Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dracula Romanian Food


Hungrygowhere reports the demise of the improbably-named 'Dracula Romanian Food', a hawker-centre stall at Singapore's Alexandra Village neighbourhood. The title on the page is now prefaced with a curt 'closed', and any time you try to access a review you're festooned with annoying popups screaming at you, in case you missed the point, that 'This establishment is no longer in operation'. One review, dated just a month after my last visit there, indicates some reasons why: a tedious story involving cost-cutting, substituting experienced staff with cheaper (and correspondingly less competent) replacements, and (horrors!) so steep a drop in food quality the reviewer actually contracted food poisoning. A sad way to go for an eatery I used to be rather fond of.

I came across the place towards the end of my stay in Singapore. At that time I was staying at a condo called Gillman Heights, one block of which NUS used as a graduate students' residence. (Gillman Heights is also history now. Thanks to an en-bloc sale, we had to vacate the place within weeks of my last visit to Dracula. The old flats have been pulled down now, with something called 'The Interlace', which looks like a tribute to disjointedness, coming up in its place.) Dracula was walking distance from Gillman, just across the Ayer Rajah Expressway. But because it was tucked away behind an HDB block, it took me till June 2009 to discover the place, almost a year since I had shifted to Gillman.

My first impressions were not particularly favourable. Invoking the Dracula name smacked of blatant attention-grabbing (but then this was before I found out several other joints exist all over the world both named and themed after that (blood)sucker). The faux-ness was underscored by a tacky plywood cutout of a castle stuck in front of the counter. Or to be strictly accurate, one half of the counter; the other half was given over to an Italian joint called 'Funny Lasagna by Peter Bontoi'. A menucard was stuck onto the quasi-drawbridge, you gave your order through this large slot masquerading as the castle entrance, and then collected your food through the same aperture.

A copy of a newspaper report framed and displayed prominent gave me some background info. Bontoi was born in Romania and worked as a chef in Turin for many years. He then shifted to Singapore and got into the restaurant business, but after facing partner troubles he decided he was better off running hawker centre stalls instead. So he set up Funny Lasagna, specialising in Lasagne, Pasta and Pizza. The article does not mention when the Draculanian side of things was started. But I presume at some time he must have realised there was a market for Romanian food too, so he partitioned off his stall into two halves, and so forth.

The first time I went there I ordered Cirnati de Pork, or handmade Romanian pork sausage. Somewhat expensive at S$8 for one large sausage on a flatbread, a small portion of salad, two slices of tomato, a few scraps of leafy veg, and also a complimentary bread basket containing about four slices of good multigrain. The flatbread was the most intriguing. Its name was not mentioned, but in all likelihood it was an unstuffed Placinta (nowhere near as gross as it sounds like). It looked very much like a Paratha, if a bit more severely circular in shape, but its taste was different, denser and fattier, presumably because they used refined flour and also greater amounts of shortening. The salad was excellent. The sausage left me marginally let-down; maybe the exotic surroundings and the Romanian antecedents had goaded my expections to unduly high levels. It was certainly good, no doubt. Just that it didn't taste very different from any other well-made sausage. The portions also generally tended to be on the smaller side, especially given the price. Apart from these nits, I enjoyed myself enough to go back three days later.

On this occasion I opted for a Friptura de Pork, or Romanian pork chop. They took some time to prepare it, time I spent most enjoyably chatting with the manageress and the lady who ran the drinks stall next door. I got a little more bang for my buck (ok ten bucks) this time round: two generous pieces of pork smothered in mushroom sauce, a roll, a helping of salad, and again those bits of tomato and leafy veg. Three bucks extra fetched me a potato salad, which was nothing short of excellent, but then I've always had a weakness for potato and sour cream. The pork chops were excellent too, very soft, excellent meat, well cooked. As was the gravy rich and flavourful. But once again, not much different from any other decent chop anywhere else.

That was my last visit to Dracula. In less than two weeks Gillman Heights shut down for good, and we all had to relocate. I left Singapore in end-August. These last few weeks were extremely hectic, so I couldn't go back for another visit. It remains one of my most vivid memories of Singapore, and I wonder why. The food was certainly good, but not wildly exciting. I guess it was the fun of the whole thing, the quirky name, the gimmicky castle, and the very nice people running the show. Yes, an easy conviviality, an informality, that you don't often come across in Singapore. I shall miss it.
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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Chopshop at Professorpada (and that lovely Ambassador car) - II

[Continued from Part I]

After the chicken pakoda interlude, I asked Satya to drive. I was feeling fatigued, and also slightly feverish (not very surprising, because within  two days my temperature had hit 103.8 Farenheit). Satya exhibited a much more practised touch, had no compunctions gunning the car down crowded roads. Eventually we hit Professorpada, turned left at the canal, proceeded down the road for a few hundred metres, and then Satya stopped the car, asked us to get down, and pointed to a narrow lane on the left. Going further down this lane we discovered two adjoining shops, both selling chops. Satya directed us to the one closer to us, which was apparently the more favoured (and better known) purveyor.

The outfit had been carved out of a tiny alcove within a large, old house (the exposed beams on the ceiling gave you a feeling of just how old it was). This, however, served only as a store-room. It was kept meticulously clean, and had been fitted out with several shelves and benches. On these rested an array of sauces, condiments, spices, and trays full of uncooked chops. The action took place outside. All the cooking was done on a gas burner mounted on a stand, on which stood an ancient cast-iron Kadhai filled with oil. Customers stood around this arrangement, donas (leaf-bowls) in hand, the way people surround gol-gappa vendors. Chops were brought out from inside one tray at a time, and dunked into the sputtering oil. Once ready, they would be served straight out of the kadhai onto customers' donas. Amazingly, this whole process was a one-man affair. From frying the chops to serving them, to keeping count of which customer had how many of which variety, to handling the cash till, the proprietor did it all, singlehanded, faltering only rarely.

The chops were a surprise in several ways. Their size, to begin with. Chops generally tend to be oblong in shape, at least three inches long and about an inch and a bit across. These ones were tiny, at best three quarters of an inch across, and nearly spherical in size. Then the variety: the place has at least six or seven types on offer. They are cheap too. The mutton, chicken, liver, and prawn versions sell for three Rupees each. Also on offer is a vegetarian version, pointless from a religious viewpont since they are fried in the same oil as the meatier ones are. Egg chops are larger and pricier at ten bucks. Apart from chops, the shop also sells chaap, or breaded, deep fried cutlets. Mutton chaaps come for fifteen Rupees, and the chicken version for ten (I suspect the chicken chaaps are actually lollypops rather than chaaps in the true sense). Another interesting feature is the way they are served. About five to ten of them go into a dona, accompanied not by the stale raw onion you get at most chop vendors', but by a delightful green salad made up mostly of coarse-chopped unpeeled cucumber, just a little bit of shredded onion, and a few stray segments of lime. A masala is sprinkled, and then lime juice squeezed, over chop and salad alike. We were also offered tomato and chilli sauce, which we firmly and unanimously rejected.

Proceedings started with mutton chop, ten pieces to a person. Frankly, not up to much: too much potato, barely any meat. They tasted good, true. The breading was done just right - crispy, neither too oily nor too heavy. So was the lightly spiced potato filling tasty in its own right. But the dearth of meat filling was galling. All said, there's only so much potato you can chomp through in your quest for elusive bits of meat. In this regard the liver chops in the next round fared much better. Each piece had a substantial chunk of liver embedded. I suspect they pre-cook the liver, because for sure a few minutes' deep frying won't soften it enough. The bits in the chops were firm but impressively soft to chew, and they blended with the potato beautfully. A very, very satisfying experience.

In between the rounds, we got to talk to the proprietor a little. He said his name was Muna Panda, but people generally knew him as Kalia. His father had started the venture and he himself drifted into it in due course, largely because he was never serious about studies. He sometimes feels should have followed his brother, who qualified as an engineer and is now very well settled in Qatar. Kalia is determined to give his son a good education, and not let junior follow him into the chop business. I wonder what happens when he hangs up his Kadhai for good. Will he sell off the business? Will he share with the buyer, presumably an outsider to the family, the secret recipes and techniques he has amassed, the secrets that make his chops so singular? Or will he refuse to part with them, and have the Professorpada chop die with him?

And there were plenty of secrets too. We got a taste of them in the very next round, comprising of prawn chops. At three Rupees apiece, you cannot expect the highest grades of prawn. And indeed, the prawns used were pretty small, and a little on the stinky side too. However, they were cooked just right, and spiced just right. The spicing was gentle, and yet just assertive enough to soften the stink to comfortably tolerable levels. Once again, the prawn blended beautifully with the potato and the crisp breaded exterior. So which one did I like the more, liver or prawn? On hindsight, perhaps I'd go with the prawn, but for sure the liver version would come a very, very close second. Choosing between them is not easy.

The prawn chops were where we stopped. We had demolished several plates of chicken pakoda earlier, and then followed it up with about thirty chops per head. And thirty chops, even ones as small as these, make for a lot of meat, potato, and deep-fried breadcrumb. Raja continued to give Kalia brisk business for some more time. He had a round of chicken chops, then some mutton chaap, perhaps a few egg chops too. By this time I was feeling distinctly out of sorts.

At Dolamundai the others visited a well-known mixture shop. I took the opportunity to treat myself to some cough syrup. Then we went to a legendary tea stall near Barabati stadium. The delightful old gentleman running it greeted us with a perplexing remark, he said we ought to have come earlier, now he can serve us only dalda, not desi ghee. We had to talk to him for some time before we were able to understand what he meant, namely that his stock of good quality tea had got over for the day, and so he could offer us only second-great stuff which came nowhere near the quality he was famous for. Second-grade or not, the tea he served was excellent, and all the more so as far as I was concerned because by this time the virus had me firmly in its grip.

Bishwa took over the wheel for the last leg. I was too sick to drive. But not too sick to pose for pictures at the wheel of the car. We spent a good fifteen minutes taking photos, mainly because I wanted souvenirs to commemorate the first time I drove an Amby. It was a very silly idea, agreed, but the others cheerfully got into the spirit of things. Several shots later, I finally staggered up the stairs and flopped down on the bed without preamble. I was tired, sick, shivery, feverish, but it had been worth it in the end, every single bit of it.
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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Chopshop at Professorpada (and that lovely Ambassador car) - I


I am not sure how Cuttack's Professorpada locality got its name. Maybe faculty members from the nearby Ravenshaw College (now University) were allocated land there. Or maybe a whole bunch of them decided to settle down in the vicinity. I don't suppose too many academics would care to stay there today. Due to its central location it commands high property prices, even though Cuttack's largest, filthiest, and most malodorous open sewage drain flows (or stagnates, usually) right past it. For some strange reason the locallity has acquired a reputation for chop shops.

Right, then. What is a chop? Specifically what do we Indians mean by it? This second question is most relevant, because 'chop' is a textbook example of an English term acquiring in India a meaning completely removed from what it carries in its parent tongue. In standard English, according to Wikipedia, a chop is a  'cut of meat cut perpendicularly to the spine, and usually containing a rib or riblet part of a vertebra.'  The same article defines a cutlet as a 'thin boneless chop, or one with only the rib bone', though it admits the difference 'is not always clear'. In Indian cuisine a cutlet is typically a rib cut, spiced, breaded, and then deep fried. Please note that 'cutlet' refers specifically to the preparation; the cut of meat itself is known as either Seena (sīnā) (lit. 'breast') or Chaap (cāp) (sometimes pronounced with a slight nasal intonation as 'chaa(m)p'). The word certainly appears to be a corruption of the English 'chop'. I was unable to find any source that bears out this conjecture, barring an online glossary that defines chaap as 'rib chop'. The resemblance across the two words, however, is manifest.

Which does not explain why in addition to 'chaap', several Indian languages also feature a word called 'chop' whose meaning bears no resemblance to its standard English counterpart. This chop has at its core some sort of savoury filling, either meaty or veggie (Bengalis tend to make a mean chop out of Mocha or banana-blossom). It is then spiced, encased in mashed potato, breaded (typically with fine-textured breadcrumbs), then deep-fried. Hence it is much closer in spirit to the croquette, except that our chops tend to be more oblong or rounded than strictly cylindrical in shape.  (NB: The section on India in the wikipedia article is heavily misleading, please do not pay much attention to it). This is not a strict definition. The Alu Chop purveyed in streetside shops all over Bengal and Odisha conforms to few of its parameters. It comprises simply of sliced potato dipped in gram-flour batter and then deep-fried. No mashed potato casing, no breadcrumbs. At times it's not even spiced beforehand - just before handing the customer the plateful, the purveyor sprinkles salt, pepper, chilli powder and stuff.

The chop you get at Professorpada is of the croquette type - encased in mash, breaded, then deep fried. It marks a celebrated high-point in the Cuttack foodie scene. Rocky and Mayur, NDTV's food-honchos, have done a spot on it (the chop bit starts at about 7.18) and also reviewed it in their book (the review claims that the chops are batter-fried, a bit off the mark). It has also featured on Indian Express. I've been hearing about it since 2010, particularly from friend and colleague Debasis, who used to live there back then. Even though I visited him at his house on countless occaisions, I never got the chance to try the chops, one reason being that he never let me know the shops were located right adjacent to the apartment he lived in. Then he moved out, my reasons to go there diminished, and I forgot about it. Till last night, once again on a whim.

This time round, apart from usuals Ramakrishna and Bishwa Kallyan, we had two students come along with us.  Raja and Satyaprakash are in the final year, and thoroughly nice guys both of them. In Satya's case this is all the more notable because his father happens to be a prominent local politician. However, the gentleman is very much of the old school who has brought up his son with an iron hand to ensure he absorbed none of the brashness and arrogance so prevalent in political progeny in India. In this I am glad to say he succeeded most satisfactorily.

Presumably it's this old-school perspective that led the gentleman to buy an Ambassador car instead of some swankier new model. The Ambassador has become an icon of sorts today, loved and reviled in equal measure. It started life in 1957-58 as a direct clone of the Morris Oxford III,  underwent several modifications through successive iterations, and finally ended production as recently as 2014. Satya's version features an Isuzu-derived 2-litre diesel engine, a five-speed floor-shift gearbox of similar provenance, front disk brakes and bucket seats, power steering, and a retro-inspired centre-mounted instrument panel. It doesn't even call itself an Ambassador any more - for some unfathomable reason it now bears the name Avigo instead. Beneath the changes, though, the bodyshell remains largely unchanged from 1957, which establishes its Ambassadorial lineage no matter how comprehensively it is rechristened. Now I started driving at a time when pre-liberalisation cars like the Amby and the Premier Padmini (colloquially known as the 'Fiat') were common. I learnt to drive on a Fiat we sold as late as 1999, and I'm pretty sure a 1962 version replete with suicide doors (which also I have driven) still remains somewhere in the family. But somehow the chance to drive an Amby always eluded me. Till Satya readily agreed to bring his car along for the chop jaunt.

The drive was a revelation in many ways. Driving a piece of history was a thrilling experience. Yet I couldn't help but grieve a little over what the car stood for in its present iteration: a misbegotten modernisation exercise inevitably doomed to failure. The gearshift was flaccid. It was also positioned inconveniently forward, and the stumpy lever had a very wide throw. Which meant you had to reach out and flail your left arm around a good while before it slotted into gear. The brakes were barely adequate. The power steering was soggy, didn't give you a feel of the road. I didn't much like the engine either. Particularly the feeble pick-up - you needed to really rev the engine to get any kind of acceleration out of the car. Nevertheless, the drive was in general a pleasant one, largely due to features left unmolested from circa 1957. Seating remains as roomy as ever, particularly for rear-seat passengers. And the suspension's ability to soak up potholes is something to be cherished.

When starting off I assumed we'd proceed to Professorpada directly, and had set a course accordingly. But no, it seems the remarks we were exchanging on the chicken Pakoda served at a place called DFC (more on this later) had whetted Satya's cravings pretty badly. So as we were cheerfully bowling down the Kathjodi Ring Road he informed us he had actually called up DFC and asked for a few plates to be served the moment we arrived. Had I known about it earlier, I would have hit the Mahanadi Ring Road, kept to the river's edge till about Barabati Stadium, and then prised the car into the YMCA Road. It was too late to do that now, unless I doubled back from Satichaura all the way to Chahata. The alternative was to head straight from Satichaura and then cut through the town's denser pockets. I was not too keen to do that, what with an unfamiliar car and all, but once I realised I didn't have much of a choice, what the hell! The car behaved magnificently, especially in the most thickly-populated bits where riding the clutch was a necessity.

[Continued in Part II]
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Monday, October 27, 2014

Hotel Subhalaxmi, Naraj


Hotel Subhalaxmi is a small, unpretentious dhābā tucked away in a village just beyond the farthest reaches of Cuttack.  It is not a particularly well-known place, nor is it given to offering exotic one-off preparations. But over time it has built up a local reputation for hearty everyday fare at reasonable prices. Denizens tend to speak highly of its mutton curry and fried fish. It is only a couple of kilometres away from our University campus, and some colleagues are regular lunchtime visitors. We'd been hearing about it for quite some time. So the other day we three of us - Bishwa Kallyan, Ramakrishna, and self - decided on a whim to check it out.

Ram had in fact finished a substantial lunch by then. He came along mainly for the good-humoured conviviality and camaraderie that make our little jaunts so memorable. That and a little fried fish on the side - he ordered um, four of them. Bishwa and I were fortunate he didn't want anything more. They had nearly run out of mutton by the time we arrived (at about 2.30) and could scrape together only two servings. To this Bishwa and I helped ourselves with an easy conscience since Ram was, of course, too full for another meal!

The place is typical of dhabas in Odisha. It is housed in a small single-storied cemented building, one among a row of shops. In front of the entrance is a kind of porch made of concrete columns topped by a canopy of corrugated iron. This serves to stave off the heat, and also provided some shade for regulars who sit there for a chat. What really caught the eye was the shop's startling colour-scheme. The columns are painted a bright lime green with a blue and, now much faded, at the bottom. Inside the green gives way to an equally vivid mustard yellow. Here the blue borders and edges are much more prominent. The sides of the cashier's desk, and the iron door at the back, also flaunt similar shades of blue. As is common practice among dhabas, the kitchen is situated right in front, with tables laid out for diners towards the back. The inside is spartan, with the furniture tending to granite-topped iron tables and backless wooden benches. The ceiling has begun to look a little sooty. That said, it is reasonably clean throughout, even the kitchen is respectably tidy. The benches are not too uncomfortable either, a sentiment evidently shared by the group at the next table who had sneaked in some (very strong) beer and were surreptitously doling it out amongst themselves.

Even though we had come for the first time, the manager sized us up as favoured customers. This favour was bestowed in curious fashion. Perhaps overly cautious of hygiene levels, he came and spread newspapers on our table before setting down the plates. The full thalis (plated meals) for Bishwa and self arrived first. And a good thing too. We were starving by then; the freshly-lunched Ram was, well, not starving. The trays contained rice, some mixed veg, dry stir-fried potato and parwal, and that famed mutton. The rice was the inexpensive, thick-grained variety served in cheap eateries all over Odisha and known simply by the generic name usna chaula (pronounced 'usnā cāulô') or 'parboiled rice'. Sophisticates disparage it as coarse, hard to chew, and heavy on the stomach (hence lethargy-inducing). I tend to differ. It has a robust flavour and texture I love, which you simply don't find in the more refined varieties. If made properly it is not very chewy either. And in this place it was made most properly too, cooked just right. I used up all the rice finishing off the veggies, and had to ask for a second helping to have the mutton with.

The mixed veg was tasty enough, if not particularly interesting. I liked the potato and parwal much more. It was well cooked, not oily at all, and I have a weakness for parwal. I would have asked for seconds had it not been for the mutton waiting patiently across the rice. Ah! the mutton. Lived up to expectation in every way. The gravy was excellently made. It was browned evenly, replete with meaty juices and flavours, and without the slightest hint of scorching even though what they served us must have been the dregs from the day's cooking. The meat was well-cooked, succulent, soft, neither chewy nor mushy, and fell off the bone at the slightest touch. Humble surroundings be damned, it compared handsomely with the finest mutton I've had anywhere in Odisha.

I had just started on the mutton when the fish arrived. By the time I remembered to take pictures, and also get myself a taste, Ram had polished off two of them. They were locally procured small fish, possibly caught that morning off the nearby Kathajodi, and then fried whole. I confess I am not much of a fish eater. Still I helped myself to a couple of chunks just to get a taste. It was not bad, but not very juicy either, and a bit on the bland side. Ram enjoyed it thoroughly, though.

They charged us about Rs 120 per mutton thali. (Or at least that's what Bishwa told me later. While Ram and I were busy with fish and camera respectively, he had sneaked out and quietly settled the bill.) While not cheap, it was certainly reasonable considering the price of mutton these days. And certainly well worth the money. The fish sold for about Rs 30 each, which I thought was on the steeper side. But this is a minor nit. We had a wonderful time, no doubt about it. I certainly intend to be back soon.
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Friday, October 24, 2014

Istanbul for Beginners 01: Getting There

[NB: This is part of a series on my visit to Istanbul. For other posts, please see the prefatory note.]

I was not meant to go to Istanbul. Not originally, that is. Back then I was a grad student at NUS. Their research scholars policy extended to funding one international conference a year. The SLS Conference, certainly one of the more prestigious events for law scholars, had accepted my abstract. It was to be held in London that year, which is where I thought I was headed. But then I got into a little problem with my supervisor, and the wonderful lady decided send me, and CC to the Vice-Dean, a mail containing some highly suggestive and misleading remarks about a dissertation chapter I was supposed to complete. As a matter of fact I had completed that chapter, and to the supervisor's satisfaction at that. I was the one who felt there was something vital I had missed out conceptually.  So I withdrew what I had turned in, and asked for a little time to revise it. It took me fifteen days of tense, chaotic brooding, but I did managed to crack the puzzle in the end, and the insights so gained proved pretty fundamental. By that time, though, the damage was done, and my funding application duly turned down. Ironically, these new ideas were what I wanted to present at SLS.

Even though I managed to set the record straight with the Vice-Dean the next time I met him in person, the episode left me absolutely livid. So much so that I vowed not to apply for conference funding ever again as long as I remained in Singapore. My friend Saiful thought it was a silly thing to do. He empathised with my feelings, yes, but why not avail of something that was mine by right? So what should I do, I asked, go ahead and present at a top-tier international conference insights I know are substantial, but which the supervisor can only scoff at? That's when he had a most interesting idea: why don't I seek out some conference, any obscure conference, being held at a place I've always wanted to visit? A little googling revealed a conference on terrorism to be held at one of Istanbul's lesser universities. I was reading Orhan Pamuk's book on the city at that time. Moreover, terrorism law had been one of my optional courses, and the term paper I had written for it could be comfortably recycled for this conference. Things began to fall into place automatically. This time my application sailed through most smoothly: I have no idea what the Vice-Dean told her, but my supervisor gave her consent in record time.

(Not entirely, though. She did one more little dirty on me. I had applied for three days' extra leave. She chose not to respond to the request one way or the other, which meant, thanks to the applicable rules, that I forfeited those three leaves without ever getting to know if they had been approved or not. I smelt a rat somewhere. My instincts told me extending the trip might not be a good idea. So I decided to return on the originally scheduled date. Sure enough, within hours of my landing I got a mail from her about something or the other. I responded within minutes, making it a point to say I was heavily jetlagged, which is why I couldn't come down to the campus. I don't know if she ran my mail through a reverse-DNS checkup. I sure hope she did; it would have reassured her no end.)

Anyways, once the approval came through the rest was easy. The only catch was, I had to arrange (and pay for) my own accommodation. This I managed online at minimum expense; I opted for a dormitory bed for fifteen Euros a night. Slightly steep, this Istanbul Paris Hotel and Hostel, but located in the heart of the Old City, extended walking distance from the conference venue, pretty close to the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, and they threw in a buffet breakfast for free. The University took care of the conference fees and, most crucially, the airfare. NUS had a delightful policy of reimbursing only SQ (i.e. Singapore Airlines) flights. Given that it was and remains one of the best airlines around, I certainly didn't have any problem with that. I did face a minor hiccup over my blazer, which I had outgrown by several inches around the midriff. Buying a new one from Singapore was never an option: the readymades were badly cut and ill-fitting, and bespoke tailoring was too expensive to contemplate. So one Saturday I went over to Johor Baru in Malaysia, located a tailor there, struck a deal with him, and returned the following Saturday to pick it up. I goofed a little on the material: in my haste I chose some sort of polyesterish stuff; when I went to pick it up I learnt I could have got Italian lambswool for just a hundred Ringgit more. That apart, my preparations proceeded with the utmost smoothness. Even the Turkish visa was processed in about three days.

Since this was an SQ flight, I got to experience at first hand the swanky new Terminal 3 at Changi. I loved the whole experience, couldn't get enough of it. Especially the planes parked right outside the departure lounge, across the plate-glass windows. In the plane another surprise awaited me. Though the flight was reasonably full, the other two seats on my row remained unoccupied, at least till the stopover at Dubai. Which meant I could simply lift up the armrests and stretch out across all three seats. I still didn't get much sleep, though. Even after about six or seven assorted drinks, I could only manage a thin, intermittent snooze in the last two hours of the Singapore-Dubai leg. Maybe the drinks they serve on planes are smaller than regular ones. That's the only explanation I have for remaining awake, and stone cold sober, even with all that beer, wine, CampariIrish Cream, and indifferent Cognac sloshing about inside me. I did say assorted, right? I meant it.

Given SQ's reputation, I expected the food to be several notches above the sludge they serve on other airlines. In this I was not disappointed exactly, but that's about all that can be said for it. They served us grilled chicken, sauteed veg, mash, a dinner roll, some salad - standard stuff, mostly nourishing, reasonably tasty and, well, humdrum. Breakfast the next morning was nicer, if equally conventional. I got some sort of sausage (lamb, most likely), a couple of bull's eye eggs, apart from the usual accoutrements like baked beans, a roll, coffee, orange juice and all.

Dubai Airport was much as I had expected it - opulent, at times to the point of garishness. I tried to get myself some food, but then they told me even if I paid in Euros they will return the change in their local currency. One more incident: I was taking some pictures of a watch outlet displaying a huge poster of Aishwarya Rai (which suggested where a significant chunk of the shop's clientele came from). This officious security guard immediately stalked up to me and told me not to take pictures. I was drowsy and tired for lack of sleep, which is why I decided not to create a shindig. Otherwise I'd have cheerfully asked to see the manager and, if it came to that, even file a complaint.

I did manage some sleep after Dubai, even though the seats next to mine were occupied. I woke up to a most spectacular dawn, which slowly gave way to the loveliest cloudscaped morning. In the brilliant sunshine, and against the deep mystic blue sky you get only at high altitudes, the vista was nothing short of magical. I could spot plains, forested clumps, rocky outcrops, windswept dunes. An enchanted land, a secret land, real, manifest, but which we humans were condemned to view only at a distance, from behind plate glass. And if by some stratagem, say a parachute, we contrived to reach out to the land, the closer we came to it the more the magic would dispel, the more porous, flawed, insubstantial our senses would perceive it to be. And then the land would shroud us in thick, sticky, opaque, white blindness and, before we knew what was happening, summarily eject us from its domain. After that of course the magic would reassert itself. Again the land would appear solid, real, but this time above us, unattainable because we cannot fly up.

Arrival at Istanbul was very smooth. I found myself outside the airport almost before I knew it. The weather was surprisingly chilly and drizzly, especially for late April. I was glad I had invested in a warm jacket before coming here; it stood me in good stead throughout my trip, and continues to do so even today, five years on. Getting to my hotel didn't pose much of a problem either. Some helpful soul advised me to take the Havaş bus to Aksaray (good value for money at five Euros), then take the tram to Çemberlitaş. I enjoyed the drive to Aksaray, very picturesque it was, with the city ramparts on my left and the Sea of Marmara to my right.

Akasaray was a learning experience. About currency rates, particularly. Now that Italy had joined the Euro, Turkey must be the only country whose currency is called Lira. Some time ago, the government decided to revamp the heavily devalued Lira. They created a new currency called YTL or Yeni Türk Lirasi (New Turkish Lira), each one of them worth 100,000 old ones. This brought about some sort 1:2 parity with the Euro. So when the Havaş guy glibly asked me for either ten Liras or five Euros, I thought this was the exchange rate generally. Ah, but then at Aksaray I found several foreign exchange shops offering as much as YTL 2.20 a Euro. (Later on, when I went to the more touristy places, I found rates there did not exceed 2.14. A useful trick, this: to figure out tourist-traps, keep a lookout for what currency traders offer.)

By this time the weather had got to me. I darted into a joint called Arjantin Piliç. As is now common the world over, the placemats had some popular items listed out, replete with pictures. That is how I figured out all steaks are called Biftek in Turkey: chicken steak is called Piliç Biftek, for example. (So chicken is called Piliç, except when it is called Tavuk. Go figure.) I wasn't interested in steaks. Nor in the chicken, lamb, quail and other meats set up for roasting on a variety of horizontal and vertical spits. What I wanted was soup, lots of soup, çorba they called it. And what wonderful soup it was! - thick, creamy, and flavoursome. It came with a basket of Turkish bread, warm, soft, and encrusted with sunflower seeds.  A hearty welcome to the loveliest city ever.
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Monday, October 06, 2014

Istanbul for Beginners 00: Prefatory Note


One more series of posts on food and travel interspersed. This time it's about my visit to Istanbul more than five years ago. Like with other posts, one reason I have not written about it for so long is that I couldn't decide where to begin. Or how to approach it - as a narrative of all that I experienced there, arranged chronologically and with no detail omitted, however slight; or as a collection of individual vignettes. The first does not enthuse me so much. Partly because I cannot be sure my recollections will be uniformly detailed or vivid. And the other partly because while I am eager to write about certain episodes, I would rather avoid the drudge of chronicling the less interesting bits. So what I have cobbled together here is a random collection of reminiscences presented in no discernible order. And whyever not. It's my blog, so there!

List of Posts:
  1. Getting There
  2. One Day, Three Doner
  3. Haci Abdullah
  4. Camberlitas
  5. Three (+1) Forms of Public Transport
  6. Midye Dolma
  7. The Blue Mosque, Wali Kebap
  8. Aya Sofia
  9. Selim Usta
  10. Topkapi
  11. The Asian Side - Sekerpare, Kocorek
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Monday, September 01, 2014

A (Mostly) Vegetarian Excursion to Mysore 04: The Return Journey

[Continued from Part III]

The rest of the day was spent sightseeing (that ghastly word). First stop, the Chamundeshwari Temple just outside Mysore. An impressive sight, in several ways. For one, the surroundings were spotlessly clean. Then I could spot only two special queues, priced at Rupees twenty and a hundred respectively. The five-figure obnoxiousness characteristic of so many temples in this country was thankfully absent. And this is something I have never been able to either understand or reconcile with what I consider basic human values: why should your wallet determine how close you can get to god? Another thing I much appreciate was the absence of those detestable "Non-Hindus Not Allowed" placards so prevalent in places like Orissa. Mr David and Amita had no compunctions about going in. So who stayed out? Heh.

It was not solely because of my agnostic outlook. The temple and its immediate environs presented excellent photo opportunities. That's what I did the whole time the rest were away. Take photographs and observe generally. There was plenty to observe, as there usually is near bustling temples. Like that sign proclaiming "Coconut Broken Place" (for the uninitiated, this indicates the place meant for breaking coconuts - certain rituals require the beneficiary to smash a coconut by hitting it very hard on the ground). Or the 'Godly Museum' just outside the temple premises. Another was the board outside the "Ladu [sic] Prasada Counter", which listed consecrated laddus for ten Rupees apiece, two for twenty and (surprise) four for forty. Perhaps their Holinesses of the temple management committee have transcended mundane considerations like economy of scale? To be fair, the laddus were priced reasonably, well within the budget of most devotees.

A brief halt at the Nandi Bull idol, and then another famous place of worship, the Nanjundeshwara Temple at Nanjangud. I stayed out this one too. But this time I had a task to fulfil. someone (most likely my mother, don't recall exactly) was feeling slightly unwell, so I set off to locate a pharmacy. It took me much longer than I had expected: the nearest one was a good walk away, and I misunderstood the directions I got from a kindly soul. But in the process I was able to experience - and photograph - parts of this lovely old town most outsiders are oblivious to. I wish I had more time to explore the place.
Next stop, the Mysore Palace once again. This time we went inside to see the portion that had been converted into a museum. Which turned out to be a cumbersome procedure. First we had to deposit our cameras. Next we had to buy tickets, of course. Then came the strangest part - we had to take off our shoes and deposit them at a designated counter. I have no idea why this was mandated. Perhaps it was to help preserve the antique tiled floor of the palace, or maybe the idea of plebians clomping around with their shoes on did not go down well with the remnants of the erstwhile royal family. The experience was made even more unpleasant by the stone paving on the footpaths, which had turned blistering hot in the midday sun. A few stray pieces of coconut matting had been laid out over them, but they were too prickly to comfortably walk on, and in any case so tattered as to be almost useless. Even the museum proved a massive disappointment. It contained little of true historical significance. Mostly it ran to bric-a-brac of various kinds ('objay dar' or 'French for junk', as the great Wodehouse put it) - mementoes gifted by visiting potenates or grateful sections of the vassalage; old furniture and carpets; portraits, that sort of thing.

Another unpleasant surprise awaited us as we came out. Some genius had come up with the idea of organising horse- and elephant-rides on that part of the palace grounds. So now we had to not just hop-skip barefooted across scorching paving-tiles, but also take care not to step on the animal dung liberally decorating the pathways. We discovered the titular Maharaja had opened up to the public some parts of the wing he still retained. Some seventy Rupees gained you the privilege of inspecting items of everyday royal life - toys, clothes, pots, pans and that sort of thing. Adithi and Amita elected to check this out, the rest of us hopped over to a row of snack outlets and treated ourselves to lukewarm fruit juice.

The Jaganmohan Palace was vastly more enjoyable. Its collection of paintings was magnificent, no two ways about it. Some tend to exaggerate its excellence: I came across a webpage that claims "such works of Rembrandt can be found nowhere in the world except in Russia" and then goes on insist it also features works by master [sic] like P.P. Ruben [sic], Titan [sic], A. Caddy (who?) and miniatures by Gunoy (once again, who?). It turned out that the only (Western) old masters on display were specially commissioned copies. But no regrets - the magnificent Indian art collection more than made up for it. Take painters from Bengal. The biggies were all there - Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy - and represented by some of their finest works too. And then there were several pieces by lesser-known Shantiniketan exponents, names I had not come across before. I wouldn't call them inspired, exactly - some of them tended a bit too heavily towards Chinese or Japanese stylistic cues. But that's just what made them interesting in my eyes, as outcomes of a cerebral process, that is, of a conscious, reasoned attempt to reduce various Indian and Far-Eastern styles into their bare distillates, and then synthesise them into a new idiom. And then of course the fabled Ravi Varma collection. I confess I'm not a fan of his, find him a bit too schmaltzy for my tastes. But the works on display here were still a treat, in a cosy, sentimental, feel-good manner. Something like Mahendra Kapoor's musical output [1], pleasant and nostalgia-evoking in its own way though in my view a mere shadow of Rafi's staggering genius.

The musical instruments section was unquestionably the most rewarding part of the day. Indian musical instruments contain many sophisticated features, but their constitutive specifications have never been standardised through convention. As a result, they display much greater variance than western ones do in their dimensions, tonal range, pitch, timbre, and at times even the number of playing and other strings. Good quality instruments are always ordered bespoke from master-luthiers, who handcraft each piece according to specifications the client supplies. An instrument thus amounts to a record of the specific tonal and behavioural qualities the customer-musician desires from it. But then again, musicians are not always the sole arbiters of what constitutes good music; their target audience must also be of the same mind. And this goes for the tone and behaviour of instruments too. In the last century, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Vilayat Khan made radical modifications to the Rudra Veena and the Sitar respectively. They both enjoyed successful musical careers. But would they have been considered successful if their audiences had not accepted as meaningful their organological innovations? And this acceptability issue was even more crucial in the era of princely states.

This is why the exhibit was so remarkable. Each instrument was represented by versions from different eras lined up together. So by merely looking at them we get a clear idea of how they evolved structurally - and tonally too - over centuries.  This was the only time I found frustrating their policy of not allowing cameras inside museums. I'd have loved to keep a visual record of those insightful displays. Just to work off the frustration, when collecting the camera from the deposit counter I loosed off a few shots of the palace's interior. It gives some idea of just how graceful the edifice looks from the inside.

Next stop, lunch at a place called Kamat. Its open-air dining area was truly beautiful - a large, intensely green space divided into smaller canopied enclosures, with chiks (thin cane screens) draped over the sides imparting a sense of privacy and seclusion from other diners. All in all, we enjoyed the ambience more than the food which, barring some terrific fried fish, was decent but not remarkable. (We had decided to forgo for once our self-imposed vegetarianism.) At Daria Daulat Bagh, Tipu's summer palace, my father-in-law and I sat in the car while the others went inside. They came back about an hour later complaining how dilapidated and ill-maintained it was. I of course knew about all this, which is why I didn't bother to go there in the first place. One point of interest, I spotted one of those Kerala-registered autorickshaws I had first noticed at Tipu Sultan's tomb. Wonder what they were doing there, and how they got into Karnataka in the first place. I sat out the visit to the Ranganathaswamy Temple too. No surprise there - I was tired, and in any case never too enthusiastic about temples.


On the way back we made another very enjoyable visit to Maddur Tiffanyss. Then we stopped for a good length of time at Chennapatna, a town famous for laquered wooden toys. We went crazy here, buying the most extraordinary toys for the newborn. One couldn't blame us, really, the toys were so, so attractive.

Adithi opted for something whose extraordinary ingenuity I still marvel at. It consists of a circular disc with a handle, approximating the size and shape of a table-tennis bat. Five little wooden chickens dot the outer edge of the disc, their jointed necks connected by threads to a wooden ball suspended below. Joggling the contrivance in a circle (the way one fries a thin omelette) pulls down each neck one at a time, making the chickens look like they are by turns pecking at the rice grains painted on the centre. A diverting spectacle, but not my out-and-out favourite. That accolade has to go to a wooden cow which bounces up and down on a long spring, something like a yo-yo. Daughter and self find its sheer silliness irresistible. It seldom fails to elicit a giggle from the both of us. But perhaps this is only natural; the difference in our mental ages isn't all that much.
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Thursday, June 06, 2013

A (Mostly) Vegetarian Excursion to Mysore 03: Hotel Original Mylari

[Continued from Part II]

The following day we woke up early. I forget why, though, but it was for a specific reason which somehow didn't materialise. First stop after saying goodbye to Peter: St Philomena's Church. It is a magnificent edifice, modelled on the lines of the Cologne Cathedral. But I couldn't shake off the feeling there was something palpably modern about it. So when in the course of researching for this post I learned it had been constructed in the mid-1930s, I wasn't surprised. I managed some decent pictures of the exteriors, but several signboards made it clear photography was forbidden inside. In any case, services were going on at that time, with the officiating priest belting out a sermon with much gusto. To be honest, the sermon wasn't particularly good. We sneaked out keeping in mind the admirable precept:
The sermon our vicar, Rt. Rev.
Preached might have a rt. clev.
But the finish, though consistent
Was kept so far distant
That we left as we felt he mt. nev.
St Philomena's is a Catholic church of course, but the principle is the same.

And now comes what's unquestionably the high-point of the entire trip: Hotel Original Mylari. It was Mr David's idea, of course; he said one got the best breakfasts in town there. And evidently many share that opinion, if the number of blogposts and even newspaper articles on it is anything to go by. But oh dear! it's not nearly so simple. There happen to be two different establishments located there, more or less across the road from one another. One goes by the name "Hotel Original Mylari", the other calls itself, "Hotel Mylari - Original We Have No Branches [sic]." (I confess I didn't even notice the second place, we were in such a hurry to grab decent tables and get started on the hogging.) Thindi Theerta states rather decorously that "A chat with one of the managers revealed some interesting family history between the two." That they share a common ancestry is manifest; the review points out that along with the name, even the food at the two places is more or less identical. Mukta Manassu says other places called Mylari also exist, including one in Kuvempu Nagar. It is not clear if this Mylari is also genetically connected to the first two, or merely a copycat exercise. Either ways the food there is reportedly not a patch on the latter. Both these aforementioned reviews, incidentally, are about Hotel Original Mylari, the places we ourselves went to. Other reviews I found include ones posted on Santy-Space and Passionate Travellers, both of which concern the other joint, the no-branches version. Curiously, they neglect to mention even the existence of its sister (step-sister?) concern.

Then this Deccan Herald article entitled "Brand Mylari for those Simple, Cripsy [sic] Dosas" neglects to tell us just which Mylari it is talking about, or even whether it is aware two of them exist. It does say, though, that Hotel Mylari (presumably the progenitor of both these "originals") was started some 60 years ago by one N Mylareshwara Swamy. Right from the outset it adopted a bill of fare restricted to two items: its iconic dosa, and idli (which Deccan Herald does not mention). Initially this did not wash down too well with customers ("he had "a [sic] few customers"), but then slowly its reputation began to grow. Its successor establishments have retained their predecessor's ethos in more ways than one. They are both tiny, poky places; they neither of them believe much in publicity; they service the same menus; their cooking is nearly identical; and given their small size and large numbers of patrons, obtaining a table at either outlet is a chancy affair. People frequently wait for hours for a table. Frequently and cheerfully too; regulars insist the quality of food makes waiting worth it, and anyway, the dosas are so delicate that takeaways are not an option.

We were very lucky, then. By the time we reached, at around 7.30 on a Sunday morning, Original Mylari was only sparsely filled.  We snaffled a brace of tables as quickly as we could, and then waited for the food to arrive. The idlis came first. And amazing ones they were too, extraordinarily soft and fluffy. Idlis generally approximate the size and shape of a large magnifying-glass lens. The ones you get at most regular shops hold that shape to near-perfection - neatly circular in cross-section; regular, symmetrical covex bulges at the top and bottom; even their surface is smooth and only discreetly pitted by the steaming process. The ones at Mylari displayed none of this boilerplate (OK, steamerplate) perfection. They were noticeably thicker and fluffier, smaller in diameter, and somewhat unevenly contoured. This irregularity of appearance was accentuated by deep dents that ran along the sides towards the bottom. My wife's idlis tend to look like that too, and a conversation with her gave me interesting insights about not only the shape but also the taste of Mylari idlis.

Crucial to the idli making process is the idli stand, a tiered arrangement of several circular trays. Each tray contains several concave depresssions with several perforations drilled into them. Idli batter is poured into the depressions, the trays are stacked up, and then the arrangement is lowered into an air-tight steaming vessel. Steam generated by the water at the bottom of the vessel passes through the perforations and cooks the batter. The more the steam goes through it, the fluffier and tastier the idli turns out. Modern idli stands are made of aluminium, steel or plastic, comparatively non-toxic materials. Batter can be poured directly into the depressions, which is how the resultant idlis gain their near-perfect shape. But to prevent the batter from oozing out, the perforations on the cavities have to be made very fine, which somewhat constricts the passage of steam. Older stands are made of a metal called pītal. (I've not been able to obtain a precise translation of this term. Google Translate renders it as brass, but little credence can be placed on it; if the direction of translation is reversed, Google Transate insists both brass and bronze mean pītal. It also tells us that the equivalent of bell metal is kāņsā, but if the direction is reversed again, then kāņsā comes out as bronze. It could be that pītal is an alloy indigenous to India, of which no precise western equivalent exists. Given India's hoary metallurgical traditions, this is entirely possible.)

Due to its toxic character, cooking food directly in pītal vessels is not a good idea. So when making idlis in a pītal stand, small pieces of cloth need to be spread on the depressions, and the batter poured onto them and not directly on the metal. That is where the indentations come from; some folds and creases on the cloth are inevitable, and the solidifying batter tends to retain their impression. The cloth also keeps the batter from oozing out. So the perforations tend to be broader, which facilitates the passage of steam. Moreover, the intervening cloth layer has the effect of diffusing the steam and helping it pass evenly all over through the batter. The wife informs me that even the thickness of the cloth matters here - up to a point, the thicker the cloth the more evenly diffused the steam, and so the more uniformly fluffy the idli. While on the topic, we happen to have at home a pītal stand at least fifty years old, and the wife's idlis made on it are things to die for.

The other noticeable thing about these idlis were the way they were served. Usually what you get is a plateful of idli, surrounded by several small bowls containing sambar, coconut chutney, and at times other condiments as well. Bowls may be dispensed with, but sambar I thought was a sine qua non. Not in this place, it turned out. What we got was some coconut chutney and a green concoction I had never seen before. Both were ladled directly onto one side of the banana-leaf-lined plate and jostled for space among themselves while somehow leaving untouched the idlis on the other side. No sambar anywhere to be see, which I was fine with, since I'm not a great sambar fan anyway. About the green stuff, more later. Suffice it to say they went very well with the idlis. So well in fact that I altogether forgot to take pictures till I had all but finished the first idli on the plate.

Excellent as the idlis were, they whittled away into insignificance once those magnificent dosas arrived. Even their looks bespoke something special. They were evenly browned all over, mostly a golden light brown with some parts a slightly nuttier shade. There was none of the very dark, almost charred patches so off-putting in taste and so sadly common to run-of-the-mill dosas. These ones tasted as bright and sunny as they looked. Crisp on the outside, soft and comfortingly warm inside, made from very fresh batter, and then that blob of unsalted butter on top added that essential final touch. No, I take it back - nowhere near a final touch, that one.  There was still plenty left about the ensemble that demanded proper description. Take the coconut chutney peeking out from behind the dosa. Nothing unusual in itself, save that it went easy on the spicy factor. And yet it stood out, a fact attributeable almost entirely to the freshness of the ingredients used.

Of greater interest was the green filling inside the dosas. Yes, the same green stuff they served with the idlis, and one of the things that make Mylari (ok, both Mylaris) so distinctive. I have not come across it ever before. Indeed, the dosas I'd encountered earlier (at least the vegetarian ones) were all either plain (that is, with nothing inside them) or stuffed with the ubiquitous potato and curry leaf palya. Thindi Theerta says the potato stuffing is available as an option; customers can choose between it and the green stuff. The article calls it "saagu masala" and then ventures an all too brief description, viz. "a semi-gravy type mixed vegetable preparation." Passionate Travellers's review (of the other Mylari) describes it much more comprehensively as "a sago-green chilli-corainder paste filling with raw finely minced onions or shallots." But then it goes on to call it "typical", which is where of course I disagree. Typicalness aside, how successful a venture was it? As it turned out, extremely so. Potatoes are mild sweetish, somewhat neutral character, so in a conventional dosa filling the sharpest tastes come from curry leaves and spices used. This filling had a flavour, a personality of its own - the freshness of coriander and green chilli, the texture of onion, coupled with a mild bite imparted by the chilli, yielding a very effective combination, and all the more memorable because I had not encountered it before.

While we were busy digging in, the place had begun to fill up, imperceptibly, a little at at time. By the time we finished it was jam-packed, with several people standing around and looking at us hopeful we might leave soon. Through the jostle, I spotted sitting by a window a figure in a white cap who looked strangely familiar. And strange all the more because I wasn't aware I knew anyone here  - not in the whole of Mysore, and certainly not in this particular back lane. But no, that was not entirely true, it transpired. As we threaded our way towards the exit and drew closer to him, who does he turn out to be? None other than Mr Abdul Khader, he of the previous evening's "Biryani Paradise" encounter, surprise! On his part he was thrilled to bump into us again, kept grinning from ear to ear. He did not seem the least bit abashed being caught eating at someone else's eatery; maybe his own place did not run to breakfasts? Whatever it was, he kept repeating this place gave you the best breakfast in the entire city, and he's been coming regularly since he was so high. This must rank among the most ringing endorsements I've ever come across - a biryani- and kabab-shop proprietor extolling the virtues of a strict vegetarian breakfast joint.

[Continued in Part IV]
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