Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A wedding day

Five years ago this day the day dawned bright and blue skied. In one Kolkata household the Groom got ready, resplendent in his wedding clothes, adorned with a smile. In a home on the other side of Kolkata the Bride was being dressed by her sister and sister-in-law, in clothes and jewels fit for a queen, her heart overjoyed by the thought of this day finally having arrived.

At mid-morning, under an exquisite pandal of bright red tube roses, they were wed. It was a morning of continued celebration as they then signed their names in affirmation of this relationship, witnessed by the smiling faces of their families and friends. An outstanding lunch left every guest wishing they could shed their finery for more comfortable stretchy clothes.

The afternoon gave guests time to recover from all that food and get ready for the evening reception of schmoozing, gift giving and renewed eating that ensued. As with all weddings the official photographer milled around, positioning people strategically, snapping away with pre-conceived ideas on how to compile the best possible album ready to commemorate the day. The Groom and his two brothers stood in front of the still fresh tube rose pandal (in the not so hot, not so cold Kolkata winter air) to have their photograph taken – interlaced with the women in their lives - the Groom gazing at his new bride, the eldest brother with his wife and the youngest brother by his own soon-to-be-bride. A photograph for posterity. A snapshot of smiling content faces.

This morning I took that framed photograph off the shelf and looked at it to help me remember. Remember the day, remember the beautiful clothes, remember the smiles, remember the moments of pure unadulterated happiness. Remember to call that Groom & his Bride to wish them a wonderful fifth anniversary. I was the bride-to-be, now the sister-in-law.

Happy Anniversary R &T!!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Weekend Whirl

Only one thing gives me the will to wake up on a Monday morning and trudge to the gym and then to work - it is the prospect of a weekend in 5 days. I know I know 5 days is awfully long and the work week does drag exhaustingly - usually bringing me to re-think my position on a Tuesday morning. Of all the days in a week I find Tuesday the hardest to get through. I question everything about my life on Tuesdays. But mostly the work week is a constant buzzing reminder of that weekend ahead.

When I worked in India we had a 5.5 day working week. And it was a joke really, as for the 5 week days we worked all the hours god sends and then some. Then on the .5th day we came in hoping to leave by 1pm and catch an afternoon matinee of the latest blockbuster and a leisurely lunch. Of course we never left before 4pm by which time there was just time to grab a slice of Domino's pizza and get ready for an evening out on the town. And that left just sad old Sunday to be the sole day of recovery before the madness began again.

Living in London I treat my weekends as a near religious experience. For the year between last April and this, when I worked only occasionally and volunteered mostly, the whole week was a bit like a boring weekend with no time demands, no rush hour traffic and no V. Now that I am back at a busy day job my 5 day week is mainly focused around what to do this weekend. The weekends are something of a luxury here – two entire days to call our own and do as we wish, mainly. The two months after moving home were a bit different (read manic) and along with any socializing we needed to buy stuff for the house, await a timetable full of deliveries and unpack and organize like at boot camp.

Usually our weekends are gentle and calm in quality and include a heavy dose of sleep. Both of us are deep sleepers and many a Saturday has passed by without us noticing much except a quick meal and the news headlines. However weekend planning is an activity I take seriously. With no immediate family or festivals to devoutly follow, the weekends are our oyster – to craft and mould into time well spent, to balance out the time it takes to de-stress with the need to be entertained, to eat with pleasure & Tabasco or discard as rotten fish. Who shall we meet? Shall we entertain? Shall we be entertained? Shall we go for yet another child’s birthday party? Shall we visit this exhibition? Where shall we eat? What should we watch?

This weekend was no different from the others. We entertained on Friday evening; making friends with our new neighbours because neighbours are important in this lonely world (my mother will be so proud). It was a relaxed evening of talking family histories and swapping stories of life. NICE nice NICE nice NICE (you gotta sing that otherwise it just looks like repetition for no good reason)

On Saturday evening we met up with a bunch of friends to bid one couple, M&A, a fond farewell as they prepare to relocate to Zurich. We met up at the Brew Wharf, which is tucked away off a little unobtrusive entrance by the side of Borough Market (Tube station: London Bridge; Tube line: Jubilee Line). Once inside the magnificent proportions of this microbrewery and restaurant stake their claim. Built under three huge railway arches this is an impressive space with along list of beers to match. Each arch houses its own specific task; thefirst of these is the bar area with some scattered seating. This leads into the second area with its big open plan kitchen and some long tables and benches. The next arch leads into what is called the Brew Hall and is essentially the main dining area. We sat under the second arch, at a big solid wood table quite close to the kitchen. The arches provide for great acoustics and the music was excellent. And while the guys enjoyed a variety of beers when the time came to order we found ourselves assigned to a rather smirky, irritated waitress. Of course part of our order got taken down wrong but over all the food was excellent. I had fish and chips, where the fish was haddock in a very light beer batter, the chips were in fact 3 halved potato wedges and the tartar sauce was a treat in itself. V had a pair of delicious fishcakes, each of which was lightly spiced and of a consistency very unlike the processed supermarket fishcakes. The space and the food more than made up for the service which got better as the evening progressed. So much so that by the time we finished our meal the waitress was smiling and asking how our meals were. Cynical me wonders if it had anything to do with the time to include a tip with our payment. At around £20 per head I will definitely go back because as an exciting ambiance and meal the Brew Wharf came out tops.

To top the night out we caught the tube one stop west and hopped off at Southwark station (Tube Line: Jubilee). In 5 short strides we entered the very swanky Baltic. The Baltic is the second in the mini-chain of Vodka Bars and restaurants and is every bit as swanky as the reviews describe it. A long long bar extends from the entrance, adorning one half of a white and muted light corridor till the actual restaurant space. And what a space it is! It must have been our night for magnificent spaces because the cavernous restaurant took my breath away. Large and airy, with great big beams holding up a vaulted glass ceiling, the space shimmered over the candlelit tables and amber(?) chandelier. And although we didn’t sit in any of the little alcoves and sip vodka, I walked rather slowly to and from the restrooms just to gape at the space and imbibe some of its ambience. We sat near the bar, around a small metal table appropriately lined with alcohol: 2 different types of Vodka’s (of a list of 35 would you believe), 2 different whisky’s (one of which was called the Monkey’s Shoulder much to my amusement) and 1 still water (that was for boring ol’ me). I read the compact bar menu and then the main menu with some delight. Baltic offers an eclectic menu of Eastern European food, from Uzbekistan to Poland, Moldavia to Siberia. The bar staff were a bit unhelpful and non-smiling but once again ambience wins and I shall certainly return to try out some of the food. By the time we ambled home it was past midnight and the only way to calm myself down was by watching ‘Criminal Intent’ on Hallmark (which is fast becoming my favorite cable channel for showing constant CSI type serials).

I had planned to go and look at an exhibition at mid-day but discovered in time that the space was shut on Sundays. So I called and cancelled that appointment to meet friends and instead enjoyed a late-ish brunch with V at our steady favourite, Tootsies. Then V went off to sit at his laptop and simultaneously work and watch reruns of the Natwest win instead of the washed out match. I traipsed across town to attend the 1st birthday of young Z where I was repeatedly asked if I had a ‘little one’. The first time my reflex was ‘little what?’. But then I got used to it. As I had to continuously reply in the negative and endure stares of disbelief that I would be invited let alone bother to show up, I indulged in some brilliant Tallegio with cream crackers. I got home exhausted from watching a roomful of youth and innocence run around screaming and eating and talking and singing. Seeing as I regularly get invited to kids birthday parties I’m coming around to the view that I must have the patience of a saint. Or the thick skin of a Rhinoceros.

It’s Monday again and in 5 days the weekend begins all over again. Hmmm. What shall we do this time?

Brew Wharf: Brew Wharf Yard, Stoney Street, London SE1 9AD
Baltic Bar & Retsaurant: 74 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA

Thursday, November 16, 2006

All I think about is food

Food is a big part of my life and an even bigger part of holidays in India. While I live in London I spend an unholy amount of time thinking of what is being eaten at home and what are the new places to eat out when I am next in India. Food is a big part of my life and an even bigger part of holidays in India. As soon as a holiday is confirmed I begin to rifle through the rolodex in my brain and create a mental post-it note with two main columns: what shall I eat at home and where shall we go out to eat. And in the run up to the holiday I spend all my time thinking about the meals to be eaten, conjuring up images of magnificent plates of food. This is why I am fat.

Last time I was in India I never ate at home. I was rarely up in time to have anything more meaningful than toast as my breakfast. I intensely disliked the cooking of my parents cook who made the same pyaaz-tamatar gravy for everything. His main cooking path every morning was the same. He would make ‘oil with some onion tomato’ base and then proceeded to dump whatever vegetable had been requested of him to make. So I ate lunch out and I ate dinner out.

This time was a bit different. Said cook is no longer in my parents employ for a variety of reasons (one of them being the food floating in oil). And although we ate out a fair amount I ended up eating some very tasty meals at home. My nani is a fantastic chef, and all her food is cooked with a healthy combination of painstaking effort, love and wizardry. My favourite bit was the divine stuffed Karela’s, all wrapped up in string. And my mum made me her heavenly kofta curry twice (yes TWICE) in the span of 6 days. So meals eaten at home were few but delightful, each one of them.

As for eating out where shall I begin? Possibly the most efficient method is to list down where I ate and what it was like.

Flavours: Moolchand Flyover Complex, Defence Colony, New Delhi
Flavours opened when I was in High school (yes I’m that old!). It was a small, higgledy-piggledy hole-in-the-wall place more than a restaurant in the true sense. It was run by an Italian guy who often did the cooking all by himself. He walked around the little tables-that-wouldn’t-balance and talked to us politely. It was my first experience of how schmoozing worked – if we liked it we would recommend it to our friends at school, parents and so on. I rarely had any money and a lunch at Flavours was both affordable and a treat all rolled in one. It served steaming hot generous portions of authentic Italian fare long before we could afford the likes of La Piazza (@the Hyat). The schmoozing worked and the fabulous lasagna soon became a favorite of my father.

This time, after my morning of silver shopping with my best friend, we decided on having lunch at Flavour, to reminisce and eat some wholesome Italian food. My parents joined us and I could tell that my father had been dreaming of nothing but that mean lasagna.

What a disappointment! Flavours has expanded into a full fledged restaurant, taking in the space next to its original tiny home. No sign of Italian man, just lots of thin women running around like headless chickens. It has ugly wrought iron furniture and a cold cold ambiance. The menu is almost as long as before but reads quite badly. And the food was disappointing in everyway – bland, luke warm small portions and terribly rude service to match. The false ceiling had huge damp patches and the only redeeming feature was the fact that the air-conditioning worked. It was not redeeming enough. The four of us talked and laughed through lunch so on that count it was a success. But Flavours is anything but flavoursome now and I do not think I will be going back.

And since they no longer make lasagna my dad certainly won’t be going back!

Wengers: A-16, Inner circle, Connaught Place, New Delhi - 110001
My earliest memories of Wengers involve my father giving the Nik and I a lecture on its status as a near sacred institution and how we were never to go past Connaught Place without bringing him back a chicken patty. In my younger days we’d buy our patty or kebab and go around the corner to Keventers, another institution since well before I was the apple of my fathers eye, and eat our Wengers treasure with a cold coffee or chocolate milk from a big glass bottle. Down the years my family and I have bought enough chicken patties and shami kebabs to have single handedly paid for their renovation to a slicker new look Wengers. A few years ago they underwent a makeover and have made their limited space look slicker and more efficient. They did keep to their original space though and have not done what the greedier would do by expanding. They still have two counters, opposite one another, the one on the left has savouries (our beloved chicken patties, shammi kebabs and my new found love, paneer roll) and the one on the right has bakery items (my mum is partial to the English donut). You point out what you want and one of the guys behind the counter types it into a machine and gives you a slip. You then go to the payment counter, pay and collect a paid slip, come back to the original counter and collect your stuff. And no matter how many people throng the place they follow a particular pace and yes, stuff does run out if you go in too late in the evening - so go early.

This time my parents, the Nik, his girl and I were careening around Delhi looking for a car showroom. Having been unable to find anything that suited the purpose we decided our time would be better spent at Wengers so we rocked up to it on a sweltering Delhi afternoon. Armed with enough patties and shammi kebabs to feed a small army we went around the corner, downed our Keventer’s cold coffee and took home the patties for tea time. Through all its transformations Wengers has maintained its great oldie-worldly feel and continues to produce world class patties that would put any other to shame. There is nothing quite like it anywhere and it always makes my trip to Delhi special. My father is so right on this one.

Golden Dragon: C-Block Marekt, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi
I love Indian Chinese food. Most people just don’t get it, why would we want to eat chilli chicken, paneer schezuan, hakka noodles and hot & sour soup? For me it is the ultimate fusion food – Chinese, with their noodles and semi-glutinous sauces, and Indian spices. Golden Dragon has been home to excellent Chinese food for the longest time and V & I have eaten there innumerable times. Originally we went for proximity, subsequently we went for the fantastic array of dishes they produce and serve in a cosy space. This time a whole large platoon of people went along and we ordered enough food to feed a small country. My nani had the best time of all – enjoying the king prawns and crab to her hearts content. Chinese food fills you up really fast and we ended up packing our leftovers (duly consumed the next day) and groaning our way home. For the laughter, ambiance and food, this one always gets a thumbs up!

Café Coffee Day: All over the place
I would normally not mention a chain of coffee shops that is springing up like Starbucks in every corner of the city. Mainly because I am not a big fan of Starbucks or its so-called Fairtrade image but that is the content of a whole other post. After our very heavy Chinese dinner we decided to wash down the food with a break in our local Café Coffee Day. So sofa’s and great big glasses of cold coffee were ordered. Some pigged out on big chocolate desserts. Others just sipped their coffees. Everyone talked. At. The. Same. Time. And yet everyone could follow all the converstions. It’s an Art. CCD, as the wise Nik calls it, made for the perfect end to a wonderful family evening.

Angeethi Bar-B-Que: Asiad Games Village, Siri Fort Road, New Delhi. Tel: +91 11 6493 995
Situated in the Asiad Games/ Sir Fort complex this is a newer addition to the slew of restaurants that populate this compact. Angeethi is the Tandoori arm of the Indian restaurant (which has changed name numerous times so don’t ask) and is housed in a little circular building with the Tandoor outside. We spent an evening there with my whole family and some old friends of V’s and mine. The food was standard tandoori fare, and once again we went home full and satisfied.

1911: The Imperial, Janpath, New Delhi – 110001. Ph: +91 11 2334 1234
I’m a serious club sandwich and cold coffee person. Allow me to explain. When I’m in India my own special joy and delight is going to a five star coffee shop to indulge in this combination. I judge every hotel by the quality of the coffee shop fare. And this trip was to be no different. Built to fit Lutyens scheme of Central Delhi in 1936 this Raj styled hotel fell upon bad times. After undergoing an extensive renovation a few years ago this once tired signet of a hotel transformed into a breath-takingly beautiful swan. Now it is an enchanting hotel from the first step into the marble foyer to the numerous themed restaurants. Its colonial bearings are brought to the forefront with attention to detail and wonderful artwork and photographs. We had a late lunch on the verandah of the 1911 coffee shop, which overlooks a well manicured lawn - a refreshing oasis in concrete Delhi. The club sandwich was just above average but the cold coffee was superlative. It was a long and leisurely afternoon as a friend of mine joined us and we yacked for India, about everything – from our good old college days to the very present world we live in. Basically, lots of gossip. I love the Imperial more each time I visit it.

We ate at a whole lot more places but these stood out in my estimation. I came away well fed and delighted by my forays into Delhi’s gastronomic delights. I was in for more on the next leg of my journey. Wait for it.

Tamatar: Tomato
Nani: Maternal grandmother
Karela: Indian bitter gourd

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Delhi one

When asked where I am from I usually describe myself as a Delhi-ite. I spent the better part of my growing up years in Delhi. School and then later on a few years of work and an MBA. I missed out on the whole college scene though, no U-special for me. And at some level I regret that.

But this post is not about regrets. It is about joy. That is the joy I feel every time I land at Indira Gandhi International. I try and elongate my neck and lean across the people sitting in the window and middle seats just to catch that first glimpse of a brightly lit city by night. And there is a tear in my eye. Although this time (and almost every time seeing as I have such as rubbish record with good flights) I suspect the tear was partly from relief of escaping all the crazed passengers with me.

The sight of my beaming parents’ faces and tight hugs reminds me how much I miss them and how far apart we now live. And I am so glad to be in Delhi.

I had only seven days in Delhi so I had to make the most of every minute.

So instead of boring you with the details I’ve made a list of highlights:

1. First things first. Food is always my focus when I am in India and I wanted to make sure that I could eat out wherever whenever and not fall ill. So the first order of the day was to buy mineral water. Lots of advice from people about which Mineral water to buy and finally it came down to Himalaya and Evian. Sorted.

2. Our family is a bit like a pod and it was a bit of a grand reunion for all us peas. We all arrived on different flights at different times but by the end of it we had my dad back from his travels, the Nik from Chennai and V & I from London. The additional bonus was seeing my utterly elegant grandmother who is staying with my parents for the moment. And of course there was my ever patient mother mothering her family till at least I felt wrapped up in a precious shawl.

3. I did the smart and very Indian thing and carried samples of my cushion covers. I spent an inordinate amount of time in Fabindia buying upholstery material (very grown up!) and then thanks to my mum’s skill of organizing stuff I gave all 30 meters of cloth to the ‘masterji’ who proceeded to churn out 14 very large cushion covers in record time. Now that I am back the new covers are one and it all looks very nice thank you!

4. I spent a lovely morning with my best buddy from school. We sat on the floor of a silver shop and bought our weight in jewelry. I don’t see nearly enough of her and it was a wonderful morning, talking about this that nothing something life death.

5. Two things with Nik deserve mention in the same point. One, I finally got to meet the girlfriend. And she is lovely. Second, we had a mad afternoon careening around Delhi looking for a car showroom. We were trying to convince my parents that their car needed an upgrade and so the plan was to visit a few showrooms and look at some options. We drove all the way to Connaught Place stopping at Green Park and various other places we thought there might be showrooms. As it turned out we found none. They have all relocated from the houses converted to showrooms that populated the outskirts of colonies. We ended up eating chicken patties and shami kebabs at Wengers and drinking cold coffee at Keventers. So it was certainly not an afternoon wasted. And ironically we did find car showrooms in the most unexpected quarter – just down the road from our house - so we need not have traveled that whole distance. It was a lovely afternoon though, loads of talking at the same time. And even after all these years Wengers rocks!!

6. One of my classmates from college (let’s call him Rabbit) got engaged while I was in town. He is the last of us lot to be getting hitched. Not unusual as he has always been late for everything as far back as I can remember – late for class, late for meals, late for movies, late for life. And his is not the rushing-around-in-mad-panic kind of late. It’s the Oh-life-is-too-damn-hectic/laid-back/short/long-to-be-rushing-around kind of late. And despite having missed whole days in life (lost to sleep) Rabbit is one of the nicest people I know. His niceness makes up for his lateness. And I don’t say that lightly or just for anyone (I intensely dislike unpunctual people). Anyway, his engagement was great fun. All my classmates were joking with the bride-to-be about how long it must have taken her to snag him, and how did she ever manage to get him to come to the engagement on time. It was a fun fun fun evening – and everyone came to the conclusion that even 10 years after we left college it all seems like just yesterday that we were all living in each others pockets. We also found everything utterly amusing and by the time we went home both my jaw and stomach were aching from all that laughter.

7. Now that I no longer live in Delhi everyone treats me a bit like a firangi (foreigner). Don’t eat this. Don’t drink that. Don’t go there. Sit in air-conditioning lest you melt. Well I have the constitution of iron woman and ate everything I could. Food wise my only concession was the water. I traveled in an auto (only the once and much against everyone’s wishes) and reached home alive and on a direct route. Come on people I’m not going to lose the way – I have lived here like forever.

8. Delhi, Lutyens bit, is beautiful. Tree-lined wide avenues and pavements. India gate. Rashtrapati bhavan. Flanking either end of a long stretch. And no matter how many times I see it I am amazed by the network of flyovers. The AIIMS one is just a piece of art. And Connaught place is ultra organized, much easier to walk, park and generally looking cleaner and neater than I can ever remember it being. The metro seems to be functioning to everyones advantage. I had no chance to get on it – I’ve promised myself that next time I shall. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I love Delhi.

9. The weather was just genius. Bright sunshine and hot days. The only firangi thing about me is that I now actively seek the sunshine. Where earlier I would have loved to sit in air-conditioned comfort this time I enjoyed the sun. And then the night before I left it rained and I woke up to one of my favourite smells in the world – geeli mitti ki khushboo (the smell of wet earth). It was the perfect end to a perfectly formed holiday.

I wouldn’t have had it any other way.