Some like it hot

MANY VARIETIES OF CHILLI, differing in size, shape, and colour, can be seen growing in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. Seeing them recently, whetted my appetite to write something about these fiery food items and their relationship to Indian cuisine.

JULY 9 chilli

Chilli is widely used in the multitude of different foods consumed in the Indian subcontinent. However, it is most likely that before the 15th century, this hot-tasting food ingredient was unknown in this part of the world.  Before its introduction to India, black pepper was used to add pungency to food. It was the European’s great yearning for valuable spices like pepper that brought them to the shores of the India, beginning with the Portuguese. It was these same seekers of spice who are believed to have introduced chillies to India from far away Latin America.

In early 1994, I made my first of many trips to India. In Bangalore, where I spent most of my time, I discovered the wonderful bookshops that the city still possesses. In one of these, I bought a book that has proved to be a useful mine of scholarly information about Indian food and its history, “Indian Food – A Historical Companion” by KT Achaya. Published in 1994, it cost 750 Rupees (about £12 in those days), which was quite expensive for a book back in 1994, but it has proved to be a valuable and useful addition to our book collection.  Much of the information that follows derives from the pages of this book.

One of the most interesting things I have learnt from Achaya’s book is that in ancient times, the inhabitants of the subcontinent, such as the Harappans and the Vedic Aryans, were keen meat eaters. Achaya wrote:

“No less than 250 animals are referred to in the Vedas, and 50 of these were deemed fit for sacrifice, and by inference eating.”

He added later:

“The abattoirs for domestic animals had specific names, like garaghatanam (beef), and shukarasnam (swine) … In the Rigveda, horses, bulls, buffaloes, rams, and goats were all described as being sacrificed for food… The Jataka tales list the flesh of the pigeon, partridge, monkey and elephant as edible. To this, the Brhat Samhita (6th century) adds buffaloes and lizards. At a shraddha ceremony, use of meat was very meritorious according to the Vishnu Purana (3rd or 4th century), and the meats listed are those of the hare, hog, goat, antelope, deer, gayal and sheep; both priest and performer partook of the meal.”

However, from the earliest of times, there were thoughtful Aryans who questioned the taking of animal’s lives for food, and gradually the trend towards vegetarianism grew.

Returning to chillies, Achaya suggests that they must have entered India quite early, but many centuries after the ‘creation’ of the Vedas. He quotes lines by the south Indian composer of Carnatic music Purandaradas, who lived between 1480 and 1564, which indicate that he was aware of the effects of chilli. The Portuguese, who introduced chillies to India, first landed on the subcontinent (near Calicut) on the 20th May 1498. So, they must have been quite a novelty when the composer wrote the lines (quoted by Achaya):

“I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used … fiery when bitten …”

Chilli was well received in India because, unlike pepper, it could be grown almost anywhere and had a pungency far greater than pepper. Unlike the Portuguese and later European invaders, chilli in its various forms was a welcome visitor to the Indian subcontinent.

Thus far, I have not written anything that is remarkably new to the well-informed. Now, I will describe something that fascinated me most in Achaya’s wonderful book. The author dedicates several hundred words including references to scholarly works about this topic. In brief, there is evidence that the continent of South America was visited by predecessors of today’s Indians long before Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492.

Amongst the wealth of evidence that Achaya describes, here is a sample. Indian deities feature in pre-Columbian sculpture: Ganesha with his rat; Vishnu’s tortoise ‘kurma’; two elephant heads with typical Indian ceremonial trappings; elephants with ‘mahouts’ wearing turbans; and a portrait of the last ruler of the Incas depicts him wearing a sacred thread the way that Brahmins do. A manuscript discovered in the Yucatan (Mexico) was written in the Kavi dialect of Java, which is derived from the Sanskrit and Pali languages. It records that a merchant, Vusulana, explored the coastline of what we now know as ‘South America’ in 923 AD, that is 569 years before Columbus made his discovery and a few years before Leif Erikson landed in Vinland (probably Newfoundland and New Brunswick). If we accept this and other evidence that there were interactions between the Indian subcontinent and pre-Columbian America, then we should not be surprised if the travellers who crossed the Pacific might have brought foodstuffs back to India.  

Some of these pre-Columbian imports might have been members of the Annona family: the sitaphal and ramphal. Convention dictates that these were imported from Latin America via the Cape of Good Hope, but some archaeological findings suggest that they might have been in India long before the arrival of the Europeans. Achaya cites the  discovery of sculptures of Bharhut (2nd century BC) and frescos painted at Ajanta (about 7th century AD) that depict a fruit looking very similar to custard apple (sitaphal), but points out that George Watt (1851-1930), the Scottish physician and botanist who worked in India, felt that it might be native Indian plants that were being depicted.

More convincing than the Annona fruits is the evidence that maize, a cereal that originated in Central America, was also being grown in India in the pre-Columbian age. Some of the evidence for this is the finding of maize pollen grains in ancient archaeological sites in the Kashmir Valley. Another intriguing discovery was made at the 12th century temple in Somnathpur near Mysore, where 92 female sculptures are all holding in their right hands “… an object looking remarkably like a corn cob.”

What I have written is based on a summary of knowledge published in 1994 in one book. It is likely that since then there has been further research on connections between India and America before Columbus, but I have not yet been able to access it.

  

Intriguing as the possible relationship between India and pre-Columbian America is, there is little doubt that the chilli, like the potato and the tomato,  only found its way into the Indian diet via the Portuguese and other European colonisers of the New World. So next time, you burn your tongue on a chilli lurking in a curry, you know who to blame.

Eating out remembered

SEEING A PHOTO TAKEN  of La Cage Imaginaire, a restaurant in Hampstead has whet my appetite for writing about some memories of eating in this picturesque part of London long before the current restrictions on individuals’ movements and public gatherings.

COLIN BLOG

My parents used to like dining out at a ‘bistro’ in Church Row, a street lined with lovely old houses. The Cellier du Midi, as its name suggests was in a basement. Long before my mother died in 1980, they dined there often. My sister and I were never taken there. This made me curious about the place and for many years after they stopped going there, I thought it would be fun to try it out. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that I did. My father’s teacher at the University of Cape Town, and later his colleague at the London School of Economics, Professor William Baxter (1906-2006) and his wife invited my wife and me to have dinner at the Cellier. It was Baxter, who in 1938 encouraged my father’s family to send him to England to continue his studies. I was excited about the prospect of eating in this restaurant at long last. Sadly, by the time we were invited there, the food was far from exceptional. It was far below the quality that would have been acceptable to my late mother, a discerning eater.

My parents ate Indian food occasionally. Their favourite Indian restaurant was the Shahbag in Rosslyn Hill, the continuation of Hampstead High Street. I ate enjoyably there once or twice with friends in the early 1970s but did not return for over 30 years. One evening, we drove up to Hampstead to attend a concert in a church on Rosslyn Hill. We arrived just before the performance was scheduled to start. I was driving. I dropped my wife and a friend at the venue, and then looked for somewhere to park. It took so long for me to find somewhere that I had to miss much of the concert. As the concert was near to the Shahbag and I was also hungry, I decided to miss the music and make a nostalgic trip to the Indian restaurant. I sat down and placed an order. Then, I waited and waited. While I was waiting, I looked at the food being delivered to customers on neighbouring tables. It did not look too appetising; by now, having visited India many times and eaten Indian food cooked in many Indians’ homes, I could distinguish between well and poorly prepared dishes. My appetite diminished. I looked at the time. It was nearly time to collect the rest of my party from the concert. I summoned the waiter and told him that as I was not prepared to wait any longer, he must cancel the order, which he did. I was disappointed that this experience had shattered my nostalgic illusions about this venerable establishment.

After my mother died, I began practising dentistry in a village near Gillingham in Kent. I lived down there during the week and visited my father most weekends. On Sundays, my father and I usually ate lunch out, often in Hampstead. One of our favoured places was the Cage Imaginaire, a tiny French restaurant at the end of Flask Walk furthest from Hampstead High Street. I always associate this restaurant’s name with that of a humorous film, “La Cage aux Folles”, which appeared in 1978. However, the restaurant was/still is a serious eating place. On one occasion when the waiter brought the cheese trolley to our table, I cheekily asked him to point out the cheese whose odour most resembled that of smelly socks. Without batting an eyelid or showing any disdain, he singled out a satisfyingly pungent French cheese.

Gradually, my father and I shifted our allegiance to an Italian restaurant, the Villa Bianca in Perrins Court. Although pricey, the food at this eatery never failed to satisfy. My father, whose mastery of the Italian language is good, enjoyed chatting with the Italian owner and his staff.

During my student days, all twelve years of them, I lived at my family home north of Hampstead, but visited it often. One place in which my parents would never have set foot but was popular with my friends and I was Maxwell’s on Heath Street.  This was Hampstead’s take on the American eating experience. Just up the street from the Pizza Express, Maxwell’s sold good hamburgers and milkshakes. Popular with more than one generation of northwest London’s younger set, this place opened in the 1970s and closed more than 40 years later. Incidentally, Maxwell’s pre-dated the arrival of McDonalds in London.

Almost across the road from Maxwell’s there was and still is a good Japanese restaurant, Jin Kichi, at which I ate several times more than 20 years ago. This was the first place I ever ate sukiyaki, a dish that involves cooking raw meat on a hot plate on the dining table.  Writing about this brings to mind another place, which was not strictly in Hampstead but close by in Swiss Cottage: Benihana.

I have only eaten at a Benihana restaurant once and that was long ago when the girl, who is now my wife, celebrated her birthday at the Swiss Cottage branch. We sat at counters surrounding an open space where our chef cooked, or rather performed, our meal. The chef would pick up a prawn, place it on a hot grill, and then toss it high up in the air, catch it, before placing it back on the grill. This performance of flinging food items up into the air and putting them on and off the grill was impressive in terms of juggling skills but disappointing as a gastronomic technique. By the time a much travelled, burnt, dead acrobatic prawn arrived on my plate, it had lost any appeal for me. However, a good time was had by all, except the prawns and other fragments of food we were served.

Returning to Hampstead proper, there is one restaurant that has been in existence since 1962. This is La Gaffe, which is on the same side of Heath Street as Jin Kichi, but higher up the hill. Although I have passed this place countless numbers of times, I have never entered it.

Heath Street leads down to Hampstead Underground Station and the start of Hampstead High Street. Despite vociferous objections from many of Hampstead’s ‘snobbish’ and ‘cultured’ residents, McDonalds managed to open a branch of their famous fast-food operation a few feet away from the station. It took the company twelve years to fight the objections to their opening.  Although I enjoy ‘haute cuisine’, I have the occasional yearning for a meal at Mcdonalds. The Hampstead branch was perfectly acceptable. However, after 20 years business in Hampstead, the company closed its branch there in 2013. It has been replaced by a branch of another chain, Le Pain Quotidien. I preferred its predecessor.

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead Heath Street is almost as old as I am. It first opened in 1954. Both externally and internally, this has not changed in appearance since my early childhood. When I was at school in the 1960s, this was the place to ‘hang out’. Oddly, I never did. In those days, the café had an exciting reputation. Maybe, I was not exciting enough to pay it a visit. Recently, I have ventured into this relic of the coffee bar era of Hampstead. I enjoyed a satisfactory, but not top class, espresso in its quaint interior, which looks as if it retains the original decor that it had when it first opened. I did not eat anything there, but I watched delicious looking pastries and English Breakfasts being served to other customers. Oozing with nostalgia, this place is as popular now as it was long ago.

Walk up either Perrins Court or Perrins Lane, and you will reach the southern part of Heath Street just before it continues to become Fitzjohns Avenue. On that short stretch of road, stands Louis Hungarian Patisserie. It was opened in 1963 by a Hungarian called Louis Permayer. Like the Coffee Cup, Louis has retained its original appearance. However, although it began as a place purveying Hungarian pastries and cakes, its current owners provide similar items, but not quite as tasty as what the former owner sold. That said, it is a quaint place to sit and chat over a hot beverage and a snack.

Louis has a special place in my memory. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I met one of my fellow students for a date one afternoon at Louis. My female friend liked the place and we have visited often since she became my wife some years after that afternoon. She recalls that in those long off days when we first met, Louis served coffee with a separate small bowl of whipped cream. Sadly, that tradition has disappeared and the charming Eastern European waitresses now working at the café look uncomprehendingly when you try to get a bowl of this with your coffee.

As soon as it is safe to roam around without risking one’s health excessively, we will head to Hampstead for a not brilliant but romantically nostalgic coffee at Louis, provided it has weathered the pandemic.

 

Photo of La Cage Imaginaire by Colin Hill

 

Rice and meat

Hyderabad is justifiably renowned for tasty biryani although the very best version of this rice based dish that I have ever eaten was at Paragon in Calicut. There, they serve Moplah biryanis, which are both Arabic and Indian in taste.

The biryani we ate at the Café Bahar in Hyderabad was delicious. It was delicately flavoured and cooked with a light touch. To enter Bahar at lunchtime it is necessary to join a long queue that extends from the top of tje stairs at the doorway to the first floor dining room down on to the busy street outside. It is worth the wait.

The restaurant itself is very noisy and as busy as London’s Oxford Circus at rush hour. We shared a table with a charming couple, who let us try their ‘double masala’ chicken biryani which is richly laden with extra spices. I preferred the less spicy ‘special lamb biryani’. It is made special by adding hard boiled egg and meatballs made with minced chicken.

One should not visit Hyderabad without eating at least one biryani, but avoid the much advertised Paradise restaurant chain, which is ok but nothing like as good as Bahar or Shadab (near the Charminar)

If you are there, you must try…

TAHARI blogg

I had always wanted to visit Gulbarga (now ‘Kalaburgi’) in northern Karnataka (India), not far from Hyderabad, because of the richness of its medieval Islamic architectural heritage.

When my friend in Bangalore, Mansour, a great gastronome and connoisseur of fine foods, knew we were in Gulbarga, he said:

If you’re there, you must try tahari

Well, we had no idea what this dish comprised, but if Mansour reccomended it, it must be worth trying. A search on Google revealed that the Limra Tahari was highly rated. We rang to make a reservation and were told that was unnecessary. Also, we learnt that the place only took cash payments.

One evening, we hired an autorickshaw to take us to Limra. However, the driver had no idea how to find it, and eventually dropped us near a different restaurant, saying;

This is a restaurant. You can eat here.

It was a totally unsatisfactory eatery.

Next evening, we were fortunate. A rickshaw driver knew where to find the Limra. When we arrived, he told us that he would wait for us as we would not be long and, also, it was difficult to find autorickshaws in the area in the evening. We wondered why, but soon found out.

The front of the restaurant was unprepossessing, to put it mildly. The place was separated from the street by a pair of ageing red curtains, rather like that found at a theatre stage. The steps leading up to it from the street were littered with old newspaper and other rubbish. I looked at my wife questioningly. She seemed happy to enter, so we parted the curtains and stepped inside. The interior was spotlessly clean.

To the left of the entrance, an old man sat behind a small cash desk. To the right, there were a couple of men preparing food in huge metal post heated by smouldering charcoals. Limra’s dining area was simple. There were several long narrow rectangular metal tables, which were probably screwed to the floor. All of the diners were men, except my wife.

Before we had time to ask for a menu or what was on offer, a boy slid two metal plates across our table towards us. Each plate was laden with tahari. He added a third plate that contained an unappetising looking greasy sauce. We ordered a couple of bottles of mineral water and began our exploration of tahari.

The tahari consisted of spicy yellow rice which contained a few lumps of well-cooked tender meat. The sauce turned out to be delicious and not at all greasy. The tahari was very tasty and delicately spiced – a real treat. Tahari is, I later discovered, an Awadhi dish from the region of India where Lucknow is located. It is typical of a certain style of Mughal cooking. It is, as we saw when we entered Limra, slow-cooked.

When we finished our tahari, we noticed the menu on the wall behind us. It consisted of two items: tahari: full plate, and tahari: half plate. No wonder, we were served our food immediately. There was nothing to choose from here! Our bill for two full plates and two bottles of water came to only 80 Indian Rupees (about £0.90 sterling). It took us no more than 10 minutes to finish our scrumptious meal. We understood why our driver decided to wait for us, and we understood why the restaurant did not accept anything but cash as payment. So, if you are ever in Gulbarga, you must try tahari!

Mahatma Gandhi ate in Notting Hill

Today, 36 Ledbury Road (illustrated) in London’s trendy Notting Hill district (made famous by the 1999 film Notting Hill starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) gives nothing away about its colourful past. It was once the home of the Indian Catering Company, a restaurant run by Nizam-ud-Din, who also owned the Eastern Café near Chancery Lane.

The Indian Catering Company, which was serving customers during the reign of Edward VII (1901-10) was not the first Indian restaurant to have been opened in London. The first curry house in London was opened by Sake Dean Mahomet (born in India in the 18th century). An employee of the East India Company, which he joined in 1769, he arrived in London in 1807. Two years later, he opened his Hindostanee Coffee House at 34 George Street near Portman Square. Although it was called a ‘coffee house’, it was actually a restaurant serving curries and other examples of Indian cuisine. The restaurant thrived until 1833, when it was closed. There is much more information about this establishment in Star of India, a book by Jo Monroe.

By the time that the restaurant at 36 Ledbury Road was serving customers, the Indian Catering Company was one of many Indian restaurants in early twentieth century London. The reason for my interest in this former eatery is that it was a meeting place for extremist Indian independence fighters in Edwardian London. I discovered this while researching my recently published book IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS.

Although he cannot be considered an ‘extremist’, the famous Mahatma Gandhi partook of a meal at the Indian Catering Company in Ledbury Road in October 1909. Here is an excerpt from my book:

In October, the festival of Dussehra was celebrated at Nizam-ud-Din’s restaurant, The Indian Catering Company, at 36 Ledbury Road in Bayswater. Gandhi had been invited to chair the proceedings. He had accepted the invitation on condition that the food would be pure vegetarian and that discussion of controversial politics was avoided. The food was served by Savarkar’s followers: VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and TSS Rajan, all sometime members of India House.”

Whereas Gandhi both preached and practised non-violence, the same cannot be said of VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar ( a ‘father’ of Hindu Nationalism and Hindutva), who also attended the meal.

Although there is no plaque recording the interesting history of 36 Ledbury Road so near to Portobello Road, whenever I pass this house I feel a tingle when I remember the famous Indian freedom fighters who once entered it and ate there.

A SMALL house cover

“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” is by Adam YAMEY

ISBN: 9780244203870

The book is available from on-line stores including:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, and lulu.com

It may also be ordered from bookshops

There is an e-book edition on Kindle

 

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.

Table for two…

I lived and practised dentistry in the Medway Towns (Chatham, Gillingham, and Rochester) for eleven years beginning in 1982. These towns in north Kent coalesce with each other to form a straggling urban belt along the right bank of the River Medway. When I lived in the area, there were many restaurants serving what was described as “Indian food”. Before reaching the area, Indian friends had helped me to appreciate what good Indian food should taste like. None of the many restaurants I tried in the Medway Towns ever provided Indian food that could be described as good. However, as there was not much else to do in the area when I first arrived there, before making friends locally, I sampled many of the eateries that served Indian food.

 

curry

 

One autumn evening, I entered a small establishment in Gillingham. I was its only customer for the duration of my meal. The restaurant was literally freezing cold, unheated. It was so cold that I ate my meal without removing my fleece filled anorak. Before the food arrived, the waiter placed a candle-powered plate warmer in the middle of the table to keep my dishes warm and another one in front of me to keep my plate warm while I was eating. The items, which I ordered, had the names of Indian dishes that I had tasted before. Sadly, none of them had any taste at all.

In another Indian restaurant that I visited one evening, I was not the only customer. There was a couple at another table within earshot. While I was eating, I could listen to my neighbours’ conversation. I remember nothing of the food I ate, but I do recall one small snatch of the other customers’ chatting. One of them said:

“… well, of course, you know, Gillingham is the armpit of Kent…”

having recently moved to the town, I was not happy to hear that.

There was an Indian restaurant close to the synagogue in Rochester. This place was slightly superior to the other Indian eateries in the area. One evening, while I was eating there, I was intrigued by the music being played through the establishment’s speaker system. Although I knew nothing about it then, I now realise that they were playing a soundtrack from a Bollywood film. I asked the waiter about the music. He answered:

“It is Indian music”

“I like it,” I told him, “where can you buy it?”

“We borrow the records from the public library, sir.”

Some months later, on a cold winter’s evening, I visited the restaurant near the synagogue with a female cousin and a male friend. We ordered a large meal and were served by only one Asian (Indian or of another sub-continental origin) waiter throughout. We were the only diners that evening. No one else entered the restaurant, even for take-away food. At the end of the meal, my friend went to the toilet. My cousin and I put on our winter coats and waited for him by the entrance door. Within a few seconds of reaching the door, the waiter, who had been serving us all night, came up to us and said:

“Table for two, is it?”

Either the waiter had not looked at us all evening, or all Europeans looked the same to him.

Chicken 65

HAMPI 2a

The state-run Mayura Hotel at Hampi is conveniently located in the midst of the extensive, picturesque ruins of the once very prosperous city of Vijayanagara. The former city was once the world’s second largest metropolis, but it was destroyed in 1565. I have stayed at the hotel on at least three occasions despite its shortcomings, some of which I will describe below. It is only fair to point out that the last time I stayed at this hotel was at least nine years ago. Things might well have improved by then.

On one occasion, we were driving to Hampi from Bangalore, and were running late. We rang the hotel to tell them that we would be likely to turn up by 6 pm. They replied that it would not be a problem: our room was waiting. And, so it should have been because check-out time was 12 noon. Whoever had occupied the room on the previous day should have vacated their room by noon.

When we turned up at the hotel, we were told that the room we had booked was still occupied. We were not pleased. The receptionist explained that the occupants of our room, who should have vacated it by noon, were still using it. We remonstrated and asked for an explanation. We were told that the family that was overstaying in our promised room had also arrived late the day before, and the hotel was kindly letting them extend their stay at our expense.  We were tired and not amused.

The receptionist and another member of staff settled us temporarily in a small bedroom while we waited for our room to become vacant and cleaned up. After a couple of hours, we were shifted to our allotted family room. There were several workmen in the bathroom. They were trying to turn off a jet of water, like a geyser, that was shooting up from the floor. They managed after about an hour.

There were no towels in our accommodation. By now it was well after dark. We asked for towels and were told that we could not have them because the person with the (presumably only) key to the linen cupboard had gone home.

At the end of one of our stays at the Mayura, we asked to have breakfast at 7 am, when the dining area was supposed to open. When we arrived promptly at 7 am, there was no staff too be seen. Apart from us, the dining area was empty. After a few minutes, I walked into the kitchen: it was empty. All of the kitchen and serving staff were standing in a crowd in a nearby room, their eyes glued to a television screen. We learned the reason when, eventually, someone came to look after us. The television was showing the funeral of the much-loved Kannada film star Vishnuvardhan, who died on the 30th December 2009. Vishnuvardhan’s family were dismayed because his loss was not so greatly mourned as that of another star Rajkumar, who had died three years earlier. People had committed suicide on hearing of Rajkumar’s demise. Nevertheless, our driver thought it would be safer if we drove with a photo of Vishnuvardhan attached to the window as a mark of respect. Without it, we might have been attacked!

During one of our stays, we were curious to taste what appears on many South Indian restaurant menus. It is something called ‘Chicken 65’. What appeared resembled breaded chicken nuggets. They were bland and tasteless – very disappointing. 

Some days later, we had dinner with an elderly Dutch couple, who were back-packing around India. It was clear to us that they had had enough of spicy food. We suggested that they ordered French fries (finger chips in Indian English), which, like omelettes and tomato soup, are almost always available wherever you are in India. Their eyes lit up at this suggestion. Also, we recommended that they order Chicken 65, which we assured them was not at all spicy. 

After a while, the chips were served along with a plate of chicken pieces that did not resemble the Chicken 65, which we had ordered a couple of days earlier. Our new friends tasted this dish, and their eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. What had been served to them as Chicken 65 was far from bland; it was fiery hot. It seemed to us that the chefs in the kitchen paid little attention to what was ordered by the customers. We later learned that Chicken 65 is supposed to be hot and spicy. What we had been served before we met the Dutch people, was definitely not that dish.

The spicy dish was originally created at Buhari’s Hotel in Madras in 1965, hence the 65 in the name (see: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/the-hows-whys-of-our-chicken-65/article5042658.ece).

While we were staying in the hotel one visit, a tour group of Italians had dinner one evening. One man, who had had enough of spicy food, shouted out in a hysterical voice: “I want chicken, plain chicken with salt, nothing else, just chicken and salt, no spices, just chicken and salt.” He kept repeatng this, and we thought: “He should be so lucky in this eatery”.

Despite its elements of “Fawlty Towers” hospitality, the Mayura is a lovely place to base a few days of exploration of the substantial  ruins of a once great city.

HAMPI 3