Friday, March 14, 2014

When banana leaves replace plates!

A new concept to most people not living in South India, we eat on banana leaves. Yep, just like Adam and Eve. Sounds quite caveman considering we live in a world where we get all kinds of plates to eat on- porcelain, melamine, paper, eco-friendly and the likes. So then why do we eat on leaves?
So, its simple- eating on a nicely washed leaf is hygienic. It adds lots of flavor to the food. A very common sight at weddings and festivals, ''ellai sapadu"is a much awaited affair.

Imagine your attending at a grand south indian wedding. You'll see a lot of mama's and maami's in veshti's and nine-yard sarees bustling around being the perfect hosts. Next thing you know, your sitting in the large dining hall with a big banana leaf in front of you. What do you do? For those unaccustomed to eating with fingers, dont ever try to eat with a spoon- you'll be glared at. Waiters running around carrying food in buckets- yes, buckets are not just for baths alone, sambar and rasam is carried around in steel buckets to serve guests. Soon your going to be served with food. Fair warning: theres a way of serving and eating on an ellai. 

Position your leaf- ensure that the broader end is on your right. The top half of the leaf is served with side dishes and the lower half is for the rice. The right side of the leaf will have a small helping of payasam ( sweet, milky rice sweet- a type of kheer), kesari (a rava sweet) , sweet pongal or any desert items. Whereas, the top left will have a pinch of salt , pickle and raita. Around the middle there will be a lot of fried items like chips, appalam, etc. For every ellai sapadu, vegetables are chosen carefully. Today, a lot of varied rice items are also included in the ellai. Once at a wedding, I was given fried rice on a ellai.
Rice is always served on a plate only when a guest is seated. Sambar, rasam and curd are the various accompaniments along with the traditional ellai sapadu.One must be super careful during this meal- there are times where the leaf might tilt and food will be on your lap. This happens a lot with rasam. 

One feels like a royal, with many waiters waiting on you while you relish each and every bite of the elaborate and delicious meal.

So remember: Whenever you visit South India, dont ever miss out on the traditional ellai sapadu! 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Food Review

“Food tastes best when it’s cooked from the heart”

This is what celebrity Chef Harjinder Singh stands for.  Fondly known as Sweety Singh, he is here in Chennai from Punjab, with his mouth watering Punjabi cuisine at The Crown at Residency Towers.

His charming demeanour and thorough delight in telling us his journey is hard to miss. Highly passionate towards cooking and focused on serving delectable food, Harjinder Singh is one of the most wanted chefs by celebrities - both cricketers and Bollywood. We intently listen as he takes us back to his roots.

“My father ran a small dhaba in Amritsar. It was quite famous and a lot of people visited it. Even after he lost sight to diabetes, he continued cooking based on the smells emanating from the pot and instinctively knew when to add the ingredients. This passion my father showed towards cooking attracted me from a young age and I decided to become a chef.”

Sweety Singh began his career in 1996 at Park Sheraton, Chennai. He fondly remembers the first dishes he ever made - Rajma, Dal Makhani and his signature dish until date - Pindi Chole. There has been no looking back, ever since.
With strong belief in serving “ghar ka khana”, Sweety Singh oversees every single dish made in his kitchen. He believes food tastes best only when masala is added using his fingers. With a small chuckle he adds, “I think one can relish the taste of good food only when eaten with fingers.” Well, don’t we all agree?

Punjabi food is known for being rich and lavish with loads of butter and ghee. Interestingly, Sweety believes in moderation. He doesn’t believe in adding too much fresh cream and nuts to every single dish. He points out that young chefs today add too much cheese, cream, artificial colouring, butter or ghee to enhance the flavour in the food.
Working doubly hard to preserve the taste of authentic Punjabi food, Sweety Singh, like every top chef, has his own “secret” ingredients. The only thing he is willing to share is that these secret ingredients are flavour enhancing masalas.  A staple set of ingredients is what Sweet believes, brings out the flavours in each of his dish. Sweety is also a firm believer in garnishing and presentation.

Then we excitedly, set forth to enjoy our first private dining with Sweet Singh. Our meal began with the popular Punjabi Delight - Lassi. This was followed by an assorted platter of paneer tikka and the gobi kebab, and the exotic dish we enjoyed thoroughly - Beetroot kebab! A vegetable thoroughly boring to eat has been cooked into something so delectable which left us spellbound, as we slowly relished each bite of it.
The main course consisted of Sweety’s signature pindi chole, mutton ghosh and the Punjabi staple - sarson ka saag. This was accompanied with soft and fluffy kulchas. Each dish was cooked perfectly with a generous mix of his secret spices, leaving us completely satiated and in-love with authentic Punjabi cooking.

Sweety Singh also runs a Dhaba in Delhi. But he spends most of his time visiting other hotels, training young chefs. Content with what he does, he says, “People work hard for food, so I feel happy feeding people good food.” We needn’t say more.
Ask him to choose between idli/sambar and aloo paratha? Sweety says aloo paratha wins hands down! A delightful person to meet, his cheerful face and pleasing nature coupled with small doses of humour (he asked me if I chose to be vegetarian in order to find a good husband!) is what makes him who he is today. Sweety Singh has no immediate plans in opening a restaurant in Chennai, but he’s happy to offer consultation to those who want to. Sweety Singh is truly king!

-  Nina Justin was at The Crown, the rooftop restaurant at The Residency Towers in Chennai, on a personal invitation from Sweety Singh.