Monday, July 20, 2015

Wine and Food Pairing at JW Marriott with The Happy High

Last Wednesday was spent in the company of fine wines and finer people at a wine tasting event at JW Marriott organized by The Happy High - a Mumbai based beverage consulting, education and experience firm started by Ajit Balgi. I have been interacting with Ajit on Twitter and was surprised when he invited me over to taste Austrian wines. Surprised because my knowledge of wines is limited to mostly the Indian brands.

The wines, that Ajit received from a family run winery in Austria, were to be paired with food at Mezzo Mezzo - JW Marriott's Italian restaurant. Mezzo Mezzo has recently appointed Chef Matteo Arvonio who has previously worked with Four Seasons Mumbai. The wines that we were going to try came from Topf winery (in existence since 1751) located in Kamptal in the Danube region known for its Gruner Veltliners and Rieslings. You can read more about Austrian wines here.

The evening was packed with people who KNOW their wines - Antoine Lewis (the food and beverage writer who I look up to and follow), Sachin Rane (wine importer), Piyush Gadkari (from Indian Wine Society), Sayoni Bhaduri (from Hipcask), Rojita Tiwari (beverage writer and consultant), Ritesh Chudhary (Food and Beverage Director at JW Mariott), Satyam Savla (owner of Juben Wines), Deepti Bhatnagar (actress and TV show host), Sonal Holland (the first indian to be enrolled in Master of Wine education program) and Saroja Sirisena (Hon. Counsel General of Srilanka). I would say that I was a little intimidated in the beginning but this is the time when you intently listen to the conversation and try to grasp as much as possible. I learnt that aged wine doesn't necessarily mean good wine. If you don't know much about wines, stick to the new. Also, the screw cap doesn't reflect the quality of wine. It's mostly the aged wines that need corks. I also got a lot of help as we started the tasting. Piyush told me that smelling-the-wine bit is all about recognizing it - fruity, flowery, sour - excluding all the ingredients/objects it doesn't smell like and then focusing on the smell that you relate to. And, ultimately it's all about whether you like it or not.

First Course
Our dinner was a six-course meal that started with Parmigiana Leggera - baked zucchini and eggplant parmigiana, provola cheese. The flavours were subtle and the ingredients fresh. The dish was paired with Topf Gruner Veltliner, Offenberg, First Growth, 2013 Kamptal reserve - white grape variety with a fruity smell. However, it didn't taste as sweet as it smelt.

Second Course
Tartar di Tonno e Panelle - Sicilian style yellow fin tuna tartare, panelle chips. The tartare was delicate and the panelle chips - deep-fried chips made of gram-flour - reminded me of pakodas. The chef told us that these chips are a famous street food in Sicily and are eaten with fish or meat. This was paired with Topf Riesling, Heiliginstein, First Growth, 2013, Kamptal Reserve - drier than the previous one but not when compared to what was coming next.

Third Course
Risotto alla Zucca e Funghi Selvatici - pumpkin risotto, wild mushroom, pistachio crumble with Johann Topf, Riesling, Zobinger Heiliginstein 1999. The aged version of Topf Riesling was drier and brought out the cheesy flavour of the dish.

Fourth Course
Merluzzo Nero e Pappa al Pomodoro with Topf, Blauburgender, Stangl, 2009. The black cod was cooked "al cortoccio" - meaning cooked in parchment - and had beautiful flakey texture. It was served on a bed of Tuscan style stewed tomato caviar (thick tomato sauce) and Swiss chard (leafy greens). This was so far the best dish according to me. The wine, a bright red, had fruity aroma but a lot of heat. For this course I focused more on food than wine.

Fifth Course
Costoletta d'agnello al ginepro e passatina ai ceci - herb marinated lamb chop, juniper berries, chickpea sauce paired with Topf, Zweigelt, Sachsenberg, 2009. The wine, that was sitting in a decanter for a while to breathe in air, had a sour aroma which my co-diners termed as sweaty horse saddle. The pairing went quite well and I couldn't get enough of the creamy chickpea curry. Fans of hummus will love it.

Sixth Course
This was the most interesting pairing and quite unusual. Topf Riesling, TBA, Wechselberg Spiegel 2009 - sugary sweet dessert wine - was paired with Gorgonzola, Mascarpone e Fichi - sweet and savoury dessert of gorgonzola and mascarpone mousse, caramelised figs, black pepper caramel. The savoury in dessert and sweetness of wine perfectly balanced each other out.

Austrian wines are known for their acidity hence can be paired well with Indian food but Chef Matteo did a fine job and made every pairing stand out.

There's a lot that I learnt that evening and came home knowing more about wines. Every wine has a story and the art is to figure that story out through its aroma and taste.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

What do north Indians eat?

This is a rant that was building up in my head for a while now. A few months ago I had read an article which - if I had to put it in a sentence - un-generalized Gujarati food for north Indians who think that Gujaratis add sugar to every dish. That's partly true but it's not just north Indians who think this way. I have met a number of Maharashtrians and south Indians who share the same thought. In fact, Indians generalize almost every cuisine and culture. Generalizing is our favourite sport.

Anyhow, getting back to this article. While the writer ’saved’ Gujarati food from this brutal generalization, he went ahead and generalized north Indian food. Actually, bashing it to an extent. There are a number of things that irked me. First, what do you categorize as north Indian food? From Uttar Pradesh to Punjab and even Kashmir, all the states are considered north India. The food of one state is vastly different from another. Second, we’re not all butter chicken eating and naan chomping people who don't know about any dal beyond the kali dal or don't cook rice that's anything less than basmati.

So, this is the post where I un-generalize the food from UP. People usually know Uttar Pradesh’s food as the kebabs and biryanis of Lucknow or Awadhi cuisine as it's famously known. But, that's only a part of the kind of food we make and eat. The varied casts have their own recipes and methods. For eg the Khatris of UP (the cast to which I belong to) are broadly vegetarians and don't use too much onion and garlic in their food. I’ve grown up eating bhindi cooked in ajwain and jeera and lightly boiled kathal (jackfruit) fried in besan. The parwal at my home was always cooked with potatoes in turmeric, red chilli powder, amchoor and dhaniya powder. The vegetable is cooked till its sides are curled and it's as crispy as a chip. We eat nenua (torai) cooked with sliced radishes (it adds a lovely flavour to the otherwise bland subzi). Baingan (small variety) is cooked with potatoes and tomatoes in a tempering of methi seeds, ginger and whole garlic. These are just the mainstream vegetables. We cook a number of off-beat ones too. My grandmother used to make lotus stem in curd gravy and I faintly remember eating amiya (raw mango) subzi made by my great grandmother. My mother cooks turnip with carrot, beetroot, spinach and tomatoes which is a lovely blend of subzi and soup. Heck, we also use raw papaya to make a nice curry.

And yes, we know our dals beyond the buttery and creamy black dal. We cook arhar dal on a regular basis which is tempered with jeera and hing in desi ghee. There's also a technique to make perfect dal, mix dhuli masoor (the orange one) to arhar in 1:4 ratio and you’ll get that perfect consistency which is neither watery nor goopy thick. We also make chana dal with lauki and plain kali masoor with tadka of garlic. We have mixed dal too - arhar, masoor, moong, chana - fried with onions and tomatoes. Our besan ki kadhi with soft besan pakodas - trickled in from Punjabi cuisine - is famous across the country. Our khichdis are incomplete without aloo chokha (potato mash), dahi, pickle and onion on the side. In fact, our food has a healthy dose of accompaniments, be it bathue ka raita or pudine ki chutney. We pickle almost every vegetable and fruit and you’ll find our kitchens stocked with variety of mango, lime, radish, carrot, cauliflower, garlic, ginger, green chilli, red chilli, jackfruit, monkey jack, and gooseberry pickles.

We don't usually cook basmati at home. There's a range of short grained, fragrant rice like shakkar chini and kala namak available in the market which are similar to Kolkata’s gobindobhog in both texture and taste. This rice also goes in making tehri - a variet of pulav with cauliflower, potato, onions and green peas. You’ll find it loaded with carrots in winter. There's another dish made of rice and dal called phale which is specific to UP. Rice is soaked, ground into a thin paste, cooked to form dough like consistency, rolled into thick disks, stuffed with urad or chana dal paste and boiled in water. These rice rolls are eaten with hot ghee or spicy garlic chutney.

Then there's Kayasth community known for its non-vegetarian food but also has some brilliant vegetarian dishes. Their stuffed tomato subzi for instance where the centre part of the tomato is scooped out and stuffed with mashed potatoes. These are then cooked in a gravy made with that scooped out pulp. They make masoor ke shaami kebab - I tried them at a pop-up recently - a brilliant take on mutton shaami. And, who hasn't heard of kathal ki biryani.

Head towards Merath, Varanasi or Allahabad and you’ll get kachori thali in every street complete with urad dal kachoris, aloo ki subzi, kaddoo ki subzi, lauki ka raita and imli ki chutney. The rustic litti-chokha - brinjal roasted on cow-dung cakes and mashed with potatoes, tomatoes, sliced onions, chillies, mustard oil, lime juice and salt eaten with sattu stuffed dough balls - is poor man’s food and is slowly gaining popularity as a main-stream dish. Matar ka nimona - a curry made with green peas is one of the main dishes in eastern UP.

There’s a lot to the food of UP and I haven't even scratched the surface here. The breakfast dishes and sweets need a separate post.

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