The French Connection -Provence meets Pondicherry

Pondicherry (officially renamed as Puducherry) is located in the southern part of India, along the coastline of Bay of Bengal and often referred to as the “French Riviera of the East” about 160 km south of Chennai . The town served as the capital of French territories in India until 1954 when it was ceded to the Government of India. Dutch were the first to settle down before handing it over to the French. Pondicherry is synonymous with French Heritage in India and centuries of French rule has imparted this place a strong French feel in its architecture, monuments and food.

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The restaurants in Pondicherry are Indo-French. Indian restaurateurs offering authentic French food or Creole cuisine, it’s not just French cuisine that blends with a Tamilian style of cooking; there are also influences of the Portuguese, Malaysian and Mughals, among others. The food is surprisingly mild. Pondicherry cuisine is a unique and vibrant fusion of Tamil and French cuisine. French dishes in Pondicherry have been adapted to suit tastebuds used to spicier Indian food yet with minimal use of spices. The textures and flavours are far less robust. The thick gravies that we know so well are notably thinner, like the French sauces. Other highlights are the use of chicken or seafood stock in cooking and the appearance of baguettes amidst local desserts.Even the style of cooking,  is slow and elaborate. The spices are far more delicately used and do not overwhelm. The use of dried spices, fresh local catch from the sea and ample use of pungent vinegar much more than tomatoes or tamarind make this cuisine a delicious mix of flavours, and a melting pot of many cultures.

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To experience more I would suggest that you should pack your bags and visit this beautiful paradise. In the meanwhile please try my simple Seafood stew recipe thats an ode to the two great cuisines.

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Fruits de mer Pondichéry curry

 

Ingredients

1 kg Cod fillet

12 king prawns raw and headless

12 Fresh mussels scrubbed and beard removed

250 Gms squid

4 tbsp vegetable oil

8 – 10 shallots

8 garlic cloves

2 tbsp chopped ginger

1 tbsp. coriander seeds

1 tbsp. cumin seeds

1/2 tbsp Black Peppercorn

4 dried whole red chillies

1 tsp turmeric powder

½ tsp aniseed powder

Salt to taste

2 cups of coconut milk

½ cup of fresh grated coconut

12-15 curry leaves

1 tbsp vinegar

 

Method

  •     Cut the fillet of cod into 6 -8 pieces. De vien and remove the shell from the prawns keeping the tails on. Clean and wash the mussels in cold water, removing the beards and discarding any open ones. Clean the squids and cut them in rings. Set aside.
  • Finely slice the shallots and roughly chop the garlic.
  • In a cooking pot heat vegetable oil, once heated add cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorn and whole red chillies. As the seeds crackle add the chopped ginger and garlic, sauté on medium heat for 2-3 mins. Now add the sliced onions and cook unit soft and translucent. Add the grated coconut and cook for further 5 mins.
  • Add turmeric powder  and cook for another couple of minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let the mixture cool before transferring it to a blender. Blend the mixture to a thick smooth paste by adding ½ cup of water. Add more water if desired to reach the right consistency.
  • Transfer the paste back to a clean cooking pot and add 1 cup of warm water and bring to a boil. Cook for further 7 mins. Add salt and continue cooking for 2 more mins.
  • Now add the coconut milk and bring the sauce back to boil. Stir in the aniseed powder and curry leaves. Start by adding the cod first and cooking it for 5-7 mins on medium heat. Be careful while you stir from this stage onwards as you don’t want to break the fish. Now add the prawns, mussels and squids. Carefully fold the seafood in the sauce, cover the cooking pot with a lid and simmer on medium heat for another 5-7 mins. Be careful not to over cook the seafood.
  • Once cooked add vinegar and mix. Remove from heat garnish with some fried curry leaves. Accompanied perfectly with steam rice.

 

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Rajasthani Laal Maas

Rajasthani Cuisine has always had a special place on my menus. Dishes from this region of India have always been a regular feature when I design menus. Keeping in mind that Rajasthan is a desert region of India, and the cuisine was constantly challenged by very limited water supply, fresh fruits and vegetables. The region serves predominantly vegetarian fare which is flavoured with red chillies and cooked in Ghee (clarified butter).

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Rajput royalty were keen hunters and this is where meat became an integral part of the cuisine. Their chefs always carried sets of herbs and spices and after the Shikaar (hunting) the meat would be either marinated and roasted or cooked as a stew in a pot with vegetables and spices. As the wild meat was quiet tough and took a lot of time to cook, stewing was introduced. Meats like venison, rabbit and wild boar were cut up in dices and than cooked in a pot along with onions, ginger, garlic, spices and stewed for hours over wood fire to produce succulent and flavoursome curries. A few examples were the Junglee Maas (the meat bought from the hunt was simply cooked in pure ghee with only salt and red chillies), Laal Maas, Safed Maas, Maas ki kadhi, Handi Bootha and Murgh ka Shweta.

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One of my favorite dishes out of them all is the rustic Laal Maas. “Laal” means red and “maas” refers to meat. The dish was introduced in the early 10th century. Laal maas was a cherished dish among the Rajput royalty. Post Hunting sessions the meat was cooked in a haandi (large cooking pot) with dried red chillies, whole spices and onions. Laal maas was traditionally made with venison or wild boar. Chillies were used to mask gamey odour.  The dish is smoked with desi ghee and cloves. Made with first pressed mustard oil. The dish was refined further when it was introduced in the royal kitchens of the Rajputs. A key characteristic of this dish is imparted by the chillies used in this dish. Grown in the Mathaniya region close to Jodhpur. Mathaniya Red chillies are  famous for its reddish color. Because it is identified with this district only, this variety of chilli whole has come to known simply as the Mathaniya lal Mirch.  It is used only as dry spice. It lends pungency to a dish and also color and body.

I have penned down the recipe for Laal Maas with a bit of variation, keeping the essence of the dish intact.

Recipe

Serves 4-6 

Cooking time – 2 hrs 30 mins 

Ingredients

Lamb Shanks – 4 (I asked my butcher to cut them in half)

Marinade

Yoghurt – 225 gms

Salt to taste

Deghi Mirch Powder – 2 tbsp

Coriander Powder – 1 tbsp

Roasted Cumin Powder – 1/2 tbsp

Garlic Paste – 3 tbsp

Gravy 

15 dried mathaniya red chillies or kashmiri dried chillies.

6 green cardamom (crushed)

2 black cardamom (crushed)

4 bay leaves

2 cinnamon sticks

6 cloves

5 medium sized onions (finely sliced)

6 tbsp mustard oil (you can use any other cooking oil if mustard oil cannot be sourced)

1 tbsp desi ghee (clarified butter)

For Smoking 

1 piece of Charcoal

1 tbsp desi ghee

10 cloves

Method

1. Marinate the lamb shanks with all ingredients for the marinade for atleast 2 hrs.

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2. Add mustard oil and desi ghee to a cooking pot. Heat the oil, once heated add the whole spices except the red chillies. Cook for a minute so the flavour of the spices is released in the oil.

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3. Add the sliced onions and fry until golden brown. Add the marinated lamb and stir for 10-12 mins on high heat. Lower the heat add the dried red chillies and  2 cups of warm water.  Cover with lid and cook for an hour on low heat.

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4. After an hour remove the lid and stir the lamb. If required add another cup of warm water and cook for further 30-45 mins on low heat. Post 30-45 mins the shanks should be absolutely tender. Check for seasoning.

5. Remove the cooking pot from the stove. Place a piece of charcoal directly on the cooking hob on direct flame and with the help of a pair of tongs keep turning until the charcoal turns white, this would take 5-7 mins. Place a small stainless steel bowl directly in the centre of the curry pot. Place the charcoal carefully inside the stainless steel bowl. Add cloves on the charcoal and desi ghee. As the smoke starts to appear, immediately cover the pot with aluminium foil or kitchen foil making sure the pot is completely sealed. Let it smoke for at least 20 mins.

6. Remove the foil after 20 mins, remove the stainless steel cup and discard the charcoal. Transfer the laal maas in a serving bowl and serve with fresh chapatis or rice.

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Hope you enjoy cooking this dish.

Happy Cooking

Turban Street Cafe – Redefining Indian Street Food

I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.

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This blog is about  our journey that began with a small restaurant called The Red Turban, located in the suburbs of London. I still remember very distinctly,  I had just come out of  an interview with a top Michelin star restaurant and was overwhelmed to join such a prestigious organisation. That very afternoon when i reached home I received a call from Nishel asking me to see him at his restaurant. I wasn’t too sure but i knew he was planning to reopen his old restaurant and I was pretty much guessing that this meeting would revolve around this.  So here we are at the restaurant which was completely stripped down, apart from a sofa which was left behind where our conversation started building momentum. Nishel started explaining the whole concept to me, and he wanted me to be a part of it and build on it. The concept was simple, an Indian restaurant that would break all barriers, Nishel was clear about the fact that it had to be way beyond the chicken tikka masala and the kormas, It made sense to me and i thought that this would be once in a life time opportunity to create something unique and different. We both were on the same page and it instantly gave birth to The Red Turban. We were about to challenge the status quo, we were going to break all the rules and the risk factor was quiet high but i think somewhere down the line there was a belief that we would come out with flying colours.

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I started doing an extensive research on the dishes I wanted to put on the menu, the idea was to create a balanced menu which would show case unique recipes from every region of India. After a meticulous two month research the menus were finally devised . The menu featured exemplar chaats from the streets of Old Delhi, Chowpatty, Agra and Mathura. The Chowk ki tikki which is potato cakes stuffed with green peas served on a bed of spiced chickpeas, drizzled with tamarind chutney made with dates and elderflower and a fresh mint and watercress chutney became an instant favourite. Kebabs were the highlight of the menu – the Galawati kebab from Awadh, seekh kebab nizami, lazeez pasliyaan (lamb chops) , murgh pahadi tikka ( chicken tikka marinated with a fresh coriander, mint, basil and green chilli paste.) , paneer saunfiya tikka, tandoori bharwan mushrooms to name a few. For the main course we again had a challenge as we wanted to move away from the regular fare. Ambade ka gosht ( lamb cooked with sorrel leaves), Rajasthani Laal Maas , Patiala shahi murgh had become cult dishes on the menu. The vegetarian fare which included Dum aloo Benarasi, hare pyaaz aur soye ka paneer, malai kofta makhmali and daal Kandhari ( whole urad simmered over night on charcoal and finished off with fresh pomegranate juice. ) also made their presence felt. We were already on the map. I very strongly believed that the menu had to represent dishes that were authentic and served in a modern way. So the emphasis was more on the crockery and cutlery, rather than over done garnishes. I wanted my guests to feel India in every morsel they taste, it involved a lot of hard work. To achieve these standards, we were grinding spices in house on a regular basis. Practically nothing was outsourced, even the samosas and aloo tikki were made in house to specifications.

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Our final challenge was the desserts. Most of the Indian Restaurants in the UK have a box standard menu and it was boring. I wanted to create a balanced combination of flavours and technique that would create a wow factor. So after a month of research in my kitchen I decided to use the best ideas from the east and blend them with the techniques of the west. We had redefined Indian desserts – mango mousse and rasmalai trifle, Chocolate and gulab jamun terrine, masala chai tiramisu and the gaajar halwa panna cotta to name a few were creating ripples with our guests.
The Red Turban in the last 3 years had achieved immense success and accolades thanks to our loyal guests and staff who contributed a great deal towards it success and not to forget Nishel the driving force behind the Red Turban had an immeasurable contribution.

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It was time to move on to our next venture by creating the next Turban franchisee. After three months of research and brainstorming the Turban Street Cafe was devised. Bringing the the real Indian street food to the streets of London. Kati Rolls from the streets of Calcutta, Daulat ki chaat from Old Delhi, Tunday Kebab from Lucknow are just a few sneak peeks . We are going to give our guests the same taste and feel as they would get on the streets of India.

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In this day and age where Indian food has been reformed to the most sophisticated level, it has somehow lost its essence and authenticity. I am bringing a very simple and honest plate of food to my guests, inspired by age old traditions and simplicity, food that will touch your heart and soul and that I believe is limitless. At Turban street we are not just cooking, we are cooking with passion and emotions to create dishes that will bring smile on peoples faces. We are redefining Indian Street Food
Chef Ashish Bhatia

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