Little Swahili eats

Kaimati was not a food term I’d come across before I came across the deep-fried delights. These little balls of sweetened flour were crisp outside and fluffy and airy inside. What a pleasant surprise. Where did it come from? A little asking told me that this was coastal food. The East African coast has seen Indian Ocean trade for over a millennium, so it could have come from anywhere. In the far west of Kenya, where I ate this, I was also told it was Swahili food. That fits, because the Swahili are Arab speakers who diffused inland from the coast. Later, searching the web I found that it is a local version of the middle eastern Lugmat or Luqaimat. On the coast of Kenya it is known as Iftari food, something to have when you have your big meal at night after breaking your fast during the month of Ramazan. It is also said to be Iftair food in Muscat and Oman. That gives credence to the theory that it was carried along the western coast of the Indian Ocean by traders.

The basketful of samosas with minced meat got over awfully fast, and had to be refilled very often. I think of samosas as Indian food, but it seems that it comes out of Turkey. Trade brought it to India, where it changed. (Why not? Even the Big Mac changed, but it is a long and complicated tale which is best left to another post.) The Turkish version is filled with meat, but today the commonest variety in India has a spicy potato filling. You have to hunt for other fillings (two of my favourites are the spicy minced meat filling, and one which is filled with a mixture of lentils). In Kenya it is known as coastal food, so clearly brought here by trade. Did this come straight from Turkey, or from India? The spicy meat filling was redolent of an Indian influence. A toast to trade: raise your favourite tipple, whether it is made of wheat, sugar, potato, corn, or anything else which trade carried across the world.

A small snack before dinner

Traveling is not easy. There are these large markets in every town that you visit. It takes time to walk through them, and you might be far from the nearest restaurant when you realize that it has been a long time since lunch. That is when a Guptaji’s becomes handy. Walking around Shillong’s Police Bazaar with the clan, those of us who were less inclined to shop gravitated easily towards an attractive hole in the wall which promised chats.

This is exactly the kind of fried indulgence that we wouldn’t allow ourselves every day. But this was the first day of Christmas, and I was sure that my true love would not grudge me a plate of samosas (maybe samosha, to keep with the local style), accompanied by some chai, and a follow-up plate of tikki with chole, some more chai, and then some sweets. By the time the shoppers were back we were ready for a second round. How lucky to find a Guptaji’s here. We might have starved otherwise. Dinner’s still a few hours off.

Ship in a storm

We had no plans to go to Mandu. Eight years ago we had spent three days walking around that wonderful medieval citadel. But we ran out of ancient remains in Dhar very early in the afternoon, and decided to push on to Mandu. It is about an hour’s drive, and the landscape is spectacular in this season. Mandu stands barely 75 meters above Dhar, but all the clouds in this land seem to descend and envelope these romantic ruins. The Family remarked “We’ve never seen bright sunlight here.” Maybe we should come back one winter to see how the place looks when there are no clouds, but we find Mandu so very charming in this season.

Our first stop was the spectacular Jahaz Mahal (literally, the Ship Palace), so named because the long building between two water bodies is supposed to look like a ship. The building is really long, close to 110 meters, and only about 15 meters in width. A gusty rainstorm enveloped us as we walked in. I hadn’t zipped up my raincoat, and I was wet immediately. The Family fared better in her poncho. We hesitated at the entrance for a while, and after the storm peaked walked into the long building. It was built during the reign of Ghiyas ud-din Khilji of Malwa (1469-1500 CE). The state tourism department’s web site repeats the incredible story of the Sultan keeping his harem of 15,000 women in this palace. If these numbers were right, it would mean each member of the royal harem would have less than a one foot by one foot space to herself. Hardly a pleasure palace!

In the driving rain I could not take photos of the architecture I’d admired almost a decade back. I took one shot of the domed roof and the arches looking out at the countryside obscured by the storm. This is beautiful Indo-Afghan architecture, among the best examples of this style. When the rain let up a little, we climbed up to the terrace. Eight years ago we had met a crowd of girls from a local school who posed for photos with The Family. Now there was a wonderful mist which turned the terrace into an enchanted area (see the featured photo). Ghiyas ud-din’s reputation as a pleasure lover is based on the beautifully illustrated cookbook called Nimatnama (Book of Pleasure), now in the British Library. Fifty portraits of the sultan illuminate recipes for delicacies like khichdi, biriyani, samosa and halwa made of fresh ginger. These may be the first in the genre of Indian miniature portraits.

In the rain we could hardly recognize Jahangir’s description of this palace when he and his empress Noor Jahan celebrated the feast of Shab-e-barat in this palace in 1616 CE. In Jahangir’s words, from his memoirs Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, “They lighted lanterns and lamps all around the tanks and buildings. The lamps cast their reflections on the water and it appeared as if the whole surface of the tank was a plain of fire.” On our earier visit we had taken a leisurely stroll around Jahaz Mahal, and walked down to one of the step wells. The well was more full this time around, but the steps were slippery with rain water and moss. We did not dare to climb down. Some things may be easier if one comes here in winter.

Jodhpuri street food

The street food of Jodhpur is split between things on carts and things available from shops. Among carts crowds are densest around those which carry golgappas. These crisp spherical puris are vehicles for a variety of chutneys, hence the other name for it: panipuri. Pakoras of various kinds are almost as popular, including the special chili pakoras. We found that this is eaten cold. So is the other other Jodhpur special: the sweet mawa kachori. Shops mostly specialize in sweets. I was impressed by the crowd around a shop selling vegetable juices: carrot, spinach, mint and the mouth-puckeringly sour amla.

Click on any of the photos in the mosaic to transit to a slideshow.