Buffet Spreads and How to Try Them

If you follow my blog posts, you will know that I am a foodie of sorts. I may not want to eat the same thing over and over again, but I do like to taste everything on offer. This is primarily why the buffet style of dining is the best for me! Buffet lunch spreads let you try everything on a blanket charge. And contrary to what most diners might think, opting for buffet over a la carte at a fine dining restaurant works out much cheaper.

Continental and Indian fare in a single helping!

Continental and Indian fare in a single helping!

The theme for today (as you clearly must have guessed) is buffet spreads. We will now explore all the wonderful cuisines you can try, all at once, if you are lucky! 😉 There are hundreds of buffet restaurants in Mumbai, and this is where I have done most of my food sampling. In this city, you will find almost every cuisine – South Indian, Maharashtrian, Malwani, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Gujarati, Tex-Mex, Italian, Greek, Thai, Chinese, Arabian… and the list seems endless. So much variety and quantity should not intimidate you if you are not a foodie. There are a few tricks to navigate a buffet spread and get the most bang for your buck.

A spicy buffet spread from the South

A spicy buffet spread from the South

First and foremost, pick buffet for lunch. Lunch is when most of us are at our hungriest best. If it is a lazy Sunday, most likely, you will have skipped breakfast. This naturally means you will have more appetite for your first meal of the day. The other advantage is that you always have the option of doing without dinner if you have eaten too much at the buffet lunch. A dinner buffet may sound more romantic and appealing on Friday and Saturday nights. But you might end up with a lot of discomfort while sleeping if you have been a glutton. Lunch buffets give you the time to walk off the excess calories through a simple round of shopping or walking about in the evening. This is even better if you have eaten at a fine dining place in mall and don’t intend to head back to your car immediately.

Say "moshi moshi" to Japanese food at Global Fusion

Say “moshi moshi” to Japanese food at Global Fusion

The next trick is to keep your servings small. The lesser you scoop up at each junction, the more variety you get to taste. Remember that buffet is not a system that encourages you to eat mouthfuls of your favourite dish. Instead, it introduces and urges you to try new preparations. Besides, taking a smaller helping means you won’t be wasting too much food in case you dislike a dish.

Try authentic Bengali preparations at Bijoli Grill

Try authentic Bengali preparations at Bijoli Grill

Most buffet restaurants in Mumbai serve multiple cuisines in a spread. This means, you get to try multiple varieties of the same course and learn the differences among the cuisines. Appetizers, for example, will have some Indian pickles, South East Asian noodles, Italian breads, Arabian dips and Mexican fries in the same zone. Be careful, however, in your enthusiasm of tasting it all, do not mix the items of one cuisine with another. Else, you end up with a mishmash of several items that lose their original flavours. A buffet lunch gives you the luxury of taking multiple helpings. Try one cuisine at a time. This will not overwhelm your palate, and help you remember the distinct taste of each dish or cuisine.

Texan and Mexican dishes are best had at Chili's

Texan and Mexican dishes are best had at Chili’s

All said, my final advice to you will be to forget all the rules I’ve stated above and have a fine time with your friends. Buffets should make you happier, regardless of what, how much and when you eat. They don’t call it “fine dining” for nothing!

Kolkata with my Eyes Closed…

We experience so many sensations when we visit a place. Some dazzle us with their visual appeal, some delight us with their melody, some flatter our taste buds with their strong or subtle flavours. And then there are those that refuse to leave us when we have long left the place. Today, I’m going to talk about some sensations that have attained a state of permanence in my subconscious. And most of these are deeply linked to the distinct scents they carry.

Of all the smells that my olfactory faculties sense, those originating in Kolkata remain the most powerful. Last year, my mum and I booked our tickets, packed our bags, and set off to “the city of  joy”. Here’s the first meal that greeted us:-

A full Bengali meal

A full Bengali meal

The inviting aroma of warm mung dal drew me out of my room and I decided I should unpack later. Before me was a large plate full of Bengali delicacies. Food so flavourful is eaten with hand! The hot meal was spiced with asafoetida and turmeric, but there was a perfect balancing element – the sweet dish. The blood-red tomato-chutney was subtly sweet and tempered with black sesame seeds. But my favourite dish was mishti doi, the famous pink-tinted yogurt which is sweetened with khejur-gur (date-jaggery). Served in a small earthen urn, mishti doi always manages to tranquilize me with its delicate scent of succulent dates that mixes with the smell of  baked earth.

Horse-carriages from an era bygone

Horse-carriages from an era bygone

Kolkata feeds not just your body but also your mind. On our way to Victoria Memorial, we walked past a string of royally embellished carriages drawn by handsome Arab stallions and English thoroughbreds. I don’t know what the 18th century smelled like, but to me it smells like fresh paint blended with hay from horse stables. This unusual odour is so potent, it makes one dream of the times one only reads in History textbooks.

Human cart

Retirement? What is that?

When one thinks of the olden times, one cannot help but notice old age. I walked around the streets to find several rickshaw pullers awaiting their customers. Quite a few amongst them were well past their middle age; their hair, a snowy shade of white; their salt-and-pepper beard, more salt and less pepper. In the damp air, I smelled their spirit and strength to carry on with work and let age only remain a number.

The 'sisters' at the annual procession

The ‘sisters’ at the annual procession

Kolkata is full of noises – the bleat of a cycle-rickshaw horn, the holler of a bag-seller, the ringing bells of a tram, the creaking of a rickety State-bus and the constant shuffling of feet. But I found peace amidst the noise – several nuns (from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity) walked quietly through the streets at their annual procession. If peace has a smell, it’s most certainly that of starched cotton.

Nepalese momos in Calcuttan streets

Nepalese momos – Calcutta’s street surprise!

This city can start feeling like home in a few days. The Albanian Saint Teresa stayed back in Kolkata for many years and so have people from various other countries. The intermingling of different tongues has also brought about a revolution in the Bengali food circuit with the introduction of many cuisines. The momos, every other Bengali’s favourite, are actually from Nepal. For only 20 rupees a plate, these momos are a steal! The stuffed, steamed dumplings come with a spicy dip and a bowl of piping hot soup. I take one long whiff of this street food and my brain instantly declares Chinese! But I bite into a tender momo and know this is definitely not Chinese.

The Bangali puchka

The Bangali puchka

Once enamoured by a street-snack, I can’t help but dig into some more. I reach a puchka-stall and order a round of serving. The ellipsoid puris are like nothing I’ve seen before! These flour-crisps are bigger and longer than the regular spherical puris one sees in the rest of India. The smell of tamarind in the puchka-water makes me ask for another round of puchkas!

Ever been invited for a Bengali tea break?

Ever been invited for tea at a Bengali’s?

Eating in Kolkata doesn’t only happen outside. In fact, it mostly happens in the homes of the locals. The snack-spread in Bengal is slightly different from the elaborate lunches and dinners. Tea time is an intimate moment of reflection and discussion on all matters that affect the world. Friendships are forged over the aromatic Darjeeling tea or the malty Assam tea with some sugar-coated biscuits on the side. Bengalis drink tea like a European would wine. Tea is first tasted with the eyes as one discerns whether the colour is strong or translucent. The teacup is then brought to the nose to appreciate its aroma. It is finally sipped and gulped with some knowledge of the flavour.

I can distinctly smell Kolkata when I close my eyes, every fragrance becoming clear to me. Do you ever notice the smell of a new place? Has any place left a scent in your soul?

Sula Vineyards: A Fine-Wine Story

The neat rows of grapevines glistered in the afternoon-sun as I slowly rose up the slope towards 4 gabled structures. I was delighted to see that the climbers, albeit only 4 feet in height, extended as far as my eyes could see. I couldn’t help but feel excited. This was, after all, my first trip to a vineyard!

The famed vineyard at the Sula estate

The famed vineyard at the Sula estate

I had picked an opportune time to visit the Sula Vineyards as I not only beat the tourist-rush of Jan-Mar (the harvest season), but also experienced the beauty of Nashik in the light chill of early December. Nashik is about 3 hours from Mumbai, and the cheapest way to get here is by train. There are plenty of buses and cabs too that ply. I stayed at Ginger Hotel which is only 20 minutes from the winery. Sula also has its own resort on the estate.

The bar/lounge at Sula

Entrance to the wine bar at Sula

It was late afternoon when I reached the Sula property and made my way to their exquisite Indian restaurant – Soma. I glanced through the wine list and ordered a Sula Seco with some appetizers. I took in the interiors as I waited for my first wine of the day. The place is elegantly furnished with wood and wrought iron, and Warli-artwork graces the walls.

Soma-The Indian restaurant

Soma-The Indian restaurant

My sparkling wine arrived with my choice of appetizers – cottage cheese balls and papad. This subtly sweet wine paired well with the spicy vegetable dish and tandoori rotis I ordered for the mains. With lunch behind me, I headed to the reception at the tasting room and bought my pass to the wine tour.

Liquid gold? :D

Liquid gold? 😀

A charming young lad sporting a black Sula-tee was our wine-tour-guide. He told us about the history of the vineyards and how the founder, Rajeev Samant, quit his job in Silicon Valley and started up the winery with some help from a Californian winemaker.

Before you decide to quit YOUR day-job and open your own winery, let me tell you some interesting wine-facts:-

  • The grapes used for producing wine are different from the regular grapes (table-grapes) we consume.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the colour of wine has little to do with the colour of grapes it is made from. This means, red wine can be made from green/white grapes, just as whites can be made from red/purple grapes. (Read ahead to find out how!)
  • Wines can be as young as 3 weeks and can also be aged for several decades! (Of course, the age makes A LOT OF difference to the quality of the wine and the price that it can command.)
Inside the tank-hall

Inside the tank-hall

Our tour began at the crushing pad where grape-juice is squeezed out of the harvested grapes. Grape-crushing has gone huge technological changes since the basket-press-days of yore. Popular activities like wine-stomping (with bare feet) have lead many to believe that’s an integral part of winemaking, but one can’t be further from the truth. If the thought of dirty, stinky feet romping about in a basket full of grapes makes you wretch at the wine you’re drinking, you can heave a sigh of relief! Most commercially produced wines have hardly any contact with the human-skin.

After extracting the grape-juice, your wine (to-be) is stabilized and filtered inside humongous stainless steel wine-tanks installed in a large, cool room called the tank hall. This is where you decide what wine you will produce! White wines are left as they are; for the reds, the grape-skin and twigs are added to the batch; and for rosĂŠ (pink wines), very little red wine is added to the white (mostly in 20-80 or 30-70 ratios) depending on the hue that is desired. Tank halls are also used for “blending” of two wines from different regions or grape-varieties (This is where a  Sauvignon Blanc combines with a Chenin Blanc to become a Chenin Sauvignon).

A wine for every barrel!

A wine for every barrel!

The next step is to “barrel” the wine for its storage. Barrels are just as important as the wines that they store. Sula imports its oak barrels for the wine-maturing process. This stage also helps in “clarifying” the wine so the tannins and other insoluble matter can settle at the bottom. The barrel-room is the last area your wine visits before it’s bottled and shipped to  you.

The tasting room

The tasting room

After giving us a wonderful tour of the winery and regaling us with the fascinating story of how a wine is born, our guide took us to the tasting room and handed us each a wine glass. We were taught the art of tasting a wine. Before one tastes wine, one must know the correct way to hold the glass (by the stem or base of the wine glass, and NOT the bowl) as this impacts your view of the colour and the temperature at which you finally taste it (holding the bowl of the glass heats up the wine and affects the flavour).

After you have your grip in place, you must look at the wine and its colour. The colour reveals a lot about the age of the wine. Young reds have a purplish or bluish tint whereas their mature cousins are deep red or orange. Likewise, new whites are green to light yellow, and they age towards a golden hue.

There's a wine for every occasion!

There’s a wine for every occasion!

After observing your wine, swirl it in the glass to let some air mix with it. Aerating the wine enhances its taste so much so that we now have mechanical and battery operated aerators that are used for pouring wines. After aerating, smell the aroma, take a sip and keep it in your mouth for a while for the flavours to reach you. The gulp that you take after doing “all of this”, will make you realize it is worth the effort. Most novices tend to drink their wine like they would their beer or whisky which is why first-timers rarely like their first wines. After you learn the art of drinking wine, you will concede that wine is a superior alcohol and quite deserving of its price-tag.

My wine-tasting ticket entitled me to taste a total of 8 wines:-

  1. Sula Sauvignon Blanc (white)
  2. Dindori Reserve Shiraz (red)
  3. Sula Zinfandel RosÊ (rose)
  4. Sula Riesling (white)
  5. Sula Cabernet Shiraz (blended red)
  6. Sula Brut (sparkling)
  7. Sula Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (dessert wine)
  8. Satori Merlot (red)
The amphitheatre

The amphitheatre

The evening was turning dusky when we were done. I stealthily slipped out of the tasting room as the others soaked themselves in conversations, so I could walk over to the lush amphitheatre behind the buildings. This is where music concerts are held every February during the Sula Fest. After sundown, I explored their store and bought a Rasa Shiraz, their finest vintage red which I could take back to my hotel.

A red and a pink, I've got a pair to drink! ;-)

A red and a pink,
I’ve got a pair to drink! 😉

Dinner was an Italian affair at Little Italy, the first restaurant to open at an Indian vineyard. I downed two more wines with a mushroom starter and a plate of ravioli. People will tell you that the best thing about a food-trip is that you taste with your eyes AND your tastebuds. What you discover on your own is that the tasting first comes with your heart. Your sense organs merely act as tools.

* * *

The night sky of Nashik is markedly clear as it isn’t plagued by a metro’s light-pollution. I took this opportunity to indulge in some stargazing before I bid my goodbyes to Sula.

Eating, Shopping & Staying Smart in Jaipur

This is the concluding post of the Jaipur-series. You can read about my trip to Jaigarh and Amber also.

Food is an essential aspect of any trip that cannot be ignored. To truly taste the Rajasthani culture, one must taste its local cuisine. And to do this, my relatives and I headed to Chokhi Dhani. Chokhi Dhani means “good village” in Marwari, and true to its name, this theme-park exuded an earthy charm. The turbaned receptionist sprinkled rose-water on us, smeared a vermillion tilak on our foreheads and greeted us with “Ram Ram-sa!

It was a chilly evening but the warmth of the locals nullified the dip in the temperature. The scene was that of a small village-fair, with kathputli (puppet) shows, music & dance performances, mehendi (traditional tattoo) tents, food-stalls that served chai and pakodis, magic-shows and a series of game-stalls where one could try one’s hand at shooting, archery and umpteen other recreational activities. There was a special dandia-floor for people with twinkle-feet who could join the dandia (a dance in which a pair of sticks are used as props) & garba dancers. Further inside, the fair unfolded into an exhibition of local arts and crafts. Tourists could browse through and buy locally sourced garments, furniture, toys, leather-goods and gift items. Chokhi Dhani offers photoshoot opportunities in the local apparel, and also elephant, camel & horse-rides! I had my first camel-ride here, and felt my heart in my mouth as I struggled to balance myself on the wobbly seat several feet above the ground.

The village-home-style dining experience was the main attraction of the night for me. We sat on flat cushions spread on the floor and were served on leaf-plates and bowls and an earthen tumbler. The men who served the dishes egged us to eat more – “Khao, khao! Aur khao! Kitne duble patle ho gaye ho!” (Eat up! Eat up! You’ve worn thin!) The food was a sumptuous Rajasthani fare of bajre-ki-roti (millet flat-bread), makke-di-roti (corn flat-bread), soybean-chat, pudina-chutney, gatte-ki-subzi (gram-flour curry), daal-baati-churma (lentils, wheat-ball roll & sweet), halwa, sarson-da-saag (mustard-leaves veggie), mithi khichdi (sweet mashed rice) and salad (mostly lettuce). And everything was smothered in desi-ghee (clarified butter). I stopped only when my stomach threatened to burst open my jacket 😛

My trip to the Pink City ended with more shopping on my last day there. And you must know that returning empty-handed from a place like Jaipur is nothing but foolishness. So I’ll save you some embarrassment with some shopping tips.

Shopping in Jaipur – What, Where & Why :-

  • Colourful jootis & batuas (small handbags) from street-side shops, because of the unique designs & the slimming effect they have on the feet.
  • Cotton kurtas with Rajasthani cuts and prints (especially bandhani) from the bazaars or exclusive boutiques, for the comfort they provide in the summers. The bazaar-kurtas start from as low as 80 Rupees and the shopkeepers insist the cheap ones are of excellent quality when you ask to see something more expensive! 😀
  • Finished jewellery of German silver, precious and semiprecious stones, because of the workmanship of the jewellers and the intricate designs on the ornaments. Remember to collect the authenticity-certificate if you buy (semi)/precious stones.
  • Soft blankets/comforters/quilts from Bapu Bazaar, because these are light, wrinkle-free, washable & the softest blankets in India.
  • Wood, lac, mirror and painted-glass artefacts (pen-stands, wall-hangings, key-chains, coasters, show-pieces & even ornaments) for giveaways to your friends & family back home. Remember to pack lac-items well; they are fragile.
  • Multani-mitti-pressed saree, for its soft, off-white look.

Travel-tips that others won’t share with you (specific to Jaipur):-

  • Plan your heritage-site trips well and start early as most forts/palaces close for visitors by 5 or 6 in the evening.
  • Elephant rides can be availed in the early mornings and late evenings only as it gets too hot for the animals to walk about in the afternoons.
  • Hire a full-day cab so you can leave your shopping bags inside and travel freely.
  • Wear sneakers when you hit the road. Resist the temptation to wear short flowing skirts and stilettos to sites where you’ll have to walk for miles and ascend many steps. (Just to give you an idea, it’s very hard to walk on cobbled streets even with good quality sports-shoes.) Remember: It’s always a choice between glamorous photos and memorable experiences.
  • Pack some food and water for the road with you. Energy-bars go a long way in satiating a growling stomach when you can’t find a restaurant in sight – these are compact, weather-proof, & pack a punch! Remember to buy bottled water whenever you can. Once inside a fort, the vastness and the glaring sun can leave you parched in no time.
  • Take a leak wherever you find a restroom, irrespective of whether you need to. (In India, you can never tell when or where the next loo will be.)
  • Hire guides. They’re worth their weight in gold. They are also good photographers and excellent for you if you’re a solo-traveller, because you can’t always bug strangers (fellow tourists) to retake your pictures til they get the perfect shot.
  • Carry scarves. You’ll need these both in the summers & the winters and to add a dash of colour to your outfit. (Rajasthan is so vibrant, it can make any colour look drab!)
  • Don’t be shy to loosen your purse-strings a little. Every experience is worth every penny it commands.

Please share your Jaipur-experiences with me and write to me about all the things you’d like me to talk about.