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about anything under the Sun!

Category Archives: Food

Can I have an extra napkin please?

There is apparently a crisis of massive proportions brewing in the nouveau fast food nation that’s India – apparently, the custodians of the industry seem to have a severe paucity of napkins, paper towels, tissues, whatever you want to call them. How else do you explain why these are doled out with about as much generosity as Bumble, the Beadle of Oliver Twist fame? The staff manning the counter at these fast food outlets never cease to amaze me with how well they have perfected the art form of handing out as minimal a number of square inches of tissue as is humanly possible without physically damaging the napkin. And yes, the experience is consistent across outlets, across brands, in case you are wondering.

Now, if these fast food conglomerates so much as care about the consumer, clearly they should realize a few things that they need to consider?

Firstly, we Indians are known for putting our bare hands to liberal use when it comes to eating. That is why most Indian homes have a wash basin right in the dining area? While this is a part of our cultural identify as a nation, on a relative scale, the folks in the North score a tad better on the clumsiness front, and that’s largely a function of the diet. The staple Roti dons the role of an organic glove, used to pick up other dishes from one’s plate, thereby effectively insulating one’s fingers from any culinary stains. Net result – the hands tend to be reasonably clean when the meal is done. One notable exception is the Madrasi that was mistakenly planted in the North – no guarantees of any sort there because the glove suddenly seems to become porous in such a scenario. And coming to the native South Indian in his home turf, well, it is not called the Land of Idli-Sambar without reason. The food in these parts is typically squashed with a violent passion, bordering almost on extreme use of the hand, before it can be considered ready for consumption. Net result in this case? The hand looks absolutely disgusting until one is done with the post-meal stain-removal process. So yes, that culture is not going to vanish overnight simply because McDonald’s and Domino’s decided to set up shop here?

Secondly, there is the desi-fication of dishes that seems to come with a predefined mandate for the chefs that run these joints – grease is free, throw it in at will. There is probably more lubricant in any of these fast food dishes than there is in a brand new can of Castrol. And while we can ponder over the benefits of getting that into your body on a different thread, the more immediate problem is that you have a sorry pair of hands to show for dinner. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that one will need multiple, heavy-duty napkins to clean that up?

Can you blame poor Mr. Srinivasan for eating Pizza like he would devour his dear dosa? For, that is what he has grown up on over the years – Hold down with the ring finger and rip apart with the index finger, and voila, you have a piece small enough to fit in the mouth. It doesn’t matter that there is now more cheese stuck to the fingers and more sauce dripping down his forearm than on the slice of pizza, that is how that shall be eaten. And after an ordeal that can only be described as a blood bath, you give the man a single, tiny napkin? To me, that’s ample justification for a lawsuit to counter the mental agony that the poor soul is subjected to.

And what is their problem anyway? The dudes at the counter will not give you an extra napkin if your life depended on it. And more often than not, it does! You can try asking, pleading, screaming, and sadly even offering to pay money, but they are not going to part with his treasure. They hand out other freebies that I am sure cost more (ketchup, mustard, spoons, forks, you name it) in such liberal fashion, so clearly the protectionist syndrome when it comes to paper napkins cannot be blamed on fiscal discipline? Do they not realize that napkins actually help with their brand messaging as well? It is the only freebie that has the brand’s name prominently on it, and any marketer worth his salt should know that these things tend to stick in peoples’ minds? So yeah, I’ll never understand why they do what they do, but I am not going to stop me asking for a couple of extras even knowing fully well that it isn’t going to yield any results. Someday, I’ll get my way!

Cravings!

You know how you walk past a Coldstone Creamery and the aroma of the freshly baked waffle cone blending with the sweet smell of ice cream and hot chocolate fudge comes wafting thru and your mind just starts pleading with the feet to step inside? Or the really strong urge to call Dominos and order that steaming hot large, double-crusted pizza with a side order of Garlic bread sticks with a tub of rich jalapeno cream cheese thrown in for good measure simply because you thought you smelt cheese melting in the oven? Or, for a more desi flavor, the temptation to stop by the mirchi bhajji store for a late afternoon snack, or for that matter, that sizzling, dripping-in-oil aloo tikki from the local chat wala? Yeah, those are the cravings I am referring to. Boy, aren’t those hard to ignore? And seriously hard if you are in the midst of a resolution to get back in shape – when you are not supposed to have something is precisely when you really, really badly need it.

Which is where I find myself these days. My life has been like a Laurel and Hardy movie over the past few years – sadly, I’ve played both roles! I was Stan for most of the early part of my life, and lately, I think I do ample justice to Mr. Hardy. To be clear, I am referring more to the girth factor here, not as much the mirth. And while the Ollie image has been very helpful from a road rage perspective in heckling and intimidating fellow drivers (clearly they were always in the wrong) on the not-so-friendly Indian roads, it does come at a cost – You no longer fit into clothes that normal people wear. Football is a game that you merely enjoy on TV or at the foosball table – none of that on-the-field stuff; Just looking at a soccer field was tiring! Climbing a single flight of stairs makes you feel like you just completed the Boston marathon. You are no longer sitting next to the fat guy on an airplane, you are that fat guy. And every time you walk, you feel like you were dragging a blue whale behind you, and truth be told, maybe you are! So yeah, life as Stan just seemed a lot easier overall and that’s where the cravings started to take center-stage.

But if the resolve is strong, that battle shall be won fair and square. Shower enough abuse on that blubber in the gym, and the cravings will start to go away; in fact, they become downright repulsive. It isn’t easy but when you push yourself to the limit and the body is running on just the fumes left in the tank, trust me, that melting Nutty Crunch in a chocolate-dipped waffle cone is the last thing on your mind. And thankfully, that state of mind lasts for several hours thereafter. Of course, I make it sound easy – putting yourself through that kinda physical punishment takes a lot of determination – I find myself constantly playing mind games with the calorie counter until I know I’ve gone far enough and inflicted a crushing defeat on that slimy treadmill, because that’s the only way I can keep the incredibly boring routine going. And no new pearls of wisdom here, but possibly reinforcement of the simple stuff that helps – and yes, this stuff does work:

  • Yeah, the cravings first, of course – need to be able to overcome them to begin with
  • Keep the diet simple. Just a disciplined roti + daal combo for dinner worked wonders
  • Forget about oily foods for a few days, and go easy on the sugar – these are constantly working in collusion with the eveil forces, so you are better off without em
  • Lots and lots of water – easier said than done, I know, but water works magic
  • Try and walk where you’d be driving before. Getting the legs some strength is important, and so is getting the stamina up

The first few days back on the battlefield are particularly painful, but thankfully, it gets progressively easier. And when its all over and done with, if the satisfaction of having vanquished the monster isn’t enough, the sweet sense of victory as you ride back into Stan-vile makes all that effort so totally worthwhile. Cravings, what cravings?

Madras Masala

So this weekend was Masala Dosa time @ Corner House. And boy, do they make a mean Masala Dosa! I don’t know what they throw in the batter but that crepe is divine. I am guessing its the wee bit of salt and spice that they mix in that makes all the difference, but when I try the same at home, its just a salty, spicy dosa – who cares though, as long as they make it as well as they do and I live close by, I am covered. In any case, the discussion over the Dosa dinner veered to the topic of sambhar and one of my colleagues from Mumbai (she’s Tamil) had the audacity to tell me that Madras Sambhar sucks. Imagine that? But then again, she’s from Mumbai. She’s got Tamil roots, now lives in Bangalore and I am not even counting the dozen or so years she spent in the Bay Area. Of course she’s confused – my good side (yes, its small but I do have one) prevailed and I let it slide. But that got me thinking back to the wonderful eateries that I used to frequent in Madras (nope, sorry. I refuse to say Chennai because it was Madras when I lived there, and we shall stick to that) and how I missed them. Guess its time for another list? Given the Sambhar discussion, I am going to limit myself to native Chennai food here, so here goes…

Hotel Saravana Bhavan – For the religiously inclined, most good things start with saluting Lord Ganesha. But we’ll have to make an exception here, lets go with the younger brother on this occasion. It is the right thing to do. As long as you are trying any dish that’s native to Tamil Nadu, you’ve come to the right place. Some items on their menu that are worthy of a special mention – the ghee-dripping, sambhar-soaked 14 Idlis, their Chilly Parotta (not Paratha), the Spl Tamilnadu Meals (and you hit jackpot if the Rasam of the day is the Pineapple one) and a more recent addition, a Spl Kaara (Spicy) Dosa. Of course, no meal here is complete without a delicious cup of filter coffee…unless of course, you are here in the evenings and wanna try the Masala Paal (Flavored, steamed milk) instead. Some of us do both, one before and one after the meal. I’d provide directions but there’s a couple of problems there: They truly are all over town, so its hard to give directions. And more importantly, if you can’t find a Saravana Bhavan in Madras by yourself, you probably don’t deserve to eat there 🙂

Mylai Karpagam Mess – This is the one in Mylapore, across the street from the rear entrance to the Kabaleeshwarar temple. Its a totally nondescript place; be warned that things like ambiance, hygiene etc will be found severely wanting. They are not a hospital, so its wrong to expect a sterile facility but they do make some pretty amazing food. If you believe in the theory that the mess and grime that a kitchen houses add to the food’s taste like I do, you’ll enjoy your visit, and not just for the meal. They typically only have items that are classified as tiffin (I guess tiffin was meant to be a light meal but not here for it’ll be hard to stop with one dish). I’ve liked pretty much everything I’ve tried here but the ones I would particularly rate at the top would be their Adai-Aviyal combo, their Rava dosa (has black pepper corns embedded in the dosa, and that is simply divine!). Its a mess, so the food is cheap, but try not to eat like you’ve never seen food before – you will get a lot of cold stares from the Mylapore mamas that frequent the place. And don’t forget to polish off your meal with a slice of Badam Halwa, for you might as well go out in style.

Cutlet shop next to Adyar bakery – If you ever set foot in Adyar, chances are you know about this little outlet next to Adyar Bakery House. Started by a bunch of seemingly unemployed guys that decided to take matters into their own hands back in the 80s, the place has done exceedingly well over the years, and with good reason. They make the world’s best Veg Cutlets and Mirchi Bajjis. Made fresh and served piping hot on tiny newspaper sheets, I know people that are addicted to the place and will never move out of Adyar for this one reason, and I can’t say I blame them. Hell, I wish I could go back myself.

Pillayar Kovil Mani’s Sundal – yeah, a somewhat descriptive name but he can call himself whatever he wants as long as he continues to make that mean Sundal of his, and it wouldn’t matter. He only runs his shop for 4 hours in a day, from 4-8pm, parking his push cart right next to the Pillayar Kovil (Ganesh temple) in KK Nagar and selling hundreds of plates of steaming Sundal for Rs 2 a plate (this was back in the early 90s – I doubt Mani is still around, but if he is, you can bet he’s going to charge you a little bit more). The Sundal was usually mixed with a crushed vada – the crunchiness component was a crucial element and of course, chopped onions, cilantro and a squeeze of lemon on top. Even the atheist will start believing in God once he tastes Mani’s Sundal. A note of caution – back then, the digestive system could take the abuse and we survived on Mani’s offerings for years together; if I try the same routine now, I will probably not live to see day 3, so be warned.

Annalakshmi – so from the cutlet shop on a makeshift verandah and the sundal on a pushcart, its time to take it up a couple of notches. Annalakshmi is really the queen of the eateries for authentic South Indian fare in Chennai. The ambiance oozes class, the service phenomenal and the food simply heavenly – and their consistency amazes me, not once have I been disappointed (except when I didn’t reserve a table and was turned away at the door). Try any of their Thalis, and you won’t be sorry. If I may offer some advice, try not eating the previous day – you’ll need all the room you can find to put away all the food they serve. The place is right across the street from the LIC Building on Mount Road, and yes, please make reservations – they are extremely popular.

There’s more obviously, but I am going to do this in phases – this should work for starters, but feel free to suggest?