Looking for chai on the road

On road trips I’ve got used to stopping at road-side shacks for a tea now and then. The trip to Kumaon last month was the first time I found this to be difficult. As we travelled north of Almora, traffic thinned out and the little shacks by the road where you can normally stop for a chai or an omelette were hardly visible.

We peered with fading hope at little stores. Some had fresh food, but all had the shiny packets of trans-fats loaded with either salt or high-fructose corn syrup (sometimes both), liberally doused in sulfite containing preservatives, which are consumed in large quantities by travellers, after which the non-biodegradable packaging is dumped into the hillside. All of them also stocked highly sugared drinks in large plastic containers, which leak bisphenols into your body, and into the environment, when the empties are dumped out of cars. Very seldom did we find a place with a working kitchen. This was very specific to this part of Kumaon; closer to the lakes one could find the normal density of roadside eateries. Nor was it the mountain-hugging roads which made such shops difficult; even inside the small towns and villages we passed, a chai or a fresh snack was not so easy to find.

Our best finds were always close to a town. Outside Almora, on the Binsar road we found a wonderful bakery and cafe. Little terraces with potted plants overlooked a valley. Someone recommended the almond butter cake; we added a pie because the waiter told us it had just been baked. Both were superb with the steaming cups of tea they gave us. Uttarakhand has begun to produce an interesting variety of cheeses, and I selected a few from the counter to eat over the next few days.

Eventually, the most relaxed place that I found for chai was the dining area of our hotel in Munsiyari. The cook had a way with the chai and omelettes, and the pleasantly chatty waiter knew when to leave you alone with the view. The window looked over the town at the nearby Panchachauli massif. Even though the air was not clear enough for the wonderful views which gives Munsiyari its reputation as a place to visit, the place was wonderfully relaxed.

Meeting a master chef

One bite of the omelette that he had produced convinced me that the young man working away in the small kitchen was a master chef. The omelette was light and airy, creamy and fluffy. I had a strong desire to close my eyes as I savoured it. The ingredients were the usual Indian (I should say Nepali, because the cook was a Nepali speaking Indian) mix, chopped green chili and onion incorporated into the egg, but the fluffiness was one that I haven’t seen in any of the best breakfasts in India. Here in a little-regarded corner of the Himalayas, in a small restaurant in Lava Bazar, was the best omelette chef of the country!

The rest of the lunch was equally marvelous. Millennia of cultural exchange has made sure that the food of Nepal and India are not very different. So an inexperienced person like me cannot tell whether the simple but delicious food that was served to me was Bengali or Nepali. It was certainly served in the way that I know is Bengali or Odiya. A mound of rice on the plate, with a little green leafy vegetable as a starter. Then some dal (wonderfully light) and a mixed vegetable (again, light on the masala, and the freshness of the ingredients very evident). A plate of roasted papad was put on the table. Rice was topped up whenever you wanted. And finally the chicken arrived. Heavenly. You could just eat the potato which had been cooked into it, or even lick the gravy off your fingers, and be transported by the taste.

We went back the next day, of course, and the owner of the establishment had added a new experience for us. A plate of what looked like the puri of pani-puri. But when you bit into the crisp globe, you found that the thin shell was made of rice flour. A Nepali papad, I was told. It went down easy with a fiery paste of chili. Papad comes in so many different styles across the subcontinent that I’m still discovering new ones. Before leaving, I leaned across the counter to congratulate the cook. He smiled and asked me to come back. I will, and I hope the restaurant flourishes. I noticed the momos that he had made ready for the evening snack time. He saw me looking and pointed out one that he was proud of. “Rose,” he said and grinned. He was young, perhaps in his early or mid-twenties. I hope he is able to grow into his chosen profession. Because it is such a small establishment in a relatively unknown place, I’ll break a rule I set myself in this blog, and name the restaurant: it is called Sinchula. I may have the satisfaction of hearing from you about your experience there if you go, but nothing more.

Break an egg

You can’t break an egg without making an omelette. This lesson learnt peeping over a table at an impressionable young age has stayed with me. So when I put the brown paper bag with half a dozen eggs down too hard on the kitchen counter, it was time to scoop out the cracked egg, chop the onions, tomatoes, chili, and coriander leaves, beat the egg to an absurd frothiness, fuss over whether to use butter or a vegetable oil in the pan, and then fry the omelette. I’ve lost the skill of flipping it neatly, which tells me that I need to break more eggs.

A good omelette takes panache

Harold McGee, “On Food and Cooking”

I’d jumped when I read about an omelette in Pantagruel. “That old, is it?” I thought, and then realized that it must be older. It has to have been discovered over and over again every time an egg fell into fat. Although the home-cooked Indian version is absolute comfort food for me, I also love the one egg version available across the country as street food, usually bundled between two slices of bread heated on the same pan. And, of course, it doesn’t stop me from liking the French version. Although French cookbooks make a great fuss about omelettes, these delights are not to be tamed. The version right next door, in Italy, is a little different, and when it travels across the Atlantic, it can mutate even more. But the ultimate in omelettes have to be the Japanese versions, layered and fluffy, little pieces of which I first found in sushi, and then at breakfast, and finally even as a full meal. “Are there new worlds to conquer?” I hear the sigh of eggs, words which surely must have inspired Alexander of Macedonia.

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