Whiskey Lore From Yore…

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I didn’t know there was actually a World Whiskey Day until I was square in the middle of it! Going by the kind of loving Moms and Pas get on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I am sure all whiskies get a generous measure of loving on Whiskey Day… maybe that IS the point! But then again in India, like all the other ‘(Your relative’s) Days, Whiskey Day is not that big a deal really, because the truth is we are a nation of both relationships and whiskey lovers, sometimes more the latter than the former!😉

Here’s something to prove my point… Let me take you to an elegant evening at Westin Garden City in Mumbai last week. Some of the biggest whiskey aficionados of the city had gathered at the swish, breezy poolside to celebrate the journey of single malt whiskies at a very exclusive dinner. No occasion. No calendar ‘day‘. Just the fact that the finesse, dedication and craftsmanship that goes into these distinguished man-made creations need to be applauded and appreciated. And so there we were, a coterie of about 2 dozen whiskey enthusiasts (Suneeta Sodhi Kanga, Antoine Lewis, Shilpa Chawla, Sameer Malkani, Ekta Manning, Dalip Tahil, among others) on a journey to explore Scotland’s stark highlands and verdant valleys through its celebrated whiskies, with barrelfuls of trivia and intriguing history thrown in at every step by the witty and well-informed Nick Ord of Diageo Reserve Spirits.IMG_9978

That this was no ordinary whiskey tasting session was evident right from the start with sparkling-wine welcomes, unique bar crunchies (loved the crisp n spicy, coated hazelnuts), and an open-air table setting. But once seated at the plush tables with personalised place cards and gleaming silverware, we knew something special was afoot. And that was a full, five-course dinner, specially crafted and painstakingly paired with single malts, just for that evening, just for us! Each course had gone through several iterations in the Westin kitchens, under the hawk-eye supervision of Executive Chef Rahul Dhavale and General Manager Ashish Rai. ‘Every component of each dish has been carefully selected to blend together, to not only match, but complement, even flatter, the malt whiskey it is being paired with’, Ashish revealed with a smile, signalling a top-up of my crystal glass of Caol Ila, the 12-year aged Scotch from misty Islay that I absolutely fell in love with.IMG_9987

IMG_9968The result of  this ‘several-weeks-long’ exercise unravelled before us languidly, the first course of Asparagus and Fresh Burrata hitting the spot nicely with the Glenkinchie for company. The second course of Stuffed Kashmiri Morels with its beautiful umame taste was a bit of a head-scratcher. What was the stuffing made of – White mushrooms? Cauliflower? Couscous? The mystery remained unsolved even while conversations raged on about unusual stuffed dishes, like the Parinde mein Parinda (‘Bird inside Bird’, an intriguing Mughlai dish that has a duck stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a quail, and an egg in the centre of it all!) Only much later, it was revealed that the meaty, heady Morels were stuffed with the simple, humble ‘broken wheat’, or ‘Daliya‘, creating that perfect match. What a genius idea!

IMG_9976The next course was the Seared Scallops wrapped in Prosciutto, and even though I am unapologetically partial to scallops, I will still stick my neck out and say this was the dish of the evening, and raise a toast to the long-lasting marriage of this beautiful, salty bride with her handsome smoking, seafaring groom, the Talisker😉

It is not easy to hold a candle up to the intense flavours of the grand, aged Lagavulin, and the main of Australian Lamb Loin with Risotto only moderately managed to do so. But out came the picture-perfect last course of Mignardises, and everything else was forgotten. A dessert that is every bit as delightful to eat as its name, the charming jewel-like bites of chocolate desserts served on a patterned glass-plate made us exclaim in wonder and sigh in contentment, making it the perfect finish with the fruity Singleton.

IMG_0002So you see… We, the people, can’t help but get emotional when it comes to relationships, and food… and stories that weave around both! And because we are a nation that loves to celebrate everything around us, this journey of malts that is now a centuries-old folklore is just another reason (excuse?) for us to celebrate. Without an occasion. Without a calendar ‘day’. Cheers to that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thandai – The New Cool!

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Thandai – just one word in India evokes so many different feelings, emotions and memories.

Cool, because it is a drink made of spiced, flavoured cold milk. Delicious, because a plethora of aromatics and good bits and bobs blend beautifully to impart a lovely taste and a heady aroma. Festive, because the Thandai is usually associated with special occasions like Holi, the festival of colours, and Shiv Ratri, the celebration of Lord Shiva. And memorable, because the milk-based drink spiked with bhang (a hand-ground paste of the buds and leaves of the cannabis plant) is perhaps the only socially permissible community drink consumed en masse, and makes for treasured stories of hilarious intoxication in families and friend circles.

img_2269A riot of various aromas comes together to create the unique flavour of the Thandai. Rose, poppy seeds, pepper, saffron, screw pine, cardamom, cinnamon, almonds and pistachio, sometimes mace, aniseed, nutmeg and a bunch of other seeds and nuts get added into thick cold milk to make it a luxuriously rich drink that is often a meal by itself. Don’t be surprised if you have to actually chew the drink before gulping down its cool freshness!

It is this unique flavour combination that has got the feverishly creative new age chefs and mixologists of the country thinking up a profusion of new dishes, flavour pairings and even cutting edge cocktails at the hipster bars and lounges of the top cities. Thandai has definitely found a new swagger! 

An easy extension of this flavour is ice creams, and so many of the city’s ice cream parlours like Natural’s, Gokul, Apsara etc. have come up with Thandai-flavoured ice cream, which is being scooped off by the dozen to the thirsty and hot Mumbai-ites, scorched by a blazing summer sun. Papacream Ice cream Parlour in Churchgate is also rolling out nitrogen-infused scoops of the Thandai flavour, to the joy of little (and big!) kids enjoying the theatre of smoke and clouds from tubes and barrels.

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Thandai Panna Cotta 

But some restaurants like Spice Klub in Lower Parel and Food Trek in Versova have taken it  a step further in making Thandai Mousse, which is something like the snobbish cousin of the humble Kulfi to end your meal with. And then there is Spare Kitchen in Juhu which has acquired quite the fan following for its Thandai Panna Cotta, the perfectly wobbly and creamy Italian dessert with a decidedly Indian twist.

But perhaps the most intriguing of all Thandai dishes is the amuse bouche served at Masala Library, the fine dining restaurant from the stables of Zorawar Kalra‘s Massive Restaurants. A curious little globe floating in a bath of chilled, bright yellow milk is served to you right at the start to clean your palate. As you pop the Thandai globe in your mouth, it bursts delightfully (breaking free from its ‘spherification’ made with the use of molecular gastronomy techniques) giving you an explosion of freshness and taste that perks you up for all the flavourful Indian dishes to follow.

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The Bollywood Bhaang cocktail

And then there is another spectrum altogether, that of molecular cocktails, a stellar example of which is the Bollywood Bhang, a quirky vodka-based cocktail at Masala Bar, another blockbuster presentation by Zorawar and team. This place has its own ‘mixology lab’ and is easily the best place in the city, no, make it the country, to be seen sipping a suave, sundowner cocktail against the spectacular backdrop of a fiery setting sun and the expansive Arabian Sea. Like all their signature cocktails, the Bollywood Bhang, infused with Basil smoke and served in a glass skull, also comes with a cute story that is best recounted by ace in-house mixologist Arjun Chaudhary.

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This Thandai shop in Lucknow called Raja ki Thandai is perhaps the oldest in the country – nearly 150 years 

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The 4th generation owners still sell only 2 kinds of Thandai – the plain yellow one and the greenish bhang one 

But hang on, the excitement doesn’t stop there! Last week at an exceptionally high-energy ‘dance-off’ cocktail mixing session at Bombay Canteen, Dean Callan, Global Brand Ambassador of Monkey Shoulder, one of the tastiest and finest whiskeys in the market today, put together a Thandai-based whiskey cocktail that was as heady as it was lip-smackingly delicious.

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Dean Callan with his new babies, the Thandai-Whiskey cocktails

Dean is frantically looking for a good name for this baby and planning to quietly sneak it into his mind-blowing repertoire of snazzy cocktails back in London. Given their love for almost everything Indian, the swish Londoners are in for a happy surprise real soon!

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A high-energy Holi scene from Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani 

From large brass glasses sloshing into enormous casks of freshly made Thandai, not drunk but thrown down the gullet and shirt-front of hero and heroine alike, in colourful song and dance sequences in Bollywood villages settings, to glinting Martini glasses in the hands of spiffily-dressed nightclubbers in London’s Shoreditch, and onwards to the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower and vertiginous skyscrapers of Manhattan. Hmm, quite the journey for a humble drink to arrive on the world stage, what say?!

 

Swine. Dine. Cloud Nine!

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Lisa - I’m going to become a vegetarian!

Homer - Does that mean you’re not going to eat any pork?

Lisa - Yes

Homer - Bacon?

Lisa - Yes, Dad!

Homer - Ham?

Lisa - Dad, all those meats come from the same animal.

Homer - Right Lisa! Some wonderful, magical animal!!!

It’s amazing how this single, ‘wonderful, magical animal‘ has been the uniting factor for so many people I know, and I am sure people you know too. Some connections would have probably started on a cheesy note with ‘Bebe, if you come home with me, I promise you bacon in the morning!’. Others would have been building up to something, but ended abruptly with ‘You know what’s better than bacon? Me buying you  drink!’ Because honestly, NOTHING is better than bacon. And then there are couples walking down bacon-painted aisles to be joined forever in holy ‘porkimony’, and wedding guests showering bacon bits and blessings instead of rice and flowers on the just-married bride and groom, dressed like a leg of ham… ok, maybe not the leg of ham bit, but who knows for sure! 

177395459_1280We all have our unique ways of celebrating pork, don’t we? And a lot of these celebrations often spill over beyond the confines of the festive dining table with a Suckling Pig Centrepiece, deep into the lives of those around, creating bonds like sausage links, delicious and long…

One such celebration started a few years ago at Salt Water Cafe called Swine Dine where your undying love for pork is all you needed to be armed with (and a little bit of early bird luck to make it to the limited 20 seats!) in order to be a part of the special, exclusive, long community table of pork lovers gathered to feast on a multi-course, nose-to-tail pork meal, designed and prepared by one of the cleverest young chefs of the country, Gresham Fernandes. A few days ago, after an illustrious round of sell-out dinners across several cities, the Swine Dine came back to its crib to celebrate its 5th anniversary, with a handful of repeat offenders regrouping for some high octane porky action. And action-packed it was!

Chef Gresham had pulled out all stops to put together a menu that had all things pork – from cocktails like Margarita and Bloody Mary infused with bacon, to soft Belly Baos and crunchy Pork Parts, a Pork Salad inspired by the legendary Bomra’s in Goa, Chops and Ribs, Curries and Roasts, Sorpatels and Chorizos, to the final hurrah of the Chocolate Cake with Bacon Jam. Keeping count of the dishes as they flew around the table was not easy, especially with the unabated flow of the smoky and meaty Bacon Ritas. But I did the hard work and counted as many as ELEVEN pork dishes served in big share bowls, wobbling on meat boards or plonked heartily on wooden platters that got passed around amidst all the crunching and munching and communing with fellow pork-lovers. “Bacon, Pork and Ham! Oh what a lucky wolf I am!”:)

hestons-victorian-feast-001A few years ago, ‘mad-scientist’ celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal had done a series of themed dinners called Heston’s Feasts for a select group of guests in themed costumes who were invited not just to enjoy an elaborate and delicious meal cloaked in gastronomic trickery, but also to be entertained in an ambiance straight out of the Middle Ages, or perhaps the pages of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.

IMG_9527No one dresses up like a pig at the Swine Dine dinners (phew!). But the sense of belonging to an exclusive community, and the desire to meet people from various professions with intriguing life stories, over a mundane yet interesting thing like pork, is what has made Swine Dine into something of a phenomenon. Passionate discussions on bizarre foods, enchanting travels and interesting dining experiences are all the entertainment you need around a table peppered with piggy cutouts of name cards, doodled place mats and cheerful fairy lights. And the porky dishes are always tantalisingly different!

Little wonder then that the community table of 20 hoggers fills up as soon as the next date is announced. Speaking of which, when is the next one, Shobita?:)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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