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Culture

Watching History Unfold

Turn a corner in Turkey and you will be greeted with a story. After all, this country can trace its civilization back to over 10,000 years where cultures from Sumer, Babylon and Assyria converged and then went their separate ways.

Today, Turkey has emerged as one of the leading tourist destinations as people are drawn to its historical significance over the centuries. Take for instance, cave churches that the Byzantine Christians cut into Cappadocian landscape. The most popular are the ones inside the Goreme Open-Air Museum, but there are several other chapels and churches dotting the valley that you can explore by yourself.

Then again you can see how the Ottoman royalty lived life king-size in ?stanbul’s Topkap? Palace. Amongst the largest and oldest surviving palaces in the world, in 1924 it was turned into a museum. It commands an impressive view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, and the complex is surrounded by 5 kilometres of walls and occupies an area of 700,000 square meters at the tip of the historical peninsula.

Turkey collageBut if history if not your cup of tea, then Turkey has other things that will get the blood coursing down your veins – like hot air balloons. Just sign up for one of the many companies offering hot air balloon tours in Cappadocian skies and discover amazing views of geological formations along the valleys with a tranquil pace.

The country also has some beautiful Aegean beaches where you can soak up the sun or go for water sports and eastern mountains where you can go for a long trek. The night life of Istanbul can come as a surprise; the nightclubs keep pulsating with life well past midnight.

The bazaars are not for the faint hearted, overcrowded as they often are. The sellers enjoy striking a bargain as much as they enjoy striking a conversation with their customers, over copious amounts of Turkish Çay. Be careful that you do not end up buying more than you intended.

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Culture

Bodo Cuisine

Gitika Saikia bristles with indignation whenever she tells people that she is from Assam and folks ignorantly question her about whether the Assamese really eat everything that moves! Yes, she proudly claims that her kinsmen are adventurous when it comes to all things culinary but adds that there is a logical reason behind this gastronomic risk-taking.

“Most Assamese people were tribal folks and hunters living in hilly regions and dense forests. They were also nomadic in nature and would not stay in one place for long. They had to survive by hunting any animal that came their way – be it fish, bird or a land animal – and cooking and preserving the meat whichever way they could. Over time, some of them turned to farming and other trade, but most stuck to their hunting roots, which explains how they came into their unfortunate legacy of eating everything that moves,” adds Gitika.

She rues that little is known about Assam, other than its famous tea and its wild life sanctuaries. “Assamese cuisine is very unique from other north eastern cuisine, but unfortunately most people presume it to be similar to the more popular and dominant Bengali cuisine, which is unfortunate,” adds Gitika.

This is one reason she has tied up with Trekurious in India to introduce laypeople to the nuances of this fare. She curates a special menu and welcomes Trekurious’ customers to her home where she takes them on a culinary journey to Assam and back, explaining the special aspects of each Assamese dish and the ingredients used. Here she shares some insights of Bodo cuisine, one of the sub-sects of Assamese tribal culture.

“Assamese cuisine is very unique from other north eastern cuisine, but unfortunately most people presume it to be similar to the more popular and dominant Bengali cuisine, which is unfortunate” - Gitika Saikia
“Assamese cuisine is very unique from other north eastern cuisine, but unfortunately most people presume it to be similar to the more popular and dominant Bengali cuisine, which is unfortunate” – Gitika Saikia

COOKING IS SERIOUS BUSINESS
Assam has many tribes of which Kachari is a major one. Bodos are a sub-sect of the Kasauri tribe and are spread throughout the central and lower parts of the state. While most of the other tribes have taken to urbanisation, Bodos have still held on to their traditional cultures, be it in their attire, their lifestyle or even their food.

The first thing to remember is that cooking is no trifling business in Bodo households. Every conventional home would have two kitchens – one where the main cooking is done and an adjunct dining room where the family would sit to eat.

No one other than the lady of the lady of the house and the trusted servants were permitted to enter the sanctum of the main kitchen, to ensure that the area was kept clean and uncontaminated. Young daughters-in-laws had to work their way to gain entry into the kitchen and get access to family recipes, which shows that cooking was serious business. Of course, things have eased up a bit and today Bodo homes have only one kitchen for the sake of convenience.

Interestingly, the Bodos are one of the few communities in India who use the smoking technique to preserve food. Most other regions prefer to either sun-dry ingredients or use oil as a preserving agent. While Gitika does not know where and how smoking as a practice originated amongst the Bodos, she says it is a common practice to see them smoke dried fish and pork chunks, which they then proceed to store in hollowed out bamboo stems. These are then hung over the fireplace in the kitchen to keep them from spoiling and getting mouldy, and also from miscreants stealing them!

Chicken in Black Urad DalUNUSUAL STAPLES
Rice is the main staple ingredient in every meal and contrary to popular notion, vegetables and roots do find themselves playing an important role in the daily diet. Some of them might be a little off the beaten track though. Take the case of Narzi, which is made from jute leaves. Since jute is a common crop grown in Assam, its dried leaves are used to use make a thin, bitter gravy along with either pork or fresh water fish. The leaves have a very bitter taste, so the trick is to know exactly how many leaves have to be added to the gravy so that it tantalises the palate but does not make the gravy overwhelmingly bitter.

Gitika reveals that preparing Narzi is like a litmus test for new brides as it shows their culinary skills. Besides eating boiled and steamed rice, rice is also ground in a stone pestle to make a batter to prepare the much-loved Thekeli Peetha, which resembles the idli. The ground rice batter is placed in a thin muslin cloth and then steamed in the mouth of an earthen pot, placed over the cooking fire for few minutes. The rice cake is sometime stuffed with black sesame if it is supposed to be a savoury to be eaten for breakfast, or with coconut and sugar if it is a celebratory snack.

Rice is also used to brew a very potent beer called Zou. The Bodos also offer this brew to Lord Shiva during Baishagu, the festival when they welcome spring, as an offering. Till a few years ago, a guest of honour was always welcomed with a glass of Zou, because it was considered to have medicinal benefits due to various herbs that went in during its preparation and was even said to cure cholera. It is only in recent times that it is looked down upon as a potent intoxicant.

Amongst meat, chicken (called Dau in Bodo) and pork (called Oma) are most favoured by Bodos, with most being inclined towards the latter. In fact Oma with black dal is a common preparation in most households and is made at least twice a week.

The Bodos also like to spice their meals with side dishes called Napham. Akin to chutneys, this is basically fermented fish chutney and it is said that one can predict which household is preparing Napham from a mile away – that is how strong its smell carries! Tiny pond fish are caught and fermented in January and then pounded with salt, crushed red chillies, some mustard oil and spices and stored to be eaten with rice and dal throughout the year.

What few people know is that most Assamese eat the pupa of the worm and not the worm itself. But the Bodos prefer eating the protein-rich grub called Polu Leta, after deep frying it. Image source: Wikipedia
What few people know is that most Assamese eat the pupa of the worm and not the worm itself. But the Bodos prefer eating the protein-rich grub called Polu Leta, after deep frying it.
Image source: Wikipedia

EXOTIC FOOD
In days gone by, there were some ingredients that Bodos used to enjoy in abundance that are now exotic even for locals and would raise the eyebrows of most gourmands. Take the case of silkworms, which is deemed a delicacy in most north-eastern states of India. What few people know is that most Assamese eat the pupa of the worm and not the worm itself. But the Bodos prefer eating the protein-rich grub called Polu Leta, after deep frying it.

“Then there are the rare-to-find water bugs called Koroi Pok, which are found in small freshwater ponds in villages near paddy plantations. When the fishermen cast nets, these bugs get caught and Bodos are fond of eating them, since they are rich in protein,” Gitika adds. But, it is rare to find them now; they are considered to be a delicacy even amongst Bodos villagers.

Not too long ago, Bodos would eat bats too, but later some superstitious beliefs took ground that bats nestled only in haunted trees and villagers stopped hunting them. Today, only those bats that are electrocuted are cooked and eaten because their death was natural!

Today, the Bodo cuisine, which was never in the limelight anyway, is slowly slipping away into obscurity. A few home cooks like Gitika are trying to keep the interest alive by tying up with companies like Trekurious that organise pop up curated meals.

Given that India can give any country a lesson when it comes to food diversity, hopefully experiments like these will result in a wider larder of interest about its cuisines from its own citizens. ?

Gitika Saikia has been battling Type 2 diabetes for several years now, which is what turned her attention towards food. And that is when she realised that instead of looking west, she just had to go back to the time tested recipes of her indigenous Assamese cuisine to stay healthy and fit. A communications specialist by profession, who has worked at Tech Mahindra Business Services, Big Bazaar and Zicom Electronic Security Systems, she now runs Gitika’s Pakghor, a homegrown culinary experiment to give people an insight into the gastronomical delights of India’s North Eastern cuisine.

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Culture

An Eggcellent Festival

The world over, kids await the dawn of Easter morning. Other than Halloween, this is the one day they can gorge on chocolates without anyone stopping them. What makes Easter more fun is that they have to unearth these hidden treasures, making the prize that much more valuable.

While we leave the youngsters to their sweet-laden expeditions, let’s understand how eggs, and eating chocolate, became the mascot for Easter. Christians around the world celebrate Easter to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The celebrations have a symbolic connection with the beginning of a new life and a salute to the approaching spring. This is how bunnies, which are very fertile and have several offspring, came to be associated with this event.

While eggs became associated with Easter because they are an emblem of rebirth, there is another reason for this connection. In the olden days, during Lent devout Christians abstained from eggs and would devour it with gusto on Easter. But since it was supposed to be part of celebratory fare, plain eggs were given a colourful and delightful makeover over the centuries.

From the 13th century onwards, they were sometimes painted in bright colours with homemade dyes or charcoal; drilled and filled with chocolate and even crafted from gold and precious stones. The best example of the latter were the prized glitzy eggs created by Carl Fabergé for the Russian Czar and Czarina in the 19th century.

Easter eggs were exchanged as gifts when families visited each other and given to children for good behaviour
Easter eggs were exchanged as gifts when families visited each other and given to children for good behaviour

Easter eggs were usually exchanged as gifts when families visited each other and chocolate eggs were given to children as a reward for their good behaviour. To give it a festive touch, fables were built around the occasion. It started with the Germans who began the ‘Osterhase’ ritual where children would build a warm nest for the egg-laying hare to lay its coloured eggs. On Easter Sunday, their efforts were rewarded with the presence of various brightly coloured chocolate eggs and candies in these nests. This tradition caught the fancy of kids worldwide and became a global custom.

OTHER EASTER TRADITIONS
Eating candy and chocolate is not the only thing that is associated with Easter. Back in the 18th century, it was an occasion for people to parade about in their best attire when they attended church. Royalty and the upper class would order special clothes and hats and then walk about to admire each other’s apparel, earning the sobriquet of ‘Easter Parade’. Even today, there are cities in the US and Europe that still hold on to this Easter Parade tradition where they strut around in ornate Victorian outfits.

According to legend, the tradition of hot cross buns was started by a London widow who hung up a bun in memory of her sailor son, who had died at sea.
According to legend, the tradition of hot cross buns was started by a London widow who hung up a bun in memory of her sailor son, who had died at sea.

In the UK, the royalty chose this occasion to show their benevolent side from as early as the 13th century. On Maundy Thursday, the Queen would donate money to people who have put in efforts for social causes. Even the Pope
practices the ceremony of washing the feet of other clergymen, reenacting the ritual that Jesus performed on his apostles before his crucifixion.

Don’t let this delude you into believing that the Easter weekend is a sombre affair. There is plenty of fun and games attached as well. In various European cities, citizens chase hard boiled and elaborately decorated eggs in a rumble-and-tumble race down a hill to see whose egg reaches the bottom first.

Then there is the custom of baking and eating hot cross buns. According to legend, the tradition was started by a London widow who hung up a hot cross bun in memory of her sailor son, who had died at sea. It even inspired a nursery rhyme, giving rise to quaint images of a baker selling piping hot, fresh from the oven buns with the sign of a cross on them, to throngs of children.

With all these fun activities included, Easter has moved on from being a time to celebrate rebirth to celebrating life and camaraderie. This is the time to make friends and forgive foes. And yes, bring out the child in you by hunting for Easter eggs hidden all over the house and indulge in some tasty traditions of eating your way through the entire weekend!

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Culture

Basque In Its Glory

What is common to restaurants like Arzak, Akelarre, Martín Berasategui, Azurmendi, Mugaritz, Andra Mari, Marqués De Riscal, Zaldiarán and El Molino De Urdániz? Sure they are all Spanish, their names are a dead giveaway. But two other things that they share in common are that they are all Michelin star establishments and are based in the Basque region of Spain.

In fact, most of them are located in the seaside resort town of San Sebastian, where it is said that you can’t throw a stone without it ricocheting from the door of one of the 40 Michelin star restaurants. The profusion of these renowned establishments has turned the spotlight on Basque cuisine, which till a few years ago was considered to be too rustic to feature on the menu of a tony restaurant catering to the swish set. Today, the same upmarket clientele set can’t seem to get enough of this cuisine and the growing culinary tourism to San Sebastian offers enough proof of this.

NATURAL ABUNDANCE
Geographically, the Basque region has been blessed by nature several times over. Located in the south-west part of Europe, it has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Mediterranean sea on the other, with the mountain chains of the Pyrenees, Aralar, Aizkorri and Gorbeia acting as giant barriers between the two gigantic water bodies. Seafood is found as abundantly as game, domesticated animals and fresh plant produce.

Despite the availability of this natural richness, the local Basque people were not very affluent. Most were farmers, hunters or fishermen, who reared, grew or hunted their food. Till the 15th century, the main crops cultivated in the region included millets, beans, lentils, fruits and some vegetables, though seafood, beef, and fresh game were the main source of sustenance.

Salted cod used to feature frequently in most Basque meals, though with over fishing the fish is harder to find and has now become a delicacy to savour.
Salted cod used to feature frequently in most Basque meals, though with over fishing the fish is harder to find and has now become a delicacy to savour.

When the news of the discovery of America reached the seafaring community of Basque, they decided to venture there to explore trading opportunities. On their return to their homeland, they brought back produce like potatoes, tomatoes, corn and peppers. Spanish homemakers started experimenting with these exotic (for them) ingredients, while cultivators started farming them. Soon, these produce became an intrinsic part of Basque cuisine.

WHOLESOME IS WELCOME
Like the rest of Spanish food, the Basque cuisine is wholesome and hearty. Seafood is still the mainstay of the cuisine. Centuries ago, when fishermen would spend upto a week to haul a good catch before heading home, they had to come up with ways to preserve the fish.

Since cod was the most common fish they could find in the sea, they figured out that coating it with salt and then drying it increased the shelf life of the fish. In fact, salted cod used to feature frequently in most Basque meals, though with over fishing the fish is harder to find and has now become a delicacy to savour.

What most people do not know is that Basque cuisine has many dimensions based on the three different provinces in the region. The cold Álava region in the south is mountainous with ravines, valleys and vast rivers, and the food here has lot of game, fresh water fish, pork, poultry and beef, in addition to tubular roots, mushrooms and other vegetables that grow in the mountains. The climate of Álava is ideal for vineyards and the famous Rioja wine is grown and bottled here.

The Vizcaya region is located along the coastline of Cantabric Sea. Fresh seafood, including shrimps, squids, sardines, tuna, anchovies and clams are available in plenitude. Salted cod is another specialty of this region. Guipúzcoa in the northern part of the Basque region is faced alongside the Atlantic Ocean, and is close to France. It has the sea on one side and mountains on the other and this popular tourist spot has access to all kinds of fresh seafood, meat and plant produce that one can imagine. This is also the region where the French influence is most evident in the local cuisine and where every meal is nothing short of a celebration. If you gobble your food in a hurry, you truly run the risk of inviting the cook’s ire, and rubbing a Spaniard the wrong way is truly a folly.

The most popular tapas is Pintxos, where small bread slices are combined with various ingredients, cooked and eaten as an appetizer.
The most popular tapas is Pintxos, where small bread slices are combined with various ingredients, cooked and eaten as an appetizer.

EVER EVOLVING
Over the years, given its proximity to France, Basque cuisine has assimilated some of the French finesse, and this influence is evident in the modern cooking techniques adopted by local chefs. This new age cooking is popularly known as nueva cocina vasca, where seasonal produce are cooked simply with an emphasis on freshness, but still holding on to some elements of the robust traditional Basque cuisine.

Conventional Basque cuisine of yore relied heavily on thick and creamy sauces, cream and butter, which was to help people deal with the harsh winters and their labour-intensive lifestyle as farmers and fisherfolk. Food preparation was elaborate and relied on slow cooking, especially the stews, which would be bubbling in the pot from early afternoon till they were eaten with some bread, tapas and fish during dinner.

Like the rest of Spain, tapas is a way of life in Basque especially as a late evening snack. The most popular tapas is Pintxos, where small bread slices are combined with various ingredients, fastened with a toothpick, cooked and eaten as an appetizer with friends at the bar.

The Basque people were also master butchers and there was hardly any part or organ of an animal that they could not cook – where it was offal, brains, snouts, feet, etc. To make these look less gory and appetite suppressing, they would concentrate on presenting them captivatingly, presenting partridge eggs with shrimps in a salad with olive oil dressing, or adding the chewy glands located near the lower jaw of fish in a broth.

Even today, Basque chefs are busy experimenting with various ways to use and cook the locally available produce in a neo-classical Basque-meets-French style. Given the enthusiasm that locals have about food, and the high expectations that visiting tourists bring along, they aim to be sophisticated and unpredictable yet rustic in the same breath. So passionate and patriotic are they about Basque cuisine that they would rather hang up their aprons than have adjectives like insipid or uninspired ever get attached to their native food.

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Culture

The Elusive Eel

If you visit any Japanese city on the Midsummer Day of the Ox, which falls sometimes towards July-end, you are likely to see people patiently wait outside restaurants to eat one of the most loved delicacies in the country – eel. If you miss catching sight of these people milling around street side restaurants, your nose will surely lead you to these unpretentious eateries! The combination of sweet soy sauce and the tart sake used to cook the eels gives it an unmistakably unique aroma.

Japan’s tradition of eating eels in the summer months, between May to August, can be traced to the 17th century Edo period. As people suffered from heat strokes and other heat related ailments, Japanese healers discovered that consumption of eels helped people regain their energy and stamina sapped in the hot summer months. With its high protein content and admirable digestive properties, eels are reputed to stimulate the appetite even during the blazing heat of midsummer.

FOR A SELECT FEW ONLY
Though once found in abundance in Japan, over the years eels sport the halo of an exotic food because it is not easy to get them. In fact, they are an endangered species in that country, which accounts for the highest consumption for eels worldwide.

The Japanese are such sticklers for the unique taste of the freshwater eel, called Unagi, that there are few takers for the fish imported from countries like US, Spain, Northern Ireland or England. In other parts of the world too, people are often fascinated with the idea of eating eels but are also fearful about where they eat it. For good reason too – it takes an expert to cook it without killing
the eater!

Eels’ blood is poisonous which discourages other creatures from eating them. It contains a toxic protein that causes muscle cramps,
including those of the heart’s muscles, triggering a cardiac arrest. For the same reason, a very small amount of eel blood can kill a
person.

Hence, eels have to be cleaned and cooked properly, as raw eel is poisonous, while overcooked eel becomes very chewy and not very pleasant tasting. Rather than risk cooking it themselves, people prefer to eat it at restaurants that have a reputation for cooking it right.

Eels have to be cleaned and cooked properly, as raw eel is poisonous, while overcooked eel becomes very chewy and not very pleasant tasting.
Eels have to be cleaned and cooked properly, as raw eel is poisonous, while overcooked eel becomes very chewy and not very pleasant tasting.

POPULAR EEL DISHES
In Japan, a popular eel dish is Unajyu, where broiled eel and rice are served in two separate lacquer ware boxes, with the eel stacked on prepared with a broth of eel innards and pickles, with a pronounced flavor of the soy sauce. Many restaurants have come up with their individual versions of soy sauce-based gravies, which coupled with fresh eel, make it all the rage in their neighborhoods – whether it is the upmarket ‘Nodaiwa’ in Tokyo or the unassuming ‘Matsuyosh’ in the Kabutocho district.

Some of the more common ways to cook and serve fresh eel includes Hitsu-mabushi. The eel is grilled, cut into fine slices and
later mixed with cooked rice in a wooden serving tub called hitsu. This preparation can be eaten in three different ways – as it is, seasoned with scallions and wasabi or with hot green tea poured over it; a procedure called cha-zuke.

There is another way to savor eels though its preparation can take longer. The Kabayaki process is one where the eels are sliced open, the head and bones removed, the body is skewered, dipped in bittersweet sauce and then cooked.

There are different methods of preparing Kabayaki in the East and West of Japan. In Tokyo, the eel is cooked after steaming to give it a fluffy texture. In Osaka and Kyoto, however, the eel is broiled over an open fire to provide a moderately firm consistency.

In Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture – a location that is famous for eel production – ‘eel pie’ with eel powder kneaded into the pastry is popular as a souvenir. In the Kanto area, eel fillets are roasted over charcoal and are steamed once, after which they are roasted again over medium heat while being basting with oil. In the Kansai area, an entire gutted eel is roasted on a skewer while basting.

However, with over-fishing, fewer eels are making it to the dinner tables in Japan and other countries. It is difficult to breed these elusive creatures in captivity because the larvae often travel upstream in rivers for couple of years before they mature. Until their numbers swell, the Japanese might soon have to go without what is their quintessential soul food.

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Culture

Keeping Up With The Old Ways

Christmas — it is that time of the year when homes are decked with boughs of holly, a faux fir tree has tinsel drizzled on it, stockings are hung on walls and guests keep streaming into the home. There is cheeriness and bonhomie all around. And everyone looks forward to indulging in gut-busting lunches and dinners, with some munching in between.

But not many know about the history behind some of the dishes they pop into their mouths during the festive times. The traditions, which were once set in stone, have now evolved to become more contemporary.

Nonetheless, what is the fun of eating a convention-dictated meal, without knowing how and why it came into being? Let’s take a journey to glimpse some of the orthodox and some not so unorthodox, conventions that ruled what appeared on Christmas dinner tables in different parts of the world.

CAKE MIXING
Cake mixing as a ceremony seems to be the high point of several establishments the world over, and increasingly in India. It is meant to signal the advent of Christmas, when families would get together and each member would toss in a handful of dry fruits and berries in a large bowl of rum or sherry with a prayer for the clan’s well-being.

The Panettone is to Italians what the Hot Cross Buns is to Britons and the Fruitcake is to Americans
The Panettone is to Italians what the Hot Cross Buns is to Britons and the Fruitcake is to Americans

From a culinary standpoint this tradition also made sense, given the cool December month needed a spicy and decadent Christmas cake as a hearty, warming dessert. Moreover, it could stay without refrigeration (which was not an option in the old world) for months. We were also told by a Native German that usually the grandma of the family would mix all the dry fruits and berries in brandy and rum for the Christmas cake, but not use all this for that year’s cake.

Some of the mix would be left over to mix in the next year’s cake and so on. So for all one knows, they were eating cake that had some bit that went back to over a decade. Sounds like a sourdough starter, doesn’t it? But then that’s what tradition is all about, a little piece of history and a little bite of a legacy.

PANETTONE
This humble Italian bread has an interesting story that few know about. Many years ago, a poor Milanese baker fell in love with a rich merchant’s daughter. Back then, the rich would soak different types of spices, nuts and seeds in rich wine to be mixed into the Christmas cake, while the less privileged made do with bread.

The ardent youngster wanted to gift his beloved a decadent cake to profess his love, but he managed to collect only some dried raisins, and orange and lemon peels to add to the flour, eggs, butter and yeast. Undeterred he worked hard and long to bake the perfect bread, and that is how the Panettone came into being. The merchant’s daughter fell in love with baker’s earnestness to please her, as much as she did with the bread and they married and lived happily every after.

Narrating this story, Chef Alessio Mecozzi of CastaDiva Resort & Spa in Italy says that the Panettone is to Italians what the Hot Cross Buns is to Britons and the Fruitcake is to Americans. “Most bakeries start selling Panettones from the first week of Christmas till the New Year. These days, besides the traditionally big Panettones, which weigh over a kilo, they also make smaller muffins, since they are easier to eat, store and gift,” he adds.

YULE LOG
Also called the Bûche De Noël in France, where French Patissiers pride themselves in creating visually stunning representations, this is an elaborate cake made by rolling delicate sponge cake filled with pastry cream and frosted with chocolate buttercream. It is
designed to look like a log as the name suggests, complete with the ‘age rings’ of the tree bark. It is further decorated with accents that add the final touches, meringue (now fondant as well) mushrooms and holly.

The history of this cake dates back to the Iron Age, back when people came together to welcome the winter solstice; a time when the main source of warmth was love, liquor and firewood! The same wood would also be used to bake, since it was a commodity worth
having multiple uses for.

Sponge cake was one of the oldest cake recipes around, so it made sense to use it. But how would they have added elements to suit the season? By adding the holly and the mushrooms that sprouted under the trees ever so often.

Some say Eggnog originated in Medieval Britain, a foggy, cold country where anything rich, milk and ale infused was always welcome.
Some say Eggnog originated in Medieval Britain, a foggy, cold country where anything rich, milk and ale infused was always welcome.

And like most gourmet foods, it was the French who made the Yule Log popular. As proud advocates of their cuisine and self-proclaimed (and in time world acclaimed) bakers, their word was gospel. They added decorations to this ode to ‘firewood’ and every bakery in France vied for sales by displaying elaborate versions in their show windows.

SPANISH CAGANER
Not much is known of this sweet and sad character that originated in Catalonia, possibly centuries ago. While talking to a Spanish Chef, we were told that Spaniards start celebrating Christmas from the first week of December when the first decoration is put up on the tree. The first dish of the season is this strange character who is shown with his pants down and ‘doing the business’!

Despite how unappetizing that sounds, it is an old tradition. Since it is a custom that dates back to the 17th-18th century, one can assume it is a character that adds a ‘human element’ to the otherwise highly traditional nativity scene, for where there are commoners, there will be ‘real life’. Incidentally, ‘El Caganer’ literally means ‘the shitter’!

EGGNOG
Milky, boozy, sweet and not supposed to be ‘eggy’, this Yuletide beverage has plenty of history attached to it. Some say it originated in Medieval Britain, a foggy, cold country where anything rich, milk and ale infused was always welcome. Since milk and eggs were not for the bourgeoisie, the rich used this beverage to toast health and wealth during the festive season.

But how did it become a drink for the festive season? It was probably when people immigrated to the new land, United States, where they owned farms with plenty of milk and eggs. Rum was added for warmth and so came about the recipe we know now.

The name however remains a mystery. It could have come from the word ‘noggin’ which meant cup for all we know. For now let’s be content with the fact that it happened and it warms our bones.

Mince pies were shaped like a cradle to represent the birth of baby Jesus and his bed in the manger.
Mince pies were shaped like a cradle to represent the birth of baby Jesus and his bed in the manger.

MINCE PIES
As the name suggests, mince pies were originally filled with meat. They were shaped like a cradle to represent the birth of baby Jesus and his bed in the manger. It was only when American colonies began to fill with European immigrants and families from the homeland would want to send these treats to their loved ones, that the meat probably got replaced with minced fruit leftover from the Christmas pudding. Once more it was about the shelf life of the dish and not so much the need for the wealthy to show off.

These are but a few, better known examples of the many dishes that surround the legend of Christmas. All our traditions have deep culinary roots and it must be our endeavor to preserve them for the generations to come.

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Culture

A Transformative View Of Japanese Food

Hideaki Sato has something on his mind. He wants to serve traditional Japanese food but in a grand setting, while also adding a contemporary touch to the dishes to make them part of a memorable dining experience. What’s more, he has managed to do it.

Walk into the two Michelin Star Tenku RyuGin, which is also amongst Hong Kong’s posh restaurants, and you can order from the haute new version of Japanese cuisine, also called kaiseki – unknown dishes that its Chef De Cuisine, Hideaki Sato, has managed to give an exotic twist to.

The Japanese cognoscenti have already given this restaurant a thumbs-up because each morsel is flawless and reminiscent of the food they get back in Japan. The reason behind this is that every ingredient is sourced from the country of origin and is personally approved by the chef before it can be used in the dish. While some might label this as an ostentatious and obsessive trait, Hideaki prefers to describe it as paying extremely close attention to ingredients.

Hideaki“We often use local and western ingredients, but our customer appreciate Japanese ingredients more. I believe that the pure taste of the ingredient is most powerful and memorable to any person. I always try to bring out the pure taste, so I choose simple ways of cooking and presentation,” he adds.

It is this dedication to detail that has made Hideaki Sato become one of the chefs to watch out for. He has participated in global culinary events such as ‘Volant des Chefs 2013’ and ‘Omnivore World Tour 2014’ in France and was also a part of the 15th Annual World Gourmet Festival at Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok.

LEARNING THE BASICS OF JAPANESE CUISINE
Born in 1976 in the mountainous Nagano prefecture of Japan, Hideaki spent his childhood in nature’s lap exploring the rivers, waterfalls and forests near his home. After his schooling he decided that he wanted to see the big world out there and figured that the best way to do that was to become a chef. That way, he could easily fit into any country and not worry about going hungry!

He chose French cuisine as his specialty because it was so unlike his native food and also because it embodied fine dining; another thing that was entirely removed from the rustic Chabu cooking style that he grew up eating. “Choosing French cuisine for my specialization was also logical as there were not too many French restaurants in the country. Also, I found it easier to understand the method of western cuisine back then,” says Hideaki.

While the critics might vote that Hideaki’s culinary creations, like the Black Egg Custard, are gastronomic perfection, he believes he has a lot more to learn.
While the critics might vote that Hideaki’s culinary creations, like
the Black Egg Custard, are gastronomic perfection, he believes he has a lot more to learn.

Before he hit 25 years of age, Hideaki had received his diploma in professional sommellerie and soon became the executive chef of a French restaurant situated in Nagano prefecture. He also worked in the kitchens of the famous ‘Hermitage de Tamura’ French restaurant in Karuizawa between 2003 to 2008, where he later graduated to becoming the head chef.

His life changed when he got the opportunity to intern as an exchange chef at Tokyo’s Nihonryori RyuGin, one of Japan’s premier restaurants. There he watched the restaurant’s famous founder-chef, Seiji Yamamoto, whose approach to cooking went beyond the ordinary.

Seiji once demanded that an eel be sent for an MRI, as he wanted to understand its anatomy better and figure out different ways to cook it! So impressed was Hideaki by Seiji’s style of merging the rigid kaiseki fare with revolutionary molecular gastronomy methods, that he decided to join Ryugin’s team in 2009.

Soon he impressed Chef Seiji enough with his own culinary skills to help the latter design Japan Airlines’ first class in-flight meals. Later, Chef Seiji entrusted Hideaki to helm the kitchen when Ryugin opened its first international restaurant, Tenku Ryugin, in Hong Kong. That Hideaki has more than fulfilled this brief is evident from the fact that the restaurant has already got two Michelin stars under its belt and Tenku RyuGin continues to be the place to be seen dining at in Hong Kong.

FOOD PHILOSOPHY
While Japanese cuisine is simple in nature, when melded with molecular gastronomy techniques, every ingredient’s deceptively simple flavor is heightened. However, Chef Seiji does not believe in experimenting with elaborate preparations in a bid to stand apart. “I believe the pure taste of ingredients is the most memorable and impressive. Too much preparation and decoration alienates customers from that experience,” Hideaki adds.

This is in sync with his own cooking philosophy, which is based on three words – pure, simple and seasonal. “These three words describe my cuisine best, as well as Japanese cuisine. All ingredients have their peak season in which their tastes and flavours are the
most powerful and therefore more unforgettable,” he points out.

While the critics might vote that Hideaki’s culinary creations, like the Candy Peach or Sukiyaki, are gastronomic perfection, he believes that he has a lot more to learn. He wants to present Japan’s culinary traditions and ingredients, and up the ante of their acceptance by using modern-day techniques – all in a sophisticated fine dining setting.

Categories
Culture

A Sausage For Every Palate

The Germans take their sausage and beer seriously. You do not want to walk into a pub in Germany and ask for sausages to accompany your pint without being specific whether you want a Bockwrust or Bratwurst (yes, these are not typos and these sausages
are entirely different in taste, appearance and texture).

The Germans can make a sausage from almost every part of the animal that has contributed its meat to this steak in a tube, which probably explains why the country is home to over 500 varieties of sausages. German Charcuterie Chef Hans Hartman explains why his countrymen are so obsessed about sausages and accord it the reverence that he admits it truly deserves.

It is best to understand the water content in a particular type of sausage before deciding how to cook it.
It is best to understand the water content in a particular type of sausage before deciding how to cook it.

TEXTURE MATTERS
The most important thing about a sausage is its texture. It should be succulent and tender with a fine balance of the seasoning. This is where the choice of meat is critical while making sausages. If too much lean meat is used, then the sausage will lose its juiciness and tenderness.

Describing the sausage-making process, Hans states that traditionally charcuteries would get the entire animal from a butcher and then choose the cuts for the sausages. The rest of the animal would be cured, smoked and kept aside for other use.

For the sausages, the charcuterie would finely mince appropriate portions of fat and meat in small batches and then add the required seasoning and flavors. “Making the sausages in small batches helped them correct any error in taste and texture before proceeding to make the next lot,” Hans states, adding that these would then be stuffed into natural casings from sheep’s intestines.

However, most of these companies usually use mechanical food processors to grind the meat, which is why it lacks a distinctive texture and flavor. Additionally, these are machine wrapped into synthetic casing giving it a homogenous taste, lacking a characteristic flavor.

Hans Hartmann states that traditionally charcuteries would get the entire animal from a butcher and then choose the cuts for the sausages. The rest of the animal would be cured, smoked and kept aside for other use.
Hans Hartmann states that traditionally
charcuteries would get the entire animal from a butcher and then choose the cuts for the sausages. The rest of the animal would be cured, smoked and kept aside for other use.

COOK ‘EM RIGHT
Most people presume that all sausages should be grilled and eaten. That is not necessarily the case. According to Hans, the best way to cook sausages is definitely by grilling them, but one should poach them first before grilling. Poaching retains the water content of the meat and melts the fat within. When this sausage is grilled, it cooks in this internal fat from the inside out.

Also, it is best to understand the water content in a particular type of sausage before deciding how to cook it. For instance, a Frankfurter should be boiled first and then grilled, while the Munchner Weisswurst should simply be poached and eaten. Chorizo, Bratwurst, Andouille and Bockwurst do not need any special treatment and can be grilled and eaten with some mustard sauce, pickles, potato and sauerkraut.

ALWAYS GO FRESH
Most people pick up sausages without wondering what goes into them. Hans reveals that the packaged sausages usually have less of the real meat and more of mechanically recovered meat, which includes the animal’s offal, as well as preservatives and additives to keep them fresh and avoid discoloration.

It is better to build a good relation with your butcher and ask him to procure fresh sausages for you, rather than have to pick the packaged variety. “However, if you must buy it, then check carefully before purchase. If the sausage is slimy, it has passed its use-by date,” adds Hans.

The good news is that establishments like Sofitel Mumbai BKC now offer fresh sausages made inhouse. Bite into one of them and you will immediately know what you have been missing all these years.

“Hans has trained our staff at Sofitel to make sausages from scratch and this is now available for purchase at the hotel. We plan to tie up with a distribution partner to make it available pan-India,” reveals Chef Indrajit Saha, Executive Chef of Sofitel Mumbai BKC.

Hopefully, other establishments will follow this example and customers will get the bang on their buck when they purchase their bangers!

Read this complete article in the September 2014 issue of CaLDRON magazine.

Categories
Culture

Heavenly Morsels

The world loves kebabs, there is no denying that. After all, who can resist some tender grilled meat covered with spices that exude an enticing aroma that just demands to be savored? Not many, we bet!

What is even more interesting about kebabs is that they can’t be associated with a single country or culture. Their culinary influence spans from the Middle East to India to North Africa and the Mediterranean.

Moreover, though the popular notion is that kebabs are synonymous with spitted meat, the truth is that one can make mouth watering kebabs from vegetables and dairy products too. Ajay Chopra, Executive Chef of the Westin Mumbai Garden City debunks this and other myths about these wonderful nibbles.

Myth #1: You cannot cook kebabs without a sigree or tandoor.
Reality: Kebabs can be made in numerous ways and by using different cooking methods. You can use a heavy-duty grill pan or skillet
to make kebab or deep fry some variants like the Shammi Kebab. You can also use microwave ovens with convection and grill mode. I prefer an OTG (Oven Toaster & Grill) to a microwave, since the latter’s magnetic waves interfere with the moisture in the food making it dry and chewy.

"While there is no denying that a Tandoori Chicken cooked in a microwave on convection mode might not taste the same as when it is cooked in a tandoor, both taste equally good," - Ajay Chopra, Executive Chef, Westin Garden City Mumbai
“While there is no denying that a Tandoori Chicken cooked in a microwave on convection mode might not taste the same as when it is cooked in a tandoor, both taste equally good,” – Ajay Chopra, Executive Chef, Westin Garden City Mumbai

Myth #2: Using anything other than a tandoor is compromising on its taste.
Reality: This is more of a dilemma than a myth. Cooking kebabs in a tandoor will give it a smoky flavor, which cannot be replicated in an oven or on a skillet. While there is no denying that a Tandoori Chicken cooked in a microwave on convection mode might not taste the same as when it is cooked in a tandoor, both taste equally good.

At the same time, if you use a cast iron skillet for a Galouti Kebab it will retain its authenticity since traditionally this is the cooking technique of the kebab. If you cook a Galouti Kebab in a tandoor it will lose its melt-in-the-mouth texture.

Myth #3: Any marinade can be used for just about any kebab.
Reality: Marinade is the most important element of a great tasting kebab other than its cooking technique. The most common mistake people make is either over-marination or under-marination of the kebab. People over-marinate thinking that it will give it more flavor and make the kebab softer.

Actually, this only makes the kebab mushy, robbing it of its texture. On the other hand if you under-marinate the kebab it will have no flavor and the meat will be tough, dry and stringy.

Myth #4: Marinate for a few minutes and cook the kebab. Simple.
Reality: On the contrary, it is important to marinate the kebabs twice. The first marinade is for exposing it to acid that penetrates the meat and makes it tender. For this, use ingredients like ginger and garlic with salt in the first marination, to allow the meat to have its own flavor.

The second marinade is equally important as it defines the kind of flavor and spices that should infuse within the kebab