Seoul Food: Hitting the streets in search of Octopus and Silkworms

SK food1_1440_SC

At the Gwangjan market in Seoul, it’s common to find people sitting around these food shacks, munching on beef, pork, seafood, octopus, etc., all washed down with Soju or beer. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

This piece was first published on IndianExpress.com.

Three, Two, One… Kimchiiiii. After a trip to Seoul, now and forever, I am prepared to yell kimchi whenever someone wants me to smile for a photograph, because saying cheese is so passé! But kimchi, that side dish made of fermented cabbage that’s become synonymous with Korean food, is just one of the many dishes of Korea. The streets of Seoul are a crowded palate, where traditional fare coexists with cafes and chicken-and-beer joints, the latter fairly recent imports. Seoul’s streets, in fact, probably have the highest density of coffee shops and beer joints—out of thirty shops, twenty are certain to be these.

 

SK food3_759_SC

(clockwise from top-left) Sweet rice cake covered in powdered sugar; a hot broth with raw meat that’s cooked on the table; tofu cooked without onion and garlic; and shrimp sauce (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

 

 

A Korean plate looks much like it does in the eastern and north-eastern parts of India. There is rice at the centre (sticky rice in this case), and a host of accompaniments, ranging from vegetarian (seaweed, fried or steamed ); nabak kimchi (sweet, pungent watery kimchi that I personally liked); tongbaechu kimchi (traditional spicy kimchi that I stayed away from after the first two times); juk (a vegetarian congée that can also cure a hangover); pajeon (savoury flour pancakes with all sorts of vegetables); dotorimuk (a rather tasteless acorn jelly–stay away), various preparations with tteok (steamed rice cakes made with glutinous rice, glass noodles) to meat (a variety of raw fish; jogaetang (neck clam soup with vegetables; beef ribs; jjukkumi (stir-fried baby octopus), mollusks).

But if you don’t have time for a traditional, sit-down Korean meal, then it’s Seoul’s streets that you should be looking for. So, bring out your brass/gunmetal chopsticks (the Koreans prefer metal chopsticks to the wooden ones popular in China and Japan, though they first started off with silver because of its healing properties), the soup spoon, and tuck right in. Some markets like Gwangjang have many food stalls with a variety of meats, and makeshift seating all around like a bar. They serve Soju, beer and green tea (which is offered as a pacifier should you choke on your food like I did) as beverages.

 

A plate of ‘sattvik’ traditional Korean food available at the many temple stays. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

A plate of ‘sattvik’ traditional Korean food available at the many temple stays. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Here’s what you can chew your way through on a food crawl to the many hawkers’ markets in the city (Nandaemun, Myeongdong, Gwangjang and Insadong are where I ventured).

Tornado potato: This may not be traditionally Korean, but once you’ve had your deep-fried potato wafers spiralling up a long skewer, brushed in your choice of flavoured powder — onion, honey and cheese — it’ll be quite a while before you pick up your next packet of chips. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one with spliced sausages in between.

Sausage and rice cake skewers: Nibble on different kinds of sausages and rice cakes barbecued on skewers smothered in a traditional Korean sauce.

 

Dotorimuk, a jelly-like dish made from acorn. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

Dotorimuk, a jelly-like dish made from acorn. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Gyeranppang or egg cake: This snack is made by cracking an egg on a fat piece of cake and baking it. The sweet of the cake and the richness of egg gives it an interesting flavour and texture.

Ttoekbokki: Devilishly hot, this is a hugely popular snack. Rice and fish cakes are dipped in hot and sweet tomato-based red chilli sauce and boiled over a portable stove. It’s best washed down with a bottle of Soju.

20160306_170151

Oysters, butter and cheese: I’m not quite sure what this was called, but it looked delicious. Fresh oysters, roasted over the fire with cheese and chunks of butter, and a slight salty seasoning. The oyster is cooked in its shell and is served with the butter bubbling hot.

Soondae: Korean version of blood sausage, a common variety is pig’s intestine mixed with noodles/rice, barley and pork blood. This is also tossed in red chilli sauce (a favourite with Koreans, it seems) and served hot. An interesting tangy shrimp sauce is served on the side that’s full of tiny shrimps (eyes and everything), should you want to dip your pork for some fishiness.

 

SK food4_759_SC

Makgeolli, a milky white rice wine that’s sweet, earthy and leaves you warm and fuzzy. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Jjukumi: Baby octopuses are quite popular and you can find them everywhere — stir-fried, battered, roasted or tossed in a red chilli gochugaru sauce before being fried. A bit tricky to eat, they taste like squids, only a bit tougher. Some stalls also offer octopus arms, which are much bigger but taste almost the same.

If food is on its way, can drinks be far behind? There are two local brews to wash down all that food: Soju and Makgeolli. Made from rice, wheat, barley or even potatoes or tapioca, Soju is the most popular drink in South Korea. It’s a clear distilled drink containing ethanol and water, with an alcohol content of up to 45 per cent. As I downed it neat in tiny shot glasses, Soju was more of a checkmark in my list and did nothing to uplift my spirits. What really stayed back with me, though, is the Makgeolli, a milky white rice wine that’s sweet, earthy and leaves you warm and fuzzy. Said to be a farmer’s liquor, it is now gaining popularity among the young city crowd as well. For those who like to experiment, add a dollop of sweet potato ice cream into a bowl of Makgeolli for a delicious float. It’s life changing.

 

A street-food vendor at Myeungdong market. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

A street-food vendor at Myeungdong market in Seoul. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

If you still have appetite for some more, you can finish off with these desserts.

Kkultarae or dragon’s beard or Korean court cake: It’s a mildly sweet bite-sized nugget of fine strands of ‘hair’ made by meticulously pulling a honey-maltose mixture. The filling can be varied, from assorted candied nuts to chocolate.

Hotteok or sweet pancake: This is best had hot. The pancake is filled with a mixture of brown sugar, honey and chopped nuts. Eating it can be quite challenging as the molten sugary centre tends to drip on to your arm and scald it. But totally worth it.

 

SK food5_759_SC

(clockwise from top-left) Hotteok; sweet potato and green tea ice creams, served with red bean sauce; and Gyeranppang or egg cake. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Sweet tteok: This is just a sweet version of the rice cake, with or without a nutty-brown sugary/red bean paste filling, and a powdered sugar coating. Not very sweet, the gooey balls are actually quite tasty in this form. This is also a traditional Korean wedding sweet.

Sweet potato ice cream and red bean paste, though not necessarily together: The Koreans love their ice creams and have some unique flavours, and like other parts of South East Asia, they love a lot of sweet red bean paste (that’s rajma for us) in their desserts. I loved the sweet potato flavoured ice cream and a spoonful of sweet red bean paste with it. The more popular version is patbingsoo, which is a dollop of ice cream on a bed of ice shavings and red bean paste, topped with seasonal fruits.

Despite all this food, my rather tight schedule didn’t let me try the two things I really wanted to — bulgogi, spicy marinated beef strips barbecued to crispy yet succulent perfection and beondegi, steamed or boiled silkworm pupa, which is supposed to taste nutty. Well, maybe next time.

IMG_4623

The author was part of an Indian women journalists’ delegation to Seoul, South Korea.

In the heart of Delhi-6, Haveli Dharampura brings in fine-dining, Mughal-style

HD_lakhoori3_759_SC

Lakhori, the restaurant. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

This piece was first published on IndianExpress.com

The 200-year-old haveli is not that easy to find, as you walk through the narrow bylanes of Old Delhi, though the landmark is pretty popular. It is the Jama Masjid police station.

Probably not the best of places to think about when your objective is to be treated to a smorgasbord of gastronomic delights. But those who respond to the lure of Matia Mahal, Karim’s, Al Jawahar and Dariba Kalan, would happily brave through much more for a taste of Mughal-style meats and treats. It’s an area where you get your hands dirty, that is, with your food — and blissfully too. So, when someone talks about a fine-dining experience right in the heart of Delhi-6, it’s not unnatural to be sceptical.

But that’s exactly what Haveli Dharampura offers. In fact, it’s Indian restaurant Lakhori can lay claim to an array of vegetarian options that would warm the cockles of a ‘green’ heart, while satisfying the meat-eating variant as well. The restaurant presents Delhi diners with an option that may as well be the first of its kind in the Capital — an old-style haveli resort with the food and comfort to match the demands of the ethnic luxury traveller.

HD_food2_759_SC

(clockwise from top) Trio of kheer, Chai biscuit, Dahi Puri, Aloo Gobhi deconstructed. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

As I said, it’s not easy to find the very first time, but once you have, you’re unlikely to forget (the large signages help too, but let’s face it, how long will those survive in Old Delhi). Once described dangerous, the building — owned by BJP member of Parliament Vijay Goel — has been restored and converted into a heritage hotel over six painstakingly long years. In a walk-through organised by the owners and managers, members of the food and travel media community were taken across the three-storeyed building that houses 13 rooms (of three sizes), a spa, two restaurants (Indian and Continental — although only the Indian one, Lakhori, is currently functional), a small art gallery, a terrace with a fascinating view (speak to the managers, and they will point out the Jama Masjid, Red Fort, Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, Gauri Shankar Temple and St James Church, all in one panoramic stretch), and those wonderful little stories and passages that old havelis such as this always have abundance of.

We started with a sumptuous meal at Lakhori. Chef Pradeep Kumar and the owners had brainstormed for weeks to come up with a menu of nearly 50 dishes (down from an initial 85, I was told), and we approved of the hard work. The menu stays true to Indian flavours, while the presentation is modern and sophisticated. We started off with a round of bite-sized Cucumber Chaat Canapes (a long cucumber slice roll filled with chaat masala and yogurt), followed by Dahi Puri (gold-gappa puris filled with yogurt and spices, and accompanied with sweet saunt water or tangy jaljeera) and Palak Patta Chaat (spinach leaves covered in chickpea batter, fried with chaat toppings). The Palak Patta Chaat was particularly flavourful, crisp, and the cool yogurt and spices really play well on the palate.

HD_food1_759_SC

(clockwise from left) Palak Patta Chaat, Kadhai Chicken, Kofta Dogala (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

Moving on to the starters, there was a Kadak Roomali Masala (a huge roomali roti baked upside down over the tawa to form a bowl, and sprinkled with ground spices, onions and tomatoes) which would be great with drinks, but since the restaurant is still to get its liquor licence, the dish was a tad bit bland. The veg and non-veg Gilouti Kebabs were just as they should be flavourful and melt-in-your-mouth, the rather exotic sounding Murg ke Paarchey (aka chiken tikka) were spiced well and did due justice to Lakhori’s presence in Purani Dilli.

All this was accompanied by a series of smoothies and mocktails — I highly recommend the Jahan Ara (khus and chilli), Kiwi Strawberry and Lakhori Manzil smoothies and the very surprising Chai Biscuit (this was a revelation for a chai-hater like moi). The Banarasi Paan (had without the straw) is amazing, provided taken in small sips between courses.

HD_haveli3_759_SC

Haveli Dharampura. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

The main course showcased Chef Kumar’s international experience in form of the Aloo Gobhi Mutter Deconstructed, which brought in a mix of textures melding together the very familiar taste of the staple North Indian dish aloo gobhi. Mutton Korma (it’s Delhi-6 after all) may lack the punch of greasy oil and overwhelming spices, but the flavours were all there and would work well for international visitors; and the Kadhai Chicken, tangy, succulent and worked really well with the assortment of flavoured naans (olives, dates and kalonji). But I must mention the Kofta Dogala (cottage cheese koftas with two gravies — tomato and kaju), which was a visual delight (and some might even say, patriotically so, given the current socio-political scenario). The bowl was separated into halves with the green, wrapped koftas acting as the divider, and the flavours complemented each other with the tanginess of the tomato being rounded off by the creaminess of the kaju paste. The fact that the owners are vegetarians shines through in the care with which the veg options have been created, giving the lost vegetarians of Purani Dilli something to look forward to.

HD_mutton korma_759_SC

Mutton Korma. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

After brief moment to drink in the 200-year-old brick-finish lakhoris (as the bricks are called, and which inspires the name of the restaurant), colonial-style furniture and the courtyard with the fountain -later, the desserts walked in. And, in the spirit of greater good, we took a deep breath and dug right in. A trio of creamy kheers (beetroot, paan and fig) and rose-flavoured kulfi (presented in a chocolate cone) were a perfect finish to a modern Mughal Delhi meal.

We dealt with the calorific guilt soonafter by walking up and down three floors exploring the haveli. For those historically and architecturally inclined, each room — named after Delhi’s famous gates like Kashmiri Gate, Delhi Gate, etc. —  talks about the history of its name, some of the mosaics and decorated arches on the windows and doors date back to beyond the 1880s, and are an interesting mix of Hindu-Mughal-European influences prevalent during the 19th century.

HD_kheer1_759_SC

Trio of kheers. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

There are little nooks and cranies on each floor for guests to relax, a small balcony that looks out — well, to not much, since outside here means a VERY narrow, dusty, overcrowded lane that’s typical of the area. But draw the cane blinds and sip your coffee like a nawab, and you won’t even notice it. You can brag about the Old Delhi charm later. The Goels occasionally organise musical and dance evenings featuring Kathak groups. Interestingly, all three levels are visible from both the ground floor as well as the terrace, which gives the audience different vantage points. The evening is when the magic of the haveli would really mesmerise you. Dimly lit, classical music streaming into your ears, the setting of Purani Delhi, food of the nawabs and quaint ethno-modern rooms, there is much to savour.

On the whole, Haveli Dharampura presents a nostalgic experience of Mughal-era Chandni Chowk in modern times. Those who have visited Rajasthan may find much in common, but in the Capital, a haveli resort in Delhi-6 seems to be a first of its kind. It also shows the way forward for other such dilapidated havelis peppered across Old Delhi. But, mind you, the experience comes at a price — but one that’s worth it.

HD_havel1_1440_SC

The courtyard at Haveli Dharampura. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

Tariff details:
Jharokha Rooms – Rs9,000 for double occupancy
Diwan-e-khas Rooms – Rs15,000 for double occupancy
Shahjahan Suites – Rs18,000 for double occupancy

Lakhori
Lunch/Dinner: Rs3,000-4000 for two people, without alcohol
(All rates are exclusive of taxes)

Farzi Café Food Review: Farzified, but not that impressed

Finally visited Farzi Café after hearing so much about it, and the food did pleasantly surprise. From veg to non-veg, it was overall a flavourful experience and certainly not complaining about the potency of the LIIT pitcher.

The ambiance was nice, upscale bistro and the plating was creative and fun. Though they really need to work on their proportions to plate and portions. Service is super duper fast.

The menu is a little limited but you’re sure to find something you like, unless you’re looking at the dessert section, which looked no fun at all.

Overall, a decent experience, good food, not really bang for your buck but can be used as an impression tactic, and the servers with their cool Bluetooth earpieces and rather fast gait give you the feel of being in a spy movie, and something cool is just gonna happen.

12645039_10154150991943268_1961536835241033209_n

Tandoori soy nuggets that were yum, and so was the dip. (Shruti Chakraborty)

 

12508732_10154150991983268_4777246868641404254_n

Yummy chicken drums with a sour cream dip on a truck — both tasty and the drums were amazing. If only they’d served it better and there were 5 pieces and not a measly 3. That cheap aloo namkeen chips just carelessly scattered were really a put off. The truck was fun but underutilised. Regular fries instead of the crappy namkeen would have been wayyyy better. (Shruti Chakraborty)

 

12642434_10154150992163268_2517185495866244577_n

Slow-cooked Lamb shanks and naan — beautiful gravy but the lamb was not falling off the bones as it should have. (Shruti Chakraborty)

 

12647476_10154150992068268_5886149867483619277_n

Prawn Chettinad fried rice — authentic flavours but lacked the spicy punch of Chettinad cuisine. (Shruti Chakraborty)

 

12645175_10154150992333268_2874104857539110311_n

Lovely mouth freshners at the end — paan encased in pillowy sugar candy. (Much better than that horrible firni palate cleanser they served). (Shruti Chakraborty)

Why I don’t understand art, yet visit the India Art Fair each year

Beef-or-Mutton_Anita-Dube

Beef or Mutton by Anita Dube

Every year, I make my way to the India Art Fair. Every other month, I’ll go to an art exhibition. I’ll often try and drag one of my many arty friends to most of these dos — mainly because, even though I’m very interested in the arts, I don’t quite understand it. But like a child who’s fixated on this one thing she wants — I really really want to understand it.

It’s not like art doesn’t move me at all. I remember standing in front of Russolo’s Solidity of Fog at the Guggenheim in Venice and crying — but then, if someone asked me why, I wouldn’t really have an answer. I know I love SH Raza and I am fascinated by the way his work evolved over the decades — a timeline I was introduced to only last year at the 2014 edition of the Art Fair.

I have never studied art. I don’t know what makes the classics, classics, and the lines and forms that make an artwork revolutionary. I don’t get Subodh Gupta much, and I get Bharti Kher even less. As the artist at this year’s IAF stood proudly exhibiting his work called the ‘Garbh’ — a red room meant to recreate the womb, I entered and came out thinking: ‘What the hell was that?’ The piece by Puneet Kaushik is evocative, sure… but to imagine him slaving with dyeing cotton and string in shades of red and silver and then pasting them as clots seemed so utterly futile. I’m sure there is a story. I’m sure had I asked him I would have been fascinated by the inspiration for the Garbh, but really — as I slunk past him with a hesitant smile — did I really want to know?

And therein lay the conflict — I want to know about art and its inspiration, but I didn’t want to ask Puneet who was right there. And the reason for that is partly the way artists weave in fantabulous stories of women empowerment and the pain and suffering in the world in a piece of artwork that looks like something a two-year-old could make. And I’m not alone. I remember at least two instances where the cleaning crew thought a modern art installation was junk and threw it in the bin — Rome and Amsterdam, I think. I feel terrible for the artists, whose work valued at thousands of pounds, ended up in the trash. Or maybe that was poetic justice. But then, so many Van goghs and Picassos have been discovered in the trash as well.

This year at the IAF, I felt more out of my element than ever before — occasionally even second-guessing my intelligence and skills of perception. Except for this one tiny series by Pakistani artist Ayesha Jatoi, nothing modern seemed like art really. And I don’t even know if the Jatoi piece — Girl in the Miniature Painting (am assuming it was called this from Google) — even qualifies as ‘art’, per se. It’s this series where Jatoi’s given the basic framework of a miniature painting (much like a story board) with simple pencil-drawn lines and a dash of humour that indicates the subject and object of the painting. It’s supremely funny, intelligent, snarky — but is it art?

miniature-painting_ayesha-jatoi

miniature-painting-combo_ayesha-jatoi

A series on Mughal paintings by Ayesha Jatoi

Which brings me to a question that has been posed way too often — what is art? Does it have to be beautiful? Or does it just have to make a statement? Should an artist always define and title his pieces or does ‘untitled’ really work as a title? But then, who’s to say what’s good art, what has depth, what is crap, and what’s a wannabe?

I like classical art, I’ve noticed. My kind of artworks need to be ornate, intricate, make a point, have a story, and if there are mythological references, then I’m totally sold. But then, I liked the ‘graphite on paper’ by Jatoi too — and I’m still debating whether I consider it ‘art’. Once at an exhibition in Barcelona, I loved how data was interpreted as visuals to show land encroachment — but that was my love for numbers (I can’t believe I just said that) that drew me to the piece, but the sound of the evolution of the universe by a Mumbai-based artist at the IAF this time just left me blahed out.

Friendly-Fire_Rina-Banerjee.jpg

Friendly Fire by Rina Banerjee

I’m sure I’ll continue visiting art fairs and galleries, flipping through pretty pictures and trying to understand the agony and ecstasy of the modern day artists and their art, but I wonder if I’ll ever feel satisfied stepping out of any of these venues with the same satisfaction as I do when I step out — occasionally overwhelmed even — of a Guggenheim, Prado or the NGMA.

Note: This was a bit of a rambling post, but if something here resonates with you, do feel free to share your thoughts as a comment.

Junagadh’s Mahabat Maqbara is a stunner to behold

This photo essay was first published in Indian Express

Mahabat1a

Standing forgotten on the dusty streets of Junagadh in Gujarat, stands the 19th century mausoleum of Nawab Mahabat Khan II. Called the Mahabat (not Mohabbat) Maqbara Palace, also Mausoleum of Bahaduddinbhai Hasainbhai, is a mausoleum in Junagadh, India, that was once home to the Nawabs of Junagadh. (Text and photos: Shruti Chakraborty)

Mahabat1b

This stellar example of Indo-European architecture — as the rusty, spotty iron information board informs visitors, whose faded words stand testament to the ravages of time and neglect — has now been declared a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India, and quite justifiably so. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Mahabat4

 

Even if you’re not an architecture student, you can instantly spot the various influences on the building. You have the Islamic domes and arches, you have the jharokha-type windows on the top and the very European lines, especially the carving above the main door. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Mahabat5

Though the layout has a resemblance to the Taj Mahal — complete with four minarets — the European influence gives a very gothic feel. The construction of the Maqbara started in 1878 and finished in 1892. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Mahabat4

The Maqbara was constructed by Sheikh Bahauddin with his own funds during 1891-1896. The monument is located inside the city in a very busy area, with the High Court situated just across the street. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Mahabat7

Just adjacent lay the Jama Masjid, while the Vazir’s maqbara is located on the other side. The architecture for the Masjid is very similar to the old building. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Mahabat5

The doors of the main building are decorated in silver, and the minarets have rich stone carvings and large silver doors as well. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Mahabat6

According to the marble information tablet, which forms a part of the Magbara’s front wall, the Nawab’s family has set aside Rs 8,000 a year that’s given to the village for the upkeep and maintenance of the Maqbara. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Mahabat9

The best time to visit Junagadh is between October to April when most of the tourist locations/spots are open. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Mahabat10

How to Reach Mohabbat Maqbara — By Air: The nearest airport is at Rajkot which is just 99km away. There are frequent flights from all major cities in India. By Road: Junagadh is well-connected to all major towns in Gujarat and has good transport facility. As Jungadh is a historical town, buses frequently ply from all part of the state. Junagadh is 99km from Rajkot, 184km from Jamnagar, 54km from Sansar Gir, 88km from Somnath and 327km from Ahmedabad. By Train: The main railway station nearby is the Junagadh railway station, which is well-connected with other cities and has frequent trains.

(Source: Junagadhonline.in; photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

IN PURSUIT OF THE MOVING MASSAGE CHAIR

12039555_10153875071493268_8150389027928194380_n

Problems can often be seen as experiences and awesome stories… most likely in hindsight. and this story is one such instance.

It was simple really, get to the bus station in time to catch a good for Chiang Rai. I was at the hostel cafe, pumping in juice into my dead phone battery, counting the minutes when I’d absolutely need to leave. The guy at the reception said it would take me 15 mins. I wanted to take a tuk tuk all the way but he insisted that it wud be crazy expensive and I shud simply take the skytrain. At the most I could take a tuk tuk to the BTS station.

I weighed in my options, and at 7.30pm left the café for a probable 8pm bus. Hailed a tuk tuk, bargained the tariff down to 50% at 40 thb. He disapproved of my selection of destination. “Chiang Rai no good. It rain there. Why you go?” My heart sank. Got off at the BTS station only to wait for 10 minutes for the next train to Mo Chit. Cost me 37 thb.

After an agonizing standing 20 mins later (I could really really do with a foot massage right now), the train flew into the Mo Chit station and I started panicking — I could see NO sign of any central bus station.

Disembarking and quickly rushing down the stairs, I could find no reassurance — there was no bloody sign of a bus station. The only one was of the bus service to the airport.

I ask this disapproving lady at the station mart for the exit for the bus station. Eyebrows scrunched and a decided frown, she says “Exit 2, exit 2”.

A quick thanks and I dash towards Exit 2, Exit 2. As I descend the stairs a bunch of men wearing official-looking half jackets, shouting in Thai look at me, the first one keeps staring, and starts walking forward… also starting to wear a black mask. “That’s very odd”, I think and frantically looking around for the god-damned bus station! I turn a slight right towards the jackted men as I descend the last step. That first guy, I see, has gotten onto a bike. The one in front of me asks me where I want to go. “The bus station. Buses to Chiang mai, Chiang Rai. Big bus station,” desperate. The guy ushers me towards Guy 1, now masked and helmeted…”60 baht. He take you…on motorbike. 60 baht. See sign”.

What? Motorbikes as taxis? That’s ridiculous! But I didn’t have time and they were wearing jackets with IDs and there was a printed sign… so um…can i walk? 4 kms?! okay! okay! Bah… this was turning out to be grossly non-cheap.
I tumble and get indecorously on to the bike and the man zooms off… wrong side of the road! For a whole stretch. And I thought that was a Delhi characteristic!

As we’re zooming past, I saw one other lady being taken on a similar bike… *phew!

Destination reached, I make a mad dash to the ticket Women beckon me from everywhere. Highly suspicious yet desperate, I go to the first counter that says Chiang Rai. The woman tells me it’s a great bus and I need to pay PAY NOW because “the bus go now”. Not much convinced if I really got the bus I wanted, or fell for a classic tourist trap I decided to buy it and run towards the platform, hoping to god it’s a good-looking bus.

It was! Yessssssss!!!

Stewardess in a baby pink uniform ushers me in and shows me to my snug seat. Heck, it even has a neck pillow — and I’ve never used one before (and thankfully so. It’s so uncomfortable. How do you people like that thing! :-/).

Settled into my seat, I can finally breathe. Bus had been caught. It was the sleeping kind, and had an entertainment system… with this power button under the armrest. I press it to check what it does… the chair starts slightly vibrating and slowly pressure points on my back, legs and neck are being hit upon in blissful rhythm! A bloody massage chair for the rest of the journey… wooohoooo!!! As I settle into my chair and relax, the past hour’s madness seems all worth it.

Life is good! Khop khoon ka! 🙂
First tuk tuk ride 😛

Chockro goes Parasailing!

In 2014, I went backpacking for over 70 days, and among the many things I tried was this one fabulous day when I went parasailing. I don’t know how to swim and I was freaking out. But when I actually went up, the feeling was anything but tensed. Calm, serene, peaceful — those are the sentiments that come to mind. I felt like a bird, and for once, I could hear silence!

This video gives a glimpse of this ‘event’ in my life. I realize that for many this may not be a big thing, but then… this is why you all inspire me to do more! 🙂

More stories from ChockroGoes2Europe will follow soon!

10 trips every woman should take

1925342_10153284714643268_6092051106004737113_n

It’s said that ‘travel is the best form of education’, and for the multi-tasking and multi-faceted woman, this holds more true than ever. Not only does travelling work as a means of escaping the world you live in, but also discovering a whole new one. And this experience is even more enhanced and intensified by the kind of trips she undertakes and at which stage of her life such a jaunt is taken.

1. A trip with her parents/guardian as a child

Everyone remembers family trips taken as kids. In fact, that’s one of the best and tension-free times to go on trip, when the world is oh-so-new, almost everything done is for the first time and — the biggest kicker of all (at the time) — she can confidently forget the existence of the monstrous ‘studies’. Decades later, when she’s on a trip with her parents again…much of the time will be spent recounting these trips and all the silliness.

2. A school trip with friends

For a girl — in fact, for every kid — this is the first trip where’s she’s almost on her own. Ideally to be taken in the early-to-mid teenage years, when a girl is in a phase of self-discovery, it’s a time when she understands that which decisions she can take on her own and which she needs her parents for. Also, bonds made during such outstation tours with friends tend to last a lifetime.

3. A road trip with her girlfriends

From school to college and even beyond, a road trip with friends is a definite-must, especially if it’s one with her girlfriends. Mission brief: break all stereotype, challenge themselves, be responsible, and make memories for life.

4. A trek/historical holiday with her mother

This is a special one, especially when she’s in her late-20s or 30s and conversations are more between two friends than mother-daughter. It’s also the time she realizes that despite all the fights there is actually much in common between the two generations. The reason it’s relevant that this trip be either a trek (an easy one, mind you!) or to destination with a lot of historical relevance is because while the former challenges just enough to give mommy-dearest a sense of achievement along with her daughter, the latter gives a sense of discovery and appreciation of one’s past. Get the drift?

5. A bonding trip with her father

A woman is always her father’s little princess (ever heard the quote: I may not be a man’s queen, but I’ll always be my father’s princess?), and when years have gone past, a solo jaunt with the old man will give both the time and space to discover all the things that were missed between storming-out sessions, weddings, cry-outs and silent wars. Try doing an adventure trip or camp out — that will reassure dad that his girl is all grown-up and quite capable of taking care of herself. Try something that he’s never done before!

6. A trip with her partner

Nothing can be a better way to take a relationship to the next level than a quick trip away. This would be a great way to understand her partner, test him, be tested herself, and figure out if this is the real deal or not. After all, one can’t put the same best foot forward — continuously — for three days straight, right?

7. A road trip with parents, siblings and extended family

In today’s age of nuclear families, it’s quite easy to get so involved in one’s own life that the family — or khandaan — can be quite easily be slotted into Whatsapp groups and family filters on Facebook. A road trip with them all — all 20+ of them — is sure to surprise with the amount of fun that can be had. Not only are such trips great to find out about all the “secrets” parents have been hiding all these years, but also connect with long-lost cousins, which just opens up the friend circle a tiny bit more. (And if they’re living at some exotic location — you know exactly where the next budget trip is going to be!)

8. A solo trip to an unknown land

This is a must for every woman in the 21st century. Nothing makes someone discover more things about herself than being by herself — and this is definitely not a bad thing. This makes her stronger, more confident about herself, may end up change her entire world-view or even give her the grounding she seeks. New friends are much easier to make when you’re by yourself, and the world is truly your oyster. Just be sure to stay safe!

9. A challenging/pampering trip with her husband/life partner

This is most preferable if unplanned and totally spontaneous. Get away from the humdrum routine that life tends to become after a point. Rekindle the romance, rediscover each other — or, basically, just run away from monotony and rejuvenate yourselves. Choose a kind of trip depending on what interests both partners, and elope! (Make sure there’s a babysitter at hand, should it be necessary.)

10. A fun trip with her children

The roles have been reversed — she goes through every single emotion her mother did decades ago, and it’s so much sweeter. This time it’s not her firsts that are the centre of attention, but her child’s — which is, again, a first!

Body language

A walk through The Body in Indian Art exhibit with curator Naman Ahuja, as he guides visitors through 4,000 years of corporeal depictions

(This piece was first published in BW|Businessworld)

A 4th Century depiction of Dvilingi 'Lakulisha' at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum.

A 4th Century depiction of Dvilingi ‘Lakulisha’ at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum.

 

The thing about being culturally inclined – but clueless – and attending an art exhibition is that one walks through the gallery feeling amazed but lost. Over the past month, I’ve managed to visit the Subodh Gupta Retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, gaze at Amrita Shergill’s revolutionary work also exhibited there, and take a walk through history and the understanding of the human body in art over centuries at the Body in Indian Art exhibition currently on at the National Museum in New Delhi.
But the differentiating factor between my visits to the first two exhibitions (countless ones before them) and the Body in Indian Art was that my walk-through in the latter was led by the show curator Naman Ahuja, who is also an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. And, quite honestly, that’s what made a universe of a difference.
How else would one appreciate the layout of the exhibition across 14,000 sq. ft in a circular fashion, as a body that’s wrapped around you? Starting an exhibition on the body with a display on ‘death’ may be counterintuitive to most, but all art is in some way a record of death, says Ahuja as he stands between two memorial stones at the entrance to the exhibition on the first floor of the museum. “Every work, after all, is a death of the artist. A moment that can’t be recreated,” he says.
The exhibit explores the artist’s interpretation of the body in death, birth/re-birth, in rapture, or even what may be the Indian equivalent of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The whole exhibition is divided into eight galleries — (1) death, and the end of the body, (2) birth and re-birth, (3) how astrology and cosmology determine the fortunes of the body, (4) the nature of divine bodies, (5) heroism and ideal bodies, (6) asceticism and the development of practices of healing and yoga, (7) the body in rapture or possessed, and (8) the body as a symbol.

Artist Mrinalini Mukherjee's stunning work in dyed hemp, called Basanti, at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum. The gallery where it was displayed -- on birth and rebirth -- was inspired by the womb of a yogini temple.

Artist Mrinalini Mukherjee’s stunning work in dyed hemp, called Basanti, at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum. The gallery where it was displayed — on birth and rebirth — was inspired by the womb of a yogini temple.

It was fascinating to hear the thought behind the conception of the exhibit, which starts with memorial stones — first, an evocative sculpture of a warrior disembowelling himself with a sword (reminiscent of Japanese warriors performing Harakiri), and alongside is a rather rare sculptor of a female warrior performing a similar ritual, both being serenaded by apsaras.
As one moves to the gallery of death of the body, and remembrance, there is a huge Sanjhi Tree cut out by Payal Khurana that arrests your attention. Take a walk through the various symbolisms of ‘death of the body but the continuance of the soul’ — from a beautifully craved crypt, to a series of Buddha footprints, etched, painted or sculpted, spread across the centuries that act as a substitution of the physical being, just like Rama’s slippers were kept on the throne while he was on vanavas in the epic Ramayana.
What strikes a chord with the viewer is the juxtaposition of sculptures and paintings cutting across centuries, religion and gender. Ahuja talks of the birth and rebirth gallery as being designed to resonate a woman’s womb, with all the energy directing you towards Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Basanti — a powerful vision in dyed hemp, weaved suggestively as a flower or even representative of a woman’s reproductive organ. This is contrasted with the strangely erotic ancient goddess Lajja Gouri giving birth with her legs spread wide and a 2nd century red sandstone headless sculpture of Hariti — the Iranian ogress who turned from eating babies to a protector of children.
Leading us to the third gallery, crossing imageries of the happy families of Shiva-Durga-Ganesh-Kartik, Yashodhara-Krishna-Nanda, among others, Ahuja commented on the irony of such iconic families of Indian mythology actually being quite unconventional in their formation — with the birth of the children in the first family happening during the absence of the father, and the latter of a child living with foster parents. As Ahuja said, “There is no norm in mythology as to what constitutes a happy family.” Now, although, these are summations that would seem fairly obvious to some, for others — such as myself — one has to admit to the deeper insight gained due to these observations by the curator, whose “‘thing’ is supposed to be his vast knowledge of which artwork is housed by which museum across the country”, according to one of the organisers.
From birth to cosmology and the divine, the exhibition evokes the mysteriousness of the body and that of the universe. From the corporeal to the spiritual — what controls us? WHat is the role of destiny? One can debate the existence of free will as influences from Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Tantric schools of thought are represented through the human form so as to contain the whole universe within it. Which is probably why, then, there is a rather easy transition to that of the ‘ideal’ form — that of the supernaturals — gods and deities. Though, Ahuja does take a sceptical point of view on the immortals, saying: “Gods aren’t just immortal, public relations turn them into immortals”, while simultaneously and appreciatively pointing out the nuances of the imagery, down to the reasoning behind the selection of a particular stone that would naturally look like flakes for a sculpture of Nagaraj.

Naman Ahuja, curator of The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum

Naman Ahuja, curator of The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum

The iconography is further accentuated as one walks through walls covered with graphic depictions of superheroes in the 21st century in comics, and their ‘ancestors’ as humans or ‘mere mortals’ who were immortalised in ‘stone and paint’ as Heroes. From the evocative video of a towering Buddha statue being bathed to the quiet and meditative, headless nude female yogini Mallinatha — shorn of all accessories — strategically ‘facing’ the Dvilingi Lakulisha, it’s amusing to be a participant or voyeur to the various silent conversations Ahuja has initiated between the art pieces.
The Body in Indian Art exhibition is by every means vast, but Ahuja does achieve what he sets out to do — steadily depict the echoing of similar concepts of death, birth, sex and existentialism across the ages and in varied vocabularies. In end, if it’s the pure rapture in a woman’s ‘angrai’ or the attempt to search a commonality between ragas that have been recorded to accompany the 16-17th century raagmala paintings, the exhibition is a journey that is definitely worth experiencing for yourself.

The Body in Indian Art is on till 7 June, 10am-5pm (Mondays closed), at the National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi. There are regular walks conducted by the museum, which is highly recommended, and another curator’s walk with Naman Ahuja is scheduled for 9 May 2014. Call 011-23019272 (extn 273) for timings and further details.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Parsi Palates

Anjuman Plate_SC

(From left) Patra ni Machhi, Mutton Cutlet, Salli Boti, Salli per Endu, Raw Mango Salad and Roti

Located in the heart of Delhi, its simple wrought-iron gate hidden by overbearing Delhi Metro construction boards, the expansive campus of the Anjuman Parsi guesthouse is easy to miss, if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Over a half-a-century old, this little-known gem is much like the Harry Potter’s 9-and-three quarters platform — all the Parsis and the journalists working on the Indian Fleet Street (read Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg) know about it, while the rest of us have heard stories. Yet, over the past decade or so, the word has spread — if you want authentic, mouth-watering Parsi/Iranian fare, it’s Parsi Anjuman that you ought to be visiting.

Mrs Bagli and her daughter-in-laws are the ones who manage the guest house, and famous kitchen and the Zoroastrian Fire Temple. Every day the menu is different, and mind you, even if they’re accommodating, the final menu for even a simple lunch for 4-5 people will be decided with inputs from them. So don’t head over there thinking you can order anything from the non-existent menu card. (This is probably why they never printed one.) Orders have to be made at least a day in advance.

Anjuman Salli Boti_SC

The Salli Boti is wonderfully paired with roti

The food is simple, homely and tasty. On the two occasions that I visited this Delhi institution, I tried a number of dishes that ranged from the famous Patra ni Machhi (fish wrapped in green chilli paste steamed in a banana leaf) and Caramel Rice (brown rice with hints of jiggery, raisins and cashew nuts) to the Mutton Dhansak (mutton with a dal-like gravy) and Salli Per Endu (an interesting baked dish of spices, vermicelli and potato juliennes topped with egg). And let’s not forget a Caramel Custard that’s enough to warrant a visit on its own.

The Patra ni Machhi on the day I visited was a tad bit too sweet, but the fish itself was lovely, aromatic, and well-cooked (though my fellow diner said hers was overcooked, and the chilli paste tasted like sawdust. But then, to be fair, she did have some lovely Patra ni Machhi at Anjuman earlier). The Salli Boti (mutton in tomato gravy, topped with fried potato juliennes) paired well the roti. The Salli per Endu could have done with a little stronger flavours, but it just looked amazing (plus, I’ll happily munch down anything with egg in it!). The Dhansak (mutton or any other variant) is delectable. The thick lentil gravy somehow always gives one a wholesome feel — like you’re eating ‘good, nutritious’ food. Between the mutton balls and cutlets, I preferred the latter — it was juicier, and the flavours somehow came out better.

A special mention ought to be made of the fresh salad that accompanies the meals. In summer, you’d even find pieces of raw mango, and the tanginess just beautifully complements a rather heavy meal.

Anjuman_Salli per Endu_SC

The Sally per Endu was a bit bland, but interesting… and definitely pretty to look at!

Though there isn’t much for vegetarians, but the younger Mrs Bagli is most accommodating. You have substitutes for almost everything — there’s Patra ni Paneer, Dhansak gravy, Vegetable Balls/Cutlets, Salli Vegetable (with potato, peas and makhana), Salli per Mushroom (similar to Salli per Endu), and more.  The flavours are pretty much the same as their non-veg counterparts, just lacking the kick of ‘meat’ that we non-vegetarians otherwise crave.

Finish the meal with their stellar caramel custard or its less sweet cousin, a caramel kulfi.

Everything about Anjuman screams Old World, from the plates and cutlery, to the Spartan mess-like cafeteria and Mrs Bagli’s crisply, starched sari held in place with a brooch. If you like Parsi food (or would like to try it), Parsi Anjuman is definitely a must-visit. Just make sure you end up lazing in bed after stuffing yourself, because, honestly, you won’t be capable of much else.

 

Parsi Anjuman (Iranian cuisine)

+91-11-23238615

Delhi Gate, Parsi Dharamshala, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, near Daryaganj, New Delhi

12.30-2pm for lunch, 8-10pm for dinner

Note:

1. Call in at least a day before to fix the menu

2. An order of Patra ni Machhi, Patra ni Paneer, Salli Boti, Salli per Endu, Salli Vegetable, Mutton Cutlet, Veg Cutlet, Roti and Kulfi for 6 people cost Rs 2,250

 

This piece was first published in Businessworld.