Sunday, October 19, 2008

Kaiser of Falafel and Inventor of Doner - Berlin Foodlogue

Turkish citizens who came to post World War II Germany as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) would not have realized that half a century later they will be remembered, not for the factories they built but for the food they brought with them. About two and a half million Turks in Germany have achieved success in many walks of life but nowhere is their presence more prominent than on the food scene where Doner Kebab (a German Turk invention – more on that later!) are ubiquitous – the whole effect impact is most evident in Berlin a city home to more than 200,00 Turks and 1,600 Kebab shops!

Döner Kebab exists since 250 years as a meal on a plate (Iskender). In 1971 Mehmet Aygün came up with the idea to put the meal on a plate in bread which revolutionized the oriental fastfood industry. What started at Hasir in Kreuzberg, the focal point of Trukish culture in Berlin, has spread across Germany as the most popular fast food which stands toe-to-toe with glitzier American chains. Hasir itself has expanded to five other locations in Berlin. Now the flagship branch is one on Oranienburger Str 4, Mitte – an attempt to take the cuisine more upmarket in an ambience very distinct from typical kebab shop. We visited the orginal kruezverg outlet, though. The kebab I had was shaved off in very thin slices from the meat stack on the skewer making it crispier than most common versions. The kuver bread served alongside was fresh and a welcome relief from the pita that is used by the kebab shops. Even the grilled aubergine that my wife, who is a vegetarian, ordered were good enough for her not to complain about a dinner at Hasir.

Another salient feature of Turkish food is the mangal (charcoal grill), and a popular mangal is the Adana Grill on corner of Manteuffel Strasse and Oranienstrasse. The concept is simple with the variety coming from different marinades and cuts of meat, while cooking method remains the same – grilling on a open charcoal pit. My mixed grill included lamb chops, chicken, and lamb mince grilled on a skewer – all of it served on a bed of bread along with very sweet (for an Indian it is acceptable but would be too sweet for most Europeans) but refreshing tea.

While Hasir is about the imagination of its founder who turned his country’s kebab into convenience food, Dada Falafel is about the personality and skill of its owner – a Lebanese gentleman with rock star looks and an attitude to go with it. Not one to consider virtues of of humility he advised me, “When you go back to your country tell them that you met the Kaiser of falafel”! Falafels were made fresh before us, with the perfect crispy crumbly texture. A blogger who seems to know a lot more about falafels considers it the best he has had in life. The servings of hummus and baba ganoush were generous and tasty. (sorry for a Lebanese guy featuring in a post on Turkish food but how could I ignore the Kaise?)

Recommended Places in Berlin

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Central Coffeehoueses

When an article in The Guardian couple of years back said that the homogeneity of modern coffeehouses is stifling their traditional role as places of sedition, it was the writer’s take on the conflict between convenience and culture (or maybe the culture of convenience). This is a change with a global footprint - Starbucks in the US; Café Nero, Costa Coffee and Café Ritazza in Europe; Barista and Café Coffee Day in India having taken over the space occupied by the traditional coffeehouses. While the story of European cafes is well documented (even the early chapters of Harry Potter were written by JK Rowling in an Edinburgh Coffeehouse), what is lesser known that the traditional coffee houses in India, run by workers’ cooperatives, attracted a Nobel Laureate like Rabindra Nath Tagore and other famous writers; Life-time Oscar winner Satyajit Ray and many other film makers; and intellectuals from other walks of life. So it had been really some kind of a global cultural phenomenon even before globalization!

In this context it was an interesting experience to visit two legendary coffeehouses from the erstwhile Austro-Hungarian Empire, a region where the coffeehouse culture had seen its best days. Incidentally the two I visited, though in different cities on the banks of the Danube, even have a common name – Café Central in Vienna (Herrengasse 17) and Central Kávéház in Budapest (V. Károlyi Mihály u. 9).

Café Central has played host to legends like Goethe, Beethoven, and Lenin. But it’s patron who can be called its mascot (no surprise that they have his statue at the entrance, seated at a table) is Peter Altenberg, who had even his mails delivered to the café where he spent most of his time. There are many stories and legends about the place. Some time before the war the Austro-Hungarian government received a sharp note from St Petersburg, demanding that a stop be put to the activities of the Russian political emigrants in Vienna. The Minister of the Interior received the note and shook with laughter: 'Who do they think is going to start a revolution in Russia - perhaps that Herr Trotsky from the Café Central?'" (from Wit as a Weapon by Egon Larsen, 1980).

On my visit I found an elegant place with high vaulted ceilings and marble columns. While the pastry shop Demel and Hotel Sacher fight over who created the ‘original Sachertorte’, Café Central plays it safe with its own ‘orginal Café Central Torte’. So you can have the famed Viennese Apfelstrudel at the restaurant and get gift packed the Central Torte for those back home (presumably it doesn’t use fresh cream and hence lasts longer). While I was there only for breakfast, it has various options for a 3-course lunch or a dinner, including some Viennese specialties and mouth-watering desserts. But the place will always be more about the experience of an unhurried meal in the traditional settings rather than the food .

Quite distinct from my morning visit to Café Central on a crisp spring morning, was the dinner at Central Kavehaz in Budapest. We reached there as hungry souls, after having spent a few hours at the Gellert Thermal Baths, so no tradition or ambience would have mattered, had the food not been good. Thank God, we were not disappointed. As a typical coffeehouse it has a wide varieties of tarts and pastries, the more popular ones being Centrál's creamy coffee cake (with marzipan) and Flodni (layers of poppy seed, walnut, apple and plum marmalade). For the meal one can have traditional Hungarian meat dishes like Goulash or fresh fish from Lake Balaton. While ordering starters and the main course, one needs to budget appetite for the dessert, what with descriptions like ‘Mango parfait with pineapple carpaccio’!

It can be argued that both Café Central and Central Kavehaz are more of tourist traps now rather than intellectual hangouts. There maybe merit in the argument, but the alternative would the period when these both these places had fallen into disrepair and closed for almost four decades till they were reopened in the 80s. The Vienna Café project, is a praiseworthy attempt to understand the past and present of café better. As a glimpse into this unique cultural aspect of 19th and early 20th century, I would think even those part of this project appreciate the tourist-funded reopening of the traditional cafes.

For an interesting read on Central Kavehaz and a lovely photographs check out

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Andalucia Tapas Trail

Tapa is a small lid on the top of a drink. The bartender would traditionally place something complimentary, like olives or fried seafood (mariscoes), on top of it. This is the story about the origin of tapas that I knew until I read the entry on Wikipedia. It suggests so many possible alternatives that instead of being confused, I stick to my initial understanding – it helps that most people in Seville believe it as well.

I have eaten tapas in London, in Chennai and in Krakow with varying qualities and interpretations of tapas. Even within Spain, while Taller de Tapas chain is an easy way to introduce oneself to tapas in Barcelona with tasty food and efficient service, it is too sanitized for a real tapa experience. The picture completely changes in Andalucia. You realize that it is not really about the food and that nothing can come close to experience of tapas-hopping in Seville, Granada or cities of the southern Spain.

It is unlikely that a bartender in a bar in Madrid or Barcelona can so endearingly have a laugh at a tourists’ expense as they routinely do at Las Columnas (officially called Bodega Santa Cruz, cheapest tapas bar in the Santa Cruz district of Seville), a place full of character. You may not be offered an English Menu, but you will still find places where tapas are free with a drink (though unlikely in Seville). What Las Columnas is to the tourist heartland of Seville, Bodega Castaneda is to Granada. In both these places you will be lucky to have standing space in busy hours, and even luckier to have a waiter’s attention for more than a few seconds. But the waiters or the bartenders will always be nice to you while they take their order, even though it is a very brief interaction! The walls of Sol y Sombra reflect its great bullfighting tradition as does the menu (famous for its cola de toro or oxtail)! Continuing with bars that offer more than food, another interesting place is El Faro de Triana, a former lighthouse on the banks of Guadalquivir in Seville. It is more of a friduria (fried fish and seafood), but you are here for the view.

While jamon (cured ham), sausages and other pork and seafood items are integral to a bar menu, vegetarians need not lose heart. And I am not talking of surviving on queso manchego (cheese from La Mancha), patatas bravas (somewhere between chips and potato wedges) and tortilla (omlette with potatoes).

Though sceptical after reading the description, we fell in love with berenjas con miel (fried eggplant with honey). There was another cream and spinach tapas (can someone help me with the name?) at Las Columnas which was always an item for a repeat order. Espinacas con garbanzos (stew of chickpeas and spinach) is anyway popular even outside Spain. Something else that is popular beyond Spanish shores is Gazpacho. While Gazpacho is a nice cool drink for Spanish summer, its thicker form, Salmorejo (tomato

soup thickened with bread giving it a creamier texture) should be a not-to-miss item for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Better still if you try it at La Giganta on Plaza de los Terceros in Seville. Next door to La Giganta is Rinconcillo, arguably, the oldes tapas bar in Seville; also inarguably the one with grumpiest staff!

Each bar is famous for a few tapas, so sampling different things at different bars is the best idea. And if you are tired of walking, and want to make a meal of you tapas at a bar, then order a ración (plate) or media ración (half-plate) of the same dish. The best thing we did is that we shed our inhibitions, and in our completely inappropriate pronunciations started ordering from the items listed on the blackboard.

Chipirones (baby squid), gambas al ajillo (prawns sautéed withgarlic) and such items were figured out from the guide book, but the rest was a raffle – one in which you always won! Anyway with 2 – 4 Euros for a tapas, you cannot go wrong. While talking about the price of tapas, it is fun figuring out if the bartender at Las Columnas has got your bill right.(he tries recollecting all that you had ordered while he writes the amounts on bar counter using chalk, adds it up and you know the total amount – would you still want to crosscheck?)

For a detailed listing of tapas bars in Seville, visit

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Paella on the beach and sweets at Convent: Spain Food Yatra (2)

For this second part of the Spanish Food Yatra, I would cover my experiences across Andalucia. Essentially three cities/towns – Seville and Granada from Moorish Spain and Nerja on Costa del Sol. Tapas bar hopping (Ir de tapas in Spanish) deserves a dedicated post so I will leave out tapas bars of Seville here.


We had heard so much about Churros that we had to have them for breakfast at least once during our trip. Now that we found a friendly and knowledgeable manager at our hotel, Hotel Alcantara (highly recommended), we asked him for a suggestion. On his recommendation we landed at the Churoria on Can y Ceutro at 8:00 in the morning. God bless the local ahead of us in the Q who told us not to go for the small ones on the counter but get fresh ones fried, which are then sold by weight. The Churoria has a symbiotic relationship (presumably due to common ownership) with Bar Modesto, next door. So we took our Churros, seated ourselves at Bar Modesto and ordered hot chocolate.


The best lunch we had in the region was a couple of hundred kilometers to the east of Seville on Costa del Sol. On the Burriana beach, in the famous resort of Nerja, a legend lives. This is pony-tailed man and his institution Chirnguito de Ayo (Ayo’s Snack Bar). Any eatery with such a wonderful location would be successful just serving fries and sangria, but what has made this place famous is its paella, cooking in (what else?) huge paellas on wood-fire under thatched roof. It is not best paella you would have in Spain, and locals say it isn’t even authentic – huge jar of paprika powder kept beside the paellas used to give some of the color which otherwise should come from more expensive saffron would obviously compromise authenticity and taste. But it is about the institution rather than food. Unlimited helpings of paella for six Euros is a bargain to begin with, the picture postcard frying of chicken and bubbling of stock in various paellas at different stages of cooking, and the fact that the chef in front of you had the company of Padma Lakshmi (see the youtube video of the travel show) not so long ago, all adds up to the legend (not to mention various other food and travel shows, a gold medal from the local mayor for promoting tourism, the privilege of firing the pistol to start the race in local athletics championship and more). To a not so discerning visitor like me, the paella tasted good as well – it skimps on seafood but then how many places are serving tiger prawns for six Euros?

Evening Snack

There are not many places in the world which have been in the business of food since 1385, and this is reason enough for Horno de San Buenaventura (Avenida de la Constitución 16, Seville), in Seville to be one’s itinerary. It is a busy café, full of both locals and tourists, but you are served by rude and indifferent waiters. Remind yourself that people having been coming here for 600 years, grin and bear!

Chastened by our experience, our next evening’s coffee was at a more lowbrow Los Angeles cafe around the Plaza de Toro (Bull Ring) on the junction of Arfe and Antonio Diaz. We were so pleased with the friendly staff that we came back again for breakfast the next day. If you are not delighted with the Sevillian specialty Tocino de cielo (literally ‘heavenly bacon’ but more like a heavier version of flan) at this café, then try the same at El Buzo across the road. El Buzo is also very famous tapas bar, but I would remember it for the brilliant Tocino

For a more unique experience, go to El Torno on Plaza Cabildo. The shop sells the famous sweets made by nuns at Seville’s many convents. Each convent specializes in one or more sweets. We picked the Yemas (sugar coated egg yolks) from the Dominicas convent. You can also buy jams and marmalades here. We bought a plum jam which did not survive even three days on our return to Krakow. Let me digress to mention that the shop also sells lacework from the convent and, I presume, these clothes are considered auspicious by the local people one of whom there to buy infant’s clothes for his yet-to-be-born child.


If you are a vegetarian or long for a veggie meal after all the carnivorous excesses in Spain, head to La Habanita (Calle Golfo 3, Seville) a Cuban restaurant which has the widest varity of vegetarian dishes among all tapas bars and restaurants in Seville. Try the frijoles con arroz (beans and rice), or aubergines with arepas (corn bread). The place is also serves, arguably, city’s best mojito. If you are in Granada, one not-to-be-missed place is Cunini on Plaza Pescadería 14. Amazing array of seafood with the option of al freco dining on the plaza make a very good choice.

But my dinner pick in Andalucia would be Seville, next to the Royal Chapel in Granada (yes, a restaurant named Seville in the city of Granada). Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, Salvador Dalí, André Segovia, Gene Kelly, and Ingrid Bergman and others who have visited this place since 1930 cant be wrong! It claims to be loyal to family recipes of ‘La Tita’ Ana Casteneda, who started the restaurant along with her husband. We started with a superb fish soup ‘La Tita’, and had paella for main course. While I would still rate the paella at Can Majo in Barcelona slightly higher, this was really good as well. By the time we finished with our dessert and coffee, we could hardly walk. The restaurant had shuttered doors, but not once did the staff make us feel that we needed to hurry. A restaurant with a history, great food, and extremely friendly staff, situated ideally for a visitor – what else can you ask for?

Horno de San Buenavetura

Ayo's at Nerja

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Culinary Yatra of Bangalore - 2

Check out part 2 of this two part artcile I wrote for Rediff...

Great Meals on Lazy Sundays

Culinary Yatra of Bangalore

Check out this link for a two part article I wrote for Rediff...

Culinary Yatra of Bangalore - 1

Monday, April 7, 2008

Jamon, Mariscoes and Pescadoes: Spain Food Yatra (1) - Barcelona

Traveling through some of the cities and towns of Spain, I had a chance to eat at places wide and varied – with origins from 14th century to 21st century; 10 Euros for a couple to almost 100; a hole in a wall outlet to being served by tuxedoed waiters – an interesting experience for me in a country where so many tourists don’t manage to get beyond the eateries along the beach resorts of Costa del Sol. I have a problem of structure here. Should I write this as a restaurant review? But I am not a competent reviewer of restaurants serving food that I do not know much about. Should I write a guide for tourists? But my sample is too small to do that. So the best choice I had was to prepare a meal plan for myself for two days – a day in Barcelona and another in Andalucía – covering breakfast, lunch, an evening coffee break and dinner.

Again, I am sure to go wrong with names of some of the dishes or ingredients but readers can help me get them right looking at the pictures (they don’t lie??!!)

The Barcelona Itinerary

I have read at a few places that Spanish are not big on breakfast and it would mostly be just pan con tomaquet (bread rubbed with garlic and tomato with olive oil drizzled on top) and coffee. But not if you are at the La Boqueria (formally called Mercat de Sant Josep), and have a chance to visit Pinotxo or El Quim.

Pinotxo has been called a ‘culinary temple’ by El Bulli, had a book written on it and its owner/chef Juanito Bayan has featured on many NY Times. I opted for chipirones con fabes (baby squids with pine nut type white beans) which was light on oil and seasonings and let the beans and squid do the talking. My wife had tortilla de espinacas (spinach omlette) and seemed quite happy with it. But it was Xixos (custard filled croissant dusted with sugar) which took the prize – alright they were too greasy but divine and we ordered a couple more for a later hour. Juanito’s personality is integral to the appeal of this place, with a permanent smile and a ‘thumbs-up’ sign whenever he is photographed (do a Google image search and you will know!). One thing which was amusing for me was that many locals were having wine with their breakfast, something that I haven’t observed in many other cities. Maybe someone can throw light on that.

El Quim is the upmarket version of Pinotxo. It has a younger owner/chef who is gaining a worldwide appreciation, has its menu written on a blackboard (Pinotxo does not have any written menu), and a table mat is placed on the counter before food is place. Well also that the adjoining plate of gambas con ajillo (prawns with garlic) cost 18 Euros which would mean than breakfast here would easily be 30 Euros per person with bread, coffee etc. It is famous for its huevas fritos (fried eggs) with choice of seafood (baby squids, prawns). But this place is not for anyone on a low-fat diet as everything is drenched in oil (fine its olive oil, but still!) be it pan con tomaquet or fried eggs or the prawns.

We did not try the Kiosko Universal but it comes recommended by many and considering that it want crowded, it might be a good option on days when you are not willing to wait to be heard for your order.

For lunch, I would make a mandatory recommendation – Paella at Can Majo. I have read reviews which suggest that service is awful and Paella oily. We had neither of these experiences. We had booked a table for our Easter Sunday lunch more than a month in advance, and we were not disappointed. My Pescadito Frito(small fried fish) ‘melt in your mouth’ variety while my wife had a goat cheese salad which looked amazing and tasted better. It was one of the few instances when I have eaten paella which had socarrat (crispy caramelized toasted bottom) and sheen on the top (not sure if it is evident in the adjoining photograph, but would want to understand it better from anyone in the know). Smell of saffron and no penny-pinching on seafood! One of the few places in Spain which has paid attention to preparing an acceptable vegetarian paella. It is all well and good to say that a vegetarian paella is not the real paella, but then I am told that real paella is supposed to have rabbit and game but that has evolved hasn’t it?

If history and ambience were to take priority over the taste of food, a lunch at Can Culleretes is a good idea. With the walls adorned with beautiful paintings, and a 220-old history, it sure is an experience to savor what with all the signed celebrity photographs making you feel in esteemed company. I should add a disclaimer that food, though inexpensive, is of average quality. Interestingly the Crema Catalana here is like Crème Caramel rather than Crème brûlée, as it it does not have the hard crispy caramel top – again something on which I would want to know more – which is the real one?
If you are any other place, and are not the one to skip dessert, look out for this aniseed pancake which was an interesting option.

Evening Snack

For an evening pastry and a coffee, choice could depend on the neighbourhood. If someone has flexibility to chose which part of the Barcelona he/she would be in during tea-time, then head to Sarria. Some of the most innovative and flakiest pastries that I have eaten. We went to this 105 year old Brioixeria in Sarria on Major de Sarria, and everything we tried was out this world. We had caracolas (chocolate croissant), a flautin (long thin pastries with cream or chocolate – I have tried to get more information about it on the web, but unsuccessfully) and a savory spinach-cheese pastry. Dolso in the Eixample district would provide a nice break to tired legs from Gaudi exploration. High quality chocolate and other desserts, along with sandwiches and other short-eats. If you on Las Ramblas then head to Moka for a piece of history. Not really know for its food, but it is finds mention in George Orwell’s 'Homage to Catalonia' as the place where the Guardia Civil of dictator Franco awaited to attack the Republican fighters in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

If someone has actually eaten as per this itinerary, then for health reasons the person would be advised to head to any of the Pans and Company outlets for Bocadillos – Spanish sandwiches. This place has all the good things of a McDonald’s – great location, nice seating, efficient and fast service, standardized quality – but avoids all the negatives by having local flavours and healthy food. Or head to a Fresc Co’s outlets around town – a salad and a hot food buffet, along with desserts – eat all you can for under 10 euros. This is another chain professes to promote health food though I would need to lot of convincing to accept that ‘eat all you can’ and ‘healthy eating’ go together

El Quim(Shop no. 594) and Pinotxo(Shop No. 466) at Mercat de la Sant Jopsep, Plaça de la Boqueria
Can Majo, Almirall Aixada 23
Can Cullleretes C/ Quintana, 5
Dolso, C/ València 227
Cafe Moka 126, Las Ramblas, 08002 Barcelona
Pans and Company

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