Gourmet Popsicles!

We looked at a freezerful of interestingly labelled popsicles on sticks. Guava chili and Jamun seemed to be the most popular flavours here, judging by the emptiness of the containers. Madagascar chocolate and Meetha paan were almost as popular, though. I had gone out for dinner with a bunch of colleagues, and on the twenty minute walk to the pub had passed a white board with just a few words scrawled on it.

Intrigued, I’d stopped to take a photo and then to peer inside a gate where a well-lit small courtyard stood dusty and empty. What did these flavours refer to? Guava chili and Meetha paan were so intriguingly different from chocolate and cheesecake. I looked around and a large and well-lit board gave the answer to the guessing game.

I judged that half-past seven was too early for popsicles, gourmet or otherwise. We walked on. When we walked back after dinner the place had filled up. We milled through the gate for a look. Interesting, but no one was in a mood for a popsicle. One of my colleagues said something about having to watch the amount of sugar one has. The young guy behind the counter made a feeble attempt to snare a customer and said “Sir, these have very little added sugar.” It didn’t work. The average age of the clientele was probably between half and a third of our median age, so the sales staff gave up on us.

I sent the photos to my niece and next morning I got a smiley face back from her.


Camels’ delight!

The desert of full of spiny leafless green bushes. Leaves present a large surface to the sun and are great organs for photosynthesis, but they also lose a lot of water through transpiration. Green stalks can carry on photosynthesis while minimizing water loss. Of course, they also present a smaller surface to the sun. So this is a thorny problem (yes, I meant that) which plants have to solve: more photosynthesis or less water loss?

The local name for the green bush full of upright stalks which you can see in the photo above is khimp. The plant grows along the extreme arid zone which crosses from Mauritania to India through the Sahel, the Arabian desert and the Thar desert. A search for the origin of the botanical name Leptadenia pyrotechnica led me to this book, which claims that the name pyrotechnical comes from the observation that Bedouins use tinder to set alight the fibrous stems of this plant. Later compilations noted that the high fiber content of the stems has been used by people across its geographical range in various ways. Some have used it to make ropes, others in diet to cure anything from constipation to obesity. Although I never thought of breaking off a stem to look at the sap, I’m told that it gives a clear sap. This is probably one of the reasons why camels are said to be fond of it.

There is a claim that extracts from plant was found to be mildly damaging to liver cells in a lab. On the other hand it is said to be eaten. Browsing the net, I came across a recipe for cooking khimp. Here is a translation: “Cut the stems and boil them. Remove them from water and press to drain the liquid. Separately cook spices in oil and add the boiled stems. Add a little buttermilk to cook further, thickening it with besan (chickpea flour) as needed.” The double cooking of the stems probably serves not only to tenderize the material, but also to denature toxins. The pressing and draining may also remove any toxins.

They grow along with phog on dunes and other dry sandy places. In various countries around the world people are experimenting with using L. pyrotechnica as a biological barrier to the spreading of dunes. But when I stood on top some dunes and took the photo above, I did not know that this could also be a weapon against cancer.

Jodhpuri street food

The street food of Jodhpur is split between things on carts and things available from shops. Among carts crowds are densest around those which carry golgappas. These crisp spherical puris are vehicles for a variety of chutneys, hence the other name for it: panipuri. Pakoras of various kinds are almost as popular, including the special chili pakoras. We found that this is eaten cold. So is the other other Jodhpur special: the sweet mawa kachori. Shops mostly specialize in sweets. I was impressed by the crowd around a shop selling vegetable juices: carrot, spinach, mint and the mouth-puckeringly sour amla.

Click on any of the photos in the mosaic to transit to a slideshow.


Breakfast on the road

What would you have for breakfast if you were on the road out of Jodhpur early in the morning? We stopped at one of the many eateries which were already open on the main road: Nai Sarak, to check out the options. First thing, a glass of milk with some saffron thrown in. You can see from the featured photo that it is thickened slightly. It has quite a clientele. I prefer a glassful of chai, but I didn’t mind taking a little sip of the local morning’s brew for the taste. That sip told me that quite a bit of sugar had also been thrown into the mix.

Milk and jalebis are a standard north-Indian breakfast combination. Sure enough, right next to the milk wallah was this jalebi man frying his jalebis. I love watching a person frying jalebis; the elegance of movement which produces these tight spirals is fascinating. The hot jalebis soak up the sugar syrup easily. Traditionally, the sugar has some saffron thrown into it for the colour. Wonderfully tasty stuff, but that oil is hydrogenated, as you can see in the large tin next to the karhai. I don’t have much of jalebi any more, but I did give in to temptation and had one. I had to squelch the temptation to have a second one very firmly.

Two sweets left my mouth too sweet. In Jodhpur the antidotes to an overdose of sweets are easily at hand. The shop had batter-fried chilis. We’d seen a man make them the previous evening (photo above). The Family asked for a hot one right out of the frier, but was told very firmly that they are meant to be eaten cold. We shared one in the morning. The big fat chilis are not very hot, but they are flavourful. They reminded me of the fried chilis we ate in Madrid. So that’s a good breakfast: two sweets, a large glassful of tea, and a fried chili. Just what we needed to set out on a long day’s drive into the desert.


Good local cooking

We visited Muenster on a Sunday and found that the city was barely alive. I’d hoped to find an interesting place which I remembered. I did find it, but it was closed. We turned to a pub nearby since it was full of families. This was not a bad choice, because we had a really wonderful meal. A meal at a pub is unlikely to be a fancy lunch. This was the next best: very well cooked local food.

The Family really lucked out with her order of smoked salmon with Reibekuchen. You can see the crisp looking potato pancakes in the featured photo with a pot of mustard. The honey-mustard dressing for the Reibekuchen was characteristic of Westphalian food: a nice balance of salt and sweet. The Family was ecstatic about her food. Although my oven-baked meat was not photogenic, it was tasty in a very earthy and solid way. Well-cooked traditional food stands next to successful innovative food any day, as far as I’m concerned. So this this was a meal the two of us remember fondly.


Autumn’s eating

I’d thought that our trip to Germany would be a quiet one, where we would largely stay at home, read, go for long walks in forests turning to gold. We did this for about a week before we began to travel extensively. My plans of cooking with seasonal produce came to nothing. I passed a farmer’s markets once, and looked longingly at the pumpkins, mushrooms and ginger. A mushroom stock is a nice thing to use with a pumpkin, tomato and ginger soup. I had it planned out in my mind. But because I was going to travel for the next four days, I just took the featured photo instead of buying the produce.

Eventually my closest brushes with seasonal food came in some restaurants. I searched for a place which would serve goose, though the beginning of November was too early for it. The first two courses gave us goose, quail and duck. Game is also seasonal food. The main course of roast duck with potato dumplings, baked apple, and red cabbage with pears was a typical Westphalian dish, with a balance of sweet and salt. That night the temperature had dropped to about two degrees, so this hearty food was delightful.

The dessert was another very local and seasonal creation: gingerbread creme brulee with a pumpkin seed parfait. The nutty parfait was wonderful with the candied orange peels that you can see in the photo above. I’d never had a gingerbread creme brulee before. It was quite a surprise. It was a big meal, but one I was happy to have tasted.


The art of lunch

Since we were at Pariser Platz we decided to drop into the new building for the Academy of Arts. The last time we were in Berlin, we just didn’t have the time to visit the building that houses this more than 300 years old Academy. Like its counterparts in other countries, the Academy, with its famous members, plays a role in the arbitration of artistic taste.

Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. — Sun Tzu in The Art of War

The building was remarkable. The Academy was evicted from this location by Albert Speer, the Nazi Chief Inspector of Buildings, in 1937. Subsequently it was badly damaged in the war, and later became a prison for those attempting to escape over the Berlin wall. Guenther Behnisch designed the glass frontage to connect the work of the Academy with the city at large. The entire front was rebuilt as a glass and steel cage from which stairs and corridors lead into the old stone building at the back. It works beautifully. The frontage does not look out of place. Moreover, when we walked into the lobby (photo above), it was filled with light even on a overcast and wet day. In the mirror in the photo you can see the stairs which lead up and into the old building.

There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted. — Sun Tzu in The Art of War

The bookstore was open. We had not checked the calendar of events, and it turned out that the sequence of holidays meant that there was nothing planned for the day. We admired the stairs and the bridge to the winter garden. After this we could have turned away and left if we had not remembered that every gallery and art space in Berlin has a nice restaurant. This was no exception, with its nice white wine and lobster ravioli. This cafe joins those in the Hamburger Bahnhof and in C/O Berlin in our memories. In Germany it is always worthwhile extending a visit to a museum or gallery to include lunch.


Berlin’s food

What is the food that Berlin eats? The Family wanted to find out and I was happy to help. In search of Berlin’s own food, we scoured the city from Mitte to Ku’dam, from Oberbaumbruecke (featured photo) to Potsdamer Platz (below). The answer was scrawled on walls everywhere: currywurst, bratwurst and pommes in that order. For those of us who need a translation, the last two are grilled sausages, often in bread like a hot dog, and French fries.

Currywurst and Potsdamer Platz, Berlin

Currywurst? Invented by seasoned street-food vendor Herta Heuwer, according to Wikipedia, there is an element of mystery about its evolution. As CultureTrip put it “Maybe Herta stumbled upon the recipe through trial and error or maybe her matured palate after years of slinging grub to the street omnivores knew what the people wanted.” NPR Berlin assures us that its fans include Angela Merkel. Currywurst is nothing more than grilled sausages chopped into pieces and dunked into ketchup with curry powder sprinkled into it, just the thing that would be invented in 1949 by a smart housewife running an imbiss in the British-occupied sector of Berlin.


The serious business of afternoon coffee

Coffee time in Germany is serious: you have to have cake. We met an old friend for coffee. As we reminisced about the Christmas we’d spent in the family home more than a decade ago, his mother brought out the cakes she has baked specially for the afternoon.

Rita outdoes herself each time. This time it was a cheesecake with mandarins.Cakes She makes the topping with quark and whipped cream. Quark, if you are wondering, is a German sour cream, somewhere between the consistency of Indian chhena and French fromage blanc. When used for a cheesecake, it sets fast into a creamy and firm layer. The bottom is a regular layer of cake. The whole thing looked wonderful before she sliced it, but was even more interesting sliced. The Family exclaimed over the even distribution of mandarin through the cream. We each took seconds, and resolved to go on a long walk later.

One cake is usually not enough for a good coffee. Rita had also baked a raisin tea cake. I’m always pleasantly surprised by cakes where the raisins are uniformly distributed through the volume. My technically competence is not good enough for that. In any case, Rita’s raisin cake is my special favourite. The Family was astounded to see me take a second helping of that also. We did have a long walk in the cold after that. I hope that was enough to burn the calories.


Essential New York

Never Google "quintessential New York", because you’ll be immediately sent to Forbes, or Conde Nast. If you are to believe Forbes, then the iconic New York snack is delicate sandwiches in the Star Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton. For the one-percent, maybe. But as my friend Mike would say, "Get outta here!" And if I wanted to get something back for The Family, I would not take the advice of Conde Nast and go shopping at A Détacher on Mulberry Street either. Mark Twain may as well have said quintessential is nothing but essential with a college education. Googling "essential New York" does not do much better.

New York City: breakfast at a diner

I turned to my favourite oracle: the wisdom of the crowd, and messaged all my nieces. The clear winners were an I-love-NY t-shirt (the kind which you can also buy on the streets of Mumbai or Delhi) and a hot dog from a street stall. I’d run this question past Mike a few years ago, and he told me to go to a diner. Other favourites included lox, bagels, pizza, doughnuts, pastrami, and cheesecake. There’s just so many calories you can take in a day. So I stuck to the phone-a-friend suggestions, hot dog on the street (featured photo, outside the Grand Central Terminus) and a diner for breakfast (photo above, on the East 60th Street). These were wonderful things to do.