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It's towards the end of winter here. And Meha thought of picking something we could grill. Meat-heavy, I thought. And Greek food came to my mind.

How is it different from Mediterranean food, you ask?

In the western hemisphere, Greek food and Mediterranean food are used interchangeably, but technically they are not the same. Mediterranean food, in general, is very similar among countries in that region, with some small differences (from here).

Greek is very well, then, a subset of Mediterranean food. Not all Mediterranean food is Greek then. Simple.

“Mediterranean food” is a blanket term that includes Greek food, Turkish food, and food from the southern Mediterranean (say, Lebanon). Even though Italy and Spain are in the Mediterranean, those restaurants are distinctly noted as Italian or Spanish food restaurants. So, in a Mediterranean restaurant you will find kebabs, and chicken gyros, found in Greek restaurants, but also lamb gyros (shawarma), falafel, and adana kabab (with ground-beef) which are typically NOT Greek. If you want to eat traditional pork gyros, most likely you need to find a Greek restaurant (from Quora).

A pretty good example was in this blog post:

  • Gyros are Greek and the Mediterranean form is Shawarma. The meat, whether beef, lamb or a combination of both or chicken is placed on a rotisserie ‘stacked’ horizontally. The Gyros are made with the meats ‘blended’ in the shape of a cone that is placed on a rotisserie.

  • Falafels are completely Mediterranean.

  • Hummus is also VERY Mediterranean.

  • Tzatziki, on the other hand, is totally Greek and the Mediterranean Shawarma has a slightly different yoghurt sauce.

  • Spanakopita are Greek and what is interesting is that the Mediterranean equivalent is called Fatayer. Both are triangles filled with spinach and feta cheese but the Spanakopita uses the thin Filo dough and the Fatayer uses regular dough.

  • Dolmas are both Greek and Mediterranean. Grape leaves, stuffed with herbed rice. They can be vegetarian or can have seasoned ground meat.

Since there were only 4 of us, we figured making it entirely meat-heavy was perhaps not possible. Anyway, here is what we had:

  • Dolmades - rolled grape leaves stuffed with lamb, rice and apricot, served with an avgolemono sauce

  • Dolmadakia - grape leaves stuffed with pine nuts, currants and golden raisins

  • Chicken baked in yoghurt with red onion and grape leaves

  • Sourdough Boule (this one had figs and apricots. It's something we got from a neighbourhood cafe, it's a little bit on the expensive side, but it's sooooo good!!)

  • Chicken Kapama (chicken braised in a rich concoction of coffee, brandy, honey, cinnamon, clove, tomato and red wine)

  • New potatoes, with mint and spring onions

  • Spring Lamb Stew - with artichokes, dill and lemon egg broth

  • Vegetable Stew with zucchini, potatoes, bell peppers and tomatoes

  • Rice pilaf

The food was all very very different and warm. Just right for us for the end of te winter. The stuffed grape leaves were quite a revelation. Having never eaten grape leaves before, we were not sure of whether cooking them dries them out or they had been overcooked a little. The Kapama was incredulously good too, the mix of wine, coffee and cinnamon sure worked its magic on that chicken. The stews came together with the rice. And overall, we were left quite a satiated bunch.

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I've been a Fuchsia Dunlop fangirl for several years. And Shriya mentioned she'd like to attend a cookbook meet with different kind of dumplings. It's another thing we didn't end up making any for this meet. But it did make me start looking up books around Asian cooking.

And I don't know why, it was either an Andre Nguyen book for me or then a Fuchsia Dunlop one. Narrowing down all available options and keeping a more generic Chinese cuisine in mind, we picked Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Fish and Rice.

Making the beggar's chicken was a no-brainer for me. Only, lotus leaves are tough to come by here, so I used banana leaves instead. The chicken was extremely moist and flavourful despite several hours of cooking. And I was a happy puppy - for having tried something new AND having had the dish (the cooking of the insides was obviously a surprise till the very end) turn our so juicy and tasty. I'm also a fan of jammy eggs eaten typically with ramen, so I thought I'd make some smoked duck eggs. Unfortunately, I botched up the cooking time, so the eggs were more hard-boiled than jammy. The recipe also called for smoking them on a bed of tea leaves. I followed the recipe to a tee but the eggs didn't take on a tea-like flavour, nor did they have a smoky flavour. So I'm really not sure what I did wrong. But when *does* anyone have boiled egg leftovers? They *did* get finished that evening. Of course, they did.

Shriya really wanted to make some duck. So she made the saltwater duck. To make things a little different for herself, she also made the red braised fish. Shriya also brought in some stir-fried pak choy to complement all the non-vegetarian food she had cooked.

Swapnil is always good with meats, so it was no surprise when he picked the chicken with young ginger and the red braised pork belly. The basic recipe for the fish and the pork seemed very similar. But they tasted so vastly different, it was pleasantly surprising.

Suraj felt a little like Shriya too, so he decided to make a vegetarian dish and he made the cool steamed aubergine with a garlicky dressing. I always like to joke how he enjoys being a mallu (Malayali, for the uninitiated) more often than not. So when he said he wanted to make the Shanghai Fried Rice, despite knowing Swapnil is on Keto, I could only laugh.

We met at Swapnil's house, gaga-ed over all the art he has hung up in his home, spoke a little about growing up in the late eighties and the early nineties and before we knew it, it was 1 am.

All in all, very simple food. Yet very flavourful. I've read about Jiangnan cuisine since. And I do believe when this article says:

The food in Jiangnan is known for its gentleness...

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Updated: Nov 12, 2020

While we were contemplating books through the year, Austin Bush's Food of Northern Thailand was suggested. One thing led to another and we realized he is Andy Ricker's protégé of sorts. Andy Ricker has written several books on Thai food and also runs a wildly popular chain of restaurants, unsurprisingly called Pok Pok too. So cooking from the namesake book seemed like a no-brainer.

Jonathan Gold beautifully wrote about the man and the book in 2015.

A guide to bold, authentic Thai cooking from Andy Ricker, the chef and owner of the wildly popular and widely lauded Pok Pok restaurants.
After decades spent travelling throughout Thailand, Andy Ricker wanted to bring the country's famed street food stateside. In 2005 he opened Pok Pok, so named for the sound a pestle makes when it strikes a clay mortar, in an old shack in a residential neighbourhood of Portland, Oregon. Ricker's traditional take on Thai food soon drew the notice of the New York Times and Gourmet magazine, establishing him as a culinary star. Now, with his first cookbook, Ricker tackles head-on the myths that keep people from making Thai food at home: that it's too spicy for the American palate or too difficult to source ingredients.
Ricker shares more than fifty of the most popular recipes from Thailand and his Pok Pok restaurants—ranging from Khao Soi Kai (Northern Thai curry noodle soup with chicken) to Som Tam Thai (Central Thai–style papaya salad) to Pok Pok’s now-classic (and obsessed-over) Fish-Sauce Wings. But Pok Pok is more than just a collection of favourite recipes: it is also a master course in Thai cooking from one of the most passionate and knowledgeable authorities on the subject. Clearly written, impeccably tested recipes teach you how to source ingredients; master fundamental Thai cooking techniques and skills; understand flavour profiles that are unique to Southeast Asian cuisine; and combine various dishes to create show-stopping, well-balanced meals for family and friends.
Filled with thoughtful, colourful essays about Ricker’s travels and experiences, Pok Pok is not only a definitive resource for home cooks, but also a celebration of the rich history, vibrant culture, and unparalleled deliciousness of Thai food.

Apparently, there's also a Pok Pok Phat Thai a few blocks south of his flagship restaurant. Someone from our meetups in Pune plans to cook to Phat Thai And there's a new book Andy Ricker has written called Pok Pok Noodles. We'll get around to cooking from it someday, we will.

Taruna had been "banned," for lack of a better word, from making a roast chicken, so she made one as part of her personal project -The Roast Fowl Project. The Kai Yaang called for 26 hours of marination and dressing in different stages and she thought that led to one of the juiciest, tastiest whole roasts she's ever had.

In case you're interested, you can read more about his restaurants on his website, here -

Sunday, Nov 17th, a few of the Pune folk met at Joravar and Priyank's place for lunch.

The food, though seemingly simple, turned out delicious. The clear winner, of course, was Priyanka Sachdev's Khao Tom (Thai Rice Soup). She made it with chicken bones and chicken meatballs, instead of the pork counterparts specified in the book, but the dish was a total winner nonetheless. Joravar's Khao Soi Kai came a close second. A Northern Thai Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken, that we know more commonly as Khow Suey in India, was packed with flavour and scrumptious.

Priyanka Anand kept it simple by going with a recipe that came under "Foreign Foods" or Aahaan Farang, on the book. She made some Stir-fried Yunnan ham with chiles, that acted as a wonderful salad with all the mains.

Shubra made an authentic Phat Thai. So, though the flavours were a little different and possibly tones down from what we get at Indian restaurants, it was also extremely gratifying. There were also enough leftovers, so the Khannas were more than happy to polish off the remains that night. Shubra thought the book was very lengthy and a bit confusing at times. But she did concede that the recipes made delightful dishes. Amita, host for the second meet for the book, also thought the book was verbose. What Varun said, however, was on point. It is a good, leisure read especially if you wish to follow Andy Ricker's story and how he discovered Thai food. However, if one picks the book up just to cook a recipe, some effort and a good understanding of cooking are needed to put the steps in order or to patch together one's dish in entirety. That said, he made the fish sauce chicken wings. He added some extra lemon juice to balance the fishiness of the dried shrimp. The NaamPhrik Phao n the book calls for only chillies and oil. However, the paste they usually make at home also has garlic, shallots, dry shrimp and tamarind. So he used that instead and it all gave the wings a good flavour.

For the cookbook potluck, Taruna picked the Khanom Bataeng Laai - a Northern Thai melon custard. Taruna didn't like her dessert all that much. Maybe it just wasn't that good. Maybe it was the melon. Maybe it was a roast chicken withdrawal.

The book focuses a lot, clearly, on Northern Thai food. So recipes for the more commonplace massaman curry or red curry seemed missing.

There's an interesting mention of red curry in the book.

In Thai, the category of dishes called kaeng phet is sometimes mistranslated as "red curry" but literally means "spicy curry." To order it mild is as absurd as ordering Kaeng Jeut Wun Sen ("Bland" soup) and saying "Can you make it spicy?"

And for green curry, it is called "Kaeng Khiaw Waan Luuk Chin Plaa." So then, I've been looking up the origins of massaman curry. It is also known as Matasaman curry and is believed to have been introduced to Thailand by Persian merchants. It soon became an integral part of the Thai Muslim cuisine. In fact, historical writers believe that the name Massaman could also have been originated from the word 'Mussulman' which is another word for Muslim.

One thing led to another and I have been led to believe that the book's recipe for Puu Phat Phong Karii (Crab stir-fried with Curry Powder) comes closest to a yellow curry that forms the base of Massaman curry.

The Thai language employs the word karii to refer to kaeng with strong South Asian influence (kaeng karii, for example, a relatively mild yellow-tinted curry whose paste mostly contains dried spices associated with Indian cuisine) or dishes that contain curry powder (itself a British invention meant to approximate the spice mixtures common to Indian curries), such as Puu Phat Phong Karii.

The plating was impeccable - dishes, cake stands, everything.

The content of the book also sparked another healthy debate. Varun thought the writing pattern was free-flowing, something he hasn't seen in a majority of recipe books. I, of course, lap up most things verbose and well-written. Amita and Shubhra felt the book was too long. Amita also thought the book was not organized well, it wasn't something you could just pick up and plan a meal around at will. Though that made me think about what Varun said, it wasn't for the noob cook for sure and needed some good reading of the book and its recipes. Husein also thought the some of the recipes were unnecessarily confusing. And that some of the sauces and pastes are best made if made a few weeks or up to a month ahead. There was also some mention of cookbooks being written to "reach laymen." I firmly believe that some cookbooks are access to restaurant menus for the pro home cook and therefore need a good knowledge of cooking in general. Other books are 101 books for the new learner. Neither kind of book is bad. And picking a book to cook out of and opinionating about it is fine too. I think, what is key, is our understanding of the target reach of the book - the pro-home-cook or the noob home-cook.

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