No coriander please

 

I love eating Chinese food. So, do many people in India, where this cuisine is served everywhere from simple, unsophisticated street stalls to dedicated, smart Chinese restaurants.

Indian Chinese food is prepared to suit Indian peoples’ tastes. To people used to eating Chinese food in London or elsewhere in the UK, the Chinese food in India may seem somewhat different, especially its taste. Although I much prefer eating Chinese food in London, where the restaurants serve food to many people of Chinese origin, I also enjoy eating Indian Chinese food, which is prepared mostly for Indian diners. On the whole, the Chinese food in India is less ‘authentic’ than that served in London, where there is a large population of Chinese from Hong Kong and mainland China. 

Once when we were visiting Mangalore on the coast of the Indian State of Karnataka, we entered a Chinese restaurant. Its main entrance was almost hidden in a dingy yard that would have made an excellent setting for a performance of West Side Story. This establishment was staffed mainly by a Chinese  family, rather than people with slanting eyes who had originated in the north eastern states of India. I was delighted to find steamed pork dumplings on the menu amongst the starters. I ordered these, and was told that I would have to wait atleast 45 minutes. I said that was alright, and we ate other dishes whilst we awaited the dumplings. 

When the dumplings arrived, we found them to be as delicious as the best we had eaten in London. They were made without making compromises to satisfy Indian tastebuds. The reason that they had taken so long to arrive was, I believe, that they had been made fresh, from scratch. Of all the Chinese food I have eaten in over 25 years of visiting India, these dumplings are the best Chinese food I have been served in the country. I have eaten other enjoyable Chinese meals in India, but none matched those dumplings in Mangalore.

There is one feature of Indian Chinese food that particularly displeases me: the over use of fresh coriander. I like this herb in some Gujarati vegetarian dishes and some Mexican food, but I do not think it enhances Chinese food. Almost every Chinese dish served in India is tainted with fresh coriander. 

I am fond of Hot and Sour Soup, both in London and in India. However, in India my enjoyment of it is marred by the obligatory addition of fresh coriander. Recently, a friend of mine in Bangalore made the very sensible suggestion that I should ask for this soup to be made without coriander added. So, the next time I ordered the soup I followed his advice. The waiter noted my request and the soup arrived without coriander. I tasted it. To my great surprise, the soup was tinged with a taste I associate with Polish food. The chef had replaced coriander with freshly chopped dill leaves!

With strings attached

 

During my wanderings through India, I have often noticed trees with thin threads tied around their trunks. These are peepal trees with heart-shaped leaves. They are held to be sacred by devout Hindus. Women wrap threads around the trunks in the hope that their prayers will be answered satisfactorily.

On at least one occasion, and this was in an Islamic mausoleum (dargah) in Baroda (Gujarat), I have seen threads tied around pillars within the dargah. Some of these threads had bangles attached to them. We were told by the guardian of the dargah, that Muslim women tie these threads, hoping that their wishes will be fulfilled.

Statues of Christ, the Madonna, and saints in churches in India are often draped with flower garlands. This is done more likely to honour the persons depicted in the statues than to have wishes granted. I have not yet seen any examples of threads tied in churches like I have seen in Hindu and Muslim shrines in India.

Yesterday, I visited St John the Baptist Church (Church of England) in Holland Road, Shepherds Bush, London. At the entrance to this magnificent Victorian Gothic building, there is a wooden crucifix. I was surprised to see that it had something that made me think of India. Two threads, each bearing a small metal medallion with some prayerful words on them, were wrapped around the heads of the nails penetrating Christ’s feet. I have never seen anything like this in a church in the UK. Is this a chance finding or the beginning of a new trend?

Coffee by the yard

Traditionally, South Indian filter coffee is served piping hot in small conical metal breakers. The beakers, which are almost too hot to hold, stand in deep cylindrical metal saucers, as shown in the picture.

To cool the coffee so that it reaches a drinkable temperature, one lifts the hot beaker out of the saucer, and then pours the coffee from the beaker into the saucer from as greater height as you dare. Then, you pour the slightly cooler coffee back into the saucer. The procedure is repeated until the beverage reaches the desired temperature.

The person making the coffee repeatedly scoops the bubbling boiling milk, which is added to the coffee, from its pot on the heat, and then pours it back from a great height. The stream of boiling milk is often quite long.

My late father-in-law, a witty man, referring to the pouring from a height involved in filter coffee making and drinking, used to ask us when we visited a coffee house in Bangalore : “How many yards of coffee do you want?”

Note: 1 yard is a measure of length a little less than 1 metre

Thrown out of a library

When she was about two years old, our daughter dressed in a unisex romper outfit, rushed into the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. An elderly gentleman conducted her back to the entrance of the bar, saying: “You can’t come in here yet, young man. You’ll have to wait until you’re twenty one.”

My wife explained that our child is a girl. The gentleman replied: “In that case, my dear, you will never be able to enter the Men’s Bar.”

The Bangalore Club was founded by British officers in 1868 at the time when Mahatma Gandhi was born in faraway Gujarat. Until after about 1945, women were not allowed into the main Club House. There was a separate annexe reserved for women. And until 1947, with the exception of servants and a very few high ranking military officers, no Indians were permitted to enter any part of the Club.

The Bangalore Club and many other similar still existing colonial era clubs in India maintain many of the old-fashioned rules that applied in elite clubs in the UK. For many years, men could only enter the Club House at the Bangalore Club wearing ‘proper’ shoes, not sports shoes or sandals. Now, sandals are allowed providing they have a back strap around the ankle.

Once, I stayed at the Kodaikanal Club deep in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Dress code seemed to be non-existent there until I stepped into the club’s small library. Within a few seconds, a member of the library staff escorted me out of the library. I was wearing sandals. I was told that one could only enter the library if formal leather shoes were being worn.

Well, if you join a club, you should respect its rules however idiotic they might seem. Vide the UK and the EU.

As time moves on, rules change. A couple of years ago , for reasons best not explored here and they were nothing to do with gender equality, women were permitted to enter and use the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. Since that date, the formerly masculine sanctuary has been renamed “The Bar”.

The old gentlemen who evicted our daughter from the Men’s Bar is probably no longer alive. I wonder what he would have thought when his prediction proved to be wrong. Let’s finish by raising a glass to his memory.

View of palms

I am not certain when I first saw palm trees. Maybe, it was when I was three years old. Then, my parents took me for a holiday in South Africa, where they were born.

Some of the first palm trees that I remember seeing are still growing in a small garden next to the entrance of St John’s Wood Underground station near Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. We used to visit St John’s Wood regularly when I was a child because our family dentist, Dr Samuels – a refugee from Nazi Germany, had his surgery opposite the station.

My first view of palm trees growing en-masse was from the air on an early morning in late December 1993. Our plane was landing at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We were travelling via Colombo to Bangalore in India. A week or so after seeing this vast plantation of palms, my wife and I were married during a colourful Hindu ceremony.

Although I have seen many, many palm trees since then, I still find them beautiful and exotic.

Resident non Indian

A Non Resident Indian or NRI is someone, most usually of Indian origin, residing outside India.

There are Indians living in India who try to make their lifestyle as un-Indian as they can possibly manage. These people are usually fabulously wealthy. They try to isolate themselves from the material reality of India as much as they can. A friend of ours refers to these people as “Resident Non Indians”, which is a great way of summarising the way they try to live.

Some know, others don’t

I know it is not a good idea to make generalisations, but it is quite fun to do so occasionally. So, here goes! This time, I am going to generalise about taxi drivers’ knowledge in London, Bombay, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad.

The drivers of London’s characteristic black (usually) cabs are only allowed to work when they have “The Knowledge”. That is, they have passed an examination that requires the candidate to have a very detailed knowledge of the streets of London. A London cabbie only very rarely does not know the way.

London’s minicab and Uber drivers do not have to be tested on The Knowledge, but they are usually very adept at using GPS systems.

In Bombay, there is a huge number of yellow and black cabs. In my experience, the drivers usually know their way around the city. Some of them raise all kinds of objection s before they give in to your wish to hire them, but once aboard they will take you where you want without requiring navigational assistance.

I find the best way to get around Bangalore is to travel in an autorickshaw. Their drivers often know the way, and if they do not, they will ask fellow autorickshaw drivers, who can point them in the right direction. Uber and it’s competitor Ola exist in Bangalore, but their drivers, often from out of town, are often clueless about the city’s geography and find GPS hard to understand.

It is our experience with autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad that prompted me to write this blog. We have made many trips in their vehicles. An enormous proportion of the drivers will tell you that they know how to reach a place, but in reality they have no clue. They will not admit their ignorance and are often reluctant to stop and ask for directions from bystanders.

One driver in Ahmedabad, who was completely lost, got annoyed with us, his customers, and said: “Why are you going somewhere if you don’t know how to get there? I should leave you here, and you can find your own way.”

I did say that I would be generalizing. In all fairness, I must record that some of the autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad have been very knowledgeable about their city, but these have been in the minority.

So, when you visit the truly wonderful city of Ahmedabad, you will find it helpful to be able to access Google maps on your mobile phone while travelling around.

A lovely discovery

I always enjoy finding bookshops that are out of the ordinary. Although bookselling chains such as Waterstones in the UK and Crossword in India are well stocked with popular titles that are likely to sell well, it is the quirky or niche bookshops that I particularly seek out. The one-off bookshops usually keep a far more interesting range of books than the chains.

Here is a short description of a lovely specialist bookshop hidden away in a residential district of Ahmedabad, not far from the River Sabarmati, on whose bank Mahatma Gandhi set up one of his famous ashrams.

This small gem of bookshop, the Art Book Centre, in Ahmedabad is a wonderful discovery. It was recommended to us by Mr Shukla who is the General Secretary of the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners Association, which is housed in a masterpiece by the architectural genius Le Corbusier.

The bookshop, a true life Aladdin’s cave, is on the first floor of a residential building. It is reached by a steep ladder like staircase typical of those found in houses all over Gujarat. The steps lead to a balcony which is festooned with colourful folkloric items. A doorway leads from there into the shop itself.

The walls of the small, cosy shop are lined with neatly stacked book cases. Piles of books rise from the floor. On the walls and in between the book cases, there are numerous folkloric artworks and practical items including beautifully embroidered and printed textiles. We were welcomed by Manarbhai and Ketan, one of his two sons. They invited us to sit down.

Manarbhai worked for many years as a typist in the Mathematics Department of the University of Gujarat. He was no ordinary typist. He was able to type mathematical equations, which was no easy feat in the era before computerised word processors became available.

Manarbhai began his book business as a part time enterprise. In 1970, he converted part of his home into what is now his shop. At first, he only opened his shop on weekends. Now, it is open every day between 10 am and 6 pm.

The shop specialises mainly in books on art and architecture. It contains many books about textiles. Many of the volumes available are rare editions. If what you wish is not stocked, Manarbhai and his sons will do their best to source it, and then send it to you anywhere in the world.

It soon became apparent to us that Manarbhai and Ketan are extremely knowledgeable about books in the fields on which they specialise. They are also sensitively intelligent salesmen. Very quickly, they assessed our particular interests and began showing us books that were in harmony with them. We came away with a valuable selection of books that will help satisfy our curiosity about the fascinating history of the city of Ahmedabad.

This is a bookshop for true book lovers and collectors. It should be on every bibliophile’s itinerary. What Manarbhai cannot find for your bookshelf is probably not worth having.

Address: near Jain Temple, Madalpur, Ellis Bridge, Ahmedabad 380006

 

This article is adapted from http://www.gujarat-travels.com

Better on a camel

While travelling through Gujarat in western India, I have seen many camels (? dromedaries) working as beasts of burden. They are well suited to the arid semi desert climate of Gujarat. The camels remind me of airline jokes I learnt in my childhood. Each joke gives another meaning to an airline’s name or acronym.

BEA was British European Airways. The joke version was Big Empty Aeroplanes;

TAP, Portuguese Airlines became Take Another Plane;

The Greek company Olympic became Only Like Your Money Pay In Cash;

EL AL, the airline of Israel, became Every Landing Always Late.

And this brings me to humped beasts of burden.

BOAC, which was British Overseas Airways Corporation, became Better On A Camel.

Postscript

When the petroleum company ESSO first became established in India, workers in Indian companies worked half day on Saturdays. Esso workers got a whole day off on Saturdays. So, ESSO became known as Ever Saturday Sunday Off.