It was a bright Ladakhi afternoon and she was boiling Maggi when I first entered ‘Rangdum Hotel’, called ‘hotel’, even though it hardly seemed to have any guest rooms. It was lunch time, but one probably didn’t need a taste of the noodles to say that they were disappointing, a look at the pan was enough. They were soggy and unappetising, somehow devoid of all the life that a sunny summer day in Ladakh embodies. When she spoke, Read More
Serendipity. That’s the word. That’s what keeps bringing me back to this place. In all probability, even you’ve been there, done that. And each time you went, you decided not to come back. Enough of beaches, shacks and casinos, you told yourself. All in vain though. Next season, you’re back. If you live in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore or have simply visited it multiple times, you know I’m talking about Goa. Frankly, I don’t even know why I have been to Goa as many times, each time deciding not to come back. The only reason that I can think of, as I write this, trying hard to look for one, is this whole ‘Serendipity’ thing. You know, when you go to a place and find something altogether unexpected ? Something awesome, which perhaps makes the entire trip & its experience come alive. Even after decades of wooing Indian (& of course Russian) tourists, Goa retains the ability to deliver this ‘thing’ each time you visit it. Goa, my friend, is only as old as the traveller in you.
And so, here I list down some of the more interesting (or delicious) ways of experiencing Goa that I came across on some of my last visits. Let’s see if these have featured in your umpteen trips to Goa. :)
A.) Slept There? – How about sleeping (if at all you do that in Goa!) at a youth hostel?
Now, this whole thing about youth hostels is hardly as much a phenomenon in India as say Europe or South America. But off late, we do see some brave & enterprising souls taking the plunge. The Asterix hostel in Vagator represented one such beginning. Clean, inexpensive and above all, a good place to meet other travellers. In the two days I stayed there, I met an Argentinian, an Australian, an American and, needless to say, a few Indians. Thing is, I can’t find it online now! A bit of google search seems to tell me, it’s now replaced by the Prison Hostel. (I haven’t yet been there but it seems to be run by the same guy as Asterix). Now that the hostel culture is finally catching up in India, why not try it once? It can be a whole new way of exploring Goa than the beach side shacks you may anyways have stayed at countless number of times.
B.) Woke up There? – How about waking up with a Breakfast at Cafe Inn?
By all means, my favourite beach in Goa remains Palolem, even after all these visits. Apart from the secluded location, scenic vistas, and clean waters, it is the presence of some really good eateries in the vicinity that draws me back. Most of all, Cafe Inn, just after the final left turn to the beach, serves a wonderful breakfast. I’ve been visiting them ever since they were a modest establishment and even now, when the cafe has expanded into far larger seating area, they continue serve one thing best – their Peanut butter croissant, the freshest I’ve ever had.
Where? – Palolem Beach Main Road. Go straight instead of taking the left for the beach.
C.) Shopped in Anjuna?? – How about spending an evening at the Arpora Flea Market?
I haven’t understood this. People have talked so much about the Anjuna flea market. Truth is, the Arpora flea market is the big daddy of all flea markets I’ve seen. It’s full of – I don’t have a word to describe it – lets just say, arbitrary stuff. From absolute junk, that’d force you to invent a use for it before buying, to musical instruments, to cuisines of the world ranging from Bulgarian to Belgian to Punjabi, the market has almost everything to ensure that you’d rather party here than at an expensive club elsewhere. And, there are live music performances too. It’s probably the one place where local tribes and the firang hippies of Goa come together as an enterprise. You have to be there to know it.
What – The Saturday Night Flea Market
Where – Arpora, North Goa. Be prepared for traffic jams on the road. (& in Goa, they happen after midnight!)
D.) Ate there? – How about eating to your stomach – no – heart’s content at La Plage?
The La Plage at Aswem is like going to a good friend’s big fat wedding. It has all the ingredients, a huge setting in vivid colours, an exotic menu, a caring crew, the peace to sit around & have a wonderful conversation with friends, except that the food isn’t free (not even inexpensive). But then, if you are at Aswem, I’d assume that you weren’t looking for cheap stuff anyways in the first place. A hearty meal at La Plage followed by a walk on the clean beach just beyond the restaurant is one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had in Goa. I suggested it to my food-blogger friend from Beingdesh and this is what he had to say after being there – Am I at Sea?.
Follow this up with a dessert at Cafe Nu in Mandrem. Though the menu has a lot of gastronomic delights to offer, but I can vouch for at least the Chocolate Ganache that I had. Their gooey chocolate filled in extremely thin phyllo dough rolls served with scoops of ice-cream will simply melt in your mouth. It is probably the best dessert I’ve had in a long time (And this comes from someone who has raved about the desserts of multiple countries on this blog several times earlier) (Read : Veg-tripping around Turkey & Of Sweetness That Travels : Dubai )
La Plage in Aswem
Café Nu, Mandrem. Keep an eye out for the sign boards for Café Nu on the road to Mandrem beach.
E.) Swam there? – How about swimming in a lake & paragliding at Arambol?
Yes & no, respectively. Yup, I tried the paragliding and came back with a close to surreal experience. But only later did I realise that I hadn’t asked my pilot if he had any certification, not even for experience for that matter. Was it a registered company? I don’t know. Frankly, I’d suggest against it. Unless you’ve ensured that the company you are flying with has convincing credentials & you are willing to risk it. Do go around the ghetto-esque setting of Arambol though, towards the north, to discover a tiny fresh water lake behind its hills & maybe take a dip or two. Goa is all about discoveries anyways. Isn’t it?
Happy Rediscovering! What are your Goa Secrets?
I turn this dripping sweet upside down and place it in my mouth. With a sound of crunch, as the top of the pastry crumbles over my teeth, the heavenly baklava melts in the palate. An invincible mixture of its butter and sugar syrup takes over & seems like I’m experiencing the whole of Turkey and its Ottoman cuisine all over again, albeit sitting miles away in Mumbai, in this single piece of Baklava sourced from Istanbul. I have a great urge to start this food trip description with Gaziantep, for it is from there, that the greatest of Turkish baklava makers originated, even those who are today known as the best in Istanbul, and still reside. However, I must resist, for good food has the power to sway our senses far far away. And so, I’d rather stick to tradition here and start where we should, breakfast.
Fly to the far East in Turkey, stopping only miles short of the border with Iran. Van, the beautiful city situated besides a lake of the same name, has distinguished itself, not just in being the center of the Kurdish populace but also in having a breakfast culture of its own. Choose the Kahvalti Salonu (breakfast salon) in the morning and leave exploring the vistas of the city to the day. And with that, dawns the realisation that breakfast, in Turkey is an elaborate affair, more like an occasion for the family to sit together and eat. With different varieties of cheese, including ‘peynir‘, olives (both black and green), kaymak (Turkish version of clotted cream), cacik (similar to Indian raita) with bread, honey, salads, fruits and even dry fruits, the Turkish breakfast ensures a wonderful start to a day of exploration of the old towns; needless to mention the ubiquitous ‘cay‘ (tea) to lend further zest to the morning.
A quick thought for vegetarians though, Kahvalti may typically consist of a few meat items as well. In that case you can try telling them ‘Ben bir vejetaryen’ which translates to ‘I am vegetarian’ or also try ‘Tavuk, et ve balik yemem’. (Tavuk, Et, and balik are Turkish for chicken, meat & fish respectively, ‘yemem’ for ‘I do not eat’. Beware though, saying ‘yemek’ instead of yemem can mean ‘I eat’!)
From the far east, head to the interiors, and probe the heart of Turkey a little. Land at Kayseri and change some buses to reach Goreme, where the valleys and caves have preserved more than just a landscape. And while you move from one cave city to another within Goreme, step into one of the restaurants to have the humongous lentil burger. A scrumptious one with a patty of lentils at its core, adorned with some onions and other leafy vegetables, it is a perfect meal to bring your craving for ‘local’ vegetarian food to a halt. And the Lentil soup, as the name suggests, is vegetarian to the extent of being almost identical to the Indian Dal. At those times when you really can’t think of much at a Turkish eat out, just order a bowl of this soup and some rice, and you’ll be alive and kicking again to explore the next cave city (Yes, there are more than one of them). At night, get drunk on some Cappadocian wine, unless you have a hot air balloon flight the next morning, in which case you really wouldn’t want to be hung-over (literally!).
A trip to Turkey would be rather incomplete without a visit to one of its several pristine beaches, the colour of whose waters gave modern vocabulary the word ‘Turquoise’. From Goreme, head west in a bus to Oludeniz. But break in between. For it’s in Anatolia that some wonderful Turkish foods are to be found. To believe me, try the Testi kebabs – cracker of a dish from central Anatolia. The vegetables are slow cooked in a sealed clay pot to prepare a hot stew, which is then eaten with rice and some salad. But the delight of the dish lies in the way it’s served – cracked open with a hammer in front of the eater! Definitely calls for an experience. Doesn’t it?
And meanwhile, at all those places your bus stops, feast your way to some Gozleme, Turkish handmade pastry, much akin to the Indian ‘Paratha‘ and have it with Ayran, thick butter milk with lots of froth dangling over your glass. There are Gozleme varieties galore for vegetarians, Spinach Gozleme, Peynir Gozleme, Spinach & Peynir Gozleme, Potato Gozleme (yes that almost amounts to saying Aloo Paratha) or all of them. But decide soon among them because, my friend, there’s a bus to hop back on to! Did warn you, good food can sway your senses away.
Once you have soaked into the sun on the most fabulous beaches in Oludeniz, near Fethiye, head a little north along the coast. Cross over from Aydin to Selcuk. You are closer to Greece than ever before, geographically and may be, just maybe, culturally. And so, even though these may not be a Selcuk speciality per se, try the Yaprak Dolma – Stuffed grape leaves, which have been signature Mediterranean food for years. Annia Ciezaldo in her book ‘Day of Honey’ calls the dolma, a narrative dish, like short stories, where each ingredient speaks as the package unfolds. The good part is, dolmas are usually vegetarian, with a stuffing of rice inside grape leaves (their non-vegetarian cousin is usually called ‘Sarma‘). There are other dolmas as well, basically stuffed vegetables. They’ll make for a good change in taste, and a good conversation, as you open each leaf and devour the stuffing inside. After all, they are a narrative dish :)
Now, I want to you to take several steps back, closer to the border with Syria. Fret not; it’ll be worth the effort since we are talking about the most important part of the meal, the dessert. And for that we’re heading to the birth place of the Turkish Baklava, Gaziantep (or just Antep). It’s said that the baklava of Gaziantep is impossible to make anywhere else owing to the weather conditions and the nuts found there. Layers of filo pastry with multiple layers of nuts in between, dripping with syrup, ready to melt in your mouth, the moment you eat. Baklava, for any food lover, is a journey in time and space alike, with its varieties (Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, Lebanese and even Greek!), its origins, and the claims laid by different Middle Eastern countries to its origin. (Yes, it is that important a thing!). Though there are several chains in Istanbul selling them, one would do good to eat Baklava from one of the smaller outlets in the other Turkish towns. They are equally lovely and cheaper! (Heck, everything is, outside Istanbul).
And finally, arrive in Istanbul, where the culinary greatness of the entire Turkey flows through the waters of a certain Bosphorus. It is here that the kebaps of Anatolia, its pilaf and its lentil soup, the baklavas of Antep and the legends of its Ustas, the leaves of Dolmas and the tales of the Mediterranean that they behold, the Turkish coffee and the fortunes of the future, the coffee houses and the stories of the past, the Dondurma ice cream of Maras and the tantrums of its sellers, the breakfast salons of Van and their inherent diversity, all come together to make Turk Mutfagi what it is today!
A previous version of this post was published on The Shooting Star – A Vegetarian in Turkey.
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Have you been to Turkey? Share your impressions of the food there.
‘Halva??’ remarked my friend, wondering if it referred to the same thing as the one he was used to eating in India. I answered in affirmative. This would be any food lover’s eureka moment. I had mine when I travelled to Turkey. And ever since, I have been enamoured of the idea of how sweets have travelled across kingdoms and civilizations over centuries. Like this instance. This wasn’t India. This was, however, a moment when three Indians were sitting at a Persian restaurant in Dubai and wondering how ‘halva‘ made it to this menu.
As I sit down to finally share the ‘sweet’ moments of my Middle east trip, I take a second to wonder what makes sweets so special? What is it that makes the Cadbury advertisement in India say ‘Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye‘ (‘Lets have something sweet’) before an auspicious occasion? Why is it that festivals, across peoples, regions, religions, whether they be Christmas, Eid, Diwali or even the Chinese Mooncake festival, are marked by the preparation and consumption of sweets? Why is it that a humanity which subsists itself on salt (salary, the word is understood to have come from ‘salt money’), finds the expression of its utmost happiness in sugar? How is it that sweets such as Halua/Halwa/Helwa, Zlabia/Zlebia/Jalebi and Baklava/Paklava have made their way across nations, each nation adding its own identity to the sweet, a modicum of saffron added here, a bit of pistachios sprinkled there, sometimes just a nuance added to the preparation while sometimes altering the sweet altogether? Among all this, what does prevail, is the inherent sweetness, cutting across barriers of societies, in some ways akin to the goodness of people, which has kept civilizations in co-existence over millennia. No wonder, sweets end up representing the good.
As I continued to explore the rich associations of these foods tendered sweet by human interactions over ages, my travels took me to the middle east. Here I just share a glimpse of some of those wonderful sweets that made me admire the food culture of Dubai & the middle east in general. If you like sweets, there’s little doubt that you’ll like what you see next. If you don’t, I hope the pictures that follow help you reconsider :)
This I believe, is similar to (or exactly same as) what the Greeks call Loukumades. This was being prepared at a desert excursion we went to. The very first bite of these delectably honeyed fried dough balls is enough to ensure you do not stop at the first one. Very frankly, I cannot remember the count of how many I ate.
A cake made with what we call reva or semolina. Made soft & gooey with the addition of syrups, it’s a must taste on a middle east trip. And if the usual one is too sweet for you, try the ones with date fillings or the ones with coconut sprinklings.
For me, this is the king of all sweets middle eastern. It’s crunchy, it’s full of nuts and yet it’s soft. One of those sweets, which’ll simply melt in your mouth as soon as you eat them. Do NOT eat the local ones you may find in your cities. Come to a middle eastern town to enjoy the fresh ones prepared every day. They come in varieties Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, Iranian and with fillings of all the nuts you can imagine, pistachio, almonds, walnuts. Diamond shaped, square cut, rectangular, rolled over, round, you’ll have your hands full if you like baklava.
And some more…
A sweet start to the day
I know one can’t really call them sweets, in the strict sense of the word. But they are worth craving for. The pancakes with Maple Syrup at the Arabian Tea House Cafe in the Bastakiya quarter (which otherwise also, if a wonderful place to visit) are a vegetarian’s delight. Yes, they are eggless and don’t seem to go wrong anywhere.
And finally, a bit of these as well..
The Cheesecake Factory in the Dubai mall is a dessert lover’s paradise. They willingly let you have a look at their menu, which goes on and on with descriptions of the most sinful desserts. Wonder if anybody has ever been able to resist having these desserts..
The Oreo Cookie Cheesecake topped with Oreo cookie mousse and chocolate icing. Descriptions and views such as these fill your senses at the Cheesecake Factory :)
Suggested Eating : All the above and the Kunafa, Mammoul, Ummali that I could not have :)
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Have you too been to the Middle East? Did you too like any of these or other foods? Is there a history associated with any of them?