A sip of India

If I would have to say what is the drink that better represents India, without a doubt Chai would be my answer. This sweet spiced tea is incredibly addictive! To prepare it, the best back tea is boiled in a mixture of milk and water with a blend of spices (cardamom, fresh ginger, cloves, cinnamon,…) and sugar. Every masala chai is different from the others, and every household has their own particular way of preparing it but they are all just incredibly tasty. After tasting the Indian Chai I don’t know if I’ll be able to get used to Irish Barry’s tea again. Good coffee can also be found in India, but mostly in the south where locals tend to replace the chai with coffee that is brewed in the area.

Many are the options to calm the thirst on those hot days when visiting India, from the fresh fruit juices to the different soft drinks such as Slice (mango flavored drink), 7th up (soda), Limca (lemon & lime fizzy drink), Thumbs Up (Indian cola) and the usual Sprite, Coke, Mountain Dew and Fanta. But our favorites were fresh lime soda and Mirinda (which brought Isma many memories from his childhood).

   

  

Beers, wines and spirits aren’t too widely available in India (both taxes and religion have something to do with this). In many bars and restaurants you won’t find any alcoholic beverages in the menu, but if you ask for it they might sell it to you under the table. Aside KingFisher and King’s (that we tried in Palolem), we didn’t get to find any other local beer. In Palolem we also found an Indian rum named Old Monk, which was sold to us as the rum that the Indian soldiers used to drink, and true or not we gave it a go!

And of course, I can’t forget to mention lassis, a yogurt and fresh fruit smoothies that are so good for breakfast. Plain and banana lassis are the most traditional ones, but in Jodhpur they have a special lassi flavored with saffron and butter, yummm so good!

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Street food and sweets

Street food is a very important part of Indian culture. With most of the life being done outdoors it normal that there are so many food stalls. They are literally everywhere!! Normally so cheap and ready in seconds it was our choice for lunch many days.

The first few days we were a little bit cautious regarding where to eat, we didn’t know if our stomachs were ready to deal with the street cooking, but in the end we just relaxed and enjoyed it. If you go to India don’t forget to try some of these snacks:

  • Samosas. Probably one of the better known Indian savory snacks, samosas are triangle shaped stuffed and fried pastries. They can have different fillings and they can be served with chutney or in chaat (broken into pieces and adding either curry or chutney to it).

  • Pakora. This vegetables dipped in spicy butter and then deep fried snack is an all time favorite in India.

South Indian flavours

Similar flavours can be experienced in North and South India, though food tends to be a little bit more spicy in the south (to our surprise it wasn’t as spicy as we expected). Some peculiarities of the food from the south are that bread tends to be replaced by rice, that fish is more widely used for cooking and that flavours are much more coconutty.

Thalis, curries, breads… are also very tasty and very easy to find in southern India, but as there were so many other interesting local specialties that we wanted to try, we kind of forgot about them. These are some of the dishes we tasted in Goa and Kerala:

  • Dosa. Savory Indian pancakes made with rice and urad dal (black lentils), served hot, stuffed with vegetable fillings and accompanied with sauces. Trully adictive! I hope that I can find urad dal back at home…

  • Uttapam. Uttapams can somehow be described as the Indian pizzas. This thick pancake is made with a rice and lentils batter (similar to the one used for dosas) to which onions and tomatoes are added. Yummy, a healthy alternative to dosas.

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North Indian flavours

All the different flavours, the many textures, the intense aromas and the unusual cooking techniques make the Indian cuisine so incredible and unique. We ate at many dhabas, restaurants and street stalls, we took a cooking course (at Spice Paradise in Jodhpur with Rekha), we tried Beena’s delicious home cooking when visiting Rajesh, and even though we had both previously tried Indian food, we kept being surprised with new flavours every day. We of course did as the locals and ate with our hands, and strange as it sound, everything tastes much better when eaten with your fingertips!

It is impossible to describe in a couple of posts what Indian food is like, I would say that it’s not even possible to do it in a book. And being India such a huge country it is normal that North Indian tastes are very different to South Indian ones. These are some of the pillars of North Indian cuisine:

  • The spices. So important in Indian cooking, the spices are the starting point for every dish and a good spice box is a must in every kitchen. Many cooks, after years of practice trying to find a good balance, are experts in the mixing of spices and don’t like sharing the secrets of their masala (spice mix).

India, un país de contrastes

Quien nos iba a decir a nosotros hace tres meses que después de 8 semanas en la caótica India nos íbamos a ir con pena. El país del cricket (son los acutales campeones del mundo), de Bollywood, de los currys, de las vacas sagradas, de las especias, del chai, de los saris… nos ha enganchado por todos sus contrastes.

Todo el mundo sabe o se imagina las cosas malas de India: sobrepoblación, mucha pobreza y suciedad, poca higiene, niños pidiendo por las calles, vendedores y taxistas que se aprovechan de turistas, trenes y autobuses llenos hasta en el techo… Todo esto, que hace que viajar en India no sea nada fácil, también te hace recapacitar y enriquece mucho personalmente. Dejando todas estas cosas malas a un lado, uno también es capaz de disfrutar de todas las cosas buenas que India tiene: gente encantadora, servicial y muy curiosa (que no se cortan para nada a la hora de preguntarte cosas), paisajes y ciudades increibles, diversidad de religiones, gastronomía única, cultura e historia…

India es un país gigante, y por tanto los contrastes están muy marcados entre el norte y el sur. El norte es más frío y seco, en algunos lugares desértico, y el sur es totalmente tropical. Esto hace que la gente viva mucho más relajada en el sur y la vida sea mucho más lenta que en el norte. Muchos turistas solo llegan a conocer el norte, que es la ruta más pateada, y se dejan sin conocer el sur con lo que se llevan una impresión equivocada de lo que es India en conjunto.

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Life on the water

Our last stop in India before heading to Sri Lanka was going to be the Keralan Backwaters. The backwaters are a network of canals, rivers and lakes mainly natural but also man-made. Covering an area around 900km long, the backwaters have been and still are one of the main transportation methods for the people in the area. Nowadays it is also one of the main attractions for tourists visiting Kerala.

There are many routes through the backwaters and many possible destinations, but we didn’t have much time left, so we had to limit our route to just a couple of areas. While many tourists choose to travel by houseboats, which are expensive and a little bit too posh, we choose to travel by local ferries, which gives you the opportunity to get a little bit closer to the locals. This was our route:

Varkala – Kollam

The starting point for our route around the backwaters was Kollam, which is just 1h away by train from Varkala. We arrived to Kollam after lunch, and the ferry to Alappuzha was leaving the morning after, so we had to stay there for one night. This little town has nothing special, but for some bizarre reason it was very busy and it almost became a challenge to find accommodation. After two hours of walking with our backpacks and asking in many hotels and guest houses, we even run into a place which was for bachelors only (…ummmm….), we finally got to find a room for the night.

Kollam – Alappuzha

The ferry to Alappuzha was departing from the boat-jetty at 10.30. The night before when we bought the tickets we were advised to arrive early if we wanted to get a good spot, and so we did. But even arriving 1h before departure time all the seats in the upper deck were taken, so we had no choice but to seat in the lower deck (during the trip we got to realize that the lower deck was far more comfortable, so happy days!).

The 8h trip to Alappuzha was long but well worth it. The scenery was incredible, beautiful lakes, labyrinths of canals, countless coconut trees, leafy plants and bushes growing alongside all with amazing green hues. We could also see how life grows around the banks of the canals, fishermen on their boats or using the Chinese nets, people bathing or washing their clothes in the water, kids going to school and even WCs on the water.

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Nochevieja en el Varanasi del sur

Salimos de Goa con un par de horas de retraso. Llegamos a Varkala cansados de tren después de 17 horas pero con muchas ganas de disfrutar de la que dicen ser la mejor playa de Kerala, y de entrar en 2012 con calorcito!

De camino al guesthouse, el tuk tuk driver nos informó que durante los siguientes tres días (30 y 31 de diciembre y 1 de enero) había un festival religioso muy importante en uno de los templos de la ciudad, el templo de Sivagiri, y que miles de locales venían en peregrinaje desde muy lejos expresamente para este festival. Como anteriormente ya habíamos estado leyendo acerca de estos festivales en Kerala y de la dificultad de encontrarlos, nos hizo mucho ilusión la idea de poder disfrutar de uno de ellos.

La playa de Varkala se encuentra a unos pocos kilómetros del centro de la ciudad, y está situada a los pies de un pequeño acantilado. La playa está dividida de manera virtual entre la zona norte y la zona sur. La zona norte está reservada para los turistas y la zona sur para los locales, que guarda para ellos un significado religioso ya que los Hindus creen que las aguas aquí son sagradas y limpian sus pecados. Normalmente se pueden ver pujas en la playa, que es un ritual donde hacen ofrendas a los dioses, y en ocasiones también arrojan las cenizas de los muertos al mar, que la marea se encarga de llevar hacia el sur. Por todo ello Varkala es conocida como el Varanasi del sur.

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Our Christmas holidays at the beach

After our hectic month traveling around India it was time to head towards the south to start our Xmas holidays (yes, I’m calling it holidays!). When we were planning our trip, both of us dreamed about the possibility of spending Xmas at the beach, so we organized our itinerary in a way that would make it possible. Palolem was the chosen destination!

On the night of the 21st of December we caught in Mumbay the train that was going to take us all the way to Madgaon (Goa). In the morning of the 22nd we arrived to Madgaon, but our destination was still a good few km away, so we took a pre-paid taxi to Palolem (around 800 INR). Taking a taxi might sound a little bit posh when traveling low cost, but we were tired and it was by far the easiest option to get to the beach. During the hour long taxi ride we were able to perceive the influence the Portuguese had in Goa, which was Portuguese until 1961, the architecture was colonial and we spotted many churches.

Finding accommodation in Palolem was easy peasy, just ten minutes after getting there we already had our hut at the beach. Not super fancy, but perfect for a few days. We were a bit worried about not having booked anything in advanced, Xmas is high season and we thought everything would be almost fully booked, but there were tons of beach huts and we had no problems at all. So after settling in and with our swimming suits on we went to explore the beach and its surroundings.

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Las dos caras de Mumbai

Después de un largo pero cómodo viaje de 17 horas en tren (esta vez viajamos en segunda clase) llegamos a Mumbai a la estación de Bandra. Esta estación está lejos del centro de Mumbai, pero lo bueno es que tiene un servicio de taxis prepagados, así no hay que pelearse con los taxistas por acordar un precio. El paseo en taxi hasta nuestro hotel en Colaba fue muy relajado, sin nada de atascos por las anchas avenidas y con las únicas vistas de los rascacielos de Mumbai y del mar. Como el taxi no tenía aire acondicionado, ya empezamos a sufrir el calor y la humedad del sur de India, y eso que esta es la época más fria del año!

El Mumbai que nos encontramos no se parecía para nada al que nos habíamos imaginado en base a lo que nos habían contado otros viajeros. Esperábamos ver calles abarrotadas de gente y muchísima pobreza; sin embargo vimos todo lo contrario, barrios bastante desarrolladas y calles con aceras por donde se podía pasear!

Mumbai, o anteriormente llamado Bombay hasta que le cambiaron el nombre en 1996 porque hacía referencia a su pasado británico, es la capital financiera de India y por tanto es bastante cosmopolita. El sur de Mumbai todavía guarda mucho encanto británico por la arquitectura de los edificios victorianos, el orden de sus calles y avenidas, e incluso todavía se pueden ver autobuses rojos de dos pisos como en Londres. Paseando por las calles de Mumbai pudimos admirar el hotel Taj Mahal (que sufrió los antentados terroristas de 2008), la puerta de India, la estación de tren de Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (antes llamada Victoria Terminus, a la que también se le cambió el nombre en 1996), la universidad de Mumbai, el Tribunal Supremo, el museo Prince of Wales, el parque de Ovan Maidan (donde constantemente hay gente jugando partidos de cricket), el paseo de Marine Drive (donde una tarde vimos la puesta de sol con unas ricas fresas), el Crawford Market (donde tienen hasta un mercado de mascotas), el barrio de Colaba…

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Tibetan Yummines!

Yes, I guess that it must be a bit unexpected to read a Tibetan food post within the Indian Food section in our blog but it has a very easy explanation: McLeodGanj! McLeodGanj has a very tight relation with Tibet, and when we were there we saw advertisements for Tibetan cooking courses so we didn’t miss the opportunity. The course consisted of three lessons where we learned how to make Tibetan breads, soups and the famous momos (of which we have been talking so much).

Our first lesson was breads. Sangye showed us how to make Tibetan brown bread, tigmo and bhalek. While the procedure for making the dough was very similar for the three types of breads, the ingredients and the cooking was different.

  • The brown bread, made with whole wheat flour and cooked in a frying pan with a bit of oil, was the sweetest of the three. It’s a great type of bread to have for breakfast with a bit of honey or butter.
  • Bhalek is a thick white bread stuffed with spiced vegetables, that is also cooked in a frying pan with a bit of oil. Tasty but very, very filling!
  • Tigmo was probably the strangest of the three types we cooked. As Bhalek, it is made with white flour but this one is steamed and not fried. It is usually served as accompaniment of fried vegetables, soups..

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