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Lunchtime variety

The mother of all buffets must almost certainly be the Swedish smorgasbord (meaning literally “sandwich table” or “bread and butter table”), an abundant meal set with several hot and cold dishes, from appetisers to desserts, laid out together on the table. Following a special order consisting of several servings, the diners serve themselves, taking their pick of the variety of food. Smorgasbord buffet is known in all the Nordic countries, each enriched with local delicacies. The famous Russian appetiser buffet, the zakuska table has characteristics similar to smorgasbord, which has its origins in 18th century Swedish upper-class traditions. A smorgasbord meal need not necessarily be a lavish course-by-course affair — it can be a simple array of snacks to be had as appetisers.

The practice of serving buffet meals is a universal one now. Our elaborate sit-down wedding feasts where we were served course after course have given way to the buffet. Every five-star hotel coffee shop must have either a breakfast, lunch or brunch buffet, if not one at dinner as well, and in the last few years the trend has spread to a large number of restaurants where, mostly at lunch, guests have a choice between a la carte and buffet.

Zaranj and Jong’s, the twin restaurants at the corner of Chowringhee Road and Sudder Street, have been serving, for about a year now, what they have billed as “the mother of all lunch buffets”, consisting of a selection of Chinese dishes from the kitchen at Jong’s and North Indian fare from Zaranj. Both are among my favourite places in the city, cuisine-wise as well as ambience-wise. Zaranj has perhaps the finest of interiors, including the five-star outlets, and Jong’s, all wood and copper and brass, has a tasteful sobriety and elegance.

The day I dropped in for lunch, it was a hard job deciding which cuisine to go for, but after some serious deliberation I decided on Indian, partly because, a few months ago, I had had a very fine Oriental meal at Jong’s (amazing Japanese tempura prawns, teriyaki and other delights), and partly because of the Indian selection that day. I simply cannot get myself to put Chilli Garlic Noodles and Saag Gosht on the same plate; it is some kind of a mental block. However, the lady next to me seemed to have no such problem and was going the whole hog.

There was a Tamater Shorba as the soup of the day, which I passed; there had to be room enough for the main goodies. There were two starters — Paneer Shashlik and Murgh Badami Kebab — and I chose the former because the paneer here is made of buffalo milk from a private supplier and is a cut above the rest. It is never rubbery, and I remembered it as being soft and moist, though that day I was just a shade disappointed.

The vegetarian main course items — Gobi Peshawari and Palak Bhutta — were simple, honest, earthy North Indian preparations, and delicious. Gobi Peshawari is made by cooking tomato puree and ginger paste in oil first, and then adding fried cauliflower florets, julienne strips of tomato and green pepper, green peas, lemon juice and salt. The dish is sauteed over high heat and removed. A dryish dish, the cauliflower crunchy. I had it (and everything else, in fact) with Rumali Roti. Unforgettable.

The Palak Bhutta too. Chopped ginger and garlic are sauteed first. Pureed spinach, boiled and pureed moong dal, corn kernels, white pepper and salt are added. When removing from the heat, cream is added.

Methi Saag Gosht was one of two non-vegetarian items. Mutton, chopped fenugreek leaves, yoghurt, the pastes of onions, cashew nuts, ginger and garlic, then turmeric, red chillies, maze and cinnamon (all powdered), lemon juice, mustard oil and salt are all thoroughly mixed together and the meat is left in this marinade for half an hour. It is then cooked over a slow flame till tender.

Jaisalmeri Jhinga — medium sized galda prawns (heads intact) combined with yoghurt, white pepper, Jaipuri chilli powder, garam masala powder, cream, salt and refined oil and then sauteed on a griddle till they are well-coated with the masalas — was the other non-vegetarian main course. The prawns were fresh and juicy — another simple, tasty item.

For dessert there was Rajbhog and Mishti Doi (chosen from a wider selection) which reminds me — there was Chana Dal on the buffet as well — done in a part north Indian, part Bengali way, because it was slightly sweetened, and had diced coconut in it. It worked out pretty fine.

The Oriental selection that day had Crab Sweet Corn Soup, Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce, Mixed Vegetable and Bean Curd in Black Bean Sauce, Sesame Chicken with Asparagus, Spare Ribs in Bar-B-Que Sauce, Moon Faan Rice and Chilli Garlic Noodles.

There are always two live counters as well — you can create your own dishes by choosing ingredients and sauces from the Oriental counter or from the Thai and pasta counter. Crab in Szechwan Sauce, for example, or Fish in Thai Green Curry.

To complete the full circle, a choice of salads to accompany the main courses of the meal. With the festive season upon us, the Zaranj-Jong’s buffet will become more elaborate, and will probably cost a bit more too. But right now, at Rs 299 plus taxes, “the mother of all lunch buffets” is not an unjustified description.

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