A candle on the plate

I first visited India 25 years ago, arriving in January 1994. On the day before we left to return to the UK, my wife took me to Shezan, a restaurant in Bangalore’s Lavelle Road. This pleasant thoroughfare is named after a Mr Lavelle, who made his fortune at the (now disused) Kolar gold fields east of Bangalore.

My wife said to me that brilliant biryani, which I ought to try, was served at Shezan. We arrived at the restaurant, which was then housed in a picturesque colonial era bungalow.

Where this bungalow used to stand, there is now a modern office building called Shezan Lavelle. Since this was built, the restaurant has been situated at various other locations in Lavelle Road. Recently in late 2018, the Lavelle Road branch of this eatery has been discontinued. Shezan continues to operate in Cunningham Road, where there has been a branch for many years.

Back in 1994, I looked at the menu at Shezan and noticed that Chateaubriand beef steaks were being offered for the Rupee equivalent of 2 Pounds Sterling. I told my wife that I would have a steak rather than a biryani. After all, good biryanis were available in London, where a Chateaubriand used to cost eight to ten times the price at Shezan. The steak at Shezan was first class, and it continues to be so 25 years later.

Shezan used to be run by a man, who died in late 2018, and his elderly father. When we began bringing our young daughter to Bangalore in the late 1990s, we took her for meals at Shezan. Whatever was ordered for her arrived with a small candle flickering on her plate. The candle was placed in a hollowed out tomato that served as a shade.

In early January 2019, we visited the Shezan in Cunningham Road with our daughter, by now a young lady. The branch is run superbly by Aftab, a son of the recently deceased former owner.

Our daughter ordered a portion of Sholay Kebab, a slightly spicy chicken dish cooked with curry leaves. It arrived with a small candle flickering under a hollowed out tomato shell. Remarkably, the kindly Aftab had remembered our daughter after not having seen her since she was a small child.

The Old year in flames

The ending of the old year and beginning of the new one is celebrated all over the world in a variety of ways and at different times of the modern calendar. For example, the Chinese, the Gujaratis, the Parsis, the Jewish people, and the Russian Orthodox all celebrate the start of a new year on different dates. People, whatever their personal beliefs, also celebrate the end of the year on the 31st of December.

Cochin, which is a historic port in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was a Portuguese colony for a while in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Papaanji (spelling varies!) is named after a Portuguese word meaning ‘old man’.

Every year, a giant Papaanji is erected in a centrally located open space in historic Fort Cochin. During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the Papaanji is stuffed full of dry straw and fireworks. The roads around the open space are closed to motorised traffic. Despite this, a few youths on motor bikes manage to enter illegally.

After sunset and during the evening of the 31st of December, the area around the Papaanji fills with vendors and ever increasing numbers of people. Some of these merrymakers wear masks and others wear glowing red devil’s horns.

During the few minutes before midnight on the 31st, unbelievable numbers of people gather. The strong tide of people resembles a powerful surge of water such as you might expect if a large dam has just been breached. The crowd adds much noise to the cacophony of sound being relayed over various loudspeakers. Several times, I was almost knocked over by this human tsunami.

At midnight, the crowd became even noisier when flames began leaping from the ignited Papaanji. First, I could only see billowing clouds of smoke. Soon, frightening flames became visible. Then, bursts of stars appeared as the fireworks exploded.

Within minutes, the conflagration and fireworks ended. The old year, represented by the Papaanji, had been burnt out to make way for the new one. The crowds began to thin out a little, but despite that, it was quite hazardous trying to leave the area.

For an hour or two after midnight, boisterous revellers created much noise in the streets. The whole affair seemed to be generally good natured.

I am glad that I have seen the Papaanji aflame, but once in a lifetime is enough for me.

Indian way of worship

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were to replace the crucifix with an effigy of a Hindu deity and were to remove the crosses from the diya stands, the chapel would become identical to a Hindu temple.

The use of diyas and also agarbati sticks (incense sticks) is not confined to Hindu temples. I have seen them used in Christian as well as Islamic (especially Sufi) and Jain places of worship.

At a Sufi shrine at Sarkej Rauza on the edge of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I have seen tulsi leaves being sold. These are commonly associated with Hinduism, but the vendor in the Sufi shrine told me that they were also used by worshippers who came to the shrine.

I have seen threads tied around the trunks of peepal trees by pious Hindu women hoping to have their wishes granted. I have also seen threads tied by women around pillars in Moslem shrines for the same reason.

Hinduism was probably one of the earliest religious belief systems to become evident in the Indian subcontinent. Christianity and Islam were relatively recent arrivals. Many Hindus converted to these two religions, but, I imagine, they were reluctant to abandon their Hindu heritage completely. Hence, the Hindu-ness or Indian-ness of some aspects of other religions in India.

What do you expect?

We have been staying in a medium priced, by no means cheap or low-budget, guest house at a popular place in the southwest of India.

For several mornings, there was no hot water coming from the taps in our bathroom. Usually, the problem was resolved after mentioning the it to the man looking after our guest house. We were paying an amount per night at which it was reasonable to be able to have hot water without first having to ask for it.

One morning, we asked a fellow guest, an Indian, whether there was hot water in his bathroom. He said that there was none. When we said to him that in accommodation of this calibre hot water should be available as a matter of routine, he said: “There must be a problem. These things happen occasionally.” After a few moments, he added: “What do you expect? This is India.”

His bland acceptance of low standards and feeling that these were to be expected of his country do little to move India forward in a positive way.

Coffee with ginger

Cochin is a port on the Malabar coast. It provided a haven and home for people from all over the world, including Arabic traders. Now, it attracts foreign tourists from all over the world. This article is about a legacy of the Arab settlers.

I have occasionally drunk coffee flavoured with cardamom in Arabic restaurants. This drink is identical to Turkish coffee but is subtly tinged with cardamom.

An article, published on 28th December 2018 in the Hindu Metroplus (Cochin edition), alerted us to the existence of Kava Kada, a tiny café next to the Mahalari Masjid (mosque) in the Mattancherry district of Cochin in Kerala (India). The café is literally a hole-in-the-wall in the side of the masjid, a few feet away from the main minaret.

A small, aged glass counter-top display cabinet contains a few fried snacks including batter covered fried bananas. There are a couple of very low benches for customers to sit on. The owner of the café stands behind the counter surrounded by metal pots and a gas stove.

This tiny outlet is famed for its Arabian style ‘kava’. This coffee is served in small thick-walled glasses. I have never tasted coffee like this. At first, I thought I was drinking biryani flavoured sweetened coffee. It was delicious. Quite unlike any other coffee that I have drunk, this kava is flavoured with dry ginger, cloves, sugar, cardamom, black pepper, and other spices.

The café is located close to a bustling intersection of two main roads. Cars, two-wheelers, autorickshaws, and small trucks whizzed passed us a few inches away from where we were sitting. Two goats wandered past, seemingly unconcerned by the traffic.

The coffee shop was set up long ago by the now aged Kochumuhammad, who, as a boy, was taught by Arab migrants how to prepare the special kava. For the past 20 years, the shop has been run by one of his 26 grandchildren, a man called Riyaz.

We spent about 10 minutes sipping our coffee, which is good for the throat, so an autorickshaw driver told us. During our brief stay, there was a steady stream of customers buying kava.

I am very grateful to the intern Amala Rose Boben, who wrote the newspaper article, for alerting us to this fascinating little coffee house.

Disabled drivers

During our very recent stay in the Cochin/Ernakulam region of Kerala in the south of India, we encountered two drivers with disabilities.

The first was in central Ernakulam. He was the chauffeur working for a friend. His right arm was encased in surgical plaster of Paris from above his elbow to his finger tips. He drove well despite having only one functioning arm. Luckily for him, he was driving a car with automatic gear changing.

We met the second driver twice in picturesque Fort Cochin. He wore a surgical support collar around his neck. It was khaki in colour and matched his khaki autorickshaw driver’s uniform jacket.

The first time we were driven by him, we noticed his collar, but made no reference to it. The next time he stopped to pick us up, we asked him about the collar, guessing that he might have been involved in accident. We were not expecting his explanation.

The poor fellow related that when his wife had deserted him for reasons that he did not tell us, he had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, his attempt failed because now his wife has returned to him.

Stay away from the windows

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Many years ago sometime during the 1980s, I spent New Year’s Eve in Belgrade, which was then the capital of a country that no longer exists: Yugoslavia.

I was staying with my good friend Raša. He enjoyed a good party. We set out to attend one in New Belgrade, which was built after WW2 on the left bank of the River Sava, a tributary of the Danube.

The air was chilled when we left Dorčol, the old part of the city where Raša lived. There was an odour in the wintry air that I always remember: the smell of the smoke from the lignite that was burned in central heating units in the city.

As we travelled in the tram towards New Belgrade, my friend explained that many retired military personnel lived in New Belgrade. Many of these people kept guns and rifles in their flats.

Raša advised me to keep off the balcony and well away from windows as the last midnight of the year approached. The reason for this was that as the new year began, drunken people would begin firing their weapons to celebrate. There was a good chance both of being struck by poorly aimed bullets and by others that ricocheted when they struck walls and so on.

Midnight came and went, but I cannot remember hearing any gunshots. Maybe I had imbibed too much vodka and other highly alcoholic drinks such as sljivovitz and loza!

Now, Yugoslavia is only a fond memory as is my friend Raša. I last saw him in May 1990. He passed away several years later after having done much work to help refugees caught up in the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia apart.

Let loose in the kitchen

There is no love sincerer than than the love of food

George Bernard Shaw

Most people think highly of their mother’s cooking. Many people thought highly of my mother’s cooking. She was an early disciple of Elizabeth David, the cookery book writer who introduced Mediterranean cuisine to British kitchens.

My mother regarded our kitchen as her territory. Being highly protective of my sister and me, she would not let us near the cooker nor sharp knives. However, she was quite happy to have us accompany her in the kitchen for two main reasons. One was to give her company while she cooked. Another was to do the washing up of crockery and cutlery. I did not much mind keeping her company, but washing up was not much fun.

Eventually, in the 1960s we acquired a dishwashing machine. This did not prove to be much of a labour saving device because my mother insisted on us, often me, washing every item before putting them in the machine. And, unloading the dishwasher and stacking everything away was as time consuming as washing up manually.

Sadly, my mother died young in 1980. By then, my sister had left home. As my father had no interest in cooking, the kitchen became my own territory. At last, I could begin to use the cooker and all of the kitchen utensils that my poor mother had guarded so jealously. This did not compensate for losing a beloved parent, but it did open a new door in my life experience: the art of food preparation.

My love of cooking commenced. At first, I followed recipes from an excellent series of cookbooks published by the Sainsbury’s supermarket company. Then, I experimented with Indian food guided by a cookbook written by Madhur Jeffrey. Later, I made use of a very practical Chinese recipe book written by Ken Hom and published by the BBC. For middle eastern dishes, I was guided by the well-known Claudia Rosen, who has also written a very good book of Italian recipes, and a superb one by the lesser known Arto Haroutian. For Hungarian food, the book by George Lang is hard to beat. Since marriage, I have been guided in the art of cooking by my wife, who is a superb cook.

I suppose that over the years I have become a ‘foodie’. ‘Foodie-ism’ seems to run in my family. My sister, a very competent cook, ran a restaurant in Italy for about 15 years; she was the chef. My mother’s sister was an excellent chef and her two children, my cousins, have inherited her culinary skills. Our daughter has also inherited the foodie gene, both from me and my wife, both of whose parents had discerning palates.

There are those who consider food simply as fuel. They are missing out on one of the pleasures in life, which I value greatly: the preparation and enjoyment of cooking and eating.

Let me end by wishing you all A DELICIOUSLY HAPPY NEW YEAR!