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. Landing in Istanbul
  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

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. At least on the outside it was quite 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 liked 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, once we had hop-skipped our way to it, proved disappointing. 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.

Coming out of the place, we faced an even more unpleasant situation. Some genius had come up with the idea of organising horse- and elephant-rides on that part of the palace grounds. So in addition to negotiating the scorching paving tiles barefooted, now we also had to keep an eye out for animal dung liberally dotting the walkways. 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 old masters on display were specially commissioned copies. But no regrets there - 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 output at that. And then there were several works 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 for me 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 all-out favourite. That status goes to a wooden cow which bounces up and down on a long spring, something like a yo-yo. Both 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.

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, though, the sermon wasn't a particularly good one. 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 connect 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 even mention 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! For 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]

Friday, November 16, 2012

A (Mostly) Vegetarian Excursion to Mysore 02: Sree Annapoorna Hotel

[Continued from Part I]

From Tipu Sultan's tomb, we went straight to Mysore. Mr David's friend and mentor Prof Chandy had invited us to stay over at his house. Unfortunately he himself was out of town at that time, something he expressed much regret over. His general factotum Peter took every care to see we had a comfortable time. After a quick wash-up we headed out to see the Mysore Palace all lit up for the occasion. We first viewed it from a vantage-point halfway up the Chamundi Hills. The vista was truly stunning, but I was unable to do justice to it photographically as I had left my zoom lens behind in Bangalore. We then proceeded to the palace itself, to see the decorations close up. Very pretty it was too. But let's face it, there's only so many times you can stare at a bunch of lightbulbs: you've seen one you've seen them all. We spent half an hour or so there, took lots of pictures, then pushed over to Sree Annapoorna for a much-needed dinner.

Sree Annapoorna is one of those places whose looks alone leave you intrigued and eager for more. It is housed in a beautiful old building right next to the State Bank of Mysore head office. The interiors are equally impressive, running to high ceilings, warm tones and arches everywhere - windows, doorways, even the colonnade outside. The dining area, though, bears signs of an identity crisis. Watercolours of old Mysore vie for attention with near-naked tubelights and funny s-shaped tubes suspended from the ceiling which don't seem to serve any functional purpose, and have in all likelihood spawned out of some misbegotten designer fantasy. But this is a minor nit. A slightly bigger nit has nothing to do with the place itself, but how it's been written about. Given the circumstances I had presumed the place was both old and popular, and so bound to have loads of articles published on it. I was surprised to find all of one brief mention, in a blog run by a Canadian Mormon "senior missionary couple" (as they call themselves). And even that brief mention is interesting for quite the wrong reasons. I understand the authors are visitors from abroad, and thus entitled to some latitude when it comes to details. But even so, and especially when they've already spent some four to five months in Bangalore, a description of "igly" [sic] or "white rice pattie" served with a "spicy curry sauce" and (horrors!!) "dahi (yogurt)" does come across as startling. As Adithi points out, "coconut chatni ki dahi bana dii, literally!"

The biggest nit, gripe, whatever you call it, remains reserved for the food they served us. It was fully as disappointing as the building was spectacular. We had ordered several varieties of dosa - coarse-textured Rava Roast Dosa for me, Benne Dosa for some (don't recall who), regular Masala Dosa for others. And they were all disastrous, each of them. My Rawa Roast was overcooked and thus transited from crispy or crunchy into a state of outright hardness. It was also singularly devoid of flavour. The other dosas tasted sour, most likely because the batter used was so stale it had started to ferment. The coconut chutney was thin; the sambar was decent but nothing exceptional. Ironically, the saving grace of the entire meal were the quasi-Chinese dishes we had ordered as sides. The Chilli Mushroom was particularly delectable - succulent mushrooms, chillies just piquant to make things interesting, and overall a judicious use of spices and condiments. The Mushroom Manchurian wasn't bad either. But nice as they were, they were hardly enough to redeem the meal in its entirety. Which meant five very disappointed diners at the end of proceedings. Five because Mr David didn't feel like joining us, and said he'll pick up something for himself on our way back to Prof Chandy's house.

This "something" eventually materialised into Biryani and Kalmi Kabab from a joint called Biryani Paradise. They took some time to process the order, time we spent chatting with the owner, an affable gentleman called Abdul Khader. I wish I could be rude to veggie fanatics and gloat over what a thumping success the stuff was. But no, no such luck. The Biryani was fully as disappointing as the Dosas had been, the Kabab better but still mediocre.

[Continued in Part III]

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A (Mostly) Vegetarian Excursion to Mysore 01: Maddur Tiffanyss 1

Friends and FoodScapes readers regularly complain about the dearth of posts on vegetarian food.[1][2][3][4] In private conversation some have even ventured to ask if I eat veggie food at all, ever, going by the contempt I show for it on the blog. To which my response runs something like this: Of course I eat veggie food, thrive on it in fact. My mother-in-law's veg cooking, for example, has to be tasted to be believed. But the blog's not exactly about food per se; it's about foodie adventures. And that's where the point lies.

This begs the question, what do I mean by adventure? For sure it's not about locations. I've had the most satisfying adventures in Delhi's Lal Kuan, Bangalore's Langford Road, and Singapore's Lucky Plaza, notable for ironmongeries, colleges and touristy kitsch respectively but otherwise unremarkable all three of them. The adventures were about what I encountered there, very unexpected stuff mostly. So is it the element of surprise that makes for adventure? I'd say sure, in most cases, but not necessarily so. Some times it is the sheer satisfaction one gets which transmutes the experience into an adventure. Our recent trip to Mysore falls into this category. Much of what we ate was conventional, and vegetarian, and also so delightful that it would be a shame not to write about the experience. There was some iffy stuff too, ditto surprises. Even some carnivore interludes, but for this once at least I won't talk about them much.

Writing the post represents a challenge of another kind. Let me be honest about it, it 's a challenge I've always tried to weasel out of, mainly because I'm still not sure how exactly to tackle it. Some time ago I expanded the remit of the blog to encompass both food and travel adventures. Though they often coincide (as in encountering interesting food joints in the course of travel), they entail experiences that are qualitatively very different from one another. And these differences become all the more apparent when it comes to writing. Foodie experiences have a certain discreteness about them: you discover a new eatery, you go there, eat, enjoy the food (or not), come away, write about what you experienced, and that's it. Travel, on the other hand, implies a certain fluidity. While travelling one engages in several different activities, encounters different experiences, some commonplace, others not. And yet these diversities enjoy a claim to be written about together instead of as separate encounters, because they came about in the course of a single journey. And this fact is what imparts fluidity to travel writing. Now the question is, how do I write about foodie binges experienced while travelling? As separate posts, or as part of longer writings about the trip as a whole? If the first, then where do I write about non-food experiences? And if the second, won't the foodie bits lose their individual significance and get submerged within the larger narrative? My first visit to Malaysia yielded posts only on quail eggs and Kari Raisu. True, in the latter I did recount my non-foodie adventures (or to be accurate, my misadventures in trying to get something to eat), but even that one was without doubt a foodie post in character. I have so far not written about my subsequent trips to Malaysia and elsewhere (including an epic Istanbul sojourn) precisely because of this problem with balancing foodie bits with the general demands of continuity. This time around, I'm trying out a new approach: several posts of varying length within a longer series. This way I get to showcase foodie encounters in individual posts, while maintaining through the series the context in which they and other experiences arose. If necessary I could even dedicate some posts to non-foodie experiences, though I haven't done that here. Let's see if this approach works.

Back to the Mysore trip, now. It happened when my mother paid us a long visit after the birth of our daughter. My father-in-law then got this fantastic idea of a trip to Mysore during the Navaratri festival, traditionally celebrated there with much pomp, circumstance and gusto. And oh yes, that's one more reason for the heavily vegetarian character of this post. Believers customarily eschew non-vegetarian food during the festivities and, at least initially, both father-in-law and sister-in-law Adithi observed this practice. The rest of us also happily fell in line with the sentiment, which is why we tended to gravitate towards veggie joints more often than not. Anyway, my father-in-law then sounded out his close friend and former colleague Mr Winston David. (As per prevalent Indian convention I address him as Uncle, but doing it on the blog does seem strange. So in this post I'll refer to him as Mr David.) He was equally enthused about the idea, and volunteered to get his car along. A spacious, comfortable car it is, the Hyundai i20, accommodated the six of us in reasonable comfort. Six as in self, mother, father-in-law, Adithi, Mr David and his daughter Amita, a very sweet young girl still in high school. In short, terrific company all round, and the great diversity in our ages and backgrounds only made things the more interesting. Unfortunately, the wife had to stay behind, since our then-brand-new daughter was too young to travel. I'm waiting for the little one to grow up a little, so's she, her mother and her father can travel lots together.

The drive out was pleasant and largely uneventful. It featured only one foodie experience, but oh! what a zinger that was! At about four in the afternoon we stopped for a breather at Maddur, a small town famed for the eponymous vada it is associated with. The conventional vada is about the size and shape of a doughnut, and soft and spongy beneath a thin crisp outer coating. The Maddur variant is flatter, bereft of a hole in the middle, flecked with fried onions, and crunchier. I'm quite fond of Maddur Vada, generally prefer it to the usual type. But this was an altogether different experience, tasting it at source as it were. Mr David suggested a shop called Tiffany's. Or should that be one of the shops called Tiffany's? There were at least four with near-identical names and logos, and a few more with strongly derivative signboards. The one Mr David ended up taking us to, and which he said was the original, bore the name "Maddur Tiffanyss [sic] 1". At least that was what the signboard said, I'm not sure what if anything the "1" denoted. Original or not, the choice was certainly inspired. A clean, simple place it was, running to granite-topped tables and rather uncomfortable chromium-plated chairs. But the food more than made up for it. The vadas here were larger than those I've eaten elsewhere. It was also less oily, and exuded that flavour you get only when the freshest ingredients are used. Along with the vadas we also ordered Benne (butter) Dosas, generally associated with the town of Davangere up north, and so presumably not quite as indigenous to Maddur as the vada is. Nevertheless, once again the choice turned out a winner all through - light, crisp, made with fresh batter, and smeared on the inside with this lovely red chutney. All in all, a very enjoyable experience.

Our next stop was a brief one at Tipu Sultan's tomb in Srirangapatna. He and his father Hyder Ali have been elevated to the status of Sufi saints (the other day in Bangalore I saw a poster proclaiming something about "Hazarth Tipu Sultan Shaheed R.A."). Nobody objected to me taking my camera inside, but when I started taking pictures someone told me, very politely, that photography inside was not permitted. Then someone else said, 'Go ahead, but be quick about it.' And that's how I secured these photos of the splendid interior, and the smoky, incense-laden, emotionally-charged and slightly spooky atmosphere it shares with most Sufi shrines.

[Continued in Part II


Sunday, October 07, 2012

Tselha Anze - II

[Continued from Part I]

In contrast to the hackneyed Chinese items, the Tibetan dishes on offer were genuinely interesting. I think this was the first time I've come across a Tibetan selection more extensive than Momo and Thupka. They were there all right. One whole section was devoted to Momos. It listed no less than eight items including Kothey (forgot what it was), Rechotse (Momo in soup), and the charmingly-named Ting Momo (more on this later). Then there was a separate section entitled "Tibetan Cuisine". Apart from two varieties of Thukpa, it featured Gyathuk (ribbon noodles in soup); Sha Bhaglab (more on this later); Pingsha (glass noodles - out of stock that day); Thenthuk (flat noodles in either soupy or dry form); and a sampler, or Tibetan Thali as they called it. I ordered the Beef Sha Bhaglab, or flat, lasagne-like noodles stir-fried with thinly sliced meat and veggies. It turned out to be a wildly successful choice. What I found most remarkable was that the separate components, even the vegetables, retained their own distinctive taste and juiciness. The carrot was crisp, not undercooked; the spinach retained its texture without wilting. And the meat was delicious - thinly sliced, succulent, well done and yet not overcooked as to lose flavour.

The serving was substantial, enough for a full meal, and as such excellent value for money at seventy Rupees. But given  that long walk on top of a rather sketchy lunch, it simply didn't stand a chance against my starvation levels. I could tackle another full meal. This time I opted for Shabtak. I didn't have my DSLR with me, so had to rely on my phone cam. Its performance is drab as it is; in low light situations it's downright execrable (you really messed up on that front, Motorola). Execrable is more or less how the Shabtak pictures turned out; with the flash switched on the effect was still ghastlier. Which was sad, because actually the preparation looked every bit as tempting as this lovely photo on makes it out to be. It carries the caption "spicy sliced beef and sauteed with onion, red and green bell peppers and jalapeno" - as succinct a summary as any, though the jalapeño must have been a western innovation. Tibetan Kitchen, the eatery where the picture was taken, mentions only "long hot pepper". On the other hand this recipe on China Tibet Online, which calls it "browned beef", specifies not only the western jalapeño but also speciality ingredients like ground Emmo (Sichuan peppercorn) and Churu (mould ripened Tibetan cheese), which makes me wonder what sort of audience the site caters to.

[Aside: China Tibet Online, effectively the Chinese government's Tibet portal, is a classic in its own right. One article proclaims, "Official: The Dalai Lama's New 'Prime Minister' Illegitimate". Despite reading it through several times I was unable to figure out just what it was that made the illegitimacy official in character, and on whose authority. A little net-snooping turned out to be instructive. It seems the text was taken from articles that appeared on Global Times (to which it carries an attribution) and People's Daily, but with the first eight paragraphs omitted for some reason. And oh, also with the headline tweaked ever so slightly: both original versions go "Dalai's [sic] New 'Prime Minister' Illegitimate: Official". Now the mystery clears somewhat: not officially illegitimate, but illegitimate according to some official. The missing paragraphs identify the official as Xu Zhitao, a Communist Party of China's (CPC) Central Committee member. Little surprise, then, that he would denounce the appointment. But no, it turns out his remarks were about the putative illegitimacy of the Dalai Lama government as a whole. Even the reason given why appointment is flawed, and should be dismissed as "just another political show by the Dalai Lama", is that the government itself is non-official in character. So the article contains nothing at all about the PM's appointment specifically. Which makes for a rather piece of writing, not to mention insubstantial. But perhaps it might not be fair to blame China Tibet Online for it. After all, not only did it procure the article from other sources, it even took pains to omit the paragraphs where the problem locates!]

At Tselha Anze they happily used regular green pepper. I have no idea what kind of peppercorn they opted for, and don't recall tasting any kind of cheese. Tenzin insisted I have it with Ting Momo (or Tingmo as Tibetan Kitchen calls it) - rolls of dough twisted into interesting shapes and then steamed to a fluffy softness. I shall not wax eloquent about the Shabtak as I did about the Sha Bhaglab, suffice it to say that it was every bit as toothsome as the latter. So much so that even at the end of the meal, when I was close to stuffed, I still found it enjoyable to break off off bits from the Ting Momo, use them to mop up the gravy that had collected at the bottom of the bowl, and then chew them unhurriedly to savour the taste of the gravy. By the time I finished, there was literally nothing left in the bowl, except maybe a dried chilli or two. It cost me eighty-five Rupees, plus another fifteen for the single Momo I had (they usually sell in pairs).

By this time it had become dark,and pleasantly cool. So I decided to take yet another walk. A different sort of walk, though. Unlike the unseeing frenzy that characterised the earlier one, this was a gentle saunter through Shanthi Nagar. An old neighbourhood, surprisingly heterogenous, and with some really pretty houses. I couldn't take pictures of them, there was hardly any light around. But these murals painted on the walls of a nursery school (and fortunately located just below a street lamp) proved too strong a temptation to resist.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Tselha Anze - I

Long walks are an excellent specific against bad moods. The snag is, if your mood is really bad, you tend to lose track of how much you've walked. The other day at Majestic, Bangalore, my mood was so filthy and gooey you could have tarred a road with it. So I thought I'd walk down to Avenue Road and take a look at those second-hand book stalls. Back in my student day they used to sprawl all over the pavements, My Fair Lady rubbing against Henry Maine's Ancient Law; Dickson Carr, or maybe Errol Flynn's My Wicked, Wicked Ways, alongside a hundred-year-old treatise on conic sections. Once I picked up for eight Rupees an Army rifle training manual written in Roman Urdu. On another occasion a collection of turn-of-the-century novels - London Lavender, Three Partners, ghastly romances like Promise of Arden - about ten books, many of them first editions, for a hundred and forty the lot. I still have them all, even Ancient Law and the conics textbook.

This time, though, it was painfully clear I wouldn't be adding much to my collection. Very few stalls still remained, and the survivors seemed to deal exclusively in out-of-date textbooks. Nothing was left of the glorious eclectic chaos of my student days. This didn't help my mood any. It made me even more oblivious to to how much I walked, or where I was headed. So I was not really surprised when  I eventually washed up on the other side of Hudson Circle, about as far away from Avenue Road as Majestic but in the other direction. According to, I had walked nearly three kilometres from where I had started out. Without any discernible purpose in mind, or any clue what I was doing there, or for that matter any dimunition in the blackness of my mood.

So I decided to check out a little Tibetan joint I had once spotted thereabouts. There was a little problem: I had no idea where the place was. Back then I had managed to catch only a brief glimpse through the recesses of a fast-moving autorickshaw, and my rudimentary knowledge of Bangalore geography meant I could not identify the locality. All I remembered was that the restaurant had a Tibetan name, and it was on a road with an English-sounding name that began with an L. Fortunately the wife happened to call just then, and I was able to ask her. Her guess was, it might be Langford Road but she couldn't be too sure - in any case Langford was a fair distance from where I was. No matter, halfway through her admonitions I had already started plodding off. In due course I reach Langford Road, still on foot, crossed St Joseph's College. By this time I had clocked 5.68 kilometres, or sixty-three Rupees in auto fare. But surprise! there it was, Tshela Anze, the place I was looking for!

The signboard was a delight. It said, "T Selha-Anze - Tibetan Restaurant", and then for good measure added in parentheses, "Our Grandmother's Recipe [sic]". Incidentally, it was only here that the T and the S were separated by a space. All other places, including the dine-in and takeaway menus, had the name spelt "Tshela-Anze", hyphenated but minus the gap. The name itself bore much promise. I reasoned that only someone who knew his mind would start in the heart of Bangalore a restaurant with a name so offbeat (and so awkward to pronounce). And with a little luck, this force of character might rub off on the menu too.

Neither did the interior disappoint. It was airy, uncluttered, done up in nice, bright colours, free of piped music and Tibetan kitsch - assorted masks, brass idols, prayer wheels, that sort of thing - generally managing to look austere and comfortable at the same time. Two large windows looking out onto the street added to the airiness. The walls were sparsely decorated: a portrait of the Dalai Lama over the counter; a few Tibet-related pictures and wall hangings here and there; and in one corner a stunning Kandinsky poster, nothing more. So was the furniture comfortable but spartan, tending to granite-topped tables and metal dining chairs. The kind of place college students on a tight budget could and did frequent.

Placing an order was a little tricky. The waiters' English skills and familiarity with the menu are both rudimentary, and the management knows this. So they get the waiters to go to each table with a pad and pen, and then ask customers to themselves jot down what they want. The trouble was, the menu merely listed the dishes without explaining what they were. So I went over and talked to the youngish gentleman sitting behind the counter. Tenzin, as he was called, turned out to be a delight to talk to. He was more than happy to guide me across the menu, and throw in his own suggestions without insisting on them. Even the waiters were a cheerful bunch as such, and promptly obliged minor requests like extra cutlery and glasses of water.

I found the menu fascinating. A sociologist could easily extract from it enough raw material for a scholarly article or two. Why, for instance, does it feature so many Chinese preparations, the cuisine of those who dispossessed them from their homeland? Customer demand solely? Is this demand itself fuelled by stereotyped perceptions of all Mongoloid races as "Chinkies", and hence Chinese food purveyors? Which raises the question, how do they reconcile their cultural identity with this forced acquiescence in two monstrous generalisations, namely (a) conflating Tibetan with Chinese, their oppressors; and (b) the indiscriminate "Chinky"-fication of Mongoloid ethnic groups generally? In any case, it is clear that the Chinese offerings are not dictated by any especial love for the cuisine. The items listed were run-of-the mill Indianised aberrations, including the Gobi Manchury Bangalore is notorious for, and which I defy any self-respecting Chinese to claim for their culture.

[Explanatory note for the uninitiated: Chicken Manchurian is made by coating chicken in cornflour, then frying it in ginger, garlic, green chilli, soya sauce, and usually copious amounts of MSG. It was supposedly invented by Nelson Wang, a Calcutta Chinese chef, back in the mid-'70s, and so is about as authentic Chinese as Dr. Fu Manchu is. Gobi Manchury (as it's usually spelled in Bangalore) is the vegetarian iteration. It substitutes the chicken with cauliflour. At least the Tselha-Anze people had the decency to call it "Cauliflour Manchurian".]

[Continued in Part II]