Mmmmm, Masala Chai …

Mumbai Masala Chai

When we were young, Laura used to call this “rice pudding tea”. You only really found it in the cheaper Indian caffs, or you had to make it yourself. Boiling together water, sugar, milk, tea leaves and spices. Mostly cinnamon and cloves, maybe some powdered ginger for heat, and cardamom pods if you could afford them. Deliciously warming and sweet. I wasn’t a tea-drinker, really, yet I loved it.

Then we finished university, real coffee became easier to get and a bit more affordable, life got in the way. And what with one thing and another, chai became a nostalgic treat. One of the things was diabetes, so it became a bit risky to have in a restaurant with the sugar overload involved.

In the past couple of years, Chai has surfaced into popular cafe culture, although most of it is a cruel parody. Caterers can buy a syrup or powder, which they use in a variety of ways. Starbucks make their own, of course, and I think that might have been the first one I tasted. You can just stir the mix into hot water and add milk, or make it with steamed milk from the coffee machine. Chai Tea Latte has become a standard. One of the problems with it is that the mixes are sugar-based, so you can’t control the level of sweetness – unless, of course, you want to add more. The other easy option for the consumer is to buy spiced Chai tea and make it at home. Twinings do a Chai teabag, which is widely available. Recently I’ve started drinking a tea flavoured just with cardamom, from Ahmad Teas, which I get from my local Persian supermarket.

Once you refine your personal preferences down in terms of spices, some of the commercial ones are like being kicked in the head. The Starbucks one in particular has way too much black pepper in it – John says it reminds him of the coltsfoot cough sweets he used to have as a child.

On our recent trip to Mumbai, I had masala chai regularly. The one in the hotel (in the picture) came in smallish vacuum flasks, was fairly bland, and had the gritty crushed spices lurking in the bottom. You could get chai anywhere, on the street from guys wandering round with flasks, and in cafes. I was surprised by the street vendors and some of the cafes who served it in tiny little paper cups, like you get the mouthwash in at the dentist. Until I tried it and realised it was the chai version of a double shot espresso, with a wham that kept you going through the muggiest monsoon afternoon. Well worth 7 rupees. Most areas of India have their own preferred blends of masala for the chai, some with an aniseedy background from fennel, some more hot with fresh ginger, and it was the regional variations surfacing in the different kitchens. Our hotel chefs had a strong Malay background, and used cloves for the peppery constituent, and a softer hand with the cinnamon.

As we journeyed through airports on our way to Australia, I found a lot of international coffee bars doing the Starbucks thing, and offering a Chai Latte. Most were, well, tolerable, if oversweet. When we got to Port Douglas and went shopping for supplies for the apartment kitchen, I could only get Twinings Australian blend of Chai with Vanilla, which is fine for when you want a vanilla flavoured drink that tastes vaguely of tea, but not otherwise. Bleugh.

Then I realised the Australian shopping mantra: Do Not Buy Things In Supermarkets. We travelled from Port Douglas north onto the area around the Daintree River, where they grow lots of interesting things including sugarcane and tropical fruits and tea. A packet of Daintree Original Chai is coming home with me (I bought it from the Daintree Ice Cream Company shop but I also saw it in the Australian Product Shop at Cairns airport). The sample pot we had was rich but delicate and light, very fresh tasting. The spices are crushed rather than ground, with recognisable pieces of cinnamon and dried ginger. There is a star anise element, which replaces the fennel and gives an almost Chinese overlay.

In the hotel coffee shop in Melbourne this morning I came across Tea Drop Malabar Chai, which was even more fragrant, due to the inclusion of rose petals. That’s a Northern India / Kashmiri / Pakistani element, and I’ve not really come across it before. It was a bit too elegant for a morning wake-up call, but it would be a beautiful after-dinner or late summer afternoon drink. I was particularly pleased that they offered the option of having it as a plain pot of tea with cold milk on the side, or made up with hot milk as a latte. Most places it’s one or the other, and usually the latte. This blend was too delicate to stand up to that, the sweet tones would have predominated and it would have lost its balance.

Yesterday we did a tour of the Victoria Market, and there was a tea specialist shop in with the delis. I might go back tomorrow and see what I can find … and if anyone has suggestions of blends I should look out for in the next week, please let me know!

Dinner at the Press Club, Melbourne, August 2010

This is just a note of what we had, not a full review. I’m not claiming I’ve got everything, as I am re-creating this from memory – we had the Experience rather than take notes as we went along. We sat at the Chef’s Table, which is a set of bar stools alongside the dessert prep area, with a view through to the front kitchen and the pass. We went for the tasting menu with the wine selection to go with it. DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU INTEND TO EAT THIS – THE SURPRISE PRESENTATION OF EACH COURSE IS PART OF THE FUN.

As follows:

Ellada “Snacks” – that’s a bowl of olives in oil, with black coarse salt and bread for dipping, followed by a skewer lollipop of seafood (mussel, anchovies, maybe a bit of squid?) with a pistachio praline crumb, and a little glass pot with a savoury custard layer, topped with set consomme, crisp fried sweetbreads, and a herb foam.
Cyclades “Kapnos” – matched with Weingut Max Ferd Richter ‘Estate’ Riesling 2008, Mosel Saar Ruwer, Germany – a salad plate with fennel puree, ouzo pickled fresh onion and orange glaze finished with smoked octopus, served from a glass dome over a tiny grill with charred fennel underneath, still smoking.
Ionian “Garides” – matched with R. Lopez de Heredia ‘Viňa Gravonia’ Crianza Viura 1999, La Rioja, Spain – a white Rioja with sherry-like qualities, with a dish of Iberian ham topped with a hot prawn, and a cube of ham consomme, with just a dab of pureed raisin with rum.
Thessalia “Lagos” – matched with Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1999, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, France – hot boned rolled and pressed chicken slices, topped with a carrot and pumpkin seed salad and a sauce of avgolemono soup.
Peloponesso “Psari” – matched with Eastern Peake Pinot Noir 2000, Ballarat, Vic – a crisp-skinned portion of barramundi, with a black rice underneath, a white onion puree, and a dressing of rice foam and chicken jus.
(We got a little “extra” course here, for putting up with being sat on top of the chefs, a Greek rice-shaped pasta in a rich rich chicken jus topped with shavings of fresh Tasmanian truffles and a French Pinot Noir, which was one of the seasonal specials.)
Makedonia “Arni” – matched with Nittnaus ‘Kalk und Schiefer’ Blaufrankish 2007, Burgenland, Austria – the lamb. A sous-vide chunk of melting meat, with a little roast loin on the side. mashed potato, shredded beetroot, a smear of skordalia and a black fermented garlic clove.
Crete “Refreshing” – digestive – a lime vanilla jelly disc, topped with a yoghourt sorbet, a spoonful of crushed frozen citrus segments, and a dash of sherbet powder.
Cyprus “Aphrodite” – matched with Samos ‘Vin Doux’ 2007 Moschato ASPRO, Samos, Hellenic Republic – the signature dessert, which we had watched being made all night – a composed platter of a white chocolate mousse with a raspberry filling, raspberry terrine, rosewater jelly, various bits of fruits, chocolate “soil” – like a crushed dark chocolate biscuit – topped with a sugared rose petal and finished with a spritz of rosewater in the air.
And coffee, much needed … we sat down at 7 and left at nearly 10:30. With the food and the wine, it cost nearly $500 for two people (around £300) which puts it up there with the Barrier Reef trip as a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do.

Gujerati Snacks

From Prashad's in Bradford, we had samosas, some kind of battered fried sandwich with a garlicky pureed veg filling, round dumplings filled with spiced mashed potato. Dhokla, patra, snacks. I made a lassi with fresh coriander, garlic, fresh green chilli and a pinch of salt. Fresh baby tomato, and a little raita sauce.

I also made a quick trashy hot chaat:

Fry:
1 tin new potatoes, drained and cut into small lumps
1 tin pinto beans, or chickpeas, drained
2 cloves garlic, chopped

Sprinkle with powdered hing and fenugreek.
After about 5 minutes add half a tin of chopped tomatoes, cook til thickened.
Stir well and add 2 handfuls Bombay Mix or your favourite Indian crispy snack.
Heat through, take off the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons natural yoghourt.
Put in serving dish and top with dollop of tamarind sauce.

Served with warm rotis.

With a selection of sweets to finish, I am absolutely podged.

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Restaurant Review – Sakushi

Yesterday four of us went for a late lunch to Sakushi, Sheffield's first sushi bar. Yum.

It is a very elegant space, almost opposite the Wig and Pen on Campo Lane. The conveyor belt travels in a loop from the kitchen, past the edges of a handful of white leather booths, around a stone water feature, and back along a bar where you can sit on a stool. Away from the belt is a normal seating area, where you can do pukka restaurant stuff if you don't fancy the belt.

We didn't get there till just after 2, and they close at 3. So there was a limited selection on the belt, but they were happy to make anything to order. The belt concentrates on sushi and side dishes such as gyoza, pickles, deep-fried bits of meat, salads. There were also a few desserts randomly scattered – chocolate fondant and a mousse thing. You can have sashimi, which is always cut fresh to order, and a selection of soup or fried ramen dishes. There's not a wide range of drinks, but there is Asahi beer, a large wine list, sake, juice and fizzy water. He's quite proud of having Asahi Black, which is apparently a bit rare round here.

We had two beginners with us, including a fisheating vegetarian, so we decided to go with what was on the belt and not get into the really exciting stuff on the menu. Although we did get four orders of sashimi – two salmon and two hamachi (yellow tail). The belt moved slowly enough to get stuff off it easily, but fast enough to provide an interesting show. The table was stocked with soy sauce and some excellent pickled ginger slices, and freshly-prepared wasabi arrived with the drinks.

I can't remember everything we had, but it included: California, Philadelphia and Ebi Ten Uramaki, Edamame Beans, Japanese Pickled Vegetables, Chicken Gyosa, Kushi-Age, Vegetable Croquettes, Spring Roll, Tonkatsu, random nigiri and maki, and some little fried nibbles that we couldn't identify. With a beer for John and soft drinks for the rest of us, it came to £20 per head.

Sushi is one of those things, especially with the belts, where you could go on grazing for ages nages, and we did rather overdo it on quantity. But it was great fun, if you took something and didn't like it there were three other people to take it off your hands. And we tried all sorts of new stuff.

I'd definitely go again – you could do it a lot cheaper if you were careful what you had, or you could really splash out for a special occasion. There were a few things I spotted on the menu that I'd really like to try, as well …

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Discoveries – Spring 08

My grandfather didn't smoke and didn't drink (until after his militantly temperance wife died), but had his own ideas about what constituted an illicit treat. He and my dad used to let me stay up late with them watching old films on the telly – Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre -  raiding the pantry for snacks of strong cheese and crunchy pickled onions.  People now can't understand why that was such a treat, the spread of the Ploughman's Lunch and supermarket Snack Box has created a terrible acceptance of plastic cheese and bland pickles. We put that right yesterday with a crusty brown loaf, a wedge of Collier's cheddar and some Barry Norman Pickled Onions. The cheese has that slightly gritty mouthfeel, strong and salty flavour, and not too crumbly but definitely not plasticine texture. The onions are magnificent, the closest to home-made I think I've bought (in a regular store, anyway). Dark brown, spicy, crunchy, those little green flecks that look like some poisonous metallic deposit. Brilliant. Just the thing to eat with a classic movie. Barry Norman understands.

Champagne Marmite – not sure about this. The Guinness one is yummy, quite sweet. This one is sourer, and sharper, like dry white wine left open for a day or two. Pleasant enough, but not one to search out.

The iron_trash community over on LiveJournal.

Konnyaku noodles, little bundles with appendages, boingy and springy.

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Christmas Dinner 2007

Found some goose breast crowns in LIDL, weighing about a kilo each, for £8. The instructions were to roast at 200 (Gas Mark 6) for an hour, and that worked really well. I was using a single small oven this year, and that let me roast the potatoes underneath and the celery stuffing on the bottom.

Two of them gave off about a pint of good quality fat, and we carved off two whole breasts from each one, one breast per person. That was a large portion of solid meat, and there was a spare breast for slices if seconds were required.

The German meat stall at the Sheffield Christmas Market sold sealed longlife bags of shredded red cabbage cooked in apple juice, I microwaved one of them as a veg.

Dad did his oriental braised sprouts, and carrots with soy sauce and star anise. There were some steamed new potatoes, as well as the roasties.

Plain gravy made in the goose roasting tin, with some Chardonnay left over from Christmas Eve supper.

EDIT: Whoops, forgot, apple butter sauce with cloves as well

Bottle of Quinze President with main course.

A Waitrose "richly fruited" christmas pudding, with cream or white sauce, and a tiny bottle of Royal Tokay wine.

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Restaurant Review – Jabu

We're going to Jabu tonight, we haven't been for quite a while. Last time we went, I wrote this:

 

Can't believe I haven't mentioned Jabu before, but it seems not, or at least I can't find it. Went out with John, Guinness, the Lawsons, Julia, and Julian, for a pre-Eastercon gathering as some people are heading up today and will miss the regular pub this evening.

Jabu is a Chinese Fondue and Dumpling house, a dark pine and orange plastic cafe. Each table has an electronic hotplate. First course is a choice of fresh steamed dumplings, Northern Chinese style. Lamb and Coriander is one of our favourites, there are beef, pork, chicken and veggie based ones, heavy on the seasoning and with lots of interesting textures. £4 for 12, with dipping sauces, one soy/vinegar, one chilli/sesame. Then they bring a wok-style pot, with a divider down the middle. You choose two flavours of broth (chicken and spicy for us), they fill the pot and put it on the hotplate. Little plates of goodies (from a long, long list) arrive and you cook your choice in the broth. More dipping sauces – sesame paste, sweet chilli, garlic, wasabi/soy. Goodies last night included squid, salmon, scallops, chicken, paperthin sliced beef and lamb, assorted veggies, udon and slim noodles, and a softshell crab. You can also have a range of tofu, meat and fish balls, mushrooms, seasonal veggies, more seafood including about four types of prawns, and tripe. After you've played the cooking game for a while and run out of things to experiment with, they bring small bowls and you have the last of the noodles with the now concentrated and flavoured soup. A few pieces of cut fruit for dessert. Tea to drink throughout, they have a full menu of Chinese teas and will explain the differences. The main waitress is a phenomenon, permanently bouncy, enthusiastic about everything, will show you how to cook things if you're wary, and scurries around refilling tea, soup etc  as necessary. It was a fun evening, it's a highly social event with lots of messing about. Seven/eight is about the maximum number, though, even then people were having to stand up or stretch to reach the pot. And stunningly cheap – it worked out at £10 per head for a good 2 – 3 hours entertainment and gorgeuous food. Healthier than your average Chinese meal as well, with no deep-frying or overly sweet sauces. Yum Yum.

EDIT – I did mention it before, just didn't tag it properly. Fuller review here – nothing much seems to have changed, though! http://frandowdsofa.livejournal.com/77301.html

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