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!

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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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Not Eating Animals Part III: Masai Mara Again

One hot air balloon ride, one short game drive, one rained out game drive, and one near miss on an elephant charge. Still not a bad day.

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Tomorrow to the Serengeti.

I know I’ve strayed from my food theme while in Africa but I am sure you’d rather see these photos and they are far more interesting than anything I am eating. I will return to form after I leave the Dark Continent.

THE Dinner (by Heston Blumenthal)

On Friday night, after months of anticipation, I finally had the chance to blow my budget at the renowned Dinner By Heston at the Mandarin Oriental in London. I was thrilled that my initial two and a half month old reservation for four turned into a 10 p.m. reservation for six because two more friends were able to join. After pre-drinks at Gordon’s Wine Bar (I recommend this bar–inside you can get food and enjoy a cavernous setting and there is a enormous outside space with additional bars, seemingly rare for London), a few of us headed to the Mandarin to sip on £20 cocktails (yes, that is over $30 and we limited it to one each). Apparently the hotel bar has a reputation for attracting high class escorts looking to pick up some business from London’s elite, and, as spectators, we were not disappointed by the show.

Nor were we disappointed by the dinner. Sadly for me, I seemed to have been suffering from lingering, mild food poisoning from the most horrendous fish and chips I’ve ever had (from a pub the night before) so while I did love what I ate, I was unable to relish it as I would have liked (i.e. gorge myself). Terrible timing. It was fun regardless.

Anyhow, if you don’t know, the theme of Dinner By Heston is British cuisine from centuries past. The menu itself provides the date and origin of each dish. I started my meal with “Rice & Flesh,” a creamy saffron risotto and oxtail that is cooked in a red wine sauce. The dish originated circa 1390 and was compiled in The Form of Cury The Master Cooks of King Richard II. The rice was cooked to perfection, the meat was flavorful and delicious, and the presentation was lovely.

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Another starter I sampled (despite my general aversion to poultry), and a highlight on the menu that someone at your table must order, is Meat Fruit, a food illusion originating from sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries. Is it a mandarin?

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Or is it chicken liver parfait?

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Amazing, right? Food as art or meat as fruit. Strangely, this food was a form of late middle ages flirting. Men used to fill a bowl with Meat Fruit and actual mandarins and ask ladies to guess which was which. Sounds like fun.

For my main course, I made the uncharacteristic choice of Black Foot Pork Chop, the dish favored by our waiter. The dish originated circa 1820 and is served with Spelt & Robert sauce and is based on Carême’s (the first “celebrity” chef also known as the “King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings”) residency in London. Yum.

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I could go on about everyone else’s dinners, but I feel it is only appropriate to write about what I ate. Everyone was very pleased with his or her meal and we all highly recommend visiting DBH. Sadly, we were too full for dessert (well, I could have eaten it if I wasn’t poisoned from the night before; generally I can pack it in regardless). Fortunately, we were given complimentary chocolate pots with a small cookie. Dinner was expensive, needless to say, but not as bad as we anticipated given the price of the cocktails. Whether you can afford it comfortably or it is a splurge, go if you can.

In case you’re interested in a few fun facts, read these, which were presented to us as menu holders:

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I am now in Kenya about to set off on a safari here and in Tanzania for the next ten days. To the extent I have internet, I will share any interesting cuisine, however, I might be more inclined to show you the live meat that we see rather than eat. Stay tuned.

It’s Thanksgiving?

Other than with respect to some of its very fine dining restaurants, London is not exactly known for the quality of its food. Today, however, I found a new diamond in the rough called Rochelle Canteen. The canteen is owned by the catering company Arnold & Henderson and is located in a converted bike shed on old school grounds in Shoreditch that have been turned into artists’ studios. Originally the space was used for catering preparation, but lured by the delicious aroma of the food, artists began stopping in for lunch, and, eventually, it was turned into a restaurant. The menu is seasonal and changes daily.

For lunch I had a watercress, beetroot, caper, and goat cheese salad and ceps (mushrooms currently in season) on toast. This was no doubt one of the best non-Italian meals I have had in a while. The food was so fresh and flavorful, I almost forgot I was in London. If you come here, I highly recommend Rochelle Canteen and you should make a booking if possible. It is only open for lunch and informally for breakfast.

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Tomorrow I go to Dinner By Heston. I have reserved all of my annual Thanksgiving calories for this meal (I am choosing to ignore the less than average fish and chips I had tonight; they weren’t good enough to count). Expect an extensive report.

Paris’s Best Buffet and Worst Waiters

I am going to keep this short and simple. You can say a lot about French cuisine in general, but I will just stick to four primary observations: butter, butter, cream, pastry.

On Sunday morning, thanks to a tip, Akane and I had a reservation at La Bellevilloise, a trendy restaurant in Paris with a brunch buffet and live jazz. It wasn’t cheap at 29 euro, but it was definitely a fun start to the day (that basically put me out of service for the rest of the day). I partook in undoubtedly the most excessive eating I’ve done on this trip, and in some ways I am still recovering from it. There were savory dishes like sausages, cold cuts, cheese, salads, etc., but as many of you know that’s not really my style for brunch. Instead, I went with French toast, brioche, crepes, donuts, chocolate croissants, hot chocolate, plus some scrambled eggs for protein. Yes, all of that. And I went back three times.

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On a separate note, Parisians were much nicer than I remembered. A special shout out to the four Gendarmerie Nationale officers (French military police) who all pulled out their iPhones to try to call Akane (with no success) when I was having a panic attack at the train station this morning when we were coming to London. Akane went through customs with my ticket and didn’t realize she couldn’t come back to get me. I had no phone and no idea what happened to her. Never mind that the officers probably approached me because I was panicking and my behavior looked erratic and initially they thought I was a security threat. Also the Eurostar employee who somehow, through an unbeknownst chain of custody, got my ticket and then managed to find me, deserves a special thanks. I am not sure how I missed the THREE announcements made over the loud speaker at Akane’s request directing me, LACEY LAKEN, where to go to get my ticket, but when you’ve been in non-English speaking countries for two and a half months, you tend not to pay attention to such things.

On the other hand, while people were generally nice, French waiters are terrible and mean. In particular, avoid these two:

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Also, tarts are pretty good. So are Kir Royals (an apertivo of champagne and creme de cassis), especially when sipped with a view of the the Louvre sparkling in the night. Even bad waiters can’t ruin that.

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Sorry, that wasn’t so short after all. I will post before then, but just to foreshadow, I’m going to have a major eating experience at one of London’s great restaurants — Dinner by Heston — on Friday. Expect to drool as you vicariously share a meal that is a throwback to English cuisine from centuries past. If you want to do some advance reading, you can get more information here.