Chuck the Junk…Spiceroute Magazine December 2014

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Hampi…The Story of An Amazing Era — Published in Spice Route Magazine, January 2012

The road into Hampi sets the scene for what is to come. With its large boulders precariously sitting on one another, it emulates a Disney movie set and is the perfect gateway to enter a previous era in time. The historical and surprisingly mystical journey was about to begin.  Did Lord Rama roam here? – the skeptics may have their doubts but the believers like me, get goose bumps thinking about walking where the Lord once met Hanuman. Nearby Kishkindha or Monkey Kingdom is the birthplace of Hanuman, and plenty of his descendents still roam nearby.

Hampi’s  significance as a center of trade grew from around 1336 AD when it became the foundation of the Vijayanagara Empire, one of the greatest kingdoms in India’s history. By 1565 the empire was covering the whole area between the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal Ceylon and the Deccan Plateau and Hampi was at its peak under Emperor Krishnadevaraya.
When viewing history firsthand you are overcome with an instant feeling of pride. The “India Story” as it is known all over the world seems like nothing compared to the progress made when Hampi had achieved when it was in its prime. Emperor Krishnadevaraya knew the meaning of development and growth had had taken the right steps to achieve it.
What remains today are the ruins of a great empire– ruins which enthrall historians, archaeologists, architects, religious pilgrims, and tourists alike. Ruins which are considered as one of the world’s most stunning archeological ruins. The entire area is a gigantic open air museum with palaces and temples exhibiting extraordinary engineering and beauty, and an untold story in each corner. Hampi is listed as one the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a site with a rich historical and cultural significance and a site to be preserved. Every column and wall in the temples has been built diligently with such purpose. While visiting, there was some renovation being done on one of the temples. It took 5 men to carry one stone — in Hampi, there are thousands of such stones in each structure
There are several large beautiful temples in obvious need of protection, so I asked our guide why they were not being preserved and he replied quite logically that there was only so much money and just too many temples and building sites to preserve. There are literally hundreds of temples sprawling the area but only the inner 26 kilometre range of Hampi is protected.
The Virupaksha temple, Vittala temple, Badavilinga Temple, Kadalekalu Ganesha, Krishna Temple, are the most well preserved and architectually significant, still attracting thousands of devotees. The stone chariot that is oftent he symbol of Hampi, sits majestically in front of the Vittala Temple. The large stone dome can be seen from a distance, and as you approach you realize how intricate the carvings covering the entire dome actually are. Another highlight of the temple is its richly carved monolithic pillars. The outermost of the pillars are known as the musical pillars and they emit musical sounds of different tones when tapped.
The palace grounds are where history is brought alive. The first item that strikes you are the palace walls. Large stones sit on one another perfectly, making a fortress, many of which still remain today, hundreds of years later. No concrete, no power tools, just stones perfectly placed on top of another. The downfall of the empire was due to the invasion by Muslims from the south and the battle of Tailikota in 1565 left many of the palaces in Hampi in ruins. The kingdom lingered on for another seventy-six years with Aravidus being the last dynasty. Only a few palace royal structures are left giving a vivid picture of life during the Vijaynagar empire’s heydey.
The Royal Enclosure is a vast ruin site which one can only imagine the life of royalty during that period. One structure remaining is the Lotus Mahal. This palace, which was known as a retreat for the emperor’s queen, is unique in its architecture using Islamic style arches and Hindu style multilayer roof and base structure, showing the open-mindedness of the king as well as the ingenuity of the of Vijaynagara artisans. Emperor Krishnadevaraya was a great patron of religion and the arts. Literacy flourished during this period and some of the finest works were produced in Sanskrit, Telugu, and Kannada languages. He was not afraid to experiment with engineering and architecture. The water tanks that dot the royal grounds exhibit a well planned water supply system and some parts are still in use today.
The empire was a force in trading everything from jewels, spices and horses. The marketplace is a strip near the center of town. Jewels, precious stones and gold ornaments were sold there — sellers sat selling rubies and diamonds jsut like the dabji mandis of today!
When you go to Hampi forget who you are and pretend you are the Emperor, his faithful queen, or one of the performers in his court. Let yourself loose and taken back to a great period in our history. Here are some tips on how to get started:
·         Once you reach the town center, hire a guide. Many of the guides also work for local chapter of India’s Archeological Society and speak a bit of English. They have an interest in history and preserving the local heritage.
·         There is very little shade cover in the complex. Wear a hat and bring an umbrella and try to use the morning hours for the tour.
·         This is not exactly a place where kids would have regular tourist fun; however they most likely would have learnt the history of Hampi and its rulers in school, and brush up your history before the tour. The rocks and landscape are great attractions for kids and perhaps the kid in you. Many kids were running away to climb boulders while their parents were listening to the tour guide.
·         Riding around in a bike/cycle is a great way to enjoy the landscape.There are both bike and cycle rentals available at the main market near the Virupaksha temple.
·         A trip to the Hanuman Temple in nearby Anegundi is only 5kms. The climb to the temple is 500 steps and there are plenty of monkeys along the way. To be safe, do not carry bags with you—they may think there is food in there. Try not to make eye contact and definitely do not try and pet them.
How to get there:
By Air: Spice Jet flies to Bangalore and Goa which have direct buses to Hampi.
By Road: The nearest town Hospet has a plethora of bus connections to all over Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra.
By Rail: Amaravati Express, and Hampi Express are the most connected trains
Where to Stay:
Hampi’s Boulders, Shanthi Guesthouse, Mowgli Guesthouse and Kishkindha Resort are a few options. Hotel Malligi is a three star property in Hospet. 

India On My Thali–Published in Spice Route Magazine, October 2011

While the dosa may be our national dish and chicken tikka our most famous edible export, it is the humble thali which is the mainstay Indian meal. Thali, derived from the word thal meaning plate, is a traditional Indian meal, and chances are you eat it, at least in some form, every day.
The customary thali you may be visualizing is a picturesque site – all brightly colored chutneys, pickles, papads, rotis and subjis placed in numerous katoris adorning a shiny steel plate. Appetizing and inviting enough that you feel like digging your fingers into one of the rich curries with a piece of one of the hot rotis. There is more to come, rice is served after you finish your pooris or rotis and topped with buttermilk and often a sweet.

Having such variety on the plate during one meal is a rarity these days. Let’s face it — women of the household do not have the time or inclination to make all the regular thali items on a daily basis. When lunches are packed it is usually the roti and subji that make it in the dubbas – the rice and dal are left out. Too much food to pack or too much food to eat during office hours, the only drawback of the thali is that it is difficult to eat away from an actual dining area. Some argue that there is too much food offered in the thali, making you overeat, but why blame the thali – how many of you have had one pizza slice too many? In today’s era of plentiful food, all food intake, a.k.a portions, must be controlled, thali included.

As is the case with most restaurant food, a thali too, eaten at restaurant , will be more calorific. There is more oil, always a dessert and more simply more food. The homemade thali however, is traditional health food with a perfect mix of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals.

Rotis and rice offer carbs, dals and pulses the protein, different vegetables provide vitamins and cochumber(salads) and dahi(curds) also give the needed nutrients for a healthy diet. The foods of the homemade thali may not be displayed as their strikingly attractive as their restaurant counterparts, but they are just as delicious, if not more, and can be found in every corner of India. North, South, East and West all have different varieties of foods in their thalis but the nutritional balance remains the same.

The popular Gujrati thali is known for its creamy kadhi and nutty farsan. Gujarati cuisine is in many ways unique from other culinary traditions of India as it is one of the few cultures where a majority of people are vegetarians despite the large coast line. This vegetarianism stems from religious ideologies and beliefs of the Jainism and Hinduism in the area.

Gujarati cuisine, a blend of exquisite flavours and textures has a wide range traditional recipes from different regions of Gujarat and even each household treasures its time-honored recipes. A Gujarati meal is a great deal more than the ordinary rotli, daal, bhaat ane shaak(roti, dal, rice and vegetables).It also consists of fried savouries(farsan), kandhvi (roll made with besan atta)and a wide variety of sweets. Milk products such as dahi, ghee, and milk based sweets are also prominent. Jaggery is a key ingredient and mixed with certain spices the result it a unique sweet and spicy flavour.

Rohu, hilsa, chingri, boyal – are all seafood wonders that are the specialty of a Bengali thali. As we move East we find the contents of the thali quite opposite of its Gujarati neighbor. Non-vegetarian fare rules this state’s thali with macher(fish) thalis and mangsho(meat curries with chicken or lamb), by far being the most popular among the Bengalis. This is not to say that vegetables are forgotten. Bengali food really does justice to some veggies that people generally avoid. Brinjals and cabbage are delicious in Panch mishali as they are blended perfectly with peas, pumpkin and spices, and even the shunned bottle gourd is appetizing in papaya and bottle guard stew. Rice rules on the plate and but roti lovers can order rotis separately. Let’s not forget the best part – the sweet dish. Rasgulas, sandesh and mishti doi are just a few irresistible treats that accompany this thali.

Moving down South where rice is preferred to roits, sugar is no longer on the ingredient list. While recipes differ in the southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala there is one ingredient in common – the red chilli. Spicy fiery curries, rasams, chutneys and pickles are the norm in the thalis of each of these states, all made with a collection of chillies native to the area. Do not fret – there is always cooling curds, buttermilk and salads to balance the spice. Although Andhra is known for its mutton biriyanis, Kerala for its fish dishes and even Tamil Nadu for its meaty Chettinad dishes, the most popular thali in all of these states is vegetarian, Karnataka included.

The Kerala Sadya is very close to a Malyalee’s heart. Served on a banana leaf, the original organic plate, with rice and a myriad of vegetables, some cooked in a ground coconut mixture, both fresh and dried, and some cooked in buttermilk and curds in various flavours. Banana chips, spicy pickles, papadams, and sweet payasams also adorn the leaf. The left side which is always the thinner end of the leaf is always served first with pickles and chips. In other thalis too, the left side is served first with chutneys, pickles, cochumbers and other smaller accompaniments.

Having a thali when you are travelling is an excellent way to get a good sample of the local food. Luckily buttermilk is universal item in the thalis – mainly for its digestive properties. It is served after sweet dishes, and after eating a full thali, you will need that digestive help!

Mango Mania–Published in Spice Route Magazine, May 2011

When I was a kid I used to eat them for breakfast and then one or two after lunch, and a couple after dinner, and if I was hungry in between, which I invariably was, I would eat them as a snack. My grandmother was afraid I was going to get an upset stomach but that never happened, my body was not only accustomed to the fruit, it craved it.

There are very few people who do not like our national fruit (yes, we actually have a national fruit) – the mango. Mangoes bring some respite to our hot Indian summers – it’s excruciatingly hot but at least we have mangoes.

Growing up in North Karnataka, we had a variety of mangoes and I loved them all. After moving to Pune I married into a household of mango snobs. They would eat nothing other than the Alphonso. They would deviate only by using the Pairi variety of mangoes to make ambrass. Ambrass was eaten with chapattis and on special occasions — puri. I did not like to share my palate with other flavours when eating the ambrass – no elaichi and kesar in my ambrass please, I preferred eating it plain – bowls full. Much to my mother-in-law’s dismay, I would always ensure a few bowls were taken out for me before all the spices were added.

I do not like mangoes with cream or the latest fad mango lassi. Take the mango, cut is and eat it as including sucking on the pit. But my dear mango snobs would eat their Alphonsoes every which way – ice cream, milkshakes, ambrass –puri. This was okay for them as their metabolism could handle the calories. I would prefer to save my calories for the fruit itself. Nutrients and calories were not in our vocabulary when growing up so the health aspect of the mango never came into question, but as a nutritionist I was happy to note that the fleshy fruit is packed with vitamins and minerals – vitamin A and E as well as iron and selenium. Good for us all. Each medium size mango has approximately 100 calories which may not sound like a lot but if you are eating 3-4 mangoes a day during the season – that is about 2500 calories extra a week. You are bound to gain weight. But it is summer and it is hot – eat one less roti at meal times and everything will balance itself out.

Nearly 70% of the mangoes produced in the world come from India and none tastes like the Alphonso – that is why is it known as the king of all fruits. The humid coastal region of Devgad and its unique red soil give the Alphonso its special taste and flavour. I love the Alphonso but I missed the other jesters of the court that I was accustomed to eating every summer. I would also try different varieties of mangoes when travelling and even liked the Chausa mangoes from the North.

Here are a few varieties:

Alphonso —The best are known to come from the Ratnagiri area of Maharashtra and some from Gujarat and Karnataka. This firm and fibreless variety is named after Afonso de Albuquerque, who brought the variety to India from Brazil during this tenure as the Portuguese administrator and admiral of Goa. This mango was later locally perfected in the region and the rest is history.

Banganapalli — This large sized mango is widely cultivated in south India. The pulp is fibreless, firm and yellow with sweet taste. Bombay Green This mid-size mango has soft and sweet pulp. Chausa This large late- maturing variety allowed me to eat mangoes during the rainy season. Dashehari I used to enjoy this variety on my trips to Delhi. Medium sized, firm and fibreless pulp. Fazli Large and late maturing, indigenous to Bihar and West Bengal. If you are missing mangoes in July, then ask for Fazlis. Gulab Khas Small and indigenous to Bihar. It has rosy flavour. Himsagar This medium sized, yellow mango is very popular in West Bengal. Kesar Apricot yellow colour and medium sized it is popular in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat and Maharashtra Kishenbhog Fruits are medium to large sized and the flesh is firm with fibres. Langra Lemon yellow in color and mid-sized. The pulp is somewhat fibrous. Mankurad Popular in Goa this mango is medium sized with yellow skin. Flesh is firm and fibreless.

Mulgoa — This variety found in southern states is one of the best for making pickles.

Neelum — Medium sized with soft fibreless flesh. Pairi One of the first to come to the markets in Maharashtra. Soft, medium sized, the slightly fibrous type makes for excellent ambrass with its sweet and tangy taste.

Totapuri — Large sized and less sweet with fibreless flesh.

There are over 100 varieties of mangoes in India grown in nearly every region except the hilly ones. Here are a few favourites by region:

South: In Karnataka I grew up with Alphonso, Totapuri, Banganapalli, Pairi, Neelum, Mulgoa and the Ankola Ishad which is quite fibrous –you will need floss after eating it. In Andhra Pradesh they have the Banganapalli, Suvarnarekha, Neelum and Totapuri

North: In Haryana the Chausa, Dashehari, Langra and Fazli are the favourites. UP prefers Bombay Green, Chausa, Dashehari and Langra – all are favourite for exports from UP. Punjab — Chausa, Dashehari and Malda

West: Maharashtra — Alphonso, Pairi, and Kesar Gujratis love a variety including Kesar, Alphonso, Rajapuri, Jamadar, Totapuri, Neelum, Dashehari and Langra

East: West Bengal — Fazli, Gulabkhas, Himasagar, Kishenbhog, Langra and Bombay Green