The Magic of Saffron!


, , , , , , ,

Lets play a quick colour game!

First, an easy one…. Grass is? Green! Even if you can’t distinguish between shades of blue and green, grass will always be, truly and unequivocally, GREEN!

The next one is a bit tricky… An orange is? Orange! Stay with me, there’s a point to this nonsense…

Now, a Tomato is… Red? Good. So a Tomato Soup is obviously red, right? Wrong!

It is White!

At least the creamy, tangy broth, deliciously flavoured with basil, that you are served right at the start at Zaffran, is a White Tomato Soup! No tricks, no additives, no molecular gastronomy here. And no GM White Tomatoes either, thank you. Just plain red tomatoes and a clever culinary technique that has been in use for hundreds of years… combined with the endless patience of a monk!

The famous Kala Khatta Margarita... one of the best!

The famous Kala Khatta Margarita… one of the best!

But when you first meet Chef Chetan Sethi of the 12-year old brand Zaffran that has now grown to a reputed chain of restaurants, he couldn’t be further from a monk! A free-spirited adventure biker, he sports a skull and bones insignia on his black chef jacket, and would fit right into a head-banging crowd at a heavy metal concert. But when it comes to food, his Mr. Hyde persona takes a back seat and the good Dr. Jekyll dons the apron. Or does he? Because serving you a WHITE Tomato Soup is not just playing with your taste buds, it’s playing with your head. And that smacks of evil, right? ;)

But as the specially crafted Chef’s menu unfolds before us, with starters ranging from Mushroom Galouti to Chello Kebab in quick succession, one realizes that, just as in life it’s not about only good or evil but the balance of both, so also in Zaffran’s food, it is about a balance of what you love, and what’s good for you ;)

The melt-in-the-mouth Mushroom Galouti Kebabs

The melt-in-the-mouth Mushroom Galouti Kebabs

The signature Lassi, laced delicately with the fiery-coloured Saffron

The signature Lassi, laced delicately with the fiery-coloured Saffron

Here, it’s traditional flavours of classic dishes carefully balanced with the new-age demands of a more health-conscious, fitness-aware diner. So, no heavy handedness with spices in the Kashmiri Dum Aloo, or floating pools of oil on the signature Butter Chicken which has been a consistent best-seller for a decade! Although there is no holding back on a dish as grand as the Slow-Cooked Leg of Lamb – the Zaffran e Raan – but it’s pairing with the airy and beautifully spiced Yakhni Pulao (my favourite) gives you a glimmer of that good-evil balance again!

A meal of such proportions can nudge you unerringly towards a food coma, especially because there is no stopping the Chef’s train of dishes. Were it not for the lip-smacking Kala Khatta Margarita, easily one of my top 3 cocktails in the whole city (yes, it is that good!) and the Chef’s anecdotes on quirky food habits, I would have probably fallen asleep right on the bowl of Chhana Payesh (Cottage Cheese Dumplings in a Saffron-flavoured Milk syrup). Which would have been a crime, because I can have Chhana Payesh by the buckets, balance be damned! :)

The delectable Chhana Payesh...

The delectable Chhana Payesh…

... and how to eat them by the bucket!

… and how to eat them by the bucket!

As I leave Zaffran, carrying some beautiful memories of the afternoon back with me,  one interesting question discussed over lunch plays though my mind – What does a diner want out of an eating-out experience today? Is it something new and exciting that wows your senses? Or is it comfort food that you love and enjoy anytime, anywhere? Is it discovering a new dish or cuisine? Or is it harking back to those classic dishes ordered at family dinners out while growing up? Is it a taste adventure, a search for all the mind-boggling varieties that the world has to offer? Or is it the familiar flavours (THAT Chilli Chicken, THAT Biryani!) which are lurking around somewhere in the corners of our mouths, and hearts, occasionally unlocked during home town visits?

So… What do YOU order when you go back to your favourite restaurant? Your old favourite? Or Today’s Special?

Blue Corn Tacos and how I got my Mexican mojo!


, , , , , , ,

Blue Corn Tacos are my new ‘thing’!

I have always LOVED Mexican cuisine. The bold flavours, spicy -tangy hit, and vibrant colours of the dishes that make up Mexican food always appealed to me more than any other international food. In fact my first cookbook, bought from the legendary Calcutta Book Fair, was a humble little thing, simply called ‘Mexican Cooking’ – and it does not have A SINGLE FOOD PICTURE IN IT!!!


My beloved Mexican cookbook from my teens!

My beloved Mexican cookbook from my teens!

The well-thumbed rusty pages that tell many stories of my early kitchen escapades....

The well-thumbed, ‘rusty’ pages that tell many stories of my early kitchen escapades….

I don’t know why I picked up the book… Was it the exotic sounding names of dishes like Empanades, Tortillas, Mole and what not? Or was it the promise of local Indian ingredients, or easily available substitutes, by the author Aroona Reejhsinghani on the back cover? That had to be a big factor. Because, keep in mind, this was at a time when I had to travel more than an hour each way to pick up some Spaghetti, where Gnocchi and Fettuccine (my favourites) were as alien as… well, Enchiladas for example! And Sweet Corn was not something you made into flour, it was something you ordered in a soup at the beginning of every family night out at Kwality Restaurant on Park Street. But more than any of this, I think it was the book I was reading at the time… Nancy Drew-The Clue in the Crossword Cipher! 😁😁😁

C’mon give me break, this was an adventure set in exotic Peru, amidst Machu Pichu and the Inca Trail and what we now glibly refer to as the Nazca Lines. Poor old teenaged me was just discovering the fascinating Inca, Mayan, and Aztec cultures, getting hopelessly obsessed with their customs, food and even clothes (yes, quill headbands and ponchos too!) Sorry Mom, for being such a nut-case and a pain in the you-know-where!

Whatever the reason, here I am many years and many stunning Mexican dishes later, still thumbing through the brown ‘rusty’ pages of this loved cookbook, and dabbling with the idea of making Pork Adobo!

Enough of nostalgia, now about the Blue Corn Tacos, and why it’s my new ‘thing’… you didn’t forget that, did you? ;)

Chef Vikas's Tres Leche Cake seems to be an inseparable and the most delicious part of my birthdays!

Chef Vikas’s Tres Leche Cake seems to be an inseparable and the most delicious part of my birthdays!

It’s something that Chef Vikas Seth introduced me to at Sancho’s, for which I will be eternally grateful to him. I love these beauties because of their snappier crunch, their fuller flavour, and their rich dark brown colour that is quite different from the golden corn tacos you normally get. Little wonder that this is the rage right now around the world, and one of the pillars, so to speak, of the much-loved New Mexican Cuisine.

The startling shades of Blue Corn!

But Blue Corn Tacos are not easy to come by on this side of the planet. Mostly because they are made from the pretty rare and scarily expensive Blue Corn, that grows almost exclusively in Mexico and a couple of Southwestern states of the USA. Although the variants can range from a light grey to almost black in colour, the blue ones are really startlingly BLUE! The startling shades of Blue Corn!But they are rare also because the blue corn kernels are quite hard, making the process of extraction of flour from them that much more labour-intensive and time-consuming.


Blue Corn Tacos… Simply, mystifyingly delicious!

For now, you can leave all the work to the guys at Sancho’s, where it’s available till the end of this month with veg, chicken, beef and pork fillings, topped with some really delicious freshly-made guacamole, ground up in a curiously-shaped volcanic rock bowl called Molcajete, a traditional Mexican mortar-pestle. Ask for a little dip of Spicy Green Tomatoes on the side to pep things up, or add more crunch and freshness with a topping of Apple Slaw. Get messy with your hands. Get your jaws around a large crunchy mouthful. And don’t, DO NOT stop at one!

The Hopi tribe of Native Indians in Arizona worship the blue corn. Who knows, after this experience, you might too! ;)

Into the Snowy Wilderness of Alaska


, , , , , , , , ,

(As published in Hindustan Times – Brunch)

To many, Alaska is that snowy wilderness where igloo-dwelling Eskimos hunt Beluga whales, Bigfoot makes special appearances and penguins dance to a merry tune. Truth be told, when I was packing my bags for a seven-day Alaskan cruise, I secretly wished to see at least one, if not all of the above.

But all those thoughts went out to sea at the first sight of our 16-storey-high, 1,000-foot-long luxury liner. This was no ship, this was a floating city: casino, designer boutiques, a 1,500-seat theatre, swimming pools, Jacuzzis, spas, gyms, gourmet restaurants, a dozen cocktail bars and a real grass lawn on the deck!

Sure it rocked a little as it left Vancouver. But the on-board entertainment of Vegas-style musicals, magic shows, and stand-up comedy, was a good distraction from any motion sickness. And of course, there were adventures at every stop.

From Ketchikan…
Our first Alaskan port was a rainy, sleepy town with no indicators of it being the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’. Salmon season hadn’t taken off yet. But the beautiful carved and painted totem poles that dotted the landscape didn’t need a season to be appreciated. Hand-carved replicas crammed shop windows, right next to deerskin leg-warmers, moose-leather caps and some quirky fur thongs.
Pick up totem souvenirs in Ketchikan .

But the most breathtaking sight was en route the Totem Heritage Center: our bus driver hit the brakes on seeing a pair of deer, perfectly still, in the middle of the road. Their large eyes stared back, completely at home in the quiet rain and in no hurry to get anywhere.

Via Tracy Arm Fjord…
An hour later, we were flying low over the misty Fjords in a seaplane, taking in cedar forests, snow-capped peaks, waterfalls bouncing off granite cliffs, and rivers snaking along deep valleys. Little white dots of grazing mountain goats became visible as the plane dipped and landed on a placid lake.

Back on the cruise, my first sight the next day was an iceberg floating by the cabin balcony. We hadn’t crashed! We were merely passing the iceberg country of Tracy Arm Fjord. You could spot shiny black seals, sea lions, albatrosses and seagulls sunbathing on the bergs.

To Juneau…
The capital of Alaska is small, but a beehive of shore activities. The star attraction is the Mendenhall Glacier, offering hiking, rafting, fishing and the absolutely unmissable dog-sled rides. You can watch humpback whales, sight a nesting bald eagle high up on a mountain top, or spot a grizzly lounging along the water’s edge.

A good way to wind up is to toast to new friends over generous pours of ale at the Alaska Brewing Company. Or, like me, digging into a hearty crab cakes and hot Alaskan Toddy at Taku Glacier Lodge.

And Skagway…
Skagway means ‘windy place’ and the wind sure played a vital role in its chequered history, spreading the word of gold discovery far and wide, bringing in the Klondike Gold Rush era of the 19th century. Prospectors, miners and opportunists set up supply stores and inns overnight. Risqué saloons were centres of gunfights. Colourful restored clapboard houses, ‘Wild West’ style shop signs and the 1920s-era Skagway streetcars recreate much of that ‘olde worlde charm’ here.

Perhaps the most exciting stop is the Red Onion Saloon, an 1890s brothel that is now a theme restaurant and bar. Pretty, good-humoured ‘Madams’ in sexy costumes take your order. A tongue-in-cheek brothel tour reveals antique pieces of clothing, coins, hairclips and letters found under floorboards and behind wallpaper cracks of the boudoirs.
The Yukon and White Pass Train ride is a guided scenic trip.

If hiking is not your thing, take the Yukon and White Pass Train ride and trundle across shaky mountain bridges, along steep miner’s trails and around sharp cliffs, with a lively commentary. For meat-lovers, this is paradise. Rare game like elk, caribou and reindeer are served at a couple of small BBQ shacks.

…and back
Goodbyes are tough, and leaving the shores of Alaska is the toughest, even with a grand dinner of native Alaskan dishes like stewed Alaskan king crab, poached sockeye salmon, rock lobster and sea scallops. My Alaskan dream just came true. But as I disembark, a wicked thought creeps into my head: If a dream comes true, do you stop dreaming it?

With Alaska, you won’t be able to stop.
Romi Purkayastha, Hindustan Times
From HT Brunch, August 16


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,535 other followers