It was a trip to Bombay I made after twenty years though I am a Bombayite by birth.It was many many autumns before I was born in Bombay in a nursing home beside the Chowpatty Beach.My parents relocated and I left the Arabian shores without much of a memory. Many years later in high school Bombay became my summer vacation escapade as my Baba had again relocated to Bombay.Bombay now seemed lovable and beautiful.Memories were built around Wilson College,Campion School,Napean Sea Road, Haji Ali.Began loving the Footlongs,the custard by the sea at Haji Ali,the seascapes of the city of Bombay. The last trip I made there was also my Baba’s last trip to his favourite city,the city which gave him professional excellence as well as the city which told him in an autumn in 2000 that maybe his days were numbered.I did not feel like going back to the city all these years. A sudden professional engagement and a need to re see the city where my parents began their life and career got me back to the city and a new affair has definitely began with the city of contrasts.The city is not a city of high-rises or high lives alone, it is also sometimes a city emanating the fragrance of old times,the stone buildings whispering stories,the shaded lanes of Colaba standing mute spectators of rolling times.The city clings on to its rich culture-its multiculturalism, respect for communities and belonging for their city continues unabated.Bombay has blended in beautifully the archaic,the old an the priceless with the new and with a price tag.Bombay is not always hurried ,it is also laid back ,enjoying its cup of chai and bun maskas with little worries about the world.
Bombay does not have winters,but a coolness overpowers the city in January and there I was in the city after a long hiatus,the breeze from the sea seemed comforting as I strolled around the lanes and bylanes of Colaba soaking in the pulse of the financial capital of the country.However businesslike it may seem,the city is also emotional,clinging on to it’s very own old run down but precious Irani restaurants in the Colaba and the Fort area which began its journey serving chai to the myriad people of colonial Bombay.
Established by the Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran in the 19th century, they served as some of the earliest public places for people to gather and eat outside home in a growing metropolis. It is said that the Irani cafés were also places where freedom fighters met to discuss plans of activism and movements.
The Zoroastrian community left Iran in two waves. The first group left in the early 8th century to escape religious persecution and are called Parsis. The second wave of migration occurred in the 19th century over fear of persecution during the Islamic revolution of Iran. These immigrants are called Iranis. Though both the Parsi and Irani communities share the same faith, they diverge culturally. The Irani community speaks Farsi , while the Parsis mostly speak Gujarati. It was this second set of immigrants, the Iranis, who met over hot cups of chai to fondly remember their family and friends. Haji Mohammed Showghi Yezdi travelled following the route from Kerman province down to Nav kondi then Quetta and Karachi, to reach the shores of a city then known as Bombay after a eight-month journey. Stories say that he carried a large sigdi– a tumbler with flaming coals at the bottom to maintain heat as he sat at Apollo Bunder, by the Gateway of India and sold Irani chai (tea) to the busy port. The popularity of chai among Bombay’s migrant labour and the working classes led to the mushrooming of tea stalls around every street corner of the Appollo Bunder area. Hindu merchants considered corner premises inauspicious and hence let them out to the enterprising Iranis at a cheap rate and thus the Irani shops began their journey.
The later immigrants, both Zoroastrian and Shia,from the drought-hit provinces of Yazd were part of the caravan network of the southern Silk Route. Its residents were mostly horticulturists but were also known for their coffee houses which however sold black tea.It is said that the Irani cafes in Bombay built on the coffee houses of their homeland.The large influx of Iranians into Bombay and the opening of Irani tea shops and restaurants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries changed the way citizens ate, socialised and shopped. Items such as toiletries, over-the-counter medicines, detergent and other knick-knacks, were available at the Irani shops initially.
With a very minimalist decor of marble topped tables and comfortable chairs these shops began selling– crusty brun, sweet buns or soft pao, served buttered, with milky, sweet tea.Thus the iconic Bun Maska was born.The salty taste of the butter and the sweetness of the tea gave the metropolis a new taste.However buns and milky tea were not specialities in Iran, where it was customary to drink reddish-black tea without milk. Traditional Iranian bread too is actually a flatbread, the oblong-shaped naan, made from barley flour, which hardly resembles the city’s Irani bakery breads.The adaptations, such as brun and pao, evolved from the locality where the first Irani restaurants opened. This was Dhobi Talao, where Kayani & Co, possibly the oldest existing Irani café in the city was located. Dhobi Talao was home also to a large number of Goan Christians, the bakery experts.The pao or pav of the Goans who were hired at the Irani shops evolved into the buns or bruns.
The oldest cafe Kyani & Co founded by Khodram Marezaban in 1904 shifted to it’s current premises at Jer Mahal building near Metro cinema.The cafe retains its old world no frills charm with red chequered table cloths, large wood and glass cabinets,glass covered tables,a large central mahogany counter and a grandfather’s clock. At one corner there is a portrait of Aflatoon Shokri who took over the eatery in 1957. The portrait was done by the legendary M F Husain, who was a regular visitor at the cafe. Kyani Cafe still has a wholesome breakfast within Rs100/- of their delicious Akuri – a traditional Parsi dish of scrambled eggs on toast — with a cup of cardamom flavoured Irani Chai.
Once I got an invitation to attend a seminar at the city which breathed life at every go,I was sure to explore its heritage eateries.I decided to stay very near to Gateway of India .In my free time I walked about,sometimes getting lost in the maze of lanes of Colaba.Getting lost amidst such iconic buildings and paved roads was an experience in itself.To loose yourself in the unknown is like the moon suddenly losing it’s way behind an assemblage of clouds in a dark night.Google map became my constant reference point as I typed in Kyani&Co one morning after my daily walks around the Gateway and Radio Club. Took an Uber which went past the Mumbai University,the iconic Bombay High Court building ,past the Fashion Street and Bombay Gymkhana to the Free Reading room of Cowasjee Jehangir Building.Kyani is just opposite to the statue of Cowasjee Jehangir,the philanthropist who built Bombay in its splendor.
The hall at first sight was busy and had a din of people.I saw waiters moving about the tables briskly and taking orders for breakfast.Being a Sunday it had a family crowd chatting over wooden tables with glass top and Bentwood Chairs.The walls had pictures of famous people as well as iconic landmarks.The counter was made of mahogany wood and had a board saying ” Cash Only”.The old grandfather clock ticking away was evocative of the days of past colonial Bombay.The writing on the pillar that “Singles and Doubles be considerate and learn to share to share a table” was quite innovative.
The menu was on the table itself with a glass covering. I knew what I wanted to have,the aroma of the mutton left me salivating.My order was of a Kheema Ghotala ,a Bun Maska and an Irani Chai.While I could imagine the look of a Kheema Ghotola but could never in my wildest dream knew about the bun maska. The buns were cut into halves across the middle,smeared with butter and looked dainty on my table.The soft buns with the salty taste of the butter were dipped inside the plate of Kheema Ghotala and my senses were transformed in a flicker. The mutton minced into fine cuts was melt in mouth,the egg were soft and blended effortlessly.As I went about finishing the kheema,kept a portion of the bun for the chai. Looked around the place and from the take away counter I ordered a packet of Shrewsbury,the famous Mawa cake, the Glass Mawa cake,my favourite Date and Walnut loaf too.The counter had an assortment of cakes ,pies and savourites including brain cutlets, patties and biscuits like Shrewsbury, Coconut,Almond,Butterscotch,Mango and a host of jam biscuits.The jam biscuits with a dollop of mixed fruit jam in the middle got back childhood memories.
The popular items of Kyani include Mutton Salli Boti,Chicken Leg Farcha,Masoor Ghost apart from Dhansak and Pulao Dal. Do end your meal with the biggest portion of Caramel Pudding that I was ever served in any restaurant and offcourse their chocolate mousse.
The Irani chai intrigued me.It was rich,creamy and the generous sprinkling of cardamom was perfect for the mild winter of Bombay. It left me energized and fresh.The salty butter of the Bun Maska acted as a perfect accompaniment to the sweetness of the chai. Managed to learn a recipe of Irani chai from one of the Parsi women I met at the seminar.
For the chai you will need- 4 cups water,2 Tbsp of Black tea, 4 cups of whole milk,3 Tbsp of mawa,sugar to taste and sone Cinnamon powder.Prepare the chai in the manner mentioned below-
Bring the water to a boil . Add the tea leaves and reduce heat, then continue to boil for about 20 minutes until the volume reduces by half. Remove from heat and strain.
In a separate large saucepan, heat the milk on medium heat and bring to a boil. Stir constantly until the milk is reduced to 1½ cups. Whisk in the mawa, khoya, or dry milk powder until smooth and continue to cook until it thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Mix the filtered tea and the reduced milk mixture. Sweeten if desired, divide between two cups, and serve hot.
Add ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon to the tea when brewing,or before serving.
Once you are in Bombay do visit B Merwan at Grant Road for its freshly baked Mawa cakes,Yazdani Bakery for its Apple pies in the afternoon, Jimmy Boy near Kala Ghoda for a complete Parsi feast (Lagan nu Bhonu),Brittania at Ballard Estate for its famed Berry Pulao,Fresh lime soda and the Raspberry Soda.
Fell in love with the Irani eateries as I thought that at the end of it all quality,taste and service matters not the decor.The run down eateries with peeled off plaster is overlooked as people across strata and age makes a beeline for either the Chai with a glass Mawa Cake or the Berry Pulao or the Dhansak or the Salli Boti anytime of the day.
With people, food too travels across rugged terrains,food migrates too but retains most of their tastes and adapts to some extent to the new homeland.An interesting story of amalgamation and synthesis…..food continues to bind people,nations and makes space for love amidst diversities.
There are few things more soothing to the eye and the mind than to see a pitcher of sangria being readied with care and precision. Red wine, orange juice and a medley of fruits,infused for over eight hours, some and lots of passion. The Sangria will spread cheer for sure.
While Americans first tasted this red wine punch at the 1964 World Fair in New York, the history of Sangria can be traced back to 200 BC in Spain. The historical sources however has contradictory opinions on the origin country of Sangria.
Spain began planting vineyards for wine making and trade with the Romans. Wine became the most popular drink across age.The popularity of wine drinking however had its origins in medical science.Water was thought to be full of bacteria and unfit for consumption.Any liquid with some alcohol infused in it killed the bacteria making it the beverage of choice. People who lived near the vine yards added other fruits and spices to the wine, giving it a different flavor. These ingredients together paved the way for the traditional Spanish red wine punch- Sangria.Sangria had another twist during the 1700’s and 1800’s when the British and French got a taste of it. The new base of the punch became Claret (the British term for the French Bordeaux).Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot were often added to the mix to be finished off with a mix of fruits.A jar of Sangria began to be found at every party from Cadiz to London.
While America does not have a legal standard for the drink, European Union does. It is defined as,“a drink obtained from wine, aromatized with the addition of natural citrus-fruit extracts or essences, with or without the juice of such fruit and with the possible addition of spices, sweetened and with CO2 added, having an acquired alcoholic strength by volume of less than 12 % vol. The drink may contain solid particles of citrus-fruit pulp or peel and its colour must come exclusively from the raw materials used.” While Sangria is more often a red wine drink, white can be used too. A variety of fruits like oranges, apples, pomegranates, peaches are used. The most obvious component of Sangria remains the wine. While there is definitely some room for variation on all of the other ingredients, there is no Sangria without wine. While one could make a Sangria with a different sweetener and a plethora of fruits, wine must be an ingredient, so the history of wine is forever tied to the history of Sangria.
Historically Sangria was preceded by Hippocras which was a spiced and sweetened wine that could have been served warm or cold. Any sort of spice or flavorful stuff was added to it. It was filtered through a filter named “the sleeve of Hippocrates”, hence the name. The name of this drink thus comes from the bag that the drink was filtered through. Some historians point out that the origin of Sangria dates back to the 14th century and can be traced to Ecuador or the Caribbean Antilles Islands. The European Union passed a decree that the name Sangria is under exclusive rights to Spain and Portugal only, similar to what the French have done with Champagne in Spain; one cannot call it Champagne in Spain, instead it is called Cava. Legends say that some Spanish sailors started calling it Sangria, which means bloodshed, because wine is the body of Christ, and must not be altered or tampered with, initially they would have been up-hauled watching Caribbean locals mixing fruit juice with wine, but it eventually became popular. Although one associates sangria with warm weather months, it is equally as delicious in winter.The first day of winter in America is celebrated on December 21 as the National Sangria Day. Till 2008 it was illegal to serve Sangria in Virginia because of an antiquated law that prohibited mixing wine or beer with spirits.The law was written in 1934 just after Prohibition ended and was repealed in 2008 by the Virginia General Assembly.
For me Sangria is refreshing any time of the evening. A tall pitcher with colors and friends with laughter.My tips for assembling the sangria. One will need decent red table-Wine,Cointreau Orange Liquor or Rum or both, Orange juice and the juice of one lemon, Sugar, but not too much, fruit slices of your choice such as lemon, orange,apple.Using a muddler or the back of a wooden spoon, muddle the fruits with the wine. Stir to combine all ingredients. Stir the sangria then cover the top of the pitcher with plastic wrap. Place pitcher in refrigerator and chill several hours or overnight. Serve in festive glasses with a lime slice garnish. Choose a wine that is fruity but dry. Make sangria a day ahead of when you are going to serve it so that the flavors in the sangria can infuse.
Sit around a table with friends, help yourself out of the Sangria pitcher and share the happiness and warmth. The flavor lives on in the cheer the Sangria spreads.
the romance of a rum ball…childhood innocence and happiness
Rum balls have been pure intoxication over years. Gooey, chocolaty, boozy Rum Balls are beautiful memories of childhood. Though I do not like the sweetness of Rum Balls anymore, yet I dream of a box of Rum Ball from Jalajoga, the once famous bakery of Kolkata. I still close my eyes and can name all those who used to bring Rum Balls to our house in Jodhpur Park in the 1980’s. Jalajoga gave way to Kathleens, Monginis and then to outlets of Flurys at malls and once again Rum Balls made its frequent appearance. Rum balls at Nahoums over time remained ever gooey and flavoured. The rum ball triggers an avalanche of memories—of childhood afternoons and evenings after my playtime. Often rum balls awaited me for a snack after school. And if I could convince my Ma to tuck in a rum ball in the school tiffin box for the next day, I knew my maths class would not seem so boring. The fragrance of the tiffin box and the looks of my friends made me feel like a queen.The very word Rum in the entire story made it special for a kid with a lot of inquisitiveness for things forbidden.
It was few days back when I was reading a part of the seven-volume novel, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust that memories of Rum Balls became vivid. And with it I remembered the white paper boxes with Jalajoga written in blue which were either packed with Rum Balls or flaky patties and often brought home by Baba.
Rum Ball – What is it ?
The rum ball, is a common British name of a ‘rum truffle’. It is a small cake that is akin more towards a chocolate. They are a truffle-like confection made from leftover cake, sometimes with a few biscuits thrown into the mix, which is crumbled up with melted dark chocolate and rum, rolled into balls, and coated with sprinkles or cocoa.Some recipes include dried fruit, glace cherries or ground nuts. Some give the rum a miss to make a suitable-for-children adaptation. Although to my mind, a rum ball without the rum is—well, not a rum ball at all. Because they aren’t baked, the alcoholic kick remains. To my young self, rum balls were part of the grown-up taste sphere,that I suppose was its overriding appeal.
Rum Ball – From Where ?
Rum balls are popular in Britain, and are also a tradition in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Rum balls are quick and easy to make and have the ‘no cooking’ advantage as they often appeared in those ‘How to Hostess a Party’ articles of the 1950’s and 60’s.
Traditionally Danish Rum Balls are also known as Romkugler. Romkugler is found in every bakery in Denmark are very dense, have a rich chocolate taste and a twist of rum.Rum balls were originally invented by the Danish bakers who were worried at the end of each day when they found unsold cakes at the counter. Even though they did their best to make the right amount of bread, buns, Danish pastry and cakes so that all of it would be sold during the day; they always had leftovers which would not be fresh enough to be sold the day after.The bakers came up with a clever plan where they assembled all the Danish pastry and cakes, which were not sold during the day; they then mixed it all together with cocoa powder and some rum. The sticky dough was then rolled into balls, decorated with coconut flakes or chocolate sprinkle and then sold the next day for a low price.
Rum Ball – Kitchen tales
Over the years when I started baking, Rum balls became a regular at my kitchen. In my recipe for homemade rum balls, you would need some cake leftovers, raspberry jam, rum,cocoa powder and some coconut flakes for decoration. I always save my cake leftovers in the freezer and when I have enough, I thaw it and make rum balls. Cake leftovers after Christmas make it the best time to rustle up Rum Balls. For the Rum Balls I mix all the cake leftovers in a food processor and run until they all crumble.Then I add jam, rum and cocoa powder and run the food processor until the dough has a uniform consistency.If I am in a mood to overdo, I drizzle some condensed milk too at this stage. Sometimes I add semi crushed raisins and cashews soaked in rum. Remember not to add the rum which was used to soak the dry fruits. I roll the dough into about eight balls and then roll them balls in coconut flakes or chocolate flakes.You may choose to roll over the balls in melted chocolate at this point which would soon harden and give a glaze. Leave the rum ball in the fridge until they are to be served.
Have seen both grown ups and children eating a Rum Ball in myriad ways. Some gulp it straight, others cut them into halves and scoop the cakey part and leave the chocolate part to be had later. After I wrote this on Rum balls and made a batch, I am tempted enough to try one after ages, yes halving it and enjoying the rummy aroma. Heady feeling I suppose. Cheers to a gulp of the chocolate and rum…. Memories and happy ones always.
Cheese often saves my day when there are sudden guests or an impromptu party at my home.It is one of the best comfort foods too. A late night bite into a cheese cube is often bliss. Cheese is as versatile as the eggs- varieties of cheeses abounds so does avenues to make the cheese interesting.A sudden late evening party and my search for a cocktail snack ends with rice and cheese balls,a sudden afternoon with friends calls for some Spaghetti and some Parmesan,a lazy Sunday morning breakfast often combines egg and cheese in my multigrain slice.
Cheese has several childhood memories.Those were the days of Amul cheese cubes which my Ma used to store in the fridge for a cheese omelette or a cheese sandwich.But I loved eating them by itself and often earned the wrath of my Ma when she discovered that the cheese had just vanished.Then came the age of cheese spreads and my good times .Just dip your finger in the gooey pack and bliss is all yours.Simple cucumber sandwiches became tastier.Centuries of experimentation and innovation have resulted in varieties of cheese each with it’s own texture,taste and stink factor.These days I feel overwhelmed and lost by the exhaustive array of cheese at hyper stores.
Cheese can be classified by different parameters-texture,flavor,age,preparation method,type of milk used,color,country,region.Popular cheese blogger Marcella the Cheesemonger classified cheese into eight major families.Fresh cheese as Mascarpone,Cottage Cheese,Ricotta;Pasta Filata as Mozarella, Burrata;Soft Ripened Cheese as Brie,Camembert;Semi Soft Cheese as Havarti,Jarlsberg ;Washed Rind Cheese as Limburger; Blue Cheese as Roquefort;Semi Hard Cheese as Cheddar, Gouda;Hard Cheese as Parmigiano, Pecorino and the entire range of Processed Cheeses.
The evolution of cheese began around 5000 years ago,when people in warm Central Asia and the Middle East learned that they could preserve naturally soured,curdled milk by draining off the watery whey and salting the concentrated curd.The texture of the curd became cohesive as the curdling took place in an animal stomach.The first cheeses resembled modern day brine cured feta,still common in Balkans.The earliest evidence of cheesemaking known to date,a residue found in an Egyptian pot,dates from around 2300 BC.The birth of modern cheese was well before Roman times. Columella in his book Rei Rusticae described standard cheese making practice.Pliny mentioned that Rome got its cheeses from Nimes in southern France and the Dalmatian Alps.
Cheese as Artifacts- ” Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky,meadows encrusted with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening…there are different herds,with their shelters and their movements across the countryside,there are secret methods handed down over centuries.This shop is a museum ,Mr Palomar visiting it,feels as he does in Louvre,behind every cheese is the presence of the civilization that gave it form and takes form from it.”Italo Calvino,Palomar,1983.
The art of cheesemaking by late medieval times inspired connoisseur ship as the French court received shipments from Brie,Comte,Maroilles. In England, Chesire cheese became famous by Elizabethan times and Cheddar and Stiltoon by the 18th century.For the poor it became a staple,and for the rich aged cheese became a one course of their multi course feasts. Brillat Savarin wrote,”a desert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who is missing an eye.” The golden age of cheese was probably the late 19th and early 20th century as local styles developed and matured, and the railroads got the country products to the city. With the establishment of cheese factories in United States the modern decline of cheesemaking began.Cheese became an industrial product an expression, not of diverse natural and human particulars but of monolithic standard.
It is always a challenge to choose a good cheese. A late medieval compendium of recipes known as Le Menagier de Paris,included this formula to recognize a good cheese.” Not at all white like Helen,Nor weeping like Magdalene,Not Argus,but completely blind,And heavy like a buffalo…..Without eyes,without tears, not at all white,Moth eaten ,rebellious, of good weight.”
To cook with cheese is both a challenge as well as a bliss. Cheese can add both flavor and texture ,it can either melt or be crisp.Stringy cheeses are enjoyable on pizzas.The pleasure of melted cheese is beyond words.A cheese dish which always intrigues me is a Cheese Fondue.In the Swiss Alps,cheese has been melted in a communal pot at the table and kept hot over a flame for dipping bread.The ingredients for a classic fondue are alpine cheese,a tart white wine,some kitsch and sometimes starch.The combination of cheese and wine steals the show.France and Greece leads the world in per capita cheese consumption.
Last year my trip to Conoor was made memorable by a visit to a cheese farm Acres Wild .The fresh Gouda cheese which I sourced from there will be always be on my tastebuds. The entire range is hand made and includes an array of soft and hard cheese-Feta,Ricotta,Parmesan and even Blue Cheese.Hand crafted artisanal cheeses have become a niche in India and there are several homegrown cheese makers making crumb fried Camembert,salty Ricotta,cheese infused with herbs etc.My favourite cheese dishes which I love to cook apart from a cheese stuffed omelette is a simple cheesy sauce Penne pasta.It can never go wrong on warmth as well as taste.My recipe for a simple herb infused cheesy pasta is short and simple.
For cooking any pasta I prefer whole wheat ones,and for this I boiled whole wheat penne in lots of water infused with some olive oil,salt and some dried mixed herbs.I don’t like my pasta soft,so keep a close vigil on the texture.After draining out the starch filled water, I let the boiled pasta to cool for a while.For the sauce butter and minced garlic is a must.Once the butter melts in the pan,o I add a lot of minced garlic,some dried mixed herbs and when the butter is infused with the garlic, I put in a teaspoon of flour and roast it well.One should be however be careful not to brown the flour.I lower the flame,add the lukewarm milk and stir it well and avoid lumps.To this sauce I add the boiled pasta,some red chilli flakes and let it soak in the flavor. Once I add salt if necessary ,I transfer this to a baking dish and add a lot of grated Parmesan cheese and bake for a brownish soft crust .Once done I add a handful of fresh parsley.This has never failed me and love seeing happy faces of the kids of my friends slurping the melted cheese.
Every morning when I board the train for my work I have the pleasure of seeing a known set of my co passengers – doctors, teachers and a large group of fish whole sellers. These people buy fish from the Sealdah wholesale market primarily for supply to suburban small towns. I look forward everyday to see the array of fish in their haul. Fish is a food from the earth’s other world, it’s vast water underworld. Humans have long been nourished by fish and it built nations on them as well. The history of the world’s fisheries are not only the saga of human ingenuity and bravery but also of unlimited hunger. Apart from depleting the fish population, fishing also caused collateral damage to other underwater species.
There are many parts of the world which loves its fish- be it the Salmon, the Mackarel, the Cod, the Hilsa,the Tilapia or the Pomfret . The list is endless – either sea fish or fresh water catch. Fish to me is as fragile as the heart of a jilted lover. Lot of care, timing and precision goes into it to take the fresh catch cooked to the dinner table. In the book Physiology of Taste, Brillart Savarin wrote,”Fish are an endless source of meditation and astonishment.” Fish is cooked in myriad ways across the world – fried,stewed, grilled,broiled, baked, poached, sauted, dried. In the book Of Ancient Customs by Michael de Montaigne, he outlines how fish was prepared in ancient Rome. “In summer in their lower rooms they often had clear fresh water run in open channels underneath, in which there were a lot of live fish, which the guest would select and catch in their hands to be prepared to the taste of each.”
An ancient way of cooking fish is to enclose it in a layer of clay, coarse salt, leaves to shield it from direct heat and to let the fish gently cook. The covering is served intact to be opened at the dining table, releasing aroma that would otherwise have been lost. Fish continues to be cooked in this manner in many parts of India be it the Paturi or the Patrani Machi. Apicus gave a recipe of Stuffed Bonito where he wrote about boning the Bonito. Then followed pounding together of cumin, pepper,mint, nuts and honey which he prescribed to stuff the fish with and then wrap the fish in parchment paper. The parceled fish had to be placed in a covered pan over steam. The fish when served was seasoned with oil, reduced wine and fermented fish paste.
The oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity, De Re Coquinaria (“The Art of Cooking”) is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, the famed epicure.The recipes were compiled in the late fourth or early fifth century and were derived from a variety of sources, although many were his own.The ten books with over five hundred recipes were arranged like a modern cookbook, which included recipes for meats, vegetables, legumes, fowl, meat, seafood, and fish.The book contains over four hundred of recipes of fish which included a sauce, invariably made with fermented fish sauce named as garum or defrutum,a syrupy reduction of grape juice. The preparation of most sauces began with a blend of spices and herbs, usually pepper, which often were combined with cumin.Then,it was ground in a mortar with fruits ,(plums, dates, raisins) nuts (almonds, pine nuts, walnuts)as well as liquids, including either Garum, water, stock, milk, honey, oil, vinegar, and wine.The thickening agent was wheat starch but also included the yolks and whites of eggs, pounded dates, and steeped rice or the water in which the food had been boiled. Fish sauces tended to be particularly elaborate-boiled murena (likely eel) called for pepper, lovage, dill, celery seed, coriander, dried mint, and rue, as well as pine nuts, honey, vinegar, wine, and oil .Seneca mentioned Apicius, who competed for a huge mullet put up for sale by Tiberius .Digesting “the blessings of land and sea”, Apicius was the very embodiment of effete prodigality, his cooking school “defiled the age with his teaching.”
Although both Pliny and Apicius wrote in the 1st century AD, they perceived the Mullet in completely different ways. Pliny was fascinated by the value of the fish, which he complained costs as much as a cook once did to prepare it. For Apicius, “a man who displayed a remarkable degree of ingenuity in everything relating to luxury”, proposed a prize for anyone who could invent a new sauce for the fish.The Mullet to Apicus whether served in a shallow pan (pantina), salted or grilled, was less important than the sauces accompanying it (De Re Coquinaria, IV.2.22, 31; IX.10.6, 7, 9; X.1.11, 12).
The oldest cookbook may be by Apicius, but that is not to say that he was the first epicure. Archestratus, a Sicilian Greek whose 4th century BC poem on gastronomy survives in the sixty fragments preserved by Athenaeus. In reading them, one is struck by his emphasis on simplicity and insistence that a delicate fish be sprinkled only with a little salt and basted with olive oil, “for it contains the height of pleasure within itself”.
“‘There is nothing,’ you say, ‘more beautiful than a dying surmullet [mullo]. In the very struggle of its failing breath of life, first a red, then a pale tint suffuses it, and its scales change hue, and between life and death there is a gradation of colour into subtle shades….See how the red becomes inflamed, more brilliant than any vermilion! Look at the veins which pulse along its sides! Look! You would think its belly were actual blood! What a bright kind of blue gleamed right under its brow! Now it is stretching out and going pale and is settling into a uniform hue.'”
Seneca, Natural Questions (III.18.1,4)
The red or barbed mullet (Mullus barbatus, from mulleus, “red”) is a small bottom-feeding fish that, although mentioned by the Greeks, does not seem to have elicited any special enthusiasm. The famed gourmet Archestratus comments only on the best locales where it could be found (Athenaeus, VII.325D). In a letter to Atticus, Cicero speaks of wealthy Romans feeding by hand “the bearded mullet in their fish ponds” ( II.1.7). According to Columella, the mullet is difficult to maintain there “since it is a very delicate kind of fish and most intolerant of captivity, and so only one or two out of many thousands can on rare occasions endure confinement” (VIII.17.7).
Of the various kinds described by Pliny, it was the flavor of the red mullet, which tasted like an oyster, that was most appreciated. The fish, he says, also was called the “shoe mullet” (IX.65) because its color (mulleus) was that of the mulleus calceus, the distinctive red shoe (calceus patricius) worn by patricians, which Isidore compares to the red scales of the fish (Origines, XIX.34.10). Tertullian has such a shoe worn by the madam of a Carthaginian brothel to comment on the inconsistency between what is worn and the character of the one who wears it (De Pallio, IV.10).
The Greek name for the fish is triglê, which Athenaeus argued derive from the fact that the red mullet was said to spawn three times a year. By analogy, the mullet was dedicated to Hecate, the goddess of crossroads who looks three ways (Athenaeus, VII.324D ff).In spite of Pliny’s declaration that the mullet was plentiful, Juvenal complains that they have to come from Corsica or Sicily, “since our own sea [the Tyrrhenian] has been totally ransacked to the point of exhaustion, since gluttony rages, the delicatessens raking the nearest waters with nonstop nets—and we don’t let the Tyrrhenian fish grow to size”.
Hilsa has been the prized catch in this part of the land bordering Bay of Bengal.The love for Hilsa connects the the two neighbouring countries which were not long ago part of the same nation.Both the countries account for 3/4 th of this fish of the herring family harvested worldwide. Hilsa like mullet and cod is in danger. Over fishing by trawlers,ecological imbalances, siltation, and under aged Hilsa fishing are the root causes of the near depletion. The Hilsa migrates upstream into fresh water for spawning and greedy fishermen scoop out juveniles as well as pregnant ones.Barrages have also intercepted the migratory route.Ban on hilsa fishing for the breeding months are flouted. Hilsa sanctuaries in Bangladesh are yielding positive results.Fervently hop e that Hilsa does not vanish as the Cod did in the Pacific and we do not love Hilsa to death.
When I talked at length about the story of fish in history, felt the urge to share a couple of recipes which I love to cook. Red mullet is not available in this part of the world ,I do this recipe with Bhetki fillets.It crossed my mind that it would be ideal with a mullet fillet too. The mullet fillet has to be seasoned with salt,pepper and extra virgin olive oil.The fish has to be grilled skin side up on a lightly greased baking tray. To make a chili oil I finely chop garlic and put it in hot oil over the flame.I add some red chilli flakes for color.The heat has to be lowered to the minimum till the oil takes in the flavor of the chilli and garlic.You will be surely bowled over by the aroma.I make an aubergine mash with the fish.The roasted aubergine is peeled and mixed with garlic,lemon juice,cumin and a tahini sauce in a blender.Some olive oil is added too for the shine and texture.I serve the fish topped with the chili garlic oil and some parsley with the aubergine mash on the side.
The Hilsa is cooked in myriad ways on both sides of the border.Some prefer it steamed with mustard paste,some debone it and roast it,some like the hilsa in mustard oil sans water with begun or aubergines.Bangladesh even uses the Hilsa fish head to make a pish pash of vegetables with bitter gourd.Tasted this some time ago at a friend’s house and would love to share the timeless recipe with all.The fish head was marinated with salt and turmeric powder and was fried till brown.In the same oil I fry the diced bitter gourd and keep it aside.The left over oil is tempered with bay leaves,panch phoron or five spices and red chilli till spluttering.I add some grated ginger and the bori or lentil dumplings and fry till light brown.I add the diced vegetables of potatoes papaya,radish,carrot and raw banana.After stir frying them I put in water and cover till the veggies are nearly done.The fried fish head is added at this stage and with the spatula break the head in two pieces.When boiling I add the fried bitter gourd and some milk .For flavour I drizzle a teaspoon of ghee and cover to seal the flavors.It is best had with plain boiled rice and for lunch.
The most popular and widely available fish in Bengal is the Rohu and the Katla ,belonging to the family of Carps.On a leisurely Sunday I love to experiment with dishes of Katla. Made a Katla recipe with white sesame seeds paste and yoghurt .I fry the Katla pieces well after salt and turmeric marination.I make a paste of white sesame seed and some cashew with a green chilli. In hot mustard oil I add whole garam masala,bay leaves and whole red chilli. When spluttering I slid in the sesame paste ,some turmeric,red chilli powder and salt.When the oil separates I add the yogurt and put in the fish.I cover the pan for around 10 min.In a separate pan I fry onions till brown and dry the oil over a napkin .After 10 min I add some garam masala and coriander leaves.Before serving I add the fried onions to the fish and serve with plain steamed rice.
The fishy tales goes back long in history and with a fervent hope they survive long long time after with careful conservation, responsible consumption and vigilant ecological watch.
The story began way back in 2001.Fresh out of college with dreams of teaching in a college, I was in for a shock. The West Bengal College Service Commission sent me an appointment letter for a college located in a remote village in 24 Parganas (South). My father in his last days wanted me to take the posting and to give me courage told me, “Love your workplace and the workplace will in turn love you.” A two hours journey by local train which I boarded probably for the second time in my life took me to my workplace. Time flew, I aged, the college grew in dimensions and I fell in love with the place, the college and the people. Every place has its unique culture, food tastes, techniques of cooking, local dialects and traditions. I began learning about them and understanding the moorings. One such tradition of this area is Ranna Pujo or Arandhan celebrated a day before Vishwakarma Puja and continues a day after. The puja centres around cooking and all rituals are associated with cooking the spread which is often more than twenty items.
In essence a tribute to Goddess Manasha (Snake God), the night before the Vishwakarma Puja, kitchens in the household are cleaned thoroughly including the mud stoves. A new mud stove is made, new utensils are used to cook the spread to be offered to Ma Manasha. The spatula used for cooking is made out of a branch of a date palm tree. The lady of the house takes a bath at dusk and initiates the cooking. Payesh is cooked first. Five types of vegetable fritters and five types of vegetable chorchori(mishmash) are a must. A mixed vegetable with kochu (taro) ,coconut and soaked Bengal Gram is also prepared.Another unique trait of the pujo is an array of non vegetarian offerings. Hilsa, a seasonal favourite is a must. Prawn fritters, Kochu shaak and Loti (colocasia stem and greens) with prawns are a must. Shapla (white lily) chorchori and Dal Chorchori (cooked lentils till dry) too are part of the spread. A relish or a chutney is made from Chalta (Elephant Apple). Apart from Payesh sweets like Kolar Bora(ripe banana fritters), taaler Bora and several Pithes(stuffed pancakes) are served. A beverage called Amani is served at the end which is basically the water in which the rice was soaked overnight flavored with salt and lemon.
Next morning the offering is placed before the deity which is a not an idol but a branch of a Manasha tree.The spread is served on seven leaves of the Shapla flower. Incense sticks and a new lamp is lit. The rice cooked last night soaked in water is served along with the vegetables and the fish. This is called Panna. The next day guests come over for a grand feast which is cooked and served hot.
Over years students have treated me to various delicacies cooked during this festival. The one I love is the Dal Chorchori which I have tried to replicate in my kitchen.
For Dal Chorchori, I soak Motor Dal(yellow split peas dal) overnight and make a coarse paste of it. To hot mustard oil I add bay leaves, whole red chilli and fenugreek seeds. Once spluttering I put in the coarse dal paste, turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt. After the dal paste starts to leave the sides I add some ginger paste and over low heat I keep stirring it till all the water evaporates. A dash of mustard and green chilli paste at this stage.I cover the pan for some time and add a drizzle of mustard oil for the flavour. The Dal Chorchori will require a large amount of rice to be had with it and those on a diet let loose for a day.
Such traditions as Ranna Pujo or Arandhan keep regional and local culture alive and ticking. Heterogeneity in an age of globalization must be valued for it is such unique diversities which keep the spirit of a multicultural, multi ethnic country like India safe. Regional and local deities, festivals, food, cooking techniques, beliefs and faith of every region and culture makes this part of the world a mosaic of life.
A highpoint of my recent visits to Punjab was my visit to several langars – from Guru Ram Das Langar at Golden Temple to the Langar at Tarn Taran to the Langars of unknown Gurudwaras on the way from one city to the other. I realized a hearty meal requires nothing more than a dal and a roti. But that meal has to be made with a lot of love .The Maa ki Dal at any Langar tastes as delicious as the other.A sevadar at a Langar told me, “No fixed proportion of onion, garlic, green chilli but a fixed proportion of love is what makes Langar ki Dal.” His words reverberated in my mind ever since I came back. Kali Dal, Dal Makhani etc can easily be made at home or ordered but what about Langar Ki dal? I had ready provisions of the black urad dal, the channa dal ,onion,tomatoes and what ever but I stopped short of trying it at home. Some stressful days at work but I felt the need to push myself to make the dal soon. That indispensable ingredient needed for making the dal was with me for sometime now. So I did make the dal today, the proportion of the black urad dal and channa dal was perfect, and for the proportion of love into its making I was not a miser, gave my best after a whole days work, shaped it like a dream coming true. The Langar ki Dal was made and served with sukha but thickish roti. Made it for a friend who deserved every morsel of it, who earned it for the beautiful self. For the making of the Langar ki Dal I learnt from the sevadar that there is no fixed proportion, no fine cuts,no fine dining experience. I soaked Black Urad Dal and Channa Dal in the proportion of 3:1 overnight For Langar ki dal everything is chopped coarsely but with love. Chopped onion in thick uneven strips, crushed garlic, ginger and green chilli to a grainy texture.The tomatoes were chopped . Boiled the two dals with salt, turmeric, ginger and garlic shreds. For the Dal one has to use Desi Ghee. Once the ghee reached a smoking point, added whole cumin. As they spluttered in a tune, added the roughly ground ginger, garlic and green chilli. Added the onions, once translucent added the tomatoes. When mushy added corriander powder, red chilli powder and sauted it till the ghee separated. To it added the boiled dal, some water and covered it. Lowered the heat and simmered it for a good 30min.Stood at the kitchen while the dal simmered and the aroma enticed me, mixed in a lot of love for the person I was making the dal for. Added corriander leaves and covered it. For the tadka in pure ghee spluttered dried Kasuri Methi leaves and whole garam masala. Added this to the dal and with it a lot of love for the one I was making the dal for and covered it to seal in the flavor.
The Langar ki Dal ceased to be just a dal, it became a reflection of the most basic needs of living – food and love. The making of it strengthened my sensibilities and sharpened my beliefs
Memories of Facebook are a wonderful tool to make me remember, to soak me in nostalgia. Over the years August has been the month when I have invariably travelled. The pictures which came as memories indicated August 2014 as the date when I had stayed in Nainital for nearly a month for an academic purpose.Sundays were free, so were the evenings. Though the climb down from the Institute was sharp and the climb up often exasperating yet a customary stroll around the lake or some unknown hill Road was my favourite. It was one such Sunday that most of my colleagues had gone to Ranikhet, I gave it a miss. The desire to explore the city not on the tourist’s map made me stay back.
Walking across the Mall I had noticed few churches and even some church spirals up the hills. Churches as colonial footmarks are always fascinating. It not only showcases architectural styles but narrate stories. The moss ridden stones, the uncared for cemetery in the compound, the organ pipes stand testimony to the first setllers of the town, their lives and deaths. While looking through books on Nainital in the Town Library the name St John’s Church in Wilderness fascinated me. A church in the wilderness- untold stories, histories and events.
Tucked away within the tall pines and firs where sunlight rarely penetrates the soil, the iron gate of the church and it’s creaking sound assured me that the visit to the oldest standing Methodist Church in India would be worth a rememberance. I almost lost myself in the splendor of the wilderness, the stained glass windows, antique wooden door transported me to the 1800s and to that bygone era.
Nestled within the dark Deodar trees at the foot of the Cheena Peak and located near Mallital,a five minute walk uphill past the High Court,the church was built in 1844.The church was named by Daniel Wilson, the Bishop of Calcutta who fell I’ll and was forced to sleep a night in an unfinished house on the edge of the forest. John Hallet, the then commissioner of Kumaon selected the ground for the construction of a church and the designs were implemented by Captain Young. The cornerstone was laid on October 13,1846. Rev Wilson was an assistant curator at at St Johns Chapel,Bloomsbury and named the church St John’s Wilderness Church.It was opened for divine service on April 1848.
Built in Gothic style, a big metallic bell was purchased and which still hangs on the church spiral. The dark colored timber roof sort of complements the cemetery standing silently and in ignorance. The cost of the original structure was about Rs 15000. Stained glass windows were erected at each end of the church and the art pieces were executed by Ward and Hughes of London. A number of memorial windows representing biblical episodes were built. In the centre is a figure of St John and the Baptist holding a banner and the following words, “ The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness ,prepare ye the way of the Lord.” A brass plaque on the altar is inscribed with names of the victims of the Landslip of 1880.The church had an unusual feature of a gun rack near the door as followers often had to encounter wild animals on their way to Sunday service. A carved communion table was added in 1885 and an Font was also placed in the Baptistery.
Adjoining the church there stands a cemetery, uncared for. The bushes and ferns cover the broken plaques. On one of the upper terraces lies the grave of Christopher Corbett,a postmaster in the local post office and father of Jim Corbett. The grave of Jim Corbett’s mother, Mary Jane Corbett lies here who was the doyen of tourism in Nainital when she built the first lodging facility for tourists.
I was in time for the Sunday service but the church seemed closed. As I walked about the compound I saw the door ajar. There were barely 10 people The church lies uncared for- damp, dark with a flickering bulb. Rose wood windows creak and refuse to open. Sunlight gives the church a miss. The candles burned dimly. A father came out of nowhere and asked me where I was from. Little bewildered, I followed his instructions and sat in the first row. My first service ever, the lights went off, candles flickered, as I faintly heard the prayers I felt something Felt God very near me, a life enriching experience in the wilderness. I remember the theme of the service, God forgives all sins but never forgives a bad word coming from his creatures. These words will reverberate within me all my life. An old woman, a young couple in love , the father who promptly changed his robe once the service was over, the dilapidated but beautiful church will be fresh in my thought for ever. The church reminded me of those silk stoles of my grandmother, neatly folded and preserved but when opened showed signs of being worn out from the passage of time.
Naintal- the city of lakes during that one month seemed to smile in the morning rays and azure skies,glimmer in the orange dusk rays,cry in the torrential rainy season and warm up the soul during the chilly winters. Nainital does not solely exist around the lake teeming with tourists,nor does it live on the rows of shops selling candles,wollens,wooden clocks and rhododendron juices.There exists in sheer grandiose a Nainital less travelled,less cared for yet beautiful steeped in history,colonial past,stories,lives and deaths.The road I travelled ,the road I will remember .
“The one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse – would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the world combined.” Mark Twain
The winding paths,the floating clouds,the vintage pine trees,the colorful cardigans and the mufflers,the furry dogs strolling about the Mall,the lure of the sunny mornings,the aftertaste of the orange pekoe and the fried sausages ,the hustle bustle and color of the Bhutia market ,the controlled excitement about the visibility of the mighty Kanchenjunga are images of Darjeeling which have endeared me to the haven of peace for years on.These images even in the most busy day occupy my mind space and brings about a nostalgia of my childhood when I used to be a regular at the town with my parents,my first trips after marriage ,the trips I started doing with friends and colleagues and then when I started travelling solo .I have traveled to Darjeeling in almost all seasons and in every manner-from the nostalgic Darjeeling Express of my childhood to shared taxis uphill from Siliguri soaking in life stories of different co-travellers,staying in quaint cottages to luxurious boutique hotels.Every time has been an experience which I remember and cherish.What changed over the years was the gaze and the experience of pleasure.
For the last few years the night before I travel to the land of my soul I flip through this anonymous poem published in Darjeeling Ditties and Other Poems
Anticipationoftheethereal……..Scan the vista,day by day,
Nature’s glories here survey….
View as far as eye can see,
Height and depth,and cloud land free
Mighty mountains,hooded white,
Rise in front,and add delight…….
Snows eternal,heaven ward climb
This summer I preferred not to stay in Darjeeling overnight,I decided to be there one morning and walk across the town directionless ,breathe in a lot of the cold misty air, my cheeks touching the clouds moving past..favorite songs keeping me company and a leisurely stop by at my favorite spots and restaurants.What I did in reality was a walking trip of the town consciously avoiding the popular tourist places.The mall,the churches,window shops ,the walk across little lanes ,the crowd at the bandstand,the heritage hotels created moments which I will cherish for ever.
Like all other hill stations of India ,Darjeeling too has a colonial past which it carefully preserves and cherishes.The British inscribed Darjeeling with their perceptions of aesthetics and landscape.There were attempts to reproduce a European landscape and an urban site all unified in the single space of the hills.Adorned with bungalows,imposing churches and stately public buildings Darjeeling was refashioned to reflect the multiple visions of the empire builders.The climate evoked reveries of the English countryside to the sahibs as the cool temperate climate drew them in a shared whiff of home like ambience. The British reorganised the landscape into the foreground,distance and background institutionalizing rank,color and class consciousness.The British began to perceive Darjeeling as the place for health,recreation and pleasure. Lloyd and Dr Chapman also endorsed the suitability of Darjeeling as a sanatorium.Travelling to Darjeeling however remained fraught with difficulties.Lt John Gilmore was appointed Executive Engineer with the priority of connecting Terai and Darjeeling by road.Robert Napier replaced him in 1839 and the construction of Pankhabari Road which climbed past Kurseong ,to the top of the hills at Chimney ,Mahaldhera along Sonada ,went past the golf links at Senchal ,dropped to the saddle ridge of Jorebugalow and then the road went through Aloobari and came out to Chowrasta was completed in 1842 .This road came to be known as the Old Military Road.In 1840 Campbell was appointed superintendent of Darjeeling and he took a pivotal role in the building of areas of settlement.
By 1840 Darjeeling had two public buildings,a hotel ,a court and around 30 residences of the English officials.The Chowrasta was known as Dell Corner after the name of a house The Dell .However by 1878 Dell had disappeared.In the 1840’s the Mall was a fairly new road but it followed the present alignment.There was no Victoria Road in the early 1840’s and no cart road to Lebong. The Bhutia Busty area however existed.The construction of the Hill Cart Road began in 1861 from Kurseong to Darjeeling and was completed in 1864.A beautiful road with a smooth gradient it was used for carrying bulk goods on horse and bullock carts and was hence named Hill Cart Road.Built under the supervision of an Anglo Indian Engineer named Dewar ,the road changed the fate of Darjeeling.Fred Pinn called the Hill Cart Road as the Road of Destiny. The development of tea plantations in the area facilitated the growth of Darjeeling into an urban settlement.Mark Twain came to Darjeeling in 1896 by the Darjeeling Himalaya Railway.He wrote,“The railway journey up the mountain is forty miles, and it takes eight hours to make it. It is so wild and interesting and exciting and enchanting that it ought to take a week”.Echoing Twain it is my perpetual wish to stay back at the hill town maybe a job at a local school to keep me going,alone with my thoughts and at peace with the pines and firs.
It was during a late morning -sunny with a hint of a chilly wind that I left my car near the towering Clock Tower of Darjeeling Municipality.Every time I look up to the skies to see the grandeur of this colonial architecture I am awed as well as saddened – the mesh of electric wires seems to disregard history .The clock tower at the Darjeeling Municipality Building is a testimony to the colonial past of Darjeeling,its growth as a town in the colonial period,the frenzy during the Gorkha land movement but has stood tall both against the ravages of nature and man.Located at Laden la Road ,very near to the club stand and the crossing of Gandhi Road ,the history of the Darjeeling Municipality building can be traced to 1850 which was the then Town Hall of the sleepy hill station.The foundation stone of the current building of the municipality was laid by Lord Ronaldshay in October 1917. Built at an estimated cost of Rs 2.5 lakh, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar contributed a large amount. The building housed a hall , a reading room, a square, a 100-ft-high stone clock tower, an octagonal gable roof and flag-staff.The clock which has four faces, was set up by GT Gent and Company, England. The clock though survived a devastating fire in 1996, was repaired in 2006 by the initiative of the Darjeeling rotary Club.The limit of the Darjeeling Municipality was originally co-extensive with the area ceded by the Raja of Sikkim in 1835 and extended from the hills below Pankhabari to the borders of Sikkim on the north. The Municipality area as of now begins at Jorebunglow to the South & extends to a point on the road to Tukvar below St. Josephs’s College on the north. Time seems to stop here ,the faded stone exterior,occasional pigeons flying across the sound of the chimes travelling through the clouds,tourists posing at its background from the terrace of Keventers ,the Clock Tower is indispensable to the Darjeeling skyline.
Walking past it with a favorite tune playing across the road I am filled with nostalgia as I walk across the building of the Darjeeling Head Post Office.The bright painted green and red post boxes and the historic clock at the entrance have seen the beginning and end of so many love stories over time.A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the post office opened in May 1921 and is one of the oldest post offices in the region. The stone wall,the red roof ,chimneys jutting out of the slant of the Post office suddenly implored me to write a letter.A bucket list wish for my next visit to Darjeeling for sure.
Walking ahead to the Clubstand I had the choice of going several ways,either I climb up to the Chowrasta or turn towards the road past Dekeling and Kungas’s to the now abandoned Hotel Everest.I could also walk down to Chowk Bazar from the road to the left of the Clubstand. When in Darjeeling the first thing I want to do always is to breathe and soak in the warm environs of the Mall or Chowrasta. This road breathes life -countless tourists ,the bright colors of winter wear,the lone man playing the flute at the entrance of Keventers,roasted corn cobs served with a dash of chilli and lime,the historic Das Studio,the vegetarian Frank Ross Cafe,shop windows with mystic masks I walk past the green facade of Hotel Shangri La,the Glenary’s,the old Bellevue Hotel with its skylights,the haunted PineRidge Hotel and there I was near the fountain at the Chowrsata. The Indian Airlines building still stands tall to the left but forlorn reminding me of the long queues of foreign tourists waiting for tickets during my child hood.The building suddenly seemed to me old and tired ,probably leading an unhappy life post retirement.
It was late morning and I suddenly felt a craving for coffee strong enough to give me an energy boost.There was no point going back to Keventers or Glenarys ,I decided to go to Sonam”s Kitchen on Zakir Hussain Road.The Google map helped me find the quaint shop tucked away in the road past the horse stable towards the TV Tower.In Darjeeling, there aren’t many other places where you will get fresh coffee made out of roasted beans. Sonam really makes the coffee well. On the door of her kitchen, she proudly displays “Home of real coffee”.Large enough to seat about 15, Sonam herself is at work.She take orders,cooks,serves and smiles.She has a set breakfast of hashbrowns,fried eggs,sunny side ups,cheese omelette ,grilled tomato,soft gooey light colored scrambled eggs.All those who love eggs don’t miss a breakfast at Sonam’s. Her breads are special,they are cut out of old style loaves ,toasted golden brown and served with slices of fresh goat cheese.One can also order for french toasts with honey,porridge and sandwiches made of pulled chicken breasts seasoned perfectly with fresh black pepper. Sonam also serves dinner but remember to drop in by 7.30pm if you want to taste handmade pastas with home made sauces.
I ordered toasted bread with goat cheese,a cup of fresh coffee and the softest pancakes topped with bananas and drizzled with honey. Sonam does not read English well,she asks her customers to write down the order on a piece of paper and her husband puts in the amount neatly besides each item.The wooden interiors ,the great collection of books ,the warm hospitality of Sonam endeared me to the little cafe.
Happy and delighted I started walking towards the Mall again staring at the Tibetan curio shops,cafes,roadside momo shops and the horse stable.As I reached the Mall or Chowrasta I stood there in silence and in fond memories.Snippets of the roasted corn,the steaming cup of tomato soup ,horse rides around the Observatory Hill crowded my mind.As I looked around the Mall which dates back to colonial times I realized the Mall had two faces now-the chique and glittering consisting of cafe chains,boutique tea shops,supersize LCD screens and the old colonial face of the Mall where Oxford Book Store ,Habeeb Mallick and Sons ,Chowrasta Wine shop,Chalet Hotel,Hotel Sunflower reminds one of time gone by.The Mall with its tall pine trees,flocks of pigeons,azure skies,mighty Kanchenjungha peeping now and then,poetic slopes,cloudy dreams,busy and not so busy people walking across,the ponies and horses,the statue of Bhanubhakta ,the post boxes though freshly painted,the Buddhist monks with rosaries in their hands,groups of retired natives with long umbrellas ,the green benches all stood the test of time,they remain unchanged over the years,presiding over changing turbulent times with a determined patience and a grit.
I begin to walk past the Mahakal Temple cutting through mists,walking past little children enjoying their pony rides,Nepali women opening their stalls displaying hand knit sweater,mufflers,colorful caps .Sat for a while at the green benches made famous by Satyajit Ray in his movie Kanchenjungha,looked down at the undulating valleys,looked up at the sky and felt like life may stop here with no regrets.
Walking past Governor’s House and the Mayfair hotel I stopped at the statue of Nawang Gombu Sherpa,the legendary mountaineer who climbed Mount Everest twice.He was the youngest sherpa to climb the might peak .Nawang Gombu who walked tirelessly across mountains was the founding instructor of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Few steps ahead was a beautiful wooden memorial in remembrance of renowned Hungarian scholar Alexander Csoma De Koros who came to Asia in search of the ancient Hungarian homeland.Founder of Tibetan studies he breathed his last at Darjeeling.The memorial was donated by the Mayor of Kovaszna ,Romania and was inaugurated by the speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly in 2010.
Further ahead I stopped in silence and respect to the bust of Rahul Sankrityana ,known as the father of Hindi travel literature. One of his books Volga se Ganga encompasses the essentials of travel writing and the so important theories of gaze. In his full-length text Ghumakkar Shastra (The Science of Wanderlust) Rahul Sankrityayan understood journey in a very broad sense—it as much encompassed the feat of travelling through the entire expanse of South Asia and Tibet on foot as it covered the massive shift in worldview that took him from pre-modern subaltern religiosity, through modernist revivalism to socialism with scientific pretensions. Rahul Sankrityayan never ceased travelling: neither physically nor philosophically. This poem was his guiding principle-
Sair kar duniya ki gafil, yeh zindagani phir kahan
zindagani gar rahi to, naujawani phir kaha…
Rahul Sankritayan breathed his last at Darjeeling at Rahul Niwas,21 Kcaheri Road.
As I walked ahead I saw the erstwhile Loreto College now known as South Field College.Some desires get never fulfilled and it was always a dream though unfulfilled one to teach at this College.May be next life ,if there is one. With an unfulfilled lust if I may call it I stopped at the gate of heritage Windamere Hotel. Windamere Hotel was built as ‘Ada Villa’ in 1841 and soon became a Boarding House for the tea Planters . The property named Adda Villa was owned by the family of Robin Mookerjee. It was leased to Mrs Tenduf La,who turned it into a hotel with the name Windamere .This colonial heritage property is all about dreams and memories. Windamere thrives on returning guests. Eager to see one of the three jewels of the Darjeeling Hills I convinced the security and after a permission from the manager went inside the property only to see colonial grandeur and heritage maintained with love and care. There was a small wooden board fixed on a bench that said “Jennifer and David Bidwell met on this bench on 13.10.1991” – a couple who met here for the first time and went on to become life partners. The unbridlled glistening peaks,the rolling tea gardens,the magic of the mists weaved romance.As I climbed down the slope I was filled with a happiness and an unknown satisfaction.Darjeeling continues its tryst with love and relationships.
As I walked ahead I saw the St Andrews Church standing lofty with its clock tower,the cross atop the pointed towers and the colored window panes.Churches were an indispensable element in the trajectories of establishing a hill station by the colonial rulers.In an attempt to recreate their home country the colonial rulers built churches infusing Gothic designs with local resources. The foundation stone of St Andrews Church was laid on November 30, 1843. The church was badly damaged by an earthquake and had to be rebuilt in the year 1873. St. Andrew’s is an old Anglican church and the early worshipers of the church included many Scottish soldiers and tea planters living in the Darjeeling Hill area. As I negotiated the steep climb to the church the view was ethereal.I remembered John Brames writing,“The triple top of Kanchanjungha,Was a sight such as one see once in a lifetime,The unfathomable depths of the great purple gorges…”. Inside the church there were inlaid marble tablets and brass plaques remembering some of the oldest residents of Darjeeling like Lt. General Lloyd who was known as the “Discoverer” of Darjeeling who came to Darjeeling in 1828 to sign a deed with the Raja of Sikkim so that East India Company could get the administrative control, lived here to die in 1865. There is also a small brass plaque in memory of Charlotte Countess Canning, wife of the Governor General Lord Canning. Charlotte came to Darjeeling in 1861 for fresh mountain air and also to sketch landscapes of the hills. She died in the Terais from malaria while descending to the plains.
Crossing the Deshabandhu District Library and the Gorkha Rangamanch, I reached Chowrasta again and my heart desired for a perfect cup of the Orange Pekoe.The boutique tea shop Golden Tips served me the best orange pekoe,delicate golden in its color and fragrant in its aroma.
Energized and after packing some first flush and second flush tea packets for friends it was time to step into one of my most favorite book shops – Oxford Book and Stationery Co .The place dimly lit smelled of books,crisp pages,told stories unknown and of far off places.Oxford Book Store has a vast collection of books on the Darjeeling Hills,its history, landscape,people,culture,politics.I got three books on the history of the hills and another being a beautiful collection of Nepalese recipes.The old world look of the shop was in perfect symphony with the rich legacy of the colonial hill town.
A visit to Darjeeling without some shopping of delicate stone trinkets at Habeeb Mallik and Sons would remain incomplete.The wide green doors of the shop opens you to a world of carefully and lovingly curated jewelry of semi precious and precious stones engraved in silver.Carpets,engraved kettles,hand crafted wooden curios,ornate jewelry make the shop a virtual treasure house. The Tibetan curios and masks on the walls told so many unknown stories.Run by a Kashmiri family, the shop was established at Chowrasta in the year 1890 by one Habeeb Mallik whose grandsons now are in charge. Don’t miss out seeing a black and white photograph of the shop taken in 1890, hung in one corner of the shop.
My tryst with Chowrasta was over for this visit.Took the road towards Step Aside,the house of Chittaranjan Das and walked past Alice villa, crossing the Bhutia stalls selling colorful woolen garments. I stopped at the corner shop selling pickles which looked tempting.Then I walked past the bend towards Chowk Bazar. Walking past the Masjid I realized that Darjeeling has done its bit to foster communal amity.Not only communal peace but Darjeeling also is proud of its multiculturalism.
I took the short cut towards Mahakal Market as I was feeling hungry and wanted to make the last stop at Glenary’s for lunch.At the corner of Mahakal Market I was pleasantly surprised to see a palatial mansion with colored glass panes belonging to a Bengali family.
This time I walked a bit fast past the Rink Mall and Nathmull’s Tea Lounge past the Clock tower and gazing at the newly built Ramada Inn which to me was an eye sore to the city scape of the hill. Inspite of being a foodie I had to give Kunga’s , Dekeling and Keventers a miss.My next and final stop was at Glenary’s, a heritage eatery which few can miss.The terrace with beautiful views of the Queen’s Necklace was a bit hot that afternoon.I settled for a cosy table overlooking a glass window and gentle slopes I ordered for a Margarita to quench my thirst.
With it came my comfort bowl of steamed rice with vegetables,mushroom and chicken.The aroma of the rice,the freshness of the vegetables and the delicate flavors made me finish the bowl in a jiffy. Asha ordered their signature Grilled Chicken in the perfect brown sauce.Dipped a buttered bread roll in the sauce and heaven was near.
An anecdote about Darjeeling remains incomplete without a read about the history of the Glenary’s. Following is an extract of Margarethe Pliva’s article in a Himalayan Travel Magazine,The life and times of Darjeeling in the early 1900s–“My Father Adolph Pliva, known to all as “Pop”, was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1882. After going to school in Vienna he trained to become a Confectioner…. It was during this early period of Pop’s time in India that he first visited Darjeeling. He found a job in a Gentleman’s Club very close to the Park where he worked as a steward. The Club was home to a number of real English eccentrics – on certain evenings they all sat in their own coffins! He loved this first experience of the magic that is Darjeeling and vowed to return. Since his first visit to Darjeeling, Pop had been corresponding with an Italian gentleman, Mr Vado, who had a confectionery business there. He informed Pop that he wanted to sell the business. This was the opportunity Pop had been waiting for; to allow him to return to the place he had fallen in love with. Pop now had enough money to buy a half share in the Vado business, so we set out for Darjeeling. Darjeeling was at this time governed by the Raj but actually belonged to Sikkim, with the British leasing it as a holiday destination. Mr Vado was married to a Tibetan lady and they had five children; Esther, Pepo, Barno, Jello and Serafino. He had a wonderful voice and used to sing romantic Neapolitan songs in the evenings. He wanted to take the family back to Italy. Pop therefore initially bought half the business that now became “Vado and Pliva”, and then started to pay for the other half.Vado and Pliva were based in Commercial Road, a very nice street consisting of mainly European shops.It was a four story building.The lower floor contained the bakery and kitchens where bread, chocolates and sweets were made. Plivas even produced its own brand chocolate. The second floor was our family accommodation with the third floor used as was the shop for selling the bread, confectionery, cold meats, ice creams and a particular local delicacy – camel hump, which was very popular!The top floor contained the bar and restaurant which was used for lunches, dinner and Tea Dances. It had large windows providing magnificent views of the Himalayas. A four piece Goan band played at the tea dances and lived in a house Pop found for them near the Town Hall.We later fitted a huge bay window in our flat to enjoy the magnificent mountain views. Pop used to teach the cooks as we had a very extensive menu in the restaurant. Dinner would consist of an hor d’oeuvre such as prawns or sardines all presented on lovely dishes; then soup; then fish; an entree; the roast followed by pudding, dessert and coffee. The business was very popular in the summer but there was no one around in the winter except for a few tea planters. It was therefore usually in debt during the winter months which was paid off .Pop soon bought Mr Vado’s half share of the business and the shop became “Plivas”.
Glenary’s today showcases the 4 P’s- Pastries,Puddings,Pies,Puffs.Beautiful black and white pictures adorn the walls,chandeliers reminding of the colonial gaiety,coat stands,artifacts, billing machine of yesteryear have been carefully preserved.I packed my favourite truffle,rum and mint chocolates and shopped for gooey custard rolls,muffins and tarts. Since it was the Easter weekend I could not possibly disregard the Easter eggs. A bottle of Pork pickle too is a compulsory buy from Glenary’s.
Bidding adieu to Darjeeling is always difficult.I was overtaken with a sadness which is akin to two lovers embarking on a long distance relationship after years of closeness and togetherness.The void which was overtaking me was not new ,I had experienced it in the past,but this time it was a little different.This summer break I was not the typical tourist touching upon places of interest or looking impatiently for the peak. Kanchanjungha was not visible to me this time, but much more was seen and experienced. My walking tour gave me a completeness and a oneness with the town.The town is still beautiful yet battered by the long periods of turbulence,the clouds and mists still came down to touch my soul,caress my wants,the blue skies gave an impetus to look forward for life and love.The late spring blooms promised me color.Left behind my eyes and soul,to be back soon .