Life’s a Zoo

Varanasi is a zoo in a zoo. There are cows acting like dogs, dogs fighting monkeys on rooftops, monkeys acting like rats, goats wearing clothes, men have faces like elephants, and on and on. Dogs sleep on piles of ashes — human or garbage — because they like the warmth. There are devastating cases of mange. Many puppies are starving although mothers look like they are carrying so much milk they are going to explode. Cows wear necklaces and steal fruit from street vendors or simply tear into “leftovers” in plastic bags. Yesterday I saw a dog on a roof. It was fighting with monkeys. Or playing. I’m not entirely sure. It seemed slightly out of the norm given how many locals stopped to watch and were laughing, and encouraging me to take photos. I also saw a dog lift his leg and pee on a woman’s sari. She didn’t even notice. Here are a few photos to give you an idea…














If you are curious about the guy with the elephant face, click here for a photo, but I must warn you it is fairly disturbing, so you may not want to look. I walk past him everyday but feel inappropriate taking a picture. He sits in front of a little statue of Ganesh, the elephant god of fortune. As I was told yesterday, I’d see all different variations of humanity in Varanasi and that couldn’t be more right.


The World’s Best Lassi (plus some very fine silk)

Ok, I’ve found it. Siwon Lassi Shop, Ck. 26/16-A, Kachouri Gali, Chowk, Varanasi. I has the apple lassi. Today I’m going back for the fruit lassi (apple, pomegranate, and whatever else is in season). Pappu is a master. Images speak for themselves.







On another note, through a friend, I’ve also found a silk guy, so if you come to Varanasi and want to buy what you know is good quality, beautiful silk (otherwise there is a major risk of being duped), see Arun at Banaras Art Emporium, +91 9839 268 686 or (explain who sent you). He owns a factory so it isn’t a shop, but a room in his house with cupboards of high quality fabric. He can make anything and will ship. I spent small fortune on silk bedding (there is a tailor who will put together whatever you like).

Life and Death in Varanasi

I know, I have gone a bit off course in India, writing more about places and experiences than food. There are two reasons for that: 1. there is sometimes a significant delay between when I eat something noteworthy and when I can write a post, and 2. all senses are so overwhelmed in India, it is sometimes easy to forget about what you’ve eaten because it has been overshadowed by what you’ve seen, smelled, heard, and, whether you like or not, touched.

Because I’d like to give you an idea of what Varanasi is like, I am going devote this post to that, rather than the food, but I promise tomorrow to get back into the culinary side of things.

Varanasi is almost an almost impossible to describe. If you are intererested, I really suggest you read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. I have never read such an accurate description of a place before and if you have spoken to me sometime in the last four months, you will know that I am obsessed with this book (thank you Eric for giving it to me). Because the book describes Varanasi far better than I could ever hope to, I am going to include a few excerpts below and post some of my photos to give you an idea. Everything I transcribe is true — I have seen it and felt it. My lack of time and literary skills just prevent me from conveying it so beautifully.

By way of bankground, Varanasi is situated in the bank of the holy Ganges River and is considered a holy city by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the culture of Varanasi is closely associated with the river. According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, several thousand years ago, making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the country.

Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats, steps leading to the banks of River Ganges. Most of the ghats are bathing ghats, while others are used as cremation sites. My hotel is located right next to the main cremation ghat, where bodies are burnt 24 hours a day (my nose is stuffed). Because of the holiness of Varanasi and the river, it is very significant in Hinduism to be cremated here. Bodies must be able to make it to Varanasi within 24 hours of death, otherwise, they are cremated and then sent to Varanasi, where the ashes are poured into the river.

I am describing it somewhat simplistically, and I don’t understand it totally myself, but in Hinduism, there are different casts of people that one may be born into. No matter what one does in his current life, he is blessed or doomed to remain in that strata. To the extent he accrues good karma during his life, he essentially is buying his way into a higher strata for his next incarnation. And vice versa. It is only those who are in the lowest cast who clean the streets, handle sewage, manage the cremations. And there is no hope in Hinduism for them to do anything else in this life. Worse even, or maybe better, is to be reborn as an animal, as a donkey — that is even lower on the totem pole.

Ok, if you’re still interested at all, read the Death in Varanasi excerpts below. Photos of the burning ghats are prohibited so you can’t see those. Also, these photos are a lot cleaner than it actually is. —

“I looked at books about Varanasi, but there was more to learn than I could ever hope to take in. It was where Shiva had decided to live. It was where the world began. Crossing places –tirthas — were sacred, certain crossing places were especially auspicious, but the whole of Varanasi was a crossing places, between this world and the next. Basically, there was no place on earth more worth visiting even though, in a sense, it was not of this world. I had read somewhere that Lourdes is not Lourdes for the people who live there. The same probably went for Mecca: where did people who lived there go for a pilgrimage? But it was not true of Varanasi. Varanasi made going anywhere else seem nonsensical. All of time was here, and probably all of space too. The city was a mandala, a cosmogram. It contained the cosmos.”

“Everything was intensely ritualized and completely ad hoc. Head shaved, wearing only a length of white cloth, a thin man led a group round an as yet unlit pyre…A pair of charred feet were sticking out of a collapsing pyre. One of the dooms chucked more logs onto the body of this ex- person and prodded the feet back into the flames…I glimpsed a head dripping fat into the flames. The skull became gradually apparent. There was more chanting. Another body was being carried down the the river. Cows munched the wilted remains of flowers. The ashes of earlier funerals were being raked through. They were shoveled towards the river. The body that was about to be burned, the one that had just been brought down, was being dipped in the river: an after-the-fact baptism of fire.”

“All around was honk and blare. The din, the dust, the noise were unbelievable, but wasn’t it great that there was a place on earth where dust, din and blade thrived? What a clean and dull planet it would be if everywhere became a suburb of Stockholm…where there were no elephant -headed gods who rode around on mice, where there were no beggars waiving their bandaged, pus-stained stumps in your face, no janitors claiming they were priests, no cows solemnly manuring the streets, no monkeys running riot and no kids scrounging rupees? And beneath all ones irritation and annoyance, in any case, was the knowledge that the demand for money was a straightforward expression of the inequality of economic relationships. We, the tourists, were immensely rich, and they, the beggars and the boatmen, the masseurs and the hustlers, were unfathomably poor. The pestering was a persistent, but still voluntary, tax on luxury. You didn’t have to pay. You could say no. But this ‘No’ would be ignored, but if you kept saying it over and over again, then . . . it would still be ignored. But eventually, after the twentieth time, it would be accepted. Either that or jt would have turned into a ‘Yes’. Given the gulf between what you had and what they did without, it was a miracle, really, that you didn’t get robbed every time you left the hotel, the compound, that your feet were not ripped off simply to get at your sandals, that you weren’t torn limb from limb and eaten, or your liver sold for dog food.”















Rickshaw Turf Wars

Of the places I have been in India so far, Jaipur is my favorite. We weren’t there for long, but the food was good (as previously discussed), the people were appropriate (mostly), the place was pretty, and we just had a good time. I just wanted to post a couple anecdotes as well as some pictures, before I get into the heaviness that is Varanasi in my next post.

On our second night in Jaipur on our way home from dinner, we somehow managed to get in the middle of an auto rickshaw turf fight. Seriously. After leaving the restaurant and feeling dissatisfied with our three desserts (no, that’s not a typo), Josh convinced me to go to McDonalds to share a McFlurry. Anyone who knows me, knows that I don’t normally touch fast food; my new exception to that rule is India. Anyway, we finished off the ice cream and we walk over to a few guys standing around rickshaws and asked for a lift to our hotel, knowing that the price should be 50 or 60 rupees (about one dollar). When a man — who seemed to be in charge — suggested that it would be 200 rupees, we were so shocked by his dishonesty that we deteriorated into a fit of laughter and I actually asked the man if he was on drugs. Normally when people try to rip you off for these rides, they try to charge you 80 rupees, not 200. After a short and ridiculous argument, we started walking away, and as is typical, we were chased down and given a fair(ish) price. This country wears you down in so many ways, that you sometimes swallow your pride and just accept the offer, even though in your heart you’d rather search for a more honest driver.

So we got in the rickshaw to which we were directed and we ended up sitting there and waiting. A couple minutes passed and we were tired and frustrated so decided to get out and find another driver — why should we sit around and wait for some dishonest guy? In India, there may be a shortage of toilets, but there is never a shortage of drivers. So we cross the road and just as we flagged down a new driver, who happened to be one of the men in the initial group of drivers we approached, and hopped into the rickshaw, the original rip-off driver zipped up behind us and jumped out of his rickshaw with his 10 year old son and they both start fighting with our new driver, who seemed to have undercut the original driver (the apparent boss). While the three of them were going at it, another rickshaw pulls up and Josh and I decided we would take this one, the third party bystander. As we got out, both the first and second drivers started chasing us and screaming. The next thing I knew, Josh has signaled to the new driver to start driving, and he and I start sprinting ahead of the other screaming men. On the run, we literally jumped in the moving rickshaw and zipped away. It was kind of like an action movie getaway, except it was a rickshaw. I really hope that the driver who took us home hasn’t been blacklisted by the Jaipur rickshaw mafia. He said he was going home after he dropped us off; probably to make sure they hadn’t burnt down his house.

The next day we were supposed to fly to Varanasi, but upon arrival at the airport, we were told that because our first flight was delayed, we would miss our second flight and there was no alternative way to get to Varanasi that day. I am not going to go into details, but basically the Spice Jet (yes, that’s an airline) manager for the Jaipur airport, was so horrible that we ended up in a very tense argument with him (think lots of explicatives). Let’s just say that had we been in the U.S., we would have been thrown into jail.

In the end, there was nothing we could do, so we flew to Delhi and rebooked our Varanasi flight for the following day. Then did what any budget traveler would do — booked ourselves into the Taj Mahal Hotel Delhi, the nicest hotel in the city, arranged to be picked up from the airport by a BMW (only the second one I’ve seen in India), and then went out for an obscene dinner at the Morimoto restaurant in the hotel. Sometimes you just have to treat yourself in this country or you won’t make it. On that note, I’ll leave you with some photos. Credit to Josh for the third, fourth, and fifth photo.








New Yorkers, do these look familiar? Wasabi by Morimoto.









Jaipur Cheap Eats

Today we had some unexpected local treats in Jaipur (the capital of Rajistan — we arrived here last night from Agra where we made the obligatory visit to the Taj Mahal (and it lives up to its reputation)), which topped an already great day. We started off the morning at Lassiwala, a Jaipur institution (since 1944) serving only sweet lassi, a drink of blended yogurt and sugar, and renowned to be the best in town. I have had a number of lassis over the past few weeks and this was in a whole different ball park. Lassiwala makes its curd from a blend of buffalo and cow milk and the resulting lassi is thick and velvety with a bit of a curd skin on top for some texture. I hear there is some great lassi in Varanasi as well, so I will see how that compares; Lassiwala will be hard to beat.





Although the lassi was very satisfying, I was still desperate for some coffee and solid food and on a tip from the guys at Lassiwala, we headed to Indian Coffee House, a cheap as chips co-operative cafe on M.I. Road. This was a great find. We were the only Westerners in the shop and the menu was genuine Indian, right down to the coffees. Josh and I each had a dosa — mine filled with egg and his with spicy vegetables (i.e. masala) — which is a fermented crepe made from rice batter and is a very common Indian breakfast. The dosas came with sauce and a runny side dish, both of which look too unappealing to post, but tasted good. I had a hot cream coffee, which was black coffee served with hot cream on the side, and Josh had a “special coffee,” which was a thick, already creamy hot coffee.





(yes, I know this photo has nothing to do with food, but it wouldn’t be a complete Indian day, or post for that matter, without Sharukh Kahn; and by the way, after watching “Om Shanti Om,” (or click here for a Wikipedia summary), I am a complete Bollywood convert.)

The lassis and dosas kept us full until about 4, when, on our way home, we stopped at a street cafe for some samosas and aloo tikkis (Indian potato patties stuffed with peas and other vegetables). They were served with this delicious chickpea curry side dish that had some sort of sweetish green sauce. Two samosas, two aloo tikkis and a large bottle of water for $1.40. Can’t beat that.



I am slightly embarrassed to say that we polished off lunch with another sweet lassi from Lassiwala (at least we shared just one). To get home, we decided to forego the auto-rickshaw and go for a straight-up pushbike rickshaw. I gave the guy two dollars, rather than the 80 cents the 20 minute ride was supposed to cost. I think in this instance, I understood his head bobble to mean thank you.

Ok, I am off to dinner.

Non-Faux Authentic Tibetan Cuisine

This post covers the same Tibetan food that I wrote about a few days ago, but on my last full day in McLeod Ganj, I finally had the real thing, mutton and all. There is a tiny, hole in the wall restaurant with a green door and no name serving up the freshest thentuk and momos in town, and, in fact, those are only items on the menu. The place is tiny and offers toilet paper as napkins/serviettes, but it is well worth visit. If you ever go to McLeod Ganj, the restaurant is the first door down from the guy who roasts goat trotters, skin and hair included, over an open flame on the sidewalk (or you can ask me for more detailed directions). For all you Melburnians, it is kind of like the Pellegrinis of Tibetan food.





Faux Authentic Tibetan Food and a Forgotten Indiosyncrasy

For the last few days I’ve been in McLeod Ganj, a town in northern India that is a stone’s throw from Kashmir, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. McLeod Ganj is basically a Tibetan enclave and is where the Dalai Lama calls home. The Dalai Lama gave a three day teaching that ran through yesterday and I attended the first half of of the first day (after that it got a bit too esoteric for me), so I saw his Holiness up close and personal.

McLeod Ganj is an odd place. It is full of monks, Tibetans by birth, Eastern and Western (particularly those with dreadlocks who you walk to the other side of the road to avoid getting a whiff of) pilgrims, and Western students studying Tibetan language and philosophy.

Tibetan cuisine consists largely of meat and heavy carbohydrates, so it is a bit of a contradiction when a number of the “Tibetan” restaurants in town are vegetarian — although that suits me just fine as I haven’t warmed up to the idea of eating meat in a town where my friend saw a cow try to eat a “fresh” samosa from the rack of a small stall and after it fell out of the cow’s mouth onto the ground, the shopkeeper shooed away the cow, picked up the samosa and placed it back on the rack to be sold to the next customer.

The last two nights I ate virtually the exact same Tibetan meal at two different places, but last night’s version at Mama’s, was actually really good. I had a vegetable and cheese (there seems to be only processed cheese here, but it is hard to turn down since it is often in lieu of meat) Thentuk, a hand pulled noodle soup with a broth made from a base of onions, garlic, ginger (or a similar variation) simmered in oil, and vegetable and cheese momos, steamed dumplings made with a whole grain flour. Typically both of these dishes are made with chopped meat, so the versions I ate aren’t entirely authentic, but they were good enough for now. The noodles were pulled as I waited so they were really fresh.





Before I forget, there is another Indiosyncrasy I left off of my previous list. In Hindi, the word of respect to address both men and women is “ji,” so in India, the English translation is “sir” regardless of the gender being addressed. When I’ve actually been addressed by men here (usually they just overlook me and speak to Josh), I am called Sir. Almost every email I’ve sent to book hotels, etc. has been responded to with an email starting “Dear Sir”. I have even gotten a few addressing me as Mr. Lacey. In these instances, it might just be that they can’t fathom a woman making a hotel reservation. Oh India.

Here are a few pictures of McLeod Ganj.











Bukhara: Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin Eat Here

A few days ago, I was so lucky to be treated to a meal at Bukhara, a restaurant in Delhi that has been voted the best in Asia and the thirty-seventh best restaurant in the world. I think my exhaustion got in the way of expressing my true appreciation, so to say it again, thank you very much Josh.

Bukhara is a meat heavy, tandoori style restaurant focusing on kebabs and is a favorite of Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin. I even broke my no chicken habit so as not to miss out on the full experience, though nothing could beat the lamb kebab, which is marinated in yogurt and spices and tastes like no other form of lamb you’ve had. There is no cutlery at Bukhara and you must eat almost everything (including a red onion appetizer) with your hands. A bib is provided.





The butter naan is hard to pass up, too.


Same with the dal (note the butter).


My photos in this post are not great because I couldn’t touch the camera after I started eating — like I said, no cutlery. I hope you get the idea.

There is also a delicious north Indian dessert called gulab jamun, or deep fried reduced milk dumplings doused in sugar syrup. The variety served at Bukhara are stuffed with pistachio and cardamom. I have tried this dessert at three restaurants and Bukhara’s are best version I’ve had yet. I know what they might remind you of in this photo but I hope you can get over it.


I’m on a Boat

One of the best things we did in Kerala was spend a day and night on a houseboat exploring the backwaters. Kerala, a state in the southwest of India is a bit of a geographical phenomenon for its intricate inland network of lagoons, lakes, canals, and rivers running parallel to the Arabian Sea.

Obviously, seafood is a speciality of the backwaters (and Kerala generally — find a recipe for Kerala fish curry if you can), so it was a nice treat when we got to jump off the boat into a little shack and hand pick some humongous tiger prawns to be cooked for dinner that night.



And done…


I almost forgot. We also had fresh fish for lunch.


In order for you to understand what the backwaters look like, and what it is like to hang out on a houseboat in India (think hot and relaxed), here are a few photos. At sunset we also took a canoe ride into some of the canals off the main waterway where we were able to boat through villages and see the locals going about their evening business. There are no roads; just waterways. In a way, it is like Venice.




(these people were herding a mass of ducks to the chopping board)