Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ek Khandani Parampara

Now this caption caught my fancy. My spoken and written Hindi is passable, but the rhythm in the words urged me to ask the Captain what it meant. ‘Ek Khandhani Parampara’ its literal translation is ‘ a family’s legacy.’ It all began in 1947 when two families opened up its first outlet in Mumbai. Yes it still stands today…and 47 outlets later, this new venture in Goa stands in mute testimony of quality and consistency. 61 years later after Bombay, Delhi, Gurgaon, Baroda, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, and now Goa, the Rajdhani in Panaji has opened its doors to the gourmets of Gujarati food.

Now this is no ordinary hole in the wall. The owners with great respect for the original structure of the Old Goan home have retained its exterior structure, unlike many commercial ventures in the vicinity that have knocked down beautifully arched latticed windows to put in full glass displays. Ever imagined an old Goan house with a full glass frontage? Our ancestors will be rolling in their graves.

We walk up a narrow flight of steps…oooh, the air conditioning is so refreshing especially in this month of October, when the temperature causes the mercury levels to shoot through the roofs. Up the stairway to a beautifully lit restaurant in shades of rich ochre, orange alcoves with an ochre and green chattai suspended on the ceiling. Straight back designer chairs with green cushions surround the tables which have gleaming platters filled with miniature katoris, all ready and waiting for us to begin.

We are led to our tables and then the ceremony begins. I call it a ceremony because the place is buzzing with activity. Waiters in brightly colored kurtas move around in harmony dispensing food and drinks, the moment you sit down. As soon as water is served, a staff with a traditional brass pewter and flask comes forward so that you could wash your fingers. Chaas, salad, green chutney, sweet and garlic chutney, onions, are put onto the thali. Why so many? I wonder. But the answer was prompt. Onto the thali’s came the farsan…little pouches which are deep fried filled with a spicy moong dal mixture and Dhokla. Well the green chutney was a perfect complement for the dhokla, but I realized that I could experiment with the fried pouches. They tasted superb with both the garlic as well as the sweet chutney. I hurriedly raised my hand for more. No compromise. You can eat as much as your heart desires, that is the motto of the smiling friendly staff. The waiter hurried forward to heap my plate.

But do not ever make that mistake of focusing only on one item. That was just the tip of the ice berg. The main course had still to arrive. Moong sabji, Batata lasooni, bhindi masala, palak corn paneer, Gujarati kadi, gujarati dal, tikka dal…the seven katori looked like a rangoli….rich greens vied with yellow and browns. A feast for the eyes.but that is not their goal. The Indian bread basket had arrived. Phulkas, Methi teplas, Makhai Rotla topped with white butter and white jaggery…..I had by know stopped counting. How can I describe it? The rich green of the palak paneer with the tender pieces of corn was a perfect filling for the phulka. Did anyone say that methi and bhindi did not complement each other? I beg to differ. It was a perfect combo. But do not get me wrong. These two breads were capable of being dipped into any of the katori’s, every bite was heavenly…and I am talking about vegetarian food.

Now you might wonder why I did not talk about the third preparation. The Makhai Rotla with the jaggery and butter. This is an entity which needs to be savored by itself. The warm rotla gives the butter just enough heat to melt and spread, slowly trapping the sweet particles of jaggery in its web. A bite and you are hooked. That is what the spider said to the fly. This preparation is a ‘web of ecstacy’, definitely worth asking for more. But as I mentioned earlier, you do not need to ask. The waiters are very upset if you do not take another helping. I did so just to please them. White rice and khitcdi with miniature batata papads and to top it all….pure ghee. I looked at Chef Motilala Devasi who has been a ‘Maharaj’ from 93. His words were soothing. ‘No oil except for the fried items’ he states, ‘everything else is cooked in ghee.’

The two black coated Captains Kesar Singh and Nagaram believe that service is the key. Despite taking time to answer my numerous questions, a click of their fingers brought the waiter with a tray of Indian sweets…the moong dal halwa, gulab jamun and fruit custard. Now you are entitled to only one. And even a sweet toothed person like me realized why. The moong dal halwa was bunofied for three hours, the flavors combined with the nuts and raisins was a treat to die for.

I did a mental count as we lefty the restaurant…15 full bodied preparations. I have not counted the nine accompaniments and the buttermilk. How much can one eat and that too at an economical price. All I can say is that if you take the Rajdhani at Panaji…..the express service, food and warmth would have you going back for more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Deep Sea Diving

Well one would normally think of diving in the water, but I would like to share my experiences of my dive, not along the coastline but in a little joint tucked away amongst the green fields of Mapusa.

Now for deep sea dives involving long duration, and ours was for a duration of 3 hours (is that considered long?) decompression schedules and so-called saturation diving systems are used. On some such jobs, divers are kept at dive-depth pressures in surface chambers for up to 60 days, then are delivered to the dive site by means of a diving bell that limits their exposure to the water and provides a measure of comfort during the long descent and ascent.

Now that is what theory states…lets get practical. We were on the look out for a place called Kamalbai’s and as usual instructions to reach the venue differed from communicator to communicator. ‘Oh just go past the police station,’ says one, ‘but don’t take the road to Assagao.’ ‘It’s in the fields,’ quote another, ‘you just can’t miss it, there is nothing else there. But don’t go there on a Thursday.’ Are these instructions? As per the theory, the divers are kept at the dive-pressure in surface chambers….well our vehicle was on the surface, the pressure was slowly building up, and we had been on the look out for a full 30 minutes. But Halleluiah! We were delivered to the dive site ( Kamalabai’s) by the diving bell….in this case it was the car horn of our friends urging us to follow in their wake.

We had arrived, a warm environment with a red glow where we could sit at two levels, cushioned from the other world despite the fact that throngs of devotees were at worship during the Navratri festival. Silence reigned, while all around us fish swam on trays…….pink, brown, red the myriad of colors that gave me an impression that I was diving into some colorful and wondrous world. ‘Sit back and relax,’ Joe whispers in my ear, ‘you are always so hyper, take it all in.’ Now when did this man learn to start whispering back in my ears, I looked at our friends seated with us I could hear them talking silently all through the experience, and I felt I could also understand completely what they were saying, although the voices seemed to originate from some far-away plane of other reality -- like a weak radio transmission coming from outer space. On one side the kingfisher looked ready to dive in for a tasty treat. I was saturated. Where was I?

‘We have prawns, Chonak, Kingfish, squid, Bombay duck,’ the voice was human and he was addressing us. I came back to the present with a start. This was Kamalabai…a small restaurant started by Shyam Sunder Pednekar way back in 1998, and by the look of it, was still popular to the locals. ‘Can I have a look at the menu?’ I ask. I must have reached the de- compression stage…nothing seemed normal. Are we not supposed to be given a menu before we order? My friend Rehana who has been here before nudges me under the table. ‘you get whatever they have purchased this morning,’ she says softly. Now here was another soft spoken person…or maybe Joe’s vibes were being transmitted all around the group. One would normally expect a lot of raucous laughter and bawdy jokes in small places like this; but everyone was intent on one thing only…the food. What had the proprietor managed to procure today.

Once we told him what we wanted, the service was quick…huge king prawns gently coated with rawa enveloping the tangy masala within. Now the word used in ‘gently’. Unlike other places where all you can taste is the fried rawa, here it was barely noticeable. It was the masala and the tender meat. That dish was fresh…it looked as though the kingfisher had swooped it out of the water and deposited it in the kitchen. I must have voiced my thoughts aloud, because Joe gave me a cross look pointing that the kingfisher that I was visualizing was actually an advertisement for the packaged water.

But unlike Joe the others on the table had no qualms about my ramblings. There was the crunch of teeth biting onto the shelled heads (the prawns of course)…’it’s delicious,’ Rehana states ecstatically, ‘I love the juicy texture.’ ‘As long as it is the prawns and not my head,’ her better half growls from the other end of the table. I guess most husbands do have this type of humor. But coming back to the food...platters of heaped fish, grilled chonak and kingfish had materialized with Masala squid and hot buttered Naans.

Did you read that part… ‘provides a measure of comfort during the long descent and ascent.’ As we nibbled into the kingfish…the platter was empty within seconds…all that one could see were heads moving up and down comfortably…..plate to platter and back to plate….the chonak, squid were polished off before you could say ‘Joe Mascarenhas.’

Now why did I think of that? In theory of deep sea diving, the one-atmosphere diving systems enable the diver to ascend directly to the surface without concern about the bends or delays for decompression. The one-atmosphere "JIM" suit is actually named for Jim Jarrett, but the initials very clearly stand for Joe Mascarenhas with a capital “I”. You see he was spouting theories of the merits of those dishes which were now lying empty before us. There was no delay in his de- compression tactics…he had already reached the surface in one go.

Pednekar whose nickname is ‘pakho’ the butterfly flitted to our table. ‘My motto is QQP’ he says. Now that is a new one…unheard of in deep sea diving. We look at him in confusion. ’Quality, Quantity and Price,’ he smiles. Well that sounds true, I thought remembering the huge platters, the delicious taste and the smile on Haroon’s face after paying the bill…even without the right equipment, this deep sea diving will thrill you to bits.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A heavenly experience

What is the definition of the term Nebula? Somewhere in the deep recess of my mind the word rang a bell, but ask me the meaning on that term on that hot humid after noon as we drove down from Panjim to Mapusa, and I would have snapped off your head. I was hungry, tired and on the look out for a decent place to eat.

‘I have heard of a place Nebula,’ Joe said pacifically, ‘it is on the road to Mapusa after you cross the junction that branches off onto the Highway.’

‘Have you heard of the highway to Hell?’ I growled, ‘and you are talking about the heavenly aspirations…there is not a single decent eating joint between Porvorim and Mapusa…at least I have not heard of one…so please do enlighten me, and don’t go onto your heavenly course,’ the sarcasm dripped with every word.

Now after 25 years of dealing with every mood, Joe knew when to remain silent. I guess most men become wise at that age…and are often labeled ‘hen-pecked.’ I guess it is a sense of deeper maturity…’silence is the only weapon.’

It seemed to be working, because my tirade fell on deaf ears. I watched sourly as he steered the car down a small driveway just after the intersection, to a building called La Mansion. Way up on the second floor full length glass windows reflected the afternoon sunlight. ..Nebula lounge Bar and Restaurant.

After a host of smiling people…no they are not the serafins and cherubs, of the heavenly abode, but it was indeed a pleasure to see people greet you with smiling faces in the off season, we were shown the way to the second floor and were seated at the bay windows while the waiter offered the bar card.

How do I explain the view that greeted my moody demeanor? The green expanse of cultivated fields, the swaying coconut trees to some silent music and the cluster of cottages in the background. What a sight for sore eyes. My senses tuned in with Mother nature…I was back to my quiet normal self. To add to that the cool interiors done in shades of lemon and ochre would soothe the feelings of anyone on a hot afternoon.

We met with Mr Krishna Menon, Business Development Officer who has the task of setting up the first venture of the Mennen aviation and Hospitality Ltd. Enterprise. He has just taken over the reins after working at Radisson and doing his further studies in Singapore with a Masters in Hospitality in UK.

‘We are in the process of doing up the existing menu,’ he ventures, ‘and offer those dishes in addition to the existing one to our guests.’

So what did he recommend? For starters out came the soup and appetizers. ‘Our chefs are trained in Thai, Chinese, Indian and Continental,’ he says. We take a sip of the clear lemon coriander soup with chicken. The slivers of carrots cut like Christmas trees, the celery stalks and the chicken cubes all added to the tantalizing flavor….what a light and refreshing combo for a hot day. But it was the chicken Momos that had you begging for more. Cruz Marchon the Asst Food & Bev Manager who joined us explained how to get the maximum of that preparation. ‘Cut the Momo and put the Szechwan sauce onto the mince,’ he advised, ‘and then take a sip of the accompaniment.’ The accompaniment was an egg soup…we tried the combo, silence as the flavors vied with each other, and then gave a deep sigh of appreciation as a chorus of heavenly sounds began playing in my mind. Now that dish is something to die for.

But we were not allowed to linger onto that ecstatic realm. The kebabs…now beside the normal kebabs available in every joint, this chef seems to have escaped the Afghan war and found tranquility in Goa. The Afghani kebabs that reached the table….let me talk about the Sholay Kebab..Jai and Viru wrapped in a warm embrace with the Thakur…so close was their bonding. Aha! Got you there didn’t I? But the bonding of coriander and egg which coated a deep fried chicken tikka will definitely make you say…Arre Samba! Delicious. I am also given to understand that the HIMAYUN KEBAB…no I am not shouting, it is spelt like this on the menu…cause it could make you shout for more. Chicken mince rolled in a chicken breast. But I am digressing. The meat balls in hot garlic sauce is another dish worth recommending, but now let me talk about the main course.

I am a person who loves change (the only thing I have not changed over 25 years is my husband), anyway…especially when it comes to food, I would not like to stick to traditional fare, there is so much more to be enjoyed in life. The staff seems to have read my mind. Out comes the thick greenish brown Chettinad Chicken. Now that recipe seems to have been got right out from the specialists in Chennai. The spicy overtones blended well with the chicken…my favorite for the month.

We were by now stuffed to the gills. I am sure as explained by Cruz, there are many other dishes to try out…but there are limits for one afternoon. I am given to understand that the Dy. High Commissioner from UK was so thrilled with the food that she called from the airport to say how pleased she was with the experience. Now that I say is good PR for Goa.

We ended our sojourn on a sweet note. Cruz Marchon playing the tempter, with the Malabia…the ultimate Temptation! Cream, milk, vanilla and rose water overloaded with pistachios. Damn that diet. I could hear the song playing at the back of my mind…I’m in heaven…I’m in heaven. Was it frank Sinatra or Connie Francis? Who cares! Seated in Nebula you are in heaven.