May 4, 2014 By Noorjahan Banu

Asad’s Coffee, Ayla’s Baklava and Jahanzeb’s Chutney: A Tale of Many Tastes

Muhammed Asad CoffeeIt was Sunday in Bangalore. Streets abuzz with shopaholics and vendors. Parks metamorphosed into loiters’ Eden. Pubs all awake and the ever-vigilant moral cops. The two words Sunday and Bangalore evoke many pictures…
We as usual occupied the kitchen. The event may not be as relevant as the occupying of Wall Street. But it nice to cook and eat, and nicer when we have nothing else to do. ‘We’ means I, Rachel. When we occupy the kitchen, it seems the taste of Kerala, from where she hails, vies with the taste of Hyderabad, to have an upper hand. Always the success is a close finish.
*Last weekend, when we were having breakfast over Rachel’s nadan kappa ularthu (Tapioca baked with coconut, red chili and mustard) and mathi curry (sardine flavoured with red chilli-Kashmiri chilli-pepper, salt and cooked in a paste made of chilli, pepper, ginger paste, garlic paste, green chilli paste, chilli, ground and roasted coconut), Rachel put forward the idea: Why can’t we experience the different culinary experiences in the world by simply learning the art from cookery books, thereby globe-trotting with our tongue.
So it was. We started from Coffee narrated in Muhammad Asad’s Road to Mecca. While I was reading the book (No my late Grandpa Ahmad Husyan Malik first read the book to me) I imagined the sheer experience of coffee-making in a lonely desert. Coffee was for Asad the sole meaning in the meaningless (or mysteriously meaningful) expanse of the desert. To quote from the book:
Water boils in a tall brass coffeepot with a long, curved spout; a smaller pot of a similar shape stands ready at Zayd’s elbow. In his left hand he holds a huge, flat iron spoon with a handle two feet long, on which he is roasting a handful of coffee beans over the slow fire, for in Arabia coffee is freshly roasted for every pot. As soon as the beans are lightly tanned, he places them in a brass mortar and pounds them. Thereupon he pours some of the boiling water from the larger pot into the smaller, empties the ground coffee into it and places the pot near the fire to let it slowly simmer. When the brew is almost ready, he adds a few cardamon seeds to make it bitterer, for, as the saying goes in Arabia, coffee, in order to be good, must be ‘bitter like death and hot like love.
We set out to Chikmagalur (to our friend Nimitha’s family cottage). It is said that Baba Budan, a famed Muslim saint, brought coffee seeds from Yemen and planted them on the hills of Chikmagalur. The Baba Budan giri hills were famous for coffee-plantations during the British rule. It was Nimitha’s suggestion that we make tea at Chickmagalluru as per Muhammad Asad’s (or his Arabian Companion Zayd’s) recipe. She suggested the variety Arabica for our making. And that was, indeed, close to our theme: Muhammad Asad, Road to Mecca and desert..
We don’t know how long it took Zayd to prepare coffee for Asad..The fresh Coffee whose smell was for the latter like a woman’s embrace…
We tried it many times. The processes of roasting and grinding were all the more difficult. Finally we sipped the hot coffee…Yes it was bitter like death…
In that chilling cold, we sat together in front of the hot coffee pot. To ward off the bitterness of cold, we resorted to the bitterness of coffee and to our hands on one another’s shoulders. Hello, my male friends, there is nothing like a woman’s embrace. For you, it betokens sexual adventure. For us it signals unfailing camaraderie..
In the evening we read Ayla Algar’s recipe for Turkish baklava many times over and made it. It was a harrowing experience in the beginning. We don’t want to blame our failure on the type of oven which Ayla suggested in her book. Scoring the top layer of the dish with diamond shapes was the most difficult part and we could not wait three or four hours for the syrup to come down to the layers…
Definitely, our baklava would be different from Ayla’s, though her recipe is very easy to follow..
To kill the desperation which our unsuccessful baklava dealt us, we resorted to Iranian Farah Jahanzeb’s Easy chutney on the website…
A famous Persian cooking expert, Jahanzeb’s recipe and narration on the TV (we have some video clips sent by our friend Hasan) is as delicious as the very sight of Persian dishes. And easy chutny, we think, was not a failure. It reminded us of many dishes we are used to at Ali Baba Cafe and Restaurant at Frazer Town and Casa Riveria at Koramangala, our Persian food joints in Bangalore
Finally, Richel commented: ‘It is not that we achieve success or failure in these attempts to taste many cuisine cultures. That attempt itself is graceful. To go beyond ourselves to others…To prepare our tasty buds for others…

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