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 only 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.

Everyday Bangkok

It is possible to generalize. There are distinct flavours of everyday life which announce "Europe" or "Asia". Off the main roads in an European city you will still find a slow neighbourhood life. People will greet each other in a leisurely way, and be curious about the tourist clicking photos, but be too polite to ask. It takes a couple of weeks before you are included into the life of the neighbourhood: at the corner cafe they know what you want, the baker has a smile for you, and the grocer exchanges a few words in some shared language.

I walked away from the tourist’s Bangkok into crowded little roads. These are exemplars of busy Asian street life, the anonymity of crowds but also friendliness to total strangers. These streets are the last bastion of the truly free market, for example, the lady at the corner in the photo above, selling clothes.
Life in the vertical, Bangkok The jumble of wires is a sign of a population far too busy to be weighed down by fear. There is a lot more of brisk walking, and substantially less window shopping. The weight of people is larger than what you find in Europe, as a result personal space is very small. Space always seems to be at a premium, except in centres of power like Tienanmen Square. Businesses are stacked above each other in vertical growth. I always like to look into a barber shop, with its deceptive air of leisure while business is actually being transacted as fast as possible. Bangkok’s barber shops are no exception.

Generalizations structure travel, but its pleasure comes from the particulars of the people you meet. My experience of Bangkok was made more pleasant by the sing-song greeting of the corner shop which sold us large plastic bottles of water, the waitress who pressed a glass of fresh orange juice for me when my tongue caught fire from the green curry she served, and the lady with her many shopping bags who guided us through a maze of streets to where we could get a tuktuk.

More Myanmarese food

In restaurants in India Khow Suey and various other exotica pass as representative Myanmarese food. The truth is that these are uncommon as the main meal even in Myanmar. Formal meal in MyanmarThis selective treatment in Indian restaurans is deliberate, because normal food and high cuisine in Myanmar is not so different from eastern Indian food. Without this selective focus it would be very hard for a restaurant in India to sell itself as exotic Burmese. In normal Burmese meals rice is a staple. Beans and vegetables are standard accompaniments, made relatively less spicy than their Indian versions, but otherwise very similar. Meat and fish appear on the plate, again cooked in ways that would pass without comment in India. Myanmar sees widespread use of salads; this is not traditional in India. The pickles are different, but then India has so many kinds of pickles, you would not notice that this is foreign. This is what you see on the plate in the photo here. You can also see that beer is a common aperitif. The papads and the remains of the peanuts which are served with it are not so different from the normal Indian practice. Sweets in a pack in Myanmar There is a wide choice of drinks available. Many of the sweets are also fairly similar to eastern Indian sweets: candied fruits, and coconut and rawa based sweets similar to the Bengali pitha. In the photo you see a local sweet which turned out to be not so different from an Indian chikki. These similarities are very apparent when you walk through a market.

Since a significant part of our visit to Myanmar was spent along the Irrawaddy river and other water bodies, we ate a lot of fresh water fish. There is a huge variety, just like India used to have before the rise of modern mono-pisciculture. Frying is common, but also many of the preparations steam fish with various ground herbs. Thin curries similar to eastern Indian ways of preparing fish are also widespread. I kept seeing the batter fried prawns which you see in the featured photo all along the Irrawaddy river.

Unripe fruits with masala in Myanmar Proabably sweets in Scott Market in Yangon Boiled eggs outside the Ananda temple in Bagan

I’ve written earlier about my first impressions of the street food of Myanmar. The striking similarities with India became more apparent as days went by. There is a lot of raw fruit available. Like in India, unripe fruits like mangos and guavas are eaten with salt and spices. You see a vendor in the photo on the left in the panel above. Street vendors sell a variety of sweets as you can see in the middle panel. A lot of this was completely unfamiliar to me. They range from fried pockets to baked and steamed things with the consistency of custard. The photo on the right shows boiled eggs. In most parts of India now the only eggs you see are chicken eggs from battery farms, although I remember much more variety from my childhood. As you can see in the photo above, this variety is still visible in Myanmar: there are boiled duck’s eggs in the lot. The lady also sells Burma cheroots! The flask she is drinking from had green tea.

Monbao being prepared in Pyin Oo Lwin in Myanmar

A particularly Burmese snack was the monbao you see being made in the photo above. The batter which the girl is ladling into a little container is sweetened rice flour. This is then covered with an earthenware pot and baked on the stove in front of her. This stall was extremely popular. Although I wanted to taste this new food, the queue ahead of me was too long. I had the impression that the word monbao is used for a range of tea time sweets.

Marinated and pounded mushrooms in Scott Market in Yangon

The pounded mushrooms which you see in the photo above were also new to me. The lady was selling a single variety of mushrooms: the white ones in the bowl near her left hand. She would pound each into the flat brown sheets she has stacked up in front of her. You sprinkle some of the chutney and chopped onions on them and they are ready to eat.

It was interesting that some kinds of Indian food are strong favourites in Myanmar. Many people recommended their favourite place for "palatha" (paratha) and "puti" (puri). I gathered from this that these fried bready stuff do not exist in the local kitchen, but have become hot favourites. The image of Indian food this gives to the locals is less distorted than the Indian image of Khow Suey as standard Burmese food. During my couple of days in the Shan state I asked for Khow Suey once and only got fried noodles with pork. I found that khaw swe is just the Burmese word for noodles.

Guavas with masala at Manuha temple in Bagan

I saw this scooter parked outside the Manuha temple in Bagan. The sliced guavas hanging from the basket at the back, and the plastic bag full of spices reminded me of my childhood when I would spend my little money on buying treats exactly like this.

Walking through Yangon

Walking through an unknown city is always a great way to spend time. How else could I know that in Yangon even street-side eateries give you a pot full of tea with your lunch? How else would I begin to suspect that townies hid their faces when a foreign journalist took their photos; a reflex that persists even after democracy is back?

Jumble of building styles in YangonOutside the Colonial centre of Yangon every street is a jumble of architectural styles. Sagging buildings from the first half of last century share a frontage with modern buildings: some are high-rises, others are pre-fab commercial units faced in glass and metal painted concrete. Some of the architecture dates from a few decades ago. We saw these two high-rises next to each other. Decaying high rise in YangonOne was modern, the other was probably thirty to forty years old, and already ripe for demolition. This gave me one answer to my question about why Yangon was such a small city. Most cities in Asia are huge sprawls. In comparison, Yangon is like a town from the 1960s with the traffic of problems of the 1980s. The answer that this building gives to the question is that construction was costly and shoddy during the lifetime of two generations. Yangon never grew, and now it will probably do this at thrice the rate that the rest of Asia manages. How would it cope? To see that I took a walk through the Colonial centre of the city.

The town hall of Yangon

By all accounts the centre of the city is Sule square. Strange that the invading British would plan the centre of Yangon around one of the most revered temples in Myanmar, but that is one of the contradictions of Imperial Britain in India and Burma. Right next to the pagoda is the imposing town hall (photo above). The restoration of this building and the ones next to it are done with loving care. Book store in central YangonThis lovely bookstore reminded me of Kolkata. Outside of Kolkata, Mumbai and Yangon I would be hard put to name a town where there is an almost untouched colonial era district. I say almost, because the building just behind this is modern. It is interesting that the central district still has a large bookstore: banks have not yet taken over. Post office in central Yangon Two blocks down, there was a massive colonial-era building which served as a post-office. It had not yet been restored, but seemed to be in good repair. The colour scheme was no different that what you might see on a similar building in Kolkata.

Used book store on the streets of central YangonThe streets were full of informal commerce, vendors selling food, toys, socks, sun glasses. The sight of a row of pavement stalls selling used books reminded me of Mumbai in the 1980s, when I, and probably a million other people, would buy books mainly from such vendors. That past is now as foreign as Yangon.

Merit vendor in YangonIn direct contrast to such familiar sights was a vendor who brushed past me on the road, carrying cages full of birds on his shoulder. I followed him for a few paces. They were not birds which you might want to eat. Nor did it seem likely that several Burmese every day would impulsively buy a couple of birds as pets. It turned out later that this was a wonderfully cultural con. A devout Buddhist would gain merit by buying a few birds and releasing them. The birds are quite tame, so after release it would be easy for this man to catch them again for merit recycling. I guess the net result is that the vendor gains money and loses merit: something he is willing to risk.

A grand but dilapidated building in central YangonRestoration work had not yet covered all of Yangon. As we approached Strand Road, and the river front, we passed this magnificent but dilapidated building. Some enquiries led to the story that it belonged to a famous Jewish merchant from India before independence. It was sold to a local businessman, and was later bought over by a general. The Baghdadi Jews of Mumbai were great merchants in the late nineteenth century, and left their architectural stamp on downtown Mumbai as well as the Bund in Shanghai. None of the names I mentioned made any sense to the people I talked to. I’m sure the urban history of Yangon is documented well enough that one can trace the history of this building.

District court on Strand Road in YangonRight on Strand Road was this vast and crumbling building. The locked doors and the man sitting on the steps smoking reminded me of Kolkata in its worst decades. This was apparently the District Court, locked up for the weekend. I asked why a district court is crumbling away when a post office can be in good repair. There was no real answer to that. Myanmar lost decades, and it is beginning to catch up. If this district is restored and put to use, it may become a major cultural heritage: the only place on earth where the architectural style of the Raj remains untouched.

Little canteen in downtown YangonYou can probably tell by the shadows in my photos that it was now well into the lunch hour. The street food scene was buzzing. I discovered a little canteen which seemed to be full. It looked clean, and the inside was full of purposeful bustle: waiters and waitresses went back and forth, and there was a low rumble of conversation between diners. I didn’t go in, but one of the waiters noticed me and posed for the photo you see here. The place looked like a typical inexpensive eatery from my days as a student in Mumbai. Bakery in downtown YangonJust a little before I’d come to this, I saw a van come to a stop outside a building and two young women get down to unload trays and carry them in. I got a look at one of the trays as it was carried in. It was full of bread. I followed them in, and it turned out to be a cafe. It was busy with customers and uniformed waitresses. I was tempted to sit down there for a quick lunch. But the previous day I’d had lunch at a similar place, and I was planning to try out a Burmese-Chinese place in an hour. I clicked a few photos and said a reluctant goodbye to the cafe.

This had been a successful walk. I saw a slice of Yangon which emphasized the common recent history of the countries along the Bay of Bengal, and found out a little about everyday life in the city.

Chandni Chowk

Sunehri masjid is linked to Nadir Shah's sack of Delhi

Chandni Chowk was the centre of Delhi after Shah Jahan moved his capital to the walled city in 1639, and before Imperial Britain built a new capital a few miles to the west in the early 20th century. This is the area west of the Lahori gate of the red fort and north of the Jama Masjid. A walking tour of Chandni Chowk naturally starts from the Sunehri Masjid: a beautifully proportioned mosque with golden domes in old paintings, now fallen on hard times. If the story of Nadir Shah standing next to the domes on the roof of the mosque to survey the massacre which he had commanded is true, then at one time it would have dominated the area. Now, as I emerged from the exit lane of the Chandi Chowk metro and looked at the mosque this was no longer the case. Mughal architecture blended use with aesthetics; when the mosque was built the space was surely sufficient for the devout. That aesthetics is completely lost in the extensions made to the mosque in order to cater to the increased population.

Sisganj gurudwara is a major landmark

More striking today is the Sis Ganj gurudwara which stands next to it. It must have been a special day; the gurudwara was decorated with balloons and buntings. I realized that a large part of the crowd in the Metro was headed here when a young mother of two finely dressed children asked me which exit led to the gurudwara. I’d just read the directions, so I was able to tell her to take exit 5, as I did. A gurudwara was first built here in 1783 CE, in memory of the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, who was beheaded here on the orders of Aurangzeb. The present structure was built in 1930. I discovered the news, known to all Delhiwalas, that the gurudwara has become a bit controversial recently by building unauthorised extensions.

Street scene: sardarji and rickshaw

Traffic barely moves in this crowded road, there’s such a muddle of bicycles, cars, rickshaws, carts, three-wheelers and pedestrians. Notions of lanes and priority perhaps never arose in the days when this area was less densely populated, and were never internalised later. The chaos gave me ample opportunity to do surreptitious people watching. I liked this forbidding old Sikh gentleman in white striding down the road, ignoring the traffic. Even the young rickshaw-wala in the photo seems to be a little wary of him.

Kinari bazaar: bling market

Instead of walking on to the Red Fort, I turned right on Dariba Kalan. It is not hard to find: the lane runs between a lovely but crumbling red building with a post-office, and the area’s most famous jalebiwala. I’ve already written about this little eatery. I walked through this narrow lane and turned into the longest bling market in Delhi: the Kinari bazaar. Tourist agencies try to push this as a market destination. In fact, only a movie or wedding set decorator would shop here. It is interesting to walk through this crowded bazaar just looking at people and their lives. I’d chosen a time when the sky was beginning to get dark, and the lights in the shops were coming on. Crowds were at their lowest; it was getting close to the time for an evening snack.

Kachoriwala corner

Every few steps there was a little shop selling kachoris and samosas. Judging by the crowds, it doesn’t look like any shop is particularly better than another. Each seems to have a few regular customers and a few walk-ins. The shops don’t seem to innovate either: they concentrate on getting the kachoris just so, for their loyal followers. There are probably neighbourhood rivalries about which shop has better food. As far as I could tell, it would need a lifetime of training your palate to tell the difference between them. This is a world so far removed from that of malls and food courts, that it is a wonder that the two exist in the same city at the same time.

Door in a haveli off Kinari bazaar Beautiful arches in a dilapidated building

If you are a student of architecture, then there are gems hidden away inside these narrow and smelly lanes. I peered past a gate which led off to a side lane and discovered a beautiful building with a blue door (photo above). Elsewhere a grand building with lovely arched verandas (above) was partitioned into tiny apartments. Stylistic differences which are visible even to an untrained eyes like mine would probably enable a knowledgeable person to peel away the centuries and imagine the area as it evolved over time. If someone offers a walk through this area to show such visions, I will queue up to take it. In its absence I go back every decade, after a little more reading.

An evening in Shillong

soink

Meghalaya is famous for nature: the rainiest valleys in the world, numerous waterfalls, large tracts of forests. They are the reason that tourists go to this state. But the capital, Shillong, is also an interesting place, especially after sundown. For one, it has a sense of humour. The shop in the photo above made us all crack a smile. The strange juxtaposition of a tailor’s shop with one selling smoked hams is something that you should be prepared for in this town.

ssong

Music is a constant in the north-eastern states. Cafes and restaurants often have live music, and quite a few of the singers are talented. This duo here played classic acoustic rock extremely well. They seem to have a regular gig on at the Shillong Cafe. I wonder how long they will do this before they move on to some thing else. It’s a happy thing that in other parts of the country little places are slowly beginning to support live performances; but still too few for a country of over a billion. Take a close look at the photos behind the musicians. Football is the other great passion in this area. The combination of football and music recurs at the other end of the country, in Goa.

smomo

Momos are a staple roadside meal, not just in Shillong but all over the north-east and the eastern Himalayas. The bland steamed momos are served with a slap of terrifically spicy chili sauce on the side. I can’t deal with the chilis, but a few of these momos can keep me going between lunch and dinner. Shillong had something about motorbike helmets. People would do all kinds of things while wearing them. I even saw someone parking a car with a bike helmet on.

smarket

A night market is a must so far to the east. The uniform time across the country means that it is already dark by 5 in the evening, while many people are just about to leave from work. Night markets have great atmosphere: while it is dark and rainy outside, the inside is warm and bustling. There’s a variety of vegetables and fruits on display, sacks bulge with fish, and there are the tiny red killer chilis on every counter.

The town winds down by about 9 PM. After that there are only a couple of late night restaurants open. The traffic comes to a halt, and the city slowly darkens as shops turn off their lights. A couple of hours later the roads are empty except for a occassional bike, or a car full of late night partiers. In spite of appearances, late nights can be busy in Shillong.