Monday, October 09, 2006

Bollywood Nights

If I died tomorrow and went to Heaven, it would smell like the prep kitchen at Devi.

The air was fragrant with the intoxicating aroma of roasted spices - cardamom, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, asafetida and cinnamon; and the walk-in full of kuri leaves by the sack full, fresh ginger and chilies. I was dilerious by the smell of it all and didn’t hear a word the pastry chef was telling me as we entered the walk-in and she pointed out which side the dairy was on, where the produce was kept, the prepped veg, the fruits for desserts, etc. The squeal of a Bollywood soundtrack played in my head as I drifted into a world of coal rimmed eyes, bright sari’s, tabla’s, sitars and spicy food. The sultry, heady aroma of curries, masalas and biryanis stealing my attention away like an opiate… I was pulled reluctantly back to reality as we stepped out of the walk-in and back into the prep kitchen and I realized that every word Surbi had just told me in the walk-in had gone in one ear and out the other. All I wished for was some time alone in there and a spoon so that I could sample from each and every brightly colored quart container. I was completely transfixed, I’d found olfactory nirvana, my taste buds salivated. I closed my eyes and drew one more deep breath before the walk-in doors closed and I returned to my prep station in a spice induced haze.

My prep list included making shortbread dough spiced with fresh, green cardamom and garam masala, cardamom kulfi (Indian ice-cream made with milk cooked until it is thick and sweet), mango panna cota, tangerine and saffron custard, black cardamom and bittersweet chocolate truffles. A circle of prep cooks gathered around a table listening to the Dead Can Dance while making trays of lentil cakes and samosa, mincing chilis and peeling sweet potatoes. Another prep cook made potato croquettes spiced with chilis, cilantro, ginger, cumin and curry, another one still was busy decorating miniature spiced pineapple cakes. I was in bliss as I weighed and measured.

Cardamom Kulfi (Indian Ice-Cream)
layered with pistachio's and a passion fruit sauce

I figured staff meal had to be good but was afraid I’d missed it as I hadn’t arrived until after 1 o’clock. But luck shined down upon me and at 3 o’clock and I was invited to dine with the rest of the kitchen staff. A cook peeled away the aluminum foil hiding the contents of a deep hotel pan. Inside was a thick, green sauce with yogurt, curry spices and cilantro, chicken and potatoes. Another tray held fragrant jasmine rice and another of naan bread, fresh from the tandoori and still warm. The naan was perfect, lightly chard on the outside, slightly sweet and chewy on the inside. We gathered around the steel tables of the prep kitchen, sitting on glass racks tipped on their side, the pastry chef handed me a bowl of heavily spiced black beans and a friendly banter was tossed back and forth among the kitchen crew and the wait staff like a game of Frisbee on a sunny day in the park. Never before have I enjoyed staff meal quite so much…

Pears with funagreek leaves for a sweet and tangy chutney cook on a giant burner along with peas cooked with mint chutney, cumin and chilies for pea croquettes

Day two was full of rolling spicy pea croquettes, shaping tandoori salmon and crab cakes, cooking down pear chutney, coating cashew brittle in tempered chocolate and gold dust, cutting out fruit jellies and rolling them in sugar. The salmon for the salmon and crab cakes was coated in a red, tangy tondoori sauce and skewered in big chunks on long steel rods, over two feet in length and placed in the tandoori to roast. When trays of it were brought down to the prep kitchen, several cooks (me included) took the liberty of sampling it – we had to making sure it was up to snuff, and it was…

Salmon in the Tandoori

Staff meal this time was yellow curry with potatoes, peas and chicken. Although delicious, I had to comment to Jonathan, the youngest of the kitchen crew, that perhaps curry for lunch everyday might get old. He laughed and said that he didn’t want to burst my bubble by telling me that the day before.

The crew worked away in the prep kitchen and every once in a while chef Hermant, squat and round with his smoldering black eyes and thick black moustache, would come down and make sure that the prep was moving along smoothly, and switching between Spanish and Hindi as he guided and advised the kitchen crew.

I’ll be hanging in the kitchen of Devi for the next few weeks doing some recipe testing with the pastry chef, learning a few new tricks. Then, in just 22 days – it’s off to the Caribbean

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