The Irish sure can do b’fast

As a tradition, I treat myself to a full Irish breakfast every Saturday at the neighbourhood caff. It just so happened that on one fateful Saturday I actually was in Ireland, Dublin to be specific. I was spoilt for choice really; expectedly ever second cafe I passed claimed to serve the best breakfast in town. While I’m sure all their claims are legitimate, I think I may have chanced upon the winner of the title ‘Best Breakfast in Dublin – Hipster’s Choice’ – unless of course said hipster is vegan.

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To start with, I was tickled pink at the idea of sitting to eat at a sewing machine! Ambitiously, I ordered the Big Breakfast, knowing full well that I’d be served enough food to feed a small village. In the calm before the storm, I sipped on some strong black coffee and had a chance to Dublin’s early morning rituals. Located on North Frederick Street, Lovinspoon is a short walk away from where the hen parties hang out, so you get a glimpse of the real city – children being dragged to football practice, men heading to the barber’s and a pair of old ladies out for their weekly shop.

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Just as I began to loose myself in idle observation the waitress walked out with a plate that explained her robust biceps. Sausage, black pudding, white pudding, bacon, beans, mushrooms, grilled tomato, a pancake, a fried egg and toast. My favourite bit, was actually the pancake; best darn pancake I’d had in a long time!

Discovering real port wine in Porto

Apparently, you can’t call it Port wine if it doesn’t come from Porto. Just like you can’t call it Champagne if it doesn’t come from Champagne. Pardon my ignorance, but I didn’t know this until I visited Porto this month. You see, we make port wine in Goa, and have absolutely no qualms what so ever about calling it just that. But then again, about 80% of the Goan population never mentally or emotionally left Portugal so I’m sure the kind Portuguese don’t mind.

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Seeing as I was in the birthplace of port, I indulged in a little educative excursion to Graham’s wine cellar – one of the oldest and most popular manufacturer’s of port wine. Like most it’s competitors, this one has always been run by a British – who can be credited for the mass production and world-wide distribution of Port wine. The wine trade is a thing of pride, and is treated such by all those involved, as is apparent the minute you step into Graham’s museum-esque lodge, which is perched on the slopes of  Gaia and overlooks the Duoro. A very humble sum of €8 will get you a pleasant hour-something long experience – which begins with an introductory film about the history of the trade and the owners of Graham’s, which is followed by an explanation of how port is made, a walk through the underground cellar and a tasting of three different port wines.

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The tour was just informative enough for me to feel like I learnt a thing or two – I can now tell a vintage from a tawny. Just when I started to lose interest, three generously filled glasses of port were presented to me, allowing me to fully apply the theory I had learnt – the downing of every last drop and the slight slurring that followed was really just educative.

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Francesinha – A croque-monsieur on steroids

You haven’t really been to Porto if you haven’t eaten a Francesinha; which translates to ‘little french girl’. Mon Dieu! It surprises me the French haven’t raised objection yet. As the story goes, a dear ol’ chap named Daniel da Silva returned to his hometown Porto after living in France for a while, and in a moment of epiphany, put together an adaptation of the famed French croque-monsieur; a very loose yet ingenious adaptation. The only similarities between the two sandwiches, is that they both have ham, cheese and bread. In every other way, the Francesinha is about as French as the Queen of England.

Anyway, coming back to the sandwich at hand, it’s a multi layered masterpiece, made with thick slices of bread, ham, linguiça (which is a type of cured sausage or chouriço), fresh sausage,steak and cheese; which covers the sandwich like fondant a wedding cake. And if that in’t enough, you can have a fried egg on top. What really brings it all together is sauce, which makes or breaks a Francesinha. They say the original recipe of the sauce is a mystery, perhaps a really well kept secret. Each chef makes his/her own interpretation using the essential ingredients – beer and tomato.

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Typically the dish is served with a generous helping of fries, but we just ordered a portion of fries among three ’cause we simply didn’t dare. I think it’s the sort of sandwich a sailor could eat before going out to sea, knowing rations for the next few months would be limited. I think, a couple of weeks on, I am still burning some of the calories I consumed that night. But would I eat a Francesinha again? I most certainly would.

When in Porto, I recommend visiting Cafe Santiago for Francesinha. You may have to wait for a table, ours took an hour, but it was totally worth the wait!

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Just another coffee shop – Confeitaria do Bolhão

I’ve come to believe that the best coffee shops and eateries are those with grumpy staff that can’t be bothered with niceties. Take for example Kyani’s in Dhobi Talao, where the cashier never returns your smile, I’ve tried. Or Maggie’s in Lewisham where you’ll be yelled at for ordering a single egg, ’cause “who eats just one one a weekend”, true story. Or Cafe Bonsle’s in Panjim where you’re tea is tossed your way, never mind a fourth of it falling out.

Seeing as all my favourite eateries seem to have this quirk in common, I knew I’d struck gold with Confeitaria do Bolhão. It all began with the waiter grunting his displeasure at my not knowing that a ‘café com leite’ would be an espresso with milk. What I really wanted was a ‘café meia de leite’ – what would usually be an americano with milk.

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The Mercado do Bolhão is like a tiny version of Bombay’s Crawford Market, located within the atrium of an old building. Little shops line the isles, selling fruits and veg, sausages, cheese, bread, kitchen utensils, plants, crockery and other miscellaneous other bits and bobs.

This confeteiria, is located just opposite the market’s entrance. It has a rather inviting display of typical Portuguese baked sweets like pastel de nata, bola de Berlim, etc. and some savoury croissants, bolo de carne and so on. Nothing you won’t get in any other little coffee shop in Porto really. Men stop here before work,old ladies catch up with friends after their weekly shop, parents bring their kids for a little treat, and the simplicity and normalcy of the atmosphere, I found, very comforting.

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If I lived in Porto (or when), I imagine waking up early on a Saturday to shop at Bolhão, in no small part as an excuse to hang around at the confeitaria and have a little coffee and snack.

Chez Antoinette: A little bit of Le France in Covent Garden

WP_20150328_15_50_18_ProI don’t know which is worse, the fact that I haven’t had a plate of fish’n’chips yet. Or the fact that I ate French food in London before I ate fish’n’chips. Anyway, I was strolling about Covent Garden one lovely evening last weekend in search of an Indian restaurant called ‘Chutney’. Before you begin to gasp in disbelief, let me clarify that it wasn’t my idea. Anyway, (thankfully) ‘Chutney’ seemed to be missing/closed on the day. For lack of choice, because everything was crowded, I found myself sitting at a tiny little restaurant called Chez Antoinette and without too many expectations ordered myself a coffee and a platter of baked camembert to share with a new found friend.

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What followed was one of the most heavenly mid-afternoon snacks I have ever had! I fell in love with the fact that coffee was brought to our table in a mosaic of miss-matched cups and saucers, which looked like they’d been inherited from a mad old aunt. The coffee was superb, but the crockery was so damn cute, I could have very well had some tap water and gone home pleased.

Anyway, the baked camembert was perhaps the finest I’ve ever had! Served with some crusty bread and a fresh salad that cleared the palette just enough for another morsel of pain et du fromage. By this point, I’d already planned a second trip, to sample other wonders Antoinette would serve. But she wouldn’t let me go just yet. As fate would have it, a black board positioned right at my table kept hinting at dessert, tempting me with a description of a buttery tart stuffed with blueberries, figs and almonds. Could I ever resist such douceur? To say the least, no one does pastry quite like the French!

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There’s no proper way to eat a pie!

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Hello from London! I’ve eaten neither fish’n’chips or bangers’n’mash in my first few days at Britain. (gasp!) I’ve had me a good ol’ English pie though. After a rather uneventful walk on the London Bridge I was determined to eat something quintessentially British, and made my way to the Pie Minister stall at the very busy Borough Market. They have a whole bunch of exciting pie fillings – some traditional (like the ‘Moo’ – steak and craft ale) and some just a little bit experimental (like the ‘light as a feta’ – squash, tomato & feta cheese). I chose something called the ‘Kate & Sydney’ which had a beef steak, kidney and ale stuffing. I’ve never been a big fan of pies but one bite of this one and I was sold. Maybe it had something to do with being in Britain, or maybe it was that crisp flaky crust with steaming rich filling that enveloped me in a warm hug on that cold winter morning. Yup, it was the latter!

Another Foxy Find – Foxtail Millet

I’m on no gluten-free crusade, but I do find that consuming wheat (refined or otherwise) makes me feel a bit sluggish and bloated. So unpolished rice is my daily staple. Of late, I’ve decided to experiment with other grains like jowar and bajra as substitutes for rice. 

I was at the Bombay Local this weekend, and as usual spent some time at the Samskara stall having a chat with Hannah, who I’ve met a couple of times at such pop ups. I usually find something interesting at their stall. This time around I came away with Foxtail Millet. There were quite a few varieties of millet to choose from, but of course I went for the one with the funny name.

Foxtail millets as they are.

Foxtail millets as they are.

Cooking Foxtail millet is quick & easy – the process is like making upma or couscous. The millet themselves are quite tasteless, so they need a little help to take them from mundane to marvelous. (Don’t we all?) Here’s how I cooked mine: 

Ingredients:

1 cup of foxtail millet (soaked for 4 hours)
Half an onion (finely chopped)
A green chilli (roughly cut into three bits)
A couple of garlic pods (thinly sliced)
A couple of peppercorns
A big pinch of sea salt
Half a beetroot (chopped into small cubes)
1 teaspoon of rice bran oil
3 cups of warm water

Instructions:

Fry the onions, garlic, green chilli and peppercorns in oil till they are slightly brown. Add the chopped beetroot and fry till they just about start getting soft. Then throw in the drained foxtail millets and salt. Allow the spices and salt to mix well into the millets – this should take a minute of tossing and stirring. Then, pour in the warm water, place a lid over the pot and wait patiently for just 7 to 8 minutes.

Take a peek to see if the water has been absorbed by the grains. Don’t allow too much steam to escape. If the water is almost entirely absorbed put the heat off, place the cover back on and allow the millets to sit in the pot for another five minutes. During this time they will absorb all the remaining water and become super fluffy! Just loosen with a fork and serve like you would pulao or couscous. 

You can use pretty much any vegetable, meat or masala to flavour these foxy grains! 

Foxy & Fluffy

Foxy & Fluffy

Fox nuts for president!

Pardon my ignorance, but I didn’t know about their existence till last week. While searching for healthy snacking options (which is one of my perpetual pursuits), I discovered a packet of Fox nuts from Conscious Foods. I had absolutely no idea what they were or how they were to be eaten. I’ll admit the only reason I bought them was because I like what they are called. Fox nuts sounded fun enough. 

I snipped open the packet and popped one into my mouth. To my horror they tasted like cardboard that had been forgotten in the corner of a damp room for an entire monsoon. I was about to dismiss them, when the usually clueless man in my life suggested we roast them. After about a minute in a hot pan, they completely changed texture and when from being cardboardy to crisp! They needed a little bit of spice & seasoning, and as luck would have it ‘Nani’s Secret’ – a dry masala mix made by Barnee was right by the stove. I sprinkled some onto the hot roasted nuts to create one of the most delicious snacks I have had in a long time. The nuts themselves are quite tasteless, but have a great crunchy texture. You can use pretty much any spice mix you like to flavour them – just some kala namak or rock salt, or garam masala maybe. I’m sure they’d be lovely even with an oil based tadka with curry leaves, chilli powder & turmeric.

I’m quite thrilled I discovered these! They are perfect to nibble on when watching a movie or as an accompaniment to evening chai. If any of you know other ways of cooking fox nuts (also called makhana or lotus seeds or gorgon nut), I’d love to know. 

Foxy foxy

Foxy foxy

 

Ela Ada

A dear friend, who happens to be mallu and takes his food very seriously, introduced me to some of his favourite Malabari food joints – Madina Hotel and Sneha Restaurant, both in Mahim opposite Paradise Cinema. I visited Madina first, and was so taken up its authenticity and honesty, that I began an exploration of Malabari food in Mumbai and found a whole lot of very interesting places just like it. I cannot believe these eateries have been hiding from me in plain view all these years! Following this little research, I wrote a piece for Mumbai Mag, which lists some of the city’s oldest and finest Kerala food joints.

Yesterday, I had some work in Bandra, which was conveniently followed by a quick lunch at Sneha Restaurant. Our meal was quite simple – sinful, flaky parotas, with spicy beef fry and fiery chicken sukha. At the end of the meal, the man serving us asked whether we’d like dessert. I was quite surprised that they even made sweets, and asked him what he had. He mumbled something inaudible and made a triangle shape with his fingers. I picked up a few words “banana leaf”, “steamed” and “acha hai!“. I couldn’t tell whether he didn’t speak Hindi, or was shy because he was speaking to a ‘ladis person’ or was trying to impress us with English words. Whatever he said convinced me I wanted that dessert even though I was quite full. So we asked him to pack one.

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All the way home I held a warm package in my hand imagining what lay within. (Yes, I’m that dramatic). In the half an hour it took us to reach, my curiosity had peaked and a little space in my tummy seemed to have become available! Inside the triangular banana leaf parcel was a rice flour pancake, which had been stuffed with sweetened fresh coconut and little chunks of banana. The flavour of the banana leaf had infused into the slightly gelatinous rice flour. The coconut and banana stuffing was warm, juicy and minimally sweetened. With a little help from Google I found out that this simple, delicious preparation is called Ela Ada – absolutely loved every bite!

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Festa Frawli – Strawberry festival at Mgarr

An army of strawberry cupcakes

An army of strawberry cupcakes

 

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been hearing locals discuss the annual strawberry festival held at Mgarr, and seen plenty of colourful posters all over Malta advertising it. This celebration of strawberries is in its 8th year now, and is a much awaited affair. It’s held in the shadow of a beautiful church, in the central pjazza of Mgarr. The atmosphere is like that of a fair – live musicians entertain the crowd, children put up little skits and dance performances, there’s a cupcake competition, a face painting stall for kids and lots more. Of course, the main reason people head over is to have their fill of strawberry flavored desserts and snacks – pancakes, waffles, muffins, cookies, cupcakes, cheesecakes, cannoli, zeppoli, pies, tarts, smoothies, milkshakes, icecreams, sorbets, jams, juices, sundaes and more. They even make strawberry ravioli, but as adventurous as I am with food, I just couldn’t get myself to try some. I spent a fun couple of hours in the crowd, ate a giant cupcake, had a cup of sorbet, bought some strawberry wine, chatted with a bunch of old ladies selling vintage crockery, and then made my way home. Although I love the speckled fruit, after seeing children dressed as strawberries and smelling strawberry scented soap bars, I’ve had my fill for a bit and won’t be biting into a strawberry any time soon!

Sugar rush!

Sugar rush!

Take-away treats

Take-away treats

Stuffed in cannoli

Stuffed in cannoli

Caught in the act

Caught in the act