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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Too Hot for Me

We used to enjoy the biryanis ( particularly the goat biryani) at the Paradise Pointe Biryani restaurant in Edison, NJ. The meat was tender, the basmati rice tender and fluffy, the meat falling off the bone, the entire dish delicately spiced and not at all hot. The restaurant is part of a chain founded by an ex-pat Indian IT engineer who was homesick for the succulent biryanis he used to enjoy in Hyderabad. There are over 40 such franchise restaurants all over the US. After we moved to Somerset NJ, about 20 miles away from Edison, we started patronizing the Paradise Pointe in North Brunswick, the original where it all started. It was even better than the one in Edison… for a while. Then the management seemed to change, there were some new faces and the food became spicier, much spicier. We switched to ordering the biryani mild, rather than medium, but it was still too hot. Last Saturday, we tried the Paradise Pointe at a different location but there too the food was too spicy.

Why do restaurants make food so spicy-hot? Indian restaurants are among the worst offenders but there are other cuisines who do the same. I remember a Thai restaurant on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village where the owner/ waitperson warned me the food was spicy as he took my order. I’d ordered it medium spicy but when it arrived it was liberally sprinkled with birds-eye chillies and was so hot  that I couldn’t eat after the first mouthful. Needless to say, I never went back there.

Though most Americans prefer non-spicy, if not bland, food there is a growing contingent of chilli pepper  fans for whom eating the hottest foods is a challenge to their machismo. Thus we have a proliferation of chilli pepper eating contests all over the country, but especially in the South and Southwest. On Saint Patrick’s Day, there are jalapeno eating contests in which contestants compete to see who can down the most jalapenos in a certain time, usually 10 minutes. More dangerous are those competitions where people vie to see who can eat the hottest peppers. And, believe me, those peppers can be plenty hot!

According to the Scoville system for measuring hotness, here are the ratings for some of the common peppers:

Banana Pepper, Cubanelle                              100 to 1,000 Scoville units

Jalapeno                                                           3,500 to 10,000   ”

Serrano                                                              10,000- 30,000     ”

Habanero, Scotch Bonnet                          100,000 – 350,000    ”

Komodo Dragon, Ghost Pepper            855,000 – 2,200,000    ”

For me, the jalapeno is hot enough. Even eating a serrano in a dish produces a burning sensation that turns me off. Considering that the upper limit of the range for a serrano is only 30,000 Scoville units , I cannot even imagine trying to eat a Komodo Dragon or a Carolina Reaper. Why would anyone want to if the end result is having a mouth on fire and a burn in your gut that can persist for many hours , if not days? In some cases, it has even resulted in a hurried trip to the hospital. Is it worth it? Not for me.

I asked one backyard gardener why he grows these superhot peppers. He admitted he wouldn’t dream of eating them raw. His wife grinds them to a paste, small quantities of which are used to flavor the dishes she cooks. But couldn’t she get the same effect with larger quantities of jalapenos or serranos. Yes, but…

For me, peppers are a way of enhancing the flavor of a dish. Too much heat can obscure the true taste of the ingredients, just as heavy, spicy gravies will. Also, not all dishes have to be hot. In fact, a mixture of hot and not-so-hot dishes provides variety to the palate in the course of a multicourse meal. For me, hot peppers are fine, but only in moderation and certainly not in every dish.

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About twenty five years ago, I started seeing an appetizer called Chicken 65 listed on the menus of Indian restaurants. It consisted of  reddish hued deep fried chicken pieces and it was quite spicy.The name was a mystery and no one seemed to know its origin. There were some fanciful explanations, each more absurd than the last. One held that the dish contained sixty-five spices. This didn’t hold much water because I doubt that the pantry of Indian spices is that extensive. Besides, would restaurants go to the trouble of mixing up so many spices in making a single appetizer? Another theory was that the dish was a favorite of Indian soldiers at the frontlines during the 1965 India- Pakistan war and was named in their honor. This was scarcely more credible. Yet other theory was that 65 chillies were used for every kilogram of chicken. It too was easily debunked because so many chillies would make the dish too hot to eat.

This afternoon I finally happened upon what looks like a plausible explanation.

We were lunching at the Paradise Biryani Pointe in Bridgewater, NJ when I noticed a wooden plaque on the wall. ” The Origin of Chicken 65″, it proclaimed. According to it, the menu at a military canteen in Chennai ( formerly Madras) listed dishes only in Tamil. Many of the jawans ( soldiers) frequenting the canteen were from the northern states and did not know Tamil. They took to ordering dishes from the menu by number and number 65 , a fiery chicken dish, was a big favorite. Thus “Chicken, 65” became a frequent request and eventually became a menu entry. This version makes more sense than everything I’ve heard.

So, now you know.

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I am not a fan of tomato ketchup. Some brands are better than others but many have a tinny after-taste which I dislike . Trouble is, I can’t remember which are good and which are not. At one time, there was also catsup ( Hunts, I think) but I haven’t seen it in recent years. I used to think catsup tasted different ( and better) but perhaps it was just my imagination and because I liked the word ” catsup” better than ” ketchup”. The ingredients  of both are very similar though some claim that catsup is tangier.

Perhaps my aversion to ketchup is conditioned by the fact that I was brought up on fruit ketchup. In India, tomatoes were relatively expensive and food companies substituted them with cheaper ingredients like bananas or even pumpkin. ” Tomato” was dropped from the product designation and the bottles were labeled just” Ketchup” or , sometimes, ” Fruit Ketchup”. Growing up in India, this is what we had most of the time  and this became the standard. Not surprisingly, it was sweeter than regular ketchup and this accounts for my bias. Fruit Ketchup is also manufactured in other Asian countries, notably the Philippines. One of the popular brands, Jufran, is available at Asian stores in the U.S. Check it out.

A Washington D.C company , Chups, makes fruit ketchup in 6 different flavors ( cranberry, mango, peach plum, blueberry and spicy pineapple) and adventurous home cooks make it in flavors such as tomatillo and sweet cherry. Another company, Blackberry Patch, makes ketchup in three flavors… raspberry Chipotle, Blueberry and Blackberry. These artisanal products sound intriguing but they don’t interest me … they seem far removed from ketchup.

Ketchup has been steadily losing ground in the U.S  because of  demographic shifts. Americans, particularly those on the coasts and the big urban centers, have developed a taste for spicier condiments and about 15 years ago, salsa overtook ketchup both in sales and popularity. Of course, a major reason is that salsa is a dip that goes very well with tortilla chips, a popular munchie at parties. I like salsa but prefer the homemade kind to the bottled variety.

My preferred condiment is hot sauce. I started out with Tabasco and Red Devil but found that their acidity overwhelmed the dishes that I was adding them to. I switched to Asian hot sauces such as Chili paste with garlic, and Sambal Oelek. They were fine but , once I discovered Sriracha, there was no going back. Sriracha has a more rounded taste and it complements whatever it is eaten with. It is amazing to think that the Sriracha company was only founded in 1987 by a Vietnamese immigrant to the U.S. So popular is it that it’s name has become synonymous with hot sauce just as Xerox was once with copiers. Of course, success breeds copycats and competition. Since the name” Sriracha” cannot be copyrighted ( it’s the name of a town in Thailand), Sriracha has spawned a host of imitators, including Texas Pete and Badia. Many of these are quite different and inferior in taste to the original. I make it a point to always buy the original products which can be distinguished by the Rooster logo.

Recently, I was surprised and delighted to find squeeze bottles of Sriracha Hot Chili sauce Ketchup at my local supermarket and it has since become my condiment of choice. I still use the hot sauce regularly but, when I want ketchup, I use the Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce Ketchup. It’s excellent.

Just as Sriracha has expanded into the ketchup business, Heinz has gotten into the hot sauce genre. The company not one but four entries in this category.. Hot Pepper Chili sauce, Sriracha ketchup, Jalapeno Ketchup and Balsamic vinegar ketchup.

I guess turnabout is fair play.

 

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Dhabas are roadside eateries in northern India that serve hearty, inexpensive food to travelers. A friend of mine stopped at one of these dhabas where the chalkboard advertised TODAY’S SPECIALAloo Mattar ( Potato and Peas Curry). It was quite tasty so, on his return journey, he stopped at the same dhaba.

This time, the chalkboard read TODAY’S SPECIALMattar Aloo. (Peas and Potato Curry). Puzzled, my friend asked the proprietor about the difference in nomenclature.

The reply, ” Sir, last week there were more potatoes than peas in the curry. This week, the curry contains more peas than potatoes.”

Talk about truth in advertising!

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Ichiran, a Japanese restaurant chain, opened its first New York City restaurant earlier this year and it is based on a very strange concept. About half its 82 seats are ” flavor concentration booths”, the rest regular group seating. These booths are like library carrels with dividers on either side and in front so that the diner is utterly alone. After filling out a menu with his choices, the diner pushes a call button. A”faceless server “then retrieves the menu -” faceless” because the booth is constructed with a movable shade to reveal only his/her torso – and delivers the order when it is ready. Throughout the entire meal, the diner never interacts with any other human, presumably so that he is free from distractions and can concentrate solely on the food. The average meal time (in Japan) is only about 20 minutes which makes for a quick turnaround and enables the restaurant to enhance  turnover.

But what does it do for the diner? I don’t know.

Forget about the supposed intent of enabling the diner to have a heightened dining experience because he is concentrating only on the food. Ichiran is a ramen restaurant serving only one kind of soup ( pork-bone-broth tonkotsu) though diners can customize their soup by specifying the richness of the broth  and the strength of the dashi. Ramen lovers may blanch at my assertion but… ramen is ramen. Dining at a ramen restaurant is like eating at a pizzeria or at a barbecue joint. A fine dining experience it is not.

Leave it to the Japanese to come up with a concept like this. There is much to admire about the Japanese but they have some strange quirks. Remember the tube like ” hotel rooms” that guests can crawl into  and sleep when they want an economical overnight stay. Just the thought of it gives me the willies.

While I agree that food is the main ingredient of the experience of dining out, it is not the only one. The total experience includes such things as the ambience, the table settings and the interaction with other diners and the restaurant staff. Without them, one might as well take out food and eat alone at home.

I wonder how long Ichiran will last in New York. New Yorkers are canny customers and I expect them to see through the gimmick very soon. No matter how good the ramen and the broth, there are plenty of other ramen restaurants in New York to choose from.

 

 

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The original Itzk Hagadol is a bistro-like eatery located in Jaffa, Israel  and its only U.S outpost is in Encino, a suburb of Los Angeles. We were in Los Angeles recently for a family re-union and one afternoon we wound up at Itzk Hagadol for a luncheon. The restaurant has an indoor area with the standard Middle Eastern décor and an annex, the exterior wall of which is open to the elements.

We were a large party, 25 adults and 6 children, and we occupied most of the outside seating area. Because of the chill, plastic sheeting was drawn across the open side abutting the sidewalk and the space heaters turned on to make it warm and comfortable.

Itzk Hagadol terms itself a grill ( true enough, because the entrees are almost wholly grilled meats ) but it prides itself on its vast array of salads and offers diners several  dining options. They can order just the salads with unlimited refills OR they can order skewers of grilled meats a la carte for an additional price. If one combines an order of grilled meat with the unlimited salads, the price of the salads is reduced.

Our party had opted to have the unlimited salads (really side dishes) plus skewers of three different meats. We were seated six to a table, three on each side, and the waiters soon started to bring out the salads and place them in a straight line down the center of the tables. The small ceramic dishes each contained about a cup full and the overall effect was like sitting down to ban chan at a Korean BBQ except that the salads were Middle Eastern.They included celery salad, pickled cucumber, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, egg salad, roasted bell peppers, beets, red cabbage, vegetarian pate, corn & mushroom in mayo, chopped eggplant w/ peppers and zucchini, baked rosemary potatoes, falafel balls, roasted jalapenos and hummus with pine nuts. There were about 20 salads in all  and they were constantly replenished. All of them were freshly made and good , particularly the vegetable pate  (it  fooled us initially into thinking that it was chicken liver), the red cabbage, the rosemary potatoes and the corn and mushroom in mayo. The hummus which was attractively presented in a babka like ring also came in for appreciation though I thought it could have used some salt. Accompanying all these were  baskets of laffa, a pillowy Middle Eastern  bread sprinkled with black sesame seeds. Each laffa was about the size of a personal pan pizza and I enjoyed tearing off pieces to eat.

When we had enough of the side dishes/ salads it was time for the grilled meats, three of them . We stuck with the basic options: house kebabs, the Rumanian kebabs and chicken. There are several other options for the meats including merguez, veal sweetbreads and foie gras but they are expensive and not worth it. Better to stick to the basics as we did.The kebabs were served family style so that each of us was able to taste everything, and were accompanied by plates of  flavorful white rice. Each diner had approximately one skewer’s worth of meat. Perhaps you are wondering about the difference between house kebab and Rumanian kebab ? Well, one contains garlic and the other onions but don’t ask me which is which! The meats were tasty and well grilled and, overall, we were well satisfied with the meal.

I almost forgot: the kids were served plates of French Fries. I snaffled a few for myself and they were excellent. The service was good and the servers were attentive, quickly bringing us more salad as soon as a dish was emptied.

Itzk Hagadol’s concept of all-you-can-eat salads followed by limited amounts of meat is a new one for me. It’s charm is that when all the salads/side dishes are spread out on the table, it is a colorful feast for the eyes. I also like the idea of focusing on vegetables and eating  smaller amounts of meat. It is so different from the Brazilian rodizio where the staggering amounts of meat tend to leave diners overwhelmed; after a while, all the different cuts of meat begin to seem like each other.

One shortcoming of Itzk Hagadol fare, for lovers of spice like myself, is that the salads/ side dishes are all mildly seasoned, salty and sweet, sometimes very mildly sour and never, never spicy/ hot. The barely roasted jalapenos are unsalted and tasteless, and a spicy green salsa that accompanies the kebabs is  hot but one dimensional. Oh, for a bottle of hot sauce!

I was only a guest at the party and so cannot be sure about the cost but I have the feeling that it was expensive; probably around $40/person including tax and tip. Considering that restaurant food in LA is cheaper than in N.Y/ N.J and considering that most of the food consisted of vegetarian salads , this is not cheap. We had a good time at Itzk Hagadol and the food experience was unique but I don’t think it is one that I want to repeat any time soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When it comes to cooking, our friend V is a perfectionist. When she makes a dish, she uses exact amounts of the ingredients and follows directions religiously. When she likes an unfamiliar dish and wants to add it to her repertoire, she does her homework meticulously. She watches the dish being prepared ( more than once if necessary), taking copious notes all the while. Then she tries it out as many times as necessary until she gets it just right. Only then does the recipe become part of her collection of dishes to cook.

Needless to say, V is a very good cook. Every thing she cooks is consistently good and it is a pleasure to watch her in the kitchen. Her every movement is as if choreographed, sure-handed and economical. When she rolls out dough, it comes out a perfect circle – every time. If one were to use a protractor or a stencil, the circle could not be more perfect.

Most people cook quite differently. Whether they are good cooks or not, they almost never follow the recipe exactly or even attempt to do so. My wife and I know our way around the kitchen and , for us, a recipe is merely a guide, a rough guide. We do not –  cannot- always rely 100% on the recipe as written. Some cookbook writers  list an ingredient but omit it from the cooking directions. Other times, the quantities of some ingredients appear wrong and we use our judgment to alter  them as we think fit. It doesn’t matter how experienced or well- known  cookbook authors are; they can still make  mistakes. Recently , we were trying out a recipe from a cookbook by a woman who has written 40+ cookbooks. The photograph of the dish showed a dry curry but when we tried to replicate the dish it came out more like a soupy stew!

Both V ‘s method and ours have their advantages and disadvantages. V’s repertoire of dishes is, understandably, somewhat limited. She will not try out a new dish unless she is absolutely sure about it. Thus,  though the dishes she makes are perfect,she makes the same dishes over and over again. In the case of more adventurous cooks , like us, we are always ready to try something new. Thus, our dishes taste different each time. They may not turn out great but we know enough about cooking that it is rarely a disaster. Having to change the recipe on the fly ( either because we don’t have an ingredient or because recipe directions are iffy) is not a problem. And, I like to think, such flexibility makes us better cooks and cooking more interesting.

Recently, I was thinking about this subject and about how it applies to other aspects of daily life. There can be little doubt that, in matters other than cooking, a less rigid approach is far better. This is true both for our thoughts and our actions. As Aldous Huxley said  “ Consistency is contrary to nature, to life. The only completely consistent people are dead“. Conditions change and it behooves us to keep an open mind and change our thinking, our positions as necessary. I’m not in sympathy with those who expect a politician to be absolutely consistent over the course of an entire career. To unload on someone because what he says today is different from what he said ten or twenty years ago is ridiculous. As long as his position on an issue is not a complete flip-flop  and as long as it is dictated by a changing reality, I think such changes are perfectly OK.

When it comes to what we plan to do, a ( little) adventurousness is similarly a good thing. Otherwise, we will never try anything new, always do the same things again and again. Trying something new, whether it be a new dish at a restaurant or a new activity, can be beneficial. It makes life more interesting and , sometimes, can expand our consciousness even as it gives us pleasure. A case in point: Recently, I sang karaoke  for the first time. It came as a huge surprise, not only to my friends but to me, because I had never done such a thing. Never even tried it. My wife sings well and, for many years , we had been attending these karaoke sessions without my ever uttering a peep. I just knew I couldn’t sing and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, I got the urge to try–after all, I couldn’t do worse than some of the others. So, I chose a song I loved, one I thought might be doable, and practiced for about a week. Then, I made my maiden attempt at singing last weekend. Surprisingly, for all my previous trepidation, I wasn’t very nervous as I took the mike.  I am not going to say that it was an unqualified success but , for a first attempt, it wasn’t half bad. I did not make an ass of myself and the experience was actually fun. If I had not put aside my fears, I would never have gotten over them.

To get back to the point I was trying to make: sometimes it is good to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Structure is good but, occasionally, it’s important to take a chance. If you prepare well, you will not do badly,. And, in the unlikely event that you do, who cares?

June 25th is our next karaoke session and, yes, I plan to sing.

 

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