Saturday, December 17, 2005

Food, Glorious Food!

This tag by K is at once a very fun and difficult meme to answer, because I can talk ad nauseaum about food, but to restrict it to merely 10 dishes seems too cruel! 10 dishes per cuisine would be so much better. So let me start with the caveat that this is a list of favourite food that sprang immediately to mind in compiling this list. It is by no means exhaustive, but gives you a sample of where my gastronomic inclinations are.

1. Posto: This is a class of dishes that are perennial favourites of Bengali home cooking. The primary ingredients in the dishes is poppy seed paste (posto=poppy seed). My parents have speculated for decades whether there is some transference of the narcotic properties of other parts of the poppy plant to the seeds, hence the almost addictive craving for posto that many Bongs experience! Poppy seed paste is combined with an almost endless array of vegetables to produce a wide variety of posto. In fact I've seen families in the US make posto with zucchini, which to my taste is not a very successful experiment. The seasoning in the dishes is very basic, turmeric is optional, and besides salt you can have whole cumin, whole red chillies, red chilly paste, nigella seeds or whole green chillies (any one or two of these, never all together). My favourite posto are

Aaloo posto (with potatoes)
Kumror shaaker posto (with leaves from the pumpkin vine)
Bodi posto (with potatoes and dried lentil dumplings)
Peyaanj posto (with onions and red chilly paste)

Posto is impossible to make without the Bengali style mortar and pestle (shil noda) or a really good grinder, hard to find in the US. Hence, I have to either make do with grainy posto, or wait for trips home for the real thing.

2. Arni sti souvla me patates: If you glance through the menus of Greek restaurants outside Greece, you might think that Greeks consume copious amounts of lamb on a regular basis. This may or may not be true, and I've hardly travelled everywhere in Greece or lived there for extended periods of time to form an adequate opinion. This is certainly not the case in my boyfriend's family, and lamb is reserved for special occasions, the most special of them all being the Greek Easter. The Greek Orthodox Easter (Pasxa/Pascha) falls on a different date from the Protestant or Catholic Easter, and is preceded by a 40 day Lent where the devout do not consume any meat.

On Easter Sunday, Greek families set up the souvla, a large spit on which a whole lamb is roasted. The seasoning is almost minimal, salt, pepper lemon juice and oregano. The idea is to allow the fine flavours of roasted meat to sparkle through, as opposed to the masking of stringy lamb with mint jelly, a la the English. Separately in the oven, large chunks of quartered potatoes are roasted with lemon juice, salt and pepper. A salad is optional, the star of the plate is the lamb, and you haven't had potatoes until you've had the Greek patates sto fourno (oven roasted potatoes). A meal worth waiting a year for.

3. Pho: It is deceptively simple. A clear broth with a few thinly sliced scallions, thin strips of beef, coriander leaves, chopped spring onions and rice noodles suspended in it. A plate of add-ons accompany it, a few herbs (basil, mint, sawtooth herb), a lime wedge, slivers of jalapeno-like peppers and bean sprouts. And a dipping sauce, which to me is quite redundant anyway. Because in a great bowl of pho, it's all about the broth. Rich meaty flavours, and yet sublimely light, with a hint of star anise. Pho can be anyone's comfort food, you don't have to be Vietnamese to appreciate it's pristine glory. But it's good to have gourmand Vietnamese friends, who know just where the best pho is served up in the city.

4. Spaghetti con Cozze: Two years ago, a very fortuitious meeting of leisure and means took me to Napoli, where I stayed in the bed and breakfast of Don Ciambrone, the wonderful father of my friend Giuseppe. Don Ciambrone is a chef of nearly 50 years standing and has the most amazing glowing skin of any person I've ever seen.

Working with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, he made spaghetti con cozze for us one day. I had spent a lifetime being underwhelmed by pasta till that day, and after but a bite, I was a pasta convert. Again, simple enough ingredients, spaghetti, mussels, tomatoes, Italian parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. But what mussels, what tomatoes, what salt! (I'm not kidding, he used a special Italian sea salt that really enhanced the flavour in all dishes). Two days later, Don Ciambrone's assistants prepared a fresh batch of mussels for a risotto. The mussels had been boiled and were being picked from their shells, and one of the girls handed me a mussel shell with lemon squeezed on the meat. It tasted divine.

Alas, don't expect your neighbourhood ristorante to recreate the magic, it takes the Amalfi coast to produce a great spaghetti con cozze, a true Neapolitan speciality.

5. Sabzi polo ba mahi: The refinement of classical Persian culture finds culinary expression in their rice dishes. I would argue that no nation takes rice to greater heights than the Iranians, and it is in Iranian polos (pilafs) that the full potential of Basmati rice is realized. The Iranian double cooking method strips the rice of its starch, and hence each grain of rice stands out distinct, glistening, moist yet chewy, fragrant and delicious. I love most Iranian polos, but my two favourites are baghali (with lima beans) and sabzi (with a mix of greens). And when combined with grilled or fried white fish (mahi), sabzi polo ba mahi forms one of my most favourite dishes.

It is a festive meal as well, the traditional repast of Norooz, the New Year of the Zoroastrian calendar, the biggest holiday in Iran. Traditionally the white fish accompanying the sabzi polo is fried, but I like the grilled version equally well.

6. Som Tam: If you are looking for a flavour jolt, you cannot do better than Som Tam. Starting with the fairly bland shredded green papaya as a base, it quickly builds up the flavour and texture stacks, with crunchy peanuts, green beens with a bite, juicy tomatoes, sharp tamarind or lime juice, palm sugar, salty and fishy nam pla (it's not fish sauce for nothing), chopped green chillies and dried shrimp or tiny salted crabs. Urmi's guru Kasma Loha-unchit adds garlic and carrot as well, which I'm sure adds another flavour dimension.

If you are a non-Thai like me, and also enamoured of Som Tam, you'd be glad to know that according to some polls Som Tam is the most favourite food of Thai women. And for me, it's easy to see why. The crazy mix of flavours and textures, each bite full of sour, hot, sweet, astringent tastes is quite unique and makes for an amazing snack or meal, that's fairly healthy as well (if you're not counting the calories in the shrimp and palm sugar).

7. Phirni: I detest rice kheer. I really do. Just something about cooked rice suspended in reduced milk does not excite my taste buds one bit. But the same combination of rice and milk, in a completely different form is my most favourite dessert in the whole world. Perhaps it's the chewy goodness of rice infused with the flavour of the milk it's cooked in and yet not overpowered by it. Lightly sweetened, not overly sweet like many Indian desserts soaked in sugar syrup. Or the hint of kewra (pandanus), which makes a tantalizing appearance in most South-east Asian kueh (rice cakes). Or the slivers of pistachios carelessly strewn over little portions of phirni, set in clay bowls.

Ah, the clay bowls, now they play a part too, imparting an earthy goodness, cutting into the richness of reduced milk. After every great meal at Karim Hotel, Jama Masjid, Delhi, my cousin and I order phirni. And we know our little drill. That we'll invariably order another portion. And yet, we never order two at once. You see, we don't want to appear too greedy :).

8. Ciorba de fasole boabe: Romanian cuisine, as the cuisine of many Eastern European nations is held to be very meat intensive. Certainly meat does figure very prominently in the food, and my two vegetarian colleagues did face some discomfort navigating food in restaurants in Romania. However, meat dishes per se are not the highlight of Romanian food.

What the Romanians do remarkably well are the soups. In Romanian cuisine, the soups are divided into two distinct categories: supas, and ciorbas. The latter are often generically called sour soups, and certainly some sort of sour ingredient, tomatoes or vinegar make an appearance in the soup. My favourite among all the ciorba, and one I ate almost every other day in my two weeks in Romania is ciorba de fasole boabe. On the face of it, it's a simple bean soup made with white beans (haricot, navy, or great northern) and flavoured with onions, parsley, carrot, dill, tomato, salt and pepper. However what makes this soup stellar is the addition of smoked pork, in small portions, more as flavouring than a major ingredient. The pork and beans combination exists in many other cultures, in Mexican food, German cuisine, Southern food in the US. However, nowhere else have I found a soup where the excessive fattiness of the pork is cut by the sourness of the soup, giving it a fresh, soothing quality that is not overwhelming or heavy.

9. Dahi Pakodi Chaat/Dahi Bhalla: One of the great pleasures of the neighbourhood that I grew up in was the trek to the little cluster of shops on the main street in the evenings. A bunch of us, who lived in adjoining apartment buildings would wear our latest outfits (a red Adidas jacket and a pink frilly organza miniskirt, if you must know), sneakily apply lip gloss and amble off to the neighbourhood market to escort our pocket money to its rightful destination: the chaatwallah.

In this case, it was a man who had been allowed to set up his stall next to a sweet shop, and out-profited the sweet shop with his chaat, that came in but two variations - papdi or bhalla. Some ambitious souls would try and combine the two into a bhalla papdi, but that was only if you were brave enough to skip dinner and risk your parents knowing that you had consumed chaat. I was a bit too picky about papdi, if it tasted even a little bit off (had been made a while ago), it ruined the chaat experience. But the dahi bhalla could always do with a water bath, and got fluffier and spongier.

Years later, one of my colleagues told me that the dahi bhalla was always referred to as the dahi pakodi chaat in Old Delhi (which is where she grew up so she should know). "Bhalla" is the Punjabi term that gained ground after the post-1947 migration of Punjabi immigrants into the city. And of course, dahi pakodi chaat has been in existence in Delhi for a long, long time before that.

10. Mangoes: Yes it is that simple. Sometimes all the heart desires is a good in-season Dussehri, Langda, Chausa and Himsagar. If only I knew, when I was turning up my nose at the excessive profusion of mangoes in summer time, mangoes for dessert twice a day, ripe, juicy, sweet, and yet complex with chalky, astringent, herby overtones. If only I knew that summers would pass by without a single mango, withering glances of contempt would be cast at dull, tasteless mangoes that populate supermarket shelves, when at the boyfriend's joy at eating a Thai mango I would say: "Oh, but you've never had an Indian mango!"

And now, I need to pass this along. Beware, Urmi, Anthony, Vish, Jai, and Rimi, you're food obsessions shall no longer be secret!


Blogger anthony said...

after a long time...

I also love posto and I love Jinghe Posto.... nver complete a course at Bhojohori manna or Oh cal at Kolkata without a Jinghe posto and sweet bong colleague who married a marwari taught me how t prepare postos. the ex-vege marwari jain is now completely FISHY..

And hey you may use the grinder..add some water when you grind and can anyone tell me what Posto is called In MAHARASTRA.. I saw something like Posto in the foodworld but it had a diff name and no eng translaition...

6:29 AM  
Blogger Jabberwock said...

NOOOO! No more tags, please! Okay, will try sometime over the next week. Be warned, I don't have anywhere near the depth of food-knowledge that you do.

Btw, this was one intense post - guess thinking about our favourite foods has that effect on us.

5:56 PM  
Blogger said...

Lovely lovely. Food blogs are just so satisfying! And Anthony, I think khuskhus

6:36 PM  
Blogger anthony said...

the tag is answered at my food blog ;-) AnthonysKitchen

8:13 PM  
Blogger anthony said...

And thx Gypsynan, it was khuskhus indeed. I wasn't sure if khus khus would be poppyseeds LOL

8:14 PM  
Blogger K said...

I love kacha posto bata with gobindobhog bhat ar shosher tel. Yummy. Down at the Amalfi coast last year I had Spaghetti Con Cozze at this lovely little place in Positano (which cost the earth) but I really loved the seafood pizza my fello3w travellers were having! That said, we were staying in Majori and I would say my greatest discovery of that trip was Limone Cello. What a drink!
I assiduously avoided desserts, because that would make my list go on and on. Maybe I'll start a new meme on fave desserts. For example the Missippi Mudpie at Big Chill.

1:18 AM  
Blogger Teleute said...

regarding posto bata...
we soak the posto in water for about 3 or 4 hours, and then grind using broad blades, with a little water - the result is unbelievably smooth and finely ground posto!

8:14 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Anthony, actually Jhingey Posto is the only Posto permutation that I don't care much for. My mother adores it though, it's her favourite posto.

As for the grinder, the problem is that blenders and food processors in the US don't come with a small enough jar to fine grind something like posto. The only alternative is a coffee grinder, but usually the motor or blades in a coffee grinder are not powerful enough. A lot of Indians actually buy a US voltage-compatible Sumeet (believe it or not, they exist!) to get around this. Perhaps I'll do the same on my next trip.

Jai, I think you've never wandered into food blogs or Egullet, otherwise you wouldn't be so impressed by my food geekiness :). But I do love to eat, and can get pretty excited about a good meal.

Gypsy, I love food blogs too. Thanks for the info for Anthony.

K, kaancha posto baata with shorsher tel is one of the great delights of life. With a few slivers of green chillies and onions.

The Amalfi coast is so gorgeous, did you go to Ischia and Napoli as well? Limoncello is fantastic, and apparently quite easy to make at home. I've never tried though. I'll dig out a recipe for you.

Teleute, alas, as I wrote above, it's the jar that is the problem, not the blades or the soaking time. A friend claims that dry-grindng the posto first helps. I'm skeptical of that.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

I absolutely agree about the pasta. I never liked pasta and never understood why my Italian friend never had Italian food here. That is, until he made pasta for me. The biggest surprise was that I couldn't taste the cheese as I was used to. Absolutely delicious.

But I have had really good Italian food in Little Italy, Chicago. Other than that don't go to "Italian restaurants."

My friend's father was the local butcher. I mean, he actually made the cured meats and he used to ship them every month. Never knew just bread and meat tasted so good! Phenomenal stuff!

This is a lovely lovely template! I love it! It was long overdue! :D

8:42 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Pidus, the over-cheesification of Italian food is but one sad aspect of most Italian American restaurants.

Italian cured meats are delightful, one sliver of parma ham and you'd know.

Thanks for the praise for the template.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

ohh!! u like non-Greek food too ;-)

8:56 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Awed and envious. I obviously have a long way to go.

Knaacha posto with shorsher tel, yes. Also a uniquely Ghoti version with aloo, where the posto is left almost whole and the potatoes are diced and fried lightly.

How are you on carbonara? Re: the over-cheesification, one can actually get good Italian (but south Italian, yes Amalfi coast type) cuisine in Cal now.

And mangoes? ONLY Himshagor. The rest are pretenders. Cold Himshagor on a summer afternoon ... hath life aught to offer more sweet?


9:28 AM  
Blogger Rimi said...

oh, awlright! i will do it. but me is not classy gourmet like you, so it will be very bengali middleclass boring stuff :)

11:53 AM  
Blogger sd said...

Wonderful post. I guess I need to catch up quite a bit on some of those listed there. As for posto - I have TRIED EVERYTHING. Finally, I have hit upon the right recipe. The first step involves getting the right travel agent for a ticket to India.....

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

Hey Thalassa!

Thanks for the offer! :D

If the GMC PAD has a prototype, it's interior please. Anything will do! :D

12:59 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Bonatellis, I am but a global gypsy a la Amartya Sen, though the Greek spread is rather more delectable ;)!

JAPda, I'm sure that's not true. Not with your recent forays into China.

I think I know what version you are talking about. I have to, my ghoti credentials are at stake.

I don't think I've had truly amazing carbonara, or perhaps it really doesn't do much for me.

Himsagar is sublime. But Dussehri, Langda and Chausa have their own charms. Perhaps Alphonso doesn't travel well, whatever I've had in Delhi has never been a life-changing experience.

Rimi, Bengali middle-class food is a gourmand's delight. The most amazing cuisine crafted out of the simplest of ingredients.

SD, welcome. Alas, you are so right about posto. Especially for such delights as "daanta posto", there is no alternative but to fly home.

Pidus, consider it done :)

4:03 PM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

greek spread sounds sooo raunchy ... LOL !!!!

1:27 AM  
Blogger Jabberwock said...

Done, sort of...

3:19 AM  
Blogger The Marauder's Map said...

Aaah! The firni at Karim's! AAAAAAH! The one thing I miss most about Delhi, more than the burra kababs even. And I don't even have much of a sweet tooth, and usually steer clear of desserts. With the exception of Karim's firni and tiramisu.

4:11 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Bonatellis, perchance are you referring to the term "Greek" as used in a certain way? A friend once showed me the website of an erotic dancer who promised "Greek lessons" to her patrons :).

Jai, I saw your post, fabulous.

Shrobonti, we should sort this out. There's probably some sort of Kumbh Mela disappearance tale going on here. First rock, now phirni. Oh, is there a better way to end a glorious meal than phirni at Karim?

1:42 PM  
Blogger DD said...

there is a special type of posto from chittagong called morich shudh - cooked with jhinge, alu, narkel and bo.di with loads of red chilli powder. it's just awesome.

and about cooking posto in the US, i use my blender to grind the seeds. though it can't be compared to the dish cooked at home, it is pure bliss amidst crappy american stuff.

8:03 PM  
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9:46 PM  

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