Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cold and Rainy California!

San Francisco DowntownMy flight touched down on a bleak, chilly morning in San Francisco. While San Francisco is always chilly and windy, this winter's been rather extreme. Even the hills near Palo Alto got some snow this month, causing much excitement at such an unusual event.

I had chosen Singapore Air during this trip to the US. In Mumbai I had a few hours to spend at the Intercontinental Grand and their Baluchi restaurant. I will post the Baluchi experience separately.

San Francisco DowntownIt was a relief to be boarded after being in the crowds in the departure area. Singapore Air is amazing: their flight attendants continue to be the most friendly, courteous, and ever-helpful. Armed with the knowledge of their new business-class cabin, I had chosen a window seat (1-2-1 configuration in which all seats are aisle seats, and the window seats are both aisle and window!).

I even watched a few movies during this flight: Rush Hour 3 (Jackie Chan is still so much fun to watch!), The Brave One (a new Jodie Foster movie with a vigilante theme), Resident Evil: Extinction (enjoyed this one - zombies and Milla Jovovich - lethal!), and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (another Bollywood masala movie...Bobby Deol was particularly awful). During the brief stopover at Incheon airport, I had the most incredible ice-cream - it had pictachio with a hint of green-tea and cherries, which made the taste very exotic!

Room Service at the Courtyard Marriott in Downtown San FranciscoDuring my first day in San Francisco, I had lunch at Osha but decided to stay put in my room after that. Room service turned out to pretty good: check out the Olive Pepper Chicken, roasted red potato, and baby squash I ordered.

Finally, a break in the bad weather today and some welcome sunshine! Since my meetings had gotten over early, I strolled the streets near my hotel in downtown San Francisco.

San Francisco DowntownOne of the things I always notice in the US is how nicely they build the pavement around trees. Notice the metal covering that allows the earth around the roots to 'breathe'?

Tonight, I dine at the Boulevard, a Michelin starred restaurant. But that's another post. Watch this space!


Saturday, January 26, 2008

California Yet Again

I will be travelling again to California next week. My last trip to the Bay Area in California was a gourmet's delight. I remember the excellent Thai fare at Krungthai, the large portions at Maggiano's Little Italy, the pot-stickers at California Cafe and the awesome Persian food at newly-opened Arya. Then there was the paella and tapas at Picasso's, my first taste of Cambodian cuisine at Chez Sovan, and the entertaining evening cooking our own food at The Melting Pot.

However, there are so many great restaurants in the Bay Area, I am not going to run out of new places to try. After all, there are more Michelin-rated restaurants here than LA and Vegas. Watch this space!

On a different note, my daughter turned five last week and her birthday party was great fun! The breather from travel during the previous months helped. Last year I was travelling so much, I didn't have time to organize a party for all her. I made up by this time by throwing her a rather big party with a princess theme, a puppet show, many fun games, activities, a clown and a DJ too!

Here's the birthday cake from the party. :-)


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rahul: What's in a Name?

Rahul Restaurant PuneRahul is a very common name in India. Almost like Tom or Harry is in the USA. When someone recommended Rahul as a good dining option, I was sceptical. Many restaurants spend a fortune to conjure up evocative names - Sigree, Chingari, Bombay Brasserie, Whispering Bamboo, etc. But Rahul? Unusual name for a restaurant. Is he a Shahrukh fan?

I eventually found that the owners own Rahul Cinema, one of Pune's oldest. When the new multiplexes mushroomed, this cinema hall went out of business. Recently, it has re-appeared with a face-lift. The cineplex now also houses another branch of their restaurant of the same name. I guess they plan to use the nostalgia associated with the Rahul name in Pune. Please note that the Rahul I am reviewing here is the one in Aundh.

The great bard once wrote:

What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

Rahul restaurant is pretty large with seating in two levels. Interiors are contemporary, tastefully done and brightly lit. The menu has a good selection of vegetarian, poultry, lamb and sea-food dishes. And peppered with dhaba-style humor: Poultry selections are in a section titled Nukkad Da Kukkad while lamb is under Bakre Ke Nakhre.

We sipped on refreshing Sol Kadi as we awaited our starters. The Hazari kabab and surmai pepper fry were both excellent and I recommend you try them too! I had heard of their pomfret curry and so this is what we ordered as our entree. Again, very good!

Sol KadiHowever, the neer dosa we ordered wasn't made well; you may want to consider steamed rice or other breads.

Friends who have visited this restaurant also recommend the crab tawa masala if you like spicy food. However, their advice is to stay away from the 'gassi' and always order fish 'curry' instead.

We didn't try their desserts during this visit. Also, I forgot to take pictures once our kababs were served. So all I can share with you is the sol kadi and a view of the restaurant from a rather odd angle. :-)

To summarize, this is a good restaurant for sea-food, especially so for people who live in the Aundh/Baner area. But they need to improve their neer dosas and gassi which are very common items people for people trying Konkan sea-food preparations.

Rahul is located at Western Riverview, Paranjpe Scheme, Near Conversys (close to McDonald's), Aundh. Ph: 25888080, 25121007.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sankranti, Pongal and Lodi

Kites in India on SankrantiLast Tuesday was the day of Sankranti. A festival that is widely celebrated in India, but in different ways and by different names.

Many across the country fly colorful kites on this day to celebrate this festival. Sankranti is associated with the end of the harvesting season, so to get a real feel of this festival you need to venture out of the cities and into the villages and small towns. Note: Picture of reels of kites and kite-strings by Indian.

SankrantiIn Mysore, I remember my local friends distributing a sweet-dish, yellu - a mix made with sesame seeds, coconuts, sugar blocks. A common custom found across Karnataka is the exchange of sugarcane pieces and yellu with one's neighbors, friends and relatives. You can see cows and and bullocks gaily decorated during this day. They are fed Pongal - a sweet preparation of rice and special prayers are offered as a part of the celebrations of the harvesting season. In the evening, the cattle are led out in procession to the beat of drums and music. At night a bonfire is lit and the animals are made to jump over the fire.

In Uttar Pradesh, people eat only vegetarian food on this day, especially khichdi (rice cooked together with black lentils). Taking a dip in the holy rivers on this day is regarded as most auspicious. A big one-month long fair called Magha Mela begins in Allahabad. Ritual bathing also takes place at other Hindu holy places such as Haridvar and Garh Mukteshwar.

Tamil Nadu calls this festival Pongal, as does some other states in South India. Pongal takes its name from the surging of rice boiled in a pot of milk, and this festival has more significance than even Diwali and signifies the beginning of the New Year. Rice and pulses cooked together in ghee and milk is offered to the family deity after the ritual worship.

In Maharashtra on the Sankranti day people exchange multi-colored tilguds made from sesame seeds and sugar and til-laddus made from til and jaggery. Women dress up - you can see more saries than usual - on this day while men, like always, don't bother! :-)

In Punjab where this is usually the coldest time of the year, huge bonfires are lit on the eve of Sankranti. This festival is popularly called Lodi there. Sweets, sugarcane and rice are thrown in the bonfires, around which friends and relatives gather together. The Punjabis dance their famous Bhangra dance before sitting down to feast on a variety of food specially prepared for the occasion.

Like is common with many Hindu festivals, there are multiple mythological stories connected to Sankranti. Bhishma, one of the key characters of the Mahabharata, is also supposed to have died on this day.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Chicken Tikka Masala

When you visit Britian, you probably expect to indulge yourself on Fish & Chips, Pies, Roast Beef or Yorkshire Pudding. Maybe even the intriguingly named Toad-in-the-hole or Bubble & Squeak. But did you know that Britons have made Chicken Tikka Masala the most popular dish in the UK?

Chicken Tikka MasalaThis ‘Indian’ dish is no more Indian than Chicken Manchurian is Chinese. CTM as many locals prefer to call this dish, recently celebrated its 60th anniversary in Britain. It is the country's most popular dish, not just most popular Indian dish. Robin Cook, the former British foreign minister, has hailed it as "Britain's true national dish", relegating fish and chips to second place.

Facts and Figures about Chicken Tikka Masala (Source: Sonzy’s Kitchen):

>> Sainsbury's sell 1.6 million CTM meals every year and stocks 16 CTM-related products including chicken tikka masala pasta sauce. Other derivations include CTM crisps, CTM pizzas, CTM kievs and Marks and Spencer's famous CTM sandwiches (18 tonnes devoured every week).

>> A 1998 survey by Real Curry Restaurant Guide of 48 different CTMs found only common ingredient was chicken.

>> 23 million portions a year are sold in Indian restaurants.

>> 10 tonnes of Chicken Tikka Masala a day are produced by Noon Products destined for supermarkets.

>> Most schools and charities in Sylhet, Bangladesh are run by proceeds from its sales.

>> Chef Iftekar Haris from Newport, Gwent has written a musical in praise of it.

>> Organisers of Kingfisher National Curry Day claim that if all the portions sold in one year in UK were stacked they would constitute a tikka tower 2770 times taller than the Greenwich Millennium Dome.

>> It accounts for a quarter of the total turnover of 2.5 billion pounds of all the 9000 odd 'curry houses' in Britain, and won the Best in Britain Award (BIBA) for best dish in 2002.

Hindustan Times tracks down the origins of the dish which lie shrouded in mystery: If an apocryphal story is to be believed, it was invented by a Bangladeshi chef to please a demanding British customer. The first Bangladeshi restaurants - calling themselves 'Indian restaurants' of course - opened in Britain in the 1940s, serving mostly Punjabi cuisine, specially Chicken Makhani, Chicken Tandoori, Chicken Tikka. At one such restaurant a Sylheti chef served a customer a dry Chicken Tikka dish he had taken some pains over, and was expecting to be appreciated for. Instead the pukka sahib summoned him and hollered: 'Where's the gravy?' In disgust, the chef took the dish back into the kitchen and simply emptied a can of tomato soup into it, adding a few spices as well. When he brought back the altered dish, his customer was delighted. Thus was Chicken Tikka Masala born.

Chicken Tikka MasalaBTW, there is at least one other Indian dish invented in the UK I know of: The Balti Chicken. I suspect Balti cooking became popular with the large influx of Bangladeshi chefs. Baltis (or metal buckets) are often used by Bengalis to serve food at large gathering such as marriages.

In a related news, The Week reports that 8,000 Indian restaurants across the UK are in crisis because restaurant-owners cannot find enough suitably qualified chefs.

A government immigration decision in 2005 to axe short-term visa schemes for foreign workers substantially cut the number of skilled chefs coming in from the subcontinent. First-generation Asians who spent years building up their restaurant businesses are now finding it difficult to persuade their children to follow them into the trade. "The industry risks being destroyed," says Rajesh Suri, owner of Tamarind in Mayfair, the first British Asian restaurant to be awarded the prestigious Michelin Star Award.

Part of the reason behind the British government axing the short-term visa scheme was the recent European Union expansion, which has led to an influx of east Europeans, especially from Poland, entering the UK to find work in the hospitality sector. Walk into a restaurant in London now and the vast majority of service and kitchen staff will come from here, and they work undeniably hard.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Banyan Trees in Pune

Winding roads, drizzling rain and many majestic banyan trees. Those were the images I took back with me after my first, brief trip to Pune. This was during the monsoon of 1999. I had a new job offer that required me to move to Pune. The job was very exciting but I was uncertain if it made sense to move from Delhi to Pune.

Banyan Tree in PuneAt this point, my new employer offered to fly me and my wife to Pune for a week to see the city and make up my mind. Needless to say, we were sold after spending a week during the monsoon in this lovely city. After Delhi, Pune seemed such a quaint little city (those days) with it's small winding roads, greenery, clear skies, the romantic rainy season...

We also couldn't fail to notice the many gnarled, old banyan trees dotting the landscape. Each of them seemed to have a story to tell - of times bygone.

Banyan trees take a long time to grow; the ones we see now have probably lived for over hundreds of years. The Banyan tree is unique: it's branches spread out and send trunk-like roots to the ground in order to support itself.

Banyan Tree in PuneThis ancient tree is considered sacred by the Hindus and symbolizes eternal life due to it's ever-expanding branches. The name of the tree was apparently derived from 'Baniya' - a trader community in India. Hindu traders used to spread out their wares under the shade of these trees which led to this association.

Incidentally, the world's largest Banyan tree is located in the Botanical Gardens in Howrah (across the river from Kolkata). This tree with a circumference of over 300 meters looks like an entire forest!

During the last few years, Pune has suddenly grown into a destination of choice for the high-tech industry. The sudden influx of people led to new, multi-lane roads, buildings, malls and cineplexes. But this development has come at the cost of Pune's green cover. Many trees were felled during road-expansion projects. While it's easier driving on the new concrete roads, I hope we can preserve the remaining trees. Many of them have watched over Pune from the time of the Peshwas and will be around for many more generations to marvel - if we only let them live too.

Note: Banyan tree pictures by Memsaab and Jim Reeves. Pictures have been linked to their original Flickr accounts.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

More Room(s) in Pune

The Le Meridien PunePune has catapulted to the forefront as a business destination during the last five years. At the beginning of this decade, the only foreigners I saw in Pune came here for spiritual enlightenment or yoga. Many wore robes of the Osho commune or stayed as paid-guests near Pune's famous yoga institute. Now, most visitors are here clearly for business reasons: Americans, Europeans and Koreans with their laptops and Blackberries.

Until recently, upscale lodging options for business travellers were limited. The city got it's first five-star hotel when the Blue Diamond opened in 1970. At this time, there are only three five-star hotels:

>> The Le Meridien: The most lavishly built of the three; the food in their restaurants have gotten better too; the rooms haven't been refurbished in some time.
>> Taj Blue Diamond: Smaller in size, but great service; good Chinese restaurant; newly refurbished rooms.
>> Sun N Sand: Not part of a well-known chain; good service and good restaurants.

There are a few other four-star hotels that are good enough (if you can't get a room in the five-star category):

>> Pride Hotel (now part of the Best Western group, has been recently prettied up)
>> Gordon House (boutique hotel; problem: it is located within a Cineplex; only works if you are a movie addict)
>> Aurora Towers (good location in the middle of Pune's MG Road shopping center; recently prettied up too)

Sun N Sand PuneIn the last few years, demand has outstripped supply. Bookings have to be made months in advance and room rates have gone sky-high (up by 40% in 2006 alone). Together the five-stars in Pune only have about 500 rooms.

However, change is in the air. The following hotels are under construction and will open in the 2009-2010 time-frame:

1. Hyatt Regency, 325 rooms, Kalyaninagar
2. Holiday Inn, 175 rooms, Balewadi
3. The O by Orchid (new luxury boutique brand), 112 rooms, Koregaon Park
4. Westin, 277 rooms, Koregaon Park
5. Courtyard by Marriott, 210 rooms, Sasoon Road
6. Courtyard by Marriott, 153 rooms. Hinjewadi
7. Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, 426 rooms, ICC
8. JW Marriott, 250 rooms, Airport Road

Le Meridien PuneThere are new options for the budget traveller too:

>> Lemon Tree - In addition to their hotel in Hingewadi, they are building another one near the Railway Station (they have taken over the old Amir Hotel here).
>> Taj's Ginger is building their second hotel in Hinjewadi. They already have one in Pimpri.

And now there are some good Serviced Apartments too:

>> Oakwood Residence
>> Royal Orchid Golden Suites
>> Seasons Apartments

Overall, Pune will add 4500-5000 additional rooms in all hotel categories by 2010-11 according to Knight Frank Research.


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Fad in Japan

From the New York Times: Japanese Envy India's Schools.

Most annoying for many Japanese is that the aspects of Indian education they now praise are similar to those that once made Japan famous for its work ethic and discipline: learning more at an earlier age, an emphasis on memorization and cramming, and a focus on the basics, particularly in math and science.

I, on the other hand, argue for less focus on cramming and memorization so our kids can learn to think out-of-the-box. What do you think?


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Fun Week in Pune

Sunset at KhandalaThe New Year celebrations were very different this time. After so much long-distance travel in 2007, we decided to spend these end-of-the-year holidays in Pune and even invited our extended family. The week was much fun -- lot of people at home (which rarely happens now-a-days) and many different things to eat.

Among the fun stuff people brought home last week: A variety of Gajak from Bareilly (a sesame-based candy popular in North India during winter months), unique sweets from Belgaum in Karnataka (one of them called Karadantu which I tasted for the first time), cheese and sparkling Prosecco wine from Switzerland.

We also took a short trip to Khandala watching the sun set in the picturesque Ghats for the last time in 2007. Even the vada pav and ragda patties at Kailash Resort's food-court seemed extra-tasty: must have been the festive atmosphere.

Mainland ChinaRestaurants in Pune wore a festive look through-out this week and some even had special 'Celebration Menus' for the holidays.

Thanks to a new notification by the city administration in Pune, New Year parties were allowed to go on all the way to 5AM. Almost everyone who loves partying hard had a rollicking time this year!