Sunday, 5 August 2007

My Achan, The Food Critic!

My father. My Achan.

As a young man after Independance, Acha worked as a teacher. He was an avid reader of English Classics and always dressed immaculately. He was "Insurance Man of the Year" sometime in the late 70s. I was less than 5 and could not remember it but the newspaper cutting remains tucked neatly into an old photo album, to date. "Mr. Jan taught me a lot", says one of his ex-trainees who still keeps in contact with our family, 15 years after acha's passing and sheds nostalgic tears while talking about lessons learnt.

Ah, but there is a less talked about part of Acha! :-) ...Acha loved food. Back in the 80s, I remember how acha's cooking preferences were articlulated; The steaks had to be medium-rare for him. Not medium. Not rare. Medium-rare it was.

Prawns were never to be shelled before cooking, "so that the flavours are contained", my father would say. Satay, yong tau foo, biriyani...everything had something of an "ISO" standard to fulfill, where he was concerned.

It drove my mom up the wall sometimes, as it did the cooks at the resaurants he tried out. Sometimes, if the cooks/chefs expressed annoyance at his requests, acha would never patronise their restaurants again. But mostly those who cooked his "special-orders" often came by his table to thank him for his remarks out of curiosity if not to reciprocate the interest he took in their culinary quests. Some of them even permanently modified their dishes to Acha's specifications if they were felt his suggestions packed a better punch in their dish. These of course, were Acha's favourite chefs/cooks. :-)

Though some chefs never know it at first, by satisfying acha's palate, they were inadvertanly tending to a huge client; You see, acha never ate alone. Typically, if it weren't a family dinner out, Dad would at least invite Kinnu and Nanu (my cousins who were in their young-20s), who would then tell cousin Shashi about it. Two days later, Shashi brings his sister Rekha and maybe if they were celebrating something, they'd invite cousin Shreedaran...and the list goes on.

Soon, if the restaurant was good, it finds its way all through my family tree of 18 paternal uncles/aunts and 12 maternal. Their children total 50. And this entire circle completes their visits in a matter of 2 weeks or so. Then someone in the family decides that the next birthday bash or aniversary is to be celebrated and the shop closes to the public for one mealtime, as the premises would have to pack up to 70 customers! Repeat ones, mind you. And all this is minus acha's insurance clientelle, of course.

The thing about Acha's sense of perfection was that it was so acute that family /friends /insurance clients totally relied on his "reviews". At the dining table, Acha's words struck a note with customers and chefs alike. So, it was no wonder that when once I met one of acha's favourite restaurant owners-chefs, this gentleman said, "Your father amazes me ...the way he places his orders - the details! He can taste the slightest deviation if there is one when the food arrives!"

Though his friends, students and colleagues remember acha as a teacher and insurance exec, I for one (as do many of my family members), remember him for his exquisite taste for good food.

Captain's Cabin on Jalan Bukit Bintang in the heart of Kuala Lumpur is my favourite of all his picks. And maybe I've been a difficult customer too though it has been 15 years since Acha passed on and I've had no one to "watch and learn from" since then. But somehow I feel like getting my steak medium-rare when I ask for medium-rare, is something I can't help. Maybe it's just genetic.

Oh, and the prawns - if it comes to the table shelled, it's going back to the kitchen!


anand said...

Hello Shobha ,

I am Anand, a self made chef from chennai,I was going through about the chennai restaurants guide so i thought i could visit some critics website also... I wanted to know if there are lot of malaysians are there in chennai ... ??? And how is the idea of an malaysian restaurant in chennai... preferably the vegetarian i am talking about the authentic malaysian restaurant not the nasikandar which is supposed to be a malaysian but changed itself as a mamak type restuarant... i would love to have your comments please...

Shobha Janardanan said...

Hi Anand,

An honour to be asked for my views on your fabulous idea, though I am by no means an authorised food critic lah! :-)

I'm sorry that I've just seen your post - a month since you wrote here. But here's what Shobha, “the Malaysian music student in Chennai” thinks of your idea:

There are indeed lots of Malaysians in Chennai. While I am a non-vege, my vegetarian Malaysian friends rarely find eating vege Indian food a prob in Chennai. Dosa, idli and idiyappam issues! They were introduced to these back in Malaysia, so no prob adjusting to the taste unlike Indians who go to Malaysia and find Malaysian food too new and too diverse.

Something to think about: Are many vegetarians from Malaysia are likely to be of Indian origin like you and me, or devout buddhist/taoist Malaysian chinese tourists for instance? And since our (Malaysian Indian)palates are trained already in Malaysia to eat Indian food, here in Chennai, Indian cuisine already does a good job in attracting the Malaysian indian customer base. That leaves you the non-Indian Malaysians as your target audience, I think lah.

Meanwhile, if you are catering to the Indian population (from India), Malaysian vege cuisine would involve making vege versions of nasi lemak, char KT etc...your recipes will have to be researched well and your recreations of these dishes will have to be authentic, as you'd implied.

If you are however catering to those who may want to try Chinese Vege cuisine from Malaysia, it will be interesting to see how the food ends up being prepared here in chennai, even as Chinese restaurants in Chennai struggle to make the perfect "siukau" pouch.

I think you've a nice idea and a lot of Malaysians will be proud to see Malaysian cuisine gain greater acceptance and popularity in India. In any case, as a person with an idea, you have my warmest regards and my best wishes in your exploring it further with experts and connoisseurs in the field.

workhard said...

I love prawns.. never had ones with shells on.. gotta try.. out..

Work from home India

bhavani v said...

Very beautiful site and informations are also good and worthy.

Best Restaurants in Anna Nagar Chennai