends to be Walmart. Price-wise, it makes sense to shop there all the time. But for the downer - Walmart is depressing. Very depressing. Bleakly lit, withering bunches of flowers, week-old piles of apples and bruised bananas, and a bakery section where the ingredient of choice is lard. It does offer vast choices at great prices, and some of those choices are good ones (high-fiber cereal, no-preservative yoghurt). It is up to us to sort through the crap.

Produce at Walmart
This is just sad
In stark contrast is Whole Foods - a mecca of organic, locally-grown goodness, of produce fresh off the farm, flaxseed supplements on everything and a preservative-free, calorie-conscious bakery ! It stocks shelves upon shelves of imported Italian pasta sauces, whole-grain cereal, cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, hand-cut potato chips and even gourmet international cuisine (Sanjeev Kapoor mango pickle, anyone ?) - things that will have you feeling more wholesome and healthy just by looking at them. Well, the one part of you that won't feel so healthy - your wallet. Yep, organic comes at a steep cost; just because the farmers save on pesticides doesn't mean you save too. 

Produce at Whole Foods
Well-stocked with fresh, crisp veggies
So, where do we go ? Cheap Walmart, where our wallets will thank us but we'll need mood-enhancers later, or Whole Foods, where we'll feel uplifted and broke ?

We've reached a compromise - for the packaged stuff (toothpaste, soap, paper towels, cereal, canned goods etc.), Walmart is just fine. For produce, it makes sense to shell out a bit more and buy pesticide-free, fresher stuff, so every few weeks, we run by WF and stock up.

What do you look for in a grocery store ? Would you prefer the perfect aisles of US stores to the chaos of desi kirana shops ? Would you pay more for fresh and organic, or does that scream "scam" to you ?