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At 31 years of age he is already an ‘ustaad’ !!!

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Indian music is like Indian food: totally mis-understood and completely undigested.

Indian music is not all ‘Bollywood masala’ and Indian food is not all ‘curry in a hurry’!!!

We’ve heard enough (well, almost, I would say as one can never say/hear enough about it!) about the ‘curry in a hurry’ stuff so let us play a different tune (pun totally intended) today.

We’re talking Indian music.

But I want to focus particularly on an instrument called tabla, a percussion instrument extensively used in Indian classical music.

Tabla is derived from the Persian word tabl which means drums.

So, how does a percussion instrument fit into cooking?

Well, as a part of our 16th birthday celebrations we had the privilege of hosting a baithak, or private concert, of a percussion artist who is possibly one of the youngest to be called an ustaad!!

This man is a disciple of the great ustaad Allah Rakha Khan, and his son ustaad amjad Ali Khan, who are pioneers of the Punjab Gharana who are, well, I’d love to go on but I can’t because, unfortunately, I am completely ignorant of this instrument and music in general.

However, this doesn’t prevent me from appreciating the instrument or the way it’s played and I certainly can recognize the pleasant from the ear-splitting!

So, when my friend, Uday, recommended that I hear Aditya Kalyanpur play it was a great opportunity for us at nilgiri’s to have him play in front of about 80 guests. As each guest arrived they were given masala vadai with a mocktail.

Then the music began and it did not disappoint!!

The young master played.

And he played non stop for nearly 2 hours!!

Whilst the music filled up the room, the guests were then served biryani in a box and on and on it went. Amazing!


He played tukras and he played kaydas from the Punjab Gharana, mesmerising the guests with his artistry and mastery that he has picked up from his master ustaad Allah Raakha.

The dessert we served was cardamom and pistachio kulfi, how else to try and mimic the joy of the music with the joy of a kulfi!

It was a privilege to have this young man come and play. It was great to have the food, the atmosphere that this night brought.

I want to have many, many more nights like this where young talents come and create something special at nilgiri’s. So, if you’re an aspiring artist (and we know the many forms this can take, from dance to illustration to music, ancient or modern), let me know!

If we can foster our young artists, if we can show off their skills, then that’s great. I’ll do the cooking and they can do the entertaining!

Anah daata sukhi bhava!

It’s only been 15 years in the making. . .

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My restaurant, nilgiri’s, turns 15 on the 9th of July and it seems like only yesterday that we started this dream project.

Fifteen years is a long time in my industry, just like it is in cricket, another of my dream games!

Longevity in the kitchen, or on the pitch, is not a hallmark but a necessity. The longer you play, the better your credentials; just go and ask Don Bradman.

Well, running a restaurant is like playing cricket and just as in cricket there are lessons to learn.

These fifteen years have been a h-ll of a learning curve for me personally.

I had a dream, when I was younger, that I would run my own restaurant and here I am, to this day, living this dream!

But as in cricket there are some good ‘ups’ and some not so good ‘ups’. And yes, I mean “not so good ‘ups’” because there are no ‘downs’.

Success is not about what you have but how you deal with it.

They say cricket is the great leveller, a hundred today could be a first ‘ball duck’ tomorrow.

Well, running a restaurant is also a great leveller, a full house today could be a ‘duck’ tomorrow.

However, be that as it may, you must believe in yourself and back yourself and keep going, just like a good cricketer does; he keeps on going and going!! We have tried doing this for nearly two decades. You get caught out, you get stumped, you’re LBW but you keep batting for your team. Well, that’s what my team and I have been doing!

Nilgiri’s has been a memorable journey for us all, and to tell you the truth there have been a few regrets [these might appear in a blog one of these days], there aren’t many regrets, but overall, I would not change a thing!!

Every day brings something new. There is a cooking class to do, or a chef’s table to cook for. Then there is a cooking demonstration at a primary school, or at the restaurant. A new menu starts every month, or there is a birthday party to cater for, or there’s even a wedding reception to cook for. So, you get the picture, there’s never a dull moment. There’s always something happening!!

And last week was one such week that I will never forget.

happy faces at the function

We had the most amazing function at the restaurant.

No, it was not a birthday party, or a wedding reception, or a cocktail party to celebrate someone’s 21st. These are all amazing in their own way but this was different.

This was a charity dinner.

And it was a charity dinner for the game of cricket!!

Imagine that?! I get to give a charity dinner for cricket!

Basically, my son is going to Sri Lanka to play cricket against the local Sri Lankan clubs and schools and I am told it is going to be a ‘cracker’ of a tour.

Two teams of 12 players each, and some parents and coaches, will be on this island for about 12 days to give some up-and-coming cricketers from Sydney a chance to play on a different kind of turf [literally and metaphorically!].

The tour is self funded which means there are no sponsors and so all the players and parents must foot their own bill.

Some are comfortable with this idea, some parents are happy to fund it with a little stretch to their budget, and some just can’t stretch that far, no matter how keen. Well, there are three very talented kids who just can’t make it unless someone can dig deep into their pockets and sponsor them to go.

So, we had a highly difficult, but not an impossible, task to raise money to pay for these kids to go on this cricket tour.

We discussed it and thought that a charity dinner could possibly help in getting the kids over the line.

The target was to raise $14,000 to take care of the travel, accommodation and food for these kids.

So, I said that I’d host and cook for the dinner. We advertised at our restaurant, the cricket club did the same and we got 98 guests who paid $75 per person which immediately gave us $7350.

Wine supplied by Samuel Smith & Son

But we needed at least $6500 to make up the deficit.

And this is what I love about Australians, they are always supporting the needy and the underprivileged and Sydney did not let us down!!

Mitchel Starc speaking from England

We had Mitchel Starc speak to the gathering from England via satellite and at our end Josh Hazlewood (he’s an Australian fast bowler for those of you who might not know), Alysha Healy (she’s the wicket-keeper with the Australian Women’s cricket team) and Chandika (he’s a former Sri Lankan opening batsman),Lachlan O’Connor (former NSW U-17 captain) came in to do their bit, at no cost.

Jeff Bolt brought in the audio visual system and was also the DJ for the night, at no cost, and the wines were supplied by Samuel Smith & Son, the beer by Mumbai Pilsner, the soft drinks by Coca Cola and nilgiri’s provided the food and service, at no cost.

beer by Mumbai Pilsner

The menu included methi murgh, laal maas, kalonji baingan, and for starters we had our speciality cocktail dosai, followed by kozhi milagu varuval with roomali roti.

Chefs Reddy and Durga in action, cooking naans and kebabs !!

But there is more, in spite of the generous gifts from all the above. If you can believe it we are still short of funds, so we decide there must, of course, be a few items to auction on the night to raise the extra few thousands. I mean, who has ever gone to a charity dinner and not had an auction?

Jeff Bojt and Ash ‘live’ auction

So, more generous donations appeared in the form of: Mr Greg Chappell donating his training cap, Kashmiri shawls were given from Meenakshi, the NSW Blues donated a fully autographed cricket bat, Mark Waugh donated his training shirt, and one Mr Sachin Tendulkar donated an autographed bat!!

Well, when I saw the last item I just knew who was going to bid for this one!

(No, not me, my son of course! The poor chap put in all his savings to get it, and he did!!)

My son, Aniruddh, helping out on the night, ‘no charge’

But there is more, all the photography was given free and the photos on the night taken by my friend JS (John Slaytor) and to celebrate 15 years of ‘survival’ in a tough business nilgiri’s did not take a cent.

And what a night it was.

Alysha Healy having a good time!!

We raised $9000 from the auctions and then came the icing on the cake . . . my friend Dr Alok Sharma promised $2000 from the Rotary Club of Wagga Wagga!!

Unbelievable! We asked for $14000 and we ended up raising $19000. You Beauty!!

What more could we have asked for to celebrate our anniversary month, good food, good wine and some good cricket talk?!!

Akhil on the floor

And, as I look back on that night and the extraordinary generosity and goodwill of all involved, the words of a Scottish minister come to mind, “You will find, as you look back on your life, that the moments that stand out are the moments when you have done things for others.”

Anna Datha Sukhi Bhava!!

Can I have a keg of beer without a curry?

Yes!

Royal Mumbai beer on tap at nilgiri's served by Akhil!

You may have a beer anytime you choose.

Can I have a beer and a curry?

Of course, but let’s see where all these drinks take us. . .

Since I started my research on the kind of beverages that ‘go well’ with Indian food, I have to tell you that the results have been fascinating and also confirmed what I thought might have been the case.

Here is what I discovered.

Indians have been drinking alcohol before, during and after meals for G-d knows how long; even before man came to earth!

Legend has it that in the epic Ramayana, Sita promises the goddess Ganga that she will give her a thousand jars of wine if her exiled party are permitted to return home safely. Well, after they do so her husband Rama, with his own hands, feeds Ganga with maireya, a spiced wine!

In the Mahabharata, the longest epic in the world, Lord Krishna is seen enjoying a drink with Arjuna, and the Yaadavas are finally killed in a drunken brawl!!

Drinking scenes are also depicted in sculptures on the Saanchi stupas!!!

In these traditional stories and in images, all of the characters are drinking either a wine or a spirit made out of a fruit or a grain.

But where’s the keg of beer?

Well, fast forward a couple of centuries and the keg, or the beer, was introduced by the British in the 18th century to . . . well, we all know why they wanted the beer, and to be absolutely honest I just loved the fizzy drink as well!

During my working days at the Taj in Bangalore the beer was the best, sorry, the only incentive that I needed to perform my tasks well!

Kingfisher beer served with a smile by Lovedeep!

My general manager would give me special permission to have a bottle or two, or three!, to drink (with my chefs) at the end of the late and blo..dy tiring nights of functions!

I just loved it and so did my chefs!! Time passed and we all did what we had to do with the moving on of history, we spread our wings, we grew up, we went on to different things!!

I came to Australia with two ambitions in mind: the first was hoping to meet one Mr Don Bradman and the second was to have a beer called Fosters (but not with Mr Bradman, my ambitions were modest!).

Well, I did the second but I never got to meet the Don!

However, I’m not downcast as I know that one day I’ll catch up with this legend when I meet him up there, and we’ll have all the time in the world to chat. He was, and still is, my favourite cricketer!

Fosters beer was light and easy to drink and went very well with my style of Indian food, however after the second bottle was drunk I soon lost interest in the food and reached for more beer. Know the feeling?

This was mainly because the beer was filling me up with gas. Not a great combination.

It was not until 1996 that I got a taste of the beautiful elixir called “wine” and I caught onto it as a bee does to honey!!

This was not only a beautiful drink but it was also a perfect companion to my cooking; it actually brought life to the food and not the other way round!!

I have not looked back since!

Over the years, and after attending numerous classes on wine tasting, I have finally concluded that the best beverage to accompany Indian food, especially the regional kind of food that we cook at nilgiri’s in Sydney, is wine.

A good wine, whether it be a white like a Semillon or Chardonnay from the Hunter or a Shiraz, again from the Hunter or the Barossa Valley in South Australia, is an excellent accompaniment.

Iron Gate Chardonnay from the Hunter Valley

Other good wines with Indian food are the Pinots from the Mornington Peninsula!

As for the beer, a light beer like the Japanese Asahi, or even Kingfisher which comes from Victoria, are great to kick-start your Indian soirée, along with some nibbles, or even starters, followed by a good Shiraz to go with any red meat, especially goat.

My friend, Roger Lilliott, does a great sweet Shiraz from his vineyard in the Hunter called Iron Gate and actually recommends that you chill it before it is poured. Absolutely brilliant!

Iron Gate Shiraz

A good wine to accompany white meats and paneer is a Pinot from a vineyard called Nazaaray, owned by Paramdeep Ghumman who was a doctor in his previous life! This man makes some of the best Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in the land.

A selection of Nazaaray wines from the Mornington Peninsula

Well, that’s the alcohol drunk, but what about our non-alcoholic friends?

How about the lassis?

”]This is a great drink and can be refreshing if made properly.

I mean, everyone knows how to make a lassi, it’s not rocket science, not till you go to the Punjab and realise that lassi making is, in fact, rocket science, it’s an art form! Here the yoghurt is set in an earthenware pot and is churned using a wooden stirrer called a ravi.

There are generally two different versions of lassi, one is sweet and the other is salted with a hint of spice!

Mango, spice and rosewater lassis

Mum would make a good sweet lassi on a hot day in New Delhi, when we lived there in the early 70s, however personally I do not like a sweet lassi with my food as it is like having a dessert with your meal. I prefer to have my desserts after the meal.

When they make lassis in the south of India the yoghurt is churned till the fat rises to the top and is then skimmed off leaving behind the mor, which is then tempered with spices and curry leaves. A similar drink in the north is called chaach or chaas, but up here it is not tempered.

And what of our spiced teas, known as masala chai?

Lovedeep serving masala chai

Most Indians prefer not to have tea with their food, mainly because it contains tannins which make hot food (both the temperature and the flavour) taste hotter and that is also the reason why a young red wine, which is high in tannins, is also not recommended for the very same reasons.

However, as with our sweet lassis, spiced teas are another great way to round off an Indian meal!!

And, finally what about the simplest drink of them all, served in a jug, or nowadays in bottles either fizzy or still?

Water!

Many people feel they need to drink copious amounts of water to ‘cool themselves off’ if they feel their meal is too spicy, and indeed, water is the perfect drink to go with an Indian meal.

However, be warned, it is not recommended to drink it during a meal as it tends to bring out the heat in the chillis and makes a hot dish taste hotter!

Water, the simplest liquid of them all, is by far the most popular beverage to have at the end of an Indian meal.

Well, as for me, I need to make up for all the lost years that I missed having fuqqa (as the Moghuls called it in Hindustaan way back in the 15th-17th centuries), so I will stick to the “poetry in a bottle”!!

white poetry in a bottle - Nazaaray Pinot Gris

Red poetry in a bottle - Nazaaray Pinot Noir

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

As Summer is approaching, why not try one (or both!) of these refreshing lassi recipes? Meethi (sweet) lassi or masala lassi (a savoury/salty lassi).

To ghee or not to ghee!!!

Ghee.

This is one word which is synonymous with Indian food.

The moment we hear of Indian food there are three things that come to mind: firstly that it is loaded with chillies, secondly that it is oily and thirdly, that it is cooked in ghee.

Having previously written about the importance of chillies in Indian food (What is it. . . Green chilli, red chilli, dry chilli, black pepper, white pepper?) it’s now time to talk about the myth surrounding ghee which will also cover the ‘oily’ aspect too!

So, what is ghee?

Most Indians would know that it is the purest form of a cooking medium and that it is also the purest form of milk. However, most people don’t know ghee is extremely cooling to the human body if taken in the right manner!

And this is where the main problem with ghee lies.

How does one know if one is taking it in the ‘right way’? Well, unfortunately this aspect of Indian food has never been documented and is left to any and every possible interpretation!

Here is my take on the use of ghee.

Having cooked for nearly 30 odd years or so, I have never understood how to use ghee correctly and hence it is never used in my restaurant, full-stop.

We even make our desserts using fresh oil (we use polyunsaturated vegetable oil, except canola, because in NSW the canola crop is genetically modified). For example, at my restaurant we fry our gulab jamoons in fresh oil and believe you me they come out abso-bloo..-lutely light!!

There are some exceptions to this rule, however:

For example, we once catered for an Indian businessman who insisted that the bati in dal bati churma was to be fried in ghee and served only with ghee. Of course we did as he requested and he was very happy with the results, but given a choice I would have stayed as far away as possible from ghee! There is method to this ‘madness’.

In 1988 on my way to Mangalore to learn how to cook on a chullah (a chullah is a kind of burner that is used in Coondapur), I went to a place called Palghat, now known as Palakkat, or the temple city in Kerala.

This is a place renowned for its temples and one of the temples is famous for its pal pradaman, a kind of rice pudding that is made with milk and ghee and edible camphor!!

Once in Palghat I had little time to perform my religious rituals and so I had the head priest help me make the food for a Naivaedyam, or prasad, or an offering, to the gods.

In this I was assisted by at least nine other so-called apprentices who were aspiring to become priests in the temple.

I must tell you that this, mind you, was my first taste of every single dish being cooked in ghee. We had at least five other dishes that were being cooked as well, including a sambhar (a lentil dish), a rasam (a soup), kootu (a pumpkin and lentil dish) boiled rice and a yoghurt dish (aviyal), all of which were to accompany the pal pradaman.

All of this food was to be fed to the regular visitors that numbered anywhere between six and seven thousand souls, just for lunch!!

We started by tempering the cooked lentils in ghee for the sambhar followed by cooking the aviyal and finishing it off with a tempering which comprised mustard seeds  and curry leaves in ghee.

Then the vegetables and lentils, called kootu, were tempered, once again using ghee and spices.

Then came the pièce de résistance, the paal pradaman, made with rice flakes, called ada, which are soaked for about 20 minutes and then drained and cooked with milk and ground green cardamom pods. Once cooked, the rice and milk combination is allowed to thicken and edible camphor is added followed by nuts that are fried in, yes, of course, ghee!

I had never seen sooo much ghee being used in a kitchen before. What a revelation!

Back at my hotel in Bangalore the only time we ever used ghee was when we made sweets for special occasions, for everything else it was dalda a.k.a saturated vegetable oil that looked like ghee. And this is where the similarities ended. Daldadid not taste like ghee nor did it behave like ghee, which is supposed to bring out the true flavours. Interestingly, dalda actually ‘camouflaged’ all the flavours and smells, unless you put your nose right into the dish!!

Well, back to Palghat, at the end of the lunch session, which also became the beginning of the dinner session given the thousands of visitors that had to be fed, I asked the head priest if cooking with ghee was the same as cooking with dalda, or saturated vegetable fats, and this is what he replied:

“Son, anyone can cook with dalda, to cook with ghee you should have attained moksha.” [Or nirvana.]

That was a tempered way of saying that it was beyond my understanding to use ghee and hence I should not bother cooking with it as it was very tricky and needed to be understood, which, he might also have been implying, was beyond my scope!

Very encouraging words, indeed, for an aspiring chef!

But then there was another message too. Nothing is ever as simple or straightforward as it first appears and it was all about using ghee properly.

According to the priest, very few people can differentiate good ghee from bad.

Good ghee is grainier to look at and will always remain in a solid state, even at room temperature.

It should never be stored in the refrigerator as this reduces its shelf life and also, by extension, that of the dish.

When melted in a pan, or pot, it must be crystal clear and have a high smoking point. This is very important for Indian food, which is wrongly accused of being oily as I mentioned above.

The oil remains in the dish if the ghee is not brought to a smoking point properly. (To do this part properly takes lots of practice as you must bring the ghee to a smoking point but not allow it to smoke!)

Smoking the oil brings it to the surface and it is called rogan which actually preserves the dish; whereas if it is left in it makes the dish heavy and oily!!

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

Please try two desserts for yourselves, one of which I’ve mentioned above, gulab jamoon, which are deep-fried cottage cheese dumplings steeped in a warm rose water and saffron syrup. Delicious! Also, paal payasam which is a saffron and cardamom infused rice dessert.

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