Gourmet gumshoes

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on August 14, 2014 Published on March 29, 2014

Feeding curiosity: Kathi Roll. Photo: Shutterstock

Feeding curiosity: Across the-bridge noodles. Photo: Shutterstock

Meet paperback sleuths as keen on feta as forensic evidence; as good at locating the city’s best kathi rolls as at tracking down three-toed cobblers with a suspicious past

When you sit down with a murder mystery, you know you are in for a scary, tummy-turning ride. You expect to feel disturbed and jumpy. What you don’t expect to feel, however, is very, very hungry.

After all, limbless torsos and bloodstained bathtubs rank high on the list of appetite suppressants. So nobody can blame American and British detectives of crime fiction for surviving on coffee, booze and uninspiring burgers.

Not all fictional bloodhounds share these delicate sensibilities, however. And it’s wonderful to stumble upon paperback sleuths who are as keen on feta as forensic evidence; who are as good at locating the city’s best kathi rolls as they are at tracking down three-toed cobblers with a suspicious past. Many of these detectives are wonderful guides to their cities and cuisines — and willy-nilly introduce distant readers to elegant landmarks famous for their light-as-air profiteroles or tiny street stalls dishing out divine noodles.

Take, for example, the safari-suited head of Most Private Investigators Ltd — who stars in four uproarious novels by Tarquin Hall. Vish Puri is happy to take on bookies, politicians and hairy thugs, but never on an empty stomach. “Chubby” — as he is appropriately nicknamed — knows every worthy chaatwala in Delhi and is always on the lookout for “kokis (Sindhi onion parathas) served with a daub of fresh butter and some curd and garlic pickle on the side” or “paprichaat with lashings of tamarind chutney at a roadside stall”. While in Lucknow, he conducts “top secret” meetings in the aromatic lanes of Aminabad. After all, if you must plot and peer over your shoulder, you might as well do it over galauti kebab, biryani, sultaani daal and kulfi with rose-scented falooda.

Similarly, Cetin Ikmen — the Istanbul cop in Barbara Nadal’s mystery series — is a connoisseur of all things chocolate and leads readers into the elegant pastanes (pastry shops) that dot his glorious city. He then dithers over the “rich gateaux, profiteroles and croissants oozing with rich liquid chocolate” as well as “syrup-drenched baklavas, thick rice puddings and asure, a sticky fruit and nut dessert packed with fruit and calories.” True torture — especially when all you have in the fridge is half a bar of moldy Dairy Milk.

No one, however, does the gourmet gumshoe thing as naturally as Sicilian and Italian detectives. Both Salvo Montalbano, who nabs villains in Sicily, and Guido Brunetti, who tracks killers in Venice, have inspired cookbooks, food tours and restaurant menus. In fact, the two series are popular as much for their descriptions of bustling markets and lazy lunches as for the whodunit angle.

Montalbano — a character created by Andrea Camilleri — has a girlfriend named Livia. But truth be told, is as attached to his feisty housekeeper Adelina and her “simple but zestful” Sicilian fare. Her cold pasta with tomatoes, basil and black passuluna olives gives off “an aroma to wake the dead”. And her rabbit cacciatore brings joyous tears to his eyes. (It’s cooked “hunter-style” with bell-peppers, capers and tomatoes. The rustic recipe works with chicken as well — and I’m sure many readers are grateful to Adelina for introducing them to this easy but distinctive stew.)

More than any other dish, however, Montalbano loves Adelina’s arancini — fried rice balls stuffed with a meat sauce and mozzarella. And he is willing to go to any lengths to sample the arancini she is planning to make on New Year’s Eve. Lie to his boss and girlfriend, fabricate evidence and skip a romantic weekend in Paris.

The upright Guido Brunetti may not go quite as far. But the protagonist of Donna Leon’s series allows his readers tantalising glimpses into Venetian restaurants, his own kitchen and the Italian passion for food. A working lunch at a sandwich bar involves plates of “artichoke hearts and bottoms, some fried olives, shrimp and calamari” and then the triangular sandwiches, tramezzino, with innovative fillings — shrimp and tomato or dried beef and arugula. While a more elaborate lunch could extend to “sardines marinated in onions and raisins”, heaped plates of spaghetti with tiny clams and a grilled cod.

After which Brunetti heads home to discuss his macabre cases with his wife Paola over “tuna steaks simmered in a sauce of capers, olives and tomatoes” or “prosciutto with figs and pasta with fresh pepper and shrimp”. Incidentally, Paola is a busy professor with a stock of fuss-free yet fabulous recipes — a trip to her fictional kitchen always throws up menu ideas.

If jaunting through Venice with Brunetti reveals much more about Italian cuisine than a meal at our local trattoria, the Inspector Chen series by Qiu Xiaolong is unparalleled in imparting the flavours of Shanghai cuisine.

Inspector Chen has a tough life — dealing with bloated corpses and politically powerful bullies. But nothing puts him off his crab banquet and Across-the-bridge noodles (rice noodle soup from Yunnan). In fact, he seems to worry quite as much about his dinner party menus as about the cold-blooded killers lurking about the Bund. For his housewarming party, he is determined to serve “more than just a homely meal”. The ambitious outcome is “chunks of stomach on a bed of green napa (cabbage), thin slices of smoked carp spread on fragile leaves of jicai and steamed shrimps with tomato sauce. There was also a platter of eels with scallions and ginger, ordered from a restaurant. He had opened a can of Meiling steamed pork and added some green vegetables to it to make another dish... When the guests arrived a soup would be made from the juice of the canned pork and canned pickle.” To supplement this spread, his food-obsessed friend Lu brings along a melt-in-the-mouth Beggar’s Chicken cooked in Yellow Mountains’ pine needles. “The recipe,” Lu says, “supposedly originated when a beggar baked a soil-and-lotus-leaf-wrapped chicken in a pile of ashes”.

Feeling adventurous, I started hunting for manageable recipes of Beggar’s Chicken. But there’s no such thing — especially in Mumbai, where dried lotus leaves and pork bellies are not stocked by Honesty Stores down the road. The only option is to try our luck at those expensive, “authentic” Chinese restaurants. Or, of course, plan a trip to the city where Chen nabs crooks and eats such magnificent meals.

(This is part of a monthly series that follows a food trail through the realm of fiction.)

( Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street)

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Published on March 29, 2014
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