Porto & Poie: Comfort food 

What happens when you put three Goans together in a room? They start talking about feni, sausages, argue about whether South Goa is better than North Goa and within minutes, discover a common friend.

It’s what happened to Goan friend and I when we visited the city’s newest restaurant, Porto & Poie in Juhu, and met Chef Gracian de Souza. A Bombay boy, Gracian has spent many holidays in north Goa though he considers the South better and within minutes, was talking about the best place to get rosary sausages. 

In the recent past, Goan food has become the flavour of the season. Diners are talking about serradura and caldinha with an enthusiasm that Goans would find hard to understand. In fact, the table near us kept talking about the highlights of the other two places and how nothing can beat food eaten in a Goan home.

I agree. But, if seeking a comforting fish-curry-rice with a little brinjal pickle by the side, Porto & Poie is a good option. 

The 110-seater space is situated above Grandmama’s Café in Juhu. A curving staircase (there’s also an elevator) leads to an al fresco section, which is taken up by an open bar. There’s blue everywhere, possibly to make up for the lack of the sea that is part of a Goan experience. Azulejo tiles decorate the underside of a bar and the lamps outdoor, blue and white porcelain plates pepper the ceiling in the enclosed area, and a similar colour scheme gives the upholstery a soothing touch. Inside are faux laterite stone arches and blown up photographs (by Goan photographer Vince Costa) of marketplaces in Goa and Portugal.

Porto & Poie is Gracian’s labour of love, a realisation of the dream he had of creating a place ‘to call my own’. Having worked as a chef and consultant for nearly two decades, he finally got the chance to return to his roots. “This is my home now,” he says with a laugh. “I spend all my time here!”

As we settle in, he comes by with three shot glasses filled with a blood red drink. “This is ginjinha, a Portuguese local liqueur made by fermenting cherries with sugar and alcohol. I experimented with this a lot since I wanted to get the flavours right and I think I have,” he says. We sip on the drink, basking in the strong but sweet flavours of wine, rum and spices. It’s the perfect start for a meal we are promised, features traditional Goan and Portuguese food, done his way. The recipes and dishes are based on his memories of eating this food as a child, and his trips to Portugal to understand the country’s cuisine.    

We focus on the Goan dishes, some of which has Portuguese influences. The first dish is Portuguese style hand folded prawn rissois. The crescent-shaped, prawn-filled snack is creamy and cheesy with a crispy outer crust and a touch of green chilli. Slow cooked Tenderloin Chilli with Green Peppers and Goan Spices is a fancier version of the beef chilli we’ve eaten at carts in Panjim – it’s too spicy but the meat is cooked perfectly.

A staple order at any Goan restaurant we visit, the Classic Goan chorizo pav is good but we’ve had better. The pav here is replaced poee – specially brought in from Goa every day. The 48-hour Marinated Salted Tongue is tender with extra virgin olive oil adding a different layer of flavour. The surprise for us is the only vegetarian dish we order – the Mushroom & Tendli Tonnak. Heaped with roasted coconut and spices, it is a twist on the tradition cowpeas preparation, with mushroom and tendli adding different textures to the dish.    

The food would’ve been perfect with feni or even coconut rum but since they’re not available, I opt for the Vagator Rave from the restaurant’s tiki cocktail section. The drink has enough cashew to hint at feni, and a sweetness from pineapple and sugarcane juice. Calm Chapora looks good on paper – a mix of bourbon, curry leaves, pumpkin and sea salt – but the bourbon overpowers everything else and the curry leaves are there just for decoration.  

IMG_20180205_213419079_HDR

Vagator Rave, Bombil and Tendli pickles, Marinated Tongue.

Our main course is focused on fish. Amsol (or kokum) is typically used to flavour Goan curries and here it does its job in the Classic Goan fish Curry (Rs 500). The curry doesn’t have coconut but garners flavour from the many spices and tirphal (Goan peppercorn). The Grilled Prawn Caldinho is a creamy, soupy stew with drumsticks and radish. In both dishes, the fish, prawns, and kingfish, are fried separately and then placed in the curries. It feels like we are eating two different dishes – a fried fish and a curry but, the fish is fresh and fried perfectly. Is it tasty? Yes. Will I order it again? Probably not. I prefer keeping those two dishes separate.      

Dessert is the bebinca, the layered cake that’s as easy to polish off as it is tedious to prepare. Like the ingredients and the bread, this dish is brought in from Goa and doesn’t have the lightness associated with homemade bebinca. 

How does Porto & Poie measure up one the Goan food scale? I’m not impressed with all the dishes and find the prices a bit steep but, Gracian’s food has soul. It reflects his love and respect for the cuisine. He makes people feel at home. And, that’s enough. 

After all, only a Goan can create a true Goan culinary experience.

Porto & Poie is located above Royal Garden Hotel, Juhu Tara Road, Mumbai 400049; timings: 6pm to 1.30am (all week); call 2660 2955

 

[This review was first published in The Hindu: With Heart and Soul, on February 17, 2018]

 

 

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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]

 

 

Unusual museums in Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe abounds in such unusual museums. A region that’s rich in history and culture, it has many a splendoured space dedicated to both. During my visits there, I’ve toured horrific Nazi prisons in Warsaw, studied the life of the tortured genius at the Chopin museum in Vienna, and learned about the history of sex machines at the Museum of Sex in Prague. 50 instruments of grey?

Here then, are my picks of some of the most interesting and innovative museums to visit.

Bunker 10-Z

As museums go, Bunker 10-Z isn’t a typical one. The Cold War remnant is a chilling (literally) tribute to its origins, that of a nuclear fallout shelter. Now a hotel, it makes for an interesting exhibition space, with a diesel generator engine room, an air filtration room, an emergency telephone exchange, a decontamination room and a milk bar. The best way though to absorb this museum is by living in it.

10 Z was built by the Germans during WWII as a civil defense (Luftschutz) shelter from American and Soviet bombardment of Brno. After the war it served as a wine store for awhile before being confiscated by the Communists. The nuclear fallout shelter was completed in 1959 and intended protect 500 of the city’s political representatives, for three days. It opened to the public last year as hotel, with 18 rooms.

Nothing prepares you for the fallout of a nuclear war more than sleeping in a deathly quiet, pitch dark, underground space surrounded by gas masks, medicine boxes, maps, old motorbikes, telephones, typewriters and other items that would come in handy in case of a nuclear war.

There are guided tours. I do one on my own, armed with a map. There’s a diesel generator engine room, battery room, air filtration room, emergency telephone exchange and a decontamination room – all of which form the technical part of the shelter. Atop ventilators and electrical machinery, tiny televisions screen short videos and documentaries of the people who built and took shelter in bunker during WWII. There’s one that screens advertisements from Communist times. 

I end my tour at the milk bar, run by Chef Marcel Ihnačak, which serves ‘Stalinist and wartime specialties’ such as salads, open sandwiches, bread spreads, sundaes and custard cream. Russian Egg (35 Kč), Sweet Crêpes (45 Kč), washed down with cider (35 Kč) and beer (25 Kč).

Bunker 10-Z is located at Husova ulice. Daily excursions happen between 11.30 am to 6.15 pm; tickets without guide are 130 Kč. The milk bar is open from noon to 7 pm (except Mondays). 

[Read more about Brno’s underground spaces, here]

Time machines

Vienna’s Clocks Museum is an informative journey though time. Housed in one of the oldest houses in Veinna, Harfenhaus (Harpist’s House), it has over 700 clocks on display.

My knowledge of timepieces is limited to simple watches and clocks. At the museum, I learned about early chronometers, tower clock, pillar clocks, clock organs, lantern clocks, pendant and pocket watches studded with diamonds and miniature paintings, mantel clocks with pendulums, and Viennese flute clocks that played music. There were clocks bigger than me, and some smaller than a thimble.

Austria was once one of the leading clockmakers in the world and the museum showcases some of this history through exquisite pieces – an astronomical bracket clock from 1653, a tower clock from St Stephen’s Cathedral, and the oldest object in the museum, a watchman’s clock with ceramic figures dating back to the early 15th century.

All the timepieces had notes displaying their age and history, and many were in functioning order. My favourite section was the picture clocks, which were made in Austria in 1780. These stunning pictures usually features landscapes and historical events painted on metal sheets and hiding tiny dials. The most unusual piece was an astronomical clock designed by a priest. The altarpiece with wings it showed planetary constellations, and calendars of different cultures and faiths.

The timepieces are arranged in chronological order offering a good time machine into the history of clocks and watches, going back to the 15th century.   

The Vienna Museum of Clocks and Watches is located at Schulhof 2, Vienna, 1010. Entry is 7 Euros. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm. 

Memories of a breakup

I walked into the Museum of Broken Relationships for a lark, wondering what catharsis the lovelorn could find in sending in mementos of relationships gone bad. An hour later, I walked out much sobered and realising that love can leave behind emotional and physical baggage. The museum was a repository of the latter.

The physical representation of broken relationships could not have a more apt, or beautiful setting: a baroque Kulmer palace in Zagreb’s historical Upper Town. The space is all white and has three main sections – the shop, the exhibit space, and a café. 

Each object had a synopsis, a story if you may, about its value. There were the usual stuffed animals, toys, books, letters, and drawings. The entries were anonymous so it was up to me to decipher the gender, the age and the person who has sent in that note. I read every story, and though much of it was lost in translation, the sense of loss was easy to understand.

MOBR mother, Mare Milin

A tribute to a mother lost to cancer. Photo courtesy: Mare Milin.

In the family section, a small nook had a dress, shoes and a handbag. Sent in by a grieving woman from Warsaw, they told a story about a family fighting cancer. Another story was of a supportive man who turned out to be a sexual predator. The story was from a survivor of child sexual abuse. An audio-visual section told the story of a young girl who fell in love with a soldier who never returned.

It wasn’t all sadness and despair. Some stories made me laugh. A hamburger toy, sent in from Luxembourg in 2011 had the note: ‘His dog left more traces behind than he did’. A router, sent in from San Francisco in 2008, had the neatest story: We tried. Not Compatible. An axe, called the ex-axe, told the story about a jilted person who took the instrument and destroyed all the furniture belonging to her lover. The cutest one was a list of 10 Reasons to stay. It was sent in by someone from London, and dedicated to a woman he knew for three weeks and who was leaving for Australia. Among the reasons were this gem: lately I’ve been finding lots more money on the streets of London.

The museum was started as an art project by Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić in 2006, a former couple who decided to celebrate the mementoes that made up their relationship. What started as a travelling exhibition found a permanent home in Zagreb in 2010.  

The museum has a Brokenships Museum Café for those looking for a pick-me-up but, I found the shop more exciting. Abundant in puns on break-ups, my favourite were chocolates with the message, hope your ass gets bigger.  

The Museum of Broken Relationships is located at Ćirilometodska 2, 10000. It is open from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m (June 1st – September 30th), and 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m (October 1st – May 31st). Entry: 30 kuna.

Let’s go LEGO

It felt like we were in the middle of the LEGO movie. The LEGO Museum (Museum of Bricks) is the world’s biggest and expectedly, is designed to astonish and delight.

Every brick had purpose. They found their way into over 2,500 exhibits, divided into 20 themes. There was a mini city, complete with little houses with gardens, police stations and post offices and constructions sites; railway sets; F1 racing cars; and characters from comics, movies or books. Think Batman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Indiana Jones and even Barbie and Ken sharing one roof.

The corners and alcoves were reserved for standalone heritage structures – the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Kremlin, among others. An impressive and pristine white Taj Mahal, we found out, was the biggest factory set LEGO ever made, with 5,922 bricks. 

The museum’s top floor was for those seeking to pay homage to that cult space saga, Star Wars. Characters, battleships, props from the movies were stacked, from floor to ceiling. A section was dedicated to that JK Rowling series, Harry Potter, was uninspiring. The giant spiders looked cute, Hagrid didn’t seem giant enough, Quidditch was indicated by just three hoops and the characters looked bored.   

The home city also found adequate representation. An entire alcove was dedicated to the Charles Bridge – a five meter monument filled with 1,000 figurines, which made for a fun game of guessing which characters were on the bridge.

The museum is located at Praha, Národní 362/31; it is open from 10 am to 8 pm; the nearest tram stop and metro station is Narodni Trida; ticket rates start at 100 Kč. 

 

[The story was first published in Deccan Herald as Diversity in Display on January 6, 2018.]  

Chopin’s Warsaw

Last year, for three cold, wintry days, I found myself stalking a man. I couldn’t help it; his presence was everywhere – on benches, in the park, museums and in the churches.  

It is expected when you are a genius. A beautiful city, Poland’s capital is not as compelling or historically relevant as Krakow. But, it has Fryderyk Chopin.

The city’s most famous son wasn’t born here but his genius was discovered and nurtured in the Warsaw’s salons, churches and concert halls. It was here that he learned to play the piano, and gave his first concert when just eight. He spent the first half of his life in the city and his heart lies here, quite literally.

Today, it is possible to walk in the footsteps of the composer. Armed with a guide book and an app, I set out to discover the genius in the city that was once his home.

The churches

I stumbled onto one of Chopin’s resting places by accident. Walking along the beautiful Krakowskie Przedmieście, I take a pit stop at the Holy Cross Church. In the early 19th century, this baroque church was the largest Catholic place of worship in Warsaw.

 It was packed with tourists, who weren’t there to pray but to pay homage. They were busy admiring the church’s plain white pillars, one of which had Chopin’s heart interred within it. The pillar is simple, with a carved bust of the composer and two cherubs. The church was significant to the Chopin family – Fryderyk’s sisters, Izabella and Emilia, were baptised in it. Although the composer’s remains are in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his heart lies in Warsaw.

Chopin played in the choir for masses held at Visitationist Church.

A little down the road is another church of importance. The 17th century Visitationist Church was built for French nuns and has survived World War II with majority of its original furnishings, including a rococo boat-shaped pulpit. It was here that Chopin played the organ – which is still intact – as a pupil of the Warsaw Lyceum. A plaque outside confirms this fact. My guidebook tells me that it was while playing in this church that he met his first love, Konstancja, who sang at mass. Needless to say, he made sure Sunday mass was quite the experience. 

Musical signposts

As I leave the church, Chopin’s Largo in E Flat Major fills the evening air, mellowing out the sounds of traffic and chatter. The source for this is a smooth cast iron black stone bench. These benches – 15 in all – are spread through the city and act as musical signposts to signify important sites in his life. There are 15 of them are spread across the city. Designed by Professor Jerzy Porębski, these benches come with a button, which plays music for 30 seconds; a route map and an explanation (in English and Polish) about the site’s relevance.

The coolest part though is that the benches have photo codes, which gave me access to an instant audio and visual Chopin guide, and other melodies. 

Saxon palace/garden

If Chopin grew up performing at the Holy Cross Church, he probably played games and took walks in the Saxon Garden; the family lived near the park. The city’s oldest public garden, it gets its name from the Saxon figures that lead up to Warsaw’s first city fountain, and a marble sundial.  

In those days, the Saxon Palace complex housed the school Warsaw Lyceum. Fryderyk’s father was a French language teacher, and the family lived in the staff quarters. It was here that Chopin composed his first pieces, with the aid of his father and teacher. The Saxon Palace was completely destroyed during WW II, only the triple arch remained. Today, the remains of the palace hold the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the unknown soldiers who have given their lives for Poland.

Fryderyk Chopin Museum

The Chopin museum is a four-floor structure in the Ostrogski Palace. The museum opened in 2010 and houses the largest collection of Chopin memorabilia in the world. 

Here, I get a comprehensive and interactive look into the musical genius’ life, from birth to death. The museum is multimedia – there are e-books, audio-visuals, and touchscreen options. There are games too – on one floor is a musical version of Twister, which has me jumping from one spot to another creating my own compositions. Microphones hanging from the ceiling recorded exclamations, sounds of laughter or music depending on the exhibit. Another section allows me to open drawers, which display a sheet of music while speakers play its musical notes. I spent the most time learning about the women in his life – there were many – through photos, letters, sketches and notes.  

The museum is based on the family’s collection of mementos – letters, autograph music manuscripts, books. Some of the weirder exhibits include his school exercise books, a lock of dark brown hair, a gold watch he received from an admiring singer, a gold barrel-shaped pendant with his monogram, and dried flowers from his deathbed. There is also a detailed recreation of his Paris drawing room, with the Pleyel grand paino, which he played in the final two years of his life.

Łazienki Royal Park

The Łazienki Royal Park is a stunning palace and garden complex, built in the 17th century as the summer residence of the last king of Poland. A vast expanse of trees and shaded paths reveal places of interest: a baroque bathing pavilion (which gives the park its name), the Palace on the Isle, a little White House, a water tower and an old guardhouse, among others.  

Chopin monument

Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin.

The park is home to Warsaw’s most iconic and visited structures, sculptor Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin. It shows him sitting beneath a stylised willow tree, with a Polish eagle’s head at the corner. The sculpture was erected in 1926 before being one of the first structures demolished by the Nazis. After the war, it was rebuilt thanks to an original mould, and placed on a red sandstone pedestal and basin.

Every year, concerts are held at the foot of the monument. When I visit, it is filled with tourists sunning themselves on the manicured lawns. It is easy to imagine pianists filling the park with sweet melodies in front of a captive audience, while Chopin watches benevolently from above.  

Log on to www.chopin.warsawtour.pl

 

[A version of this story appeared in the Indian Express: My heart beats for Warsaw, on January 7, 2018.]

This artist sculpts miniature Indian food

Shilpa Mitha can make a dosa with her eyes closed. Ask for one and the former sound engineer will knead the dough, roll it out until its paper thin, and then fold it up. This dosa is then placed on a banana leaf and surrounded by chutneys, sambhar, and pickle.

This South Indian breakfast plate looks delicious, but it cannot be eaten. The reason? Mitha makes food miniatures using clay. “I cannot cook otherwise, but I can make your favorite dishes using clay,” says Mitha, 30.

Her food stays true to form—they are exact replicas of the original dish, from the ingredients to the plating. Her dosas are thin and have lightly browned edges and a hollow center. “This is a bestseller. Everyone loves a good dosa,” she says. The coconut chutney is dotted with mustard seeds, and the sambhar (stew) has drumsticks and carrots peeking out.

dosa and idli

Dosas and idlis

Mitha’s sells her miniature dishes under the name Sueño Souvenir. Her menu includes fried chicken, fried fish, a whole roast turkey with veggies, pizzas, burgers, doughnuts, macaroons, brownies, and cake. But it is her Indian food, particularly the south Indian fare, that gets her the most accolades: karimeen pollichathu (a Keralite-style fish dish baked in a banana leaf); gajar ka halwa (carrot pudding); vada pav (spicy, potato-filled deep fried dumplings served inside bread); and much more.

Thanksgiving

A Thanksgiving meal.

Her miniatures, just like food at her home, are prepared fresh. “Making biryani takes me the longest. I have to roll one grain at a time. Then, there’s the fact that certain dishes like biryani, dals, and even pappad, vary from one region to the next,” she says. She seeks references from recipes, online cooking shows, and photos.

Huxtaburger and fries

Burger and fries.

Mitha’s journey into food miniatures began because of a burger. A fan of paper quilling, she tried and failed to make a paper burger earring. “My mum [then] taught me how to make a burger using modelling clay,” she says. It took them ten minutes, and when Mitha shared it with friends, they all wanted their own. Intrigued by the demand, she went online and discovered a whole world of miniature food. “I wasn’t aware that people actually made miniature, and very realistic, food to put in the kitchens of their dollhouses,” Mitha says. “We had dolls at home, and for Golu [a festive display of dolls] we would make mini meals for them. But they never were this realistic.” 

“In paintings, food is restricted to baskets of fruits or elaborate meals. Where is the common stuff you eat?” she says.

She didn’t see people making Indian food miniatures, so decided to give it a try. Thus began her self-taught journey into cooking food with clay, and turning them into magnets and pendants. She learned the basics of clay modelling from her mother and took four years to perfect her technique and the proportions, textures, and colors. Mitha had quit her job to focus on her hobbies, and she soon found she could make food miniatures a profession.

Today, her clay kitchen contains rollers, cookie cutters, a pointed needle-like tool, and paint. Mitha works with air-dry clay, which doesn’t have to be baked and takes from one to five days to dry. She prefers mixing colors into the clay rather than painting them after, which she believes makes the figurines look artificial. The final item gets a coat of varnish, which adds gloss and an oily sheen to certain oil-based dishes. The constant rolling of clay means Mitha struggles with muscles issues and has to take breaks for physiotherapy sessions.

The miniatures cost between Rs 450 and Rs 1000. Despite the breaks, and subsequent longer delivery time, the demand for her food miniatures is high: She gets an average of 20 messages and requests daily.

Mitha doesn’t publicize her work, but word of mouth and press appearances help her get customers. She came into the international spotlight for replicating Masterchef Australia dishes, including Heston Blumenthal’s Botrytis Cinerea, Charlie Sartori’s chocolate sponge cake with raspberry jam, and Shannon Bennett’s chocolate peanut bar.

Shannon Bennett - chocolate peanut bar

Shannon Bennet’s chocolate peanut bar from Masterchef Australia. Photo courtesy: Shilpa Mitha

“I just want to cook good food and do something different with my life,” she says. Just don’t try to eat her cooking.

[This story appeared in Gastro Obscura in January 2018]

An evening at Vienna’s Central Cemetery

It was meant to be a search for the final resting places of music legends Schubert, Brahms and Mozart. In two hours, however, the Central Cemetery in Vienna gave us all the trappings of a horror flick with a surprising cast of characters. No, they weren’t the ghosts of music past. 

It all started quite harmlessly. We had earlier visited the St Marx Cemetery that once contained the remains of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and now just had a representative grave. 

 It seemed only right that we follow the trail of his remains, which were resting at the city’s largest cemetery, Vienna Central Cemetery or Zentral Friedhof. His grave was moved in 1891 on the occasion of his 100th death anniversary. Another attraction was the fact the cemetery was home to the graves of over 2.5 million souls. 

There we were, having braved a 40-minute tram ride to the cemetery, situated on the outskirts of the city at Simmering, on a cold and wet evening. On entering, we perused the map, neatly divided and numbered into sections. There was no mention of the grave we were out to find so we decided to start walking, hoping the memorial would be conspicuous enough to spot. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. 

The oldest and largest cemetery in Vienna, much like the rest of the city, is pleasing to the eye. Every grave was different and more intricate than the rest. We spotted the normal angels and religious figures gazing beatifically down; statues of children clutching toys and pets as if they were frozen in time (creepy, yes); canopies shielded scenes from history; busts of people; They were creepy but we couldn’t help admiring the artwork; many tombstones also had the names of the architects who built them. 

Aside: History lesson  The cemetery was built in 1870 and opened on All Saints Day in 1874. It is quite interdenominational – houses a Protestant cemetery, a Muslim burial ground, two Jewish cemeteries, Russian Orthodox Burial Ground – which caused much controversy at the time. At 620 acres, it is the largest in Europe and the dead population is believed to be more than the actual population of Vienna! 

The cemetery was empty but for us, and another couple who walked ahead, frequently taking detours to hunt among the rows. We stuck to the main path, losing them in the bargain, and 40 minutes later, couldn’t find anything; even the tombstones had begun to lose their charm. 

We were ready to give up and return – the light was fading and a slight drizzle had begun – when we spotted the church. It suddenly struck us that the most important graves would be around the structure and so set off towards it. Our hunch proved right when we stumbled on the Music Graves, and there were the souls we had come to see. 

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In the centre was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; to the left was Ludwig van Beethoven, to the right was Franz Schubert and a little further away, Johannes Strauss and Johannes Brahms. 

Suitably wowed – we were in the presence of geniuses, after all – we turned back. It was only after reaching the gate, half an hour later, that we realised it was shut. We were locked in. (I confess, at this point, I had a moment of terror. I’m not a fan of cemeteries and especially not when it was getting dark and we were all alone in). A few tense moments later, we realised there was a sign for an emergency gate so we started walking back the way we had come, this time taking a short cut through the muddy paths between the graves. 

A few steps later, my friend K (who has been laughing at my attempts at stalking all the dogs I saw during my trip) suddenly said, “I saw a dog here”. We were both surprises, stray dogs don’t exist in most European countries and who would bring their pet to a cemetery. We continue walking and then in the distance, the ‘dog’ appears. It isn’t a dog but a deer and it freezes just like the idiom it gave rise to. We pull out our cameras with as little noise as possible, not wishing to scare it away before we get a shot at it. But, it scampered away. We ran into it again, a few metres away but my squeal of surprise scared it. It seemed alone and we couldn’t spot any other deer or any other animal around, leading us to wonder what it was doing in an empty cemetery. 

We will never know. 

Conclusion: After walking through half the cemetery in the rain, we found the tiny emergency gate and made our exit quickly. We don’t know what happened to the couple, we didn’t spot them anywhere.  

At: Zentralfriedhof, Simmeringer Hauptstraße 234, 1110 Vienna (look for group 32A).

 

[A version of this story was published in Hindu: On the Graveyard shift in Vienna on December 27, 2017]

The sound of silence in Ramgarh

“Why are you going to Ramgarh?” enquires my driver. We are in the middle of a nine-hour drive to the hills from Delhi. I tell him I’m on a holiday, and need a break from the chaotic city life. He looks confused. It is off-season and tourists are a rare sight at this time, except the foreigners. “They come here for hash,” he says conspiratorially.

At the end of my stay in Ramgarh, I discovered that I don’t need help to be intoxicated by this hill station.

I have the best view of the place from my resort at the top of the hill, V Resorts. The six-year- old resort has just four rooms. The main cottage has three rooms, a dining and living area, a porch and a balcony with the kitchen one level below. My room is simple, wooden floors, blinds on the windows and dim lighting. There’s a cosy reading nook and no TV – they expect us to be entertained by the scenery.

The fourth ‘room’ is actually the writer’s cottage and has its own entrance. It is for those seeking retreat and possibly writing inspiration. When I’m there, it’s occupied by a group of Punjabi friends who dispel the nightly silence with writing of the most annoying kind, the lyrics of Bollywood songs. The cottage owes its name to two writers who were famous in this region, Mahadevi Verma and Rabindranath Tagore – it is believed that Verma got the idea of writing her famous story Lachma here; and that Tagore
wrote parts of his epic Gitanjali at his mountain abode.

The silence, to someone accustomed to city noise, is deafening. I feel it wrap around me, as if to keep me warm from the sudden chill of the evening. Over the course of my stay, I realise that people here cherish the quiet. They don’t waste words while talking.

Besides, I find myself at a loss for words to describe the vista in front of me. Sunsets are an artist’s dream, with the sky changing colour and dusk adding a filter to the surroundings that no photo app can replicate. It’s a more refined version of those childish nature drawings we did in school – the setting sun over the mountains, trees all around, streams running past tiled houses and animals and children dotting the landscape. Is this what inspired the two great writers who came to this region?

The next morning, I set out seeking answers. My literary trail begins at Tagore Point, home to a now decrepit cottage that once was Tagore’s home in the hills. My guide is Indra Bahadur, originally from Nepal, and a man of few words. During the
three-hour trek we pass small hutments, terraced slops of potatoes and peas, little clumps of deodhar trees. The fruit-plucking season is over so the apple trees around me are all bare. Our search for Tagore’s abode is futile, the path is too overgrown and repeated whacking with sticks doesn’t help. “The place is too dangerous,” he tells me, pointing to the denser region of the forest. Bears and tigers reside there but they rarely make an appearance. The last time he took a group there was five years back. “No one
but trekkers come here.” he says. 

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The last mountain in the range is Tagore Point.

The Mahadevi Verma library is also shut, the caretaker has gone home for a wedding. “Barely anyone comes here,” says Bahadur. “Who has the time to go visit a library, everyone is busy with their lives.”

I can’t visit that library so I turn to the one in the resort. There are barely 50 books, including trashy romance novels and the odd classics. I seek out different reading nooks in the resort, devouring the words on page with the same intensity with which I reserve for food.

As with any cold region, I often find myself hungry. Pankaj, the chef who doubles up as a driver and guide, doesn’t disappoint. His chicken and fish curries are light and wholesome; the omelettes are fluffy and the dals are filled with flavour. I ask for local food and he serves me a Kumaoni meal. There’s bhatt ki churkaani – a thin gravy with black soya bean and local herbs; aloo ke gutke – a snack similar to jeera alu made with boiled potatoes, cumin turmeric and coriander; and steaming fat-grained local
rice. Whenever I am thirsty, there are endless glasses of the refreshing buransh, the blood red juice of the rhododendron flower.

Kumaoni meal

A Kumaoni meal.

I burn off the calories by walking around the resort. V Resorts is located in the upper region of Ramgarh (Malla). The resort’s manager Nitesh accompanies me sometimes, and we talk about tourism and how Uttarakhand attaining statehood has changed the region. Around me, the twinkling of lights announces the onset of night and we soon hear crickets, buses honking in Talla (lower Ramgarh) and the beginning of a Ramleela performance.

Sightseeing at Ramgarh is incidental. When not resting, I visit a tea estate, a temple filled with bells, and on the last morning, I go paragliding. The journey in the air is a short one that offers me a bird’s eye view of the region. The Himalayan mountains, their peaks shrouded with clouds, the Bhimtal lake glimmering in the distance, cows and horses grazing at pasture, trees as far as the eye can see, and cutting through this landscape, different signs of civilisation. If I wasn’t fighting gravity in a tight harness, I could wax
poetic eloquence about the view.

The thing with Ramgarh is that there’s writing inspiration all around. You just have to know where to look.

Things to know: V Resorts Ramgarh is located in Malla (Upper) Ramgarh, Nainital district in Uttarakhand, about three hours away from the nearest airport (Pantnagar) and 332 km from Delhi. A Cottage room costs Rs 2,860 and the Writers Room is Rs 3,560.

The article appeared in National Geographic Traveller India in December 2017: Solitude and stunning vistas in Uttarakhand. Read my other stories for the magazine, here.