Walking the streets of St. Petersburg, on Restaurant Day

Under the facade of its cold, gray skies and the uniformly stoic pre-Soviet era buildings, St. Petersburg (SPb) is at least not uptight. There is an air of conviviality as summer has melted away the grim cold winters. It is also after all brimming with enthusiastic people who prove their ability in cooking up gastronomically diverse cuisine by putting up stalls to sell home-cooked food.  I got to see this on display on the Restaurant Day on 16th August, quite the day I landed in SPb.

Crowd milling in front of a food truck
Crowd milling in front of a food truck
A couple sharing a moment during business
A couple sharing a moment during business
An Isreli chicken wrap - Sabich
An Isreli chicken wrap – Sabich

With not much excitement going on in Russian cuisine, the citizens have quickly looked elsewhere bringing in a host of dishes from outside the country, thus making the food scene more exciting. Sure, their beef stroganoff is a killer so is their sorrel soup, but there isn’t much of a diversity because vegetables or pulses are not available in Russia throughout the year owing to the harsh climate.

My buckwheat is better than any other
My buckwheat is better than any other
Georgian food, anyone
Georgian food, anyone

I found stalls, hidden in the alleyways, in front of its ornate, ancient Churches and in old industrial godowns converted into art projects selling Israeli, Mexican, Indian, American (read burgers) and Italian cuisine. Sure, nobody makes money out of this venture because it is a one-day affair. But it provides a platform for closet cooks and people who nurture the dream of opening a restaurant into affordable reality for a day.

Taste my homemade jam
Taste my homemade jam
Homebrewed beer
Homebrewed beer

Restaurant Day has a website and its About page reads thus: “Restaurant Day is a food carnival created by thousands of people organizing and visiting one-day restaurants worldwide. The idea of the day is to have fun, share new food experiences and enjoy our common living environments together. The event is facilitated by a team of volunteers who also maintain this website. All restaurateurs are personally responsible for all actions related to running their restaurants.”

Purple macaroons are 50 rubles each
Purple macaroons are 50 rubles each
Russian pancakes
Russian pancakes

There was home-brewed vodka in flavors of horseradish, orange and various spices. There was even home-made beer and buckwheat ice cream. And vegan is big here in Russia, as I hear. So is India. Each venue had at least one Indian themed stall that sold vegetarian food. One was even called Saregama, though the owner had not much of an idea what it meant other than that it is a name resonates with the idea of India.

Two girls channeling their Indian elements
Two girls channeling their Indian elements
Vegan brownie with banana, avacado et al
Vegan brownie with banana, avacado et al
More Indianness
More Indianness
Happy customers
Happy customers

And I met Big Lebowski. He is now grilling batches of spring onions wrapped in bacon strips at a food stall with his partner. Quite a domestic life, you might think. But the man’s drama of grilling with flair elicited a lot of responses from the patrons and he posed happily between his job for pictures, his black bathrobe whipped by the cold breeze.

Big Lebowski
Big Lebowski

Do you know of a famous Russian dish that I should try? Leave a comment and let me know.

For the love of chocolate – inside a Swiss chocolate factory

The last time I was taken to a chocolate factory, I ate myself sick and drew little more than disapproving glances from my mother. But I was also ten at that time and didn’t know Lotte from Lindt. The availability of unlimited chocolates was all that mattered and my ten year old tummy was taut from eating so much that I had to forget anymore chocolates for at least six months after that.

Packed chocolates being stacked
Packed chocolates being stacked

More than two decades later, as I stood before Mrs. Devitore – whose coffee brown eyes and broad smile strangely reminded me of my mother – in southern Switzerland’s Giubiasco, I knew this was going to be a different experience. I was at the production facility of Chocolat Stella for a guided tour. Stella has been innovating on chocolates since its inception in 1928 and is attributed to developing Switzerland’s first sugar free chocolate in 1960 and bringing out fair-trade, organic chocolates in 1991.

Julia churning cocoa utter
Julia churning cocoa butter

There is perhaps something oxymoronic about the fact that Switzerland produces the world’s best chocolates without even being blessed with the basic ingredients – cocoa beans and sugar.  Though, pardoning the cliché, if you consider happiness among the ingredients, the Swiss have plenty of it. In fact, just recently the 2015 World Happiness Report by the UN ranked Switzerland as the happiest country in the world.

A visitor makes her own chocolate
A visitor makes her own chocolate

“We might not have all the ingredients but Swiss chocolate is known all over the world because we have learnt the secrets of making chocolate from our neighbours,” says Devitore. When she says neighbours, she means Spain, France, Austria and Italy where chocolate was introduced and gained prominence in the 16th century. Eventually, chocolate making arrived in Switzerland in 1819 when François-Louis Cailler started his Cailler chocolate company also considered the oldest Swiss chocolate brand still in existence (owned by Nestle now). Chocolate has evolved since then. The ancient chocolate was a drink – far unexciting from its varied forms known today. By now, I am inside the chocolate making facility, dressed in diaphanous lab suit covering head to toe complete with a cap to adhere to the quality standards. My shoes, wrapped in shoe covers, scraping the green concrete floor, I trail Devitore as she walks me along the hulking machines in stainless steel. A sense of foreboding takes me over as I feel diminutive alongside these giant metallic monsters churning to produce the world’s favourite food product.

Chocolate bars ready for packaging
Chocolate bars ready for packaging

We witness the churning of cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder to make white chocolate. The giant churner, fed with the mixture, clamps shut with the 350 kg mix and revolves with a grunt. We take a peek, the yellow mass turns into soft butter consistency. Julia Berna, the baby faced intern, wears her blue gloves, ready to check the churned butter. Temperature is checked, 35­oC, and the mass is sent for further processing to smoothen the mixture.

A handful of chocolate
A handful of chocolate

I ask Julia if she likes chocolates. Does she ever get bored of them since she works with them all day? It is like asking a teller if he ever gets bored of currency. “Of course not.” she says with an expression that probably meant, “are you nuts?” The Swiss like Julia are what make the country the biggest consumers of chocolates in the world with average per capital consumption of 9kg a year.

A display of chocolate bars
A display of chocolate bars

I am now asked to make my own chocolate. A vessel of liquid chocolate sits next to a tray onto which I pour the chocolate, its ladle dripping the dark brown liquid onto its sides. I further embellish my bar with quinoa and almonds. After the decoration is done, the chocolate goes into the freezer. Among the other parts of the world including Central America, South America, Africa and Indonesia, Stella also works with cocoa producers in Kerala, India sourcing cocoa beans. Beans are harvested, dried in plantain leaves and pressed to extract butter before they are sent to the production facility in Switzerland.

Chocolate being made by visitors
Chocolate being made by visitors

We arrive at the packaging plant where I see men and women in lab coats and blue caps busy stacking freshly packed chocolate bars jumping out of the machine into cartons. Occasionally they pop a square or two into their mouths. Stacking chocolate bars in cartons can’t be exciting, surely. It must be the prospect of working with chocolate and often consume as and when desired that keeps them going, I imagine. Stella’s specialty is custom made chocolates. “If you need any specific flavour combinations, we will be able to deliver that,” Devitore had said earlier. As I walked towards the exit, on a table, a spread of chocolate varieties greet me – custom made chocolates for clients with agave nectar, camel milk, blue potato chips, baobab.

A display of chocolates at Stella
A display of chocolate bars at Stella

I taste each one of them, not without recollection of my earlier chocolate factory visit. After all, who can get enough of chocolates? But as the trip ended, I leave a little tummy space for the chocolate I made and would take home with me – a large bar with a star (Stella) in the middle, sprinkled with quinoa and roasted almonds. A version of this appeared in The New Indian Express and can be viewed here.

Mohinga and more – Myanmar’s streetfood

On the first day of my month-long trip across Myanmar, I walked across the insanely crowded road in front of my airbnb accommodation to a tiny restaurant that had all of three tables. The slender, fine-boned woman that owned / managed the restaurant did not speak any English. Nor did the rest of her family. Their laminated one-page menu had the names of the dishes in Burmese, transliterated into English. Trying to figure out what was what I quickly realized it was a lost cause altogether.

If I were to eat anything at all, I would have to go with the ‘chef’s choice.’ And I did. What arrived was Shan khauk swè – a simple hand-tossed noodle salad served with a side of pickled vegetables and a bowl of clear soup. The rice noodles were spiced with pickled sour mustard leaves (some of which I brought home from a local Burmese market) and mixed with peanuts, garlic, chilli and garnished with shredded chicken. I wash it down with a tall glass of avacado milk shake.

A noodle salad at Mt. Popa, Myanmar
A noodle salad at Mt. Popa, Myanmar

In Yangon’s streets, women squat in tiny stools in blue and red with their wares spread out in front of them – various types of noodles cooked and piled under a mosquito net to ward off the flies along with a range of spices and condiments in plastic containers. Not phenomenally different from Indian, Burmese cuisine offers simple yet delicious flavors, infused with local ingredients.

A woman selling food on the streets of Yangon
A woman selling food on the streets of Yangon

Mohinga is Myanmar’s favorite dish. Eating Mohinga for the first time can be intimidating at first, even uninspiring. The entire broth is muddy in color and the crackers smashed into it form the garnish that this dish could do without. The broth itself is very fishy. But Mohinga grows on you, like the theories about street food go elsewhere it is inexpensive and affordable. And Myanmar slurps it by bowls after bowls every morning paying little regard to the prevailing warm weather (Yangon’s humidity levels can sometimes put Chennai to shame). The sellers run out of Mohinga in a couple of hours into the morning hours of their business.

Mo Lembya, deep fried balls of fermented rice
Mo Lembya, deep fried balls made with fermented rice batter

Soon enough, I ate the famous Burmese green tea salad – Lahpet. Pickled green tea leaves are tossed with crunchy nuts, tomato, garlic and seasoned with dried shrimp in this dish. I fell hook, line and sinker for it. Before I left Myanmar, I bought a bottle and packed it with my luggage. Sure it leaked and ruined my tee-shirt but the bottle survived the flight, I am happy to announce.

Lahpet - the green tea salad
Lahpet – the green tea salad

The Burmese set meal is a delight to order, much more than it is to eat. The extent of English usage doesn’t extend beyond ‘okay’ even in cities like Yangon. So you are left with your devices to order food and hope that what landed on your table is what you ordered in the first place. On a sunny noon, I step into the popular Feel Myanmar restaurant to order my first Burmese set meal. As soon as I sat, a plate of Burmese salad – half-cooked whole vegetables including two types of egg plant, wing beans and spinach is plunked on my table. And then this!

The Burmese set meal is a delight to order
The Burmese set meal is a delight to order

Indian influence in Myanmar cuisine is difficult to ignore. Walk along the streets of Yangon and you can pick at least a few of these similarities – a hybrid puttu-idli snack, a samosa like snack, the usage of coconut and jaggery in sweets, and a kuzhipaniyaram (made with fermented rice batter) like snack called Mo Lembya. The Myanmar Muslim restaurants serve up delicious briyanis and the dosa sold by the street side vendors in Yangon is a delightfully crispy version, albeit a bit too oily, that has a filling of cooked vegetables, peas and egg.

The Green Tomato salad
The Green Tomato salad

If I had to define the flavor of Myanmar food, Shan khauk swè  would be it. Though this dish stands proof to the Thai influences in Myanmar cuisine. The kindly woman on the roadside would take a handful of rice noodle and mix it with crushed chilles and various spices. She would use tamarind sauce a souring agent to spike up the flavor. On request, pan fried chickpea tofu squares and hard boiled eggs, cut into bite-sized pieces, are tossed into the salad.

Eating out - streets of Yangon
Eating out – streets of Yangon

What was your favorite dish when you travelled in Myanmar? Leave a comment and let me know.

Eating out in Ubud, Bali

With a wrinkle-creased face that expands and contracts whenever her bespectacled face lights up with laughter, she reminds me so much of my grandmother. Her eyes are light and almost diaphanous. She has a natural charm to cast at the visitor who saunters by gingerly to peer into the menu that is left outside on a pedestal of her modest restaurant. Naturally, it takes me exactly two minutes to fall for her disposition and in the days to come, I would frequent her Oka’s Warung almost every day. Most days for a meal and if for some reason I could not make it to a meal at her restaurant, I ensured I had one of her tiny array of desserts – especially her thin rice pancakes rolled with a filling of roasted coconut in palm jaggery. They never fail to prove that there is no better way to end a meal.

Balinese fare
Balinese fare

Oka appears to be a self-made woman much like many women in such establishments – eateries, massage centers, garment shops and shops selling trinkets and gifts – in the perpetually languid Ubud. She tells me that she quit her job at a restaurant 25 years ago to start off on her own and has been running the restaurant ever since.  Her English is rustic and my partner and I know only a smattering of Balinese and Bahasa – Indonesia. Mostly each conversation is an exercise at understanding what each other is trying to convey and not letting up until either one of us is convinced that the clear meaning is passed on.

An evening in Ubud
An evening in Ubud

Oka’s introverted husband handles the kitchen unaccompanied and he never once peeps out of his domicile even out of curiosity to see the faces of the foreigners who are chatting away with his wife despite the pressing language barrier. The restaurant has a seating capacity of 10 and I assumed Mr.Oka can manage it all by himself even if it’s a busy day.

A gorgeous sunset in Seminyak
A gorgeous sunset in Seminyak

Of all the 25 years she has been in business, Oka never thought of expansion plans for her restaurant. May be she wanted to keep it small and maintain exclusivity? When I ask her, she says she did not want anything big.

A Rama sculpture in Ubud
A Rama sculpture in Ubud
The sacred monkey forest in Ubud, Bali.
The sacred monkey forest in Ubud, Bali.

I wanted to ask her one more question, did she ever think about retiring? But I sort of knew the answer. The cobble stoned streets of Ubud never see unmanageable footfall nor does Oka have huge ambitious plans in life. With all its allure, Oka’s present life feels very much like retirement to me. I could trade it right now for my dusty, soulless urban existence. But my grandmother, on the other hand, would not have approved.

A yakshini inside the Ubud palace
                                                A yakshini inside the Ubud palace

Have you been to Ubud? Leave a comment and let me know.

Walking tours of Mumbai!

Walking tours are a great way to know a city. Walking tours of Mumbai are no exception. You get to know the city from real close quarters. The city’s character, its people and its various layers are peeled in front of your eyes as you walk along its streets. I took a few walking tours of Mumbai when I was in the city recently (some paid, some with the help of knowledgeable friends in the city that never sleeps). Here they are for you.

The Heritage Walk

Mumbai’s colonial past lends itself to a variety of interesting walking tours. I took the one that covered South Mumbai, called the Heritage Mile Walk, conducted by Raconteur Tours. An able handed guide walked me through what is called the Heritage Mile starting from CST terminus along Dadabhai Naoroji Road towards Flora Fountain and touching upon Kala Ghoda, High Court, Mumbai University Building, ending the tour at Marine Drive. There was a lot of historical information, peppered with interesting anecdotes that made the tour likable. Also, I have noticed that when you go on a guided tour – where things are explained to you – you tend to remember details more accurately for a longer duration.

CST as morning traffic chimes in
CST as morning traffic chimes in
An old house in colaba causeway
An old house in Colaba causeway
Bombay when it was a bunch of islands
Bombay when it was a bunch of islands
The BMC building opposite CST
The BMC building opposite CST
A heritage structure opposite Cafe Mondegar
A heritage structure opposite Cafe Mondegar
The Flora Fountain
The Flora Fountain

The Highest Point Trail at Sanjay Gandhi National Park

Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National park is the green lung in the Northern suburbs of the city. I enrolled for the Highest Point trek conducted by BNHS. A slightly arduous trek that went on for about 4 hours, the trek takes one to the access point from where the Tulsi, Vihar and Powai Lakes can be seen. The trail also provides panoramic view of the city. Sadly though, the day I went on the trek, Mumbai’s smog decided to play spoilsport and I only saw a blanket of smog over the city’s skyline.

The highest point trek
The highest point trek

Bandra Art Walk

The hippest neighborhood of Mumbai, Bandra is where graffiti artists come to roost. Walk along the tiny lanes off Hill road and immerse yourself in the quirky street art that decorates the peeling, flaking walls rendering them a bit of character. Add to that, the recent St+Art festival has left the walls of Bandra’s villages with interesting graffiti and wall art. Walking along the lanes and stumbling upon children indulging in wall art is also a pleasure you can rarely find anywhere else.

Artwork in Progress - Bandra
Artwork in Progress – Bandra
An age old house in bandra
An age old house in bandra
Wall Art - Bandra
Wall Art – Bandra
Street art - bandra
Street art – bandra
Bollywood Wall Art - Bandra
Bollywood Wall Art – Bandra
Wall Art - Bandra
Wall Art – Bandra

Food Walk

The Vada pav city is also synonymous with street food of its own making – the healthy Maharasthrian bakris and the sweet-savory Gujarati farsans are proof. I got to taste Aloo Vadi, Bakris, Dhoklas, Teplas, Muthiyas and many such delicacies. But it is the dying breed of Iranian restaurants that got my fancy. This Keema Ghotala (minced mutton with eggs) is so rich it could trick your system into believing that it is time for your siesta. The berry pulao (that I did not get to taste this time) at Britannia restaurant also comes highly recommended by the city’s connoisseurs.

Kheema Pao Ghotala
Kheema Pao Ghotala

Where are you headed next this year? Leave a comment and let me know.

Strolling the Crab Island – Pulau Ketam, Malaysia

The aircraft shaped ferry arrives bobbing in the water. Chinese gentlemen unload the wares – fresh catch from the island in sacks, dragged by another set of men in black containers. When I stepped inside the boat, the air smells of paint, the windows are sealed over from rust and age. The boat would take me to Pulau Ketam island, Crab Island in other words, off the coast of Klang Port. The prospect of looking out of the window having been sealed, I turn to the only other in-boat entertainment – a supremely bad B grade Hollywood thriller with Chinese subtitles about bizarre beasts and skimpily dressed blonde women.

Soon enough, the boat bobs gently and picks up. I remember the ticket counter gentleman explaining that the boat is air-conditioned. I doze off and after a couple of hours, I reach a tiny Chinese fishing village. A narrow strip of wooden walkway lined with shops on both sides sell fresh produce of vegetables, fish and groceries. Restaurants slowly wake up to the morning, elderly Chinese men sit around on concrete benches and banter. “Sir, bicycle?” a friendly Chinese girl asks. I’ll come around later, I tell her and continue walking.

Row houses on stilts face each other, women squat and wash their utensils. Tiny shrines with Chinese idols – smiling baby faced Buddhas and monks with flowing beards – are painted red and incense sticks burn in front of them. I walk to the end of the road and find a Chinese temple without doors. The pagoda like structure has dark green paint and the wooden benches are cool and inviting. Chinese workers mill about in the workshop opposite. The humidity in the air hangs heavy.

I sit around, inhaling the incense, taking notes and listening to birds screech in the mangroves. I spend the better part of the day thus and wander around some more in search of lunch. Amid the din of fiercely competitive restaurants soliciting business from tourists, I settle in a eatery and ordered Seafood Mee Hoon with a bottle of Guinness.

On return though, in the boat, this time there was a bad Chinese movie. And it was about a woman who owns a cobra for her pet. If the movie was any realistic, I think, the girl would’ve had something the Chinese consider unpalatable for a pet. I dunno, say, a dog?

Some pictures from the trip.

the dock
the dock
Houses on stilts
Houses on stilts
inside the chinese fishing village
inside the chinese fishing village
a temple on stilts
a temple on stilts
a chinese temple
a chinese temple
the village square
the village square
a chinese idol
a chinese idol
sea food mee hoon
sea food mee hoon

Have you been to the Crab Island? Leave a comment.

The sights, smells and other senses of Eid in Bangalore

Yesterday I went to Sivaji Nagar in Bangalore to experience the Eid festivities first hand. Muslims across the world culminate their month-long fasting and celebrate Eid shortly. The Beef Market area, a culinary mecca for meat-lovers, comes to life during the Eid period serving up delectable varities of chicken, beef and lamb dishes by roadside stalls. The clank of metal ladles in big, aluminum vessels containing biryani, the smoke rising up from the shashlik counters and vendors selling sweets fill the already constricted area. Locals come in hordes to break their fast, feast on the variety on offer and catch up with friends. Shops that sell clothes and other stuff are also aplenty.

Some pictures.

The mosque - all done up
The mosque – all done up
Biryani, anyone?
Biryani, anyone?
Haleem, ready to be served
Haleem, ready to be served
Haleem, in a pot
Haleem, in a pot
Meat being skewered
Meat being skewered

IMG_8025

Some chicken, anyone?
Some chicken, anyone?
Tiger bhai is ready to serve
Tiger bhai is ready to serve
Lassi, for the greasy stomach
Lassi, for the greasy stomach
Custard, lined up
Custard, lined up
Deep fried, sweet snack
Deep fried, sweet snack
Savory vermicelli
Savory vermicelli
On the rocks.
On the rocks.
Catching up.
Catching up.
Fire burning, Fire burning...
Fire burning, Fire burning…
Mosque, at a distance
Mosque, at a distance

Are you celebrating Eid in your part of the world? Leave a comment.