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.

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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 arunbae@gmail.com (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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The butter naan is hard to pass up, too.

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Same with the dal (note the butter).

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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.

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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.

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And done…

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

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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.

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

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Indiosyncrasies

I have to admit, it is hard to be clever after being on the road in India for 10 days, the last five of which included sleeping in a bug and roach infested hotel, staying in hotels with hairballs in the shower and black hair all over the floor, staying in hotels in which the shower is just free standing in the middle of the bathroom over the toilet (so the entire room gets completely soaked), spending a night without air-conditioning in ninety degrees, taking multiple cold water showers, and using numerous “toilets” that were so filthy I basically had to wade through liquid (I pray it was water, but likely it was urine) just to squat in the filth (the western style toilets weren’t much better when they existed). And this was just the south of India — Kerala and Goa — which is much less confronting than the north, where I will spend the next couple of weeks. I am tired and cranky to say the least, and have had few mental implosions and explosions in the form of tears and tantrums. All of this isn’t to say that I haven’t had a good time. In fact, I’ve had a great time, particularly thanks to Josh (you know who you are).

Additional posts will cover some of the food we’ve eating but here — for my entertainment as well as your’s — I’d like to highlight some of the Indian oddities/idiosyncrasies I’ve observed over the last week and a half:

1. The head bobble. No matter what question you ask an Indian, and no matter what the answer is, the vast majority of the time the response will look like this (clink on the link). The bobble is reminiscent of bobble head dolls and looks as though the person’s head has been somehow disjointed from the neck. The bob means “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “I don’t know,” “I have no idea what you are talking about,” “ok,” “leave me alone,” “I don’t care,” “I am not listening,” and basically other good, bad, or explicative reply you can imagine. Needless to say, it definitely facilitates the communication barrier. As a visitor, one must be weary of imitating the head bobble — first you do it because it’s funny, then it turns into a habit, then it becomes natural.

2. All Westerns who dress like Westerners (i.e. no hideous Ali Baba pants) learn what it is like to be famous. Random Indians constantly come up to us and ask to have their picture taken with us. They also sometimes just ask to take pictures of us. This really confuses me because (i) it isn’t like they haven’t seen a Westerner before and (ii) this also happens in big international cities such as Delhi where they’ve definitely seen many Westerners.

3. Shahrukh Kahn. This Bollywood star is omnipresent. He endorses every product in India, including cars, mobile phones, silk, tea, watches, shampoo, soap, and most other things you can imagine. Photos of him appear on every other page of almost every magazine. He brings the term superstar to a whole new level; I don’t think any Hollywood star would compare in terms of popularity or coverage. Then again, he does have an audience of one billion people. I’ve seen him so many times, I am starting to develop a crush; repetition does that.

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4. Cows on the beach. I expected them to be everywhere, but admittedly, I hadn’t considered the beach — or one trying to eat my leftover mango.

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5. Every travel agent books you at his cousin’s or brother’s hotel, regardless of the health risk and regardless of the accommodaton you’ve requested. Going into detail on this point will just infuriate me, so let’s just say we’ve ended up at some bug infested joints and some that were so dusty we could hardly sleep because our sinuses were so stuffed up. I don’t even have sinus or allergy problems and it was torturous. This was after we made it abundantly clear to the travel agent that cleanliness was our only concern in terms of accommodation. The paternalism always becomes obvious when the hotel where you wanted to stay turns out to have availability when you were told by the travel agent that it was full. I have learned something from this — in India, never pay in advance for anything. Also, do not stay at the Shamrock in Munnar or the Excellency in Kochin.

6. The honk. Indians honk (or “toot” for my Australian readership base) to indicate everything while driving. They honk to make their presence known to the car in front of them. They honk to indicate that they are passing of overtaking a vehicle. They honk to indicate that they are backing up. Sometimes I think they just honk because the bumper sticker on the car requests it (no, I am not making this up).

7. Indian time. Take however long someone tells you it will take to get somewhere and multiply it by four. You still should be flexible because it could take longer than that.

Next post will feature, food. I promise!

Notes from Goa

I foresee a big problem arising as I try to write about my experiences in Indian cuisine over the next month or so. The food here can be delicious and interesting, but it photographs terribly — it often just looks like bowls of brown stew and Indians are not focused much on presentation as far as I can tell. You might have to use your imagination a little.

I have been in Goa for a few days and it actually took almost that long to sample Goan food, which apparently is a dying art. Goa is a tiny territory where one goes to explore India’s beach and hedonistic culture (trance music is not for us, so we steered clear). It is a tiny place with a coconuts, cocohuts, hippy, yogi, and trance seeking tourists, a Portuguese influence (they ruled here for many years), and is probably the only place in India you can wear as little as you want and nobody cares. Oh yes, there are also cows on the beach.

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(this guy was all up in my business)

I am embarrassed to admit that my first meal in India consisted of the following at the Delhi airport.

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Josh highly encouraged it, despite the fact that I have not eaten McDonalds in memory, so I wouldn’t risk getting sick on my first day as we were waiting for our connecting flight. In a way, it was an Indian meal anyway, as Indian McDonalds do not have beef on the menu (the cow is sacred here). As I write this, I realize that no McDonalds actually have real beef on the menu, but you get my point. I had a McVeggie. Kind of gross, kind of good. McFlurries taste the same.

Anyway, last night we finally made it to a Goan restaurant. We tried two local specialties – pork vindaloo and crab xec xec. The vindaloo was really good. It was like the Indian version of pulled pork. I think vindaloo is typically made with vinegar and garlic but this dish was a little sweet and the pork was very tender. The crab was very spicy and difficult to eat because of the shells, but decent. Afterwards we actually went to a north Indian style restaurant for dessert, but I’ll save Indian sweets for another post.

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These photos look unappealing, but really the food, the pork in particular, was good. I’ll work on my photography.

Oh, one last thing. At the end of a meal you are sometimes handed paan, a betel leaf that aids digestion, freshens your breath, and acts as a palate cleanser. You are meant to chew it for a few minutes and then spit it out. I could only chew it for 15 seconds before spitting it out, but it did work — my breath was fresh. I just learned there are shops that sell these leaves for pennies up to one hundred dollars depending on the type you buy. I will be on the look out.

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