Taking stock

The Family and I had breakfast on a narrow terrace on the top floor of our hotel in Kusadasi, looking out towards the harbour. We talked about what we’d seen in Turkey. It seemed to me that it had been months, but it was less than a week since we’d landed in Istanbul! The incredible sights of Cappadocia: fairy chimneys, balloons filling the sky, underground cities, now seemed so far removed. Trudging through the ruins of famous Greek cities, looking at the remnants of what used to be the wonders of the ancient world, had driven those older experiences into some far corner of the brain.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We looked at our phones together, swiping through the galleries of the last few days. Did we really see that? Remember the wonderful wine there. And that great Turkish coffee! Can you get me another glassful of that superb lemonade? Too soon it was time to leave for a drive to Pamukkale.

Country roads

I’d written earlier about a quick trip to Kerala to see the once-in-a-dozen-years flowering of the Neelakurinji. It was mostly a road trip, but I hadn’t written about the road. Driving from Kochi to Munnar takes you on roads through a continuously built-up area. One village gives way imperceptibly to another, a small town shades into villages. There is no transition, no discontinuity.

Every turn in the road looked vaguely like this: low houses, some palm trees, a church or a temple or mosque, businesses everywhere. It was a holiday so the roads were rather empty for nine in the morning. Businesses were also closed. This part of the country had been hit by a flash flood due to an over-active monsoon less than a month before, so we kept a close watch on the sky as we drove along.

There were some store fronts which seemed peculiarly Malayalee; the photo which you see above was one. We would come across a home depot of this kind every twenty or thirty kilometers. So much kitchenware on display! Was this part of the post-flood recovery, or was it common? I don’t know, and I would have to go back to find out. Or, if you have been there recently or more than a year back, you could let me know whether you noticed these shops too.

We’d driven out without breakfast, with just a coffee at a busy little roadside stall which was doing roaring business. When I drank my coffee I realized why. It was a very good coffee; milky and sweet, like the usual coffee here, but strong and aromatic. Now it was definitely time for breakfast. We stopped at a cluster of shops. The colourful advertisements on this glass box signaled lunch.

Chicken is a big thing here, as you can see from the signage in the photo above. Food and chicken are mentioned separately. Chicken normally sounds good to me but not as the first thing in the morning. We chose a shop which was clearly selling breakfast. Idlis, puttu, sheera and coffee could be seen. While the Family and Other Animals found a table, I walked around to the block. There was a hairdressing saloon with very appropriate photos on the door. If I wasn’t in dire need of breakfast I would have walked in to investigate.

Back at the breakfast table the orders had been placed. I asked for a plate of idlis and another coffee to be added to the order. As I leaned back I saw that this was a rather inclusive place. Kerala used to have a very small but influential population of Jews. They have mostly migrated to Israel about fifty years ago. Now about 55% of the population is Hindu, about 25% are Muslim, and about 18% are Christian. The picture on the wall was politically very mainstream, but was probably not entirely political. It could also signify that the dietary practices of all these groups were understood and followed. Business is business after all.

Food and drink in Anhui

Anhui province is more famous for its Yellow Mountain than for its food. But even unknown food can be quite interesting. The most interesting thing I ate in Anhui was a fried stinky tofu. Ever since I met Menschterkaas in my formative years, I don’t pass up a chance to have a new stinky cheese. Anhui’s stinky fried tofu is something special. Its furry appearance, the wonderful mouthful of aroma it releases on first bite, and its creamy texture make for a delightful snack. Unfortunately I was so involved in this plate of mixed grilled and fried hairy tofu that I completely forgot to take photos. I will have to refer you to another source for images.

This was the first time I let go of the life raft of sausages and bread, and sank into a sea of Chinese breakfast. On my first day I loaded my plate with a mixture of Chinese vegetables and more familiar sausages and eggs. The mushrooms, beans, and cabbage were so tasty that I struck out into the deep waters of yam, runner beans and noodle soups. Yoghurt came out of a machine, runny enough to be drunk out of a bowl. Melons, watermelon, oranges and pineapple were breakfast staples, wonderfully juicy and sweet.

Working lunches in China tend to be large, and I had to learn to control my tendency to eat everything that I see, so that I could be in tune with The Family’s needs for dinner. We found a lot of variety. Mandarin fish is an Anhui specialty, and I found it excellent. I like the presentation of fish in China. A braised fish is opened out on to a plate to make it easy to pick at it with chopsticks. The Family had brought a fork and a spoon in her checked baggage, but forgot to ever slip them into her handbag. Instead she resorted to manipulating a soup spoon in one hand and using a chopstick as a knife in the other. I chickened out of this bold experiment and practiced the traditional Chinese eating style.

Eating Chinese food in the rest of the world does not prepare you for the variety and amount of vegetables eaten in China with every meal. If we ever ordered a couple of proteins and rice for a meal, the waitress would always remind us to choose vegetables. Ever since we consciously decided to increase the amount of fiber in our daily food, The Family and I have begun to take special notice of the vegetables we eat. China was an eye-opener. Perhaps it was because we were new to it, but we liked the variety of vegetables available at every restaurant. I don’t know whether the plate you see in the photo above is a regional specialty, but it does give you an idea of how vegetables are usually prepared.

Chicken can be surprising when it is served. It is common to serve the whole animal; I’d noticed this earlier with fish, duck, and pigeon. Our order of chicken came with the full chicken deconstructed on the plate: the crackly skin served on the side of the plate with the meat in the center, and most surprisingly, the head standing upright.

Although China is not famous for its desserts, we found that a wide variety of imports have become regular parts of menus. We really liked the caramel custard which you see in the featured photo. It was served on a bed of frozen milk. That’s a combination I’ve never seen before, but one which I would like to try out again. The key seems to be freezing it very fast before it crystallizes. Did that need liquid nitrogen, or was a blast chiller good enough?

“Ancient well palace drink” is a specialty of Anhui province. Apparently brewed from sorghum using the famously sweet water of an ancient well, the drink was sent as a tribute to the last Han emperor Xian. Since this history is from the 2nd century CE, the well must have long gone dry, and the recipe must have been modified in the intervening two millennia. A bottle opened in the middle of a dinner can often result in an extended evening. I tried a fifteen year old version, but found that I liked the smoothness of the twenty six year old much better. The difference in price is not inconsiderable, but it is well worth the investment.

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.

Breakfast and butterflies

Tamil spotted flat

In Valparai breakfast was always late and large. Our mornings started a little before sunrise. We would gulp down a quick cup of tea and a couple of biscuits before leaving for a round of bird-watching. The real breakfast would start at about nine, after we got back. It always began with a ritual serving of fresh fruits. I was really amazed at the skill with which the kitchen produced bananas sliced into two precisely equal longitudinal halves. I tried this at home, and failed miserably. Then there were idlis with the famous Tamil gunpowder and coconut chutney, perhaps dosas or adai with sambar or appams with stew, and any amount of toast with eggs. Everything was very well done. Even the bread was surprisingly good.

On our second morning we arrived at breakfast to find a dark butterfly fluttering around our table. The Family asked me for an identification, and I was a little stumped. I hemmed and said it was not a moth but a butterfly, one of the variety called skippers. The only way to be certain is to look at the antennae: skippers have ones which are shaped like hockey sticks. But I couldn’t get beyond that. Very tentatively I said “rice swift”, knowing this was wrong. I took a photograph for later identification. ID wasn’t so easy: it could have been the weirdly named “restricted demon” except that it had too few spots. After a couple of other false leads I finally saw the pefect match. It is the Tamil spotted flat. It is common in the Nilgiris.

It fluttered repeatedly against the window glass, so I decided to do a good deed and opened the window to let it out. It fluttered on to the flower bed just outside. A bulbul darted in, picked it up and flew off. The Family and I looked at each other, and settled in for breakfast.