Vignamaggio – Home of the Mona Lisa

When I’m not traveling, I have a tendency to look at photographs of the good ol’ times of when I was traveling. And when least expected, a teeny tiny little insect creeps up on me – the travel bug – and bites right where it really smarts. Ow. That hurt, you bastard. Once I recover from the sting, there’s only one thing to do next. Commence travel.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

A glass of Vin Santo – an Italian dessert wine

For now, I’m traveling back a few summers – to the summer I spent roaming the Italian countryside eating and drinking just about everything that was within sight reach and budget. This particular summer, I spent a few days in Greve – a charming little town in the central Italian region of Tuscany. It was a balmy breezy morning when my travel buddy Con and I decided to rent a vespa, and ride through the Italian countryside. It only came with one helmet though, but in standard Indian fashion I thought it unnecessary to comply with such silly safety regulations and went helmet-less. This would lead to my first encounter with the Italian polizei – but that’s another story altogether. This story, is about the time we visited the vineyard where the Mona Lisa herself was born – Vignamaggio.

Situated in the centre of the Chianto Classico wine producing district in Chianti, Vignamaggio is an awe inspiringly charming little vineyard, with an equally beautiful villa that dates back to the 14th century.  As the story goes, the Mona Lisa was born here in 1479, the daughter of Anton Maria Gherardini, before she moved to Florence. The Gherardini were most likely of Etruscan or Roman origin, and were a noble family in Tuscany.


Strapped onto our cute little vespa, Con and I zoomed through rolling hills, family run vineyards, and a countryside that looked like one giant 3d postcard – each vista more beautiful than the last. The journey to Vignamaggio was an uphill climb – the vineyards are at an altitude of between 330 m and 400 m a.s.l. By the time we arrived at the vineyard, the Italian summer sun was high in the sky, resembling a plump peach floating in a bright blue Mediterranean sea. Beneath its sultry heat, I could feel myself getting red as a sun dried tomato.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

Walking through the gardens

We began by strolling around the villa’s gardens, which were lined with hundred year old cypress trees and holm-oak trees, juniper hedges a plenty, and bright splashes of pink rose. Just beyond the gardens were the olive groves. What people tend to forget is that in addition to being a leading wine producer, Italy is also one of the world’s leading producers of olives and olive oil, and Italians are equally passionate about their little round (delicious) sources of pride. The olives are picked by hand in the month of November, but we were only in July – so I resisted the cheeky urge to grab a few and pop them into my mouth (and pocket).

We continued our summer stroll down to the vineyards. The main wine variety on the estate is Sangiovese which literally translated means ‘Blood of Jove’, or Jupiter – the Roman God of sky and thunder. Since we were in the month of July, the fruit clusters had started to grow bigger and were just about touching each other – a process known as the ‘closing’ of the clusters. The vineyards looked almost surreal in their splendour, making it impossible to resist a good ol’ fashioned frolic.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

Vineyard frolic (highly recommended)


We wandered down to the cellars next, where the wines are aged in oak barrels and barriques. The cellars date back to the fifteenth century, and it’s here where all the magic happens. The Vin Santo, as we were about to taste, is an Italian dessert wine traditional to the Chianti region. To produce this wine, the grapes are first dried for three months in a well ventilated room at the top of the villa, a process which allows the sugars in the grape to be more concentrated. They are then pressed, lightly separated, and the must (the freshly pressed juice containing the skins, seeds, and stems of the fruit – though in this wine’s case, no skins) is collected, and placed in oak barrels to ferment. Once fermentation is complete, the barrels are sealed and left for four years, after which the wine is bottled and ready for me to drink.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

In fact, all this talk of wine was getting us pretty thirsty. It wasn’t long however before we tasted, once again, the bottled fruit of other people’s labour – this time from a bottle of Chianti Classico, a premium Chianti wine from the Chianti Classico subregion. The wine was moderately robust but still flowery and tart, with fruity tones that came to life when offset by the saltiness of the salami, prosciutto, and cheese presented on our plates. We sat outside, basking in the sunshine and the satisfaction of nothing more (and nothing less) than good food, good wine, and good company.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

Posted in Europe, Tuscany | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Great Kebab Factory

The quest to find the perfect, most succulent kebab, can often lead one to some rather “interesting” situations.  I thought I had found said kebab at a small little restaurant in Bombay.  Upon tasting the dangerously delectable kebab, I triumphantly declared that I simply had to meet the executive Chef, to congratulate him on his meaty masterpiece!  I marched into the kitchen, expecting to find a large, robustly fed kebab chef, his hands and apron covered in marinade, proudly brandishing his skewers as one would a sword.

This, however, was not the case.

Instead, I was confronted with a line up of glassy eyed goats, patiently awaiting their turn to be served up on a platter. I was instantly overcome with a wave of intense guilt, that I had just happily digested their brethren, and enjoyed every last bite of it (or rather, them). The worst part, is these poor little to-be kebabs seemed to understand, and accept, their ill-fated (but delicious) destiny, to be skewered, served and savoured.  “They’ll do great things with you”, I whispered to the first goat in line, before scurrying hurriedly out of the restaurant.

Now here in Chennai, my quest to find the King Kebab of all Kebabs, has an equally interesting – but not quite so morbid – story.  I found myself at a renowned little restaurant, with an equally apt name – The Great Kebab Factory.  As the name denotes, the restaurant specializes in a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian kebabs, prepared in 7 different styles.  The new outlet is located in the Radisson Blu Hotel Chennai City Centre in Egmore –  my first destination, however, was not the restaurant – it was the kitchen.

In the kitchen with a crew of happy chefs

Chef Neelkantan – executive Chef – and Chef Halim – Master Chef – were going to guide me through the fine Art of the Kebab.  The kitchen team consisted of a crew of jubilant young sous chefs, who were all smiles, and seemed rather amused at the prospect of a young lady in their kitchen.  We started with the ever renowned – and my favourite – Galouti kebab, which is a well known Lucknowi kebab, said to be a blend of 123 different types of spices.  Legend has it, that the kebab was first created for a toothless nawab – Nawab Wajid Ali Shah –  who, though toothless, still loved his meat.  This tender piece of meat, (galawati literally means “melt in the mouth”), enabled the toothless Nawab to have his kebab, and eat it too.

toothless Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, scandalously attired

The preparation process is quite straightforward, though few chefs reveal the true secrets behind the aromatic spice blend.  “You must ensure the spices truly permeate the meat”, Chef whispered knowingly, as he kneaded the ball of meat and spice, as one would dough.  And of course, a key secret to ensuring a truly, tantalizingly, tender kebab, is the tenderizing agent – “Raw papaya” – Chef declared, as he added a lump of the stuff, to the already sumptuous smelling meat. Once the meat is marinated and rolled into little flattened balls, the kebabs are cooked on the Mahi Tawa – a large, shallow cooking surface made of copper.

Chef marinating the meat

Galouti kebabs on the Mahi Tawa

To accompany the Galouti kebab, is the ulta tawa paratha – which, literally translated, means “inverted griddle”.  As it sounds, this paratha is cooked on a tawa that is upside down, or ‘ulta’.  The paratha is flavoured with saffron, and often served with various kebabs and kormas.

Making the ulta tawa paratha, with the restaurant’s team of chefs

With the kebabs cooked, the paratha ready, Chef whipped up a special little preparation – “it’s kind of like a Frankie”, he said jovially, as he rolled the galouti kebab up in the paratha, adding raw onion and a dash of mint chutney.   One bite, and I was sold – the kebab itself melted in my mouth, like butter on a hot pan, its mouthwateringly tender texture, a treat for both the palate, and the soul!

Galouti kebab wrapped in an ulta tawa paratha

I would recommend also trying the kebab on its own, to truly experience the subtleties of its aromatic flavour, and rich texture.  Our other adventures in the kitchen involved paneer marinated in orange rind (the Narangi paneer tikka), and chicken in a rich, velvety almond marinade, cooked over a charcoal oven, on a skewer (Murgh Badami Tangri) – simply delectable!

Skewered chicken cooked in a charcoal oven

With my taste buds teased, I decided to leave the Chefs to their own devices, and venture into the restaurant, for the full dining experience.

The restaurant – brightly lit and simply decorated – has a distinctly family restaurant feel to it, and doesn’t seem to place too much emphasis on creating an authentic, inspiring ambience. The ordering process at the restaurant is simple – simply choose whether you are vegetarian, or non vegetarian (or both), and the Chefs take care of everything from there, with the set menu.  Kebab after kebab will arrive, in sequence, at your table, accompanied by an explanation of the kebab, and a chutney recommendation.  A word to the wise – starve yourself, before taking on this meal.  It is monstrous, and only one with a healthy appetite will be able to do justice to every course.

We started simply enough –  a salad accompanied by a kiwi dressing, which I found a touch too sweet.  But then, began the carnage. Just as you are swallowing the last bite of kebab #1, kebab #2 pokes its head around the corner and makes an appearance on your plate, followed eventually by a generous helping of biriyani, and an onslaught of delicious dahls and breads.  The waiters, however, are accommodating, frequently checking in to ensure the pace is comfortable, the spice levels adequate.  Though the wine list is generous, one down side for me was the poor availability of wines, and wines by the glass (a common dilemma restaurants in Tamil Nadu face) – but the quality of food did its job to make up for that.  Not to be missed, is the pomegranate stuffed paneer – a wonderful blend of sweet and savoury – and the rasgulla, one of the best I’ve tasted.

paneer marinated in orange rind

Overall, the restaurant is worth a visit for the authentic flavours it offers, and the truly delectable (and ever famous) Galouti kebab.  The new Egmore location of the Radisson Blu Hotel City Centre – being centrally located – is also a convenient drive from town. The lunch set menu will cost you 1100 rupees plus taxes, and the dinner set menu – 1300 rupees, plus tax.

For Chef’s kebab recipes, click on the link under the “Recipes” section of this blog. Happy kebab-ing !

RATINGS

Ambience: 6

Food: 9

Service: 8

Overall Experience:  8.5

A tantalizing tasting

Posted in Restaurant Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

World Cuisine at Cinnamon, The Trident

I do believe, from the time I was about 3.5 years old, and embarked upon my first solo journey, all on my ownsome, from my bed to my bathroom, I fell in love with the art of travel.  From that day on, nothing could hold me back from seizing just about every opportunity possible, to venture forth, out into the world, exploring and expanding my horizons,  trying to follow in the footsteps of Christopher Colombo, Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama (minus de Gama’s disturbingly brutal violent streak, which, conveniently enough, high school history books fail to emphasize). 

But these days, here in Chennai, I haven’t travel travelled, in a quite a while – unless you count my trips from Besant Nagar to Nungambakkam (which, mind you, in peak traffic, are quite a voyage indeed). So, as you can imagine, I was quite thrilled when the world came to me, on a platter !  The World Cuisine promotion was in full swing at Cinnamon, in the Trident Chennai, and I was ready to explore it – along with my fellow culinary explorers, Mademoiselle Leila and Miss Saloni.

Cinnamon’s atmosphere was bright, crisp and pristine, quite like a ray of sunlight, when we first walked in.  To add to the bright atmosphere, was F&B Manager Anand Chatterjee, who, like his name suggests, was filled with chatter and life, and info tidbits about the food. We began the journey with a casual stroll through the buffet, to take in the sights – today’s country in focus, was Italia.  The spread was generous, with a dash of antipasti, a few main courses, a salad counter, soups, and of course – sweet desserts – all for 1350, with taxes.

What caught my eye first, was the carpaccio – thinly sliced raw beef topped off with parmesan shavings –and the seafood soup with a touch of saffron, caught the attention of my palate. On the side I had a watermelon and feta cheese salad, a unique burst of sweet and salty sensations.  So, without further adieu, we began the gluttony. 

Upon the first spoon of soup, I was instantly transported – not to Italy, but back to the seaside bistros of Nova Scotia, where I grew up, and where seafood chowder was synonymous with life itself.  The soup tasted like home (well, one of my homes), and with every spoonful, were little nibbles of prawn and squid, swimming about in a rich and creamy saffron scented sea.  As if on cue, the waiter arrived with the wine list at just that moment – (the wine list at Cinnamon is quite extensive, with many international varieties available by the bottle).  We decided on the Danzante pinot grigio – one of my personal favourites  –  for a light, slightly dry, pleasantly tart burst of taste, a nice offset to the rich soup.  Upon that first fruity sip, we all looked at each other, in silent agreement, that there are few greater joys in life than fine wine, fine food, and good friends around. 

Before we could get up for the main course, well – it came to us !  But this round, it wasn’t from Italy – Chef Prakash Chettiyar was at the table, and brought with him a serving of Spanish seafood paella – a rice dish, normally made with bomba or calasparra rice varieties, that actually originated in Valencia, on the East coast of Spain.  Out of the three main varieties of paella – Valencian paella, seafood paella, and mixed paella – we were sampling seafood paella today.  The seafood tasted fresh, and the dish was tinted a light orange colour,  having been laced with saffron. The aromas of garlic and thyme wafted off the plate, and enticed us into taking bite, after bite, after bite…

A few hours, many mouthfuls, a few sips of wine and a whole lot of mmmms, ooohs, and aaahs later, it was time for the part we’d all been waiting for – dessert.  Some were a touch too sweet for my liking, but the spread had something for everyone – everything from panacotta to tiramisu. However, Chef Prakash had – once again – a small calorie rich surprise up his sleeve – the Banoffee Pie. 

My first thought – “I should probably apply for a gym membership once this dessert is done”.  Layer after layer of chocolatey rich filling, bruleed banana in demerra sugar, a toffee-coffee sauce, and cream, cream, CREAM! Quite a delicious show stopper, we all agreed, as we sat back stuffed as turkeys in our chairs, unable to do much else.

Cinnamon’s location is situated near the airport, and can be quite a drive out of town, especially during peak hours. However, on the whole, Cinnamon’s atmosphere is bright and chirpy, the service is warm, friendly, and attentive (a special thanks to Anand Chatterjee), it offers both international and Indian cuisine, and an average meal for two will cost you approximately 2200 rupees without alcohol.  Quite worth the drive, so I certainly suggest you make an evening out of it !

RATINGS 

Ambience: 8 

Food: 8.5

Service: 9

Overall Experience:  9

 Recipe for Seafood paella – courtesy Chef Prakash Chettiyar

Ingredients

Portions – 4

Ingredients

Onions -100 g

Garlic – 50 g

Olive oil – 50 ml

Butter – 70 g

Arborio rice – 250 g

Seafood stock – 300 ml

Saffron -2 g

Dill -10 g

Parsley – 10 g

Dry white wine -30 ml

Seafood (prawns, squid & snapper fish) – 50 g each

Method of preparation

0.Take a large and deep saucepan, heat butter .

0.Add onion and garlic .Cook till translucent

0.Add white wine , reduce it.

0.Add the Arborio rice, cook it for some time.

0.Add seafood stock, till the rice is fully covered.

0.Keep adding the stock, little by little, till it is 3/4th done.

0.Add the seafood ( prawns , squid and snapper fillet dices ) and cook it slow heat

0.Simmer, add olive oil ,saffron and dill to the paella

0.Stir the paella , making sure that it is not over cooked .

0.Add seasoning , finally garnish it with dill leaves ,grilled prawn, squid & fish

Trident, Chennai

1/24 G.S.T Road,

Chennai 600 027, India

PH: +91 44 2234 4747

Posted in Cinnamon, The Trident, Restaurant Reviews | Leave a comment

The Venetian Bacaro

As the sun is rising, and the city of Venice is just waking up, (surprisingly enough) the same goes for its wine bars!  Yes, first thing in the morning, after a much needed morning espresso, the next Italian beverage of choice is vino.  A traditional Venetian wine bar is called a bacaro, which translates into “house of bacchus”, (Bacchus being the Roman God of wine). A bacaro is often a small, dimly lit tavern, which also serves little snacks called cicchetti (cicchetti literally means tidbits of food, in the Venetian dialect), which are both cheap, and dangerously delectable (not to mention addictive). They’re similar to the Spanish tapas, but Venetians started this ritual a fee hundred years before the Spanish.  There are often no seats in a bacaro, and clients stand around the bar, chatting and drinking, thoughts of work far, far away, lost amidst the wide array of nibbles and inebriating substances spread out before them. 

Con and I stroll past Cantino del Vino Gia Schiavi , a popular little bacaro on Fondamenti Nani. We look into the wine bar – bustling with clients. We look at our watches – 9:15AM. Well, it’s never too early in Venice!  So breakfast, this morning, is a glass of prosecco – an Italian dry sparkling wine, and a sort of Venetian staple, which helps to wash down our first nibble of the day –  baccala mantecato – or creamed cod fish,  a popular Venetian delicacy, that has a mild but rich flavour.

Of course that first creamy cod-dy bite, that first sip of intense bubbly pleasure that tingles all the way down, makes us hungry (and thirsty) for more.   That’s when the owner of the spot, Lino – a jovial Italian gentleman, old in appearance, but still young at heart – appears  from behind the bar, a cheeky, flirtatious smile on his face. “My de-ear”, he coos, that irresistible Italian accent lacing his every syllable, “you must-a trrry the aringa affumicata !” (the salted and smoked herring, or kipper). 

“Erm…si ?” I reply sheepishly, with my kindergarten level Italian. It’s tough to decline anyone with an Italian accent as smooth as a shot of Sambuca.  Sure enough, his suggestion is as delicious as it looked, and we go on to dabble in many more delights – the salamino piccante (spicy Italian sausage); the tonno affumicato e tarassaco; (smoked tuna and dandelion leaves); mozarella e salmone (layers of smoked salmon weaved delicately into creamy cocoons of mozarella cheese) – the list is as endless as the bottomless pits that are our bellies!  

Each dish we wash down with a different wine – our first pick is a wine from the slopes of Collio in the Fruili region of Italy – one of the country’s most famous wine regions, in the northeastern reaches of the land.  This region’s viticultural identity is synonymous with its great whites (the wines, not the sharks), and though a few reds and dessert wines are also produced in the area, it is renowned for its white wines.  We try a sauvignon from the Ronco Blanchis estate, (Ronco - from the Friulan word ‘fianco‘ , meaning side of a hill; Blanchis meaning white, like the colour of the wines).  The little estate is run by Giancarlo Palla, and his two devastatingly handsome sons – Lorenzo and Alberto.  The sauvignon itself is tart and fruity, like a fresh summer breeze on the palate – and the perfect compliment to our rich spread of light bites. 

Lino opens bottle # 2

As he jovially cracks open bottle # 2, Lino starts to chatter on about an interesting little Venetian tradition, popular most often amongst the men folk – giro di ombra, as the Venetians like to call it, which is essentially, a Venetian pub crawl. The name literally translates into Journey of Shade, and the origins of the term are debated.  However, it’s said that the tradition began some 600 years ago in the Rialto fish market, when parched  merchants would take mid day breaks,  running to the nearest wine bar, for a nip of wine and a nibble of cicchetti.   They would order up an ombra (meaning a glass of wine, in the Venetian dialect), derived from the Latin word for shade.  So seeking shade from the scorching mid day sun, slipping in a cheeky afternoon glass of wine, the merchants of Rialto started the custom of giro di ombra.  Modern day Venetians still follow this tradition – spending their evenings hopping from bacaro to bacaro, for sips of wine and bites of cicchetti.

We, of course, were equally happy to indulge in this age old tradition, reveling in shameless gluttony under the pretext of absorbing Venetian culture. What started as breakfast soon becomes brunch, as the hours fly by, and we lose ourselves in wine and food and Lino’s many tales of his travels, his young loves, his vineyard – following which he pours us a bit of his very own strawberry wine, a sweetly intoxicating little nip of loveliness, in a glass.  It goes down smooth, and its sweet taste leaves no need for dessert. “So this,” I think to myself, “is what happiness tastes like”.

Posted in Europe, Venice | Leave a comment

Goodbye

 

I’ve said many, many goodbyes in my time – I think we find ourselves repeating that terribly ominous sounding word consistently, our whole lives. We start rather young, by saying goodbye to the comfort of the womb.  Soon, it’s goodbye to diapers, in exchange for the [less convenient] regular big girl underwear.  At the tender age of 3, we say goodbye to mummy, as she heartlessly abandons us at the front gate of Rainbow Nursery Playschool (yes, this was a particularly traumatic experience for me). Mother tells me she would leave me, sitting hopelessly in the corner, clutching onto my Scooby doo lunch box, and would return a few hours later to find me in the exact same spot, still holding on to my lunch box, the only difference being my tear stained cheeks.

Life is cruel.

In kindergarten, goodbyes weren’t any easier for me. So, much like army officers who go away to war leaving their sweethearts behind, I developed the habit of carrying a tiny passport sized photograph of my mother to school, to tide me over through those long, hard, pre-school days.  Mum also got me a musical card that played “You are my sunshine” when you opened it.  Equipped with my survival kit – a musical card and a passport sized photograph –  I was able to brave the storm.

I thought I had weathered the worst that life had to offer, that it was all smooth sailing from then on. But no. They don’t tell you in pre-school, that life’s all uphill from there.

Soon it’s goodbye to the family as you set off for college, goodbye to your high school sweetheart, goodbye to university as you are flung out into the cold, heartless real world, goodbye to the shelter and comfort of being a useless student (man, I could really use another one of those musical cards around now).

I’ve said goodbye to travelers I’ve met along my journeys, goodbye to cities that started to feel like home, goodbye to friends and loved ones who live on the other side of the ocean…as I type now, I’m left wondering when my next goodbye will be.

Well, for now, it’s goodbye to Devon, as I set sail (or rather jump on the bus) to New York.  Bye bye Devon – helloo Mr. Taranto and Ms. Ransom …

New York: Coming Soon

Posted in Canada 2010, Toronto | 4 Comments

Useless…or BRILLIANT?

 

One night, Devon and I were lazy.

Out come the flannel pyjamas.  In comes the Thai take-out. On goes a film.  Up go the feet on the table.  Into the glass flows a fresh, crisp glass of Californian pinot grigio.  Away go all urges to be useful, productive members of society. From within arises a feeling of total satisfaction, from being perfectly, utterly useless. 

“The world calls me great, great but useless, it’s because I am great I am useless, if I were of use I would have remained small.”

-the Tao Te Ching

Posted in Canada 2010 | 1 Comment

D-Day with D (Dim Sum Day with Devon)

Food isn’t just about edible stuff on a plate – it’s about ritual.  Take-out greasy Chinese food and a bad straight-to-television movie on a Sunday night, with someone you love.  A reassuringly warm cup of chamomile tea, on a grey rainy day. Champagne with a celebration, wine on a first date, a Thanksgiving turkey with the entire family gathered around the table –

or, as in my and Devon’s case, Dim Sum on a Sunday morning.

This was our ritual, and one that we stuck to religiously, every Sunday in Montreal, rain or shine. I guess you could say it was our Thing. Of course, the line up at Kam Fung Restaurant (our chosen place of worship) was always as long and winding as the Yangtze river, but we didn’t mind. Well, we minded, but there wasn’t much we could do about it, except wait patiently, as the bearer shrieked maniacally in Cantonese, calling out the waitlist numbers over a loud speaker (not doing much for our headaches from the Saturday night before). But, no matter how tired we were, or how long the line, or how loud the psycho bearer shrieked, we knew that what awaited us on the other side, was well worth it all. Sweet, succulent Dim Sum.

Now here in Toronto, we scour Chinatown, on the search for a dim sum spot that can rival the fine establishment that is Kam Fung Restaurant.  And from the depths of the ocean of Chinese restaurants, along the crowded streets of Chinatown, emerged one restaurant that shone brighter than the rest – The Bright Pearl.

On the corner of Spadina and St Andrews, the Bright Pearl stands tall, proud, and…well, bright. Bright yellow to be precise. A hot spot for many the dim sum savvy Torontonian, the Bright Pearl typifies the downtown dim sum dining experience.

Of course, Devon and I have always felt we’d get the VIP treatment at dim sum restaurants, if only we were fluent in Cantonese. But, as native English speakers, it’s the back of the [very long] line, of fellow Dim Sum fanatics. Soon, though, we hear a sound as sweet as a freshly baked egg tart – “Fifty two, numba fifty two!” That’s us! That’s our number! We enter the colourful, crowded, noisy realm of dim sum carts, plastic dragons, and elaborate Chinese wall hangings, and prepare ourselves for a feast like no other.

The term Dim Sum literally means “to touch the heart”, and consists of a variety of little dumplings and dishes, both sweet and savoury, steamed and fried, similar to the French hor d’oeuvre, or Spanish tapas.  Dim Sum is inextricably linked with the Chinese practice of Yum Cha, (Cantonese for “drink tea”), a ritual which is what it sounds like – the practice of drinking tea.  

Over the years and over the course of our many Dim Sum outings, Devon and I have picked up a few tricks of the trade, a few Dim Sum Do’s and Don’ts. For your benefit, and to avoid appearing dim witted on your next dim sum day, I advise you read on,  internalize, and practice these ‘commandments’ with sincerity and respect.

DIM SUM DO

DO PACE YOURSELF

Don’t get greedy – as irresistible as those endless wheelie carts overflowing with tiny pockets of delight look, just remember – it’s like a relationship, you have to take it slow. It’s all about the game, the chase, respect yourself enough, to hold off, for the right dim sum.  Play hard to get – when the pork sui mai lady approaches you, asking if you want some of what she has to offer, wave your hand dismissively, say “no, I’m just not ready”. Watching her walk away will be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do in your entire life, but you’ll thank yourself later, when the right dim sum comes along.

DIM SUM DON’T 

DON’T LET ON THAT YOU’RE A NEWBIE

The worst insult at a dim sum restaurant – when the waiter brings you a fork and spoon, instead of chopsticks.  It’s a metaphorical slap in the face, a symbolic “you don’t belong here, foreigner, just finish your food with your spoon and get out”.  To avoid this, avoid showing any visible signs that you’re a newbie – don’t eye other people’s plates, asking them what that delicious looking dish is; don’t request a picture menu in English; just sit down, sip your tea, and be quiet. 

DIM SUM DO

DO TAP YOUR FINGERS ON THE TABLE WHEN SOMEONE REFILLS YOUR TEA

After someone refills your tea cup, tapping three fingers on the table (your index and middle fingers), is a way to say “thank you”, and is considered the equivalent of bowing.  This is an interesting Chinese custom, with an equally interesting story behind it –  an Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was out at Yum Cha one day with his friends, but often went out in disguise, not wanting to attract attention to himself as an Emperor. While out, he refilled the tea cup of his fellow companion, and the companion, not wanting to give away the Emperor’s identity, but still wanting to thank him for this great honour, simply tapped his fingers on the table, indicating a bow.

So tap away! Plus, doing it, will make you look like a total DSP  (dim sum pro). 

DIM SUM DON’T

DON’T HESITATE, EVEN IF YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING

Service at dim sum spots is not particularly…”friendly”. So, a moment’s hesitation on your part, can cost you your dish.  To avoid this, be decisive and pretend to know what you’re doing when you order from a cart, otherwise the bearer will look at you, sigh impatiently, and wheel her little cart off to the hungry customer at the next table. You’ll be left alone, dim sum-less, and depressed.  Even if you don’t know what you’re ordering, eating steamed chicken feet [ew] is better than losing face. Right? RIGHT? 

DIM SUM DO

DO SAVE THE GREASY TARO WRAPS FOR LAST

A common Dim Sum Dilemma that Devon and I often find ourselves in – the Taro Wrap Paradox.  We see the taro wrap, and it looks so inviting, so tempting, so oily-ly delicious, so dangerously divine, with its tender flaky greasy shell, its warm meaty insides … it’s just impossible to resist it.  We end up ordering it first, savagely stuffing it down our throats, and then are left feeling ill from all the grease and meat, and can’t eat anything else. To avoid this, just remember –  “Save the Taro for Last”.

Devon saving the Taro for last

We start with one of my personal favourites – har gau, the steamed shrimp dumpling, which I pop in whole, pursing my lips in delight as it explodes with juicy exuberance in my mouth. 

The Chinese broccoli is crunchy and refreshing, and a good way to offset the fattier, greasier dim sum items. 

But we are craving something more. 

We scour the room in vain, flailing every limb in an attempt to get the attention of the bearers with the good stuff. Devon rises heroically to the challenge, and decisively flags down one of the more mysteriously elusive dishes, the Mona Lisa of dim sum carts, the dim sum that is hiding something, masking what is within, with its seemingly unappetizing-looking exterior – the Steamed Rice Roll.

The steamed rice roll is simply not what it seems. It looks like a globby slimy mess, but, as you will soon learn, appearances can be deceiving with dim sum.  It also goes by the name chee cheong fun, or ‘pig intestine noodle’, because of its resemblance to a pig’s small intestine. I know, I’m not doing much for the ‘steamed rice roll is delicious’ cause.  But this is in fact a delightful little dim sum, light, and a pleasant blend of textures, firm juicy prawns, hidden coyly within goopy cocoon of Shahe fen (rice noodles), then bathed in sweet soy sauce.   It can also be stuffed with chicken, pork, and other ingredients.

As usual, Devon and I end up OD-ing on Dim Sum, and then, stuffed and sedated, we sit back in our chairs, sipping upon endless cups of Chinese tea, before we are finally asked to leave and free up the table.

Posted in Canada 2010, Toronto | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

To Terroni!

One afternoon, Devon, Natalie and I find ourselves at Terroni, a classy little Italian spot on Queen Street West, with a patio sprawled out beneath the protective shade of a great big apple tree. Actually, protective is the wrong word.  Every so often, an apple plummets menacingly down from the tree, narrowly missing the heads of seated clients, pulled to the ground by some invisible force (I’m sure if I spent enough time here, [and after enough glasses of wine], I may have stumbled upon the same conclusions as Isaac Newton).  We try a bite of one of the apples, pleased to find that they are juicy and sweet. But what would be even sweeter? An ice cold drink, on this humid sunny day…

For me, a Betty Aperol – orange juice, and aperol (a bitter-sweet tasting Italian aperitif), while Devon orders a Bellini (made with peach juice and prosecco). Along with our drinks, Natalie orders us a platter of prosciutto and nuts, stewed pears and honey, and a variety of Italian cheeses – we nibble away to our happy hearts’ content, taking breaks only to sip upon our icy cocktails.    

The main course arrives swift as a summer breeze, and I dive into my pasta, a wild medley of dandelion leaves and Italian sausage, flavoured with a hint of truffle oil.

 Devon’s plate overflows with all things imaginable from under the sea – shrimp, mussels, and clams, swimming in an ocean of marinara sauce. Conversation stops short, and our base instincts take over as we devour mouthful, after mouthful, of deliciousness.

Good times!

Posted in Canada 2010, Toronto | 2 Comments

A Trot through the T-Dot

Toronto is a…nice city. And I mean nice in the vaguest sense of the word.  It’s not a city that has really drawn me in, inspiring me, beckoning me to stay, and explore – many times, I feel walled in by concrete, (but still surrounded by lovely, friendly Canadians).  But maybe this weekend will change my mind. After all, there are many little pockets of quirkiness in the T-dot,  particularly in Kensington Market, that do pique one’s interest. On this fine sunny day, along with Devon’s friend and fellow food lover/culinary adventurer Natalie Baker, we wander through Toronto, stumbling upon many curiosities along the way.

“Look guys I know you’re hungry”, begins Natalie, “but we have to make a pit stop at Courage My Love! We just have to!” She’s right. I am hungry. But I trust Natalie’s judgment, as she leads us into a dimly lit little second-hand store, bursting at the seams with trinkets, junk, odds and ends, knick knacks, nonsense, this and that, crap, and so much more! I am in my element.

I get much grief from my mother, for holding onto useless items. Like the red high heel I found once, on the street in Montreal ( I figured it either belonged to Cinderella, or Dorothy, and felt it my duty to return it to it’s rightful owner). Or like my fake bunny tail (which I know will come in handy one day). But functionality is often the least of my concerns. “All art is quite useless”, Oscar Wilde once said, and he’s got a point. I use his words as an excuse to hold onto useless junk.

What’s that? A hunger pang? Yes, it strikes unexpectedly, so we have to act fast.  We rush out of the store – a road side empanada  is the perfect remedy!

An empanada is a Spanish and Portugese snack, also found in South America – it’s a pastry or bread that is stuffed with vegetables or meat. The shell is flaky and crumbly, the chicken stuffing is warm and succulent. And Toronto, the city of multiculturalism, is dotted with empanada stalls.  Well this will tide us over, until lunch…

Posted in Canada 2010, Toronto | Leave a comment

On the Road [again]

Sadly, all good things must come to an end; but where there’s an end, is a new beginning! So I bid Jill and Imad goodbye, and jump on the train, on my way to see Madame Proudfoot.

Magnolia's album cover

First, a little background on Madame Devon Proudfoot:
-BFF’s since our preteen years in junior high at the Halifax Grammar School
-Skilled guitarist – (taught me my first guitar song)
-Winner of many awards related to the mastery of the German language (she even won a trip to Germany! Ja Devon!)
-Contrary to what her last name suggests, is not of native descent
-Co- founding member of Magnolia, an underground indie band featuring me and Devon. So underground we never left Devon’s basement. To this day, no one has ever heard us play (except for Benjamin and Beaner. Devon’s brother and dog).

Now a little background on Toronto’s culinary scene:
-As multicultural as Barack Obama’s ethnic heritage

Well this weekend will be My and Devon’s Excellent [culinary] Adventure, around the glorious T-Dot!

Posted in Canada 2010, Toronto | Tagged , | Leave a comment