A long and winding meal

The Family and I eventually ended the meal with spiced figs and ice cream. I’ve grown averse to ice cream in recent years, but the wait staff was flexible enough to get the ice cream in a separate bowl. The Family puts up with this quirk, especially since she does not consider having to finish my share of the ice cream to be a tiresome chore. The dried figs in molasses was the wonderful deep dark brown that you see in the featured photo. In the few days that we spent in Kochi I grew to love this dark brown taste of sweet molasses. I’m sure it is bad for me, so maybe I’ll eat it only in Kochi.

The route to this bit of sweetness was long. The last bit involved fish. I love the thick coconutty sauce that this always comes in. But this sauce was somewhat special. The slivers of deep fried onions was not something I’d ever seen in this curry before. I wonder why. It goes so well with this that you would expect it to become a regular way to do it. Perhaps it will. Until it does, you’ll have to seek out this harbour-side restaurant in Fort Kochi, or reconstruct it from the photo that you see above.

But wait, that wasn’t all. Before that was the Malabar biryani. Like the dried figs, the idea of a biryani probably came eastweards over the Indian ocean, but here the delicate herbs of the middle east were replaced by the aromatic spices of Kerala. When people talk of biryani these days it is the offspring of the court dishes, the Lucknowi and Hyderabadi versions, which get all the press. I find them a little on the heavy side, and the Hyderabadi, at least in today’s version, is far too full of chilis to suit me. The Malabar biryani retains its charming authenticity, perhaps because it was never a royal dish. In my book it rivals the home-cooked charm of Bohra biryani.

But before we started in on the highlands of Malabari food, we’d sat down in a breezy arbor next to the waterway that separates Kochi from Willingdon island. The day was sunny, and the thought of a cooler was attractive. Scanning the menu, I saw that the place had its own ginger ale. Having just passed a warehouse full of dried ginger, I figured this might be interesting. The Family ordered a lime and ginger combination. They turned out to be just the right things to ease us on the long and winding road to the figs.

The Kerala Breudher

When I first heard about a dutch-origin bread called breudher available in exactly one bakery in Fort Kochi, I was very intrigued. I noted down the name of the bakery; a very forgettable name, Quality Bakery. On Christmas Eve The Family and I walked down there to look for a loaf of the bread. Business was brisk. A warm bready smell filled the place, and hot bread was selling like, umm, hot cake. It was a while before my turn came. I spent the wait taking photos of the very creamy cakes that they had on display. It turned out that breudher is made only on weekends, or to order. Luckily they could make a single loaf. We paid an advance and agreed to come by the next day at about the same time to pick it up.

Wikipedia notes that breudher (pronounced broo-dhuh) is found in Sri Lanka, Malacca, and Kochi. Digging a little further into this story I found more information in a book on the history of Asian cooking. Charmaine Solomon, who migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka, apparently popularized this bread in her adoptive country in the 1970s. Her father’s family was Dutch, but settled in Sri Lanka in 1714. Her mother’s family was Tamil, but with Irish, Dutch and Goan blood thrown in. Her husband was a Jew from Malacca. Although Wikipedia’s description of breudher as being derived from “a Dutch cake traditionally eaten at New Year” is taken verbatim from one of Solomon’s books, the bread perhaps has a history as convoluted as Solomon’s family.

When I went to pick up my order on the evening of Christmas day, there was no other customer at the bakery. One of the brothers who ran the place (featured photo) disappeared upstairs to bring the bread while the other chatted with me about how bad business had been in the past year. Unfortunately we spoke each other’s languages too badly for me to interview him about how they came by the recipe. The breudher looked like a loaf of plain bread, smelling mildly of spices. I was a little disappointed that it hadn’t been baked in a fancy mold. But all the disappointment vanished when I bit into a slice. The yeasty, spicy, sweet bread was not a taste that I’d encountered before. Do I now have to travel to Sri Lanka and Indonesia to taste their versions of this bread? I wouldn’t mind it at all.

Surprising beach food

We walked along the beach at Kochi, looked at the fishing nets and the catch, and then began to think of a little snack before dinner. A snack is never far away when you are at a beach. But here we found something that was exciting and surprising: fresh fried yam wafers. We’d first encountered this less than half a year earlier in Nairobi, where they are called mogo chips. There they were crisp, and the flavour was just different enough from a potato to be interesting. This looked equally crisp, and The Family and I felt like sharing one helping.

The chips were being fried by a master who was on the phone continuously. The serving was very similar to what we had seen in Nairobi. We god a good amount of the wafers decanted into a straight-sided brown-paper bag. A half of a lemon was squeezed into it, and a bit of chili powder sprinkled on. We walked away with the chips, looking for a beer, exclaiming about how good it was, and how much it resembled mogo chips. In Kerala it is hard to tell whether this exchange happened yesterday or a thousand years ago. I’m glad it happened.

The ginger house

I’m used to lots of different spices in my food, and I suppose I smell them whenever I walk into our kitchen, without really paying attention to it. Walking through the roads of the spice bazaar of Kochi was a different order of experience; the wonderful smell of spices permeated the whole quarter. It is seldom that you think of the smell of a city, but Kochi engages this sense more than any place I’ve been to. I was clicking photos of the warehouses and their wonderful doors as I walked along, and I stopped here because of the elaborate doorway. But my attention wandered to the workers who were unloading sacks from the truck without breaking a sweat.

They didn’t mind when I followed them into the warehouse complex. As I passed through that grand doorway a wonderfully sweet smell hit me. This was a ginger warehouse, and the large courtyard was being used to dry ginger. That was when I began to realize that the famous spice trade also included things which I don’t even register as a spice; for example, the ginger that I so often throw into a salad or all into a soup. I was to find later that slightly more than a third of the world’s ginger is produced in India, and that is a big reduction from the monopoly it held in the medieval era. Out of curiosity I tried to check how precious it would have been then, and found the answer in a lecture given in the university of Toronto. Ginger was a major part of the spice trade in the middle of the 15th century CE, but the cheapest of them. Still, it would have cost almost 25 times as much as an equal weight of salt. In Antwerp and in London the average day’s wage of a master carpenter would have bought him 300 grams of ginger! No wonder that spices drove Europe across the world.

Ginger is produced in homesteads across the country, and the truck was unloading fresh produce. I guess it would be dried here and then sold. A foreman was happy to chat with me about the daily operations, the process, and the business as he knew it. The warehouse had wonderful light. I hope you can get a feel of it from the photos above. I found over the next days that many warehouses have been turned into art galleries for this reason. As I explored the art-city of Kochi, I got to love the masala chai infused with this lovely pungent but sweet aroma of dried ginger.

A late breakfast

Birdwatching can stress your biochemistry. We woke before sunrise, had tea and biscuits, piled into cars and drove out in the countryside outside Hampi. We had packaged snacks in our backpacks, but you know how healthy packaged food usually is. We got to breakfast almost four hours after that tea.

It was a little shack by the road and I would have easily gone past it if it hadn’t been for the crowd of people waiting outside for their morning fix of starches and fats. The reason for this popularity was instantly clear once I peered into the shack. A lady was busy frying up chilis dipped into a batter. Next to it was an instrument which I would have identified as an idli steamer if it wasn’t for the fact that it was greasy. It turned out to be a paddu pan, and was used to make the delicious gullyappa paddu that you can see in the featured photo.

Across a narrow strip of floor, a man, presumably the cook’s husband, was doling out food to the madding crowd. Rural south India has a common culture when it comes to serving food. A plate or a table will have a strip of banana leaf over it: clean, biodegradable and single use renewable. The leaf will be put over a steel plate, long-lasting and therefore not resource hungry.

The gullyappa paddu is made out of a batter of rice and dal, slightly different in proportion from that used for dosas. The fermented batter is mixed with onions and herbs, put into an oiled paddu pan, and cooked closed, so that it steams and fries. It is delicious with the sambar and chutney that you see the man doling out. Some fried chili, some utthapam, lots of yoghurt, many cups of strong and sweet south Indian filter coffee followed. A late but great breakfast was the consensus.

Cochin biriyani

Kochi, a center of Indian Ocean trade since the 14th century is so sure of its identity that it does not worry about being called Cochin. So I take the liberty of using the spelling which is more evocative in the language this blog is written in. And its Biriyani? An Arab import, localized over centuries, redolent of the spices of Malabar, has gained wider popularity since the 2012 movie Ustad Hotel. The Malabari version of the Biriyani is made in the dum style, with the vessel heated from above and below, and the dum pottikkal, breaking of the dum, is an expert’s job.

In search of the perfect biriyani, we walked into Kayees Rahmathulla Cafe for our first lunch in Kochi. It was highly recommended, easy to locate on my map, and within an easy walking distance of the Mattancherry Palace. As The Family and I walked into the cafe, I looked around the small, cramped but clean place, and knew that I had made no mistake in choosing to eat here. We were greeted with smiles, and two glasses of yellowish water were put in front of us. The Family was not quite sure whether to drink it, but the waiter explained that it was jeera water: water warmed with cumin. We liked the flavour, and guessed that the rest of the food would be brilliant.

The place setting for the biriyani (featured photo) is interesting. Three side dishes are laid out: first a dish of onions (not a raita), then a wonderful jaggery and tamarind sauce (this looks black in the photo, but to the eye is a wonderfully deep brown), and nearest to you, a hot and sour chutney made with pepper (the red colour does not come from chili). A plate of thin papad comes with the food. I admired the look of the biriyani before eating it. The beautiful short grains of rice do not stick together, and the uneven colour is a reminded of the layering which gives the biriyani its special flavour. It is hard to look too long, with the smell of Malabar’s spices seeping through the air. The meat was soft and perfectly cooked: coming easily off the bone. This was a biriyani to remember. There was no taste of yoghurt in the meat, this biriyani is cooked with ghee. By the time we finished eating, the place was full, and there were people waiting for tables.

I asked for a piece of their halwa, to try to check whether there could be any truth to the apocryphal story that the British mistook it for meat, and therefore coined the word sweetmeat. Halwa changes when you travel across the country, and there may be no region except the Malabar which retains the clarity of the connection with the middle-eastern origin of this dessert. When I bit into it, the first thing I thought of was Tirunalveli halwa, and only after that did Turkish halwa come to mind. No tongue which is even slightly familiar with the taste of halwa would mistake it for a meat, but history is full of unrepeatable mysteries. Just across the road was a cool bar which had an interesting menu. If you ever stop by and taste the gul gullah, please drop me a line telling me about it. I couldn’t think of ordering anything more before a long walk.

Sunday Brunch

An enthusiastic local tourism web page once told me that Wuhan is the breakfast capital of China. Eventually I found that this refers to the hot and dry noodles which are a local specialty. I liked them enough that I would add some to my breakfast plate every day during my trip, perhaps contributing to the hard-to-shed pre-holiday flab that I picked up. Although I didn’t go looking for breakfast in the food streets of Wuhan, I had some pleasant times in them.

Just as the local government has chosen breakfast and duck’s neck as the two representatives of Wuhan food (airport gift shops are full of large gift packets of duck neck), they have selected the Yellow Crane Tower as the representative of Wuhan’s culture. Pictures of the tower are everywhere, even on manhole covers on the road.

But Wuhan’s food has much more to it. There is nothing specially Hubei or Wuhan about what I liked, but I was glad to have found much of it. I loved snacking on the nuts which you see in the featured photo. I stashed a packet of mixed nuts in my backpack to munch on in the flight back. I inspected the food that this man was ready with, but it was a little heavy for a time when I was not really hungry. These two stalls made for lovely photos though. I like the clutter; makes the place look like a real kitchen.

If you never pass a display of food without looking deeply into it, you will ingest calories even without eating. That is a simple fact about life which I have come to believe in very firmly. It is about as true as Santa’s epic yearly journey. This display is even more fascinating because there are some things which I cannot recognize. There’s nothing that restores my sense of adventure as much as new food, and the possibility of coming across a totally different taste.

Open Sesame!

I walk into food stores whenever I can. There’s no better way to figure out, for example, that sesame candy is a big thing in China. Now sesame was domesticated first in India, sugar was first refined in India, and it makes sense that the two would have been put together in India. Since it is widely available across India, I never gave it a second thought. But as I began to travel in east Asia, I noticed that Koreans and Chinese also think of exactly the same sweet as their own. I bought a few packets of this Chinese tilgud as a novelty to be handed to various people in India. Every one had the same reaction, “Oh they eat it too! What do they call it?”

The Chinese name is the same as the Hindi name: 芝麻糖, to be pronounced zhīma táng. If you don’t know Hindi or Chinese, you could say sesame sweet instead; it would also mean the same. The sweet has travelled both east and west, and is now found right across Asia. It is also conspicuous by its historic absence in the west; the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets fails to mention sesame even once. Whatever its origin, I hope some historian sits down and tries to figure out how it travelled. It must be a fascinating story.

Nostalgia is not what it used to be

When I first left the town that I still think of as home, I would sometimes be overcome by nostalgia about the unlikeliest of things: a little corner shop which would take ages to serve samosas, impassable traffic on roads which would even force bicyclists to take alternative routes, a bunch of quarreling labourers who would spend an hour before dinner drinking and playing cards in a little alley, a shop which would stock all the treasures of a school kid’s life (scented erasers, fidget toys, Phantom comics). Walking along the roads of Nanjing I found the streets familiar in a strange way: if I’d grown up here I could miss it horribly. A simple dumpling soup? Of course I could become nostalgic about it.

The streets were not as crowded as those of my childhood, but China has managed its infrastructure to expand with its growth. There are still traffic jams in the large cities, but the traffic does flow. The one parallel with the ancient imperial city I grew up in was the inability of different kinds of traffic to stay away from each other. The lady in the scooter jacket was talking to her very young daughter, who was riding pillion. As I took this photo the child turned and was hidden completely. I realized at that moment that the pillion rider does not need a jacket.

I took a photo of this shop window in passing. Sometimes when I’m chasing the light, as I was doing on this walk, I don’t have the time to stop and examine things which look interesting, so I keep taking photos with my phone. I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to describe to The Family the atmosphere of streets in Paris and Geneva when I was an impecunious young man. Nowadays, photos serve better. When I showed her this photo I realized that it was an artists’ shop: the bowls hold paint and the kites are painted. I would love to go back, it looks like a magic shop of my youth.

These two young men on the sidewalk trying to figure out some card game could well be the kind of unlikely thing that sticks in one’s memory. I’ve tried to develop a method of stealth shooting with my phone. It needs some work. Sometimes I get a good shot when you take an unobtrusive photo on your phone as you walk past a group of people, but the composition is totally unpredictable.

Back in India the next weekend, I was having dinner with a colleague and a good friend, who turned out to have gone to school in Nanjing. The Family and I encouraged his nostalgia (we are incorrigible tourists) and I was happy to find parallels to my memories of growing up in a smaller town. Discovering a common humanity is part of the fun about travelling: in two culturally disparate countries, divided by the wall of Himalayas, our personal experiences ran parallel.

Food street, not for tourists

I love walking through the food streets of China. There is always something interesting to see and taste. That’s why I was looking forward to the food street near the Confucius Temple of Nanjing. But I was in for a rude shock. It seems that they took payment only through your phone app: Alipay or WeChat. As far as I can tell, these are connected to your Chinese salary accounts, and therefore closed to tourists. The Chinese are great business-people and hate to lose customers, but either the crowds or the language barrier prevented the shopkeepers from telling me how to pay.

Disappointing in one way, of course. But the sight of a food street always perks me up. So I had great fun walking around, examining things, looking at people, and taking photos. You can see the results in the gallery above. As always, click on any image to get to a slide show.

Just outside the street was a booth with a robot waiting for someone to pay for an ice cream. There was a crowd pressed up against the glass of the booth clicking away as avidly as me. Eventually one lady decided that she wanted a frozen yogurt and paid for it, so that I could take the video I’d wanted to take.

I wasn’t left hungry, of course. I walked into a lane full of sit-down restaurants and one of them had both the Duck’s blood and vermicelli soup and the pot stickers which are some of the specialties of the Nanjing style of food. For those of you who are sitting on the edge of your bar stool, no the liquid in the soup is not blood. The duck’s blood is used to make blood sausages pieces of which you can see floating in the soup in the photo above. Having had blood sausages half way across the world, I found this rather less than exciting.