22 May 2017
Zoom wayyyy out with me, to about 3500 B.C.E. …
Roughly 5,000 years. That’s a timeline encompassing everything from the end of the Neolithic Period into the Bronze Age, and into the Iron Age after that; a timeline bearing witness to the rise and fall of both the Roman Republic and Empire, the Norman conquest of Britain, the writings and life of Shakespeare, and the exploration and discovery of the Colonial Period; multiple epochs, throughout which automobiles, space travel, and particle physics have all become part of our collective memory of human achievement. That’s 50 centuries worth of time, more than 178 generations of human existence…
That’s how long human beings have been brewing, perfecting, and enjoying beer.
Steam Bell™ Beer Works, in Richmond, VA is part of this extended historical network of artisans, libationary torchbearers, and local producers that carry on the centuries-old work of creating the world’s most popular beverage — and someone who has tried his fair share of fermented beverages, I can say that they’re doing a damn fine job.
On May 22nd, E.A.T. and our guests had the privilege and pleasure of joining the Steam Bell team at their brewery to partake in some of their most delicious renditions of the world’s oldest ‘recipe’, alongside the culinary offerings of Chef Sandeep “Sunny” Baweja (Lehja, Richmond, VA).
After arriving, guests explored the Steam Bell Taproom, and met their dinner mates in the warm and inviting space. Inside the taproom feels cozy with a healthy dose of Americana and industry — lights strung prettily from the ceiling illuminate signs made of wood and metal, and barrels stacked along the wall. Even before you taste any of the beer, you get a sense that the people at Steam Bell take their work seriously, that quality is important to them, and that they want you to feel comfortable and at home.
From the start, the atmosphere was one of easy camaraderie, and curiosity, the ideal ingredients for an evening exploring the nuance and delights of food paired with beer.
Once the introductions had been made, Chef Sunny came out to the guests to present the first course, as he would for each course throughout the evening, telling them about his unique preparation, a bit about the origin of the dish, and offered some guidance about how to approach what was on the plate.
Course One | Chaat with Chickpeas, Wheat Crisps, Onion, Tomatoes, and Yogurt-Tamarind-Mint Dressing.
The etymology of the word “Chaat” points us in several directions depending on which of the 22 official languages, or 1,652 (!) dialects you investigate, but the basic thrust of the word means “to lick,” “to eat noisily,” “a tasting,” or “a delicacy.”
Chef Sunny jokingly explained about the connection between language and identity in India, say “hello” to him, and he’ll know what region you’re from; start a conversation, and he can discern what city; by the third sentence he’ll be able to tell you your address.
Much like the languages of India, the possible versions of chaat are numerous, and likewise act as indications of regional taste and preference, the spices and preparation changing almost by the mile marker.
Chef Sunny served his personal rendition of chaat in a bamboo “boat,” to demonstrate the way one might encounter the dish in India, at an outdoor stall or food cart almost any time of day.
The refreshing tang of the yogurt-mint-tamarind dressing paired beautifully with the light bodied spice of the Steam Bell Grisette, the nuance of each drawn out without being overpowered. And the wheat crisps provided just the right amount of lightly fried richness to make each sip of beer a delightful counterpoint, bouncing off of the fresh onion and perfectly ripe tomato on the palate.
Course Two | Gobhi Manchurian, Fried Cauliflower Florets, and Soy-Tomato-Chili Glaze
Gobhi Manchurian is a perfect example of culinary cultural hybridity, as the dish was adapted from Chinese cuisine, and refashioned with the use of Indian spices. The dish itself is fairly simple — spice a flour mixture, coat your cauliflower, fry it, and glaze after frying in the gravy of your choice — but the complexity and intensity of flavor is surprising.
Frying fresh vegetables, you get both the natural crunch of the cauliflower, and the golden crispiness of the fried flour; the saltiness from the soy, acidity from the fresh tomato, and heat from the chili all round out against one another as the fried morsels slowly soak up the glaze; almost imperceptible, but crucial nonetheless, a garnish of a few sprinkled chives add the faintest herbal quality, and a light dappling of green which pops against the brick-red ghobi, inviting you in to take a bite; on the palate you’re left wondering what exactly were the spices in Sunny’s flour mixture. Cumin? Cardamom? Fenugreek?
The big flavors of this dish call for a beer pairing that will stand up to their assertiveness. Steam Bell’s Brindled Brown Ale fits the bill. Fermented over chocolate and locally sourced pecans, the brown ale adds a sweet nuttiness that balances perfectly against the heat and salt of the ghobi. Between the dish and the beer, you would be hard pressed to find a more complete spectrum of flavor.
Course Three | Shrimp & Grits with Upma Cake, Sautéed Shrimp, and Red Pepper Chutney
I bet you didn’t know that this culinary staple of the American South came from the Asian Subcontinent… and that’s because it didn’t, but it’s sure revitalized by the spices and culinary techniques thereof.
Upma cake, like chaat, has myriad variations based on where you find yourself in India. It can be made with corn, semolina flour, vermicelli, and other ingredients. Most versions have seasonings and vegetables cooked into the mixture.
Chef Sunny’s version bridged a gap between the holy grails of breakfast food and southern cooking. Flavorful as a proper corn bread, with a crisp top layer like a perfectly made waffle, and a soft creamy interior, not unlike a fluffy moist pancake griddled in the drippings of a cast-iron skillet, the upma cake was punctuated with spices and small “pops” of fresh vegetables throughout.
On top of the cake was the shrimp, pink and warm, coated in red pepper chutney that was equal parts sweet and spicy (probably leaning towards spicy to wake up your tongue). Steam Bell’s Patchronce was the fruit-frothy yin to the shrimp and grits’ spicy creamy yang.
Brewed with blackberries and raspberries, this Belgian ale is at once fruit forward and light-bodied, fizzing across the tongue and diffusing the pleasantly smoldering embers of the shrimp’s chutney glaze.
Course Four | Butter Chicken: Grilled Pulled Chicken in Tomato-Honey Cream Sauce over Basmati Rice Pulau
Rice Pulau (or rice pilaf, depending where in the world you are) is a dish whose variants can be found and tasted across the Balkans, Middle East, Central and South Asia, North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The use of basmati rice, however, adds a lightness and fragrance that elevates the dish, making it at once familiar and slightly floral. (In fact, the Hindi word “basmati” literally means fragrant.)
Chef Sunny’s butter chicken was almost unfolding it was so tender, the tomato-honey-cream slipping into place between the cracks and filling each bite with a richness to savor.
Contending with these rich flavors was Steam Bell’s Old Beau IPA. The slight bitterness of the IPA was the perfect compliment to the plate-coating creaminess of the chicken. Each sip refreshed, cleaned the palate, and tickled awake the tongue for the next bite of food.
Course Five | Kulfi Pistachio: Street Style Indian Ice Cream with Coffee Crème
The final course of the evening was an ice cream so light it had to be enjoyed quickly before floating off the plate. Where most ice creams leave the palate worn out by their richness and cloyingly sweet quality, Chef Sunny’s kulfi was an elegant exploration of what dessert could be, a definitive end to the meal, taking the diner to a place of culinary satisfaction without the slightest sense of overindulgence.
The beer pairing for this course shone equally bright. Steam Bell’s Tiramisu Stout, a nitro milk stout brewed with whole vanilla beans, rum soaked oak chips and Ironclad Coffee Co. Brazilian coffee. Earthiness, creaminess, just a hint of roasted beans bitter acidity to cut through the ice cream — this pairing is one to be repeated again and again.
To see what excitement Steam Bell™ Beer Works is brewing up next, check out www.steambell.beer. From live music, to festivals, Steam Bell Beer Works always has something going on, so definitely stop by!
A full list of Steam Bell’s beers on tap can be found on their Facebook Page. If something piques your interest, whether you are new to beer, or an advanced home brewer, between the extremely knowledgeable and friendly staff and the absolutely delicious brews, a visit to Steam Bell is 100% worth your time.
Also, follow them on Instagram to get behind the scenes with Steam Bell’s crew and see what they’re up to.Check Out Steam Bell™ Beer Works!
And if you want to taste for yourself the culinary concoctions of Chef Sunny, I can’t recommend highly enough that you take a trip to Lehja. The calm elegant atmosphere, attentive staff, and authentic flavors will have you feeling like a regular from your very first visit — and the food will make you one — seriously.
Check Lehja out on Facebook as well to stay up to date with Sunny and the rest of their team as they continue represent the highest caliber of Indian cuisine.