Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Specialty idlis at Rama Nayak's Udipi Idli House

- By Aishwarya Pramod

I thought I knew idlis. I thought they were a tasty, healthy staple, if a little boring at times. But recently I visited Rama Nayak's Udipi Idli House, and tasted idlis in a very new way. Who knew idlis could be so exciting?!

Here are the dishes we ordered:
Masala-idli with sambar and chutney
Oondi Dalitoya
The oondi is a steamed rice dumpling (like idli). Dalitoya is a type of simple but delicious dal flavoured with lots of hing (asafoetida). I love hing, so I loved this dish.
Jackfruit idli
This was my absolute favourite. It was sweet and rich, especially with all that butter on top. A bottle of kesari juice is behind the idli.
The menu
 The menu was wide-ranging (click for larger view). Maybe I'll try pepper idli and rava idli next time
The two tpes of podi with oil just make everything better.

All in all, a good meal was had by all. If you haven't been to this cafe, you're missing something!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

My article in Mid-Day today: How to make Mumbai the top tourist city in India

- By Deepa Krishnan
As part of their 25th year celebrations, Mumbai's popular newspaper Mid-day asked me to write about how to make Mumbai the top tourist city in India. Here's my article. 

Recently I read a report by MasterCard, listing the top 20 cities which received international tourists in 2014. London topped the list, with 18.9 million visitors. Mumbai had only 4.9 million and did not make the top 20 list. Neither did any other Indian city.

Common sense suggests that a large chunk of the arrivals into Mumbai are business visitors. Although many meetings and conferences are held in Mumbai, we are not among the world’s most popular conference venues. Why? I think it’s because conferences are not just about business - they’re also about entertainment. And Mumbai, despite being the entertainment capital of India, has no entertainment for tourists. 

In other countries, people queue up to fork out significant amounts of money to see professionally run movie-studio tours. A VIP experience of Universal Studios costs $300; and a regular-Joe tour costs $80. The studios actively promote these tours. They make money, not just from entry ticket sales, but also merchandise sales, restaurants, bars, performance show tickets, etc. But Mumbai has nothing comparable to offer.

I think it will completely change the Mumbai tourism industry if Mehboob Studio or Film City makes a great studio tour, with movie history, dance, music, dining and other entertainment options. Just think about the possibilities! What if the entire Kapoor clan promoted an R K Studios tour? I’m told they still preserve all the costumes from their sets! What if the Bollywood Khans became ambassadors for Film City tours? 
Hall of fame in Mehboob Studio
I think Bollywood can make Mumbai not just a prized conference venue, but the number one leisure tourist destination in India for both international and domestic tourists. But none of the studios in Mumbai seem to share this vision. Forget studio tours, there is not even a daily song and dance show on offer based on the movies. What a waste of Mumbai’s potential as an entertainment hub!

Apart from entertainment, we also need to revitalize and improve other aspects of the city. We have a great art district in Kala Ghoda, which could be made into a pedestrian plaza with cafes, boutiques and art galleries, much like central Amsterdam or Brussels. It could become an attractive place to showcase Maharashtra’s unique crafts and cuisine.
Kala Ghoda Art District
Kala Ghoda Festival
The nearby Ballard Estate, with its old-world charm, can also become an extended part of this tourism zone. It would inject life into this heritage zone, which otherwise goes creepily quiet after 6:00 p.m.
Ballard Estate
I’ve always said that Mumbai’s heart lies in its bazaars and neighbourhoods like Bhuleshwar, Bhendi Bazaar, Lalbaug, Dadar, Matunga, Bandra etc. Each locality has its own charm. These neighbourhoods are tourism assets and part of our living heritage. Walking tours conducted by locals to highlight the architecture, culture and cuisine of these neighbourhoods, will not only attract tourists, but also result in a sense of civic pride and provide impetus to local heritage conservation efforts.
My article in Mid-Day
Spice Market at Lalbaug
A major part of our effort has to be towards cleanliness. Mumbai’s street food is legendary. But does it have to be so unhygienic? Why should international tourists coming to Mumbai have to constantly worry about falling ill? In Kuala Lumpur you can eat authentic food from small street carts and not get sick. The municipal authorities provide space for stalls, ensure hygienic water supply, and conduct regular inspections. We can learn from this.

Public toilets and good public transport – these are two major areas where we need to focus if we want to become a tourist destination. It’s a miracle if you can find a clean public toilet in Mumbai! The shameful reality is that tour guides in the city are constantly scrambling to solve toilet emergencies of tourists.

Elephanta Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but the clunky ferries that take tourists to the island have rickety motors, untrained staff, unsafe boarding practices and no life-jackets. I have personally been stranded aboard a ferry, drifting out to sea with 20 panicky international tourists. We had to be towed ashore by a second boat. The entire infrastructure around the Elephanta experience needs a major overhaul.

Lastly – I don’t think we can talk about promoting tourism in Mumbai without talking about how to develop the potential of nearby areas. Only if Maharashtra becomes an attractive destination, will more and more people consider coming to Mumbai. Maharashtra is blessed with a long coastline, great trekking potential, world heritage sites, sacred pilgrimage towns, unique craft traditions, and great cuisine. We need to raise awareness of everything this state can offer.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Delicious chhole-puri in Mumbai's Punjabi enclave

by Aishwarya Pramod

It's often said that Delhi beats Mumbai hands down in terms of Punjabi food. I tended to agree with that statement, but recently I began to change my mind. That's after I visited Manjeet Puri-Chhole Wala for a delicious breakfast of puri-chhole. For the rest of the day, I kept thinking back to that meal and smiling to myself - it was so good! The shop is in Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar, Sion

Sea of chhole next to gulab jamuns
The have a very simple menu. Chole is of course, the star of the show. You can have chhole-puri, or chhole-bhatura. They have a tandoor where they make varieties of stuffed parathas, kulchas etc. There's dal, gulab jamun, lassi and chhaas. All simple but delicious dishes.
Two bhature served with chhole, onion, pickles, dahi (yoghurt)
and fried green chillies
It's a no-frills, non-descript place. Unless one pays attention, one may not even realize there is an eatery there!
Some customers waiting outside the shop for their parcels
Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar (GTB Nagar) is a Punjabi enclave of Mumbai. The area was settled by refugees from Punjab right after the Partition in 1947, and again in the 1960s with the threat of war at the Pakistani border areas. Hence the Punjabi food here is authentic, mouth-watering and not too expensive.

If you ever crave puri-chhole, this is the right place to visit! Note that Manjeet Puri-Chhole Wala opens in the early morning and closes around 2:00 PM.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Nachni and Food Security - a village meal in the Palghar district

- by Deepa Krishnan

A few days ago, I had lunch in a small village home in the Palghar district of Maharashtra. The people who live in this village are tribal agriculturalists, practising subsistence farming.
One of the families cooked lunch for us. We ate sitting on mats on the floor. I was super-hungry and wolfed down my meal in minutes. Our hostess brought endless servings of everything, until I was fit to burst. Here's a photo of what I ate:
Everything on my plate was grown locally. There was rice, which is grown during the monsoon season on the nearby hill slopes in small terraces. There was bhendi (okra / ladies finger), chowli (black-eyed beans), tuar (pigeon-pea) dal, two types of home-made papad and a home-made mango pickle. All of it came from nearby farms and fields. 

But the thing that delighted me most was the dark brown roti, called nachni bhakri.  

Nachni (finger millet) is one of the healthiest things you can eat. Loads of calcium and iron. Lots of fibre. Slow to release sugar into the system, great if you're fighting a battle against weight gain. It's gluten-free too. I ate it with the spicy black-eyed beans, and it was delicious.

Nachni is a critical nutritional element for this kind of village. That's because nachni is a tough and flexible plant. It can grow in diverse soils, with varying rainfall regimes, and in areas widely differing in heat and length of daylight availability. It is hugely pest resistant. It doesn't even need chemical pesticides. So while a rice crop may fail for many reasons, a nachni crop is far more dependable, and can literally ward off starvation. 

In addition, nachni is easy to store. Once harvested, it is seldom attacked by insects or moulds. The long storage capacity makes it an important crop in risk-avoidance strategies for poorer farming communities.

In fact, not just nachni, all traditional millets are important for rural India. In the nearby Vikramgad weekly rural market, I photographed one of the stalls selling different types of millets and pulses. The dark coloured one on the right is nachni.
This area of Maharashtra has lots of rain in the monsoons, but goes very dry later. There is no irrigation. Here is how the land looks in the monsoons.
And here is how the area looks in summer:
There is no cultivation in summer, probably because the existing water management systems don't husband groundwater resources adequately for irrigation. For drinking and bathing, the government provides well water. Since there is only one main monsoon crop (rice), the dependence on that crop is very high. If that crop fails, the entire economic backbone of area will collapse. It is therefore sensible to divert some land - even 'warkas' land (low productivity land) is ok - to grow nachni and other millets for food security.

When I was researching this article, I read this very interesting and informative article on why millets are so invaluable. I highly recommend you read it too. After I read it, I've decided to start eating more millets. I'm going to reduce my intake of rice and wheat, because really, from all points of view, it looks like the smart thing to do. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Public space and a sense of community - Growing up in Mumbai

- by Deepa Krishnan

Yesterday I explored Mumbai with a group of 6 urban planning experts from around the world. In the morning we visited south and central Mumbai, seeing how the city gradually expanded northwards from its small beginnings in the Fort area. After lunch, we went to Navi Mumbai, taking in all the changes that have happened in Airoli, Turbhe, Belapur, Kharghar and Vashi. I saw 500 years of Mumbai's growth, all compressed into a single day.

By the end of the day, I had developed an acute awareness of "public spaces" in Mumbai.

By public spaces, I don't only mean places like the huge Oval Maidan or the popular Marine Drive. I mean space for activities at the neighbourhood level, such as small gardens, places for people to walk or jog, areas for holding community meetings, etc. 

As a child growing up in Sion and Matunga, I had access to many such public spaces. 

Our home in Sion was right next to Sion Fort, and we spent many happy evenings running around there with friends and cousins. There was an "aeroplane garden" there, where we clambered in and out of a concrete art-deco mock-aeroplane. There was a "waterfall" which came cascading down the side of the hill, and we loved climbing it when it was dry. 
With my cousins at Sion Fort
Because of the specifications mandated by the City Improvement Trust, our building stood in a compound of its own. All the buildings in our neighbourhood similarly stood in their own compounds, and each compound had a maximum of only 12 apartments. These compounds formed another type of public space, where everyone knew each other.

There were no cars parked inside our compound, so we had space to play hide-and-seek, marbles, cricket and lagori. We plucked flowers and leaves, and played "ghar ghar".  (A couple of years ago, I came across a building in Matunga, where these girls were running around plucking flowers in the compound; it reminded me of my childhood).
Each building is set in its own compound
Our compound was larger than the one in the photo above. We could string up a net and play badminton. We hosted fun-fairs in the compound. We had a 'club' in the building, where we played carrom in the evenings. We flew kites on our building terrace, gathered there with friends to dry fatakadas for Diwali, and eagerly bombarded each other with balloons on Holi.

But the compound could not really meet all the recreational needs of its children. Older children played cricket on the streets. We were in a quiet lane. There were very few cars in those days, so cricket could be played all day long, with only the occasional interruption by a passing Fiat or Ambassador. In fact, even today, cricket is played in our lane on Sundays.

In Sion, there were many venues for cultural events nearby. We went to dance and music performances at Shanmukhananda Hall and Mysore Association. Children learnt musical instruments, singing and dancing at the Tamil Sangam and various dance schools. We celebrated Ganesh festival and Navratri in small building pandals in the neighbourhood. We enacted skits and dance-dramas for Rama Navami at the temples in Matunga. Because of all these cultural activities, we met many other kids from our neighbourhood.

In fact, when I think about my childhood in the city, I now realise how much public space was available to me! I spent a lot of time outside the home, in the neighbourhood. I now realise how these public spaces influenced my experience of the city. They helped me form friendships and community bonds, and they created in me, a sense of civic and cultural identity.

In the last 8 years or so, I have been exploring the older residential areas in south Mumbai. The more I ventured into the older districts - Dongri, Kalbadevi, Bhuleshwar - the more I felt the lack of  public spaces. The biggest difference I felt was the lack of the "compound". In the older districts, there are houses and shops, all touching each other, with shop wares spilling out on already narrow streets. These older districts have no spacious pavements. They have very few trees. There are no gardens; and there are no places for children to bicycle or to play. 
Jagannath Shankar Seth Road, going from Metro to Kalbadevi. See how the buildings are all stuck together.
Bhuleshwar Road. Shops and residences on both sides, stalls spilling over on the street, no access to pavements.
Although there are no major public spaces for leisure, these older districts do have a distinct sense of shared community and culture. Since people from each religious community cluster together, there is a cultural identity. The community somehow manages to create shared experiences, especially during festivals. Mosques and temples offer physical space for people to come together. Places like the Jain panjrapole offer not just peace and quiet but also the chance to feed and care for animals.

Here is a peep into a quiet temple at Bhuleshwar. In the compound, I often see Gujarati women chatting.
Community space seen through temple door
Here is another example: the local residents have pooled money to decorate this lane in the Chor Bazaar area for a festival. There is a mosque inside the lane.
Mutton Street all decked up
Here's another photo, this one is from Girgaon's now famous Padwa celebrations. The processions begin at the Phadke Mandir (Ganesh temple) and continue through the streets of area. 
Families watching Gudi Padwa processions at Girgaon
In Navi Mumbai, a very different sort of development has taken place. Everything is very large-scale and spread out when compared to Mumbai. The stations are huge. The distances between stations are also significant. But the most striking feature of Navi Mumbai is that there are very few people around, compared to Mumbai.

Among the most impressive places I visited was Central Park in Khargar. It has 300 acres of green space, lots of trees, open areas, a water body, etc. What a boon to the residents. So much open space, and that too, available to the common man. In a city that doesn't have good ratio of public spaces per person, this is really a welcome development.
But will a sense of community form? Will these places - with wide open streets and modern amenities produce a shared sense of civic belonging? Will people form fond attachments to their neighbourhood? It is too soon to tell.

The scale of things in Navi Mumbai is huge. This sort of scale is ideal if you have private cars to go from one place to another; but it can be intimidating when you have to walk long distances just to get home from the train station. Deserted streets with no street-stalls or hawkers de-humanise the place, and stop you from connecting emotionally with it. It especially makes things very difficult for women. A certain scale has to be achieved; yes, but it has to be the right scale, so that small communities form easily.

My personal belief is that our religious spaces - temples, derasars, mosques, churches and gurudwaras - form the cultural core of a new settlement. We are still a very religiously oriented people. Our food and dietary habits are very community-specific and we want markets which can cater to those special requirements. If an area offers the right combination of prayer house + bazaars, it will attract new residents who will form a close-knit community, rather than just a culture-less homogenous urban mass of people. Such people will celebrate festivals, set up cultural associations, and provide a sense of identity to the area. People who live there will develop an attachment to that area.

I'm not sure where Navi Mumbai's new large-scale settlements are heading, or what sort of communities are forming. I really don't know the area well enough. But I am very keen to see how it all plays out. I will be going back there, to check it out more.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Lots of food options in BKC these days

- by Deepa Krishnan

I wrote earlier about how the food scene in BKC is changing, with more options coming up. Recently I went to The Capital, and was happy to see a very smart-looking Theobroma there. A nice option for a weekday breakfast. Or a quick stop with friends over the weekend.
They have a soup and salad offering on all weekdays; which is popular with people working in BKC. There's a Lunch Box for Rs 250, which is also delivered to offices. And of course, there's all the usual stuff - breads, lavash, muffins, tarts etc. I took home their olive tapenade, which was good.
The dining scene in BKC is improving day by day. Lots of new options have come up in The Capital itself. The Good Wife and Cafe Sabrosa are around 5-6 months old; both are stylish places where the 'finance types' from BKC hang out in the evenings. This photo below is from The Good Wife: a typical BKC weeknight, people relaxing over drinks after the working day.
The Capital building also has a Starbucks, which is good if you want a place with wifi. But the most exciting thing in The Capital, for those who love Chinese food, is Wok in the Box. After a successful innings at Carter Road, they opened their second outlet at The Capital in Sep 2014. They let you pick and choose ingredients, sauces and the type of noodles (or white rice) that you want. It is stir fried immediately and handed over.
Wok in the Box even offers a Jain version of its sweet and sour sauce. It's on the 3rd floor of The Capital, so they have to shut at 6:00 p.m. But it's a great option for lunch, they make deliveries to all the offices in BKC. If you go at lunch, you'll have wait times. But if you go a little earlier or a little late, then you'll have a smooth experience.

Speaking of food deliveries, there's also Box8 near the Trident BKC. It has Indian food, which works better for me at lunch time than Chinese. I must confess that anything and everything in plastic dabbas tends to put me off, but if I don't take food from home, I'd rather order this no-fuss delivery than anything else.
Masala Library at the Citibank building in BKC (the official name of this building is First International Finance Centre) is still going strong. For the past couple of years, Masala Library has been showing Mumbai what stylish, innovative Indian cuisine is all about. It's super tasty too, not just some poncy stuff that you wonder why you put in your mouth. The staff is well-trained, and enjoys presenting and explaining the food. Which is a big asset.
The same Citibank building also has a Smokehouse Deli, and a Pizza Express and another Starbucks. I've always liked Smokehouse Deli. The Pizza Express is pretty decent, always has a couple of free tables, so I go there when I don't feel like hanging around waiting for tables.

There are lots of other places also in BKC that I should write about, especially Tiffin Box, and lots more takeaways, including some more in The Capital. But maybe another time! Off to work now.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Spotted: Alibaug Che Gaavti Kadve Vaal

- By Deepa Krishnan

I was walking in BB Dadar today, when I spotted this stall opposite Girgaon Panche Depot. A temporary shop had been set up for the evening, using an upturned fruit crate.
The board says: Alibaug che gaavti kadwe vaal yethey milteel. Bitter field beans, from Alibaug, sold here. The word 'gavti' means rustic. Alibaug is known for these beans.

Vaal are soaked overnight, sprouted, and then the brown covering is peeled to reveal a white inner bean that is slightly bitter. A long-winded process, but there are whole armies of Maharashtrian people who love vaal and think nothing of the effort.

Vaal is used to make various dishes, but one of the most popular ones is valache birde. It's a sort of gravy curry with garlic, chillies, coconut, kokum and spices. Super yummy with hot chappatis. The CKP-style vaalache birde is well known; so if you know someone who is from the CKP community, try and get an invitation for a home-cooked meal :)

My friend Shekhar owns a farm, and they have a tradition of "popti", which is a sort of village style barbecue in an earthern pot. A fire is made with dry coconut fronds, placed upside down. Vaal and various other leguminous pods, pieces of chicken or meat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and special edible leaves are placed in an earthern pot. The mouth of the pot is blocked with a set of leaves, from the almond tree, and the pot is placed upside down on the fire. Shekhar says "Its a heady meal goes down very well with beer deep into the cold night on a farm" :)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Inside the big dome of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus)

- by Aishwarya Pramod

Recently, I went for the heritage tour of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). It was quite a sudden decision - I happened to be on a train heading home, when I thought of going on the tour. I got off the train, and took another one right back to CST! :) At the last minute I called my mom to join me too.

I had to ask around a bit to find the start point. But eventually we found the entrance, and our tour began at 3:30 p.m. The tour took us through the Heritage Museum, the interiror of the Central Railway Headquarters building (where all the paperwork and government managerial stuff happens), and finally the station itself.

The tour was led by Ms. Lata who was in charge of the place that day. She conducted our tour herself, as the usual guide (an architecture student) wasn't available then.
As we entered, we saw the facade of the Central Railway Headquarters, with the round carved heads of the 10 GIPR directors.
The Heritage Museum has displays on the history of Indian Railways, old engine types, etc. There are interesting old photos, models, letters, artifacts and objects. As a bonus, the museum is air-conditioned!
An engine model. And look above for the (rather cute) GIPR
logo in stained glass. GIPR stands for Great Indian Peninsular
Railway, the predecessor of the Central Railway.
Old telephones and other gizmos
Some other interesting objects displayed were the Mangalore tiles with which the CST ceiling is made, an old money collection box (on which someone had put stickers, before it was rescued and placed in the museum), inkpots, teapots, cutlery, a slide rule, a range finder, and other instruments.

After the museum we continued further into the Central Railway Headquarters building. There were many rooms and offices, and I'd have liked to know what exactly was going on in each one. But all I got was someone who worked there "tch"ing at me for walking too slowly while admiring the architecture, and blocking them :P. (Then I got out of their way quickly.)

The Headquarters building is majestic: towering dome, winding staircase, high stained-glass windows, solid old wooden doors, and intricate stone carvings of animals, birds, plants and flowers.
A beautiful door set amidst carvings
Entrance to the hall
This proud-looking lion holds a shield bearing the 
coat of arms of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway.
The high Central Dome
The wrought-iron staircase
We climbed up...
...reached the top...
...and had tea and biscuits.
We were then taken to the station itself. We went to the high corridors around the ticket booth area (I have always wanted to go here!)

This area is called the "Star Chamber" (notice the ceiling). 
Down below, people queue for tickets.
 We also went onto an open balcony.

On the balcony we got a better view of the lovely peacock carving...
... and the jutting gargoyles.
We were also shown this grand dining room within the building.

The luxurious dining room. Somehow this room took me by surprise - I wasn't expecting anything like it at all!
In the dining room, there was also this wooden bookshelf packed with thick, official-looking gazettes and other publications on the railways.
After visiting this last room, we said goodbye to Ms. Lata and left.

All in all, I'm glad I went for the tour. I got to see the gorgeous interiors of this building, that I had passed often but never entered before. I also learnt quite a bit about the history of the railways, of CST, and of Mumbai.

When, where, and how much does it cost?
The tours are conducted between 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM, Monday to Friday. Tickets can be bought between 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM. Each tickets costs Rs. 200 normally, and Rs. 100 with student ID.

The ticket counter is at the Heritage Museum. To reach the counter, there's no need to enter CST station. If you stand facing the Central Railway Headquarters, you'll see the main gate with two lions. Walk to your right and you'll see an arched entrance (photo below). This is the entrance to the Heritage Museum.
The lions at the gates of the Central Railway Headquarters. From the gates, walk towards the arch. The Heritage Museum is right under the arch.
Gates of the Heritage Museum
More information
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