Khaugarh

A vendor in Amritsar told me to forget about my diet, now that I was in Khaugarh, the city of food. This is good advise, and you probably know it already. Before my trip I did the usual bit of due diligence: did a search for what to eat in Amritsar. The result was a set of web pages which had clearly copied from each other. Take the suggestions as guides, they are quite good. But be prepared to improvise. If street food is your thing then you’ll find amrit, ambrosia, in the maze of lanes around the Golden Temple. This was a walk I’d been looking forward to, and I can do worse than to present it by time of the day.

Breakfast

The featured photo shows a kulcha maker sizing me up as a potential customer. The kulcha is the default breakfast in town. There are whole lanes devoted entirely to kulcha and chhole, teeming with people in the mornings. But the shops run all day, turning out kulchas by the minute, as a big handi of chhole slow cooks constantly. I loved the variety, the doodhi kulchas and the stuffed ones. If you don’t fancy chhole, try it out with a bowl of the wonderful yoghurt that these places have.

A mid-morning snack

Why not a kulcha again? I loved the aggressive lean of the chhole-kulcha guy in the little stall he’d set up in an alley. There’s also lovely stuff like samosas and fried bread. We chickened, and had a chai. This wasn’t for the faint-hearted; it was thick with milk and cream, the tea leaves boiled to extract the last bit of tannin from it, and intensely sweet. A local told us disdainfully that this guy mixes water in the tea. A different stall nearby would have boiled the tea leaves in milk. If you want to eat healthy there are carts which will press juice out of the fruits of your choice. I always long to mix carrot with sugarcane and lime, but I passed it up.

We passed up kulfas (large servings of kulfi) and had the fantastic lassi only once. These would have been very filling, and we did want to try out lunch and dinner in some of the dhabas and restaurants around the city.

Early evenings

A while before sunset on a winter’s day you could begin to feel the need for a little sustenance. There are multiple options. A group of farmers who’d just returned from Delhi were having gol gappa. I have not doubt that the Amritsari version is special, but I gave it a pass. Pakoras were being fried, yams were being roasted, and two carts promised a special bhel puri from Bombay. But we headed to the jalebiwala. I chickened when I saw people buying them by quarter kilos for a roadside snack. But The Family went ahead and asked for one to taste. Noticing the bliss on her face another customer told her “I’m forbidden from having them, but I come here once a week.” Every vendor has their adherent. These fans are not wrong. The cooks who last are very good.

Pre-dinner snack

When you walk through the lanes here, looking for good angles for shots of the famous and less well-known Gurudwaras, it will be time for dinner before you know it. But to keep you going from the time you realize it is time, to when you actually get to your dinner, there are options. One guy was making what he called veg burgers. In Mumbai we would call it vada pav. But the star of the evening was clearly milk with saffron: kesari dodh. People had it in large glasses by itself, and with kulfi, jalebi, gulab jamun, or pinni.

For us it was time to look for an interesting dinner. There are so many options!

Celebrating the margins

At the edges of festivals I find interesting human stories, the sort that I like to capture in photos. The last couple of years have not exactly been productive times for street photography, so I’ve rescued some photos from the dark depths of a hard disk. The featured photo is from the end of the Ganapati festival. Families from a fishing village gather at the shore of the sea to watch large images of the god being brought for immersion in the waters at the end of the festival. The children had created a viewing platform to watch from. I backed up against the crowd-control barrier at the edge of the sea to take this photo.

Around every religious place you find commerce in the necessities. Outside a Durga puja, I found this young man trying to sell flowers to visitors. I hung around across the road, sensing that a teenager at a repetative job would give me a good shot at some point. It wasn’t long before he started showing signs of boredom. I got my shot.

There are families who hop from one Durga puja to another, eating dinner at food stalls around them. I like to hang around these stalls, and not only because I like a snack. You can see interesting stories build and resolve at food stalls and the nearby tables. Festivals are times when families eat much more than they would normally do. Late one night I found this sleepy child apparently abandoned by his family at a table piled with the remnants of a feast on the go. The father came back soon with another fizzy drink for the child.

Diwali is a private time, spent with families. It doesn’t give you too many opportunities for a camera roving the streets. Instead I spend time at the pre-Diwali markets. Families are out buying lights and decorations for the home. The strange forms of these long stems of artificial lotuses created an interesting forest for shoppers looking for something new and different, and salesmen trying to convince them that they have found exactly what they are looking for.

Rearrangment – перестройка

Sitting in the Berlin apartment of my old professor, The Family and I described our discovery of the artistic ferment in the city. The photographers, painters, and craftsmen in the weekend’s art market by the Spree, the murals on the walls of tall apartment blocks, the reimagining of the Berlin Wall as a canvas for the ideas of a triumphant philosophy, its connection with the quadriga on the Brandenburger Gate. I thought that all this was as much street art as that which was made and remade on walls at the Mauerpark, Rosenthaler Strasse, or Urban Spree, or even on some walls on their road. My professor and his wife are the post-war generation of thinkers: steeped in the ideas of internationalism and a certain classic aesthetics. They disagreed with the equivalences I made. The best of part of such intellectual disagreement is that it allows you to sharpen your ideas. That’s what this post is about.

I don’t think it was a disagreement over commissioned or guerilla art. They quite enjoy Banksy, but they also loved the works of anonymous Bihari folk artists who’d been commissioned by the state government to paint on certain stretches of walls. It may be that the durability of the piece was an issue. I was unwilling to yield this ground. Durability is a concern in the commerce surrounding art. Insistence on it would leave out the most spectacular works of Cai Guo-Qiang: the fireworks displays which are incredible pieces of street art. There is a documentary called “Stairway to Heaven” on his art which is available on Netflix, and several video recordings on YouTube. They bear the same relation to the work that my photos of murals do.

Were they trying to distinguish between artistic intent and accident? I wouldn’t disagree with this criterion. Leonardo da Vinci advised: “‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.” But for every artist, including perhaps all photographers, the accident is the seed around which the artist’s intention crystallises. The bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Ku’damm in Berlin has mosaics which are now visible from the street. Is this street art? I believe not. The intention of the bombing raid was not to convert the church into a piece of art. It can’t even be compared to Marcel Duchamp painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It is only in the imputation of artistic intent to works that people might differ.

  • New York City: Wall Street
  • Facade of a building in Lisbon

So let me just stick to a simple definition of art: any deliberate attempt to please the senses. And go with a simple definition of street art: any art that is freely available to a passerby. I give you some of my favourites in the slideshow above.

Food by Naini’s Tal

The lake district is easily the most popular part of Kumaon for tourists. Within easy reach of Delhi if you want a long weekend’s vacation, Naini Tal fills with crowds which are, if not madding, at least maddening enough for me to avoid. I prefer to stay near one of the fuddy-duddy Tals, any lakeside whose peace is not broken by unending crowds and late-night Bhangra discos. But in this second COVID-19 year, as our holiday drew to a close, and cases exploded in Delhi, tourists were staying away in droves. We had lunch on the terrace of a completely empty cafe overlooking the lake (featured photo). We could stand the music because we were outdoors, we weren’t trying to sleep, and the selection was largely from the 70s (with surprise appearances by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley).

Tal is the local word for lake. After lunch we took a short walk by the tal. At the street food vendors’ end I noticed that the most popular food seems to be chai with bread, or with some combination of eggs and bread. Naini Tal is part of the hills, so a bowl of Maggi is also common. The number of vendors selling corn on the cob was much smaller, and there was no chanawala in sight. The man selling sweet pastries out of a tin box was a whiff of the times when Buddy Holly was all the rage. In these times you might expect that street food vendors would be distanced and masked. Not so in Naini Tal. Masks, if they are seen at all, are used as chin guards. The stiff breeze from the lake is perhaps the only thing that has kept this place safe until now. I saw four other people whose masks covered both their mouth and nose. Of them, the cotton candy man is the only one who seemed to have discovered what I find in the hills: that a properly worn multi-layer mask is a wonderful face warmer.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

I need your help

On Saturday the streets of downtown Mumbai were deserted. With the number of cases rising again, people were safeguarding themselves. Optional travel was clearly down, and most people were more safely masked than before. It was an even Saturday, so few businesses were open. The first wave was a learning experience for everyone. Now we know that measured and graded response is better than a long shutdown. I finished my work and then tried to take photos of the food carts. The mid-day sun is harsh. Sometimes I persist even with this awful lighting because of the human stories I see. Today, the lack of crowds killed interest as effectively as the harsh light.

The featured photo has a story. A pregnant woman tries to sell a good-luck charm (the string of chilis and a lime) to the food vendor, as she turns to look at her two young children at their “home” on the pavement. I wish I had looked more carefully first, and positioned myself to get the whole story in one shot: the cart, the woman, her children at “home”. Street photography involves more than just the camera. The lockdown across the world has been harsher on the poor. Pavement dwellers have no masks. I would like to help buy some. If you know of organizations or citizens’ initiatives which are distributing masks to homeless people, or otherwise trying to help them against COVID-19, could you please let me know in the comments?

Surprising beach food

We walked along the beach at Kochi, looked at the fishing nets and the catch, and then began to think of a little snack before dinner. A snack is never far away when you are at a beach. But here we found something that was exciting and surprising: fresh fried yam wafers. We’d first encountered this less than half a year earlier in Nairobi, where they are called mogo chips. There they were crisp, and the flavour was just different enough from a potato to be interesting. This looked equally crisp, and The Family and I felt like sharing one helping.

The chips were being fried by a master who was on the phone continuously. The serving was very similar to what we had seen in Nairobi. We god a good amount of the wafers decanted into a straight-sided brown-paper bag. A half of a lemon was squeezed into it, and a bit of chili powder sprinkled on. We walked away with the chips, looking for a beer, exclaiming about how good it was, and how much it resembled mogo chips. In Kerala it is hard to tell whether this exchange happened yesterday or a thousand years ago. I’m glad it happened.

Street food on the Halic

The ferry terminal on the Golden Horn may not be the most fashionable place to eat in Istanbul, but it is easily accessible. The double decked Galata bridge has a deck full of restaurants. The punters here were mainly tourists, and the restaurants were beginning to shut down already at 11 at night. Continuing music indicated that at least one bar was planning to keep open later.

We’d spent the evening hopping from place to place tasting wonderful Turkish wines and little eats, otherwise it would have been nice to sit at one of these tables and stare out at the ferries. The atmosphere reminded me of the waterfront eateries on Shamian Island in Guangzhou.

The upper deck of the bridge was lined with people fishing. Those must be really long lines, to reach all the way down to the water. I should have asked one of them how high the bridge is, because I couldn’t find the information any where. It is a bascule bridge, rolling up to let shipping pass below it, but only only traffic here seem to be the ferries, and they are low enough to pass. People with smaller lines were fishing on the waterfront below the bridge. The cheerful candles must have been special to Ramazan.

We stopped to look at a kiosk open for late customers. I love to look at the kind of things that would have stopped me in my tracks when I was a school boy, only now I don’t think of buying them. The silent school kid inside me must be screaming at this betrayal. The young salesman was very friendly and smiled for the camera.

The waterfront is a great place at this time: not too crowded, but there is activity enough to be interesting. Just the place to sit down for a chat. The Family stepped up to the safety wall to check for a place to sit. I was happy to take photos. We walked on.

There was a quiet little party happening on a boat. One person stepped off as we stood nearby. Another couple of friends joined them. It was very casual, quiet, just a small thing after a day’s work. The man fishing nearby was quite sure that the chatter and the lights would not keep the fish away, but I didn’t see him land a catch in the time we stood there.

The ferry terminal was closed, but this man in front of it had a lot of yet unsold mussels. I thought for a moment of trying out one. The Family does not like to risk it. If there had been a crowd around the man it would have reassured me enough to risk it. But with no local around, I was not sure whether fresh catch from the Halic is edible. Maybe it is; Erdogan came to power first as a mayor of Istanbul who promised a clean-up of the Golden Horn.

A cart nearby was selling boiled corn. I’m used to barbecued corn on the cob with lime, salt, and chili flakes. That’s a staple of Indian street food. The boiled variety does not tempt me. Also, I saw no chili flakes. The cart made a pretty picture, though. As pretty, in its way, as the picture of the chap frying fish on a boat. Earlier, we’d seen a bar right up on the terrace of a building looking out to the Halic and Bosphorus. It was time for a nightcap.

Chat on Mall Road

‘Stand still for ten minutes, and they’ll build a hotel on top of you,’ said one old-timer to me today, gesturing towards the concrete jungle that had sprung up along Mussoorie’s Mall, the traditional promenade’
– Ruskin Bond in Landour Days (2002)

The traditional promenade! How could we not walk it on our first evening in Mussoorie? The next day was full of a hundred things that we wanted to do. There was no rain predicted for the next three hours, so we started our late evening walk from Library Square. The steep drop on one side gave us a nice view of Dehradun at night: a twinkling galaxy below our feet.

The narrow Mall Road is crowded and full of cheap hotels, some truly awesome tourist junk, and lots of food carts. A lady sat waiting for customers at a cart with a poster which read “Mussoorie Chat Corner”. She was out of luck today. Her bun tikki, big drum of chutney, samosas, were not attracting many passersby. Her face in the photo tells of dashed hopes when The Family and I stopped only to take a photo. A neighbouring cart did much better business with roasted bhutta and fresh tikki chole.

Tibetan food spread right across the Himalayas years back, so it is impossible to walk along a place like this without encountering stalls full of steamers. This one promised veggie momos. The father and son manning the makeshift stall were dressed in dark blue, and would have made a lovely photo. As soon as I raised my phone, they skedaddled out of the frame. They didn’t want their photo taken. Superstition or legal issues? I apologized and the father accepted the apology with grace. The stall still looks good I think. I love how eclectic Indian street food is: potatoes, chili, and corn from the new world, samosas from Turkey, momos from Tibet, buns from Britain, all with local spices.

Food on Di Shi Fu Road

One of the differences between India and China that hits you after a few days is the lack of dessert with meals. The Chinese like to order fresh fruit with lunch or dinner. I’d noticed this first when a colleague took me to a restaurant famous for Peking duck, and ordered fruits with the duck. Nibbles of fresh fruit actually enhanced the enjoyment of the fatty meat of the duck. Perhaps because of this, Chinese meals do not usually come with a dessert.

The first time I walked down Di Shi Fu road in Guangzhou, I saw this long queue outside the building which holds Guangzhou restaurant. I looked more closely at the counter to see what was being served. It looked appetizing, and I’m always tempted to stand in long queues outside food stalls, because the queues would not form if the food was not special. But I’d just come out of the restaurant, and while my spirit was willing, my stomach vetoed the idea. There was so much food to explore in Guangzhou that I never came back to this place, unfortunately.

Sour plum soup counters seemed to be everywhere across China. I liked the fact that the people at these two neighbouring stalls were spending their slack hour chatting with each other. I took several photos because I liked the effect of the steam and the light, but the pair never noticed me. Now, looking at the series of photos, I realize that the main story was not the light, but the two people here.

One place I kept going back to on this road was the little cafe off to a side called Waterworks (although the Chinese character only says water). It is typical of the new China; a few people have dedicated their time to making good coffee and they are working really hard at it. I was happy to help out their business, and I succeeded in my small way, mainly because their hours were quite long.

Chhappan Dukan

When I was planning our weekend in Indore, the street food came highly recommended from many bloggers. The food shops in Sarafa Bazaar open late in the day. We walked through the area one evening when they were just setting up, and decided we would come back the next night. Things worked out otherwise. We had three wonderful sit-down dinners in Indore, and had to miss the night bustle of this bazaar.

We decided to drop into the famous 56 shops of Indore. In my imagination it was something between a covered market and a food court. Visually Chhappan Dukaan is disappointing. The shops line a wide street (featured photo). It was as clean as it is reputed to be; Indore deserves its tag of the cleanest city in India. One side of the street contains the stand up places, the other all the sit-down places. Three days of eating had not left us much appetite, but we decided to sample the best that we could.

One simple technique that we’ve honed over decades of traveling around the world is to watch where the locals go. They led us first to a shop where samosas and kachoris were being fried. The Family asked for advise. A young father with a child told us what to have if we wanted to eat only one thing. There was only one of that left. We split it; crisp, flaky covering with a wonderful spiced filling. Our advisor had disappeared before we could thank him. Next door was a sweet shop. My friend pointed out a sweet that could have been savoury by looks. The Family knew it by name: ghevar. The crisp covering held a filling of mildly sweetened mawa mixed with nuts. We walked along to the next knot of people. “Johny Hot Dog” was plating up a version of burgers. The Family asked for a veggy burger and my friend and I opted for a mutton burger each. Soft, lightly warmed bread with a good layer of butter covered a wonderful kheema patty.

We crossed the road and sat down in Bittu’s. That menu is something special all right; the specials are written in Hindi. Everything else is presumably not special, and can be in English. We ordered three of the special written in bold fonts: dahi vada. A lifetime ago this was just emerging from the south of India, and was a hit with my friends from school whenever they came home to eat my mother’s interpretation. Now it has spread beyond India. The version we had came in square melamine bowls with a liberal sprinkling of chili and jeera powder over a mildly sweet yogurt. The vadas had melted into the dahi. This was as much as we could eat.

My friend had one more stop to make. We crossed into a tiny shop selling namkeen. It stocks ramdana laddus made with jaggery instead of sugar. This was a novelty for us. The shop had only one packet of this left. So we split the packet for later tasting.

So here is a call back to my original guides: Selcouth Explorer, Taste Memory, Megha, and Follow the Eaten Path. Thanks for introducing me to a great experience.

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