Memorable Meals in India: Part 3 – Rajasthan

After the rainy coast and mellow vibe of Goa, Shefali and I made our way to one of the more picturesque and well touristed states of India: Rajasthan. Rajasthan translates to the Land of Kings (or kingdoms) so, every couple days we went to another city (formerly it’s own kingdom) and checked out the old forts and palaces that these Rajput kings built over hundreds of years.  I will remember this part of our trip as Rajasthani Fort Tour 2011 (RFT 2011).  (Please view scores and scores of fort and palace photos.)
Our first stop was the capital city Jaipur which was decidedly less mellow than Goa.  Known as The Pink City, Jaipur could also be known as That Crazy City Where People Hustle You All The Time (especially if you’re a tourist).  Don’t get me wrong. I would have hustled me too if I could have seen how clueless and touristy I looked half the time. Once you pass the city walls and enter the Old City,  Jaipur is a feast for the eyes, the ears and the nose: women in bright colored saris buy produce of all sorts, cows amble by sharing the road with cars, rickshaws, scooters, bikes and people and vendors sell everything you can imagine from mountains of chilis to sewing machines and salvaged and “refurbished” umbrellas.  Though a bit jarring, especially coming after mellow Goa, Jaipur was in retrospect a good entry point into Rajasthan because it’s where we fully embraced our tourist status and took to site seeing like it was a full time job visiting all the major attractions (Juntar Muntar, Amber Palace, Jaigarh Fort, Nahargah Fort, etc) in just two days.   From Jaipur, we took a train (an interesting experience in and of itself ) to the desert city of Jaisalmer where we toured the old city fort and went on one of those touristy camel tours which actually ended up being super fun.  Then we trained it to the  Blue City of Jodhpur which turned out to be my favorite city in Rajasthan because most of the forts and monuments were within easy walking distance – thus no haggling with a rickshaw driver – and I enjoyed navigating the narrow alley ways of the old city.  Our final stop on the Rajasthani tour was the picturesque lakeside city of Udaipur, most well known among Westerners – and touted by all the hotels and guest houses in town – because much of the action of one of the best James Bond movies starring Roger Moore was shot there.  I’m of course speaking of  “Octopussy“.

It’s fair to say that by the end of RFT 2011 tour I had pretty serious case of fort fatigue.  I mean they were amazing places to behold, but after the umpteenth viewing of the various Rajputs’ dedazzled private chambers or ornate public meeting hall, I just couldn’t find it in myself too get excited. But fortunately, we had ample food to fuel us on our site seeing adventures.  I can’t necessarily put my finger on what Rajasthani food is and how it differs so much from other Indian cuisines.  We ate a lot of thali dinners with their combindation of dhal, rice, chapati or naan and veggies. Sometimes we’d seek out nonveg places to get our fix of chicken tikka or lamb saag (spinach).  While it didn’t blow me away, there were some stand out meals.  I especially enjoyed the all you can eat thali dinners at a very local restaurant called Chandan Shree,  in Jaisalmer and which became our go to spot in the desert town. I also enjoyed the spicy lamb and chicken at Kashmiri Spice Dhaba, a dive joint in Jodhpur where I stuffed my face sweating into my food while Shefali got more and more heated (pissed off) by the unwanted oggling of a drunken customer seated behind me.  Also, the snack foods (samosas, aloo tikki and other deep fried treats) were really good.  Please enjoy the following photos of some of the more memorable meals.

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NYC Eats (with a smaller group of people) – Fu Run

This is the final installment of the NYC Eats (with Matt and other friends).  I wanted to get this out sooner, but I got a little waylaid by the recently acquired full time j-o-b.  So although this meal was eaten almost two weeks ago, its flavors  have been seared into my cerebellum and I remember it like it was yesterday… okay maybe like a week ago.  What I do remember is that with the exception of one dish (which was merely mediocre) the food was uniformly fresh, intense, full of strong, primary flavors and a whole lot of lamb.  We went to a Dong Bei restaurant in Queens called Fu Run. Using a year-old NY Times writeup about the proliferation of Dong Bei Restaurants in Flushing as a guide, we suggested for  Matt’s last NYC dinner one of the the recommended restaurants: Northeast Taste Chinese Food (don’t know if that was a direct translation or what).  Running late as usual – my fault, as usual – Shefali and I speed-walked from the Flushing subway stop the nine blocks to NTCF where Matt, Alex, Waine had been waiting for about half an hour.  Unfortunately, despite it’s super creative name,  in the year since the article was published, Northeast Taste had changed ownership and was now a Peking duck restaurant. While, we all love a good Peking duck, were really had our minds and stomachs set on food from former Manchuria so we stopped by another of the four recommended restaurant from the Time’s article, a nearby place called Hong Yi Shun.  Yet again – I was starting to sense a pattern here – HYS  had transitioned into a different restaurant and while the menu looked appetizing, it didn’t offer quite the dishes we were looking for.  The urgency of the situation was rising as I sensed the growing pissed off-ed-ness of everyone including myself  due to our lateness and the continued emptiness of our stomachs.  We decided to put our faith in the article one last time and headed to a third recommended restaurant, Fu Run which was all the way back where we’d all come from, a block from the subway.   After a wrong turn had us panicking that this restaurant was also no longer in existance (what had we done in our previous lives to deserve this karma?),  we finally righted ourselves and spotted the large awning and bright windows of the promised land, aka Fu Run.  After another nearly interminable wait, during which I kind of lost it – I get emotional when I’m hungry – we were finally seated. And then we ordered.  And then we ate.  Praise Buddha, did we eat.  Take a look for yourself.

[not pictured above: the two varieties of lamb dumplings]

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Lahmacun and Sarmale

This past weekend found us taking a culinary trip from Turkey to Romania all from the comfort of our own kitchen.

Saturday Night = Turkey Night

As is often the case, Shefali suggested and I executed.  In this case, she suggested that  I make lahmacun, a flat bread “pizza” with a topping of ground meat  and spices for a potluck party we were attending on Saturday night,.  Now depending on whom you talk to, lahmacun (pronounced: lah-ma-joon) is either of Turkish or Armenian origins.  I don’t  want to get into the particular complications of the conflicted relationship between Turkey and it’s Armenian citizens, but one thing they do share in common is this delicious savory snack/meal (I say “meal” because because once you try it, you might not be able to refrain from eating just a snack like portion).  You can also find lahmacun in Lebanese and Syrian restaurants and bakeries.  I consulted a couple recipes for inspiration: a Saveur Magazine recipe and a recipe from a Turkish cook book by Özcan Ozan, the chef owner of The Sultan’s Kitchen, a Turkish restaurant in Boston.  Then I just kind of did my own thing.  Again proving the versatility of the sourdough starter, I used the sourdough for which I was originally intending to make baguettes and then re-purposed for the flat bread.  It added a nice extra tang and chewiness. Here’s what the lahmacun looked like:

uncooked lahamcun - basically spicy meat paste spread over dough

after baking for about 10 minutes at 475 degrees F. Smelled just like Turkey! In other words, it smelled deliciously of spiced savory lamb

Lamahcun waiting station. Packing them up for the poluck.

Sunday Night = Romania Night

A fun game that we often play in our house is naked twister. But when we get bored of that we play another game called “what the hell should we do with all this cabbage in our fridge?” And fortunately our CSA gives us ample opportunity to play this game.  Case in point, our last pick up we got three different types of cabbage: a red cabbage with which I made my patented cole slaw, a napa cabbage for which I already assigned supporting role duty in Shanghai chow mein.  That left me with one more head of cabbage, an arrowhead cabbage (?) that I had to figure out how to cook.  Solution: sarmale, or Romanian style stuffed cabbage.  I’m dating myself here, but I first sampled sarmale in Romania when I was shooting a “documentary” about the origins of Dracula and vampires,  which served as bonus material  on the DVD release of one of the finest movies ever made: Underworld – yeah that vampires v. werewolves movie staring Kate Beckinsale. Well, at least it got me to Romania where I remember the food being really, hearty, rustic (raw bacon? yes please) and delicious.   Case in point: the stuffed cabbage dish called sarmale.  Stuffing cabbage with meat and other ingredients is not unique to Romania.   According to Wikipedia, sarma as it is also called has it’s origins in the Ottoman Empire which makes complete sense if you consider all the the countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that have stuffed cabbage.  They were all under the influence directly or indirectly (or just by proximity) to the Ottoman Empire.  Isn’t history cool?  Anyway, I consulted a number of recipes on the web and basically incorporated a bunch of them to suit my needs and capabilities.  Some recipes called for using sauerkraut which I didn’t have, so I blanched the cabbage leaves in water and vinegar before using them to wrap the meat mixture ( a combination of ground pork, lamb and beef mixed with rice, spices, onions, garlic and celery).  The end result? Delicios! (uh, that’s Romanian for “delicious”)

Sarmale - cabbage is stuffed and ready to be cooked

Sarmale in the pot and simmered slowly in broth and a bit of tomato paste

The sarmale after cooking in the oven for about an hour at about 350?.

We cooked for our friends Ben and Maria visiting from out of town. Ben, who's Jewish said the sarmale reminde him of food his mom cooks. Mission accomplished. I always knew I'd make a great Jewish mother.

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A meat frenzy in the City of Angels

Oi, tuto bem?  That’s Portuguese for “what up, yo?”  Here’s another word for you: churrasco.  That’s Portuguese for Brazilian style bbq wherein a variety of meats are slow cooked over charcoal until dripping with juicy deliciousness and then sliced into little morsels for people to eat over the course of several hours.  In other words, it’s a little slice of heaven.

And thanks to Jake and Sari who opened up their home and back yard to Almir Santre whose skill, talent and marinades have no rivals that I’m aware of, I got to spend a few blessed hours in heaven last weekend. Click on the mouth watering photo below to read more about the bbq and the rest of the blessed food weekend in LA.

really, have you ever seen a prettier sight?

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