Home food away from home

We travel often to out of the way forests, where we have a choice between staying an hour’s drive away in a hotel, or living close to the forest in a homestay. Often take the latter option often enough. But more frequently than not, we find that the homestay was rather less than something to write home about. By contrast, in Tal Chhapar we found a wonderful place: basic rooms, but very clean and with great thought put into the guests’ convenience. We later found that the lady of the house took care of the rooms and the kitchen. A starring role was played by the courtyard with its large dining table across from the kitchen. The first breakfast seemed good, but entirely as expected- a stack of delicious hot aloo parathas, pickles and yoghurt, fruits and poha: very traditional, but significantly more calorie dense than our typical breakfast. We loved it, and had to make a very determined effort not to overeat. But more interesting things were in store.

When we returned after a morning’s visit to the sanctuary, our host invited me into the kitchen to meet his mother. The lady had come to visit her son (she lives in a different house in the same village) and had insisted on cooking something for the guests. I got a full explanation of the subtleties of the methi she was busy making, how she adds gur to balance the bitterness of the methi, and how the acidity of tomatoes is her own addition to the traditional dish. It wasn’t something I’d tasted before, but I could recognize the tradition, the sweet and spicy curries that are typical of the kitchens of the western desert region: right from Saurashtra up to the Punjab. A nice family business, we thought, with the special touch that the family was clearly eating the same meals as the guests.

The mother was the first in the family to run a homestay. Her son had left for Delhi to study hotel management, and spent a few years working in regular hotels around the country before tiring of city life and coming back home. She’d then decided to retire (but not entirely, since she came to cook local specialties for guests every now and then), and the son had taken over the business. We’d already discovered the important role played by his wife. His job was the business management, and added services. He ran two jeeps for the safaris and had taught himself about the local wildlife. He spend time with us teaching and learning more. He was also hosting a lady who was spending a semester in Tal Chhapar doing research on the local ecology of raptors, He seemed to be picking up little tidbits of knowledge from her. In addition he was trying to monetize the pickles and bakes of the village, by selling them from his hotel. Since we ate them every day and liked them, we didn’t have to debate much about whether to pick up a couple of packets for home.

Eating on the road again

As we race back to what we hope is a normal way of life, one of the pleasures is stopping by the wayside for breakfast. The worst airline in the world, the one named a Gandhian blue, merged flights and put us on one which took us to the destination airport at the crack of dawn. It is our misfortune that it also has the widest network, so that when we go to small places we are forced to choose it. We found our car, and stopped for breakfast half an hour out of the airport.

Two painted attendants welcomes us through the very well decorated doors into a dining area which already had other customers. It turned out that the property was a hotel, and they were getting ready to lay out a buffet breakfast. Did we want that? No, could we look at the menu, please?

Studying these menus is one of the little joys of travel. The girll was clearly kept busy turning out sandwitches. Sometimes they had buttar on them, at other times just plain butter. This was a jem. Allo aloo, do we want you in our paratha? Old hands like us study the menu, put it aside, and then ask the waiter to tell us what is available. Aloo paratha and onion paratha. One of each please, with a bowl of yogurt. And two cups of chai each. Is that the same as a special tea? Ok, then one of that for each of us. The parathas were good.

On the way out we saw a fellow night flier stunned by the daybreak. I gently pushed it aside after taking a couple of photos. Identifying moths is one of the impossible projects that I have in mind. Impossible because of the sheer number of species. Isn’t it interesting that small roadside hotels can afford marble floors?

Himalayan parathas

We stopped at a little roadside eatery above the Tehri Dam. The view was magnificent, and we climbed to the terrace on the roof of the structure perched right at the edge of a slope. We’d ordered chai before climbing up to the roof, and it was ready by the time we came down with a few new photos. There was a stop for buses right at this corner. Some people got down from a passing bus and came into the restaurant for food.

The Family asked “Shall we have lunch here?” It was a pleasant place, doing good business, so why not? We sat down at a table looking out over the Bhagirathi river and ordered a paratha each with sabji. Food always tastes brilliant once you have passed the 1500 meter mark above sea level. This was no exception; the parathas and the simple alu gobi tasted so good that we decided to share one more. We wouldn’t have done that at a lower altitude, I think.

An empty village

Horses grazing around Ura, Bhutan

We reached Ura around noon. The air was just beginning to warm up as we drove into the village. The surrounding fields were green. We saw cattle and horses grazing nearby. Some of the fields were tilled. Although we didn’t pay much attention to it, we did not see anyone out on the fields. The houses were clean and well painted, but as we passed by, we did not see anyone. We could hear music playing somewhere, either a radio or the tape recorders which were common here at that time. But there was no sign of a person.

Calf spotted in a field in Ura, Bhutan

Someone voiced the most practical course of action, “Let’s go to the Dzong.” At breakfast in Bumthang we’d been told about the paintings in the Dzong, and we did want to see them anyway. The monastery occupied the highest point in the village. We drove there and parked outside. The large courtyard was empty. The doors were locked. We wandered around looking for someone to talk to and eventually a young villager appeared. Communication was difficult, because we did not speak Dzongkha, nor did he speak Hindi or English. Even our concerted efforts at charades did not convey the message that we wanted to enter the Dzong.

Dzong in Ura, Bhutan

Defeated, we walked back. Dinesh drove back to the highway, and we followed on foot. The houses were very neat, but the road was covered in dung. Villages in remote Bhutan do not have much drainage. Waste water from houses flows through gutters alongside roads and peters out in some fields. Ura was no exception.

Beetle on a fence in Ura, Bhutan

Walking through the village we saw women in a couple of houses. They were friendly and waved out at us, but we couldn’t find anyone who knew the languages we could speak. Maybe all the Indian movies which are shown here are dubbed in Dzongkha. There were cows in the fields. Bhutanese villagers seem to tend cows as well as yak.

The fences between properties were made of wood and bamboo. They were weathered to a lovely grey colour, as you can see in the photo here. It made it very easy to spot the colourful insects which were everywhere. Of course, there have to be many insects to feed the enormous numbers of birds that we had seen on the way.

Parathas being rolled in an eatery in Ura, Bhutan

It was time for us to think of food. We walked back to the highway. It was getting warmer, but at the pace we walked, a sweater was still comfortable. When we reached the highway we saw that Dinesh had located a little eatery. The women who ran it were very welcoming, and spoke a little Hindi. We got a lovely meal with fresh made parathas, and two wonderful dishes made of fresh vegetables from the fields. The meals we had in Bhutan were not particularly different from what we are used to, but everything was made with absolutely fresh ingredients which left a remarkable impression on me.

I remember the dining hall as full of local artwork, some hand-made, others printed. The calendar was Bhutanese, and there were a couple of large posters, at least one of which was the kalachakra. Masks were hung along the rafters. These are used in the temple festival. One of the ladies told us that during the festival a dance starts at the Dzong and comes past their shop and returns. The central part of the dance is a black yak, and there are others in various masks. I’d seen most of the masks on display, but the tiger mask (in the featured photo) was new to me.

I guess winter is the time to go back to Bhutan to see the temple festivals. All except Ura’s, which is in May. We seemed to have just missed it.

Eating through centuries in Delhi

A break in frying parathas

2016-04-27 19.16.43Delhi 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.

2016-04-27 18.08.15Another 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.

Natural Ice Cream is an import from MumbaiWhen 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.