Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Why are so many Indian restaurants in the US so pretentious?

 ….he is not a man obsessed with the freshness of quality of his ingredients.  Cooking for him is a craft of spice and oil.  His food burns the tongue, and clogs the arteries.   The Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s description of a cook in “The Third Born” aptly describes more than 90% of the cooking done at Indian restaurants in the United States.  These are blunt instruments that downsample Indian food into a monochrome of caricatures.  And they do so in restaurants named after the India of the princes and the India of the British, an ambiance desperate for an illusion of what was an illusion to start with.

Evoking grandeur and the exotic is an old formula. Here is the Indian writer R. K. Narayan, describing his experience at an Indian restaurant in the San Francisco of 1956: “Its elaborate and self-consciously planned Indian atmosphere, dim light, long coats, bogus Indian tunes out of gramophones hidden in the arras, more bogus bric-a-brac are deliberate, but I suppose, commercially successful.  Chappati and Indian curry are genuine and are not bogus.  A waitress clad in a sari, an usher in a long coat buttoned to the neck, create an Indian atmosphere, which seems to appeal to San Franciscans as I find all tables booked, and women dressed in caps and gowns, which outdo Fifth Avenue style, sit with an air of facing an impending adventure, while reading the menu card, and utter little cries of ‘delicious, delicious’, when they sample a curry.

This could be a restaurant in Los Angeles today.  Gentle sitar music, can make it easier to chew on a tough naan.

Credit for this brand image has to be given to the first Indian restaurateur in the US, Prince Ranji Smile, a minor social character in the New York of the early 1900s, and a man of uncertain orgins and tall claims.  Ranji came to New York and spent several years as an Indian chef who held visiting appointments at some of the big restaurants of the day.  While he was never able to fulfil his dream of opening his own restaurant, he, more than any other, brought the message of Indian food as being something exotic, something brushing royalty, that—as he advertised—would make women more beautiful.

To be sure, Indian food is not considered highbrow.  Inglis and Gimlin give an interesting statistic in The Globalization of Food.  In the hierarchy of Zagat 2006 check averages, a measure of the “exclusivity” of the food,  Indian check averages stand at $33.85, below French ($47.81), Japanese (46.72), Italian (42.27), Greek (38.71), and Spanish (37.73).

Starting about 5 years ago, a new theme emerged in Indian restaurants—desi chic, inspired by Bollywood and the folksy color combinations promoted by Indian ad agencies.  The developments were apparent to me in the tale of two restaurants, almost next to one another, in Mt. Kisco, NY.  One of them is A Passage to India, straight out of E. M. Forster, a member of the old colonial genre that—as far as I could see—had been languishing for years.  Then came the impulsive upstart, a colorful chunky little joint called The Little Kebab Place, with remixed disasters of 70s Hindi classics thumping on its speakers, and truck art on its walls--nobody would trace its genes to Rajput royalty.  And this restaurant was packed.  So packed, that its owner bought out the two adjacent stores and expanded out into a couple of other restaurants.  The three places burst at the seams, while the old brand languishes.

There is a lesson to be learnt there.

And then there are the contemporary east-west fusion experiences in upscale Manhattan that will charge you the price of your first born for Indian street food presented as if it were French.  These are the places that get various assorted stars, from assorted city newspapers, from assorted critics who know Indian food like Indians know rock music. 

Indian food has always had to put on an act, the projection of an image that isn’t.  As if the food simply wasn't enough.  And, in many cases, it isn't.  There are exceptions to this hypothesis.  One is Shalimar in San Francisco, a rough-hewn Punjabi-Pakistani place that my friend C thinks could be a transplanted truck stop from India.  Mallu Cafe in Philadelphia, has the kind of unashamed originality that makes you want to throw back your collar and shove a handkerchief in it to soak in the heat. A third is Saravana Bhavan on Mary Road in San Jose, part of a successful international restaurant chain, that has maintained its stainless steel and tubelight like lighting innocence of a dosa place, where no means yes with a headshake.  And finally there is Neerob, in the Bronx, a Bangladeshi place, so original in its speech, being, and sounds that I find myself speaking in the rounded English of the Bengali when I am there, as in “nayeen owan phor” area code.  These are places that give you the ambiance of the original because—as far as I can see—there has been no attempt at gaming this.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shalimar on Jones Street in San Francisco

Off O’Farrell Street, on Jones Street, in a slightly seedy block in San Francisco, there is a cluster of Indian and Pakistani restaurants.  There are shadowy characters that hang around the footpaths there, disheveled in appearance, minding their own business, each preoccupied within his or her own bubble.  Did not look the kind who always obeyed the letter of the law.  There was a conference, and I was walking past with a distinguished colleague and good friend, when a familiar whiff--the kind of whiff you half expect to linger on a San Francisco street where the nation’s mandate on whiffs are not always obeyed.  You smell that? I asked.  My friend, who was going to receive a major award the next day, and had grown up always at the top of his class permeated with nothing but goodness and academic excellence, took a nose to the air and replied, smells like coriander.  And indeed, in addition to this whiff, there was the smell of coriander, for we were walking past Shalimar, a hole in the wall Punjabi restaurant on Jones Street.

Later that night I came down for dinner to Shalimar with my friend K.  Orders are taken from a soggy menu that looks like yesterday’s newsprint.  We ordered haleem, naans, biryani and seekh kebab.  Then we grabbed a couple of diet cokes from the freezer and sat down on rickety chairs at a laminated table.  Paji aap baithiye, hum khana ley ayengey  said the man, so we sat and waited.  Haleem is generally not too common here: chicken that is made into a paste with lentils.  There was brain fry (bheja fry), but good sense prevailed. 

Authenticity is a hefty compliment that one does not wish to give away lightly, and authenticity does not necessarily equate to exceptional quality.  The food at Shalimar is what one would get at an authentic truck stop in India.  The food is hot and virile, made with muscular vigor. Served at the table by a man with a wrist of iron ringed with a stainless kada. A dishabille kitchen that looks as if it grew out of the pit of the earth.  Rough hewn naans flop half hanging from the edge of the plate like a drunkard passed out.   The biryani flung onto your plate with disdain, angry pieces of goat glaring from within the rice.  The brown haleem sits, a viscous medieval mess plotting vengeance on your innards.  The meat is fresh, the spice is in your face, and the seekh kebabs are moist on the inside.  What more can one ask for on this temperate San Francisco evening where one man’s coriander is another man’s something else?   Do not look for contrasting flavors, or pairing of textures, but here, twenty bucks will bring you a satisfying meal for two that a forty dollar meal of Savitri Amma’s Avial and assorted flavors from the “Chutneys and Savories” section at a dainty joint in Westchester will not.

This is the place that will remind you of all the greasy joints that you frequented in college, and paid for with wrinkled single notes that came out from the deep cotton folds of your pant pocket.

Shalimar on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 3, 2012

Sharpening a kitchen knife with waterstones

Years ago, as a student of metallurgy, I was given this piece of advise by a steel plant manager: “If you can make a good steel, you can make a lot of money”. I never ended up making steel, turning to semiconductors instead, but I remember this message every time I look at kitchen knives.  I have bought several kitchen knives in the past 20 years, but the ones that have been able to stand the test of time have always been the priciest.  True to the plant manager’s advise, in steel you get what you pay for.

If steel kitchen knives are not sharpened properly, they are useless.  There are plenty of gadgets around but I have found none satisfactory.  The method I use was taught to me by a patient Japanese knifemaker on Kappanbashi Street in Tokyo—an entire street dedicated to the sale of kitchenware. It works very well.  Here is what I do.

Get yourself a couple of Japanese waterstones.  One with a grit of about 1000 and another with a rating of about 4000-6000.  There are natural waterstones available but these are expensive and geared towards loaded purists.  I buy artificial waterstones which work well, cost between $40-45, and are available on Amazon or any woodworking store. Soak the waterstones in water for at least a few minutes before you sharpen the knives and then make sure the surface is wet during sharpening.  

Hold the the knife on the 1000 grit waterstone with the front index finger holding it in place in the manner shown in the figure above.  The cutting edge of the blade should be against the waterstone pointing away from you and the blade should subtend an angle equivalent to putting two coins underneath the trailing edge of the knife. I do not actually put coins, but I like to think of this in Gedanken mode and simply eyeball the height. Just try to keep the subtended angle as constant as you can keep—and go by feel.

The waterstone is typically 2 inches wide and so this is the length of blade that it will sharpen at a time.  Divide the knife mentally into 4 or 5 sections of 2 inches-- each section will need to be sharpened separately. Start from the section closest to the base of the knife. Firmly and slowly move forward and backward for about 10 cycles, holding the edge down with the right index finger and steering with the left hand as shown in the figure above. This should take about 10-15 seconds.  The index finger should hold the blade at a steady angle.  Firmness and uniform motion rather than pressure is key.  The sharpening act occurs mostly on the push stroke and after a few strokes a slurry of grit particles will form.  It is this slurry that wears against the blade, sharpening it.

Now flip the knife so that the cutting edge faces you, and this time hold the knife and the angle in place with the thumb (see figure above).  Go back and forth again this time for about 7-8 cycles.  Now the major sharpening action occurs on the pull stroke. 

Repeat this process for each of the 4-5 sections of the blade, working your way from the base of the knife to the tip, till the entire blade has been sharpened.  Then go through this entire process one more time.  It is a lot quicker than it reads.

Try to slice a newspaper edge with the knife.  It ought to slice through cleanly.  If the edge is really sharp, you can also shave the hair off of your arm, but I am not a hirsute person and I don't need this depilation.  The thinking man cuts a newspaper.  It the knife does not cut, it needs some more sharpening, so go over the process again.

After the 1000 grit sharpening, go over the same process using the 4000 grit waterstone to give the edge a mirror finish.  I usually do just one round of 10 forward/8 backward strokes.

This process usually works.  If the knife has severe nicks then the blade needs to be sharpened on a coarser stone.  You could try a 400 grit waterstone or an oilstone.  When you buy the waterstones, it is helpful to by a cheap and coarse oilstone as well.