Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Dilli Dhaba

This is almost my last post about my long ago trip to India. Just one more after this about Mumbai and then we’re all done.

No trip to India is complete without a gastronomic roundabout of ones favourite foods and eateries. With so little time and so much to eat its difficult making choices – the only decisive one was that this time I would not eat any meals at home as my mum was working too hard to cook me my favourite meals and I would have had to put up with our dreadful cooks meals. A lot of my meals were decided by the friends I was out with: “our favourite restaurant is..”, “dying to eat so-and-so cuisine”, “lets try this new place”, etc. You get the drift.

Places I ate at:

Corriander Leaf, Gurgaon:
Favourite eatery of my cousin Mandy and her family. Lunched there with them on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Claims to be Pakistani cuisine but the menu read and the food tasted much the same as north Indian. Must recommend the Dal makhni.

Flaming Mustard, Vasant Kunj:
Yummy north Indian and chinese cuisine. A lovely quiet evening with parents, cousins and niece. Endless kebabs, soft rumali roti’s and delicious chilli paneer.

Chaatwala, Anchal Plaza, Vasant Kunj: Random guy with his stand, outside some shops in Anchal plaza (which I know as ATM plaza because it seems to have every Indian bank ATM possible - all in a row), makes the best aloo tikki and puchka’s. Walloped!!! Made multiple subsequent trips – all very satisfying – the dirt and grime adds to the taste!

Ano Tai, Vasant Continental, Vasant Vihar: An evening of gourmet Chinese food with a dear friend from school and her hubby. Delicious water chestnut starter and sumptuous food in a setting to match.

Geoffreys, Ansal Plaza: After a morning of window shopping with my friend V we decided to lunch at Geoffreys. IT was absolutely empty and the service was excellent. We shared a vegetarian thai curry with rice and a vegetarian tandoori platter that had an array of kebabs and tikka’s with miniature naans. Very tasty and filling

Italic, Vasant Vihar:
This brightly lit and well decorated restaurant has taken over the place of what was a seedy nightclub/ restaurant in Vasant Vihar’s C Block market. Had dinner with my parents and cousin A & his wife P (who is more delightful everytime I see her!). Well presented entrees from an extensive menu and there was no talk at the table. My dad’s tuna on toast (had a fancier name that I no longer recall) was simply fantastic.

Swagat, Defence Colony: This is the replacement restaurant on the site of my childhood favourite Faley’s. As a child I craved their wontons and going there was considered the biggest treat. Now it’s North and South Indian food and even on Tuesday night it was packed to the gills with eager customers. Spent a great evening with two MBA buddies (now married to each other) eating a very tasty north Indian meal

TGIF, Vasant Vihar: My mum’s birthday lunch was a toss up between this and Punjabi by Nature which is also in Vasant Vihar. We had eaten so much North Indian food by then that this became the obvious choice. TGIF was once the most exclusive place to eat mainly based on its price and being a frontrunner in Mexican style food. Now it has competition at every level and its veneer of exclusivity seems to have faded. This fall from exclusivity is also evident in the general upkeep of the place (dull to say the least) and the appalling service. The food was alright, served in generous portions possibly to try and hide the mediocrity of the settings. We had a pleasant enough time although maybe Punjabi by Nature would have been a better idea.

Near East, Vasant Vihar: Not guessing that I was planning to arrive in time for her birthday two of my mums’ cousins had planned dinner at this Vasant Vihar eatery. We went along after the very exciting world record cricket chase. High on the buzz that a good game of cricket brings we ate a fusion dinner of Thai and Chinese dishes. I have to admit that the décor and ambience of the place seem confused and quite dull. The food thankfully distracts you from all these problems. It was a lovely evening with my uncles, aunt, parents and the perfect finish to my mothers’ birthday.

Olive Bar & Kitchen, Mehrauli: After a morning of exhausting window shopping in one of the ugliest Gurgaon Malls our eyes needed the restful ambience of this haveli courtyard restaurant. All the white walls and gently flowing water made for the prefect setting for lunch. Between my mum, my friend V and me we shared a simply delicious meal of vegetable risotto, stuffed bockwurst and a four cheeses pizza.

Nanking, Vasant Kunj: This is a rather fancy restaurant for such an un-fancy colony. Looking at the uninspiring shopping centre block in which Nanking occupies a few floors you would never be tempted to go in. Despite its unassuming exteriors this gem of a restaurant is perpetually full. Very simple décor and an extensive menu are the ideal combination. My parents and I enjoyed an evening of wholesome, hot Chinese food - my idea of heaven!

Passion my cup of Tea, Vasant Vihar: I know I know you can get chai at any corner roadside shop so what’s all the fuss about. This is not really their competition. This is the new concept of a tea bar, beating an unknown path in competition with the various coffee chains that have popped up in every part of Delhi. The first of its kind in the capital it has won a few awards and is being much talked about. Went along to see what the fuss was all about. Warm sunshine through the glass walls of the tea shop helped. They had quite a varied selection of teas on offer and each of us chose something different. All 3 choices were excellent. It was a pleasant change from the nauseatingly similar coffee shops. I guess that will only last till it becomes a nauseating chain all its own!
Any meals not accounted for were at the chaatwala. My stomach was in seventh heaven.

I am not enamoured by Indians who live abroad for a few years and then go back and behave like tourists visiting a country for the first time. I agree that our immunity changes and becomes lower abroad. I think thats mainly due to a combination of factors like a stricter hygiene standard in restaurants and less spicy foods - in India we build up higher immunties to help us weather all that comes our way. I admit that it’s likely for returning desi’s to fall ill the first few days due to a change in style of food or the water. I agree the pollution levels are different and that the traffic can drive you to insanity. I agree that the sheer volume of the city and extreme temperatures can be loud and stinging. But I also think that the body has enough resilience to deal with all these things. We were after all born and brought up there. No matter after how long you go back you body will readjust itself to the rhythm of that life – in a few hours or a few days. I think that it’s better to be brave and enjoy all the delicacies you can’t get abroad. A few tablets, some good sunscreen and care with drinking water will take care of any serious illnesses. I had a brilliant time – food wise it was everything I hoped for. I ate in lots of different and new places. The taste that the Indian atmosphere adds to the food is different – everything tastes special. Things are spicier than you remember them, sweeter than you though possible and tastier than you dreamed of. This is the food of my country and I hope I am never afraid to go out and eat when I am back in India. I hope you aren't either.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Warning: Another long post.

Credit: Post title is a word stolen from Marginalien

I left Heathrow on a rainy day. The skies had been grey and overcast for days and the drizzly Chinese torture water droplets were more a heavy mist than actual rain. The continuous ‘mist’ had left my spirits dampened – why couldn’t the skies open up and the rain fall in sheets – avoiding the endless mist and clearing the skies in quick time. My conversation with my father in Delhi while we waited impatiently for the crew to arrive was mainly about whether my mum suspected anything and what the weather was like. He assured me that my mum had no clue and that the sun was shining, “afternoons a bit too hot, but the evenings are lovely and cool”. Spirits lifted and we were on our hilarious way.

Of course, as with most things in my life, Murphy’s Law applies to trips back home. Our flight landed at Indira Gandhi International at 3am in pouring rain. A covered walkway took us to the carpark and the smell of the wet ground too me back in time. I have to admit here that the smell of rain on mitti is one of the nicest but I was so looking forward to clear skies that I did not really enjoy this as much as I should have.

My first 4 days in Delhi – the Friday to Tuesday preceding Holi on the 15th of March – were wet wet wet with the exception of Sunday. All good because Sunday was my mum’s birthday and I got into the whole rain thing within 15 minutes. I loved watching the big fat raindrops pelt everything in sight, the skies turn black-blue with threads of silver lining running through and the tremendous boom of thunder.

Despite the initially torrents of rain I went out each and everyday (and thankfully the last four days were bright and sunny). Neither mum nor dad could take time off from work so I spent my days trawling the city with a dear friend (who is also V’s sister-in-laws sister), my mums trusty driver and our dinky Maruti 800. The first thing I noticed was the increased number of cars on the road. Where once the shiny Maruti 800’s threatened to dwarf the mighty white ambassador, today the maruti is outnumbered by a huge range of newer, bigger, more powerful cars. In fact the number of cars has increased so substantially (even since my last trip in July last year) that pedestrian sidewalks within suburban colonies are overrun by 2nd and 3rd cars that every family seems to ‘need’. My parents have neighbours who have 4 cars for two adults and two children – unhealthy display of wealth or necessity to ferry each member of the family to a different destination simultaneously? Hmmm.

The endless flyovers that circle Ring Road make driving smoother but the huge population of cars will soon make even those mighty constructions congested. Braving the crowds we went to a few of the Malls in Gurgaon on what is jokingly known as Mall Road. Nobody seemed to know its real name. It’s end to end Malls with the gaps between being overrun by construction sites that you can just see will turn out to be hideous buildings. It’s as if all architectural principles and aesthetic design have been abandoned to the whims of insane builders. So the road is basically a higgledy piggledy of buildings competing for the ‘most ugly mall‘ title. Walked around two of the bigger malls and admired all the ‘firang’ shops such as Tommy Hilfiger. Couldn’t see many people buying things although browsing seemed a popular sport. Large groups of quite young teens roamed the malls in groups wearing scant clothes, high heels and toting mobile phones while deciding which horribly expensive restaurant they were going to lunch at. Do their parents know where they are?

Another day we walked around Ansal Plaza, just window shopping. I could not find anything tempting enough to buy and carry back. Connaught Place was a day well spent, looking at the emporia on Baba Kharak Singh Marg and generally enjoying the buzz that it brings. Bought loads of small gifts for people (and subsequently left the whole lot behind by mistake!).

Lajpat Nagar was the best shopping experience because I managed to buy some beautiful cloth to give for bespoke stitching. Also window shopped the beautiful furnishings and small stuff that is available in the maze of shops that gets me hopelessly lost. Everything from bobby pins to rubber bands to garbage bags by the kilo to flowing tissue curtains. Looked at the mounds of namkeen and mithai at the halwai’s dukan with longing and ate a few shakar para’s for good measure.

The main day, and decidedly the best, was the 12th. It was my mum and the Niks birthday. Niks being baby brother who my father claims as the renewable birthday gift he gave my mother 24 years ago. The Niks was in Bristol and it was because he decided not to come to London to celebrate that I decided to surprise my mum at the last minute. Anyway back to the day. As a special favour the weather gods gave us a break in the rain. A bright sunny Sunday and we made a slow start. Got to Vasant Vihar in time for lunch and ate enormous portions of food at TGIF. Then spent an hour at Om Book shop buying 10 books for my mum and 5 for myself. An afternoon cup of tea in the sun while fawning over the books and chatting about life in London and Delhi. All dressed up for the evening and a short trip to my uncle’s house. Watched the world record chase by South Africa on big screen TV – fabulously exciting till the very last minute. Then we went to dinner with two of my mum’s cousins. A wonderful Chinese meal crowned the evening and my mum declared it had been one of her better birthdays – she now feels a young 19!

It was a short but full trip. I’m now terrified about the speed and density of traffic – being run over or squashed. On the other hand I’m over my initial (and utterly irrational) fear of ceiling fans. Short explanation: There was a year between moving to London and my first trip back to India. And with no ceiling fans in London (infact little need for any sort of fan) I was terrified that the whirling ceiling fan would unhinge and fall on me while I slept. Completely ridiculous notion that had me cringing in the corner of the bed closest the walls and with the fan on its slowest strength so in case it did come down it would be slow and cause less damage). All done with now. Thankfully.

The memories I have brought back from Delhi this time are very simple: Spent a lot of quality time sitting around and yacking with my parents, did a minimum of socialising (if you are reading this and I did meet you YAY; if not then I am sorry), spent a lot of time sitting in the car, gazing at endless shop windows, did almost no actual shopping, and ate nearly every meal out (that’s the topic of my next post!).

My time in my beloved city was simple and joyful. The urgency of my initial visits from London seems to have dissipated. I seem to have found other ways (beside retail therapy) of dealing with my homesickness (lots of Indian authors is one way) and also seem to have made my peace with living in someone else’s country (for the moment). The need (and its required energy) of shopping till I drop and meeting every relative, friend and acquaintance ever made seems to have given way to a more relaxed holiday-taking style. I’m enjoying this new mantra.

And it is this slower pace, the more acute observations and distinctly important memories of my time in Delhi that will be my fill till my next trip.
Mitti: Ground
Firang: Foreign
Namkeen: savoury snacks
Mithai: traditional desserts or sweets
Shakar para:tasty sweet made of flour
Halwai's dukan: Shop owned by maker sweet desserts

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Let's go fly a kite, up to the highest height..........

Warning: A long post – so look away now if you have no patience!

I’ve never had an uninteresting trip on a plane. In my minds eye planes are one of the most wonderful inventions. Huge steel birds to take travellers from city to city, country to country, over the seas, through storms and clear blue skies. I don’t particularly like flying but I love the idea of planes.

The day after I wrote my tiger cub post I left for India. The plan was to surprise my mother for her birthday and then go and surprise the mum-in-law for her birthday the following week. With such short notice and to minimise the possibility of word getting to my mum I told only my dad (in Delhi), one of my brother-in-laws (in Mumbai) and my dad-in-law (in Calcutta). Risky proposition and some people needed serious bribing to keep the secret!

Anyway, BA reasonable ticket on short notice zindabaad and I was booked on a plane Delhi-bound. Full of funny people. As usual.

And of course a cheap weekday ticket means that nothing will ever be on time. Arriving early in pouring rain was at my own peril I realise while sitting along with 900 other disgruntled passengers, many of whom had bawling children under 2. Those children not bawling are attempting to destroy other peoples hand baggage, run a mini-marathon among the obstacle course of legs the standing crowd offered and draw pictures on the glass windows with spit while pointing out and repeating “plane plane plane” without coming up for breath. All while their parents feign ignorance and sit far behind making friends with other passengers. By the scheduled time of departure boarding has not even begun. The unclear announcement on the intercom informs us that the crew is stuck in traffic and is yet to arrive and take up their posts. This of course is the wrong thing to say to a hall full of people who HAD arrived on time, in the pouring rain, probably on the same roads (especially since terminal 4 at Heathrow had no tube connection). Small skirmishes with gate staff are defused by the more peaceful travellers and an American man seated in front of a spit covered window finally erupts at the crowd demanding that the mother of the 2 year old jumping over his knees be handled better. This begins another inane conversation on how Americans ‘don’t love children, use too much discipline, should let them be etc’. All this excitement is brought to a quick halt by the announcement to board as the crew have arrived.

Not that it meant we were leaving. Once seated we wait another hour because fresh glasses for the business class passengers had not been delivered (boohoo for them). We wait patiently, twiddling our thumbs and drinking juice from disposable plastic. Take off is over an hour and a half late.

Travelling by cattle class to India is never easy because the plane is packed to the rafters but the mix of people also mean there is never a dull moment. Going to Delhi means that a large part of the passengers is originally from and headed to the mighty Punjab. In pre-checking in I opted for a window seat thinking I would be able to sleep in peace. The two seats next to me are taken by the time I arrived at my row. The middle seat has an old lady who probably needed wheelchair assistance to get there and the aisle seat had her obviously doting son. With about 5 inches of space in which to ‘comfortably’ squash your knees I climb over the poor old lady. Once seated and strapped in I realise that she has turned to me and is whispering something. Out of an ingrained respect for elders I attempt to listen and it turns out she is repeating this phrase: “Mein tumhe maaroo?” (in english: Should I hit you?). Not sure how to respond I turn to the window and proceeded to look at the ant-like people below load luggage. I pray they don’t lose mine. Her son leans over, catches her hands gently and says to me: “Mind mat karma, ise ‘Dementitis’ hai” (in English: please don’t mind, she has dementia). It’s the use of the word ‘dementitis’ in place of dementia that almost had me in splits of laughter. Maybe he was trying to make it sound more official?! Anyway, I ask him if they wanted to exchange so she could be more comfortable (leaning against the window with a pillow under your head is the most comfortable way or rather the only way besides paying thousands of £ for business class of making 9 hours whiz by) and he declines leaving me trapped near the window forever. He holds his mothers hands gently and talks to her continuously. I cannot tell if she understands because for much of the flight she keep murmuring/ muttering and gesturing, trying to reach for my book and bag.

Lunch time and two sweet old ladies in the middle bank of seats refuse the food claiming they had bought their own as airline food did not suit them. So while the smell of gobhi parathas and mango pickle from a round tin waft around everyone looks on greedily while being served airplane trays of c**p. After an awful lunch of cardboard masquerading as an asian vegetarian meal, everyone in my row (and the plane actually) stands up, almost simultaneously, to queue for the loo. I take this as my chance to escape and unhinge my cramped knees from under my chin. I wander to the galley at back of the plane where there is a bit of place to stand and stretch. Only to find it was occupied by 40 other people wanting to do the same. After a time the loo queues diminish and synchronised snoring begins as people tuck themselves in for a doze in front of the dilated pixel mini-screen movies. I continue to stand at the back and am soon embroiled in a conversation with two gentlemen that went something like this:

Man1 (to both of us): Aap kahan jaa rahen hain? (in english: where are you going?)
Man2 (instant response): Harcot (I think that’s the name of the place although I can’t be sure)
Me (after a confused minute): This plane goes to Delhi
Man1: No madam I meant after arriving in Delhi
Man2: Where are you from in Punjab
Me: I’m not. I’m going to Delhi. I’m not from Punjab
Man1: Madam, aap touring karne jaa rahe hain? (in english: are you going on tour – I think he meant holiday)
Me: Yes, to my parents in Delhi
Man2: So you are from UK. Got passport?
Me: Yes from London. No passport (thinking I should have added that it was none of his blooming business, but so relieved to be standing that I thought it better to be amiable)
Man2: I am going my sisters daughters wedding. Long journey no. Birmingham to London to Delhi to Harcot. In Sumo, very fast. All direct direct no stopping.
Man1: I’m going to Jalandhar visit my family. Taking my family.
Man2: Me too. Whole family. And my parents. So you are from UK. Got passport?
Man1: yes yes many many years now. Settled in Newcastle with business.
Man2: Madam, why no passport?
Me: Ok then, bye (quick scoot away)

Back at my row the old lady is in my seat and her son is in the middle. So I am free to move around, extend my legs into the aisle. The old lady has fallen asleep and this gives her son the opportunity to down 4 beers and tell me his life story. He immigrated from Punjab to a small village just outside Milan in Italy about 13 years ago and is now successfully running a chain (read two) Indian restaurants. He’s become an Italian citizen and brought over his wife, 4 kids and mother and converted them to ‘Italian-ism’ as well. Now that his mothers’ condition has deteriorated he was taking her back to Punjab to stay with his brother and his family. Better than an old peoples home in Italy is his rationale. I also learn that I could not follow most of what the old lady was whispering because she is fluent in Italian. I also learn that his whole family had changed their surnames to an Italian sounding one – Pissarro – not realising it's a French artists name Camille Pissarro.

Little children with no clue of time zone or what to do with their bottled up energy run up and down the aisles, followed by vaguely concerned parents. Often a child stop and stares at a startled passenger, drops a toffee in someone’s hand and demands it back instantly. All the little kids seem to smile a lot and want to shake hands with absolute strangers. Innocence that many sleepy (read drunk) passengers seem unwilling to welcome. The poor harassed parents looked like they could do with a few drinks or winks of sleep.

The low resolution movie finishes and disembarkation cards get distributed. I seem to be one of only 5 people in cattle class who need the landing card for Indians. Three fourths of Punjab seems to hold that all-important red passport that classifies them as foreigners in their own country. A very young and beautiful sardarni mother in the seat across the aisle from me manages to put her bawling 2 year old to sleep after 7 hours of lung strengthening exercises. She fills in her form. Italian Punjabi next to me gives me his card to check (Why me? Do I look like someone in charge?). Sardarni aunty leans across and asks me if she should return the form to the steward. I assure her that it needs to be presented when she reaches immigration. Unbelievingly she asks the guy in the seat in front of me and when he confirms the same she looks disgusted and proceeds to ring the bell for the steward. When he arrives and assures her that we know what we are talking about she asks him to re-check it and gets very agitated when he refuses to take back the form from her. I think it’s the late hour, the constant yelling of her child and sleep deprivation that make her a disbeliever. After being convinced by a number of passengers that the immigration official would indeed want her form she proceeds to wake up her just fallen asleep child menace to get him ‘raady’ for ‘meeting his dada-dadi’.

Thankfully we land at Delhi just (and I do jest) 10 hours and 20 minutes after leaving the pouring rain grey skies of London. The only problem being we land in pouring rain and oppressing humidity. I don’t care. Immigration is shockingly quick seeing as half of Punjab is in the queue for foreign nationals. The Pissarro’s smile and Sardarni aunty scowls at me while dragging her kid through the snaking foreign nationals line. Man1 & 2 seem to have introduced their families to each other and a group of about 8 people are huddled into a loud group while an irritated immigrations official tries to get them to form a queue. How quickly the British queuing instinct disappeared! Or maybe it’s something you are born with, not something gifted with the red passport.

Suitcase arrives undamaged, I smile at customs officials and lug my way past the foreign exchange and taxi cab counters. Through the sea of people I see my dad, still in a tie at 3am having told my mum he needs to pick up a delegation to do with work. Home sweet home.

Never a dull moment or an iota of sleep - what a flight!

It’s all worth it when I see my moms jaw drop to her knees at 3.30am, woken by the opening door.

One happy birthday surprise all wrapped up.