A personal loss to the epidemic

We never met Chef Floyd Cardoz, so we weren’t alerted by calls made to the people who met him just before he left Mumbai on March 7. If we had, we wouldn’t have been so very shocked by the news that he died of COVID-19 on March 25. For five years now we’ve made his restaurants a regular fixture on our calendar. His interpretation of Indian food is (was!) something we loved, like many others. The amazing Egg Kejriwal, the surprising Arbi Tuk, the playful deconstructed samosa, the seasonal fried fish, the superb Desi Taco, you name it, and we’ve tasted and loved it. Chefs Thomas Zacharias and Hussain Shahzad will continue to do the marvelous job that they are known for, but we will miss Floyd Cardoz.

He started learning at Les Roches in 1986, was at the Taj Mumbai and The Oberoi the next year, eventually becoming a Sous Chef at Raga, New York. It was as a Sous Chef in Lespinasse New York that he began introducing innovative Indian dishes on the menu. In 1997 he opened Tabla, and a decade later Paowala, both in New York. His ventures in Mumbai started five years ago.

Here is Cardoz on Indian food: “There were other cuisines we enjoyed when we went out to eat at restaurants—especially Mughlai, Chinese, and South Indian, or sometimes street fare of Chole Bhature. To most of us this was what we called Indian food. The food at home was never considered “Indian cuisine” as it was more Goan or Kashmiri, or Maharashtrian. The nicer restaurants predominantly served “restaurant food,” which was primarily Mughlai with a bit of tandoori or Punjabi food thrown in. Over the years the cuisine slowly evolved and Indian restaurants spread to other parts of the world, making the diners believe that this was Indian cuisine.

“When I started to cook, I had no interest in cooking the Indian food that restaurants had made popular.

A new take on sweets

“I love Indian cuisine, the variety it offers, the cooking techniques, and the use of flavor and texture. I want the world to enjoy and celebrate this multiplicity in food that India has to offer. However, the use of an all-encompassing term “Indian Cuisine” does this wide range a disservice. We don’t group French, German, Italian, and Spanish cuisine into a broad group of “European cuisine.” Calling our food “Indian Cuisine” does not cover the depth, or showcase the nuances of the wide variety. I want to champion this diversity and beauty of regional Indian food. There is so much to discover, so much to acknowledge.”

The sour mango cream with salt and chili in the dessert whose photo you see above is part of the wave he started.

Reading in the time of a pandemic

I had two or three books scattered about the living room, the last few I’d bought before the lock down. But elsewhere in the flat is a growing pile of books which have slipped below the radar. William Dalrymple’s latest, The Anarchy, promises to be a great read of the world’s most out of control corporation: the British East India Company. To go with it I picked up an older book which I think I’ll read through, Opium City by Farooqui. This is a history of the rise of Bombay, from a port with nothing to do, into its modern avatar. Two more bits of Indian history round off this part of my collection. One is the highly recommended book on Dara Shikoh, The Emperor Who Never Was by Supriya Gandhi. The other is below most radars, The Deoliwallahs by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza chrolicles the incarceration of all Chinese in India during the 1962 China war. That covers about four centuries. Enough.

Why did I let a Michael Ondaatje slip to the bottom of a pile. COVID-19 gives me a boon: rediscovering one of the great novelists from Africa. I know nothing about Otessa Moshfegh, except that The Family kept telling me to read My Year of Rest and Relaxation after she finished. Now that my year (or less) of rest and relaxation has come around, I’m getting round to it. I know even less about Anna Burns and the book Milkman. It’ll surprise me, no matter what.

Light reading? Yes, I have a thriller: Pythagoras’ Revenge, and a graphic novel, First Hand, by a collection of Indian artists. Nine books for mortal men doomed to die another day.

Comb duck

After some looking at the duck you see in the photo, I decided that its usual name, knob-billed duck, fits it perfectly. I have no use for the alternative African comb duck or the Latin binomial Sarkidiornis melanotos. It is large, among the largest of ducks, and easily told at a distance by the black stippling on the head and neck, even if you don’t see its knob. The female lacks the knob, may have a duller wing, and is generally smaller, but is otherwise similar in appearance. On this morning at Lakhota lake, I didn’t see it upend to dabble in the water just below the surface, but several of them dipped their beaks into the water, perhaps filter feeding. I was happy to get that drop of water at the end of this one’s bill.

I’ve learnt to let sexual dimorphism in birds signal strange mating behaviour. Typically they nest in holes and hollows in trees, above a man’s head, but usually not too far above. But it has been known to appropriate the nests of other species for itself, even if they are much higher: vultures’, eagles’, storks’. Each female lays a clutch of 7 to 12 eggs. But one of the oddest things about this bird is that they breed in “dump nests” where several females deposit eggs, and once as many as 54 eggs have been found in such a nest. This suggests the possibility of polygyny among these birds. There are other waterfowl in which polygyny has been observed. Like several other birds in India, they breed late in the monsoon. This is an added reason for me to start thinking of a late monsoon birding trip, something which most birders think is a wild and useless trip.

The center of Jamnagar

The Jamnagar-Junagadh highway passes right next to the now-dilapidated palace of the Jamsahib of Jamnagar. I decided to follow it because it passed through a wonderful two-storeyed curved arcade pierced by a huge ceremonial gate (see the featured photo). I believe that this area was remodelled in the 1920s by Ranjitsinhji, the famous cricketer and then Jamsahib of Jamnagar. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a source for the urban history of Jamnagar, so I can’t really say much about this gate. I passed through it and saw a wonderful, and undocumented, school building.

After that I walked back through the gate, around the curve of the arcade, and then abruptly I came to a narrower side street. This was chock-a-block with scooters, and I had to duck out of their way very quickly. I found myself in another spacious arcade. It was the middle of the lunch hour, so there was space to stand and take a photo. I’m sure that at other times this arcade would be jam packed with shoppers.

I looked for a break in traffic and walked out to take a photo of the elegant arches running down the face of the arcade. Could these have been made in the 1920s? Or were they from an earlier period? I wish I could find out somewhere.

Opposite me was the incredibly colourful Jumma Masjid. I couldn’t find anything about this ornate structure. I gazed at it for a while, and then decided that I didn’t have the time to go in. We had to leave for a birding trip very soon. I’m sure the interior of the mosque would have been worth photographing.

As I moved back towards the palace, I passed a small temple with a very ornate gateway. Again, I would have liked to have gone in and looked, but time was too short. I had to get back. I haven’t discovered yet anything about these structures. Neither the state tourism department, nor the world’s most reliable encyclopedia mentions any of these structures. Since I couldn’t find anything about the palace either, I think these places are all in good company. Unfortunately.

A hidden koel

On a sunny winter morning by lake Lakhota in the middle of Jamnagar, I tore myself away from the many ducks swimming in the lake to look at where The Family was pointing. A female Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) was hopping about the branches of a young banyan tree. This is always something of a sight; the bird, especially the female, is hard to spot. The male’s storied plaintive mating call is a staple of the late spring, redolent of ripe mangoes and burning hot days. Sometimes I’m woken up on such hot mornings by a duet of two males each trying to outdo the other. I can’t imagine a better way of waking up.

I watched the female hopping about in the lower branches of the tree, not paying us much attention. The male is slaty black with the same red iris. Sexual dimorphism in birds always says that the involvement of the two parents in breeding and brooding is very different. The koel is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nests of a variety of species: crows, common myna, black drongos, and the Eurasian magpie. The male is seldom involved in distracting the nesting pair while the female lays eggs. The female occasionally feeds the young, but most of the feeding and rearing is left to the parasitized pair.

I look a shot of the fruits of the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis). As a boy I’ve tried eating them. They are sweet, and did not cause me any obvious harm, but I’ve never seen them being sold in any market. Later, when I moved to a part of the country where figs are common, I realized that the odd interior is typical of fruits of the genus Ficus. I was sure that the bird was here to eat the fruits. They looked pretty ripe to me.

As I saw the bird eating the fruits, I began to wonder whether it is an entirely fruit eating bird (obligate fructivore) or whether it eats grubs and insects also. If it lays eggs in the nests of crows and drongos, then the chick is definitely fed a large variety of insects and scavenged meat. In agreement with this I found a rare report of courtship feeding in which a male koel was observed to offer a caterpillar to a female. Even a single koel is so hard to spot, seeing a courtship feeding is quite unusual. I wouldn’t mind being lucky enough to see this one day. Must keep my eyes peeled in spring.

A better light

I looked out of the window early in the morning. That sentence could not have been written before COVID-19 forced us into a more measured lifestyle. Working from home gives us more time, a clearer understanding of what are priorities, and what we can postpone. So The Family and I have mostly managed to sleep by midnight, and wake while birds are still active in the morning. We never thought that we were being disturbed by traffic, but the clear harmonies of birds in the trees remind us how much of the city’s background noise has died out.

At the horizon a ship was waiting its turn to enter the harbour. That’s another sentence that could not have been written a week ago. The haze had been so bad that I could not see beyond the trees. The sky and sea used to be a glare of white. In a week the pollution has cleared out, and I can see the horizon and the ships waiting there. Later in the day there was a haze, but the air quality remained unchanged. So this was due to water evaporating in the warmth of the sun. I could still look out across the bay and see the bungalows on the headland opposite to us.

Life is not going to be simple in the coming weeks, but some background problems have resolved themselves. Perhaps the world will muddle through.

A Tern’s turn

On our last visit to the Gulf of Kutch during our trip to Jamnagar, I was dismayed to see this bicycle parked near the tide line. Two children had come out here as the tide receded, and were playing at the edge of the water- skipping from one rock to another. Their presence had driven the birds out into far shallows. Although it was going to be hard to take photos, we hung around for a while. I spotted a whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybrida) circling over a spot out over somewhat deeper water.

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I hadn’t tried to shoot photos of a tern at hunt ever before. Nor had I ever watched one closely as it hunted for fish. Now I was mostly fussing about focus and distance, but through the viewfinder I followed it as it hovered over one spot, looking straight down. This behaviour is a boon for photographers, since it allows you to fix the focus. It moves very quickly when it spots a fish and dives. I was lucky to get a few shots of it as it dived, but missed the moment when it picked up its prey. It seems that it likes to wait until the fish is at the surface. Its bill may have broken the surface, but without much of a splash. Unfortunately it winged away from me immediately after, so I didn’t get a shot of it with the fish in its beaks. The next time I see this, I’ll know that I can zoom in a bit more, since its motion is fairly predictable.

Sweets of Jamnagar

I walked into a shop with tall glass and steel counters filled with trays of sweets. Just another sweet shop. But instantly the little boy inside me took over my eyes and legs, and I began to look at the sweets one by one. The adult keeps hold of the wallet, so the little kid doesn’t get everything he wants, but the eyes belong to him. The thick disks of kaju katli topped with beaten silver sheets of warq, always tastes good, not as sweet as marzipan, and also richer and creamier because the almonds have been replaced by cashew. Behind them you can see a few stray pieces of kesar peda, rich with almonds and pistachio, dyed in saffron. It is another staple of Gujarati sweet shops.

Less common are the thabdi penda, basically sweetened milk with added fat, boiled until it turns into a brown mass. Crushed cashews and almonds had been added to it to give you the healthy statins that would keep your heart from immediately seizing up when you eat this. Very considerately, slivers of almonds had been added to the laddoos on display. I am overwhelmed by the generous spirit of mithaiwalas, the way they keep tweaking recipes to make it healthier for you. The Family had finished buying the farsan to take back with us. The boy was happy. It was time to go.

Preparing for Jordan

I hadn’t thought of visiting Jordan until I saw a post on Jerash by Harinda Bama. Then I realized that right there in the middle of the middle east, a place so full of history, where the remnants of the European wars of a hundred years ago are still being fought, in the middle of a beautiful and once peaceful land, there is a part which is easy for tourists to visit.

There were over 4 million tourists to Jordan two years ago, and that number might have gone up to 7 million this year if it were not for COVID-19. I suppose only a small fraction of travelers blog, but that number still produces a lot of stories and opinions. I started by reading some of what wordpress has on offer: Amman’s street art, Kerak, Raqmu, also known as Petra, Wadi Musa and Little Petra, Jerash and the Cats of Amman.

This was definitely a place I wanted to visit. The Family was also interested. So I looked deeper. The first book I took up was a translation of the travel diaries of Johann ludwig Burckhardt, the man who rediscovered Raqmu (Petra) in 1812. The translation of “Travels in Syria and the Holy Land” that I had contained a very long and interesting foreword by William Martin Leake. I found this really interesting, not only for the description of the geography (it helped to keep a map with contour lines open on my laptop as I read) but also for the interesting tidbits about how accurately the Greeks and Romans had mapped this land. Raqmu need not have been lost at all.

There is quite a bit of European writing on Jordan. The most well known is “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by Thomas Edward Lawrence. From today’s perspective one can see the broad line between Lawrence of Arabia and to the present wars in West Asia. The book is a little too verbose for my taste, but I found it interesting to skim through, pausing at bits here and there. Gertrude Bell‘s book “The Desert and the Sown” was an easier read, from a slightly earlier time, and left me with the same unsettling feeling of imperial powers meddling in local politics. As a travel book, it too has its positive points. One could add a dash of whipped cream by adding Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, not one of her best Hercule Poirot books, but one in which the murder occurs in Raqmu.

Most of the British books from the early part of the 20th century CE are imperial and racist by today’s standards, and totally ignore the post-Roman history of the area. They deal with the Ottoman Empire as a vile occupying power (an Indian finds this ironic). It was only when I started in on the next phase of reading, guide books, that I began to appreciate the modern history of the area. After some thought I chose the Blue Guide and Lonely Planet. I like Blue Guides for their detailed explanations of cultural artifacts, especially in and around Europe. Byzantine power supplanted Rome in this part of the world, until it was checked by the Umayyads and, later, Abbasids. After the brief Crusader incursion, Ayyubids and Mamluks held this land until the coming of the Ottomans. Each of these periods has left its artifacts across the land. This was a good point from which to expand my reading. I was feeling a little rushed last week, since our plan would have taken us to Raqmu today.

Now, under the new social distancing conventions, I remain in my flat. Airlines have cancelled flights, and the world has broken up into little islands. It gives me more time to read about this tiny country. I hope that when this calamity has gone, The Family and I are still able to take this cancelled trip.

Herning coots

Decades after I’d first come across the phrase “haunt of coot and hern” I looked up the meaning of hern. A hunter! That fits me when I’m trying to take photos of birds. So the result of my herning coots are the photos you see here. The common coot (Fulica atra, also called the Eurasian coot) is something I learnt to spot long back. The reason is that when you look at a distant pond full of water birds, the dark plumage broken only by the white patch on the forehead is extremely easy to recognize even without gear. The common coot is a resident, and therefore visible all year round. But even in winter, when every water body is crowded with migratory visitors, it remains the easiest bird to identify. I took photos of them at the Lakhota lake in the middle of Jamnagar.

It seems that they often lay their eggs in the nests of other coots. This parasitic behaviour improves their own chances of reproducing, because they can go on laying eggs without having to take care of the young. Perhaps as a defensive mechanism, they are aggressively territorial during breeding season; both the male and the female challenge and chase encroachers. They are seen to be ruthless to their brood. Chicks which demand food are often pecked quite brutally. More chicks die of starvation than the numbers killed by raptors. Could this whole cascade of behaviour result from some individuals deciding to cheat?

One of the coots had now come up quite close and I got a look at its feet as it propelled itself underwater. You can see that they are not at all like the webbed feet of ducks. Coots have fat lobes on each toe, as you can see in the two photos above. The combined surface areas of the lobes must be rather big, because coots seem to swim as efficiently as ducks. I’ve seen coots upend to dabble in the water just below the surface, but I’ve also seen them submerge completely to forage underwater. You can see that a coot’s head is streamlined for diving.

In the long shot above, you can see how easy it is to spot coots in a bunch of ducks swimming about in the distance. That white patch shows up very clearly. The other detail you can see is the wake behind a coot as it swims. It seems a little wider than that of the common pochard, perhaps indicating that a coot’s legs sit relatively forward in its body; I don’t think I’ll get to measure a coot, but I’m sure someone has already done that. You can also see that the wake is quite as complex as that of the pochard; the forward and backward strokes of the feet as it swims must be different. It is always interesting to watch birds swim.