A heart cooler for the heat

Some people have called it a ‘heart attack in a glass’. They are terribly unkind. I prefer to think of it as ‘heaven in a glass’. How else would you describe a concoction that has almond resin, Sarsaparilla syrup, cold milk, sugar, finely chopped dried fruit and nuts, and all of this topped with a generous scoop of ice cream.

One summer morning in the temple town of Madurai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I headed out with a friend. The plan was to have a street-side breakfast of idli (steamed rice and lentil cakes), accompanied by a piquant chutney of coconut and chilli. And chase it down with jigarthanda. After all, I couldn’t really visit Madurai and not have this “heart cooler” (literal meaning of jigarthanda). Nobody can.

While jigarthanda is today considered a local Madurai beverage, it has an interesting history. Thanks to its name, a combination of two Hindi words (the language of state is Tamil and not Hindi), it is believed to have been brought into India by the Mughal rulers several centuries ago, and slowly made its way down to Madurai.

In this swelteringly hot city, it is so strongly associated with cooling properties that it has come to be known as jil jil jigarthanda in the more popular outlets (jil being a local corruption of the word chill).

While jigarthanda is popular in these parts, it is relatively more under the radar than its famous north Indian cousin, falooda (which food historians claim started life at Mughal emperor Jehangir’s court).

My plate of idlis was delightful, fittingly known to be as soft as Madurai’s famous jasmine (flowers). And then the jigarthanda, the man behind the counter filling up glasses with practised ease. Somewhere between vanilla and light chocolatey in colour, thick and inviting, the jigarthanda beckoned to me.

I took a tentative sip. And my world immediately turned into a happier place.

In other words, this was an explosion of tastes and textures – the sweetness of the syrup and ice cream, the crunchiness of the nuts and the chewiness of the jelly-like almond resin. My friend and I drank this in almost one gulp. Then we looked at each other. Another one?

By the time I gestured to the shop assistant, he had already prepared two more glasses for us. A second round seemed to be par for the course at the shop. This time, I sipped slowly, savouring the flavours, and feeling much like a kid in a candy shop. I knew I was going to have to skip lunch that day, but who was complaining?

Tip: although several places in Madurai claim to have the best jigarthanda, foodies know that Famous Jigarthanda is the real McCoy.

Published in Roads & Kingdoms

Vegging it out in Myanmar

When the husband and I were getting ready to travel to Myanmar earlier this year, the only thing I was dreading was the food I would find there. Or, not find. As a vegetarian, I was expecting Myanmar to be a tough place to survive in, and I readied myself for bland salads and the odd pizza, where I could find it.

But being vegetarian in Myanmar turned out to be delightfully easy. The country has a wide repertoire of vegetarian dishes, perhaps because it is culturally closer to South Asia (think Nepalese lentil curries and Sri Lankan coconut gravies) than South East.

And given that it is wedged between countries with rich culinary traditions, like India, China and Thailand, something is certain to have rubbed off. What I discovered is that despite borrowing from these kitchens, Burmese cuisine has its unique flavours.

moon

yarpyi

The magic word

Although vegetable based dishes have always been part of their diet (and vegetarian dishes are served at almost all eateries), vegetarianism as a concept is not understood in Myanmar.

But the magic word “tha tha lo” (thatalo, literally meaning ‘lifeless’ – taught by a traveller friend) opened up the doors to meat-free cooking everywhere in the country. In fact, it made sure that there was never even a hint of the fish sauce that is the bane of vegetarian travellers in South East Asia.

The Burmese thali

A typical restaurant meal that popular among locals is a spread of side dishes, including raw salads, slightly sautéed veggies and soupy curries, served with plain white rice. This was our first introduction to Burmese food in Yangon, where our guide also ordered dal on the side for us, which came coarsely mashed and lightly spiced; Indian but not quite.

She also got us small plates of green tomato and tealeaf salad, the latter with the warning that the tart taste could take some getting used to. But no, for me, it was love at first bite.

In general, we found the salads and soups so enjoyable that most meals, we skipped the main course and stuck to these.

Through our ten days in Myanmar, we never had to go seeking a pizza place or an Indian restaurant (although some mainstream cafés in touristy towns like Bagan serve Indian food as part of their menu). And to my vegetarian soul, that made Myanmar pure heaven.

Soup time

Soups in Myanmar can range from the thin clear broth derived from Chinese kitchens (used as palate cleansers and often sipped through the meal), to thick and creamy stews.

The most distinctive one is the Shan Tohu Nuway, a specialty from the Shan region in the eastern side of the country, near Inle Lake. In this soup, the tofu (tohu) is made out of ground chickpea, instead of the more traditional soya.

This mash is kept warm in a semi-liquid form through the day, and poured over the basic noodle broth, finally topped up with coarsely ground peanuts, roasted garlic, finely sliced parsley and cabbage, and for those who can bear the heat, crunchy chilli paste (in my opinion, a must).

soup2

There is also the clear Shan noodle soup, served even at breakfast in most hotels and restaurants. Ask for the tha tha lo version, which comes with a topping of coarsely ground, thick red chilli sauce, spring onions and toasted sesame.

soup1

Salad days

The Burmese have a special skill for taking just about any ingredient and turning it into a delectable salad. Tealeaf, avocado, ginger, lemon, pennywort, eggplant, tomato – the list goes on.

The basic ingredients remain more or less the same – the key ingredient, with crushed peanuts, roasted sesame, finely chopped onion, garlic, coriander, tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon. But each salad somehow manages to taste distinctly different.

The undisputed star among these is the fermented tealeaf salad (lahpet thok) – slightly tart and tangy with a distinct crunch, the Burmese love this and eat it at all times, including with meals and as snacks, with the crunchy bits served up separately.

salads

The other must-trys are the pennywort salad (Myin Kwa Yuet Thote), the spicy ginger salad (Gyin Thote) and the Tohu Thote, which has the chickpea tohu in salad form.

Main course

This area is where the culinary influences of neighbouring countries are most strongly felt.

There are a variety of vegetable curries available, including usual suspects like basic green and red curries Thai-style, Indonesian masamman curry and the more unusual ones like tamarind leaf curry.

mains

While these are typically served with white rice, there is also the choice of vegetable fried rice with tofu or tossed noodles.

Street food

Typical street food in Myanmar is fried and spicy, very Indian in nature: from masala dosa to samosa and bhajiya, these are to be found everywhere, and are considered Burmese.

snacks

There are also street vendors who specialise in a particular form of dessert – definitely try the deep fried dough sweet (paleada / palata – a corruption of paratha), sprinkled with sugar, or topped with banana slices, the banana cake (napyo bao) and sticky rice ball with coconut (kauk nyinhtuh).

In general though, Burmese sweets are likely to feel too bland to Indian palates, used to the stinging sweetness of laddu and jalebi.

For those looking for a more wholesome al fresco meal, there is the Vegetable Hotpot (Myae Oh Myi Shae), available almost through the day, especially in Yangon.

Street food in the country is almost always hot and fresh, and therefore safe; follow your nose to the ones with the most locals crowding the plastic tables.

***
This story was published in Conde Nast Traveller as A Vegetarian’s Guide to Myanmar – read it online for suggestions on where to eat in each major Burmese city.

Infinite peace at Anantyta Resorts

Welcome to the latest in my Hotels I Love series: Anantya Resorts.

Like its name suggests, Anantya has infinite possibilities for leaving behind the cares of city life and embracing the peace and quiet of this fertile land. When I reached, I had no plans for the next two days, and I was quite happy to just coast along. As it turned out, I had a fairly hectic schedule of sightseeing around the region, and had give Kanyakumari a miss – out of sheer laziness, I have to admit. Also, I needed a reason go back!

So, here is a quick look at why you should choose Anantya for your next weekend break – not to forget that they won ‘Best Destination Boutique Hotel’ at the recent Outlook Traveller awards.

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The setting

If location is everything in the hotels business, then Anantya has it all – on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, right on the banks of the picturesque and calm Chittar Lake. The property technically falls under the latter state, but with its architecture and decor, the feel is entirely Kerala.

This site of over 1000 acres, is part of the sprawling Vaikuntam Estates, one of the first rubber plantations in India, set up by the British. So, there is greenery aplenty inside the resort, which in turn attracts incredible birdlife.

The owners have personally put in great thought into the decor – much of it themed after luxury resorts in Thailand, with their little pools of flowing water everywhere. And for that ethnic touch are the old brass and bronze artefacts neatly displayed through the dining area.

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One of the most appealing corners of Anantya is the infinity pool that seems to merge right into the Chittar, an incredible spot to catch the sunset, with a tall, cool sundowner in hand.

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The stay

There are only 21 villas in all, of four types, and all of them set facing the lake. All of them come with a touch of understated luxury, and again, the discerning hand of the family is evident.

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I stayed in one of the Veda Jacuzzi Villas, which as you can guess, comes with its own private Jacuzzi. That apart, it also had my favourite nook in the resort, the gazebo facing the water. When it was just too hot to do anything else, I curled up on the sofa with my book, mostly not reading and just staring at the tranquil waters – once, with the rain beating down around me.

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On one of the afternoons, I head to the Astitva Spa for a relaxing ayurvedic massage. Just as I came out, the skies opened up, and the sight of the rain water merging with the pool and the lake was stunning and soporific at the same time.

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The sightseeing

Although I recommend Anantya as a place to just relax and recharge your batteries, there is enough to do around the resort to keep the compulsive sightseers and activity seekers busy.

I visited the very classy Padmanabhapuram palace which is just an hour away by cab – and I had
every intention of heading on to Kanyakumari from there (another hour) but as admitted earlier, skipped that in favour of a full Mallu thali back at the resort.

palace
(image source: wikimapia)

Another morning, I went for a tour of the Vaikuntam Plantation, taking in the sunset from a hillock inside the estate.

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You can find out more about these excursions here – I also have a story coming up on my visit to the palace. I will link to it here, so please look out for it.

The world through its burgers

For many travellers, a visit to the Hard Rock Cafe in any new city is a thing to definitely tick off their list. Have a drink, feel the vibe and buy a T shirt: that’s me. Despite the fact that HRC runs as a family-friendly cafe / restaurant in many places, I have never paid much attention to the food there.

Till recently, when I was invited for a burger tasting event at my friendly neighbourhood Hard Rock Cafe. The occasion was a preview of their World Burger Tour (from June 1 – July 31), which, as you have guessed right, is an offering of the most delectable tastes from all over the world, enfolded in a bun.

The late afternoon session started with a dazzling array of special cocktails (a bad idea for me, given that I had eaten nothing since breakfast and it was already past 3 pm then).And oh, every one of them had a surprise twist – they were all topped with beer, in keeping with the mood of the festival.

We started with an El Matador (luckily, the serving sizes were small shot glasses), with fresh strawberry, basil leaves, Bacardi rum and fresh lime juice topped with beer. And in rapid succession, we went through others with whiskey, rum, gin, liqueur and much more. At the end of this tasting session, it was all I could do to wait for the burgers.

Cocktails.jpg

And then they arrived at the table – and what an array! Chef Niranjan came to our table to talk about each of these burgers and the inspiration behind them.

The burger options did live up to its promise of world food – with tastes ranging from Mediterranean to Mexican, Lebanese, Italian and even Indian. And to my pleasant surprise, four of the eight burger options were vegetarian, a nod to the eating culture of this country. The chef also explained how each of the burgers had been designed keeping in mind local tastes and expectations.

Burgers.jpg

I did try a bite (or more) of the vegetarian burgers – and my favourite was the Mexican Quesedilla Veg Burger – with the flavours of polenta, sweet corns, beans and vegetables, avocado and nacho straws, all flavoured with a tangy enchilada salsa. You tell me, what is not to like?!

At the end of this burger marathon, there was one more waiting for us – the Burgerthon organised by the HRC guys. And as the sole woman in the group, I was batting (eating) for all womankind as I competed with guys who clearly knew their burgers and beer. To my credit, I finished half the burger and got rewarded with a huge Jagerbomb for my efforts!

The World Burger Tour is on at all Hard Rock Cafes in India till July 31st – go bite into that juicy burger now and come back to tell me about it here!

My stay at Jungle Lodges, Bandipur

When we reached the Bandipur Safari Lodge, run by Jungle Lodges, it was only 11 am. We had left Bangalore early in the morning, and even with multiple breakfast and rest stops, we made it to Bandipur sooner than anticipated. The folks at the check in counter were kind enough to give us a room right away, so managed to get some rest before lunchtime. The resort is set in a thickly wooded area, filled with trees and plants, giving us the feel of being close to the forest as soon as we entered.

path

Lunch was a pleasant affair at the gol ghar, with a good choice of south Indian and north Indian food, with vegetarians well catered for. The service everywhere in the resort is excellent, with the staff taking care of guest needs promptly.

After lunch, the manager Mr. Nadaf took me on a quick tour of the property, showing the special rooms, which are slightly larger sized standalone cottages that come with an extra verandah.

cottage

verandah

I was staying in a normal cottage, each of which is named after a different animal found in the forest, and has a wall painting of the same behind the beds. I was staying in the sambar room (none of the rooms are air-conditioned but stay cool with the windows open).

room

The resort is also dotted with hammocks here and there, which make the perfect spot for a quick afternoon siesta before the safari. I made myself comfortable on one of those, with a book in hand, although I did not read much, distracted constantly by the various bird calls.

hammock

My experience at Bandipur Safari Lodge had so far been very good – room, food, service – but then it was time for the main reason I was there. Unlike other luxury weekend getaways, people head to Bandipur not to chill out at the resort but for the wildlife safari. And it is in this that the lodge fell seriously short of my expectations.

From the way guests were allocated to different jeeps, to the attitude of the jeep driver, everything was unfortunately below par. There was no naturalist accompanying our jeep, and the driver was just not interested in stopping anywhere to take in the forest, even for photographs. He was not a keen tracker – in my previous several experiences in our forests, I have only seen drivers who keep their eyes and ears trained for any sign of the tiger, and along with that, also point out other animal and bird species. But none of that here.

We just drove on listlessly, without any purpose or interest in seeing anything. By the end of it, even the guests in the jeep had lost interest in the forest and we were glad to be back at the resort – which is another story, because we reached Bandipur Safari Lodge ten minutes before the safari closing time.

In two safaris, forget tigers, we ended up not spotting even many bird species – a major disappointment. I was invited by the folks at thekarnatakatourism.com to this weekend stay at the Bandipur Safari Lodge and I have given my frank feedback here, because it is imperative for any wildlife resort to have good drivers / guides to make the forest come alive to guests.

Note: Karnataka Tourism is a private website that manages bookings for several nature resorts in the state, most of them from Jungle Lodges. You can visit the website or write to them at book@thekarnatakatourism.com for more information.

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