On the Road Again

Messing in Mussoorie

Finding good food during travel seems to have become as much of an adventure as deep sea diving , involving  research, exploration, and discovery, while risking little else but cash and intestinal well being.

Which is why anyone and everyone, those with taste buds and those without, are on the same adventure trail, exclaiming about every meal  on SMS, on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Enthusiasm is generally in direct proportion to the amount paid for such detection. The vada pau rarely gets the same flowery praise as the French croquette especially if said croquette is served in "French owned" restaurant , even though it might be equally deep fried to death.

The question is ...what is so pioneering  about  "discovering" a fancy restaurant, one which is heavily advertised and has million of reviews to back up claims of excellence? The real taste revelation is more and more to be found in peoples homes ,where food is prepared with care, and sometimes even better, with love.

So how do you find this on your travels? In India where relatives abound, it isn't as difficult as in other countries, though the tradition of asking people over to a meal is slowly fading and  becoming a thing of the past. You might be still be lucky. Mostly it is serendipity . You are mysteriously drawn to places and people which promise the palate surprise, comfort and delight.

Such fortunate happenstance occurred when we plumped to stay at the Carlton Plaisance in Mussoorie recently. I say 'plumped' because, with just a little  scouting online, I found the site "still under construction".The description of the hotel was intriguing, promising a bit of history, ( A Chateau built in the late 1800's )  a bit of garden, and a good view.

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What we found was a rambling old house, eclectically furnished, with a delightfully shabby air. High ceilings , ventilators and dark interiors reminded me of my many childhood homes. A parlour filled with (now very non kosher) stuffed animals  and deep sofas, a high table, permanently set with linens, crockery and cutlery in the centre hall from which doors led out to large suites and the kitchens.

The better suites had a pretty gallery which once looked out to the hills in the distance but now looked out to a cement structure, which may have been a water tank. Water shortage is a problem in Mussoorie  and we were sparing in our use of it during our stay. The platform on top of this structure ruined the view but closer to our rooms were very pretty flowers, glimpsed through the window panes , hyacinths and daisies which bloomed cheerfully in the sun.

 

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Once in a while monkeys thundered across the tin roofs and were chased off by the staff. For the rest, even though the Company Garden road passed 100 meters away , we remained unassailed by other noise, chiefly the incessant honking of cars, which is a feature on all roads leading to, away and in Mussoorie, reaching high decibel levels near the Mall Road

What made the stay so good was that every day we ordered our meals in consultation with the cook , Kalam Singh, ( what was in season, available , tasty)  and and he made  it as simple or as elaborate as we wished , fresh and on time , calling us to the table when all was ready. We felt very much at home.

Everything tasted good, with a homely type of tarka, not swimming in oil or smothered in spices. In the course of our stay three preparations stood out. The Nepali Anda Aloo Achari, a mustardy dish with a creamy texture, the Pepper Chicken ,unlike any other chicken I have tasted to date,  and the Achar Dal.

In spite of petitioning him thrice, Kalam Singh did not deign to share the recipes , smiling mysteriously and fading into the depths of the kitchens. Usman , the genial, friendly and  always helpful Major Domo, kept his secret .

Now the only way for anyone to taste all that good food that is to go spend a pleasurable week at the agreeably laid back Carlton Plaisance while getting a glimpse , albeit dim, of an era long gone, like the promised (pale) view of hills.

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Breakfast on the Deccan Queen

While much has changed for the worse, some things have definitely changed for the better, in the last five years, in India. One of the changes I am really grateful for is to be able to book train tickets online.

Hallelujah!!

Does anyone recall ye olde days of yore at the railway station, standing in a queue for 4 hours to reach the head of the line only to be told “Sold out” or “Waiting list only” or only available for the next day and other such disappointing stuff. We knew full well that half the tickets had been “reserved” to be sold in the black market later that day.

Being a frequent PUNE-BOMBAY traveler this was my weekly plight. My fate was to be jammed in with a hundred other women for “floor only” seating in the unreserved ladies compartment, time after time.

Eleven years ago all that changed. IRCTC online happened and there has been no looking back. Oh the pleasure of booking a ticket from the comfort of home rather than being inspected with infinite interest from top to toe, for an interminable four hours by bored and curious fellow queue’ ers in the grubby and smelly environs of the booking office !!

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Though trips are less and less frequent, I still make the odd journey on the Deccan Queen (now rather battered by age) with its tattered blue rexine covered seats and less than spacious chairs.

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However one wonderful tradition has not changed.  The menu of breakfast made fresh in the pantry car......

Omelette sandwich, Cutlet sandwich, Sabudana wadas , hot chai and coffee. All dripping with oil and deliciously sinful, served with “tomato” (read pumpkin) sauce.

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The waiters have a great memory, taking the order before Lonavala and coming round a couple of hours later (around Panvel), to settle the bill without aid of pen and paper.

Today the price of the breakfast snack is significantly more than the original 35 paise but worth its oily weight in gold.

When you crave the fine pleasure of spacing out on train journeys and eating gloriously unhealthy stuff, or are bitten by the nostagia for the delights of chair car travel and railway food- you can whip up the following.

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 Omelette Sandwich Deccan Queen Style

Ingredients

2 tablepoons vegetable oil or butter

2 eggs, beaten

½ onion, finely minced

/1 green chilli, finely minced

½ tomato chopped fine

¼ teaspoon salt

2 large slices white bread

Method

1. Heat the oil and a frying pan. When hot fry the onions and chillies. When soft add the tomatoes and sauté.

2. Pour in beaten eggs and fry till set. Fold into half and then fold again into a quarter

3. Butter two slices of bread. Put the quartered omelette in between .

4. Serve hot with plenty of tomato sauce and a paper napkin to wipe a shining face later.


The Best Restaurants in North Goa 2012-2013

 

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December means Goa to our family. One morning at dawn all is packed into the boot of the car, minimal  clothing (in size and quantity), much in headgear and footwear, a standard picnic of egg mayonnaise sandwiches and chai and- we are off.

Each turn and twist in the road is remembered but not always recognized .The increasing amount of construction along the highway prevents total recall. Bill boards proliferate on the Maharashtra side of the highway and feature the apparent aspirations of the population . This, at present time, seems to be a life of royalty. The privileged were obviously dressed very grandly. Prissy faced men are togged out in brocaded sherwani and churidar, with strings of pearls, rubies and emeralds roped around their short necks  and stretching to the waist. The clothing is generally called something like Maharana, Mewar, Raja, Monarch or Saheb. The models assume an air of superiority and disdain in the style of one Balasaheb. Many of our politicians assume this same air. No rubbing of shoulders with the masses for them.

The dream of royalty is also reflected in the many billboards for housing. From Katraj to Satara to Kolhapur , crummy apartments are called Palacia , Corinthian or Chateau d” etc, in the hope that buyers will thrill to the name rather than the reality of a 500 sq foot, badly constructed, BHK.

Our burgeoning middle class seems to want to distance themselves outwardly, as far and as quickly as possible , from their roots.

The motorcycle of the Kolhapuri sugar baron has been replaced by the SUV, many with the (now banned )tinted black windows. They hog the road in the way that a Maharaja presumably hogged the pathways with his elephants.

Inspite of these signs of social mobility the drive to Goa is always a pleasure. We still feel proud of a four  lane highway in India and enjoy speeding along at a clipping pace, a velocity inconceivable with that old tank, the Hindustan!

The best part of the trip is the turn off to Gadinglaj and the 60 kilometers to Amboli. Along the plateau, surrounded by rice and sugar cane fields, the traffic considerable reduced compared to the highway, the road meanders, bordered by trees of many varieties , mango and chikoo orchards in the background. It has been newly tarred which is a welcome surprise. The rice has been harvested and bundles of hay are stacked neatly in the fields, a picturesque sight. The sky is clear blue, we are far away from the smog of Pune.

We turn the corner from Amboli and face the steep and snaky descent into the plains, spread out below in a massive and breathtaking vista. Very wooded and green with the occasional waterfall this is a gorgeous drive. The occasional monkey and mongoose scamper across the narrow road. We finally reach the plains and Sawantwadi, the beginning of our entry into Goa.

It is 4 pm and we look forward to our tea at the end of the journey.

Now comes the all important and serious task of finding places to eat. We gather what information we can from friends and recent travelers to Goa and make a combined list of restaurants that we will check out in the week before us.

Here are the results of our daily research.

The best places to eat in North Goa in 2012-2013

1.Bomras-  Burmese influences in an exciting menu offering an amazing choice of food  all with mind blowing new  tastes.This is so head and shoulders above the rest it requires a post of its own...coming soon on these pages

247 Fort Aguada Road, Near Kamat Retreat Fort, Candolim  Tel: 9767591056 /9011947436.Open for dinner only

.2.La Plage-  Meditteranean food well prepared with excellent ingredients.

Ashwem beach.  Best to go at lunch time when you can enjoy the view.

3.Thalassa-  Greek food with authentic taste and  generous portions. Vagator. Tel 9850033537. My favourite  was the Kleftiko with serious chunks of meat stewed to melting point

4.Brittos- Goan food. Baga Beach. Everyone knows Brittos and while standards are uneven they are always worth a couple of meals.

5.Bhatti Village – Cheap excellent Goan food. Be sure to try the white bait (moteine) and fish roe( gaboi). No menu but Patrick D’souza,  the owner, will tell you what is on offer.Bhatti waddo, Nerul Bardez, Goa 403114 ( take a left from Candolim at the Nerul crossroads). Tel: 9822184103

6 .Terry’s Restaurant- behind Betim Petrol Pump, Betim, North Goa. Landmark: Next to the Ferry       .          Tel: 2411961 Try the Sambar Prawns delicious with sukha sungta ( dried prawns) and kokum.

While we found these restaurants worth making a trip for there are ofcourse plenty of others vying to be chosen. With hundreds of eateries in just the stretch  from Calangute to Baga you are assured of a decent meal pretty much anywhere.

It occurred to me, after a week of unbridled ingestion of good to great food, that Goans do not have  much mind space for royalty. Why would they? When you eat like a emperor everyday you don’t need the trappings of kings.