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

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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.

 

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(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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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(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.

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

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

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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.

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(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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Junagadh’s Mahabat Maqbara is a stunner to behold

This photo essay was first published in Indian Express

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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

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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

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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

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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!

Parsi Palates

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(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.

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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.

Festive Travel

This article was first published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 18-11-2013. And is available online.

Planning your vacations abroad early next year? Team them with festivals that will give you insights into the local culture

Spring Festival, China
30 Jan – 5 Feb
While perpetually in the news for its economy and population, this star of the Orient encompasses within its borders a most fascinating topography and — if you take the time to get under its skin — culture, with its quaint rituals and rules. But experience the mystique of the Chinese lanterns during their lunar New Year, when the country offers a bite-sized version of its legends, foods, dragons and red lanterns, of course. Beijing, Guangzhou, Xian and Pingyao are some of the preferred places to visit during the Golden Week.

Crush Festival – Cellar Door Wine Festival, Australia
19 Jan – 16 Feb
If you’re a foodie and looking to swim in the coral reefs early next year, consider attending the Crush Festival — one of Australia’s premier food, wine, fashion, music and art festivals. While the European countries uncork their finest wines in the autumn, Down Under it’s in January. Start with the Crush, when 30-odd wineries open their cellar doors. If you crave for more, then the Cellar Door Wine Fest offers unlimited food and wine tastings from over 150 producers. There are master classes with celebrity chefs and interactive sessions for serious gastronomes.

Masked Lovers at Mardi Gras in Venice by Frank Kovalchek (Wikimedia Commons)

Masked Lovers at Mardi Gras in Venice by Frank Kovalchek (Wikimedia Commons)

Carnival/Mardi Gras, Venice, Italy
15 Feb – 4 Mar
The mystical city of Venice takes on a whole new persona during this three-week-long annual extravaganza. Home to the renowned Venetian mask, around 3 million people from across the world flock to this canal city during the pre-Lent period to lose themselves in the anonymity of the masks and elaborate costumes. There are parades, balls and masquerades that transport you to a different era altogether, and a special array of food and drinks are laid out for the masses. The festivities culminate with Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

Rio Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
24 Feb – 4 Mar
For travellers (and even hard-core party-goers), Brazil is anyway one of the most coveted destinations. Not diluting the extremely rich cultural experience of the Latin American country, it would be safe to recommend that if you’re planning a trip to Brazil, it should be during the Rio Carnival. A capsule of the vibrant rhythms and culture, the Samba parades and masquerade balls are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Dance on the streets with the exotic dancers, while seeing the sights.

Cherry blossoms in Japan and the US
March – April
All year-round, Japan’s attractions are many — from anime conventions and tea ceremonies to museums and bullet trains. But head towards the Land of the Rising Sun during end-March and April, and your eyes can feast on the gorgeous cherry blossoms in full bloom, especially in the garden city of Kyoto. There are a series of festivals organised here during this period projecting a very a different aspect of this eastern nation. But if your floral trail is Westward-inclined, then fret not. As a mark of Japan-American friendship (the former had presented the US capital, Washington DC, with 3,000 cherry trees), the National Cherry Blossom festival is celebrated across the city for three weeks. Next year’s dates are 20 Mar–13 Apr. So, while waving at the White House, stop by the various festival venues as well, for a slight taste of Japan in America.

Eboshiyama is one of the 100 places in Japan to view cherry blossoms. This picture shows the illumination of the mountain during the peak viewing season. By Fantasy Leigh (Wikimedia Commons)

Eboshiyama is one of the 100 places in Japan to view cherry blossoms. This picture shows the illumination of the mountain during the peak viewing season. By Fantasy Leigh (Wikimedia Commons)

Hay-on-the-Wye Festival, Wales, UK
22 May – 1 Jun
Known as the ‘town of books’, Hay on the Wye has been playing host to one of the world’s most popular literature festivals since 1988. With its inception from the winnings of a poker game, the festival draws around 25,000 visitors, including the crème de la crème of the world’s litterateurs. The quaint little town is a delight for book lovers, with pop-up stores, live music, author interactions, lovely food and the chance of bumping into your favourite author walking down cobbled streets. Romance out of a book!

Feast of St Patrick, Ireland
14 – 17 Mar
This can alternatively be called the ‘green festival’ because of the predominance of the colour across all festivities — inspired from the shamrock, which was used by St Patrick to explain the Holy Trinity. So, if you land during this festival, be prepared to be enveloped in a sea of green revelry. The magic comes from a smorgasbord of events — crack up to the quintessential Irish humour at the many comedy clubs, sway to street music and folk concerts, be moved by the theatre, applaud the fireworks and be enchanted by the many parades.

Chocolate cupcakes decorated with green icing for St Patrick's Day. By Kristin Ausk (Wikimedia Commons)

Chocolate cupcakes decorated with green icing for St Patrick’s Day. By Kristin Ausk (Wikimedia Commons)

Rainforest World Music Festival, Sarawak
20 – 22 Jun
There are music festivals aplenty, but what sets this one apart is that it’s nestled in the beautiful rainforest of Sarawak, Borneo. Set against the Sarawak Cultural Village, artists from across the world converge as attendees dance to the rhythms of the rainforest, drink and dine under the canopies of trees, away from the rest of the world. It’s magical.

The Pondicherry ADVENTURE

(Pic from the Net; Source unknown)

(Pic from the Net; Source unknown)

I walked up the creaking metal stairs. Initially painted bright red, but which have faded over time to a dirty brown with spots of rusts spattered all over. I tried holding on to the railing for support, but the rickety tubes of steel did nothing to ease my nerves in preparation for what was to come next. Oddly enough, at that moment I felt a special connection with Rose Calvert (played by Kate Winslet) in Titanic as she climbed towards the ship’s Starboard, trying to save herself from drowning. A Rabbi behind her, morbidly murmuring, “…As we walk to the valley of the shadow of death…” Those were the very thoughts going through my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my Jack Dawson saving me; instead, I had seven heartless friends who’d make me walk the plank if it gave them enough amusement. And the knowledge that a ten year old child was in charge of the controls didn’t help much.

We were in Pondicherry for the weekend, and on our way back to the bus stop. Already late for catching a bus to Chennai, it was then that Srijoy had an ‘aha moment,’ “Let’s go back to the fair…I want to go on the Mary Columbus.” Now for the uninitiated, ‘Mary Columbus’ is a huge boat that swings 35 feet into the air, from left to right to left to right and on and on and on. Bad memories. Something always went wrong when I boarded any of the ferries wheels in the fairs.

The last time I boarded a Columbus was when I was 12 years old. Appu Ghar in New Delhi is a famous children’s amusement park and a must visit for any child living in or visiting Delhi. I was not to be left behind. The prospect of boarding a huge ship that swings in air can be a very daunting thought for anyone, but for a 12 year old, it seemed as if her life was in peril. The Columbus in Delhi is painted in beautiful vibrant colours of red and blue, with a base of black, and three layers of gold coloured waves painted on both sides. On one side is a gorgeous red dragon head breathing fire…not a heart warming sight…but magnificent nevertheless. While at the other end is its tail beautifully painted in red green and yellow fiery designs.

Sitting in this behemoth with at least forty other screaming children, securely pinned down to my seat with a handlebar, life wasn’t at its best, but it wasn’t at its worst either.

Wait…

I spoke too soon…

The ride was to be for five excruciating minutes right? Why wasn’t it over?

A throb of fear stuck in my throat, I looked down for some explanation. Something had gone wrong with the machinery, and the mechanics could not be found.

We were stuck in a perpetual purgatory upon a swinging boat!!!

.

.

.

I don’t know why these boats have to be called “Columbus.” No one in my group knew why. After all, Columbus didn’t fling himself 35 feet in thin air when he set out to look for India– ramblings…but that was all that I could do sitting squished in between Shutapa and Leon. It was all I could do to stop reminding myself of my last ride in Appu Ghar.

I held on tight to the handlebars, which were uncomfortably a little far from the seats. Oh! How I wished these people had the Delhi handlebars, which would pin you to your seat. The four rows of seats in front of us were empty, and I could see straight into the eyes of a middle aged gentleman, wearing a yellow shirt who was with his son.

The ride started with a slow and ominous prolonged screeching sound.

Screeeeeeeeeech….Once….we went left…10 feet in the air

Screeeeeeeeeech….Twice…we went right…15 feet in the air

Screeeeeeeeeech….Thrice…we went left again…more than 15 feet in the air

And suddenly without a moment’s notice the boat lunged upwards at angle that was as close to 90° as it could get. Gravity was taking over as I was slightly lifted from my seat. For a terrifying moment I thought I might fall, when the boat went the opposite way, but the relief was short lived, as I was once again thrown up in the air, in a precarious position of half hanging on a rickety handlebar. One…two…three…four…five…that was supposed to be it.

Stop…

Stop it…

Ohkay….this is enough…

Just Stop…

Why isn’t it stopping?

Oh My God!!!

C’mon stop already…

Looking down towards the controls, I couldn’t see the boy who was supposed to stop the swinging boat and get me down. I panicked…my knees were knocking…my voice was hoarse with all the shouting…

“Look at the light,” said Leon, and I did. It was so beautiful. The huge lights…reminiscent of the fairy lights that are supposed to beckon you when you’re dying. The thought was NOT comforting. I looked down to the seemingly flimsy strip of rubber that was responsible for the machinations of this particular Columbus, only to see the boy who was supposed to be handling the controls, climbing on the engine and tinkering with the rubber strip. Life did not seem promising as I once again looked at the incandescent light alternating it with the eyes of the gentleman with the yellow shirt sitting in front of me, seeking solace in both.

Screeeeeeeeeech…the boat slowed down…

I looked down at the controls again…the darling little boy had returned to his position.

Screeeeeeeeeech…he pulled one of the levers and the boat slowed down a bit more…

Screeeeeeeeeech…he pulled another lever and we almost stopped…

Screeeeech….he pulled the final lever and we stopped.

My legs wobbly and hands shaking, I carefully got out of the menacing boat, holding on to Shutapa for support. Walking down the creaking tin faded-red stairs and onto terra firma…I vowed never to get on a Mary Columbus again.

Time had never passed so slow, making myself aware of each passing moment as it did from 8:30 pm to 8:40 pm on January 29, 2006.

First published as Agateophilic on 7 February 2006.

A Different Life

Kasol Dream

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s like the rolling clouds over the verdant hills,
beautiful as they are, stark white across a clear blue sky,
still nothing but air to hold when I stretch out my hand.

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s like the high from a joint, rolled up in a scroll.
The elusive bliss from the seamless nothingness beyond,
a neverending chase for the ethereal je ne sais quoi.

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s the one born out of the reflection from my tears.
The thoughts unleashed like the walled river released from its bounds,
its gushing, rolling stream giving life to uncountable saplings on a desert plain.

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s the walk on a wonderfully chilly winter morning.
Question is… is it the road that goes endlessly on, melting into the horizon
or is it the one that goes winding up to a doorstep… the doorstep I otherwise call home?

Sasi Restaurant, Kasol, Himachal Pradesh
14.30, 8.10.11

One from the vault, this was first published on Agateophilic.