No, not so far as Peru where alpacas are native, but just to Shelburne, Mass., there to visit Wheel-View Farm. At Wheel-View, John & Carolyn Wheeler raise Belted Galloway cattle fed only on grass. This is better for the pasture, better for the surrounding environment and (to my taste) makes for better tasting beef. Back in 2011 before I departed for India we had been buying beef from Wheel-View. This was our first chance to get back and re-stock. Tomorrow it is grass-fed beefsteak on the grill.
On our way back we encountered alpacas – not ranging about wild but on a small farm. There were 5 or 6, all recently shorn. These animals are a source of amazing natural fiber; some years back Kim has made me an knitted alpaca hat:
The warming power of this hat is beyond description – suffice to say should I be called upon to visit the South Pole I am more than provided for, hat-wise. Anyway searching about I find at least 16 alpaca ranchers in Massachusetts. Alpacas have been farmed in the US since 1984, and today give access to a beneficial but complicated set of tax incentives.
Nonetheless, don’t expect to be seeing any alpacas here in Arlington anytime soon. For now I’m happy to be an end-user, not a producer, where animal products are concerned.
Yesterday we were not in the mood to cook, but neither were we in the mood for the production of going to a restaurant. I had the idea of trying baida roti – a kind of fast-food where a roti is lightly fried, coated with egg, then used to roll a variety of fillings. Probably the top place to get baida roti here in Pune is Kapila Kathi Kebab, so off we went.
Set on barely 100 sq feet at a busy corner on Dhole Patil Rd., KK Kebab has no tables; you eat while standing, or in your car, or you get “parcel” – the way you say “take out” here. In a way it is the ultimate food experience: Just food, prepared while you watch and put into your hand by the cook. Also, as you get there you see this is exactly the sort of place Tony Bourdain would go to, so it’s worth a try on that basis alone.
The verdict: Great. The rotis themselves had excellent flavor, kind of like a fresh white-flour tortilla but made rich with the egg and the ghee for frying. The filling – chicken, fresh onion, and the ubiquitous green coriander-and-chili chutney – was spiced just right, with just enough heat and a bit of cardamom, cinnamon, or both, underneath.
I went by KK Kebab around 6:30 pm and, frankly I expected more of a crowd, but aside from 1-2 others, it was just me and Morgan ordering. I think these guys need a business plan. When you think how shawarma-like these rolls are I think the plan is pretty obvious:
If it worked with the Avengers is can work with Krrish, India’s super-hero:
So, KK Kebab is you’re listening, get on the phone and start dealing – next year I want to see Krrish Kapila Kathi Kebab.
Grilled Spicy Fish with Pineapple; Grilled/Roast Pork with Chili; Sticky Rice Steamed in Pineapple; my own personal pot of rice noodles in tomato/vinegar/chili sauce. Heaven indeed.
But I get ahead of myself. Almost since I began my assignment here in India, I have been looking for opportunity to travel to China. It’s only 2 1/2 time zones away; my IBM division has a sizeable presence in IBM’s China Development Lab (CDL) in Beijing; and, my IBM Sametime product line has many customers in China – so a visit would be a great chance to connect with the team I have worked with remotely for so long, and also to learn about the China market.
Work-wise, I think the trip was a great success, both with customers and with the team. In this post, though, I want to share some experiences of the trip itself.
First order of business is I need to extend my deepest thanks to my friend and colleague, Yu Y Wang, aka Charlie (many Chinese people who work with Westerners adopt a Western name to simplify communication). Here’s a pic of Charlie and myself at Beijing’s Olympic Park, in front of the famous Water Cube and one of IBM’s buildings in Beijing:
Not only did Charlie create an excellent and detailed agenda for my trip, all the time I was there he extended the greatest, most famous hospitality of China.
He fed me.
Back in USA you may get a sense of how food is viewed by Chinese people, by going to better Chinese restaurants and seeing the round tables with the carousel, packed with numerous plates of food and many people deftly wielding chopsticks to pick off morsels as the food travels by. One of our team lunches during my stay was exactly that:
Here we had: Duck Braised with Fish (anchovy size fishes you ate head, bones and all – I probably ate more than my share), Soup, Green Vegetable with Chili and garlic, Noodles, more Braised Duck, and Chicken with Peanut. And a few more dishes were added as the lunch progressed. There were about 10 of us but still, it was a hearty meal.
Talking to my teammates I find that lunch like this is pretty common, maybe not every day, but many days. What a fantastic change from our typical American work lunch of hastily grabbed pre-prepared sandwich, eaten at your desk, while you attempt to catch up on email. This lunch connects you with your teammates, clears your mind for the afternoon’s work, and just tastes really great.
My first night in Beijing Charlie took me out for one of the culinary must-dos of a Beijing visit: Eating Beijing Roast duck. This we did at Jiuhuashan Roast Duck, one of the top duck restaurants in all of the city:
The duck here is fantastic: The skin has a flavorful crunch, but with just the perfect amount of oil so that is seems each mouthful melts as you taste it. And we had not only roast duck but duck intestine – sautéed with vegetables and chili, amazingly tender – duck gizzard – roasted and sliced paper-thin, chewy and full of duck flavor – duck tongue – small, chewy bits in agar jelly – and duck soup – very rich duck flavor and also with the right hint of ginger and scallion.
Charlie is from Sichuan Province and after a few tentative inquiries – “Do you really like spicy food?” – on Tuesday night he shared with me the signature dish of Sichan: hot-pot at one of the branches of Haidilao Hot Pot restaurant. Haidilao is an award-winning place, and deservedly so – the service, quality and ambiance was outstanding. We arrived a bit early so there was no wait for us, but when we left we saw the large waiting area was filled with 100s of people, playing cards and other games, and having free snacks while they waited for tables.
The whole point of hot-pot is, well, the pot:
We got a pot with 2 separate soups, a peppery, vinegary soup on the left and a rich, mushroom-flavored soup on the right. I saw other diners using a single type of soup.
While your soup is heating up, the servers bring the ingredients:
From left to right they are: Duck throat, Catfish, Pork intestine, Duck intestine, Pork Sausage. And these are only some of the ingredients; we also had beef, vegetables, shrimp dumplings, and tree-ear mushrooms.
You probably can guess how this works, but if you can’t: The soup comes to a boil, then you grab a fresh ingredients with chopsticks and plunge it into the hot soup. After 1 –2 mins, it’s cooked, and you can dip it into a bowl of other sauces, or just eat it hot from the pot. The various ladles can be used to rescue lost morsels – of which I created several, as my chopstick skills are not as great as Charlie’s.
Another great treat at Haidilao: hand-stretched noodles. I should have captured a pic, but here’s one from the web:
In this “noodle dance”, the noodle-guy will stretch one noodle using moves half rhythmic gymnastics, half wu-shu – the noodles fly around like lassos till, when finally stretched enough, they gather up the long strand and drop it in the soup.
My last night Charlie took me to the Middle 8th Restaurant (a name I still don’t understand) which specializes in Yunnan food; Yunnan is just to the south of Sichuan and Charlie explained the food was similar to that is his home province, though not quite as spicy.
The picture that introduces this post was taken at Middle 8th … I should have taken more, but even though I was at end of my trip and had tried more dishes than I can remember, I was still more eager to eat than to photograph. In addition to the grilled fish, roast pork, and pineapple rice, we had cold noodles, a kind of cold spicy grain dish (not sure if it wheat or some other grain) and “steam pot chicken”, the famous soup of Yunnan, which looks like this:
That was my trip: 5 days and 50 dishes, and each dish delicious. I hope to be back in the spring. Till then … thanks, Charlie, and thanks everyone at CDL – you can be sure I’ll bring my appetite with me when I return.
* In China there is a proverb, “To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven.” There is a book of this very title, which I have, written by AP reporter Audra Ang about her experiences as an expat journalist in China.
Where Indian food is concerned, the one thing that seems a universal constant here is comfort. I don’t find a lot of fine dining hereabouts, but all around is food that is filling, satisfying, simple and, well, yummy. A top example is Nandu’s, where they serve pretty much just parathas, a griddle-fried pancake made from wheat flour and stuffed with different things. Just like the swedish meatball, every culture has its own version of the pancake. India, abundantly blessed in so many ways, has many versions, from dosa to roti to paratha to uppam to madak saan to cheelas and more.
But Nandu’s is pure paratha. Here’s what you get:
This one was stuffed with potato and chopped fresh green chili. It comes with coriander chutney, some raita, and some pickle – mango, lime or other vegetable in salt, vinegar and more chili. On the spoon is a dollop of ghee – clarified butter. It all comes to you hot off the griddle. You drizzle the ghee all over, tear off bite-size chunks of pancake, dunk in raita or chutney, and then eat. Then you eat more, and along with thinking how just plain good it is – the butter, the pancake, the filling, all fresh and hot – you’re also cursing every hour you ever wasted eating American fast-food.
The price … wait for it … a big, big Rs. 90, or about $1.50.
I’ve been in India over a year, with less than a year remaining and people are already asking, “What will you miss when you go?” I have a lot of work to do on that list, but the #1 entry is easy: Nandu’s.
Driver Rupesh presented us with a hefty sack of fresh peas a few days ago. Kim shucked them, blanched them, then warmed them in some ghee with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. Verdict: Delicious, with good flavor, a little crunch and a not unpleasant starchiness you don’t often get in peas back home.
Where did these peas come from? Rupesh uses the phrase I have heard many Indians use, “my native place” – the home village or small town. His family has a farm of a 11 or so acres and there they grow sugar cane, onions, “ground nuts” (ie, peanuts), and peas.
Despite decades of modernization, India is still an overwhelmingly farming country – 69% of the population is classed as rural. The vast majority of people you meet here in the cities are one, or possibly two, generations removed from a farming life. You may be a security guard, bank clerk, or an accountant, or an engineer, but your father is/was a farmer, or your grandfather was.
The top 3 Indian states in terms of urban population are Maharashtra (which has Mumbai and Pune), Tamil Nadu (which has Chennai) and Uttar Pradesh (which has 7 cities of greater than 1M population, including Lucknow and Agra). Uttar Pradesh – U.P. as typically called – also is the state with the greatest rural population, over 150M.
The story of country people coming to the city to find opportunity is in many ways the central story of India today. A famous 1967 film, Upkar, presents a story about an upstanding farmer and his educated, urbanized, and greedy, brother:
You don’t need to know Hindi to get what’s going on here. A big part of this story is the division of land: The evil brother wants to divide the land and keep his share to himself, the good brother wants to keep the land together and work it in partnership.
This very much still happens today and is the main reason the average size of a farm here in India is only 1.3 hectares – a bit bigger than a US football field.
BTW, the guy on crutches is Bollywood superstar Pran; his character is “Malang Chacha”, a wise old farmer who is the spiritual advisor to the film’s hero, named “Bharat”, which is the Hindi word for India. Pran passed away only a short time ago at age 93.
As quoters of scripture go, it’s tough to beat The Byrds, who told us “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)”. Actually, they were quoting Pete Seeger, who was quoting Ecclesiastes, but I’m willing to call Seeger as much a prophet as any of the original old-timers.
If you can’t recognize it from the pic above, the season here in Pune – to which I’ve just returned – has turned to mangos. The two above are Alphonsos – after Duke
Afonso de Albuquerque, the founder of Portugeuse Goa – just bought by myself today from Hypermarket. I purchased three of these and after peeling and wolfing down the first, the two remaining siblings were a knife’s edge away from a similar fate when it occurred to me to document … well, their fruity goodness.
And boy, are they good. Sweet, creamy, rich, they are like ice cream – in fact I can’t imagine why anyone would ever have mango ice cream if they could have one of these instead. At the market I saw gift boxes of a dozen such mangos – this weekend it’s a mango-fest for me.
Behind this simple indulgence there is considerable drama. While some mangos are sold direct by farmers, who are trying to maximize their prices, the vast majority go through APMC (Agriculture Produce Market Committee) facilities. APMCs are state-established marketing boards that establish actual markets where produce may be sold. I’m not sure exactly how these work – there definitely seem to be some protections afforded growers when they bring produce to the APMC markets – but like so much here there is considerable corruption, and generally the wholesalers band together to keep commodity prices low. There are many middlemen and ancillary trades involved, and each one needs their cut, as Wal-Mart is finding out. Farmers further get the sharp end of the stick, for example because of a freak hailstorm – the storm caused a premature drop of the mangos and a flood on the market. My mangos were priced at Rs. 120 the kg.; my 3 mangos cost Rs. 98. The price a farmer actually gets is about Rs. 1-2 per mango.
Farmers also have to contend with bad weather and a pest called ‘Thrips’ which attacks mango trees. For all this, the profit in mangos is still considerable, relatively speaking. Among the things farmers try to increase their return is artificial ripening, which is performed by adding calcium carbide to the mango crates. Despite fines of up to Rs. 10 lakh (about $18,800) the practice still persists. Finally, one cooperative of mango farmers here is going online to sell mangos direct.
I’ll leave it to my readers with bents towards economics and/or social justice to ponder on solutions. For my part it is time to dispatch my two remaining examples of Duke Alphonso’s legacy. If you didn’t catch it, the title of this post is also a 60’s rock quote – I’ll leave you all to watch that while I dine on pure, Maharashtran tastiness.
Christmas Eve dinner at Chez Salazar was – if I may say so – a satisfying success. The Oysters Rockefeller were from a recipe by Tyler Florence. A little too much Pernod, but still they were great.
Consommé came out well: clear, beefy and with that smooth feel that comes from the bones in the stock. Jacques Pepin’s recipe was our guide here, though this is a dish where the technique – not that difficult, really – is the important part: Do not over-boil, but just let the soup simmer so it gently bubbles up through the “raft”. Finishing with a splash of madeira worked out nicely.
Next came the Sole meunière, made with grey sole filet (actual whole Dover soles being hard to come by nowadays). This is totally simple – season the fish, dredge in flour, fry in butter and a little olive oil; when brown move to the serving plates, then in the same frying pan make a beurre blanc with lemon juice and capers; finally, pour the hot sauce over the warm fish so it sizzles. Total time, from filets to plate: about 7 minutes. This was good fish.
Finally, the entrée: Prime Rib of Beef with Sauce Béarnaise, Red Rice from the Camargue, and ginger-cashew green beans. It has been some years since I last made an egg-based sauce, and I have had my share of scrambled-egg sauce disasters. But I prepped by intensive Julia-watching, and the sauce was a success. Make sure you use enough vinegar!
The red-rice is a traditional Christmas dish in France, usually made with peas, scallion, leeks or other green vegetable to create a red-green holiday motif. If you’ve never tried this rice, well, try some; the flavor is nutty, a bit sweeter than brown rice, and has a nice “crunch” that makes it good for both warm dishes and cold rice salads. We made ours with braised leeks and red-pepper.
The ending was Kim’s pumpkin mousse pie. This is a much lighter pumpkin pie, with beaten eggs and cream, and pumpkin folded in. Since I missed Thanksgiving this year, I prevailed upon Kim to make this for Christmas Eve. The butter-crust came out perfectly. I have to say, much as I like apple pies, this pumpkin pie is my favorite of pies.
Maybe this seems like a lot, but half the fun here is in the cooking. We begin noontime or so, starting the early parts of each dish, having some snacks, some wine, a little more cooking, a little more snacks … you get the picture.
When all is done and we are ready to start, one thing remains, three tones from my rin gong:
The tones are clear, and as they fade they take away the rushing of the day, the week, the year. This is not a time of year to rush – I want to savor the lessons of the season and truly taste the things before me.
I hope you all had a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, a Peaceful Solstice. I and the family will be ringing in the New Year from Pune – talk to you all in 2013.