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.
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As I stood in the ornate balcony of the palace, in a sea of rooftops and minarets below me, balmed in the hue of the pink twilight, and heard a myriad voices chanting the ‘Adhaan‘, my eyes closed in reverence and my lips curved into a reflex smile. I have never heard the ‘Adhaan‘, with an intent of listening to it. If I have, it has been always while passing by a way side mosque, or over hearing it from a friend’s room, while trying to catch up on tales friends share. This was a new experience.
It is said that for every three minutes you walk in the old city of Hyderabad, there is a mosque. While I stood there at 5pm that day, imagining the voices of hundreds of muezzins reciting the beautiful verses, I transported myself to a few hundred years back, during the time of Mohammed, the prophet, the first muezzin was Bilan Ibn Ribah who walked the streets to call the believers to come to prayer. I could see why the ‘Adhaan‘ was considered an art form, reflected in it’s melodious chanting. I imagined centuries later, how during the rule of the Nawabs, the lead would stand up in the minarets chanting the ‘Adhaan’, and reminding people of their religious duties. I imagined the Hyderabad belonging to those times. I imagined a Hyderabad belonging to the Nawabs. I imagined an indulgence with royalty. I stood at the widest porch of the Falaknuma Palace and soaked in my tryst with royalty.
*Once upon a time, the palace was one of its kind.If you are quiet enough and hold your breath, you can probably still hear the giggles of handmaidens, private conversations between the master and his aide-de-camp and footsteps that marked the approach of the Nizam and his trusted entourage.
Falaknuma Palace is also known as the ’Mirror of the Sky‘ because at 2000 feet, it was built in the clouds and reflects the ever-changing moods of the sky. Set in 32 acres of land and spread over 19400 square meters, the Palace was commissioned by Sir Vikar-Ul Umra, the Nizam’s Prime Minister from the Paigah family. These noblemen were the rulers of their own courts, built their own breathtaking palaces and each commanded their own private army. For more than two centuries, until the mid half of the 20th century, the Nizams ruled Hyderabad State . They had their own mint, which produced their own currency, hoarded millions in gold bullion, and even more in precious gems and currency. Majestic Rolls Royce cars glided galore and their love for palaces and building one better than the other grew manifold!
The luxury bandwagon came to an abrupt halt in 1948, when the princely states were abolished by laws governing the newly Independent India. Personal Treasuries were confiscated, and no longer was there any cash to encourage a lifestyle that has gone down in history as one of the most decadent and opulent of all times. The vintage cars were left to rust in the garages, or were sold off and throw-away prices. The gems and the bullion were to foreign traders and ‘Sirs’ to pay for the astonishing taxes levied by the Indian state. And, as for the palaces, most of them were simply sealed shut.
While Vikar-Ul Umra, conceived the Falaknuma as a fantasy home for himself,he had spent a fortune on the construction, the furnishings, and not to mention a decade of his life . Built in 1894, it took ten years and four million rupees for its magnificent, physical evolution in the shape of a scorpion. Designed by British architect William Mard Marret, a Scorpion, himself… the Palace took a rumored 22 years to get near perfection. Halfway there, struck by a ray of practical intelligence, Ul Umra realized that he would never be able to complete it. And so, taking advice from his wife, he invited his master, the 6th Nizam, Mehboob Ali Pasha, to stay.
From the first moment his eyes set on the palace, it is said, the Nizam fell in love. He extended his stay, and extended it again. Seeing this and, desperate for an end to his financial woes, the Prime Minister presented it as a gift or ‘nazar‘ to the Nizam. And, as the story goes, the Nizam’s treasurer was given the order to repay the Prime Minister every penny of the cost. After all, to a man of such limitless wealth, the cost of any luxury , was easily within budget!
Bought over in 1895 and used as the residence of Nizam VI until 1911, Falaknuma Palace later went on to be used as a royal guesthouse for dignitaries, including free India’s first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad who availed of its famed, lavish hospitality in 1951. The echoes of visiting European monarchs, the Duke of Windsor, heads of state and distinguished governors can still be heard if you tread softly on the carpeted grand stairway in the inner atrium. Since 1995, The Taj Group of Hotels has sensitively restored the palace not only to accommodate the privileged in 60 glamorous rooms and suites, but also to accommodate the extravagance of the ‘then’ with all the comfort of the ‘now’.*
(*Content Source: The Taj Hotels)
This is the only hotel in India with a residing historian. I start my walk at the hour of sunset but end up in an altogether different time zone. Living vicariously at a time when the Nizam was rumored to be the richest man in the world. A time when polo playing royalty, martini-soaked lunches and princesses in billowing chiffons with emeralds the size of chandeliers played a part in tales of royal debauchery, extravagance, drama and deception. The knowledgeable historian recounted astonishing legends and myths about a dynasty mired in romance and mystery, set in the fitting milieu of palaces, wealth and women. It is here that I learnt that the palace interior includes 18 types of marble, 16 types of wood and 10 types of chandeliers. That the Gol Bungalow was modeled after the White House on one side, and Buckingham Palace on the other. That there’s a palace library with 5,970 books of which guests can actually read 150 of. And that the 8th Nizam is still alive and lives in Turkey. His daughter Princess Ezra (who helped with refurbishing and restoring the Palace)lives in Santa Barbara, CA!
Fortunate that I was offered this grand personalized tour, here is a recap through a photo-story.
Down below the ‘Palace in the Sky’, lay the old city of Hyderabad. It is believed that the city of “Hyderabad” was named after the people as their residence as “City of the Brave” from the Persian words “Hyder/Haider” (Persian and Urdu meaning ‘lion’ or ‘brave’ and “Abad/Abaad” (Persian and Urdu meaning abode or populated) after surviving the plaque epidemic that ravaged Golconda. The Old City , three square miles of original Hyderabad around the majestic Charminar, from which the city grew outwards, is a treasure trove of sights, smells, traditions and tastes.
This area constitutes the heart of the historic city of Hyderabad. This part of the city encompasses reminiscences of the past reflected in popular Hyderabadi eateries, ornaments and attar.
Despite its long and chequered history, the Old City is unpretentious. Known and absorbed, it remains in the mind not as a memory of monuments and ancient sites, but of utterly simple things: the bustle of Mir Jafar’s mandi, where fresh vegetables have been sold for years and years; the surma man standing ajar the door of Gulzar Hauz, who will apply various kinds of kohl to your eyes depending on the ailment and discomfort for which you have come to see him; the hazy innards of the little shop, with gauzy glass shelves,and dim twittering lights- where you can buy milk and curds and malai, the likes of which is probably not available elsewhere; labor-aged hands of busy men in tiny shops on the road to Falaknuma, flattening small pieces of sheermal for the neighborhood; the bread shops next door selling naans and kulchas straight out of tandoors ; and great flights of pigeons, fluttering and twisting over the ash domes and minarets of the vintage buildings.
Today, the old city is bursting at its seams with people and traffic. The main thoroughfare is Patthargatti – a street, a locality, or sometimes a raunchy mix of both. Hard to say, but named after the stone-lined buildings on either side of the road,pearls shops line this famed avenue.
But it is not only pearls that the Old City has to offer. It is a fantastic bazaar, with numerous wares. Generations of Hyderabadis, visitors and tourists have come here to look for silks and saris, brocades, itars and perfumes, silver ware, jewelry, velvet, tobacco, caps and handmade slippers. And they have been served by the descendants of families that have carried on the business generation after generation. Ancient links have been established that bind shops and customers even today.
Some of the eateries here are landmarks by themselves. Shaadab, past Madina Building and on the road to Bangalore, serves excellent Nahari (tongue and trotter curry) throughout the year. Shah Ghouse Cafe pots up a fantastic Haleem (broken wheat and lamb/mutton porridge) during Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting. Try the Biriyani at Nayaab, again past the Madina and on the Bangalore road. Madina Hotel will brew up you a good cup of tea. So will Asif Miyan, standing proudly outside the Machli Kaman. The second cafe is also known for its malai lassi and falooda. Apart from these main road establishments, the narrow lanes and gallis of the city are dotted with little specialty places where the locals buy particular snacks and sweetmeats.
Hyderabad wasn’t a stranger to me. My last visit was 17 years back! Yet, this time it made an impression. An impression that will probably dilute my notions about the city, formed in juvenile years of my life. I have always associated Hyderabad with two distinctive characteristics – the leisurely Nizami lifestyle, very similar to a historic ‘Babu Culture’, belonging to my very own Calcutta, and the quintessential Dakkhani or Hyderabadi language. Those dialects used to be a source of entertainment and intrigue for a very long time, and I was equally amused and happy that even today, the sound of those words don’t surprise me..
I know now, however, that there is much more than what the ear hears. But like they would tell me in the Dakkhani/ Hyderabadi accent.. “Baataan bahut ho gaye, ab thoda kaam karo miyaan!”
Sometimes I cook, without an available story for it. It is just a result of a gut feeling that creeps through my system for a consistent number of hours. I slowly sense “things” about the dish I want to make, trying to fill in vacuum places within my cells,muscles and brain. The look, the taste, the smell…its a unavoidable package. And almost in an animated form my eyes dilate, and I spring up from whatever I have been doing, perked with an irresistible rush of energy, and make a dash towards the kitchen, as if it is the last opportunity in my life to cook!
Although, I have to admit, these cravings to cook get spruced up when I have new cookbooks in my kitty. Or, when there is some subtle emotional blackmailing done by family, who haven’t seen me step into my kitchen for a while. I don’t cook everyday. Either, I select occasions, or weekends, or wait for “those” pangs of craving to arrive.
So, here is the (non-story) story of this dish.
Hari’s book had arrived a couple of weeks back. Almost when fall was in season in New York. Sadly, along with the parcel, my promised packet of fallen leaves, couldn’t make it to Bangalore. The strict US postal system carved a neat little hole, in the parcel and took out the zip-lock packet that had my four auburn leaves in it. It made me really sad. Even depressed for a few days. It had become almost an yearly affair by now. Last year, when my cousin had arrived from Boston, I had made her carry the fallen leaves for me. This year I nagged so much, that Hari finally agreed to handpick a few fallen leaves from his backyard and send it along with the book! But, all was in vain. The leaves couldn’t leave the Atlantic shore. Perhaps it was this depression that made me scorn at the beautiful book for a while(likewise, for no fault of its!). But, that scorn couldn’t last for long.
A few Sundays later, I picked up the book, sat on my favourite corner in the terrace, and flipped through the pages that seemed so familiar. Even while I was working on the book with Hari, some of them had become my personal favourites. So, once I decided the pairing options I started work on it. My version of the recipe has a few improvisations, something which Hari always encourages every home cook to explore. As far as my world of food is concerned, I trust him without any “fuss or fear.”
As for the recipes I tried out. Easy Indian Cooking-101 Fresh & Feisty Indian Recipes.
Proving you can make enticing Indian food in minutes, Hari presents 101 recipes to prepare for busy homemakers and owners of lifestyles who have very less time to afford in their kitchens. He uses lots of easy-to-measure spices but few ingredients that need chopping or other prepping (Except for a few of them, where the focus can shift from preparing to “impressing”). Still, follow his suggestions and food pairings to make one Indian dish plus a green salad and you’ll whip up aromatic, mostly-Indian meals with ease.
Recipes for poultry,meat, legumes and vegetables, and the chapter on salads, relishes, chutneys (accompaniments) and pickles are especially appealing. And after all these easy-to-believe pragmatic reasons, I am still biased. After all, I am part of book, and if I have helped in the content development, it’s glory and it’s stories of success are my stories too!
” Traditional Indian cuisine has its own charm, its own signature dishes and its own stories. When we add a twist of contemporary presentation, a touch of native sensibilities and a dash of global bounty, what you find before you is a kaleidoscope of delectable, modern,yet soul-stirring cuisine, I affectionately call Easy Indian Cooking.”- Hari Nayak
There are several favourites of mine in the book. A quick starter for the monsoon clad Wednesday dinner: Grilled Chicken Wings with Ginger & Lime; Curried Malabar Squids, for quenching that yearning of licking your fingers pretty and clean till the last morsel of rice and the yellow curry leave the plate; the Yellow Lentils with Baby Spinach and Garlic, when you have had an overdose of restaurant food, and want to detox over the weekend; and last but not the least, the quickest dessert, which can also leave you non-guilty- Sweet Yoghurt Sundae with Saffron & Pistachios.All of them can sensibly claim to be a culinary union of the East and West.
Mains: Mutton Chops with Mint & Lemon(Inspired by Roasted Rack of Lamb with a Mint Crust)
1 kilogram mutton chops, trimmed of excess fat
2 table spoons fresh lemon juice
1 table spoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced/sliced garlic
1 teaspoon freshly crush whole garam masala
1 slice of whole wheat bread, toasted on a medium heat
1/4th bunch chopped fresh coriander leaves
1/2 bunch fresh mint leaves
2-3 fresh green chillies
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
4 tablespoons olive oil to brown the mutton chops
4 table spoons mint-chutney mayonnaise
Pre-heat the oven to 230*C. In a large bowl combine lemon juice,ginger,garlic,garam masala and salt. Place the mutton chops in the bowl,mix and coat the marinade well, and refrigerate for about 1 hour. Place the toasted bread in a blender, add fresh mint leaves, coriander leaves, lemon juice,cumin seeds, green chillies and a little water to form a very coarse masala/paste. Take out the marinated mutton chops, and brown them in a heavy botton skillet, until both sides of the meat look sufficiently tempting! (About 5 mins for a batch). Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool. Take a generous dollop of the mint-chutney mayonnaise, smear the rounded and flat surfaces of the meat, and coat it with the ‘bread-masala’. Roast the meat in batches in the oven. For a medium-rare outcome, keep them inside for about 20-25 minutes. Keep them aside for a little bit of plate-art!
Vegetables:Sweet & Sour Asparagus and Yellow Zucchini with Cashews(This is verbatim from the book, except for the addition of the yellow zucchini)
500gms Asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2 inch pieces
1 large yellow zucchini, cut in 2 inch strips
3 tablespoons oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black mustard
2 small onions-sliced thin
1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1/2 a green capsicum
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt to taste
1/2 cup yoghurt(which I replaced with a chilli-lime tahini sauce!)
1/2 cup toasted cashewnuts, coarsely chopped
1/4th spoon garam masala
Par-cook the asparagus in boiling water in a wide pan or microwave on high for about 3-4 minutes. Chill in ice-water, immediately to keep the green intact. Drain and set aside.Heat oil in a medium non-stick saucepan over medium-high heat, and then add the cumin and the black mustard seeds.Once they sizzle, add the onion,and cook till they and translucent and golden brown.Add the ginger,garlic and capsicum, and stir for about a minute. Add coriander, cumin and salt to taste.Add the zucchini, and then the asparagus and cook till all the flavours and mixed. Add the chilli-lime tahini sauce and give it a good rounded stir to marry all flavours. Add the toasted cashew nuts and take it off the pan. Keep aside for the plating.
Sides: Easy to make Microwave Herb Risotto(Not from the book!)
3 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 and 1/2 cups vegetable broth
Mixed peppers: green,yellow and red-thinly sliced
1 cup uncooked Arborio rice
3/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a microwave safe casserole dish combine butter, garlic and onion. Place dish in microwave and cook on high for 3 minutes.Place vegetable broth in a microwave safe dish. Heat on microwave until the broth is hot but not boiling (approximately 2 minutes). Add in the multi-coloured peppers. Stir the rice and broth into the casserole dish with the onion, butter and garlic mixture. Cover the dish tightly and cook on high for 6 minutes.Stir wine into the rice. Cook on high for 10 minutes more. Most of the liquid should boil off. Stir the cheese into the rice and serve.
Place the bed of vegetables of a broad plate. Rest 3-4 mutton chops on it. Heap in about 2-3 tablespoons of risotto, in one corner of the plate and with the back of a spoon, mash it with a gentle stroke, so that it can corm a fading curve on one side of the plate. That’s it. Simple and pretty.
” Aap Kalkatta se ho?“-Are you from Kolkata? Asked a tall athletic man, muffled up in a colourful Hamachali shawl, a biscuit brown full sleeve sweater, from which waist below hung the remaining edges of a sky blue shirt, loose pajamas below that, and black boots further near the winter ground on which he stood.
He had a pleasantness about, the kinds you feel comfortable with, even if it was a first encounter of its kind. D and me were talking in Bengali; actually deciding from the extensive menu in front of us what we would ideally like to have for breakfast. Around us sat several interesting table occupants. A large group of vivacious sardars, was to our immediate right. Infact, while we were approaching this gazebo- turned- eatery bang in the middle of Buddha Jayanti Park, one of them, out of the blue, waved his hands looking at me and asking me, “Madam ji, aap reporter ho kya?- Are you a reporter?( Around my neck hung my Canon with its longish 75-300mm lens!) Right behind us sat a coy couple, heads together, reading the menu card with great focus. A table further, a group of assorted morning-walkers were noisily finishing of their fare from the table.
” Arre, hum Bhuvaneshwar se hain!“- I am from Bhuvaneshwar, said the pleasant faced man. “Kya banwake du, aap ko?”- What shall I get made for you? We placed a order of chicken and cheese omlette each, with hot buttered toast, and sweet tea, while an attendant vigilantly cleared a space under a huge oak tree, right on the ground where the ochre and sublime winter morning sun was playing hide and seek, and casting playful shadows and patterns. And then, we sat. Earlier the same morning D and me sat at the rear end of a Gypsy Van, and arrived escorted by two Army Jawans, courtesy Colonel Chanda’s rank,position and perks, as the Commanding Officer of a Battalion. New to to pampering that an Army personnel’s family is usually accustomed to, I couldn’t stop giggling. And this was to continue through all the three days I would be subjected to the most impressive form of hospitality I would have seen or experienced in my life!
I was in Dilli. Spending three winter days with Colonel Sahab and Memsahib, who stays in a REAL sprawling mansion along with the playful 7 year old Josh and the cutest, snuggliest,dog called “Posto”. Around them were several soldiers(or Daijus- meaning elder brother in the Nepali language). One cooks, one supports Colonel Sahab, one relieves either of them, and if I am not mistaken one does the domestic chores. Pardon me, I might have lost count and the descriptions of their responsibilities. There were too many to allow my mind to focus. But they were there for a good cause. And I was(for the next three days!) included in that cause!
Amulya Kumar Sahu arrived with omlettes from which circled hot smoke and a fresh aroma. Buttered golden brown toasts lay restfully in a basket beside each plate, and a glass of hot sweet tea was served. It is here that we learnt that he was called Babu by his mother, and Amul by his sister and ‘Lady’. Welcome to Amul’s Cafe. A perfect breakfast place, serviced by a perfect waiter, serving the perfect breakfast, for a perfect Dilli winter morning.
Delhi has a perfectly pretty winter.
When you tuck your feet in woolen socks, warm your hands by clasping a mug of hot chocolate and look out against the window sill, all you see is feeble layer of mist.
Mild fog waft past the forts and citadels, turning it into something as fantastical as the castles of Russian folklore Meanwhile, the Porsches of south Delhi shameless glide, in the same breath, through the icy air on the gentle slopes of the Moti Bagh flyover. The people on the pavement underneath flock around a makeshift bonfire, covered in caps and shawls.
The flower vendor, the trinket seller, and the chaiwallas drape themselves in blankets and sheepishly bring out a finger or two to sell their retail merchandise. Children will have blushing noses. Children will have runny noses.
In Buddha Jayanti Park, the gate close at 6pm unlike in summers at 8pm. Senior bureaucrats, continue with their morning walk, well shielded from the wind chill in multi-layered cardigans and sport jackets. The musk melon sun plays a game of catch-me-if-you-can. Strands of vertical amber rays seduce you, slicing boldly across naked branches, stoic tree trunks and fallen auburn leaves, to eventually meet the pristine dewdrops, that would have settled in the previous night. A cycle rests lazily against a tree or a fence. A couple hides behind a flower bed, stealing a kiss or two.
Dilli Haat becomes even more vibrant. Shakharkhand Chaat vendors spring up, selling their tangy delightful mixture of sliced boiled sweet potatoes heated up and perked up with variety of masalas.
In winter, the Capital creates an illusion of less aggression. The city takes a break from itself. Foggy mornings bring in a promise of honey soaked winter afternoons.
The next Tuesday, Memsahib and me headed out to the Hauz Khas Village. A Village, you ask? Yes. Uses the same warm logic that makes The Village in NYC one of our favourites. As soon as we turn the bend,a sign above a staircase leading to a three storey pink building reads ‘ The Open Book’. That’s a pretty good way to describe the location – South Delhi’s Hauz Khas village – a patchwork of small exquisite shops, a serene lake, the ruins and remnants of a fort and a Madrasa studded for the passer-by viewing pleasure, rooftop cafes and lots of spruced up greenery. Hauz Khas has been around for a long time, since the Mughals, and might not have seen such glorious days.But these days it might just be the gayest village in North India. Our leisurely stroll ended up in a quiet tucked away cafe, serving lunch. Barbeques pork chops, served with bacon studded mashed potatoes. Divine!
This visit reinstated what I always believed was true ever since my visit to New York, earlier this year. You know you have lived through a vacation when you do nothing, yet everything all at the same time. Its not about how many places you have seen or tours you have taken. Its about the people with whom you can do nothing yet, feel like there has been so much you did in a day. Its about no early mornings or an agenda to complete during a day. Its about delightful company, with whom even brainless banter, a cup of hot tea in a park, can seem like the perfect soiree. Its about playing with a dog all day, who snuggles up under your blanket and wishes you a glorious morning with a long sloppy lick. It about playing hide-and-seek with the sun and with the little children on the road. Its about discovering that you have ended up doing everything while doing really nothing.
But of course, a peg of Captain Morgan rum every evening, a hot water bag tucked inside your blanket even before you tuck yourself inside, a fireplace lit up and replenished for several hours in the evening, where you can read your favourite book, a hammock at your disposal never does anyone any harm!
There could have not been a better way to bring this year to an end. D & J, you better keep a watch. We will be there, again..and very soon!
All girls (the big and small cats) have a fantasy dwelling that to do with a Scottish castle of any kind.
Romances have been immortalized against these backdrops in Bollywood and Hollywood can safely call it its second home. And, I am just another girl, that has similar fantasies. So, when we were mid-way into our visit to Scotland, it went without any back-lash conversations that a trip up the mountains of the Western Highlands was a must in our itinerary. That was way back in 2007.
Circa 2012, and ‘Skyfall’ releases in India as the 23rd 007 James Bond movie. Many called it the best of Bond offerings, and claimed that Bond had matured, beyond his chases, women and rollicks in the bedroom. The movie also highlights Bond’s Scottish origin, weaves it into the plot of the main story, even providing it with the opportunity of the climax. It beautifully showcases Bond’s ancestral property of ‘Skyfall’ what I believe is actually the Duntrune Castle, along the western highland coast. I went to watch the movie like a ‘fan’ would.
Two last tickets in the front row of the movie theatre were all we were destined for, and so be it! Movie over, I came back home only to find myself containing racy dreams and thrilling escapades in my sub-conscious for several nights to follow.
Images where I get lost in an old castle, with goons aiming guns at me, visuals of car chases in a narrow road, sandwiched by two parallel train-tracks; getting lost in a highway between the New Jersey and New York interstate, having being mugged earlier and left without a penny nor my cell phone in my pocket!
And then back to old, musty smelling castles where I would be tucking myself behind cobweb laced chandeliers and duck underneath moss smeared kitchen counter, while wiggling as slow as I can to a secret door, leading to a secret cellar, that leads into a tunnel, that opens up beyond the next Loch! You think these were scary dreams?
No way! I was enjoying my thriller dreams, often nudging myself to sleep for a bit more, lest my dreams end without a befitting and deserving climax!
I wanted to soon revisit Scotland. And till I do that in person, I will continue harbouring this dire urge to re-visit the land of the lochs, the straits and the mountains and feeling as heavenly and elevated as it was experiencing it, real time, the first time…
The name is Skye..the Isle of Skye..!
One bright vibrant day in Edinburgh, in the May of 2007 we rented a cute Skoda and drove towards the Highlands. Driving north of Edinburgh towards Portree, on the A9 past Perth along meandering lochs, was one of the most mesmerizing drives I have ever had.
The highest point on this highway was the Pass of Drumochter. “Fàilte don Ghàidhealtachd”- it says, which translates to “Welcome to the Highlands’! The Pass of Drumochter is the main mountain pass between the northern and southern central Scottish Highlands. Quick tete-a-tete’s with Gary and Eric(Lochs being their surnames!) led us on towards the most dramatic contours of geography I have ever witnessed: rugged, green, serene, mysterious and unpredictable…all at once.
By the time we had reached Loch Laggan, we had officially entered the Highlands. And how excited we were, seeing the signboard! A little bit of India, a whiff of its essence, thousands of miles away from her, in Laggan! For those who are uninitiated, Lagaan was a very popular Bollywood movie, directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar.
The Isle of Skye or Eilean a’Cheo (misty isle in Scottish Gaelic) is the largest island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The Cullins hills command a majestic presence in this island. With a dramatic coastline like that and the rich greenery, a lover of anything unpredictable and yet beautiful would feel at home here.
A lover of that nature with a penchant for tales, stories and legends would never want to turn around and leave this quaint little island. As we passed the Eileen Donan castle, it struck me that this was the very castle that appears and is ‘used’ by the global film fraternity. Bond has been here before, with The World is Not Enough, and back home, so has Karan Johar with Kuch Kuch Hota Hain.
We had no reservation for the night, and since it was ‘season’ time, we didn’t want to take a chance. We stopped at Kyle of Lochalsh, just at the nape of the famous and immensely pretty Skye Bridge. The Skye Bridge is a road bridge over Loch Alsh, connecting mainland Highland with the Isle of Skye. The streets were uncomplicated and each of them had at least two bed & breakfasts! We decided on the first one we found vacant. A quaint Victorian style cottage, aptly names ‘ Victoria’ and run by the elderly Mrs Morris and her husband.
That night, after supper, all we did was stand in the middle of the Skye Bridge, staring at the halo of the full moon, pleasantly disturbed every now and then by the fishermen cleaning their catch, the movement on the dock and twinkling lights on the other side of the bridge.
The next morning,after a clean, unhurried breakfast of sausages, eggs, mushroom and tomatoes, that got washed with lazy conversations with the hostess and the lovely tea she made for us, Skye was on our mind. To reach the largest town in the Isle of Skye, Portree, we drove past the rocky landscape of the Storr Mountains, and several lochs (lakes) and glens (valleys). We stopped at Broadford, just past the bridge, where portly Clive McLeod in the TI Booth told us all about the McKahani of Scotland!
The net conclusion was that other than MacDonalds, all other Macs of the world, have made Scotland proud! Magnets in hand, we drove further towards Sligachan, and after the town of Luib, we took a tiny half road to Moll. This little village, with hardly 5-6 houses had the most spectacular view of the Cullins Range.
En route Portree, just a little further down from Sligachan, we spotted them: the cutest most animals born on earth: the Highland Cow, fondly christened as Shaggy, by yours truly! And in all their wondrous shagginess, they were chewing grass from a patch of green. The yellow hair completely covering their eyes, only the good Lord knows how they see anything at all! But their shagginess be blessed…they are oh-so-touchable and mmmmmessable!
The strenuous hike on the rugged mountain trails off Sligachan had whipped up our appetite. On reaching Portree we entered a tiny restaurant called The Isles Pub. A befitting poster greeted us:
We sat down across the bar counter, and consumed the warm, comforting goat cheese and cauliflower soup, served with rye bread and olive butter. It was early evening , and time for us to head back to Victoria. And what could be more apt, than a glass each of the locally made single malt- Talisker, to bring in the purple mountain dusk. Brilliant, smoky, smooth like honey and lovely! What complimented the sun-downer was the lively barman McCallum, who told us several stories and legends of elves, brownies and hobgoblins that we heard in awe, as we sipped!
Lights had started twinkling in Portree. Portree has a picturesque harbour and a row of colourful houses. Apparently, it also has the only Secondary school in all the Isle. Tiny, it indeed was.
The next morning we were heading out of the Highlands. With every new place we visited over the next few days, the beauty of the Highlands became more mesmerizing, only to be emphasized more by Scottish tale-telling. So, if you ever plan a visit to Scotland, forget the castles, ruins, lochs and Scotch trails.
Find a Scottish Mac instead…who can spin a good yarn!
Image Source of film shot: Hindustan Times
Durga Puja came and went. Although India doesn’t have an Autumn and its share of auburn leaves, this time of the year is the closest one can get to ‘Fall’. Autumn has always been homecoming and times for families to get together. Sometimes, this intention is not always as you would have wanted it.
This year, not everything was happy and joyful. On and around Vijaya Dashami, few very precious people on earth held the deity’s hand and went on their brisk return to the heavenly abode. Like they say, ‘Even the Gods need good people’. The skies were overcast and grey most of times. The nip in the air impertinent. The kaash and the pawlaash bloomed,alright- but unlike every year, this year, the joy was mutilated.
Photo Courtesy: Nandan Das
I have been living without being in Kolkata for the festival for almost 8 years now. And Bangalore has never made me miss my home-city, in all honesty. I have friends who I can call family here, and if am not mistaken, there are at least 60+ puja pandals that get installed in Bangalore around this time.
The addas remained intact. The dhaak serenaded the deity and her family in several neighbourhoods in the city. The yearly ritualistic Dhunuchi Naach, had its share of admirers. The kids wore their new clothes, and we had our share of adult materialistic pleasure of shopping for exquisite sarees, kurtas and bags. The excitement of the various Bengali ‘celebrities’ giving their darshan, still caused a flutter or two; the enthusiastic cultural diaspora of talent, still carried on, and heralded hoards of family and friends to cheer them on.
This time, everything was like last year’s but yet I was missing something.
And then I realized, what it was. I was missing home food. Home food made by Ma. All the kababs, all the biriyanis, all the rolls and chops and the roshogollas couldn’t make me forget what I was missing.
I have some staple favourites that belong to Ma. It isn’t a proprietary preparation, but I think what makes it stands out is the touch of her nimble fingers. Its also to do with the simple fact that each memory we have is intertwined with either of our five senses. While I may remember the look in the eyes of my lover, everytime we would have seen the full-moon together, I may also remember the smell of Ma’s towel, that she would have unfurled from her hair after an evening summer shower in Kolkata. I probably see Ma step out of her shower thrice every year, ever since we stay in different cities…but the smell and its memory is distinct as if she was right here, right now. Predictably, my memories of food are finely weaved with a strong sense of smell.
Photo Courtesy: Krishanu Rakshit
One such aromatic memory is this. Absolutely easy to make ‘Shorshe Chingri’ (or River Prawns in Mustard Sauce) . Everytime I think of this dish, my nose tickles and my eyes water out of sheer joy! Do this exercise, will you? Spot the nearest Bengali around you.Whisper ‘ Shorshe Chingri’ casually.
You will be amazed how spontaneously your friend’s face will brighten up! The sound of Shorshe Chingri evokes music in the hearts of us Bengalis. This is a quintessential dish, made with mix of pungent mustard paste, optional poppy seed and coconut paste, slender green hot chilly peppers, a generous drizzle (oh, well-lets just say pourings!)of mustard oil and for me there is an inevitable doze of nostalgia!
The other is rather a cultural delicacy, that can only be made into a favourite if you or your genes belong to a certain geography, and you belong to a ‘clan’ dubiously famous for its existence and practice of keeping the legacy of this dish alive. We call it ‘Shutki Maach’-The Dried Fish. It comes with the aroma(I hate when people call it a smell!) that is only possible when the air is mixed with the saltiness of the sea and made sultry with the amber heat of the Bengali country sun!
This heady and rustic mix of the salt and the sea belongs to Chittagong(in Bangladesh) and the nostalgic plate of food that I kept reminiscing about all through this Durga Puja is ‘Nona Ilish’ (Salted & Dried Hilsa).
Sun dried salted Hilsa fish can be preserved for 1-2 years. My ‘stock’ was hand delivered by my brother, and it came in all the way from Bangladesh. Customarily,the hilsa is preserved with salt so that fish lovers can be happy during those torturous months when raw fish is not available. A layer of the fish is mixed with salt and kept in an earthenware pot. A second layer goes on top and so on till you reach the mouth of the pot, which is sealed with a muslin cloth. In olden days, this contraption used to be buried under the ground for months. The fish needs to be washed several times in hot water allowing the soluble earth and the excess salt to drain out.
• Mustard seeds – ½ cup
• Green chilies – 7 to 8
• Turmeric powder – 3 tsp
• Poppy paste/Coconut paste (optional) – 3 tsp
• Mustard Oil – 1 cup
• Salt to taste
Garnish with slit green chilies and pour a generous drizzle of the remaining mustard oil. Serve hot with plain white basmati rice.
- 4 nona ilish mach slices or salted sun dried Hilsa fish slices
- 1/2 cup of mustard oil
- 1/2 cup of grated onion
- 1/2 cup of garlic paste
- 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric powder
- 1/2 teaspoon of red chili powder
- 4-5 green chilies cut in half along the length
- 2 eggs (Optional)
Wash the Nona Ilish or sun dried salted hilsa fish. Cut it into small pieces. In a kadai, bring a generous helping of mustard oil to smoking point. Add the onion and garlic pastes, turmeric, sliced green chillies and red chili powder. Remember categorically NOT to add salt! Add the salted sun dried fish slices.The fish will release its own moisture. Stir and cook until the ingredients are mixed well, and the water dries up a bit and the oil starts to simmer on top.
If you are using eggs, in a separate bowl, beat the two eggs. While the potion simmers, add the beaten eggs, while continuously stirring around the kadai.
The end product should look disjointed and fragmented. Almost like slender fritters. The strong smell of the spices will be gone as well, and the fish pieces will become oily and fried .Sprinkle some of the green chilies, another generous ladle of mustard oil and simmer for 3-4 minutes more.
Serve hot with plain white rice.
From riding on camels who love ‘street-food’, chatting up with locals who have strange stories to share, spending nights in a 300 year old haveli, heavy and romantic in its own history and charm,going berserk shopping silver and jootees in the bustling walled streets of the blue city, to being carried on camel-tops into the the perfect sunset, only to find that a perfect moon-rise awaits you at the next dune, this journey into the desert town of Jodhpur was indeed a memorable one.
“Yeh shabd sirf Urdu aur Angreji mein uplabdh hain, khayal kiya hain aapne? Shaadi karna kyu, jab nibhana nahin hain?” ( Have you realized that this word is only available in the Urdu and English languages? Why marry, when you have no intentions of preserving the institution?) Says, Jaymal Singh. We are sitting on the terrace top of the old haveli in Jodhpur, smacking our fingers off the sumptuous Rajasthani fare. All around us are speckled jewels, shimmering vistas, the landscape disturbed pleasantly by the imposing Mehrangarh Fort.
The rock on which it stands, or has stood for several thousand years, apexes to the right joining the silver white shimmery of the Jawant Thada. To our left is the glittering outlined silhouette of the Umaid Bhavan Palace. In uneven spurts of time, crackles bouquets of fireworks: the Palace is hosting a VIP wedding.
And these upscale celebrity weddings, is something Jaymal Singh isn’t approving enough of! After all, how long do they last? He seems disappointed with the Liz-Arun wedding of 2007(who aren’t a couple anymore!). Each wedding more magnificent and resplendent than the other, and their longevity lasting in inverse proportions to the expenditure. Food for thought,I would say. Its amazing, what thought provoking conversations one can end up in, if you are just a little curious.
The haveli is 300 years old, and was a gift from the Maharaja to the land-owner in whose name the building still stands. The break of daylight and the dominating desert sun seeping through the curtains woke me up early the next morning. I felt almost living a part of their lives, the moment I stepped into the courtyard.
Stained colourful glass facades, intricate sandstone carved window sills, and black and white photographs telling tales of the glorious days of the past. A quick unpretentious breakfast, while watching pigeons and parrots playfully splutter water from the terrace fountain, and a short twenty minutes through the uphill roads took us to the Mehrangarh Fort. Mehrangarh Fort stands a hundred feet in splendour on a perpendicular cliff, four hundred feet above the sky line of Jodhpur.
Burnished red sand stone, imposing, invincible and yet with a strange haunting beauty that beckons . And true to its name, it stands like a Citadel of the Sun, and noted as one of the best forts of Rajasthan.
And below it, nested the indigo washed neighbourhood of old Jodhpur. A little bird containing a history cheat-sheet had made sure I knew that the blue in the times of yore denoted a classification of Brahmins versus the non-Brahmins.
The name of the brave rebel is probably not known yet, but someone did manage stepping out of his non-Brahmin courtyard to decide that even his house should be blue-washed with indigo. And what followed thereafter has left us spectators an indigenous sight. A carpet below the magnificent fort painted in blue. Pretty and blue.
As the sun lowered its aggression and felt a little more benevolent, we headed off to the little village of Ossian, to witness the sunset. And what a spectacle it was. The predictable orange gold ball of fire, smoothly dropped from behind the tree, while we rocked and swung atop our camels. And as if the divine was not satisfied with providing us meager mortals this privilege of such a beautiful landscape, the next moment made us drop our jaws in awe.
As the dirt road took a curvaceous turn, right in front of us rose a magnificent ball of white and cream; the moon-rise, within a split second of the sun drowning below the horizon. The whole ambiance, the serenity of the dry forest, the sound of the lonely cricket, the distant silhouette of dunes ahead of us.. and this mesmerizing landscape will be an image I can never forget.
Some things got missed in this trip-which leaves me with a smile on my face and makes me promise to myself that I need to go back. I need to see the blue city, coming alive with the long slant rays of the setting sun. I need to see the walls of the fort turn from brown to gold when the shadows grow longer. I need to get lost in the alleys and bylanes within this blue carpet. I need to meet more Jaymal Singhs to hear their stories, while I can share a home-made Makhaniya Lassi or munch on a Mirchi Bhaji, sitting on a charpoy, right in front of their own courtyards, down in the blue village. Sinful, that I didn’t give Jodhpur enough time or a fair chance..
Till I see you again, Khamma Ghani Sa (Pardon my misgivings, Milord!)
If I had to ever write a story about us, it would need to necessarily contain silly sweet things. Stories about being picked up 5 minutes apart on a rickety blue coloured school bus for 8 whole years. Endless,mindless games that we played within it, sitting at the last seats.
Fights about the window seats. Stories about boys we could never meet and headaches that one never knew of.
Stories about planning birthday parties and ‘giveaways’. About insecurities and achievements. About plans and perusals. About escapades and enchantment. Stories about what we can and what we shouldn’t. Mostly joy and laughter.
A few tears, and misunderstandings. Relationships, heartbreaks and heartflutters. Then, marriages and adjustments. Some grave moments,and some bitter gone-aways. But always a rainbow after the dark skies.
Then suddenly one day we are all grown up. A plush job, new members in our life to call our own, and new responsibilities to shoulder. A few stray strands of grey hair, additional layers of adipose in a couple of us, and the lack of it in some, we became richer by layers and roles. Diverted focus. Always on the run.
But all the while clinging and cringing to go back to the flutter days. To be still, idle and ourselves, but still have company. Because, there are only a few people in the world, with whom you can be all those and more.
PS: For everything else there is the (add-on!) Mastercard!
And so we planned. Three of us. Taking a break to be idle and ourselves. Two of us took long connecting flights from Kolkata via Mumbai to reach, and one of us(me) a short one hour airborne journey to be in… Goa. The land of the idle. The land of fiesta. The land of good food, cheap alcohol and gorgeous sunsets.
Not sure if anyone else feels this way, but I think directional signs and signboards for roads in Goa, are engineered to laziness! You start from the airport seeing a milestone of say, 55 kms to Palolem. You keep an eye on the dashboard in front of you, neatly calculating a 10 kms progress, but when you see the next milestone, expecting the signage to denote a figure 10kms lesser than what you saw previously, it will not! ’52 kilometers to Palolem’, is what it will end up saying. Another 20 kms down, according to the roadsigns, you are still45 kms away!
Welcome to Goa!
Goa is the economy of idleness-not an economy that has idle people in it, but one that proudly relies on the human behavior and desire to be idle. And that was the ideal spot three of us were looking for!
Sometimes Goa can be nothing like what you hear from your friends, or see in Bollywood. Goa can be very personal. Quiet, introspective, or retrospective. Either ways, Goa offers everything to everyone. We wanted to fit every flavour possible in these three days. Palolem greeted us with light rain and cheap prices at the shacks.A constant harmonica often plays in my heart everytime it starts to rain, and Goa was no exception. There is probably nothing prettier than watching the monsoons crash over the vast blue waves. Sometimes, I feel rain is actually the prettiest inconvenience possible. And once it stops, you even have free rights to flirt with the breeze!
Palolem Beach is one of the quietest beaches in Goa. Not until recently, did it feature on the Goan map, but the greed to escape from the humdrum of the city, to Goa, yet not for partying, has led to many city dweller opting for this cove of a beach. Unlike the northern beaches of Goa, such as Calangute and Baga which are far more commercialized, Palolem offers the perfect balance of serenity, privacy and throws in some specks of nightlife, as well.
The stretch of restaurants, little shops selling scarves and handicrafts, a hole in the wall grocery outlet, it’s all there! It is a little slice of heaven, where you can walk around with sand stuck to your toes. I do not know a single soul who could avoid falling in love with this place!
The white sandy beach gently curves round to form a crescent shape while the warm turquoise waves of the Indian ocean roll in from the open sea. Green hills in the background and magnificent orange sunsets.
We ‘checked-in’ into Cafe Del Mar. Recommended, used before and hence …chosen!
The next three days were perfect. We spanked a couple mosquitoes the first night, and then had cover arranged for them for the next two. Watched the rain whip the ocean from our shack-balcony. We took long walks, we discovered coves, swam with the waves, drank at every happy hour, and licked our plates clean at several shacks lined up along the beach. Drove to Agonda Beach, and trekked to Cabo de Rama-an old fort, famous for the story that Lord Rama hid here with Sita during their exile-years.
The fort, and the small chapel it houses, has something mystical about it. Of course, we visited Baga. Had food at Martins. Partied in Calangute, visited the Anjuna flea market and bought silver jewellery.
These were things we did. What it did to us, in return… was priceless. Got us back our childhood. Tightened my belief in what I once read, written across an office white-board- “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime”. And instilled in us, hope to look forward to newer three day trips!
The other day, I was missing three of us together. Its been so long since we got together this way. I started visualizing Goa. And for some strange reason, it made me very hungry suddenly! So, I pulled my sleeves, and got together a meal of goan sausage pulao and duck vindaloo.
I know the two of you would love this meal…so I dedicate this to both of you, virtually now.
Bon Appétit, till we find time to be idle, again!
“Let’s go to Eataly!” he said. He has stayed in the Americas for the last 15 years or so, with enough travel and food experience around the world to be termed a global citizen. So, when he suggests that my trip to NY won’t hold good, if I do not walk and/or dine at Eataly (Pronounced how you are read it!), I simply agree to it…presuming it was Little Italy, he was referring to!
I smirked, thinking he was showing off his Mediterranean accent, complete with the lisp! Turns out, it wasn’t Little Italy, but the place is actually called Eataly, as in “eat” meets “Italy” equals “Eataly,” or maybe it’s the forced way of getting Americans to pruh-nunce stuff right!
Welcome to Lidia, Joe and Batali’s Eataly!
The multimillion dollar project cooked up and dreamed by culinary bigwigs Mario Batali, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and her son Joe Bastianich projects opulence, style and class in a way only they could have possibly imagined. Walking into Eataly is like turning up at the most incredible carnival of the year where there’s a trampoline and a water slide and a merry-go-round and a bounce house…and everything is edible.
Eataly is a seriously intense celebration of food and you can feel the dash of grown-up adrenalin against the buzz of noise that is basically laughter and random conversation. The place is essentially every food lover’s paradise. Eataly doesn’t just allow you to pleasure your senses, it also allows you as part of their mission to have a peek at the everyday philosophy of an Italian dining table. Live, to eat. Simply put!
And it is no surprise that I was led to this place, as a must-visit in the checklist of things-to-eat, while in Manhattan. It’s a massive indoor market, which sells high-quality products purchased from local farmers, fishermen, butchers, bakers and formaggio vendors with more than a handful of restaurants you can eat at. And the most incredible part is that all the food served in its many restaurants is made from ingredients sold in the store so you can actually try your hand at the stuff you just ate.
The store contains all the exotic ingredients you hear celebrity chefs rolling their tongues and suggesting, on TV shows! “Now rub a little Olio al Tartufo into the steak,” and you have no idea what Nigella Lawson just said …so you Google “tartufo” and find out that your steak rub of the truffle oil is going to cost $275 per lb plus shipping and handling because you don’t live in The Hamptons…nor in a little town off the Tuscan valley!
The summer evening brought us to Gramercy. Against the backdrop of the monumentally famous Flatiron building and the Madison Square Garden stood this majestic four-story wonderland of food. The Eataly experience is a little overwhelming at first; you are almost nervous with the amount and quantity of sensory delicacies that you see strewn all around you! But, after ‘hanging in’ there for a while, get trampled in the playground of foodies, you eventually start to feel a little more relaxed!
The walk around to get a feel for and figure out exactly how Eataly worked almost makes you lusty with hunger. You’re welcomed with a smart espresso bar as the space opens into seven “restaurants,” numerous food stations and a full “piazza” with a raw bar, fresh-cut prosciutto and marble-top tables. But this is not the Italy most Americans imagine—the Italy of quaint Tuscan towns and blooming pushy grandmothers! This is the Italy of Ferrari, Gucci, Vespas and steel-stilettos. The kinds Milan is famous for!
You almost feel as if you are walking into a pristine farmer’s market, where all the vegetables have been hand-picked that day at the peak of ripeness, the eggplants have been polished to a sparkling shine by the farmers, and the avocados have the perfect amount of give under your finger tips.
Eataly is a wine bar, a gourmet cheese shop, a pizzeria, a fish market, a butcher (and vegetable butcher!), a cafe, a farmer’s market, a gelato stand, a super market, your local gourmet grocery, a meeting place, and a trendy, iconic New York City event, all rolled up in to one. Pop in, or stay for hours. Have a quick gelato or espresso, or linger for hours over your glass of chilled Sauvignon.
Make your own judgments. Watch people. Whether you love it or hate it, I dare say you will be entertained, and leave feeling well-fed and spellbound! And just to offer a small amuse-bouche, (and that’s also a new term I learned this visit!)here’s a quick peak in photographs from inside the cavernous depths of this trattoria, from my own recent adventure to Eataly.
Every kind of fruit imaginable is laid at your feet here. There are varieties of apples I have never heard of, fruits that look like plums with tiger stripes but go by inaudible names… There are sections dedicated to jarred Italian specialty items like olive oils, tomato sauces and antipasti ,dairy, cookies and snacks, tea and coffee, chocolate, fruits and jams and Italian water and beer. And oh,salami, as we Indians call it is actually ‘salumi‘! Then there is the ‘Vegetable-Butcher’ who will wash, cut, clean the vegetables you purchase at no extra cost. How fantastic!
If you haven’t had your palette and platter full yet, there is a full-fledged travel agency at your disposal. An in-house travel agency that will organize trips to visit Italian food and wine producers.
Walking through these aisles is an education in itself. Especially, when it comes to food and places involved with it, I set a certain standard of my expectations. But Eataly completely lived up to my (rather high but qualitatively uncalibrated) expectations. It’s a worthwhile place to stop in for some quick fresh produce, or to spend a lazy afternoon browsing, or even to grab some wine and cheese while catching up with friends or ..just to satiate the food-soul in you.
While I was being driven back to my cousin’s pad I realized how much I loved the idea of combining supermarket shopping with the chance to grab a bite to eat at the same time. How revolutionary! How very European! How very non-Indian! But as much as I loved my leisurely stroll, I’m glad there isn’t an Eataly near where I live in Bangalore; I could easily blow a paycheck or two on all they had to offer. Ultimately, the incredible assortment of high quality ingredients coupled with the sheer excitement in typical upscale Manhattan style is really…well, sexy.
So, when everything is so Eataly-an, I would simply say… Mangier Bene in Stile!
Eataly - 200 5th Avenue, (near 23rd Street). Gramercy, New York, NY 10010. 212-229-2560