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]

Monday, June 07, 2010

Chilli Frog and Kway Teow at Geylang

Some of my most cherished memories of Singapore are associated with Geylang, the city's largest red-light district. After the thumping success of our first visit, I found myself acting as unofficial tour guide to the area, so strong a curiosity did it evoke in my friends. My second trip there was especially memorable. This was quite some time ago, nearly two years. (So why didn't I write about it earlier? Difficult to say.) My friends Lakshmi and Wangui were winding up their stay in Singapore, and we thought a visit to Geylang would be a good way to round things off.

Actually, there was more to it. We all of us were keen to try out frog, arguably Geylang's best known speciality. And that's chiefly why the trip was so memorable. It was the first time I tasted frog. So we met up at Geylang directly, and lost little time making our way to Eminent Frog Porridge and Seafood at Lorong 19, certainly among the most famous if not the most famous of frog-porridge outlets.

A word of explanation here: Conventionally frog (in its various iterations) is eaten with congee or rice porridge, hence the name 'Frog Porridge'. We were in no mood to fill our stomachs with semi-solid rice. So we went straight
for the meat. The "Eminent" menu had an interesting price structure. The base price was eight (Sing) Dollars to a frog, but there were two "special offers" advertised. Buy-two-get-one-free (at sixteen Dollars or S$ 5.33 a frog) or buy-three-get-one-free. Even though this offer was priced at twenty-two dollars (or S$ 2 less than the normal twenty-four), the price per frog came to S$ 5.50, marginally more than the three-for-the-price-of-two offer. Clearly they needed to revise their math a little. Both "special offers" were fake, incidentally. I have seen them being advertised without the slightest alteration right through my two years in Singapore.

We ordered sixteen Dollars' worth of chilli frog, also iced tea and some sweet-and-sour chicken. The tea was good, if a little too lemony for my liking. The chicken wasn't so bad either. The frog came doused in a thick sauce and covered with spring onion, inside a steaming, slightly sooty claypot. The claypot is a cooking vessel with a distinctive stubby handle and made of unglazed ceramic. It absorbs water well and is capable of withstanding very high temperatures. Both these characteristics are critical to the cooking process. The pot is first soaked in water for extended periods. Next, the raw materials are arranged inside, and a lid placed on top and sealed. Then the whole thing is placed on very high heat. The absorbed water turns into steam and ensure that the stuff being cooked retains its moistness throughout the process; this combination of moisture and high heat is what imparts to claypot cooking its distinctive flavour.

That said, we didn't find the frog all that great. Oh, it was edible all right, that is, once we got over our inhibitions (I managed to photograph Lakshmi struggling over hers). The meat was soft and tender, and didn't smell at all contrary to what we had assumed for some obscure reason. On the other hand, it didn't really taste of anything much. The sauce was nice, hot, sweet and gingery-pungent at the same time. Nice and fresh the spring onions were. But the meat itself was curiously, well, bland. The second reason we remained unimpressed - it was too bony. Too little flesh, too many bones (and sharp also). All in all, it wasn't too bad, but not the culinary revelation I had thought it would be.

On this trip I had another agenda. I wanted to take some pictures of the girls who worked here, something I hadn't dared to on my last trip. The problem was, how to go about it? Finally I thought of trying the most obvious strategy. On an adjoining table I saw this guy sitting with two girls skimpily dressed and festooned with blingy ornaments. I went over to him and said I was a tourist from India and could I take their picture, please? He took one look at me, another look at my camera (I had an inexpensive point-and-shoot those days), looked back at me, smiled, and said, "Umm, sure, go ahead!" So that was all there was to it.

We were still hungry, though. After some deliberation, we decided on the famous Beef Kway Teow stall at Lorong 9. This was another first for me, even though I had heard so much about it.

The walk down to Lorong 9 was pleasant enough itself. Geylang is one enclave of Singapore that never seems to lack for life. And not just of the seamier sort. You get pretty strange shops out there. (On another visit there, I once came across a shop that sold nothing but soya milk in a bewildering variety of flavours. I tried out some almond-flavoured milk. A waste of almonds it turned out, sadly. Then there's this other shop that sells herbal infusions. Herbal as in Chinese herbs, none of whose names made sense to me. Many of these infusions were being sold chilled in small plastic bottles. Out of misplaced curiosity more than anything else, I chose a purplish bottle which claimed to be refreshing. It was worse than the soya milk.)

At Lorong 9, we asked for three servings of Kway Teow (we were still that hungry), and some stir-fried mushrooms and broccoli. Then we settled down for a longish wait. At this stall, they process each order separately. No doubt this contributes to the excellence of the final product (and we weren't complaining one bit!) but, well, it's not exactly fast food.

I decided my camera and I needed a walk. Leaving Wangui and Lakshmi wasn't an issue - Geylang must be one of the safest red-light districts in the world. Ended up taking several nice photos that night. One of a Durian seller, taken handheld in ambient light, is a favourite.

Further north along Sims Avenue, I came across a table occupied by a couple. The girl was very pretty, didn't look like a "working girl" apart from her horrible tinsel-y clothes. Her companion was elderly, clad in a crumpled, not too clean white shirt, briskly fanning himself with a tattered paper fan, altogether nondescript. Till he asked me in a deep baritone, "Yes, and what can I do for you?" - British accent, grammatically flawless, not a trace of Singlish - I was impressed and surprised. Perhaps this was what education in Singapore used to be once upon a time? I launched into my usual "harmless tourist" spiel. The gentleman thought a moment and said, "A tourist? Hm, all right, then." If I had more time on my hands I'd have liked to talk to him a bit more. Notwithstanding his appearance, there was something about him - a magisterial air - that intrigued me.

By the time I returned, the food had been served. Three steaming plates of er, what? Kway Teow? Like as in flat, ribbon-like noodles, right? Not this stuff - if anything, it looked like like some sort of dismembered lasagna floating in a thin brown gravy. But then, that was hardly cause for complaint. The portions were plentiful and with lots of meat in them and, most important, the concoction smelled pretty good! Wangui and I opted to split a beer, Lakshmi the abstainer settled for her usual lime juice. Then we began to tuck in.

I am not exaggerating a bit, the noodles were nearabouts the finest thing I've ever eaten in Singapore. The noodles were al dente, as the Italians call it; the meat was succulent and oh-so-soft. Simple though the preparation was (meat, noodles and very little else), it seemed to contain several secrets. One was the quality of the raw material used. The meat was easy - fresh, good quality beef - but apart from flour, what in hell did they make the noodles out of? Then the cooking method. This is just speculation, but I think the juiciness of the meat is due to some special technique they use. Lastly, how do they achieve that unique flavour of the meat. Do they marinate it in ambrosia? Rarely in my experience has a foodie adventure been so successful. Lakshmi's expression in the accompanying photo says it all!