Market and Field in Munnar

In the middle of the crowded bazaar area of Munnar we saw a long blank wall, plastered and painted the mellow cream of a Vermeer. The wall was simultaneously forbidding and attractive. Forbidding because it was high, completely featureless, and had no decorations on it at all. Attractive because the colour of the plaster glowed invitingly in the sun. Above a narrow door in the wall was a signboard that said “Vegetable Market, Munnar”

Vegetables heaped up in the market in Munnar

The Family and I can never resist a food market. Without a second thought we walked in through the door. It was late in the morning; the crowds of daily shoppers had left. The ranks of stalls in the municipal market were full of vendors waiting for small buyers. The aisles were clean, unlike many markets just past the rush hour.

Cashew apples and apricotsThe stalls in front were full of vegetables: beans, bitter gourd, pumpkin, yam, cucumber, banana flower, snake gourd, and more. After tasting the food in the region, we were expecting this variety in the market. Still, there were things which surprised us. We are used to eating unripe banana as a vegetable, cooked into a curry, and to green mango cooked in various ways. But here we saw a heap of unripe apricots. Are they cooked? Next to it was a pile of cashew apples (see the photo above). The fruit of the cashew is astringent, and not widely eaten. Are cashew and apricot cooked in this part of Kerala? We didn’t know, and did not receive a clear reply.

Beet root and something elseThe vendors were very friendly. They were happy to show us things, but we speak no Malayalam, and they spoke little Hindi or English. So we were left uneducated very often. For example, at the stall where I took the photo alongside, I could not figure out what the green fruits are. The stuff behind it was beet root, and the lady selling them nodded in recognition when we said beet root. But we could not catch what she said for the unknown thing. My best guess from what she said is that these are unripe jackfruit. It turns out to be breadfruit.

One major difference in tastes between The Family and me is our attitude to dried fish. She has no problems walking away from it,Dried ish in the market in Munnar whereas I am snagged. I examine them, imagine them thrown into a curry, or even simply into a pot of boiling rice. I spent a long time here, recognizing a little, and wishing I had a kitchen where I could try out the rest.

Munnar stands a kilometer and a half above sea level, so most of the fish comes from Kochi. Trout has been seeded in some of the dammed lakes here only very recently. So dried fish must be a staple. In most places in India, food made with dried fish is not considered good enough to be served to guests, so they remain unknown to tourists. I asked in our hotel, but got the blank smiles that normally answer such questions.

The Family had drawn ahead of me towards the fruit section of the market. Bananas are special in the south of India,Heps of fruits in the market in Munnar as I’d realized from responses to an older post. I spent some time asking the vendor about the uses of various bananas, and he got me to taste a couple. They were different from each other, and from what I’ve eaten earlier. In this season they yield some space to mango.

You know an Indian by her attitude to mango. There are those who love one variety, and will sneer at others. There are those who love to try out a new variety. But all will eat every mango that comes their way. We went through the selection on offer and took one of each. The local red variety which you see in the photo above is very flavourful.

In trips to the Himalayas we’d learnt of the growing popularity of organic farming in those regions. After we left the market we asked a local farmer about organic farming in this area. He was passionate about preserving the land, and said that he had given up on fertilizers. What about productivity, I asked. He said that a plot of land which might give a kilo of vegetables would give about a hundred and fifty grams with natural compost. He was still okay with it, because people are willing to buy it.

But here is the problem. If the productivity of land were to fall back to one seventh of what it is now, then the amount of food that comes into the market would decrease in proportion. Even if food were distributed equally, one seventh the amount would sustain perhaps a little more than a seventh of today’s population. In actual fact, the consumption of food in India, and the world, is already very inequitable. With lesser amount of food produced, the prices will grow more than proportionately, and the number of people who could afford it would be far less than a seventh of the population. A switch to organic farming by present methods would then lead to tremendous hunger.

The world is complex and overcrowded, and there are no simple solutions.

Kerala meals

If you walk in to a small restaurant in the south of India, the chances are that there will be a "meals" on offer. This is a set lunch or dinner. Some parts of it can often be unlimited. Our first set meal in Munnar was in a place recommended by our driver.

As you can see in the photo above, the meal was not small. The staple in Kerala is rice, so there are enormous quantities of it. For The Family and me half the amount offered was often twice as much as we could eat. This was accompanied by a large variety of things which took us time to identify.

I started with the three things which I could recognize immediately. There was a sambar and a extremely peppery rasam. I had to use the raita to soothe my palate after the rasam.

Then there was a wonderful avial in which we recognized yam, plantain, and, to our surprise, bitter gourd. There was also the usual pair of a dry and a wet vegetable. The dry vegetable, a version of thoran was a mixture of finely chopped beans with grated coconut. The wet vegetable had plantains and pumpkin.

Apart from the mango pickle that left with the job of identifying a dish we had never met before. It was a soupy thing with a dominant taste of coconut milk and tomatoes cooked in turmeric. We later understood that this kind of a dish is called olan. Unlike the other components of a meal, the olan is not very easily available in Mumbai.

Our dinners inevitably turned out to be some version of a meal, often with fish and meat in addition to these lentils and vegetables. It seems that the ubiquitous "meal" is a simplified version of the formal feast called the Sadhya. How this highly refined and expensive feast became a people’s lunch is probably worth a long article.

Chandni Chowk

Sunehri masjid is linked to Nadir Shah's sack of Delhi

Chandni Chowk was the centre of Delhi after Shah Jahan moved his capital to the walled city in 1639, and before Imperial Britain built a new capital a few miles to the west in the early 20th century. This is the area west of the Lahori gate of the red fort and north of the Jama Masjid. A walking tour of Chandni Chowk naturally starts from the Sunehri Masjid: a beautifully proportioned mosque with golden domes in old paintings, now fallen on hard times. If the story of Nadir Shah standing next to the domes on the roof of the mosque to survey the massacre of a panicked Delhi which he had commanded is true, then at one time it would have dominated the area. Now, as I emerged from the exit lane of the Chandi Chowk metro and looked at the mosque this was no longer the case. Mughal architecture blended use with aesthetics; when the mosque was built the space was surely sufficient for the devout. That aesthetics is completely lost in the extensions made to the mosque in order to cater to the increased population.

Sisganj gurudwara is a major landmark

More striking today is the Sis Ganj gurudwara which stands next to it. It must have been a special day; the gurudwara was decorated with balloons and buntings. I realized that a large part of the crowd in the Metro was headed here when a young mother of two finely dressed children asked me which exit led to the gurudwara. I’d just read the directions, so I was able to tell her to take exit 5, as I did. A gurudwara was first built here in 1783 CE, in memory of the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, who was beheaded here on the orders of Aurangzeb. The present structure was built in 1930. I discovered the news, known to all Delhiwalas, that the gurudwara has become a bit controversial recently by building unauthorised extensions.

Street scene: sardarji and rickshaw

Traffic barely moves in this crowded road, there’s such a muddle of bicycles, cars, rickshaws, carts, three-wheelers and pedestrians. Notions of lanes and priority perhaps never arose in the days when this area was less densely populated, and were never internalised later. The chaos and cacophony gave me ample opportunity to do surreptitious people watching. I liked this forbidding old Sikh gentleman in white striding down the road, ignoring the traffic. Even the young rickshaw-wala in the photo seems to be a little wary of him.

Kinari bazaar: bling market

Instead of walking on to the Red Fort, I turned right on Dariba Kalan. It is not hard to find: the lane runs between a lovely but crumbling red building with a post-office, and the area’s most famous jalebiwala. I’ve already written about this little eatery. I walked through this narrow lane and turned into the longest bling market in Delhi: the Kinari bazaar. Tourist agencies try to push this as a market destination. In fact, only a movie or wedding set decorator would shop here. It is interesting to walk through this crowded bazaar just looking at people and their lives. I’d chosen a time when the sky was beginning to get dark, and the lights in the shops were coming on. Crowds were at their lowest; it was getting close to the time for an evening snack.

Kachoriwala corner

Every few steps there was a little shop selling kachoris and samosas. Judging by the crowds, it doesn’t look like any shop is particularly better than another. Each seems to have a few regular customers and a few walk-ins. The shops don’t seem to innovate either: they concentrate on getting the kachoris just so, for their loyal followers. There are probably neighbourhood rivalries about which shop has better food. As far as I could tell, it would need a lifetime of training your palate to tell the difference between them. This is a world so far removed from that of malls and food courts, that it is a wonder that the two exist in the same city at the same time.

Door in a haveli off Kinari bazaar Beautiful arches in a dilapidated building

If you are a student of architecture, then there are gems hidden away inside these narrow and smelly lanes. I peered past a gate which led off to a side lane and discovered a beautiful building with a blue door (photo above). Elsewhere a grand building with lovely arched verandas (above) was partitioned into tiny apartments. Stylistic differences which are visible even to an untrained eyes like mine would probably enable a knowledgeable person to peel away the centuries and imagine the area as it evolved over time. If someone offers a walk through this area to show such visions, I will queue up to take it. In its absence I go back every decade, after a little more reading.

Eating through centuries in Delhi

A break in frying parathas

2016-04-27 19.16.43Delhi takes its food seriously. The area around the Red Fort in Delhi was populated during Mughal times. It has seen the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739, and again by John Nicholson in 1857. The oldest food stall in this area was reputedly Ghantewala’s sweet shop, which claimed to have been founded in 1790. On my visit to Chandni Chowk a couple of days ago, I was told that it has shut down.

So I walked into a shop selling parathas in the little street called Parathewali Galli. It claimed to have been founded 15 years after the second sack of Delhi. It may not be the oldest establishment in the neighbourhood, but, like all the shops here, it has gone beyond the potato and cauliflower fillings which you get in most towns. This new age paratha comes with fillings that run from karela (bitter gourd) to okra to bananas. I wouldn’t have guessed that some of it is edible, but they were a pleasant surprise. It is definitely worth trying out, especially if you have been eating the old parathas all your life.

2016-04-27 18.08.15Another old eatery in the same general area is the jalebiwallah near the Chandni Chowk post office. This claims to have been in this place since the mid 19th century. It has no lack of clientele. I was in a queue behind a couple of other tourists, who seemed to be Tamilians. While tourists try to make up their minds in the slow queue, the regulars get quicker service on the side. This is a standing only place. The Tamils took their jalebis and rabri off to a parked car. I had my jalebi standing at the corner. There is a drum nearby where you throw the paper plate, and a little tap next to it where you can wash your hands. I loved fact that the food came with this convenience.

Natural Ice Cream is an import from MumbaiWhen it comes to food, the Delhiwala is not insular; he will try out imports. Momos became popular in the 90s. Now, the Natural Ice Cream chain from Mumbai has made an entry into the posh outer circle of Connaught Place. I’ve never seen a Natural Ice Cream store in Mumbai which is half as big. This one sprawls across two floors, and seems to be perpetually crowded. I tried my favourite classic flavours: a scoop of fig and another of musk melon. They seemed to be the same as the Mumbai version. The first Naturals was the tiny hole in the wall in Juhu which started in 1984 and still does business. The franchises in Delhi started only in this decade.

Amazing that you can eat your way through more than a century of food styles in one evening in Delhi.

What can you eat in Lonavala

2016-04-21 11.46.10

Lonavala is full of shops which say “Maganlal Chikki" in large friendly letters, usually gold on red. The Family never fails to tell me that these shops are fake and the original Maganlal’s can be found in the market just outside the Lonavala railway station. In fact, it is on the main road, and not hard to find. (The sadhu in front of the shop is not a fixture).

Peanut chikkiI normally wouldn’t name a brand, but the fact of the matter is that the generic chikki (see photo here) no longer exists in Lonavala. A decade ago you could find several brand names. A1 was the one which nearly lasted till now. But eventually the name Maganlal drove out everything else. The Family believes that all the other shops make their own chikki and sell it under the name Maganlal, and nothing can be done about it because the name was never protected. I’m not a connoisseur of chikki; they all taste nice but indistinguishable to me. My theory is that Maganlal has a large factory which make chikki in bulk and supplies it to all the other vendors. But every old hand from Lonavala says that there is one shop better than all the others, but they can’t agree on which it is.

Cooper's fudge shop in Lonavala

Instead of being involved in these wars of faith, I’ve found the complete cultural antithesis: walnut fudge. There is exactly one shop in Lonavala which makes and sells fudge, and that is Cooper’s. It also stands next to the railway station, and is hard to miss. When I discovered Cooper’s it was presided over by a cantankerous Parsi gentleman who would dispense the fudge with utter randomness. I’ve never managed to get more than 100 grams of fudge from him. The Family has occasionally been handed a quarter kilo packet. He would open at 11 in the morning and close as soon as the small batch of fudge he’d made got over. I was relieved to see that he has been replaced at the counter by his daughter. But she put me in my place, literally. The counter was surrounded by customers. I waited until one left, and quickly slid into his place. The lady gave me a withering look and said “You will have to wait your turn, you know. Just because there is no queue does not mean that I have lost track of who came first.” She did give me a kilo of walnut fudge, though.

Vada pav with dry galic chutney, chilis and slice onionsThe one lovely bit of food which remains gloriously unbranded is the ghat special: vada pav. The lovely sour-dough roll called the pav goes wonderfully with hot batter-fried potato vada. You always get a generous helping of the dry garlic chutney with the combination in the hills. Its just the thing to keep you going on a long walk.

One cutting parcel

A typical roadside tea stall in Mumbai serves a cutting as a default. You may ask for a chai, but the cashier will transmit your order as a cutting. You typically get this in a tiny glass. I guess at some point of time there must have been a full glass of chai, and a cutting would have been a half of that. The cheaper option must have been in more demand. So, farcically, now a “full chai” is no longer understood; I’ll often have two cuttings when I order a tea at such a stall.

I was at a busy roadside establishment last week. The small shop had an aluminium counter where people stood for a quick evening snack. I looked over their heads and called for a cutting. As I sipped it, someone else came in and called for “two cutting parcel, two glasses”. This was new to me. The cutting parcel was tea poured into a plastic bag for easy take-away. I learnt a new bit of Mumbai’s ever-evolving language. I wonder how warm it would remain when it got to its destination.

The notion of cutting extends to restaurant menus. A busy restaurant I’d walked into for lunch had a note at the bottom of the menu which said “Each plate half plate”. I guess the half portions of food were so popular that this became their new unit!

Fruits and bananas

Carts full of bananas  and other fruit

A few days ago I was one of the naive people who believed that bananas were just another fruit. That was before I went to Mylapore and realized the errors of my ways. There are fruits: grapes, pomegranate and papaya. And there are bananas. The English language has no words for this variety. One can say yellow banana, green banana, fat green banana, red banana, short yellow banana, thin long green banana, and so on. But the variety is really too large for the language to capture. I wonder whether Tamil has the words to capture the variety on display here (as a comment to this post informs me).

Rhododendron flowering

Red rhododendrons flowering near the Norbugang throne in Yuksom

Sikkim is the most accessible part of the belt running across the Himalayas where Rhododendrons grow. We’d seen them wilting when we visited Yumthang a few years ago in early May. Now, in early March we saw them in bloom when we visited the Norbugang throne in Yuksom. We sat on a bench in the garden near the throne and looked at the deodars festooned with prayer flags. Below them were the bushes of Rhododendrons, heavy with flowers. Some had dropped around a little building lower down. It was quiet, pleasantly cool, and serene. I composed a little piece of doggerel and recited it to The Family: “My blood is red as a rhodo, until I become as dead as a dodo”.

She said, let’s go to the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. I’d read about this before coming. It seems that you can reach it if you take a long walk, some say 8 Kms, from Uttarey in the north or a short walk, about 3 Kms, from Hilley in the south. barsey-map I’d hesitated to do this because we didn’t know the terrain and couldn’t predict how long it would take us to cover 16 Kms. Now we decided to travel to Hilley and take the shorter walk. It turned out that Hilley was around 80 Kms from Pelling, over roads that were not in very good shape. The drive took us 4 hours. We passed through beautiful roads, the greenery blooming red with flowers of the rhododendron. Hem Kumar told us that his friends did not believe he would see the flowers today.

My faith in Hem Kumar’s unfailing fallibility grew as we climbed, and the red flowers became rarer. The gate to the Barsey rhododendron sanctuary near Hilley villageIt was probably too early for high-altitude flowers inside the Barsey sanctuary. It turned out (map above) that Hilley was already inside the sanctuary, and the 3 Km walk was to a nearby ridge from which Kanchenjunga would be visible. The bright sunshine of the morning was hidden behind fog and clouds as we started on the path. We saw some leaf warblers and tree-pies in the dense jungle. Little streams flowed down the rocks next to the path. Primulas bloomed everywhere. Rhododendron buds were visible on every tree. They would flower in a week or two. It was a lovely walk, until it started to rain. We turned back after about twenty minutes of walking, perhaps somewhat over a kilometer.

The Family reminded me of the Rhododendron juice we drank on our previous visit to Sikkim. Hem Kumar didn’t know of it. A journalist, Sumana Roy, has a peculiar recipe for rhododendron chutney: “A handful of flowers, about five or six fresh red rhododendrons, crushed into a paste with a clove of garlic, a tomato, and its sweet-sour balance refined by the addition of pomegranate juice or molasses and mango powder, depending on individual preference.” On the other hand, there are warnings, persisting to modern times that all parts of tree are poisonous, even the honey. Perhaps these are like mushrooms, some species are poisonous and others are edible.

As we exited the gate of the sanctuary, we saw some birds foraging nearby. One fluttered from a little hut to a bush. My first impression was that we it was a coucal, but The Family realized that it was something else. We stood still, and the bird flew next to us. This was our first view of the chestnut crowned laughing thrush. My camera was packed away in my backpack. We stood still and watched. Pink rhodo and banana plants in the garden around the ruins of Rabdentse palace Eventually, The Family reached into my backpack and handed me my camera. As I sighted, the bird flew off into a dark undergrowth. We spent the next day at a lower elevation and saw many kinds of Rhododendron. The ASI has planted many varieties in the garden it maintains around the ruins of the Rabdentse palace. This photo shows something which is perhaps visible only in this part of the world: Rhododendron and bananas next to each other.

We have bracketed the flowering season of the Rhododendron: after early March and before May. We need to visit Sikkim in early April once.

Food in the Himalayas

newgoutamOur flight landed in Bagdogra just before noon. We collected our baggage and left immediately. Lunch was in a typical nondescript highway restaurant near the Sevoke bridge. The eatery had a large menu (photo alongside), but often in small places like this, where two cooks fill all the orders, everything could taste the same. This particular place distinguished itself with its nice crisp rotis.

The genre of food does not change as you travel up in the hills. As a result, the food you eat in the eastern Himalayas usually tastes generic, and does not leave an impression. Even when you have climbed 4 Kms above sea level, you will often be handed a very similar menu unless you constantly remember to ask about the local food. Even then you are likely to get bowls of noodle soup and plates of momo (see photo below). At lunch this was our fate too.

momos

Steamed momo is now pan-Indian in the same way as chicken lollipop, gobi Manchurian and masala dosa. Up in the mountains momo accompanied every lunch which we had. They mostly came with a bowl of extremely strong chili paste. We found this in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bhutan, and Sikkim; I wonder where it originated. [An article in Eurozine claims that momo comes from Mongolia: “It is possible to anecdotally define the borders of the Great Steppe’s influence by the places where people eat pierogi, a dish which comes from Central Asia.”] We found an interesting variation in a little eatery outside Ravangla where the momo was accompanied by a small bowl of hot soup. This was the first time I had this combination, and I liked it.

bhutanesemenuHalf a year ago, while travelling in Arunachal Pradesh we discovered thenthuk. This is a soup usually made with handmade broad flat wheat noodles. The soup comes with vegetables, and chicken, pork or eggs, according to your taste. We have now learnt to avoid the ubiquitous bowl of Maggi noodle soup and ask for thenthuk instead. We had this on three days: each time in a different place. In Yuksom we tasted a soup with many different vegetables and thin hand made noodles. In Sombari Bazar we had one with eggs dropped into it. In Ravangla I had a smoked chicken with wonderful broad noodles almost like sheets of Lasagna. All the menus we saw attribute thenthuk to Bhutan. In the cold climate of the Himalayas, it makes sense to have lots of soup; not only to warm, but also to hydrate.

On a cold and drizzly afternoon in Yuksom we found a wonderful warm drink called chhang goh. This seems to have methi (fenugreek seeds) and rai (mustard seeds) fried in ghee, and mixed with pulp of fruits and chhang (rice wine). The Family and I shared a tall glass of this drink and agreed that we could have more.

hotelassampas

One afternoon as we drove into a town called Sombari Bazar, we were lucky to notice a small eatery called Hotel Assampas. As we waited for our momos and thenthuk to arrive, resigned to looking at the chief minister’s face, we found a stream of housewives and schoolgirls troop in to eat momos. If this was a favourite with the locals, then we realized we had chosen well. The food was genuinely good. The counter was full of packed dry foods. Apparently they are snacks to accompany tea in the mornings. The packets were family sized, and we decided not to buy them. Now we regret it. On our next trip we will try them out.

I was prepared with a list of things to eat. Niguru with chhurpi turned out to be fiddlehead fern with local cheese; we’d eaten this earlier in Bhutan. We liked the gundruk, mustard greens with tomato and onion. I looked for sael roti but could not find it. It is probably similar to a paratha. The phagshapha is a stew of pork and radish with dried chilis thrown in as garnish. I couldn’t find it in the places we went to. Neither could I find shaphale, which is bread stuffed with chicken or pork. We had a superb spinach clear soup with eggs. Another local soup is made from nettles; but we did not find it. Maybe this is not the correct season for it. I had phing mushroom: wonderful glass noodles with mushroom. The first mouthful was very flavourful, but when the chilis hit my tongue I could not taste anything else for a while. With these few things I think we barely scratched the surface of the local cuisines: Bhutia, Lepcha and Nepali.

kindofshopWhat we drank most of the time was tea. West Sikkim grows cardamom, and this is used liberally in the masala tea. The Family loves masala tea; she loved both the cardamom flavour and the version with ginger. I prefer my tea black, and was happy that little roadside stalls served up Darjeeling. We were too tired in the evenings to go out to the Kind of Shop that the sign alongside is about. We stuck to the bar in our hotel. It served a couple of Sikkimese beers: Dansberg and Hit, both produced by Yuksom breweries. We tried the Dansberg, which turned out to be a fairly bland lager. When in Sikkim Chhang is clearly the way to Goh.