Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Filmy litter

Do you remember the movie Dil Chahta Hai and that scene where Akshay Khanna meets Dimple Kapadia? There she is trying to heave her luggage into her new flat when the handle snaps on one of her suitcases. Akshay steps in to help the damsel in distress. But what does said damsel do with the broken suitcase handle? Well, she tosses it aside, of course.
Cut to the Kannada movie, Pallaki. Here we had handsome hero Prem crazily in love with heroine Rumanitu Choudhary. You remember the movie’s great hit song, Kannalli neeneyne, of course. A sequence in the song shows Rumanitu walking down the road with a friend when the heel on one of her sandals suddenly snaps. So the disgusted heroine takes off her broken sandal, tosses it aside, and walks on.
I loved how little things were shown in such a realistic fashion in Dil Chahta Hai – how, for example, when they finally get her luggage in, Dimple collapses onto the divan, and then realizes she has landed on her bag and pulls it out from under her. Or how Aamir Khan gives his mike to a technician before he goes out to dance and sing Koi kahey, kahta rahey. Sadly, the scene with the suitcase handle also mirrors reality: most people would have done as Dimple (and Rumanitu) did. She threw her trash aside amongst some plants near a wall. Not in a dustbin. The saddest part is that the heroes in both the movies did not find their lady loves’ littering ways odd or inappropriate. Nor for that matter, did anyone in the audience. Is it any wonder our cities are full of trash? Raise your hands all of you who keep your bus tickets, chocolate wrappers or juice boxes with you till you can find a place to dispose of them. Raise you hands all those who talk to others to stop them littering.
What if the directors had done things just a little differently? Dimple’s character could very easily have been shown throwing the broken handle into a dustbin, just as Rumanitu’s character in Pallaki could very easily have carried her broken shoes home to throw them in a dustbin there, rather than toss them into some bushes along the footpath. Would these minor changes have influenced anyone’s behaviour? Perhaps not with just one scene in one movie. But if all our movies showed our heroes and heroines treating trash responsibly, a standard of acceptable and desirable behaviour could perhaps get set: it’s un-cool to litter.
We can rant all we want about how the administration/ municipality/ politicians/the neighbours/poor people/ auto drivers/tourists/ somebody (other than us, that it) is to blame for the piles of trash that we find everywhere in Bangalore. But the truth is, it is us. We are the ones who dirty our cities.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ah! Chocolate!

You don’t ordinarily see a complicated graph and accompanying instructions on how to eat it when you unwrap a chocolate bar. But then, a 99% cocoa bar is no ordinary chocolate bar.

The first thing you see when you unwrap part of a Lindt’s 99% cocoa bar is a cautionary notice. “Important,” it screams, “The chocolate you are about to have is a chocolate that has a very high cocoa content! To fully appreciate this exceptional chocolate, we invite you to follow our suggestions on tasting.” If the intent is to intimidate, Lindt succeeds admirably. In most cases anyway. But a confirmed dark-chocaholic only drools in anticipation on reading this and feverishly tears off the outer cardboard package. Inside is a golden wrapper with more instructions. And more warnings. “This chocolate brings out all the force and richness of cocoa beans,” it intones, before going on to suggest that you prime yourself, or rather your palate, by first adjusting to 70%, and then 85% cocoa. Been there done that, I think. Next? Lindt suggests you first take a small bite and let it melt on the tongue to savour the flavours. Now we’re talking. Except there is a scary graph that follows which lists the various flavours you can expect and their intensities – bitter, acidic, astringent, fruity. Whew!
Chocolate these days is serious business, I realised, comparable to wine with all its attitude. So to help you appreciate it better, here’s a quick crash course on what goes into making a chocolate bar. Like wine, good chocolate has terroir, which means geography matters. So the true chocolate connoisseur will detect the hints of vanilla in cocoa beans from Madagascar, smoky or earthy undertones from West African beans and fruity or even flowery flavours in those from Central and South America. To savour these differences, single-origin chocolates are all the rage right now in many parts of the world though they are difficult to come by in India. But many a fine chocolate is made of a blend of premium beans. Lindt uses beans mainly from West Africa with a small proportion form South America – the exact blend is a closely guarded secret!

The type of cocoa beans used can also affect the ultimate taste experience. The three varieties of cocoa beans are Criollo, Forastero and a hybrid of the two called Trinitario, named after Trinidad where it originated. Criollos are considered the best beans for making fine chocolates, on account of their fruity flavours, but they account for only 10% of the world’s cocoa crop. Most of the world’s chocolates are made from Forastero beans.

And then there’s how the beans are processed. Cocoa pods are harvested twice a year. The pods have to be split open to get the beans which are inside. The beans are then fermented either by spreading them out and keeping them covered with banana leaves for four to seven days, or by keeping them in leaf-lined covered baskets. Too less fermenting and the beans can become bitter and astringent; too much and you can get other undesirable flavours. Then they are dried and shipped off to chocolate manufacturers who will roast the pods to get the nibs – the meat of the cocoa bean – out. The nibs are ground until the friction and heat of the milling reduces them to a thick chocolate coloured liquid, known as 'mass' or chocolate liquor, which contains 53-58% cocoa butter. This is the basis of all chocolate and cocoa products.
Not all chocolate is created equal. Milk chocolate can have anywhere from 25 to almost 50% cocoa (although some American chocolates can have far less) and as the name suggests, it also generally has milk, milk powder or condensed milk, along with sugar and emulsifiers. Dark chocolate, sometimes called bittersweet chocolate, contains a lot more cocoa, upwards of 60% and much less sugar. If you’re wondering how it is different from simply eating cocoa powder, the answer lies in the fat. Cocoa, or to be more precise, cocoa solids, include cocoa butter and cocoa cake. Cocoa powder is made from cocoa cake alone, while chocolate also contains cocoa butter.

While the sweetness of milk chocolate has almost universal appeal, dark chocolate is not your everyday comfort food. Like wine, it can be an acquired taste and needs a refined palate to truly appreciate its nuances. Which is why Lindt’s suggestion that you educate your palate in stages actually makes sense.

So to get back to the 99% percent cocoa bar. The not-so-fine-print and the daunting graph and instructions past me, I finally take a bite and wait to be transported to chocolate heaven.

Heaven is bitter. And somewhat dusty, initially. But patience has its rewards and a few short moments later, as the chocolate melts, I can feel the myriad flavours of the cocoa beans coming through. There are the hints of acidity, lots of fruity notes, a whisper of sweetness, and finally, a creaminess that, once the experience is over, begs for an encore.

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Deccan Herald some months ago.