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.

Street food heaven

The new moon was sighted last night, so today is the Id that ends the month of Ramazan. I thought this might be a good time to bring out this year’s collection of photos which show the food available at nights during the month of religious remembrance in Islam. As always, click on any of the photos to start on the slide show. For the practicing Muslim, Ramazan is a month of daytime fasts; food is allowed only between sunset and sunrise. The food streets around Muhammad Ali Road in Mumbai are brightly lit and dense with people during this time.

I missed most of the month due to travel, but made sure that in the last week I tried out my favourite places. The food street is surrounded by shops selling shoes, clothes, jewelery and perfume: all of which are de rigeur for the Id lunch. Id-ul-fitr, as you might guess, is a major festival with a daytime feast being a focus. Id mubarak to all.

Breakfast in Barjuri

One of the pleasures of traveling in India is to stop at a roadside dhaba in a little village and sample their food. Not only do you get a feel of local food habits, you also get to meet people. Early in the morning, on our way to one of the further ranges in the forests of Kaziranga, we stopped at a tiny village. The sky was light, although the newly risen sun was hidden behind thick clouds. I was surprised to see this young boy awake and already on his full-sized bike. I think he was delivering newspapers, but he wouldn’t reply to my questions. I tried three languages, so I think he was just not in the mood.

Across the road one shop had opened up, and the owner was cleaning out the dry leaves which had collected overnight in the area in front of the shop. I was very amused by the long bamboo which one man was carrying on his shoulder. It was probably a reasonable load, but the skill involved in moving this around was considerable. I saw the long bamboo bob up and down quite a bit. Bamboo is a common building material here, and the other people around ignored this sight.

The dhaba was already doing good business. The highway was already busy, so I wasn’t too surprised by that. The signboard told me the name of the village: Barjuri. The well-dressed couple sitting at the table in the middle had driven up in a car, and were busy with a paratha and bhaji. It looked good.

I sidled around to take a photo of the cook. He was having a conversation with one of the customers. When he realized that I was trying to take a photo he became silent and concentrated on cooking. I guess this is an image thing. No matter; I can vouch for the fact that he is a very competent cook. The traditional earthen chulha fired with coal can produce great results if the cook is good, but the amount of smoke it produces is not inconsiderable. I always wonder whether there is some better and cheap alternative. So close to Dibrugarh and its refinery, I’d expected more use of cooking gas. I’d forgotten about the entrenched problems of governance in this state.

As I waited for my food I walked over to the tiny brick room next to Gopal’s. This turned out to be Barjuri post office. It would probably open at 10, four hours later. I haven’t been inside a post office for years, and I wished I had been here when it was open. The locked door was just two planks of wood reinforced by cross pieces. I’d grown up in houses with doors like this. I hadn’t seen a post box for some time too. The ones in cities have been removed or are hidden behind new construction. It didn’t look like this post box was in use either.

It was clear why. The slit below the window is the modern post box. I guess when the post office opens the window becomes a service counter. “It can’t be such a small village,” The Family said, “if it has a post office.” That sounded correct. There must have been more of the village off the highway. There was a substantial market next to the post office: a long row of shops, all closed for now. Gopal had got our breakfast by now. We had our chai, ate the pakoras, and drove off.

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.

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.

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.