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Many TV shows allow you to travel the world, see different places and eat different foods while sitting in the comfort of your home.  There is one I discovered recently which I think you will quickly become your favorite as it has mine. It is Migrationology.com, a vlog or video log by Mark Weins and you can watch it on You Tube.

Mark Weins is a 31 year old American, born in Arizona, brought up in France and Africa by missionary parents, who now lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife, Ying, and their one year old son, Mika. He has been producing these videos for the past six years, first in Asia but lately in Europe and the rest of the world. His videos make you feel that  you are at the table with him ; you can see that roadside stall or restaurant, smell the food, almost taste it.

What makes these videos so appealing, so much more enjoyable than the rest? It’s three things. Firstly, the camera work. The visuals are crisp and the editing masterly. The narrative focuses on the food and the ambience, mostly the former and just enough of the latter to give viewers a feel for the country Mark is visiting. BTW, Mark Weins is a one man show. He is the star, the cameraman ( he uses a video camera on a stick, like the one you shoot selfies with), the writer, the planner and the editor.  Secondly, the restaurants and the roadside stalls he eats at are just the sort that any foodie traveler would love to experience. They are recommended to him by his legion of fans worldwide who often guide him and accompany him to the best local haunts Next to home cooking, this is the most authentic food there is. Lastly, and most importantly, Mark’s personality is  a big reason for the popularity of his videos. He is knowledgeable about food without being pedantic, always pleasant and smiling, personable, good natured and respectful of the places he finds himself in and the people he encounters. I’ve never seen him say anything bad about anyone or any place that he has been to. Never.

Recently, I watched videos of Mark’s five day trip to Mumbai, India , the city where I grew up. I saw him visit familiar places, go to  restaurants that I’ve been to, eat dishes I’ve enjoyed. For instance, on Day 4 of his trip, Mark tried nalli nihari and tandoori roti at the Noor Mohammed Hotel on Mohammedali Road, demolished a vegetable sandwich  street side, and ate a malai cream ( a sweet dessert made from the first milk, or colostrum, of a cow that has just given birth). Then onto the Elco Arcade for bhel, pani puri and sev puri before a final stop at the Jai Jawan Punjabi restaurant on Linking Road in Khar for a dinner featuring Fried prawns, Tandoori Chicken and Daal Makhani. Imagine… all this in a single day. Truly, the man is a fearless eater with a cast iron stomach and the amount of food he can put away is amazing.

Mark is an adventurous eater though he does not go out of his way to find bizarre foods. He eats the local specialties, stuff that you and I would love to eat and he eats street food without a care in the world. He is not too fond of sweet things but  loves spicy foods and crunchy things. I watched in horror as he popped a fresh green chilly into his mouth and chewed on it.  Mentally, I was screaming” Don’t do it, Mark! Don’t do it!” but all he did was go ” Umm, a little spicy.”

I love to watch Mark eat. As the first morsel pops into his mouth, his eyes open wide in delight and a blissful smile spreads over his face. Then his eyes close in ecstasy and he goes ” Wow!” as he slowly tilts sideways to the right. Words can’t adequately describe this spectacle; you have to watch the video. Most dishes provoke this reaction in Mark but I have become an expert in gauging how much Mark really loves a dish. The reaction I’ve described means that the dish is top classs, A-1, not to be missed. If , however, he omits the sideways lean, it means just ” Good”, not ” Very Good or excellent”. If, on the other hand, Mark goes ” Ummm!’ while widening his eyes and pointing to the dish, it means the dish is just OK. He never finds a dish less than OK. Once, in Korea, when he was tasting sea pineapples- a shell fish that looks like a miniature pineapple – he said the fish flavor was very intense. That should have been enough to warn viewers away from it. ” Intense” is also the adjective he used to describe traffic in Mumbai, an epic understatement. Mumbai traffic is terrible, exhausting, intolerable. Comparatively, being caught in rush hour traffic in New York is relaxing.

Mark’s enjoyment of food may seem theatrical but it is genuine. When he was eating nalli nihari, a sinfully rich dish of mutton and bone marrow,  on his first stop that day, he expertly scooped it up with his tandoori roti but ran out of roti before he finished the dish. No problem. Remarking that the nalli nihari could be eaten like a soup, he grabbed a spoon and polished off the rest of the dish.

Many of us dream of traveling and eating  all over the world. Mark did too. The difference is that he went out on a limb in the pursuit of what he wanted to do and is now living his dream. Strangely , I am not jealous of him. I’m just happy that I get to watch his videos and share his experiences, even if it is only vicariously. You can too. remember ” Mark Weins” on You tube. Or if you want to read his blog, it’s migrationology.com.

 

 

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In the seventies, my wife was doing a medical technology course in Trenton, NJ and it was a hard slog. Her day began early ( and ended late) but one thing she looked forward to was a breakfast bagel at the hospital canteen. Not just any bagel but an egg bagel, halved and toasted on a griddle and dripping, dripping, with melted butter. Golden yellow with brown streaks, salty, buttery, crisp on the outside but dense and slightly chewy on the inside…  I never did get to taste this delectable treat but she described it so well, and so often, that I thought I had! I did however make these bagels at home, often, though I cut down on the butter.

Those are the first bagels I remember though I must have eaten bagels earlier. Those bagels are my gold standard  and I measure all others against them. I cannot imagine eating an untoasted bagel ; I would rather do without. Nowadays,  my wife and I occasionally go to Kettleman’s, a nearby deli in Somerset. We go there early and pick up our bagels at the counter … Hers is a multigrain bagel with jalapeno cream cheese, mine an egg bagel with garden vegetable cream cheese. Both toasted, of course. Washed down with a container of Kettleman’s coffee, it is a breakfast for the gods. Sitting there surrounded by other retirees, dawdling over our breakfasts, watching office-goers pick up their orders and rush out… nothing could be finer!

It is the common wisdom that the bagels in New York City are the best in the world. There is something about the texture that seems just impossible to replicate elsewhere. New York bagels have just the right amount of chewiness which contrasts nicely with the lightly glazed exterior. Those who have lived in the New York area can never forget them. I have heard of a group of New Yorkers who retired to Florida decades ago but still satisfy their hunger for the bagels of their New York days.Whenever any one of them travels to New York, it is understood that he will take along an extra carry-on bag and bring it back crammed with bagels to be shared. Luckily for me, enough New Yorkers have moved to the suburbs that the bagels in New Jersey are almost as good.

Exactly what makes New York bagels so distinctive and so good is a matter of much debate. The general opinion is that it is the New York water supply which is piped in from pristine upstate reservoirs. Admittedly, the water is very good ( at one time , it was being bottled and sold in other parts of the country for $ 2.50 for a 16 oz. bottle) but could water make so much difference in the taste of a bagel? I don’t think so but am hard pressed to think what the reason might be. My guess is that the best bagel makers, the old timers who learnt the craft from their fathers and grandfathers, never moved away from the New York area because, elsewhere, the product is not as much appreciated and the demand is much less. At least that is what I think.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I found how inferior bagels are outside of the New York area. We spent two weeks in Frisco and, purely by chance, discovered a Katz’s deli within walking distance. Naturally, I went there ASAP and picked up a half dozen bagels. What a disappointment ! They were nothing like the real thing. They were misshapen, smaller than their New York cousins and had a texture that was all wrong. They were also more expensive. I later found another bagel place , also within walking distance, where the bagels were larger but no better and where they cost $2 apiece. Two dollars for a plain untoasted bagel without at toppings! Highway robbery! At Kettlemans they are 95 cents each and at another nearby bagelry, on Wednesdays, I can get a dozen bagels, good bagels for only $ 5.49 which works out to 46 cents apiece.

Lately, I have been reading about Montreal Bagels and how they are the best in the world, better than those in New York.  That they are markedly different, I understand because there are significant differences in the way they are made. Montreal bagels are thinner and flatter, have a bigger hole and are less dense. They are also sweetish, being boiled in honeyed water before being baked in wood fired ovens. New York bagels, on the other hand are boiled in water with malt and baked in traditional ovens. This gives them a shiny crust with a hint of crispness.

Which is better? The New York or the Montreal ? Opinions abound and are divided roughly down the middle. I guess it all depends on what you are accustomed to. If you have a New York background, you will plump for the New York bagel; if you are from Montreal, you’ll vote for the Montreal variety. The only true test would be to ask those who have never eaten a bagel and are not from either New York or Montreal.  I haven’t heard of such a survey yet.

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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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