theindialog

January 5, 2010

Coffee.com

Filed under: F&B,Pondicherry — loggers @ 12:10 am

Prior to exploring a new destination, we connect with family and friends (who have been to that particular city/town) for recommendations. A family friend recommended that we visit Coffee.com, a family-run eatery in Pondicherry. She also suggested that we call the proprietor, Mr. Khursheed Anwar, well in advance to ensure that he doesn’t run out of his signature vegetarian French Onion soup and baguettes.

When we arrived at the Tousklifo Hotel, Mr. Anwar’s latest 3-room offering with a lounge cum restaurant in the form of Coffee.com, we had already consumed a pre-dinner meal at Calve, a heritage hotel. Within the first few minutes of talking to the affable Mr. Anwar, we figured that we were on the verge of taking off on an unforgettable experience with this leather engineer turned chef – an intuition of sorts, abetted by Mr. Anwar’s passionate spiel on food. Before he began preparing the soup and baguettes, he guided us to his entertainment center which is a modest basement with a 60-inch screen, a powerful surround sound system, bean bags and couches. Watching a few minutes of football in that ‘den’ was an exhilarating experience; we can only imagine what watching a cricket match or a Formula 1 race would be like!

Mr. Anwar is a leather engineer by training. His arrival in Pondicherry was as unplanned as his foray into the F&B space. As a leather manufacturing consultant, he travelled to several European and Asian nations, before converting his passion to cook, into his profession. Back in 2000, Mr. Anwar opened a coffee cum internet lounge on Mission Street with the promise of offering 2 cornerstones of life to his patrons – food & beverage and the internet. The success of that outlet compelled him to embark on his second venture in the same space, this time with an added dimension of hospitality. Thus, Hotel Touskilfo was born.

It took Mr. Anwar 15 minutes to prepare the French Onion soup and took us one sip to declare that this culinary delight would get a 6/5 on our ratings page. In fact, rating an experience such as this was a futile exercise in quantifying nirvana. The freshly prepared baguettes were perfect accompaniments. During the course of our conversation with Khursheed bhai, we learned more about his penchant for cooking and discovered ours for eating. He openly declared that “if you like good food, you are my slave.” A poignant summary of what this chef can do to you. We were scheduled to depart for Chennai the morning after, but after Mr. Anwar promised us that he would prepare his own version of Dal Bukhara – a legendary lentil preparation, we postponed our departure.

Coffee.com at Hotel Touskilfo

The next day, we (and our appetites) checked in at Hotel Touskilfo for a dal and naan lunch. Chef Anwar’s legendary craftsmanship had manifested itself into a bowl of dal prepared overnight. We simply surrendered ourselves to the most memorable lunch of our excursion. The unexpected finale came in the form of hand-made ice creams. Each of the flavors – chocolate, strawberry, coconut and kesar pista, bowled us over as we struggled to absorb the richness of each preparation (how much we hated the tradeoffs!).

The impact of Coffee.com was total and long lasting in that we struggled to accommodate normal food for the next few days. We long to go back to Pondicherry, not for the beaches or for Auroville, but to be Mr. Anwar’s slaves.

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November 19, 2009

Indore Chaat Trail

Filed under: F&B,Madhya Pradesh — loggers @ 6:23 pm

As a continuation of our culinary interests during our travels, we could not resist indulging in the chaats of Sarafa bazaar, in Indore. A maze of crowded by-lanes where even two-wheelers have trouble navigating through, this is home to jewelery stores and traders by day and mouth watering street food by night. A lot of the vendors have even trade-marked their products, so as to build their own brand.

Below is a list of the delicacies we treated ourselves to:

1) Tikiya chole with typical Indori sev on top

Tikiya chole

2) Bhutte ka khees

Bhutte ka khees

3) Garadu (with chaat masala and limbu)

Garadu

Our friendly companion on the street

Holy Cow

4) Saboodana khichdi

Khichdi

5) Gulab jamun

Gulab jamun

6) XL jalebis

Jalebi

7) Pav bhaji

8 ) Pani puri

9) Rasmalai

October 9, 2009

Calcutta’s Old World Charm

Filed under: F&B,Leisure,Politics,Transport,West Bengal — loggers @ 6:51 pm

If in Assam people are used to a lahe-lahe (slowly) culture, then West Bengal seems to run at an even more leisurely pace. Calcutta, which served as the capital of the British East India Company, felt like a city stuck in the 60s, resistant to change. For one, Ambassadors are the only taxis that are allowed to roam the streets – mainly because the Hindustan Motors plant that manufactures these cars is located in the state. Rickshaws pulled manually are still a common mode of transport around the city. The city’s tram line is the only one of its kind in India and apart from a few modern carriages that have been recently introduced, most look like they haven’t been replaced since the British left. However, one aspect of urban transportation that the city has been ahead of others is in the Metro system. We took a ride and found it very clean and punctual. The platform even had cable TV showing the latest EPL highlights.

The Ambassador Taxi in Calcutta

The Ambassador Taxi in Calcutta

Rickshaw puller

Rickshaw puller

The Calcutta Tram

The Calcutta Tram

Jute, a very lucrative cash crop and abundantly grown in Bengal, is one of the state’s largest exports. We visited the Howrah jute mill, which was set up during the British time and subsequently purchased by a Marwari businessman. The mill was large, producing 130 tons of jute every day and employing hundreds of workers. However, the machines and processes being used seemed ancient, as if no changes had taken place in the last 6 decades. Dust and dirt filled the air around us and the environment seemed to come across as a health hazard for the workers.

Jute Mill

Jute Mill

Every big city has its own colonial imprint – for Calcutta, this is the Victoria Memorial Hall (the most popular tourist attraction, after the food that is). This lavish monument comes across as a mix between St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Taj Mahal. Inside, there is an excellent collection of historical photographs and paintings depicting times gone by. There is also a well preserved exhibition hall (air-conditioned) with timelines, artifacts and even a showcase portraying village life.

Victoria Memorial Hall

Victoria Memorial Hall

Aside from visiting a couple of colleges, Presidency and Jadavpur, we stopped by the well-renowned Indian Coffee House. This is the place where the quintessential Bengali comes to debate and discuss anything from the weather to cricket to politics, over a cup of coffee. A very simplistic milieu where even bottled water is not available, this is where the philosophy of Marx and Lenin find their most vocal support.

Indian Coffee House

Indian Coffee House

Change (in governance) in West Bengal could well be around the corner. A number of individuals whom we spoke to mentioned the rising tide and influence of Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party. If victorious in the next election, it would be the first time a party other than the CPM would be in power over the last 3 decades. Maybe this is a sign of things to come.

The Loggers’ Calcutta Chaat Trail

Filed under: F&B,West Bengal — loggers @ 6:50 pm

The highlight of our visit to Calcutta was the comprehensive chaat (snack) trail through Camac street.  We covered traditional Bengali chaats as well as national favorites, and recommend that you allocate ~4 hours to this culinary expedition if you want to experience the Calcutta food scene in true fashion.

The trail we followed was:

1) Start with Chilla opposite Vardan market on Camac Street

Chilla

Chilla

2) Moong dal vada

Moong Dal Vada

Moong Dal Vada

3) Kachori chaat & Dahi vada

Kachori Chaat

Kachori Chaat

Dahi Vada

Dahi Vada

4) “Skinned” Sugarcane juice

Sugarcane Juice

Sugarcane Juice

5) Shibuji: Khas soda, Masala Thumsup, Soda Shikanji (lemonade), Rose soda

Shibuji Menu

Shibuji Menu

6) Sandesh

7) Rasgulla

8 ) Puchka

9) Churmur

10) Jhal moodie

11) Bhel Puri

12) Pav Bhaji

13) Orange Stuffed and Sitaphal (Custard Apple) Kulfi

Other spots to look out for:

Anamika Rolls in Alipore

– Rabindra Sarani for kachori subzi and jalebi

– Gundi and ice paan at any paan shop

September 29, 2009

Comment of the Day

Filed under: F&B,Meghalaya,Tidbits — loggers @ 3:22 pm

The 4 of us visited Bombay Biites in Shillong.
Our order: crispy chilli babycorn, chinese bhel, veg. fried wonton, chilli cheese roll, chilli garlic chow, paneer shashlik, corn sheekh kebeb, cheese balls, cheese pizza, chocolate cake w/ choco sauce (x2)

“Food is life” -Mihir

September 2, 2009

The Real Amul: Our Visit to Israma

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,F&B,Gujarat — loggers @ 5:05 pm

Politics is outside the door of this collection center. Inside, it’s just business.

— Amul Society Supervisor

In order to fully understand (and appreciate) the Amul model, we visited Israma, a village in the Anand district of Gujarat. Milk collection at the designated centers takes place twice daily, at 6am and at 5.30pm. An Amul tanker arrives at the village at 10am to gather milk collected that morning and the previous evening. This tanker takes the stock to the Amul factory in Anand for pasteurization.

Milk Storage Tank At the Collection Center

Milk Storage Tank At the Collection Center

We reached Israma at 6:30am and found that the collection process was under way. The fat content of the milk is checked by a masked officer who uses a digital instrument which is connected to a computer that runs Gujarati software. The villagers are paid every 5 days but have the option of taking daily payments. The center is supervised by a Society Chairman, elected at the local level by members of the co-operative. Israma has a total population of 2,500 and 360 co-operative members (nearly every family in the village is involved). Membership can be obtained by supplying 700 liters of milk or by contributing for 180 days (in addition to paying a fee of INR 10).

Collection Process

Collection Process

Villager pouring milk into collection bucket

Villager pouring milk into collection bucket

The Israma collection center was established in 1965. Last year, it generated profits of INR 900,000 which were re-distributed among the villagers in direct proportion to their contribution. This center has an ISO standard which is reviewed annually. In order to meet the requirements, the center maintains its own scorecard and updates it every month. The unit also has a cattle feed storage room where 17kg sacks of mixed grains are stored. These are sold to farmers at a discounted price.

The ISO Certificate

The ISO Certificate

Grain Storage At the Collection Center

Grain Storage At the Collection Center

1,100 such centers are spread across the Kaira and Anand districts of Gujarat. Most villagers in these districts are members of the co-operative as it is a robust secondary source of income. In times of drought, this option is no short of life-saving. Amul is working towards providing broadband internet to these centers.

This institution works on simple traits – trust and teamwork. The system is unique in that it provides incentive for each farmer to be diligent and maintain healthy cattle. The center is decorated with posters that educate villagers on how to provide optimal nutrition for their cows. It sets an example for efficiency, hygiene and solidarity. To see such a co-operative thrive was heartwarming, and we hope Amul’s presence in rural India continues to grow for years to come.

August 27, 2009

Amul (Anand Milk Union Ltd.)

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,F&B,Gujarat — loggers @ 12:20 am

We visited the headquarters of Amul (Asia’s largest food products company) in Anand, Gujarat, and spoke to the MD after touring the milk factory. Unlike other dairy product companies, Amul is a co-operative, wholly owned by thousands of villagers who become members by paying a fee of INR 10. These members are also Amul’s milk suppliers, selling their cattle’s milk to the company. They are paid in cash based on the fat content of the milk they sell. They also receive training on animal husbandry from the company and other welfare benefits. They democratically elect local representatives, who in turn select the firm’s board of directors. The entire retained profits of the firm’s activities thus go back to the villagers, in the form of development aid and/or dividends.

Demonstration of tech infrastructure in Amul lobby

Demonstration of tech infrastructure in Amul lobby

The Amul initiative gives otherwise distressed farmers an opportunity to raise cash for daily sustenance. This cooperative has brought prosperity to the villages it operates in, and reduced farmer suicides, by providing them a second source of income. As advised by the MD of Amul, we plan to visit an ‘Amul village’ and get a true sense of the development that the organization has brought about on the ground level.

The Amul complex in Anand, Gujarat

The Amul complex in Anand, Gujarat

We expected this unusual structure to make the management of the firm a little more challenging. We found out however, that the Board (comprising of ‘illiterate’ villagers) interfered little with the top management. The MD had several opportunities to expand, take on debt and make investments in technology even though this meant lower returns to the cooperative members. Also, political corruption/interference within the electoral procedures of Amul was limited, especially when compared to labor unions, university student councils and other democratic bodies in India.

Cow and milkman figurines in the waiting room

Cow and milkman figurines in the waiting room

We were positively surprised by this level of efficiency, and walked out with a favorable impression of this ‘socialist’ organization, despite having been trained in America to think like die-hard capitalists.

August 18, 2009

Train-ing

Filed under: Delhi,F&B,Lessons,Rajasthan,Transport — loggers @ 12:50 am

We booked our tickets on-line (Yatra) for a rail journey from Delhi to Kota. Our train, the Rajdhani Express was scheduled to depart at 4.30pm. We reached the station at 3.45pm and at 4.10pm we realized that we were at the wrong station – Nizamuddin instead of New Delhi. Now, it was impossible for us to transfer to the right station in time to catch the Rajdhani. Thus, we decided to cancel our booking, but found out that tickets booked on-line could only be cancelled on-line. A kind railway police official told us to speak to the TC (Ticket Collector), who would accommodate us if there were vacancies in the August Kranti Rajdhani which was to leave Nizamuddin station at 4.55pm.

We got a chance to speak to the TC 20 minutes before departure. He suggested that we get new tickets from the issuing authority at the station. Naman sprinted across the station to negotiate with the agents at the ticketing booth who refused to issue new tickets as the reservation lists had already been released. After pleading profusely for a few minutes, the officials decided to relent. Naman could afford only 2 tickets and did not have the time to run to the ATM for more cash. After purchasing the tickets he ran back to the platform to board the train.

We were in an AC 3-tier coach and were pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the compartment and the quality of service and food. Minutes after boarding we were served a snack tray and were given a bottle of water and a hand towel. When the TC arrived, we explained to him the circumstances under which we boarded the train and requested to pay for the 3rd ticket on the spot (TCs reserve the right to issue a ticket onboard). He refused and asked one of us to get off at the next station (Mathura) or pay a fine of INR 3000 upon arrival in Kota. Mathura came and went, we stayed put.

Tomato soup and breadsticks were served before the well-stocked vegetarian dinner trays and strawberry ice-creams arrived. Post-dinner, one of us was summoned by the TC. The negotiation was short and precise. The TC claimed to have helped us big time and proposed that he be treated “pyaar se” (with love). He demanded a sum equal to the price of the ticket plus a surcharge. The terms of the verbal contract also included a non-disclosure clause since the TC’s service was “special”. We reached Kota at 9.35pm (10 minutes before the scheduled time of arrival).

Moral: Read the particulars on your ticket. Services in the Indian Railways have improved significantly but macro issues such as corruption among officials remain.

Side-note: We have now officially used every available form of transport (road, rail, air and water).

August 16, 2009

The Rajbhog Culture

Filed under: Conversation,Delhi,F&B,Lessons,Tidbits — loggers @ 7:25 pm

A conversation with the cook at our temporary residence in Delhi turned into a philosophical quest. He went on to articulate his existential view with the help of Rajbhog, an enlarged and enriched version of a rasgulla stuffed with dry fruits. It is a blend of milk, sugar, saffron, cardamom, rose water and pistachio. The word ‘Raj Bhog’ literally means ‘royal meal’.

Rajbhog

Rajbhog

Legend has it that rulers in India would squeeze the saccharine juice out of the Rajbhog before consuming it. The liquid would then be distributed to the masses for consumption. This was symbolic in that the royalty kept the best for itself and distributed the residue to the commoners. According to the cook, many in India still perpetuate the Rajbhog culture by exploiting those who are economically lesser and then rewarding them with leftovers of sorts. All this at a time when even Rajbhogs are colored artificially.

Profound, we think.

Kashmiri Kesar (Saffron)

Filed under: F&B,J&K,Lessons,Nature — loggers @ 7:16 pm

The one thing that all our moms asked us to bring home from Kashmir was the local saffron. We were told that the best place to procure this would be on the road from Srinagar to Pehelgam. We spotted the shop, located on the farm itself, and learned that 1 gram of saffron was priced at INR300. Suspicious of being taken for a ride, we tried to bargain and walked away when the shop-owner refused to negotiate. Little did we know, that this was the fixed price for saffron in Kashmir and that we had missed our chance to pick up fresh kesar from the farm.

threads of Kashmiri saffron

strands of Kashmiri saffron

Travel Tip: How to Test the Authenticity of Saffron

1)      Take a strand of saffron and place in a glass of lukewarm water

2)      Observe. Real saffron should give the water a yellow tinge

3)      Remove the strand and place on a piece of paper

4)      Rub the strand against the sheet. (If it dissolves, it’s real; if not, you are looking at nylon thread)

July 29, 2009

Travel Lesson #1

Filed under: F&B,J&K,Lessons,Tidbits — loggers @ 1:41 pm

We learnt that food in restaurants/dhabas is cooked with excessive amounts of oil (in Kashmir and perhaps other parts of India). Make sure you ask for less oil in your food.

July 28, 2009

Sights and Bites in the Valley

Filed under: F&B,J&K — loggers @ 7:45 pm

We stopped at a village called Salian en route from Pehelgam to Shopian, where we were warmly hosted by Dr. Jaleel Ahsan, Professor of Philosophy at the Government College for Women in Anantnag. We traveled the locality with the professor, and were amazed by some of the things we saw.

Our first stop was Hutmurah, one of the few villages in Kashmir with a substantial Hindu population. Hindus here mingle actively with the Muslim and Sikh population. This is one of the only places in Kashmir where Hindu Brahmins did not flee for mainland India during the militancy of the early 1990’s. Symbolically, we visited a complex that housed a Temple, Gurudwara, and Mosque– a living example of communal harmony in Kashmir.

The second interesting stop was the ruins of a sun temple in the village of Kehribal in Martand district. This temple is known to have been built by the Pandava rulers, and dates back a couple of thousand years. Carvings on the wall are still visible, and speak greatly of the architecture of the time. Interestingly, none of us had heard about this place in our independent Kashmir research. Given the historic and possibly mythological significance of the site, we recommend every tourist to check it out.

The Pandava Temple Ruins

The Pandava Temple Ruins

We visited a second Temple-Mosque-Gurudwara complex in the town of Anantnag, before heading to Professor Ahsan’s house, where we were fortunate to experience true Kashmiri ‘mehman-nawazi’. We had our dinner in true Kashmiri fashion, and relished the richness of authentic Kashmiri food.

Typical Kashmiri Dinner

Typical Kashmiri Dinner

Kehwa (saffron tea) and Kulcha (flatbreads)

Kehwa (saffron tea) and Kulcha (flatbreads)

July 5, 2009

Borivali and beyond

Filed under: F&B,Retail — loggers @ 10:30 pm

We were due to meet a seasoned traveler for advice on our itinerary. The venue was the Oberoi Mall in Goregaon, and we decided to write a post about it because…why not?

We started the day by surveying the mall. Conversations with a wine-shop salesman[i] and a retail clothing agent indicated an upbeat atmosphere, in that sales figures have remained strong over the past few months in spite of slower than average economic activity. At Globus Wines, we found that Pearly Bay (a personal favorite) sells for ~INR1,500 (US$30) versus US$10 in the states. Interesting because duty on alcohol hovers around 100% in India, but this leaves ~$10 unaccounted for in an apparently low profit-margin business.

The mall is busy on weekends, with the majority of the customers coming from south Mumbai. Upon enquiring about WiFi access, we found that connectivity is limited to 30 minutes/person per day for “security” purposes. Our state/government ID’s were scanned before we were given the network key. We think this was inefficient as we needed access for >1 hour.

We ate lunch at Spoon, the food court, and then headed to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali. When we reached the park, we had 2 options: the Tiger & Lion Safari or the Caves. We were advised not to venture into the “safari” as it is poorly maintained and borders on animal cruelty.[ii] Ironic, for the park is named after late Sanjay Gandhi, whose wife, Maneka Gandhi is an animal welfare activist. We were charged INR110, covering expense for the car and admission for 3 into the park, and an additional INR5 per person (100 for foreigners) for entry to the caves.

SGNP

The Kanheri caves were built from 1B.C. to 11A.D. as part of a Buddhist mission. The cistern developed by the monks for water harvesting was the highlight of the trek.IMG00147-20090705-1500

Caves

The day was well worth it. The only hiccup was the 3 hour car ride back to south Mumbai due to congestion at both ends of the sea link.[iii] Fortunately, we topped it off with a 4-course meal at Kalpana.

More photos.


[i] We learned that sweeter wines are preferred, and that red wines (in general) are more popular, among the patrons of Globus Wines

[ii] Not to mention, there are officially no tigers in the Tiger & Lion safari

[iii] Today happens to be the last day of free access to the sea link

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