Paradise found

I stood at the window of our apartment in Perast, on the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, and gazed at the serene bay, sparkling in the winter sun. Framed by the hills beyond, and little fishing boats bobbing in the bay, it was breathtakingly beautiful. That was the moment I lost my heart to Perast.

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We had landed in Podgorica (erstwhile Titograd), capital of Montenegro, on a cold November morning, and rented a car to drive down to Perast, two hours away. The road snaked around to the sparkling Boka Kotorska or the Bay of Kotor of the Adriatic Sea, towns around which, like Kotor and Perast, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

We arrived in Perast, a one-street town hugging the bay, and was it crowded! Tourists, mostly from Dubrovnik and Kotor, visit between 12 noon and 3 pm. After 3 pm, it is near deafening, but blissful silence.

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On our first morning, we walked to the store near Skolje restaurant, to buy bread, milk, and cold cuts for a hearty breakfast. Wearing our warm jackets, we breathed in the crisp air, while the local fishermen motored off in their boats, and we befriended the stray cats.

Returning to our apartment, I put together our breakfast, taking pleasure in spending time in the quaint kitchen, which had its own, tiny cellar.

Perast Apt Dining

The apartment was a tastefully done up place, where we lingered for hours. Its stone floors, and old world charm had us completely captivated.The chair swing creaked alarmingly, yet provided a cosy, soporific perch, from which to contemplate life in all its swirling insanity. Utterly charmed by the view from the apartment, I spent many hours in the window seat, looking out to the bay, thinking many thoughts, occasionally reading a book.

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Perast Apt Seat

Later, we walked through town, taking in its baroque stone palaces, and churches. The street is just a mile long, but is interspersed with lively outdoor cafes, piers with white fishing boats, and locals going about their lives. The Bay of Kotor has been occupied since antiquity, and it shows in the beautiful churches and monasteries that dot the land. The most prominent in Perast is the Church of St. Nicholas with its 55-metre tall bell tower, where the busts of Perast’s famous sailors like Marko Martinvic, adorn the rectangular courtyard. We headed for the museum opposite the pier. Located in the 17thcentury Bujovic Palace, the museum tells the story of the town’s maritime history, with swords and daggers, uniforms, and models of ships, on display.

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Afternoon arrived, and we chose Café Armonia in the centre of Perast, for lunch, and relaxed in its outdoors seating, watching the sea gulls land for tidbits, the resident cat scrounging under our table for crumbs.

Seafood is popular, with every restaurant offering fish, shrimp, calamari, squid, octopus, and clams. We had lovely sea food salads and squid ink pasta, and marvelled at the sheer freshness of the produce. The locals are rather proud of their produce, its freshness and organic origins.

Seafood salad

Squid ink pasta

We hired a boat and its laconic boatman Mirko for 5 euros per person, to take us to the island of the Lady of the Rocks or the Gospa od Skrpjela, about 10 minutes away. Legend has it that local seamen used to lay stones at this spot when returning from a successful voyage, and on the island thus created, a chapel was built in 1630, later enlarged into a church.

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We returned from the island, and chose to walk the length of Perast.

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Night falls early, and with some abruptness, in Perast’s winter. Sitting at the pier, we saw a well-lit cruise ship crossing the bay in front of Perast, startlingly close, and realised that this was a shipping channel, of course! The serene, placid bay hides its secrets well.

After spending a few blissful days in the cocoon of our new-found love for Perast, we decided to stir ourselves and visit the medieval town of Kotor, less than half an hour away. The San Giovanni Castle or St. John’s Castle whose ramparts circle the old town, was built between the 9th and 19th centuries, and beckoned us. Located 250 m above sea level, with 1,350 steps leading up to it, we had heard it was a steep, but an easy climb, and cost 8 euros per head.

A local insistently pointed to another path snaking up, which we took, rather puzzled. This turned out to be a serendipitous choice, as the gently sloping path was easier than the steep steps, and more picturesque. Lined with pomegranate bushes, the path took us past the ruins of the St. George Church, while providing us with jaw-dropping views of the Bay of Kotor.

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Soon we climbed through a large opening in the castle wall, and looked down at the Bay of Kotor, caught in a breathtaking tapestry of sunlight, shadows, and a white cruise ship docked in the stunning blue of the bay. The hike had taken us about an hour and a half.

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We descended the steep steps to the old town of Kotor, whose cobbled paths, carved gates, terracotta tiled roofs, and narrow alleyways, are redolent of its medieval past. Kotor’s old town is a warren of narrow alleys with many squares named after their use in the times gone by – Square of Weapons, Square of Flour, Square of Milk, et al.

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The main landmarks are the Cathedral of St. Tryphon with its frescoes dating to the 14thcentury, St. Luke’s Church, which has survived earthquakes, and has two altars, the Maritime Museum, and the Pimo Palace.

Impatient to get back to Perast, we waved goodbye to Kotor. We stopped at the legendary, and charming Konoba Catovica Mlini restaurant in Morinj for dinner. A cosy restaurant, it has hosted the likes of actor Ralph Fiennes (a huge favourite of mine), and the famous tennis player from neighbouring Croatia, Novak Djokovic, we were chuffed to note.

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In the pitch dark night, we returned home to an utterly still Perast. I realised that I had never felt such peace and serenity. I thought this yearning for peace was a mid-life marker, till I heard my 12-year-old declaring Perast as his most favourite place in the world. How could a young boy have found his heart’s yearning in Perast, I wondered, bemused. Yet, I got him. Perast is stunning, and as poet Lord Byron put it, the Kotor bay is indeed “the most beautiful encounter of land and sea”, in which Perast is still a largely unknown gem in the Adriatic Sea. I wished with all my heart that I could claim a small part of this paradise for myself, forever. In my heart, I had.

How to get there

You can fly into Montenegro’s Podgorica or Tivat airports from any European city, or fly Turkish Airlines into Podgorica. From Podgorica and Tivat, you can rent a car or take the bus into Kotor and Perast. We rented a car for the duration of our stay in Montenegro.

 

Dil maange mor…inga!

A few days ago, I was at a supermarket in Matunga, where I saw a tin of ‘Moringa powder’ on the shelves. It said this was a ‘nourishing and detoxifying nutrient-rich superfood’. The irony of it? About a hundred metres from that shop was the vegetable market, where fresh moringa or drumstick leaves are sold in bundles, along with an envious assortment of greens like dill leaves, fenugreek leaves, and all manner of spinach leaves. And here were the moringa leaves, dried and powdered to be used as what, a topping on a pizza, or cereal, or to be consumed mixed in water? What a shame, I thought.

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The ‘miracle’ moringa powder!

From my childhood I have been accustomed to a wide diversity of greens in my diet. Though we are meat eaters, vegetarian food played a major role in our lives, as my mother, who hails from Palakkad in Kerala, is a strict vegetarian. We celebrated the greens with gusto. We sauteed the wide variety of leaves with mustard seeds and urad dal, incorporated the greens in a lentil based curry called erisseri, often made adai, a kind of dosa made with a blend of a variety of dals, horsegram, and the greens. You get the drift…the greens were everywhere. There was a special place in my mom’s heart for the drumstick or moringa leaves, as it’s considered especially beneficial for health.

But these greens were not glamorous. For instance, one would not make the moringa leaf dal or adai for guests. Guests would be served spicy sambhar, or a palate tingling fish curry, or a biriyani. My mom would unleash the entire sadya feast even, but the greens didn’t play much of a role on special occasions.

Over the years I lost touch with these leaves. I learnt to make paalak paneer, paalak erisseri. But I completely lost touch with many varieties of spinach and the moringa leaves. Most markets in Colaba and Lower Parel  stocked the whole drumstick, but not the leaves.

When ‘Moringa’ was getting touted about a year ago as the ultimate superfood, I was intrigued. I didn’t immediately recognise the moringa as the ‘muringa’ of my childhood. When I recognised it for it was, I was instantly flooded with a longing. I headed to the Matunga market and brought home bundles of it.

I made it in all forms – in adai, in dal, and as a bhaaji with potatoes. My son I discovered, loved the adais, when it was served to him hot, straight from the griddle, with dollops of homemade ghee! I am not an advocate of using excessive amounts of ghee, but I do believe that ghee must be part of one’s diet, especially a child’s.

Thus, did moringa and other greens make a comeback into my life. It was not just the return of these greens, but of some of the traditional recipes, which would otherwise have got lost in the mists of time. If I can spend time making intricate lasagna and spaghetti, and bake pineapple upside-down cakes, I can surely spend time making foods which are traditional and good for my family’s health, can’t I? At least once or twice a week? Now, a lasagna may triumph over a moringa dish in taste any day, but I think we owe it to our roots to establish some of the tastes that we grew up with, on the palates of our children. It is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, every day, we would be negating and ultimately forgetting, all that we grew up with.

I know that I have already let go of many traditions which were followed by my mother. Such can be the casualties of modern, urban living. I have made peace with it, as frankly, not all old rituals are necessary or desirable. But given the amount of junk and fast foods available today, it is nice to hark back to the past, and try and bridge the gap between eating only for pleasure, and eating for both health and pleasure. What do you think?

Recipe

Potato-moringa bhaaji

(I take about 3-4 medium potatoes for about 3 cups of moringa leaves, but this ratio can be altered as per one’s taste.)

Ingredients: Moringa leaves, potatoes, mustard seeds, jeera, whole red chilli, curry leaves, urad dal (gota), chana dal, green chillies, garlic, turmeric powder, salt, oil.

Method: Separate the leaves only, leaving the stalk. Wash the leaves well and drain in a colander. Boil potatoes (2-3 whistles), and cube. Don’t overcook the potatoes.

In about a tablespoon of oil, sputter 1 tsp mustard seeds and jeera. Add 1 whole red chilli cut into two, a few curry leaves, 2 tsp urad dal (gota), and 2 tsp chana dal, and fry till golden.

Then add chopped green chillies and chopped garlic.

Fry for a minute, then add the boiled and cubed potatoes. Add turmeric powder and salt. Toss it a bit and then add the moringa leaves. No need to cut it, just add the leaves as is. Fry it till the leaves shrivel. (Don’t over fry it as then the nutrition will be lost).

Have this with plain rice or rotis, and piping hot dal. Nutrition in every bite!

My cup of coffee

 

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Photo credit: Pexels.com

I have been searching for that perfect cup of coffee since aeons. Now, I really shouldn’t be, as I grew up in a South Indian household, with the tantalising smell of filer kaapi (coffee) wafting through the house every morning. We had started out with the traditional, double compartment steel filter, graduating to the electric filter. The electric filter speeded up the process. If earlier we used to drink warm to hot coffee, now it was piping hot.

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South Indian filter coffee is brewed in this

Once I was deemed old enough to drink coffee, I drank it every day. Somehow, my world righted itself when I held that cup of coffee in my hands. It was not just a beverage, but it was the comforting embrace of roots, traditions and habit. That strong, milky, sugary, coffee was just so home!

After marriage I discovered to my utter dismay that my new hubby drank tea in the morning. But I who mocked him, was soon drinking tea myself. Somehow, tea was the easier beverage to make, and I just didn’t have the patience and time to make that cup of filter coffee, just for me. Like so many other small and familiar rituals, this too fell by the wayside. It seemed easier to let go of the old, in the eagerness to embrace the new. Once in a way I cheated by making Bru Instant, which kind of satisfied my coffee soul. (To Nescafe aficionados, I say this – try Bru Instant just once!)

When we moved to Mumbai fifteen years ago, though we lived in Colaba, I made Matunga my own haunt. And I soon acquired a steel filter from Soham store, and the filter coffee powder from Mysore Concerns, both in Matunga. Yet, I rarely brewed it. I was experimenting with varieties of tea by then. My buying the coffee filter was more a cursory salute to the past. Waiting for the decoction to trickle down and then have lukewarm coffee was not my cup of..er, coffee at all. Or so I thought.

This is when Sachin got hit with the Nespresso craze. He acquired the machine and the coffee capsules, which came in their own sleek box, with the different flavours marked out, almost like a jewellery catalogue. Every day, while he fiddled with the Nespresso machine, a half cup of very hot milk, a spoon, and a sachet of Stevia were set on a tray next to the machine. Sachin would pop the coffee capsule into the machine, after much deliberation over which flavour to have that particular morning. It was a grand performance, which Sachin insisted was just about worthy of Nespresso. He achieved coffee nirvana after each such ritual. I think it was more the ritual, and less the beverage, which put him there.

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The Nespresso machine 

I just couldn’t bring myself to like Nespresso. None of the flavours appealed to me. But what it did do was kickstart my coffee yearnings. I started having the filter coffee when I could, and Bru when I was rushed. Since I like my coffee with milk and loads of sugar, I had it infrequently…hitting the 40s does have its downside. I can’t abide the taste of sweeteners like Stevia, Splenda, and I would much rather have coffee with sugar on weekends, rather than with these artificial sweeteners daily.

The advent of Starbucks into Mumbai was a milestone as much for our household, as it was for that august Organisation! Sachin discovered that he could also order a cup of Starbucks coffee through Swiggy, which I found amazingly wasteful. I offered to make him as much coffee as he needed, especially for the late nights up working or watching football on the telly. But of course, he wouldn’t be satisfied with Bru or filter coffee. He soon raided Foodhall and got decaf coffee, which frankly flummoxed me. It wouldn’t load him with caffeine and yet would give him the caffeine kick, he explained to me seriously. A coffee, which really isn’t coffee…hmmm.

Meanwhile, I was having my own palate evolution. Last November, while holidaying in Perast, Montenegro, I discovered by accident, Nescafe’s 1+2 instant coffee, which just needed sugar to be added. I discovered that adding a spoon of milk made it even more delicious. In the wintry cold of those November mornings, it gave me the greatest joy to sit with a cup of that coffee, gazing out to the beautiful Kotor Bay enveloped in pleasing stillness. But I couldn’t source enough of it before we left Montenegro. A search in Mumbai stores didn’t yield that particular combination. It was left to a dear friend to get it for me from Hong Kong, and I enjoy that coffee occasionally.

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The pleasing colour of the filter coffee!

That said, I have realised that my love for filter kaapi will never fade. A trip to Matunga even today means snacking at Mysore Cafe or Madras Cafe, rounding off the meal with piping hot filter coffee served in the steel tumbler and davra. You cool the coffee by pouring it back and forth between the tumbler and the davra from a height, which also generates a pleasing froth. Just look at the rich colour of this wonderful filter kaapi!

Today, one can even find herbal coffee to beat all herbal teas! And as many varieties of coffee as there are probably coffee drinkers, I guess. So the next time I want to drink coffee or Sachin does, I have an array in my house – Bru Instant, Nescafe 1+2, filter coffee, Decaf, Nescafe Gold, Nespresso, even Turkish coffee. If all these fail, I will head to Matunga, while Sachin can fall back on Starbucks, of course.

A dash into Bosnia…

We were in Montenegro, when we decided to visit neighbouring Croatia. Dubrovnik in Croatia has achieved cult status in recent years because of the hit series Game of Thrones (GoT), many parts of which were shot in that city. We are ardent fans of GoT, and Dubrovnik was just an hour and a half by car from Perast in Montenegro, where we were so blissfully ensconced.

Only the desire to see the locations of GoT could have torn us away from Perast, to which we had lost our hearts. In Perast, each one of us had discovered that we could indeed be far from the madding crowd, and be happy. The ethereally beautiful Kotor Bay which was just outside our apartment window, had cast a spell on us so powerful that I had the mad urge to overstay our visa! If souls can talk to a place, mine did, to the tranquility, beauty, and the sheer peace of Perast. I remember a particular morning, when we had ventured out early, and were almost the only ones out in the cold, damp, clear morning. I remember looking out at the tranquil bay, taking a deep breath, and shutting my eyes, capturing the feeling at that particular moment. After returning, I have often wondered, why. Is human nature naturally attuned to the beauty and simplicity of peace and silence? Do we rediscover an innate, but an absconding part of our very being when we inadvertently discover places like this?

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The ethereal Bay of Kotor as seen from Perast

But as far as Dubrovnik was concerned, all of our plans came to a naught when we realised that we didn’t have the Schengen visa to enter Croatia. Our US visa had been enough to gain us entry into Turkey and Montenegro, our two ports of call on this trip. Sadly, we gave up the idea of visiting Croatia. But the urge to drive out was now upon us, and I think we looked forward to leaving Perast for the day, just so that we could ‘return home to Perast’!

That is how we found ourselves strapped into the car, setting the Google Map to Trebinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. We heard there was a lovely monastery to see. The idea of seeing the monastery and eating lunch in another country, before returning to Perast, was so very attractive. So we set out. Once we left the Bay of Kotor behind, the road to Bosnia wound around vast fields and distant hills. At the border into Bosnia, we faced both immigration and customs, while seated in the car. How cool is that!

We were welcomed into the Republic of Srpska, which is one of the two entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And soon we were in Trebinje.

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Goodbye Montenegro, Hello Srpska!

Trebinje is a small city, with much history. The Tvrdos Monastery actually dates back to the 4th century AD, though over centuries it has been destroyed and reconstructed, the last one being about a century ago. It’s a peaceful monastery, surrounded by green vineyards, with a river flowing past it.

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The serene Tvrdos Monastery

The monastery chapel, as with most such chapels, is small and serene. There were tourists who were conducting some rituals, and we prayed briefly too. The monastery is known for its wine production, and is quite a tourist attraction, though we didn’t pause to taste any. We then left for the city of Trebinje, a mere 5 km away.

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Ishaan had a great time photographing the river, while a local fished!

Trebinje was for me a surreal experience. I have rarely been in any place in Europe, especially in recent years, where I have seen people stare at us as much as they did in Trebinje. Indians have reached most corners of the earth, and one would think Bosnia is definitely one of those corners. It wasn’t a rude stare, just a shocked one, jaws agape, at seeing a sight one isn’t accustomed to. It was a bit unnerving, but we tried to be nonchalant, three Indians, walking down a street in Bosnia, trying to look as if we belonged! In retrospect, what a hilarious sight we must have presented!

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In the centre of the town, a farmer’s market was just winding up, while we went inside a cafeteria looking for some lunch. Lunch was rather coarse, though tasty fare. A kind of ham sandwich, for which we paid with Euros since we very clearly didn’t have the local currency of Convertible Mark. They happily took the Euros and gave back change in Marks which we discovered later. So we now have a bunch of Bosnian Marks to add to our currency collection. People at the cafeteria thankfully didn’t stare, which went a long way in redeeming the city for me.

For dessert Sachin insisted on going to a rather busy and stylish cafe we had seen. We went with hope and got some lovely dessert, but also enough smoke to coat our lungs for a while. People here have the rather awful habit of smoking indoors. Sachin said it’s a sure sign of a still evolving society.

Trebinje overall, doesn’t give one the impression of being a vital place, which I hope isn’t symbolic of the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is almost a miasma of tiredness, and of being poorer cousins to their more alive, more prosperous neighbours. The town of Trebinje has loads of history. Yet, there is a sheen of dullness about the place. Despite the autumnal trees and the cool weather.

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We started back from Trebinje soon after and reached Perast by 5 pm, when the tourists had vacated the town, and what a relief that was! It was dark and quiet, and we were  just in time to see a humongous cruise ship glide silently across the bay in front of our apartment, its windows ablaze with lights. What a mesmerising sight indeed, to come home to…:-)

In intriguing Istanbul

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Girls with covered heads at the Topkapi Palace

“See, that’s what I am talking about!”, exclaimed our Istanbul guide Zehra (name changed to protect identity) in dismay, pointing to a group of young girls at the Topkapi Palace, a few of them with their heads covered with scarves. “Covering the head is forbidden as per Turkish law. But now, we are seeing more girls with their heads covered”. Zehra, a strong feminist, nationalist, and liberal, was our guide for the day in Istanbul. She was unabashedly critical about the path her country was treading, yet helpless in the face of the ultra-conservatism she saw slowly taking root in Turkey.

For both Sachin and I, this was our first experience of Istanbul. We had transited through the city before, but never explored it. Istanbul to me, seemed the very antithesis of Perast in Montenegro, where we had just spent a blissful five days. Perast was ethereally beautiful, peaceful, and by the second day we were on nodding terms with the locals, with our frequent forays out. It had been almost heart-wrenching to leave Perast. And the contrast, coming into Istanbul, couldn’t have been more vivid.

From the word Go, Istanbul to me, was a riot of colours, a smorgasbord of sensory experiences, and most of all, a perfect example of what happens to culture, facial features, and way of life, when Asia and Europe meet and blend, so riotously. We stayed at Hotel Ajwa located bang in the centre of the congested, tourist centre of Sultanahmet, on the European side of the gently flowing Bosphorus. On an earlier transit we had stayed on the Asian side, and I had been lulled into thinking that here was a calm, benign city. It’s absolutely not. Sultanahmet, to me, was in many ways, a reminder that for all its European efficiency and chic, Istanbul is essentially Asian at heart.

Chaos seems writ large in the city’s very fabric. From the wildly weaving traffic, to the eagerly gesticulating salesmen in the Grand Bazaar trying to attract your attention, it’s chaos. It was outside Grand Bazaar, while tightly sandwiched between two women in a mass of people, that I had an out of body experience. This, I thought, is how it feels when you have nowhere to turn, and nowhere to go. Literally. For many minutes we were stuck like that, and then we came unstuck. And I fled into the Grand Bazaar.

The Grand Bazaar is a covered, busy market, the interior of which brought to mind the beautiful baroque Cloth Hall of Krakow’s Town Square, which has stalls selling jewellery, ceramics, and dainty laces.

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One of the entrances to Grand Bazaar
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The lights that shine and beckon at Grand Bazaar!

The comparison ends there, of course. The Grand Bazaar is grand in every sense of the word. The colourful lamps on display blaze with a  zillion twinkling lights, while the vast array of gorgeous ceramics, bags, psychedelic stoles and shawls, chess sets, copper and brass utensils, and gold jewellery, vie avariciously for your attention.

It’s so easy to fall prey to the enticing charms of these wares, but for the bargaining. It is assumed, especially if you are an Indian, that you will bargain, so it’s a real pain to have to bargain. Much to my chagrin, one of the shop owners said, Madam, you bargain well! I hate bargaining from the bottom of my heart, and my attempt had been pretty perfunctory. So I knew he was just going on the charm offensive. Ignoring him was easier said than done, and I bought what I had to buy and got out.

But it was in the Spice Bazaar that we spent the real moolah. From lemon salt, dried fruits and pomegranate syrup, to sun-dried tomatoes and beautifully packaged Turkish delights (sweets) of pomegranate and almond flavours, the Spice Bazaar is a real cornucopia of foods and spices, and emits the most interesting smells.

The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar can be a bit of a tourist trap though. Everything is way too pat, every response too rehearsed. The lanes and by-lanes outside of the two bazaars have some interesting stories to tell. Here, there are stalls selling a variety of things like the famous Turkish calligraphy, little figurines of the whirling dervishes, handmade soaps, etc. Even the gleaming fresh fish on display may just be of academic interest to tourists like us, but are still so attractive. As one traverses the lanes of Istanbul, every experience takes on more meaning, every sight is visually more appealing, every bazaar seems something out of the Arabian Nights!

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The lanes outside the famous bazaars have some interesting stalls

The proper introduction to the city came the next day though, with Zehra. Hailing from the northern part of Turkey, she has a healthy disdain, tempered with loads of affection, for Istanbul. With pride she pointed out the sights of her adopted city, narrating the history of her country which has seen, since the beginning of the Christian Era, the Byzantines, the Ottomans and then, the liberal Mustafa Kemal Pasha ruling over Turkey. Kemal Pasha was an especially liberal leader, who vowed to put Turkey on a secular, progressive track, which meant women’s liberation too. Something Zehra is immensely proud of.

But, things are changing subtly. The current political dispensation in Turkey has made education in Islamic schools free, which means a large number of children are being sent to these schools, depriving them of what could be seen as a more liberal, progressive education. Head scarves are back, and the general feeling is that the country is treading a conservative path.

Yet, Turkey is a country with a very large heart. It currently hosts the most number of Syrian refugees, nearly four  million officially registered. Such an influx of refugees has meant a degree of pressure on the social services, and in a bizarre twist, territorial squabbling between the ‘local’ beggars and ‘refugee’ alm seekers! There is a price to be paid for being welcoming hosts.

Not just refugees and tourists, Istanbul attracts all other sorts of visitors. We were stumped by a very strange sight we encountered often on the tour around Sultanahmet – men with bandages (sometimes bloodied) wrapped around their heads, sightseeing. What a sight! Istanbul is apparently, a major hub for people wanting to get cosmetic treatments like hair transplant, botox, etc. Obviously, the men with bandages were fresh from a hair transplant session. I could only marvel at their determination to sightsee!

We spent a considerable amount of time with Zehra that day. It is a testimony to her skill, that we didn’t realise the passage of time. With consummate ease she navigated Sultanahmet, telling us stories about each monument, even pointing out the resident cats of Sultanahmet! Among all the monuments in Istanbul that Zehra took us on the walking tour – from the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, the underground cisterns, the Grand Bazaar and the Suleiman Mosque, I was most impressed and awed by the Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya Museum.

It so well encapsulates what Istanbul stands for. Built in the 6th century AD, it is considered an epitome of Byzantine architecture. The remarkable thing about this awe-inspiring monument is that for more a thousand years it was a Greek Orthodox Church, which later became an Ottoman Imperial Mosque under the Ottomans, and is today the Ayasofya Museum. Though many of the original features like the altar, bells and mosaics depicting Christianity were glossed over, some still remain.

Ayasofya is built on massive lines, and when you enter through the Emperor’s Gate, you truly feel royal. The gates are so massive that they look fit for caparisoned elephants to enter, like some of the darwazas of Indian forts.

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The Emperor’s Gate at Ayasofya

The massive dome and the extremely high ceiling, as also the colourful mosaics, make for an extremely regal monument. The Ayasofya is also a highly controversial edifice, with ongoing debates about the uncovering of the Christian mosaics, and whether the monument should revert to being a mosque again. A sign of how the wind blows in Turkey today?

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The Christian mosaic inside Ayasofya

Zehra undertook to introduce us to not just her city’s history, but also to its food. Eschewing the more fancy places, she took us to a small, but a very colourful restaurant, Omar, in the heart of Sultanahmet, where we tasted the testi kebap, a meat dish cooked in a clay pot.

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Testi kebap being served

The last part of the cooking process is done right next to your table, when the clay pot is roasted in the flame, the lid opened, and the kebap decanted with a flourish. I must confess, while I found this dish quite tasty, I vastly prefer and absolutely love the traditional kebaps on skewers, and the ubiquitous doner kebaps that we had at the ‘Hamdi’ restaurant overlooking the Grand Bazaar. The doner is of course wildly popular beyond the country’s borders. It’s in fact, our go-to comfort food too, when we travel in Europe.

Ironically, one of our best meals in Istanbul was an Azerbaijani meal. Turkey has strong ties with Azerbaijan, and ‘Zeferan’, the Azerbaijani restaurant at Ajwa is quite  famous. The food was truly mind-blowing, especially the shah pilaf, a less spicy, more delicate version of our biriyani. When they brought it to the table, I thought it was a mistake, as the dish resembled if not a cake, but definitely some sort of a dessert with the garnish of apricots on top.

Shah rice
Is this a dessert?

We cut into it to discover the most flavourful, delicately spiced rice, and melt-in-the-mouth meat. Food like this makes one grateful that one is able to travel and experience, even if briefly, other cultures.

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Oh no! It’s shah pilaf, a rice and meat dish!

 

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I can drink Turkish tea through the day

I have only one grouse with the Turks, and that is that they take their warm beverages seriously, and I wish they wouldn’t. They slurp many glasses of tea and coffee every day. I love the Turkish tea, there is a charm to drinking black tea which is so light, and aromatic. But Turkish coffee is something I will never get my head, or my taste buds around. I found it thick, almost sludgy, and it tastes, quite frankly, horrible. I am a finicky coffee drinker, I agree, given my South Indian roots, but I can usually tolerate most types of coffee. Turkish coffee, I am sorry to say, I will never have willingly.

While their coffee is of questionable taste, the Turks are a friendly, polite, and a fair race, and I don’t mean their skin colour. They are aware of their place in the world because of their history, which has over the years and especially in the 20th century, been very progressive. The melting pot of cultures that Turkey is, has resulted in a race with bold, handsome, refined features, making them a very good looking race too. And they are confident about their place in the world. They wear their culture and history, very well indeed. I hope and pray, it remains that way.

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Goa for my soul!

It is hot in Goa. I didn’t expect it to be anything less. But even a sultry Goa trumps Mumbai weather by miles. There is a charm about coming to Goa at the fag end of summer; the air is heavy, the sky is overcast, and the anticipation of rain colours every mood. Most tourists have also  vacated the state, grumbling about the heat. The locals are languid, spent, having dealt with the onslaught since October. The Goa which was once abuzz with colourful stalls and crowded beaches, is now winding down. Yet, one gets a personalised Goa as never before, and very rarely after.

There are enough roadside shops and restaurants open to tempt one. Of course, the entire menu is not available. So a request for pizza we were warned at the Jaws restaurant near our home, would take more than an hour to fulfil. So we settled for dosas and uthappams. The South Indian chef glowered at us from behind his tava, but turned out delicious food – the chutney was fresh and the sambhar to my very finicky South Indian palate, delicious – a difficult feat in that sweltering climate. And we were satiated.

The very lack of routine is what charms one about Goa. That, and the sheer options for an indolent life that the state provides. Our usual, unvarying routine in Goa is to vegetate – read, get tanned beyond belief in the pool, long evenings at the beach, sumptuous seafood meals, and langorous naps in the afternoons! The break from ringing bells and bustling house help (the norm back home in Mumbai), is such a welcome relief. Even if it means, I have to do a lot more domestic chores. Incredible as it may seem, I don’t mind it. Nirvana is curling up in a chair with a book – this visit I am revisiting Rebecca for well, the zillionth time, and a rather entertaining book I bought at the Mumbai airport,  Miss Malini #tothemoon.

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Our house has a narrow little backyard. Since the boundary wall is shared with the adjoining complex, the building staff has sown plantain, papaya and bougainvillea to give us a measure of privacy. The plants have grown into stout young trees, and I wait for the day when I will have my own little arbour.

Even as I seek the calm, the Big Vagator Beach nearby has become a heaving, busy beach. Never known for adventure sports, it today offers parasailing and speed boats to eager tourists. Even as my son frolics in the sea, I choose to sit on the sandy beach, amid the surging crowd of sari clad matrons, coy yet bold honeymooners, and bold bunches of men, liberated suddenly in every way. They ignore the lifeguard’s half hearted whistle warning them of the high tide and venture deeper into the sea. I try not to watch them. Young boys with outstretched trays containing ugly jewellery beseech you to buy, even as locals indulge in beach football, and dogs and incredibly, cows, saunter. Far into the distance, on the rocky outcrop, people are stretching out their arms to take selfies. They look so precarious against the eager sea waiting to claim them, or so it seems to my fanciful mind. I try not to watch them too.

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Yet, amid all these distractions, I feel the utmost sense of peace and solitude. Most, I confess, when surrounded by people. As the sun sets and we set our faces towards home, there is a deep sense of contentment. A Goan holiday is like an island amidst a surging, wild ocean. It gives life a pause, a chance for the soul to tarry a while and rejuvenate itself. It buoys one to plunge once again into the exciting madness of this, our Maximum City.

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We, the thali seekers

Sachin and I are great thali seekers. Each time we are on a road trip from Mumbai, mostly to Goa, we look forward to stopping at a roadside restaurant to eat the piping hot, spicy misal pav and if it is lunchtime, the no-frills but absolutely delicious thalis that the Maharashtrian countryside seems to have honed into an art form. This is especially so if you ditch the National Highway and instead take the Chiplun route, then the options around lunch are endless. We typically stop at the small restaurants that dot the narrow road. Lunch hour is always a busy time and if you want quick service, the best option is the thali. Typically, the thali comes in fish, chicken, mutton and vegetarian options. We tend to go for the jugular and order the fish thali with extra fried fish on the side!

The fish thali is almost always the lady fish, a small, thorny fish, though not as thorny as the sardine. It’s absolutely delicious. The thali mostly has rice, a couple of rotis, a mackerel fish curry, the fried fish, and some greens. Sometimes, some pickle too. This basic thali is more or less uniform. In some places they may add a small katori or bowl of chicken or mutton curry, and some sol kadi, which is a refreshing drink made with kokum and coconut milk. It’s sometimes made without coconut milk too, when it is a reddish, clear drink, which is very refreshing in the summer heat. Our son relishes this fare almost as much as we do.

Now, the photo below is of a fancier thali, which we order at a restaurant near our place in Vagator, Goa, called Goan Spice. But no less delicious. In fact, a visit to Goan Spice is a ritual which we carry out with fanatic certainty, each time we visit Goa.

Thali

The Indian thali anywhere is a perfectly balanced plate of food. I find it a happy coincidence that we in Kerala favour rice, sea food and coconut in our dishes, the same as coastal Mahrashtra. Yet, the masala tastes so very different. And I love and relish both cuisines. So much so that I regularly buy the malvan masala, and always encourage my Maharashtrian cook to try out all possible recipes she knows, on us. In fact, we love visiting Malvan Katta (an absolutely no-frills restaurant) and Gomantak both of which serve their version of the Malvan thali, which also invariably features mussels.

On Good Friday last week, we set out for lunch to SodaBottleOpenerWallah at the Phoenix Mall in Lower Parel. It’s one of our favourite places to dine in and we relish the ambience as much as the food.

SBOW thali

Much to our delight, that day, the menu featured a Parsi thali! Happily, we ordered it. It was disappointing! The mackerel fish was absolutely bland and the cutlet was quite tasteless too. (When one has sampled the cutlet served at the Paradise restaurant on Colaba Causeway, it’s a tough act to follow, I have to admit). The dhansak rice with mutton was good, though. Inexplicably, there was too much of dal which we really didn’t know what to do with and the chicken curry was nothing to write home about. It almost looked like they had just ticked the boxes:-(

I wished they had not offered the thali on the menu. For, the rest of their menu, starting from the Egg Kejriwal onwards, is superb. And I will surely visit them again, but will avoid the thali.