Tadka Travels: Spiti Valley Road Trip

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Starkly, dramatically beautiful, relatively unknown and much off the tourist tracks, Spiti valley in Himachal is neither a breezy weekend getaway, nor is it in any way like that restful trip you last took to a sheltered hill resort. Most of the trip is spent bumping along the Hindustan-Tibet Highway, and this mad, crazy drive is as much a part of the experience as are the breathtaking landscapes that will have you scrambling for your camera at every turn.

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Geographically, Spiti has cold, desert-like conditions where rain is a rarity and snow rules. The terrain is bleak and inhospitable, but you will find spotless blue skies dotted with cottony clouds that perfectly set off the snow-streaked, matte brown ranges of some of the craggiest mountains that you might have ever set eyes upon.

 

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You will seldom venture far from the Sutlej or Spiti river, or one of their tributaries, since most of the roads run along the valleys that the force of these rivers have carved out over centuries. And if you’re pining for blue rivers, you won’t find them here, at least in the month of May. The waters are a muddy brown and only much later in the year do they turn a clear blue.

 

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Our road-trip began in Chandigarh, where we rented a Ford Ecosport  for the 17-day trip. Driving in Spiti is extremely challenging and it is best to have a driver who is experienced with mountain roads. Especially in May, when the season starts, most of the roads are in a rather terrible state; they aren’t much more than dirt tracks strewn with stones, not to forget the billowing clouds of dust that add to the traveller’s discomfort.

 

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If you aren’t already unnerved by your jolting ride while manoeuvring your way around rocky precipices, there are signboards on the side of the highway informing you in no uncertain terms that you are travelling on one of the most treacherous roads in the world. Gulp! The rugged terrain, significant winter snow accumulation, constant landslides and sparse vegetation all are responsible for these conditions, as are the road repair, widening and massive power-generation and construction projects on the Sutlej river.

 

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Stop 1: Narkanda

After a stop in Solan to attend a family wedding we set out for Narkanda, which lies beyond Shimla, at a higher elevation. The drive was smooth and the only thing we stopped en route for was a late tea-time treat of freshly fried pakodas and sandwiches.

 

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The drive up from Narkanda to the Agyaat Vaas adventure camp where we were staying, was our first taste of the rough roads. We had a really tough time getting the car up the narrow, crumbling roads and finally had to call the camp for help since it was getting dark.

The camp is located near Hatu temple, which is constructed in a neo Indo-Tibetian style, and a must-see if you are in these parts. There are some lovely viewpoints around the temple, rocks to climb and plenty of monkeys to pit your climbing skills against. From the benches around the Hatu temple, you can enjoy sweeping views of the apple belts of Kotgarh and Thanedar, and this was where we caught the first glimpse of the snow-covered peaks that we were to encounter often during the rest of the trip.

A drive to the small and pristine Tani-Jubber lake, and stops at cherry and apple orchards occupied the rest of our time. This area is where Samuel Stokes, an American, planted the first apple saplings in India, and from here started the cultivation of the famous Himachal apples.

Stay options: 
  • Agyaat Vaas – This camp is located at a secluded, beautiful spot, close to Hatu temple. Though the rooms are large but they are very sparsely furnished and not really comfortable, therefore we wouldn’t recommended for families. The camp often hosts school kids on adventure trips and be warned that though you might anticipate a peaceful time you could well be sharing your stay with a bunch of kids doing what kids do best!
  • Hatu Hotel – Run by HPTDC, this hotel has clean and comfortable rooms, a good restaurant with limited outdoor seating options. It is close to the town market, yet peaceful and well-run.

 

Tadka Tip: Take along a stock of non-perishable foods with you, like khakhras, nuts, dried fruit, energy bars, chocolate and namkeens. These can be life savers when you are stuck on the road. We also drank the local water everywhere, filling up our stainless steel bottles from the hotels where we stayed, and were chuffed that we didn’t buy a single plastic bottle during the trip.

Stop 2: Sarahan

Of all the places we visited on this road-trip, Sarahan was a dream, that perfect mountain retreat that has all that you may want, and more. Lush green and tranquil, with a gushing stream or waterfall around every corner, this is the spot to go on long walks and take in spectacular sunsets.

The Bhimkali temple complex in the centre of town is gorgeous, and the lanes around it have a number of eateries, and shops bursting with trinkets.

If you are an avid bird-watcher, there is also a bird sanctuary here but unfortunately it is closed to visitors during the breeding season – April to September. We did spend a good couple of hours in the lane that runs alongside the sanctuary though, spotting a variety of hill birds.

Stay option: 

  • The Shrikhand – This is a charming hotel run by HPTDC, with the option of staying in vintage style cottage rooms (recommended). The architecture of the main building is inspired by the Bhimkali temple nearby and it is flanked by rows of beautiful flowers.

A sprawling, open terrace with swings and white wrought-iron chairs is a picture-perfect setting to enjoy the glorious views. The restaurant offers some excellent local food, do try the Himachali dishes in the menu here.

Tadka Tip: Stop at the nearest HPTDC hotel or office and pick up maps and travel brochures for all the places that you are visiting. These are very informative and come in handy when there is no internet service, which happens pretty often.

Stop 3: Rakcham

Around Wangtu is where the roads start deteriorating into rough tracks but don’t let that deter you from taking the detour to Rakcham. A tiny, laid-back village where finding even a tea stall can be a challenge, Rakcham’s setting is a revelation.

Perched on the pebbled banks of the Baspa river, this valley is tucked away in the depths of the mountains and is one of the most beautiful nooks on this route.

There are plenty of rambling paths to enjoy scenic walks around the river, cows and frisky goat herds to keep you company, huge boulders to climb on just for fun, proverbial bubbling brooks with makeshift wooden bridges, grassy meadows and quiet marshes.

The mountains fringing the valley are tall and rugged, and there’s a good chance you’ll find patches of snow or ice even in May. There are no marked trails here, but don’t hesitate to wander around, and you can spend your days peacefully soaking in the peace and loveliness around.

 

A day trip to the village of Chhitkul is the thing to do here and this is the last inhabited village before the army-manned Indo-Tibet border. A walk around the village with its traditional houses and temples,  a walk down to the Baspa river to build a snowman, and a plate of Maggi with masala chai at a small eatery rounded off our day at Chitkul.

Stay option:

Look no further than the Rupin River View Hotel. Located right on the edge of the Baspa river, with amazing views, this hotel has spacious rooms with tiny balconies. Enjoy the sound of the gurgling river, fresh, wholesome food in the restaurant, and the excellent hospitality.

Tadka Tip: Phone and internet connectivity in the area are pretty good except for remote stretches on the road. Once you cross Recong Peo only BSNL is available, so it is good to have a phone with BSNL service.

Stop 4: Nako

Back on the road, once you cross Pooh, you leave the banks of the Sutlej and travel up the valley of the Spiti river. This road runs high for a while, through the tiny, picturesque village of Nako, at an altitude of 3600m.

The Nako lake is a well-known feature here, and warrants a visit in the early morning hours to catch the reflections of the bordering mountains and trees in its still waters. A visit to the Nako monastery, walks around the quiet village lanes and up some rocky mountain tracks is all you’d want to do here.

Stay option:

* There aren’t too many hotels in Nako but Kinner Camps has a line of well-equipped tents (with attached baths) and a restaurant with basic and tasty food. The campfire at night and star gazing after dinner are magical. The tents can get pretty cold at night, so don’t say no to the hot water bottles that they offer!

Stop 5: Kaza

For us, Kaza was pretty much as far as we could go up into Spiti valley, since it was May, and the road that connects to Manali via Rohtang Pass was still snow-laden and closed.

Kaza is the regional headquarters of the Spiti district and as large a town as you will encounter in these parts. There’s a petrol bunk, well-equipped bazaars, restaurants, There are several day trips that one can take while based in Kaza, and many options for camping around here too.

About 15km from Kaza town is the Key Gompa or Monastery, a truly spectacular sight, built high above the Spiti river, on a rocky hill. The ancient 11th century monastery is a joy to visit, and the monks are friendly and chatty. One can visit the holy rooms and prayer halls that are lined with precious paintings and sacred artefacts. A short walk away is a small shrine with three huge, golden stupas, and you can catch some amazing views from here too.

The quaint village of Kibber is another attraction that can be reached through steep, winding roads further after the Key monastery. The traditional architecture of these houses is very interesting, with interlocking wooden beams and roofs tiled with beautiful sheets of grey slate. The edges where the roof meets the walls is stuffed with piles of hay, and this prevents the mud walls from getting water-logged.

If you have the time, there are more villages to explore, among them Hikkim, Langza and Kaumik. The drive to these villages takes you deep into the mountains. The views of the barley and peas farms spread out in the sunshine, and the charming countryside make these drives truly memorable. Remember to pack a picnic to enjoy in a sunny spot since there may not be too many eateries in these tiny hamlets.

A trip to Pin Valley is also a must-do while you are here. This is a national park that is known for its wildlife, including the ibex and the snow leopard. Much of this area is only accessible through overnight treks, and even though we could only spend the day, some of the most arresting and dramatic scenery that we saw was here.

Another must-see is the village of Dhankar, which is situated high above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. There is an ancient monastery here at one end of the village and above that, the ruins of a fort on a craggy cliff. We had plans to stay at the guest house in the monastery but ultimately decided to stay an extra night in Kaza and visit Dhankar en route to Tabo.

The views as you approach the area are just phenomenal, and the rugged, scraggy landscape is eerily lunar-like.

The village itself is spread out all over a shallow valley unlike the more compactly spaced dwellings that we encountered earlier.

High above the village lies the Dhankar Lake and this is a long, strenuous trek over a steep, wind-swept mud path. The lake itself is in a harsh, desolate setting, surrounded by snow-covered peaks, and we found its blue-green waters still partially frozen when we finally huffed and puffed our way up there.

Stay option:

There are several hotels and homestays in Kaza to suit every style and budget.

 

We totally loved the Deyzor Hotel where we spent three very comfortable nights. This hotel is charmingly done-up and the perfect place to soak in the serene Spiti atmosphere.

Most importantly, they have the best coffee (French press) which is like Nirvana after the milky, weak brews available in most of Himachal. A garden seating option for breakfast, amazingly delicious international cuisine, the friendly, hands-on, knowledgeable and efficient owner, free wifi and super efficient laundry service, all make your stay here pretty wonderful after those long hours spent on the road.

Tadka Tip: It makes sense to stick to the local cuisine here since that is what is freshly cooked and super delicious. We stayed on a steady diet of rajma-chawal, dal-chawal, kadhi-chawal, roti-subzi, stuffed parathas, pakoras, sandwiches and omelettes, interspersed with the occasional plate of momos, chowmein and thupka.

Stop 6: Tabo

Finding your way back from the heights of Spiti can be a let-down, but when there’s no way around it, a stop at Tabo can be so uplifting.

The Tabo Monastry is a must-visit here, and is the nerve-centre of the town. It feels so good to soak in the fervour of the devotees, and the tidiness and peace all around the monastery campus.
Scattered around Tabo are lovely farms and apple orchards. In May, the trees were just loaded with apple blooms and it was a magnificent sight. One can take a relaxing walk around the town and its adjoining farms, or even down to the Spiti river.

Stay option:

The Tabo monastry does take visitors for stay, and there are a few small hotels located around the town. We spent a comfortable night at the Tashi Khangsar, a small establishment with basic facilities. This is located in the midst of apple orchards and is walking distance from the monastery. The home-style meal of dal, mixed vegetables, salad, rice and rotis that they put out was much appreciated by our travel-weary tummies, and they were sweet enough to give us a wholesome breakfast of porridge, eggs, fruit and toast the following morning before we left.

Tadka Tip: The monasteries have prayer time in the mornings and evenings where visitors can join in. Listening to the monks chanting can be an enriching and moving experience, so do try and make time for this.

Stop 7: Kalpa

You could make a quick stop at Kalpa on the way to Spiti Valley but we chose to stay a couple of nights here on our way back. Kalpa is a peaceful suburb close to Reckong Peo, and is utterly ravishing. The elevation here makes for fantastic views of the Kinner Kailash range, and brings you close to the majesty and grandeur of these mountains.

We chose not to visit any of the local sights, and instead opted to explore the countryside and hills near the hotel. A narrow rocky path that ran next to a bubbling little brook fed by snow-melt led us to some rustic cottages, groves of pines, apple orchards and lush patches of green. This was heaven, indeed, and just what we needed after the long, cramped hours spent driving.

Stay option:

There are many great hotels in Kalpa and we were pretty happy at the newly refurbished The Grand Shamba La (Earlier called Shangri La). Our room on the 5th floor (no lifts) had French windows and a balcony looking straight out to the mountains.

One can’t really ask for a better view, and we reveled in it right from the comfort of the hotel bed. The next morning, the dramatic sunrise view from a favourable spot on balcony was sublime. The food was the regular paratha-dal-subzi-roti that we had been enjoying, with the option of room service.

Tadka Tip: Taking on hitchhikers in your car can be a great way to interact with people. We learnt so much..from the woman looking to get home from a hard day’s work in the orchards, the Frenchman who had been travelling in India for 4 months, the sisters on their way to a funeral who shared with us a handful of home-grown pine nuts that they had tossed in their pockets to snack on, and the Russian couple who could barely speak English but were gamely taking on the remote corners of Himachal.

Our Spiti adventure ended here as we took to the highways to make our way back to Shimla and Chandigarh. The crowds, pollution and traffic served as a rude jolt back to reality, but we definitely appreciated the smooth asphalt of the roads.

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Restaurant Review: Fabelle Chocolates

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“Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Growing up, there were few things more exciting than receiving a box of filled chocolates, poring over the little descriptions printed on the crinkly paper inside, tasting, sharing and arguing over which had the best centre. A visit to the spanking new Fabelle Chocolates boutique recently brought back this childhood memory with a vengeance! The Fabelle Chocolate Boutique is an ITC Hotels initiative, and as one would expect, they have poured a whole lot of love, thought, attention and style into every detail. The brand has been in the making for almost a decade, and has just been launched in a gorgeous space in the ITC Gardenia hotel in Bengaluru. The chic boutique is impeccably appointed in shades of brown and gold, and is equipped with an open kitchen where one can watch the competent and artistic chocolatiers doing what they do best. Gleaming display cases carry a spectacular selection of chocolates and desserts, and there is also a seating area with service. Billed as the finest luxury chocolate in India, the chocolate itself is top quality and single-origin, sourced from cocoa-rich countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Venezuela and Saint-Dominigue. The dedication and commitment of the chefs and chocolatiers behind the brand is evident when you hear them speak about the ingredients they use and the beautiful ways in which they’ve brought them together in these fine creations.

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The first item that we tasted was the Ganache range, available in milk or dark chocolate. This is like a chocolate truffle that’s been shaped in rectangles, and lightly dusted with cocoa. The chocolate is silky-smooth, luscious and at the perfect temperature and consistency to melt on the tongue. If you are a purist, and like nothing to come between you and your chocolate, just pick up a few boxes of the dark ganache and hurry home!

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The pralines range has 5 filled chocolates that are inspired by the elements of nature. Each element is represented in the filling inside the chocolate shell, and each piece is designed with the element in mind. The wood inspired praline was a personal favourite, with a strong coffee hit, and cinnamon notes in the background. These come pre-packaged in a box of 5 or 10 pieces.

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The ‘As you like it’ range is a fun concept, and gives the epicure umpteen options to play with flavour combos. One can choose the type of shell, the fillings inside and topping too, and the process is made quite interesting and easy by using an application on a tablet. There is also the choice of picking up some customised chocolates that have been filled with combinations recommended by the chefs at Fabelle. Whichever route you choose to take, this personalised and interactive experience is a sure winner, and puts you firmly in control of what goes into your chocolate.

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We also tried and loved the signature dessert range at Fabelle. Whatever be your sweet fantasy, they have a dessert that matches up. There are some lovely flavour combinations in classic and avante garde combinations, and the quality of ingredients and preparation is superlative. Each dessert has a different outer look, and when you cut it open, there are several layers of jelly, crème, biscuit, mousse or streusel inside, each bringing a complementary flavour and/or texture, in the French Entremet style.

The Chocolate Flower dessert (Top and Bottom Left above) has all the theatrics one could wish for..the chocolate petals sit around a gleaming mousse centre enlivened with raspberry confit and pistachio cream. Hot white chocolate ganache is poured around the dessert, resulting in the petals unfolding dramatically right in front of you.

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Another creation that we sampled was Coffee two ways (Top in pic above) – this is inspired by the now ubiquitous Tiramisu, and is a fantastic modern interpretation. The thing to love about this dessert is that it is not shy with the wallop of coffee, but mellows things out nicely with creamy mascarpone and savoiardi biscuits.

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The Black Forest Revisited (Top above) is an elegant interpretation of the Bavarian classic cake, with the volume turned up. The sour cherry confit is piquantly delicious, and pairs well with 64% dark chocolate and the Madagascar vanilla in the velvety-smooth cream insert.

The White Chocolate Cheesecake jar (Below right in pic above) is lush and ambrosial, and a good choice for folks who would like to opt for a no-chocolate dessert.

The Almond and Coriander Praline Tartine (Below left in pic above) had the surprising inclusion of coriander, which was actually pretty refreshing with the milk chocolate. What didn’t quite match up was the flavour of the Mandarin orange cremeaux which tasted a little like orange sherbet.

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If you must eat an eclair, then this is the one to go for – Eclair Venezuela (Top in pic above), made with 72% Venezualan chocolate, balanced with smooth, rich, caramel-toned cream and lots of texture from the shell and the morsels of buttery crumb on top. And for the true chocolate connoisseur, the 84% Signature dark chocolate petit cake with fleur de sel is the real deal. For us, this ultimate chocolate dessert perfectly rounded off a really fabulous evening that we spent tasting the exquisite chocolates at Fabelle. We’re going to be back soon for the hot chocolate that they serve, for boxes of the dark chocolate ganache – the perfect afternoon pick-me-up, and to indulge in a few more of the sinful desserts, and we recommend that you do too!

Note: This review was at the invitation of Fabelle Chocolates but the views expressed are our own.

Fabelle Chocolate Boutique ITC Gardenia Hotel No. 1
Residency Road, Bangalore, India 560025
Timings: 11am to midnight
Pricing: On request
Phone: 080668 25270

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Picnic-friendly Pizza Muffins

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When you love pizza you are wont to find more than one way to savour those salty, savory flavours, that cheese oozing smoothly into puddles, stretched lazily in cream and toasty brown tones over tart tomatoes, the oregano asserting its grassy intensity on your tongue. For us, pizza for dinner can be an engaging afternoon-long affair, the kneading and rising of dough along with the slow simmer of the sauce on the stove, and the sizzle of vegetables, on the grill or roasting companionably in the oven. But, as we just said, there’s more than one way to get a pizza fix, and these Tomato and Cheese Pizza Muffins do very nicely when we’re in a rush. Bursting with plump shreds of two kinds of cheese, tomatoes and the signature pizza herbs, they work for breakfasts, parties, snack boxes and picnics as well. Top them with some torn fresh basil leaves off that pot on your windowsill or a a shake of the herb dispenser..as you please.

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Tomato and Cheese Pizza Muffins

(Makes 15 muffins)

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chilli flakes
  • 100g Cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
  • 100g Mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated, divided
  • 1 egg
  • 60g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 cup lukewarm milk
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 3 tomatoes cut into slices
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F.
  2. Place paper liners in a 12-cup muffin tray or grease the cups well with oil.
  3. In a large mixing bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and spices.
  4. Stir in the Cheddar cheese and half the Mozzarella.
  5. In another smaller bowl beat the egg. Pour in the melted butter, milk and tomato paste, and stir well.
  6. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl containing the dry mixture. Whisk gently until just blended.
  7. Use an ice cream scoop or a ladle to transfer the batter to the prepared muffin tin.
  8. Top each muffin with a slice of tomato and some of the remaining grated mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle a pinch of chilli flakes and oregano to finish, if desired.
  9. Bake for about 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into one of the muffins comes out clean.
  10. Transfer the muffins to a wire rack to cool slightly and serve warm. Or cool completely before packing away for that picnic or lunchbox.
  11. Freeze the muffins in a ziplock bag or airtight box. Defrost on the counter or in the microwave.

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Warm & Delightful Tropical Bread

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The sun has been particularly ruthless lately here in Bangalore. While we get through our days with tall pitchers of iced tea and melt into a sweet puddle of delight at the very mention of ice cream, there’s also the cooking and baking routine that curiously alleviates some of the strain caused by soaring temperatures. Is that even a thing, you ask?

Well, we make sure we are guzzling down lots of water, and listening to the new-age music that blares from the kids’ rooms (without wincing). We throw open the windows and doors to let the breeze in as we work in the kitchen, and we love to attune our recipes to the notes of seasonal produce. Tons of fresh cucumbers and gourds glide into our salads and side dishes, with the lots of greens turning flaccid and droopy, rendering them unfit for crisp meals. Sweet and juicy fruits like melons and mangoes, papaya and pineapple, waltz through our dessert bowls and bake pans with a poise reserved for those blessed with immaculate footwork.

With April taking the cake as the busiest month of the year on our calendars, as we ring in our girls’ birthdays, there’s never a dearth for recipes that employ the aforesaid. Here’s one such – a bread brimming with the essence of the tropics, hearty from the inside out, built as it is with a host of healthy ingredients. Whether you’re hosting a Luau party, swinging the hula hoop, or just unwinding after a long day..this bread that smacks of sunny island flavors, is great to enjoy with your afternoon tea, under the whirring of a trusty ceiling fan (if air-conditioning isn’t your thing).

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Pineapple, Dates & Coconut Bread
(Makes one 9″x5″ loaf)

  • 2 cups organic whole wheat flour*
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1/3 cup jaggery powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup chopped or coarsely ground dates
  • 1 1/2 cups crushed pineapple
  • 1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon desiccated coconut (for topping)
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds, for topping
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease a 9 x 5 inches loaf pan and line base with parchment paper.
  2. Sift the flour and baking powder and set aside.
  3. Mix the jaggery into the warm, melted butter and whisk until it turns slightly creamy.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well.
  5. Mix in the dates, pineapple & 1/2 cup coconut, and fold everything together gently.
  6. Add the flour in two measures, mixing gently with each addition.
  7. Pour into prepared loaf pan, top with pumpkin seeds and scatter the reserved 1 tablespoon coconut all over the top.
  8. Bake for 50 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let the loaf cool in the pan for a while, then transfer to a cooling rack. Slice when completely cool.
     

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    *We like to use Navadarshanam organic whole wheat flour, especially in our breads, as it lends a nice grainy texture. Besides, we think it’s cool to support local farms that practice organic farming.

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Toasty Roasted Baby Potatoes

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It doesn’t take too long for us to munch our way through a kilogram or more of potatoes as a family. Somehow this pantry staple manages to sneak into our meals, bulking up vegetable curries, binding cutlets and paratha fillings, or handily slipped into toasted sandwiches. In many Indian households, it is de rigueur for large chunks of potatoes to be added to the everyday subzi, be it aloo-methi, aloo-palak, aloo-paneer or the pretty much inescapable, aloo-gobhi. We’ve tried consciously to shift out of this cooking paradigm, and occasionally we do like to cook potatoes on their own, to savour and celebrate their many irresistible qualities.

These Basil Roasted Baby Potatoes were made for a party recently, and they disappeared so quickly that another batch had to be tossed and slipped into the oven. Roasting the potatoes in their skins is a great way to add texture and crispiness, and these tiny taters are much too hard to peel anyway. Any herbs can be used in place of the basil, fresh thyme and rosemary are particularly good, but basil is what was in the fridge that day, so that’s what went in. The dried and fresh herbs provide double the flavour hit, you get the deeper, savoury flavour of the dried basil and the anise tones of the green leaves too.

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A shower of salty Parmesan or Emmental cheese right when you bring the tray out of the oven would not be out of place. Or you could stir in a dollop of fresh pesto to add even more flavor. We served these with Pasta Primavera, mixed greens and homemade focaccia, but if you stick in a few toothpicks and put them on the coffee table as an appetizer, you’d surely be making a lot of folks very happy.

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Basil Roasted Baby Potatoes

(Serves 8)

  • 1 kg baby potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon red chilli flakes
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • Salt to taste
  • A handful of fresh basil
  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC / 400ºF.
  2. Soak the potatoes in warm water for a few minutes and then scrub well to remove any dirt. Dry them in a clean kitchen towel. Cut any of the larger potatoes into halves. Set aside.
  3. Line a large baking sheet or jelly roll pan with parchment paper and set aside.
  4. Pour the oil in a large mixing bowl and add the red chilli, salt ad dried basil.
  5. Tip in the potatoes and toss well.
  6. Transfer the potatoes to the prepared baking sheet and arrange them in a single layer, cut side down.
  7. Roast for about 25-30 minutes, tossing once, or until the potatoes are tender.
  8. Tear up and toss in the fresh basil, and serve hot.

 

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Masaledar Millets – Vangi Bath

 

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Rice and wheat make up our world. Or at least, they make their appearance at almost every meal we eat. To change this up  bit, we decided to try putting millets on the table a few times a week. Steamed millets are a great wholegrain starch option, and the family is pretty happy eating these with rajma or dal in lieu of rice. Millet upma with vegetables cooks quick enough to be on the breakfast menu even on harried weekdays, and for dessert there is the wholesome and creamy Millet Kheer.

Vangi Bath is a classic Kannadiga fried rice, loaded with eggplants and other vegetables, and spiced up with a unique masala powder redolent of coriander, cinnamon and cloves. Eggplants are a must here, and if you’ve struggled with getting your kids to eat this oft hated veggie, then you may want to try this recipe. We fry up the veggies in a pan while the millets cook in a pressure cooker, and the masala powder is usually something we have on hand, from the store or shared by a generous relative. Served with a thick raita and some crisps, Millet Vangi Bath makes for a delicious dinner or lunchbox filler.

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Millet Vangi Bath

(Serves 4)

  • 1/2 cup barnyard millet
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 2 teaspoons urad dal
  • 1/4 teaspoon asafoetida
  • 1-2 sprigs curry leaves
  • 1 medium onion, finely sliced
  • 6 baby eggplants, sliced into thin wedges
  • 1/2 red capsicum, thinly sliced
  • 1 carrot, cut into sticks and steamed *
  • 10-12 French beans, cut into 1.5″ lengths and steamed *
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 2 tablespoons vangi bath powder 
  • 2 tablespoons roasted peanuts
  1. Heat a pressure cooker and add the millets. Roast well for a couple of minutes, stirring continuously. Once roasted, cool and then transfer to a sieve and wash the millets.
  2. Put the roasted millets and 1 cup of water in the same cooker. Pressure cook for 2 minutes once the first whistle blows and then set aside for the pressure to release on its own.
  3. Meanwhile in a large pan or kadhai heat the oil. Add the mustard seeds, asafoetida and urad dal and let the seeds sputter. Then add the curry leaves, onions, eggplant and capsicum. Cook on medium heat, stirring often until the eggplants are well roasted and soft.
  4. Add the carrot and beans and fry for a minute.
  5. Now add the salt, chilli powder and vangi bath powder. Stir well.
  6. After a minute add the millets and gently stir so that everything gets mixed.
  7. Serve topped with the roasted peanuts.

*You can also steam the carrots and French beans along with the millets in the pressure cooker to save time though they do tend to get a little overcooked this way.

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We love a fresh vegetable raita with the vangi bath and this one is made with grated carrot, chopped cucumber and tomato. The seasoning is light – rock salt and fresh cracked black pepper.

Posted in Breakfast Basket, Dinner Den, Picnic Basket, Rice 'n Spice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Summer Starter: Grated Mango Pickle

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We’ve been to strawberry, pumpkin and apple patches quite a few times while we were in the US, an outing that everyone in the family enjoyed. What’s not to love about those convenient pick-your-own farms? A hard-working farmer does all the work and the most arduous thing we have to do is to explain to the kids, a few million times, the difference between raw and ripe produce. Hauling the loot home, and then dealing with the bounty until every last bit is enjoyed and gone, is such a satisfying extension of these jaunts.

Back home in India there are opportunities for picking vegetables and fruit from backyards, terrace gardens and sometimes clandestinely, during stops on road trips. But when the mango season rolls around every summer, we get out there and pluck piles of the fruit, ripe or raw, to sink our teeth into or cook all those piquant dishes that can only be made with mangoes.

This Tamil-style pickle is usually something that we make with the season’s first harvest primarily because it is so quick and delicious! No complicated spice mixes, no tedious sunning and hardly any waiting. This is fuss-free, and instant gratification at its easiest. Raw mangoes are grated and then cooked down with salt and basic spices. The fragrant tang of the raw fruit gets tempered by a fair amount of salt, and the dark earthiness of fenugreek powder. Try it with the first mangoes of the season, and you’ll find yourself eating it with everything, from curd rice to khakhras.

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Grated Mango Pickle – Mango Thokku

(Makes 1 heaped cup)

  • 3 small-medium raw mangoes
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1/3 cup sesame or peanut oil
  • 3 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon powdered asafoetida
  • 2 tablespoons red chili powder (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 3-4 tablespoons salt
  1. Grate the raw mangoes. We don’t bother peeling them but you can do so if you are not working with organic produce.
  2. Roast the fenugreek seeds briefly in a pan and then cool and powder them. Set aside.
  3. Heat the oil in the same pan.
  4. Add the mustard seeds and wait until they stop sputtering.
  5. Add the asafoetida, chili powder and turmeric. Stir.
  6. Immediately add the grated raw mango.
  7. Stir in the salt and fenugreek seeds powder.
  8. Cook, stirring occasionally until the oil starts to separate.
  9. Switch off the heat, let the pickle cool.
  10. Store in a glass bottle in the refrigerator. The pickle stays well for 2-3 weeks.

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Look up our chutney-style Tomato Thokku for similar flavours, with a tomato-ey tang.

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Green, Mean Peas ‘n Potato Patties

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Between the torment of summer’s early onset and the intangible promise of rain, there lies, rather unperturbed, a desire to eat bite-sized portions of little somethings, rather than full-fledged meals. Evenings bring out a craving for chaat and related snacks, and if the rain Gods decide to oblige, there’s a consensus, hands down, on pakoras and chai.

For as long as we can remember, our Moms and Grandmoms seldom refused a request for deep-fried munchies, come rain or shine. There were scores of varieties to choose from, ranging from onion pakoras to masala vadas, aloo bondas to chili bajjis. While all that’s delicious and dandy once in a while, we are on a constant quest to make healthier choices for snack time for our families. We’ve done the shallow-fried bread rolls and steamed lentil dumplings quickly crisped on a tava for effect. We’ve also tried roasted vegetable chaat and masala chickpeas. And yet another eternal favorite is and shall remain – patties.

If you have boiled potatoes on hand, these are a cinch to make and you can beef them up with other vegetables, too. We’ve used green peas in this recipe, but the world is the limit, really. You could use boiled carrots, finely chopped greens, steamed broccoli, or whatever pops your corn.

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Peas ‘n Potato Patties
(Makes 8-10 Patties)

  • 1/2 cup peas, boiled
  • 3 medium potatoes, boiled and mashed
  • A handful of mint leaves
  • 2 green chilies
  • 1 teaspoon chaat masala
  • 1/2 teaspoon jeera powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon oil
  • Breadcrumbs to roll the patties in
  • Oil for shallow frying
  1. Allow the peas and potatoes to cool down a little.
  2. Meanwhile, grind the mint leaves and green chilies to a paste (don’t use water) – or if you prefer texture, mince them finely.
  3. Mix everything except the breadcrumbs together.
  4. Heat a skillet or shallow fry pan.
  5. Make round balls with the peas-potato mix, and flatten them with a pat of your hand. Dip them in the breadcrumbs on both sides, pressing down gently.
  6. Once the skillet/ fry pan is nice and hot, slide in the patties, maybe 4 at a time, and fry with a little bit of oil at a time, until the outer crust turns crisp brown on each side.
  7. Serve hot with ketchup.

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Posted in Appetizer Alley, Snack Attack, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dehlvi Cuisine Showcase

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Old Delhi is renowned for its culinary heritage, and though I’ve eaten my way through many meals that have their origins there, a weekend wholly dedicated to Dehlvi cuisine sounded wonderful and quite irresistible. This entire experience was hosted by JW Marriot New Delhi Aerocity, a beautiful property located very close to the New Delhi airport.

The team at JWM had done a terrific job of organising and curating this weekend affair, with food trails to the Jama Masjid bylanes and Chandni Chowk interspersed with themed events at the hotel.

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As one would expect, the bustling JW Marriot New Delhi Aerocity hotel has lovely guest rooms perfect for a comfortable stay, and the service is fabulous. A special word for the modern and exquisite flower arrangements that brightened up many spaces. There’s lots of seating near the lobby and the outdoor cabanas are perfect nooks for relaxing over a drink in the evenings. I also peeked in to a hall that was being decorated for a wedding and the floral decor was quite stunning!

 

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The buffet at the K3 restaurant was what we tried on Day 1. Here the spread is hosted by three separate kitchens serving Indian, Cantonese and Tuscan cuisine. Though I usually avoid multi-cuisine spreads, this was more like eating at three separate restaurants, since the food at each was really well done and true to the theme.

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The Indian section in K3 mostly serves dishes from Delhi, including seasonal specialties. We enjoyed a tikki made with winter turnips, as well as a tava fry with vegetables including bitter-gourd. Another highlight of the meal was the decadent Chicken korma made with pistachios, and the meaty Mutton Rara which had succulent chunks of mutton in a rich burgundy-coloured masala with minced meat.

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A breakfast hosted at the Delhi Baking Company had all kinds of tempting baked delights on offer along with some healthier options like granola parfaits. This is a lovely place to relax over a coffee and pastry, or even a scoop of gelato.

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The team at JWM also put together a wonderful dinner for us one evening, with a very interesting theme. This was a jugalbandi between two of their chefs, Asif who is an expert in Delhi cuisine and Arif specialising in Lucknowi delights. So we had some delicious kababs served up from both contestants, the highlight of which was the truly superb Kakori Kabab with perfect flavours and incredible smoothness in the meat.

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And so it went on..there was a korma round with hot, flaky Tandoori parathas to dunk into the thick gravies, and then a biriyani round. The deep, dark mutton korma was delicious, as was the lighter chicken dish with the gravy flavoured with plenty of fresh coriander. The biriyani would probably go well with one of the kormas, since this style of biriyani is not made with much of masala, it is just the meat and the spiced rice with some caramelised onions.

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The showstopper dessert was a joint effort by both chefs, with a beautifully constructed Shahi Tukda, sweet rice cooked with saffron – Zarda, and a smooth, creamy saffron mousse that I could have easily eaten a whole pot of!

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We went back to K3 for a Dilli-style breakfast spread the next day and found that this busy restaurant serves up a huge spread in the morning too, with a special themed Sunday brunch to follow.

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Our Dehlvi themed breakfast began in true theatrical style with the appearance of four gorgeous, gleaming copper tiffin boxes. These were ceremoniously unpacked to reveal their contents – Kachoris, Chole (though aloo ka saag would have been more appropriate), Raita and Kheer. Tiered tiffins are something that most of us have grown up with and these brought some precious memories right back, along with a delicious sense of anticipation that the very act of opening a tiffin box incites.

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The second course was Chole Bhature, Delhi’s own signature breakfast, and this was followed by some very delicious and crusty stuffed parathas. A bite of kheer for a sweet note, and a mug of ginger chai, and we were set for the day!

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The entire trip featuring Dehlvi cuisine was truly lovely and enjoyable, made perfect by the care and attention that the JW Marriot Aerocity team had lavished on creating and executing each part of it. If you’re looking to experience luxury and comfort at a premier hotel in Delhi, we do strongly recommend this amazing property and their very friendly and competent staff.

 

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Dehlvi Cuisine: A Jama Masjid Jamboree

Jama Masjid

The beautiful Jama Masjid in Purani Dilli is a sacred monument that is like a beacon of devotion and spirituality  for Muslims in India. Built in the time of Shah Jahaan, it stands serene, like a grand old lady, weathered gracefully through turbulent times but with its life force unscathed and still charismatic.

We were ten food bloggers and writers, invited by the JW Marriot Aerocity Hotel in New Delhi on a three-day showcase of Dehlvi Cuisine, which is basically the cuisine of Old Delhi. The vibrant cuisine of our national capital we were told, has evolved through the centuries, peppered with umpteen influences, from the rich traditions of the Persians and Mughals, from the Hindus who stuck strong to their vegetarian roots, from the Punjabis who poured into Delhi in droves, bringing their love for parathas and desi ghee, and from so many other cultures.

One of the main hotbeds of food that Delhi is known for is the predominantly Muslim area around the Jama Masjid. This is not really a tourist-friendly market that the faint hearted should venture into without adequate preparation. And since it was my first visit to this locality it was good to have the competent guidance of the JWM chefs and staff, who took the group around the crowded streets and maniacal traffic that is pretty much typical of these bylanes at most times of the day and night.

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Our first stop was the Masjid itself. With the evening prayers having just gotten over at sunset, it was a beautiful time to visit, the gathering dusk adding to the hush of reverence and devoutness in the atmosphere. Having a guide to take you around the monument is highly recommended, as is true with most historical places, but especially here since it is a place of worship. We were guided around the Masjid gates, courtyards and corridors by a knowledgeable and articulate lady from India City Walks. She briefed us on the history of the area and related some interesting anecdotes, beautifully setting the scene for the evening ahead.

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A platter of Shahi Tukda, Rose Sherbet, Jama Masjid after sunset, a Paan maker

The streets and lanes around the Masjid are brimming and pulsating with life. There are stalls selling everything from flashy jewelry and clothes in psychedelic colours, to utensils and utilities. Rows of carts hawking food of all descriptions, scores of pedestrians intent on going their way with single-minded purpose, and through all this, the crazy traffic and stray animals rounding off the pandemonium.

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A cart selling dates, Petha (candied white pumpkin), a balloon vendor, specialised Kulfi cart

Since there are umpteen food hawkers and restaurants in this area, it is quite difficult to know where and what to eat. Some prior research or an experienced companion will be of great help, or else you might just have to let your nose guide you from stall to stall. It also helps to pace yourself, perhaps share the plates of goodies with some pals, so that you can taste a whole lot more variety. The instinct is to eat simply everything but sadly, practical tummy-related constraints make that quite impossible.

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Romali rotis being made, assorted kababs at a stall, piles of Sheermal and Bakkarkhani, Pheni/vermicelli that you can buy to dunk in sweetened milk.

There is something to gawk at at every turn, this is a veritable Mecca of food, with the choicest of grilled and fried meats, refreshing sherbets to counter the heat, syrupy, slow-cooked desserts and exotic savouries. You could feast on the robust, savoury meat porridge that is Nihari, sample kewra-scented biriyanis cooked in signature styles, taste rich, lush curries flavoured with mace, cardamom and saffron, and then, as a seasoned traveler suggested, buy thick slabs of breads to bring a taste of the cuisine back home to your table.

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Kababs at Qureshi’s are a must-have, we were told, and these were truly sensational. Moist, juicy with the ends deliciously crisped up from the hot flames, a perfect marriage of spices and minced meat, these seekh kababs may not look fancy but they were definitely finger-licking good. So good that the chutney and onions were pretty much ignored for the most part. You can watch the swift and nimble hands of the kababchi make up the seekhs and grill your meat, and then carefully cross the road to a tiny eating area or just munch on them by the side of the street like we did.

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Fried chicken kababs are another popular dish in this area, and the Haji Mohd. Hussain stall, with great vats brimming with smoky hot oil outside is the go-to place for these. Probably created with an eye towards the Hindu population that descends in hordes to feast here, the fried chicken is spicy and crunchy on the outside, but perfectly succulent and juicy within. As with most of the food served here, the preparation is quite a process, including marination of the chicken with spices, frying at a lower temperature and then a final couple of minutes in super hot oil to crisp and finish the dish before serving with chutney, lemon wedges and sliced onions.

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Dinner was at Al Jawahar, a comfortably air conditioned multi-storied restaurant which seemed like an oasis of peace after the tumult of the streets. Al Jawahar serves Kababs,  Biriyani, Nihari and Curry dishes with piles of fresh-baked Tandoori breads. Since the chefs from JWM had already curated the menu for us, all we had to do was sit back, down some ice cold Thums Up and await the feast.

The gravy dishes that were served to us in quick succession included  Chicken Ishtoo (Stew), Mutton Qorma, Pasanda and Kaleji. These were mopped up with some excellent Khameeri Rotis, these are made with fermented dough, so the look, taste and texture is quite different from the usual tandoori rotis served at most restaurants.

Though the meat in all these curries was really tender and expertly cooked, the curries themselves seemed to be over-generously doused in oil, making it hard to do more than taste each one. Another specialty – the golden-brown Kashmeeri Sheermal made an appearance, this was pleasantly yeasty and slightly sweet.

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The favoured dessert in these parts is the shahi tukda and there were huge platters of it everywhere at the sweet shacks. Slices of bread are deep-fried and then simmered in thickened milk until the consistency is almost jammy, and the whole concoction just glistens with fat. This is then topped with thick layers of khoya and cream, and garnished with bright red cherries or tutti frutti. This dessert looked rich, gooey, decadent and heavy, and each bite tasted exactly like that, but thankfully the serving wasn’t too large and the sweetness was fairly moderate.

A fitting end to the meal was mouthfuls of sweet pan, filled with various digestives and sweeteners and served well-wrapped in multi-coloured foil cones.

The evening at Jama Masjid was truly memorable, an assault on the senses that I am unlikely to forget anytime soon. Some of the pictures you’re seeing may be a bit blurry and most of them are taken with the phone camera, but I hope that they capture the chaos, vitality and colours of the market, and the vibrancy of the food.

This is the first of three posts in the Dehlvi Cuisine series. Don’t miss the next post that’s a trip down the legendary Chandni Chowk area, and the last one tying the whole incredible Delhi experience together, at JW Marriot Aerocity.

Note: This trip was sponsored and curated by JW Marriot New Delhi Aerocity but the thoughts expressed here are our own.

 

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