For days before our GoS, a gang of seven women I usually travel with, set out on a new journey, we make lists and frantically exchange details of who’s going to bring what. Five of us are strict vegetarians but none of us good Gujaratis can do without our pre-mixed masala/ginger/lemongrass chai. Thankfully, sachets of these are now easily available. And then, of course, there are the theplas, bhakhri, khakhras, chevdo, chakri, sukhdi, chikki and so on.
Even as we’re organizing the food stash, I make it clear that for me it will be local cuisine all the way. Food, for me, is an essential part of a culture; it defines travel and makes the best memories. Not only is it the taste that is important to me, but I like to smell it, touch it, have a visual connection with it and sometimes hear it as it is cooked in front of me.
I wonder if one can truly experience a culture without experiencing its food and culinary traditions. The pastillas/bastillas (gorgeous, flaky chicken pies, which were traditionally made with dove meat) at a restaurant in Marrakesh, a chicken tagine with black olives and preserved lemons known as l’hamd marakad along a road on our way to a Berber village in the Atlas mountains, a rustic kuku subz, a kind of frittata made with a variety of herbs and the exquisite zereshk pilaf, topped with dry barberries sautéed in a generous amount of butter and saffron at a homestay in a tiny village in the Albouz mountains in Iran, a khorest gojeh sabz (Iranian stew with unripe plums) in a small family-run joint in Tabriz or long pieces of eggplant fried in mustard oil cooked with spices including cinnamon and anise seed powder 13,000 feet above sea level on a trek in Kashmir—all these memories have made my travels so much richer.
And how can I forget a decadently rich and syrupy sweet Knafeh or Kanafeh, Levantine goodness comprising a layer of crisp pastry made with thin crunchy tendrils that resemble vermicelli on a layer of soft pastry crumbs sitting atop a layer of soft white cheese, which is then baked lightly and covered with sugar syrup topped with pistachios from Habeeba in Jordan—a bakery that our guide claimed to be one of the finest in the city—and the pistachio-covered Booza, a hand-pounded ice-cream with an elastic texture made of mastic and sahlab, a flour made from the tubers of the orchid genus Orchis at Badkash in Al Hamidiyah Souk in the old city of Damascus, Syria.
None of this happens by chance, however. Long before I begin stockpiling sachets of tea, I surf the web to draw up a list of typical local foods of the country I’m heading to. Then I note down some rated restaurants and make early reservations—and even there’s no guarantee of a table, as I learnt on my recent visit to Iceland: Despite booking a month ahead, there was no opening for the evening I wanted dinner with a 3 course sampling menu and wine pairing at Fredrik V in Reykjavik.
But it doesn’t end with the meal. Once I’m back home, I try to replicate some of my favourite dishes with alternative ingredients. One of these successful experiments was Kanafeh, with unsweetened Sutarfeni from Khambhat (Cambay) as a base.
This delicious dessert should be consumed hot. The cheese will be very stringy, so have a knife handy. Excellent with tea or coffee.
For the syrup:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
For the kanafeh:
1 lb unsweetened sutarfeni
Half lb unsalted, shredded mozzeralla cheese or any other white, stringy, unsalted cheese
1 cup butter
Half cup milk
2-3 tbsp finely ground pistachios
In a medium pot, combine sugar and water and put on the stove. Let it boil and remove from heat. Let it cool.
Shred the unsweetened sutarfeni in a food processor or chop it up with a sharp knife until very small. Melt butter in a non-stick pan. Add the shredded sutarfeni and mix continuously.
Add the milk and continue mixing until the butter and milk are completely incorporated into the sutarfeni. Remove from heat.
In a round pan or a Pyrex dish, place half of the buttered sutarfeni dough and press down with your hands. Distribute the shredded, unsalted cheese evenly on top of the buttered dough and again press down.
Add the rest of the buttered sutarfeni dough on top of the cheese and press evenly.
Heat the oven to 375º F. Place the pan inside and bake for 45-50 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and pour the cold syrup over the hot Kanafeh. Let the Kanafeh absorb the syrup for about 5 minutes.
Keep in the oven a little longer if you like it slightly more done from the top.
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.