Kausani bazaar

“Why don’t we have lunch in Kausani?” The question came up at breakfast. We would check out soon, and the drive was a short one. We’d got in late the previous evening. It seemed like the right thing to do. I remembered Kausani as a busy little town, and it had been a long time since we had seen a town, little or big. We set off towards the center of Kausani late in the morning.

It was a ghost town. A large plaster statue of a blue Shiva dressed in skins looked down at the empty bazaar in the middle of town. Lots of empty cars were parked around the junction of roads. Very few people passed by. A general store was open, a couple of ATMs, many restaurants were open and empty of customers. I walked up to the man lounging at the base of the streetlight at the very center of the town.

I’d not seen a single customer come to him, but he was very cheerful when I asked him what he was selling. Local herbs for your home garden, he said. “I’m not buying anything now,” I explained, “I just want to look.” He didn’t mind. I recognized coriander. He held up a couple of other seedlings which I hadn’t seen before. “Used in cooking,” he explained, helpfully un-enlightening. He had a plot of land just outside of town, and managed to sell a few of these every day, I gathered.

Across the street a sweet shop was just going through the motions. The owner was looking out at the empty road hopelessly. His listless eyes met mine for a moment and then drifted away. He realized the futility of waiting for customers, and hadn’t even bothered to make enough sweets to display a full counter. The many open but empty restaurants around the bazaar was a reminder of the complete collapse of Kausani’s tourism dominated economy.

In spite of the hardships, construction work had clearly not halted in the neighbourhood. The one shop which was definitely open and doing business was a hardware shop, with a shed full of sacks of cement outside. The situation reminded me something I’d read long ago. Talking of export oriented economies, Raghuram Rajan wrote in his book Fault Lines, “Unfortunately, even as exporters like Germany and Japan have become large and rich, the habits and institutions they acquired which growing have left them unable to generate strong sustainable domestic demand and become more balanced in their growth.” Excessive reliance on tourism is similar.

One place had bucked the trend: a small bakery which I’ve written about before. Ramesh had to leave a job in a hotel somewhere abroad and come home for the pandemic. He opened this bakery, catering to a daily demand for bread, biscuits, and a continuous trickle of orders for birthday cakes. He and the baker were cheerful. Why do cakes sell but not sweets? There was a clue in the prices; cakes are more expensive. The pandemic had not been even-handed. The poor suffered more, many lost jobs and livelihood. Those who can eat cake have also lost, but haven’t been wiped out. We had coffee and biscuits as we chatted with Ramesh, and decided to come back for lunch later.

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.

Shopkeepers of Paris

Part of the charm of Paris is was that it is was a city full of les petit commercants. To buy your food you have to visit the local boulangerie, boucherie or poissonerie, alimentation, and fromagerie. Then, when you are tired with all the shopping, you need to stop by the local cafe, go back to the vigneron, and stop by the tabac to pick up a newspaper. And all of them will be ready for a little chat.

The charming central city which de Gaulle reconstructed out of the war: no buildings higher than 32 meters, facades to remain as original as possible, and low rentals, is a wonderful place for tourists. Everything at street level must have been bombed out, because if you looked only at eye level, every door and window looks modern. Although some of the shopkeepers take the metro to work, coming in from the suburbs which have more flexible building rules, there is a sense of local community. Over years, when I returned, I would pick up my acquaintance with the local caviste and fromagier.

After a year’s absence it would be nice to come back to the same cafe, where the unsmiling bartender would put a saucer on the bar in front of you and ask, “The same?”. I guess I was not easily forgotten with my newspaper and Petit Robert at one corner of the bar. In a strange and interrupted way, I became a local in one part of the border between the 5th and 14th arrondisements for a few years.

These photos were taken in the streets which I would pass through. I see now that these photos all feature non-European French. In those days all it required to be accepted as French was that you spoke the language and liked bread, wine, and cheese. These are not the shops I frequented. As so often in the days before phone cameras, one didn’t take photos of the most familiar places. I have no photos of the Parisian shopkeepers whom I knew well. They slowly went out of business, replaced by the chains of supermarkets which have now taken over the city. I don’t really miss this new city any more.

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.

Window shopping

Years ago, when I first came to China, I walked into a bakery expecting to be totally surprised, but was terribly disappointed. There were only competently made variations of what you would find in a bakery across the world. I couldn’t believe it; so much of Chinese food is surprising and wonderful, why couldn’t bakeries deliver the same level of surprise? I still can’t believe it. After a decade I still can’t pass a bakery or a sweet shop without looking in to see whether there is a surprise waiting. Some of the stuff one sees now is a visual surprise, like the baked cats in the featured photo.

But many bakeries remain completely predictable, like the one you see in this photo. The Family and I were happy to sit down in this bakery in Haizhu district for a coffee and a cake (more of a late afternoon tea, actually), but there was no surprise other than the wonderful competence of the master baker. I’m beginning to get used to the idea that there are people in China who dedicate years of their life to perfecting a technique, whether it is baking or calligraphy. This kind of obsessive attention to detail was something I’d come to expect in Japan long back; now I’m seeing a blooming of the same excellence in China. It is a pleasure to bite into a slice of chocolate cake and forget for a moment that you are not in Vienna. Predictable, yes, but in a good way.

There are other places, now less fashionable, where I can still expect to be surprised. Walking about in Liwan district, I ducked into a crowded shop to look at the display of moon cakes. I call them moon cakes, but they aren’t really; it’s just that I don’t know the correct name for these traditional pastries. The fillings can be surprising. The Family and I could not agree on which one to try, so we packed two of each. It wasn’t a bad idea. We got to eat them all through the next day. Window shopping at bakeries is dangerous, you could gain weight.

Friendly food stalls

Walking about Madurai, I found that people notice you with a camera. Although Madurai is a big draw for tourists, most people are not as blase about tourists as people from south Mumbai. I spotted this trio chatting as they manned a fruit stall and thought I would take a photo quietly. Not possible. They turned their attention to me. It makes for a nice photo, but I can’t decide whether the other photo would have been better.

Nearby was this bakery. I caught this man unawares, but now I’m not sure that this has come out well. I’m a little puzzled by the establishments called bakeries in Tamil Nadu. They are shops which do not seem to be attached to a place where someone bakes. About half the stock is usually unbranded material that a bakery would produce, but the other half is packed biscuits and cakes.

Earlier in the day I’d come across this friendly coffee shop, where several people turned to smile at my camera. I had to be friendly back, so I bought a cup of coffee. It was good.

Market Day on the road: Jorhat to Dibrugarh

I walked into a little market in Jorhat, one of Assam’s small towns. It was clean and full of fresh produce. It wasn’t crowded. The Family had decided that she was not up to walking through markets where she did not want to buy anything. I took a look at the friendly face at the fish stall and took the featured photo. I moved on to the next stall of fish. This was slightly further back, and he hadn’t had as good a start as his competitor.

He looked busy behind his aluminum topped table. I like the way the fish vendors had nailed sheets of the metal on top of a sturdy wooden table to make a surface which is easy to work on, and to clean. This man was ready to point out the fish and talk about its origins.

I always like the small fish (the photo on the left), usually because they are local and their flavours change from place to place. This was no exception. When I asked, my friendly fisher-guide told me that this was right from the Brahmaputra, a little upstream. The big fish (on the right) was not local. It is produced in Andhra Pradesh, and transported across the country. How contradictory. With the amount of fish we now eat, growing fish is important, because we might otherwise remove all the fish from seas and rivers to feed ourselves. But is it worth the carbon cost of moving fish about 2500 kilometers in deeply refrigerated trucks?

The vegetables were another matter altogether. By the variety of aubergines which you can see in the photo on the left above, it is clear that the produce is local. I’d never seen the small, long, light purple variety before. At times like this you feel the lack of a kitchen. The cabbage was crisp and fresh, and so were the spinach and the red saag, The cooking bananas looked like a local variety too. Right next to this was a more mixed basket. Three kinds of beans! Fresh karela, slices of sweet pumpkin, beetroot and a really tasty variety of carrots, and a variety of tiny potatoes which I’d eaten for the first time earlier that day. There was a vegetable that was new to me: the pale green cucumberish thing piled at the top edge of the photo. I was told that it is called iskos, and can be cooked like a gourd, after removing the skin.

The people with the vegetables were very amused by my interest. Although I didn’t buy anything, they were happy with my photos, and spent a lot of time showing me what they had. The vegetables are grown nearby; the banks of the Brahmaputra are fertile lands. But this farming is at the expense of rain-forests, and the rapid decline of the very animals that was the main reason for our trip. There is never an easy resolution to any of our deeply felt problems.

I loved these potatoes, and can’t resist giving them star billing in a photo of their own. They range in size from that of a fat cherry to a small cherry pit. I ate them cooked two ways: once in a saag of pumpkin leaves with garlic, and the second time in a semi-dry curry by itself. They are incredibly tasty.

In the meanwhile The Family had found a wonderful bakery. I can’t say whether this is the best, or whether there is such a tradition of local baking that there are more such shops in town. The biscuits that she found here were absolutely delightful. Two were recommended to us by the quiet gentleman whom you can see behind the counter in the photo above: one was a coconutty thing, the other was full of peanuts. We decided that we could go back to Jorhat for them. We also got some cake for the drive to Dibrugarh, and that too turned out to be a good decision.

This is not the best time for fruits. Mango and jackfruit are still ripening on the tree, and the rest of the seasonal fruits are still just flowers. The only local fruit we saw was the bananas which you can see hanging in the shop in the photo above. They look green and totally unripe, but have a good flavour. The rest of the fruits are shipped from across the country, and sometimes forced by WTO rules, and are what I think of as high-carbon-cost fruits.

Our driver was keen to start off as soon as possible. “It is Sunday, and a market day,” he said. “The roads will be jammed”. As we drove along, we found farmers with their produce sitting all along the highway between Jorhat and Dibrugarh. As you can see from the photo, each stall has less variety than a vendor in the town. That’s probably because each farmer has only a few things ready for the market each week; it is the market as a whole which has variety. The Family was sitting next to Rishi the driver, and soon got his biodata. Rishi was clearly a Sikh, but his mother is Assamese. He speaks Punjabi and Assamese at home, and Hindi and English with his clients.

The Family and Rishi chatted like old friends, and he paused to let us have a look at the large cattle market which had developed on the side of the road. It’s been a long time since I have walked in a local cattle market. This one was not very large, but bustled a bit, and I regretted not being able to get off to walk into the mela. Rishi explained in his round-about way, “There are these 10-wheeler trucks which now drive along these roads, and spoil the surface completely. The government will build a good 4-lane highway, but until that is done, traffic is very slow.”

His anxiety got us into Dibrugarh two hours before we needed to. The market had spilled into the town. As Rishi honked his way through the crowd, I got off a nice few shots of the city’s people at the market. Assam is highly diverse ethnically, and in a large industrial town like Dibrugarh this variety is enhanced even more. On a busy market day like this a good fraction of the population must have been out buying the ingredients for their Sunday lunch. Somewhere on the way The Family had induced Rishi to stop for a bit, so we had our fresh vegetables from the banks of the Brahmaputra in our hand baggage when we arrived in Mumbai.