Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The REAL soul food

For those of you who are in India, or have easy access to authentic Indian snacks and fast-food... let me tell you straightaway that you will probably wonder what all the fuss is about. When you are surrounded by all the food that you love and can get any time, you tend get a bit blase about it all (this is the voice of experience speaking). But those who are abroad - especially in places where they cant get "real" Indian food - will very likely identify with this paean of a post!

Believe me, even the ubiquitous potato crisp loses its attraction because you cant get a simple "chilli" flavour - instead, you have strange flavours like feta and tomato, roast lamb and mint, honeyed ham and mustard, cheddar cheese and onion, beef wellington, grilled sausage... just weird. Imagine trying to provide the flavours of traditional English meals in a bag of crisps - especially when all you're looking for is something simple and spicy-hot. When you're in that position, even the normally ordinary idli begins to seem like a gourmet's dream. I KNOW this for a fact - I'd been fantasising about idlis for over a year before my previous trip to India... so when I did get to Chennai, demand almost overcame supply ;-)

However, lately, all I've been seeing in my mind's eye are spicy, piping hot samosas... perfect for cold, wet, wintry weather. And the samosas arent just any old samosas either. The ones that I have in mind are specifically those from a stall about five minutes' walk from Kasturi Buildings, when I worked for The Hindu Business Line.

This shop was only a "temporary" one in the shelter of the pedestrian subway exit, more or less across from the big Bata store at the crossroads (cant remember the name of the building that was directly opposite the stall, but there's a leather shop in the basement. And a Bengali emporium.) I hope SOMEbody would have placed it by now. I'm not sure that the stall still exists, but I'm hoping it does because I intend paying it a visit on my next trip to India.

Anyway... back to the samosa theme. The sad approximations of samosas that I've seen here are enough to bring tears of anguish to my eyes. They have a filling of diced carrots, potatoes and sweetcorn kernels... the kind that you get pre-cut in the frozen section of the local supermarket. They taste of curry powder (what the British use to make "Indian curries"). They dont sit up on their base in temptingly 3-dimensional triangles; instead, they are flat, oily things made with phyllo pastry. They look a bit like the little "Irani kadai" samosas but taste godawful. Especially to someone who knows what the real thing looks and tastes like.

I have VERY nostalgic memories about the samosas in my favourite road-side stall. They were absolutely perfect - the casing crisp, smooth and bubble-free and, in some mysterious way, NEVER oozing oil. And the filling... spicy, hot, just perfect! No carrots, no sweetcorn, no spinach, nothing remotely healthy. Just potatoes, onions and whatever divine spices/masala that the master-cook used in the filling.

Forget Sanjeev Kapoor, forget Tarla Dalal, forget all the 5-star chefs and their 5-star ideas of cuisine (and even more, their 5-star prices!). They dont hold a candle to the genius of this unknown samosa-stall man. Chicken soup for the soul? No thanks - but I'll take a samosa (or two or three) anyday!


None said...

hey shyam,
the samosa guy at the subway exists still, but he's been bought over. what he did, in turn, was to buy up the irani stall at the corner of ritchie street. and he makes those samosas there now. so you dont have to go very far!
btw, talk about samosas in d ol' blightie. i remember when the woman who was serving at the reglular lunch buffet at Wolfson told me how to eat samosas. she said i should eat the vegetable patties with lentil sauce! :)) grrr... i wanted to tell her to "stuff it," but somehow, dint! :))

Shyam said...

Ok, I shall gravitate to Ritchie Street then! Where he goes, as far as possible, I shall follow :) And hey, that woman who told you about the "lentil sauce" wasnt TOO far off, if you stretch her point - maybe she was talking about channa-samosa!


Samosaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!! Hot piping samosas...With mint chutney and pulippu sauce....Yummmmmmm!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Shyam. Ravi 'reporting' from Jaipur. Man, food tends to make my mouth water. The lovely thing in this hotel where I'm staying is that it has 'idlis' that can rival the best of Chennai hotels. I almost shouted in joy when I saw a plate y'day...they looked so good. I took an instant pic fm my digital camera but unfortunately, fm the cybercafe that I'm writing this from, I can't upload. Not sure if you have had 'mini' samosas at this small bakery on Royapettah, opposite the Ponnuswamy hotel...they have light, just-fried-right onion filling and when had along with hot & sweet sauce, nirvana can be attained! :)