Sharmi on the Trot

Travelling, Exploring, Eating…

Archive for the category “Asia”

Review: Jom Jom Malay at Ansal Plaza

Pretty interiors

Pretty interiors

Bright colours that catch your eye, a happy atmosphere, smiling and cheerful staff, and finger-licking delicious Malaysian food – that’s what Jom Jom Malay is all about. A recent addition to Delhi’s restaurant scene, and located at Ansal Plaza, Jom Jom Malay is the city’s first Malaysian restaurant.

From the moment you walk in, the vibrant setting gives you a comfortable vibe.The blue and pink cushions, wooden tables and typical Malaysian wall decor instantly makes you want to taste the food. And while you place an order and wait, try your hand at making sambal? Sambal is probably the most popular condiment in Malaysian cuisine and in many recipes, act as a foundation. The usual suspects are brought to the table – ginger, garlic, chilli, onion, lime, sugar, salt and chilli oil along with a mortar and pestle. Then comes an already-made array of sambals from the Jom Jom Malay kitchen. So, test your sambal-making skills as you grind the ingredients into a paste to the ones on the table. As I dug into the sambal that had shrimps, my attempt at recreating the condiment came nowhere close the taste!

The sambal attempt!

The sambal attempt!

First arrived an array of Baos – stuffed with chicken, lamb and duck. Soft, melt-in-your-mouth baos complimented each filling. Every bite had you craving another one. Each very distinctive, my favourite was the duck with it’s deep star anise flavour. Not many places can make good cocktails but Jom Jom Malay’s Cuban Malay had me floored. A burst of citrus in every sip, it complimented the baos perfectly.

Baos (from left) Lamb, Duck and Chicken

Baos (from left) Lamb, Duck and Chicken

Cheers?

Cheers?

Anyone who visits South East Asia, the first food item they bite into is a Satay. A satay is a piece of skewered and grilled meat that’s served with peanut sauce. Malaysians like their food to be more curried than dry so there’s an additional sauce served alongside crackers and a salad. If you like your satay to have a bit of gravy, just pour out a bit of the sauce on it and then dip it into the traditional peanut sauce. There were chicken, lamb, fish and prawn satays on offer. The lamb satay wins hands down. That would be my recommendation. The chicken was flavoursome while the fish was cooked perfectly, the prawns were slightly rubbery.

Satays and more

Satays and more

Next came sticky rice with an onion and sambal stuffing to be consumed with more shrimp sambal. Malaysian cuisine has a lot of Indian influence along with others from neighbouring South East Asian countries. Thus, when I took a bite of the stuffed pancakes or Murtabak, I was immediately reminded of the famous Mughlai paratha.

Sticky rice

Stuffed sticky rice

Stuffed pancakes!

Stuffed pancakes!

Jom Jom Malay believes in making everything from scratch. They grind their own pastes, make their own condiments and while at it, has added interesting twists to some flavours. For example, they use well seasoned dried mango skin in certain salads just to enhance the flavours. “The only thing we get is coconut milk because that would be difficult to make!” says Aftab Sidhu, who has conceptualised the menu.

Yup, that's me digging in!

Yup, that’s me digging in! The plate speaks my emotions!

The Nasi Goreng is an all-time favourite while the Rendang I make at home often. I was so glad that I got to taste both. With so many influences in the cuisine, debates rage on the origin of the dish. While they both may have originated in Indonesia, each country has made it their own with unique influences. In the Nasi Goreng, mix the sambal and crackers with an egg that binds the rice and serve it with coconut and chilli and a satay. Each bite is so pleasurable that if my stomach allowed, I would have asked for more. The Rendang was very different to the ones I’ve had earlier. I confess Malaysia has been left out of my South East Asian sojourns so far and I’m waiting to visit the country to try their food. The lamb was so soft and tender that it literally melted in your mouth. It was the perfect curry to have with roti canai. Also, the texture reminded me so much of Kosha Mangsho that I can’t wait to go home just to have my mother’s homemade mutton curry!

Just look at that Nasi Goreng!

Just look at that Nasi Goreng!

Lamb Rendang

Lamb Rendang

The name Jom Jom, loosely translated, means let’s go! So, what are you waiting for? Go and indulge in delectable Malaysian food right in the heart of Delhi!

Ambiance: 4.5/5
Food and beverage: 4.5/5
Service: 4/5
Value for Money: 4/5
Where: Ansal Plaza at Khel Gaon Marg
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In Photos: An Impromptu Visit To Fatehpur Sikri

It was last year this time that about 10 friends had come home for lunch. From devouring chicken curry with rice, fish in mustard sauce and ending the spread with two desserts (chocolate cheesecake and lemon pie if memory serves), talks turned to travel. It’s no surprise really because every time the gang meets, travel plans are discussed. The only issue, they fall through because it’s very difficult to get so many people who are free at the same time.
The conversation went somewhat like this… “Its been ages since I travelled,” said A. “Oh I can’t remember when I just packed my bags and left.” “Where did you go?” asked B. “I just came back from Kheerganga,” informed C. “Roadtrips man, it’s been a while,” said D. “Why don’t we go for a roadtrip tonight?” a voice was heard from among the chatter.
We all turned at her. “It’s Sunday tomorrow. We are all off. So why don’t we leave tonight from Delhi to someplace nearby and we’ll be back in the afternoon?” That was an idea! Quick calculations later, we zeroed in on Fatehpur Sikri. Three cars, munchies, a good music play list and a need to get out of town is what egged us. We had all been there before of course, but there’s something so tempting to go back to places we’ve been to before. Beer helps in that decision too, just saying!

The view as one enters the complex

The view as one enters the complex

For history buffs
Akbar, the third great Mughal ruler, built this city and shifted his capital here in 1571. However, after his death and thanks to insufficient water supply, it was abandoned but the majestic Indo-Islamic architecture wows travellers to this day. Barely 40km away from Agra, the red sandstone walls of the palace has found its way into many must-see travel lists.

Inside Fatehpur Sikri

Inside Fatehpur Sikri

The complex is famous for structures such as the Buland Darwaza, Paanch Mahal, Diwani-Khas, Tomb of Salim Chisti, Palace of Joda Bai, Hawa Mahal etc. As one enters the complex, it’s a step back in time. You realise the grandeur of the Mughal era, wishing you had a chance to see it when it was a flourishing city. It must have been a fantastic sight to behold.

That's a pose in front of the massive Buland Darwaza

That’s a pose in front of the massive Buland Darwaza

It's a massive door - Buland Darwaza

It’s a massive door – Buland Darwaza

The Darwaza from inside the complex

The Darwaza from inside the complex

Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid

Corridor in symmetry

Corridor in symmetry

Anoop Talao

Anoop Talao

Diwani-Khas, the picture we've seen in history books all our lives

Diwani-Khas, the picture we’ve seen in history books all our lives

The Paanch mahal was being worked on, so the next best thing was to go under it

The Paanch mahal was being worked on, so the next best thing was to go under it

Tomb of Salim Chisti

Tomb of Salim Chisti

The sunrise from the hill top, before entering

Seeing the sunrise before entering

The sun rises

The sun rises

The beautiful complex

The beautiful complex

Picnic Pasta Bake with Mini Chicken Meatballs

The much-loved Delhi winters have come and gone but the weather hasn’t turned so warm that one can’t enjoy a picnic. If you ever visit Delhi, make sure Lodhi Gardens is on your go-to list. Green, gorgeous, tranquil and in the heart of the city, the gardens are a perfect picnic spot. I absolutely adore picnics. It’s a time to be silly, play badminton to your heart’s content (a great exercise for the indulge ahead), eat gorgeous food, doze under the shade of a tree, catch up on your reading, gossip with friends and feel like a child in the adult world. This bake is super easy but takes time. So, make sure you are not in a hurry. It is the perfect picnic food to consume on a lazy weekend in the midst of history and greenery with friends from back home.

The gorgeous greenery at Lodhi Gardens

The gorgeous greenery at Lodhi Gardens

Ingredients
For Meatballs (Makes 12-15 depending on size)
500g Minced chicken
1 small onion (finely chopped)
2 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
1 tbs dried oregano
1 tbs chilly flakes
1 tsp cumin
1 egg
250g breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to season
2 tbs oil

For Sauce
2 large ripe tomatoes (diced)
1 onion (chopped)
1 carrot (peeled and chopped)
2 cloves garlic (smashed)
1 can tomato puree
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp chilly flakes
1 tsp heaped smoked paprika
3 tbs butter (room temperature)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbs olive oil

For Pasta
2 handful Penne
1 lt boiling water
1 tsp oil
Salt to season

For Bake
2 cubes of cheese (grated)
1 tsp butter (to grease baking tin)

The view from our picnic spot

The view from our picnic spot

– Boil the water with oil and salt. Cook the penne according to packet instructions.
– Drain penne and keep aside. But save the water.
– Place the minced chicken, chopped onion and garlic, dried oregano, chilly flakes, cumin, egg, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper in a large bowl.
– Mix well and use your hands to form mini meatballs. Keep aside.
– Heat a pan and add the olive oil. Add the garlic and chilly flakes to sautee well.
– Add the chopped carrot and onion. Let them cook through.
– Add the tomatoes and the can of tomato puree.
– Add oregano, paprika, salt and pepper. Clamp on a lid and let the sauce cook.
– As the sauce cooks, heat another pan with oil.
– Once hot, add the meatballs in small batches and brown.
– Add the meatballs to the sauce and let them cook through. Be patient as this will take some time. You will notice the sauce reduce considerably in quantity. Take off the heat
– Grease a baking tin with butter. Pre-heat the oven to 250 C
– Take out the meatballs and place them in the tin.
– In the sauce, add 1 tbs butter and a ladel of the starch water. Mix well.
– Repeat this twice more untill you see a sheen on the sauce. It will become a thin sauce.
– Add more dried herbs (optional)
– Put the meatballs back in the saucepan along with the penne. Coat pasta and meatballs well.
– Place the mixture in the greased baking tin and cover generously with grated cheese. (I use processed for this)
– Put in oven for 20 minutes.
– Take out once the cheese has melted and cool
– Pack in foil and you’re ready for the picnic!

The pasta bake uncovered!

The pasta bake uncovered!

The view from the top - Pasta bake, biryani, chips and two types of cakes!

The view from the top – Pasta bake, biryani, chips and two types of cakes!

After a soul satisfying day, we saw the sun set at Lodhi Gardens

After a soul satisfying day, we saw the sun set at Lodhi Gardens

Where I go to Eat in Hyderabad

I love travelling to the city of Hyderabad when my work takes me there. And to be fair, it’s pretty often. I don’t want to put a number on it, but my mother is convinced I’m staying there and occasionally come to Delhi to show my face!
My first tryst with the city was way back in 1999 when in the summer my parents took the sister and I on a month-long exploration trip of the Southern part of India. We went to Andhra Pradesh (now broken into AP and Telangana), Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Oh what a glorious month it was. From seeing and visiting historical gems to bathing in the seaside, gorging on local spicy food to learning what Indian history books have neglected in teaching courses. Of course, the trip is etched in my memory because of my first summer crush in the form of a very handsome marine engineer but that’s a story for another time!

The Charminar in Old Hyderabad

The Charminar in Old Hyderabad

Coming to Hyderabad, I remember really liking the city. The hustle and bustle of the old city, the view of the Charminar from the gate, the smells of spices and perfumes, the first old Golconda Fort to the first taste of succulent Hyderabadi biryani. I found the place to be a mix of the modern and old, a combination of what cities should be.
Over the years, every time I go back on work, I feel the city growing rapidly. The suburbs which were empty are now booming IT areas. There are more designer stores and luxury cars but what I love about Hyderabad is that it still retains the grandeur which exists along with the modernity.
It’s never possible to go back to all the places I love eating at in every trip so I try to go to rotate. If I gorge on biryani in one trip, I go to my favourite kebab place on the next one. Here’s a list of my favourite eating spots in Hyderabad. Try out a few on your next trip there and let me know how you like them!

Succulent Mutton Biryani at Hotel Shadab
Located in the Old City near the Charminar and Chowmahalla Palace, this place is buzzing with customers all the time. And why not when they serve the best mutton biryani in the city? Well, at least according to me. Squeeze yourself onto the wooden benches which can be a pain if you haven’t run in a few days and place your order. As the bowl of rice comes to your table the aroma hits you. The server is a pro and serves you a big helping of the biryani along with pieces of the oh-so-succulent mutton. Your mouth waters. Mix the saalan and youghurt with the rice and meat. You’ll know why this place is so popular the moment the first bite hits your taste buds. Finish your meal with a helping of sweet milky tea and you don’t need to eat the whole day.
Pocket pinch: Rs 500 for 2 (approx)

Oh the gorgeous biryani

Oh the gorgeous biryani

Try the keema samosa with milky tea

Try the keema samosa with milky tea

Fried Chicken at Siddique Kabab Centre
There are four locations across the city and they serve the best fried chicken kebabs one can have. I end up going to the one near Kondapur because work is nearby. Pay at the counter and take a coupon. The smell of freshly grilled chicken is everywhere. Of course they have other kebabs but go there for the fried chicken. They serve a half plate with eight big pieces. It’s fried in front of your eyes by a pro with asbestos hands. He places the piping hot pieces on your plate and all you need is a roti to go with the gorgeous red pieces of chicken.
Pocket pinch: Rs 400 for 2

Fried Chicken kebabs with rotis

Fried Chicken kebabs with rotis

Rayalaseema Ruchulu for Regional Delicacies
They have outlets in the city and you must visit one to eat the food from the Rayalaseema region. Hot, spicy and delicious, I try to go back on every single visit. My favourite is the Gongura Mamsam or mutton cooked with Sorrel leaves. For an appetizer, try the Miryala Royyalu (prawns with pepper) because it just gets the taste buds going. It has the right amount of tanginess which bodes well with steamed rice. My recommendation is to try the platter which has goat, chicken and brain. It gives you a taste of what the food in the region is like.
Pocket pinch: Rs 1500 for 2

The platter where one can sample mutton, brain and chicken

The platter where one can sample mutton, brain and chicken

Prawns with spices

Prawns with spices

Breakfast at Chutney’s
There are a ton of dosa joints all over the city but I love going to an outlet of Chutney’s just for their namesake chutneys! Order yourself a steamed dosa or idly and gorge on them with a big helping of the different chutneys kept on every table. They are tasty, thick in consistency and each one has a unique flavour. What I also love about their presentation is they serve the food on banana leaves!
Pocket pinch: Rs 700 for 2

Breakfast with different chutneys

Breakfast with different chutneys

Time to let go of that diet?

Time to let go of that diet?

Kebabs at Paradise
Biryani from Paradise is synonymous with Hyderabad. Though I don’t go there often, one must say when I have to bring back Hyderabadi biryani to Delhi, they do a marvelous job in packaging. Packed in sturdy boxes, there’s no chance of leakage. All one has to do is heat the meal at home and devour a taste of Hyderabad. Personally, more than the biryani, their kebabs deserve an ovation. From the mutton pepper to mutton sheek to the kalmi kebab, each take centre stage.
Pocket pinch: Rs 700 for 2

Little pieces of happiness

Little pieces of happiness

All for me? Oh well, thank god I run!

All for me? Oh well, thank god I run!

PS: If you think I should try out something new, do let me know! I know I’ll be back in Hyderabad again very soon!

Food in Calcutta: Tiretti Bazaar’s Chinese Breakfast

 

Homemade Chinese delicacies

Homemade Chinese delicacies

The steaming bowl of broth and fish balls beckoned invitingly. The woman who had set up her stall by the roadside looked at her container on the fire that kept the soup warm for customers. She had just ladled out a serving along with handmade fish balls in a red bowl keeping up with the Christmas week celebrations. I bent down to smell the contents. All it needed was the customary decking with soy and it was ready. The table next to her is always kept ready with seasonings and cutlery. Break the generous fish ball and take a bite. Wash it down with the hot broth and that’s when you realise why you made that early morning journey to Tiretti Bazaar in Central Calcutta (Kolkata). (Do pardon me but I’m used to calling the city I grew up in Calcutta and not Kolkata).

The steaming soup container

The steaming soup container

Recently a lot has been written and discussed about the unique Chinese Breakfast in Calcutta. Many have called it a recent discovery while some have ventured out to try the food because of the visibility on social media. But for the old timers, it’s a matter of habit. I was introduced to Poddar Court about 10 years ago on a chilly winter morning by a dear friend. Having picked me up from home in the wee hours, we drove through the empty roads to reach the central part of the city.

Fish ball soup and Pork Bun

This time round when I visited home for Christmas and impromptu brekkie plans were made, I realised I was going there with the same friend. We were older but not wiser, yet our appetite for Chinese food remained the same!

Get them buns steaming hot. You get a choice between chicken and pork

Get them buns steaming hot. You get a choice between chicken and pork

You can shop for wallets as you devour pork spring rolls!

You can shop for wallets as you devour pork spring rolls!

Years ago, Chinese immigrants made Calcutta their home. They brought their food and culture to the expanding city and today, they form a unique part of Calcutta’s cultural heritage. As Chinese restaurants blossom, a visit to Tiretti Bazar will give you a taste into delicious homemade Chinese delicacies. From dumplings filled with minced meat to steaming buns with homemade fillings, sausages to prawn crackers, delicate broths to deep fried meat balls.

As you enter the road, you’re greeted with the view of a market. Fresh roses the flower seller sets up are gorgeous and red. Walk further down and you encounter fresh vegetables and greens – from bok choy to Chinese cabbage. Then you have the meat and fish sellers showcasing their wares and finally, the smell of steaming dumplings tell you you’ve reached your destination. The number of sellers has dwindled over the years but that does not stop a handful of enthusiasts from selling their homemade delicacies every single day no matter the weather. “Even if it’s raining, you will find one of us at least selling food so that no one goes back empty handed,” said the man who sells crumbed spring rolls along with wallets. The stalls are set up early in the morning, about 5ish and they wrap by when their stocks run out, which is pretty early if I can add. If you decide to come here at your leisure, you’ll be disappointed. The earlier you arrive, the more food you will get!

Steamed dumplings

Steamed dumplings

You want more? There's plenty!

You want more? There’s plenty!

Work never ends. Preps for the buns start in the evening while for items like dumplings and rolls, early morning plays a crucial role. As I dug into fish ball soup, prawn spring rolls, pork and fish dumplings and steaming pork baos, I craved roasted pork. If you want to try it, make sure you go there on the weekends because that’s the only time you’ll get it. If you’re in Calcutta and want to do something local, eating Chinese breakfast at Tiretti Bazaar must be on your to-do list!

Get some sausages to cook at home!

Get some sausages to cook at home!

Buy what goes into the sausage so you can attempt making them yourself!

Buy what goes into the sausage so you can attempt making them yourself!

After breakfast, why don't you complete your veggie shopping too?

After breakfast, why don’t you complete your veggie shopping too?

The roses that greet you when you enter and leave the breakfast road!

The roses that greet you when you enter and leave the breakfast road!

PS: Pocket pinch for 2 hungry eaters: Rs 300 approx
How to reach: Nearest metro station is Central. The food place is walking distance with the help of strangers whom you’ll have to ask for directions. If driving, then park in front of Poddar Court, near Lal Bazar

Of Ladakh and Dreams

The hills are alive!

The hills are alive!

“Julley, julley.” A chorus of greetings made me look up from my laptop. The adorable faces of school children smiling at me and waving their hands made me break out in a huge smile. It was then that it dawned – I was in Leh! Finally, after years of dreams and wishes, I was sitting on a rickety chair and typing away in the garden of my guesthouse situated at the edge of Leh market.

The gorgeous house amidst nature

The gorgeous house amidst nature

Well, yes I was there for work (the busy laptop reference) but to get to spend your birthday in Ladakh – I mean, how much better can it get right? I kept my notes aside for a bit and looked up at the sky. The Shanti Stupa up on the hill beckoned as I sipped masala chai and zipped up the jacket. It was mid-August and the tourist season was full on. But, yet there was a sense of calm. A feeling of just you and the mountains. I would love to do a road trip from Manali to Leh but instead I had to fly. So, as it was my first day in Leh, I was advised to not start exploring but just get acclimatised.

Steaming momos are perfect in the evenings

Steaming momos are perfect in the evenings

“Sleep, eat and sip water,” had said my father. I heeded his advice because in spite of not doing anything, I felt tired. “Are you up to exploring the market?” asked N, another guest. Feeling refreshed after a good sleep and chai, we went. We took the short but inclined path up to the main road and then started walking down the winding road that led to the market. Fleece jackets, sleeping bags, sweaters, shawls, binoculars, bikes for rent, bakeries, the smell of fresh momos; it seemed one could find anything they wanted. All one had to do was search.

Will you touch the top?

Will you touch the top?

Picture perfect
For years photographs of the pristine surroundings, the unbelievably elegant monasteries, the clear blue sky, the vast expanse of desert mountains had intrigued me. And I wasn’t disappointed. As the sun slowly set, lights lit up Leh. It was magical of sorts, the way you see Paris light up from the Eiffel Tower, similarly as the cold hit your face and the lights from the shops around you reflect in your eyes, you can’t help but shiver in anticipation of the coming days.

The desert mountains, Magnetic Hill

The desert mountains, Magnetic Hill

We all have bucket lists. And everyone wishes to cross off ‘visit Ladakh’ from that. But if you get to cross off ‘biking in Ladakh’ on your birthday, that’s just a bonus! One can rent bikes in plenty all over the market. But try to get to the shop early or during the tourist season you’ll be left disappointed. And there’s no better way to feel amongst nature if you’re not biking down the empty road with the wind in your hair. Just to clarify, I’m not that great with bikes though I love them. So thanks to the kindness of three guests at the guesthouse, we set off on two bikes towards Magnetic Hill.

Evenings in Leh

Evenings in Leh

Touching the clouds, almost

Touching the clouds, almost

Reaching the top
If I’m brutally honest, it was a dream come true. We travel far and wide for exotic vacations yet fail to appreciate our own backyard. Ladakh is what dreams are made of, where every frame is postcard perfect. The perfect contrast among the blue, brown, green and yellow – one is simply mesmerised. Many suffer from motion sickness and at times, I do too. But the roads here, they way they’ve been paved, never lets you feel that way. You can be on the road for hours going up the mountains and yet, never feel ill.

Scenes from a walk

Scenes from a walk

Due to lack of time and acclimatisation, I couldn’t visit Nubra Valley or Khardung La but instead I made my way to the lesser known Worry La (Wari La) at 17400 feet. The scenic views going up are spectacular. You feel you’re going to the top of the world. If that’s the feeling I got at 17400 feet, I can’t even begin to describe what Mt Everest would feel like. You nibble on the wonderful dried apricots and keep yourself hydrated as you approach the top. The Tibetan prayer flags wave proudly in the wind as the breeze hums a song. At a distance you could see snow. Just two days before Khardung La had experienced snowfall which resulted in a drop in temperature. As I zipped up my fleece and added a second layer of protection, I couldn’t help but want to go to where the snow was. A distance which would have taken me five minutes in normal circumstances, took me about 20. The melting snow made little puddles, each breath made me tired. But I finally touched snow! And it made me the happiest I’ve been in a long long time. As I looked up, the mountain range called out to me. The peaks played hide and seek with the clouds.

Almost there

Almost there

The view from Leh Palace

The view from Leh Palace

The smiles
As I recollect, these memories make me smile. The warmth of the people in Leh, their ever-ready smiles to make you feel welcome, proud of the region. There is no sense of regret. “It’s hard but that’s how you live,” said one local tour operator, who goes down to the plains during the harsh winters. People from all over India come to Leh looking for temporary jobs. Some work in restaurants, some help tourists. But not once do they complain. “Mehendi?” As I refuse, the young lady with a small child smiles at me. Sitting in a corner near a curio shop, she hails from Rajasthan. “Money here is good. This is my second year here. I make more money here in few months than what I make back home,” she says, the colourful bangles jingling on her wrists.

Blooming

Blooming

As I turned the prayer wheels at Shanti Stupa, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘would I be happy if I was in a similar position?’ People forget what a privilege it is to be able to travel and see the world, to meet different people and hear their stories. And I wouldn’t give it up for  anything.

A view of the valley

A view of the valley

The never-ending road

The never-ending road

Of flags and the sky

Of flags and the sky

In Photos: Good morning Taj!

Living in Delhi has many perks. The best one – tons of places to travel to in a moment’s notice. And the closest drive is to Agra – home of the Taj Mahal.

I remember a friend telling me years ago how her fiance stood at the gate, enthralled by the Taj’s beauty. How he vowed to go back but never found the time since. Well, I’ve travelled to Agra a few times but I have to admit, the best time to see the magnificent structure is at the crack of dawn. As the sky changes colours, the sun decides to peak from behind the clouds, the sylvette of the marble mausoleum beckons. I can’t describe in words you gorgeous the sight is.

It was a couple of weeks ago that two friends and I decided to drive down to Agra to see the sunrise. After a night of stuffing ourselves silly with chicken and pulao (a side of beer too!), we left Delhi for Agra down the new Yamuna Expressway. It’s pretty much a straight and fast drive. We made it just in time as the sun slowly rose spreading warmth and light.

— — —

Tea, always welcome on the road!

Tea, always welcome on the road!

Entering the Taj from the West gate

Entering the Taj from the West gate

Isn't that a gorgeous sight!

Isn’t that a gorgeous sight!

Catching a glimpse of the peak!

Catching a glimpse of the peak!

Good morning Taj!

Good morning Taj!

Turning back!

Turning back!

A long way away!

A long way away!

Shining bright!

Shining bright!

Exploring the grounds

Exploring the grounds

— — —

PS: The Taj Mahal was commissioned to be built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal who had died during childbirth a year before. The white marble mausoleum was completed in 1648 while it took another five years for the surrounding gardens and structures to be completed.

Iftar at Jama Masjid

Delhi summers are humid. Getting out of the cool air-conditioned metro and up the escalator, the humid weather decides you are its long lost friend. It engulfs you, leaves you drenched and yet, no matter how hot it is, just the thought of iftar (the evening meal at sunset when Muslims break their fast during Ramzan) keeps your legs moving forward one step at a time.

The last rays of the sun

The last rays of the sun

Old Delhi is crowded like it usually is. I hop, skip and jump where I can see a relatively empty stretch of the pavement. But then again I’m forced to step on to the road in front of the million rickshaws jostling for space. The narrow street leads to Jama Masjid. I cross shops selling invitation cards and bathroom taps at wholesale rates, sellers shouting out their wares, old men trying to pack up after a day’s hard work. A little boy almost crashed into me trying to run as fast his legs would carry him towards Jama Masjid, to make it in time for the prayer call.

Crowded street in front of Jama Masjid

Crowded street in front of Jama Masjid

It’s not easy to navigate the streets of Old Delhi but once you make it to the front of the Masjid, the incredible smells from every nearby shop leaves you gloriously hungry. A chef frying pieces of potatoes coated with semolina, a fruit seller chopping up melons, bananas and apples to keep plates ready in time, the dipping of the raw samosas into piping hot oil in a gigantic wok…

Heaps and heaps of sewai

Heaps and heaps of sewai

Iftar was scheduled at 7.25pm. As I waited in front of the Masjid, I saw families and friends buying dried fruits and bottled sherbets and the fried goods in bulk. Some had water bottles in their hands just in case they couldn’t manage to eat anything on time to break their fast.

Dried fruit sellers breaking their fast

Dried fruit sellers breaking their fast

The sun’s rays slowly gave way to dusk. The sky changed colours… from a pale blue, the minarets stood out against a fiery red, then burnt orange and finally, fairy lights lit up in the black darkness. It was time to eat.

As the prayer calls rang out, I saw many scramble up the stairs into the mosque. Most mosques serve free iftaar in the form of fruits and savouries. My friend and I made our way to the opposite alley from where the delicious smells tantilised me as I waited for her arrival. There was so much to choose from. We sat at Al-Jawahar, a really great eating joint for Mughlai food, and dug into the little fried goods and fruit platters. A nice refreshing rose flavoured sherbet with lime followed.

Few steps from the eatery we came across a shop selling Shahi Tukra, a mouthwatering sweet dish of bread dipped in syrup and dried fruits. We washed that down with cold almond milk as perspiration dripped down our backs.

Delicious hot fried goodness and fruits to break the fast

Delicious hot fried goodness and fruits to break the fast

“You have to eat the mutton samosa,” said Zubina excitedly. “They are just so good.” Unfortunately after a good half hour after iftaar began and wolfing down sweets like there was no tomorrow, the mutton samosas remained elusive. We have to leave something for the next time we go back after all!

Shahi tukda. Deliciously sweet

Shahi tukra. Deliciously sweet

Fairy lights light up Jama Masjid

Fairy lights light up Jama Masjid

Calcutta street food: Five must-have delicacies

Every city is defined by its culinary aspirations, more contextually, its street food. What the common man eats during a hard day’s work, what the local woman snacks on during a break, what school going children can afford after their tiffin money is over. Every city has a famous type made popular by tourists. Delhi has its kebabs and chaats, Indore has chirwa while for Bombaywalas, their vada pav is a heavenly concoction.

I recently went home to Calcutta (or now known as Kolkata). It’s difficult to put a finger on what exactly makes Calcutta street food stand out so. I think it’s because of the vast range good solid cheap street food that the city offers. Yes, you have the world famous Flurys and Nizams, but ultimately it’s the quality and range of street food which defines a city. Every visitor reads up on what to eat and what to do, but having lived in the city for a sufficient number of years, after walking in almost every by-lane and eating almost everything the gorgeous city has to offer, Calcutta food makes me nostalgic. You can try eating at a Bengali restaurant and you can go to the ‘Bengali area’ in your city, but for the food which offers its heart and soul in every bite, you have to visit Calcutta. Divine, delectable and heavenly on your taste buds, from puchkas to kati rolls, chops and cutlets to shingara-kachori and mughlai parathas to Chinese breakfasts, Calcutta food leaves you wanting, no, craving for more.

Whenever I visit Calcutta, there are a few places I make a beeline for. Although this time home was a short visit and I couldn’t eat everything, I managed to squeeze in time for what I call ‘my food’.

Sandwich paradise

Sandwich store near New Market

Sandwich store near New Market

If you find yourself in the New Market area, take a quick detour towards Lindsey Street and stop by NV Stores. It’s a small sandwich shop which offers you a vast range of fillings and sauces, grilled or loaf creations all under 100 rupees ($1.50). My favourite is the vegetable loaf sandwich for 30 rupees ($0.50). They cut open a fresh load of bread, slather butter and mustard and add vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, onions, cucumbers, carrots and even fresh coriander. It’s heated for about 30 seconds till nice and warm. Wash it down with a glass of mango lassi. You won’t be hungry before dinner, trust me. I couldn’t visit the ‘office para’ or Dalhousie area during this trip but there’s a small sandwich cart behind Gillanders office building which makes one of the meanest cheese sandwiches I’ve had. It will give any proper establishment a run for its money.

Puchkas, need I say more!

Yummy, can't have enough of puchkas!

Yummy, can’t have enough of puchkas!

You can try golgappes in Delhi and panipuri in Mumbai and even batashes in Lucknow, but they all pale in comparison to Calcutta puchkas. After years of research I’ve come to decide that the best puchkas the city offers is NOT found in VP or Vivekananda Park but opposite Max Mueller Bhavan on Rowland Road. Second comes the ones found at the Elgin Road-Woodburn Park crossing. The tangy tamarind water which accompanies deep fried flour balls with mashed potato stuffing that has been seasoned by a whole lot of spices, oh my mouth waters as I write this. It takes some time getting used to if you’ve never had it before but you’ll be addicted I tell you. There have been great debates on the different versions found in different cities but the one thing Calcuttans are passionate about is food. They make sure their puchka voice is heard!

Deep fried goodness – the telebhaja

Deepfrying delicious telebhajas

Deepfrying delicious telebhajas

Every state has a version of fried fritters accompaniments during tea, but Calcutta’s version of telebhaja is hard to beat. Calcuttans love deep fried food and they love to deep fry anything. Evening tea is never complete without onion, potato, brinjal, cauliflower or chilly fritters. Vegetables finely cut and coated with a besan (gram flour) mixture, then deep fried till golden, ah the crunchy delight to be able to bite into one. Telebhaja vendors are found in every street but my favourite place is near the Chandni Chowk metro station.

Secrets of a kati roll

The textures are just right

The textures are just right

Every city has a version of the kati roll. But no one makes it better than the Calcuttans. You can have a vegetable roll with potatoes and beetroot or a chicken one with spices and onions, you won’t regret it. Rolls are a staple in Calcutta so they are not overpriced as the ones found in Bombay or Delhi. You will get any roll under 100 rupees ($1.50). My favourite is the chicken egg roll found in a small kiosk in front of Anita Medicine house in Northern Park. They make the parathas just right, not too crispy or too thin. The egg is cooked with the paratha and the chicken mixture added later. With a squeeze of lime and salt, this divine creation must be a must-have. Also, if you’re in the mood for spicy beef rolls, head to the Park Circus crossing or near Statesman House.

The jhal in muri

Not a great picture, but he's making a bhel puri, a sweeter version of the jhal muri

Not a great picture, but he’s making a bhel puri, a sweeter version of the jhal muri

Jhal literally translates in English to hot while muri is puffed rice. So the jhal muri concoction hits the right note when you’re eager for a snack. Popularly called masala muri, the vendor adds onions, tomatoes, potatoes, lime, tamarind, salt, spices, oil, peanuts, chillies, coconut and/or a sweet sauce to the muri. Finally topped off with coriander leafs and bhujia, it comes to you at about rupees 30-40. ($.60)

PS: I add this because they are found in every nook and corner of Calcutta, and extremely tasty at that!

Steaming momos

Perfect for the evening snack

Perfect for the evening snack

Well the rise in popularity of momos – steamed or fried dumplings stuffed with chicken, pork or vegetables from North Eastern India – have been massive in recent years. Suddenly every street has a momo-seller. They serve you the delights straight from the steamer along with a piping hot bowl of clear soup and a red hot fiery sauce made from tomatoes, chillies and garlic. Extremely filling and easy on the pockets (about 20-30 rupees or less than $0.50 for a plate), there’s nothing like a plate of momos during the evenings.

Stumbling upon the Royal Cemetery in Bangkok

Bangkok is only about two hours away from Pattaya. Take the highways, drive fast and you’re there even earlier. I had chosen to stay near Jomtien beach, away from the hustle and bustle of South Pattaya. After all, when you’re in Thailand for three days, a stopover really before you head to Cambodia, you really want to dive into the pristine blue sea and swim away all tensions.

The temple entrance

The temple entrance

But, I did decide to head to Bangkok for a day just to see what the city was about. Ever since I swayed to ‘Shall we dance’ from The King and I, the name Siam conjured up images of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr dancing away to their hearts content. But that was as a child when Hollywood had captured my heart. I’ve always been eager to go to Thailand, not because I love the cuisine, but also to discover the beautiful places.

If I’m honest, the first impression of Bangkok really didn’t set my heart on fire like I had hoped it would. I did the touristy stuff – visiting the Royal Palace, the Emerald Buddha, Golden Buddha… but it was an unexpected discovery which made my day. It was hot and humid and I did feel dehydrated. But just the fact that I walked into the Royal Mausoleum on the one day in the year when it’s open to the public according to the Lunar calendar (without any prior knowledge) made me smile. This is what travelling is about isn’t it?

So peaceful

So peaceful

Gothic architecture in Thailand

Gothic architecture in Thailand

Not a must-see attraction, the Wat Ratchabopit, or Royal Cemetery, is peaceful and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle cities are associated with. Located just a few minutes away from the Royal Palace, the peace welcomes you. The memorials dedicated to Thai royalty are so varied. From Gothic to Indian to Thai, the architecture of the different memorials seem to have been inspired from many styles. When I walked around the memorials, I was alone. No tourists, no cameras, just me. There is no entrance fee but you do get asked ‘how did you find out about this place?’ And you say, ‘by chance’ with a smile.

The main temple inside was shut for the public till 2pm because of prayers. Apparently there were a lot of visitors early morning because the Royal couple had come to offer prayers to the ancestors.

Inside the temple complex

Inside the temple complex

Now let me tell you something. Everything yellow you see in the complex is gold. Yes, it’s not coloured in gold paint to impress tourists.

The gold shining in the sun

The gold shining in the sun

Once you enter the main temple, you’re left amazed at the art work because everything is done by hand. The doors have inlaid work in pearls, gold statues of Buddhas in different postures are found around the temple. Go inside and the red carpet is so lush. It’s so quiet there that one can spend hours just sitting and gazing. See the monks talking to youngsters as they try to imbibe their words of wisdom.

It’s always wonderful to discover something new and to stumble upon something so beautiful by chance, brings me great joy.

Details on the walls, all by hand

Details on the walls, all by hand

The ceiling inside

The ceiling inside

Words of wisdom

Words of wisdom

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