Monthly Archives: February 2017

Chaat Stories: Bengali snacks, in Bombay

“Bengalis call peanuts badam. They call almonds badam too.”

We are at Chaat Stories, the newest entrant on the buzzing and food-filled Carter road stretch in Bandra. My dinner date is Yoshita, my friend, roommate and last word on all thing Bengali. She is responding to the look of surprise on my face as I am handed a plate piled high with fat peanuts, onions and spices or Kolkata Badaam Chaat (Rs 90).

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Badaam chaat aka peanuts overload

CS has the look associated with everything new, bright lights, clean counters, shining menu cards plastered all over and for some reason, a big mirror inside. There are six counters, four on the pavement and two inside.

Outside has the buzz. There’s a counter making jalebis, another serving chai and yet another offering kulfi. We head to the puchka counter. The Kolkata Puchka (Rs 80) – crumbly puri filled with an aloo mixture and dunked in a tangy and spicy paani wins our approval. Of course, just like the last time, the puri breaks before I can eat it but I soldier on, managing to stuff the whole thing in. There’s also an option of meetha paani but it is too sweet. 

The same stall gives us our Kolkata Aloo Chaat (Rs 100) – a fiery mixture of chunky boiled potato pieces mixed with spices. Our Mumbai tastebuds find comfort in the Kolkata Dum Aloo Chaat (Rs 100) – a dish created for locals. The fiery potato filled gravy would go great with paratha.

 


The two counters inside are designed like faux street carts, with wheels and names of dishes printed in front but with a marble-top meant for cooking. There, we stand and watch our Kolkata Jhal Mudi (Rs 70) being prepared. Before he serves it, the cook hands us a little on a spoon to taste. He says it’s because people can’t stomach too much mustard. The Jhal Mudi has puffed rice, onions, peanuts, gram, and mixture of spices but it is the mustard that overpowers it all, leaving us with a difficult-to-get-rid-of aftertaste.


The Kesar Masala Chai (Rs 70) disappoints – it looks good with saffron strands on top but it hasn’t been boiled enough. The Kolkata Hot Kesar Jalebi (Rs 60 for 60 gms) is crunchy but doesn’t have the softness expected when you bite into a jalebi. “This is candy,” says Y.

Chaat Stories feels like it could be your local adda. The staff is friendly, they will willingly serve you bowls of sweet date chutney or adjust spices to your taste. Just don’t ask them ‘what’s a puchka’. You will be given a glare and a biting response: “Paani puri”.

Chaat Stories is located at A-9, Union Park Road, Carter Road, Bandra (W); open from 4 pm to 12 midnight; call 7021333313 or log on to Chaat Stories on Facebook

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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 aintings 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.

 

 

Nipponzan Myohoji: A bit of Japan in Mumbai

On a busy, chaotic junction at Worli is where we found a moment of peace.  

Ignore the building and stores and instead, look for a small gate leading into a compound at the centre of which is a grey stricture. This is the Nipponzan Myohoji, a Japanese monastery built in 1956.  

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Inside, the temple is one big wall. As you enter, the walls on both sides have clipping and notices (some dating back to when the temple was built). There are two wooden Japanese drums – these are beaten to the rhythm of devotees chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. The hall has 10 carved stone pillars. The four walls in the centre have vegetable paintings depicting scenes from Buddha’s life. 

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The inner sanctum. Pictures courtesy: Kartikeya Ramanathan

A six foot marble statue of Buddha lies in a smaller atrium inside the temple, along with other statues.  

Aside: History – In the 13th century, a Japanese monk Maha Bodhisattva Nicherin, made a prophecy that humanity’s salvation lay in India. In 1931, a follower of Nicherin, Nichidatsu Fuji arrived in India to fulfill that prophecy and with the help of Gandhian Jugal Kishore Birla, built a small temple; it was later converted into a dharmshala and school and a new temple was built. Fuji also met and impressed Mahatma Gandhi, and participated in the freedom movement. 

 

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Read about Mumbai’s only Chinese temple, here 

Science day out: Copernicus

It all started with a conversation with my couchsurfing hosts in Warsaw. I asked them to suggest a place I could spend my morning exploring. I was expecting a park or garden but they looked at each other and answered in one voice: Copernicus.  

The science museum/ centre is located on the banks of the Vistula River and is a favourite with locals and tourists alike. In fact, every schoolkid has spent hours, if not days, at the centre. “It’s the best way to pass your time, and you get to learn so much,” said Kasia. “You need three whole days to be able to explore the whole place.”

After spending three hours, I realised Kasia was right: it was impossible to truly explore Copernicus when against a half-day deadline. I tried.

Copernicus may be a science centre but the glass and steel building has exhibitions, a planetarium – showing 2D and 3D films, and weekend workshops. At then entrance is an interactive robot that will sing songs if you ask nicely. 

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A two-storey high Foucault pendulum, greets you as you enter the atrium

It is a kingdom of interactive experiments, over 400, covering astronomy, physics, chemistry, music, robotics, history and psychology over 22.000 m². It is geared to kids, but you will spot adults having a lot of fun too.

The exhibits I visited were On the Move – focussing on motion; on The Roots of Civilization exhibit looks at the development of mankind and inventions though history; the Re: generation Zone is for older kids and explores psychology, sociology, economics and biotechnology; Lightzone for those who like crime mysteries; Humans and the Environment for in-depth knowledge about humankind (the mind and body) and their relationship with the environment. 

In my three hours there I explored mirrors and their impact on light and movement, saw my name spelled in Egyptian hieroglyphics, saw a fire tornado, helped fill water and examine its effect on turbines, created 10-feet and higher soap walls using soapy water, became a DJ, conducted an orchestra, experienced an earthquake, and got my photo clicked in an astronaut suit! 

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Yep, that’s me!

My favourite exhibits were Electrobard – a robot poet, who writes and recites poems on request; the pschology section that tested my memory and observation skills – I was really bad at spotting clues at a crime scene but got full marks on the memory and song puzzles and a stairmaster that allowed me to create electricity. 

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Mirror selfies get a whole new meaning here!

There’s also an outdoor gallery, ampitheatre, labratories and a rooftop garden, which I didn’t get time to explore. Go here to view a fun video.  

Go to Copernicus if you want to experience push-the-buttons-and-see-what-happens exhibits and learn how science can actually be fun. Bonus: every exhibit is in English and Polish. 


How to get there: The centre is a five-minute walk from the Centrum Nauki Kopernik subway (metro) station; via bus it is bus no. 118, 127, 105 (Biblioteka Uniwersytecka bus stop) and bus no 185 (Metro Centrum Nauki Kopernik). 

Log on to Copernicus for more details. 

Eating my way through Vietnam

Vietnam is a food-lover’s dream. It offers variety, each region has its won specialty and some of its best food can be found on the street. My ten-day trip there left me with many happy food memories. 

PHO

It is a rich, clear broth filled with meat – mostly pork but also beef, chicken and seafood – and noodles. To flavour, there are spring onions, herbs and spices.

 My first taste of Pho was, surprisingly enough, at our last destination, Hoi An. At the Corner Homestay – a three storey bungalow, we had the option of choosing breakfast. I asked for pho (“with beef? Of course!”), while my travel companion Chandani preferred to create her own Banh Mi sandwich. There were fresh fruits because the Vietnamese clearly believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The pho was one of those comforting, homely dishes that are warm and fill you p with their homemade noodles and tender pieces of beef. 

Breakfasting like a king!

On our last night, we went to the tourist-popular Ben Thành market. There, I finished a bowl of seafood pho, filled with fresh shrimp and crab and packing a spicy punch. 

Pho is eaten with a spoon and chopsticks, a tough ask indeed

 

COM GA

A popular rice dish is Com Ga – a simple enough chicken rice dish. The rice is cooked in chicken stock and topped with fried then shredded chicken, mint and herbs. My favourite version was the one from Huong Vy Cafe (in Saigon’s District 1) – it came served in a hollowed coconut husk and had spring onions and carrots for extra crunch. 

 

WHITE ROSE (Banh Bao Vac)

Local only to Hoi An (read more, here), it is a shrimp dumpling (locals call it a cake). The steamed dumplings are all white and have many folds (petals), hence the name. They contain shrimp ground with onion, pepper, salt and with a topping of crunchy garlic. 

 

BANANA PANCAKE

In Hoi An, it is common to find street carts filled with vats of hot oil and decorated with hanging plantains. This is where they sell freshly toasted, sesame-encrusted banana pancakes. these are made by slitting a banana into two halves, covering it with pancake batter and deep frying it till golden. It’s a satisfying, if slightly sweet, breakfast on the go. 

 

VIETNAMESE SPRING ROLL (Goi Cuon)

The country’s most famous dish, these spring rolls have translucent rice paper packed with fresh greens, meat, – minced pork, shrimp or crab, and vermicelli. It is served with a bowl of lettuce and mint and peanut sauce. 

Street eats at Saigon’s night market

The fried version of spring rolls, served with a sweet chilli sauce

 

BAN XEO

This Vietnamese staple is a crispy rice flour pancake or crepe with pork, shrimp or bean sprouts. I followed Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps to find this delicacy in Saigon. The restaurant, Ban Xeo 46A, is a simple, unassuming space filled with plastic stools, an open kitchen and lots of locals (it’s hidden in a small lane and difficult to find, look for the pink church and take the lane opposite it). It is a good place to get a feel of how the locals eat. The Ban Xeo I ordered had shrimp, onions, bean sprouts and mung beans. To eat, I followed the locals, breaking up the crepe, rolling it in lettuce leaves and dunking it in the sauce. It is a mouthful and has too many veggies, to my taste. 

 

VIETNAMESE PIZZA (Bánh Tráng Nướng)

This street snack is typical to the hill station of Da Lat and is the most popualr dish in the city. It is a mix of a masala dosa and a roll. Rice paper is laid out on a grill, topped with chopped spring onions, dried shrimp, egg, cheese and fish sauce (till the egg is cooked). This is then rolled up and served with a fiery chilli sauce.  

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Bonus: Beef 

If you come from a beef-starved country like India (we eat buffalo, and these days, water buffalo), you learn to appreciet good beef on trips abroad. My beef sojourn started with a beef burger at the Burger King outside Ho Chi Minh, and I ate one beef dish everywhere else we went.

 

Notes

  • Many eating joints, even the street side ones, give you wet wipes along with your meal. These aren’t always free so always ask before using them.
  • Carry water everywhere. No place will serves free water so it is cheapest and best to buy it from street vendors or a Circle K general store.
  • Vegetarians should beware as most food contains fish sauce or dried shrimp which won’t be advertised. Check before eating.