An Interview with Praveen Anand, Dakshin, Chennai, India | Vijaysree Venkatraman

from Gastronomica 12:4

Praveen Anand is chef at Dakshin, named by the Miele Guide as one of the top twenty restaurants in Asia. His embrace of traditional South Indian food is significant in a nation that has begun discarding some of its food customs in a headlong rush into modernity.

Vijaysree Venkatraman: Tell us about the idea behind Dakshin.

Praveen Anand: The word dakshin is Sanskrit for “south.” Our goal is to present authentic culinary creations from India’s four southern states: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. The larger goal is to revive the disappearing culinary heritage of these regions.

VV: How did you get interested in food?

PA: My father worked with the Indian Railways and was constantly getting transferred, so I grew up in my grandparents’ home in Hyderabad. My grandfather was a policeman and a yoga expert, the author of books on this ancient practice. Thanks to him, I got into sports and physical activities. He also inculcated in me the habit of reading. K.M. Munshi’s seven-volume mythological series, Krishnavatara, on the life of Lord Krishna—that’s where I started.

My grandmother, who is ninety now, cooked for us all. I would accompany her to the market and carry all the heavy bags. I also tended our backyard vegetable garden. Because my uncles hadn’t married yet, there were no women in the family to help her in the kitchen. So I volunteered to be her assistant. She only gave me simple tasks like peeling garlic or shelling nuts. But being her helper meant I would get a little more than my share of the good food she made—that was my motivation, nothing nobler!

To me, she was like a magician—whatever she touched was perfect. Her cooking was in the traditional Andhra style: hot, with lots of red chilies. We had a separate pantry to store the dazzling variety of mango- and lime-based pickles she made. Food was vegetarian except on weekends, when we would gorge on chicken, mutton, or seafood. Her simple chutneys, dals and rasams, fish curry and mutton khorma—all were wonderful.

I became the family’s official taster. If I declared (even jokingly) that a dish was not up to the mark, no one would touch it. I wielded a lot of power!

VV: And you went to catering school as a young man?

PA: When it was time for college, I gained admission into two programs: aeronautical engineering and hotel management. There was no pressure on me to start earning but I wanted to be independent as soon as possible. Going to catering school meant I would be a professional in three years instead of five. So I came to the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition here in Chennai.

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A Lamentation for Shrimp Paste | Su-Mei Yu

from Gastronomica 9:3

I have been cooking with shrimp paste for decades. But it wasn’t until two years ago, on a visit to Thailand, that I was able to see for myself just how elaborate the process of making it is. I happened to be with my friend Suwanna and her nephew Juk in a neighborhood where one of the best shrimp pastes in Thailand is sold. But the hour was late, and the normally bustling street was quiet; the shop house itself was completely dark. But that didn’t daunt Juk. He jumped out of the car and began rattling the shop house door. Soon a chorus of dogs was barking, and a shaft of light streamed out through the metal bars. A shadowy figure slid the door open just wide enough for the slender young man to slip through.

As we waited outside, Suwanna told me about the old woman who sold this famous shrimp paste. She called her Pa (Aunt) Liam. Once renowned for her beauty, Pa Liam married a rich man who turned out to be alcoholic and abusive. As a child Suwanna frequently saw Pa Liam with her face black and blue and swollen. Some thirty years ago, Pa Liam’s husband suddenly died, and it was then that Pa Liam was free to live her life. Today, she is known near and far for the excellent shrimp paste she sells. “Wait until you taste it,” Suwanna said.

Above: Ta daeng or “red-eye” shrimp paste. Photograph by Su-Mei Yyu © 2008

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Finding Pad Thai | Alexandra Greeley

from Gastronomica 9:1

For many westerners, pad Thai—or, more accurately, kway teow pad Thai (stir-fried rice noodles Thai-style)—symbolizes Thai cooking, thanks in large part to the Thai government’s ongoing efforts to introduce the country’s food to the rest of the world. The campaign has been resoundingly successful: according to the Web site, at least 11,600 Thai restaurants (many bearing the name Pad Thai) operated worldwide in 2007. As a result, pad Thai is served everywhere from Moscow to Toronto to Wichita. Some diet plans modify the dish for the calorie- and fat-conscious, while the foodservice industry mass-markets pad Thai for the heat-and-serve generation. Pad Thai stars in at least 2.2 million Google entries and even merits its own definition in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006) edition: “A Thai dish of stir-fried rice noodles, fish sauce and other seasonings, usually tofu, shrimp, bean sprouts, and peanuts.”

If Westerners believe that pad Thai symbolizes Thai cooking, many Thais agree. “Whenever we try Thai food,” says Nick Srisawat, a native of Thailand who now oversees a large Thai restaurant group in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, “we try pad Thai first, because that is a way to judge how good a restaurant is. That’s true all over the world—except in Thailand.”1 Because pad Thai is a specialty dish in Thailand, many restaurants choose not to compete with the street-food vendors, who make and serve only pad Thai all day long and thus have perfected the recipe.

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Asia’s First Lady of Coffee | Uma Girish

from Gastronomica 7:4

There is no such thing as a coffee break in Sunalini Menon’s life. And on the occasion that she does take one, it is a break from coffee. Call it an occupational hazard, if you will, but when you’re in the business of sipping, slurping, and spitting coffee all day, a “coffee break” assumes a different meaning. I met Asia’s only woman coffee taster over a cuppa, and what a cup it turned out to be! Menon has had an eventful journey to where she is today—in a cozy office in Bangalore, southern India, safely ensconced as ceo of Coffee Lab Pvt. Ltd.

The mantel in Menon’s office runs the length of her office wall and is crammed with coffee memorabilia from the remotest corners of the world. “Coffee: the Bean of My Existence,” declares the slogan on a mug, which seems to define Menon’s personal philosophy. Coffee has personality. It is romantic; you need to get to know it better. “I was just tasting a blend from St. Helena; it had the fragrance of orange orchards,” she says, bustling in with good cheer. “With coffee you are handling a very sensitive living being that emotes as much as you do. You must feel for the bean as much as you feel for yourself. You have to learn to understand it,” Menon declares. I am convinced she has coffee in her veins.

Inside the lab is a staggering collection of everything coffee related: a one-hundred-year-old hand roaster; Our Lady of Coffee from Brazil, a beautiful statue of the Madonna, the protector of coffee farmers, with coffee beans at the base; a Saudi Arabian coffee pot; Cleopatra seated on a coffee pot (an Egyptian souvenir); coffee grinders, moisture meters, timers, and filters; a coffee pot from Yemen embellished with gems; balances, measures, and hooks for coffee sacks; home espresso machines; old-fashioned mortars and pestles; coffee-scented candles; tins of coffee spices; coffee mugs from every part of the world; and a coffee clock. Made from coffee grinds and roasted coffee beans, this clock not only tells time but also exudes a coffee aroma.

Sunalini Menon holding a davara, a traditional Indian coffee cup. Photograph by Prabhakar K. © 2006

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