Telč: A fairy tale town

I fell in love with Telč at first sight. I was looking at day trips from Prague and one of the images opened up to reveal pastel-shaded wooden houses with painted fronts and an empty cobbled square.

Further research revealed this town square, called Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce, was an UNESCO heritage site. (We all know how much I love heritage spaces. Read Hoi An: The Town that time forgot.)

I knew I had to get there. 

I got off the bus at the town square in this Southern Moravian town, and dragged myself (and my suitcase) over cobbled grey paths before reaching the square. It was bitterly cold and I had two heavy bags with me. And then I round a corner and stop short.

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The town square

The town square

In person, Telč is even prettier than its pictures. The square, often called one of the prettiest in the country, lies at the centre of the town and on all sides, are beautiful wooden buildings – in yellows, pinks, greens and blues. Each of the houses has its own history and distinct style. I spent my first few hours there, just craning my neck upwards trying to understand the artwork. 

Aside: History lesson –  The history of Telč dates back to the 1300s. In the 1500’s, Zachariaš of Hradec rebuilt the town square after a massive fire damaged it. The houses thus had vaulted arcades added to their fronts, creating a covered walkway. Italian architects arrived and the Gothic castle, chateau and town underwent a magnificent Renaissance makeover. The houses are residential spaces or homestays, shops or restaurants and administrative centres; No 2 is a former Jesuit hostel, No 10 is the town hall and No 3 is a study centre. 

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No 61 – In 1532, this house was bought by Michael, a baker and the chairman of the town council. In 1555, he rebuilt it and it now boasts of the sgraffito decorations of the leaders of Old Testament.

The centre of the square had two fountains and a Marian column. The Marian (or Plague) column, dates back to 1717 and has the saints: Jan Nepomucký, Jakub, František Xaverius, Roch, Sebastián and the Guardian Angel; St. Rosalia (in a small alcove), and finally, Maria Magdalena. Atop a column of clouds on the globe stands the Virgin Mary. There’s a small water pump too, at the side. 

It is around the square that tourists and townsfolk congregate, drinking cheap alcohol (hello white wine that costs 20 Kč – Rs 12 approx). Since we landed there late afternoon, K and I had a leisurely lunch and then walked about, stopping to admire street musicians filling the silence with the sweet melodies of the saxophone and trumpet.   

Beyond the square

Away from the square, the town is quite small. It was originally created as a moated fortress so is surrounded by a ring of interconnected lakes. A walk to the north, takes us past a small gate and into a spacious park surrounded by duck ponds. There, we spot horses in a nearby field, duck chasing each other, owners taking their dogs out for walks and spectacular views of the town.  

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A view from the other side…that twin towers belong to the Holy Name of Jesus Church

The northern end of the square is the chateau; Zachariáš of Hradec who transformed a Gothic castle into a Renaissance residence. It is beautifully preserved and there are daily tours  -two, in Czech but with English booklets – of about an hour each. One tour takes us through the different halls: the Golden Hall, which has carvings and paintings on the ceiling; the Knights’ Hall has armory and weapons, and the African Hall has wall-mounted trophy busts. The tour also gives a glimpse into the rooms of the chateau, filled with waffle ceilings, a naked statue of Adam and Eve and oil paintings of the castle’s inhabitants. The Chapel of St George, which has a detailed depiction of St George fighting a dragon, holds the remains of Zachariáš. 

The town’s shops/ restaurants shut by 6 pm, so we amble about, stopping to eat pastries at tiny bakeries, exploring a supermarket before finally settle in at a local bar, Herna (Non Stop Bar). There, we drink Czech beer (14 Kč)  and try to make sense of local music videos. A closer look inside the bar reveals a room full of slot machines!

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Bars with unique entertainment!

Telč is undoubtedly a pretty and romantic town and a well preserved historic square. Itis possible to explore it in a day, since the town shuts down early and there’s no nighttime entertainment.  

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Where to stay/ The homestay

Unknown to me, the homestay I booked was actually part of the heritage site, which meant I was actually living in a piece of history – Pension Stedler was  newly reconstructed Renaissance 16th century building. The house, number 8, was a beautiful shade of pastel green and opened into a dark cool space. It was in the middle of the main square in front of baroque pestilence column an fountains. The bus/ train station is a ten-minute walk away.

I booked a twin room with private bathroom, common living room with a little kitchenette for 800 CZK without breakfast (870 CZK with breakfast). 

Getting there

There are direct buses from Prague (Florenc bus terminal) to Telč and back; takes about two hours. A cheaper option, which I took was taking a Student Agency bus from Prague to Jihlava (150Kč) and a local bus from there on; took about 2.5 hours and cost much lesser (about 50 Kč).


TL:DR

  • Telc is a heritage town about two hours away from Prague. 
  • It is a perfectly preserved example of a historic town square, and a UNESCO heritage site.
  • It boasts a beautiful town square, surrounding duck ponds and parks, churches, a watch tower and a well-restored chateau.
  • The place is relaxed and quiet and everything shuts by 6 pm; very few places stay open for dinner. 
  • It is good for a day visit, or a night stay if you want to live in a house that dates back to the 16th century.

 

 

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What’s black ad white, and made in copper? India’s first craft gin.

In a small distillery in Goa, one of India’s smaller states, something new and boozy is brewing inside copper pots. It’s India’s first craft gin, and it’s slaking a newfound thirst for a beverage once used to drown out the taste of malaria medicine. After a few sips of the smooth, juniper-heavy liquid with notes of warm spices and fresh lemon peel, and a zing of ginger on the finish, you might even feel poetic.

With India the fifth-largest market for gin in the world, creators Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh of Nao Spirits set out to make a version both tasty and affordable. “There are the cheap mass-produced, cold-compounded ones that taste like vodka with flavoring,” says Virmani; the existing London dry gins are imported and thus expensive. Two months ago, Greater Than was born.

The coriander seeds, chamomile, fennel, lemongrass and ginger are all indigenous. 

Virmani and Singh spent the past two years experimenting with ingredients, distilling them and creating different combinations. To fine-tune the recipe, they turned to Anne Brock, Gin Guild board member and the new master distiller at Bombay Sapphire. The final product contains a variety of botanicals and spices, both local and imported. The coriander seeds, chamomile, fennel, lemongrass and ginger are indigenous. The juniper is from Macedonia, the angelica root from Germany, the orris root from Italy and the orange peel from Spain.

 Why “Greater Than”? The creators wanted to cheekily offer a drinking experience that’s “greater than all others.” They also wanted a name that hinted at the drink’s Indian origins. “One of the most important things India has contributed to the world is the zero,” says Virmani. So, they related the name to mathematics: “The greater-than sign fit because it has more value than zero” and doesn’t take itself seriously, Virmani explains.
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The copper pot in Goa. Photo courtesy: Nao Spirits


Greater Than is only available in India (Rs 750 to Rs 1,450 rupees, depending on different state taxes), but there are plans to sell it in the U.K. by March 2018, where it will be introduced as India’s first craft gin. We shall drink to that.

RECIPE: NO SLEEP G&T

  • Pour 45 milliliters Greater Than into a tall glass of ice.
  • Add 90 milliliters tonic water and stir.
  • Using the back of a spoon, float 15 milliliters cold-brew coffee on top.
  • Garnish with a grapefruit wedge.

— Jay Dhawan, assistant distiller

 

This story appeared in two different publications, Ozy and HBL Luxe. 

Travel talk with Twinkle Khanna

If Twinkle Khanna had her own travel show, it would be a series of episodes dedicated to her many misadventures. The Time I Went Looking for Eggs and Ended up Fighting with my Family in a Supermarket;  The Search for French Food in a Russian Restaurant; The Worst Seven Minutes of my Life in an Opera House in Prague; and How Acting as a Human Shield for My Sister nearly gave me Swine Flu.

Khanna had a to-do list for everything in her life, except her holidays. She enjoys holidays with no agenda because they leave her with the best memories and the funniest stories, snippets of which end up in her weekly columns under the name Mrs Funnybones. “I don’t know if I seek out things or adventure seeks me out,” she says.

Your recent trip to Paris has been splashed all over the news. You used an AirBnB while there. Walk us through your holiday.

This was the first time I used an AirBnB in Paris. I went with a really close friend and we stayed at this quaint apartment at Rue de Vaugirard.  

I’m terrible at French and she doesn’t speak the language. As a result, we had a lot of misadventures and unexpected bonuses. Once, we decided to do a spa day. We went to this really fancy place but, the massages were horrid. So, we sought out a Thai place. Our host recommended this dodgy place down the street. My first thought on looking at it was ‘there’s no way this can be good’. It was a nail salon and they had this dungeon below for the massages. I couldn’t understand what the masseuse was saying. There I was, lying down on my stomach and suddenly, I felt two hands and then four hands on me. I looked up to see that she is sitting on my back, like a crab, just like Vikram and Betaal! I didn’t know how to react. It turned out to be the best massage I ever had; my bones were singing her praises.  

This wasn’t your first home-stay experience. When travelling, do you seek out hotels or prefer renting a home?

I like a mix of both. We [the family] just went on a holiday to La Môle in France near St Tropez. We rented this really beautiful home – there were just mountains on one side, wild boars running around, and vineyards everywhere. We had our own chef and the meals were Michelin star level. I walked around a lot and the place was really beautiful. But, there’s a bit of a hit and miss. My husband was fooling around and tried jumping over me on the bed and fell down on the floor because the bed was so small.

This would not happen in a hotel because there you know what you’re going to expect; there aren’t any surprises. I like those surprises; so, I prefer homes and renting out a place. My husband prefers a slightly more standard sort of holiday.

On the same trip, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, we rented a house. What I didn’t realise was that the house was a little outside the village. My son is a teenager and didn’t know what to do because there was no one of his age. One day, we gave him a cycle and told him to go play paintball at this place in the village. He reached late and had to wait. The place he was waiting at, a few splinters went into his bottom. Then he got hit during paintball. When he had to cycle back, he couldn’t really sit on it because of the splinters and then dogs started chasing him. When he returned, he was hysterical and said he hated the place and the village and wanted to leave. Everyone in my family hated that holiday. I thought it was my best holiday.

When travelling, how important is the place? Would you rather find yourself in a destination that is iconic or one that is off-beat?

 It’s not the place that matters but what happens there. You have four people doing exactly the same things with different perspectives. For me, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence was the village where Vincent Van Gogh was put in a mental asylum but he still ended up painting some of his best work. We visited another village nearby, Les Baux-de-Provence. They had this event called Carrieres de Lumieres. On the walls of limestone caves were projected the greatest art in the world – Rembrandt and Rafael among them – with classical music playing in the background. I thought it was the most amazing experience. After half an hour, the family got bored and asked, ‘can we leave’?

In this small European town, Prague, I took my husband to the opera at the Prague Opera House because I read that it was beautiful. We left the place in seven minutes because it was the worst thing we had ever seen. He kept cursing me about my fetish for seeing this side of life. The thing is, when you are the one who is planning all this, you’ve to put on this stoic face for some time because you can’t show you don’t like it.

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Paragliding in Gstaad.

When travelling, you are thrown into circumstances which are alien to you. These help you grow. You discover things about the city and while doing that, also discover things about yourself.

As the ‘tourist traps’ increase in number, does it become difficult to find an ‘authentic’ experience?

I think the notion of the authentic experience is dubious because wherever you go you are taking yourself and you are corrupting your surroundings. So, you are the inauthentic thing in that pea soup. The only way to have an authentic experience is if you go and live somewhere for a year. These holidays are just ways of seeing different places briefly and I’m not worried about it being an authentic experience, it would be foolish to expect that.

I’m looking at an experience, I like thing are spontaneous. The holidays I remember are the ones where things may have gone wrong at the time but, I really look back and laugh. I will never forget Saint-Rémy-de-Provence even though we had a fight in the supermarket because we couldn’t find eggs. For me, that was my best holiday.

You mentioned this wasn’t your first visit to France. How often do you go there?

I go to France almost every year, in summer. If we go to London or Dubai, it becomes difficult for my husband to walk around anonymously and do exactly what he pleases. We look for places where he can roam around in his shorts and nobody will bother him. And I return to France in the hope that one day, I’ll be able to learn to speak French.

Before heading to Paris, you mentioned trying to learn a little French. Do you do this when travelling to other countries too?

I just do it before I go to France because I’ve studied French for five years in school and yet, can barely speak the language. I had this French teacher called Mrs D’Souza who taught me to pronounce Alps as Allepeys, so that was bad. All I remember from those French lessons was that she had terrible bunions.

I try to learn French before each trip using this podcast, Learn French with Marie. It teaches me rubbish things I don’t need to use like ‘can you find me a doctor’. I persist; I keep walking in this garden and listening to it. I listen for a bit and then I dump her; and every couple of years I start over. 

I d intend to learn French, though. Not for anything else but because I’ve learned its one way to actually combat Alzheimer’s – I have this fear of getting the disease. Learning a language, I heard, through another podcast, is a good for the brain. 

You went to Paris with a friend. How different is it when travelling with family.

My holidays with family are all different. When I travel with my sister [Rinke Khanna], though we are squabbling, there’s always something going on. My sister has specific rituals on the plane – she doesn’t touch anything because of germs – so i end up opening doors and handling trolleys for her.  Recently, we were going to London for our friend’s birthday. On the flight, we sat next to this man who was constantly sneezing and blowing his nose. My sister refused to sit next to him so she used me as a human shield. I was fine when I reached London. The next day, I was sneezing and had a fever and thought I had swine flu. I even ran into the man at the hotel. He saw me and waved. In my head, I was screaming at him for making me fall sick. I had this terrible flu because my sister used me as a shield.

When I go with my family, it’s like I am wrapped in three layers in a box with thermocol and cardboard. I am very safe.

The kids have adapted to our travel lifestyle even if they don’t always like it. My son hates museums. I took him to the Picasso museum in Antibes and told him about the great artist. He spent a lot of time peering at the art and then asks me, ‘Did he do this when he was young?’ I told him this was at the peak of his career. He says, ‘I can also do this…’ What does one you say to that?

Have you ever travelled solo?

I haven’t for a few years now. About ten years back, I went to Barcelona for a trade fair. My husband claims I just kept calling him saying I was at XYZ bus stop. He felt very sorry for me. In my head, I was very proud of myself. I was all alone and was taking buses everywhere and visiting casinos by myself in the evening. I thought I was having a wonderful holiday but, I obviously cut a sorry figure.

What was it like travelling as an actor? Now that you’re a writer, do you travel differently?

I don’t think my interests have changed dramatically even if my profession has.

I’ve been a bookworm my whole life so I’ve always gone to bookstores. Recently in Paris, I walked into Shakespeare and Sons and bought a guide book on Paris. In La Môle, I walked into this tiny bookstore and bought antique and very smelly French editions of Enid Blyton’s stories. I realised that was the same village where the author of the book, The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had grown up. He is my favourite author and that book is my favourite book. I was determined to have a look at his chateau even if it was from a distance. 

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At Hotel du Cap

When we went to Antibe, we stayed at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. I later realised it was the place F. Scott Fitzgerald had immortalised as Hôtel des Etrangers in Tender Is the Night. He wrote about the history of the place and fictionalised the owners’ stories. The hotel was outstanding but, the history that was fascinating. Yet again, this wasn’t planned but something I discovered by accident.  

Is it safe to assume your suitcase always has books?  

Yes. I always carry books with me. Recently, I was chaperoning my son and his friends and we went for one night to Aamby Valley. I packed one change of clothes and two books but, only managed to read one story from Murakami’s new book, Men without Women. In fact, I carry fewer books now than when I used to be an actress. Now, it’s easy to download a story on my iPad if I run out of books. Back in the day, I remember packing eight books for a 20-day scheduled shoot in Canada as I was worried I would run out. When you’re shooting, you have all the time to read because you’re just waiting.

I read every night before I go to sleep. I can’t sleep otherwise so, at least a couple of pages. That’s the way I put myself to sleep. That’s my nightcap.

Are there other things you can’t live without when you travel?

There’s nothing I can’t live without except a hot water bottle. I’ve realised in certain places it is difficult to find. I’ve had quite the adventure looking for a hot water bag. I went looking for one in France and I was desperate. My neck was hurting and it’s the only thing that fixes it. I went to the supermarket and tried explaining to people what I wanted, in my broken French, but they had no idea what I was saying. Then I saw this cosmopolitan-looking young couple and tried to explain to them, in French, what I wanted. After a 15 minute conversation, he looks at me and says, ‘hot water bottle’? I was so relieved, and requested him to tell the supermarket people in French that I wanted one. He says, ‘We are British, we don’t speak French’!

So, I always carry a hot water bottle. I always carry books, sun block because I burn in a second, and socks.  

Has Instagram changed the way you travel?

I like taking pictures because my memory is not as sharp as it should be. I always feel like there are blank spaces and I can look at the photos and remember it. I had put up a picture of this beautiful lake with the sun in the background and I couldn’t remember if it was sunset or sunrise. That’s what Instagram has done to our brains; it’s made us forget the experience.

It can be a great tool, your photo album that you can flip through and relive memories. But, there are some people who become so obsessive; they’re not really living in the moment. There has to be a balance.

In your columns, you do talk about travel a little. Have your thought about writing about your travels or turning them into a book?

My next book has an element something that influenced me while I was travelling. I’m always watching people and looking at behaviour and I have a keen ear for dialogue. I take copious notes hen travelling. Wherever you go, whatever you do, it comes through in your writing.

I did do a travel book for my family for our wedding anniversary last year. I wrote about our adventures and put in pictures of our best holidays and did illustrations. I have a whole treasure chest of things that are absolutely precious to me – things our parents left us. I dug out letters we had written to each other 18 years ago, and letters his mom had written him and put it in the book.  It was professionally done and there are only five copies in existence. Unfortunately, nobody seems to like the book apart from me. They said they liked it but I have never seen anyone flipping through it or reading it. I think I’m just the nerd in this family and I appreciate these things.

In April last year, you tweeted, ‘As I get older, I travel more’. Why is that?

I definitely do travel more now. I look forward to travelling much more than I used to. I wrote about it recently: I can probably hear the silent call of mortality right now. I need to see everything before I reach the finishing line. But, you can’t be on a holiday for too long because then it stops being one. Every time I am flagging, I travel because it is a way of rebooting myself, getting a new perspective before coming back and diving into this world.

This interview was done for National Geographic Traveller India; link is here

Taken hostage in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack

Hello, may I speak to Srijit?”
“Yes, speaking.”
“Sir, I would like to talk to you …”
“I would love to talk, but am a little caught up.”
“Not a problem. When will you be free?”
“I wish I knew. You see, I am still stuck in the Trident and am a hostage …”

I dropped the phone.

I had entered the field of journalism exactly five months back and here I was, smack bang in the middle of covering my first terrorist attack. It all happened by accident. The day had started out as a nightmare. The previous evening, just as I was about to turn in for the night, I started receiving frantic calls from home. Their questions about my safety soon turned into hysterical lectures: As a journalist, how could I not know that Mumbai was undergoing a terror attack?

I switched on the TV and slowly pieced together the horrifying sequence of events. A group of terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba had conducted a series of attacks across south Bombay. They had targeted the CST train terminus, two hotels — Oberoi Trident, the Taj Mahal Palace — Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital and the Nariman House Jewish community center.

After watching for about three hours, I turned in for the night. This wasn’t the first time Mumbai was dealing with terrorists. The city had survived before and I was confident things would return to normal the next morning.

They did not.

My boss woke me up to say the terrorists had taken people hostage at the two hotels and I, still a trainee, was needed at work. The city wore a deserted look — everyone had stayed home. In contrast, the office was abuzz — keyboards clacking, telephones ringing, instructions being shouted and television channels blaring breaking news.

My boss walked up to us trainees and gave us numbers of rescued hostages and told us to talk to them. It was one thing I was hoping never to do as a journalist — intrude on someone’s grief to ask them, “Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?” Or, how do you feel? As a trainee, I didn’t have the choice. I started calling. There were four numbers; three went unanswered. The fourth got me a hostage.

Now, for someone who was stuck in his room, alone, with the blinds closed and lights off, Srijit was calm. He told me what had happened: “It started around 9 p.m. My colleague and I were having dinner when we heard the first blasts. After that everything went haywire. We decided it’s safer to remain in our rooms, on the 24th floor. We have no contact with anyone else from the Trident. The firing was constant and went on throughout the night. I lost the signal on the television; I think the terrorists cut it off so that we don’t know what is happening outside.”

The elevators were shut, and he had locked the door and pulled down the blinds. He was worried about his colleague, a U.S. citizen — he had heard reports that foreign nationals were being targeted. His minibar had a few bottles of water, a couple of boxes of nuts and biscuits and a bar of chocolate — enough stock to last him a couple of days, he told me.

Before hanging up, he had one request: “Keep me posted on what is happening outside.” He was staying in darkness and his phone was the only link to the internet and his son in Kolkata.

I did, through messages and the odd call. I fed him whatever the TV was telling me — the number of people dead, which terrorists had been captured and reports on law enforcement. In turn, he told me about the other hostages he had befriended via the intercom, how none of them were eating because they were too scared. He wasn’t hungry. He just wanted to get out.

I felt his fear, anxiety, helplessness and despair. 

I ended each call telling him those very useless words “be safe.” He took it in good grace.

By the end of the first day, he felt like a friend, someone I had known for a long time. The thought of what would happen to him terrified me. I had difficulty sleeping that night. The next day, November 27, the phone calls, and the gun battles, continued.

People watch from the top of a residential apartment as a helicopter carrying National Security Guard commandos prepares to attack militants at Nariman House at Colaba Market in Mumbai on November 28, 2008. “Every time the explosions go off, the entire building shakes,” he told me.

His inside information was more accurate than what many television channels were screening. But I didn’t tell him about reports that over 20 hostages had been killed in the hotel. Instead, I told him that India’s NSG, National Security Guard, was close to getting them evacuated. He had still barely eaten anything, and was using the intercom to speak to other hostages trapped on the same floor. On the third day, at 11 a.m., I got the call I had been waiting for.

“I am saved.”

Early morning, he had a knock on his door saying “housekeeping.” He opened it to find 20 commandos and armed men in plain clothes. He was escorted out like royalty.

Later that day, I went to meet him. We exchanged a hug. He was full of praise for the security forces who had rescued him. He was taking back “souvenirs” of his ordeal: a bottle of water and a half-eaten packet of salted peanuts.

It is difficult to explain the relationship that formed between us in those three days. I’ve never been on the front of covering any terrorist attack or violence; I don’t have it in me.

A little background: I hail from a tiny state in India called Goa, known for its peace-loving and laid-back life. I’ve only ever seen terror attacks on TV; I was completely detached from them. I was safe; everyone I knew was safe — I couldn’t fully grasp the impact of what was happening. The 26/11 attacks changed me because there was a personal element to the violence. I felt the fear, the anxiety, the helplessness and the despair.

Suffice to say, that naive trainee reporter who had led a sheltered life had finally grown up.

I wrote this essay for Ozy on the ninth anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks. Read the original piece, here

Eating Banana fritters in Hoi An

On our first trip to Vietnam, my friend and I found slices of India everywhere. A popular Hindi TV show played on tiny screens in markets, hosts shared notes about their favourite Bollywood movies, and we had in depth discussions about why Indians don’t win global beauty pageants anymore.

At the end of our ten-day trip, we chanced upon a fried street snack that satiated our craving for home food. The Banana Fritters (chuối chiên) were as brown as our skin, and as sweet as they were cheap. The golden brown banana fritter was sticky, speckled with sesame seeds, crispy on the outside and oozing with sweetness on the inside. It was the perfect morning treat, a sweeter version of the fried snacks we eat on Mumbai’s crowded streets when in need of a quick and filling meal.

We discovered it, much like the best things in life, by accident. It was our last day in Hoi An, that heritage town of cobbled paths, ancient shopfronts and lanterns swaying in the wind. We had guzzled cheap beer, munched on grilled meat on the streets and loaded up on cheap trinkets at the night market. We were on the hunt for an authentic eating experience.

A crowd led us to it.

They were gathered around a small cart so, we went to investigate. This curiosity is an innate Indian thing – we see a group of people gathered around something, and we will instantly gravitate towards it. People were engrossed in watching something. A closer look revealed a street cart, and the people around it were brimming with desire.


We heard the sound first, the heavy sizzle that signifies something has been dunked into a pan full of hot oil. It soon relapsed into a melody of crackles and hissing. A young woman stood behind the cart peeling bananas and slicing them into perfect halves. The bananas, swaying in the wind above her head, were no ordinary ones but small and stubby (called chuoi su or chuoi xiem). She dunked these slices into a mixture of rice flour, sugar, salt and water, before popping them into a pan of oil. When they attained
a golden brown colour, she held it aloft for a few seconds before placing it on a stand. As it stood there, dripping oil, us hungry hordes could only gaze at its delicious crunchiness, willing it to cool faster so we could get our hands on it.

banana fritter

There were also plates of crab fritters and sweet buns filled with mung bean and coconut but we only 
had eyes for that stick sweet snack. Money exchanged hands and soon, we were holding then in our hands, a flimsy napkin protecting us from the heat.

We were soon busy munching on the fritter, enjoying the noisy eating process and savouring the ensuing sugar rush. It was a high that lasted us till lunchtime, and one that was more intoxicating than the local beer.

The piece was first published in Roads and Kingdoms, here.

A taste of the North East in Kalina

In the morning, the suburb of Kalina is a quiet place. A few shop shutters go up, a straggle of people return from daily Mass, and stray dogs start riffling through the piles of garbage being swept from the street. 

Near the St Roque Grotto, a small two storey space starts to come to life. As part of his morning ritual, Yaomi Awungshi, 36 is having tea and breakfast with his family. In some time, the plates and cups are cleared and the place is open for business.  

The business being Thotrin Café, the suburb’s newest, and what they call the city’s only, North Eastern restaurant. “We serve food from typically cooked in our homes, and from other states,” says Awungshi.

“This area has a lot of families from the North East. We wanted to offer them the tastes of home,” chimes in his cousin Worsem Zimik, 34. Awungshi and Zimik both belong to the Tangkhul tribe – they identify as Nagas but geographically, their home is in Manipur. The menu features Naga tribal dishes and some from other North Eastern states too.

Food stories

The restaurant launched three months back. It is a small space with just four tables. There’s a blue ceiling, few potted plants, and a full length motivational poster covering the door to the kitchen.

“You can call us and request any dish and we will make it,” says Awungshi proudly, adding that recipes are sourced from family and friends. On the menu are dishes like the Manipuri salad shingju, oxtail soup, thukpa, mayang pai manak – a meaty potato mash made with King Chilli and fermented river fish; steamed chicken with bamboo shot and shiitake mushrooms; thesui – fermented soyabean, ngari – fermented river fish with King Chilli, and even escargot. They also serve pork and beef items but that’s off the menu – they don’t want to alienate customers. Dishes are of substantial portions, cheap (the most expensive dish is Rs 220) and meant for sharing.

The diners streaming in and out of the place include family and friends from nearby, Catholics from all across Kalina and Vakola, and members of the community who come from as far as Mira Road and Borivli. “We get a lot of students too. They come to study at the Kalina University and so, settle down here. They often don’t have the time to cook or look for specific ingredients. This was our way of helping them,” says Zimik. When he first came to the city to study law 15 years back, there was no place to buy homemade food or ingredients so he started cooking himself. “We have airhostesses who are regulars who always gush about the food and say it tastes like home.”

Zimik, who had to abandon his dream of becoming a lawyer due to financial reason, has worked in the hotel industry for over a decade. He is currently an operations manager at AB Celestial, Mahim. He believes the time is ripe for the city’s diners to ‘indulge in their love for regional food by trying out our food’. He would know. One of his work stints was at King Chilli, the Chindian fusion restaurant down the street from Thotrin. There, customers could order off-the-menu Manipuri food items like Khaiko Kasathei (a dry fish salad) and Harsa Kasathei (chicken salad with onion, lime juice and King chilli) and Alangsa, a beef offal stew-like dish. The dishes, once only eaten by members of the community, are no popular with anyone looking for a taste of the North Eastern cuisine.  

The right ingredients  

The popularity of the King chilli (or bhut jolokia as its popularly called) these days means it is easier to source. For other ingredients specific to the region, people turn to small community stores that source their wares from the North East.  The Kalina Masjid lane has two such stores selling foodstuff, vegetables, breads and sweets specific to the Manipuri and Naga community. Think fermented fish and bamboo shoots.  

Thotrin gets its produce from the store sharing its name, which Awungshi started three years back. He  gets his produce from home, thrice a week, and the pickles, fried items and bread all made by the family.  The small space is packed with clear packets of fresh vegetables – mustard leaves, Indian bean root, white pepper, aiyang thei (Naga eggplant), fermented bamboo shoots, and dried King chilli.

vegetables

Fresh vegetables and dried fish comes in every week from Nagaland

The fish comes in pickled form or a dried version (usually done over heated charcoal) and packed within small woven bamboo baskets. There’s a rack from which hang pickled sweet red plums, packets of meat masala, and tins of fish and meat pickle. Two small refrigerators nearby hold vegetable salads and pork pickle. The dry food stack has strips of dried beef intestines, fried beef and pork, chewy doughnuts sprinkled with coconut, crispy rice cakes and a sweet puri-like bread made from black rice. “When we opened, on the first day itself we had 100 customers!” laughs Awungshi. “That’s when we knew we were right in starting the place. It was that time we had the idea to open the restaurant too.”

store 1

The vegetable rack at Thotrin store

Both places are open through the week. Sunday afternoon is the only time you will find them shut – it’s because the family goes to church. People from the Tangkhul tribe are largely Protestant and go to a small hall within the Air India complex at Kalina for afternoon (and English) services. And after church, they are usually joined by a small group of people who come to get a bite to eat at the restaurant.   

The brothers look at Thotrin as a space that brings the community together, a social hangout spot. “We want to take this food and the restaurant all across Mumbai,” says Zimik with a smile. “We want to make it famous.”

Thotrin Café is situated opposite St Roque Grotto, Kalina Kurla Cross Road, Santacruz East; open from 9.30 pm to 11 pm; call 077382 30296

 

 

Worth the Mani

I am at a table with three strangers. We don’t talk; our mouths are busy shoveling down idlis, wadas and upma. The only sounds we make come from the cracking of a crisp dosa, and the slurp of hot filter coffee.

A waiter hovers by, ready to refill our bowls with ladles of fragrant sambhar. The thin and tangy vegetable stew coats the idlis (steamed lentil rice cakes) on my plate, giving them an orange tint. In another bowl, the soup-like rasam, made with tamarind juice, tomato, chillies, and spices, soaks through the medu wada (crisp fritters made with urad dal), softening them up.

I wipe both dishes clean, resisting the urge to lick my fingers as many around me do. Someone near me gives a satisfied burp. Nobody bats an eyelid. At Mani’s Lunch Home in Chembur, table etiquette and manners are secondary to enjoying a good meal.

Rasam Vada

Rasam vada.

In Mumbai, there’s cheap and then there’s lunch home cheap. Mani’s Lunch Home, or Mani’s, falls in the latter category – nothing on their menu costs over Rs 150. The 80-year- old institution serves simple, homely, vegetarian South Indian food. Last year, it shut down its Matunga outlet and moved to the eastern suburbs of Chembur.

I visit the new digs for a late breakfast. It takes time getting used to the white walls, metals chairs and air-conditioned interiors. The old Mani’s felt like the dining room of a friend’s home, warm and inviting. Here, under the glare of white lights, the four of us sharing a table are extremely conscious of each other. We sit properly, without fidgeting.
Once our orders arrive though, all propriety is forgotten.

A flurry of waiters deposit plates of dosas the length of my arm, tiny containers of chutney, filter coffee in tumblers, fluffy idlis, crisp wadas and bowls of sambhar and rasam. There’s no cutlery so we use our hands and dig in. My Ghee Roast Dosa is paper thin and crumbles as I break into it, revealing a mound of masala’ (boiled potatoes with onion and tempered with mustard and curry leaves). In between bites, I pour the filter coffee from the stainless steel tumbler into the cup, cool it and take small sips. It is milky
and sweet enough to jolt me awake.

dosa

Masala Dosa. Photo courtesy: Mani’s Lunch Home

Eating at a lunch home is a lesson in portion control. I barely wipe the last drop of sambhar from the plate, when a hand materialises out of nowhere and fills it up. After two rounds, I feebly wave the waiter away. He is understandably surprised. Whoever says no to extra, and free, servings?

By now, I am regretting all the food I’ve ordered. I can’t seem to finish all that I have ordered. My fellow diners have finished up, paid and left. They know their limits. They also know that you don’t waste time at a lunch home, you eat as quickly as you can and leave, making way for other hungry diners.

As I pay the bill, the owner KS Narayanaswamy walks over for feedback. I am full of praise but, he isn’t fooled. He saw me wave away second helpings. “You didn’t finish your paper dosa,” he says, accusingly. I sheepishly apologise, promising to return and do justice to everything I order.

This was part of my breakfast series for Roads & Kingdoms; read a full review of the place in Midday