This And That - A Celebration Of Food

by Ramesh Mahadevan

It was the Minneapolis airport - the Taco Bell stand at their departure level. It was a self-serve place and so I grabbed a couple of things on a tray and walked up to the cashier. She rang the simpler ones and then picked up a crumpled thingummy wrapped in a paper and dangled it in front of me.

"Sir, is this a Soft Taco or a Soft Taco Supreme ?" She asked me.

For the world of me, I could not remember. "Err, Umm" I stupidly mumbled and she repeated her question one more time, feeling quite aggravated, having to deal with someone from a third or fourth world country.

"Jeez, I don't know, I just picked it up"

By this time, half the people at the airport started queuing up behind me with their lunch trays. There were pilots, co-pilots, captains and businessmen. And I was actually delaying them ! It was only a matter of time before my stupid mistake lead to flight delays and possibly, an eventual shutdown of a well oiled machine like the Minneapolis airport. Everybody around me gave me their dirty looks. I felt like I was the only criminal in the whole world and the entire rest of the world was watching me on Dan Rather news. All because I goofed in picking up a sandwich.

"What is the problem, Karen (or some such)" asked the restaurant manager to the cashier, seeing how quickly their system collapsed. The entire problem was explained to her, while the long line grunted and growled. The manager just picked up the sandwich, unrolled it, examined it, counted the number of tomato(e) pieces and declared it a "Soft Taco Supreme" and solved the problem and relieved me and my country of an even greater embarrassment.

I am a compulsive cauliflower buyer. When I wander into the store, pushing my cart, I have to impulsively reach out and grab two cauliflower heads like a Pavlovian dog. In fact, the last time I had a girlfriend and the last time she had a birthday, I sent her a bouquet of cauliflower, especially because it was selling for 79 cents a pound. I think if the whole vegetable section were a kingdom, then cauliflower is its King. By the way, I don't touch a broccoli with a ten foot pole, (a la George Bush) even if it is juxtaposed near the cauli lot. When special people are invited for dinner, some gracious hosts might butcher a goat or a chicken, but I kill my cauliflowers and make a mouth-watering subji out of it. Here is the recipe:

(1) Carefully hand-pluck the delicate florets from a cauliflower. You can include some part of the stem, but not the thick crusty base. The pieces should be bite size. Put them in a microwave oven at 'high' between fifteen to twenty minutes.

(2) On a saucepan, heat enough oil, crackle cumin seeds and shallow fry the already cooked cauliflower with a teaspoon of chili powder, half a teaspoon of turmeric, one teaspoon of coriander powder and salt.

(3) Don't keep turning it around and break the florets. Gennnnnnnnntly turn the cauliflower around once in a while. Let it get burnt slightly. After ten to twenty minutes a very delicious subji is ready !

Being desis, we all grade other ethnic foods into 'like', 'don't like' and 'okay on rainy days' categories - all perhaps referenced to the Indian food baseline. In my hierarchy, the French food (in France) is somewhere at the very bottom, even though during my trips to France I always made it a point to eat mostly the French cuisine. Perhaps, years of eating at IIT Kanpur mess killed my tastebuds.

We were at this restaurant near Cannes, in Southern France, which was run by a guy whose family has been chefs since the time of King Louis XIV, give or take a Louis. Can you imagine ? Generation after generation trying to cook, but still could not master even 'Poulet Roti' (Roast chicken).

The place was elegantly decorated, with real tablecloths. A smiling hostess seated us. Even though there were about fifty tables, we were seated right next to the only other occupied table. (I guess the owner had visions of crowds flocking to his restaurant that evening) I ordered a 'Beef in red wine sauce and Provencal herbs' and waited for the usual two hours it always takes in classy French restaurants for the food to arrive. I was playing with the fork and knife, when the waitress walked up to our table, gave us a big smile, suddenly grabbed the knife and fork from me and set it in the perfect, symmetric pattern that was meant to be, gave us one more 'don't do it again' kind of weak smile and disappeared.

We drank an expensive, vintage wine, which the chef personally selected from his secret, exotic 'cave'. It tasted very flat. After my French visits, I always have wine with my meals. I found that the red wine goes with aaloo mattar, the white wine with raita and Chablis rhymes with chutney.

The main dish I ordered was exactly identical to the 'Beef stew' we get in our cafetaria, especially on those days when our company stock price goes down a half a point. And it cost us nearly four hundred francs per person. Of course, the French pastries and the 240 odd kinds of cheeses one gets in France are delicieux !

One of the best 'value' meal in France is at the local McDonald's, even in small towns. The one on Champs Elyssee is supposed to be the second busiest in the world (after Tokyo) and we saw beggars right inside the restaurant. You have to 'buy' your ketchups and mustards, unlike here. (In Burger King, you can even get 'curry sauce' instead of Ketchup) The French abbreviate it to 'Mcdo' and flock it to drink 'Coca' or 'deca' (decaff. coffee).

By the way, one more digression. Talking of French abbreviation, the French always write 'K7' for a commonly used item, in their advertisements and in general usage. What does it stand for ? Ans: The letter 'K' in French is pronounced 'Kah' and the number '7' is pronounced 'set', so 'K7' is just 'cassette'.

Eating out in India is always a pleasure. I have eaten in the filthiest restaurants, such as the ones outside Old Delhi station, to the most expensive five star hotel restaurants like 'Machaun'.

The 'hostel food' in India, of course, is universally bad, with the exception of perhaps IISc Bangalore (oh, the glorious B mess !). Equally impressive was the TIFR canteens, if they can be considered under the 'hostel mess' category. The TIFR canteens were run by a professional caterer, who could give technical lectures on catering. Besides the National Defense Academy, the TIFR was the only one with a 'modern kitchen' at an academic institution those days. Wonder if it is true still ? (I spent a summer at TIFR, eons ago, working for Dr. S. Ramani, who posts news on this net from India)

Given how bad the college food is and how enterprising the restaurantwallahs are, it is no wonder that some of the well-known dhabha construction activity has been taking place near college campuses. Take the multi-restaurant complex at Tarams outside IIT Madras or the shacks that literally sandwich IIT Delhi. The best dhabhas I found in India were in Chandigarh, near Panjab University, which were open almost round the clock, with the 'chefs' beckoning you with a maha polite 'Hahnji'. The official dhabha of IIT Kanpur, Chungi, comes a close second, even if it meant a long bike ride on the nondescrept Grant Trunk road from the campus. Here, you hobnobbed with the toughest truck drivers and tempo drivers and other drivers. Here again, like in elegant French restaurants, the food takes hours to arrive, even if you personally knew the 'Chotu'. The Chicken Curry has a million red chillies in it and the post-meal chai literally removes a layer off your tongue and you are never sure if it was really chicken that you ate or some old martyred bird. But then, you didn't go to Chungi to eat. You went there for the experience.

Astoria, Oregon is a great place. It is the last point for the explorations of Lewis and Clarke and the Columbia river there is almost as broad as Ganga in Kanpur. We entered a diner kind of place and ordered coffees and breakfast. Little had we realized that we would be under a massive attack.

Even though I am a South Indian by birth, I am not a big coffee drinker, making do with just one cup in the morning. But before I downed my first cupful, the waitress around the corner quickly came over and re-filled the cup. When I reluctantly started sipping the second cupful and set it on the table, out came another waitress and said something evil like 'more coffee ?' and filled it up before I could respond. She finessed her attack by cluster-bombing our table with about two dozen creams.

From then on it was a total war. Us vs the coffee-pot weilding waitresses. We were swatting our hands around to ward them off. But nothing worked. They came in tag teams, in droves. When the foot soldiers tired themselves out, the Generals (some really hefty looking women) came out of the kitchen with fresh, hot coffee. Some of them even armed themselves with two coffee pots, with decaff. pot in the other arm. One of them tricked us into believing she was serving the guests at the next table, but actually bent over backwards and filled our cups, surreptitiously. There were wicked, victorious smiles on their faces, as they coffeed us into utter defeat. They were merciless. The putrid coffee stench spelt out the gore and blood in that dining room. We felt nauseous. A mere \$ 0.50 got us this miasma of endless coffee. What price one has to pay for modern life.

At the first glance, Desi restaurants in this country seem as varied as desis ourselves. There are these pricey Bombay Palaces, where the waiters are much better dressed on an average than the patrons, where a Gold Visa card can get you several pellets of Tandoori lamb. At the opposite end are the 'desi diners', like the one in Jackson Heights where a heavy set, non desi woman carries a huge tray with twelve orders of dosas and tries to explain to you what a 'dosa' is. By the way, it is said that after working in desi restaurants for a while, some of these non-desi women begin to look like Iyengar women - just kidding.

But actually, I think, all the desi restaurants in this country are owned by just one guy, the godfather of the desi mafiosi ('mafiatva ?'). Look how similar all their menus look and how identical their foods taste. They even fight with us patrons with identical discourtesy. Just to confuse us, they close down every desi restaurant after two years and pop it open in another shopping center under another name. They know that If it is not 'Star of India' or 'Tandoor' or 'Taj Mahal', somehow a certain authenticity is lost. But these days even 'Gandhi Tandoori' is also chalta hai.

Even though the New Jersey area, Silicon Valley and Toronto boast of some of the best desi food I have eaten, I think the desi restaurant capital of North America is Vancouver. What do you think ?

Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh