It was a few hours after lunch, and as we walked around Tianzifang, I began to feel hungry again. What could I snack on? In China it is not hard to find snacks. We passed several kiosks selling skewered meat. That looked good, but did I want such a substantial snack at this time? I have a tendency to pass up perfectly good snacks until I get so hungry that I eat the first thing that I see.
We passed a nice little kiosk (featured photo) advertising a wide variety of things that I could eat. The Family knows how bad I’m at selecting snacks, and drew my attention to the various steamed dumplings. Dumplings! Do I look like a Kung Fu Panda? My attention was on the interesting looking popsicles. And was that an ice cream freezer there? I looked in. I’m never able to pass up an opportunity to take photos of ice cream. I’d just barely recovered from a flu the previous evening, and I wasn’t going to take a chance on catching another throat infection. So I walked away.
We passed a restaurant. It looked inviting. The Family knew that we didn’t have enough time to sit down at a restaurant and eat. She walked past. My hunger pangs were getting more severe by the minute, so I paused here. No menu hanging outside. I took a photo and walked on.
Somewhere nearby, inside a tiny lane we found the perfect place. Yogurt in many flavours! This was exactly what I wanted, a combination of sugar and proteins. The Family also likes yogurt, so we had our little snack here. Nice place, we said to each other as we sat at one of the tables and shared two flavours of yogurt. I was satisfied for a while, and then I said to The Family, “I think I need to eat something more.”
Across the world there’s always food on the beach. Ice cream is a standard, and Dhanushkodi was no exception. No stalls or trucks, though. Ice cream was served out of the back of a three wheeler along this beach. I liked the attention to fashion that this ice cream man showed. The haircut is copied from Virat Kohli, the captain of the Indian cricket team, and so is the body language. He’d just shown the kid his place for asking for a flavour he did not have. He wasn’t put off at not having made a sale. But then Kohli is not very put off by not winning a match.
What The Family and I couldn’t have enough of was the other staple on this beach: slices of cucumber, pineapple and watermelon, with a dash of powdered red chili sprinkled over them. The beach was lined with women selling these long slices in paper cups. The cucumber and melon was grown on the island, we were told, but the pineapple comes from inland. On a hot day on the beach, the juicy fruits with their jolt of sugar and chili were addictive.
I had dinner in a small town in Odisha. The restaurant was very full when we walked in, but emptied out before we finished. One of my colleagues had to catch a train later. So we took a short walk through the town. It was about nine, and most shops were shutting down. The wide street was lit by dim lights placed along the divider. This meant that most of the illumination came from shops, and once they started closing, the street began to get much darker. It was enchanting in its own way. We saw a line of bright yellow doors separated by blue walls; little kiosks which had closed.
Further along the row one kiosk was open for business. The vegetables on display were extremely fresh. A long cold chain is not needed to bring these to the town. The chopping boards are big and solid pieces of wood; seemingly cross sections of the trunk of a small tree. Banana flowers and jackfruit are two of the things that I would not normally find in a shop in Mumbai. There were also some long beans which I’d not seen before.
Next to the fresh vegetable stall was this tiny “supermarket”. Any grocery store with open access to the merchandise now calls itself a supermarket no matter how small it is. This was an interesting contrast to the vegetables. While that only stocked food which was fresh and had to be cooked, this had nothing which was fresh. Everything came inside a plastic package and was ready to eat. This was also much costlier per helping than fresh food, but the very price makes them an aspirational thing in these small towns.
Nearby a roadside eatery had served its last customers and was busy shutting down. The helper was carting the last chairs from the pavement into the shop. The counter was definitely closed. As I took this photo, I heard the sound of running water from the kitchen. I suppose the cookware and plates were being cleaned. There was much animated consersation between the cook and the helper, as I quietly took this photo and moved off.
I don’t know what this interesting looking stall was for. The man you see in the photo looked at us curiously as I took the photo. He spoke only Odiya, and none of us counted that as a language we could express ourselves in. My best guess is that this stall serves ready-made food of some kind. Perhaps things that supplement the food made in the home kitchen, but maybe largely aimed at labourers and other immigrants who have been drawn to this region by the large amount of construction under way. If this were so I think the stall would also have some of the wonderful local sweets.
This was the second of the odd juxtapositions. Right next to that temporary stall was this more permanent structure with ice cream and cakes. Even as the town wound up for the night there were customers here. A savvy sweet shop does not miss a trick. There was also a counter with the local Odiya sweets; that’s what the lady in the sari is looking at. The cold drinks and the toffees in bottles in the front counter would have attracted children a couple of hours before I took the photo. I liked the expectant look of this shop.
This junction of two major local roads was more typical of the time in this town. Once the lights went off, the town was generally dark. A couple of open shops provide the only light in the place. Everyone hasn’t gone to sleep yet. Parked motorbikes show that there are some people who still come to the shops at this hour. After all a major railway station is less than ten minutes away. We went there to drop my colleague, and that place was brightly lit and bustling with traffic.
Call me fussy. There is one thing I eat only in Italy, and that is ice cream. Not that it cannot be done well elsewhere, but because I do not want to waste my daily calorie count on a dessert that may not make me feel like I’m walking on clouds. But in Italy this caution is not needed. I will savour the gelati even if I eat it in a small cafe in a little village (as in the featured image).
Whenever I walked past this gelateria on Via Venti Settembre in Rome, I looked at the board outside which said “Founded in 1947”, and reminded myself to come back for a taste. Eventually I managed to do it in the last week before leaving Italy. Unlike many gelaterias, the selection was not on show. I had to read through a long menu to make my choices. I take a long time to choose flavours even when I look at the stuff. Here I kept going back and forth over the menu and then decided on a really straightforward combination of sour lime and dark chocolate. Then, as the girl behind the counter was teasing this out into spectacular filaments, I suddenly asked her to add biscotti to the mix. As she combed and teased the mixture into a fantastic shape, I thought I should take a photo when she finished.
But when she did I just took it from her, sat down at a table and ate it all up without thinking of taking a photo. I also skipped lunch after that. I could do the same thing again. No wonder the place has lasted 73 years.
Delhi 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.
Another 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.
When 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.
Fortune cookies are unknown in China. In fact, most of the time you don’t get desserts on the menu in restaurants. But when you slide open the door in an ice-cream chest you see a really large number of colourful packets. It would be fun to trace the history of ice cream in a country where sweets are not a big thing. Many of the flavours are pretty exotic, I haven’t always figured out what I’m tasting. The Family has more experience in these matters, but she can’t always figured it out either. That didn’t keep us from trying them out again and again, especially since Beijing seems to have slid into summer a little early. I guess part of the fun is that we can’t read the wrappers.