Experiencing home away from home

No matter how many years you live outside your country, there are times when a wave of homesickness washes over you. You just can’t stop reminiscing about home, the streets that you are so familiar with, the neighborhood shops, the walk back home from work or school under the shade of leafy trees, the little cozy café where you stopped by to pick up a sweet treat, known faces of neighbors, the sound of a language that is commonly spoken on the streets and in homes– in my case Tamil, and last but not the least, authentic food that your palate craves for. No matter how authentic an Indian restaurant claims to be on foreign soil, it just doesn’t re-create the same tastes that you savor back home.

So it was one of those times when I was indulging in sweet memories of my hometown Chennai that I walked into this little unassuming restaurant on Serangoon Road, bang opposite the Perumal Koil in what can be called the Little India precinct of Singapore. The sign-board read ‘Sri Lukshmi Narasmihan Restaurant’ and a peek from outside only revealed a row of wooden tables and chairs. Nothing fancy. Nothing to rave about. But a step inside and the experience that followed is something that will stay with me forever. For the sixty minutes that I spent there, I almost forgot that I was in Oriental Singapore.

It was a hot sweltering day when I swung the restaurant door open at 11:00am to step in for a quick bite and for some restful time. It was early in the day for Indians to be having lunch and so the restaurant was almost empty save two or three tables that were occupied by other customers like me. Unlike the unrelenting heat that beat upon you outdoors, it was cool inside and the restaurant was well-lit by rows of tube lights affixed on the ceiling. The sound of devotional chants playing in the background calmed my senses within minutes. I noticed that the walls were adorned with beautiful traditional Tanjore paintings, aka Thanjavur Oviyam; vividly and richly colored figurines of Hindu Gods and Goddess such as Goddess Lakshmi, Lord Hanuman, and Lord Krishna.  I placed my order and while I waited for my food to arrive I just soaked in the ambience.

As I sat there, I was reminded of my Chennai days when I was embraced with coolness as soon as I set foot in my home after having traveled in the afternoon heat of the city. I wonder if you have ever felt that. A sense of relief as you step inside your home; and you wonder how it is that your home is cool and shady while it is blistering hot outside. The devotional chants that were playing reminded me of the temple that was just a stone’s throw away from where I used to live in Chennai. It reminded me of all my South Indian friends’ homes and of the erstwhile Brahmin neighborhoods. And the food? Well what do I say…Have you ever tasted temple food? It’s vegetarian, tasty, simple, and freshly cooked. It’s simply lip-smacking delicious. That is what the cooks at Sri Lukshmi Narasimhan replicate be it their pongal, uppma, dosai, idlly, oothapam,vadai, sambar-rice, or the full-blown South Indian meal served up in a banana leaf lined thali. As I savored my chappati plate – two soft chappatis served with a cup of wholesome dal, and a lightly spiced sabzi – I couldn’t help noticing the duo at the adjacent table. A lady in her 40s with her mum in her 60s deeply engaged in a conversation in Tamil peppered with English.  It was easy to discern their Tam Brahm descent by the way they spoke and I must unabashedly admit that I enjoyed listening to them and watching the mami relish her oothapam.  I almost felt like I was in a Sangeetha Bhavan  or Ananda Bhavan in Chennai.

I am no coffee addict but I simply couldn’t resist ordering a filter coffee that day. It came in the tumbler and dabara and as I poured it back and forth till it was of sipping temperature I thought to myself, “Now this is the real thing; not some hazelnut or butterscotch flavored frappe, latte, mocha in the name of coffee.” I don’t know what it is about South Indian filter coffee…maybe it’s the coffee beans, maybe it’s the chicory, maybe it’s the tumbler and dabara or maybe it’s just the nostalgia that comes with it….

Having tended to my bout of home-sickness for the day, my tryst with Lukshmi Narasimhan ended with a smile on my face, a spring in my step, and a lightsome heart.

It was not just about food. It was about re-creating the feeling of home away from home.

PS: If you are visiting Lukshmi Narasimhan, the perfect time is during lunch on week-days. It’s quiet and service is quick. It’s pretty crowded at dinner time and be prepared for a longer waiting time for food and a noisy atmosphere on weekends. But believe me, it’s totally worth it. Any south Indian dish you order will be good, so just go ahead and indulge your cravings. A few of my favorites are the mini tiffin (a sizable idly, a medu vadai, a masala dosai, a ladleful of pongal laced with ghee and a serving of tea/coffee/buttermilk), rice/chappati meal (rice/chappati, papad, south indian veggies, rasam, sweet and maybe I’m missing a few more items), and the Andhra spicy dosai (a dosai with some super spicy chutney or podi spread inside).  The average cost for two people is about S$20.

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Proud owner of a mortar and pestle

I love watching the Discovery travel and living channel. I am just drawn into their world of exotic locales, intriguing cultures and myriad food shows. Bobby Chin, Curtis Stone, Jamie Oliver, Kylie Kwong, Anthony Bourdain, and Nigella Lawson keep me engaged with their varied culinary skills. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not a huge fan of cooking. Neither is the kitchen is my favorite hangout and nor do I potter around trying out new recipes. In fact my kitchen setup is very basic – a few pots n pans, a wok, a pressure cooker, a mixer/grinder/blender, a food processor, a toaster, a sandwich maker, and a juicer (which I have used just once), some basic cutlery is all that you will find in my cooking space. While I do enjoy rustling up a meal I’m not as passionate as my TLC gurus. Yet, I am inexplicably drawn to their shows…and heavily influenced by them.

I’m not sure if it’s got to do with the way in which the shows are presented but it’s quite motivating and inspiring to watch Kylie stir fry finely shredded carrots, shallots and crisp cabbage in a rich and (seemingly) flavorful sauce or drool over Nigella’s desserts or feel refreshed by simply watching Jamie toss salad leaves, and cherry tomatoes with an olive oil dressing. I can’t help but pick up certain pointers on the techniques of chopping, grinding, frying while watching these chefs at work. And this is how I was drawn to the mortar and pestle – that simplistic looking primitive device. When I saw Kylie grind her Schezwan peppercorns or Bobby furiously pound garlic and shallots in the mortar and pestle I just wondered if it was a cook show gimmick or if there was any truth to their claim that it actually released the flavors of the ingredients.

Given that I’m a Gujarati the mortar and pestle was not alien to me. You will find it in every gujju home. The only difference is that it’s not made of granite or marble but is instead set in brass or steel – not too impressive looking for my liking. So when I had to run my own household I didn’t think much of owning it. I just used to pull out the mixie and get done with my grinding. However, the more I watched these chefs use the mortar and pestle, the more I was drawn to it. It reached a point where I simply HAD to own one. And so my hunt began. I searched online forums for hints on where I would find it in Singapore. I looked in neighborhood ‘all purpose’ stores. I walked down the aisles of hypermarts. I even trudged up to Mustafa thinking that my search would end there. But I was out of luck. The mortar and pestles were lone pieces and quite non-impressive. My mind was set on a black, smoothly polished granite one. One weekend I just happened to drop by a cramped store in Little India that seemed to stock utensils and pots and pans and voila! There it was! My prized possession. I was as excited as a little girl who has been given a doll.

Today, the mortar pestle proudly sits on my kitchen top and I never lose an opportunity to pound fresh garlic or grind cardamom powder in it. Is the experience gratifying? Yes! Does it make cooking more enjoyable? Oh yes! Do the flavors of the ingredients seem enhanced? Yes! Yes! Oh yes!

At the risk of sounding crazy, I’m going to say this: If you have ever doubted the usefulness of this tool, do yourself a favor – go get one and put an end to all those questions and apprehensions. 😉

The Malgudi Day

It was last Saturday afternoon that we were walking down Syed Alwi Road in Singapore’s Indian restaurant quarter looking for an interesting eatery where we could gorge on Indian food and satisfy our rumbling tummies. That’s when we eyed ‘Malgudi’ – an authentic Chettinad and North Indian “multi cuisine” restaurant. The décor looked inviting and we decided to take a chance and stepped in. 

You must be familiar with the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’. Well, add this one as well ‘never judge a restaurant by its décor/ambiance’ – and my review of Malgudi will tell you why. 

The ambiance: One would expect a restaurant with a name like “Malgudi” to have some semblance to south Indian décor. Except for the few Tanjore paintings on the walls the décor was everything but south Indian. You may argue saying that Malgudi is after all a figment of R K Narayan’s imagination, but you mustn’t forget that he himself proclaimed that the town, albeit a fictional one, is located in South India. Let us suppose I overlook the fact that the décor is not south Indian (I mean it really isn’t a big deal. There is no hard and fast rule that a south Indian named restaurant must have a similar décor.); I would still expect a sense of warmth and a certain “feel good factor” when I enter a restaurant. However, it felt strangely cold and devoid of any personality. This was further accentuated by the cold blast of air that was hitting me from the air-con vent just above our table. A quick look around and I could see that all the tables had the vent placed just above them. Unable to bear the cold, I had to request the restaurant staff to turn down the air-con temperature. I quickly told myself not to be critical and that perhaps the food would be good. After all that’s what matters in the end anyways. With my stomach rumbling, I was looking forward to having a luscious lunch. 

The menu: Quite an impressive list of dishes ranging from biryanis, Indian breads, tandoori fare, chettinad meals, chindian (Chinese food Indian style), etc. 

The food: Inspired by my Friday evening hindi serial, where the protagonists drive to a Delhi Dhabba which served the best butter chicken and shammi kebabs that melt in the mouth, I was determined to have paneer butter masala (I’m vegetarian and butter chicken wasn’t an option) with some Indian breads. There weren’t any shammi kebabs on the menu and so it was Gobi 65’ that I ordered instead. 

Ten minutes after we were seated, our complimentary paapads arrived. They were quite dismal and that’s putting it mildly. I was horrified at the amount of oil that was glistening and dripping off them. I politely pushed the plate aside and waited for the Gobi 65 with trepid anticipation. 15 minutes passed and there was no sign of our food arriving. 15 minutes is an agonizingly long time if you’re hungry. I cannot fathom what took them so long as the restaurant only had a few patrons (of course I now understand why!). When I thought that I would almost faint out of hunger the Gobi 65 arrived. It was daylight robbery – approx. S$7.00 for a few measly florets of deep fried cauliflower. By now, I had given up on the rest of the meal. Anyways, the main course arrived after another 15 minute wait. Surprisingly the naan and tandoori roti were good; the paneer butter masala was palatable. I’m sorry I don’t have pictures of the main course. You see I was so starved that as soon as the food arrived I pounced on it. 

The service: Oh dear! It’s poor! The waiting time is far too long and that is simply unacceptable. 

The damage: It depends on what you order. S$7.00 for the Gobi 65 starter is unreasonable considering the portion that was served. The breads (approx. S$3.00) and vegetables (approx. S$6.00-S$8.00) were priced at the standard norm. 

The verdict: Malgudi has lost me as a patron for sure. 

“If Broadway shows charge preview prices while the cast is in dress rehearsal, why should restaurants charge full price when their dining room and kitchen staffs are still practicing?” – Marian Burros 

Singapore Food Trail – Of Egg Biryanis and Andhra meals…

I hail from a family that loves food and simply loves to eat. Period. Actually, any self-respecting Gujarati has a fine appreciation for food – any food. Needless to say, memories of my growing up years include our family outings to Chennai’s numerous restaurants. We experimented with any restaurant and every restaurant and soon we knew where to head to for the best dosas, crunchiest vadais, softest idllys, spiciest biryanis, fluffiest omlettes et al.

Years later and miles away from hometown Chennai, I suddenly remembered how I so used to enjoy Hotel Ashoka’s “Andhra Meals”. It was not so much for the sambhar or rasam or vegetables that I relished those meals; it was only for the spicy “podi” that I generously mixed with several spoonfuls of melted hot ghee into the heap of rice that occupied the centre of my rice plate that I used to order the Andhra meals. That and some tangy hot “gonkurra pickle” was all I needed. Along with nostalgic memories of the ‘podi rice n pickle’, I also remembered the occasional egg biryani, which my sis used to pack from a lil stall somewhere in Annanagar (the residential area we used to live in). I can almost smell that wonderful heady aroma that emanates as soon as you rip the lid of the reusable plastic container, in which the biryani is usually stuffed until the brim. But wait. The most exciting part of the egg biryani was scooping out spoonfuls of rice until your spoon hits the nicely boiled egg, which is usually well seated in the middle of the rice. Now, that is what makes the dish so special.

So now, since I live in Singapore which is also known as the ‘Food Capital of Asia’, I was all out to track down the egg biryani and ‘podi rice’ meal. A friend suggested “Sankranti” – an Andhra restaurant in Lil India’s Syed Alwi Road, bang opposite Mustafa Centre. I must admit that I was initially skeptical but soon decided to give it the benefit of the doubt – all for the sake of egg biryani. So here is my verdict.

The ambiance: Simple yet tasteful décor. Sankranti is by no means plush; yet it is a far cry from the basic “canteen-like” atmosphere. The restaurant’s whitewashed walls adorn beautiful prints from Indian mythology. Look up to the ceiling and you will see colorful glass bangles that run across the entire ceiling, concealing rows of lighting. If I remember right, there were colorful zari borders that were made to hang from the ceiling. A distinct South Indian look sets the ambiance.

The menu: Although Sankranti is a restaurant that specializes in Andhra cuisine, like most other Indian restaurants, its menu also features North Indian and Chinese fare. I usually refrain from ordering non-specialty items in a “specialty restaurant” and besides, it was the egg biryani and podi rice that I was after remember?

The food: It is delicious! I savored their Andhra Meal alias “Bhojanam”. It’s a sumptuous and complete meal served in a uniquely shaped thali lined with a fresh green banana leaf. True to the Andhra tradition, the poriyals and curries were spicy, the rasam and sambhar were delectable, but it was the “parpu podi” that won my heart. To relive those memories of pouring ladlefuls of ghee onto my steaming rice with the podi – oh what a pleasure to the senses. The “masala omlette”, which was a side order, was true Indian style – I cannot quite describe it – but I am sure if you are an Indian, you know what I mean. As for the egg biryani, it was all that I had wanted and even more – thin long and fragrant grains of rice, that concealed a treasure of not one, but two boiled eggs. The helpings are more than adequate and I am sure all you biryani lovers will not be let down. Another side order was the medu vadai. Now I must admit that I am not particularly fond of medu vadais, but these were exceptionally good. Crunchy, yet soft.

The service: Tip-top. The staff is polite and the quick service ensures that you don’t clutch your tummy waiting for your food to arrive.

The damage: Not bad at all. The prices are extremely affordable. The biryani is around S$ 6.00 – S$ 8.00 and so are the meals. The side orders are around S$ 3.00 – S$ 5.00, depending on what you order.

Overall, Sankranti offers you a pleasurable dining experience, simple yet scrumptious, and it is one of the joints that has made it to “My List of Regular Makaan Places in Singapore”.

Pastamania

‘Life is a combination of magic and pasta’ – Fellini

Looking for a quick, scrumptious, pocket-friendly meal in a pleasing ambience to satiate that voracious appetite? Well look no further. Pastamania is here to take care of all your cravings for that perfect meal with its promise of “quick casual dining”. It can’t get better than this.

One visit to their restaurant was enough to make me a regular, lining up for my usual order every single weekend. The ambience is simplistic, minimal, chic and smart. The bright lighting and signature colors of black, red and yellow cheer up many a dampened spirit. If that weren’t enough, the friendly smiles of the efficient personnel can’t be ignored. The USP of this Italian, fast food eatery is its impeccably quick service and affordable price. Even on a busy day orders arrive in less than 15 minutes and within minutes of placing the order during non peak hours.

Some of the fare you must sample:
Garlic bread ($1.80) with soup-of-the-day ($2.30). All soups (creamy chicken, creamy mushroom, cream of tomato, minestrone) taste delicious and are a wonderful way to start the meal. This followed by a plate of steamy hot pasta coupled with a cold drink will gratify your taste buds. Pasta prices range from $4.90-$13.40. If you’re looking at something simple then ‘Pomodoro’ (pasta tossed in tomato herbed sauce) or ‘Chicken Bolognese’ (pasta and chicken tossed in tomato herbed sauce) makes a good choice. Be sure to add a healthy sprinkling of pomodoro cheese, conveniently placed on your table. If you’re in a mood for something more exotic, try sampling ‘Spinach Tortellini’ (spinach and ricotta cheese stuffed pasta in tomato herbed sauce) or ‘Mediterranean’ (pasta tossed with carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, bell peppers in tomato herbed sauce). There is an interesting range of pastas listed under their selection of ‘Rich & Creamy’, ‘Baked Specials’, ‘Seafood Delights’ and ‘Vegetarian Specials’. You can also choose from a range of cold salads to add that extra zing to your meal. My personal favorite is the potato salad, which is a portion of boiled potatoes mixed well with creamy white mayonnaise and a sprinkling of herbs that gives it its delectable taste.

I would recommend staying away from the pizzas as they are expensive and have ultra thin crusts. The mango dessert pizza however seems to be a favorite among many.

Bottom line: The belly rules the mind after a meal at Pastamania.

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