Monday, September 18, 2017

Tantalising Tales of Tangra at Zega

All the borders in the world are man made. Everything is connected. We are all hooked together like the colours of a rainbow.

And Thank God for that. Otherwise life would be so one-dimensional and boring. Perhaps the best outcome of migration of people is the way cuisines and cultures evolve. Tangra Chinese in one such phenomenon that happened when a large number of Chinese people came and settled down in Tangra area of Kolkata to work in the local tanneries. They brought with them a different cuisine, ingredients, cooking techniques and sensibilities. Many of them opened Mom and Pop restaurants to sustain themselves financially and also as an effort to hold onto their roots. Soon they also started adapting to the tastes of their new land and improvising their recipes to suit local tastes. 

Chef Ho Chi Ming, Chef de Cuisine at Zega, Sheraton Hyderabad hails from one such family that moved to Kolkata in 1950s. Although he is a trained Chef with a degree, he learnt this style of Chinese cooking from his family, having never been to China himself. “Two of the distinct ingredients that were added to our cuisine in India were the tomato ketchup and white vinegar,” says Ming, as he proudly showcases the short and crisp menu he has compiled for the ongoing ‘Tales of Tangra’ food festival at Zega.

The response to the festival has been so phenomenal that it has been extended till 24th Sept 2017. Although there is a Tangra section even on their regular menu, but in this festival, the Chef has recreated some of his own childhood and family favourites such as Mei Foon or fine rice vermicelli cooked with vegetables or meat of your choice and Chilli Chicken, which he says is something he tries to taste in every Tangra restaurant when he visits home, as every restaurant has its own version.

The starters include classics such as Prawn Gold Coin, Okra and Aubergine Pepper Salt and Crispy Corn Grains Ginger Coriander Sauce which were all very well prepared dishes.

For soup you can have Crab and Asparagus Soup which is a really mild and heartwarming soup that can chase the blues away. For the main course you can try the Diced Chicken Devil Sauce, a spicy, fiery preparation or Prawn Ball Hot Garlic Sauce which has small prawn dumplings oozing with flavours, seasoned with spring onion and garlic in a fiery sauce. 

The Mei Foon or rice vermicelli is a great substitute to noodles and rice and so delicious that it doesn’t need any other accompaniment. Vegetarians can try the Buddha Delight which has a medley of babycorn, shiitake, wood ear, carrot, asparagus and water chestnut. The food is piquant and full of taste which is more suited to Indian palate, yet retaining its Chinese identity.

Along with this delightful menu, the regular menu is also being served. The best part is that the festival offers an A La Carte menu so you can pick and choose what you want and are not burdened to go for a buffet or a set menu which I feel can be overbearing at times, especially if you are experimenting with a newish cuisine.

Chef Ho Chi Ming has that magic in his hands. He gives you that heat of spice and whole red chillies in one dish and balances it with a soothing blandness in another. He focuses on Schezwan and Cantonese styles with his Tangra touch. He achieves balance and boldness, tantalizing your palate with something new and then reassuring with something you have grown up eating. While he plans to visit the land of his forefathers, China some day, he is at the moment happy popularizing his unique cuisine amongst Hyderabadis, while he enjoys a nice Biryani too! Do visit Zega at Sheraton, Gachibowli to add this refreshing cuisine to your foodie repertoire.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Revel in Nizami Splendour at Aish

Ever since I moved to Hyderabad, I had been wanting a truly authentic Hyderabadi food experience. The reputation of the city preceded it even though I had never visited the city before. I have known just a handful of Hyderabadis over the years and always loved their tehzeeb and culture. Once we landed here, typically, the first few months we focussed just on the Biryani which you practically get in every street corner. But there comes a time when you have over-kill of Biryani and you don't want to even look at it! I wondered, if that was a fast falling out of love. 

Then someone told us, it is not in these newer outlets that have mushroomed all over, but the original old city outlets towards Secunderabad  that you get the real stuff. We ventured there too, one long weekend. Reaching Charminar is in itself a daunting task. By the time we did reach one of the legendary places in the bylanes of Charminar, I neither felt Nawabi or Nizami. Sweating profusely, having traversed the last stretch in an auto, tired and hungry, the long queues in front of the restaurant made us sweat more. Now having saved one’s appetite for the big meal of the day has its disadvantages when there is a waiting of almost an hour till you get anything to eat on your table!

I had a very dear classmate from IHM Pusa here, who happens to be a wonderful Chef, Mandaar Sukhtankar, Executive Chef, the Park. We made many plans to meet but somehow they fizzled out as we were never free on the same day. We had another classmate Chef Yogi from Marriott, who finally took off for Jaipur in a new role.

Once Chef Yogi moved out, I was shaken out of my stupor and made it a priority to meet Mandaar asap. Mandaar, who has been heading the Kitchen Operations at The Park, has been with the Park group for 24 years. Then a little birdie told me that Mandaar is also on the way out. So I set off for my rendezvous with the talented chef at Aish, their Indian Speciality restaurant. What to say about the restaurant! The moment you enter it, it creates an aura of old world charm and sophistication. 

It is like entering the stately baithak of royalty: marble pillars, trellis work jalis, misty, sepia tinted portraits on the walls, a stunning ceiling, silverware on the table, dull gold cushions that tell a story of their own, off-white and beige upholstery, sheer curtains sifting the morning light to a hushed tone. Later I found out the interiors are done by Tarun Tahiliani. Full marks for creating a genteel and opulent, yet understated feel.

We had so much to catch up on, Mandaar and I. He was one of the funniest guys in college. Sitting next to Mandaar and his best friend Passi at a meal meant that you would be in splits through your meal and reach a point where you couldn’t breath!

He has mellowed. That comes when you have given your heart and soul into your craft. In between there has been a book too-Romancing the Chicks! I was still meeting him as a friend from long ago so food was not the focus for me that day. But when the meal began, I was totally blown away. We had a tasting menu which was a combination of some dishes on their regular menu and some they can curate on request.
Gud Nimbu Sharbat

Paan Sherbet

We started with a Gud Nimbu Sherbet, sweetened with jaggery and taking on that caramel hue. What a simple idea, how effective! Why had I never seen it anywhere before? Later I also tried a Paan Sherbet and it was exquisite.

Coconut Peanut and Raw Mango Salad

For appetizer, Mandaar presented a fresh green salad of grated Coconut, Peanuts and Raw Mango on a bed of Seasonal Greens and Edible Flowers, with a subtle tempering of Mustard and Cumin. I could have framed it and placed it in my drawing room, so pretty was the composition! All the ingredients happen to be some of my favourite ingredients and together they spelt magic.

We took breaks between courses, talking, reminiscing, laughing. Also each course, although delicate and light, has so many elements that you need to soak in and savour.

I had heard great things about the Marag at Aish and asked for it. This rich Mutton Soup that is simmered for hours is the lesser known secret of Hyderabad(at least outside Hyderabad). Each sip of it is an elixir of nutrition and wellbeing. You could give this soup to someone on his deathbed and he will probably get up and start living again!😋 I had asked for a tasting portion but one could have a full helping of this and be satisfied as if had a complete meal.
Shikampur Kebab and Talewa Sirke ka Jhinga

The starter platter comes in the form a kebab duo- Shikampur Kebab and Talewa Sirke ka Jhinga. Shikampur is one of my favourite kebabs and it was cooked to perfection. The prawns are tangy, breadcrumbed and fried, a British Raj influence according to him.

We had a refreshing Pomegranate Sorbet after this to take a breather.

Kabsa Laham

Next in line was a delightful Kabsa Laham, an Arabic preparation which is akin to Biryani but milder in terms of spice but much richer in terms of flavor. Arabic food has always existed and has been gaining popularity in Hyderabad and a smart Chef always catches on to the pulse of people. I would have this any day over Biryani. The rice grains are a light peach colour due to the use of tomatoes with a sprinkling of pistachios and a tender piece of lamb simply melting in the mouth. It did not need any accompaniment even though a nice garlic mint chutney was served with it.

Dhania Murg with Roti and Tamatar ka Kut

Moving on to the main course now Mandaar served Dhania Murg. Now when I am eating out, chicken is my least favoured meat but again I was surprised by the abject beauty and balance of this dish. It had a ballotine of minced chicken, poached in stock and then served in a refreshing green coriander curry. Some nice naan and missi roti and a spicy , fiery Tamatar ka Kut accompanied it. I was rendered speechless once again! Chef Mandaar who was initially trained in Italian cuisine during his formative years, obviously uses those techniques to lend a new ‘lightness of being’ to Indian food. Although the portions were small, keeping in mind the large number of tasting menu courses, one did not feel heavy or burdened with rich gravies or cholesterol raising curries.

Once you have come this far, there is obviously no looking back. Moreover I cannot wait to see what he does with dessert. Again a platter of three signature desserts arrives. These are his brilliant interpretations of Hyderabadi classics. Chocolate Jaozi Cake is inspired from the local Jaozi Halwa of Hyderabad. His Double ka Meetha was baked with Saffron and served with fresh fruits. The Menage-e-Trois is completed with a Tonka bean and Orange Icecream.

My fan girl moment

Finally a Hyderabadi meal that remains true to the essence of this royal and historical city but also adapts and assimilates from the present. I consider myself lucky to have caught him in his last week in this beautiful setting and to have savoured this swan song of a meal. Chef Mandaar moves to Bangalore with a new company in a Corporate role and I am sure he will excel wherever he goes, with his intuitive intelligence and stellar innovation. His team at The Park, that he trained so well over the years would continue to conjure these magical meals at Aish. I am just glad that I managed to experience this ultimate revelry or ‘Aish’ while these two icons still converged at one point that afternoon!