Thursday, 1 December 2016

Visiting The Golden Triangle - Rajasthan


I’m driving through rural Rajasthan, a world apart from well-known Golden Triangle of Jodpur, Jaipur and Udaipur. The fields are a patchwork of crops: wheat, sesame, mustard grown for both oil and seeds…

 Here and there, bananas and tamarind trees and occasionally a huge banyan tree. Shepherds with long walking sticks, tend their flocks of sheep and goats, now and then a camel cart laden with anything from fodder to huge slabs of sandstone from the local quarries. 



Women in bright saris are working in the fields, pulling weeds or harvesting and occasionally by the roadside carrying broken rocks in tin bowls on their heads, men supervise...


There’s virtually never a time when there aren’t people in sight. Lots of little villages bustling with life, a ramshackle and mesmerising mix of stark new build cement cubes and crumbling traditional houses, often a mixture of both. 



The electricity is a mélange of wiring that would put the heart 'cross wise' in a health and safety officer, yet it all seems to work. Lots of tiny shops, selling everything and anything. Street carts piled high with fruit and vegetables. Others sitting on the roadside with just a few little chillies, aubergines, maybe a few beans to sell





Little hardware shops selling all kinds of pots and pans, grinding stones, coconut graters, coir ropes, handmade brushes, rat traps, tin utensils…  open-fronted shops with dressmakers, cobblers and tailors, sewing on old fashioned treadle machines, barbers and shavers who lather up people’s chins with old fashioned shaving brushes by the roadside. Every service is provided bicycle mending, woodwork, basket making, even ironing with huge heavy metal irons  relegated to museums over here.

In the tin area, craftsmen are turning out huge metal trunks for dowries.  Virtually all the signs are in Hindu, cows nonchalantly ramble through the streets confident that no one will harm them,  the cow is sacred and revered in India. 




In the little villages everywhere the children wave and cheer when they see us ‘take my photo’, ‘take my photo’. I’ve never known an area where people were more welcoming or friendlier, no one asks for rupees or a peno!




Men, sip tea in the Chai shops, katori, bright orange jalabas and samosas are piled high for sale in open air dhaba’s . There are sweetmeat shops, Indians have an incredibly sweet tooth and also love their snacks. So lots of shops sell just bags of crisps, namkeen and lotto tickets.



Hairy, scrawny pigs and chickens snuffle amid the garbage and there are lots of stray dogs. Out in the countryside the bird-life is astonishing, white egrets and mina birds walk along the buffalo’s back picking off ticks. Cow pats dry on walls and rooftops, fuel for the little clay or outdoor stoves over which most people cook their food. A totally holistic and sustainable system. 


Here in rural Rajasthan many women, partially cover their faces with their saris, older men still wear a colourful turban  and sport an impressive moustache. The houses are colour washed, blue, ochre, pink or plain. There are a few jeeps gaily painted, colourful lorries, lots of richly decorated homemade tractors with no cab or cover on the engine (something to do with tax) and of course countless bikes and motorbikes with three and often four people riding on top including a sari clad lady sitting side saddle.


We’re on our way to Ramathra Fort in the Karauli district – it’s a four hour drive from Jaipur airport along a mixture of roads, tiny bursts of motorway an occasional dual carriageway but mostly potholed roads, dirt tracks with numerous ramps. After 4½ hours we turn up a steep stony roadway and at last we are there...... This gives new meaning to the words ‘off the beaten track’. It’s an endurance test to get here but what an oasis…


A 17th century fort still owned  by descendants of the original Maharaja of Karauli who built the structure in the 1700’s and the family have been here for over a 1,000 years. Rajasthan was never conquered by the British. It has now been restored and opened as a heritage hotel by the Thakur Brijendra Raj Pal family with just 6 suites and 6 luxury Rajasthani tents.  There's a 365 degree view over Rajasthan from the 80 ft ramparts. Below us the Kalisil Lake and dam and the forts, organic gardens owned by Brijendra Rajpal who invested the hard earned profits from her carpet business in Jaipur into restoring the fort from an advanced state of dereliction.


The food is delicious here. Virtually everything is produced on the farm or in the local area. They grow and mill the wheat for the chapatti, paratha and poori . The mustard oil is made from mustard grown in their own fields, the yoghurt from the milk of the buffaloes whose manure is used to activate the compost to enrich the soil for the organic gardens.

No swimming pool but an unheated Jacuzzi on one of the turrets with a staggering view of the local countryside, possibly the best in the whole of India. The fort has been restored using traditional building techniques and local craftsmen. We had a memorable boat trip on Kalisil Lake before sunset. It’s on the fly path to Bharapter, a rich feeding ground for ducks, storks, cormorants, kingfishers, sarus, cranes, stilts and herons. The lake was formed over 50 years ago when the Kalisil river was damned for an irrigation scheme that now benefits local farmers in Rawathara and neighbouring villages along the canal. The lake is fed by monsoon rains and when full spreads over 17 km,  all the way to the Holy City of Kailaden.


A walk through the local village, Ramathra was quite simply enchanting, the villagers are so friendly and welcoming and curious. They welcomed us into their houses and invited me to dance with them to celebrate a recent wedding. 



In the local school, the teaches were eager to show us around and one me an impromptu Hindu lesson.

The big bonus for me was the food. It was particularly delicious here and guests can learn how to prepare any of the dishes on the menu. I had two cooking classes with the owner Geetanguli and her shy and brilliant chef.  At Ramathra Fort they make all their own chutneys and pickles and the best lime pickle I have ever eaten. He showed me how to make this fascinating smoked Ramathra chicken curry and raita, home made paneer, several Indian flat breads, paratta  and particular fascinating local bread called Batia.  Ovens are rare in Indian homes, even in the more affluent homes of people so in villages all cooking is done over an open fire on a clay or in more affluent homes in the urban kitchens on gas rings. For over 60% of people in India, the fuel of choice is still dried ‘cow pats’  and despite our understandable initial surprise it doesn’t smell and is totally sustainable. Ramatha Fort is quite a find – particularly for the more adventurous traveller – I long to return…



Monday, 7 November 2016

A Food-Lover's Guide to Turkey


Any good travel guide to Turkey will give you a mesmerizing list of the highlights of the ancient city of Istanbul, the only city to straddle two continents – both Europe and Asia.The choice will be overwhelming so be warned, like me you’ll find yourself wanting to return over and over again, I’ve fallen head over heels in love with Turkey.



On a first visit, don’t  miss Hagia Sophia -  an awe inspiring expression of religious faith and one of the world’s most extraordinary architectural  wonders, a museum since 1934. Blue Mosque, another of the most celebrated religious buildings in the world, completed in 1616. Known as the Blue Mosque because of the more than 20,000 blue Izmuk tiles that embellish the interior.

Try to take in the Suleymaniye Mosque, also known as the Sunken or Basilica Cisterns – it’s close by the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It may not sound very inspiring but I was gobsmacked by this vast underground cistern probably build in the fourth century and supplied with water via aqueducts from Belgrade Forest. The huge Yerebatan cistern held 80 cubic metres of water and was supported by 336 columns, many with Corinthian capitals which look as though they were recycled remains from other historic sites – don’t miss the two Medusa heads, restored in 1987. There are still carp swimming in the water. Part of James Bond’s “From Russia With Love” was filmed here. 



The Grand Bazzar, a vast covered Ottoman bazaar dating back to 1640. The largest in the world, full of Eastern promise, over 4,000 shops with hand painted arched ceilings and beautiful lanterns. Selling just about everything you can imagine from carpets, slippers, susani, spices, jewellery, furs, antiques to alarmingly good fakes – bags, watches … It's absolutely vast, there are 61 streets, 22 gates, resign yourself to getting lost and enjoy. Both locals and tourists shop here – don’t forget to haggle!


The Bosphorus Strait divides Europe from Asia; over 50,000 cargo ships, oil tankers and ocean liners pass through this vital transport artery every year. It’s one of the very best ways to enjoy superb views of the city’s skyline, imperial palaces, ancient fortress, waterside mansions and villages. 

A Cooks Culinary Tour of Istanbul is bliss for someone like me who ferrets out street food wherever I travel from South America to Asia.



I found Claudia Turgut through Unison Turkey,(www.unisonturkey.com) who took me on a culinary skite around Istanbul. Six action packed hours later, I had walked about six miles through narrow alleyways, spice markets and bazaars, tasted over 20 different street foods and learned a ton about Turkish culture, food and traditions. 

We ambled through the narrow cobbled streets, peeping into ancient Karavanseri  where the nomad merchants and their camels rested when they came to trade in Constantinople.  We wandered through Balik Pazarı fish market on the edge of the Bosphorus, watched and licked our lips at the fish stalls making balik ekmek. Filled with fresh Norwegian mackerel or Black Sea salmon grilled right there in front of us then sandwiched into a roll with lettuce, sliced onion and peppers... 




 We crossed the famous Galata Bridge that spans the Golden Horn, where over 100 hardy men in anoraks and woolly caps fish for whatever they can catch over the ornate iron railings, lots of tiny spanking fresh fish which I later enjoyed just dipped in seasoned flour and deep fried at a cafe in Sultanahmet. 



What cooks should bring home: 

Pekmez - fruit molasses made from grapes, mulberries, pomegranates and cherries, reduced slightly fermented syrup, brilliant in dressings, salads and for drizzling over yoghurt. 

Zatar– commonly known as dried thyme but usually hyssop and sometimes savoury. For sprinkling over a lahmacun, pide or flat breads or just to mix with oil. 

Sumac –  berries from the sumac bush, dried and ground, a lovely wine coloured, citrus flavoured astringent spice, sprinkle over everything, salads, grilled meats….

Kermizi Biber flakes – red pepper flakes, sundried chilli ground into flakes, – there’s hot, medium, gentle, also a great paste called biber salçasi.

Tahini– a paste made from sesame seeds,  yes,  I know you can get it here but you'll find much better quality for a fraction of the price.

Dut – dried mulberries, a delicious snack or add them to cakes or
desserts.




Where to Stay 

The Vault Karaköy, (part of The House Hotel group) used to be a bank but was restored by the Agha Khan award-winning Turkish architect Han Tümertekin. The classic contemporary interiors were designed by Sinan Kafadar who was inspired by the imposing bank vaults which gave rise to the hotel’s name. Located in the up and coming hip neighbourhood of Karaköy with its chic café culture, a brilliant launching pad to explore bohemian Beyoğlu, historic Sultanahmet and the Galata port, an in-house curator organises constant exhibitions and events. Charmingly helpful staff and great breakfasts.

Where to Eat

Ciya, don’t miss this lokantas or tradesmans’ restaurant. Chef owner Musa Dagdeviren collects unusual regional dishes from all around Turkey. It’s not a fancy place but you’ll find the food, particularly the vegetable dishes memorable. There’s a kebab shop on one side of the street and a restaurant on the other, try both – great value.  To get there you take a twenty minute ferry ride to the Asian side of the Bosporus.

 

Hayvore, another local haunt introduced to me by an insider Antony Doucet – gorgeous freshly cooked food, much with influences from the Black Sea area. Hizir Keskin and his team  are passionate about sourcing superb raw materials. So many wonderful dishes but don’t miss Hamsili  Pilav and Şeker Fasülyesi, plump tender heirloom beans from Artvin also in the Black Sea area. The succulent Dolma, Karalahana, wrapped in a special black cabbage with yoghurt spoiled me from ever tasting any other Dolma. Ridiculously affordable and maybe the best Turkish food I ate on my trip. 


Mikla, the dazzling panoramic view around the Golden Horn from Mikla, the restaurant on the top of the Marmara Pera Hotel is truly breath-taking. Mehmet Gur’s cheffy food is a delectable example of the Young Turks, New Anatolian kitchen movement and it tastes as good as it looks. Great Turkish and Scandinavian influences and an international wine list, don’t miss the hampi (anchovy) wafers. 

Yeni Lokanta, another stunning example of the new Turkish kitchen, pirated European dishes are not for Civan Er, this exciting young chef, who uses local ingredients and traditional Turkish cooking techniques and wood burning ovens to deliver his menu of many small plates – very good food at very reasonable prices. 

Mezze by Lemon serves mezze and raki – a marriage made in heaven. Here passionate young chef Gençay Üçok re-interprets the traditional mezze for his cult following and serves some of the most creative and delicious food in town until 12pm at night. Also, check out his food stall Beyaz Izgara in the Grand Bazaar. Gençay has led a campaign in Turkey against the global fast food companies to highlight the variety of superb traditional Turkish fast food options. Gençay does culinary tours of Istanbul, check out KD Tours www.kdtours.com.  



Kantin in the super chic Nisantasi neighbourhood is another gem. A proper 'farm to table' eatery, with a ground floor gourmet shop and bakery, the smell of crusty loaves of natural sourdough bread wafting from the wood-burning oven. 

Owner Semsa Denizsel writes the menu of beautiful seasonal food on a blackboard in the upstairs café. There’s an adorable garden behind, Semsa showed me how to enjoy Turkish coffee in the traditional way with a spoon of mastic in a glass of water, Tell her I sent you and don’t leave without tasting her tahini biscuits and thin crust pizza of the day and cucumber and mint Ayran.


Wednesday, 26 October 2016

A Burmese Adventure


Recently I spent a couple of weeks in Burma - now Myanmar - and was enchanted. Despite what they have endured, the people are warm, welcoming and courageous and now so full of hope. 

The countryside is dotted with pagodas, stupas and monasteries. Buddhist monks and nuns in flowing wine and pink robes are everywhere, an estimated 20,000 in Burma. At dawn, they walk through the streets with their alms bowls, collecting rice and offerings, a moving sight...




The women decorate their faces with a white paste made from the bark of the thanaka tree and many men wear the longhi, a long, skirt-like garment. 



Our adventure began in in the former capital, Yangon originally Rangoon. It’s now a bustling city of crazy contrasts as Myanmar takes its first tentative steps towards democracy.


Burmese food is an intriguing but unique melange of influences from neighbouring China, India and Thailand and some dishes that date back to British rule.



In my experience street food is where one gets the authentic taste of a country. And Yangon is ‘street food paradise’. The Burmese seem to snack all day long. Little street stalls offer a mesmerizing selection of kebabs, dumplings, pakoras, samosas, noodle and tofu dishes and beautifully prepared tropical fruits, ready to eat. 



Traditional Burmese teashops are very much part of the scene and provide more than a caffeinated kick, a variety of snacks as well as strong, sweet and sometimes spicy Burmese tea usually made with condensed milk. I particularly loved mohinga, a thick fish and shallot based soup with round rice noodles often eaten for breakfast and Shan noodles in a spicy tomato based stew. 



The Burmese salads are sensational, tomato, aubergine, green mango, bean, tamarind leaf, even fish cakes and samosas are chopped into salads, and a there's a fermented tea leaf salad with crunchy beans called laphet often served at the end of a meal, totally irresistible.  I ate them at every opportunity and everyone's version seemed to be different but delicious. 



People and there are millions of them, sit on tiny bright plastic stools, about a foot high, around equally tiny low tables, on the pavement, tucking into little snacks. Several stalls, we saw had a shallow bowl of broth in the centre surrounded by little bamboo skewers of pig offal, ear, snout, liver, tail, trotters... five or six customers sat around helping themselves to whatever choice pieces they fancied and were billed according to the number of empty skewers. 




In the late afternoon, we took a ‘sunset cruise’ on the Rangoon River, we were on quite a posh boat but there were lots of little timber skiffs drawing in their nets or ferrying people across to the other side. You could buy baskets of chickpea fritters to feed the seagulls somersaulting in the air to catch the treats.



Yangon’s most sacred and awe inspiring site is the incredible gold Shwedagon Temple that dominates the city skyline and attracts pilgrims from all over the world. Numerous Buddhas in different manifestations, many now with neon lights emanating from their heads – a rather disconcerting sight which the Burmese apparently love; nonetheless a visit in the early morning or late afternoon is a must...




Chinatown and 19th Street at night are another unforgettable experience. Millions of people eating all kinds of unmentionable and unrecognizable things in restaurants and on street stalls. 



Steaming bowls of dumplings and exotic Chinese delicacies including toasted grasshoppers. Durian are in season, a fruit that looks a bit like a dinosaur, smells utterly putrid but tastes sublime. There were also jackfruit and tons of water and honeydew melons, dragon fruit, cherimoya, mangosteen, rambutans, huge avocados and a fruit from Thailand I've never seen before with a scaly skin called snake fruit.


Our visit to Heho, coincided with the five day market so called because the market alternates between different towns every five days. The roads were crammed with covered wagons with frisky ponies, ancient tractors, homemade lorries with no cabs, motorbikes, tricycles and tuc tucs delivering both customers and produce. 




Lots of unfamiliar foods, vats of fermented fish gave a distinctly pungent smell, opium cakes, red rice and bean cakes and piles of tropical vegetables and fruit. I tasted several delicious little snacks, flakey pakoras and pennyworth tempura with a tamarind dip, and a couple of sticky rice confections. All this plus lots of complimentary green tea for a couple of kyats (the Myanmar currency).


Butchers selling every imaginable (and unimaginable) cut of meat and intestines, super fresh chicken and I mean super fresh, you choose your live chicken, they chop the head off there and then, pluck it, eviscerate and chop it up, hey presto, you choose what bits you want or take it all, no wonder it's so tough in most restaurants... 




We drove down the mountain through stunning countryside to Nyaungshwe and hopped onto a long tail boat to explore Lake Inle where the ethnic Intha people live in a totally sustainable way. They fish from flat bottomed skiffs with traditional conical nets and propel the boats with their leg wrapped around the oar in the distinctive leg rowing stance of the Intha people.

 In the 18th century, their ancestors fled from persecution in Thailand but the local Shan chief refused to grant them land rights so they built their houses on stilts on the edge of the lake and created ingenious floating gardens anchored to the lake bed with bamboo poles where they grow tons of tomatoes, gourds, cucumbers, squash, beans... The impressive fertility is maintained by composting and adding weed from the lake.




An excellent cooking class and lunch at the Heritage Restaurant on an island on the edge of Inle Lake, the food much of which came directly from their organic gardens was really good, I tasted the red tree ants, a local delicacy, very nutritious and delicious with a distinct lemony flavor.


 

The local Mingalar market in Nyaungshwe and others around the country give a glimpse that no guide book can, into local life. Apart from the artistically arranged produce there were lots of tiny hardware stalls with vernacular pots and pans and implements made from recycled tin, bamboo baskets and beautifully crafted handmade knives and tools from one of the Intha villages.

Here too, I found many unfamiliar foods, chickpea greens, squash tendrils, Burmese pennyworth, pigeon peas and  best of all, barbecued rice paddi rats which our guide told us are delicious with a beer or a glass of rice toddy...



Next, we were on the road to Mandalay, not quite as romantic and exotic a city as Rudyard Kipling’s poem conjured up but nonetheless, an exotic history. 

We took a boat up the river and from there we were brought to the site on ramshackle pony and carts, along a horrendously potholed road but it was worth it to see the extraordinary Bagaya Kyaung, a pagoda made of 1,000 teak trees and the 60 ft leaning Nan Myin Tower part of Bagyidaw’s now vanished palace complex.


Driving through the countryside is endlessly fascinating, oxen and here and there, a small tractor ploughing the fields.  Women with little conical bamboo hats winnowing or planting rice in the paddies, pigs and chickens snuffling for food by the roadside, ponds full of lilies and lotus flowers, water buffalos, stalls selling sugar cane juice, brightly coloured snacks, freshly picked vegetables, pan wrapped in betel leaves and lotto tickets. Watermelons piled high on the side of the road, lush tropical vegetation,  bamboo weaving workshops...



One of the highlights of our trip to Burma was a cruise on the Irrawaddy River. We boarded the beautiful teak Paukan boat from Sagaing.  



Exquisitely relaxing, just cruising along by the riverbank at a nice gentle pace, watching local farmers, tending their crops of peanuts, sesame and corn, the odd bullock cart laden with grass, fisherman in tiny timber boats fishing as their ancestors must have done in that area for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. 




Lots of little villages tucked in between the palm trees along the riverbank. Here too, the timber and bamboo houses are on stilts, the river floods every year covering the bank with rich silt that enhances the fertility of the soil so they can grow a variety of catch crops. We moored and clambered up the muddy bank to visit a little village where virtually everyone was involved in making clay water pots. 


Finally the temple town of Bagan, one of Burma’s most wondrous sites. Over 2,000 temples, shrines and stupas scattered over a 42 square km area. If you choose one special treat during your trip, take a balloon ride at dawn over the archeological site. It is totally magical and I don’t use that word lightly. Even for well-seasoned travellers, floating over the 11th and 12th century pagodas in the misty morning light is an unforgettable experience.  




There’s so much more to see in Burma now Myanmar. Go soon, some change is inevitable, I'm totally smitten and long to return.


Friday, 7 August 2015

Chimney Bread

There were many unique foods in Transylvania. But one of the most intriguing was this Kürtös Kalács, or chimney bread.


We came across it on our way from Zabola to visit the buffalo farm near Westendorp. The scenic drive took us through beautiful countryside and little Saxon villages. 



It was fascinating to see the remains of some of the Communist collective farms growing potatoes, sugar beet and corn, and people saving hay in the fields. 



Here and there on the roadside there were little shrines. Cattle grazing in the fields and shepherd looking after their sheep and goats. 



Romany Gypsies were selling wild strawberries along the road for 15 lei a punnet. And in the villages people were selling their produce from stalls on the side of the roads: piles of watermelons, farmhouse cheese and homemade breads. There were many stalls selling this kurtos, with cald paine - hot bread - written underneath.


I was really curious to buy some and learn more about how it was made. Our driver was amazed that we didn't know about it, as it's a very common Transylvanian bread. A helix-shaped pastry cooked on a rotating spit over a charcoal fire. 

They were traditionally a family affair, made on yard-long spits to celebrate weddings. But as with made treats of yesteryear, what used to be a special occasion food is now eaten more regularly all over eastern Europe... and beyond. Romanians have brought chimney breads with them as they settle - there are now bakeries in New York, London and - I've just Googled chimney cake and surprise, surprise you can even get it here in Ireland! Today they are made on a more commercial scale in restaurants and bakeries, and tend to be made in electric ovens on automated spits. 


The lady who was selling it invited us into her little tiny bakery here where she made it in the traditional manner. (See our 15 second Instagram video of it being made here.)



Taking her sweet yeast dough, she pulled off a piece, weighed it and she rolled it on a wooden board with her palms into long strip. She then deftly spun the dough around an oiled wooden spit, before rolling the outside in sugar. 


She brought it outside onto the pavement and cooked it over a charcoal brazier, fanning the charcoal as she turned the spit. 


As it cooked, the sugar gradually caramelised on the outside.


Back inside again, she rolled the whole thing in a mixture of finely chopped walnuts, pistachio and a sunflower seeds.


She slid the warm bread - a coil with a hollow centre, hence its name chimney bread - off the timber spit and slipped it into a cellophane packet.


You unravel it to eat it, crunching into its delicious caramelised, nutty crust. It was really delicious.