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.

Walking against the wind

The sky had been completely overcast since we left Latpanchar, but we couldn’t sit in a car the whole afternoon. We stopped and decided to cross the ridge on foot. A tea stall was rumoured to have been sighted on the far side, and we could meet up with the car there. A bitter wind began to push at us as soon as we stepped out. It felt as cold as if it was the middle of winter. We kept our heads down, hunched our shoulders and walked ahead. The road passed behind a little hill and the wind died down. As we crossed the pass, I took a photo of the rolling slopes, all covered with tea bushes. This is the home ground of Darjeeling tea.

Then the road turned around the hill and we were back in the grip of the cold wind. But the brief walk had warmed me, and I could actually look around. Ahead, where the road turned again, there was an oddity. All the branches and leaves of a spruce had been sheared off leaving only a little plug of a cone at the top. When I reached it I realized why. The wind blew parallel to the slope, and the top of this tree was just behind the base of the tree below it. But the wind would not have removed the branches of the tree after it had grown; the trunk was straight and was proof that the wind, strong for me, did not bother the tree. I found later that Cyclone Amphan had swept across this ridge; perhaps it had stripped the branches of this tree.

A little further on I saw a sight I’d never seen before. The fog we’d driven through was trying to roll down the ridge and into the valley. But the wind was driving it back. Their battle front see-sawed across the garden just in front of that big house on top of that small hill. There are strange artifacts of the terrain here. We walked into the windward side of a slope and suddenly the wind died down. I realized that the slope above us had turned into a four meter high cliff. The wind had changed direction to leap over that cliff. If I raised my hand high above my head I could feel it blowing between my fingers. It was like a giant natural hand drier!

It had been hard to tell how close we were to sunset. But the sky had just begun to darken when we got to the tea stall. The place was rather dark, but it was still wonderful to see the open door of the shop. We ordered our tea, and I took photos of the surroundings in the blue hour. There had been no golden hour that day, and the blue hour was about 10 minutes long. Bad weather is bad for photography.

Al fresco

I wonder where the phrase dining al fresco comes from. But that is what we did on our little workation. The first time was a shock. The Family ordered up chai with pakoras, and we sat out in the little garden waiting for it. When a man walked up to us with a full tray, I had a moment of confusion. Both of us were without our masks with a stranger near us. This had not happened in more than nine months. I curbed my instinct to dash in to get my mask. We were outdoor, with a nice breeze coming down from the hills behind us, and the server was wearing a mask and a shield. It was reasonably safe. A little chit chat as he set up the table stabilized my heart, and I was able to concentrate on the food. The perfect sweet and milky chai and a plate of hot pakodas with a spicy hot coriander and mint chutney, things we haven’t had for months! Time to take a photo of a world renormalizing, and dig in.

We were even more adventurous for dinner. The Family said we should go down to the restaurant. I’m still unsure about meeting more than two strangers at a time; when I go in to work I don’t take a lift if it has more than two people in it. I was a little reluctant. Our compromise was that we would sit outdoor. We need not have worried, the resort had set up its dining entirely in a garden, with tables distinctly more than two meters from each other. In the lovely glow of stars overhead, trees lit up, we relaxed into a mood where we could begin to come to terms with a changed world.

In the light of the little oil lamp on our table I began to put into practice the intellectual understanding that I had reached earlier, as we planned how to reopen during the pandemic. Similar thought had gone into the adaptation of this space. Guests, like us, were isolated islands in a large open space with a nice breeze coming through it. The weather was colder than I’m used to Mumbai, but everyone was prepared for it. People were put into tables according to the size of their bubbles; we were escorted to a two person table, larger family groups had tables of up to eight people. The service personnel wore masks and shields; they were more at risk than us, since they were forced to meet strangers. There was a singer on a little podium placed away on one side, about four meters from the nearest table. There was only a low bush between her and the edge of the cliff, so there was always a breeze around her. It was all very well thought out, and I could dismiss my concerns once I’d looked around and taken it all in. The rest of our time there was very relaxed. As we walked back to our cottage I looked up at the clear sky. We were not yet passing through the Geminid meteor shower. Perhaps next week, I remarked to The Family.

Breakfast in Jamnagar

Our train arrived in Jamnagar in time for breakfast. This is a big affair anywhere in Gujarat. Before we could get to the food I needed chai. Lots of it. There had been precious little of it on the train. It wasn’t a problem here at all. These guys were set up to serve the perfect Gujarati tea: milky, boiled with dust tea, lots of sugar and ginger, a perfect early morning drink really: the sweetness of fruit juice with a kick of caffeine.

A cup in hand, I was ready to look at the legendary cook who makes the best breakfast in the neighbourhood. He sat surrounded by his parapharnelia, kneading a twist of besan mixed with ajwain. In a short while he’d rolled out strips of fafra and thrown them into a kadhai full of hot oil. Thin strips of gathia followed. The fat chilis were already fried and waiting on a thali in front of him.

Jalebi and dhokla appeared from jars next to him. Unlike the north, where jalebi is eaten hot, Gujaratis eat jalebi cold. This cook is a specialist; he makes his living selling breakfast in this tiny but extremely popular stall. Our table was soon piled with plates full of all these things. “The chilis make this a high fibre breakfast compared to what we had in Hampi,” I remarked to The Family. It was going to be hard not to put on weight if our breakfasts continued to be like this.

A mid-morning break

The Family and I do not pass up a chance to have a chai wherever we go. In a little village 2 Kilometers above sea level we spotted a restaurant and headed there. Yes, chai was available, and there were biscuits to be had as well. The Young Niece couldn’t stop smiling at the idea of biscuits after a kilometer long walk. After we sat down I took a photo of our host making tea (below). Nice shop; clean, large windows to let in a lot of light, and uncluttered. There was lunch cooking, so there must be villagers who come here for lunch. This was the end of a long road, and I couldn’t imagine people climbing all the way up here to eat.

A very serious card game was in progress. Two kibitzers were in evidence (one outside the window). After a hand was played, the old man came in to give his opinion. The players took it all in their stride. The next hand was dealt out in silence, and the game resumed. Mountain men are known to be less than garrulous, and the four players were no exception. We finished our tea and biscuits in companionable silence and left.

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!