Tuesday 13 March 2007

My favourite animal

From another Traveller story, don't remember when

The June rains mean that fishing boats spend the next three months decorating deserted beaches as swimmers and boatmen alike avoid angry monsoon currents. Go to Goa in the monsoon and all you’ll get by way of fish is pickled prawn balchao and dried Bombay duck. But being here in the monsoon makes you privy to lesser-known gems of Goan kitchens. Such as khatkhate, a vegetarian medley of papaya, cucumber, potato and pumpkin with a sprinkling of dry prawns for flavour. Alsande, a rich curry of black-eyed peas or chowli, cooked with tender jackfruit seeds. Ripe jackfruit is cooked with pineapple to make the vegetarian curry ananas-fanas, and these same jackfruit seeds are thrown in a pork curry too. But the best dish of the lean months is the nondescript souraca, a flavourful thick gravy made simply by boiling coconut milk, garlic, chillies, onions, tamarind and a few spices, that goes perfectly with the plump-grained, aromatic red rice favoured by the Konkan. Souraca tastes not much different from Goa's legendary fish curry, and its subtle flavour goes some way towards alleviating the pain of the missing fish.

On these monsoon nights, when the rain beats relentlessly against the ghats and bangs down on tiled Goan roofs, the aroma of steaming curries wafts into the air. For, pigs are never safe in Goa, even in the monsoon. Their bellies, along with Goan toddy vinegar combined with garlic and a touch of palm jaggery go into vindaloos and roast pork assado; their liver, fat, meat, even their blood, into sorpotel; their tripe into the rich stew called tripas and their bones into aad maas. A lot of what’s left and plenty of fat are rubbed with masala, stuffed into pig’s guts and hung out in the sun to dry. Walk through a Goan village and you know in whose house the aromatic Goa sausage is being served. Made to sweat over a slow fire, the fat in the sausage slowly releases its oil. Throw in some whole potatoes and onions and they cook in the same fat, absorbing the flavours of the masala, to create what's by far the best monsoon antidote of all. What a wonderfully economical and versatile animal is the pig.

Friday 9 March 2007

Living in Jangpura

Untrimmed version of story to be published in the Outlook City Limits March issue, out this Monday

Last year in August I moved to Jangpura Extension. So many people I know, like the editor of this magazine, love Jangpura Extension. I wanted to love it too. So what if the legendary Om Hotel serves awful oily glop. And so what if the equally legendary ham sandwich of Novelty Stores is of a type that only those with very low standards would call the best in Delhi. The pudina chutney they serve with it is God-like. Its numerous parks are full of gorgeous stray dogs and huge cats, all lovingly fed by residents. Its chaotic market in Bhogal is one of the few places outside Khan Market where you can find the right ingredients for Christmas cake in season, at non-Khan Market prices. Jangpura is 10 minutes from everywhere, yet has the most reasonable rents in south-central Delhi. And the neighbouring Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin stays wide awake well past midnight. Pretty soon I too became one of the tribe that asked why more people don’t live in Jangpura.

Then I found out that people have indeed discovered Jangpura. Many of these are the broker’s beloved — the foreigner — and rents have gone through the roof. The lease on my house was expiring and I’ve been trying to find another house here for a month. There are none available for someone like me, with a budget like mine. I knew rentals had risen, but by how much? I was paying Rs 18,000 for a three-bedroom. After speaking to six brokers, Rs 22,000 is the first offer for a three-bedroom house that’s grabbed before I even get a chance to see it. Fine, I’ll stop drinking, and revise my budget to Rs 25,000. Brokers sound doubtful. Fine, I’ll quite smoking and go up to 28. Still not enough. Ok, I’ll pay 30 and get a night job. With my much fattened budget, I felt confident that I would soon be choosing between a variety of nice houses in the colony I love.

We first got to look at three monstrosities, but at least we discovered Jangpura’s Telegraph Office in A Block, all but forgotten in this SMS-age. We loved the board with its suggested greetings: ‘Heartiest wishes on the anniversary of the Republic’. ‘Congratulations on passing board exam’. ‘Greetings on the occasion of Bihu’. We promptly sent off two telegrams that caused panic to the receivers, who thought someone somewhere had died. We determined to look till the end but not leave this lovely colony.

Then I got a promising call. The house in O Block was gorgeous. ‘Are you a Christian’, the lady asked, seeing my card. Yes, I said, you could say that. ‘Ek to aap aurat hai aur woh bhi Christian. You must be eating a lot of meat.’ This I was not prepared for. Misogyny and homophobia I know how to handle. No matter how ridiculous it feels as a lesbian to hear landlords concerns that you are unmarried single women, and all kinds of men will come visiting at all kinds of hours, that I am prepared for. Yes, I said, I eat all kinds of meat. ‘How often do you eat it?’ ‘As often as I can’. The broker is making goo-goo eyes at me. I think he wants me to stop speaking. I tell the broker despite their rudeness I will take their house anyway. They tell him out on three counts – woman, Christian, journalist. The broker implores me to tell landlords I am vegetarian. ‘Bolne mein kya hai, paisa to nahi lagta na’.

The next house I see is a bargain. A 3-bedroom duplex right opposite where I live. I can just throw my bed over the balcony and across the street to move. I speak to the owner. He asks what I do. I tell him I am a journalist with the Outlook group. He asks if this is an Indian company. Obviously, I say, this is India. No thanks, he says, only MNCs will do.

A week goes by. Finally I hear of a place in D Block. I set off to see it but halfway there the broker calls to say it is owned by a vegetarian family, and they say no point in even bringing a Christian to see their flat. There was just something about the way it was said, which made me feel like a pollutant. I wanted to give someone a very tight slap.

Another two weeks pass and finally the phone rings. Again I set off to see a house. Again I’m stopped on my way there: No, because I am a journalist. What on earth could be the issue with journalists? Apparently, we ‘make trouble’ for landlords.

I finally spoke to no less than 17 brokers, all of whom have bhajans as ringtones. Brokers in Jangpura seem to largely worship Mata Vaishno Devi. Having trawled through the lot in this colony populated by scared people, scared of every kind of Other, I think I finally know the profile so if this fits you, Jangpura is the place for you: A) Non-Indian, yaani ki white. B) If Indian (kya kare), family man with only male issues, non-smoking, non-drinking, vegetarian devotee of Mata Vaishno Devi, working for non-media industry blue-chip MNC company in Fortune 500 list.

As for me, I gave up. But despite the torment of the past month, I still love Jangpura. You see, I am Christian. I prevailed on my landlady to extend my lease. Bless her heart, she will. All my scared neighbours should note, the meat-eating, trouble-making freak remains in your midst. Keep your doors locked!

Wednesday 7 March 2007

Kochi-Ernakulam Restaurant Reviews

IN FORT KOCHI

Malabar House
1/268, 1/269 Parade Road, Fort Kochi Tel 2216666; malabarhouse.com; 7-10am, 12.30-2.30pm, 7-10.30pm
Euro-Mallu fusion seafood is the speciality at this restaurant which offers seasonal menus. Their current winter menu, on through December, offers Kerala seafood thalis at lunch time (Rs 350), gingery red snapper with crab masala (240), seer fish, rice fish and tiger prawns skewers in Travancore gravy (Rs 550). They also do lamb in a spicy curry of pepper and curry leaves, garam masala and shallots (Rs 320). The best choice on the menu is the fabulous, famous Malabar House seafood platter (Rs 980). There’s a good selection of Continental seafood, such as fish fingers in beer tempura (Rs 200), grilled tiger prawns with pineapple tagliatelle (Rs 250), lots of pasta, aubergine parmigiana (Rs 250), crespelle, duck in orange sauce (Rs 350), roast pork with cream of apple and prunes (Rs 350). Leave room for their excellent desserts — they have a brilliant caramelised pineapple crumble with crushed green and black peppercorns (Rs 130) that is very sweet, sends small shocks to your tongue every time you bite into a fleck of pepper, and leaves an amazing aftertaste.

The Teapot
Peter Celli Street, Fort Kochi, Tel 2218035, tpleaz@hotmail.com; 8am-9pm
This café has plenty of character, with hundreds of ageing kettles as decoration, tea chests for tables and impressive Vasco da Gama ashtrays. Soak in the quiet of the streets outside as you sip your peppermint-flavoured nilgiri’s brew. Come here for an excellent planter’s breakfast, chicken and cheese omelettes (Rs 80), pancakes with honey (Rs 40). They have a massive variety of tea and fresh juice. They also have Kerala appams with stew, meen moilee, fish roast, prawn korma, and fish cooked in a coconut chutney. Come at tea time for death by chocolate (Rs 50), or a slice of orange cake (Rs 40).

Kashi Art Café
Burgher Street, Fort Kochi, Tel 2215769; kashiartcafe.com; 7-10pm
Set in yet another old Portuguese villa in the lane parallel to Princess Street, the café is an oasis of quiet with an art gallery in front. It is hard to pay attention to the photographs on display because of the aroma of cakes baking within. Follow your nose into an inner courtyard, with balcaos running all the way round, and a few tables on the side, at which you may sit and have baked potato chips with a luridly yellow but delicious carrot soup. The café has a freshly set menu everyday, depending on what the cook buys in the early morning. They also have a huge menu of tea of coffee, plus drinks like a lemonade refresher sweetened with ayurvedic herbs.

Solar Café
Customs Jetty, Fort Kochi, Tel: 3096812; 9am-6.30pm
A two-min walk north along Calvethy (River) Road from the Vypeen ferry terminal brings you to a host of tiny eateries, such as the Anantha Bhawan for tiffin, and the Cochin Restaurant for porottas, appams and stew. Prime among these is Solar Café, a good choice for either breakfast or tea, with organic tea and bread, soup, salad, filter coffee and espresso. It also holds the Draavida Art Gallery above it, where there are daily live mridangam, tabla, ghatam and flute concerts during the high season from November to March.

IN MATTANCHERRY
It takes over an hour to walk the length of Calvethy (River Road) from Fort Kochi to the Dutch Palace at the heart of Mattancherry. On your way you will pass churches more than four centuries old, godowns piled with spices, carts piled with tiny yellow bananas, boutiques selling flower essences and oils, ornate modern mosques, housewives selling homemade pickle from tiny stalls, and little petti kadas serving porottas with curry. All along the way, as Calvethy Road becomes Bazaar Road when it enters Mattancherry, you will glimpse the Vembanad kayal between the ruins of abandoned houses. Once you are done with viewing the Dutch Palace, the Pardesi Synagogue and the dozens of shops selling spices and souvenirs along Jew Street next door, hail and auto and say just one word ‘Kayee’s’. Pay no more than Rs 15, and that too because you are a tourist.

Rahmathulla Hotel
420 New Road, Mattancherry, Tel 2226080, 2354321, 5584321; 11.30am-10pm; Also at Kayee’s Hotel, Durbar Hall Road, Ernakulam
The fame of the aromatic Kayee’s mutton biryanis with date chutney served at this Mattancherry institution has traveled well beyond Kerala, as evidenced by the scores of magazine and newspaper articles framed and ecorating the walls. I see that Outlook Traveller too has been here before, and added several of its own superlatives. So let me only add here that I was most impressed by the drawings that MF Hussain, who spent many many afternoons here, made and contributed to Kayees, and much much more than that by the famous dish (Rs 32) and the spicy curry of soft cooked mutton (Rs 16) with pathiri (Rs 1.50). Kayee’s is also loved for its special Kochi fish (Rs 35, only on Fridays) and prawn (Rs 38, only on Tuesdays) biryanis.

Sri Krishna Café
Palace Road, Mattancherry, Tel 2224610; 8am-2.30pm, 5-9.30pm
This tiny eatery near Gujarati Street has the cheapest tiffin in town. Serving honest potato bondas (Rs 3.50), curd vadas (Rs 6.50), uppuma (Rs 5), idlis (Rs 2.50) and a range of crisp dosas.

IN ERNAKULAM
Pai Brother’s Fast Food
Pai Brother’s Lane, Ernakulam, Kochi Tel 2374879
So famous are these brothers for the 36 dosa varieties they serve that they have the honour of a street named for them, which just proves Kochi has its priorities right. While you tuck into a crisp poddy onion bullseye (Rs 35) or duck egg masala (Rs 30), study the extensive dosa menu carefully from the thattil kutty dosa (Rs 12) at the very beginning to the Rajeshwary masala (Rs 30) at the very end and if you are sharp like me you will find that they in fact have one extra, uncounted. That’s 37 brilliant thattus to choose from. It takes more time to decide what you’ll eat than it takes the brothers to make it.

Four Foods
Shanmugham Road, Ernakulam, Tel 2351026; 7-10.30pm
This old-timer Ernakulam restaurant serves separate menus for lunch and dinner. I was there for lunch, so I could order Four Foods’ mini Travancore oonu, a simple thali of dal of vegetables with rice (Rs 34), good support for a crisp fried karimeen (Rs 90). Come here on Sundays for roast duck in gravy (Rs 60). Good prawn curry and fried beef are on the menu everyday. Four Foods is more promising by night, when they offer traditional Syrian dishes of Kuttanad, like marinated karimeen wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to make polichathu, karimeen mappas curry, crab roast and beef peralan.

Subhiksha, BTH
Bharat Tourist Home, Gandhi Square, Durbar Hall Road, Ernakulam, Tel 2353501, 2370502, bharathotel.com; 7am-3pm; 7-11pm
The all-veg Subhiksha in the Bharat Tourist Home on Durbar Hall Road is among the most popular breakfast places in Ernakulam, for its Kerala buffet of puttu-kadala, idiappam, appam-stew and idlis (Rs 75). I feel bad that I did not enjoy the puttu-kadala. The famous cyclindrical steamed bread made of rice flour and coconut was too much for one unaccustomed to such a heavy breakfast, and the kadala curry did not make much of an impression. But I will try harder next time. For other meals, they have lots of tiffin here, banana leaf meals and a big North Indian menu. The tandoori Kerala banana served with ghee and sugar is brilliant (Rs 30).

Leaves Restaurant, Wood’s Manor
Woodlands Junction, MG Road, Ernakulam Tel 2382055-59; 7.30-10.30am, 12.30-3pm, 7.30-10.30pm
The menu still calls this restaurant Scampi, and that’s indication enough to have the excellent Malabar prawn curry (Rs 120) with rice. They really do their pawns well here, like the chemmeen ularthiyathu, prawns fried with roasted coconut shreds and onion (Rs 120), and konju curry, jumbo prawns in a lovely, simple coconut milk curry. I also had a good masala-fried karimeen here (Rs 110), but the steamed karimeen polichathu was even better (Rs 110). Come here at lunch time to try Kerala’s famous dessert, payasam. You wont find it in too many places at night anywhere in Kochi.

ON WILLINGDON ISLAND
Fort Cochin
Casino Hotel, near Old Dockyard, Willingdon Island, Tel 2668421; 7-10.30am, 12.30-2.30pm, 7.30-10pm
This speciality seafood hotel offers the same rich choices as the ‘You buy, I cook’ stalls near Fort Kochi beach, in a far fancier and far more expensive setting. Don’t bother with the menu. Wait for the trolley laden with fresh fish to come to your table and tell them how you wanted yours cooked and whether you’ll have it with rice or idiappams. And please don’t order it Continental style. It just cant beat the Mallu way of doing fish.

Peppers
Taj Malabar, Malabar Road, Willingdon Island, Tel: 2666811, 2668010
The Taj has four restaurants apart from the Rice Boat, including this café facing the kayal. You can watch ships turn around the hotel at the southern tip of Willingdon Island, from the Mattancherry side towards the Ernakulam side, as you eat Moplah crisp fried chicken (Rs 250), Thalassery mutton kurma (Rs 250), spicy Syrian Christan karimeen (Rs 275) and Kottayam lamb ularthiyathu (Rs 250). A great place to sample traditional Kerala veg food, particularly the staples of Travancore like avial (Rs 175), mushroom theeyal (Rs 175), kaalan (Rs 150) and podalangai (snake gourd) kootu (Rs 150). The menu also has all-day breakfast, pizza, pasta, risotto, South Indian tiffin and a few famous North Indian dishes.

ON THE VEMBANAD KAYAL
The Emerald Princess
Emerald Star Tourism, KPK Menon Road, Willingdon Island, Kochi, Tel 2669553; emeraldkerala.com
A fun dining experience is on board The Emerald Princess, a restaurant set on two decks of a kettuvallom that combines sightseeing in Fort Kochi, Mattancherry with canoe rides in the interior canals of the Kumbhalangi backwaters south of Kochi. The only issue is that they only have vegetarian food here. Dine on a Kerala sadya spread on banana leaf as you cruise the kayal, watch live Kathakali performance and listen to a live band. There are many cruise options, some short, some all-day long, some by night, and many boarding points across Kochi. Call Brian Das (9447006406) to figure out the best cruise and best boarding point for you.

SOUVENIRS
Ernakulam’s famous Ceylon Bake House (SRV High School Crossing, MG Road, Ernakulam, Tel 2376275; 6pm-midnight) is the place to buy savoury and sweet banana chips, bitter gourd, tapioca and jackfruit chips and stacks of luridly coloured Kozhikode halwa. They also have good Kerala food here. Try the appams and duck curry. KR Bakes (Thopumpaddy Tel 2449182, Ernakulam Tel 4050033, Palarivattom Tel 2334909, Thevara Tel 2235693, Vytilla Tel 2302188), ‘serving with love since 1963’ at several branches across Kochi-Ernakulam, is also good for these edible souvenirs. Both bakeries also serve Kerala cuisine, the former only at dinnertime.

Tuesday 6 March 2007

Military meat in Chennai

An extract from a story I wrote for Outlook Traveller in June 2003, in Chennai

Walk west along Luz Church Road, then turn left onto TTK Road and take a right under the flyover onto Eldham’s Road. Head in the direction of Pondy Bazaar and take the first street on the right. A marble staircase that’s none too clean leads up into dim light. This is Velu Military Hotel. If there was ever a restaurant one would stake one’s reputation on recommending, it is Velu Military Hotel. Not at all to be confused with Shri Velu Military Hotel in Nungambakkam, whose chukka fries and muttai parottas are decent enough, but not half as good as the true Velu, King of Edlham's Road.

When I went to Velu, it was at the height of a Madras summer. The whole of the morning and most of the afternoon is spent in a heat-induced daze, when all your vulnerabilities are on display and awaiting exploitation. It was in this state that I unknowingly walked into the gents area, and was shooed out by alarmed customers, out and up another flight of steps to the family room. Up there, nobody was talking. All were whispering. All around me, shockingly thin people were downing criminal quantities of food. The aroma of hot rice permeated the air. It was a hot day. A smiling face hovered somewhere above my forehead. A voice said, ‘Sappad?’ And all one could do was say ‘Yess’.

A beautiful plantain leaf was placed delicately under my nose, and a huge mound of rice was unceremoniously dumped on it. Two vegetables were dunked on the side and a thick chicken gravy (no pieces), was poured over. I panicked and confirmed that this was indeed a military hotel. Yes, I was told, so dissapointed (no pieces), I began to eat.

Then, out of nowhere, the smiling face was back, with a gigantic tray lined with kutty plates of magic. Golden fried prawns, fat chunks of fish swimming in gravy, masala chicken, mutton fried with coconut, liver. Each one pointed out and introduced with a whisper...

“Mutton, mutton, mutton. Prawns, prawns, prawns. Brain, brain, brain”.

It was enough to make a meat lover weep tears of gratitude and awe. From this awesome array of perfectly cooked curries and fries, you took anything you liked, which could conceivably be everything. You ate till you were full, then you go on, till you barely have space left for a sip of water. Then, the smiling face comes back, and wants to give you more meat. It takes some effort to convince the waiter you actually don’t want anything more, particularly when you don’t speak a common language.

After lunch at Velu, my lids were heavy with sleep. To step out into the heat of a Chennai afternoon, after a meal like that, was daunting. But it was just another hour till the 3 pm breeze, when one can make one’s defeated way to the succour of the shade at Our Lady of Vailankanni, on the beach at Besant Nagar.

Stupefied in Kochi

An extract from a story I wrote for Outlook Traveller in Kochi, October, 2006

Walking further into Fort Kochi, towards the Bishop’s Palace, I hear the sound of drums and loud groans emerging from yet another gracefully ageing mansion and as I stop to peer inside, this time the head of the household is waiting for nosy strangers with a loud ‘Welcome’! I step in to Trevor D’Cruz’ house to find it holds a restaurant called Addy’s 1776 within the foyer. I am intrigued by the moans from the backyard, also lined with tables, before which the demon Narakasura is being murdered in a Kathakali performance. I take a table and sit down to watch. Very soon Narakasura has died, and I am eating a delicious fish chootuporachuthu, a fleshy fish like tuna, roasted in banana leaf from the “Special old recipes from 100 years back” section of the menu, which tastes both Continental and Mallu at one go. I wash the fish down with “Special juice” till well past 11, listening to a local Kochi band play John Denver and Eagles. The D’Cruzes truly run a homely restaurant and they all together force me to dance ("come on why not, men, this is Kerala"), which I did without dignity after so much special juice. And then they tell me about a little shop in place called Narakal where I would eat, the next day, the best fish curry combo on Earth.

The next morning, I take the car ferry across the shimmering kayal to Vypeen Island. Halfway across, we pass a boat full of Mallu men dancing on the roof. I look at my watch. It is 11.30. They are drunk at 11.30. Then, of course, one dude falls into the water, and everyone on our ferry groans. It appears local laws require all boats in the vicinity to stop and assist. Fortunately, the whole operation takes less than 10 mins. Once ashore, I ask at the bus stop for Narakal’s toddy shop, and are told it is 9 km away, towards Cherai. Finally in Narakal, I ask a chemist for the famous toddy shop and the sweet man obliges with what seem to be good directions, and as I depart yells, get some toddy for me too. Ten mins later, we are not closer to any toddy shop. I ask at a petti kada. The helpful man says 'Madam I will just finish my lunch and come with you'. Eww, no. I ask a group of nuns emerging from a lane. They ask me why I think they would know. I want to give up, but find a man who points down a lane and indeed, I find a tiny toddy shop here. Within are simple wooden tables with long benches. The food has to be good here. I say I want kallu (toddy) with kappa-meen (tapioca-fish) curry, just like the D’Cruzes told me to. The sweet toddy shop guy brings me a glass full of the beautiful milky white drink with a plate of soft, feathery steamed tapioca and a fish curry more fiery red than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many. I think it is lady fish. Whatever it is, the heat of the curry, the softness of the flesh, the blandness of the kappa, it tastes like heaven. The curry leaves your tongue on fire and the tapioca leaves your mouth dry. So you need to drink that toddy. And you keep eating, and you keep getting thirsty, and keep drinking, and keep eating, because next the toddy shop guy brings a tiny plate of another curry with six pretty little fish. 'This is mullen fish', he says in English, 'mind the skeleton'. It seems the fish has nasty bones, which after three glasses of toddy poke a hole in my thumb. It is even hotter than the ladyfish, and even more delicious. It is sad that one can visit such places only for a meal and then leave. Narakal’s toddy shop is 10 km north of Vypeen Church towards Cherai, down a lane near the Panjaduthu (Panchayat) Building.

I head back to the jetty, just short of which is the big bridge to Ernakulam across Vallarpadom and Bolgatty islands. In Vallarpadom, my driver insists that I see the famous Church of Our Lady of Ransom, which is a bit awkward given toddy situation. But the stupor makes the tour of the unending series of outdoor displays from Jesus’ life almost tolerable. The idea is good, but the execution not terribly aesthetic. The sign on the gate couldn’t have said it better – Porta Gaudiosa.

Read my reviews of many more restaurants in the Kochi-Ernakulam area here