Archive for April, 2010

Pondy – city of steak

We werereally here for 2 things but actually Pondy has turned out to be great place to take a short break from the madness of the Tamil towns.  There’s less honking, less cars almost and a nice cool breeze coming off the sea.

And there are baguettes.  Crunchy sourdough ones filled with salad and grilled tuna.  This is the first thing I eat and it would be a great sandwich anywhere.  I feel a little bit like I’m giving in eating western food, but this is French India where the sandwiches and coffee rule, so I’m forced to indulge.

One night in and we decide to go to Satsanga, the restaurant across the street from our guesthouse, where for INR250 we can eat a fillet steak.  Honestly I wasn’t really expecting that much, a sandwich was one thing but having decent meat and someone who can cook it is another.  

But I was so wrong.  It wasn’t just good; this was one of my all time favourite steak eating moments.  I ask for rare thinking it’ll still be completely cremated, but it comes out almost bleu and so tender.  It couldn’t have been more perfect for me.  It’s actually as if I had shown them how cook it for me. 

And hand cut chips, super crisp.  Even the pepper sauce, although probably the weakest part of the meal was as good as many I’ve had in Europe.  I’ve definitely seen worse being served.  To top it off the give us half a loaf of home baked bread to mop up the plate with.  Well maybe not specifically to do that but it’s what I use mine for.

The whole time I’m sitting there though,  something is niggling at the back of my mind.  How were these animals raised?  How were they treated?  What were they fed?   So I’ve decided to set up a farm where I feed the cows banana peel and plastic bags.  I’ll let them walk around towns and tie them up at the side of the motorway to make use of the grass there.

Hey, if it works here.

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Some Tamil Temples

From Periyar down the back of the Western Ghats it’s a sharp drop onto the plains of Tamil Nadu.  And the heat becomes unbearable as soon as you get round the last hairpin bend.  The scenery changes, gone are the lush green forests of Kerala, all around as far as the eye can see are dried out rice paddies and the odd field of ginger.

But the heat is the big difference.  It means we have to hide in our rooms for a few hours in the afternoon everyday.  Luckily this isn’t a problem as most temples are shut in the afternoon, reopening around 4pm.  This is the best time of day to visit – when the sunlight is fading over the tops of the gopurams (towers) and the people inside are a lot calmer.

In Madurai everybody comes to see the Sri Meenakshi Temple dedicated to the triple breasted fish eye goddess.  It’s in the heart of the city and seems to be the focal point of life.  There are over a million people in this city and they all seem to be going to or coming from the temple.

After navigating through the security, and dropping off bags and shoes it’s a long walk round the temple outskirts to the main entrance, it’s a bit like entering a fortified city.  It gives you a good chance to look at the huge towering gopurams with all their individual gods and goddesses carved into them.  Actually it’s almost like you are forced to stand under them, to gaze in awe.

Once inside you get to see the carved columns of the main hall and the shrines dedicated to the temple Gods.  But it’s the sheer size of the place and the fact that it’s a living, breathing place of worship where people have been coming for the last 2500 years that really makes an impression on me.

In Trichy the Sri Ranganathaswamy – why can’t they have easy names, is even bigger.  This place really seems to be a self enclosed city.  People are sleeping everywhere – whole families on pilgrimages, beggars, temple priests, hawkers all fighting it out for the best spots and to get to the front to give puja to their chosen gods.

It amazes me how much of an integral part of society these places are.  In the English Cathedrals tourists out number worshipers 10 to 1 and although amazing places to visit, it’s often hard to find a feeling of spirituality.  Here you can’t get away from it its right in your face.

Sadly we didn’t make it to Tanjore, the 42c days got the better of us and I think it’s about time we had some cheese.

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No Animals Today

5.30am we got up today to make it on to the first boat trip around Periyar Lake.   Everything was quiet except the muezzin calling off in the distance, there barely a soul walking round town, just a few  at the bus stop, we never even met any autos or taxis  going the other way, but when we got there the biggest rowdiest queue you could ever hope not to find.  Where do they come from? And how can they be so excited at this time in the morning. 

Oh well so much for the peace and tranquillity of nature.  But it didn’t matter too much.  It rained last night and I know from safari in Africa that rain means no animals.  The best place to find animals is by a water source – like a lake, but if there are other places where they can get a drink then they won’t come out into the open.

The bird life is fantastic though.  I’ve decided to buy a book on Indian birds and learn a bit about them.  So maybe I’ll be able to pass on a bit of the Info.

 My only condolence for the lack of large mammals is Kumily town has a bar.  Only the second one I’ve seen in India!  And its only INR65 a beer, bargain.  Gotta go, beer’s getting warm.

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The Australian Connection

The Town of Munnar in the Western Ghats is a Little over 1400m above sea level.  This makes it a great break from the heat down on the plain.  It’s a great feeling to be cold enough at night to use a blanket and walk around in a pair of jeans, although its still pretty warm come mid day.

There’s nothing much to do here apart from admire the countryside and get hassled by rickshaw drivers offering trips up to the top of the hill.  In the end we decide that that’s what we’ll do tomorrow.

First stop is a small flower nursery and the driver says

– You want to see flowers, very nice.

– Not really, I said

Having spent the last 18 months working in St James’ park I’m a bit de-sensitised to nice flowers.  So we move on to an elephant sanctuary where Andrea pretends not to be that bothered about riding an elephant – but is really desperate to.  So we end up being carted around on top of one of these massive beasts for 30 minutes, stopping every so often so it can have a shit.

Just outside of here I’m looking at all the trees and I notice that I recognise them from somewhere, they look out of place.  So I ask the driver and He tells me

– Special Australian tree, used for ayurvedic medicine.

Straight away I know they are eucalyptus trees. Loads of them, a whole plantation. It’s a bit of a strange sight to see here in South India.  It’s big business this ayurvedic stuff so I’m sure they need a lot of trees.

We stop at a few more slightly interesting places and finally make it to top station.  We have to go a hundred metres over the border into Tamil Nadu and suddenly the road turns really bad.

– Are all the roads like this in Tamil Nadu, I ask the Driver

– No, not all, he says

I hope not, I’ll be there in a couple of days! But the views out over the tea plantations are spectacular and worth the trip. 

On the way back the driver manages to get us nearly all the way back without turning on the engine.  Pretty impressive I thought, and it’s good for the environment – or his pocket.

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Dosa Update

I had my best dosa in india sofar yesterday.  It was massive, a huge big folded crispy triangle.  I got it at SN restaurant in Munnar, so if you are a dosa lover and are passing through, give it a try.  The only bad thing was the mediocre sambar and coco chutney.  But hey, you cant have everything.

 In fact, I’m about to go back for another!

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I really like Cochin.  It reminds me of Melaka or Penang, or even Macau.  Lots of crumbling old colonial era buildings, lots of history.  The Portuguese first came here a little over 500 years ago, but before then there were Jewish settlers, Arab traders and some of the first Christian missionaries to leave the Holy Land.

A lot of people I’ve met didn’t like it though.  Most people thought it was too touristy or just not like India enough.  I don’t get this, I loved it.  Goats walking everywhere, places to relax and watch the sea, slow pace of life – even patches of clean(ish) grass to sit on.

My favourite place was the Mantancherry palace.  The Hindu Murals inside are worth going to just to see.  They remind me of the ones you find in old oriental churches or hidden in parts of gothic cathedrals.  Surely there must have been some cultural influence when the artists were commissioned to paint them.

It must be one of the only places where Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Jew all live together and prosper.  And looking at the houses there must be a lot of prosperity.

I’d tell anybody to come here, don’t be put off by the bad press!

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It’s amazing what the people here do with the Coconut Palm.  In the Backwaters of Kerala it’s the basis for their whole economy.   The husks are soaked in water for six months and then pounded to produce coir fibre for rope and boat building; The leaves are used to make shelters for animals and sometimes people; The white inside is grated for all sorts of local dishes; The sweet milk inside is drunk; and the they are also dried and pounded to extract the oil which is used for cooking and in some ayurvedic treatments.  It really is a wonder plant for the area.

Beside all this – and for me the most interesting use, the flowers are tapped to extract a sweet sap which is then fermented to produce toddy.  Toddy is the most popular alcoholic drink in the rural areas of Kerala and there are toddy shops all around.  Many of them serve food and are almost like pubs in the UK.

I was quite excited about getting to try some when I was booking a backwater canoe trip in Kollam, but the guy booking the tour told me I wouldn’t see any on the trip.  I was a little disappointed, but this changed when halfway through the trip the guide asked if we wanted to try some. ‘Yes’ was my instant answer.

So off we traipsed through the Coco Plantation to a lean to shack in the middle of some rice paddies, where a very cheery man was sitting amongst some random plastic containers.  For INR60 he filled up my water bottle with some freshly tapped Toddy, but I couldn’t drink it straight away

– Not Ready.  Drink tomorrow morning, he told me

Not really up for getting drunk first thing I asked – What about tonight

– Tonight not strong.  Tomorrow Strong, he insisted

Oh well tomorrow morning it is.  He bid us farewell by saying

– Me toddy Tapper, and beating his chest at the same time.

The toddy was a live science experiment in my hands.  It kept fizzing and lightening in colour as the sugar changed to alcohol.  I tasted the brew at various times through the process and found its flavour changing quite rapidly.  The only problem was it was warm.  I can’t drink warm beer, never mind warm coconut moonshine.  So it sat.  And next morning I couldn’t really face it, and it sat some more.  By night time when I felt like trying it again it was gone bad.  That’s the thing about toddy, it doesn’t keep.  24 hours and it’s turning to vinegar.

So my first foray into toddy didn’t go to well, but a couple of days later and I’m outside Mantancherry Palace, in Cochin, I see a sign saying ‘TODDY’.  I was a bit hesitant but I went in anyway. Inside they were selling Ice cold toddy – much more up my street.  And it was great, almost like a coconut cider, refreshing with a kind of sherbet fizz.  The barman handed me some tapioca with mustard seeds and curry leaves to try.  I’d never tried tapioca on its own but the starchy texture was a perfect accompaniment to the cold toddy.

I’m glad in the end, after hearing so much about it, that toddy is after all a fine product of the coconut palm.

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Dosa, Dosai

On the train from Kollam to Ernakulum we got chucked off our seats and ended up sitting in between the carriages.  We were waitlist number 43 and the hundreds of people getting on had all bought their tickets sometime in advance.  But at least we were only on the train for 3 hours; the three guys sitting with us by the doors were waitlist 133 and had to go all the way to Hyderabad.  30 hours on a train floor, not my idea of fun.

Turns out they are all engineering students, on a trip to visit a famous temple, and of course they wanted to practice their English.  Which is fine, I love talking to people and If I’m helping them then all the better.  So we’re talking and I tell them I’m a chef, and one of them asks me

– What’s your favourite Indian Dish?

I had to think about this one a while.  There are so many different dishes, different styles, different regions, how can you pick just one? Finally I said

– Masala Dosa

– Mine too, If you come to Hyderabad you will have the best Dosa, he replied

I’m not too sure about that but it got me thinking about all the masala dosas I’ve had in the past couple of years, In fact I’ve eaten one everyday I’ve been in India so far. 

A dosa is a big flat, crispy pancake made out of a fermented rice flour batter.  It’s usually served with coconut chutney and sambar – a light veg curry.  When it’s stuffed with potato masala it’s called a masala dosa.

My first Dosa was in Borneo, on a small island off Brunei, called Labuan.  I’d never even heard of a Masala dosa when I took a recommendation from Lonely Planet for ‘Choice Restaurant’ and had one.  It was an Epiphany, what had I been missing all these years – In fairness we don’t really have many South Indian places in Scotland.  So I went on eating dosas around Malaysia, and when I moved to London I could go to several places locally to eat them, including Woodlands restaurant, which does a whole range of dosas.

The dosas in India have been a lot more rustic than the ones in the UK or Malaysia.  They are often a little thick and not as crispy.  The potato masala inside, however has been fantastic, loads of the curry leaves they love round, lots of mustard seeds, and not too spicy – which I think is good for what is essentially a breakfast item.  The sambar has been good too.  And nobody is ever going to complain about the price.  I’ve loved every second of my dosa tour here.

But I do have to say, in my opinion. That my favourite Dosas are the ones served in a Tamil run restaurant in tooting, London, called ‘Dosa N’ Chutney’.  They are perfect in everyway -super crisp, good sambar, great filling and three types of coconut chutney, plain, red chilli and coriander.

That doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t a better dosa in India.  This is the home of dosa; surely there must be a Holy Grail, or dosa.  I’ve only just started my journey though, so I’ll just have to keep on looking till I find it.

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It took me a long time to decide which would be the best place to start my trip to India, but in the end the 20 minute taxi ride from the airport to Kovalam decided it for me.  I’d been reading lots of stuff about which place is better and thought that the only way to really decide would be to go to both – well I was in the area.  In reality both places were very nice and had things to offer everybody.  Anyway, I’ll try and sum up my own personal opinion for you;

Accommodation – Well both places have a great range of nice spots to stay.  Varkala leans more towards the budget side of things, but still has a few more good looking upmarket places.  Overall just for the sheer range of choices Kovalam wins here.

Looks- Kovalam has a nice beach, well quite nice, and the lighthouse and fishing boats add a bit of character to it, but the red cliffs of Varkala win here hands down.

Amenities – Although the cliffs really give a great look to the place they also mean a quick nip to get some water/snacks/something from the hotel just isn’t possible.  You can do all three in seconds from the beach in Kovalam.

Location – Well, as I said a 20 min cab from the airport to Kovalam ‘isn’t bad, and nice to do a day trip to Trivandrum for some bits and a visit to the Zoo.

Vibe – Varkala is all over this one.  With double story hangouts all along the cliff and plenty of places for some breakfast juice.

Food and Drink – This is something I feel very strongly about and after my fish eating days in Kovalam I was seriously let down in Varkala.  The exact same menu in each place, over priced fish, masala dosas for INR70 and all the beer was 100-110.  There seems to be more competition in Kovalam, whereas in Varkala there seems to be some price fixing scam going on.  Varkala does claw some points back for the good coffee and nice juice bar.

Overall – At the moment I’m saying Kovalam, mostly for the food factor and the quick hop from the airport.  If this was different I would choose Varkala and if I was staying longer than a week I’d definitely go there.  However they’re both great places and I’d love to go back to both.

I hope this helped somebody make up their mind, because it only made it harder to decide for me!

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Fishy Fishy!

So I finally cracked and ate some meat last night a day after moving from Kovalam to Varkala.  I just couldn’t resist the smell of the tandoori oven as I was passing one of the places on Varkala Cliff. So we had half a tandoori chicken, with naan and raita.  The whole meat on a stick – or metal skewer, thing got me again; hey everyone’s got their vices.  And it wasn’t bad, a little bit medium rare in the middle for me, but I’ve lived to tell the tale.  It’s not really meat anyway is it, not real meat.  How many people have you heard say,

– I’m a vegetarian (but I eat chicken sometimes), Pussies.

Anyway, I’ve spent the last week devoting myself to the art of eating fish, and I’ve eaten a lot.  In fact I never ate as much, and I’ve never sat thinking I can’t eat anymore after that fish meal.  Fish being expensive, portions are never on the extra large side.

So day one we ate tuna, a whole tuna. A 2lb tuna.  Head off and split down the middle and covered with a paste made with curry leaves, tomato, shallots, chill and lots of garlic, wrapped in banana leaves and baked.  Tuna is great to eat whole because the bones are like toothpicks, so you never spend ages picking through till you get a bit of fish to eat. Also we had a big chunk of blue marlin, which I’m sure is endangered – better eat them now while they’re still available then.  The fillet was grilled lightly and then covered in garlic and butter, fine for me.

Next night we decided to only order one fish, and opted for some barracuda, in a masala sauce.  Four big chunks of fish were cooked in a really dark rich sauce with loads of onion and tomato.  The great thing about this was the fish was just done, still moist and a little pink in the middle.

Tempted by the prawns we had prawn curry the next night.  Quick cooked, huge tigers, in sweet, spicy, sour, gravy. Heads still on I could suck the saucy coral right out of them.  All the curry here seems to be a bit fresher and spicier than the usual north Indian fare we get at home.  Curry leaves are also used in everything.  To go with this we had a whole tandoori grilled grouper, a big fish but most of it was head. It’s a real fatty fish, with juicy chunks of flesh all around the head, especially the cheeks for those who like to get a bit messy.

The last night in Kovalam was more of the same.  A whole tandoori snapper, which wasn’t nearly as nice as the grouper, and a butter and garlic fillet of kingfish.  The kingfish was really good, like a more delicate tuna – More moist, but the flavour not as strong.

So that’s it, my fish adventure.  The next couple of nights in Varkala the fish just didn’t look as nice so we went for the veggie curries, which were mediocre at best.  The only real complaint I could have was that the fish was always a bit overcooked, and being honest I could probably cook it better myself, but at £1.50 to £2 a portion, its probably the best fish I’ve ever had.

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