I chanced upon a quote from none another than the Enlightened Great Albert Einstein. “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” The startling thing is that one can’t be more far removed than him in the subject of Food.
I may never evolve into a vegetarian, but having been an extremely hardcore non-vegetarian for the past half a century, I am slowly getting there. Well, if not getting there, I am certainly getting more enlightened to its varied advantages and also appreciating its flavour as a hard core foodie. As a self-respecting gourmand I have realized rather late the myth that a vegetarian gourmet spread cannot be as much a wholesome culinary experience as ‘Carnivore’ affair in Nairobi.
I owe this lateral shift to two fabulous experiences in the past month. One at my sisters place who introduced us to a vegetarian ‘Pahadi’ cuisine from the Himachal region and the other was at the home of a friend who created what I would say a Michelin experience at the Bajoria’s home, that too packing the entire evening with 10 different Vegetarian starter dishes, each one a killer. I will post about that later in detail another time. Lets delve into the ‘Pahadi stuff for now.
Every region in India has a distinct vegetarian tradition which is cooked as parallel to its Non vegetarian counterpart. Just as much, every region also has a parallel Muslim delicacies to counter the Hindu / Brahmin cuisine. Himachal cuisine is a bit removed to this practice, as there isn’t much or rather zero influence of Mughal/ Muslim traditions in the region. The upper regions of Himachal does have a tradition of Non vegetarian dishes which I have yet to explore.
Sangeeta made the evening special as she even organized some traditional Thalis and managed to give the experience a truly traditional flavour by getting small knick-knacks, which created an ambience of the region.
Traditional Pahadi –
1) Instant Raw mango and onion PICKLE called ‘NIMKI’ –Sliced raw mango and onions in Mustard oil with salt red chillies and Kalonji ( Nigella seeds)
2) A refreshing CHUTNEY – called ‘CHACHA’ - Raw mango, Mint, Curd green chilli with a dash of coriander leaves minced together with pinches of the traditional Masalas.
3) Sweet and Salt gravy Chutney ‘GUDAMBA’ – Whole Raw mangoes cooked till tender and flavoured with Jeera powder and sweetened
And the usual
I) Sliced Ginger with split green chillies in Lemon juice and salt
II) Pickled Button onions
III) The Traditional Smashed onions with the skin and squashed to remove juice and raw green chillies
All dishes have a lot of Coriander powder along with all other masalas of course and lot of ‘Hing’ Asafoetida added when cooking and are topped with lot of Coriander leaves. All are cooked in curd based gravy, which require skill and timing.
1) Black lentils with Kidney beans – MAA KI DAAL – Cooked in ‘Mustard’ oil and to it was added COAL Burnt red hot in a mesh case and Asafoetida liquid poured over it. No Tomatoes or Cream but instead some curd was added to the onion ginger garlic 'tadka'
2) Chick peas in Curd – ‘MANDRA’ – This one is in Pure Ghee - A tricky one to do as the curd needs to be stirred continuously on high flame till it starts boiling – and then pre boiled chickpeas are added – The Masalas have lot more of Dry Coriander powder along with Garam masala etc.
3) ‘JIMIKAND’ – Cooked in the traditional Pahadi style gravy made of DRY COCONUT called ‘GUTT’ little onions, green chiliies, coriander leaves, curd and DRY AMLA to add the sour taste along with all masalas ground together and cooked in Coconut oil. Almost tastes like a Mutton dish….wow
4) Special RICE Dish – ‘BALAI’ - Rice with ‘BADI’ ( Not sure what it would be called in English) traditionally cooked in a gravy of butter milk– the water that you get when butter is made from malai ) – She just used Curd and a bit of malai as now you don’t get Makhan from packaged milk.
DESSERT: Absolutely Marvelous.
1) Traditional KADDU HALWA – flavoured with ground cardamom and garnished with Cashew Nuts and KISHMISH topped with silver foil.
Since early 1900’s, over 110 years since the Nayeem's/ Monem's built their Calcutta home, the legacy of their culinary skills and connoisseur habits still continue. The sprawling heritage building on Rawdon Street that still house some of the Nayeem/Monem brothers is almost a relic now, but years ago it used to be a throbbing epicenter of culinary delicacies that the East Indian Mughlai food is celebrated for.
I captioned this as ‘Heritage Food’ because: although clone of this food is abundantly available in Calcutta's many restaurants, but the real, to die for is hard to come by unless it is from a family that has reared the art and conveyed its legacy through the times. The Khansamas are commendable too, they have lived there for generations, reposing their trust and faithfulness towards the family and preserved the legacy of the delicacies through times.
Seher our hostess was on her toes all 3 hours of our festivity like a bee running errands to and fro the kitchen. The summer heat was no deterrent rather it boosted the desire to do complete justice to the spread. Jaffer took interest in explaining the history of all he prized skulls and stuffed heads of Tigers / Deers etc that adorned the walls. Especially the real big kill a 14' Foot Bengal Tiger which still looked majestic as it was.
The spread was basic Calcutta Mutton Biryani sans the Egg though! Mutton Korma, Chicken Champ and Shammi Kebabs. It was just the right variety in wholesome quantity. Each item was a delicacy in its own right and one could say nothing but devour the perfection of the cooking and delicate flavours. Proof of the pudding can be seen in one of the snaps, that could be half a Kg of Meat bones!!
It was one of those great evenings wherein I could not find any if’s or buts nor could I have said “had it been better this way or that way”, nor any such comment about the food, although being quite capable of doing it to a Michelin Star Chef’s spread.
A Fast to Feast
It’s now a ritual. Four years on the trot, I have been doing this amazing gastronomic pilgrimage of Bada Masjid area of Calcutta, during the month of Ramadan.
I hook up with about 12-15 other food aficionados’ also brave hearts of Calcutta. I must say so, as to venture deep into this food territory where beef meat and its spare parts is the order and chicken is for the less adventurous (Chicken Hearted). We had a fairly large 4-bed room at the famous “Aminia” Hotel and we let go our pent up desire to devour some of the most exotic meats prepared specially during this month by vendors large and small.
On arriving at Mohammad Ali Park on Central Avenue we take a left into Zakaria Street. You have to be chauffer driven to this place or you would waste an hour struggling for apparently zilch parking space. We tread along the road, which by Ramadan becomes the world’s most densely populated locality. Every inch of space is covered with stalls that sell everything from clothes to shoes to food and fruits. You would be seeing a sea of humanity with a vast majority of taqiyah-clad heads. We usually pick a few of these for ourselves so as to blend into the milieu rather than stand out like sore thumbs.
Our trusted succor “Shafique Bhai” at Ammenia is waiting for us with baited breath as he tends to our demands of a dozen odd picks from the entire locality to be outsourced up and served to us in the comfort of our room. It is an ordeal to stand in the crowd and to do true justice to the food. The whole event is like a well-orchestrated symphony.
Our starters begin with KHIRI (Udder) Kebab’s from the Dilshad’s. These are truly befitting starters for a royal beginning. Succulent pieces of cow udder lightly spiced and melt in the mouth consistency are just too perfect to satiate the hunger pangs that get very sharp due to the much awaited event. It is also perfect as accompaniment to the spirits, which are taking the entire group to dizzy heights.
The Sutli in the making
Starters continue with the runner boy getting the famous Sutli Kebabs from Adam’s. It’s an absolute must for those who have the belly for food exotica. It’s a beef mince kebab held by a cotton thread and charcoal grilled served piping hot. This kebab is to die for and absolutely delectable.
Next on the agenda is the prized Afghani Machi that is prepared and available only during Ramadan by Afghani stalls that come up. We rely on Shafique to fish out the best vendor for us. It’s a truly deep-fried fish for nearly 20 minutes at the bottom of the pan on high heat. The masala on this fish is a trigger for drooling. The eyes resist popping out of the ocular cave. It’s a divine dish even for Non Fish lovers. No wonder it’s extremely popular among Muslims, who aren’t really fish enthusiasts.
Starters are no more Starters they are the order of the night. We are a stones throw away from the legendary The Royal Indian Hotel and how can we not have the “BURRA” Kebab which comes as a welcome relief to the so far under nourished and famished Non Beef eaters. It gets wiped off faster than you say ROYAL. Royal’s kebabs are scrumptious andI would personally rate them very high in comparison to other kebab joints in Calcutta. The Royal’s Biryani and Chaamp are preferred by the purists to the several other Mughlai joints that have popped up in the past 2 decades.
More Starters. We get a load of Chicken Chengezi by the KILOS, 3Kg this time. These are sinfully deep-fried and a replica of the Delhi’s counterpart area “DELHI -6” and compares pretty well with its original.
Enough of Chicken and the errand boy returns with more packets ……meaty chunks of boneless Beef Malai Kebabs and Ghost Dahi Kebab’s from Adam’s again.
The Grand Finale- The main course is the STARTER STOPPER “HALEEM” of Aminia. We order a dozen plates of Maggaz Haleems. A slight twist to the traditional, but it’s devoured in less than 10 minutes by the Gluttons with local bread. The Haleem is quite different in Calcutta compared to Hyderabad, I really adore the one at Aminia, as the consistency is great and has gleaming Rogan floating on top. The Maggaz meat haleem is of course juicy, tender and delicious.
Thus after a Dozen Kilogram of meat between us, we reluctantly give the Firni’s and Alauddin’s Sweets a miss, only to return again next year.
Enthusiasts and Food Lovers may contact me 9830033644 to help arrange a similar pilgrimage of feast.