A Quick Glimpse of Praha / Prague

Devangi Thakkar was at Prague earlier this year and she brought back a bunch of photos for you.

Per Wikipedia: Prague is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. It is the 14th largest city in the European Union. It is also the historical capital of Bohemia. Situated in the north-west of the country on the Vltava River, the city is home to about 1.24 million people, while its larger urban zone is estimated to have a population of nearly 2 million. The city has a temperate climate, with warm summers and chilly winters. Prague has the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union.

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Prague has been a political, cultural, and economic centre of central Europe with waxing and waning fortunes during its 1,100-year existence. Founded during the Romanesque and flourishing by the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, Prague was not only the capital of the Czech state, but also the seat of two Holy Roman Emperors and thus also the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It was an important city to the Habsburg Monarchy and its Austro-Hungarian Empire and after World War I became the capital of Czechoslovakia. The city played major roles in the Bohemian and Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, and in 20th-century history, during both World Wars and the post-war Communist era.

Prague is home to a number of famous cultural attractions, many of which survived the violence and destruction of 20th-century Europe. Main attractions include the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, Old Town Square with the Prague astronomical clock, the Jewish Quarter, Pet?ín hill and Vyšehrad. Since 1992, the extensive historic centre of Prague has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

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The city boasts more than ten major museums, along with numerous theatres, galleries, cinemas, and other historical exhibits. An extensive modern public transportation system connects the city. Also, it is home to a wide range of public and private schools, including Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in Central Europe. Prague is classified as an “Alpha-” global city according to GaWC studies, comparable to Vienna, Seoul and Washington, D.C. Its rich history makes it a popular tourist destination, and the city receives more than 4.4 million international visitors annually, as of 2011. Prague ranked fifth in the Tripadvisor world list of best destinations in 2014. Prague is the fifth most visited European city after London, Paris, Istanbul and Rome. Prague is the third safest city in the world after Luxembourg and Stockholm. Prague is also the largest city in Central Europe in which over 50% of residents speak fluent English, making it the second language after Czech.

Content courtesy: Wikipedia


Heaven Descended, A Week In Ladakh

This area besides the lake was made famous by the movie "3 Idiots".
This area besides the lake was made famous by the movie “3 Idiots”.

On being asked to share my Ladakh experience with this feature, I began to pen my thoughts. I pondered over an appropriate adjective as a title for this article hoping that it would do justice to the place that had captivated my spirit in abundance. Would you believe me if I mention that I googled ‘adjectives for Ladakh’?  Many words popped up on my screen – mesmerizing, magical, ethereal, breathtaking; but none of them seemed enough. These words paled in comparison to the unfathomable experience that I and my other half had had just over a period of few days. What a delightful place this was and then it struck me- keep it simple – Heaven on Earth! Nothing can describe it better. The images that I have conjured up of heaven in my mind, is of this ethereal place which has the beautiful, surreal landscape, kind and amazing people, food to die for, and lots of peace. And, that is exactly what Ladakh is!

Where else would you find snow covered mountains co existing with sand dunes, hot springs at one end and a cold blue lake at another?

There were times when we wanted to sit down and soak in the surroundings. We were so taken by this enchanting place that we often forgot to click pictures. That is the beauty called Ladakh! Back from just eight days in Ladakh, we couldn’t get enough of it and are planning to return. The one thing we would do differently perhaps, is travel by road.

There are some absolute must-haves and must-dos in Ladakh:

  • Guest house or home stay: they actually become your extended home. I had an upset stomach one day and they made khichdi for me!
  • Interact with the locals: they love talking to you and getting to know you better and they are an absolute delight to talk to.
  • A bike ride: if not for a long trip at least around Leh for 50-70 odd kilometres. The drive in the midst of mountains will take you a different world.
  • Tibetan cuisine in Leh: Some of the best momos, thukpa, sabagleb, the tastes of which will linger in your mouth for quite some time
  • And finally don’t miss – the chirping of birds in the morning, the absolute silence of the surroundings, and the star-studded night sky – you will miss these when you are back in a heavily populated and polluted city like Delhi.
These double-humped Bactrian camels are well equipped to handle the harsh weather and terrain of the region.
These double-humped Bactrian camels are well equipped to handle the harsh weather and terrain of the region.

Riding the bike on the Leh-Srinagar Highway bike till Alchi village (70 km from Leh) is an experience of a lifetime. The entire road is surrounded by picturesque views on either side. Miles and miles of no man’s land, just crazy wind and a Royal Enfield (Or as we Punjabis call it – Ride a Buultt!!)

I am not a religious person per se but the peace and beauty of the monasteries in Ladakh leave you spell bound. The Shanti Stupa situated on top of a hill gives a beautiful 360 degree view of the city of Leh.

The Khardungla top, at 18,380 feet, is the highest motorable road in the world. What is incredible is that even during the peak of winters, the Indian army works 24*7 to keep this road completely functional as this is the only way to connect Leh with the rest of Nubra Valley which is quite close to the Line of Control (LOC).

[blockquote]The sand dunes and the double humped camels at Nubra valley. You cannot miss the camel safari while in Ladakh. And the camels are just so cute with their innocent faces and lovely names  The camel I rode was named Shorabhi.. What a coincidence! Completely mesmerizing is the sight of the sand dunes right next to the snow clad mountains.[/blockquote]
Tibetan Butter Tea is a local staple, but takes some getting used to.
Tibetan Butter Tea is a local staple, but takes some getting used to.

We drove for around 80 km beyond Nubra valley along the river Shyok to the beautiful village of Turtuk. It is one of the last villages before the LOC; in fact before 1971, it was in Pakistan. The Indian army took Turtuk under their control during the 1971 war to protect the Nubra valley. Since 2010 civilians are being allowed to visit Turtuk. The lifestyle and features of the people of Turtuk is completely different from the rest of Ladakh. The sharp featured women and kids in this lush green village are really eye-catching. Spend a night at a home stay right in the village if you happen to visit -it’s an experience of a lifetime!

Pangong lake looks straight out of a painting, as if someone has sketched these perfect mountains. How can something be so flawless? This 134 km long lake runs from India to China which is just around 45 km from where the Pangong campsites are located. This place soared in popularity after the movie ‘3 Idiots’ was shot here. The place where the last scene of 3 idiots was shot, where Kareena Kapoor comes riding a scooty towards Aamir Khan, brought back some fun filled memories of the movie that I watched with my other half.

Food in Ladakh

Being a foodie, how can I not talk about the food here? While in Ladakh, you absolutely have to taste the Ladakhi tea (also called as Butter tea) that is made from a particular kind of tea leaves, and is repeatedly churned with milk in a special vessel to bring out the flavours. A perfect winter drink, no one really stops at one. Let’s not forget the famous Thukpa, a wonderful broth made with stock and assorted vegetables and served over egg noodles, a regular in Ladakhi households during winters.

Pangong Lake offers a breathtaking view of a water body flanked by rugged mountains.
Pangong Lake offers a breathtaking view of a water body flanked by rugged mountains.

And finally Sabagleb – bread stuffed with chicken or mutton and bursting with flavours at each bite. You will also find excellent momos (delicious dumplings stuffed with meat and often served with Thukpa) here. I wonder if I will be able to enjoy momos in Delhi for some time to come after having had them in Ladakh!

Ladakh in summers is full of fresh fruits. Perfect juicy little apples and apricots crowd the trees in the backyards of most houses here and the locals would be happy to pluck some for you!

That’s majorly what we could cover in a week. But next time, we want to visit the Tsomoriri lake (which apparently is prettier than Pangong lake), Zanskar river, Kargil/ Drass and the Panamik hot springs. We actually want to do a full road trip from Manali to Leh and then back from Leh to Srinagar. Can’t wait already!


The Big Terrain Rider- Nissan Terrano

There’s something about Chandigarh that keeps drawing us back for more. I’m quite certain it’s not the food alone, nor the people, or the roads, or the relative calmness that Delhi lacks so severely. Maybe it is a combination of all of the above and then some. But we sure know that at Chef at Large HQ, we love to go back at the drop of a hat. This time around, we got a chance to explore Chandigarh and Patiala in a Nissan Terrano and I’d be lying if I say we didn’t love every moment of it.

The Road to Chandigarh
Many of us living in Delhi have had the chance to travel up to Chandigarh on our way to the hills. The road that used to be infamous for a rather dismal ride, though lined with good food on both sides all the way, went through a transformation few years ago. Et voila! Wide and well laid out tarmac awaits travelers on their way to the City Beautiful.

The road allows opening up of the throttle at most points allowing one to test vehicles for agility and ride comfort. Speed limits on most stretches of the highway are very realistic, so there’s plenty of fun to be had on the drive for those who like to feel their ride – a feat that the turbo-charged engine of the Terrano accomplished with ease. The scenery may impede speeds a little, but I doubt anyone would complain about it. Although, staying sharp and keeping an eye out for inter-state buses is advised.

Chandigarh city police enforces traffic rules very strictly, therefore it is advisable to observe speed limit and other traffic rules at all times to enjoy the drive. The Terrano doesn’t disappoint on this front with exceptional handling in city traffic. Staying within the speed limit proves easier than expected with no loss of power whatsoever as the Terrano navigates through lanes.

Breakfast at Murthal

Parathas from Murthal are always the first order of business on every road trip to Chandigarh.
Parathas from Murthal are always the first order of business on every road trip to Chandigarh.

No trip to Chandigarh is complete without the first stopover at Murthal for stuffed tandoori paranthas and white butter. The ride to Murthal from Karnal Bypass is short and comfortable, making it an ideal breakfast getaway destination on weekends, provided you prefer paranthas over French toast for breakfast.

Every one recommends Amrik Sukhdev as the perfect spot for paranthas in Murthal. However, we tried out the offerings at No.1 Ahuja Dhaba. Must say, I’m not an expert in paranthas, but the ones they serve at Ahuja’s might prove to be a little too thick for some. That said, they taste just fine and warrant a visit every now and then to check the hunger pangs that only paranthas can satiate.

This stretch of road has practically nothing out of place or interesting in terms of ride quality other than perhaps the food that one would like to write home about. But then, it does serve as the beginning of the journey towards Chandigarh and beyond for most travelers taking this road.

The nearly straight and long stretch between Murthal and our next stop in Ambala served well as a test track for a thorough check. Once the driver gets to open up to the car and gets into the flow of the drive, the real deal begins to emerge.

The overall balanced weight of the vehicle ensures good handling and does not allow the tail to waver at all through the bumps. Leather upholstery adds look and feel to the cabin.

Lunch with Puran Singh of Ambala

There are quite a few dhabas at Ambala that claim to be the original 'Puran Singh' and it's quite a task figuring out the right place. The mutton curry however was certainly delicious.
There are quite a few dhabas at Ambala that claim to be the original ‘Puran Singh’ and it’s quite a task figuring out the right place. The mutton curry however was certainly delicious.

Puran Singh is an institution in the city of Ambala. Located on the highway, just off the road leading into Ambala Cantonment, Puran Singh’s Dhaba is known far and wide for its mutton curry that is supposed to be like no other in all of Northern India. Such is the legend that there are many establishments on the same stretch that have adopted the same name with absolute disregard to copyrights. We weren’t in a complaining mood though and dove right in.

The mutton curry at Puran Singh’s Dhaba looks and tastes like any other mutton curry you’ve ever had. However, pay a little attention and the layers of distinction begin to unravel. Cooking mutton is no easy task. The gamey, almost fat-less meat of a goat is not very suitable for a quick fire recipe and no amount of flavors can rescue such an attempt. Sadly, that is what one encounters most of the time. I remember, on a trip to Mumbai few years ago, I was served an oven-roasted mutton dish with some very interesting flavors – prunes, black pepper, lavender and a few more. But, the meat was undercooked and it just refused to go down the hatch. The matter was brought to the chef’s notice who came back with a rude half explanation on his creation and how I was not qualified enough to know any better. Perhaps. Despite that, I do know I like my mutton to be cooked with the bone on a low flame for a longer duration, such that the meat should stay on it while serving and fall off it on cue.

And that is where Puran Singh’s mutton curry scores on, big time. Slow cooked to tender perfection, the meat stays on the bone when served and falls off the bone with a slight flick of the fork and barely any effort from the wrist. Those who would like to equate it with a Nihari may do so, but it still remains a very different dish altogether.

Interestingly, the lunch served as a weather checkpoint for the day. The skies decided to open up for a while and pour down relentlessly on the small town, inundating the town square for a while in knee-deep waters. Navigating through the puddle in a car with 205mm ground clearance seemed like an uphill task, one that the Terrano accomplishes with ease. Perhaps the only thing that felt a little odd was the positioning of windshield wiper and indicator controls that seems to have been done according to left hand driven cars and takes a little getting used to.


The throttle response is better than acceptable. The turbo-charged engine can be very throaty on acceleration and quiet when asked to, delivering an excellent power response whenever required. The six-speed manual transmission is a handy feature to have on a highway. The average fuel consumption figure we could gather from the car’s instrument display was at 14.1kmpl. The reverse gear has a nifty little feature that sets it apart from the crowd. It requires the driver to pull up a latch on the shift stick to engage the reverse gear along with an audible beep alarm to indicate gear engagement. This is a feature that should be made available in all other cars as it may render any possibilities of accidental engagement of reverse gear completely obsolete.

Coffee break at Nik’s

The interiors of the vehicle are spacious though they lack thought-through ergonomics.
The interiors of the vehicle are spacious though they lack thought-through ergonomics.

As one heads towards Punjab, the local obsession with anything that has some connection with foreign shores gets rather endearing. The long, leisurely drive was beginning to take its toll on all of us and all of us were in need for a cup of coffee, Nik’s in Dera Bassi was a stopover as good as any. Nik’s Bakers profess their Aussie connection through their chief baker and that works like a charm for the local consumers. That said, the fare at Nik’s is not bad at all. Their coffee roast may need a slight tweaking, but their sandwiches and pastries are most definitely above average.

It marked the last stop on the way as we approached Chandigarh, our home for the next couple of days. Once we checked in and went back to the car to pick up our bags, only then did we realize the space inside the car. The boot is spacious, so is the cabin that accommodates passengers over six feet tall with ease. Legroom is plenty for the front and rear seats, but that does not improve the seat ergonomics as described earlier. Multiple cubbyholes placed around the cabin are very comfortable to reach.


Within the city limits, the car navigates through slower traffic with as much ease as it demonstrates on the highway at a higher velocity, with the engine response never running out of the driver’s control. It handles curves with relative panache and straight-line speeds are very impressive.

The Terrano is an overall impressive package in terms of power delivery and handling and reasonable fuel consumption for a vehicle of its weight and size. The car has a good road presence without being menacing and lives up to its reputation.


Ten Turkish Treasures

by Poorna Rajpal

When we travel we try to bring back a little bit of the places we visit in the form of souvenirs and photographs. Each time we look at them we relive our experiences. I, however, am one of those people who believes that the true experience of any culture lies in the street food and local restaurants of a place, and one should never skip such explorations.

On my recent trip to Turkey, I did just that. Not all of them are about dining in leisure. On the contrary, most of them are meals that you would best enjoy in the local streets of Istanbul, where you can stop for a quick bite or a short meal in between bouts of shopping and exploration.

Here are 10 Turkish eats that you shouldn’t miss. So Afiyet Olsunas the Turks would say, while exhorting you to enjoy your meal!

A standard Turkish breakfast is a spread that has a variety of olives (Zeytin) and cheese Peynir), tomatoes, cucumbers, jam and honey with half boiled eggs or scrambled eggs and Turkish sausages. But for someone like me who loves breakfast this is inadequate. I finally found a satiating brekkie in Menemen, a classic Turkish dish served in single portioned serving pans. These are eggs cooked in tomatoes, onions, peppers, vegetables and prepared in olive oil with cheese and spices.

A standard Turkish breakfast, called Menemen, is a spread that has a variety of olives ( Zeytin) and cheese (Peynir), tomatoes, cucumbers, jam and honey with half boiled eggs or scrambled eggs and Turkish sausages.
A standard Turkish breakfast, called Menemen, is a spread that has a variety of olives ( Zeytin) and cheese (Peynir), tomatoes, cucumbers, jam and honey with half boiled eggs or scrambled eggs and Turkish sausages.

If there was one thing I couldn’t get enough of in Turkey it was Simit (Turkish bagel). Luckily – or maybe luck had nothing to do with it because it was just so delicious – it can be found everywhere! Coffee shops, street vendors, grocery stores, bakeries – every place stocked it including the popular ‘Simit Sarayi’ chain, which had variations of Simit in sandwiches as well. This sesame seed-covered ring shaped bread could very well be the national bread of Turkey, unless some other bread has already staked a claim!

The most commonly found combination is Simit and cream cheese. Have it with some Turkish coffee or tea, and you really do not need much else.




When you think of Turkish fast food, the first things that cross your mind are Doner and Kumpir. The latter is basically a baked potato which comes heavily loaded with toppings. It might sound like a snack but is in fact quite filling – potatoes that are bigger than one’s hand topped with butter, choice of toppings such as salads, yoghurt, olives, cheese, mayonnaise, mushroom, sausages, corn and variations of the same mixed in mayonnaise, and did I mention butter? Enough butter to make Julia Child think twice.


I know you were waiting for this one. Yes, Doner is Turkey’s most famous culinary export to the world. This one is not for the vegetarians reading this. Doner is made of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, which is thinly sliced as it cooks and is rolled in wraps or folded into sandwiches.


In Turkey the meat is mostly lamb or beef and if you ask them which meat they’ll reply “meat!” which doesn’t help you much. Some places also offer chicken. If it doesn’t say ‘Tavuk’, which is chicken, you might just have to identify it yourself (psst…it’s the lighter coloured one).

In a basic Doner, you will find meat shavings, pickle, lettuce, mayonnaise and French fries. This is the best on-the-go meal for when you are short on time and have a lot of sightseeing to do.

Have you noticed that every country has its own version of pancakes? Gozleme or Saç Böre?i is a Turkish pancake, though I found it to be more like a close relative of the Indian parantha. It’s a thinly rolled out flatbread traditionally stuffed with feta and spinach – though there are more options available such as potatoes and meat – then folded over and cooked on a hot plate (tava).

Many Turkish restaurants have windows where one can see women dressed in traditional attire making these pancakes in their conventional way, which looks fascinating and lures you into the restaurant to give it a try. So worth it!


Have you ever seen a person with an ice cream, sad? They might have a sad expression only when they don’t get to eat the ice cream. My point is, ice creams are fun and you can’t really top that. But the Turks can.

Dondurma, which in Turkish literally means freezing, is the Turkish take on ice cream. It has a chewy, marshmallow like texture and is almost resistant to melting. Turkish men in specific costumes tease customers to try these chilled desserts through tricks and theatrics by holding the ice cream upside down over the customer’s head, showing its almost anti-gravity like nature. Ice cream with a topping of entertainment, how can one resist?


If you’re planning a visit to Turkey or the Middle East, I don’t have to tell you this, you’ve probably already put it on your to-eat list. This glistening, intensely sweet pastry is made of layers of filo and chopped nuts drenched in sugar syrup or honey, and is extremely rich no matter how it is prepared.

Baklava has such an extensive variety that deciding on eating just one is not an easy task. You can never be too tired for coffee and Baklava; the beautiful and radiant window displays of this dessert just lure you in and you can tell that bakeries pride themselves on these rich confections. It is the ideal gift to bring back for your loved ones.


Layered filo pastry filled with cheese, spinach and/or chicken and meat mixed in herbs and baked until it is beautifully brown, Borek has many variations. You can find a member of the Borek family in your company any time of the day, either during breakfast, lunch or for a snack. No self-respecting Turkish breakfast buffet would miss the cigar shaped, white cheese and parsley filled and then deep fried Borek roll called Sigara Böregi. Another version would be the Su Boregi were the Borek is steamed in water.


Other than water, Ayran is the most common drink you’ll find in Turkey. Made of yoghurt, salt and water, it is the most refreshing cold beverage to be had on its own and is the perfect accompaniment to every Turkish meal. On a hot day when you are out looking at the ruins of Ephesus, make sure you carry lot of Ayran with you.


There are coffee drinkers and there are tea drinkers – I am still unsure which of the two I prefer. But why decide on one when both can be so good?

Turkish coffee is prepared using finely ground coffee, mixed with hot water and sugar in a copper pot with a long handle (cezve), and served with a glass of water to cleanse your palate before you enjoy this flavoursome brew. This coffee is rather strong and feels grainy and dense when you sip it.


Coming from a Punjabi family, where my mother thinks coffee should be 90-100% milk based, because milk is somehow equated with health, black coffee is something that I cannot bring myself to savour. But Turkish coffee, albeit black, just grows on you. It has an intense coffee aroma and packs a punch – it can convert the best of us.

At any time of the day in any city in Turkey you’ll find people sipping on hot amber coloured tea in their iconic tulip shaped glasses. Çay (pronounced just like chai) as they call it, is their favourite pastime. I really loved the apple flavoured version of this tea, though one can find many exotic flavours such as rose, kiwi and mango too.

It’s safe to say you’ll never run out of food options when travelling in Turkey, in fact I believe one trip would not be enough!


A Room Without a View

Cafe Viva, the all day dining restaurant at Leisure Inn.
Cafe Viva, the all day dining restaurant at Leisure Inn.

The desire to get away from it all has only been seen to increase over the past few years. The rising fragmentation of life and the high priority of each individual fragment has ensured the rapid exhaustion of whatever inner peace each of us has squirreled away, bringing with it increasing desires to restore our reserves of tranquility. This is usually done by physically leaving what we perceive to be the sources of our stress, such as our homes and offices and plonking ourselves elsewhere in the hope of being refreshed, renewed and rejuvenated. While the frequency of our desire to escape may be on the rise, our incomes however remain largely the same, especially the disposable portions. The presence therefore of properties in popular destinations, that promise value for money to the weary family traveler is a welcome one that allows us to extend our largely static incomes while also taking time off with family multiple times a year. My visit to Leisure Inn at Jaipur was a similarly welcome trip; an opportunity to lower my ever-vigilant mental guards and at the same time, my blood pressure.

A 52 room property, centrally located on MI Road, Leisure Inn is a scant 20 minutes from the airport and quite accessible from the rest of the city. As underwhelming the exteriors of the property are, the insides reflect a utilitarian, easy comfort while at the same time studiously avoiding anything akin to elegance.

Supported by three F&B outlets as well as room service, Leisure Inn offers a very comfortable stay. Apart from two suites, the rest of the 50 rooms are standard, which are well appointed, comfortable and spacious, each of which come with an acceptably stocked mini-bar, central air conditioning, an iPod dock, a personal safe and a fairly large bath (no hot water after 10am), in addition to a large room. During the course of my stay I found the F&B well run and thought their efforts to innovate and produce new dishes quite laudable. Here’s a quick rundown of what you can expect from the restaurants at Leisure Inn, Jaipur.

Arya, the roof-top bar and grill

Cafe Viva
Their all-day dining restaurant, Cafe Viva also hosts their buffet breakfast that is complimentary with most room bookings. The menu is a mixture of international dishes from all over, including a breakfast selection, and Indian food from different parts of the country. The breakfast buffet is acceptably stocked and at once caused me to experience the most unpalatable coconut chutney I’d ever tasted  as well as the most awesome sambhar ever to cross my table. This restaurant is also home to innovations like the imaginative and vegetarian Chupa Rustam kebab, a delightful combination of sweet, savoury, crunchy and crisp – all in one mouthful. Cafe Viva has a bar alongside too, which appeared to be a comfortable place to enjoy a drink though the selection of brands available needed upgrading.

This rooftop bar and grill almost seems an afterthought with a tiny covered area housing about 12 covers and the rest of its 68 covers spread across the uncovered terrace. Backed by its own kitchen, as with all other restaurants at Leisure Inn, Arya appears to be a popular hangout for beer and snacks, delivering as it does, a splendid view, which that evening was clarified and made sparkling by day long showers. Offering a largely north Indian menu big on snacks and appetizers, Arya looked like a nice place to unwind after a day of roaming the Pink City.

The Rajasthani Thali at Grand Chanakya, the specialty Rajasthani restaurant that also serves Punjabi and Indian-Chinese food

Grand Chanakya
A very well known, vegetarian restaurant in Jaipur, Grand Chanakya serves Rajasthani, Chinese and north Indian fare. While the food it serves is good, I couldn’t agree with their branding messages of claiming the restaurant to be a Rajasthani specialty outlet, while at the same time hedging their bet by dishing out Indian-Chinese and north Indian too. While I have little doubt the decision to do so was one wholly motivated by commercial compulsions and consumer preferences, it still seemed a bit jarring to me, the corruption of an ancient Indian cuisine by the presence of a relative newcomer and another that is culturally unrelated. Combined with the very tacky interiors, Grand Chanakya is left with a single attraction, the food; the rest can be comfortably ignored. If you are therefore unfettered by philosophical encumbrances,  you’ll find the Rajasthani Thali at Grand Chanakya to be a great way to experience the quintessential taste of Rajasthan in one meal.

Leisure Inn, Jaipur claims to be a three star deluxe property and that is exactly the experience it delivers. The staff are helpful and courteous, managed by professionals who take pride in what they do. While the property cannot claim any points for beauty or aesthetics, nor the restaurants for international finesse, you’ll find yourself exceedingly comfortable in their rooms and eating well at their F&B outlets. If it’s a comfortable, family experience you’re looking for, within a budget, Leisure Inn, Jaipur will deliver.

… and my room, for the first time ever, didn’t overlook the outdoors, but offered an unparalleled view of the corridors outside.


Seventeen Meals and a Wedding

Kolkata becomes more fascinating with every visit, the city revealing a little more of its mysteries each time.
Kolkata becomes more fascinating with every visit, the city revealing a little more of its mysteries each time.

Arrival, 27th December; morning.
Every visit to Calcutta exposes me to more and more of this fabulous city. Brimming with culture, tradition, history and attitude, I get to see different aspects of the city with every visit and each such aspect brings the city closer to my heart and the prospect of the next visit, more enticing. We were in Calcutta from the 27th to the 31st of December for Charis’ wedding and related functions, spaced a day apart on the 28th and the 30th of December. A scant moment after reaching our rooms around 11am, on the direction of the bellboy, we headed for Ganguram’s at the Golpark roundabout for a breakfast of Radhaballavi, crossing a petrol pump on the way, where we witnessed the thrashing of a chap by another couple of chaps. Interestingly, the gathered crowd didn’t appear to want to stop them as much as split the encounter into rounds and then score the performance. At Ganguram’s we were told that Radhaballvi’s were indeed available, “Puri Sabzi” piped up another chap at the counter, correctly recognising us to be cultureless charlatans from Delhi. We ate standing up at the counters lining the shop, Indu only half of hers with Cherie and I greedily finishing whatever she left, mopping up the remnnants with hands that really should have been washed prior. In the mood for some hot tea after a greasy, sweet and spicy meal, a drink Ganguram’s didn’t serve, we retraced our steps past the same petrol pump, where we observed a man on the phone, alternating between tears and rage – the trashed lamenting his lot and swearing revenge against the thrashers. Reaching the tea stall, we found adjoining it, another stall selling puris and a dal made of some type of gourd and dried peas. I asked for a plate. The man turned up the heat under the kadhai of oil, pulled out a slab of marble, placed a small bowl of oil in one corner, four small balls of dough at the top and then a rolling pin. He then dabbed a few fingers into the bowl of oil, smeared it in the centre of the slab, picked and placed a ball of dough on the smear, flattened it with his palm, rolled it flat and long with one motion of the rolling pin, peeled it off and laying it horizontally, rolled it again and then threw it into the oil, proceeding to do the same with the next ball of dough, but this time, turning over the puri in the kadhai just before rotating the puri on the slap for the second roll and did the same for the next two. We sat on grimy stones at the side of the road, ate hot puris with dal, sipped very sweet, very hot tea and savored our first glimpse of Calcutta. A young lady stood in a corner holding a cigarette between her fingers, bringing it to her lips with the exaggerated motions of someone who’s just started smoking; standing in a belligerent pose, almost daring comment, but nonetheless deliberately positioned behind sufficient debris that none saw her. We paid 12 rupees for two teas, 12 rupees for four puris and a portion of dal and continued to our rooms.

Tero Parbon serves a small but well put together menu  of authentic Bengali food, organised into courses.
Tero Parbon serves a small but well put together menu of authentic Bengali food, organised into courses.

I was chatting with Somnath RoyChoudhury on Facebook a few minutes after reaching our rooms. A graphic designer, Somnath lives in suburban Calcutta and advised us to try Tero Parbon for lunch, a meal that was barely an hour and a half away. That’s the problem with travelling. There’s so much to eat and so little time to do so. Even if time problems were solved, there’s the question of capacity and warning wives. We walked to Tero Parbon, about 10 minutes away from our rooms, reaching around 1pm. An old fashioned restaurant with light beige walls and dark furniture, the three of us loved the menu and proceeded to order our first Bengali meal in Calcutta – Mochar chops (banana flower croquettes), Macher chops (spicy croquettes of shredded fish), Beguni (batter fried slices of aubergine), Aloo Posto (potatoes and poppy seeds), Kosha Mangsho (curried goat), Shukto (a melange of vegetables, usually a little bitter, traditionally part of the first course), lucchis and rice, followed by Nolen Gurer Kulfi topped with a dollop of honey. Not a single morsel of food returned from that table; not a smear of gravy and not a bite of potato – we wiped everything clean!

Having slept for barely 3 hours that morning, we returned to our rooms and were dead to the world until half past five that evening, when we awoke, ready to eat again. This time however we landed up at Charis’ parent’s house, where we dug into a catered dinner of tomato soup with a spoonful of cream, and crisp, brown croutons, sweet and sour vegetables, chicken in Bechamel accompanied by buttered dinner rolls and buttered garlic bread followed by caramel pudding for dessert. I believe interesting people attract interesting people and Charis’ home was no exception. We met teachers, principals, priests, doctors and all manner of folks most intellectual in their pursuits. Having said that, it is always so nice to meet folks who can talk of something other than what’s in the papers and what they do at work every day. Hobbyists, I find, are a dying breed.

28th December

Indu and Smriti at Tung Feng. We found the food quite average and moved on.
Indu and Smriti at Tung Feng. We found the food quite average and moved on.

Breakfast that morning was Radhaballabi – refined flour pooris with aloor dum (Bengali style potatoes) – big chunks of potatoes, quartered, not diced, accompanied by hot, strong and sweet tea. Later, we met up with Sudip Srivastava and his lovely wife Smriti , fellow members of Chef at Large, for lunch and headed over to Peter Cat, a legendary restaurant off Park Street. It was alas spilling at the seams and so we made for Mocambo closeby only to find the same situation. Mediocre bowls of soup and a mediocre portion of Chili Chicken (I wanted to see how its done in Kolkata) at Tung Fong later, we were joined by Somnath Roychoudhury who bolstered our resolve to go Bengali for lunch at 6, Ballygunge Place. Our buffet lunch was lovely – Steaming hot Begunis and Radhaballabis were served at the table alongside a bowl of sliced Gondhoraj and green chilies, while our plates were piled high with steamed rice, grilled fish, curried fish, curried chicken, curried mutton, dal, spicy cauliflower and more. In retrospect, I really should have noted the Bengali names of the dishes.

Somnath (L), Sudip (R) and I outside 6 Ballygunge Place. We opted for the buffet and enjoyed ourselves.
Somnath (L), Sudip (R) and I outside 6 Ballygunge Place. We opted for the buffet and enjoyed ourselves.

Cocktails were planned for that evening, which turned out to be a time of fun and frolic for all concerned. Charis’ family came up to perform for the couple and all manner of talent was demonstrated for the benefit of all – specially choreographed dance performances, songs and what have you. This was followed by the opening of the bar, buffet and dance floor. Two large measures of Haig, a whiskey I hadn’t tasted before and two rounds of the live food counters later, we called it a night. Having said that, I did witness an appreciation of butter in the people behind the counters that I can only attribute to the Bengali love of good food. At one end of the counter, dinner rolls were being sliced, buttered and grilled on a hot griddle. The only difference was, *both* sides of the dinner rolls were being smeared with prodigious amounts of butter before being tossed on to the sizzling iron and then steaming, bubbling on to the platters of diners awaiting service. Where non-vegetarians find representation in the form of a token dish or two at such counters in Delhi, here, it was a meat-eaters paradise with delicious but fewer options for vegetarians. My perambulation of this area saw me coming away with multiple helpings of butter-grilled dinner rolls, kathi rolls stuffed with spicy mutton seekh kebabs, batter fried paneer, little shami kebabs of minced meat and steaming hot, soft slices of grilled fish among many other dishes, all washed down with mouthfuls of Haig on ice with a bit of water.

29th December

Pao Chien is a tiny little restaurant with a small menu that's chock full of delicious Indian-Chinese dishes.
Pao Chien is a tiny little restaurant with a small menu that’s chock full of delicious Indian-Chinese dishes.

Indu and I had one tattoo each, crafted by Raja Pyne in Kolkata in February of 2013 when we visited for Antara’s wedding. We decided to do one this time too, thus making both Antara’s and Charis’ weddings indelible marks on our arms. After a breakfast of lucchis and dal, we took an appointment from Raja for later that afternoon, and planned to visit Pao Chien, a Chinese restaurant recommended by Tirthankar Ray, Antara’s brother, friend and Kolkata based Sound Engineer. A tiny little place, Pao Chien had a nice menu, pork being given sufficient representation. We therefore split a Pork Noodle Soup, Pork Fried Rice and Fish in Hot Garlic Sauce. As expected, while there was nothing Chinese about the food, the preparations were tasty, the portions large as well as sufficient pork fat wherever desired.

Raja Pyne has a steady hand, follows hygienic practices and delivers.
Raja Pyne has a steady hand, follows hygienic practices and delivers.

Reaching our tattoo appointment just in time, Indu decided a Pentacle would go well with the round representation of Yin and Yang already on her forearm and I, a Triple Tau to accompany the existing Square & Compass. Poorna and Manjari were waiting for us at New Market by this time, both inveterate cooks and bloggers I had never met though Manjari and I had spoken a fair bit on the phone. Well acquainted with their posts on the Chef at Large Facebook Group, the picture that instantly pops to mind when I think of Manjari, is her Classic Victorian Sponge Cake. The first thing Poorna did, was to take us to Blue and Beyond, a restaurant in the Hotel Lindsay, with an unexciting menu, limp service and the most brilliant view of the city I had seen, which was why we were there. Ten minutes later, the entire landscape having been elegantly and exhaustively described by Poorna we headed for a trek through New Market where the most wondrous sights awaited us. With the indefatigable Poorna and Manjari leading, we witnessed all manner of goods being sold, stopping at a few select purveyors. The first was to pick up some Bandel cheese, a whey based, salted, unripened, soft cheese available in two varieties – normal and smoked, which Poorna suggested I pre-soak in water before using. The butchery started soon after where goat, duck, sheep, buffalo and chickens among other animals were brought to die for culinary causes. We bought garlic powder, tea, more cheese, Hungarian sausages, shoes and loads of stuff!

Poorna (C), Manjari (R) and I after both showed us a lovely glimpse of the city.
Poorna (C), Manjari (R) and I after both showed us a lovely glimpse of the city.

Dinner was at Mocambo, a restaurant that displays an interesting menu, but considering the staid service and poor hygiene of which, I now rate it at rock bottom and will never visit again. I spent the new year surveying the facilities available at various toilets at different locations in Kolkata and Delhi, thanks to the negligent, ignorant idiots who run that particular establishment.

30th December 2014

The Indian Museum, Kolkata. You must visit the Modeling Unit there.
The Indian Museum, Kolkata. You must visit the Modeling Unit there.

Cherie had been told about the Indian Museum, which she insisted on visiting today. This tied in well with our proposed lunch with Keerti Gupta at Peter Cat, alongside Park Street, a few minutes from the museum. After a breakfast of buttered toast and omelettes and some packing, we headed to the museum. One of the things I quite liked about Kolkata was the taxi system – yellow Ambassadors with meters, the drivers of which, mostly don’t refuse any destination, are numerous and easily found and reasonably priced to boot. We traveled by taxi every single day, multiple times a day, and never once waited on the kerb for more than a 3 minutes and only once found one who overcharged. The auto rickshaws on the other hand overcharge and are unmetered; just as in Delhi.

I found the Indian museum to be exceedingly well filled with people from all walks of life roaming its broad, high corridors, passing enthusiastic remarks directed at Egyptian mummies and preserved mastodons alike, making the entire structure buzz with activity. Delhi should learn a lesson or two and begin to adopt the more cerebral aspects of modern culture, limited as we are to restaurant menus and auto brochures as our only sources of reading material none of which can still talk knowledgeably about. The museum has a Modeling Unit which we visited too and found a treasure trove of beautifully crafted replicas of ancient carvings available at stunningly low prices. These we purchased, even at the risk of being late for our meeting at Peter Cat with Keerti.

Keerti Gupta, a Chef at Large member and her husband XXX who took out time to take us out to lunch.
Keerti Gupta, a Chef at Large member and her husband Prasenjit, both of whom took out time to take us out to lunch.

Reaching Peter Cat about 25 minutes late, we found ourselves at a restaurant arrogant enough to not allow patrons within, unless all of their party were present at the door. We later learnt this establishment to be owned by the same dummkopfs who own Mocambo. As suggested by many, I ordered the Chelo Kebab Platter, a lukewarm collective of cold rice, topped by two cubes of butter that never melted, barely warm seekh kebabs on one side, an almost hot poached/steamed egg and a cold chain of skewered chicken and vegetables on the other side. I don’t recall what Indu ordered, but it gave her a bad tummy later.

The owners of this establishment, have managed to discover one of the secrets of attracting people – deny them something and they want it more. Having done so, these morons have proceeded to build establishments based on this, dishing out utterly horrible food, equally awful service and free stomach infections to patrons, including me, every so often. Keerti and her husband Prasenjit on the other hand were delightful company who took time off from their respective offices to make that lunch.

Charis looked radiant and beautiful!
Charis looked radiant and beautiful!

Taking our leave from the engaging couple, we returned to our rooms, dressed and left for the wedding. Charis looked radiant, white plume and all, gracing us onlookers with a brilliant smile every now and then. A few hours later, the only real difference I found between a Christian (my first) wedding and a Hindu one, from a guest’s point of view, was the level of involvement. In a Hindu wedding, the tendency is to issue invitations to a pin code and here, to individuals. Subsequently, guests land up in droves and many leave without meeting the bride and groom – literally drive up, eat, drink and leave. At Charis and Denis’ nuptials, we were a part of the entire ceremony from beginning to end, actively participating in sections involving the singing of hymns and the like, and when concluded, we felt like a part of the whole, than mere bystanders, as has been the case in every other wedding I’ve attended.

Despite having filled up on food at the wedding, I stopped by this little restaurant called Grub Club on the way back and packed portions of roast pork with rice and chili fried pork, to be read with the latest Wilbur Smith; one of his Egyptian series.

31st December

Mrs. Ray whipped up a batch of Devilled Eggs - crisp, spicy and delicious!
Mrs. Ray whipped up a batch of Devilled Eggs – crisp, spicy and delicious!

The day Tirthankar and I had met, he invited all of us to his home for breakfast with his mother and father, a gracious couple we had had the pleasure of meeting, albeit in a wedding setting (so it wasn’t much time spent) in 2013 during Antara’s wedding. A delicious breakfast of freshly fried, crisp, soft and flaky koraishutir kachoris, potato curry and devilled eggs later we took our leave and returned to home base to the gargantuan task of packing – we were to leave Calcutta with considerably more than what we came with; indeed, we had to purchase a new suitcase to do so.

A light meal of Asparagus Chicken Corn soup and Chili Chicken at Grub Club later (the Bengalis don’t appear to add bell peppers to their Chili Chicken as we do in Delhi) we successfully completed our packing and left for the airport, where thanks to the generosity of the owners of Mocambo, I became intimately acquainted with the toilets both at the airport as well as the plane, running up a high fever by the next morning. We arrived at my brother’s home at 11:55pm, just in time to ring in the new year with them, thus concluding another very memorable visit to the City of Joy.


A Date With History

It was a far from ideal day on June 6, 1944 when 24,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops landed on the French coast at Normandy. Among them was a seventeen-year-old Sikh soldier of the British Indian Army. Seventy years and two generations later, his grandson visited the land the young man fought to free from the German occupational forces in World War II.

My grandfather was nearly half my age when he went to Europe as a British soldier to fight the greatest war in the history of mankind. He must have picked up some French genes that skipped a generation because I turned out to be a lover, not a fighter. I believe the love for wines and food with mild flavors is a result of that inheritance.

Everything looks familiar

IMG_0641 (3)
French staples: bread, cheese, wine

Being a millennial, I’ve long contested that people are the same everywhere. It might sound philosophical, but the more I look around, the more I realize the verity of the thought that perhaps we are at times just too petty or ignorant or just too preoccupied to notice. To a traveler, the sights and sounds may not be so unfamiliar. To a tourist, it’s a whole other world. Maybe it’s the effects of globalization but the sights in France reminded me of similar sights in India. Commercial vehicle dealerships along the highway from the airport all the way into town, trucks loaded with goods, a few eateries along the way. Only difference was that the place was cleaner and the traffic was far more organized than we can perhaps ever have in India.

Le Logis Grey Goose, the home of Grey Goose Vodka in Cognac, is set up like a homestay. An unmatched experience awaits visitors, thanks to the managers of the property, Jean-Sebastien and Nadia Melot, who greet and take care of visitors with the same gusto that you would find in any Indian, or for that matter French household.

The food

A friend once made an observation, that the local cuisine of any region is designed over generations to suit the needs of the local climate and environment. Apart from the availability of ingredients, temperature, air quality, water quality, and the general quality of life is reflected in the cuisine. To his point, he observed that during a visit to Punjab, in spite of his aversion to heavy meals, he ate the rich local food notorious for its copious amounts of butter and ghee just as much as his hosts, without ever getting the feeling of having over-eaten. Not the same when he tried to consume similar amounts in Mumbai regardless of the near authentic taste.

Fresh and local
Fresh and local

Food at the Logis is a beautiful, true-blue French experience, a cut above the rest. I was never a fan of French cuisine, having tried it at many different places in India and a few other countries, but never in France. I finally get what the racket is all about. Having never tasted real French cuisine is to blame perhaps. The local ingredients and expertise adds subtle nuances that are pretty much absent in the same preparation elsewhere. Each course, each morsel paired with a cocktail preparation took the experience to an entirely different level of awesomeness.

The French fetish for bread makes sure that the bakery at the Logis Grey Goose doles out a fresh batch each day. And my-oh-my, is it good! We even got our hands dirty and learned the secret of making the perfect loaf of French bread, thanks to the master baker, Nicholas. Turns out, I’m really good at baking bread.

The drinks

Of course, the drinks. We are talking about France, the shared home of cognac and Grey Goose vodka after all. Surrounded by vines of Ugni Blanc or Trebbiano for as far as the eye can see, Le Logis finds its own history entwined with the cognac of Cognac. Originally an estate that produced some fine cognac, Logis is now the home of one of the finest vodkas in the world, all thanks to Maitre de Chai, François Thibault.

We tasted three expressions of the cognac produced at the estate; a young, non-aged one that was playfully citrusy on the nose and palate and goes well in cocktails; a five-year-old expression aged in oak with soft amber color and mild spicy notes that suits well for an experienced palate and a ten-year-old aged in oak with stronger, bright color and notes of spice and flowers to match, that is the best night cap over a conversation by the fireplace.

Not to forget, we were in France and no French dinner is complete without a glass of some of the best wines in the world. What we tasted was a local Shiraz – very expressive, very layered and very inexpensive. Okay, I’ll agree to the fact that we were in the home of fine French wines, but there’s no denying the fact that I’m yet to have a wine that complex and layered for that price point.

Some more history

French food, the French way!
French food, the French way!

Turned out that the Logis is a former mansion maybe once owned by the Freemasons. Built in 1589, the main building bears the symbols used by the Freemasons that are an undeniable part of their identity. Two pillars by the doorway, clockwise winding staircase, the square and compass, east facing buildings –  all pointed to the fact that perhaps the mansion was owned by a Master Freemason. Seemed like I was the only one excited about that discovery as neither Jean-Sebastien nor Nadia had a clue to the importance of these symbols. It appears that Grey Goose had overlooked this part of the history that the brand now seems to be associated with.

Those who have had the [mis]fortune of knowing me personally over the years have long been baffled by my aversion to hot spices and affinity to subtle expressions in food and drink. So much so, that among the closest group of friends, apart from being called Latin Sardar, I have also been dubbed as “firang ki chhati aulad” (polite way of saying, a foreigner among Indians; let’s leave out the finer details though). With this revelation, I think it’s safe to say they have their answer now.

Overall, the food, the drink and the history of the place were far more than I bargained for. Although I could not visit the coast of Normandy, I am happy that I did get to visit France finally.

Columns Travel

Salvation In The Form Of Food

The holy city of Benaras is sacred to most Hindus. Situated on the banks of River Ganga, piety is a commodity that exchanges hands everywhere, whether it is at the ghats where funeral pyres burn day and night, or at temples were every puja is accompanied to the sounds of cymbals clashing together in orchestrated cacophony.

Navigating the streets of Benaras, or Varanasi as it was once called, is no easy task. Cows amble languorously while motorists dexterously avoid dashing into pedestrians, who in turn are blissfully unaware about their escape from imminent disaster. All because they are too engrossed wolfing down Gol Guppas or Dahi Bhallas sold by the many street sellers dotting the cityscape!

This is proof that just like any other Indian city, the people of Benaras too have a great appetite for good food.

However, did you know that the predominantly Hindu city of Benaras has a strong Muslim influence that extends itself not just to local professions but also the regional cuisine? Hard as it is to believe, one third of Benaras’ population is Muslim, most of whom are traditionally involved in the business of weaving, carpet making and cooking.

"Though spicy, the Benarasi Muslim cuisine has a lighter note when compared to its richer Awadhi counterpart," - Anup Gupta, Executive Chef of The Gateway Hotel Ganges, Varanasi
“Though spicy, the Benarasi Muslim cuisine has a lighter note when compared to its richer Awadhi counterpart,” – Anup Gupta, Executive Chef of The Gateway Hotel Ganges, Varanasi

Muslims came to Benares in the 12th century during the reign of the Delhi Sultanate, when Mughals ruled a major part of northern India. In the 16th century, Emperor Akbar helped the city regain its position as an intellectual hub. As more people visited Benaras to gain knowledge, the local cuisine evolved to accommodate the dietary preferences of Mughals, Awadhis, Hindus and East Bengali travellers.

Benarasi cuisine has two major components – the Shudh Satvik Brahmin food eaten by devout Hindus and the meat-dominated Muslim Gharana fare. The latter, which is an offshoot of Moghlai cuisine, consists of several meat and rice preparations like Kebab, Kofta, Korma, Kheema, Pulao, Biryani, Parathas, Halwa, Firni, etc.

Traditionally served in metal or ceramic crockery, diners would sit on the floor of an ornate dastarkhwan and use their fingers to polish off their meal of dishes like Gosht Biryani, Shammi Kebab, Haleem, Kheema Matar, Harey Dhaniya Mirch Ka Murg, Kanthal Ki Sabji and various home-styled chutneys of fresh produce.

The hallmark of this food is its rusticity in preparation and presentation, involving the use of fresh ingredients. Spices are freshly pounded to make masalas that are infused directly into the food to give it a distinctive aroma, rather than opting for the potli style (tying spices in muslin pouches), which is synonymous with Awadhi cooking.

Biryani, ready to be served at a streetside eatery. The layers of meat are always hidden under layers of rice.
Biryani, ready to be
served at a streetside eatery. The layers of meat are always hidden under layers of rice.

Though spicy, the Benarasi Muslim cuisine has a lighter note when compared to its richer Awadhi counterpart. In fact, the Awadhi cooking style’s importance is evident in this cuisine where the gravies are usually tomato and onion-based. But the local palate has equally inspired the cooking pattern at large. While rice-based dishes are usually cooked in the Dum style, gravies get the Yakhni treatment and are cooked with churned yoghurt and spices.

Over the years, the Gharana cuisine has considerately reduced the inclusion of meat into its dishes, out of respect for Hindus who live
cheek by jowl with Muslims in the crowded alleys of Benaras. In what is a significant departure from the Muslim culinary tradition, Gharana breakfast menus exclude meat to include dishes like Benarasi Kachori Bhaji, Channa Ghughani and Jalebi with Kullad Chai.

So if you are fortunate enough to be the guest at a local Benaras Muslim home, don’t be surprised to find Shimla Mirch Masaley Ki Subzi, Lauki Ki Shammi, Suran Kebab, Dal Dhuan, Dum Biryani, Zarda Pulao, Shahi Tukda and Sheer Seviyan on the menu. It will be quite a revelation!

The hallmark of the dishes like this 'Harey Dhania Ka Murg' is its rusticity in preparation and presentation, involving the use of fresh ingredients.
The hallmark of the dishes like the ‘Harey Dhania Ka Murg’ is its rusticity in preparation and presentation, involving the use of fresh ingredients.

One ingredient that is common to both Saatvik and Gharana cuisine is desi ghee. Use of packaged ghee is frowned upon in most Benaras kitchens, where the ladies of the house either churn the ghee themselves or procure it from their milk vendor. Another interesting fact is that saffron, which is the spice of choice in most Muslim delicacies, is missing from non-vegetarian Gharana preparations, though it is used without restraint in desserts and sweetmeats.

If you wish to savor this hitherto unknown cuisine in Benaras, your best bet would be to check out the smaller dhabas found in the Dal Mandi, Madanpura and Mehmoorgaj pockets of the city. However, if dining at a dhaba is not your thing, head to The Gateway Hotel Ganges at Varanasi, which specializes in Gharana cuisine. And you will experience tastes will explode every theory you have harbored about Muslim cuisine.


Sporting The Ford EcoSport

As we explore new horizons with CaLDRON, which, thanks to our readers is scaling new heights each day, we at the Chef at Large team keep tapping our feet in our endeavor to figure out what to do next that hasn’t been done yet. Trust me, it gets really annoying sometimes with all that tapping, especially with the Louboutins that some of us wear (not Sid and certainly not me, I’m referring to the ladies here). Regardless of occasional Louboutin induced annoyance, we’re determined to try out new things every now and then. In that pursuit, we thought about doing something we’d never done before – travel and eat our way through a weekend. It sure was a lot of eating for someone my size and not very proud to say, all the trousers had to be altered immediately upon return.

Nonetheless, the weekend, the drive and the food were awesome, especially when you have company like Sid, Indu, Cherie, Brandy and Simon. The road wasn’t all that less traveled. I mean, how many times have any of you traveled to Chandigarh from Delhi? Many times, I’ll wager. It’s a beautiful road with lots to explore on the way, especially the sights and flavors that come along with the package. But a brand new EcoSport from Ford India made all the difference to the journey.

Five people, three of them over six feet tall, luggage and a dog – how much more would one expect from a car? Well, here’s a report card.

The Car

The Ford EcoSport handles highways beautifully.
The Ford EcoSport handles highways beautifully.

Those who’ve had the pleasure of meeting Sid would agree with me that he is a big guy; a gentle giant opposed to my scrawny, visibly temperamental appearance. He’s about six foot six, Simon is about six foot three and I’m a measly six foot one, I look like a little boy in front of these two gentlemen. Nonetheless, while Simon and Sid took up the front seats, Indu, Cherie and I were lounging in the back with plenty of legroom for myself. This was a welcome respite as I had often heard about the EcoSport being a “driver’s car” – not true at all. Not only were we all comfortable up front, Brandy had plenty of room to curl up in the boot with the luggage and all the camera equipment we were carrying. So, this sub-four meter urban SUV does have plenty of space, yet is compact enough to navigate traffic with relative ease. There’s more than just the size of the car that contributes to the maneuverability of the Ford EcoSport.

The EcoSport looks aggressive enough with its styling and design, and is a dominating presence on the road without being menacing. The exterior paint and finish is of very high quality, given the price tag of the car. The windows and windscreens are well designed to allow a good 360 degree view of the road for the driver.

The interiors of the Ford EcoSport are stylish, modern and sleek.
The interiors of the Ford EcoSport are stylish, modern and sleek.

The interiors of the car are quite pleasing and Ford have done their best in giving the EcoSport a sharp and sporty feel. The lines and curves on the dashboard and instrument panel merge seamlessly and the instrument panel is placed very conveniently. Bluetooth connectivity for iOS and Android devices gives the added advantage of streaming music and making calls from these devices without the need of a cable. Buttons on the steering wheel provide easy access control to the music and connected device without the need of scampering around the cabin. Sid did take a call on his device using the car’s interface, but just to test it and does not recommend talking on the phone while driving at all. A configurable lane change indicator is an added feature that we noticed which can be configured to 3 or 5 blinks and is activated by pushing the lever through half way.

The upholstery is of good quality and the plastics used for the interiors is of much superior quality than most of the competitors. I know, we haven’t reviewed any of the competitors yet [sic], but we have done our research before making this claim about the EcoSport. Sid felt that the steering wheel was a bit too skinny, but then he has big hands that can crush a watermelon perhaps with relative ease. Side mirrors are easy to operate and can be done from the driver’s side, which is a standard feature for cars these days though they can’t be electronically opened and closed in the EcoSport – surprising. Now, only if people started using them properly. The reverse sensor is good and overpowers the music being played when needed. The three-way adjustable seats make sure that the driver is comfortable without causing discomfort to the passengers in the back seat. We were driving a stick-shift and the shift knob is placed ergonomically. Even with the adjustments required between Sid and I while we switched between driving and lounging, the gear shift was never a problem.

That said, a few little things that irked us were the missing grab handles above the doors on all passenger seats. Might prove to be a ‘handy’ addition. The cup holders were rather inconveniently placed around the cabin. While the stereo is decent in output, the equalizer does not give you the flexibility to customize the sound output at all. Someone like me who likes to fiddle with the stereo till I hear the perfect sound, that’s one feature that I sorely missed. Still, the stereo and the ride music bagged a couple of new fans for cheapskate Bollywood music in Simon and I. Back to the car, I felt that the pedals were placed a little too low for a comfortable drive while Sid thought that the dead pedal was too small, too low and not firm at all.

The Engine

All being well appreciated, power delivery at low speed was choppy and needs looking into.
All being well appreciated, power delivery at low speed was choppy and needs looking into.

Grand Trunk Road offers plenty of space to open up the throttle and see the horses under the hood at work. The 1.5L TDCi engine belting out 90BHp is a delight on the open road; it carried the weight of the car, the passengers and the luggage with relative ease. The throttle is very responsive and does not feel like a diesel car at all – the throttle response lag of a diesel engine being nearly completely absent. The five-speed manual gearbox was smooth and gear ratios well spaced and responsive. However, the fifth gear seemed very weak and obviously meant for cruising and high mileage only.

The very well designed instrument panel looks sporty; an indicator on the instrumentation gave the fuel consumption rate which often helped in adjusting the speed/throttle to optimum consumption levels.

Overall, the engine was very smooth and quiet through the cruise and throaty and sporty on accelerating. The car gave an average fuel consumption of little over 20 kmpl through the journey, which is remarkable for an SUV.

The Ride
The EcoSport’s ride quality is excellent. Minor bumps on the road go unnoticed while the car handles the larger bumps with ease. We took the car up the hill in the morning to do a little speed check with five people and Brandy on board again. At high speeds, handling curves is a piece of cake for the EcoSport. There was no loss of grip on the road as the car navigated tight mountainous curves at speeds of 80kmph, holding firmly on to the road at all times. The steering system with an electronic assist (EAPS) makes sure that the car stays in control at all times while anti-lock brakes and six airbags in the cabin provide an extra layer of security to the passengers. Having said that, the power delivery at lower speeds was very choppy and did not make it easy to navigate heavy traffic which the EcoSport should do given its role as an Urban SUV.

The brakes were excellent, Simon and I believed, both of us familiar with the long lineage of Ford’s muscle cars. The turning radius was awesomely small for a car that size, making an ‘S’ curve in not more than ten meters, a fact echoed and appreciated by all.

The Food

This Sikandari Raan from Pashtun in Sector 41 Chandigarh was awesome!
This Sikandari Raan from Pashtun in Sector 41 Chandigarh was awesome!

Of course, the food. Anyone ever traveling on the GT Road, going to Chandigarh would tell you that the first stop has to be Murthal for the legendary paranthas. A whole bunch of food lovers would not let go of such an opportunity. We therefore stopped and gorged at the stuffed paranthas and the unsalted white butter.

Simon’s heart was set on Nando’s chicken and we literally had to hunt down the place in Chandigarh as we arrived. I guess he was missing home. An Englishman with a penchant for spice and chilies was a bit surprising for me; I was more of a foreigner in the group with a delicate palate not fit for chilies. We ordered enough to feed a small country that afternoon.

Don’t know about Simon and Sid, I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. The chicken and the overall fare at Nando’s was not exceptional. Even the chilies/hot sauce were not hot enough to light me up (which happens more often than not to the amusement of my dining companions). The food at Nando’s was devoid of any real flavor and character, much like any other QSR.

All that changed the next day at Pashtun (erstwhile Khyber, Sec-41). Exceptional flavors in the most common of dishes, dal makhni and aloo-jeera and the awe inspiring presentation of the raan gosht made my day. I would go back for those any day.

The Verdict
The journey was fun, and the company and food, beyond belief. It must be the Punjabi hidden in me somewhere that yearns for a good, rich, hearty meal full of flavors that you find in the North. The Ford EcoSport is an exceptional car for an exceptional price point, real value for money. I’d buy that just to take it for one of those long drives that I love so much.

We’ll find something new to take out for a spin soon. Until then, au revoir Chandigarh.