Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Foodie & the Fotographer : Champaner & The Glory that Surrounds It.

From : The DNA
16 November 2014

EAT AND DRIVE :- History, Spirituality, Royalty, Natural Beauty & a Unique Craft @ Champaner, Pavgadh, Jambughoda & Sankheda

The Foodie & The Fotographer – Kim & Brajesh go Road Tripping through Gujarat.

A Month Ago, (DNA, 16 Oct 14) we explored Patan, a recently declared UNESCO World Heritage Site, but Champaner was given the same honour more than 10 years ago in 2004, as the only complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city.

In 1484, Sultan Mahmud Begarah took possession of the Pavgadh Hill fort and renamed it Muhammadabad. Champaner was constructed as the Capital City of Gujarat by the 16th Century.

Today the town sees hordes of visitors, but 99.9% of them head only to Pavgadh Hill to the temple of Kalika Mata – belived to be a Shaktipeeth because Sati’s toe is supposed to have fallen here. Unusually, there is a shrine built over the temple dedicated to Muslim Saint Sadanshah, who supposedly pacified Mahakali, who in a fit of rage had set out to destroy the world.

It is possible to take your vehicle half way up the hill to the parking area, which has a basic Government rest house with very nice staff, who have snacks and tea on offer (if they are open) and usable washrooms. The view from their basic outdoor dining is gorgeous and with a steaming cup of tea and piping hot pakodas, you can forget the world and the crowds outside.

Many pilgrims climb the Pavgadh hill in pilgrimage (4-5 hours round trip), but for those less physically inclined, there is a mono-cable ropeway that can carry 1200 people per hour. However, this ropeway only operates in certain seasons and is often closed for repairs and maintenance, so be prepared for that eventuality.

The Champaner Heritage Site encompasses this temple, the living town of Champaner and the Heritage Buildings spread all over the area, many of which still lie unexcavated. You can see some of these monuments as you drive up the hill. If something looks interesting, park your vehicle (at a proper space that doesn’t obstruct other traffic) and get out for a walk. Walking around these monuments is the only way to truly appreciate their size and intricate work.

The ASI Website lists over 35 monuments that have been studied, but not all of them are easily accessible. Our car often had its capabilities tested to the maximum on some of the side roads and we still couldn’t find some of the monuments on the list. We treated the whole exercise as a treasure hunt and had loads of fun.

The main series of monuments is located directly opposite the path that leads up to Pavgadh Hill. The Jami Masjid here is accepted to be the model for later mosque architecture in India. Some of these Historic sites, now house Government offices. If you ask nicely, they will let you take a walk around their premises.

Champaner is 154 km away from Ahmedabad and takes around 2.5 hours to drive, bypassing Baroda, via Halol. However, you can also spend Friday night in Baroda and then it is less than an hours drive (58 km) to Champaner. You can choose to return to Ahmedabad via Baroda (stopping here for lunch), We however prefer the more scenic route via Jambughoda (25 km) & Sankheda (40km). Then another 167 km to Ahmedabad, for a round trip of around 400 km.

The Nature Lovers Retreat is a Heritage Property of the Jamughoda Royal family, that has guesthouse style rooms and serves brilliant food. Call at least 24 hours ahead to book for lunch. You may not see any Wildlife, but the Greenery is a soothing balm to the soul. Next time we may try the recently opened Champaner Heritage Resort or the Mount Heritage Resort. If you want to explore further, head to the Jhund Hanuman temple in the sanctuary, with its 18foot high murti, believed to date to the Mahabharata era or the Government Guest House which has great views of the reservoirs.

Then take a quick drive to Sankheda and watch the carpenters known as kharadis create the unique lacquered woodwork furniture of this region. It’s a 400+ year old craft, practiced by 100+ families. Pick up a sofa set or a photo frame and know that you have bought something that isn’t manufactured anywhere else in the world.

After such a series of varied experiences and sights, head back to Ahmedabad content in all that you have achieved for the day.

Champaner Heritage Site – the main mosque – 5 Rs – same ticket can be used for entry to the other monuments too.
Ropeway - 75 Rs

Read the Entire Article on the DNA Website


Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Foodie & the Fotographer : Are Shocked & Awed at Junagadh

From : The DNA
2 Nov 2014

EAT AND DRIVE :- Shock & Awe in Junagadh

The Foodie & The Fotographer – Kim & Brajesh go Road Tripping through Gujarat.

Junagadh is often overlooked by most travelers to Gir or Somnath as a tiny town that you pass along the way. However, it is the most undiscovered and untapped gem of Gujarat for us. We have never found tourists (local or foreign) here, except for the pilgrims visiting Mt Girnar, inspite of the town housing multiple sites of interest from Buddhist and Mughal time periods too.

The journey to Junagadh from Ahmedabad, via Rajkot is around 317 km and takes roughly 5 hours, unless you decided to break at Rajkot / Khamabaliya or take a detour into Gondal.

Junagadh means “Old Fort” and this little town has been ruled in turn by the Mauryas, Maitrakas, Solankis, Chudasamas & Mughals – each of whom have left behind a bit of their history, architecture and aesthetics.

For a regular tourist, the main place of interest is the Uparkot Fort which was virtually inaccessible when it was built. Today, you can drive your car right into the fort and actually drive around it. The entry is on the narrow side, but an SUV can get in easily, as long as you come to an understanding with any driver approaching from the opposite direction.

Inside the Fort, the largest spot of interest is the 15th C. Jama Masjid which is itself built like a fort. Its covered courtyard is a unique feature in Indian mosque architecture. Be adventurous and climb up to the higher floor on the rickety stairs. The views are most definitely worth it and you can take multitudes of profile photos (which is what most of the visiting kids end up doing)

The oldest part of the fort is its Buddhist caves that are 2 – 3 stories underground carved out of monolithic rocks. You may feel that there is hardly anything to see and everything is faded, but remember that these caves are almost 2000 years old and use your imagination to visualise what it would look like in its heyday filled with Buddhist monks.

Hire a guide if you would like to hear the mournful story of Adi Kadi – the sisters who were sacrificed, so the stepwells would fill with water. Or have your picture taken astride a stuffed tiger with a BB gun in hand to resemble a shikari of yore, or scramble down the Navghan Kuvo which provided the fort with water in case of long sieges.

There is a snack shop opposite the Adi Kadi Vav, who sells packaged namkeen and cold drinks and you will often find street vendors selling seasonal fruits and cholafali or singdana. You may also find a lady selling local herbs and spices, be wary of what you buy, we found that the aroma of everything vanished even before we returned to Ahmedabad.

Just walk around this whole place and take it all in and enjoy the beauty of the fort and its magnificent backdrop.

Come back towards town and head to the pinnacle of Islamic Architecture in the State – the Mahabat Maqbara, with its external spiral staircase encircled minarets - from the Babi period, but built with a mix of European (Gothic columns, French windows), Hindu and Moorish influences. Climb up one of those staircases for some brilliant views and pictures of the Mahabat Maqbara and the neighbouring Bahauddin Maqbara which is also extremely picturesque.

Stop for lunch at Petals in Lotus Hotel for a pretty decent Indian meal with usable bathrooms. It’s also a good option for an overnight stay with comfortable rooms.

After lunch head towards Mt Girnar/Neminath which is home to Jain & Hindu temples, Buddhist Cave shrines and even a Dargah of a Saint. The Amba Mata Temple is sacred to newlyweds, Guru Dattatreya Temple is built on the spot where he performed severe penance to Lord Shiva for 24 years and Kalka’s peak dedicated to Kali Ma and the resort of Aghoris are the most famous. The annual Girnar / Lili Parikrama is a festival spanning 7 days and involves walking 36 kms and climbing 4000 steps upto Girnar Taleti and most pilgrims do this over 3 days.

If this is not your cup of tea, just drive up to the furthest point and stop to visit one of the few surviving Ashokan Rock Edicts from 3rd BC along the way.

If you spend more time in the city, the other spots of interest are the Sakkarbaug Zoo – which has an excellent conservation program with Asiatic Lions, Narsinh Mehtha no Choro, Bhavnath Mahadev Temple, Willingdon Dam, Datar Hill or the Darbar Hall Museum.

If you want to extend your trip to Junagadh, you can head off on a spiritual quest for God at Somnath / Dwarka or find God in nature at the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary.


Uperkot Fort
Entry – 4 wheeler with passengers – 40Rs.
Entry – 2 wheeler – 5 Rs

Most sites are open from 9 – 6 and entry fee if any, is 5Rs per person.

Read the entire article on the DNA Website.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Foodie & The Fotographer : Catch up with the Sun & The Queen

In : The DNA
On : 24 October 2014

EAT AND DRIVE :- Catch up with the Sun & the Queen.

Kim & Brajesh go Road Tripping through Gujarat.

Rani ki Vav at Patan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 4 months ago, so it is not yet inundated with tourists. Grab the opportunity to head to this magnificently worked ancient stepwell and see for yourself, why this 11th Century monument is worthy of this honour. On the way, stop at another Solanki monument of the same era at Modhera and breathe in the beauty at one of the 3 main Sun Temples surviving in India today.

This can easily be covered in a day trip. Start early from Ahmedabad to avoid the morning rush. Modhera is a 100km away via Kalol and takes about 1.5 hours to drive.

If it’s too early to prepare breakfast at home, you can always stop at Janpath Hotel near Mehsana, which opens as early as 6:30 am and serves great poha and lassi. Gota, samosa and bread pakoda are also on offer for those who like a crispy start to the day. If you arrive a little later in the morning , they will even offer you fresh dosas and parathas. Almost opposite, is a new McDonalds Drive-In (only), which works well if you want a fast food fix or are a little more conscious about overall cleanliness.

Drive on to the Modhera Sun Temple, where there is more than adequate parking. I have never seen the GTDC cafeteria – “Toran” – at this location open in the 15+ visits we have made, so do carry food with you, if you plan to picnic on the lovely sprawling green lawns at this site. There is a shop near the ticket window, that sells namkeen, cold drinks and water.

The museum at Modhera has been recently opened to the public. While it may seem like there is no point in spending time on broken sculptures, when a large temple complex awaits exploration, there is something to be said about browsing individual sculptures slowly. I find that I pay more attention to detail this way, but tend to gloss over intricacies when presented with a larger structure.

The Sun temple is broadly divided into the Surya Kund – Sacred Tank – surrounded by 108 mini shrines, mostly dedicated to Lord Shiva. Sabha Mandap – Assembly Hall – This is beautifully worked and since it is a semi open structure, here is where you can best admire the carvings of episodes from the Hindu epics. The Garb Gruh – sanctum sanctorum was designed in a way that the first rays of the sun on 21st March, would fall on the idol of Suryadev in here. There is no longer an idol in this temple, or any idol of Suryadev. But there is a small functional temple to Shivji alongside the main temple and there are plenty of depictions of Suryadev on the interior and exterior of the main temple.

Drive on for another 45 minutes (36km) on SH 7 to arrive at the Rani ki Vav in Patan. Before stopping here, head a little further on the same road to the Sahastralinga Talav, to get an idea of what it must have been like during the process of excavation.

Then return on the same road to the Rani Ki Vav (supposedly built on the banks of the River Saraswati) which to us, is the pinnacle of Solanki architecture in Gujarat. Stepwells in Gujarat were not just constructed for the practical purpose of water, but most of them were also used as a social gathering place and hence great attention was paid, to make it a beautiful space. The Rani Ki Vav is the pinnacle in the design & aesthetics of subterranean architecture. It is awe inspiring, right from the time that you begin your descent into the 7 levels. The walls are covered with over 500 main sculptures and 1000 minor ones from mythology and religion. The most prominent are the dashavatar and the image of Vishnu reclining on the Sheshnag, resting in infinity between the ages.

There is rumoured to be a tunnel at the base of this stepwell which extends 30kms into Siddhpur, to be used by the Royal Family for escape, in case of emergency.

At the end of this visit, you can relax and spend time in Patan City, exploring its multiple Jain Temples or admiring the Patola weavers exquisite skill. You can head towards the picturesque town of Siddhpur and stop at Bindu Sarovar – the only place in India for matru shraddh. Or you can head back to Ahmedabad via Unjha and Mehsana, stopping for a lovely South Indian lunch or dosas at Sankalp.

If you are not yet ready to call it a day, then you can visit Thol Bird Sanctuary en route and time it in a way to be there around sunset to witness the amazing cacophony of 1000’s of birds coming to roost around the lake.

There is so much natural beauty, history and architecture to be discovered around Gujarat, that it is never a question of “what is there to do this weekend?”, it is more about “how much can I see and do this weekend?

Modhera Sun Temple
Entry 5 Rs
Parking 20 Rs
Usable Washrooms behind the museum

Rani Ki Vav
Entry 5 Rs
Still Camera 100 Rs
Booklet 30 Rs

Sahstralinga Talav & Bindu Sarovar
Entry – Free

Thol Lake
Car with passengers – 200 Rs


Read This Article in Detail on the DNA Website

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Foodie & The Fotographer : Drive to Diu & Explore the Hidden Gems

From : DNA
12 October 2014

The Foodie & The Fotographer – Kim & Brajesh explore Gujarat through their road trips

Let’s face it : Living in a Dry State like we do, the minute you say that you want to drive to Diu, most minds jump to the most obvious. But there is so much more to see and do in Diu, including just enjoying the sun and sand on one of its many beautiful beaches, bordered with Hoka Palms that were originally imported from Mozambique.

The drive to Diu from Ahmedabad is approximately 350km and takes around 6 hours. You can go via Dhanduka on SH 236 or via Bhavnagar.

We prefer the Bhavnagar route, because it also gives us the option to break journey at the beautiful Nilambagh Palace Hotel for lunch. Whether you eat in the formal dining room with its humongous Burma Teak table and Czechoslovakian chandeliers or at the serene Garden Restaurant, you will always remember this place. They serve Indian, Chinese and Continental cusine, but we heavily recommend their Indian food, especially the local style chicken curry and tandoori chicken with rotis.

If you are heading straight to Diu for lunch, our first recommendation is O’Coqueiro. (No relation to the infamous restaurant in Goa with the same name) It’s a simple space, with food cooked in the house behind and while service is sometimes slow, it is worth the wait. Try their Penne Calamari, Bavette con Gamberi, Caldo de Camarao or the Fish in Tomato Curry. They also have quite a range of vegetarian dishes that are good, but the seafood is outstanding - absolutely fresh and tasty.

After lunch, pay a quick visit to the St Thomas Church next door, which is now the Diu museum. It’s a 10-20 minute stop, but has some good antique statues and wooden carvings. Try the Sao Tome Retiro upstairs, for budget accommodation and great BBQ parties (for residents only)

Once it’s slightly cooler, head to the Diu Fort to work off some of those calories from lunch. Built by the Portuguese in the 1530’s, it is worth climbing its ramparts for the magnificent sea views and a glimpse of the Island Fort - Panikota Forte do Mar.

For dinner, head to Cat’s Eye View at The Resort Hoka / Hoka Island Villa. It’s a lovely chilled out Garden venue which also serves brilliant seafood – Indian and Continental. If you are not in the mood for a heavy dinner, choose from a wide range of snacks to go with your drinks – batter fried prawns or fried brinjals there’s something on offer for everyone and their breakfasts are great too. The rooms here are quite quirky, but comfortable.

Heranca Goesa is a great option for breakfast after a swim / dip at one of Diu’s many beaches – Nagoa, Jalandhar, Chakratirth or Ghoghla. Gangeshwar Mahadev is a Holy spot with 5 Shivlingas supposedly constructed by the Pandavas to worship Lord Shiva before eating. During high tide, the Shivlingas are constantly washed by the sea spray. St Paul’s Church is a functional Church that holds services on Sunday, but can be visited almost anytime.

If you want to do something more adventurous, head to the Naida Caves, that are extremely picturesque (they are the backdrop to Rani Mukherjee’s opening dance sequence in Aiyya) and great fun to scramble around. If you want to do some serious caving, carry a flashlight and always go with a companion.

Honour our brave sailors who died defending our country at the INS Khukhri Memorial. This is also a perfect spot for a sunset viewing.

If you are not particular about staying on Diu itself, the Hotel Magico Do Mar is an interesting option just before the bridge that crosses over into the island. The cottages are very cosy and they have a private beach too.

Entry to all places of interest on Diu (except the Shell Museum) are free. Timings vary, but are generally sunrise to sunset. The Fort has a functional prison, so the timings here are a bit stricter.

5 Accessories to carry on driving trips
• Sunglasses & Caps for all
• Sufficient supply of water
• Camera - not the phone variety
• Music
• Phone

Read the Entire Article on the DNA Website

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Foodie & The Fotographer : Take a Leisurely Drive to Velavadar National Park

From : DNA
5 October 2014

One of the easiest drives for good wildlife sighting in Gujarat is to the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park.

Velavadar, is about 140km away from Ahmedabad and a leisurely drive, takes around 2.5 hours with random stops for either photography or food.

You also have the option to visit Lothal and the Uthelia Palace enroute, for a peek into some history, if you so choose. The drive is very comfortable, roads are good and the only thing that you need to watch out for is - the actual turn, off the highway towards Lothal / Velavadar, that isn’t very clearly marked.

The Velavadar Blackbuck National Park is open from sunrise to sunset (except during monsoons) If you want to take just a day trip, depart from Ahmedabad at about 5:30-6 am, reach the park and go in for a drive. Have lunch at The Blackbuck Lodge, relax there until the sun loses a bit of its fieriness, go on another drive around the park and then head back to Ahmedabad.

The only reason, we suggest a day trip is because, the lodge has just 14 independent cottages and is constantly in high demand. However, to truly enjoy the beauty of this place and relax, it is advisable to spend at least one night at the resort.

The 35sq km Velavadar Blackbuck National Park park has grasslands, shrub lands, saline plains and mud flats, which support a variety of grass, 95 species of flowering plants, 14 species of mammals (blackbuck, nilgai, Indian grey wolf, striped hyena, Indian fox, golden jackal, jungle cat and smaller ones like hare, gerbil, field mice, mongoose and hedgehog), over 140 species of birds and many reptiles. The Alang and Paravalia Rivers, three artificial ponds, two check dams and nearby coastal marshes provide an ideal habitat for aquatic flora and fauna. From a conservation viewpoint, a unique feature of the park is that it is the only tropical grassland in India to be given the status of a national park. This used to be the private grasslands of the maharaja of Bhavnagar before it was converted into a national park.

Ardent birders head here for rare sightings of the lesser florican, endangered vultures, demoiselle cranes and a variety of raptors. The park also hosts the world’s largest harrier roost. We visited during the monsoons when the main park is closed (mid-June to mid-Oct), but we saw lots of blackbuck and birds and even a jungle cat on a general drive outside the national park. It is a single lane road and the road behind the Velavadar village has massive craters, so you need a vehicle with higher clearance (like one you could use inside the park) to make this drive.

The Blackbuck Lodge is the most peaceful resort that you can visit in Gujarat. The cottages are spaced out more like an African (think Kenya / South Africa / Tanzania safari resorts) resort than a Kutchi / Gujarati one. It is spread across acres and acres, with no boundary wall in sight, just rolling swathes of green and blue. The chirping of birds is brilliant background music to this visual relaxation.

They have a fantastic in house library (small, but with plenty of books on wildlife and lots of different magazines if you prefer) at the reception and the sit out here overlooks a beautiful lake, that makes it the perfect spot to cosy up with a book or just sit and contemplate the glorious silence.

You have to choose the all-inclusive plan as there is no other place nearby to visit for lunch or dinner, unless you plan to visit Bhavnagar for the day. But the food at every buffet that we tasted, was very good (you just have to adjust salt and chillies to your taste - they are served on the side). The non-veg is excellent and quality is very high. Its worth waiting to arrive here for your meal.

However, if you feel peckish along the way, the most popular stop is the recently opened Gallops that serves more-than-average highway food (for Gujarat), although most of the options are deep-fried.

Our personal choice was a much smaller and less swanky “Darshan Hotel” near Pipali which served us some of the best dal that we have eaten on Gujarat’s highways. Let the staff recommend what is best for the day and just trust them blindly, you can’t go wrong.

Whether you head here just for a day’s outing or for a long weekend, enjoy the park responsibly, do not harm or frighten the wildlife, avoid loud obnoxious behaviour and respect Mother Nature.

5 Point checklist before a long drive.
1. Fuel (The obvious full tank)
2. Air in tyres (including stepney)
3. Tool Box & Jack (you never know)
4. Papers - RC, PUC, Insurance, Licence (right side of the law)
5. Map Route - Paper or Virtual (while getting lost has its own charm)

The Gallops complex enroute has its own restaurant upstairs, an eatery downstairs, a couple of outlets outside selling chikkis, paan, channachor and frenchfries. CCD and Havmor are due to open shortly. Gallops kitchen isn’t very clean or inspiring, so we preferred driving a little further to Pipali and eating at Darshan Hotel.

The Blackbuck Lodge serves a lovely buffet, with salads, a fairly large vegetarian spread, a non-veg dish (chicken / mutton) and a dessert. We had some awesome mutton kurma, mutton roganjosh, kofta curries and gulab jamuns. Definitely don’t miss the amazing pista colored gur which is made in the village nearby.

Read the Entire article on The DNA Website

Monday, 11 August 2014

For Amdavadis, printed word holds an irreplaceable charm

Brajesh, me and our book review blog featured in today's DNA Ahmedabad (Page 2 of Main Paper) article on Booklovers

For Amdavadis, printed word holds an irreplaceable charm

The adage – ‘Wear the old coat and buy a new book' — goes very well for Amdavadi bookworms who are still hooked to the woody aroma of the printed pages. These bibliophagists appreciate Kindle, but say digitisation cannot replace the charm of printed words. dna’s Himali Doshi finds out how the city-folk declare their undying love for printed books on Book Lovers Day

‘Begin reading today and change your life’

Brajesh Bajpai, business head, Vodafone Ltd Gujarat, owns a 1,500-book library. An active blogger on, he and wife Karishma summarise and rate the books they read across all genres. ‘My library grew naturally when my wife Karishma brought home her own large collection of books,” he says revealing how he thought of making a library. “The print form is being challenged by lower costs and easy accessibility of e-books, but will survive for its own unique reasons,” he says with hope. His favourite author is Devdutt Pattnaik whose “Mahabharata” he rates highly, with all its renditions, versions and speculative fiction.

‘Read books and let your imagination soar’
“When my family moved from Sindh, my grandmother brought with her only a few clothes but a trunk full of books,” says Prakash Ramrakhiani who has a 5,000-book library which he calls 'Danai' meaning 'knowledge' in Greek. His love for books soared when he began receiving books as a prize for standing first in class.” His favourite authors are PG Woodhouse, W Dalrymple, John LeCarre and Frederick Forsyth. That books would be redundant soon was speculated even 20 years ago, he remembers and feels e-books can never replace the smell of fresh paper or the charm of holding a book in the hand. His message for the young is that they should read all genres to develop mind and thought.

‘Food for thought weighs more than food for stomach’
Founder of 'The Riverside School', Ahmedabad, Kiran Bir Sethi has about 1,000 books in her personal library. Lending and borrowing books was an essential the part of growing up she remembers and insists that parents should encourage their kids to make their own collection. Though she loves e-books she says, reading printed books gives her unparalleled pleasure. “Youngsters read a lot of stuff on social networking sites, but they need to be inspired to read books” she says. Among her favourite books are 'The difficulty of being good' by Guru Charan Das and MK Gandhi's 'My experiments with truth'.

Published Date:  Aug 11, 2014

Monday, 28 July 2014

My Interview on is a very popular Indian Website in the US. It was one of the first websites to start a Indian Recipe section way back in the late 1990's as far as I remember. While their focus has slowly changed, the food section is still quite prominent and I'm quite kicked about the fact that they wanted to interview me :)

The interview can be read on site  - here

Many of us cannot even think about an Indian delicacy beyond garam masala, ghee or butter. Beauty of the food lies in humble ingredients. “Noodles Vs. Snake meat” is just a cloudy vision about the unique cuisine from North East. Karishma talks about innovating delicious Indian food via North-East cuisine on “”.

Could you please share with us the moment you cooked your first Thevo Choo ?

In October 2010 we were posted in Delhi. In preparation for the Commonwealth Games to be held in the City, there were a lot of folk performances and food stalls from all over India. I smelt some lovely pork being cooked in the Food Stall from Nagaland, so I stopped and picked up a plate. It was delicious, light and spicy and I was hooked. ( I knew I enjoyed these flavours and I wanted to try to recreate them at home. I bought Hoihnu Hazel's "The Essential North-East Cookbook" and flipped the pages and the Thevo Chu ( had ingredients in it that seemed very different from any other pork preparation that I had ever cooked before, so that's when I decided to make it and I was hooked on the taste and flavours. In those days I used to use regular chillies.

In May 2011, we were transferred to Guwahati and that’s where I finally got my hands on Bhoot Jholakia's (Naga Chillies) in every form - fresh / dried / pickled / preserved in oil or alcohol. The flavour from using these chillies is phenomenal.

I also got to barely scratch the surface on the 100's of varieties of greens and herbs that are used in North Eastern Cooking. These aren't available anywhere else in the country and you have to make a trip to the North East to really savour these dishes in their original form. It is also heartening to note that there are now regular restaurants in Bangalore and Delhi that only specialise in North Eastern food and I heavily recommend a visit.

When did you discover that cooking is more than a therapy in your eyes?

As a child I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother and she loved to cook. But more than she loved to cook, she loved to feed people, guests were always welcomed to share our meals and nobody ever turned down an invitation from her to stay on, because she was a brilliant cook. Basically she supervised the preparations (cleaning, chopping etc) and lent a hand when needed, but the final preparation was always done by her. I was her shadow as a 6 year old child and would be allowed to taste the masalas that were being ground and she would let me help in processes where there were no knives or fire involved. The only thing she hated me doing was sneaking bites of freshly grated coconuts. She always warned me that stealing this grated coconut would ensure that it would rain on the day of my "roce" (a Manglorean Christian equivalent of the "haldi" ceremony) and she had a good laugh when it actually did rain completely out of season on my roce day :)

As soon as I graduated from XLRI in 1999, I moved to my own apartment in Bangalore for a job and this is when I got back to cooking with a bang since I had spent 2 years in a hostel with no opportunity to cook. I was 22 and often had a whole bunch of friends inviting themselves over for a meal or asking me to cook at their kitchens because they too missed "home cooked" food. I never minded, because I actually enjoyed cooking and feeding people and I realised that the genes had passed from my nana to my mum and now to me. I used to wait to return from office, so I could get into the kitchen. No matter how stressful a day, an hour in the kitchen always cheered me up.

A stint in the US in 2000, introduced me to new ingredients and more global cuisines. In Atlanta, I used to often cook for most of the Indians in the office who were also staying in the same complex of apartments. The only sad part was that most of them were vegetarian, so I was forced to brush up on some Vegetarian recipes. I learnt basic Tamilian, Marathi and Kannadiga Vegetarian cooking from the recipes that these guys would get from their mothers and wives back in India. My next stint in Chicago was brilliant. Chicago has such a wonderful array of Global ethnic food stores and restaurants, that it pushed me to learn more whenever I got the opportunity.

In 2001, I was back in India and for the next few years I moved around the country Bangalore-Gurgaon-Hyderabad-Bombay, meeting with friends who would invite me home for a meal cooked by their wives or their mothers and this is when I truly started to appreciate the different styles of cuisine that we have in India.

Later stints in Cairo and Dubai as a trailing spouse, gave me more opportunities to interact with other expats and I also had more time on my hands, since I was no longer working full time. A few Egyptian, British and American friends used to come home to learn "Indian Cooking" and I would try to pick their brains on their kind of food.

Except for a few food taboos in certain regions or religions, food is an extremely binding experience. The minute you share a meal with someone, it brings the relationship closer. I treasure every one of the iftaars that I was invited to in these countries and especially the pot lucks where everyone would bring a home cooked dish.

Cooking and food for me is now more than a hobby, a past time or a relaxation therapy. It is a way to connect - with people, with their cultures, their heritage, their country, their village, their history.

How do you explore the taste of regional cuisines? Where do you get your ideas from?

My husband and I are restless nomads. We relocate often and travel frequently. Food is one of the ways in which we explore a region. Where food is concerned I draw the line at insects and snakes (I classify them extremely unscientifically as "creepy-crawlies"), I have not been able to get past a mental barrier here. The other place I drew the line was at cat and dog meat that was served to us at a feast in Nagaland hosted by the Tourism Minister (I've had over 50 beloved cats and dogs as pets in my lifetime and I was convinced that their ghosts would be back to haunt me that very night if I did :) )

But whether it was frogs legs in a French restaurant or fresh unpasteurized cheese in Lebanon, carpaccio, ceviche or sushi, I will try it all and I really love some of them. I've recently developed a bad allergy to shrimp. But other than shrimp, stinky fruit (durian, jackfruit etc) and the afore mentioned creepy-crawlies, I will eat anything. Whether it is standing with one leg on each side of a dirty naala in Agra, eating the most amazing aloo tikkis from a street side vendor, sitting on the floor of a fisherman’s hut in Goa eating fish curry - rice or eating chicken cooked under the sand, while rice cooked on the fire above in the Bahariyya desert of Egypt, I will eat anything that smells decent and is freshly made (especially with street food). More often than not, it ends up tasting great. I trust my nose completely on whether to eat something or not and which stall to eat from.

I love watching my friends, their mothers and their wives cook. The sad part is that in most of India that job is now relegated to maids and cooks and these maharaj's steadfastly shoo you out of the kitchen. I love talking to grandmothers about what they used to eat as children. We eat out often and we now have a surfeit of food chanels on tv or youtube and food bloggers across the world who are all a source of inspiration. I also keep buying cookbooks (my husband has a standing joke that if I were to cook just one new recipe from each cookbook that I own every day, we would have enough variety to last us a couple of lifetimes)

There are some technical dishes like breads and sushi rice where it is good to be physically present when it is being made by someone who knows what they are doing; this gives me an idea as to the required temperature, texture, consistency etc. But a lot of dishes can be replicated from text recipes and then I use these as a starting point to sometimes push things further.

Could you define the moment, when you tried your first ‘eat-out’? How do you dare to try something new as Chetna Special Chicken?

My dad is in the Merchant Navy, so I started traveling across the globe even before I could walk. I have to credit my mum and dad for making 4 of us siblings open to trying anything new when it came to food. While my dad and mum are both from Mangalore, their families food habits are pretty different. My dad’s family loves dishes made from fish heads, goat heads, intestines etc and my mum's mom would normally just put all these things aside for the dogs. While my mum still can't get herself to eat some of these things that were alien to her, she always encouraged us to try them out before we decided whether we would like to eat them or not. This option was not allowed where vegetables were concerned -these we HAD to eat, no matter what.

When we topped the class we were allowed to decide where we would like to go out for dinner. The main option in those days was Indian-Chinese as this was the one kind of food available in a restaurant that was hardly cooked at home, so that’s where we would end up. But all of this was part of life.

My first "Daring" food experience I would say was when I represented my college at a National Debate Competition in Loyola College Chennai in 1996. The hostel that we were put up at, had some North Eastern students there, who took a shine to me when they realised that I too was a "non-vegetarian" and like them trapped in a "vegetarian" hostel. Since the competition was held over a weekend, some of them had gone fishing and they had cooked the food elsewhere and smuggled it steaming hot into the hostel. There were frogs and tiny fish and pigeon and a lot of stuff that I had never seen before, let alone tasted, but I took the plunge and tried it all. And after that there has been no turning back. I will eat anything other than shrimp, stinky fruit (durian, jackfruit etc) and the afore mentioned creepy-crawlies.

‘Temptation’ is something, we are desperate to deny, but the realm doesn’t let us to! We saw your Stove Top Chicken and Mushrooms! Do you just taste your recipes or do you like indulging them?

I LOVE the food that I cook. I rarely follow a recipe to the "T". I don't know if this makes sense, but when I read a recipe I can kind of figure out what it’s going to taste like (like if you can read music, you look at the score and you know what it will sound like), so I adjust as I cook to suit our tastes, so I've rarely made something that has turned out to be inedible. On the off chance that it doesn't taste good, it ends up getting recycled into a completely different dish. For eg if the Goan choriz sausages don't come out well, they are turned into feijoada.

I was always of medium build, but then in the last decade or so, I was badly overweight. In the last 1 year I have lost 15 kilos, not by any drastic exercise or diet but because I have come to understand my body better. We finish dinner before 8pm, I avoid carbs at night. Sweet stuff is restricted to the afternoons. White flour and deep fried foods have long been out of our home cooked menus. So I've turned towards eating smart and semi-healthy and if I overdo it one day then the next day the food is kept really light and fresh (fresh fruit or salad) to balance it out.

Where do you get your ideas for ‘Dinner party menu’?

Everything I see, smell or taste is an inspiration. When I plan a dinner party, I don't fixate on a menu before I set out to shop. I have a rough plan in my head, more to do with the theme of food - Middle Eastern / Manglorean / Mughlai etc. Then the day before a dinner, I look at what is available in the market and looks freshest and how it would fit in with the theme and take it from there. In Ahmedabad, all the protein that I buy is frozen, so I normally can plan that ahead of time, but in other cities, I would go to the market and see what cuts of meat or what varieties of fish are available before closing in on the final menu.

You share appetite through your food blogs. What would be your ‘signature dish’?

Biryani. No doubt about it. It’s not a signature in terms of the biryani that I make, will always taste the same every time I make it. It’s a signature dish, because no matter which way I make it (completely from scratch or with a masala powder), it will always taste amazing. And this is what my family asks for if I ask them what they would like me to cook.

However, if you ask my friends they would say pork. It’s very difficult to get good hearty pork preparations in a restaurant in India. The South East Asian varieties are much easier to find, but the hearty Manglorean, Goan, North Eastern pork dishes are difficult to find outside of Bombay and Goa. So most of my friends would request me to cook pork for them, when they are invited over for a meal.

How far do the family meals count to you?

Our family is basically me, my husband and our cat. Both of us have crazy travel schedules and even when he is in town his timings are all over the place. Earlier I would faithfully ensure that I would wait for him and we would have dinner together even if it was 2 am in the morning. But once I realised that all this was affecting my weight negatively, I now finish eating before 8pm as far as possible. While we might not eat together, I still sit with him when he is having dinner and we discuss our day.

Our house is also constantly filled with guests - friends and family who come over for an evening or to stay for a while. I love having an open kitchen and normally friends enter our house and head straight for the dining table as I am happier having the kitchen to myself, but I can easily chat with them through the open kitchen.

The cat eats through the day, but when we sit at the table to eat, then she too comes to her food bowls to eat a few bites and when she has her 2 main meals of the day, she loves having my husband standing or sitting next to her while she is eating. She often goes and loudly demands that he come near her food bowls and wait there while she eats.

If you eliminate three ingredients in your recipes, please name them.

It’s not so much an ingredient as a technique - I don't deep fry. It’s been 10 years since I have stopped deep frying anything at home, except for the very rare occasion of some pooja that has to have a deep fried component. My MIL herself is very open and broad-minded. Her mother insists that on any "auspicious" occasion rotis/phulkas will not be made, only puris will do. My MIL realises the health concerns and is ok with us making rotis. There are only a couple of poojas where kadi pakoda or puris or gujiyas HAVE to be offered during pooja that these will get made at home.

I rarely use maida (all purpose flour) at home. Its only now that I hope to make more bread at home, that I need to use maida for binding, but I'm hoping to get my hands on some "vital wheat gluten" and work with that.

My husband has gone off potatoes completely in the last one year. It’s a really tough change for him since potatoes are added in almost everything in the food in UP. In Manglorean Catholic Cooking we rarely use potatoes except fried as garnish in some dishes. Otherwise adding potatoes to a dish meant that there wasn't enough meat to go around the table. But now I've cut them out of our grocery list, except for the rare pork indad or some fry that absolutely needs a little potato in it for the alternate texture.

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Thursday, 13 February 2014

My Recipe in the February Issue of Caldron

My Recipe for Manglorean Sweet Pulao / Pilaf has been featured in the in the 'Love Bites' section of the February 2014 issue of Caldron - an online food magazine.

You can view the magazine :

My recipe is on page 54. Unfortunately, my own photo, is the one I use for general social media, where I don't show my face and the magazine picked that one up  :)


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