Bihari flavors at The Potbelly Rooftop Cafe

The Potbelly Rooftop Cafe is the much loved, cozy cafe in ShahpurJat or as I like to call it, The Other Village. Homely wooden furniture, yellow brick wall counters, textured walls, and nostalgic print chairs and couches with glass top tables. The Potbelly Rooftop Cafe is one of a kind place in Delhi serving Bihari cuisine. They have also opened an outlet in Bihar Niwas,  Chanakyapuri. This outlet of Potbelly was incidentally even visited by Mr. Richard Rahul Verma, American Ambassador to India on his quest to discover Indian cuisines with Rocky and Mayur. The rooftop is lined with a kind of traditional mat with painted bamboos and gorgeously up-cycled lamps. The cutlery holders I just couldn’t get enough of – elephant doodles getting high on wine.

We started with some refreshing drinks. Sattu salty and spicy cooler, one of Bihar’s old-time favorites, this was a very refreshing and unprecedented summer drink.

They have a brilliant variety of flavored iced teas apart from the regular peach and lemon+mint ones. We tried their apple and cinnamon, mixed fruit and nettle, and lemongrass. All the flavors were so, so refreshing. The nettle and lemongrass one took a lot of time to come through, but when it did, it was totally worth the wait.

For starters, we tried one of their house specials – Baggia basket – rice flour stuffed with masala wali chana dal. The puffs were exceptional, very subtle flavors, and went well with the extremely fresh coriander chutney and tomato chokha.

Meat pakora basket – crispy chicken and minced mutton pakoras with the freshest coriander and mint chutney. The meat was to a delish tenderness and succulent perfection.

Dhamaaka Maggie – Spicy, soupy with a garlic tinge and cheese.

Golmirch Chicken platter – chicken curry, laccha parantha, sabutdana vada, brinjal condiments, and fresh, crunchy salad. The chicken was decent, crushed whole black pepper in a creamy, yogurt laced gravy, the chicken pieces could have been a little juicier. The brinjal concoction was surprisingly very interesting and the laccha parantha was done to perfection. I am a big fan of sabundana vada at home and this one felt slightly overdone.

Champaran style mutton platter – shredded mutton curry, boondi ka raita, salad, and moong dal rotis. This was one of the best platters I have had. The mutton was so luscious and tender in a pepper, thick spicy gravy. The boondi raita complimented the heat of the mutton very well.

Enjoy the homely subtle flavors and do not miss on the Champaran style Mutton and baggia basket.

Tea & Spice it up with Arabian nights

Angshuman Paul, Tea-entrepreneur & tea estate owner, Girish Chandra Tea Estate, A.C Paul Agricultural Company

It’s interesting to see how ethnic practices gradually bring in new vistas for contemporary organizers while they are hosting various functions. For the month of February this year, I have indulged intensively in such ethnic oeuvres and would be obliged to share them with you at a glance. Let me take you to Dubai where my host welcomed me with an intensive Moroccan Black tea. Tea in the UAE has been re-contextualized in the traditional Arabic way, so although my host Ishan Ray Choudhury (an avid Moroccan tea drinker who’s also nostalgic about Darjeeling tea) introduced me to this Moroccan tea, my quest was to be part of the organized traditional Arabic tea and spice tours. Before I mention more about these Arabian delicacies and their Indian connection, it will be nice to provide a platform that relates Moroccan tea with India. Moroccan tea unlike Indian black tea is sweeter (no need to add additional sugar).

Bucked up with this mission, I traveled to the Arabian desert on a tour that instills in the traveler a deep appreciation for Bedouin culture. Chaiwallahs have a beautiful bonding in Bedouin cuisine, which commences with the ceremonial pouring of tea or coffee from Dallas (traditional Arabian-pots) and when I said I belong from Darjeeling, a few of them enquired about Darjeeling tea. Indian tea has a fervent flavor, which was not present in Arabian tea, as Arabian tea is garnished with excessive boiling, making the flavor bit bitter. But you could harmonize it with Indian tea as lots of Indian brands are being exported to Dubai (I found that Tata Tea has a maximum retail presence).

It is as if the chai patterns hint at personal geographies, as they spread out, mapping unchartered courses. For instance, the same withered CTC or Orthodox tea from India has adopted its own pattern in Bedouin cuisine. But this article would not be complete if we don’t talk about Arabic cuisine. Arabic Bedouin dishes are dominated by red-chilli & turmeric spices, which are imported from foreign lands (read India & Pakistan). Chili Pepper Spice, Cayenne Pepper Spice, and Black Pepper Spice are three spices, among the long list of spices that are appreciated among the Arabs as heat-adders. And when it comes to the culinary bonding between Indians and Bedouins, both of them use Chili Pepper Spice. Whether it be in an Indian spice blend (like Curry Powder hot & Cayenne Pepper Spice) or in an Indian dish itself (like Tandoori Chicken), Indian cooking is revered by any heat lover.

But if reading so much on extreme hot spices is creating a phobia in you with respect to Arabian cuisine, then let me tell you that Arabians in fact go gentle while using them in camel meat, Arabian fish curry, and Shawarmas. Although Shawarma is a Lebanese dish, there are a number of Shawarma shops in Dubai & Saudi Arabia, and my experience in a few of these shops indicates that red chilies from India are ground before being used to marinate the meat for Shawarmas. These dishes are served with Moroccan Black tea and often in combo offers. It might be weird as we are used to combos of pizzas with carbonated drinks/juices but even Moroccan tea with a Lebanese dish is equally enjoyable.

Peppy & Spicy

Kavitha Srinivasa

Honestly, this blog post should have happened earlier. I mean, what else can I say about this blog on pepper; one of our most commonly used ones in the spice jar? More so, as black pepper is hailed as the King of Spices. Peppercorns were often referred to as “black gold” and used as a form of commodity money. Yet it took quite some time to get going on this peppery path. Pardon me for this.

Ok, without wasting much time, let me get started. This blog will look at black, white, and green pepper, all of which trace their origin to the woody tropical plant Piper nigrum. Incidentally, Piper nigrum is the name given to long pepper.

As far as India is concerned, pepper is grown in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Pondicherry. India is one of the largest producers and consumers of pepper in the world. As per the Spices Board website, Kerala State accounts for 97.4 percent of the total area under the crop in the country.

Pepper itself is pungent and black pepper has the highest pungency level among the three varieties. Black pepper is the unripe green fruit that is fermented and sun-dried. This is used in almost all Indian cuisines, either in the whole form or ground version, or blended with other spices. “Pepper is the least harmful spice, despite its pungency level. This is why even Sattvic cuisine which is not overly spiced uses pepper, said Krishna Shantakumar, General Manager, Aswati Group, which owns fine dining restaurants like Ebony and On the Edge in Bengaluru “A few peppercorns are thrown into the meal of dietary patients. We also use a pinch of pepper in salads and with fruits like banana and pineapple,” he added.

When the pepper berries are picked fully ripe, dried, and husked, it results in white pepper, which is extensively used in Continental cooking and in creamy soups. On the other hand, when the berries are picked before maturity and dried, we end up with green peppercorns. Green pepper is slightly crunchy and is used in pickles.

Regardless of the pepper type, generally speaking, the fiery, peppery flavor of pepper is known to add enough punch to any dish. Actually, when you think of it, chili and pepper are both hot but pepper can be singled out for its unique hot sensation which can be attributed to the resin called chavicine that it contains. Then pepper also has a volatile oil called piperine, whose essence is lost when dry pepper is exposed to the sun. The effect as you guessed is far from peppery.

Undoubtedly whole peppers are tossed with a few other spices for flavor. But it’s also true that ground pepper has been used as traditional medicine. “Pepper is a good digestive. Besides that, pepper is probably the very first spice that an infant is treated to,” explained Shantakumar.

This has been customary since ancient times. Ah, ancient times remind me of the maritime sea routes. Like all other Indian spices, pepper too made its way from India to the western world through sea trade. Proof, well let me tell you, I was surprised to note that Apicius’ De re Coquinaria, a third-century cookbook from Rome mentions pepper as one of the ingredients in its recipes. It is believed that the Gothic king Alaric agreed to lift the siege of Rome provided he was given 3,000 pounds of Indian pepper. To think of it, pepper has been a rich man’s choice, unlike cloves and cinnamon. Incidentally at that time pepper meant long peppercorns, which looked like brownish-black spikes. These peppercorns were later replaced by the round ones which we now use today.

“Pepper is a natural preservative. Before the refrigerator-era, when people ate dishes that contained coconut, after the meal, fresh pepper was added to the dish and boiled again before it was cooled and preserved,” concluded Shantakumar.

Of course, today pepper denotes other variants such as bell pepper. And how can we forget pepper mortars or the salt-pepper disposable shakers that adorn our dining tables?

On another note, an individual sporting a salt and pepper beard invariably brings a twinkle in the eye.

Spicy n Soapy

Kavitha Srinivasa

A hint of cardamom essential oil can do wonders to a bar of soap. It adds color, an undeniable spicy flavor, and above all, it’s a decadent lingering feeling. Described as the Queen of Spices, soap makers tap the antioxidant properties of cardamom to full use.

Yes, friends, we are talking about spice oils and extracts which have made their way into soap making or ‘saponification,’ as the process is officially known.

It’s anyone’s guess why these spice oils or extracts go into soaps. They are aromatic, natural colorants and rub in healing properties as well. All it requires is a hint of imagination to mix-n-match spice extracts with essential oils, to create a signature line of colorful, fragrant handcrafted soaps that package an olfactory experience with indulgence.

For instance, Haldi or turmeric which adds a characteristic color to the soap is sought after for its ability to heal and prevent dry skin. That’s just one example. Players in the bath soap segment are reviving the ancient ayurvedic techniques of soap formulations using spice extracts and herbs. With the result, many of our kitchen spices are being processed in an industrialized manner. “Spice extracts are beneficial to the skin. For centuries they are being used for their medicinal properties. Some of the popular spice extracts include turmeric, strands of saffron and black pepper,” said Amit Sarda, managing director Soulflower, India’s leading company of natural cosmetics made with spice, herbs, fresh produce, and essential oils.

Spices are not just meant to add fragrance or pep up your spirits, but make the bathing experience a truly cleansing one. And in many cases, these spices have not been tweaked. There’s no such thing as ‘expect the unexpected.’ Having said that, let me tell you, the combination of spice ingredients makes these soaps interesting. “Star anise is a good scrub and black pepper oil is used for body massages as it is suited for backaches. Likewise, some amount of cumin in the soap is good for inhaling,” added Sarda.

Many entrepreneurs have created a market for aromatic-relaxing soaps. A case in point is Bangalore-based Ahalya Matthan, whose company Ally Matthan Creations Pvt. Ltd. manufactures an ingrown label Areev that maximizes the use of locally grown ingredients in all its natural and handmade bath and skin products. “We use a number of locally available extracts of spices like Clove leaf oil, clove bud oil, cinnamon oil, cardamom oil, aniseed oil, green pepper oil, and turmeric oil, said Ahalya Matthan, founder Ally Matthan Creations Pvt. Ltd. Though a perfumer trained at Versailles, she makes soaps using essential oils, spice extracts, and oils.

Matthan believes that what you feed your skin and hair with, should be as good and if not better than what you feed your body. “To this effect, all the spice oils that we used to show remarkable efficiency in skincare, for example, turmeric oil in a massage oil or cream evens out skin tone and reduces blemishes without imparting the harsh yellow color,” she added.

On this note, we open up the spice jar for soap makers. Nutmeg Oil adds warmth to the soaps while vanilla is fragrant and comforting.

As ginger is a root, the common belief is that it can be classified as a spice. The ginger extract works really well in combination with citrus essential oils. Ginger contains several antioxidants that rejuvenate aging skin by removing toxins and improving circulation, resulting in the delivery of more nutrients to your skin. Anti-oxidants prevent damage from free radicals, preserving the elasticity and thus the youthful appearance of skin.

Apart from all this, is the added bonus of a wonderful natural fragrance. Yes, we agree. In fact, bubble baths are incomplete without herbs and relaxing spice oils. Manufacturers have elevated soaps to a luxury product. Individually wrapped, soap makers blend spices with cocoa-shea butter, essential oils, and floral extracts.

Time has come when handcrafted soaps are imaginatively designed and almost look edible.

The hottest trend- Chillies!

They lend character to dishes and test the grit of even the bravest. When it comes to chilies you can’t help but shed a tear in sheer anticipation of its spicy taste. While they originated in South America, India is today, the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of chilies. The chili pepper plant is from the genus Capsicum and members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Christopher Columbus is said to be one of the first Europeans to taste the chili pepper. Legend says that he called the spice as “pepper” because he was only familiar with the black and white pepper that also lent pungency to a dish.

Given the pungency of the spice, the chili has often been used in popular culture as a test of one’s “palate resilience”. There are numerous festivals across the world today that celebrate the different varieties of chilies- bringing producers together and introducing participants of the festival to different dishes that inventively use chilies. Of course, no festival is complete without a ‘chili eating contest’! Traditionally the Scoville scale is used as a measure of the ‘hotness’ of chili pepper or anything derived from chili peppers. The scale is actually a measure of the concentration of the chemical compound capsaicin. The scale or test is named after Wilbur L. Scoville (1865-1942), who developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912 while working at the Parke Davis pharmaceutical company. As originally devised, a solution of the chili extract is diluted in sugar water until the ‘heat’ is no longer detectable to a panel of (usually five) tasters; the degree of dilution gives its measure on the Scoville scale1. The more it has to be diluted, the hotter the chili is. The modern commonplace method for quantitative analysis of SHU (Scoville heat units) rating uses high-performance liquid chromatography to directly measure the capsaicinoid content of a chili pepper variety. Until recently the Guinness World Records had the world’s hottest chili pepper as the Red Savina Habanero. The Carolina Reaper variety cultivated in the USA is also popularly recognized as another tearfully hot chili variety.

Apart from its propensity to make people cry on ingestion, chilies have been noted by the scientific community for its health benefits as well. Chilies are excellent for your immune system because they are rich in both vitamin A (said to be the anti-infection vitamin) and vitamin C. Chilli peppers’ bright red color signals its high content of beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for healthy mucous membranes, which line the nasal passages, lungs, intestinal tract, and urinary tract and serve as the body’s first line of defense against invading pathogens. Just two teaspoons of red chili peppers provide about 6% of the daily value for vitamin C and more than 10% of the daily value for vitamin A2. Chilies can be used as natural pain killers, and topical capsaicin is now a recognized treatment option for osteoarthritis pain.

While in some cultures certain chefs will swear by the power of chilies in every dish, most people have a bitter-sweet (or rather hot-n- sweet) relation with the spice. Usually a classic case of biting off more than one can chew!