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Fine flavours of a culinary marriage

Choosing one’s number one favourite cuisine can be a dodgy business. How does one make up one’s mind, between the pristine, apparently simple but highly evolved fare of South Indian vegetarian food; the subtle alchemy of Bengali cuisine, unexpectedly rich and varied in its vegetarian offerings and unlimited kinds of fish dishes; the earthy, elemental and delicious tribal preparations of the North East; the elaborate and decorative gems of the Mughal kitchens; the rich, hearty gravies of Rajasthan, or coastal cuisine' Or Mexican, Italian, Turkish, Chinese'

Then there are the ‘melting pot’ cuisines, which have evolved from the coming together of different strains and cultures. The ones that spring most readily to mind are cuisines of New Orleans, Mauritius and closer to home, Malaysia, which is a conglomerate of Cantonese, Malay, Thai and Indian (more South Indian) culinary styles. Fresh tropical fruits, seafood, chillies and curries of India and Thailand and the widespread use of coconut milk to impart smoothness of texture.

There are the regional styles — Kelantanese, predominantly Thai influenced, Kedah, very Indian, arising from a major immigration in the 19th century, and Nyonya, a blend of Chinese and Malay styles, sweet, sour, spicy and pungent, originating around the Malacca Straits 400 years ago when there was intermarriage between the two peoples. All quite broadly speaking of course. Indonesian cuisine has a similar character.

The coffee shop at the Hyatt Regency Calcutta, Waterside Cafe, is having a 10-day Malaysian food festival. Each day there will be a buffet and a la carte selection, both of which will keep changing. A relaxed and laid-back Sunday lunch during which we partook of no less than nine dishes, was a perfect little cameo of this cuisine, which, with our love for Oriental flavours and others closer to home, is bound to appeal to the Indian palate.

Two salads for starters — Kerabu Sotong (squid salad) and Gado Gado, a kind of mini platter.

The former is made simply by tossing together boiled and sliced squid, sliced onions, chopped green chillies, chopped dry red chillies, chopped coriander leaves, de-seeded and sliced tomatoes, salt and pepper. It is then chilled for about 20 minutes before serving.

Gado Gado is julienne strips of sweet turnip, cucumber and carrots, boiled long beans and bean sprouts, boiled, sliced and fried eggs and cubes of fried tofu, all arranged around a plate with a delicious peanut sauce served as a dip. The sauce is made by sauteeing together the pastes of onions, garlic and galangal (Thai ginger), then adding dry red chilli paste. These are cooked together till brown and then roasted, ground peanuts are added along with brown sugar. The ingredients are allowed to blend well, seasoning is added, the sauce is cooked for another 20 to 30 minutes, cooled and served.

For the main courses, there were three dishes, the first being Pajeri Nenes — sweet and sour pineapple with roasted coconut. Whole spices (cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and cumin seeds) are fried in hot oil and then the pastes of onions, garlic and ginger are added. Brown sugar, white vinegar, dry chilli paste and salt are added next; the sauce is allowed to simmer and finally slices of boiled pineapple and roasted coconut are added.

There was also Udang Sambal — fried prawns with chillies. Shrimp paste is sauteed first and then the pastes of ginger, garlic, onions and lemon grass are added and the mixture is browned over medium heat. Chilli paste is added later and when the oil separates, the prawns are added, cooked for five minutes and then served.

The third main course item was Ayam Masak Merah — chicken with red chilli paste and tomato sauce. Boneless chicken cubes are marinated with salt, turmeric, garlic and onion pastes for about 30 minutes. In a wok, the pastes of onions, lemon grass and ginger are browned in oil before the pastes of red chillies and tomatoes are added and allowed to simmer. Finally, the cubes of chicken, green peas, salt and sugar are added, the dish is cooked for another eight minutes or so, before serving.

The staples served were Sujan Panas (Rainbow Rice) — a delicious and interesting pulao — and Mee Goreng — fried rice noodles with vegetables. The Rainbow Rice is made by frying cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and coriander seeds before adding ginger-garlic paste and sliced onions. Then, fresh milk, water, turmeric and other seasoning are added and when simmering, the rice is added and when cooked, spinach juice and beetroot juice are stirred in, giving the dish its different hues.

For dessert, there was Buahcanpur — mixed fruit jelly. The juices of oranges, pineapple, watermelon and honeydew melon are boiled together with sugar and then allowed to simmer before gelatin and custard are added. The mixture is allowed to cool and then it is refrigerated in individual portions. When served, the jelly is garnished with small cubes of watermelon and honeydew melon. This was reminiscent of most Thai desserts — mildly sweet, smooth and mellow.

The ingredients used and the cooking methods truly reveal the marrying of the culinary styles involved. An interesting offshoot is the Bengali adoption of a Malay dish — our Chingri Malai Curry is certainly from that land — and a decades-old recipe for it includes lemon grass!

A taste of Malaysia, as the festival is called, is available for lunch and dinner and is being overseen by two chefs from there who are our guests for a few days.

A visit or two to the Hyatt will make it even harder to single out your number one favourite cuisine.

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