Rolling with the stones in Hampi

The lotus is India’s national flower but it doesn’t always enjoy a good rep. Last month, over three days at Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace in the town of Kamalapurs, four kilometres from Hampi, I learned to appreciate the flower beyond its edible roots and party affiliations.

At the resort, the flower isn’t used as decoration but finds new applications. It is in air fresheners and body care products. It also inspires the shape of lampshades dotting the ceilings. The fragrance follows me everywhere, like a shadow, pleasant but excessive. Where the flower shows its true splendour is the Lotus Mahal. This two-storey pink palace houses an Ayurvedic spa, a reading room, a restaurant and a souvenir shop. A replica of the actual Lotus Mahal in Hampi, the archways and the domes are meant to resemble a half-opened lotus, with the towers resembling petals. All lit up at night, the Lotus Mahal gives a sense of the grandeur that defined the queen’s summer place of yore.

Stoned on History

The lotus may be the symbolic theme of the Kamalapura Palace but its architectural theme is Hampi, in all its stone-laden glory.

The resort is a fortress, situated in the centre of a 27-acre property, surrounded by cultivated greenery. I drive through the entrance with rounded fortifications reminiscent of Islamic architecture, inspired by the principal fort of the nearby village Anegundi. A long stone driveway—much like the paved boulevards of Hampi’s old temples—leads me to the main palace.

As I walk around the place in the evening, Joydeep Banerjee, the Area General Manager for the South, points out the connections we may have missed—the contemporary recreations of old paintings, the boundary walls modelled after the stone walls that provided the fortifications to the city, and the taps shaped like aqueducts. Everything here is local and customised, keeping Hampi in mind.

It’s not just about employing local staff and artistes; even their food seeks inspiration from the land. Tuluva, with its infinity pool and fake elephant tusks, gets its name from the Hindu dynasty that ruled the Vijayanagara Empire. Here, I sample among other Indian dishes, Vijayanagara cuisine that’s heavy on curries and liberal with spices. There’s gongura mamsam (spicy lamb curry), chepala pulusu (tangy fish curry) and enagayi (eggplant cooked in coconut). I scarf these down with bowls upon bowls of the fragrant and delicately flavoured pulihora (tamarind rice). History might have swallowed whole emperors, but it had thankfully spared their cuisine.

Mind at Rest

Hampi city is shaped by multiple histories. I spend my mornings visiting a fraction of its 300 temples and ruins. There’s the Hemakuta hillock, which leads down to the Virupaksha Temple. There we find the stone chariot, one of the most photographed structures in Hampi. My guide is Nagendra, who tells me to observe the little things we miss in our haste to get that perfect shot for social media. “The lotus shape indicates progress of life, and feminity,” he says, pointing out the swans and dancing figures painted on the ceiling. I visit the Zenana Enclosure, a citadel complex that once housed a palace, the Lotus Mahal, four watchtowers and beyond, the elephant stables.

I return to the resort, marvelling at the inspiration it has sought from this city. My room is the Jal Mahal, a stunning place inspired by the Water Palace of the Zenana Enclosure. It has separate dining, living and sleeping areas, and a luxurious bath with an open courtyard. This is surrounded by a moat in the front, and behind, a private deck with a mandapa overlooks a private pool.

Jal-Mahal-Bedroom

Jal Mahal suite. Photo courtesy: Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace

As impressive as the resort looks in the daytime, it turns resplendent at night. The sun sets behind the palace, bathing the sky in hues of scarlet, orange and purple. As it sinks, the small lamps in the grounds of the property come on. The sound of crickets is overshadowed by a gentle singing. This is the hotel’s annual evening ritual—the staff move about behind a flautist, carrying incense and lights to all the rooms, while the tune of the flute lends the dusk a haunting background melody. After this procession, the flautist proceeds to the open courtyard where he sits and performs an evening raga.

I welcome our evenings in different ways. One time, I lounge in the pool till sunset; another time, I spend a few hours looking up Hampi’s history in the library at the Reading Lounge. On the last night, I sit by our moat, sipping chai and watching workers tending the garden. At dusk, I head to the Deep Mahal for a storytelling session. An entire room is lit up with just diyas. For the next half hour, I sip wine and listen, fascinated, as my guide talks about the downfall of the Vijayanagara Empire.

—————-

Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace is in Kamalapura town, 4 km away from Hampi. There are four types of suites—Nivasa, Nilaya, Zenana and the Jal Mahal—with rates starting from Rs36,000 up to Rs52,000.

From Bengaluru airport, the resort lies 350 km northwest. There are also direct flights from Hyderabad to Vidyanagar airport, 30 km away.

 

[This story first appeared in National Geographic Traveller India: Rolling with the stones, on Jan 11, 2018]

Advertisements

History lessons in Anegundi

It has rained the night before. The smell of wet earth rises above the ground, mingling with the light breeze. The village is a splash of colour, painted walls of houses and tiny shops with garish boards out front advertising their wares. Animals and humans mingle with abandon. Away from the signs of inhabitation, it’s a long stretch of lush paddy fields, coconut trees, and an unchanging background of boulders. There are a few mantapas too, broken in places but still standing strong.    

This is Anegundi, once the capital of the Vijaynagara Empire and often called the cradle of the empire. Anegundi translates to elephant pit in Kannada, because it was where the elephants of Vijayanagara Empire were bathed. The village often loses out in popularity to its neighbour, Hampi. A pity because Anegundi is older; its history goes back 3,000 years.  

Anegundi is surrounded by hills on three sides, and the river Tungabadhra on one side. To get a glimpse of its past, I’ve to travel across a relatively new construction, the 14-pillar, 32-crore Hampi-Anegundi Bridge. It’s a smooth ride though without the charm associated with the usual mode of transportation, a coracle ride.

The first thing that arrests my attention is a man decked in gold. A closer look reveals the actor Rajkumar. It’s supposed to be Krishnadevaraya but it is modeled on the actor who played the king in a movie.

Behind him is the main gate of the city, Modalane Bagilu (First Gate).  On entering the gate, my first stop is Gagan Mahal or Old Palace, which was built in the 16th century. It was where the royal family once lived and today serves as an administrative building. It is shut when I visit so I wander outside, admiring the Indo-Islamic architecture and its similarity to the Lotus Mahal in Hampi. Nearby is a banana fibre workshop run by the Kishkinda Trust. They teach women in the village to use the bark of the banana plant to make rope, which is then woven into runners, carpets, mats, bags, tablecloths and even coasters. It’s interesting to watch the women at work, their hands moving as if of their own accord while they chat quietly among themselves.  

banana fibre workshop

Everything I discover in Anegundi is deserving of attention but doesn’t outright seek it.    

Keeping watch on my movements in the village is the Anjaneya or Anjanadri Hill. If Anegundi is believed to be the monkey kingdom of Kishkindha, then Anjanadri is believed to be the birth place of Hanuman. The hill is accessible by steps and is home to a temple. It’s a good location from which to view the ruins in Hampi. Another guardian on high is the Anegundi fort, which now serves as design inspiration to luxury hotels like Evolve Back nearby.

Anjanadri hill 1

Anjanadri Hill

The Bukka aqueduct is another architectural marvel, a bridge like aqueduct standing over a nearly dry stream. The granite structure, which consists of slabs of stone piled high, speaks of the irrigation system of the Vijayanagara rulers, which kept the lands fertile and supplied water to the many palaces. The Sanapur Lake is a more recent water attraction, created by an irrigation reservoir, and best experienced via a coracle ride. It has sweeping views of banana and rice plantations on one side, and boulder-strewn hills on the other.  

It is amid these hills that I come across the oldest structure in the area. A few kilometres away from Anegundi is the pre-historic site of Onake Kindi. The naturally secluded area – there’s a ring of boulders enclosing an expanse of shrubbery and trees – is home to rock paintings dating back to the Iron Age. The white and pink paintings showcase the life of those times – a funeral procession, sun and stars, animals, dances and hunting scenes. There’s even a long cobra, with a realistic hood that looks ready to strike.    

It appears that people in the olden days wanted to share their lives with us, through their art. Anegundi is where these stories come to life.  

A taste of Bavaria

Think Adelaide and open parklands, indigenous art, understated beauty, good weather, and live music come to mind. You certainly don’t picture an old German village where beer jostles for shelf space with wine, where brick houses with sloping roofs reveal antique stores and craft breweries, and where you can find sausages and pretzels at every corner.  

This is Hahndorf, a state listed heritage town, about 25 minutes away from Adelaide. It is Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement.

It was in 1839 that Captain Dirk Meinertz Hahn brought 200 German-Lutheran migrants, fleeing religious persecution in Prussia (north-eastern Germany), to Adelaide Hills where they made their home. Today, 189 years later, though Hahndorf (Hahn’s village) has seen much change, it remains at heart a German town.

“It’s old world charm very popular with tourists. History apart, they are very serious about their food and wine here,” says David Sly, a food and wine journalist from Adelaide.

I spend a day in Hahndorf and David’s words ring true at every place I visit.

I begin my day strolling through the Beerenberg Strawberry Farm picking dew-dusted strawberries. It is 9am and the farm, a few minutes outside the town, has just opened for business. It’s a calming experience, walking through neatly segregated rows of strawberry plants, digging through the leaves to find the fruit nestled within. I take my slim pickings to the Beerenberg Family Farm shop to be weighed and packed, and meet Monique Lomax, a staffer who doubles up as a guide. “The founders, the Paech family, are among Hahndorf’s first settlers. They started with dairy but soon decided to try branch out. Now we grow chillies gherkins, cherries, plums, Satsuma, and Lincoln roses,” she says. Everything finds its way into marinades, jams, chutney and dipping sauces. I sample a few of these, and am instantly impressed with the smooth and fragrant rose petal jelly, and the tart mango and Mandarin curd named after Monique (staffers above five years get products named after them).

Beerenberg, which means berry hill, is in its 50th year of strawberry picking and needless to say, strawberry jam is a best-seller. People generally queue up here for the freshly churned strawberry ice cream, delicate swirls of creamy goodness piled high in a cone. Over 80 percent of their products are gluten free and they do collaborations with locals like Cooper Ale and Gaucho sauces.

Ice cream in hand, I stroll down the picturesque main street. This historic street is lined with 100 year old elm trees, and shows off timber and German-style stone or brick houses with their steep, sloping roofs and cosy verandahs. Here I find boutiques, German pubs, restaurants and cellar doors, cafés, gourmet bakeries and delicatessens, and sweet shops. On sale is Aboriginal art and puppets, German clocks, and candles – the 3 Wishes Candle Barn that allows you to create your own.  

A life-size yellow cow with a milk pail underneath welcomes me to my next destination, Udder Delights. The word cheese is written in bold letters for those confused about the offerings at the place. Run by the husband and wife team of Saul and Sheree Sullivan, Udder Delights’ Cheese Cellar sells goat’s and cow’s milk cheese, hosts fondue and cheesemaking classes and is best known for their cheese wedding cakes. I opt for a cheese tasting. The goats curd is tangy with a smooth finish and the cow’s milk brie is velvety and has a sharp earthy flavour. My favourite is the Heysen Blue, a firm and moist cheddar-like rich cheese.   

Udder Delights

Fresh cheese is difficult to carry back homes so I regretfully leave the store and set out in search of something more travel-friendly. David takes me to an ‘iconic place’. The MenzFruChoc Shop is known for their FruChocs – milk chocolate covered apricot or peach. A happy accident, the Menz family developed these in 1948 to use up excess fruit. Today, the product is a South Australian icon. I happily snack on honeycomb and coconut variants thinking that this sweet treat really deserves a FruChocs Appreciation Day (celebrated on the last Friday of August).

Another place chock-a-block with history is the Hahndorf Inn. Built in 1853, it is owned by the Holmes family, whose German descendants arrived at Port Adelaide in 1847 to settle in the Barossa Valley. The food here is traditional Bavarian – big portions of schnitzels, sausages, beef and pork ribs, pork knuckle, and hot dogs. These come accompanied by steamed greens, mash or fries. I try the Hänchen Schnitzel, crumbed chicken breast cooked to perfection and paired with a cream mushroom sauce. Dessert is the German apple strudel (Apfelstrudel), which we learned to make (assemble) at a strudel class earlier.

I end the day at Prancing Pony Brewery, a boutique brewery located a short drive out of Hahndorf. Here, they use the traditional method of fire brewing, resulting in beer that has caramel and toffee like malt flavours. I sip on their India Red Pale Ale, which was the 2016 supreme champion in the International Beer Challenge, London. The strong caramel notes and intense hop bitterness is mellowed down by hints of tropical fruit, making for a refreshing drink.  

A day in Hahndorf and I realise, they do take food, wine and beer very seriously.

 

 

[A version of this story was published in BL Ink: Bits of Bavaria, on April 13, 2018]

A ghosthunters guide to Mumbai

In India, there is a small crew of people that go out at night, armed with EMF sensors or detectors, EVP recorders, motion sensor cameras, and touch sensors, to explore myths about the paranormal. Yes, you can call them desi ghosthunters.

One such team is The Parapsychology and Investigations Research Society (PAIRS), group of paranormal investigators and researchers, parapsychologists, demonologists, spiritual healers, and counsellors. Their modus operandi includes heading to “active spots” armed with equipment to try to record and, later, analyse these abnormal energies.

“Before we go to a location,” says demonologist Sarbajeet Mohanty, “we try to get a recent picture of the location so that psychic mediums can give a reading of what to expect or find at the locations, which provides a roadmap for the investigators.” Mohanty founded PAIRs with psychic developer Pooja Vijay.

Disclaimer: PAIRS highly recommends you do not venture into these places without proper knowledge. All PAIRS investigators have been researching this field from the past 6 to 10 years and are certified. Enter at your own risk. 

Amar Dham Crematorium, Panvel

Cemeteries and crematoriums are apparently common hunting grounds for ghosts – location certainly does matter. This particular burial ground has spooked many a passer-by. One story goes that a woman crossing the street outside at night suddenly got goose bumps, and at that very moment the nearby lights went off, including those on her scooter. Others have spoken about seeing apparitions and moving shadows and hold them responsible for the accidents that happen in the area.

During their investigations, the PAIRS psychic team found that the location had multiple spirits, as recorded through changes on the temperature sensor and EMF sensor.

Amar Dham Crematorium, HOC Colony, Panvel, Navi Mumbai 410 206.

Mumbai Pune Highway

The story goes that PAIRS member Jignesh Unadkat was riding his motorcycle on the highway, near Bhingari, Old Panvel, when a wayward car forced him to the side of the road. It was then that he realised there was someone standing in front of him, and he veered off the road to avoid hitting the person. His bike was damaged, but he survived. When he went to look for the person, he realised there was no one there.

A few days later, Jignesh, along with Mohanty, returned to the spot to investigate this strange phenomenon, armed with a PAIRS Spirit Box app (developed by Brian Holloway of Soul Seekers, Javier Sanz of  Spain Paranormal). “Jignesh got two replies to questions,” says Mohanty. “One was, ‘Do you recognize me…my bike overturned here some days back’ to which he got a ‘yes’. The other was ‘How did you die?’ to which he got a one-word reply, ‘accident’.”

While this may be a “real” story, there are many legends associated with the place. Another story has a well-dressed lady asking for a lift. Those that don’t stop are treated to a vision of the women running alongside their vehicle, with an evil smile, saying, “You’re next”. Many crashes have been attributed to it. Mohanty says there is also a ‘fake road appearing out of nowhere, which if taken leads to death’.

Vasai Fort

Vasai Fort, or Bassein Fort, is a sprawling structure built by the Portuguese that overlooks the Arabian Sea. The fort has been under the control of the Portuguese, the British, and the Marathas and has been silent witness to many deaths. It is one of the many places in the city that locals truly believe is haunted – though that didn’t stop Coldplay from shooting their video there.

Shishir Kumar, former journalist and founder-president of paranormal research organisation Team Pentacle, and his team conducted an investigation at Vasai Fort. Initially, they didn’t think it was haunted because it still had many people living in the vicinity. “The first time,” says Kumar, “everything went smoothly and none machines worked. Then I used this trick where I asked the spirits to clap as I clap, and that started happening.”

Mohanty adds that their psychic readings reveal a woman who was murdered and whose body was dumped near the well in the fort. Village lore says a lady, assumed to be a witch, committed suicide in that same well, but her body was never found.

Vasai Fort, Killa Road, Police Colony, Vasai (w), Vasai 401201

Mukesh Mills

Mukesh Mills was built in 1870s by the East India Company and was shut down in 1892 after a strike. Soon after, a fire broke out, killing thousands of people. This dark history is possibly what led to it being considered haunted. The mill is a popular shooting location, and there are many stories of how no one, not even film crew, venture there after dark. In fact actor Bipasha Basu has claimed she was unable to speak her dialogues in one room because of some strange power.

PAIRS’ investigations and psychic readings reveal that the location has “some evil and negative spirits from its dark and painful history”. “Such psychic readings are a warning for us not to venture in there,” says Mohanty, “especially if you’re a beginner.”

Mukesh Mills, Narayan A Sawant Road, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005

St John Baptist Church

This Portuguese Jesuit Church was abandoned in the 1800s after an epidemic. Although no one visits the place any more, a Mass is conducted once a year. The claim is that the church is haunted by the evil spirit of a bride who scares anyone who enters the place. In 1977, an exorcism was conducted there, and everyone present suddenly heard a loud moaning sound and maniacal laughter. It was believed that the exorcism destroyed the spirit.

In 2016, a PAIRS team visited the space to check if it was an “active” location. “We were about to enter,” says Mohanty, “when Pooja told us that a woman was watching us from the wall nearby. When inside, we heard footsteps running away from the place. Later, one of the team members told us that while he was texting, out of the corner of his eye he saw an apparition near him. All this happened in broad daylight.” Mohanty intends to return to do proper investigation.

St John Baptist Church, Seepz Road D, Andheri (E), Mumbai 400 096

 

[This story was first published in The City Story: THE GHOSTHUNTERS’ GUIDE TO PARANORMAL MUMBAI]

The Goan good food guide

Goan food is the new flavour of the season in Mumbai. Tourists, who travel to the sunshine state, clearly cannot get enough of the food – the choris or cutlet pav; the Portuguese-influenced rissois, vindalho and sorpotel; the coconut and amsol-filled curries; and the coconut-milk based dodol and bebinca.

It’s an experience that is now possible to avail of, sometimes at a price, in the city. There’s no feni or shack and the sunshine and sand is missing but, a few restaurants here are doing their bit to provide a feel and a taste of Goan food.

Snow Flake

Walking into this restaurant is like going back in time. Nostalgia oozes out of the marble topped tables, the sepia-tinted photos stuffed in dusty shelves and the creak fans. The day’s specials, a stock list of about ten dishes, can be found scrawled on a whiteboard in the corner. The cats at the entrance all seem to embody to susegaad feeling of the place – you may sometimes feel like stretching yourself out and curling up into a ball after a good meal here. It is here that I find food that comes closest to what my mother prepares at home – offal laden sorpotel; the tangy fish curry, ambotik; tongue roast with browned onions and just a hint of gravy and quite the best fish cutlets I’ve eaten in the city.

Snow Flake started as an ice cream shop/bakery selling food to what was once a thriving Goan population. Today, the customers are sparse but they soldier on, relying on patrons like me, keen for a taste of home.
At: 18, Ribeiro Building, first Dhobi Talao Lane.
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Sushegad Gomantak

Sandwiched between shops selling Keralite fare and kebabs, this tiny restaurant isn’t easy on the eyes. What it lacks in looks, it makes up for with delicious food and warm service. The only wall décor here is a chart showcasing the fish in the Indian Ocean with their local names, a blown up clipping of a newspaper article mentioning the place and the day’s specials. There’s a menu of course, but everyone comes here for the fish – eaten fried or in a curry.

It is here that I always manage to find xinanio (mussels), best eaten fried and piping hot; kalwa (oysters), typical had in a thick curry; and muddoshi (lady fish), also eaten fried. The restaurant’s cooking style is Goan Hindu and is heavy on curries, many of which don’t feature coconut. The fried fish comes with a thick coating of rice flour and rava and isn’t oily. Other stand out dishes include prawn cutlets accompanied by a thin, green chutney; tisrya sukhe – shellfish served with a garam masala and coconut mixture; and a crab thali featuring one huge crab in a spicy red curry.
At: A11, Opposite Paradise Theatre, Mahim Shivsagar Society, LJ Road, Mahim.
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Gables

This eating house is often ignored by those seeking out the more popular New Martin, which is around the corner. A visit to this four-seater restaurant will surprise you. One of the few places in the city offering free Wifi, Gables has a faux tiled roof inside, a wall mirror giving the illusion of extra space, two glass-fronted stands showcasing chops, cutlets and other fried snacks, and even a bookshelf filled with old magazines and the odd cookbook.

Mel, the in-house cat, will accompany you while you eat. There are also a few Italian dishes but skip those and opt for the sorpotel (with chunky bits of pork) or sausage chilly fry mopped up with fresh pao. The prawn rava fry or calamari fry will satiate your fish cravings.
At: Opposite Shiv Mandir, Colaba.

Soul Fry

The 20-year-old place enjoys iconic status in Bandra, not the least for those weekly karaoke nights, I’m told, also serve as good matchmaking venues! The festivities apart, Meldan D’Cunha, the affable owner the place, loves experimenting with food. This finds the form of lesser known Goan, East Indian, Koli and Manglorean food. Here, the cafreal, prawn recheado, and sausage fry find place with the Portuguese-influenced crab xec xec, caldeirada (Portuguese fish stew) and Guisado De Galinha (chicken stew). These are best washed down with pints of beer for that perfect laidback vibe.
At Pali Mala Road, opposite Pali Vegetable Market, Bandra West.
Call 7208316545

New Martin Hotel, Colaba

This iconic institution in Colaba is a simple, no frills place. The formica topped tables, high seating, the two blackboards announcing the day’s specials – the interiors may not have changed even if the owners did. ‘Goan meals served here’ is proudly painted on the door shutters and a small board hanging outside.

The hotel now has Manglorean owners, but the food is still Goan though heavier on the spices. The beef chilly fry is succulent and spicy; prawns pulao has golden long grained rice heaped over a masala prawns and their pork sorpotel is adequately greasy and flavourful. Their specialty is beef steak, cooked till tender and served with generous helpings of onions and potatoes. Here, just like at Udupi restaurants, you might have to sometimes share a table with strangers. There’s no need for conversation, everyone is too busy eating.
At 11, Glamour House, Strand Road, Apollo Bandar, Colaba.

Mangoes

This rooftop restaurant in Orlem gets its name from the fact that the owners are Goan and Manglorean. They serve both kinds of cuisines. The décor here is spartan with plastic chairs and tables. It doesn’t matter because Mangoes serves some hearty Goan fare, largely focuses on non-vegetarian food. There’s the beef, and pork roast – both of which are so popular, people freeze it and take it abroad; tongue jeere mere, caldin, the street staple roce omelette, cutlets and potato chops.
At: 601, 6th floor, Almar Arcade, Near Punjab National Bank, Orlem.

Fresh Catch

A pelican with his catch of the day greets you at the entrance of this Mahim icon. It’s an indication that if nothing else, you can get good fish here.

The interiors remind me of an old aunt’s home – patterned napkins, red checked tablecloths, black chairs, sepia-tinted photos on the wall and music from the 70s and 80s. The service is warm and the food, homely. Best known for its butter garlic crab, Fresh Catch also dishes up stellar bangda jeera meera, a spicy and tangy balchao, prawns sukka and a wholesome seafood pulao filled with juicy prawns, crabmeat and shellfish. The prices may be a tad expensive for Goan grub but the food is delicious, which makes it worth it.
At Lt Kotnis Marg, Near Fire Brigade, Off L J Road, Mahim West, Mahim.
(Read a detailed reviewhere.)

Porto & Poie

The azulejo-tiled space in Juhu is the newest Goan restaurant to hit Mumbai’s shores. It’s a simply-designed space – the outdoor area has a small balcao area with a bar in the centre. On the inside are black and white photos of markets in Portugal and Goa, a tiled ceiling and laterite stone-arched windows.

It is the food prepared by Goan chef Gracian de Souza that reminds me of home. The tender marinated salted tongue with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, the crunchy and cheesy Portuguese style prawn rissois, and the classic Goan fish curry and slow cooked tenderloin chilli. The vegetarian dishes are stellar too, especially the coconutty mushroom and tendli tonnak. There’s no feni but there is Vagator Rave, with its hints of cashew and sweet pineapple, and the welcome drink, the alcohol-soaked cherry liqueur ginjinha.  Best of all, there is poee, brought in from Goa every day.
At Above Royal Garden Hotel, Juhu Tara Road; 6 pm to 1.30 am; Call 26602955
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Lady Baga

A makeshift beach with a shack, a surfboard and swaying palms greets you at the entrance of Lady Baga in Kamala Mills. One whole wall is painted blue and has the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s Going to California on it. Inside, the place channels a kitschy shack vibe with swinging hammocks, fairy lights, stars, coloured walls and cane furniture with tie-dye cushions.

Behind the bar, Eric Lobo dishes up cocktail experiments. His version of cashew feni is a potent cashew and and coconut vodka. I recommend the scotch-heavy Ginger Man, and the Bloody Mariana – a Bloody Mary with balchao and Goan sausage-infused vodka. The food, from the hands of an East India chef, is worthy of seconds. The stand out dishes include rissóis prawns, kokum & chilli pumpkin and Chef Aloo’s prawn curry – a rice plate with prawn curry with bhindi, tendli pickle, kismur, fried whitebait, and local red unpolished rice.
At Oasis Complex, Kamala Mills, Gate No 4, Lower Parel. Call 022 4931012

O Pedro

The food here isn’t Goan, not the way I’ve grown up eating it. But it is delicious and inspired by Goan food, which makes for some interesting dishes. There’s rissois stuffed with crab instead of prawns and coated with Panko crumbs; kalchi koddi served as a sauce with boiled eggs, kismur with raw papaya and shrimp, red rice sannas, and serradurra with orange segments. There’s even a sourdough poee, best paired with chorizo butter. The best one being the veal tongue prosciutto, a take on salted tongue with pickled cucumber and a garlic-mustard aioli.

The interiors, some call it granny chic, are filled with knick knacks and elements expected in an old house – cane backed chairs, hanging creepers, the red tiles and the plates on the walls. A good place to hang out at is at the polished wooden bar, sipping on the homemade Vasco Sour with its hit of Goan toddy vinegar, and tapping your feet to the music.
At: O Pedro, Unit #2, Ground Floor, Jet Airways-Godrej BKC Building, Bandra Kurla Complex.

Box:

Goa Bhavan Canteen
At Cross Road No.12, Samarth Ramdas Marg, Gulmohar Road, JVPD Scheme, Juhu.
Call 98205 97275

Goa Portuguesa
At Mili Building, TH Kataria Road, Matunga.
Call 24440707

C D’Souza
At 314, Cawasji Hormusji Street, Opposite Our Lady of Dolours Church, Marine Lines.
Call  22065893

Goan Cart
At 1st Domnic Lane, Tank Road, Orlem, Malad West.
Call 9820756797

Cozinha Goana
At: Beverly Park, WING-A, Mira Bhayandar Road, Chandan Shanti, Mira Road. Closed on Mondays.
Call: 9920854955

 

[Versions of this story appeared in The Hindu and The City Story]

Kalchi kodi and the taste of nostalgia

When I was growing up in a village in India’s then-smallest state, Goa, my family had a Sunday tradition. We love to eat and we have the hips to show for it.

Located on India’s west coast, Goa is known for its sun, sand and beaches. A typical Goan meal is xitt-koddi-nustem (rice, curry and fish). A long coastline meant a lot of wealth came from the sea; an easy availability of coconuts meant they often found their way into the food – which, like all aspects of Goan life, is heavily imprinted by four-and-a-half centuries of Portuguese rule.

IMG_20171220_145129726

The prawn curry at Lady Baga, which I then turned into the kalchi kodi!

Our breakfast, after early morning Mass and catechism classes, was an elaborate affair. It was a mix of local food and imported (‘tinned’) foodstuff. The dining table would be loaded with tinned cheese, butter, beef roast, omelette, tea, coffee, jam and fresh poee (Goan flatbread). The piece de resistance, to us children anyway, was kalchi koddi, a dish that literally translates to yesterday’s curry.

Kalchi koddi was usually made of fish curries inflected with coconuts – either grated coconut ground into a paste or coconut milk. The beauty of this simple dish was that it made leftovers exciting on their own. Yesterday’s fish curry, minus the fish, was just warmed over a low flame till it condensed and thickened. This was then eaten plain or topped with an egg.

When we were children, visions of that perfect kalchi koddi were enough to ensure that we ate a little less fish curry the night before. Reheated, the orange gravy thickened to a point that enhanced the flavors of coconut and various spices; it was an exciting new way to eat our staple curry.

Though we didn’t know it at the time, the dish was born out of necessity. “The Goans have always been a practical community. They never wasted anything. If a pig was cut, the entire animal, from snout to tail, found its way into different dishes,” says Odette Mascarenhas, a Goan food critic and author.

Refrigeration didn’t become commonplace in Goa or much of India until much after independence in 1947. Even then, only the affluent could afford to buy one. So food had to be cooked fresh daily. Whatever remained “was eaten the next day or just fed to the pigs,” says Mascarenhas.

“When fish curry was cooked, only the required pieces of fish were added – usually one per person. If this curry remained, it would be kept in the kunddlem [an earthen pot] overnight over the burning embers so by morning, it would thicken and coat the sides,” she says. “This was then scraped out using hot poee.” She recalls her mother-in-law serving her kalchi koddi made out of sorak (coconut curry made without fish).

If not for breakfast, kalchi koddi was eaten with the mid-morning meal of congee or pez (rice gruel) in most Goan homes. In her book, Cozinha de Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food, Fátima da Silva Gracias writes, ‘In the past, people ate congee with the previous day’s condensed coconut curry, to which they at times added leftover ambot-tik (translates to sour-spicy) curry and a little sugar before placing it on the fire. This was called kalchi koddi in Bardez (or North Goa) and atoilolem humon(translates to condensed curry) in Salcete (South Goa).’

The pez was plain and watery, so the accompaniment had to be tasty and mostly dry —- like pickle, dried fish. Those who worked in the fields – Goa and much of India back then was largely an agrarian society – would rely on this healthy meal to sustain them till lunchtime.

Ask any Goan and they will tell you kalchi koddi tastes best when made in an earthen pot. “Each dish had its own pot for cooking, and fish curry was always made in the kunddlem and served with a dhoilo (coconut shell spoon),” says Gracias. The taste probably was enhanced by the fact that these utensils, in essence, came from the soil of the land.

Over the years, this dish has seen its fair share of variations. Any curry that has coconut in it, but no souring agent, can be turned into kalchi koddi. These days, people have leftover xacuti (spicy chicken curry) or caldin (a stew made with coconut milk) heated the same way.

IMG_20171017_204853965

A modern take on the dish: Kalchi kodi with devilled eggs at O Pedro, Mumbai

Old-timers will tell you these new versions don’t quite taste the same. It could be the shiny copper and steel vessels that have replaced earthenware, the stove top that’s replaced firewood furnaces or the fact that curries are now refrigerated and then reheated the next morning. There’s some romanticism still attached to the act of sneaking into the kitchen as a child with a piece of poee and scraping the sides of the kunddlem for a taste of that thick gravy.

This curry has the distinction of being one of those rare dishes that has inspired a song. In ‘Kalchi Koddi’, the (late) Goan singer and actor Alfred Rose sang about how the dish added flavor to his rice or pez and how he didn’t need fish or anything else as an accompaniment as long as there was kalchi koddi. Sing this song to a Goan and chances are they will either rhapsodize about the breakfast staple or serve you some (if available), giving new meaning to the phrase, sing for your supper.

But, for a taste of that delicious leftover curry, I would sing like a canary.

 

[The story was first published in NPR’s The Salt as An Ode To Leftover Curry on March 11, 2018.]  

Czech out of Prague

In Czech Republic, it is possible to actually jab at a map of the country and say, ‘Let’s go here’. That’s because every small city, village or town in the country is worthy of a visit. They are full of history, beauty, charming landscapes, and friendly people. Each place has something unique to offer – hot springs, a bone church, thermal springs, underground dungeons, breweries, underground limestone caverns and a renaissance-style castle.

The beauty of these towns and cities is they are easily accessible, especially from the capital city, Prague.

Telč

Go for: A picturesque old town square chance and a chance to live in a Renaissance house

The southern Moravian town of Telč (pronounced Telchh) is filled with babbling brooks, verdant woods, cobblestoned pathways, and painted wooden houses. Visitors, though, come here for its centerpiece, the old town square or Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce.

This UNESCO heritage site, which completed 25 years of its inclusion in the World Heritage List, is easily the prettiest in the country. The long, ‘rectangular’ square is flanked by wooden Renaissance and Baroque burgher buildings, painted in pastel shades of blues, greens and blues.  

The houses, church and town hall of the city were destroyed in a fire in the 1500s. Zachariaš of Hradec, who gives the square his name, brought in Italian architects to rebuild the place. They gave it a magnificent Renaissance makeover. This is best experienced in the castle. Here, guided tours showcase the armory in Knights’ Hall, the trophies in the African Hall, the rooms of the chateau and the Chapel of St George, which holds the remains of the nobleman. 

The houses were furnished with gables and vaulted arcades in the front, creating a covered walkway that is now home to tourist traps: restaurants, shops and stores. Some are even open to tourists, giving them a chance to live in a piece of history. It is the façades of these homes, each unique from the rest, that bears closer scrutiny. Some have fresco paintings or sgraffito, while others feature the leaders of Old Testament.

Other places to discover include the Church of the Nativity and Assumption, whose tower holds the oldest Telč bell (1515), the Marian (or Plague) column, a spacious park with two fish ponds filled with ducks, and even a bar with slot machines.     

Read more, here.

Olomouc

Go for: An astronomical clock to rival Prague’s Orloj, and discover six fountains  

Olomouc (pronounced Olomotts) is home to the second largest and second oldest historic preservation it was once the capital of Moravia (before ceding it to Brno) and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Legend has it that the town was founded by Julius Caesar though he never visited. The city, though, began as a Roman military camp named Julii Mons (Julius’ Hill), which got corrupted to the present Olomouc.

The old town is an intriguing mix of architectural styles, from Renaissance, baroque, gothic and even modernist. The most stunning piece of architecture here is the UNESCO World Heritage Holy Trinity Column, which was built in the first half of the 18th century at the end of plague. The arrest column in Europe was built by locals and features saints important to the city. It has a tiny chapel within with a small altar and faded paintings on the ceiling.

A close rival is the Astronomical Clock, which some consider to be better than the one in Prague. Built in the 15th century, it was destroyed at the end of World War II and then reconstructed in 1947. The clock has rebuilt by Soviets at the beginning of the Communist regime and the Socialist Realist theme means it reflects proletarians (scientists, sportspeople and labourers) instead of saints.

Other places to visit include six baroque Roman-themed fountains including Caesar riding a horse, and Hercules fighting Hydra; the second oldest university in the country (Palacky University); and a little distance away, St Wenceslas Cathedral. The three-tower cathedral is an important part of the city skyline and has the tallest church tower in Moravia.

Karlovy Vary

Go for: Thermal springs and the chance to follow (‘soak’) in the footsteps of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Marx

In the abundance that is Czech Republic’s spa towns, Karlovy Vary – Vary to the locals or Carlsbad – stands out for being the prettiest of them all.

Karlovy Vary owes its name to Charles IV, King of Bohemia who founded the city in 1370; it literally translates to Charles’ Bath. He was the first ‘patient’ and supposedly used the water from the hot springs to heal his wounds.

Today, the city has evolved and is known for its thermal and mineral springs, spa treatments and its whimsical architecture. In the 18th century it was a popular tourist destination, seeing guests of the likes of Beethoven, Tsar Peter the Great, Emperor Franz Josef I, Brahms, Wagner, Tolstoy, and Marx. World War I destroyed the city’s tourism and after WWII, Czech settlers came in. Look closely and it is possible to find signs of German heritage.

Take the funicular up, or walk through a verdant spa forest to reach Diana Lookout Tower. The 547 meter tower was built in1914 and affords a spectacular view of the city. Stroll by the impressive colonnades – Park, Mill, Market, Castle and Hot Spring – are located close to each other. The most impressive of these is the Mill Colonnade with its walls of allegorical reliefs, statues representing months of the year and even an orchestra stage.

No visit here is complete without trying out the traditional herbal liqueur Becherovka, produced only here, and consumed either chilled or with tonic. The bittersweet herbal liquor was first sold as stomach medicine. The recipe is a closely guarded secret; so close, that apparently only two families have it. To learn more about this mysterious drink, visit the Becherovka exhibition, in the historic building where the liquor was manufactured for 150 years.

Other places to explore include Lazne I – a spa building housing Franz Josef’s baths; the Karl Marz monument, the Karlovy Vary Museum, and Church of St. Peter & St. Paul. The latter was built in the 1800s and sports five golden domes and paintings and icons gifted by wealthy Russians. Look out for the relief representing Russian Tsar Peter the Great.

 

[The story appeared in Jetwings International in February, 2018]