High points are high points. At least on our hike the biggest experiences were all clustered together. The actual highest altitude, the fantastic view of four of the world’s highest peaks, and the lunch. I’ve already written about the kitchen where we broke for lunch. It looked a little like colonial-era photos come to life. In order to clean the scene of the unsavoury history that encrust those monochrome images, here I show the photos in colour. You can see that the old photos missed out on the cheerful colours that hill people surround themselves with.
While approaching the village I’d heard the tinkling sound of a mountain spring filling a large tank which had been placed under the runoff. The water is used to grow vegetables. I could see the freshness of the produce just from the colours of the vegetables in the pantry (you can compare the photo above to an earlier monochrome version).
Soon enough a simple but tasty meal appeared on the table in front of us. There was a mound of rice in each plate to go with this. For lunch I would have normally eaten only a quarter of it, so I put three quarters aside into a spare plate. The Family also put aside a large part of the rice. Good as the dal and rice tasted, it was just a background to the vegetables here. On the plains you would see diced vegetables in curries. The batonnets that these were cut into foregrounded the freshness of the vegetables. But then I reached for the rice I’d put away. I couldn’t have enough of the veggies, and the curry base needed the rice. Our guide, Kunzum, was delighted. “You’ll need the energy,” he said.
At breakfast in the border town of Manebhanjan, we’d had the option of having these preserved chilis with our fresh-made parathas. I’d passed it up. These cherry chilis, dalle, grow in the Darjeeling hills, and are widely used in kitchens here. During lunch a jar of home-made pickle of radish and dalle was an option. Here, in the coolness at 3 Kms above sea level, my tongue seemed to react differently to chilis. The Family looked at me goggle-eyed as I liberally dosed my rice and dal with the the pickle. She’d never seen me enjoy chilis.
One thing I miss on such walks is frequent doses of tea. We’d had tea a little after eight in the morning and our next hot cup would come only at the end of the trek, at five in the evening, when we reached a cozy tea house in Chitre. It called itself Eagle’s Nest, and seemed to be a place where people came from nearby hamlets to socialize. We sat in a corner table and watched the place fill up with lots of people who knew each other. The trek ended as we walked to our pickup car parked by the road. The road is the border between India and Nepal. All day we’d weaved between the two countries. Now, as I looked at the time on my phone, I realized that it was fifteen minutes out of sync with Kunzum’s watch. “What a bother,” I told The Family, “That means we’ve been on international roaming through the day. I have a long dispute with the phone company coming up.”
Monsoon in the Sahyadris is an interesting experience. It helps that it’s a quick trip: planned in a week, over in a night or two. You can wedge it into any part of a week that’s relatively free. On our way back from the ghats, we saw locals at stalls by the highway selling vegetables and fruits. They have a freshness that you seldom see at the far end of cold chains that reach us. So we bought veggies in quantities large enough to distribute to family and friends: a perfect omiyage from a trip to walk between rice paddies looking for wildflowers. I’m a little lost about what we bought: there’s a lauki (bottle gourd) visible in the upper right corner of my photo. Then, going diagonally down to the lower left corner, we see in succession a bunch of torai (ridge gourd), then a smoother skinned cousin which, I’m told is also called torai, followed by the warty karela (bitter melon), and the common as mud kheera (cucumber). There’s also a leaf there which I must have eaten, but cannot identify.
I’ve given you the names of these vegetables in Hindi, but as a bilingual family living in a state where most people speak a third language, we use a khichree of words for produce. The word kheera, for example, is replaced by kakri, which is Marathi for cucumber (oh yes, we do use English for some of the produce), mainly because that’s the word you need to use when you shop here. It has stopped occurring to me that kakri meant something completely different in the part of the country where I grew up. If you know these veggies, what do you call them?
We’ve been meaning to go to a farmers’ market nearby for a while. It runs on Saturday mornings, and, even with the best of intentions, we would remember it only in the middle of the week. Then, during the pandemic lockdowns, various farmers’ cooperatives came online. This is the ultimate in convenience. You look through their list of currently available produce and order what you want. Fresh produce from farms gets delivered at your doorstep. We’ve been very happy with that, but still, it is not the same as browsing through a market. Last Saturday The Famiy announced at breakfast that she was planning to go. I decided to pick up a coffee and a couple of bottles of wine before joining her.
Winter is a good time for fruits. Strawberries are in season, as are figs and grapes. Also, pomegranate, oranges, apples. Not the most exciting of fruits, but a good selection. The Family was caught at this section. I took a photo (amazing how racist that AI in my camera is; it can enhance the colour of produce automatically, but refuses to work on non-white human skin tones) and walked on to the veggies. Staples largely, but nice and fresh. I remembered a lesson from chef Zacharias: engage all your senses. I bit into a bean and got a jolt of flavour. Further on there was a stall of cheeses. Straightforward cooking cheeses, but well made. I could age them myself. We’ll try to make this a part of our routine.
Normally we buy vegetables in small quantities, and use them up in a day or so. But now, in order to keep control over our exposure to large crowds, shopping is less frequent. Some time back we wanted to guard against COVID-19 by disinfecting all produce. Eating soap is not a great idea, so we were certainly not going to washing food in soap. The Family skimmed her expertise and recalled that bacteria and viruses are killed by a solution of salt in water. So now we dunk all produce for about fifteen minutes in salty water. The water can be reused, and salt does not need to be washed off, so this is also a water conserving way of cleaning produce.
On some days our house is full of vegetables being cleaned and dried, chopped and sorted. Since the salt water bath removes bacteria and viruses, we now find that the veggies stay fresh and usable much longer. Bananas and plantain, tindli and tomatoes, everything stays fresh and colourful for several days. Tindli? Does ivy gourd sound more familiar? I didn’t think so. It is after all a rather local vegetable (featured photo), so best to call it by its local name.
We used to be in a desperate rush to use up mushrooms before they rot. Now mushrooms stay fresh longer too. Perhaps the salt water treatment also kills the fungi which sometimes grow on these mushrooms. I know that some people use baking soda and potassium parmanganate, but that would also require more water for post-treatment washing. We wanted the lowest water-use possible, and I think the salt solution works well for that. The Family consulted her old colleagues about this treatment, and found a good consensus of opinion for it.
There are no desperate attempts to refrigerate fresh produce to keep it from spoiling any longer. Everything can now be kept in trays and bowls in sun and air. Also, now that we can keep the veggies for longer, we can wait for good combinations to develop. For example, plantains are not very common at our neighbourhood vendor’s, but when we get it, we already have the other veggies that we know will go well with it. The result has been an explosion of new recipes at home. Lunch is quite a journey of discovery these days.
I had dinner in a small town in Odisha. The restaurant was very full when we walked in, but emptied out before we finished. One of my colleagues had to catch a train later. So we took a short walk through the town. It was about nine, and most shops were shutting down. The wide street was lit by dim lights placed along the divider. This meant that most of the illumination came from shops, and once they started closing, the street began to get much darker. It was enchanting in its own way. We saw a line of bright yellow doors separated by blue walls; little kiosks which had closed.
Further along the row one kiosk was open for business. The vegetables on display were extremely fresh. A long cold chain is not needed to bring these to the town. The chopping boards are big and solid pieces of wood; seemingly cross sections of the trunk of a small tree. Banana flowers and jackfruit are two of the things that I would not normally find in a shop in Mumbai. There were also some long beans which I’d not seen before.
Next to the fresh vegetable stall was this tiny “supermarket”. Any grocery store with open access to the merchandise now calls itself a supermarket no matter how small it is. This was an interesting contrast to the vegetables. While that only stocked food which was fresh and had to be cooked, this had nothing which was fresh. Everything came inside a plastic package and was ready to eat. This was also much costlier per helping than fresh food, but the very price makes them an aspirational thing in these small towns.
Nearby a roadside eatery had served its last customers and was busy shutting down. The helper was carting the last chairs from the pavement into the shop. The counter was definitely closed. As I took this photo, I heard the sound of running water from the kitchen. I suppose the cookware and plates were being cleaned. There was much animated consersation between the cook and the helper, as I quietly took this photo and moved off.
I don’t know what this interesting looking stall was for. The man you see in the photo looked at us curiously as I took the photo. He spoke only Odiya, and none of us counted that as a language we could express ourselves in. My best guess is that this stall serves ready-made food of some kind. Perhaps things that supplement the food made in the home kitchen, but maybe largely aimed at labourers and other immigrants who have been drawn to this region by the large amount of construction under way. If this were so I think the stall would also have some of the wonderful local sweets.
This was the second of the odd juxtapositions. Right next to that temporary stall was this more permanent structure with ice cream and cakes. Even as the town wound up for the night there were customers here. A savvy sweet shop does not miss a trick. There was also a counter with the local Odiya sweets; that’s what the lady in the sari is looking at. The cold drinks and the toffees in bottles in the front counter would have attracted children a couple of hours before I took the photo. I liked the expectant look of this shop.
This junction of two major local roads was more typical of the time in this town. Once the lights went off, the town was generally dark. A couple of open shops provide the only light in the place. Everyone hasn’t gone to sleep yet. Parked motorbikes show that there are some people who still come to the shops at this hour. After all a major railway station is less than ten minutes away. We went there to drop my colleague, and that place was brightly lit and bustling with traffic.