My world from up above

2016 has been a spectacular year for me as a traveller (a detailed round-up post coming up next) – but one of the highlights was the bird’s eye view I got of some stunning natural and man-made wonders on chopper rides.

From the Grand Canyon in the USA to twice in Canada, over the Niagara Falls and over the Rockies, recently the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Australia from the vantage point of a helicopter.

Then the familiar landmarks of Dubai from a seaplane, and the very intriguing Nazca Lines in Peru from a light aircraft, it has been an amazing ride.

Here, a few of my favourite memories of the world I saw from above:

The dozen brown hues of the Grand Canyon

The magnificence of Niagara from the Canadian side

Up above the snowy Rockies

The mystery of the outstretched hands over Nazca

Fringes of the Palm and soaring tower of Burj

The 12 Apostles, shipwreck magnets from the past

Friendly faces from Oman

Oman was an absolutely delightful discovery – a heady mix lush greens, aquamarine blues and sandy browns, interesting history and architecture, and above all, friendly people. Every one of these aspects was a revelation to me, since I went to Oman not knowing what to expect.

Our guide-drive Fahad, with his soft voice and gentle smile, turned out to be a mine of information about local culture and way of life. He was also happy enough to pose for my camera in places where I needed a human element to break the stark brown hues. Fahad will always remain one of my all-time favourite fashion models!

People were usually happy to be photographed, as long as I asked them first – of course, it was tricky with women, so I didn’t push it except for places where I knew they did not object. Of course, I couldn’t resist a few stolen moments, but these were rare.

Here then, a few of my favourite faces from my recent trip to Oman:

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

Meghalaya’s living root bridges

I ought to actually say ‘bridge’ and not ‘bridges’ since I visited only one of them. But hey, these are one of the most famous attractions of Meghalaya, so let’s not split hairs. On my recent visit to Assam and Meghalaya with my husband, we stayed over at Shillong for a couple of days and then headed towards Cherrapunjee.

The plan was to see the crystal clear Umngot River at Dawki village on the Bangladesh border, then visit Mawlynnong, which has the distinction of being Asia’a cleanest village and the hike the short distance to the living root bridge close to the village. After all of which, we would head on to Cherrapunjee for the night.

However, by the time we had reached Mawlynnong, we had decided to stay on there and skip Cherrapunjee altogether, heading to the root bridge on our way out the next morning. Which turned out to be a great idea.

This one at Rewai village is a single level bridge, unlike the more famous double decker one ]near Cherrapunjee. That however, involved a tough 3-4 hour trek, and given that I was still limping from a recent foot fracture, was completely out of the question.

The Rewai bridge was an easier hike than I expected, a few dozen stone steps and then uneven ground. On our way down, we came across a local from Mawlynnong who helpfully pointed out that there was an even shorter route that led straight to the car park. Tucking that piece of info away safely, we headed towards the bridge.

We reached the Rewai bridge by 8 am, when there was absolutely nobody around; no locals, no tourists. Visitors usually go there after lunch at Mawlynnong, which meant that afternoons and evenings were a chaotic, noisy time. But in he morning, we had to wait for ten minutes before the first locals came into sight; a couple of women out for their morning wash at the river flowing under the bridge.

Walking across the bridge, we crossed the cluster of bamboo trees and headed towards a spot down below from where we could get a full view of the bridge, as well the activity near the water. But for a small tea shop with a young girl minding it, there was nobody else there. After asking for chai and Maggi (the perfect mountains combination), we perched on one of the big boulders near the stream, dipping our feet into the cold water.

It was perfect silence down there, and we sat there quiet and content, sunning ourselves in the mellow morning heat. Soon, a few locals including children on their way to school appeared, a vendor set up a table with a few biscuit and chips packets and bottled water near the entry to the bridge. The peace was still not shattered; it was not like tourists cawing away without any consideration to the space, it was everyone doing their own thing.

What a perfect morning it was!

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.

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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.

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