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Wine & Dine

Foods from the subcontinent

KABUL EXPRESS: Afghans get a taste of home in Delhi's Bhogal area

Dig into foods  from the subcontinent, from Kabuli kormas in the capital to Bangal banana flower in Kolkata

It's an odd choice for a fundraising venture, but the intentions behind the Kabul Restaurant in Bhogal are indeed altruistic. Owned by 55-yearold Asad who moved to India a year ago, it serves the many Afghan patients who visit the city for treatment and helps fund the education of children in different parts of Afghanistan. Kabul is one of the few eateries in Delhi you can enter wearing a pakol (the pancake-shaped Afghan hat) and a luxurious beard and not have people stare.

Asad's Hindi is uncertain, his English even more so. "Know German?" he asks hopefully. His partner in business, human rights student Adakh, interprets for him. Both prefer to use just their first names. The 25-year-old also instructs their posse of four Indian waiters. Asad lived in Frankfurt for over 20 years, running a business in tourist knick-knacks imported from Asia. He returned to Kabul in 2008 with the hope of establishing a school for girls. But he left a politically volatile Kabul within two months.

After packing his family off to Canada, Asad established himself in Bhogal and started the Kabul Restaurant in January. Adakh, whose family is in France, did the dêcor. "Indian food is very spicy;patients can't eat that," she says. Their clientele is largely made up of Afghan patients and tourists and sometimes Indians and other expats walk in too. "In winter we had 300-400 customers a day, now it's about 100-150," Asad says.

They come for the Qabli Pulao (Rs 160), a distant cousin of biryani that combines rice, mutton, thin strips of carrot and raisins, thin chicken and mutton kormas (Rs 160, Rs 180) and kebabs (Rs 100-350) that are smaller and drier than Indian ones but just as tender.

Kabul's cook, Fazel Ahmad (20), also mans the sheer yakh counter. For the benefit of the few non-Afghan customers, the dish is listed as Afghani Ice Cream (Rs 70) on the menu, though Afghani kulfi would have been more appropriate. The dessert is prepared in a large metal container placed in a wooden barrel packed with ice.

"We use little spice and it's all Afghani," Adakh says. The spices and herbs used are generally mild: turmeric, coriander powder, mint, garlic, cardamom and black pepper. Not everything required to achieve the delicate balance of flavours is available here. Through friends back home and agencies in the city, they procure powdered hare angoor (green grapes) to dust the kebabs, zeera - the Indian variety doesn't have the same smell, says Adakh - and anjeer (fig) powder, for the kebabs. It's more economical to get raisins from Afghanistan. "There, a kilo of kishmish is 60 Afghanis (about Rs 61), here it is Rs 300," she explains.

Afghans also use copious amounts of the herb gandana that they procure from INA Market. Surprisingly, Afghan food has in its repertory of recipes a few vegetarian dishes too. The restaurant serves lady's fingers, spinach and brinjals to team gravy-based dishes with rotis or bolanis - breads stuffed with potato and gandana, akin to the stuffed parantha.

Kabul Restaurant, 4/8 Central Road, Bhogal, Delhi ( 97113-19057, 96549-45016).

Abowl of boiled eggs glistens under the dull glow of street lamps. R Muniyandi's pushcart in a back alley in north Chennai has heaps of crunchy cabbage, fresh noodles and fried fish. The heady smell of grated ginger is in the air. Customers are impatient. Muniyandi quickly brings out small ceramic plates and piles mini mountains of noodles and boiled eggs on to them. He sprinkles some spices and mohinga, Burma's unofficial national dish, is ready to be gobbled, right then and there by hungry office-goers and autorickshaw drivers.

Muniyandi has been making a living off the pushcart after being forced to leave Rangoon in 1983. "I don't know any other trade and this is good business," he says. There's a steady stream of customers from 6.30 pm till midnight. People keep coming back to have plates of mohinga or a-thohk, a crisp salad of noodles and finely chopped cabbage topped with seasoning. "It's tasty and cools the body," says A Purusho-thaman, a government employee who is a regular.

The repatriates from erstwhile Burma, who live in various colonies in the city, run thriving street food stalls by imaginatively tweaking the original recipes. "I don't know much about Burma other than what my mother has told me," says G Susheela, whose mother is of Burmese origin. She wears a trademark Burmese sarong while rustling up a meal of mohinga at home. The food is later sold at stalls manned by her husband after sundown. The Burmese version has rice vermicelli cooked in fish broth with onions, garlic, ginger, lemon grass and slices of banana stem. Susheela cooks noodles in banana stem soup with spices, and serves it with fried fish, not the traditional fried fish cake. She also gives an extra punch to a-thohk by adding tamarind paste. The extra effort has paid off. In the 1980s, when Tamils from Myanmar moved to India along with fellow countrymen, locals, wary of the 'foreign' looking repatriates and unfamiliar with noodles, stayed away from Burmese food. "Now they come and ask for it," Susheela says.

R Muniyandi and G Susheela have stalls on Second Line Beach Road near Chennai Beach station.

On an average day in Paharganj, orthodox Jews are seen rushing for their prayers while the Japanese down golgappas and the Israelis haggle over kolhapuri chappals. The British, on the other hand, head for brunch to Everest Kitchen on the rooftop of Hotel Lord Krishna Deluxe. Even though there's a lot of Continental food to be had, they are here to eat a full Nepalese thali. Today's specials have been written with chalk in broken English on the blackboard - there's dal, bhaat, tarkari and chutney. On the day we visited, the thali had a light mushroom-potato curry, cumininfused spinach, prepared like Kashmiri haaq, boiled rice and a refreshing mint chutney. The prim and proper British ditched cutlery to eat with their hands. "Nepalese cuisine is a lot like Indian food without too much seasoning or spices," says the chef and co-owner Jai Krishnagiri, a Nepalese from East Kathmandu. "We don't add cream or ghee to enhance the taste like Delhiites do. But one thing is for sure, food retains its original taste. It's fresh and seldom heavy."

While today's menu is simple, other days have Nepalese classics like aloo-tama (potatoes with bamboo shoot), gundruk (fermented and sun-dried daikon radish or cabbage prepared with spices) and the tomato-based golbheda ko achar. "Gundruk is better received than aloo-tama by the foreigners who don't fancy bamboo shoot," says Krishnagiri, who used to work at the Taj hotel in Nepal. A resident of Delhi for the last 15 years, he has set up eleven restaurants in the area including the popular German bakery. For somebody like him who speaks fluent Hindi, cooks four types of cuisines and is a typical Delhiite, the decision to serve Nepalese food was patriotic. "I miss the food that we ate in Kathmandu," he says, adding that he'd like to start another Nepalese joint. Turning his wishful thinking into reality may not be so difficult since the INA Market has bridged the gap between geography and gastronomy. Buying local vegetables like iskus (squash) and fermented soybean is easier now.

"I would like people to understand Nepalese food and appreciate it," says Krishnagiri, who dismisses the momos that Delhi devours. "They are so different from Nepalese momos, which are purely meat-based and shaped either like a kothe or a wonton. Momos here are faux." Next on the agenda is a dosa-style, Nepalese pizza, chatamari, that's topped with meat.

Everest Kitchen, Lord Krishna Delux Inn, 1171-75, Main Bazaar, 6 Tooti Chowk, Paharganj. (98106-89726).

Bengal, by and large an egalitarian society amidst caste-conscious neighbours, has one curious divide - between the Ghoti and the Bangal. For the uninitiated, the former are those who hail from West Bengal or epar Bangla while the latter have their roots in erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, or opar Bangla.

Following the migration during Partition in 1947 and the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the geographic divide moved closer home. Ghotis retained their citadel in north Kolkata while Bangals settled in refugee colonies in south Kolkata. Over the years, Bangals prospered more than their country cousins through sheer enterprise, and turned south Kolkata into a fashionable address that enticed Ghotis out of the north to take up residencies in the south. Inter-marriages smudged the differences in culture and rituals, and assimilated the starkly different cuisines. To any non-Bengali, it is difficult to spot the difference till one steps into a small eating joint on Free School Street.

Kasturi has little to offer in terms of experience other than its food. "This is out of the world," is all one could coax out of Aparesh Ghosh as he salivated over a piece of shorshe ilish, steaming hilsa mustard curry.

Back in the restaurant, Ashraf Khan of Dhaka University is savouring kachu pata chingri bhapa or steamed prawn in yam leaf with plain rice in the very chair Ghosh was seated in a few moments ago. The waiter had just tempted him with chital muitha (chital fish kofta), bekti paturi (steamed bekti in banana leaf), kachur loti chingri (yam stem and prawn curry), mochar ghonto (a dish of banana flowers with or without prawns), chingri malai curry (prawn cooked in coconut milk) and rui kalia (rohu curry).
GC Saha, who migrated to West Bengal from Bangladesh in the late 1960s and tried his hand at several businesses before returning to food 16 years ago, is glad he turned to what has been his family trade. "My father ran a popular restaurant in Dhaka that had to be wound up before the Bangladesh liberation war," he says.

What is it that makes Bangal food different from Bengali dishes despite the similarity in ingredients? Saha attempts to unravel the answer that is easy to arrive at after a meal but difficult to spell out. "The food in epar Bangla has a tinge of sweetness and the tanginess of chillies and mustard are toned down," he says. "Not so in opar Bangla. In Dhakai food, sugar is not used. The attempt is to accentuate the flavour of each spice." Also, the variety of Bangal food is amazing. They never waste any part of a vegetable. While a Ghoti would probably throw away a raw banana skin, a Bangal would boil and grind it into a paste, throw in some spices and eat it with steaming rice.

Kasturi, 7/A Mustaque Ahmed Street, Kolkata (033-2252-3493 )

Reader's opinion (2)

Kishore WesleyNov 22nd, 2011 at 18:52 PM

Just the description makes the mouth water. must visit places

Rajarshi ChoudhuryOct 25th, 2010 at 21:19 PM

awesome article...well researched and very nicely written....literally makes the mouth water...!!!

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