Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Table

We were invited by Mr. And Mrs. Bagvala [names changed to protect their identities] to dinner at The Table, a Fine Dining restaurant at the Gateway of India. I must start by saying it was a fantastic meal, the food was top notch and more than that the food was really innovative. It was not the usual quasi Italian quasi Mexican quasi Oriental cheese and carbohydrate laden food that passes as Continental food in today’s restaurants. This was really new food. I will go so far as to say that this was the finest `Continental’ food I have had in India in the last 10 years. It was imaginative, well cooked, excellently presented in custom made serving dishes and above all, tasted excellent.

For those in the know, Alex Sanchez who was the Chef at The Table has since departed. I do not know if this is correct. The restaurant describes its cuisine as `ingredient driven, focusing on simplicity and purity of flavour, a philosophy inherited from Chef Alex Sanchez’s native San Francisco’. This is a two level restaurant done up in wood with a lot of wrought iron, pleasant to the eye with a bright red rather macabre painting at the top of the stairs. I was rather surprised that the restaurant was only at 50% or less capacity though it was a Wednesday night. By contrast Indigo Deli located just 25 meters away was packed to the rafters.

Soon after seating we were handed the menu as well as the wine list which I glanced at. I was not drinking as I was driving. The Wines themselves were not very many with what looked to me like a 33% Indian wine selection and the remaining global. Not impressive but not something to sneeze at. I know for a fact that the ITC Grand Maratha has a much larger selection, anyway, that is not the point. A bottle of Bodega Norton Malbec which sells at the ITC Grand Maratha for Rs 4,000/- was available here at Rs. 3,500/-. Is that expensive? A bottle of Santa Rita 120 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile which we drink at home costs Rs. 1,300/- at Shah Wines while it was being sold at Rs. 2,900/-. A decent price to pay at a restaurant.

A most decent bread basket

Mrs. Bagvala took charge and ordered starters for the table. She is a reasonable regular at the restaurant and was familiar with what was what. A most popular dish is Zucchini Spaghetti with Almonds and Parmesan. This is served warm with a Balsamic dressing. Mrs. Bagvala warned the waiter that she would not accept a soggy dish. I must say that the waiter’s promise of not serving a soggy dish was met. The dish was excellent. The Zucchini was cut into strands to resemble Spaghetti and probably sautéed. Parmesan was grated at the table. Really top class and something I have never had before. It was polished off in seconds. 

 Zucchini Spaghetti with Almonds and Parmesan - just before they added the Parmesan

The next starter she ordered was described on the menu as Boneless Chicken “Wings” with a Ginger Glaze. Total knock-out of a dish. This was a genuine creation, something I have not seen ever before. From what I could figure out Chicken Skin and stripped meat from the wings was probably pressed into a sort of cake and then cooked in an oven. Cubes were cut dressed with the Glaze and served. Fantastic dish. I am glad Mrs. Bagvala took charge.

The Chicken `Wings'
Then it was time for the main course. 3 of us decided on the Burger, cooked medium in a Brioche Bun. Mr. Bagvala wanted Bacon in his, HRH the Queen of Kutch requested Cheddar while I said I would like Blue Cheese. Folks, these were good burgers, really good burgers. Juicy, the bun was super and the fries that accompanied the Burger crisp and hot. The best Burger we have had in India. As good as what you get in the UK? No, but close. Mrs. Bagvala ordered Grouper Roasted in Japanese Aromatics with Spring Onion Fondue and Spinach. It looked really good and she declared it as excellent.

The Burger with Blue Cheese

Grouper Roasted in Japanese Aromatics with Spring Onion Fondue and Spinach

A few days after the meal I have written about in the previous paragraphs, we once again dined at the Table. In light of the excellent food we had eaten we ordered exactly the same things again. However, we had some additional people we were dining with. Senior Mrs Stonethrower ordered a Korean Barbeque Beef on a  Kimchi Pancake with Scallions, Mung Bean Sprouts and a Horseradish Cream. We all had a forkful to taste. This was a really good dish.

There was a Red Snapper also on the menu. This was served with Curried Quinoa, Fresh Fennel Slices and some sort of Broth. I am afraid I cannot recall what the dish was exactly. But this dish too was pronounced as really good.

The Red Snapper without the broth and then with the broth poured on. 

As I have said earlier, a really good meal, really good food and food that genuinely excited us. I regret the fact that I have not eaten at the Table before. I plan to remedy that and eat there a few times. Mind you it is pricey, the burgers cost Rs. 1,200/- plus plus but they are really good.

Go there soon. I recommend it. The Table is far superior to Indigo and certainly better than Indigo Deli. I do not think there a better restaurant serving `Continental’ food in Mumbai.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

KYC - Know Your Customer - What a bloody joke

First things first. We, as in the Stonethrower Family Unit, are law abiding. We do not steal, physically hurt, drive when drunk and by and large are honest. Of course, all these are relative standards. Compared to the wonderful Tarun Tejpal we are like pure driven snow. But, I am sure you get my point. We generally follow the law.

Secondly, all that I am writing here is what I have personally faced. It is not hearsay, it is not third party information.

One of the laws that our great country has, mandates, that banks should have a robust KYC policy. KYC means Know Your Customer. So, if you have to open a new bank account or if you have an existing bank account you have to provide your bank with documents and proof that you are you and not Ajmal Kasab. So in this process you need to prove your residence, your age, your sex, that you are not menopausal, that you are over the age of 18, that you have photographs and that you have thumbs which you place on a ink pad and do thumb impressions on documents and so on and so forth. I am sure all of you have done this or have had this done for you by your peon, father, driver or chartered accountant, and in the case of rich fat and lazy bastards – by your grovelling relationship manager.

At the start of this financial year, for a variety of reasons which I shall not go into here, the Stonethrower Family Unit decided to each open a bank account with the venerable HDFC Bank. So, we filled in the forms, stuck our photographs, put our thumb impressions and provided all manner of KYC. Lo and behold, our accounts were opened and we all patted ourselves on our backs on a job well done. We marvelled at the efficiency and politeness of the staff at HDFC Bank who performed so well. Mind you, our expectations are so low and the red tapism so high, that if we manage to have a bank account opened with just 2 visits to the bank we think we have achieved a lot.

A few months down the line I asked Sister Stonethrower if she was getting her statements from HDFC Bank. No was the answer. So off I went to the branch and told them so. They said we will send a duplicate set at once. A few weeks later I asked Sister Stonethrower if she was now getting her statements from HDFC Bank. Once again no was the answer. Mystified, I trooped of to the bank once again and complained. The man peered into the screen and asked `is her address 562 ***************’? I replied `no it is S-62’. Needless to say he did not and in light of what you can see in the photograph below, could not read out the rest of the address. On hearing this I thought, foolishly, Ahh haa!!! That was the problem a wrong address entered in the system. `Sir please fill in the address change form’ I was told. He also, very kindly, printed the bank statement. On looking at it, I was shocked. Please do have a look at the address! Please also have a look at Sister Stonethrowers gender. She has been classified as a “Mr.” I swear to you that I have not made this up. This is a photograph of the address on the bank statement edited for purposes of confidentiality of course. My question is why did you ask for all that KYC nonsense and what have you done with it? This whole thing raises so many questions, but, frankly, I cannot be bothered writing them all down.

If this was not enough, out of the blue, I got a letter from Central Bank of India – stating that a bank account standing in Mother Stonethrower name was not KYC compliant and asked us to provide the KYC material to make it so. This threw us all, we could not recall when and why we would have ever opened an account with Central Bank of India. So, off I went to the branch in question and found out that this account was opened in 1992 and was now marked dormant. It had a few thousand rupees. I thought I should get it KYC compliant and close it.

So, once again I went through the whole rigmarole of getting the KYC documents, thumb impressions and allied things done and went off to the branch to submit all this. The man at the counter punched in the account number into his computer terminal and then looked dumbstruck. `There are no signatures on record’ he spluttered, literally spluttered. He was so shattered that he called his colleague, also about 65 years old and they both looked like goldfish, wide eyed, innocent and dumbstruck at the screen and said, no signature on records. Apparently the bank had for whatever reason not scanned our signatures when having the bank computerised. And now the original signature cards were destroyed.

The officer, was in that sense cool about the whole thing once he got over his spluttering. He simply said, submit the KYC, we will activate the account and then regularise it as far as signatures are concerned. This episode is going to be fun. I am more determined than ever to take this matter to its logical conclusion. I want to first activate the account and then shut it, all when the bank has no records of our signatures. This should be fun, lots of fun.

After this hilarious episode, of which we have not heard the last of, I waltzed off to Citibank, all things considered, my bank of choice. I wanted to change the address on my bank account. So, in true Bharat Sarkar Babu style, I took my flat purchase agreement which showed that I was the owner of my flat.

I told my relationship manager, here is my `address proof’, please change my address.

She looked at me pityingly and said `Sir, you can do this online’.

`Online’ I squawked. `How could that be’? `Do you not require any proof’?  

`No sir’ she said witheringly, `we are now moving things online’ she said with utter contempt for me. She said that there was no need for `proof’ as now everything was online.

Then she said that I could use her computer terminal to log in and change my address while she would look over my shoulder and help me along the way. I did so, and yes, it was possible. However I was still sceptical, very sceptical but she looked at me triumphantly. I thanked her, apologised for doubting her knowledge and left the bank.

No sooner had I left the branch and walked some 50 meters that I got a call from her, asking me to submit the flat purchase agreement as `proof’. I did a quick about turn and handed over the `proof’.

I do realise that in a period of a just a couple of days I had dealings with three types of Banks that are common all over India on basically something that was common across all banks. A Nationalised Bank [Central Bank of India], a Foreign Bank [Citibank] and a home grown domestic bank [HDFC]. Clearly, the Nationalised Bank [Central Bank of India] had absolutely no systems in place but had staff that knew everything and which probably had a process \to do this with lots of paper affidavits and notarising and stamp paper. The Foreign Bank [Citibank] had all systems in place but unfortunately some of its newer recruits are clueless. Unfortunately, the home grown domestic bank [HDFC] has neither the systems nor the people.

Of course when you look at this you will realise how little this KYC nonsense means anyway. Mind you, as I said in the beginning, the Stonethrower Family Unit, are law abiding. We have no bad intentions. It is all very well having rigorous KYC norms in place, but if Banks themselves are totally negligent I am unsure how this can ever be enforced.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Long live the Khap

The preface to this post could take many forms. In fact, I wondered long, though not very hard, how I should start. Ultimately, I decided to go with the flow. So here goes.

I am a qualified lawyer. I studied, passed exams, served as an apprentice in a large law firm under a really nice immediate boss and some really nice indirect bosses. I absorbed, I stumbled, I learnt, I made mistakes and was and am reasonably successful. I suddenly realised that I have been a qualified lawyer for 25 years! Over the years I learnt many laws, I advised many clients and I was part of an entire legal `eco’ system. But, in light of three recent episodes, I am convinced that there is not much of a future for young budding lawyers. I had my day in the sun, now the sun is slowly and surely setting on the legal profession.

Many of you may know what `Khap Panchayats’ are. For those of you who do not, let me give you a short explanation. A `Khap’ is a system of social administration. Very broadly speaking, the Indian social fabric revolved around a village. Groups of villages formed `Khaps’. These `Khaps’ selected or elected a `Khap Panchayat’ which consisted of five members who are in charge of governance of that `Khap’. Over the years `Khap Panchayats’ have become a sort of quasi judicial body dispensing justice. They form their own rules, interpret their own customs and generally function totally independent of the established legal system. They have, over the years, become, to use a cliché, a law unto themselves.

That is quite enough of the prefaces. Let me get to the point.

Tarun Tejpal. What a lovely man! The man sends out an email to the colleague he sexually assaulted. The email contains the following paragraph.

“It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relationship of trust and respect between us and I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.

This email was sent by Mr. Tejpal totally voluntarily. He was not subjected to any third degree punishment by the police, no order of any court, nothing. The lovely man admits to the actions. Now what does he and his bunch of equally high thinking, deeply intellectual colleagues do? He admits to the crime, he himself atones; he dispenses punishment himself to himself by recusing himself from work, and gets on with life. `Khap’? Is this not an example of a `Khap Panchayat’ at work? The confession, the judge, the jury, the punishment all by one person. Wonderful.

Take the rag tag bunch who call themselves the Aam Aadmi Party [AAP]. With their ridiculous caps they look like Bombay Dabbawallas or, as an ex boss of mine Bhai Rege used to say, like `bloody Gumastas’. They get caught on camera accepting money and making promises to do such utterly petty things that it makes me sick. Why can they not be like the Congress ministers, take crores for allotting coal mines, or allotting Mobile spectrum, think big. Anyway, what do they do once this tape becomes public. Deny, say there is no wrong, say that they want the unedited tape, say that since the tape was not given to them but to the Election Commission they are now free to basically do what they want. They decide that by Saziya Ilmi not standing for election, all wrongdoing is washed away. `Khap’? Is this not another example of a `Khap Panchayat’ at work? The judge, the jury, the punishment all by the same gang. A law unto themselves.

Then take the case of our old friends the Campa Cola Residents. Many of them, generally the guys who bought on a resale, bought flats knowing full well that the buildings did not have an occupancy certificate. They bought the flats at a discount and thought they had a bargain. When the Supreme Court passed the orders mandating the Municipality to demolish the buildings, the residents stayed put, barricaded themselves in and wilfully disobeyed the Supreme Court orders. Anybody else does it they would be clapped into jail for Contempt, but not here. They had their own law, their own rules, their own perception of right and wrong. In fact they came from the two wrongs make a right school of law. `Khap Panchayat’ at work?

So folks, while all this is sickening, and we all careen into anarchy remember the good old days and simple village life. Long live the `Khap Panchayat’? My days as a lawyer are numbered, who needs lawyers anyway? If you have any kids wanting to do law, tell them to forget about it, waste of time, they will be sitting `velha’ and will want you to look after them. You just decide what is the wrong you have done, set your own punishment and get on with things. DIY - do it yourself!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A sickening week

The provocation is not far to see. However the immediate provocation was what my school friend Shilpam wrote on his Facebook wall. I quote him.

“We refuse to treat our parents as god's. We refuse to treat our god's as god's, but we will make a cricketer or an actor our god. Something seriously wrong in our interpretation of god or in us.”

I could not agree more with what Shilpam has written.

If you live in Mumbai or in fact anywhere in India, the past week was positively sickening. Not only did you have absolutely nothing new about Sachin, but you had to read, listen and watch all kinds of absolute genuflection, drivel, platitudes, obsequiousness, fawning and verbal diarrhoea about the God who is Sachin. It was as if there was nothing else happening in the world. Honestly, it was all too much.

In light of how things turned out, I am beginning to think that Sachin is really a God. Let me tell you why I say that. The first two days of the week were taken up by that other sickening story, Save Campa Cola Compound. First, I must congratulate the leaders of that movement. They did a brilliant job and achieved their objective. The building will never be demolished. This whole saga gave a new meaning to several established positions. Two wrongs DO now make a right. Just because there are other buildings that are illegal and no action is being taken, this illegality cannot be punished. Also please remember there was a final order of the Supreme Court ordering demolition. Every person speaking on the matter was in contempt of Court in criticising the order. However nothing was done. In fact, on the contrary the Supreme Court was `moved’ by the criticism and media frenzy and stayed the demolition. You know why Sachin is really a God? This story ended on Tuesday. After that we could focus all media on Him.

Oh yes, we made a really delicious Beetroot and Red Lentil Soup. Credit for this delicious recipe goes to Cyrus Todiwalla and Tony Singh. Let me know if you want the recipe. It is vegetarian, Jain, Vegan, Fat Free, Cholestrol free and bloody delicious. I am serious. Sachin was not harmed in making it! 

Now that He has played his last match and we have said our last goodbyes, can we please just move on to normal life?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Incredible jungle experience at Forsyth Lodge, Satpura

HRH the Queen of Kutch has just returned form a fabulous holiday. I said that she should write about it. So dear readers, in her words, here is the story.


Let me begin with some disclaimers:

1.  I have never been to a ‘national park’ before this (unless you count a brief visit to Periyar when I was a child)
2  I have never thought of going on a safari because I didn’t really think it was ‘my kind of thing’
3. I have never been particularly interested in wildlife and have never really stopped to admire a bird or tree or creature.

Having said this, I have just returned from an absolutely fantastic three day jungle experience. The complete jungle immersion started on the drive from Bhopal to the Forsyth Lodge when we suddenly realised we had no mobile network. Our cheerful driver happily informed us that there is no mobile network in the hotel or in the forest and definitely no hope of wifi or any form of internet communication. And no, no TV either. BSNL, a mobile operator nobody I know uses, does have a weak signal in a few parts of the Lodge but we of course did not have a BSNL connection. For perhaps the first time in my life, I spent 3 days completely cut off from the rest of the world. Quite an unnerving feeling at first, but after a bit fairly liberating.
By way of background, the relatively less known and low key Satpura National Park is in the district Hoshangabad of Madhya Pradesh and lies at the foothills of Panchmarhi. It gets its name from the Satpura hill ranges (Mahadeo hills). The Park has a unique central highland ecosystem and an extremely rugged terrain. As you traverse through the Park you will see high sandstone peaks, narrow gorges, ravines and dense forest. The Park covers an area of 524 km2 of which just 4% is open to the public.
The nearest town to the national park is Panchmarhi, the nearest railhead is Piparia 55 kilometres away and the state capital Bhopal is 210 kilometres away.
We were booked at the charming Forsyth Lodge, a place I will without hesitation recommend to everybody. While not luxurious, it falls under the category that can be called rustic comfort. The accommodation is 12 individual cottages that are spread around the main Lodge building and though extremely charming with a sweet sit-out with planters chairs, we hardly spent any time in our cottage and only used it to sleep and bathe.
Cottage at Forsyth Lodge
Rishi, the gracious, unflappable manager of Forsyth Lodge introduced us to the rest of the guests and to the resident naturalists. Naturalists are essentially people who are experts in botany or zoolology, especially in the field. We were told that a naturalist would accompany us on every safari or outing.
Within 10 minutes of our checking in, one of the resident naturalists, Surya, offered to take us on a walk around the property. What an absolute delight. In that 1 hour I saw innumerable butterflies and dragonflies, learned to recognize the sound and sight of several birds and was introduced to the world of spiders. Surya’s enthusiasm is to be seen to be believed. He is passionate, knowledgeable and so eager for you to see and appreciate every bee, bird and tree. The enthusiasm was infectious and soon we were asking questions and looking around with eager eyes and straining to hear the calls of different birds. What an absolutely charming start.

Jezebel Butterfly

Bull Frog

Back at the Lodge, we met the second naturalist, David Raju. David’s reputation as “one of India's great young and independent, naturalists” preceded him and from the brief time we spent with him, he more than lived up to it. An absolute mine of information and knowledge with a well honed instinct to spot even the most elusive wildlife. Soon after lunch we set of with David for our first safari.
The Lodge is a 10 minute drive from the ticket booth to gain access to the Satpura National Park. The Denwa river separates the mainland from the core Satpura Reserve and the only way to enter the Park is by crossing the river in a speed boat. Once on the other side, there are a total of 12 jeeps that can be used to see the Park. Each jeep comes with a driver and a forest guide or spotter and if you are lucky enough to stay at Forsyth, you also have your own dedicated naturalist. Because the number of jeeps in this National Park is so limited, you can drive around for hours without encountering any other jeep or human. It’s just the jungle and you.
We were incredibly lucky with that first drive and sighted at very close quarters several sambar, peacocks, deer, a huge Malabar Pied Hornbill, a few majestic gaurs and an absolutely close encounter with a mama and baby bear who crossed the path less than 10 feet in front of our jeep. We watched closely as they ambled across and then to our delight, the mama bear began digging for termites while the baby bear rubbed his backside against a tree stump.


Mama Sloth Bear
Mama and Baby Sloth Bear

Early the next morning we set off for another jeep safari and the lovely Forsyth Lodge made it special by arranging a picnic breakfast deep in the forest on a pile of volcanic rock overhanging a stream. That afternoon we took a Boat Safari through the inlets and channels of water that run through and surround the Park. Perfect for sighting the many birds that make this eco system their home. As we drove back to the Lodge, another jeep with some guests was setting off for a Night Safari. Surya kindly invited us to hop on and we jumped at the chance. We drove in the buffer zone of Satpura and were treated to wonderful sightings of the Eagle Owl and a very close view of a civet. Surya flashed his strong flashlight at creatures and trees of interest, stopped to let us hear the sound of the forest and for brief periods turned off all lights to let us experience the complete blackness of the deep forest. Driving through the dense jungle in the pitch dark was an eerie, exciting and completely special experience.
Another early start had us set off on a Walking Safari with Surya. As the Forsyth Lodge website lyrically says, “There’s walking, and then there is learning to place your feet according to the undulations of the landscape, the minor shifts in the undergrowth, and the many variations of mud the jungle can offer. Not to speak of the rather surprising racket that your feet can make across fallen teak leaves.” The Satpura Reserve is apparently the only protected forest in India that permits Walking Safaris. The walk was for about 4 hours and in that time we tracked bear paw prints, saw innumerable langurs and sambar, listened for jungle alarm calls to see if we were close to any of the large cats (leopard or tiger), saw a giant dragonfly trapped in a spider web and learned about the evolution of spiders. I also learned to identify and avoid the dreaded Rainy Tree with its curved thorns that can rip your skin out. The Walking Safari is an absolutely must-do experience if you ever visit Satpura. The excitement of literally carving your way through the forest, not knowing what could be around the next bend and carefully examining so many creatures you would never see at such close range if you were in a jeep or on an elephant. I would do it again and again, in a heartbeat. 


Ghost Tree

Our last dawn at Satpura found us in canoes rowing down the Denwa and Sonbhadra rivers and their many inlets and tributaries to watch the sun rise, hear the birds wake up calls and chance upon 2 sambars swim across a stream right in front of our canoe. A sudden sighting of a large 14 foot crocodile was exciting enough for us to spend a half hour tracking it and trying to get a closer look.

Sunrise on the Denwa
Sambhars swimming across the Denwa River

Wire tailed swallow

White browed wagtail

All in all, an absolutely fabulous jungle experience made special I believe by the wealth of information and boundless enthusiasm of the wonderful naturalists at Forsyth Lodge.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A confession

This is a confession. I like Comedy Nights With Kapil.

I have really no interest in Bollywood. This last Bollywood film I consented to see was Bunty and Bubbly, which, on checking on Wikipedia was released in 2005. I saw it then. Yes, I do recognise the major stars and, yes, I often wonder how people like Ritesh Deshmukh and Sharman Joshi, to name but two, are film stars. They look like the guys who come from Nova Weatherworks to service my split air conditioner. So, under normal circumstances, my tuning to a TV channel showing Comedy Nights With Kapil would have been, pardon the pun, remote. However, one evening I chanced on Colours and the show was running and I was quite charmed.

The show is a runaway success. From what I could see, it is used as a vehicle to promote various films that being released. The high viewership ensures that the promotion will be effective.

Not only was I charmed, but I was rather shocked, in a pleasant manner, at the format of the show. This was, in my limited knowledge of comedy in India, especially on television, genre busting. This I found most refreshing.

The show has at least 3 characters a grandmother, a girl in pig tales called Gutti and a stouter lady called Palak, all of whom are played by men. These three characters are made up to look like women, not women in drag. The characters they play are really women. It is not the more clichéd and hackneyed situation of men only masquerading as women to escape a situation. In this show the characters are played by men but the characters are women. I do not know if I have made the distinction clear. This portrayal is in my view, refreshing and probably unique. If you have seen the show Little Britain you have the same portrayal.

The second aspect that I found refreshing and out of the ordinary is there seems to be very little fawning and obsequiousness on the show. There is very little use of the word `ji’ and relatively few honorific’s are used. Shah Rukh Khan is call Shah Rukh, Hrithik Roshan is called Hrithik and so on and so forth. To add to this casualness is the fact that there is a lot of actual touching of the stars on the show by the various characters. I mean physical touching, the grandmother will stroke a stars knee, and she will kiss him leaving lipstick, red obviously, on his cheeks. All this is new to me. Stars hitherto did not get touched by characters in television studios.

And then there is the sex. It is loud and clear, not couched and totally clean and up front. The grandmother, brilliantly portrayed I must say, who openly expresses desires to bed the actors. The show also has a character who is Kapil’s Aunt called `Bua’ who is played by a lady. She too openly expresses her desires, including bedding the actors. This is a rather western expression of sexual desire. I do not think this openness is visible even in Bollywood films. Most sexual desires in Bollywood films are expressed with crudity, ribald humour and not in this way. Have a look.

I do like a Punjabi accent, and this show has a lot of Punjabi accents. The host Kapil Sharma is a Punjabi as are many of the other actors. The show is extremely North Indian, but then so is Bollywood who ride on the shows coat tails. Normally, unless there is a reason for characters to be Punjabi, normally stereotypes, shows do not have such strong accents. Most of the characters have rather strong Punjabi accents.

Generally speaking the quality of the humour, the one liners, the seemingly spontaneous reactions of the Stars on the show are of a high quality. Mind you I compare this with the dreadful Comedy Circus which is really the pits. Here in Comedy Nights With Kapil the humour, the situations and all round quality is decent.

Of course the show is plagued with problems. Navjyot Singh Siddhu plays the part of `live’ canned laughter, the only thing that members of the audience want to do, besides mouthing platitudes is dancing with the Stars or worse, singing a song. Most of this puts my teeth on edge. Often Kapil pokes fun at a hapless audience member which descends into cheap personal hurtful comments. This part is unnecessary. Then again, we see the typical Indian trait of laughing and clapping at the same time. This I cannot for the life of me under. We Indians like to laugh hysterically in when in this hysterical state we have to simultaneously clap. Do observe this.

All in all, I quite like Comedy Nights With Kapil. The best Indian show on Indian Television.   

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thoughts on `Chinese'.

Back to food after a longish break. Excuse? Pressures of work, all professional.

To be perfectly honest, this was a post conceptualised some weeks ago, but, on account of the excuse, I just did not have the time to write.

London has some really excellent Chinese food. Chinatown in Soho has many restaurants, Chinese grocery Stores, Chinese Cake shops and all other things that a Chinaman in London would want. The Chinese influence is so strong that in most restaurants, even the ones outside Chinatown, waiters converse in what we would call `Chinese’ but is probably Mandarin or Cantonese. In fact, I have noticed that waiters write orders in their little pads in `Chinese’. This is quite unlike what happens in Chinese restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi. I have not looked into waiters pads in Calcutta so I have no answer. Not only are the wait staff and presumably kitchen staff Chinese, a large number of customers are Chinese or at least Oriental.

Restaurants in Chinatown are generally looked down upon by most folks. Reasons extend to the fact that waiters are rude and service is brusque, billing is opaque and dishonest, the food is unhealthy as they use the dreaded MSG and lard and God knows what else, hygiene is questionable and so on and so forth. Personally, I have no issues with Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. I find them exciting, vibrant, the food is of really good quality – far better than the stuff we get back home – and should we Bombaywallahs complain about hygiene?

Most restaurants are Cantonese. It is said that the Canton people eat everything that walks except a table and everything that flies except an aeroplane. Presumably, the same analogy applies to everything that swims except a boat! But it is true that the Cantonese have no fear of food, this is from where we get stories, probably apocryphal, of Chinese eating bugs and cockroaches and what have you. There are Hunan, Sichuan and Mongolian restaurants too. I have written about the excellent Empress of Sichuan which, unfortunately, has undergone a management change, so I do not know its fate. Of course there are Chinese restaurants in London other than in Chinatown, and very good ones too. Several of them have Michelin Stars - Hakkasan [both branches], Yauatcha, Kai, HKK and Bo.

If you were a `desi’ going to London in the mid 1980’s then you must rave about the real `asli’ Royal China at Bayswater or its branch at Baker Street. This restaurant was the first one to introduce Dim Sum to us `desi’s’’ when we went to London. It was the thing to do. Eat Dim Sum at Royal China. Various members of the Kapoor family, Dabhoo, Chintu and Chimpu were supposed to be regulars there. Mind you the food was, and continues to be really good. This was in the restaurant to go to for many years from the 1980s to 2000.

Then, in 2001 Alan Yau opened Hakkasan and the Chinese axis shifted. The sophisticates rushed to Hakkasan and in 2004 to Yauatcha. Royal China sort of faded a bit as far as us `desi’s’ were concerned. Hakkasan and Yauatcha were the place to eat. Of course, life has turned a full circle with Alan Yau selling his interests in both Hakkasan and Yauatcha to a Private Equity firm and both Hakkasan and Yauatcha have now got outposts in Mumbai.

Our favourite for many years has been Phoenix Palace just off Baker Street Tube Station. If I were to pigeonhole this restaurant, I would put it in the same category as a Royal China, it is not a cheap and cheerful Chinatown restaurant and neither is it Michelin starred. We have been eating here for years, and for some reason I have not written about it before.

This is a large 250 seater restaurant with different level seating, albeit all on one floor. It is always absolutely bustling with a mixed clientele. It feels like a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, lots of gold in the decor, lots of wood all quite nice. The reception has a wall with several photographs of the dignitaries, celebrities and movers and shakers who have dined there. I do not know what that has to do with the quality of food as I am certain there is no direct co-relation between being a connoisseur of food and a movers and shaker. Anyway, it is a very nice restaurant with some very good food. The food being predominantly Cantonese.

In the last 7 years that we have been eatng at Phoenix Palace, I do not think we have had a single disappointing meal. Go there and order absolutely anything from the extensive menu and you will be sure to have a good meal. I do know of many other restaurants where I can confidently make this claim.

Over the years I have noticed a change in our choice of dishes when eating a Chinese meal. For us, in the good old days, a Chinese meal was a treat, a special occasion, something eaten when it was your birthday for instance. We all had our favourite restaurants and our favourite dishes, we have them today too. For many older people, a Chinese meal meant a bowl of Sweet Corn Chicken/Crabmeat soup, Sweet Sour Pork with bits of tinned pineapple and capsicum, a Fried Rice maybe some Chow Mein. 30 years ago in India, there was no knowledge of Bok Choy or Chinese lettuce or Baby Corn or Tofu. The only chilli sauce you got was either chopped green chilli in vinegar or those lurid green thick chilli sauces in small bottles.

Those who are younger have different favourites. Hot Sour Soup, Man Chow Soup, Chilli Chicken/Beef and Hakka Noodles became favourites and a whole generation grew up on this. This, was a direct consequence, I believe, of the Indo Chinese, spicy masaledar Chinese food that began to be dished out.

The youngest, now favour a Dim Sum meal and the utterly hackneyed Crispy Aromatic Duck. The sauces too have changed. Now it is Chilli Oil and the green chilli sauce and chopped chillies have all but gone. You may find them in Clubs.

Times have changed, tastes have changed.   

Some photographs of some food at Phoenix Palace.

Prawns and Mushroom

Pork Belly with Tofu

Sesame Prawn on Toast - a favourite with Londoners

Crisp Barbeque Pork Belly

Beef and Mango

Sea Bass with Salt Pepper