Smoking food certainly lifts a dish, both in savour and smell. The method can add magic to a cocktail too
Call it a clash of culture or a matter of choice, when it comes to cooking baingan ka bharta — a popular dish in North India, I have an issue with some of my Delhi-bred friends. The bharta, after it is roasted, is typically fried. While they just love it that way, I fight my corner with the argument that the frying part robs the dish of all its natural flavours. And colour too.
For me, baingan ka bharta has always meant this: the brinjal is smoked in wood fire and thereafter peeled and mashed. Add to the mash some chopped onions and coriander leaves and round it off with a spot of mustard oil. Yes, I know what you are pointing at…being an Assamese, I am conditioned to eat the dish this way, like my friends are their way. But the argument is not about conditioning but about creating flavours and a distinctive taste by smoking the vegetable.
Smoking, an age-old method of preparing food, finds a presence in many of our regional cuisines. These cuisines are a proof that the wonder smoking can do to a simple dish is boundless. But I am here to talk about smoking not just to jazz up a dish but lifting the class of a drink, more clearly, a cocktail. We have umpteen bars in our cities now but hardly anyone lists smoked cocktails. Globally, mixologists have achieved super success by using this method in alcoholic brews. From tobacco-laced syrup to smoke-infused ice, from smoking liqueurs to adding smoked salt on a glass rim, a range of possibilities are being tried out in bars across the world.
I know it will take a while before such magic rolls out from behind our bars. But let me share a glimmer of hope that is floating already. Let me bring in here Mix, the roomy bar-lounge on the first floor of The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi, on M.G. Road. More specifically, its bartender with a catchy name, Jitty. Mix has three signature cocktails, all of which are smoked cocktails. Jitty, with palpable excitement in his eyes, shares with me this nugget of information first, “There is a story behind these smoked cocktails. Our bar is made of a single piece of wood restored from the rainforests of Congo, Africa. The piece (it weighed more than 15 tonnes) was carted through sea and land to reach Kerala first from where our architects brought it to the hotel.” To pay homage to this slice of nature in the bar, the bartenders thought up the wood smoked cocktails. According to the hotel’s Director, Marketing Communications, Sukhdeep Bahra, “The bar will donate 20 per cent of its proceeds from the sale of these cocktails to planting trees, an initiative towards a greener planet.”
All the more better! Jitty first attempts for me Mix’s smoked cocktail Gemmer n Goud. Besides being a smoked drink, this blend also stands out for being a fine whiskey cocktail. Whiskeys, you know in India, are typically preferred either on the rocks or with soda.
Jitty begins by slicing out a few juliennes of a pre-smoked ginger in to a cocktail shaker. “I keep it wrapped with cellophane, its shelf life is two days. Else, you have to smoke the ginger again,” he says. Two bar spoons of honey also go into the shaker plus 60 ml of Canadian Club whiskey. For the uninitiated, Canadian Club is an over 150-year-old brand which was first distilled in Detroit, U.S. With the momentum building up for Prohibition, the distiller moved the distillery across the Detroit River in Ontario, Canada. According to a story, the whiskey was very popular in the clubs across the U.S. and Canada in the 19th Century and therefore bagged its suffix, “club whiskey”. Some say, during the time of Prohibition, one of the most popular clients of the distillery was the notorious gangster Al Capone.
Stories aside, Jitty, after adding the whiskey to the honey, muddles it a bit, adds a few blobs of ice and gives it a hearty shake “to mix the honey better.” What becomes of it is a muddy coloured brew with the burnt bits of ginger well-blended. The taste is mind blowing, extraordinary. The smokiness is all pervading.
Next on his list is another smoked cocktail, Lekker. Its base is yet another distinct brand, Hendrick gin, the only gin available to us with a Bulgarian rose and cucumber flavour. Jitty lights a thin piece of wood and puts it under an overturned Martini glass to infuse it with the aroma of the wood. He then brandishes an infusion of Hendrick gin with a palmful of raisins, saying, “It has been infused for the last 72 hours.” 45 ml of the infused gin is poured into a shaker plus some ice cubes and shaken mildly. The concoction — white in hue — is then carefully fine-strained into the smoked glass. “It is a simple drink. Using the ice is important to dilute the taste of the gin,” he says. No garnish is used in the drinks to give them a minimalist look.
The third smoked cocktail is an after-dinner drink, named Koffee Kongo. “It is a layered drink made with Kahlua, Amarula, Bailey’s and coffee served with smoked chocolate cigar. These cigars are made in our bakery,” says Jitty.
Sounds pretty tempting but with dinner too far away, I skip it and soon leave Mix appreciating the method of smoking, the possibilities. And then of course I think about what my friends call my recipe of baingan ka bharta — baingan chutney! Well, call what you may, it doesn’t take away the smokiness of it!