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 glutinous 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, 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 Very few stalls still remained, and the survivors seemed to deal exclusively in out-of-date textbooks.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 across the road from Hudson Circle, about twice the distance from Majestic as Avenue Road is. According to taxiautofare.com, 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 extract from it enough material for a brace of scholarly articles. 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 back in the mid-'70s by Nelson Wang, a Calcutta Chinese chef, which makes it about as authentic Chinese as Dr. Fu Manchu. Gobi Manchury or Manjoori (as it's usually spelled in Bangalore) is a vegetarian iteration, substituting the chicken with cauliflour. At least the Tselha-Anze people had the decency to call it "Cauliflour Manchurian".

[Continued in Part II]

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