Monday, October 27, 2014

Hotel Subhalaxmi, Naraj

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

Istanbul for Beginners 01: Getting There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 06, 2014

Istanbul for Beginners 00: Prefatory Note

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

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

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]