Saturday, March 19, 2011

Vadivel's Uthappam

I was watching TV the other day, in one of those vacant states: after dinner, without any purpose, half looking at my laptop screen, half looking at the TV.

On came a Vadivelu comedy scene. In this, Vadivel walks into an empty eating-joint, and sits and orders a Uthappam.

Uthappam, as you might know, is a thick dosa with tonnes of veggies thrown onto it. Normally, at home, when the dosa batter has been lying around for a long time, and cannot be salvaged, my mom will make uthappam - as by throwing in a bunch of onions, coriander and chilli, you can mask the old/sour taste of the batter and by making it thick, you can sidestep the problem of making a thin/brown/crisp dosa. Uthappam is a great escape, a great excuse, and a clearance sale all at once. And with not so bad results, I would say.

That was my understanding of the concept of uthappam. At least until I watched Vadivel's comedy bit. As I said, he orders a uthappam in the bit. He doesn't just order - he recites the exact recipe of how he wants it step by step to the waiter. He almost makes the uthappam take form in front of you.

He starts off with the recipe, by not listing the ingredients, but by giving suggestions as to how to wash/prepare the dosa-pan. He advices to put some water on it and use an un-used part of the broom to nicely clean the surface.

(In restaurants they use a thick slab of stone or iron/cast-iron for superior heat management. By splashing water, you not only clean the surface of any tidbits stuck to it, but also bring down the temperature of the pan and reduce the chances of being stuck with an ugly looking torn-up dosa.)

Then he suggests to take some dosa-batter and make a not-so-big, not-so-small size dosa. Followed by evenly sprinkling finely chopped onions, and green chillies over it. Then comes the master-stroke: he suggests to take some idli-podi and sprinkle it (like a gentle drizzle of rain). And take about 16 ladles of ghee, and put 6 of them on the uthappam and 10 of them around the uthappam for maximum effect.

(Of course the ghee part is very important for browning the uthappam and also caramelizing the onions - if you are diet conscious and skimp on the ghee and add some micro-droplets of super-healthy refined vegetable oil instead, you can kiss a nicely browned uthappam goodbye.)

The way he narrates the recipe is pure genius. How he builds up the interest, and communicates the excitement of an impending super-tasty uthappam is so infectious. Obviously, I was moved to action by the call. And dutifully reproduced the recipe the next morning to some stunning results (particularly sprinkling the idli-podi takes it to the next level).

People who come on TV cooking shows and recite mugged-up recipes and appear half-dead should watch this bit and take inspiration.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

IIM-A Masala Dosa

I was in Amdavad- that is how Gujjus spell Ahmedabad - last week for a conference. Yeah, what is life without conferences? - it would be one long dry spell in which you just work, work and work. Conferences give you perspective - a perspective that in any profession, about 2% of the people do some good work, and the rest just goof off. They teach you that the world is not a fair place, but at least, you are fed and get to travel for free while learning such harsh truths about life.

Late Sunday afternoon, I landed in my hotel (which according to the Indian hotel naming guide had "regency" in its name. The other terms that are invariably used while naming hotels: "royal", "residency", "park", "paradise"). Immediately, I had a couple of hours on my hands to kill (what did I tell you about conferences?). I took an auto to IIM-A. Unlike in Chennai, this auto driver was pleasant and charged me 1/10th of what a Chennai guy would have bargained for. This immediately put me in a good mood. As I landed in the main gate of IIM-A, I approached the guard with some apprehension on whether he would let me in or not, and was preparing arguments in my head like "I am here to attend the World Conference on the Most Important Forum in the World" , and "The Director, IIM-A, personally came to my house to invite me and the guard better let me in" and so on. But, as I approached, the guard and I exchanged some understanding glances (with equal measures of reasonableness and accommodativeness), and he let me through.

I have been wanting to visit the IIM-A campus for a long time now. First reason, I adore Vikram Sarabhai - I have read all I could read up on him, and think that he is a true visionary. He was a phenomenal institutional builder and a humanist who could see the best in people and bring it out. IIM-A being an institution he founded, built and ran, was there on the top of my list.

Another reason is the architect who designed and built the IIM-A main campus, Louis Kahn. I saw a documentary on him made by his son, The Architect, sometime ago. He was one of the best architects of the 20th century and has designed some phenomenal, unique buildings which use exposed brick and concrete as design tools to maximum effect. He was also a deeply flawed man - he maintained three families with three different women at the same time, and died in a railway station, drowned in debt. Personal flaws aside, his buildings spoke very powerfully to people. He built Bangladesh's parliament building in Dhaka, and you should listen to the people of Dhaka talk about the building and Kahn's contribution in the documentary. The affection, gratitude and reverence they feel towards him leaves the viewer moved.

I wanted to see for myself what was so special about his buildings. I roamed the campus.

I landed in the middle of Kahn designed buildings. They ARE spectacular. I am not an architectural expert (and I need not be one to appreciate them). I can tell you how being in the middle of those buildings, walking through their corridors make one feel. It's great. The exposed brick walls give the buildings a timeless feel - the design or the buildings don't look aged at all. The semicircular and circular gaps expose some details, frame the building, break the monotony and give the necessary punctuation marks. Walking through the brick-walled corridors is a sheer pleasure - by doing less, they have elevated the building far from being ordinary.

In the new campus (which is connected to the main campus by a concrete fortified tunnel under the main road), they have used mainly exposed concrete and lots of bamboo plants to frame the buildings - this looks very elegant and sparse. In the tunnel, they have put up an exhibition on the story of how the campus was built, complete with photographs of Louis Kahn working with colleagues in front of a drafting table. And they have also put up a huge photograph of a beaming Vikram Sarabhai (I haven't seen an image of him in which he is less than beaming). I stood for a couple of minutes in front of the photograph. It was like you visited heaven and saw a huge photograph of God staring at you.

No visit to an institute is complete without a visit to the canteen. I found my way to one of the canteens and ordered a very authentic Gujarati dish which you get only in IIM-A: masala dosa. And did some student watching. Thoughts about pay packages and other cliches associated with such institutes flooded the mind. All of them had a sort of we know are in "IIM-A" kind of vibe. I hope these bozos (I know they are not bozos, they better not be- given how influential some of them are going to be; but it is still fun to call them bozos) realize they are walking the corridors and paths laid by Sarabhai, and better do something to hold up the tradition that they have, willingly or unknowingly, inherited.

The conference itself was held in the NID campus (National Institute of Design). The place was bursting with creativity and energy. Odd and no-so-odd artifacts, paintings, wood works etc. displayed all over the campus. Students working in groups on their projects at all times of the day. And just a general feeling of being in the middle of people who love what they do, and don't mind working hard, and having fun when doing it. If heaven existed, it could possibly look and feel like a combination of IIM-A and NID, filled with the same kind of energy and atmosphere. At least, my version of heaven would be like that. And, my version will also have a dozen theaters that screen movies from around the world all day and of course, 24-hour fresh coffee and ice-cream making/vending machines.