This is the time of year when writers begin to document the best of everything - movies, books, restaurants, sports. Food is, for me, inevitably connected to memory. I still remember with delight eating cream and sugar sandwiches at my grandfather’s home in Dehu Road. I was only four or five then but it was a happy time of innocence and love, and it always smells like sweet, fresh cream lifted off newly boiled milk.
So if I must stroll down the memory lane of my year, the most satisfying way to do it would be by recalling my favorite food, and therefore happy, moments. Now that I think about it, I can only even think of two, no wait three, oh, four, horrible food moments in my entire life. Let’s not go there, shall we?
For a New Year’s Day anniversary party, I cooked a kosher dinner for 40 people. My student JS is Jewish and had asked if I would cater her 25th anniversary party on January 1, 2011. Since she keeps a kosher kitchen where pans used for meat and dairy cannot be mixed, it was an exciting challenge, first to create an Indian menu that honored her religion and dietary rules, then to do some of the final cooking at her home, setting out the food in specially designated bowls and platters.
I enjoyed figuring out what Indian dishes I could make to suit her requirements and was even able to give her some Indian Jewish dishes, like Bene Israeli fish cutlets.
I had started my Indian pop up restaurant, The Un-Curry Table, the previous autumn and we decided to host a Marathi Wedding Feast on January 30. After having served Indian food plated Western style for months, I was itching to cook something traditional. I wanted to cook Marathi food just the way it should be made and serve it to Angelenos who had never eaten it before.
We served 70 diners a multi-course dinner on banana leaves, bringing food table-side the way it is at weddings in Maharashtra, with servers offering more rice, varan, squash-cashew sauce, potato bhaji, kheer, puris, loncha and koshimbir to a crowd that was amazed as much by the manner of service as by the food we served.
One guest could not stop talking about my tomato-onion raita. As simple as the dish is, she said she had never eaten any raita so good. That made my day. And the secret? Using milk instead of water to thin out the yogurt, blending it really smooth before adding in the vegetables, and balancing its tartness with a pinch of sugar.
Keya helped serve puris and made sure everyone got their fair share. A certain well known actor used to come to the pop ups and he was there that night. He asked her for another puri while she was still serving the first ones to other guests. Celebrity meant nothing to Keya. She honestly told him that she would come back to him when everyone else had gotten a puri too. When she did, he high-fived her for her fairness!
It was a huge treat for me to cook my favorite food for people in Los Angeles and the biggest thrill came when the LA Weekly published a story about the dinner that week. For a change, Indian food was not being equated with chicken tikka masala. The word Marathi popped out of the piece everywhere and that made me proud, not out of regionalistic zeal but because I was finally doing what I had long wanted to, sharing the beauty of my native cuisine with people outside Maharashtra.
On Valentine’s Day I had been asked to guest chef at Royal/T, a very cool and funky cafe-art space in Culver City. Inspired by the restaurant’s name, I designed a menu of Royal Indian recipes, helped greatly by Shalini Devi Holkar’s fabulous cookbook, The Cooking of the Maharajas. The four course menu included an appetizer plate for lovers to share and main courses like fried quail with shirin pulao, and succulent pomegranate lamb.
But the most memorable part of the night for me was working alongside trained staff, three line cooks and the head chef of Royal/T. Used to following a chef’s lead and skilled at their work, they worked with me all day and over the three hours of dinner service, as a well oiled machine, cranking out meat, fish, poultry, vegetarian dishes, and desserts, in perfect sync.
The kitchen may have been hot, the work tiring, the pace unrelenting but we did not feel it. We enjoyed ourselves, working together calmly, not a short tempered or impatient word spoken. Dishes were beautifully plated after I had shown my staff just once what I wanted. Having before worked only with friends or friendly, keen-to-learn acquaintances at my pop ups, working with a professional staff was a revelation. At the end of the 12 hour day and a week of planning and prep, I was exhilarated as I drove home. Cooking in a restaurant was FUN!
IV & V & VI & VII
Three food moments of the year in Paris and one at Versailles. Vive la France! I am not even going to include our decadent chocolate feast at Angelina on the Rue de Rivoli in this list because it demands an essay of its own!
In late February, Keya and I flew to France to attend the Gourmand Cookbook Awards (my book was nominated in the regional cookbooks category) at the Cookbook Fair in Paris. We stayed with our friends Sarah Bentley and Alan Kahan at their home a few blocks south of the Eiffel Tower. Alan had always told us that one of the reasons they had bought that particular apartment was that it was within walking distance of not one, but five boulangeries. If one bakery was closed, they had options! After a strenuous trip by Metro (NO escalators!) from the airport to their home, Keya and I looked at each other and breathed a sigh. Finally we were here.
As we were taking off our coats - it was cold in Paris in late February -- I told Alan that I had promised myself that when I got to Paris, the first thing I would do is eat a pain au chocolat. “Get your coats back on,” he replied, “Let’s go get one before the boulangerie nearby closes.” I had not believed that bread or pastry in France was very much different from what we get in California, where we are very spoiled with excellent food.
With the first bite of that little pain au chocolat, Keya and I turned to each other with looks that said, “Oh my God, this is divine!” We inhaled those pastries in under 30 seconds and proceeded to eat one or two a day for the rest of our week long stay! So what makes them different? They are airy, light, only slightly sweet with bitter chocolate inside and they do not leave you feeling stuffed. It’s the flour, the water, the quality of the chocolate, and frankly, the size. Smaller is better in this case. And there is that je ne sais quoi that I don’t really want to “sais”. Some mysteries are delicious left alone.
Every evening Sarah or Alan cooked a different French meal for us and every one of them was delicious, but for me, the stand out was fondue night. I have had many fondues, many good fondues. What Sarah made that night, stirring a fabulous French wine into Gruyere and garlic and serving it with chunks of fresh baguette was superbly satisfying. There is nothing like a good Gruyere, it may just be one of my favorite cheeses. I also fell in love with that floral wine that we also drank at table. I liked it so much that when I accidentally knocked my glass over and broke it (I was not tipsy, it was a small table!), I first apologized for my clumsiness and then kept apologizing. Sarah reassured me that it was all right and I said, “No, it’s not! I lost the last of my wine when the glass fell!”
That Sunday, our friends accompanied us to Versailles. When we got off the train with other tourists, the horde headed straight toward the chateau but Sarah and Alan steered us to the right. A short walk away was the weekly Versailles market and it was just what I needed to see and experience. If there was ever a heaven for the gourmand, this was it. The lines wrapped around the cheese stalls, everyone using the wait time to decide which of the hundreds of cheeses to buy this week. There was a spice stall where I bought herb and spice blends for pastas and ratatouille, and Keya chose a blend of Himalayan salt, pink peppercorns and rosebuds. There were butchers and green grocers, stalls selling dried fruit and nuts, olives, biscuits and breads, charcuterie.
We bought baguettes and three cheeses, hard cider and non alcoholic, fresh raspberries, cookies from Bretagne, saucissons sec and pate. We lugged our treasure to the smaller of the two chateaux and ate on the steps overlooking the water, in the sun and out of the wind. The day was brilliant, the food simple and satisfying, the company uncomplicated. It was the best kind of picnic.
VIII & IX
Since we were in Europe, we decided to hop across the channel and visit our friends, Jack, Alicia and Madeleine in Bristol. They had recently moved there from Los Angeles and we missed them terribly. Keya and Madsy were in preschool together and had been friends ever since. Even better, thanks to the girls, we had become family friends and I was really looking forward to seeing Alicia and catching up with her after a five month gap.
The other exciting aspect to this trip was the possibility of a visit to Bath, which is only a half hour’s drive from Bristol. As the daughter of English teachers, I had grown up with the literature. Everyone from Jane Austen to Georgette Heyer (not quite literature, but in my mind, almost there) has used Bath as a backdrop for their novels and I had seen its streets and baths and vistas in my mind’s eye. Yet, despite having traveled a good bit in the UK, I had never visited the city before. Sanjiv, my architect husband, said it was the city he liked the most in England and I was as keen to see the architecture as to drink the waters and perhaps set foot where Annis Wychwood and her ilk walked three centuries ago.
I was touched by the first meal we ate at Alicia’s. She had Jamie Oliver’s new cookbook, Meals in Minutes and cooked dinner out of it for us. It is always a treat for me when someone else cooks for me. From shopping for ingredients at Sainsbury’s to watching Alicia cut and chop in her new pink kitchen (!) as we caught each other up on our lives, I enjoyed every moment.
That Sunday the rain let up and we drove through winding lanes and bright green meadows under sparkling skies to Bath. The newly redesigned and configured museum over the Roman baths is a treat. My treat of the day was having afternoon tea afterward at the Pump Room where so many of Heyer’s characters had sat and watched the ton, wondered about their futures or been swept off their feet by dashing Regency bucks.
Walking the streets of Bath felt oddly familiar. And we were given a show of the range of English weather, from brilliant sunshine, sudden rain, and cold gusts of wind that had us shivering despite our winter wear. Some of the most photographed street scenes in the world are here and I have seen those pictures many times. I did not feel like I was walking through a photograph, more like taking a walk through history with some of my greatest heroes. I could see Jane Austen walking up to the lending library or might pass her strolling with a friend on Gay Street.
Sitting in the Pump Room was slightly different. History was still living here, life kept on going. The past was less artifact than coexistence, something I was familiar with from India where the ancient past coexists, somewhat grumpily, with the 21st century. And there was the food. Eating tea sandwiches and sipping English (read Indian) tea was not novel but I relished the scones because we do not get good scones in North America, and you must travel to England for clotted cream. Alicia said Somerset is known for its dairy products, and rightly so. I was satiated at the end of the meal, not least because of the company it was taken in.
Ten is tough. I realize I could keep on sharing food moments until the list puts you into a food-incuded slumber. Coffee and a delicious egg and pesto pastry at Trails Cafe after a hike up to Griffith Observatory, a nostalgic cup of coffee with thick, Dutch milk at Schipol in Amsterdam, exquisite beef cheek ravioli at Trattoria Locanda in November, my favorite dessert, Sacripantina eaten with an old friend at Stella’s in North Beach, huitlacoche tacos at Cacao Mexicatessan, my mother’s soft, tenderly sweet puran polis, made especially for me to bring home to Keya or the sabudanyachi khichadi she had waiting for me when I arrived home for a brief visit.
If I have to choose, I would say my most special moment was with the woman who, apart from my mother, has been my greatest culinary influence. I was lucky to see my maternal grandmother in August, a few weeks before she died. She was in hospice, shrunken to about half her height, weighing less than my 10 year old does now. I remember her as a giant, tall, proud, strong and capable. It was not easy to see her, toothless, sunken cheeked, looking the way her mother looked when she was very old in the early 70s.
Because she was deaf, conversation was not very easy. What reassured me that the essence of my grandmother was still present, was her eyes. They gleamed and she spoke to me with them. She was so starved for entertainment that she was eager to read what was on my T-shirt. “Amsterdam,” I said loudly, “Where life gets lived." She nodded. "I went there for my 40th birthday.”
When she was done, my cousin Reena asked if she wanted to eat a piece and fed it to her. I was still too shaken by the moment of this meeting to do anything more than watch and weep. As Aji slowly ate that thin slab of goodness, relishing every mouthful, I drank her in. Life is meant to be lived to the fullest and enjoyed to the very end. That is what I took away from that moment and into the new year.
I wish you all a deliciously happy 2012, a year filled with memorable food moments with the people you love.