Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Holy Trinity: INS/,UNI and PTI Canteens at New Delhi

Like the holy trinity of Hindu mythology and theology, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. I draw an analogy of the three canteens in and around the Journalists precinct the canteens at INS (Indian Newspaper Society), UNI (United New s of india) and PTI (Press Trust of India). I know I have not been in the content side (in Television) and on the edit side of a newsroom (in print), but I have the gumption to not only write, but write about the journalist hangout joints, that is really the fall of the last bastion.

Like I have often said to some eminent friends on the other side of the Chinese wall (there is supposed to be an imaginary and metaphoric wall between the business side guys also termed as the suits and the content guys, the intelligentsia), that I can learn to write, the point is can you learn to sell. Well let us leave that for the moment and cut to the chase of the eating options at these legendary canteens. These are the canteens where many a time the agenda of the nation has been decided, these are the haloed portals when many a battle of words has been debated. Socialism, Communism, Capitalism, Extreme Right wing, Left, Centre, Further Right have been discussed over many tortured sessions of vadas and coffee. I have often wanted to do this story. Finally two winter mornings and an evening and I had my research sort of, complete.
INS (Indian Newspaper Society)

Got talking with the proprietor of Sri Krishna caterers at the INS, he has had the contract for over 4 years and is a break away or splinter group from the caterers at Andhra Bhawan. They cater for many a function and offices. We had a hot and a quick standing breakfast . My partner in crime Shantanu, yours truly and Robert, a colleague visiting from Bombay.

We order soft and succulent idlis (2 plates), hot and steaming Upma (2 plates) and a plate of Vada and perhaps a coffee each . The Idlis and Upma were nice the vada was forgettable and all we paid was Rs 80/- . Now that is new benchmark breakfast for three at Rs 80/-. Can you beat that. Well below the Rs 100 mark and that too for three. Lo behold ! No wonder, Content is King. They get to eat so cheap. INS building has been around since 1956, I guess , there has been a canteen here since, feeding many a million. Shantanu and I liked the experience, perhaps Robert did too as he went in for seconds or he was plain hungry.

UNI ( United News of India)

A truly heavy weight in terms of a canteen, has been around since 1961, earlier the south Indian Swamis ran it. Even my father, often brought home the South Indian Namkeen packets which were hugely popular in the early 80s they are still available today on a cold January morning in 2010. Unfortunately there have been many a changed management. Rahul Verma an eminent food writer of The Hindu, is the only one who has written about the legendary canteen which has nourished and nurtured again, many millions. And you, know I am one of the suits and get to write a tribute to the scribe kind of places and that feels like a double whammy.

Our experience was quick and hurried the idea was to see the place, is it still there and what is it like ? Yes it is there at the same place since then . We had a upma a plate of vada and two coffees at a handsome amount of Rs 37/-. The vadas were really nice and fresh out and piping hot. The upma was a little flat. Well what do we expect from a Himachali now running the place. In fact I got to chat with Sant Lal Sharma, the owner who also proudly posed for me. An outdoor dining with a shed for a kitchen. The quantities being cooked were enormous. Long live UNI, as we like the canteen.

PTI (Press Trust of India)

This again has been the raising ground for many an illustrious and talented journalist and television content creators I know of Pankaj Saxena, Anil Padmanabhan and I am sure lots more. I had to go to the Canteen. Bhushan, our trusted driver took me their one winter evening this January. The building is posh, atleast better than I thought it would be.

Though, the canteen or the cafeteria in this case was a gloomy tube lit affair. It is run by a Joshi Ji, who has been running it for more than half a decade. He was happy to rattle out the menu for breakfast, lunch and beyond. It was 5 pm, decided to check out nearly everything on offer then. Here goes, 3 samosas, bread and butter, 1 aloo bonda and a pakora, followed by a, made in Kashmir, Lichi drink all for Rs50. The experience was just about normal to average. Maybe there is a better time to be there, probably lunch. It was a little better organized in terms of seating and other stuff.

This kind of completes my tour of the Holy Trinity In and around Rafi Marg. Well all were priced at Rs 100/- and therefore qualify for my eating out under Hundred Rupees qualifying benchmark.
So Long !

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ahmadabad Revisted:Haveli and Galli

With a hiatus of 7 months, I am back in Ahmadabad as a visiting faculty at MICA (Mudra Institute of Communications). I get into the car with Akbar and politely ask him, if we can go for a gastronomic outing. He politely postpones it for the next evening which is a Saturday. Stupid me, I do not take Akbar’s number, I was stranded high and dry (literally as Gujarat is dry state, sub text prohibition/no alcohol, officially). So I exercise in the gym which is hot and steamy as compared to the January winter in New Delhi, I play soccer, after nearly a few decades, Enjoyed it! Meanwhile dear wife Praveen’s colleague and friend Asif Kadri, sends a car for dinner at Agashiye.

Beatific setting for a Thali Meal

Praveen has been to Agashiye and she constantly influences, to extract me from the slumming I find expertise in. After Vishala and Gopi on previous visits to Ahmadabad many years ago, I was ready for another Gujarati super deluxe experience. Agashiye is the roof top restaurant (literally means “on the terrace”) at the house of Mangaldas Girdhardas a 40,000 sqft mansion built in 1924. It has a heritage hotel (check out, two restaurants, a banquet lounge, a handcrafted gifts shop, a spa and a swimming pool.
It’s located at Lal Darwaza opposite the Sidi Saiyad Jali Mosque. This unique Jali dating nearly 500 years ago has, the sculptured tree of life (in stone)the emblem of logo at IIM Ahmadabad and many years ago was the centre structure of the lobby at The Oberoi, New Delhi. More of that later.

I walk in, past the kurta-pyjama-gandhi cap clad receptionists, past the black and white photos of the Mangaldas dynasty. A lift takes me to the top,soft Indian music, an outer lobby, people waiting, I walk in lots of empty tables I ask to seated, I am asked, have I paid at the reception I say no. Have you been served soup and starters in the outer lobby, I say no. I am seated near a Henry Wilson a freelance photographer from UK, we get talking after a while…. He has been visiting India for over 30 years. I interact with the senior steward (a Nepalese), though the brochure claims staff from neighboring villages. I am served a soup (a Cornish soup), with dhoklas and a cutlet made out of a yam, It’s a super deluxe experience for the inexperienced, a bit clinical, with washing hands at the table with a person pouring scented water and collecting the soiled water in a receptacle.

I am served 35 items including a bharta, paneer subzi (with missing paneer), gujarati dal and kadhi, bhakri (wheat thick roti), bajra rotis ( Henry Wilson remarked only if the rotis were a little softer), khichdi with ghee. Served in Alloy Thalis, served ,butter and pickles on a betel leaf ( a nice touch),. basoondi , mal puda ,a nice flavorful ice cream as desserts. Topped with a pan and lastly ber ( a coarse fruit) as a mouth cleanser. Yes in all 35 items at Rs 400/- a pop.

The experience is nice especially for the uninitiated to Gujrati food, good setting, pleasant ambience. The food lacks the scale and opulence of a thali joint, the affection of serving and feeding. I had to wait for some courses. Personally I like the Kathiawadi thali more as it is spicier. Nice super deluxe experience in a historic setting. Well the food, me the blue blooded Indian and Henry Wilson the blue blooded Englishman, both of us agreed have had better Gujarati meals.

Beastly setting of Bhatiyar Galli:

I missed going to Bhatiyar Galli the last time (that’s last summer, please check my previous blog on Ahmadabad in May 2009) and with a last night’s antiseptic Guju experience. I had to immerse back into the famous galli (lane)of cooks for weddings and contractual cooking… the bhatiyars. On the way to the airport I convince Ahmed the other driver from MICA and the betrayer of the previous night Akbar’s brother-in-law, to take me to Bhatiyar Galli. We go past Mangaldas Mansion and Sidi Saiyyad Jali mosque in the old bazaar we park behind Hotel paramount, . The parking wallah cha-cha (uncle), was exaggerative, when we asked if the Mahindra Xylo would fit in, he said, we can fit in a railway engine. I saw him eating a really enormous pan and remarked about its enormity, he said I will show you one as big as an elephant’s ear. He also said you will not get kebabs as there is some mourning being observed today in the bazaar.

I searched and made two or three quick halts. A kabab wallah on a cart, ZK Fry centre and a mutton samosa and fried kabab stall. The first stop a father and son duo on a push cart offered me a plate of kababs, a bun heated with oil and a plate of onions for Rs 13/-. Small succulent kebabs made of the bada (colloquially means bigger or buffalo), marinated with raw papaya. Nice treat for Rs 13/-

The next stop a tiny stall in a lane selling tiny meat (I guess again bada) for two rupees each. A tiny bite, but the big boys of the famous samosa shops were shut.

Next the slightly more activated ZK fry centre (it was around five in the evening). Frying fish on an enormous Tawa, I have a piece of surmai with a roti and onions (Rs 33). Tawa is generic and peculiar to Ahmadabad. Everything in meat is done on a Tawa, like the Tandoor or the open bar b cue in Northern India. The bazaar sorry Galli is slow and lazy, I am still hungry, I ask for some prawns, yes the owner starts taking me more seriously. They serve me a plate of tawa fry prawns, onions and a roti all for Rs 53/- I love a Thums Up (Rs20)with the greasy food there is something about the cinnamon zing that’s comforting. Now here’s is the math 13 +33+53+20 =120.That is Rs 120 for all the yummy stuff, I did overspend by Rs 20 (over the psychological mark of Rs 100 for the eating out under hundred rupee mark). Like, I said before, I never plan it, happy to make it around the benchmark.

I top it with an enormous pan for Rs 5 and ask Ahmed to speed me to the airport. I have a beatific smile on my face. I did it even if it was on the way to the airport. As a rejoined I met some students at MICA, Amit Monteiro and Arunesh and a few others already have a under Rs 100/- eating out club, with an open invitation for new and honorary members. I have got myself an invitation as a visiting faculty and a visiting honorary member to this elite club. On the radar is RK Egg Eatery, Sarkhej, Manek Chowk. Ahmadabad here I come.