A Week in God’s Own Country–Stop 1: Kerala Farm Organic Spices

When we told our friends in Chennai we wanted to do some sightseeing, they all said, “Go West–to Kerala!”

“Never heard of it,” we said.

“It’s beautiful,” they replied.

While we were mulling over this possibility, we met a fellow hotel guest who happened to be from Kerala. I told Sandhya we were thinking of visiting Kerala, and she turned travel agent on the spot.

“You must go. It’s like nothing else you’ll see in India. First you should go to Munnar, spend two nights, then to Thekkady, take a boat ride and stay a night in the tiger preserve, then Marari Kollam, and then a night on a houseboat.” Continue reading

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A Week in God’s Own Country, Stop 3: The Tea Museum

Note: Please look two posts down for Stop 2. I’m not sure why it isn’t appearing here.

Following our walk through the tea fields (See A Week in God’s Own Country, Stop 2), and while Brian was hard at work grading assessments, Brianna and I went to the KDHP Tea Museum to see what happens to tea after it leaves the fields (no pun intended).

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St. Thomas Mount and the Holy Apostles Convent and Baby Home

St. Thomas Mount, situated near the Chennai airport, is the closest historical site to the Radisson Blu Hotel, where we spent the first five weeks of our stay in India. Having visited sites all over the city, it seemed obligatory to tour the Mount before moving to our apartment an hour away.

Accordingly, Brianna and I booked a cab and set off for the hill which is said to be the place where the Apostle Thomas often spent time in prayer and where he was martyred. We shortly turned off the busy six-lane street that runs past the hotel and into the tree-lined winding lanes of the army cantonment first established by the British.

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A Week in God’s Own Country, Stop 2: Munnar

The driver arranged by my new Indian friend living in Moscow met us promptly at the train station in Cochin. We made directly for the mountains, after stopping for breakfast at the Royale County Hotel on the KRL Road in Tripunithura. The servers waited most attentively, and the South Indian-style buffet was quite satisfying; the coffee was the best we’d had yet.

Then on to Munnar, stopping first at the Kerela Farm described in A Week in God’s Own Country, Stop 1. I had read in a guide book that the primary reason to visit Munnar is the tea fields. Without my friend’s urging, I might have left it off the itinerary; I’m so glad I didn’t.

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Dakshinachitra Heritage Museum

Dakshinachitra is a gem–a beautifully executed exhibition of South Indian culture about an hour south of Chennai on the East Coast Road. Brianna and I and two of her friends four hours there. We could have stayed all day, touring the authentic homes reconstructed in the midst of clean, landscaped grounds, viewing the art gallery, doing crafts. And we didn’t even make it to the playground or the bookstore.

The various museum buildings comprise Hindu, Muslim, and Christian homes that formerly belonged to merchants, agriculturalists, and fishermen. Well-placed placards in English and Tamil provide just the right amount of information on the architecture and interiors.   Continue reading

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Sunny Sistems, The Art Company

A few weeks ago Brianna and I were wandering about in the vicinity of Gandhi Nagar in Adyar (Chennai) in search of a bookstore and/or ice cream, when we passed a sign for Sunny Sistems, The Gallery. I started to pass by the residential-type building in pursuit of our mission. But, curious, and thinking it could be a good place to ask directions, we turned back.

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Books in Chennai, Part III: Higginbotham’s

This third post on Books in Chennai is a bit delayed, but the visit wound up the week that included visits to two other literary destinations, chronicled in Books in Chennai, Part I: Anna Centenary Library and Starmark  and Books in Chennai, Part II: Kid Lit.

Higginbotham’s, reputedly India’s oldest extant bookstore, was established in 1844 by Abel Joshua Higginbotham. Despite the fact that the establishment looks a little the worse for wear–both inside and out–I made some good book discoveries. (If you don’t have time to read the whole post, skip to the end–I saved the best for last.)

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India-in-Your-Pocket Cookbooks

We’ve enjoyed Indian food so much that I wanted to take some cookbooks back with me, both to use myself and to share with friends. However, a couple of hardcover cookbooks with glossy pages and color photos can really weigh down one’s luggage. So I was delighted to find a collection of pocket-sized cookbooks at the Phoenix Mall Starmark last week. They feature full color illustrations (so you know what you’re making), measurements in American quantities, and a variety of recipes ranging from simple snacks to complex entrees.

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A Dosa a Day

The wall of the Vasanta Bhavan restaurant in the Phoenix Mall caught my attention soon after our arrival in Chennai:

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Recently I began to take this advice to heart. We can get these crisp, satisfying crepe-like creations fresh from the griddle at the Radisson Blu Hotel breakfast buffet. As previously mentioned in Food, Glorious Food, dosas are generally eaten with a side of sambhar and three chutneys: coconut, cilantro, and tomato. Continue reading

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Poori and Vasanta Bhavan Hospitality

When I first heard about the Phoenix Mall, I thought, with smug superiority, that I would have no need for an upscale mall replete with Western-brand stores and a Walmart-style supermarket in the basement. I would be shopping at Indian stores.

However, when Brianna was invited for a play date in the Phoenix Mall vicinity, I found myself back for the second time in three days and the fourth time in three weeks. The mall boasts an abundance of women’s boutiques, each with an array of stunningly elegant dresses that Indian women seem to wear for everyday, and I welcomed the chance to browse with no husband or child on their own agenda.

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For lunch I sought out the Vasanta Bhavan of “a dhosa a day” (see previous Food, Glorious Food post). We had tried to eat there once before on a Saturday and found the line prohibitively long. However, on a Monday at noon (early for Indian lunch), I was one of the first to arrive.

Again I questioned whether a woman dining along would be considered, at best, eccentric. But while I ate, at least three other single female diners came in, as well as a group of three young women.

After  querying my server on types of dhosas and descriptions of optional sides, I ordered a plain dhosa with raita (yogurt with chopped onions and cilantro). One of the condiments I had inquired about was “poori,” but after being told that it was quite spicy, I intended to dismiss it. This must have been lost in translation, because the poori arrived with my dhosa, and I soon had reason to be thankful.

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Poori is on the right, sambhar, a thin vegetable and lentil soup always served with dhosa, is on the left.

Poori is a powdered mixture of one or more kinds of dahl (lentils) and spices, mixed with oil or ghee (clarified butter). It was a bit crunchy, only mildly spicy, and delicious. It reminds me a bit of dukkah, a Middle Eastern blend of spices and sesame seeds combined with olive oil and eaten with bread.

Thinking I detected a hint of nuts in the poori, I asked my server, who brought the sous chef to my table. He explained that the spices were mixed with sesame oil. The chef, Mohanram, then insisted on bringing a “small” bit of rava dhosa for me to sample. A rava dhosa, he explained, has semolina (a form of wheat, I think) flour added to the rice batter, along with some spices—in this case peppercorns and cumin, as well as bits of carrot.

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My sample of rava dhosa, complete with sides.

I have seen dhosa mix in the store, but Mohanram assured me that Vasanta Bhavan dhosas are made in the traditional manner. For more about dhosas see, the next post, “A Dhosa a Day.”

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Mohanram, third from right, and his team. Don’t overlook the kitchen guys in the back, who were eager to get in the photo. The young woman was my smiling server.

Mohanram told me he is the head chef at this particular Vasanta Bhavan, one of perhaps a dozen around Chennai. He recently returned from two years in Canada, where he worked at Red Robin and on a British cruise line.

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Assorted condiments and raita

Even without all this special service, I would have given the restaurant high marks for cleanliness, cheery ambiance, courteous staff, and delicious food. As a foreigner who is easily overwhelmed by a multitude of options, I also appreciated the simple but fully adequate menu, complete with kids’ items.

As soon as I had paid for my lunch—just under $2—I made straight for the Big Bazaar department store in the basement, where I asked for, and found, “idli poori.” The ingredients read: “gramdahl, black gramdahl, sesame seeds, chili, salt, garlic, compounded asoefotida (edible gum, maida, hing, mustard oil) [this will be the subject of a later post], curry leaf, refined ground nut oil.” Hmm, is that peanut? I decided to hold out for a different concoction, just in case. In any case, I’m looking forward to trying poori at home.

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