Looking for chai on the road

On road trips I’ve got used to stopping at road-side shacks for a tea now and then. The trip to Kumaon last month was the first time I found this to be difficult. As we travelled north of Almora, traffic thinned out and the little shacks by the road where you can normally stop for a chai or an omelette were hardly visible.

We peered with fading hope at little stores. Some had fresh food, but all had the shiny packets of trans-fats loaded with either salt or high-fructose corn syrup (sometimes both), liberally doused in sulfite containing preservatives, which are consumed in large quantities by travellers, after which the non-biodegradable packaging is dumped into the hillside. All of them also stocked highly sugared drinks in large plastic containers, which leak bisphenols into your body, and into the environment, when the empties are dumped out of cars. Very seldom did we find a place with a working kitchen. This was very specific to this part of Kumaon; closer to the lakes one could find the normal density of roadside eateries. Nor was it the mountain-hugging roads which made such shops difficult; even inside the small towns and villages we passed, a chai or a fresh snack was not so easy to find.

Our best finds were always close to a town. Outside Almora, on the Binsar road we found a wonderful bakery and cafe. Little terraces with potted plants overlooked a valley. Someone recommended the almond butter cake; we added a pie because the waiter told us it had just been baked. Both were superb with the steaming cups of tea they gave us. Uttarakhand has begun to produce an interesting variety of cheeses, and I selected a few from the counter to eat over the next few days.

Eventually, the most relaxed place that I found for chai was the dining area of our hotel in Munsiyari. The cook had a way with the chai and omelettes, and the pleasantly chatty waiter knew when to leave you alone with the view. The window looked over the town at the nearby Panchachauli massif. Even though the air was not clear enough for the wonderful views which gives Munsiyari its reputation as a place to visit, the place was wonderfully relaxed.

Is it possible to brew good tea on a mountain?

It wasn’t exactly rain that we had that afternoon in Munsiyari, more of a heavy fog which slowly settled. We went back to the spot where we had seen the Koklass pheasant the previous day, but a Koklass never crosses the same road twice. The cold and the fog made the prospect of a chai somewhere a wonderful idea. But do you get a good cuppa on a mountain? School physics textbooks which pretended to answer the question did not emphasize that all theories should be put to test. In spite of such a deficient education, we decided to experiment.

As we climbed down towards Munsiyari we passed this odd looking restaurant. Could we get a chai here? It looked closed, but one of the huts behind had an open door. We investigated, and indeed it was possible. At an altitude of 2400 meters the air pressure is about 75% of what it is at sea level, and water should boil at about 92 degrees. The little calculator I carry at all times told me this as soon as I thought of asking (you probably carry the same calculator with you constantly). There were three of us, so we could even use the wisdom of crowds to judge the result. The conditions for the experiment were perfect.

We sat in a room which would have been marvelous if the day was clear. All the walls were made of clear sheets of glass. On three sides the view of the Panchachuli massif and neighbouring peaks would have been stunning. But the smoke and fog were dense. On the fourth side we could see the shed where this important experiment was running. So what if we’d not seen the Koklass? Here was a large painting of the Himalayan Monal and rhododendrons. The Family had carried several packets of biscuits in her backpack. We opened one for the wait.

The chai arrived soon enough. We declared that it was hot enough to warm us. The ginger added to the brew tasted great, and I loved the big jolt of caffeine. We got seconds. I think there is a point this answer to the question posed on Quora which I have used for the title of this post: “No. Not if you believe that there is only one good tea, and it requires water at 100 C. And if you believe that maybe you shouldn’t be on a mountain.” As for our experiment, it was successful. It gave a definite answer, which we had a consensus on: yes. All that remains is for others to do the experiment for themselves and check.

Drinking rhododendron

The western Himalayas have the wonderful drink called Buransh. In Kumaon this would translate to Rhododendron. Interestingly, the plant has different names in other regions of the western Himalayas (for example, in Himachal the local name for the plant is Bras), whereas the name of the drink is the same. This probably means that the origin of the drink is Kumaoni, and it has recently spread across the mountains. The Family usually buys bottled Buransh from village cooperatives when we travel in the mountains.

The recipe is terribly simple. Take a kilo of the petals. Carefully separate them from the rest of the flower; the nectar is poisonous, and causes your blood pressure to fall, sending you into shock. The locals throw away the stigma and anthers too, and wash the petals thoroughly. So I assume that the pollen is also dangerous. Perhaps it is best not to make it at home until you learn from a Kumaoni family what to do. When I was trying to figure out this recipe, I was reminded of certain mushrooms you see in markets in Finland and Sweden. The vendors refuse to sell it to people who speak English. This is not xenophobia, but a safety measure. The mushrooms are poisonous unless you know exactly how to cook them. Using Rhododendron in the kitchen is similar to cooking these mushrooms: if you know what to do it is safe, otherwise it can be very dangerous.

So, back to the recipe. Take a kilo of the petals. Clean them thoroughly. Put them in about two liters of water. Bring this to a boil, and leave it simmering for about thirty minutes. Strain through a fine mesh, crushing the pulp to extract the flavour. Mix sugar to taste in the warm water. About three quarters of a kilo of sugar is usually needed for every kilo of petals. The juice is ready. If you preserve this in a fridge it might last two to three days. The shelf life can be extended by adding citric acid. If you add this, choose the amount judiciously, otherwise you can overwhelm the delicate flavour of the flower.

Food by Naini’s Tal

The lake district is easily the most popular part of Kumaon for tourists. Within easy reach of Delhi if you want a long weekend’s vacation, Naini Tal fills with crowds which are, if not madding, at least maddening enough for me to avoid. I prefer to stay near one of the fuddy-duddy Tals, any lakeside whose peace is not broken by unending crowds and late-night Bhangra discos. But in this second COVID-19 year, as our holiday drew to a close, and cases exploded in Delhi, tourists were staying away in droves. We had lunch on the terrace of a completely empty cafe overlooking the lake (featured photo). We could stand the music because we were outdoors, we weren’t trying to sleep, and the selection was largely from the 70s (with surprise appearances by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley).

Tal is the local word for lake. After lunch we took a short walk by the tal. At the street food vendors’ end I noticed that the most popular food seems to be chai with bread, or with some combination of eggs and bread. Naini Tal is part of the hills, so a bowl of Maggi is also common. The number of vendors selling corn on the cob was much smaller, and there was no chanawala in sight. The man selling sweet pastries out of a tin box was a whiff of the times when Buddy Holly was all the rage. In these times you might expect that street food vendors would be distanced and masked. Not so in Naini Tal. Masks, if they are seen at all, are used as chin guards. The stiff breeze from the lake is perhaps the only thing that has kept this place safe until now. I saw four other people whose masks covered both their mouth and nose. Of them, the cotton candy man is the only one who seemed to have discovered what I find in the hills: that a properly worn multi-layer mask is a wonderful face warmer.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

The Himalayan Bakery and Cafe

The main bazaar of Kausani had the usual unprepossessing look of a typical small Kumaoni town. There were hardware and general stores, one shop of local handmade woolens, a few small eateries. We looked at the queue outside an ATM; we needed cash, everything runs on cash here, but decided to come back later. A few paces down, The Victory, stopped at a shop and gestured to me. Yes, this was worth it. We walked in. Coffee? The Family asked for a cappuccino. Sorry, we can only do an ordinary coffee, the man behind the counter said. Four coffees then, The Family requested.

The shop was tiny, four pinewood tables, little stools. We fulled two stools up to a table with a long bench. A high glass counter was full of their sweet pastries. The price! The Victor said, unthinkable in Mumbai. What were those biscuits? The big rounds were sweet. I can give you two to taste, the man said. They were wonderful, crisp and flaky, mildly sweet. We’ll take a packet of those, and one of the flaky salty ones too.

Ramesh, the man at the counter, had started the bakery during the pandemic. He was a local boy, he said, born and educated in Kausani. Then he had gone to Dehra Dun to study in the catering college. From then on to jobs in Delhi and abroad. He mentioned a few well-known names. He had been caught in his home town on vacation when the world shut down. He was waiting for flights to resume, embassies to reopen. His old job was waiting, and he had to go when the hotel reopened. In the meanwhile he started this little cafe, and was sure that it would run after he had left.

The master baker was a genuine master. He took great pleasure in showing me the little gas powered oven in the kitchen. Small, he said. We use it continuously. Ramesh stood by and said he plans to install a bigger oven when he can order it from the plains. The second wave has paused things here for the moment, as the hill state begins to check everyone at the borders. The master said he’d just put in a bunch of pastry puffs. The Victor asked why don’t we come back for lunch? No dissent there.

The signage was in Hindi. About a third of our clients are like you, tourists, Ramesh told us. Have you listed yourself on Tripadvisor? No, I wanted to grow first, he said. The Victor said, please list your business, it requires nothing. The Family told him you’ll get four great reviews immediately. Other customers? People stop by to pick up biscuits, we have a contract to supply bread to the Ashram up the road, and a lot of people like to have birthday and anniversary cakes. The puffs were perfect, the pastry flaky and crisp, the potato filling absolutely melting in the mouth. We ordered pizzas and sandwiches. We could have farm fresh tomatoes, capsicum, onions on the topping. All, we asked. The sandwiches has crisp lettuce and olives with the veggies. The bread was nicely crusty. The cream roll was crisp and light. The filling of fresh cream, mildly sweetened, a perfect end to the meal. When I pass through Kausani again I’m going to drop in again. Ramesh may have left, but his master baker will still be holding the fort.

Eating on the road

Reading accounts of travel through Asia by Victorian and Edwardian writers, it would seem that they were planning trips through territories which no human had ever visited. They never took into account that food must be plentiful, because there were plenty of people living there. Of course, they were hamstrung by suppositions that they would not be able to eat the food that “natives” ate. When half the food of colonials in British India was Indian, and the spice trade was what had brought them there, this seems like a silly fear.

In actual fact there is seldom a lack of food. Ward says it well, “… since the geography books inform us with surprising unanimity that there are 400,000,000 Chinese there must be food somewhere in China.” Nevertheless he tells his readers to take along jam, Worcestershire sauce and a case of whisky. In the 21st century I think you’ll find these things even in the remotest islands of the Pacific. Whatever. I’m so glad I’m traveling again, and experiencing the romance of little roadside eateries. Chai at sunset, a plateful of steaming momo, fresh vegetables picked from the kitchen garden, a quick omelet, even a mood table with a view. I missed it.

Cut and paste

The Family makes a wonderful chana masala. Every time she makes a bunch I lap it up. When I meet a long lost friend from her years in the US, the second thing they say is how much they miss her chana masala. She uses very little oil these days, but the taste has remained the same. I asked her what the secret was, and she said “Cut and paste, that’s all.” Cut the onions and tomatoes. Puree them separately. Fry the onion paste till it is done. Add the tomato paste and cook it. Add a ginger and garlic paste; she makes it in bunches and stores them in jars in the fridge. Give them the same treatment. Add in the masala. “Which?” I interrupted. “The usual. Turmeric, jeera and dhania powder. Cook. Add the chana. Cook. Sprinkle powdered garam masala towards the end of the cook. Add some tamarind paste for the sour tang, or sometimes a bit of amchur (the mango gives a very special taste). You are done.

“No tea?” I asked. No, she likes the colour as it is. “It always tastes better the second day,” I told her. She’s noticed. Maybe if she smashes the chana a little during the cook, she muses. I don’t mind eating it the second day. “You didn’t say anything about the microgreens,” I persist. She’s still trying them out, and hasn’t arrived at something satisfactory.

The real secret is the time. She gives each ingredient the time and temperature it needs. You have to treat your food with respect and attention. I won’t be able to reproduce the same effect, because I haven’t felt the odour or seen the colour which tells me when to turn the heat up or down. You cook with your whole being, fully in the moment. It is zen. It is such a wonderful way to relax, almost up there with washing dishes.

Meeting a master chef

One bite of the omelette that he had produced convinced me that the young man working away in the small kitchen was a master chef. The omelette was light and airy, creamy and fluffy. I had a strong desire to close my eyes as I savoured it. The ingredients were the usual Indian (I should say Nepali, because the cook was a Nepali speaking Indian) mix, chopped green chili and onion incorporated into the egg, but the fluffiness was one that I haven’t seen in any of the best breakfasts in India. Here in a little-regarded corner of the Himalayas, in a small restaurant in Lava Bazar, was the best omelette chef of the country!

The rest of the lunch was equally marvelous. Millennia of cultural exchange has made sure that the food of Nepal and India are not very different. So an inexperienced person like me cannot tell whether the simple but delicious food that was served to me was Bengali or Nepali. It was certainly served in the way that I know is Bengali or Odiya. A mound of rice on the plate, with a little green leafy vegetable as a starter. Then some dal (wonderfully light) and a mixed vegetable (again, light on the masala, and the freshness of the ingredients very evident). A plate of roasted papad was put on the table. Rice was topped up whenever you wanted. And finally the chicken arrived. Heavenly. You could just eat the potato which had been cooked into it, or even lick the gravy off your fingers, and be transported by the taste.

We went back the next day, of course, and the owner of the establishment had added a new experience for us. A plate of what looked like the puri of pani-puri. But when you bit into the crisp globe, you found that the thin shell was made of rice flour. A Nepali papad, I was told. It went down easy with a fiery paste of chili. Papad comes in so many different styles across the subcontinent that I’m still discovering new ones. Before leaving, I leaned across the counter to congratulate the cook. He smiled and asked me to come back. I will, and I hope the restaurant flourishes. I noticed the momos that he had made ready for the evening snack time. He saw me looking and pointed out one that he was proud of. “Rose,” he said and grinned. He was young, perhaps in his early or mid-twenties. I hope he is able to grow into his chosen profession. Because it is such a small establishment in a relatively unknown place, I’ll break a rule I set myself in this blog, and name the restaurant: it is called Sinchula. I may have the satisfaction of hearing from you about your experience there if you go, but nothing more.

Backfisch

Strangely, the archaic use of the word backfisch refers to a young teenage girl. Even in German, the language in which I first heard the word, it is considered an older word, not derogatory, but somewhat patronising. Merriam-Webster traces the first use in English to 1888 CE, but does not give a source. There’s even the subgenre of YA novels called the Backfischroman. But that’s not the meaning I want to use in this post. Instead, I will take the literal German meaning of the word: baking fish.

When The Family ordered a kilo of Boi (a grey mullet, like mine would be, if I decided on a mullet), the fish whose Latin binomial is Mugil cephalus, we did not expect it to be the size of a Gigantosaurus. There was no way I was going to spend my time chopping it up and cooking it. The easy way for me always. This is a very oily fish, and I thought it was the best kind of fish to bake. I fired up the oven to 200 Celcius, put a tray to catch drip under the oiled mesh where I put the fish. After bringing the fish to room temperature, I’ve rubbed the skin with oil and garlic, and stuffed it with saunf and jeera (fennel and cumin). It barely fit into our oven. Twelve minutes at 200 Celsius was all that was needed. The skin looked dry, but the oils under it had actually kept it moist enough that it remained tasty. The flesh was tender, flaky, and moist. A complete meal for twice as many people as the two of us. The fastest way to cook fish.

A lazy way to cook kidney

Street food in Mumbai is really diverse. One thing I enjoy a lot but get only infrequently is bhuna gurda, spicy kidney fried rapidly at high temperature. I’ve missed this for a year, so I eventually ordered some from our butcher. Reading about how to cook it, I quickly realized that prepping kidney may require more patience than I can muster. The kidney contains a network of channels draining into the ureter. These are the white portions in one half of the kidney in the photo below. Part of the ureter tube can be seen in the other half. Both look like lumps of fat, but they are not. When cooked rapidly, this tissue turns into an unpleasantly chewy mass. So most cooks will ask you to snip out this tissue. After some reading I realized what you need to do instead is to break down the drainage tissue before cooking. One way would be to use a kitchen acid such as lime juice or vinegar. I opted to use vinegar. It worked well. So here is my lazy person’s recipe for bhuna gurda.

Soak the kidneys in white rice vinegar overnight. I added chili flakes at this stage of marination (you can see a few seeds in the photo above). Let it stand for 8 to 10 hours in the fridge. Take them out and let them come to room temperature before you start cooking. They will have lost all smell of ammonia after the marination. While it is warming up, liberally coat in a paste of ginger and garlic. Add in chopped onion and let the kidneys stand for at least fifteen minutes. You’ll need to fry them in a small amount of an oil which has a high smoking temperature. I used mustard oil, not just for the temperature but also the aroma. Rice bran, avocado or safflower oil are quite serviceable too (but not olive, sunflower, til, that is sesame, or coconut oil; nor ghee or butter). Just before the oil begins to smoke, put the kidneys on the hot skillet, making sure that there is enough space between them for the onions to begin cooking. After a minute and a half turn the pieces over, and cook the other side for about a minute. Then stir to use the partly cooked onions to deglaze the pan. The result is what you see in the featured photo. I loved the earthy sweetness of the kidneys, almost like a meaty version of roasted beetroot. It went well with pav.