Monday 11 April 2016

Haridwar- A Photo-essay

On the way back from the Deoriataal-Chopta-Chadrashila peak trek, I had a few hours in Haridwar in the evening. So I decided to attend the grand Ganga aarti at Har ki Pauri ghat and explore the markets at much as I could. Markets, because I love the riot of colours, shapes and fragrances in Indian markets and that is a great indicator of the culture of the place too. 

Read my posts on the Mahabaleshwar market and the Juna Bazaar in Pune. 
The Ganga aarti at Hari ki Pauri ghat. 
The Ganga aarti begins at 6.30 pm and lasts for around 20 minutes. But the crowd starts gathering much before that. The day I had visited was the eve of the 'maha-snaan' or main dipping ritual in the Ganga since it was the time of the Ardh-Kumbh, the religious Hindu congregation that happens once in 6 years ('ardh' meaning half). So I was mentally prepared for the crowd. But I needn't have been petrified of the crowd, sine the local Police, the Army and ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) were doing a commendable job of managing the same. I went to the Har ki Pauri ghat at 5.45 pm to secure a good place from where I could view the aarti. There are 2 options. One is you go to the Har ki Pauri ghat itself where the aarti happens. The second one, which I chose, is to stand right opposite the Har ki Pauri ghat to get a clear and direct view of the ritual. The crowd gathered, the priests assembled and the chanting began. One thing that I liked was that before the aarti all the people gathered are asked to raise their palms to take an oath that they will not pollute the river and will help maintain its sanctity. 

Let me allow the pictures to do the talking :-) 

The sun sets on the river Ganga.
People gathering for the evening aarti. 

The aarti in all its grandeur. The place looked ethereal with the lights of the lamps. 

Since it was the 'Maha-snaan' the next morning, everything was lit up. 

The crowd dispersing after the aarti. 

I was hungry after the aarti and headed to the first shop outside the Har ki Pauri ghat to devour some aloo-puri. (fried bread and potato curry). The quantity was huge as you can see and was served on a leaf. The eatery has no seating arrangement so I had a hard time balancing the food on my left palm, pulling out the puris from under the bowl of curry and eating it..:-) 

Look at the crowd outside Mohan Ji Puriwale, from where I bought aloo-puri. Even Tripadvisor gives it a high rating. 

The neighbouring shop Prachin Mathurawale was quieter and he asked me to stand next to his shop, fearing I would be trampled by the crowd outside his competitor's shop. 

I washed down the heavy dinner with some much need salted Punjabi lassi. Burrp!! 

As I started exploring the market, I spotted several other eateries with their wares stacked interestingly. 

Haridwar, being a religious place, there has to be rosary beads and crystals for the devout. 

Lamps of different shapes and sizes. 

Dupattas and cloth pieces to drape one's shoulders, inscribed with holy names. 

Flower sellers. 

I saw a decent crowd lined up outside this shop. He was selling Basundi (thickened milk) from the big cauldron and pedhas (milk based sweets). Seeing me take a picture, he offered me a free sample. Seeing the delighted expression on my face after tasting it, he asked me if I wanted to buy. I so wanted to eat that, but did not because the aloo-puri had occupied all the space in the stomach. I just bought some pedhas to take back home. 

Making of a pedha. 

In another shop there were colourful bangles. 

And conches to herald the start of a prayer. 

And other offerings to the Gods such as puffed rice, and sugar balls and incense sticks. 

This shop had a collection of walking sticks and damarus, the 2 sided drum used by Lord Shiva. This was the last interesting shop I saw before I arrived at a street with shops stocked with cheap plastic goods.
I was glad I could at least walk around and explore the market in the 4 hours I had in Haridwar. May be I will come back to spend some more quiet time by the river, on a less crowded day. 

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Tuesday 22 March 2016

Visit to a 115 year old Kulfi shop in Old Delhi.

The paan kulfi was awesome!
The first time I had heard about Kuremal kulfi was when reading recommendations by celebrity chefs on eat outs in Delhi. And we were anyways going to the city in two weeks, so I had bookmarked this place. The address said it’s in Chandni chowk, which I knew is a crowded area with narrow lanes, entangled wires dangling and cycle rickshaws and two wheelers almost dashing past you, while you cling to the sides of the lanes, if your reflexes are good.
Wading through Chawri bazaar. 

Kucha Patiram marg. 
Zomato informed us that there are two Kuremal Kulfi shops in the same lane. One is Kuremal Mohanlal and the other is Kuremal Mahavir Prasad. Both had great reviews, but the latter had fewer ones indicating that it is a newer establishment. The timings given on Zomato are wrong too, which we discovered only after reaching there. But that worked in our favour. So, on a Friday morning, we took the metro from INA to Chawri bazaar in search of the famed Kulfi.
Beautiful havelis along the way. 

We navigated through narrow, crowded lanes, with wires and cables entwined and hanging across buildings like festoons in disarray. I was surprised to see some old mansions or havelis with spectacular architecture, happily co-existing with modern squalor.

Notice the intricate woodwork. 
We reached Kucha Patiram marg, only to find both the shops closed. I was almost crest fallen for a few moments. I walked up to the opposite shop and asked the owner as when the shops would open. He said both shops open at 1 pm and it was only 10.30 am. But before my hopes dashed further, he said that just around the bend of the lane, they have their kitchen (karkhaana) where they make the kulfi and we could go there. He offered to accompany us and led the way to the kitchen.
My husband couldn't believe that I could go to any lengths (read walking through dusty, dirty streets) to eat a Kulfi.
The haveli opposite Kuremal Kulfi with stunning stucco work. 

Mohanlalji said it's the depiction of the Pandavas. 
But again, this is not just any kulfi. Kuremal is a legend in its own right. It was started in 1901 by a person called Kuremal in the very karkhaana that we were going to.
Kuremal Mohanlalji.
We were happy that we got to meet the owner, Mohanlal, the founder Kuremal’s first son, and owner of the Mohanlal shop. He was sitting with his son in a 10 x 10 square feet area, half of which was partitioned to accommodate giant stoves and cauldrons. There was nothing cooking in the kitchen when we visited, but Mohanlalji said that they have 2-3 others areas nearby and each part of the kulfi making process happens in a different space.
The kitchen. 
As opposed to the timings mentioned in Zomato, which said the shop opens at 9 am, Mohanlalji said it opens at 1 pm, but at the karkhaana, you can come even early morning or late night and have your fill of kulfi. When Kuremal had started the shop, there were just 2 or 3 flavours like malai, kesar and mango, but now they have experimented with flavours successfully and have as many as 25 flavours, some unusual like imli (tamarind), paan (betel leaves), and fruit sorbets like jamun, sitaphal, pomegranate, etc. One interesting innovation is the stuffed mango kulfi, where they scoop out the insides of the mango, fill the cavity with mango kulfi and freeze it.
Jamun sorbet and sitaphal kulfi/sorbet.
They didn’t have a menu card in their karkhaana, so we asked them what flavours are available. We decided to start with the paan kulfi, as I had never tasted that before. Mohanlalji sent a boy on an errand to pick up some paan kulfi from the place where it was stored. While waiting, I chatted up with him casually. I remarked on the fine woodwork on the opposite haveli. He said that it was built in 1930’s and the owners used to live there until a few years ago and now they have leased it out for some factory work.
Kesar kulfi- one of the original recipes. 
The paan kulfi arrived. It was delicious to say the least, with crushed betel leaves in the kulfi enhancing the flavor. Next was the mango kulfi. I was a bit disappointed with this because it wasn’t as creamy and the flavor appeared a bit synthetic. While we were deciding what to eat next, Mohanlalji suggested that we try the jamun sorbet as that is a speciality. We asked him what else was there and while he rattled off the list of flavours, we asked for sitaphal kulfi too. He sent one attendant to get the jamun sorbet and sitaphal kulfi. The jamun sorbet was out of the world with some chat masala sprinkled on it. We gulped that down and targeted the sitaphal kulfi. This one was more like a sorbet than a kulfi, not creamy at all. We were eager for more. What we had tasted so far were contemporary flavours, so we asked for one of the original flavours which Kuremal had begun with. So Mohanlalji suggested we try kesar. So we did and found it awesome.
Waiting for the order to arrive. 
I asked him whom the Kuremal Mahavir shop belongs to. He said that’s his younger brother’s. Sensing that I would be touching a raw nerve here, I did not ask any more questions regarding what appeared to be a fallout between the two. I asked him and his son about the quantity of kulfi they make each day. They replied vaguely saying that it depends on the orders they get and did not divulge the details of the quantity they make for the shop. Respecting that I did not push further. They accept orders for weddings, parties and other functions, within Delhi and even anywhere in the world. If it’s outside Delhi, their cooks travel to the location and prepare the kulfis there.
On the way back, we saw this beautiful building with fine carving and stucco work. 
Mohanlalji has a very smiling face and was very friendly but seemed reluctant to talk about his business. We thanked him for the kulfis and proceeded to explore another part of Delhi, with a happy stomach.
Each plate of kulfi/sorbet costs Rs 60. I may not go back for kulfis there, but if you want to visit a kulfi shop with a history of 115 yrs and situated in an area studded with old havelis with the old era charm, then it warrants a visit.

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Monday 21 March 2016

A Home and Spice Farm-stay @ Amol Soman's in Velas.

The spice farm.
While planning the trip to Velas to see the hatching ofOlive Ridley turtles, I called up many home-stays listed on the Sahyadri Nisarga Mandal’s website. Many of them provided a dorm like accommodation with shared spaces with the bathroom outside the main house, as is the norm in traditional Indian villages. Then I came across Amol Soman’s home-stay, which has 4 rooms with attached bathroom and toilet. What made me zero in on this home-stay was that it has a 2 acre spice farm surrounding it and is opposite the memorial of the 16th century Peshwa minister, Nana Phadnavis. I spoke to the owners, Amol Soman and his wife Akshata and called them several times closer to the date of departure (read here to know why).
The statue of Nana Phadnavis.
The rooms are pretty basic with each having two double beds to accommodate group bookings during weekends. The no-frill rooms is understandable since it’s a village which is still in the process of gearing up to receive visitors and the turtle sighting is main attraction here. They charge Rs 700 per day per person inclusive of food and accommodation, on a twin sharing basis. If you travelling solo, it’s Rs 800 only for the accommodation and separate charges for each meal.
Simple, traditional Konkani food cooked on a chulha. 
As part of the conservation program, when villages homes were enlisted as home-stays, the SNMCPN had instructed the homes-stay owners to serve only traditional food. That was a brilliant idea, as we got to sample simple Konkani food, cooked on traditional ‘chulhas’ or hearths. Some of the food items I loved were the raw jackfruit curry (a speciality only in coastal areas), and another instant pickle like item made with raw mangoes and garnished with onions. All the ingredients used in cooking are sourced from the farm in the backyard and that lends it an incredible freshness and exalted taste.
On the way to the mango orchard.
Mango flowers.

To add more value to the home-stay, this year onwards, Amol and Akshata have started a few innovative additions to Velas trip, which is otherwise focused only on Turtle hatching. This is to optimize and give visitors a larger taste of the Velas village life.
Rice being cooked on the chulha in the mango orchard.

One was a visit to their mango orchard. We drove upto a distance and from there on it’s an uphill climb to their orchard. It was not the fruiting season yet, so we could see only mango flowers and some small mangoes on some trees. I enjoyed climbing the mango trees, and applied my tree climbing skills acquired during apple harvesting in Himachal Pradesh. There was another agenda in the mango orchard- Lunch under a huge, old and benevolent mango tree. Akshata had got along one assistant and all the ingredients required to cook a meal. And while we climbed trees, rested on a mat in the shade, a delicious meal of rice flour bhakris (flatbread), pithla (a side dish made with chickpea flour) and a raw mango salad were being cooked, on a chulha. 
The food was exceptionally tasty. 
We also went around the orchard with Soman’s son , Sohum, who identified trees, shrubs and plants for us and even had us sample wild berries. Children in the village have such an innocence about them and a connect with Nature which touches me. We saw him and his little sister, climbing trees, hopping around, doing frog leaps and playing simple games reminding me of my own childhood in the 80’s. Anyways, food was ready and having satiated ourselves with a wonderful meal in a charming spot, we took rest under the shade of the trees savouring the taste. In the evening we headed out to the Bankot fort, which was a watch tower for Chhatrapati Shivaji’s army. More on that in another post.
Flowers of the cashew nut. 

A raw cashewnut. 
One more interesting trip was to the beach late in the night, at almost 11 pm. We were lucky as it was Full Moon night. We spent around half hour to 45 minutes on the rocky part of the shore and since it was high tide, we reveled in the spray of sea water as the waves crashed on the rocks before us. It was truly a magical moment as I sat on one of the steps, watching the silver crested waves racing against each other and giving me a foamy embrace with the full moon shining above in all its splendour.  
After reluctantly bidding the beautiful night sea good night, we headed back to the home-stay where Amol spooked us with ghost stories, some of which he has himself experienced. I've heard that Konkan is notorious for ghost sightings, and what’s a late night gathering, without spooky stories!
A jackfruit tree which is over a 100 yrs old. 

Clove chillies in the spice farm. 

This plant is called Ambemohar. When the leaves are crushed it exudes a fragrance like ambemohar rice, hence the name. 

Bay leaves. 

Black pepper creepers. 
I had seen the spice farm and could identify most plants, but requested Amol to take us around the farm again. In the morning, he gave us a tour of the farm, explaining the benefits of herbal and medicinal plants he has planted and also plants like pepper, arecanut, cloves and coconuts which are also sold commercially. It’s a completely organic farm and only natural and organic pesticides are used, not chemical ones.  They sell a variety of items like flattened rice (poha), nutmeg, raw banana flour (which is extremely nutritious and not easily available), black pepper, pappads, (all items are home-made) and bottles of alphonso mango pulp, with mangoes from their orchard and bottled in such a way that it stays good for 3 years if unopened.
Betel leaves. 

Black pepper. 

Nutmeg on the tree. 
If you get a chance, do interact with Amol’s father. He has a deep and intuitive understanding of herbs and medicinal benefits of plants and may recommend some to you if you have any ailments.
Another interesting thing was the ancestral house, adjacent to theirs which has been converted to a small museum of sorts, displaying old family artefacts and traditional farming and home equipment belonging to Amol’s grandmother, which are no longer in use today.
Old home and farm equipments. 

A cradle which is over a 100 yrs old used by generations in the family. 
One may also visit Nana Phadnavis’ memorial opposite their house. Although the internet will tell you that Velas was Phadnavis’ birth place, Amol says that this was his maternal Uncle’s village and only a memorial has been erected. Phadnavis’ descendants have requested the Somans’ to maintain and clean the area around the memorial, which they do everyday. 
The Senior Soman who has an intuitive knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants. 
Our three days trip was coming to an end. We were excited about Turtle watching, but we got to experience a lot more; lunch in a mango orchard, getting drenched in the sea water under the full moon, a visit to the Bankot fort and also enjoying a ferry ride, about which I will write in the next post. As a parting gift, Amol gave us each a coconut from his farm and a hand fan made of arecanut fibre. I requested one more for my husband and will be using them this summer J
Spices, condiments and mango pulp which the Somans sell from their farm. 
If you wish to stay at Amol Soman’s home-stay, you may call him on 02350- 220279. You may have to try the number multiple times, since network is pretty lousy in the village.
Velas waking up in the morning. 
We had a great time for sure, and plan to visit again during the mango season when trees would be laden with succulent, yellow fruit. 
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