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.

Living in nature

I had (or should that be have?) a great-grand-uncle … No. I woke up very relaxed today, but as I wrote this I got tenser and tensor. Tenses and grammar will be the death of me. So let’s start again. I have had (That’s certainly not right. Yes, but people get the idea by now) a great-grand-uncle who became notorious for building a little hut for himself around an Alstonia scholaris tree. He is quite forgotten, but his hut and tree are still associated with the history of a place more famous for his superstar of a friend and prophet. He and some others of his time were much influenced by that polymath who decided to move away from The City and live in nature. Their children were to be taught in the open, in nature. That experiment became a movement, and was an important cultural moment. Now the place is a crowded little town, and a slogan whose spirit is lost.

Nevertheless, the experiment has a lesson for us today. We may think we are living in an artificial and constructed world, but it is part of the nature we think we have separated ourselves from. Consequences? When we forget that, we are in trouble. The scooters that you see in the photo above pump CO2 into the atmosphere. That tree is part of nature’s balancing mechanism, and soaks up that carbon to build its trunk. If we cut it down, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and heats the planet. Growing and maintaining large tracts of forests is one way to mitigate the coming disaster. Whales are another great carbon fixer, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere into their massive bodies, excreting carbon into the upper ocean where it fertilizes the growth of phytoplankton and starts the oceanic food chain, and finally carrying the fixed carbon to the bottom of the ocean after their deaths, there to feed new life for decades.

Such large re-wilding measures are bound to be effective in their own ways, but perhaps we can help too. My great-grand-uncle’s folly, Vienna’s Hundertwasserhaus, and the hotel you see in the photo above, all express a desire to live in balance with nature. But perhaps that is no longer enough to save ourselves. Maybe organic farming with green manure, or neighbourhoods with Miyawaki forests are what we need. Electric cars and scooters create a different pollution, but they could be useful stopgap measures until better transport solutions can be made. Perhaps the pandemic has catalyzed a change. Work-from-home (WFH) allows us to move away from cities; and a distributed population does not need the hugely polluting chains of supply and transport that make up today’s world. Perhaps WFH is another way we can retool a greener world.

Strawberry fields

Large mugs of strawberries with cream were a la mode in Mahabaleshwar this season. I managed not to exceed two a day, but sometimes one of these mugs could be a little larger than your garden variety. I wasn’t really looking for the strawberry fields. But when The Family and Leafless decided to set off for one, I could not leave them to it. That is how we chanced on a high density farm: the farm of our future. It was set in the inner courtyard of a typical semi-urban two storey family house, the front given over to a little restaurant and shop. When The Family asked for boxes of strawberries, the woman in charge asked, “Anything else?” A look of indecision on our faces opened the door to a little wonderland.

She led us to the courtyard and its dense farms: drip irrigation, natural light, organic manure, hand control of pests. She offered a herbal smoothie. We tried one. Then we tried another. Wonderful combination of sweet and peppery herbs, with bits of leaves we could identify, others that seemed familiar but elusive. We took a guided walk between the rows, looking at the wide variety of things that were growing there.

Strawberries were in flower and fruit, pak choi and Swiss chard were looking great. I saw the leaves and plant of wasabi for the first time (we later found that the leaves make a great addition to our daily salad). Iceberg lettuce. Chinese cabbage. Kale. A whole corner full of microgreens. The ladies said they regularly fulfill orders from Mumbai. The two women were really chuffed to have The Family and Leafless ask how to make this or that, and we were given samples of cooked exotic greens, Indian style, from their kitchen. They also had jars of jams: strawberry and blackberry. We left with several kilos of leaves, with their assurances that they will stay fresh for a week. They did.

Chewing it over

How can you remake pastry into an Indian sweet? Every time we talk to a chef at one of our favourite innovative restaurants in Mumbai our questions turn upside-down. Should we have asked "How do you take a traditional Indian taste and turn it into a sweet?" A few months ago we ended a meal with a tarte tatin reimagined with guavas. Yesterday we ended with a pastry filled with unripe mango, salted and with a dusting of chili flakes on the plate. See the red powder in the featured photo? Pastry chef Namrata Pai is on a roll.

Apart from the food, the main thing which keeps us coming back to this mid-town restaurant is the constant change in the menu. As the seasons change, different produce comes fresh into the market. Chef Thomas Zacharias prides himself on bending with the seasonal winds. The pastry in the featured photo is a late hold-over from the summer menu. The rest of the menu has moved on to the monsoon. This places the restaurant smack in the middle of the global farm-to-table food movement. A wonderfully flavourful tiny fish, mandeli, is back on the menu.

One lovely thing that is not easy to spot in the photo above is the fact that the hot kitchen has a significant number of women chefs. This is a healthy trend. I worry about the elitism inherent in organic food and the fresh food movement, even in the word sustainability, but gender balance cannot have downsides.

Farm-to-table

The registrar of marriages and deaths decided many years ago that The Family and I would forever celebrate Einstein’s birthday. So this Albert’s day we went off to have a nice dinner at one of our new favourite restaurant: The Bombay Canteen. When it opened a few years ago it was an instant sensation, with its completely re-imagined Indian food.

The first time we went there we had something they called the Arbi Tuk. As you can see in the featured photo, it looks totally undistinguished: like a simple dish of chopped onions and tomatoes. A mixture like this on top of crisp puris is a staple of street food all over Mumbai. Not only does this clever dish look like the traditional bhel puri, it even fools your palate for a moment after you bite into it. Then you realize that the puri is not puri, it is fried arbi (taro). Its a lovely fresh taste. We talked to chef Thomas Zacharias, and he gave us a plateful of one of the ingredients to taste. The beans which are chopped into it are fresh, and hard to find in the markets. I asked him where he sources his flavourful tomatoes, and he shrugged. The Bombay Canteen is famous for taking extreme care to source local vegetables from local farmers.

Halim with khamin roti

Every time we go to this restaurant there is something new on the menu. This time around the list of new dishes included the Haleem. We consider ourselves to be Haleem experts. The deep umami flavour of mutton was satisfactory, but over this rode a wonderful new flavour of roasted jowar. We would go back to a restaurant just for a Haleem like this. We consider ourselves lucky to have found this place before we knew what a lovely Haleem they make.

We ordered Thomas’ version of a tarte tatin, called the Guava Tan-ta-tan. It is was the ultimate in street flavour. The Family and I love to eat guavas from street-side vendors, cut open with a little red chili and salt sprinkled on it. This tarte tatin was made with guavas instead of apples, and came with a scoop of red chili ice cream on it, placed in a plate smeared with runny and spicy guava jelly.

Alice Waters may have started the farm-to-table movement in California, but The Bombay Canteen has perfectly adapted it to Mumbai.

Market and Field in Munnar

In the middle of the crowded bazaar area of Munnar we saw a long blank wall, plastered and painted the mellow cream of a Vermeer. The wall was simultaneously forbidding and attractive. Forbidding because it was high, completely featureless, and had no decorations on it at all. Attractive because the colour of the plaster glowed invitingly in the sun. Above a narrow door in the wall was a signboard that said “Vegetable Market, Munnar”

Vegetables heaped up in the market in Munnar

The Family and I can never resist a food market. Without a second thought we walked in through the door. It was late in the morning; the crowds of daily shoppers had left. The ranks of stalls in the municipal market were full of vendors waiting for small buyers. The aisles were clean, unlike many markets just past the rush hour.

Cashew apples and apricotsThe stalls in front were full of vegetables: beans, bitter gourd, pumpkin, yam, cucumber, banana flower, snake gourd, and more. After tasting the food in the region, we were expecting this variety in the market. Still, there were things which surprised us. We are used to eating unripe banana as a vegetable, cooked into a curry, and to green mango cooked in various ways. But here we saw a heap of unripe apricots. Are they cooked? Next to it was a pile of cashew apples (see the photo above). The fruit of the cashew is astringent, and not widely eaten. Are cashew and apricot cooked in this part of Kerala? We didn’t know, and did not receive a clear reply.

Beet root and something elseThe vendors were very friendly. They were happy to show us things, but we speak no Malayalam, and they spoke little Hindi or English. So we were left uneducated very often. For example, at the stall where I took the photo alongside, I could not figure out what the green fruits are. The stuff behind it was beet root, and the lady selling them nodded in recognition when we said beet root. But we could not catch what she said for the unknown thing. My best guess from what she said is that these are unripe jackfruit. It turns out to be breadfruit.

One major difference in tastes between The Family and me is our attitude to dried fish. She has no problems walking away from it,Dried ish in the market in Munnar whereas I am snagged. I examine them, imagine them thrown into a curry, or even simply into a pot of boiling rice. I spent a long time here, recognizing a little, and wishing I had a kitchen where I could try out the rest.

Munnar stands a kilometer and a half above sea level, so most of the fish comes from Kochi. Trout has been seeded in some of the dammed lakes here only very recently. So dried fish must be a staple. In most places in India, food made with dried fish is not considered good enough to be served to guests, so they remain unknown to tourists. I asked in our hotel, but got the blank smiles that normally answer such questions.

The Family had drawn ahead of me towards the fruit section of the market. Bananas are special in the south of India,Heps of fruits in the market in Munnar as I’d realized from responses to an older post. I spent some time asking the vendor about the uses of various bananas, and he got me to taste a couple. They were different from each other, and from what I’ve eaten earlier. In this season they yield some space to mango.

You know an Indian by her attitude to mango. There are those who love one variety, and will sneer at others. There are those who love to try out a new variety. But all will eat every mango that comes their way. We went through the selection on offer and took one of each. The local red variety which you see in the photo above is very flavourful.

In trips to the Himalayas we’d learnt of the growing popularity of organic farming in those regions. After we left the market we asked a local farmer about organic farming in this area. He was passionate about preserving the land, and said that he had given up on fertilizers. What about productivity, I asked. He said that a plot of land which might give a kilo of vegetables would give about a hundred and fifty grams with natural compost. He was still okay with it, because people are willing to buy it.

But here is the problem. If the productivity of land were to fall back to one seventh of what it is now, then the amount of food that comes into the market would decrease in proportion. Even if food were distributed equally, one seventh the amount would sustain perhaps a little more than a seventh of today’s population. In actual fact, the consumption of food in India, and the world, is already very inequitable. With lesser amount of food produced, the prices will grow more than proportionately, and the number of people who could afford it would be far less than a seventh of the population. A switch to organic farming by present methods would then lead to tremendous hunger.

The world is complex and overcrowded, and there are no simple solutions.