Following a recent fascination with Sri Lankan food sparked by Sigiri in NYC, we made our way to the ‘teardrop of India.’ Though not our primary goal, we couldn’t go all that way without going to India itself, so we focused on some of the southern destinations of that huge country. If your Asian food interests skew a little more to the east, check out our previous tour of Singapore and Malaysia.
It turns out that travelling in India can be a sort of exhausting adventure, and we seem to have become caught up in that adventure enough that we have neglected our routine blog updates. So while we were vigilant about our photographic documentation, our memories of specific meals have faded dramatically in the intervening days. For that reason, we’ll have to be content with some highlights.
Our typical travel strategy (especially in the States) is to find Airbnb rentals that are fully independent units (houses or condos). As faithful readers will have noticed, in Sri Lanka and Kochi the available rentals were more like guest houses, with semi-independent units and more interaction with the hosts (who were amazingly welcoming and helpful with arrangements/advice). In Mumbai, we opted for a guest room in a 10th floor condo in a great location. Our hosts were an energetic teacher/foodie and her charming daughter/collaborator (her blog has some great photography). On arrival in their lovely condo, we were treated to equal helpings of great Mumbai sweets and detailed sightseeing advice as we settled in. Most fascinating among the former was a candied lotus leaf treat that was unlike anything we’d ever tasted.
One of the specialties of Mumbai and environs is pani puri, crispy little pockets that you fill with sprouted legumes, dal, potatoes, and top off with tamarind chutney and a herbaceous watery sauce. The streets of Mumbai are full of pushcarts selling pani puri, but we’d waited to try it at this sit down restaurant because the dipping sauce is uncooked, meaning a bit of a crap shoot from the food safety perspective. In fact, some of the most emphatic advice we received prior to our trip was to avoid pani puri from street vendors. Heeding that advice, we tried our first version of this dish at Swati. It was fresh and delicious, with a great contrast of flavors and textures.
The other regional favorite we tried at Swati was pav bhaji, a kind of vegetable curry sloppy Joe, that we had first had at an Indian snack shop in London. Swati’s was spicy good with perfect buttery buns. We also tried a delicious dessert called malai malpua, a sort of sweet creamy pancake rolled up in a sugar syrup.
Another of the interesting culinary influences in Mumbai comes from Parsi people, ethnic Persians who migrated to India from Iran. There are quite a few Parsi restaurants in Mumbai, but one of the most famous is Britannia, where we tried paneer berry palav and chicken dhansak. The palav was similar in some ways to a biryani recipe that we make from an old Indian cookbook, with the emphasis on caramelized onions, cashews and barberries (though ours used raisins). The dhansak was a little bland with very dry chicken, but the entire experience was enhanced by the restaurant’s impossibly charming host, Boman Kohinoor, who apparently has been working there for 75 years. He seems to explore a range of topics with the guests but in our case he was very anxious for us to know that he loved Hilary Clinton, and was hoping we might encourage her to come to the restaurant to meet him.
Part of the Parsi tradition, Irani cafes, are a remnant of another wave of immigration. These typically feature a variety of baked goods, fried snacks served alongside a nice cup of chai. We stopped at the popular Yazdani Bakery and tried a sampling of buns (the names of which escape us). Yazdani was a charming little place with a great ambiance, and while the buns were fresh and delicious, we had some trouble understanding what all the fuss was about.
At the suggestion of our very knowledgeable Airbnb hostess, we also tried the milkshakes at Haji Ali Juice Center near the walkway to the floating mosque (Haji Ali Dargah). M played it a little too safe with a mango while B had the custard apple version. Both were refreshing.
Also acting on another tip from the same reliable source, we made our way to Majestic Restaurant for not-to-be-missed mutton.
A frankly surprising culinary highlight of our stay in Mumbai turned out to be a small restaurant near our room with an eclectic mix of northern and more local dishes. There we had a roti wrap called a kati roll (scrumptious), and one of the most delicious versions of spinach and paneer we’ve ever tasted (palak paneer). Amazing color, super fresh and creamy delicious!
Yesterday on our wandering we picked up a random fruit that we have never seen before. It looks like a cross between a potato and an egg. Very unusual to us. A little web search determined that it was called chikoo (or sapodilla). This morning we broke it open to find an inside with a few large seeds in a light salmon colored flesh. We bit in and found an absolutely delicious, sweet flavor – reminiscent of a mangosteen. If we find these again, we’ll definitely pick up a few.
Most of the day would be spent picking up the last few tourist sites around town with a car/driver so we decided to take our free hotel breakfast as a way to get a quick start. Again there was a choice between continental and South Asian options and we went straight for the latter. We made a collection of one of everything and were able to cross off a number of popular items we’ve seen around the past couple of weeks. Some, like upma which we discussed previously and didn’t take today, and idly (the round white one in the pic), feel like you probably need to have grown up with them to crave them (kind of like B feels about Cream of Wheat, which M finds disgusting). Wada, the doughnut shaped item, is sold all over the place at street stalls with chai. It’s savory and a bit plain, flavored with cumin, and another thing you most likely have to know well to love. Also on the plate was a poori, the puffed fried bread that we eat semi-regularly on Devon Avenue in Chicago. This one was less greasy and perfectly fine. However, our favorite thing from this collection was the round fried item, kachori, that had a great spicy filling made out of one type of dal. That we’ll look for again. All of these items were served alongside 3 chutneys: cabbage, coconut and ginger. That ginger chutney is the next thing to go on our list of foods to replicate. The ginger was so strong and as it’s one of our favorite flavors we lapped it up, literally eating it with a spoon.
Our meanderings eventually led us to the Chowmahalla Palace, a beautiful compound in the Muslim area we had visited the previous day. Here we picked up a samosa from a kiosk at the palace. It was not particularly memorable, and we were beginning to come to the end of our interest in this all-too-ubiquitous snack (at least for this trip).
We’ve learned many things about eating habits here and one is that breakfast and lunch times tend to skew pretty late. Lunch is generally at 2:00, at least here in Hyderabad. We really threw our driver for a loop when we asked him to take us to another site at 2:00 and to eat a late lunch. After making our way through both language and cultural barriers, he finally got it. So, after we knew we’d seen everything we wanted to see before closing time, we made our way to Paradise Hotel, the site of the most commonly referenced biryanis in this town of famous biryani. Unlike Bawarchi where we ate our first night, Paradise has many, many branches (9). Some people say that they have gone downhill in recent years. Obviously we have nothing to compare it to. But wait, we do. Our biryani from two nights ago. So here’s the rundown:
Taste: Paradise had a much stronger aromatic spice component. The cardamom came off it immediately and the clove hit later. But that’s pretty much where the flavor ended. There was no richness like there was in the Bawarchi. The onion-y/ghee flavors that made the dish at Bawarchi so savory delicious were missing here.
Meat: B actually liked the mutton at Paradise better because the spices went well with it. M thought it much gamier than Bawarchi and gives them the hands-down award. The chicken at Paradise (which we didn’t have at Bawarchi) fell off the bone but was very dry.
Gravy: Our palates aren’t refined enough to distinguish much between the two but we did think Bawarchi had more flavors running through.
Ambience: Paradise is a huge restaurant with tablecloths and cloth napkins of a sort. We were waited on by about 7 different people.
Price: Paradise was about twice the price of Bawarchi. You are clearly paying for the name. And to clarify, this is still a steal by American standards. The whole meal cost less than $15.
The winner: Bawarchi, by a mile!
In addition to our biryanis, we had some really great breads – garlic naan (thinner than what we’re used to but fantastic) and paneer kulcha, a bread made out of a different flour stuffed with grated paneer and cilantro inside. B LOVED this – it was like a little Indian pizza and she felt like she could eat it all day. A sweet lassi and pistachio milkshake later (we’re still in search of something that really tastes like pistachio!) and we were ready to get to the train station.
As the day came to a close we picked up a number of snacks for our sleeper train to Mumbai! There were also many, many vendors walking up and down the aisle of the train as we were going to sleep. You can’t help but love a country where somebody walks by you every few minutes offering a shot of chai for approximately a penny and a half!
Dosas are one of the culinary specialties of southern India that we’ve been anticipating. Having found a purveyor of these crispy crepe-like rolls filled with potato and other goodies near our hotel (Pragathi Tiffin Center), we set out in the morning to find them. When we found the place, it was teeming with locals, cued up for their food and standing around the front eating it. Obviously a good sign. A nice young man there with his wife and daughter gave us a little guidance about how to order. As we waited and watched, we came to understand that this stand, like others we saw today, use a ticket system. You buy a chit for your particular order from the cashier and submit that to the ‘kitchen’ to let them know what you’ve ordered, and wait for the food to come off the line. In our case today, our helpful friend had submitted our chits for us, and while he said he would get our food when it came up, he abandoned us after he got his order to go. To be fair another man seemed to have taken over our hand-holding by then, and he instructed us to wait off to the side where we would have a place to set our food down (most people there were holding their plates in one hand and eating with the other). Once the dosa came, they were accompanied by two sauces, one a kind of off-white with a slight sweetness and hints of mint in a coconut milk base. The other seemed to be tomato/onion based, and had tamarind fruity flavor. Inside the dosas was a delicious spicy sauce, red onions, mustard/ turmeric/ green-chili seasoned potatoes. On the side we were given a small tin of sambar, a traditional accompaniment for dosas with a sort of vegetable soup consistency. Ours was dominated by sort of sweet/savory cinnamon flavor.
As we made our way toward one of the predominantly Muslim districts to see some famous sites there, we came across a street vendor selling some bizarre looking coal black nuggets that did not really look like something to be eaten, but there was a family there with a girl who seemed like she might be amenable to a little English practice. M questioned her about what these nuggets might be, and she said she didn’t know (at least in English), but in the meantime, her father had offered us a piece of one he had bought. Peeling away the black skin revealed a creamy white kernel with a texture and taste similar to the kernels in a mangosteen (though we only tried a small portion).
Finding our target kebab stand closed until 2 pm, we decided to do some market exploration and actual cultural site-seeing before heading back for some delicious grilled meat. Still we couldn’t resist trying an ice cream sickle from a street vendor. B had been eager to find some pistachio ice cream, and this vendor’s pushcart had a picture of just such a thing. Unfortunately the actual contents of the package we received was some kind of lightly mango flavored cold corn starch chalk. Yes it was cold. Yes there was some vague fruit flavor, but the texture was singularly unappetizing.
After a couple touristing fails (including a tsking from an old woman who refused us entry to the mosque – translated by others as M was wearing shorts/t-shirt (we knew that was going to be a problem) and B was wearing a shirt that only just covered her butt rather than going down to her knees) and one moderate success, we made our way back to the kebab stand (Kabab-E Jahangiri Center), charmingly nestled into one leg of the giant arch, Machli Kaman, that spanned the road. We ordered sheik kabab, boti kabab and something called tala huva gosht (mutton in a spicy sauce) along with parata. All were delicious with super tender meat and bold, intense flavors. Another saucy chutney was also included, which had hints of mint.
Along our trek towards the next site, we stopped at a chai/snack stand that was teaming with patrons. We bought our tokens, picked up a samosa and two chais and sad down on the spare bench with plastic stools for tables. While we were busy with our obligatory photographic documentation, one of the workers there stared at us and gave a classic India head bobble. This non-verbal gesture is as ubiquitous as it is opaque to new visitors to the area. It involves a sort of side-to-side movement of the top of the head pivoted at the neck. According the Wikipedia it can mean ‘yes’ or ‘I understand’ or ‘I hear you’ (seems similar to ‘hai’ or ‘eh’ in Japanese). In our case it seemed to read “Why are those crazy foreigners taking pictures of their food?” In any case, the chai turned out to be delicious, with a strong cardamom flavor that made it more similar to what B makes for us everyday. The samosa was flaky with a reasonably good flavor but we kept finding small crunchy bits that we eventually figured out were peas that had been rehydrated. We were unsure if that was a deliberate way of preparing then here, since we have typically samosas with fresh or at least thawed from frozen peas.
Finishing a relatively long trek through the smog and general chaos, we stopped to grab a light ‘take away’ dinner from a cafe (Bombay Bakery) that seemed to be quite popular. While usually not fans of food genres like Indo-Chinese, we had been seeing quite of few of these places around during the day, so it seemed to warrant a test. As we were trying to figure out where to buy our chit, and where then to submit it, a local waiting for his food pointed out that there was a KFC across the street that we could go to. Of course we emphasized that we preferred the spicy flavors of the local food. He seemed a little incredulous, but eventually accepted our explanation. We ordered the interestingly named Chicken 65 and a sweet bun (bun maska) that was the favorite of a reviewer whose comments now appeared as a large poster at the restaurant. The chicken, deep fried once then reheated and sauced in a wok, had a little heat and flavor (seemingly soy based), but the texture suffered from the breading, sitting around and reheating. The sweet bun was actually pretty tasty, a smear of butter and a little sugar combining with a touch of salt to deliver a very nice balance.
This morning we had a plan – go up to the guesthouse breakfast and just eat fruit and drink a little coffee/tea! Genius. Then nobody will try to force anything else on us. So we skipped the toast and hard boiled egg but did try a steamed rice bun with a little coconut and sugar inside that was pretty tasty. We asked what it was called but couldn’t parse the answer so we’ll have to do a little research…or anyone who reads this and knows, please let us know.
Off we went for last minute site seeing and then to wait for the bus to the airport. The bus is so, so easy and took the same amount of time as a cab for 1/10 the cost. So, for future visitors to Kochi, we recommend that as your means of transport. While waiting for the bus M scouted around for chai street snacks, never too far away. We had a variety of fried things – a delicious sweet banana fritter (again it was cold and we would have loved it hot but took what we could get), a samosa shaped snack filled with onions in both caramelized and lightly cooked form with a great mix of spices, and a fried cake-like item with a hint of cardamom. Once we tasted it, B sent M back for a little more chai.and seconds later the bus pulled up. Luckily it had to sit for a few minutes but there was still some momentary panic. All was well in the end and we got on the bus with our cake and chai. Yum!
After a quick flight to Hyderabad and a check in at our hotel (HOT water for the first time in days!!) we took a tuk tuk over to Bawarchi on RTC Cross Road, home of some of the highest rated Biryani in Hyderabad. And that’s saying something since it is a specialty of the area and the main reason we traveled here. There was some confusion when we got there over which way to go in, but finally made it through the omnipresent metal detectors (we’ve gone through so many on this trip and they always seem to go off no matter what) and up to the rooftop dinner area. It was nice to get a bit above the street fumes, which are terrible. Once inside we saw signs everywhere saying that this was the ‘real’ Bawarchi and that they had no branches. There seems to be absolutely no control over what you name your restaurant. We passed by at least three other Bawarchi’s on our way in from the airport and there is a Great Bawarchi across the street from our hotel. It can get a little confusing if you don’t know where you’re headed. Now I’ll get to the food – the biryani (we had mutton) was absolutely delicious. It had a wonderful side gravy and yogurt and the rice had a wonderful ghee and spice flavor to it. The meat was melt in your mouth tender. We also ordered Hyderabadi Chicken, which was also great. There were green bell peppers in the sauce that were a really pronounced flavor and we’re not usually fans of green peppers, but these added a really nice note to the curry leaf sauce. Two different rotis on the side (one basically our first naan in India!) and a sweet lassi that unfortunately brought B back to her childhood drinking Milk of Magnesia (M liked it a bit more) and we’re all set. Another fantastic meal.
Having found the guesthouse breakfast fare somewhat lacking, we were determined to avoid it on this particular day and head out on our own into Fort Kochi for something more interesting. Since we had forgotten to inform the hosts of our plans, we planned to make a tactful exit after they started serving breakfast on the covered roof that was the communal space for guests. One our way out, however, we were snagged by the owner, a really quite charming and cheerful woman. She seemed to be deeply concerned that we weren’t eating breakfast upstairs, so B offered up the explanation that we needed to get me some coffee. Undeterred, she reminded us that there was coffee upstairs, and if that was too weak she could make up a stronger version immediately. To this unexpected parry, we searched for a new gambit, pointing out that we were looking forward to eating some dosa for breakfast (a kind of crispy crepe with a potato filling and a variety of chutneys on the side. Completely unfazed, she explained that she had some dosa batter ready, and would be glad to whip some up. We were beaten, and we knew it. If we had said we were hoping to go out for pepperoni pizza, we would have been there waiting for the dough to rise. In any case, she brought out the promised dark coffee (which was a small step above instant), followed by a bowl of a dry coconut-based regional breakfast dish called upma, complimented with some potato fritters. Finally, several dosa were served (along with a couple small bananas), leaving us calculating the absolute minimal amount of food we could politely get away with. Eventually we made a respectful dent in the upma (somewhat bland), and ate the two dosas (a little spongy), and three potato fritters we were served, taking the two bananas to go. Yes, as our friends know, we are kind of obnoxious when we travel because we are on a constant mission to try as many delicious things as we possibly can without overeating. Sometimes this imperative requires some finesse and some wastefulness we wouldn’t condone outside of vacation. Sometimes we sneak half-eaten plates of perfectly good food to the garbage so the proprietor won’t notice. In this particular case, we had extricated ourselves with our breakfast capacity only half-taken, so we resolved to walk around for a while to make some space.
Mid-walk we stopped in at a cafe for some coffee and chai, and were attracted by the fruit sodas on offer. One lemonade with XXX, purportedly used as a cooler in ayurvedic circles, but we believe it is known in the west as sasparilla. Indeed the taste was somewhere between licorice, bubblegum and vanilla, and with the lemonae, it was quite refreshing. The other drink was ginger lemonade with honey. Also quite good.
Aside from offending the gracious people who just wanted to give us something to eat, the reason we had been hoping to escape unfed was that we had planned a trip to the Fort Kochi fishing docks, where the fresh bounty pulled from the sea can be cooked up at a nearby roadside ‘hotel.’ Amid the onslaught of tenacious vendors, tuk tuk drivers and souvenir touts, we chose a vendor in which the crab were, at the very least, fresh enough to be moving around. Keralan crab curry has a certain sentimental cache with B, so we got a couple of those, four large prawns and a lobster. The total came to 1300 rupees (which converts to something like $20), which seemed quite steep by local standards, but our tolerance for a round of negotiations was low. Also taking the low resistance path of having a local tout lead us back to his cafe for the cooking, we were told that the cooking fee would be around 500 rupees. Again, in no mood for petty haggling for what was still a very good deal, we said OK. We had them cook the crab in a curry, which on much encouragement, they made spicy. The lobster and prawns they grilled very simply with a chili paste (though they seemed a little overcooked). The crab curry had a good heat and bold flavors. All in all the the shellfish seemed fresh and preparation was delicious, but we would still give the nod to our Pacific Coast dungeness crab for pure sweet deliciousness.
After meandering about the historical district of Fort Kochi for a while and checking out some of the crafts and spice merchants, we stopped at a cafe known as the Ginger House. Among other ginger-based items featured here was ginger ice cream, and lime ginger soda. The ice cream was sweet, smooth and creamy with small bits of candied ginger adding a little pop every few bites. The soda came in components: a glass of ginger and lime juice, a bottle of soda water, and some simple syrup to sweeten the mix. Not surprisingly given the environs, it was deliciously refreshing.
Since we had so enjoyed the chicken fry the previous night, we set our sites on it’s culinary cousin, beef fry. With the influence of Hinduism beef is not widely eaten in India, but with Kerala’s diverse religious population, some restaurants do serve it. The spot most frequently recommended for beef fry in online sources was bit of a trek for our now somewhat tired and blistered feet, but we soldiered on. The restaurant turned out to be empty as we arrived; apparently beef fry is not typically eaten at 6pm, but they were welcoming to us in any event. We ordered up the beef fry and an order of what was called chicken roast on the menu (along with two kinds of paratha). The fry was smoky, rich and delicious, sort of an amplified version of some of the flavors we’ve enjoyed so much here. The chicken roast was seemingly a more ordinary curry preparation, good enough for what it was, but having trouble competing with the fry.
So today was one of our tourist days. Our homestay organized a trip to the backwaters for us. These are small water channels throughout the region – beautiful locations and a chance to see a little bit of village life. Foodwise, this meant that we were only given a small breakfast as we had to leave early. We were pretty happy about that as our breakfast the day before wasn’t much to blog home about. So just toast, fruit and hard boiled egg and we were on our way. We had fantasies of having fresh seafood cooked for us on board our boat for lunch, which we had heard stories of, but the boat we were on was small and crowded and had no cooking facilities and basically just took us out to a random snack shop along the backwaters (M had Lays Magic Masala chips, B had a coconut water – from an actual coconut). Then the boat went back to where we started (we were not pleased with this part of the trip) and there was a lunch waiting for us – another curry buffet. All vegetarian. No seafood. Sad. But there were three new things on our lunch buffet: a strange, fibrous, vegetable we’d never seen before called a drumstick; a pineapple tomato curry; and a porridge like thing the name of which was lost in translation. It was all fine, but not quite what we had hoped for out of our boat trip.
Fortunately, the afternoon part of the tour was more interesting in that we were taken in a canoe/punt through some narrow canals flowing among the homes of a rural village. So we got to see people doing various types of work along the canal. The Communist Party has done particularly well in Kerala during the past few decades, so this part of India has a great many workers cooperatives, and we were able to see some people making rope and coconut milk at their homes. Really interesting. But you read this for the food, so also know we got to see many spices and fruits growing naturally along the way – all pointed out to us by our ‘gondolier’ and guide. Nutmeg is particularly big here and we were able to buy some right from the nutmeg farmer, but we also saw things like cacao trees, vanilla vines and tamarind trees.
When we got home we were exhausted (not really from the boat but from the 3+ hours we spent in the car to and from) but we gathered ourselves together and walked over to the Mattancherry area where we went to Kayee’s Hotel (remember, hotel means restaurant) to partake of two things for which they are renowned. One is Biryani (we had chicken and it was great) and the other is Chicken Fry. This dish might be our favorite of the trip so far. It was small pieces of chicken, fried twice, seemingly, with a heavy coating of explosive spices, most notably star anise, cardamom and clove. It was so delicious that we ordered another dish and almost got a third! They were seriously small portions – we could have eaten them all night. We also ordered Keralan porota (flaky parathas – very similar to what we had in Malaysia) and ended up getting an extra helping of those as well. On the side we were served a tamarind chutney (sorry, no photo) that was much thicker than the usual stuff we get back home with our samosas. It had a sweetness that contrasted nicely with the sour tamarind. M thought the sweet came from raisins. He was very close! It was actually dates – we were in a Muslim establishment and we were told they often use dates in their chutney. A great meal overall, and we are excited to try to figure out how to make chicken fry.
On the way back to the guesthouse we stopped for banana chips (made from the long banana, which is very starchy like a plantain) and a sweet (not really to our liking – grainy this sugar wrapped in a thick icing, with very little additional flavoring).