Saturday, November 27, 2010

Calcutta Wrap and Roll

465 Ardsley Ave., Ardsley,

Last night we visited this new place in Ardsley, conveniently located off the Ardsley Ave. exit on Sawmill Parkway, amidst a gaggle of shops that include a motley collection of eateries named Bubba’s Grill and Tavern, Thai House and a Mexican restaurant; a testament to the cosmopolitan nature of this county.

Calcutta Wrap and Roll is primarily a take out place, but with a few tables for eating in.  It is run by a good friend of mine, and fellow local Bengali thespian, Chitta Saha, so please do take my review with a pinch of salt—I may be biased in my opinions.

Kati rolls and their variants are a type of street food that is very popular in India, meant to be eaten on the go, and originated from a restaurant called Nizam’s in Kolkata (Calcutta) several decades ago.  You can find them in a few places in New York City, but this is the first time I saw them on a Westchester menu, and was the reason for us to go visit this restaurant.  We ordered chicken rolls, finely diced potato crisps and idlis.  A roll is an egg paratha rolled up with chunks of chicken, onions, and garnishes.  The roll is then wrapped in paper, and you eat your way down its length by gradually unwrapping it.  The finely diced potato crisps are a Bengali specialty.  The idlis were standard issue.  The food had the warmth and heartiness of home cooked fare and the price was very affordable.  If you don’t mind tight, sparse seating and self service, the eat-in facilities are fine.

The rolls were excellent and had none of the oiliness that is the bane of Indian food at times.  The mark of good food is the urge to have some more, and we ended up adding to our order in the middle of our meal. I had long hoped that there would be more variety of Indian food in Westchester, more of the informal foods that I grew up with.  That moment appears to be arriving slowly, but surely.
Calcutta Wrap and Roll on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 26, 2010

Jhal Muri

It is a cloudy Thanksgiving afternoon in upstate New York, the season's first light snowflakes mixing in with a slight drizzle. Making fudge brownies from scratch for the kids this evening, Miles, Chandrabindu on the speakers; this curious life of the transplant, levitated between two worlds. It is a day to celebrate this disjunction, the turkey and the goat meat; the fudge brownies and the ginger cake that I made this afternoon, and the jhal muri that I will make this evening.

Jhal Muri is a snack of puffed rice (moori) that we would buy from a street vendor outside our school.  For less than a rupee, he mixed up a flurry of spicy, tarty, tamarind laced, green and red garnished pouty, puffed rice and offered it up in paper bags made of newspapers.  Perched like a jazz drummer, his big bin of muri in front of him, ringed by a constellation of aluminum canisters holding his garnishes, he would scoop up a mug of muri, and then, in rapid jarring succession, scoop up chillies, spices, chopped onions, tamarind, cucumbers; the sounds coming off in rattles, and scrapes, and crunches, his aluminum ladle richochetting off the canisters. We would head to the bus stop, concoction in hand, spicy hot with chillies, tongues crying for a sip water, eyes watering but happy, walking with Debanjan, as he rolls out his latest love letter that he plans to, but never releases, to our classmate and the girl of his dreams, as we go over one more iteration and revision of his draft.

Toney Indian restaurants in New York will offer you jhal muri, with ingredients, clinical in their content, but without its sexiness.  I have sought this sizzle, and over the years have come to the following recipe that I will invariably make as a snack, whenever there is an occasion or guests. 

You will need a bag of puffed rice, which I get from Bhavik groceries in Elmsford. I am partial to the Bangladeshi products, the ones marked “fit for human consumption”, but puffed rice from Swad is fine too.  Some panipuris, tamarind, some hot mixes of the kind Haldiram sells (more on that later)—all available at a standard Indian grocery store.

Take a couple of spoons of the packed moist tamarind, and microwave it with some water till it is steaming hot.  Squish the tamarind around to dissolve it, then pass through a strainer to separate the liquid.  Put about a spoon and a half of chat masala into this and take a taste—it should remind you of a long lost childhood with a shiver down your spine.  If  the shiver fails to trigger, add some more tamarind.  If it feels untempered, add more chat masala.  Make about 100 ml of this solution for about a quart and a half of jhal muri—the dish should not be wet—just barely moist, but here again there are differing opinions.  The muri makers of Kolkata like to make theirs wetter, the purists from Bardhaman, a place where three o’clock in the afternoon is announced by the rattling of metal bowls mixing muri, the muri is spartan and dry, no tamarind is added. 

Once you have your tamarind base ready, set it aside in a little, good looking bowl, like the TV chefs like to display, if you think this is a classy thing to do. Then one needs to add some crunchies.  Today I used “Punjabi mix” from Masala Mirch, “Plain Bhujia” and “deep fried spicy peanuts” from Haldirams.  The amount and variety of added crunchies is a matter of debate, and depends on the level of ostentation one wishes.  In general don’t add much of this, perhaps a cup to a cup and a half of all three of them put together will do--one wants the tongue to encounter an itinerant peanut that passes by occasionally, and not several in one mouthful. I like to stick to a plain base of crunchies that are sort of like a non-spicy DC component, of either the bhujia or plain moong dal (also from Haldiram’s).  I do like to add some peanuts and these could be either the spicy variety or plain ones. Crunch up some pani puris in your palms and add to the muri.  Restraint is key here, five to six panipuris will do.  Then, add a half cup of chopped onions, a few chopped green chillies, some chopped fresh coriander and--if you have it-- a drizzle of mustard oil that gives the muri its slight pungency, and pour in the tamarind.  If you want more of a street food flavor, you could add some soaked Bengal gram, some finely diced cucumber, and  and quarter inch sized chopped boiled potatoes. For a more homely version, cut the tamarind by 75% or forgo it altogether, use plain peanuts, onions and chillies, a bit more of the mustard oil, and skip the rest.  As a last step, mix all of this into a homogenous mixture and dish out.  The mix should be freshly made just before you are ready to eat.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Vatan--vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan

409 3rd Avenue,

It was Diwali, the festival of lights, and U was not having her usual dinner this year.  I wanted a somewhat offbeat, but good Indian restaurant in the city to mark Diwali, and we picked Vatan.  I had been here 10 years ago, and had not been impressed—the food was oily and heavy.  Since then, the place has undergone a sea of change.

 Vatan is a vegetarian Indian restaurant that serves Gujarati food.  The interior is spacious, tastefully designed to look like a village courtyard in western India, replete with a faux banyan tree.  The lighting enhances the sense of space, the dining tables kept apart, unlike other Manhattan restaurants.  The laid back demeanour of the wait staff, the Bollywood art film colors and dresses, and the ambience imposes a sense of comfort. 

London had its Indian diaspora of the 90’s, the Punjabi—Jamaican influence.  In the 2000’s New York City has its own Indian diaspora—gaggles of twenty somethings in black clothes, who hang around the trendy Indian restaurants in Manhattan.  They fuel the financial industry in the city, the men in rectangular glasses, the women-- resolutely straight of hair--scarfed up for the winter.  Sprightly, slim, handsome faces under the fluorescents and the restaurant lights, the glows of the exit signs, they stay for another dinner, another night out, another polished cog in this glistening city, another night to go back to their apartments to read Tom Friedman.  This is the new culture, part dhamaka, part Friedman, Indianism in Manhattan.

Vataan has a 3 course prixe-fixe menu and I recommend this.  The first thali (platter) are the appetizers.  They offer seconds and I recommend that you take them up on this.  The starters are the best part of the menu.  Good food brings back good memories.  The batata vada, spicy mashed potatoes in a batter, fresh as the one made by the street vendor at the Kamala Nehru Park in Pune.   Dahi(yogurt) Puri, of long lost afternoons on Rashbehari at Junior Brothers.  Deceptive battered green chillies that will light a fire on your tongue.  There is dhokla, a Gujarati special, a puffy cake like thing made of rice and dal, chana (a curry made of Bengal gram), that I first had at the public markets in Bhuj.  There is little oiliness, and dollops of authenticity.  The second platter consists of the main dishes--rice, pooris and delicate kadhi--these are fine dishes but they lack the hard-to-find-in-New York quality of the first platter.  It all ends with dessert: mango ice cream that tastes like it was picked up at the corner grocery store.  This is what is incomprehensible about Indian restaurants in New York—their fluctuating quality control.  But then I did not come here for the ice cream.  Vatan dished up absolutely the best batata vadas that I have had in years,  and for that alone, I would be back here again.

It is a special restaurant, with a special d├ęcor, left aside for those unique times of the year, like a little Diwali celebration with friends with warmth and good food.
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