About Sambrita Basu
Sambrita Basu is a food-fascinated travel writer and photographer based out of Bangalore India. A background and a degree in hospitality and restaurant management paved her interest in food. As the secretary of the institution’s editorial club, she contributed regularly and wrote about food in their annual magazine, A la Carte.
Sambrita has published interviews of celebrity authors and business veterans in international publications like Infineon. Her contributions also include photographs on foods and restaurants of Bangalore for DNA—a leading newspaper publication in Bangalore. Sambrita’s creative expressions transport readers to alleys, hotels, hide-outs, restaurants, attics, and spice markets in several cities across the world.
Sam (as she is popularly known by her friends and family) doesn’t write for a living, but she lives to write.
Latest Posts by Sambrita Basu
I am a curious-cat when it comes to trying to figure out why things around the globe can be similar. Be it a dancing style or food. Personalities or songs. Cut green-apple surfaces and the face of an owl. This has happened several times with me. When I first tasted Ethiopian cuisine, way back in 2003, I was in awe to realize how similar this was to Indian food-fare. And, why not? Since the 1400’s, traders have introduced some non-indigenous ingredients that have added to what we now know of as authentic Ethiopian cuisine.
From Portugal came chile peppers, and from the Orient—ginger. India played a part in North African trade as well, introducing all the exotic spices that form the basis of the spiced butter called Berbere( a medium that is used for their culinary fare). Or the Flamenco. How similar is it with (yes, Kathak), but also conceptually with all our other Indian classical dances! While all other western dances have independent movement of the hands and the feet, I was very pleasantly surprised to see how easy it was for me to pick up the Flamenco(with my background of Bharatnatyam), because of the interdependence the hand movements had with the foot movements in terms of direction, sway, language, expression as well as rhythm. And it did not surprise me that the husband who is an excellent dancer himself, with his background of western ballroom and salsa found it quite trying! Western ballroom dances use minimal convergence of hands and legs. Its a close hold with vigorous footwork and times, or heavy sways and beds and swirls, with minimal hand-work at times.
So, it wasn’t completely unexpected when I ended up comparing salsa with the extraordinarily refreshing Peruvian cuisine, I tasted last month at Andina, in London. Salsa (the music) is named after the Spanish word for hot sauce. This is probably because of the zesty taste of the condiment that can be found in the tunes and moves of the music. For a minute now, compare it to the aji amarillo, a yellow chilli that gives Peruvian cuisine the zing and the dang! But the similarity does not end there. Just like salsa is a mixture of many different kinds of Latin , Puerto Rican, Dominican, Afro-Cuban, jazz and even rock music strains and cultures, so is Peruvian cuisine, if you see! Peruvian cuisine is the result of a nearly 500-year melting pot : mixing the best parts of spicy Spanish, the tempestuous African, the demure Japanese and lively Chinese immigration. Then of course is the pre-dominant influence of the mysterious Incas and the native Quechua( pron: kech-wah) culture Peru soaks in!
Andina is as much a bar as a restaurant, attracting a lively mix of well-dressed Peruvians and otherwise, on both the smaller ground floor and in the bar of the much larger basement dining room. The food presented is pretty as a picture. Delicate and alluring. The upbeat music is well-chosen; Andina’s owner is a former DJ and a music biz honcho. It is a place with exciting food, housed in a space which would be quiet and comfortable in the daytime and exciting at night. The location is in the quaint Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, where the backstreets have vintage cars parked in front of their porches, and flower pots hung from the balconies.
For starters, let’s start with Nibbles! A starter is a good way to orient oneself to a great Peruvian meal. Unheard of in Peru until the 17th century most Peruvian starters today often replace a full meal or are also eaten as a small lunch or snack. Here is what I had-
Its crunchy corn, but its special corn! Cancha is a popular snack in the Andean countries, often served alongside ceviche. It’s a popcorn made from a special variety of corn called Maiz chulpe. Maiz chulpe is a yellow corn grown in Ecuador especially for drying and then toasting. In the package, it looks a lot like popcorn—well, relaxed popcorn, since the kernels aren’t nearly so taut and bulbous. The pointy kernels pop when heated, and will even jump right out of the skillet, but the inside of the corn does not burst or bloat up like regular popcorn. Instead, cancha corn gets slightly puffy and toasted, like corn nuts, and it has a starchy crunchy taste that is quite addictive. The killer sealer is that they are ‘popped’ with pork fat!
Mini Pork Chicharróns:
If you are counting calories, I wouldn’t eat chicharróns every day! They make this with pork rind. Or chunks of pork belly, rubbed with baking soda and salt to make it brittle, brown and flaky. The meat or the rind is placed in a low flame water-bath with spices and seasonings (cayenne, sugar, paprika perhaps?) till no water remains, and then hike the heat up to have it fried in its own fat. As good as therapy for me! The layer of meat was crispy on the surface yet tender on the inside. Best of all, the fat cushioning the skin and the flesh was sweet and solid, with just a small burst of porky juice flowing from each bite. On the side was salsa criolla, a relish made of onions, aji amarillo chilies, lime juice and a few cilantro leaves and a chilly sauce made with the shiny and cunning ricoto peppers; a simple mix of intense flavor, piquant and colorful and a crunchy texture that awakens all your senses!
Quinoa is a high protein grain that has been cultivated for centuries in the Andes mountain regions of South America. These quinoa croqettes are made with cooked quinoa, ham, and parmesan cheese. Crispy on the outside and soft and crumbly inside, these make a delicious warm appetizer Made with simple Peruvian ingredients like queso fresco (fresh white cheese) and the essential aji amarillo (Peruvian yellow chili) this spicy sauce is considered as Peruvian comfort food at its best!
From the Ceviche section, next came tiraditos, which are really the younger brother of ceviche.
Ceviches became well-known in the last 20 years or so in traditional Peruvian cuisine and much of its credits goes to Japanese immigrants who ate raw fish in their meals. Some gastronomic experts also suggest it’s closer to Italian carpaccio, popularized earlier in the 20th century by Genovese immigrants. A take on ceviche published in the Guardian:
“Ceviche, for those that steer clear of such vulgar things as trends, is, at its most basic, raw fish marinated in citrus juice and spices; the acid in the juice breaks down the protein in the meat in much the same way as cooking would. The flesh becomes opaque, the texture firmer and dryer, yet the flavours remain spanking fresh: it’s the perfect zingy dish for a warm autumn day. American chef Rick Moonen describes it as a ‘citrus cocktail’, which sounds about right.”
Two are the main differences between these two cousins- the cut and onions. While ceviche is cut in bite-size cubes and comprises a generous amount of onions, tiradito is sliced in fine, long pieces and carries no onions.
Tiradito de Pato Nikkei:
Tiradito is a dish that could only have been born in Peru, and some say that it’s the perfect marriage between the Peruvian ceviche and the Japanese sashimi. Thinly sliced fish swimming in a spicy sea of citrus, this pays homage to the fusion of two cultures, which began over 100 years ago when the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Peru on a ship called the Sakura Maru. Nikkei usually means things or people of mixed racial descent – which I presume applies to the food as well. Perhaps the tiradito is the dish that best represents the Nikkei. For what else is a fine tiradito but a version of the sashimi? When the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Peru early in the previous century, they brought with them their ingrained habits, which were able to adapt, over time, to theirs. This marriage of flavours, whose offspring would be born, decades later, is now known as Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Peruvian creole flavor with the Japanese. Marinated in lemon, no onions and peppers, hot peppers or olives, sweet potato and corn kernels, the tiradito, would have been created in Japanese restaurants that started their business in the poor neighborhoods of Lima in the early twentieth century.
This pretty thing on the plate came with slices of duck breast, served with yuzu tiger’s milk, red radish and pomegranate seeds. You ask what is tiger’s milk? Well, nothing to do with milking a tiger! Leche de tigris, or tiger’s milk, is the Peruvian term for the citrus-based marinade that cures the seafood in a ceviche or a tiradito. Also known as leche de pantera, this leftover fish runoff usually contains lime juice, sliced onion, chiles, salt, and pepper — along with a bit of fish juice and is believed to be both a hangover cure as well as an aphrodisiac! The bright yellow that overpowers the visual of this dish is from yuzo. Another Japanese ingredient that tastes like a mix of lemon, mandarin and grapefruit and is a rare costly citrus fruit from Japan . To me this dish is best described as ‘sunshine on a plate’!
Teradita de Conchas:
When the plate arrived at my table, I paused- simply to admire. It was as if someone had spread a zoomed version of my favourite shiuli flower( the coral or night flowering jasmine/ parijata), and splashed on it a generous helping of marigold petals! Thinly diced diver scallops, mango puree infused tiger’s milk, a dramatic dash of squid ink, with a side of pickled red onions.
Over to the Classics, as they call it!
Corn cake with Avocado:
This was the carb component of my meal. Grains are a big part of Peruvian cuisine. This one came moist in the inside and crumbly and provocative on the outside, again sitting pretty on a plate, served with salsa criolla and sharp slices of delightfully citrus spiked bits of red onions.
Lengua de Arguedas:
Perhaps this was a dish which was a favourite of the famous Peruvian poet Jose Maria Arguedas! I couldn’t figure out why else this dish would carry his name! All I could concentrate on was that the lengua, or the ox-tongue was absolutely delicious! It tasted just like any normal piece of beef would, except that it was buttery soft, dense and rich. It was slow cooked in a piquant brown stew, with voluptuous oca tubers( another rare south American root vegetable from the yam family), soaked in a beer and a panca chilly(another bright burgundy Peruvian chilly) infusion with silly little cress leaves scattered on it.
Seal it then, with the sweetness of the Desserts..
Huayno de Chocolate:
That’s dessert. A pretty bowl filled to the brim with a chocolate and avocado mousse, swirled with a peculiar combination of tamarillo fruit sauce, that leaves behind sharp aftertastes of tang or sweetness (tastes similar to kiwifruit, tomato, or passion fruit) and the chancaca syrup that is an orange peel spruced sweet sauce made from sugarcane extracts. Sprinkled on top was purple corn crumble and bits of sweet plantain chips.
The Peruvian meal wouldn’t have been complete without the Pisco from the selection of Pisco Bar Cocktails
Meaning ‘ little bird’ in the native Andean language of Quechua, pisco is a grape brandy produced in Chile and Peru. It came about in the 16th century, when the conquistadores who had colonised the region began to grow grapes to make wine. The results were then distilled to create pisco. This high-proof spirit was developed as an alternative to Orujo, a pomace brandy, which at that time had to be imported from Spain. Mine was a refreshing one called Cholo Sotil, that was a pisco flavoured with beetroot, grapefruit, tomato shrub and madeira wine.
So, step aside Spain and Korea, say Salud to Peru .. they are having their moment in the gastronomic sun. Con mucho cariño, Andina!
Welcome to the ever so quaint Cotswolds in England, a lovely drive west from London, which will not just take your breath away, but take you back in time. By the time you get there, you are ready for this transport! The trees, the shops, the inns — glorious.
Old Mill at Lower Slaughter is owned by Gerald Harris, a well known jazz singer from north London. His pretty (and) efficient daughter Linda runs the Mill store and manages visitors at the museum with him. He tells me that one fine day he and the family came to Bourton-on-water for a holiday, and fell so much in love with the solitude of this place, that he never went back! Not too many people follow their dreams with such a passion. And when they turn out chivalrous and charming, you wouldn’t mind the thin streak of narcissism that come as a package!
It’s not everyday that you get to be personally chauffeured in a zipping Porsche Cayenne Turbo, through roads which show you the horizon, clouds that take the shape of hearts and white wild-flowers spread on rolling hills nodding their head in agreement…to the quaint little station of Moreton-on-Marsh, to catch the last train to Paddington! Why? Because I got late hopping onto the tour bus with the others, while chatting with him across the counter ,swirling away a cone of elderflower flavoured ice-cream!
That’s how my trip to the Cotswold ends. I started telling you the tale, backwards……and, deliberately so. You need to take a step back and revisit time, if you are in the Cotswold. England’s Cotswolds villages — while just a couple of hours’ drive away from London — feel like a world apart. This tidy little region of characteristic old towns and gentle green hills is perfect for travelers looking to balance urban Britain with some thatched cuteness. Each of Europe’s famously quaint regions has a historical basis for its present-day charm. For the Cotswolds, it’s a combination of old sheep wealth, which produced big fancy manor houses, gorgeous churches, and stately market towns — all paid for by wool — and isolation from the rest of England, both economically and physically.
With the rise of cotton and the Industrial Revolution, the wool industry collapsed, people moved to the big cities. Time stood still in the Cotswolds towns for a while. Suddenly, attracted possibly by the beautiful landscape settings, the once wealthy merchants, families who inherited large sums of money soon started coming back to purchase or live in these honey kissed homes. It remained incognito for a while, away from main-line vision. That, combined with sparse highway and train service to the region, turned the Cotswolds into a kind of backwater that seemed to miss out on the modern economic current.
While I often get tempted to overuse the word ‘quaint’, I have to save the word for this emerald hamlet. By quaint, I don’t mean just thatched huts, stunning flowerbeds, brooks and charming teahouses. There’s a quirkiness — a jigsaw of time-passed, devitalized-nobility, clueless-aristocracy, rustic-naivety of the region — that charmed me to no end.
The Cotswolds are crisscrossed with hedgerows, dotted with storybook villages, sprinkled with sheep, occasional handsome horses, vintage cars that people still drive and vales that form chiffon contours.
Chipping Campden was apparently once the home of the richest Cotswold wool merchants. Like most market towns, there is a High Street. The street was once wide enough for sheep business on market days, when livestock and packhorses laden with piles of freshly shorn fleece would fill the streets! Today it has two cute tea rooms, pubs, a flower shop, a pet shop, pretty balconies with poppies and pansies and a parade of stone buildings.
Despite differing architectural styles, they are all made from the same Cotswold stone — the only stone allowed today. At the center of town is the 17th-century Market Hall, Chipping Campden’s most famous monument. Back then, it was an elegant — even over-the-top — shopping hall for the townsfolk who’d come here to buy their produce. Today, the hall, which is rarely used, stands as a testimony to the importance of trade to medieval Campden.
This is where I stopped for lunch. At Noel Arms Hotel – one of the oldest Cotswold inns and steeped in history. They say that Charles II stayed here during the English Civil War. Thankfully, things are a bit more relaxed these days! Head Chef, Indunil Upatissa has won the Great British Pub Awards for Best Curry Chef three years in a row and is the current title holder. I couldn’t simply leave this town without experiencing one of his famous beef curries, and a pint of beer now, can I?
After a finger-licking good meal, next was a stop at Britain’s finest ‘wool’ church (well, a church built with the money of the wool-trade!) to thank the lord for the good food! The St. James Church is quite an imposing composition on its own- with pinnacles topping the diagonal buttresses and a pierced parapet with ogee arches, soaring high above the terrain. Under the red carpet leading you towards the alter, lies a secret passage, tells us Sister Gertrude. That’s where was a secret passage leading families to a safer environment during the Civil war! Now, the rung on the big metal slab doesn’t open up.
The rushing River Eye powers a historic mill on the northwestern edge of Lower Slaughter. The Slaughters derive their names from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘slough’ meaning wet land and ‘slohtre’ a muddy place or from the name of their Norman landowners.
Nothing in all earnest, to do with any kind of slaughters! In quiet eddies at the back of the river, in gleeful laziness, wild ducks and handsome swans wade. Oh what a pretty sight to see a mother swan carrying a cygnet on her back. The little one falls, scrambles up, tags on to the wings, squeaks and is back again on mumma’s back! From the Upper Slaughter to the Lower, the path passes sheep grazing ‘Yash Chopra’ meadows, antique houses crafted from local honey-colored stone, stately trees arching over ancient millponds, kissing gates and footbridges that have endured centuries of foot traffic and rain.
The Mill Shop epitomizes quirkiness. Where else will you find hand creams, shaving soaps,jams & marmalade,30’s & 40’s jazz CDs,Mohair scarves, stone clocks, coal scuttles, honey and duck-feed all under one roof? The organic ice cream is served for take away only in sugar cones or tubs. Few for choice, but splendid. Vanilla,Butter Crunch,Ground Coffee,Wild Strawberry,Garden Mint Choc,Jamaican Rum & Raisin,Elderflower,Lemon Meringue,Brown Bread and Pistachio. And here is where my tongue (1. for mindlessly swirling the elderflower ice cream and 2. for indulging in the most interesting conversation with Gerry) was responsible for the missed train to Paddington!
If I had to go back to the Cotswolds, I would spend much more time there. Visit Stanway, as sweet as a marshmallow in hot chocolate, spiced with eccentric characters and odd bits of history. I would stroll along Burford, where flowers trumpet, door knockers shine, and chatty locals go “It’s all so very … ummm … yyya.”
Lie down on the tall grass on the meadows, feet crossed in the air, a book in my hand dreaming about chuckling streams, ancient churches, old mills and millponds, deep green valleys and villages out of a storybook, gnawed by time and echoing with centuries of youthful exuberance.
While this may sound cheesy, my first memory of Ooty is a dialogue from the 1980’s film “Karz’, where a cheeky Jalal Agha turns around to a disturbed Rishi Kapoor ( who is unaware that his love-interest resides in Ooty), and in an attempt of persuasion to get him to station himself there, squeals out “Ooty, pyaar ki booty” (Translated, that stands: -Ooty, the reservoir of love!). I loved the movie, the picturesque locations and the songs. And thus began the love-affair!
It was John Sullivan, the British Collector of Coimbatore who put Ooty firmly on the map in the 19th century. Surveying the “Neilgherry Hills” in 1819, he addressed an ecstatic letter to Thomas Munro thus: “This is the finest country ever. It resembles, I suppose, Switzerland more than any other part of Europe… the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong spring with running water in every valley.” And there is no reason why one should try disagreeing much to it today. I use the word ‘much’ because it really isn’t Ooty today, that stands out as the jewel in the crown of the Nilgiris, but the smaller destinations, that are away from the main commercial hill town. Red Hills, for example. A break from the break we took during our trip.
The decision to take off to the Nilgiris was as hurried as the notice period the mountains gave us, every time it decided on a shrill spell of rains. And what a pretty sight the mountains are in the rains! Oxidized grey clouds, blankets of engulfing mist, puffs of clouds in our breath that Nyja discovered was what the dushtu (naughty, in Bengali) dinosaur was responsible for! We did exactly what we had planned to do in this summer trip. Stay calm, and let the mountain breeze dictate your next steps. So the first day, we played in the children’s park, nibbled on chicken pakoras, sipped hot masala chai from the terrace of our resort and watched the dumplings skate-blade away to glory, teasing , twitching and competing with each other!
That was on the first day. A small drive within the very commercialized streets of Ooty was motivating enough to have us decide that the best way to start our affair with the monsoon soaked Nilgiris, was to steer away from the main city. And boarding the cute little Nilgiris Mountain Railway was a welcoming detour to get away! The Unesco World Heritage-notified train is an engineering marvel that chugs through 16 tunnels, 250 girder bridges and 208 curves. The steepest mountain railway in India has a toy-like, blue-and-white, four-coach train of wood compartments powered by a puff-and-hoot steam engine, the valiant sound of which carries in the hills as it journeys up and down. The effect is more cute than magnificent, and for a quite large chunks of time you are able to forget that Malaika Arora indeed swayed to ‘Chhaiya Chhaiya’ on its roof.
We did a clever thing by not including ourselves in the serpentine queue to get tickets at the Udaghamandalam station. Instead we took our car till Coonoor, and had the driver get the car back, while we took the ride in its return leg. Oh, the drive! Peppered with roads whose bends are a mystery, waterfalls that seem like shooting stars in the distance, tea and coffee plantations, that look like they are pampered by the best in class salons and a seductive curves and bends that can put Candice Swanepoel to shame!
The landscape is breathtaking, and the whiff of the monsoon forests, heady. The rail ride was next. Cute stations, red-tiled rooftops, walls of green that speed past you, puffs of the steam from the engine ahead, and raindrops from the window pane that keep a romantic engaged for hours! Sprinkle on top excited twins going berserk with pink cotton candy, and two hopeless immatured adults trying to catch raindrops on their noses!
Alright, time to go to the Red Hills in the Blue Mountains, taking a little detour on the history of it’s name. Say hello to Vijay Kumar, the owner of the Red Hills Resort. While sipping a hot cup of tea in his verandah, he tells us this tale; ” Willie Collins, a planter and hunter, fell in love with the Nilgiris and started constructing a house near a Toda village called Othe-Kal-Mund or the “One Stone Village” – simplified, and later made popular as Oota-ca-mund by the English. By 1875 Willie’s house on top of a hill was complete. He named the hill Red Hills because he belonged to Red Hills in England. (What a terrible analogy to pick up, Willie! Red Hills in Worcestor has been historically famous for bloodshed,and war execution! Seriously!) So,he stayed in the house for almost sixty years. After his death a certain Muthoor Pillai, an affluent planter and potato trader with business interests in Bombay and Calcutta, bought the properties of Willie from his daughter in 1937. All his children were raised in the house built by Willie on Red Hills. I am his youngest son and this is my inheritance!”
Over the years the landscape of the surrounding areas has undergone huge change, he says. A number of dams were erected in the Nilgiris and Vijay’s house now overlooks the beautiful catchment area of the Emerald dam. Out of the 250 acres of tea estate belonging to Vijay’s family he owns about 70 acres. He became a professional tea planter. His tea gardens now surround his bunglow. Apart from commercial reasons, boredom and the urge to meet new people is sometimes the motivation behind starting homestays. And this was no exception. That’s how the first homestay in the Nilgiris started. What we now know as the Red Hills Nature Resort.
The drive up to the lakes left us straining our necks to see more and more of the mesmerizing landscape with every odd turn! We stopped at the banks of the Emerald, and efficiently worked up our appetite throwing pebbles far, farther and as far as possible into the lakes! Glee in their faces and excitement in their limbs the twins (and their dad)went into a frenzy, I think! When you reach the 130 years old resort, nothing short of a spectacle awaits you. Nilgiris in the monsoon. A love affair that you cannot ignore! Undulating hills covered with tea gardens , the green carpet wearing a drapery of milky clouds and silvery fog, the songs of serenity idling through the curvacious cracks of the lakes below, fascinating shapes of blue tapestry, the monsoon interludes, handsome rumbles of the thunder, the dominating flash of lightening, the fragrance of jasmines and that white bench facing the perfect landscape. Can a recipe for taking your mind off from everything else that exists in the world, be more perfect?
What did I do all day? Made friends with Moby -the sweetest dog you would have ever met! Became cheerleader for a running race between the husband and the german shepherd; refereed a soccer match between T,N and M! Dangled my legs on a steep wall facing the tea gardens and the lakes ahead. Felt the rain on my face. Sipped hot tea and munched on calamari fritters. Watched in awe as the clouds engulfed the lakes, teasing me with slices of muted mellow sunshine every now and then. And, left behind slices of my heart behind, watching every moment of this breathtaking, all-encompassing landscape ringed by high mountains all around, and pretty pink and white mountain daisies growing in between the tea gardens like a carpet.
Sometimes it’s nice to have days when you don’t have to manically plan every hour. Post lunch, the rain thinned a bit, before the distant dark clouds would hug us back again . The grass was wet. Deliciously wet. I lay down on the grass and slipped into a state of oblivion and would have definitely fallen asleep as well, hadn’t I consciously tried to stay awake. A purr echoed in my ears. It was the breeze of the mountain. A strong nip of the chill of the hill-wind. And that was my perfect travel moment.
Red Hills is one of those simple destinations that doesn’t try too hard. It doesn’t give you too much ‘to do’. It’s just there for you, to uplift your spirits. And, to cunningly whisper in your ears …”Come back, will you?”
I don’t know whether it was the visual of the carelessly strewn frangipani flowers everywhere, the moss adorned statues of the dewas and the dewis that have red hibiscus flowers tucked behind their ears, the perennial scent of incense, the sublime spell of the monsoon evenings, strolls through untouched paddy fields, the heart-warming hospitality or the stunning sunsets at UluWatu and Tanah Lot that still makes me yearn for a visit to the island.
Brilliant colours from one street, leading on to an alley to the next, exuberant ornate architecture, scents of massage oils and sounds of gamelan, seemingly endless processions and ceremonies, Gods and Demi-Gods peering from under every canopy, and delicious Indonesian fare!
A sunrise that left me breathless while my flight landed in Denpasar. Pristine, postcard-like, picturesque roads that led me to the little hamlet of Ubud. A whispering rivulet that ran below my balcony. Tales from Ramayana and Mahabrata painted like frescoes above my bed-posts. A lotus pond and a cluster of moss laced temples in the terraced rocky courtyard..
There were the rain-soaked afternoons at exquisite cafes. Hot, curried chicken soup, flavored with intense kaffir lime and galangal. Warm home-made ravioli with a delectable meat sauce. An orchestra of tap-dancing raindrops, passionately twirling the pink and shy plumerias into a love-frenzied dervish..
There were people I met, as incidentally as I sipped my aloe-vera, coconut and hibiscus juice on a hilly road…who made me wonder how people who chase their secret dreams can actually take the plunge to lead a life they have envisioned for themselves. Like Tridib Nandy. An aviator by profession, a entrepreneur of several online businesses, but at heart a true Bengali in love with his bohemianism, music, poetry and art. A sprawling bungalow facing the Sayan Ridge; a piano in his patio; a four poster bed, covered with blue and white linen sheets; a weathered bookshelf stacking books on poetry, history and philosophy; a guitar and cigars on his dining table and a kitchen that shelters empty wine bottles and beer cans; serving dishes and rice cookers that host his artist and musician friends, feeding them with the exotic Indian food that he cooks!
Seriously, how can anyone not fall in love with this place?
Legend has it that Ubud really began as what was surely the most exotic art colony in the world at that time, with the arrival of Walter Spies, a Moscow-born German artist and musician who came to Bali for a visit in 1927 and stayed there until the Second World War, when he became a prisoner of war in the Dutch-controlled East Indies. In Ubud he encountered a culture as graceful and refined as anywhere in the world, where child dancers in mystic trances enacted the fables of the Hindu classic Ramayana. He couldn’t leave Ubud and go back, of course for this or the other reason!
Let me not hide this from you: Ubud is anything but virgin. Every rain soaked afternoon that I spent on the main streets, most of the faces I noticed were foreign, and most of the Balinese I bumped into were offering transport or other services. Yet it’s still a possible enigma for the lazy traveler – and I would even say that Ubud will have failed you if you don’t soon lapse into a tranquil languor — to stray from the touristic path and discover the enchanted place, the back streets, the smell of the burning incense, the carpet of the frangipanis and the stolen moments when you meet eye to eye with the woman carrying her offerings to the neighboring temple, her eyes twinkling with devotion and dedication; all of which, I am convinced, seduced Walter Spies to stay back!
Settling into Ubud, you need to pick one of two choices: an array of gorgeous, expensive, exclusive, secluded and luxurious resorts perched above the river some 10-20km away from town, or an even bigger selection of family-run guest houses and hotels closer to the main town, offering a comfortable local experience, pretty views and impeccable hospitality.
The elegance of Balinese architecture and hospitality flourish at Tjampuhan Hotel , located just west of Ubud. Here, Prince Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati and Walter Spies began Pita Maha in 1934, an association and cultural movement that brought the painting and artistic talent of Ubud into the forefront of world art.
Surrounded by a rich assortment of tropical plants and flowers, the hotel provides a natural sanctuary for vividly-colored birds and butterflies, and the perfect base for a visit to Bali’s artistic heartland. Its the melodious chirping of these feathered companions that sometimes break the spell of sleep and summon you to the realms of reality every morning. You might be a tad bit annoyed to have disturbed your reverie, but when you step outside into the balcony with a hot cup of tea, you will realize that the world outside , in this little slice of heaven was just as beautiful and enchanting as the one you have woken up from!
Much of the romance of the bamboo- and teak-finished rooms derives from inadequate lighting, when the sun, like a shy bride with reddened cheeks, plays a flirty game of hide-and-seek with the wooden interludes!
Sixty-seven individual dwellings built in traditional Balinese style are scattered among landscaped terraces and gardens, offering private views of the tropical river valleys and the 900-year-old Gunung Lembah temple complex which marks the meeting of the sacred Oos and Tjampuhan rivers.The hotel’s bungalows and guest rooms are arrayed along a steep ravine overlooking a turbulent river that rushes between rocky crags to meet its mate. Winding paths lead through the hotel’s lush, sprawling garden, past lily ponds and shrines. On the opposite bank, perched just below terraced rice fields, is the ancient temple where the royal family of Ubud worships and performs its rituals. (Officially, there’s no royalty in Indonesia now, but Bali doesn’t pay much attention to rules.)
Ubud is not a village where you should be up and running…the order of the day is to relax and live in the now. It is more a place where you’ll want to stroll around or just sit with a book and watch the colourful and delightful pictures pass by. An incredibly charming thing about the Balinese is their capacity for getting right into the thick of things with you, without battering an eyelid! They are so friendly and are amazing at turning “Can I try this on?” (if your are in a shop buying art-jewellery, for example) to “When are you having your next child?” . And they do it with such panache that you actually feel totally comfortable having this conversation with someone whom you just met seconds ago! We ended up having a 45 min conversation with the gorgeous lady at a shop selling local art work, and by the end of it she and I were exchanging notes on our college romances! By then you also know that all Balinese have four first names. Everyone. The first child is Wayan or Putu, the second child is Made or Kadek, the third is Nyoman or Komang and the fourth is Ketut. The fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth will be another Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut and Wayan again. So, it’s all pretty cool and very easy. But, it also means that every second person on the road is called Wayan or Made. And often, the easiest mistake you make is trying to identify (or hold accountable)which Wayan promised to pick you up at 6am, and which Made said he will offer that 10% discount on your next massage!
Befriend one or two of a Wayan or a Made(pronounced: maad-ey) while you are there.. and they serve you delicious stories! Take this: Each stage of Balinese life is marked by a series of ceremonies and rituals known as Manusa Yadnya. For example, with birth comes a ceremony in which soon after they are born, a child’s placenta (yeah, you read that right!), is buried in the household courtyard. Specific directions for a girl child, and a boy-child. And worshiped everyday by the ladies of the household. And why? So that when they grow up and probably venture into greener pastures, or take cross-ocean flights to the US of A, there is the ‘pull-of-the-placenta’ that will eventually bring them back home at some time in their life! Elders are treated at par with Gods. In a typical Balinese home compound, beside the pertinent family temple, will be the room that hosts the eldest members of the family. This room is the second holiest, in the order of importance. And because of that, the first night a newly married couple spends as husband and wife is hosted by this very room- the emblem and the most ‘fertile’ room of the household, from which the other generations have sprung into existence.
This is a country which treats the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, not as mythology, but more as religion. But, its almost astonishing how different it is from the Hinduism that we know is practiced in India. Dances are merged with stories and history in Bali, and deem almost religious in their presentation. Among the several dance forms that can range from ornamental to feisty, we soaked in vibrant Legong. A Legong is the most graceful form of Balinese dances. Usually performed by teenage girls, the dance depicts stories from local folklore, and what we watched was a quaint story from the Mahabharata on a hidden chapter in the life of Bimanyu(Arjuna’s son), known in India as Abhimanyu! The girls were dressed in colorful costumes, accessorized with intricate head-dress. With the trademark numbered, jerky movements of Balinese dances, they danced to the music of live Gamelan ensemble.
This was another discovery. The Gamelan. Gamelan is a term for various types of orchestra played in Indonesia. It is the main element of the Indonesian traditional music. The Balinese believe that the gamelan is sacred and has supernatural powers. It is also believed that each instrument in the gamelan is guided by spirits. Thus, your footwear needs to be removed while you play the gamelan. It is also forbidden to step over any instrument in a gamelan, because it might offend the spirit by doing so.
I come from a state in India where paddy fields are places of love and labour. Never does it feature in an article or a tourist map, or made to sound exotic. But the paddy fields in Ubud, aren’t the siblings of this parent! They are flamboyant and love to flaunt their greens. They are lush and luscious. And they are almost second in their order of importance after the ceremonies and religion. Every family in the village owns paddy fields. They inherit, gift, share and buy land that can be converted into rice fields. Rice is sacred. Fields are worshiped and protected. Possession of rice fields ensures a secured status in society. Or marks out a higher caste. But,they are indeed pristine, picturesque and absolutely deserves a mention!
A little away from Ubud, Bali’s shores are dotted with about 20,000 Hindu temples and shrines, and each of them, apart from the gorgeous locations that host them, offer spectacular visuals of the sky and the celestial. Like the setting of a sun. In Bal,i the temple is only used for particular ceremonies and festivals, sometimes only once in the 210 day cycle, when the temple’s birthday (odalan) ceremony is held. The two that I could allow my lens to gawk at were the Tanah Lot and the Ulu Watu, both at a time,when the crimson, bold and handsome sun mellowed into the pink of the twilight, casting shadows and silhouettes that left me lens-struck and spell bound!
Ubud is so much and so little all at the same time. But, when at night, you sit in the teak and bamboo nested balcony and watch the fireflies in the distant paddy field, hear the chants in the village temple and see the stars in the clear night sky… you will be once again hypnotized, and you will know that you have lived the vacation that you truly deserved!
As human beings, I strongly feel that we were made for relationships. We were made to know each other and exist in a reality where we interact and connect and live in the spirit of camaraderie and community. Some of us shun to enter this realm of relationships. We would rather hide away and ignore the fact that we live in a world with other people. We would rather be “safe”, ignoring a life where we experience the adventure of indulging in a life with people who truly matter to us, are around us. This is not a lesson I have learned, but I feeling that I have harboured for very long. So naturally it is sometimes involuntarily that I end up in situations and experiences, where I know this fancy of mine will be patronized. A market place is one such hub. A place, I feel where we can experience this life of relationship, simplicity and connection. Enter and you get lost in a world of color and a world of creation.
Kolay market is located in the under-belly of the Sealdah Bridge; Sealdah Station being a prominent landmark and one of the most important rail-head terminals of the city of Kolkata. My memories of this train terminus have been quite a few. This used to be the same place from where I would board the familiar Bongaon Local (train), or the Madhyamgram Local (train) to Birati- a small muffasshal hamlet which housed my warm and affectionate grandparents. The visit to Sealdah would always be filled with a perfume of musk and memories. Of a pertinent vision of green mango trees and large jackfruit trees. Of my childhood and pranks. Of my innocence and growing up. Of family and happiness.
Never have I had the opportunity to see Sealdah in any other light. Yes, it was always bustling. There were porters and hawkers and salesmen of every kind and form all around. But to me Sealdah was always a starting point of a happy journey.
Several years later, inspired by a few photographs on social media, I was enticed to re-visit the Sealdah area. This time with Manjit Singh Hoonjan, who runs the popular Calcutta Photo Tours. I had a choice either to walk through the bylanes of a Cultural Kaleidoscope or get lost in the arteries of the largest wholesale market in the city: Kolay Market.
I chose the latter. And I returned with a similar bag of happy memories and colorful takeaways.
This post has been due for the longest time ever. The recollection is slightly faint- since I am no longer a prancing young girl in ponytails and white canvas shoes! But here are some images which might end up telling you a story which my words might not be able to justly convey. The sensory memories are still very active, but so is the warmth and patron-ship of Manjit. The tale below is a mish-mash of both these subsets of memories.
Kolay market is one of the oldest and thriving wholeslae markets of not only Kolkata, but India. Meat, fruit, vegetables, tea, grains, dried fish, fresh fish and spices converge here from across provinces of rural West Bengal,before scattering to smaller market aisles or local homes. As one weaves through the the narrow stalls, dodging vendors, porters, buyers and sellers you discover the sights, sounds, and flavours of one of the last remaining large scale markets in Kolkata.
Did you notice how bright and vibrant the vegetables are? As much as they are really fresh and vibrant, the sellers have their own indigenous ways of highlighting their stuff: Carrots : they get more red and are always red; spinach and chillies: They make even the jealous wife green with the green of their envy; sweet potatoes: as pink as the house a Barbie doll will build- shockingly fuchsia! Say hello to the cellophane wrapped light bulbs sparkling and shining bright atop, matched to the color of the vegetables that they decorate!
I have been a shameless photographer; almost always. When I say that, I mean that I photograph without inhibitions,shame or neighboring remarks and comments. So, when I had company like Manjit, it just made it easier for me to continue the way I function. The photo-tour began with a smile, and ended with a grin(possibly also, because I could shop for a long awaited ‘shutki mach‘ purchase,during the tour!). Manjit was delightfully social with the vendors and the porters in the market,which completely helped. The magical marriage of sights, sounds, smells and lights that begin almost at the crack of dawn is an experience that I keep revisiting and cherishing in my memory. Not only did Manjit know the agenda of how the world of wholesale unfurls, he also seemed completely comfortable with them. In the bargain, I felt harbored and safe in an otherwise alien environment.
But the market tour is not for the lovers of luxury. The path is dirty, mucky, slippery. Often I would have random vendors passing remarks(well retorted by Manjit, hence the assured comfort!). Each person I aimed my camera at, seemed unique.. ending up in interesting portraits of people with distinguished character personalities written on their faces. Age, experience, wisdom, knowledge, impatience, anger,smirks and smiles are the top few emotions that get captured, if your frame is ready and your finger on the shutter is nimble.
A bulk of Calcutta’s vegetable supply from the rural areas passes through this market. Supplies keep coming and the market never sleeps. Inside, it is organized chaos. There are separate sections for onions, potatoes, chillies, pumpkins and seasonal greens such as cabbages and tomatoes. Choc-a-bloc with buyers, the narrow lanes are slippery with rotting vegetables. The smell of fresh and rotting greens, along with those of chilli and garlic make it an overwhelming experience.
While there is happiness in the colors, and a sense of sensory appreciation, a little has been told about the rigmarole, dependencies and compromises the workers here go through.
The “turban-wallas“: On the congested road just outside the gates of the Kolay Market, one often comes across group of well built men in colourful turbans. Wrestling bundles weighing hundreds of kilograms onto the turban-wrapped heads of fellow workers, they deliver bushels of veggies from the trucks and carts outside to the wholesalers. Life for these human forklifts is tough. Each team generally has 15-16 men, mostly from the same extended family or village. They are aspirational migrants from the neighboring state of Bihar. This is the largest incidence of migratory workers from Bihar who try their hand in income through labour in the ‘big city’ of Kolkata.
There is no respite. . They sleep in dormitories in the first floors of the warehouses just above their workplace. The noise and ruckus created by the early morning arrival of trucks is unavoidable. That noise is their alarm clock, for days on end. Wake up, rush down and start to work.
There is a strategy they deploy to distribute the weight, which is a feat to watch. As the load gets hurled on their heads, they move in serpentine precision, aligning their sinews and bodies almost in a manner that a caterpillar does. Have you observed how they move? Closely?
Turns out they move with their gut. Literally. A groundbreaking study conducted last year in which scientists have the intriguing critters walking on treadmills while x-rays scanned their wormy bodies indicated that the first step in a caterpillar’s stroll is taken by its gut.When caterpillars walk, their guts move first, with the rest of their bodies following behind in a rippling motion. Now transfer your imagination back to a group of muscular legs moving in a rippling fashion; an endearing act, wobbling, crawling, and creeping on dirty slippery road, twisting their torsos like trapeze artists at Cirque de Soleil! Fascinating!
You will capture some truly great market scenes in action, and some very interesting activities during bargains and transactions that you will witness. If these are things that tick you right as a photographer, this tour is definitely not something you want to miss. It carries no stories(as Manjit repeatedly kept telling me!), but if you can make your pictures tell a story, like I usually attempt, you just need to identify interesting subjects. And Manjit completely helps you with that. To the last-T, he checks for your comfort..complete with a text message asking if you have reached home safely.
My fascination with markets is from a very early age. Thanks to the virtue of being a Bengali, and having a father who treats food like religion. The markets in India are very different than the farmers market or the Chelsea markets of the western world. The colours are always enticing in both cases but Indian markets, with the smell of fish, garlic, muck and swamp and rotten foliage in parts, is not for the faint hearted. You need to have a acquired taste and an olfactory for that. Am glad I am imbibed with one!
Mesmerizing Markets, is a highly recommended trip, for true-blue lovers of sensory food addictions!
Many things serve as a muse to artists. People, countries, landscape or lovers. Many things motivate poets to rhyme their thoughts. Coffee, rains, hearts or smoke! And, there are many things that can spark an idea for a story. Words, pictures, films or food. In my case here, it was a piece of music. When you are lying down, under a blanket of stars, partitioned narrowly by the thin polyester sheet roof of your camping tent, snuggled thoughtlessly in your sleeping bag, and a fleeting whiff of a Miles Davis streams in, you know you couldn’t have got it all that wrong!
When Davis and Victor Feldman composed ‘Seven Steps to Heaven‘, they wouldn’t have had Triund in mind, for sure. But personally, if there there was anything as close, or as high that I have ever reached, it was this. A nomadic, pastoral hilltop, 6 hours uphill from a village called Dharamkot, on the outskirts of the more popular McLeodganj.
The Dhauladhar range is a southern branch of the main Outer Himalayan chain of mountains. It rises from the Indian plains to the north of Kangra and Mandi.
We stayed in a cozy but relatively strict, homestay! The McLeodganj Homestay is run by a family from Delhi, housing about six rooms, slightly away from the main square on the Jogiwara Road. The brick house with a tiny gate and a verdant home garden is around a bend, and about a kilometer away from the Dharamkot. Sahil was always agreeing, and hospitable. The cook made a good north Indian meal, and the parents were concerned about our safety.
Our room had a small terrace attached, with a view, that cannot be really termed as spectacular, but more of a ‘ not that bad’ category. It was a question of a night’s stay, and hence we did not create much fuss over the nitty-gritties. We slept all afternoon, woke a little late, walked to the monastery, walked back to the St. John’s church, and ate momos for dinner. Packed savories made with yak-cheese and some fruits that could come handy for the next few days. The little town unfortunately didn’t charm me as much as it had done, the first time I had visited it in 2003.
I was saving my energy for Triund. A trek that we started the next morning.
Triund happens to you, suddenly. One moment you are puffing up a steep, rocky path with only rock-spiked walls to your left and a forested , unforgiving valley to the right . And then, with one last nimble step where the path takes a sharp turn, you are upon a green meadow at 2842.26 meters (9326 ft) above sea level, surrounded by snow capped peaks of the Dhauladhar range, all seemingly an arm’s length away.
The only way to reach Triund is to trek. And when you step into Triund, there is no option but to pause. Partly to catch your breath, and mostly to absorb what is clearly a breathtaking sight. If there is a seventh heaven, you can be sure you have left even that behind. The feeling is one of being on top of the world, surrounded by ranges even higher than where you stand.
The first innocent few steps on a trek are always difficult; and the unkindest part of any trek in the mountains, is the hard realization that there is always more peaks to scale, in front of you. Walking through the wooded trail, series of rolling hills in front of you to conquer, you lose track of how much you have walked already. The fact that these hills are not visible at one go makes you feel whether you will ever reach the summit. You reach the high ground and think you have done it, only to be deceived by another hill in front, which is the one you have to climb. The peak continuously retreats making you think whether it will arrive, at all! But it does; and when it does, you feel awesome! You peek below, and immerse yourself with the contentment of victory. A small height, but a personal triumph. Climbing up a higher height, leaving a lesser height below. If that doesn’t call for a adrenalin rush, nothing else, will! The joy of exhausting yourself physically, reaching the top of a mountain and then looking down to see where you came from is one of those most unadulterated, pure joys of life.
The last stretch takes your breath away, and so does the first view of Triund. And while each of these lasts and the firsts fight it out, your tired feet get permission to have a conversation with the late afternoon dew. Your sore back is allowed to lay itself down on the green carpet of grass and flirt with the little wild flowers. The little child in you is coaxed to roll on the grass, and glee in delight!
Once on top, the only reminder of the world left below are some branded packets of chips and munchies being sold at the shacks. These have been set up by enterprising locals. Radio Mirchi FM channel constantly hums from a radio set in the biggest of these shacks. This one is owned by Sunil Kumar. Mobiles don’t work here, but surprisingly the radio frequency does!
Our tent was pitched, and at twilight we had visitors. A nomadic shepherd taking his sheep across. To greener pastures or returning from one. Hundreds of them. Like woolly yarns! In fifty-shades-of-grey! And brown, coffee, white and beige! Sheep who bleat. Mountain goats who playfully entangle their horns and tussle! A cacophony of bleats..a symphony of sounds. The highest form of free entertainment, at that height!
And then dusk becomes the night! There is something I feel passionately about sunsets turning into nights. There is something about that limited time in the day, when the blue sky turns orange and occasional hues of purple and scarlet emerges into some cocktail of colors… that only be described as breathtaking! From Triund, the Dhauladhar mountain looks tantalizingly close; you are sometimes fooled to believe that you can touch it, with just a little extra effort! While, you are lost in this thought of the impossible, the grapefruit sun makes the mountains change color from shimmering white to golden jackfruit yellow to supernatural red, electric pink…grape violet, and then with the promise of a perfumed darkness, and the color of a musky night!
Ashish was an effervescent, energetic, sensible and an accommodating man. He was our guide. Fit, because he treks this trail at least 3 times a month. Responsible, because he voluntarily took my heavy camera and placed it in his own bag, so that I could carry minimal weight, while I struggled uphill.Well-humored, because he never said a ‘no’ to the 55+ breaks and stops we took along the trail. And, resourceful, because he cooks you a fair meal! As the night descended, the stone benches near Sunil’s tuck shop glittered and glowed. A bonfire pit had been created; and fellow-travellers were basking in the warmth. On offer, as dinner-fare, was ‘roti-subzi’ -should be badly made chapatis with a nondescript mixed and curried vegetables, we thought- but, we were wrong, and pleasantly so! A quick peek into the shop, and I saw Ashish humming a Bollywood tune, and effortlessly rolling out chapatis for us. A mass production of a spicy, warm potato ‘subzi’ was waiting in a huge steel bowl. Minutes later, we were licking our fingers, and asking for the third…and the fourth chapati! I can tell you today, that a spicy, watery, potato curry, and the fresh-off-the-gas chapatis, have never tasted better!
There is plenty to do at Triund and nothing at all, depending on your choice. You can eat, drink, read, walk, trek further, hang out with sheep, click photographs, eat, roll on the grass, meditate, attempt a ‘head-stand’, sit by the bonfire and gaze at the numerous stars, once night settles in. Or you could just borrow a blanket from the dhaba and laze around indefinitely, listening to the sounds of cricket.
I was very tempted to be cynical while writing this post. We are(at least, I am) a patron of luxury, if it comes at an attainable price! Its tempting, not to crave for one, when you take a break from your usual work-routine. But, here you are grounded. Triund is that more-than-welcome flat bit of land at 2890 metres, that sure makes you work hard to get there. Reebok shoes give way, knees turn wobbly, backs turn sore, shoulders become stiff sleeping overnight on a slope, ankles have scratches and mouths turn parchment dry. But it does have a liberating affect on you. Sometimes even psychedelic!
It’s not everyday that one gets the opportunity to be closer to the Himalayas and being from Bangalore, its probably a dream. But, I have to sheepishly admit, that even with the unwanted stretches and stresses, the trek brought in, I loved it!
Trekking back from Triund was like being in a time-warp of a Monday morning. You know exactly what you have just left behind, and you are not particularly looking forward to what you think your week ahead will look like; the tingling of a luxurious weekend to muse on,and the frenzy of a back-tearing week waiting to engulf you!
We all know what that feels like. And Triund feels just like that.
Ramadan is on full swing. I can see it on the henna-decorated hands and feet of the women; at work, on roads, in neighborhoods, fashionable skulls caps, wholesale markets in Chickpet crowding up with men extensive purchasing fabrics for their entire family. Moreover, my loyal tailor has started laboring day and night, desperately trying to finish everyone’s new outfits before the festivities.
Resulting, much to my dissatisfaction, being in queue to get my garments delivered! Depending on when the first sighting of the crescent moon occurs, the big celebration that will conclude Ramadan would be either Friday or Saturday. It amazes me how it always seems to be a spirit of festivity, considering each day of the month includes a day-long fast! And in other cities like Delhi, a fast, in the sweltering heat of summer! But the end of each day has a feast to lure. Almost like light at the end of a tunnel- and a delightful light at the end of a food-addict’s tunnel!
Bangalore boasts of pretty summer showers. When summer showers no longer hinders two friends to get together and explore a food-laced walk, you can be assured that they consider food spiritual. My meat-ing with Partha was exactly on these premises. I will be brutally honest here: most aftermaths of a social media acquaintances (from my end at least) do not generally end up in personal interactions.
But I was almost convinced that this one required a logical next step. So we decided to meet. One rainy evening, last week for an Iftar walk. It would have been quite difficult to spot the Albert Bakery, had I come alone. This elusive centurion bakery, dated way back from 1902 has all the reasons to be the first of a food-pilgrim. It opens at 3.30 p.m. and is legendary for its chicken and mutton keema samosas.
Notorious for causing traffic bottlenecks, by the huge crowds that cause much chaos to gormandize its much-loved keema naan, khova muffins and bheja (goat-brain)puffs, this 111 year old bakery is run by a Muslim family and was apparently named Albert simply to make it easier to serve the British Empire’s aristocrats. In reality, it is actually quite a nondescript hole in the wall kind of a place, tucked in a cozy nook, away from a logical straight line on the road. I was taken there to taste the ‘world famous’ bheja puff and the khova naan, made especially for the festival.
At the strike of a hunger pang anything can taste good! So, honestly, since the first seven bites (comprising of 2 brain puffs), were made with a responsibility of filling my pang, the taste of the puffs did not quite register properly.
It was rather good, I am guessing. But what melted in my mouth and melted my heart alike were the triangular shapes of sinfully slow cooked khova(a mixture of sweet condensed milk and semolina), packed irresistibly within flaky slides of naan- the khova naan! As if almost on purpose, the satin khova glided carelessly on my fingers, tempting me to lick them clean even after the actual piece was devoured.
A tiny walk away, Mosque Road looked like a bride on the way to her Nikaah. Resplendent! The Iftar stalls were hosted in rain proof shamiyanas. Stalls selling khajoor, enticing people with fish and crabs, stalls that sold Teetar (Quails) and even Camel meat! And then stalls that specialized and sold only Haleem (the one single thing that defines Ramzan for the food-worshipers)
In terms of promotion, the one item which was clearly the man of the match, had to be the Patthar ke Gosht (Stoned Mutton, if you translate it literally!)- and, literally there was one, every stone’s throw away! A big block of granite hissed and sizzled , while spiced up marinated meat kept piling up one after the other, every time with a louder crackle and sputter, sending into the air wires of electric red threads and hazy aromatic smoke.
It also meant that the Patthar ka Gosht was getting ready for all the greedy bellies around. The meat can be chicken, goat or beef. So,if it is beef, or veal, the kabab gets a nick name.. the ‘Wheel’ Kebab’! The huge block of granite could easily take upto 5-6 hours to be heated, I am told. the meat is placed on these slabs and charred, seared to cook and render an earthy smoky flavour to it. Considering every kabab in the world can be placed on this slab and made into Patthar ke Gosht, I am not sure, which really is the authentic meat for this dish.But, it is definitely a very popular tag-line and a dish very well promoted!
For those who arent so much a meat glutton, there arent too many options. The area is infested with chops and chaps, rolls and bowls, cutlets and sherbets and jabelis, and rabdis. Various kababs, Afghani,Safed Mirch, Irani, MalaiTikka and Boti.
The Baida Roti is also a big draw at Ramzan and is essentially a big paratha stuffed with meat, folded over to form a nice square pie sautéed in oil again. It is then cut into little squares and served with a hot chutney for your eating pleasure. You can have your pick from beef, chicken, or mutton mince.
Till now, we had feasted on camel meat sheeks, quails, malai kababs and was looking for the last bit that would complete a Iftar food regime: The Haleem!
Haleem is a sublime dish used to break the fast, because at once it is both delicious and nutritious. The high calorie haleem is an ideal way to break the Ramzan fast. Haleem means patience, because it takes long hours to prepare (often a whole day) and served in the evenings. Traditionally an Arabic dish, it has been adapted and localized as part of Dakhni or Hyderabadi cuisine. The wheat is soaked overnight, then simmered in water along with meat and butter. Any remaining liquid is strained and the mixture is beaten and seasoned. It needs to be garnished with fried onions, ginger and coriander leave, and a dash of lemon to provide you with a taste, that is hard to forget! And, of course, the generous topping of spiced ghee, which brings the whole mixture to dizzying heights of awesomeness!
I agree, we ate less, but to me a foodie-walk need not necessarily end in consuming. It is a 360 degree sensation, I often consider spiritual in nature. I feel connected to the universe, and the feeling of contentment is like no other!
I might not be a big eater, but I worship the food gods! Partha said ‘I was a half-foodie’!
It was quite a sweet ending with a dunking cup of Suleimani tea. And while I maneuvered my home that rainy evening in an auto-rickshaw, I giggled thinking that a celebration of peace is in the form of chaos and quite a bit of pandemonium!
Partha was a great companion. We had a great adda, catching up on several things under the sun, along with food. Sensible, talkative, funny and spontaneous. I couldnt grasp much about him, but I could safely say, he is one of those, you would like to relax with on a Friday evening, having a 18-yr old Glen(Morangie!),talk about Dali, Shirshendu, Hitler,the Moorish influence on Andalacian food, maska paos and keema paos of Mumbai, the genius of Tagore, the haunting poetry of Rumi, Michelle Obama and Himesh Reshamia with equal panache!!
I have always been disillusioned with the dynamics between siblings. Having been a spoilt only-child myself, it is almost difficult for me to excavate this mystery. Ever since my twins surfaced, one of my hardest challenges had been to understand and live with the fact that every time T and N pull each others’ hair out, they spell love all the way! Through the years, I have predictably grown wiser.
Apart from that I have also realized that there will always be a balance of characters between the two. It will balance out and compliment each others’ personae like two open ends of a perfect jigsaw. Two distinct and different entities, that will seamlessly bond with unconditional love for each other. I have discovered that amongst most siblings, the older one is filled with verve and exuberance, with an I-care-a damn of an attitude tuned in. And, the younger one is often the most under-estimated– full of restore, bold,poised and not the least bit reluctant to take their place in the sun.
Varkala is like that. Varkala is a coastal town and municipality in Thiruvananthapuram district situated in the Indian state of Kerala. It is the suburban town of Thiruvananthapuram.
Unlike to its elder twin, Kovalam, it is not just about the sunshine.It’s markedly intrepid, and in your face. The handsome cliffs and the rugged shoreline is anything but sophisticated. It has a raw appeal, almost sensuous in character. If you are all about sophistication, luxury, pampering and spa-treatments, and driven by the idea of the brand a place tags itself with rather than the place itself, give Varkala a pass. Not your place, one morsel.
The month of May is sweltering; almost blistering. At this time of the year, the tourist season is winding down. Towards the middle of the month, we went as a family to the beach cliffs of Varkala.
The parents, who wanted a getaway and experience the scenic wonders of Kerala; the twins, who were excited as a rocket-ship shooting off; and us because we have always loved to travel! I had been pining to see the sea, and in spite of heat warnings I was ready to bear the searing of the summer sun. The crowds had been thinning out perceptibly; and we could make it out in the distraught faces of the trinket vendors, that the money trail will soon end. And then, written on their faces was the endless wait until September, when the first backpackers start to trickle in again.
Compared to Kovalam, Varkala is less gaudy, the people are more human, the bonhomie and innocence of a place that is new to the scene. Having said that, I do not want to say anything adverse about Kovalam.
If you visit Kovalam you need to be equipped to handle luxury and stay at the The Leela Kovalam. Nothing , and nowhere else will you get to see and soak Kovalam the way you can if you have stayed there!
Every early morning for the next three days, we stepped out of the cozy, well landscaped resort, onto the amiable beach, and took the graveled steps upto the red cliff. The jerky and craggy cliffs offered an imposing view of the ocean.
The contrast of the maroon soil, alongside the verdant green grass and palm fringes along the walkways, the teal and turquoise waters of the sea against the backdrop of the blue-grey skies- was like an artist’s palette! The patches of dew-washed polka greens on the sides, brushed its cheeks with the tall and handsome palm trees. Cottages and resorts on rent appeared all along the cliff. Purple, ocher, and rama-blue.
Sometimes fuchsia pink with inviting paintings adorning its barricades! We spotted a farm. A cow. Several sea-gulls. Fisher-women hanging nets that the menfolk of their household would have brought in, as early as day-break. Bed and breakfast owners washed their white linen. Deep yellow marigold gardens; the rusted path in between, with that lashing sea pushed our hearts to beat a tad bit faster, wanting us to emote and captivate the ‘screenshot’ so that it can remain in our souls forever!
A 45 minutes walk away from where we were staying was the Kappil beach- a haven where backwaters meet the sea. Beneath a propped-up wooden fishing boat, colourful paint peeling off in strips, two men sat musing over untangling their fishing nets.
The frenzied activity of Kappil beach swirls around them: fish were laid out to dry and bartered over, long chains of humans with shining lean muscles laboriously drew the fishing boats to the home-shore. To the right, beyond the boats and fishing nets, the Keralan coastline disappeared into sea spray, fading into coconut palms as the last visible markers of where ocean meets the land.
The resort was a homely affair. Run by the friendly duo Gopal and Babu, the Palm Tree Heritage is a cozy and comfortable place to spend a few unwinding days. The have a small sandy cove right in front of the entrance which is very convenient. However, this spot wasn’t very close to the hip and happening cliff top location, nor the real Papanasam beach, for which Varkala is famous for. If early long walks and swims in the sea to increase your appetite, are not your cup of tea, all you might end up doing, is to relax in the cane chairs, sipping on a cooler, staring out at the miles of ocean ahead, the sun relentless, palm and Casuarina leaves fluttering in the incoming breeze, and, possibly, a spaced-out conversation with the strangers next to you.
The actual ‘touristy/backpacker’ part of Varkala is sprawled across the top of cliffs directly above the sea, about 3-5km from the main town itself. A place great for an evening stroll. If you are there, try the food at Clafouti. Have a cuppa Americana in Cafe Del Mar. Along with restaurants, hotels and guest houses line this side of the cliff, facing the sea together with shop after shop selling jewellery and textiles like clothes, bedsheets, wall hangings, etc. And this is just the first row. Further back among the coconut palm trees you can find many more rows of hotels of every price range (there is road and vehicle access back there) and occasionally more shops too.
The feeling you have while in Varkala is a bit surreal, probably due to the extremely high cliffs. As we casually strolled along the coconut palm lined path, we didn’t have to worry about traffic, crowds or our twins although we did have to give them a stern warning about not going too close to the edge as at times it comes precariously close, often without any barriers to separate us from definite disaster. Even the locals are wary about using the path at night, when many parts are not lit. But the night views are incredible, with dotted twinkles of boat lights far ahead in the horizon, and the sound of the misty waves crashing below.
Varkala was beyond anything that we had envisioned—in a good way. Trustworthy; considering it had avenues for all of us to explore. The parents were happy with a private beach, the slow-paced candlelight dinners, a place where the only disturbance was the sound of sea-breeze. The dumplings loved playing and building castles in the autumn sands and the friendly sea, and the younger parents(us) loved the long walks across the ruddy landscape at a height overlooking a breath-taking sea. And, did I say,time-alone?
This is the kind of a vacation that leaves an after-taste and wants you to come back for more, and explore. And, while you linger with that taste, the thought invariably segues into your day-dream wishing it wouldn’t end, but just go on and on…
If only we could have gone for a few more days of swimming, more of that Tandoori fish we had, it would have been perfect.