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Nuggets from New Orleans

It was a small intimately-lit restaurant — about 40 covers — and when we walked in the band was playing a rendition of The Rolling Stones’ version of the well-known R&B song, Walking the dog. I remember thinking as we took our seats that when The Flintstones played the same song on Park Street, some 15,000 miles away, during the Sunday afternoon jam sessions in Trincas, I liked their version a lot more.

It was a Cajun restaurant in New York. My first encounter with this magical cuisine that developed in the cultural melting pot of Louisiana, and an important part of the culinary map of New Orleans. I remember having Blackened Tuna — one-inch thick tuna steaks marinated in an intriguing collage of ingredients that did strange new things to the tastebuds, the steaks literally seared, or singed, to be actually slightly blackened. A delicious sauce to go with it, mildly piquant, and enough to make me fall in love with this zestful cuisine.

Back home, Cajun and Creole food from that part of the world is hard to come by. At Taaja’s, on Dover Road, they do Cajun Crab Cakes with a tartare sauce, under soups they have a Shrimp Bisque and Prawn Etoufee makes for a good main course.

Virgose, the resto-bar at Hotel Hindusthan International, is having a Creole and Cajun festival which is on till the end of this week. Not many guesses on how long it took me to be there. The menu has a balance between vegetarian and non-vegetarian items, though it is reasonably certain that some of the vegetarian items had to be created here. You would not find them in New Orleans.

Tomato Bisque was the soup to kick off proceedings. Just the right quantity in a shallow bowl to whet the appetite, with a crisp slice of garlic toast served in the soup. Tomatoes, carrots, celery, garlic and onions are cooked in olive oil and white wine with a few black peppercorns thrown in, for about an hour. This is made into a puree and then vegetable stock is added and the soup is finished with cream, basil leaves and sauteed cherry tomatoes.

Cajun Spiced Prawns with Avocado Dip, a starter, came next. Prawns are marinated with salt, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and Cajun spice. They are then skewered and grilled on a griddle and served with a tasty dip made by thoroughly mixing the soft, buttery flesh of avocadoes with garlic, jalapeno peppers, tomatoes, coriander leaves (all chopped) and lemon juice and salt.

A word about Cajun Spice. This is a special potent mixture of condiments ground together which gives much of this cuisine its characteristic taste; salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, onion powder (ground, dehydrated onions), garlic powder, freshly ground black and white peppercorns, dried basil, chilli powder, dried thyme, ground mustard and ground cloves are used.

Another starter was Crab Claws with French Fries. The claws are divested of the shell, except for a little bit at one end. The flesh is marinated with salt and lemon juice, before being dipped in a batter of flour, egg, milk, Creole mustard and crushed black pepper. It is then “crumbed” in a mixture of polenta flour, black pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic and thyme and deep fried. It is served with a tartare dip.

Blackened Chicken with Orange Aioli was the main course. The leg and thigh section of a chicken is deboned but the skin is left on. This is generously coated in a marinade of Cajun Spice, lemon juice and olive oil before being slowly and thoroughly grilled. Personally, I would have preferred the flesh to be singed a little more, but it was still delicious. The Orange Aioli, a kind of flavoured mayonnaise (olive oil, egg yolk, orange juice, orange rind and seasoning) is poured over the top and the dish is served with vegetables and French fries, which also taste great when coated with the aioli.

Ultimate Cheesecake Brownie was served for dessert. A brownie mixture is half cooked, topped with Philadelphia and Macapone cheese and baked again. An intriguing blend of sweet and savoury.

Two classics are also on the menu. I could not try them at a single sitting, so another visit is on the cards. They do Lobster Etoufee — flambed lobster meat in prawn stock with hard butter, cream and grilled vegetables — and Mixed Meat Jambalaya — a meal-in-a-dish with thick grained rice sauteed with various ingredients and then cooked in seafood stock, with chicken cubes, prawn, fish and minced cooked lamb being added and further cooked together before being finished with chopped cilantro.

The festival food is served at dinner time, when Virgose changes from a sedate restaurant with a lunch buffet to a popular watering hole with entertainment in the form of a live Filipino band.

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