by Neelini Sarkar
It is one of those spectacular sunny blue afternoons in Milan. One appreciates it more because it has been preceded by weeks of miserable drizzle. It’s the kind of afternoon that would be well spent walking around Parco Sempione, which is bordered on four sides by a medieval castle, an arch of peace, an arena and an art museum (with a discotheque in its basement). This is where I go running every morning, all around the park, amidst joggers and dog walkers. My favourite bit of the park, though, is right in the middle, where there is a shallow lake with ducks splashing about. If you stand on the bridge you see the castle on one side, the peace arch on the other, and on a cold clear morning you can see smoke rising from the water.
But this particular sunny afternoon, I am curled up on the sofa after an Indian meal. I truly believe that rice does something to the Bengali heart that not even the best Italian mozzarella or Chianti wine can do.
I cooked chicken pulao, dal, okra and lamb chops. I discovered an Indian grocery store in a little street behind Corso Buenos Aries – home to a thousand shops and a darling little cafe called San Gregorio that makes the best cream brioche. I went to to buy jeere but ended up with a packet full of groceries. Naturally.
Chicken pulao is simple enough, but I can’t seem to find good chicken in Milan. The supermarkets have either fillets or chicken with its skin on, meant for roasting. And it tastes rather too chickeny for my liking. Of course, if you go to the pork or beef sections you will find shelf after shelf of cuts of meat I didn’t know existed. But this is Italy, a land that doesn’t believe in chicken.
The dal was more successful, since the Indian store seemed to sell a variety of dals, and even the regular Italian grocery stores keep red split lentils (masoor/musurir dal) as it’s occasionally used to make lentil soup for the healthy Italian soul. I couldn’t find coriander leaves so I put cumin and onions in the dal. And a rather generous dollop of melted butter, since I’m cooking only in extra virgin olive oil.
Okra was a last minute purchase from the Indian shop. This is my favourite vegetable and one that I buy from my sabzi wala in Delhi almost every week. It’s quick and easy and one doesn’t have to think too hard while cooking okra. I was also cooking the Indian meal for an Italian friend, who wasn’t familiar with the vegetable. Cooked with onion, cumin and turmeric, it tasted fine but the okra was not very good. Many of the pieces remained crunchy at the end. If anyone knows how to fix this, I’d love to know.
As for the lamb chops, ah, now here is something that works in Italy! I marinated my lamb in yoghurt, ginger, garlic, chilli flakes, dhaniya powder, cumin powder, salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. And put it in the oven for about an hour. Voila. My mother, when I told her I made lamb chops, thought I was talking about the Bengali chop, leaving me drooling over visions of mangsher chop from K. Allen or even Market 1, CR Park, and feeling somewhat foolish with my all too simple desi meal with which I was trying to impress my Italian friend.
Next time, perhaps I should attempt biryani, to show them how we use saffron. A Milanese specialty is saffron risotto, which is delicious and pure but at the other end of the rice spectrum.
And so I return to my sun lit afternoon, both heart and stomach fulfilled.
(Neelini Sarkar nurtured books and authors 24/7 at HarperCollins India for five years before her sabbatical. She has promised us many Milanese adventures in the coming weeks, particularly, though not only, in the realm of food.)