All Beefed Up and Nowhere to Go!

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It is the simplest things in life that leave the deepest and most lasting impressions on your heart, mind, soul… and stomach!

During my recent visit to London, I first heard of this place called Gaucho which is, for all intents and purposes, just a steakhouse. But apparently not! Throughout the 2 weeks that I was traipsing around festive London, polishing off large platefuls of crisp Fish n Chips at Borough Market, or digging into giant bowls of hearty Hungarian Goulash at Camden Lock Market, or glugging warm mulled wine by the gallon, or sinking my teeth into the giant German Bratwursts that the Brits can’t seem to get enough of at the various Christmas fairs, I came across several people who vouched for Gaucho’s quality of food, or exceptional service, or plush spotted-cow interiors. The only deterrent mental block? The high price tag, as conspiratorially revealed by a friend who actually works there, no less!Gaucho interiors

So… when fate took us to the doorstep of Gaucho at Hampstead on the very last night of our London stay, there was understandably a tremendous amount of excited anticipation, mixed with a certain sense of inevitable doom, as I was entering the place. Why doom? Because this ONE meal was going to be equivalent to FIVE big ones back home, with a currency conversion of UK pounds to Indian Rupees being 1 is to 100! Yes, that’s right, everything on the menu times a HUNDRED!

But as soon as I was handed a menu, all sense of trepidation went up in smoke and merged into the aroma of smoky steaks hanging in the air. A simple, short menu, at first glance. All you had to do was choose your cut of beef from 5 regular or 4 special cuts, choose how you want it cooked (although the only real option is medium rare!), and an additional sauce or side. Simple? Only if you are a butcher, love! Gaucho cuts
But help was at hand as our server brought out all the raw cuts on a wooden platter for us to choose from, much like how Mahesh Lunch Home or Gajalee or other coastal cuisine restaurants will get whole live crabs and fresh catch fish to your table for you to pick. Now before you start squirming, no, the meat cuts on the display platter are not alive, (duh!) but they are as fresh as you can get them, really. Add to that the fact that the meat is sourced exclusively from Gaucho-owned and operated ranches in Argentina and shipped all the way to UK to reach that plate you are sitting in front of, and that you are here after having travelled across half the world yourself to sit at this very restaurant in quaint and charming Hampstead Village in London’s posh north-west… Yes, this had the clear makings of one of the, if not THE, most memorable meals ever…
IMG_1958And then the steaks arrived at our table! Between the four of us (my Londoner lil sis Simi, her Italian hubby Giorgio, my usually-happy currently-grumpy Teddy, and wide-eyed me!) we had managed to order all the different beef cuts on offer from Lomo to Ancho to Cuadril and so delectably on… When the server assured us we would not need a steak knife for our huge slabs of meat, we nodded sceptically, but a slow-motion cut through the charred, smoky outside into the pink, tender inside of the steak with an ordinary dinner knife showed us why this was a completely different animal! ;)
IMG_1960I cut out a small piece, dabbed it lightly in it’s own oozing juice (you don’t really need extra sauce) and popped it into my mouth, my eyes automatically shutting in single-minded focus. As I breathed in the smoky flavours, the sweetness of the charred sugars and the earthiness of the beautifully marbled sirloin, I was in food paradise. It was moist, tender, caramelly, gamey, smoky and sweet all at the same time, and I just wanted to float in that sensation. When I opened my eyes, I could see the same emotions reflected around the table… and it was grumpy-back-to-happy Teddy! Such is the power of food, this food.
IMG_1969I have not ordered a steak here in Mumbai since I have come back. Call me a snob, a sell-out or a steak Nazi. For me, it’s more like the never-ending pining for lost love! I miss the texture, the aroma, the clean bite, the lovely doneness… heck, even the emotions attached with the experience! But most of all, I miss the simple glorification of meat, the unapologetic hero-worshipping of that one single ingredient, and the frills-free altar that is the plate, placed almost ceremoniously before you! And knowing that I am being and will always be served Buffalo meat for a steak here in Mumbai is not helping me contain my dangerous dam of tears… at all! Booohooohoo!

What makes the last week of the year special? 

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Christmas and the holiday season is the time we all get into our time machines. 

For most of us, it is about hitting the rewind button, revisiting memories from our  childhood. I remember the huge, colourful foldable star lantern that would be taken out carefully from its tissue wraps inside the tin trunk for Christmas decorations, and fitted with a bulb every year, 2 weeks before Christmas. In hostel, there were the gift boxes that would arrive for all the excited dorm girls, eager fingers tearing apart bright packages to reveal beautiful dresses, snow globes, jewellery and photo frames, or tuck boxes full of cheeses, chocolates, marzipans and fudges, sent by relatives in distant cold countries. For us sisters, it would be a large, beautifully decorated, home-baked cake by Mom, in a plump little red leather box, that would get hand delivered straight from the home kitchen many thousand miles away, still smelling of home… 

 
  

 For Swedish Consul General in Mumbai, Frederika Ornbrant, a wonderful cook, a great story-teller, and a precious friend, Christmas meant a jar of Pickled Herring from her grandma’s home. Her grandma would make these deliciously fragrant jars every year, working hard at selecting the ingredients, diligently following her own secret recipe and bottling copious amounts of love into those things before sending them out to the family members. Fredrika tried hard, very hard, first to get the recipe from her grandma, and then to replicate that taste. Her pickled herrings are good, she says, but never good enough! 

Decorating the Christmas tree together, jumping out of bed on Christmas morning to see what Santa has left for you in your red stocking hanging enticingly at the corner of your bed, large family lunches with tables full of the best roasts and gravies and puddings ever, reunions with cousins and whispered sharings of secret crushes, and the ever present aroma of baking hanging thickly in the cold winter air… 

  These are snapshots that most of us will revisit on our time machine, aren’t they? But Christmas is not only about going back in time, but also creating newer memories today, that you can look back on tomorrow. In my ‘present’ mode on the time machine, I know some memories will stand out in years to come. Like my late grandma’s last Christmas where she sat, small, wrinkled and beaming, outshining our big, bright Christmas tree, as she personally plucked out gifts from the tree, and handed them to our eagerly waiting group of a dozen cousins.  

  

 Or walking through the Christmas Market in the old and prestigious city of Oxford, sipping on hot German mulled wine and watching a large group of elderly locals belting out Christmas carols in the English rain! 

And that’s why the last day of the year is always special. Because the beauty of the many amazing food memories from the year gone by, and the excitement and eagerness of creating many more new and special memories in the year to come, fills you with a sense of purpose and propels you like a happily fed, roly-poly rocket into the infinite food galaxy! 

Here’s wishing each one of you a new year full of amazing foodie discoveries, heart-warming food epiphanies, bold food adventures and a path strewn with every big and little food wish fulfilled! 

  

The Star-Studded Norwegian Night!

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‘I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me…

She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?…

…And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown,

So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?’

As the catchy tune of this beautiful little Beatles’ song faded out, I wondered like many other curious fans, whether the fire he lit up was a joint, the fireplace or the whole house as revenge! Amazing how the simplest, everyday songs sometimes hide the deepest meanings…

Much like the Salmon, perhaps the most admired and enigmatic fish of them all. Imagine being born in the cold waters of a highland stream, spending your youth floating through sweet waters of green valleys, past little hamlets, and arriving at the grown ups party at the vast, salty ocean, only to swim right back, this time AGAINST strong currents, leaping high over rapids and even waterfalls, into that same mountain stream of birth, to start the cycle of life again!

And as if the Salmon’s real-life story was not fascinating enough, there are some very interesting mythological stories and folklores around it that will surely make you smile down at your next Salmon meal! Here’s one story I love… Psssst! Keeping in mind the glorious image of a golden-locks flying, hammer-wielding Chris Hemsworth will help you enjoy the story more :)

Thor and Loki and the story of the Salmon fish

Loki, the mischievous God in Norse mythology, who’s usually up to no good, really goes and does the unforgivable – he tricks the blind God Hod into killing Baldur, the God of Peace and Forgiveness, a much-loved, nice guy. Knowing very well that the other Gods would not spare him this time, Loki transforms himself into a spotted, pink Salmon and dives into the river to escape. But Thor (enter Chris!) spots the silver and pink fish flashing in the sunlight, and catches it mid-leap, gripping it firmly by the tail, not letting go despite the violent thrashing about. And so it happens that the Salmon is cursed forever with a slender, dented and tapering tail!

True, that’s not much of a curse, as is the fact that many Salmon fishing companies are named after the villain of the piece, Loki! But hey, who doesn’t love folklores? Mom’s patient storytelling got me through my meals when I was a stubborn, trouble-making toddler, and food stories still fascinate and inspire me.

So with all these wonderful stories of Loki and Thor and Salmon of Knowledge (another lovely Salmon folklore, read here) in my head, I landed up at the very formal, very grand re-opening of the Norwegian Consulate in Mumbai. The ballroom was filled with the sound of clinking wine glasses, swishing silks and hushed voices of foreign dignitaries, their Indian counterparts and business associates – a strikingly elegant room, with some very tall and very blonde people! Not my regular haunt, I smiled to myself, as the lyrics of Norwegian Wood came back to me…

“She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,

So I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair”…

But the lights dimmed, I spotted a couple of familiar faces – Rhea Mitra Dalal and Prachi Joshi – and quickly joined them at the large, white table as the graceful dancers of Attakalari Dance Academy, Bangalore glided onto the stage to enthrall the audience. At the end of the piece, the Norwegian dignitaries – Foreign Minister, India Ambassador and Consul General, Mumbai – came up to do the launch honours and revealed some interesting facts, of which one, in particular, intrigued me. Norway, reportedly, was the first to set up a Consulate in Mumbai in the historic year of 1857, (yes, the year of the First War of Independence in India, better known as the Revolt of 1857). But in 1973, for reasons not many are privy to, it closed down. So, this launch in Mumbai makes it both the ‘youngest’ and the ‘oldest’ consulate in the city, and perhaps the one generating most interest, owing largely to the frenzied popularity of… yep, you guessed it right, the Norwegian Salmon!

The Whole-Smoked Salmon served in chunks at the live station

The Whole-Smoked Salmon served in chunks at the live station

That characteristic pink-coloured slice of fish on your dinner plate can make you slobber in delight, instantly appreciate the chef’s prowess and also gauge the finesse of the place you are dining at. For, the Norwegian Salmon has become synonymous with class, distinctiveness, and refined taste the world over. After all, 14 million platefuls of smoked, pan-seared, butter-poached, butterflied, baked, ceviche-d, carpaccio-ed, sashimi-ed or just plain lettuce-tossed Salmon meals are consumed in one single day, around the globe.

A pretty, gem-like portion of lightly smoked Salmon with Egg Yolk and Rye Crisp

A pretty, gem-like portion of lightly smoked Salmon with Egg Yolk and Rye Crisp

As I marveled at the spectacular display of the Norwegian Seafood Dinner laid out for us, I felt somehow connected to those 14 million Salmon-lovers, and the millions who were at that very moment digging into their trout, mackerel, halibut, herring, scallops, and the curious Klippfish… There were petite gem-like portions of seafood on the smorgasbord, with whole-roasted Halibuts and Salmons being intricately at live stations. It was a fitting showcase of the best offerings from the Northern seas, prepared by the charming and popular celebrity Chef Sebastian Myhre from Norway.

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At a quiet exclusive chat with the charismatic Chef, he confessed that this dinner for 250 guests needed every ounce of his creativity and attention, and some very nimble knife work and presentation skills from the team at the luxury Trident Hotels, spearheaded by Executive Chef Joy Bhattacharya. As a champion of local produce, the chef wanted to create interesting pairings with the top-quality seafood and fish that had all been flown in from Norway. Thus was born the delicately seared Scallops with the light crunch of local poppy seeds paired with Sea Urchin Mayonnaise, and the beautifully cured Trout bejeweled with Löjrom Caviar (a regular at royal dinners, and at the Nobel Prize Banquets!) with a dash of kicky local mustard dressing. The pretty desserts, intriguingly displayed in a large grandma’s cupboard, had one very interesting trifle-like dessert called Veiled Farm Girls served in large goblets. The chef explained that this was the traditional dessert of Norway, a favourite carried down through generations, made with layers of apple compote, whipped cream, cinnamon and breadcrumbs. ‘And lots of butter’, he added, with a characteristic flash of his dazzling smile.

The dessert display in a wood-n-glass cupboard reminded me of Old Mother Hubbard, and made me all fuzzy and warm inside!

The interestingly named dessert, Veiled Farm Girls – A traditional Norwegian favourite

Feeling like happy and well-fed farm girls ourselves, Rhea and I reluctantly left the grand dinner and the chef behind, the taste of Norwegian Sea still lingering in our mouths and the unshakable sitar tune of Norwegian Wood playing out in loop in my head…

The charming celebrity Chef Sebastian Myhre from Norway

The charming celebrity Chef Sebastian Myhre from Norway

 

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