A foodie’s note on Darjeeling

The trip was completely unexpected and I had only a day and a half to explore this amazing town in West Bengal. Exhausted by the long trip I decided to crash into a restaurant first before any sightseeing. In the case of eateries this town would never disappoint a hungry traveller. Be it the chai at Chowrasta or a filling chicken platter at Keventers, Darjeeling has a lot to offer to its visitors. It was just when I was about to gulp down my first ever bowl of Thukpa that I decided to dig the town for more such experiences.

Thukpa – Kunga Restaurant

Kunga

Kunga served me my first ever bowl of Thukpa, and it was utterly delicious. Run by a Tibetan family this restaurant definitely shares the warmth to its customers. Amidst the homely banter you can enjoy some of the most authentic Tibetan dishes here.

Location: Gandhi Road

Momos, steamed- Dekavas

Momos, steamed- Dekavas

Dekavas

Situated quite near to the Kunga, this place serves great Momos. Boiled or fried, chicken or mutton they have all the different varieties of them you can possibly imagine.

Location: Gandhi Road

Chicken Platter - Keventers

Chicken Platter – Keventers

Keventers

Definitely one of the most popular restaurants in Darjeeling, this one has a legacy of its own. Breakfast at Keventers is always in the to do list of every tourist. Situated at the Hill Cart road leading to the famous Chowrasta, the location itself makes it special for filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Anurag Basu. The chicken platter here turned out to be an absolute knockout.

Location: Hill Cart Road, Chauk Bazaar

Naga platter with chicken and pork - Revolver

Naga platter with chicken and pork – Revolver

Revolver

Revolver is not a restaurant in the town. It is a hotel where I stayed. I got interested in the menu, which they offered for the guests. It had the mention of Naga platter and since I have heard a lot about the unique cuisine of Naga’s I decided to try it. A bowl of boiled rice and vegetables accompanied with some Smoked Pork and Chicken with fermented bamboo shoot. The whole meal turned out to be a great delight.

Location: Gandhi Road, Behind Union Chapel

Toast with eggs and lemon-ginger-honey drink - Sonam's Kitchen

Toast with eggs and lemon-ginger-honey drink – Sonam’s Kitchen

Sonam’s Kitchen

Frequented by foreign tourists this restaurant is definitely a must visit if you are looking for simple yet healthy and a tasty breakfast. Try the Lemon-Ginger-Honey drink here and you wont be disappointed.

Location: Dr Zakir Hussain Road

There are lot more restaurants which are popular but I have listed just five of them according to my first hand experience

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Allepey’s Spicy Platter

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Alleppey has always served wonders into the plates of the tourists. One’s Alleppey experience is never complete without trying the rich and spicy Kerala dishes served here. What makes the food here taste so delicious? The answer is simple Alleppey still retains some of the oldest and most authentic Kerala delicacies. Over the years these items has evolved to create a cuisine which is renowned all over the world.

The search for some of most authentic dishes of Alleppey landed me in Kuttanad. Famous for its beautiful back waters and unique below sea level rice cultivation this place is synonymous to the words ‘lush green’ in all its senses. I was travelling to Kainakary village, where I am hoping to meet with the members of Thevercad family, one of oldest Christian families there.

The auto rickshaw which I had hired from Alleppey town came to a sudden halt in front of a water canal. The driver who identified my confused look and explained that from here I had to cross the water canal in a local canoe. George the house owner heartily welcomed me on the other bank. A narrow strip of land bordered with coconut trees separated the Thevarcad family home from the canal. “The house is about 200 years old”, explained George with pride who belonged to the fifth generation of the family tree.

The old home which has been well preserved is now converted into a heritage home stay. The family traditionally depends on farming. The two guest rooms here were once used to store rooms for paddy after the harvest. But since paddy is not stored now these rooms lay vacant. “These were then converted into bedrooms for the guests” explained Bindhu, wife of George who is also the homemaker. “The idea occurred when I had lots of free time after the kids went to school. This was also an excuse to keep the house clean”.

Thevercad Home stay serves authentic Kerala cuisine. The specialty here is the menu which keeps on changing according to the local availability of a particular vegetable or fruit. The place serves some of the signature dishes such as Chakkakuruvum-mangayum (Jack fruit seeds with raw mango) which are only available in the local households. The preparation is also mostly traditional with the use of stone grinders and the even masala used here is also prepared in the house.

I was getting curious to know what will our specialty dishes for the day. Bindhu explained it would be the Kuttanadan Duck Roast and Karimeen Mappas (Pearl Spot fish Curry).

Kuttanadan Duck Roast.

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Duck meat is actually a popular food item in Kuttanad due to its easy availability. The speciality of the Duck is that the meat content in it would be really less when compared to chicken, let’s say for the meat equivalent to one chicken one would have to get three ducks. The meat content also depends upon the season. The dish also had speciality of being a Syrian Christian dish (popularized by the early Christians settled here). A Syrian Christian dish is rich in spices and aroma and holds the essence of Kerala’s rich heritage. The dish is really spicy but its definitely a ‘must try’.

 

Karimeen Mappas (Pearl Spot fish Curry)

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Karimeen or the Pearl spot fish which is the official state fish of Kerala is one of the top choices of every tourist who visits Kuttanad. Here we tried out another typical Syrian Christian delicacy called Mappas. Here a whole fish is cooked along with traditional spices and tomato. This is one of the quickest and healthiest dishes which can be prepared with the Pearl Spot Fish. Although the dish looks very spicy it isn’t. The tangy tomatoes really brings up the taste and appearance of the dish.

Both these are served with Appam a unique Kerala style bread made out of rice.

These are two of the many mouthwatering dishes offered here. The traditional Kerala “Chicken curry is of great demand among the tourists”, says Bindhu. The lunch served here is also very special. The tourists mostly foreigners get to experience the traditional kerala lunch with rice and a variety of different vegetable curries, the dessert, Payasam, also changes in colour and variety every day.

(The homestay has two rooms with the capacity of a four people; two more people can be accommodated with an extra bed. Other than enjoying the sumptuous food the tourists are also taken out to witness the magical sunset in the Vembanad Lake. There is also the facility to go for a village walk, crossing the little streams and the green paddy fields. More info at http://www.thevercad.com )

The article first appeared in Travel and Flavors Magazine

A quick escape into the wilderness

 Writing about a destination which is one of personal favourites is never easy. Your mind is stuffed with lots of memories related to it. Perumthatta a quiet place in Wayanad district gives me goose bumps on my every visit.

Wayanad is the only district in Kerala which has boundaries to its two neighbouring states, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. I began my journey from Chundale a small town en route National Highway 212, which connects Kozhikode (also known as Calicut) to Bangalore. Chundale town is actually a junction where the roads leading to Ootty in Tamil Nadu and Bangalore in Karnataka meet. I decided to travel early in the morning because the morning mist is suppose to make the place all the more attractive. A 2km auto rickshaw ride from Chundale took me to Vellaramkunnu, the nearest bus stop to Perumthatta.

From Vellaramkunnu it would take almost a kilometer to reach my destination. Since the climate was perfect for a morning stroll I decided to walk. A narrow tarred road with houses lining on both the sides, the sight continued until I reached the coffee nursery maintained by the Coffee Research Centre of the Coffee Board. Here researches are conducted to develop new and high yielding varieties of Coffee. The nursery also supplies coffee plants directly to the farmers. It is quite interesting to note that Robusta Coffee the most preferred variety for Italian Coffee namely Espresso is commonly found here as a native variety.

The road slowly led me uphill and suddenly I was travelling through a tea estate. The tea estates in Wayanad have a long legacy behind them. These huge plantations were once owned by the Britisher’s during the colonial era. They found that the small hills locally known as Motta Kunnu (name derived because the shape of a hill resembled an egg shell) were suitable for large scale tea plantations. Wayanad’s peculiar position in the Western Ghats and the cool climate made this possible. Perumthatta too were once part of such a colonial tea estate but is presently known as Padhur tea estate. As I was about to reach Perumthatta a tea worker suddenly rushed past me from nowhere. I realised that since the tea picking is done in the morning she might be late for the estate time. Most of the people here work in the tea estates. The women mostly work as tea pickers.

A tea picker hurrying off to work.

A tea picker hurrying off to work.

The view from site was as always mesmerising. What makes this place so attractive is its beautiful geographical positioning. A lush green valley carefully cradled between two hills, the Chembra Peak and the Manikunnumala. The morning fog which appeared on the different ranges of the Manikunnumala made the scene all the more magical. The Manikunnumala is one of the most ecologically fragile regions of Wayanad catering to the lives large variety of species. While Chembra peak on the other side is a hot trekking destination in the district. The local people were little intrigued by my camera. But when they understood my purpose they were really cooperative, one even posed for my picture.

Workers quarters, a rural health centre, a small temple and a lower primary school all this pretty much makes up the human inhabitancy in Perumthatta. Since the place doesn’t see a high in flow of tourists, it is one of the quietest and clean destinations in Wayanad. Perumthatta may disappoint you if you are looking for elegant cafes and wallet parking for your vehicle. But if you actually want to get lost in the wilderness of my district… be my guest!

How to reach:

Nearest towns are Chundale and Kalpetta. Kalpetta which is almost 5 kms away is also the district headquarters of Wayanad. Since the town enroute NH 212, regular bus services ply between Bangalore and Calicut the nearest cities. Kalpetta is well connected through a good network of Kerala, Interstate and private buses.

The nearest airport is Calicut International Airport. The nearest railway station is also Kozhikode (Calicut).

Tit Bits:

Always carry some snacks and sufficient water if you are planning to make this trip. Although Vellaramkunnu Junction has got some shops, you may not find any tea shops other than the one near tea worker’s quarters.

Respect the locality, since it is not a tourist destination and the locals might seem little intrigued by your presence

Ramasseri Idli: Idlis with a Legacy

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Idli has remained one of the best breakfast snacks of south India. These soft, moist, steamed cakes made with fermented batter made from rice and urad dal can be found in almost all homes and hotels here. There are various variants of this snack according to the shape, size and softness. Some are even named after film stars such as the “Khushboo idli”, named after a Tamil actress. But one small village in Palakkad District, Kerala holds the legacy of making the best Idlis’ in South India. The Ramasseri Village came in to the lime light in the olden times itself as the Idlis’ made by the Mudaliar households (a special section of Tamil Brahmins) could remain fresh and tasty even after 7 days of its preparation. The traditional cooking preserved the idli’s for days without spoil.

What makes Ramasseri Idli special is its shape, feather light texture and an earthy aroma acquired from steam cooking in unglazed clay pots. The preparation is indeed unique. Three eight-inch round clay containers are covered with pieces of wet cotton cloth. A ladle full of batter is poured on each of the prepared clay steamer containers. These are then stacked one over the other, and carefully placed in the steamer. It is then covered with another large blackened pot. Once it is cooked the Idli is carefully served hot in banana leaves with chutney.

Although the traditional clay pots have been replaced by stainless steel ones and the use of high productivity rice varieties has altered the taste, Ramasseri Idli leaves behind the true taste of Indian Villages.

How to reach: Ramasseri is a typical village in Kerala. The nearest town is Palakkad.

There are regular local bus services between Palakkad and Ramasseri but the intervals can be anything between half an hour to one. Palakkad can be reached from any major town in Kerala, through regular bus and train services. 

(Articel first appeared in Travel&Flavors Magazine)

Dharamsala: From the land of Dalai Lama

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I knew I had not made a wrong choice to travel alone as I reached Dharamsala after a long 9-hour bus ride from Delhi. Being a place in high altitude (1400m above sea level) Dharamsala is an amazing little hill town. It was almost sunrise when I reached; I took a room at the guesthouse in lower Dharamsala, which is a quiet economical way to stay. After a short nap, I set out for my adventure.

Dharamsala is geographically divided into two parts. The lower and upper parts.  The lower Dharamsala is commonly called Dharamsala and the upper part is famously known as the McLeodGanj. Major tourist attractions are found here.

A ten minutes ride through the treacherous mountain road in a jam-packed taxi jeep took me to the upper-Dharamsala. It was a vibrant town filled with Indian and Tibetan shops. The narrow lanes filled with roadside vendors and tourists both national and international.  The town, which is situated about 1750m above, the sea level, is named after the then British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, David McLoed. The peculiarity of the town is its geographical position. All the tourist spots situated around McLeodGanj are at a walkable distance.

After a fulfilling Tibetan breakfast I set out to Naddi View point. The Naddi   point is a spectacular place for panoramic pictures of Dharamsala. It gives us a great view of the Naddi villages, where the houses are constructed in the traditional way on steep valleys.

Dharamsala is known for being the head quarters of Dalai Lama who is in exile after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The Dalai Lama temple is the main attraction of McLeodGanj. Here I was welcomed by the slow yet magnetic Buddhist mantras. As the prayer service was going on I could get some shots of the large gathering of monks and other devotees. The mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (this mantra holds the essence of all Buddhist teachings) echoed on the walls. The Buddhist mantras have a way of drawing you inside and filling you with peace and tranquility.

My last spot for the day was Bhagsunag water falls. The 6 km long trek which leads you to the falls is really worth the effort. By the time I returned there was no sign any taxis returning to the lower Dharamsala, since it was Diwali the drivers had returned early leaving me stagnant at the road. It was getting dark, luckily I found a local who was with me in the morning taxi ride. He offered to show me a path used only by the villagers to the lower Dharamsala. Although I was skeptical in the beginning, his words made me confident so I decided to give it a try. We had to trek down a steep valley in pitch darkness, the villager whose name I later found out to be Vignesh understood my difficulty he guided me carefully and patiently through the treacherous path. It took us almost half an hour to reach downhill. It was utterly exhausting; I thanked Vignesh for his help.

The night sky was vibrant as the locals celebrated Diwali in its full fervor. I retired into my cozy hotel room happy that it was a day well spent.

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My second day began with a walk to St. John’s Church, which was about 1 km from McLeodGanj. The then viceroy of British-India built the church. The most attractive feature of the church is the ancient cemetery of the British. The tombstones were beautifully laden along the slope, which over-looks the snow-covered mountains. It was one of the most beautiful and peaceful cemeteries I have ever seen.

By the time I returned from the church I had time for just one more spot so I choose to trek towards Dharamkhot. The place houses a number of meditation centers and the forest cover on one side of the road are indeed picturesque. After having a cup of the famous Darjeeling Chaay (Tea) from a village tea shop I returned, realizing that it was time for my return bus.

My small adventure was coming to an end. As my bus descended I was yearning already to find my new destination.

Food

The streets of McLeodGanj are filled with the coziest restaurants serving Tibetan Indian and also other foreign cuisines. The Tibetan cuisine, which is locally famous, offers you a variety of breads to choose. The most famous snack was Momos, which dumplings actually  stuffed vegetarian or non-vegetarian filings. One can choose between beef mutton and even pork fillings.  Another dish to try is Thukpa, which is actually a kind of soupy noodles with meat chops and vegetables.

Wayanad: In search of Magical Herbs

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Muthuki led the group; with a stick she carefully removed the bushy under forest. “Do not touch this leaf” she would warn me as we moved slowly and silently through the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary, in Kerala. Muthuki knew the forest like the back of her hands and this was the reason why she was leading this small group of Kaattunaikars, to collect the forest herbs. For Kattunaikar an indigenous tribal group, forest is a lifeline. They depend on forest for almost everything.

Vellan another elder in the group suddenly asked the others to stand still and listen. He had caught the smell of an elephant herd grazing nearby. Wild elephants have a peculiar smell which helps to identify their presence. We had already reached the inner forest collecting herbal plants which are then sold out through various tribal societies. Forest herbs are very effective for common body ailments Vellan explained as he carefully used his spade to dig out Chunda a common forest herb. Only certain parts of the plants such as stem or roots are to be used for medicines the rest is abandoned. The group worked as a team one identified the plant another procured it carefully and the others cleaned it only collecting the useful parts. Even some tree fungi were collected which were in turn used as food preservatives.

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The Kattunaikar have immense knowledge about these magical herbs, a knowledge which has never been written down but carefully exchanged by word over several generations.

Well thanks to the so called civilized society, the diminishing forest cover and increasing exploitation of natural resources have adversely affected the lives of these indigenous population. The untold history and heritage of these people is now gaining great significance. Its time that we learn from their ways.

(Original story first appeared in Travel&Flavors Magazine)

Coonoor: Through Mystifying Tea Gardens of Nilgiri

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A trip to Coonoor seemed to be a spontaneous decision for a weekend. Travelling to this small colonial town was a long cherished plan and monsoon obviously added to the thrill. Thus I landed in Coonoor on a drizzling afternoon.  The hill town had somehow preserved its colonial grandeur. The century-old structures were still there amidst exquisite Nilgiri tea gardens. An evening walk upon arrival proved to be the best way to explore the town. I noticed that most of the buildings here are from the colonial era, some well preserved and others wearing down in time. The English names of the places were still retained. It was quite odd to read sign boards which directed me to “Bed Ford” or “Lady Canning’s Seat” in a Tamil town.

A hunt for the famous home-made chocolates led me to the shop named Chocolate Tree. The sight of chocolate buns, cakes and a number of other chocolate delicacies made me realise that I was in the right place to begin with. Thousands of electric lamps formed a shining carpet under an overcast sky as I walked back to my hotel, thinking about the next day. In the next morning, the cab took me to Sims Park, a hundred-year-old botanical garden. The garden established in 1874 has of a large variety of trees from different parts of the world. A stroll through the ancient tree garden was a unique experience.

My journey continued to the two magnificent viewpoints in Coonoor, The Lamb’s Rock and Dolphin Nose. My cab sped cutting a black line through the lush green carpet formed by the tea gardens which seemed to be meticulously placed over the small hills.

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The cab came to a sudden halt, with the driver screaming “Saa..r BISON…”.  Three wild buffalos slowly emerged from the forest surrounding the tea gardens, as I got out of the car. These amazing creatures were grazing freely unnerved by a group of ladies working in the tea gardens. I was informed later that Bisons were a regular sight in the tea estates. This incident had given me a reason to chat with my driver in my poor Tamil and his quirky English. When I expressed my desire to taste the famous Nilgiri tea, he took me to a local tea shop near Dolphin Nose. I had decided that I would make my return trip through the mountain railways. I had heard quite a bit about the legendary rail system begun by the British in 1897 during their rule and the station is en route to the Ooty-Mettupalayam line. Now preserved as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO, the 19-km rail line led me through small rock tunnels to the spectacular views of the Nilgiris.

HOW TO REACH

Road: Bus service available from Coimbatore, Bengaluru and Kozhikode to Ooty. State Transport buses will take you to Coonoor

Rail: Nearest railway station, Coimbatore, 54 km away

Air: Coimbatore Peelamedu Airport

DON’T MISS

  • The delicious and perky homemade chocolates
  • The heritage toy train ride
  • Sree Lakshmi Hotel where you can catch the history of Coonoor on the walls
  • Nilgiri tea

(Article first appeared in Travel&Flavors Magazine)

Chembra Peak Wayanad: Captivating Beauty

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The first sight of her left me charmed. There she was covered in a thin blanket of mist. But my admiration was cut short by a question from my stubborn house owner.  “Sure you wanna go?”

The house owner, a lady, couldn’t digest my idea of trekking Chembra in monsoon.“The path would be all slippery due to the heavy rain. You might also get insect bites,” she frowned.

In fact, the rainy season does not attract many tourists to Chembra due to,…. well all the above reasons. The path would be slippery and trekking would be very difficult. And why should one attempt such a feat? The answer is simple; Chembra, the highest place in Wayanad, Kerala and situated 2,100m above sea level, looks its best during monsoon.

The sky was overcast when I reached Meppadi, a small town near the Chembra peak. From there, I had to travel 7 km to reach the base. Soon I realised that my enthusiasm was not shared by the rickshaw-walas who refused to take me to the base.

“Sir, the road is in a bad shape with potholes all over. We will get stuck on the way,” an auto rickshaw driver said. Whatever the condition of the road, I decided to travel to the base to start trekking the hill.

At my insistence, one driver showed the courage to come with me. It was a bumpy ride and as they said, the road was uneven and full of gutters. After 15 minutes of juggling inside the auto rickshaw, I found myself at the base.  It was drizzling when I got down from the rickshaw. A trekking guide directed me to the nearby watchtower which serves as a base camp for the trek. A two-hour climb awaited me.

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A carved a path welcomed me to the uphill. Narrow streams of icy cold water came trickling down; surrounded by rocks it formed tiny fresh water pools along the way. The trek got a little adventurous where huge rocks blocked the path. The valley has one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. The lake that naturally formed in the shape of a heart is surrounded by plants. It looked like a pebble in the green ocean. For a while standing atop the hill, I forgot about the hardships during the climb, including the leech bites on my leg. There was mist all around but it only made the place look more gorgeous. The mist was clearing up slowly, and Chembra was revealed in all its beauty.

HOW TO REACH

Rail: Nearest railway station, Kozhikode, 78 km away

Air: Karipur International Airport, Kozhikode

Permission from the Meppadi forest office is essential for carrying out trekking activity to the Chembra peak.

(Article first appeared in Travel&Flavors Magazine)

Fort Kochi: Finding the Roots of Kochi

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A century Old Dutch cemetery, a Portuguese church, a basilica built by the Portuguese and rebuilt by the British imagining all these historical monuments in a single place can be hard. But Fort Kochi tucked away in the back waters of Kochi, in Kerala has such an exquisite heritage to offer.

Fort Kochi evolved itself through a series of invasions which happened in the first millennia. The uniqueness of this place is a myriad of popular foreign cultures in the Indian soil. Fort Kochi witnessed three major invasions namely the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. The name itself derived from Fort Emmanuel which was built by the Portuguese which was later destroyed by the Dutch. Fort Kochi also had an active population of Jews until a few years back. Fort Kochi as we see now is collage of Dutch, Portuguese, British and traditional buildings.  A heritage walk through these streets is a must for whoever visiting Kerala.

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Here are some which you should not miss out.

  • Santa Cruz Basilica
  • St. Francis Church
  • Dutch Palace
  • Dutch Cemetery
  • Jewish Synagogue

Tip: Do not hesitate to try your hands on local cuisines, a number of heritage hotels offer the Kerala best sea food you can ever imagine