Sunday, May 15, 2016

Eating and drinking my way through Kashmir

You know you’re in Kashmir when bed-tea is replaced by Kahwa in bed! Kashmir is a photographer’s paradise and a gastronomer’s dream! I had a great time sampling drinks and food from this region.  Read all to know what interested my taste buds!

Traditional Kashmiri Kahwa & noon chai

Since the day we checked into our BnB (Bloomingdale, Dal gate, Srinagar) till the day I left Kashmir, I made it a point to listen to our host, Mr Firdous’s advice and enjoy several cups of traditional Kashmiri Kahwa. This drink is enjoyed by the locals in the afternoon or evening, although Kahwa worked just fine as bed-tea!

Kahwa is a royal drink with ingredients such as saffron, honey, cinnamon, wlanuts and almonds lending it a rich aroma, lovely colour and texture.  With every sip of Kahwa, one can taste the ingredients perfectly blended and the powered/ cut walnuts/ almonds add a nice crunch.

Although we had Kahwa everyday at Bloomingdale, my favourite still is the Kahwa we had at a tea stall next to Zamindar store in Pampore (while one returns from Pahalgam to Sringar).   Unftunately I do not have a photo of the rich-royal Kahwa we had there :(

Kahwa is made in traditional yet lavish metal vessel called Samovar.  The vendor was kind enough to help me jot down the recipe for Kahwa and also share the secret ingredients (herbs grown in Kashmir) which are not readily available elsewhere!

Tourists who come to Kashmir fall in love with this drink.  If one wishes to carry an inexpensive memory back from Kashmir, I’d highly recommended buying a bottle of Kahwa pre-mix. Although fresh Kahwa is heavenly, the pre-mix is convenient and does its job of bringing you back a piece of Paradise right in your house!

Kahwa clearly overshadows and outshines another drink named ‘noon chai’. Locals usually have for noon-chai for breakfast with a piece of baked thick roti.  I have been told that this is the most popular and preferred breakfast!

Noon-chai is made with milk and also has a dash of baking soda and salt.  It has a peculiar taste and apparently one needs to acquire a liking for it – clearly not my chosen cup of tea. 1 cup Kahwa please….


Meat is an integral part of Kashmiri cuisine.  Most households get their weekly doze of protein from mutton, chicken or fish prepared with a flavourful curry to go with rice. Kashmiris also celebrate their food and take pride in a multi-course meal called “wazwan”.  It is made up of a combination of meats in curry, kebab, grilled form served with rice/ biryani and desserts such as phirni.  

Popular dishes in the wazwan which are also available as stand-alone orders in most hotels are rogan josh, rista (mutton meat balls in red curry), yakhni (mutton with curd based gravy), gustaba (meatballs in curd based curry), mutton seekh kebab, tabak maaz (lamb ribs),etc.

We were told that Kashmiris especially enjoy wazwan during wedding ceremonies where wazwan comprising of 10-15 dishes are prepared with the best ingredients and guests sit in groups of four to enjoy wazwan out of a huge copper plate.  We tried a slightly modest version of wazwan at Mughal Darbar in Srinagar and were impressed with how well the meat was cooked (although I did not enjoy the dense meatballs too much, the whole mutton pieces were succulent), the flavourful curries and the variety of kebabs.  Because the meat was heavy, we decided to flush down the food with lots of thumbs up! Burrp!

Road-side kebabs

While a plate of wazwan is grand and to be relished on special occasions, Kashmiris love to have hot kebabs as evening snacks/ during dinner with rumali roti/ green chatni by the side.  We sampled mutton, fish and chicken kebabs at a cemented square at Dal lake, between tulip garden and Dal gate.  

There were several kebab wala’s in the square but we tried kebabs at Naj’s  on our drivers recommendation.  For INR 40-60 a plate, these kebabs were a steal and perfect filler between tea and dinner.

Fresh trout

Introduced by the British, trout fishing is huge in Kashmir.  In fact angling enthusiast come here in summer and spring to catch some trout and eat it too. Kokernag, in south Kashmir is known for its trout farms.

We came across Café Inn, Pahalgam by chance and it happens to serve some of the bets trout preparations. I settled into the cozy and tastefully done café and ordered a butter lemon garlic trout for lunch.   While the chef was preparing the trout, we enjoyed sampling the thin crust pizza and carrot cake (delicious!).

Soon enough a full, medium size fried trout with lemon garlic butter dressing and exuded heavenly aroma was served to us.  A salad and lots of fries were served by the side.  The fish was succulent, yet the skin was perfectly crunchy and the dressing perfectly tied together the flavours. Although the trout dish was not cheap (approx. INR 730), but it was worth every rupees!

If you’re a vegetarian, fret not, the desserts/ pizzas at Café Inn will leave you wanting more. And the ambiance is perfect for a lazy lunch/ a date with a good book, just like I did!

Dried apple

We came across several apple trees/ orchards with pretty pinkish white flowers blooming in glory while driving across Kashmir in April.  Come October and all the trees will be laden with red plump apples weighing the branches down.  Traders from across the country will flock Kashmir to strike a good bargain and the best quality fruit will be exported. Factories also produce jams, jellies, preserves and juices from the tender apples.

Kashmiris love their apple and believe in using every part of it.  Until the apple season comes, they munch on thin slices of sun-dried apples (the top/ bottom of the apple) which are sprinkled with little sugar for extra zing! Dried-apples come in two variants - the sweet and the sweet-sour. We bought half a kg of the tangy sweet-sour variant while returning from Sonmarg and happily munched on it throughout the road trip. Nom Nom!

Goodies from bakeries at Dal gate

Bakeries are to Kashmir, what sweet shops (halwai ki dukaan) are to the rest of India.  These words by our host, Mr Firdaus (from Blooming Dale), when he welcomed us at his Bnb with top-notch biscuits, still ring in my ears. He also was kind enough to buy half-a-dozen mutton pattice from Jan bakery (Dal gate) for us to relish!

Everywhere we went in Kashmir we found several bakeries. In fact, even the smallest towns/village had its own bakery!

Bakeries serve everything from tea cakes, plum cakes, cake rusk, biscuits and mutton pattice (Jan’s bakery) to the fancy desserts inspired by French cooking (Le Delice bakery). My favourite baked goodie still remains the plain cake from Jan’s bakery – fluffy, moist and buttery!

Phirni and shahi tukda

I am not very sure if Kashmiris are into desserts, but I did see Phirni and shahi tukda on several hotel menus.  While phirni was fantastic at Raja Dhabha (on the way from Srinagar to Gulmarg), shahi tukda (at Mughal darbar) took me by surprise thanks to the topping of piped whipped cream, pineapple, cherries and chocolate flakes. 

Well, rather end on a sweet note with an outrageously topped dessert than something boring!              

And let's not forget....Maggi!

We ate maggi almost everywhere in Kashmir, the most memorable being at Sonmarg after hiking up the snow in our gum boots and losing our way!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

12 months 12 trips - Quarter 1 round up

I have a track record of breaking New Year resolutions within the first few weeks of January.  But what do you expect if the envisaged goals center on fitness, eating right, reading more, etc! However, this year my goal is far more engaging and completely driven by “wanderlust”.  I strive to take a trip every month i.e. 12 months 12 trips! Yes, as crazy as it sounds and as damaging it is to my bank balance, travel is what drives me.

Bekal Fort, North Kerala
I was mulling over this idea for a while now.  In fact, in 2015 I travelled quite extensively without such an ambitious travel goal [Jan – Thailand/ Cambodia, March – Udaipur and around & Delhi, April – Goa, June – Srinagar & Leh, Ladakh, July – Goa, September– Harne/ Murud, October – Hampi, Badami, Pattadakal & Bangalore, November – Dubai, December – Sri Lanka]. In summary I travelled in all months of 2015 except February, May and August which is a pretty exciting year of travel!

In 2016, I plan to take this love for travel to another level by traveling once each month.  The plan is to do a good mix of long vacations (full-time job does not permit otherwise!) and weekend breaks.  I also hope to cover a fair variety of mountains, beaches, architecture/ historic places and some adventure.

Thus far, I have taken 3 trips (errr….4 if you count a spill over trip from 2015) in the first quarter of 2016 i.e. one in each month.  Here is a quick round-up:

January 2016
Sri Lanka (the spill-over from 2015!)

New year fireworks at Hikkaduwa beach, Sri Lanka
Just like New Year ’s Eve in 2015 (Arc’s Bar, Koh Samui), I brought in this new year at a beach.  This time we were dancing and drinking away at a beach restaurant in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka.

Selfie at Blue Deep Diving Centre, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka


"All Ok", diving with the great instructors at Blue Deep Diving, Hikkaduwa
Hikkaduwa is a beautiful coastal town in Southern Sri Lanka.  We spent 4 glorious days here connecting with the ocean. Frolicking on the beach, watching turtles wade in the sea, trying our hand at surfing and exploring the zen world while reconnecting with scuba diving after nearly a year and so on...


Between the trips to the beach, we hogged on Sri Lankan hoppers, rotti, leisurely breakfast of pancakes, omelettes and fruits and lots of seafood!

Sunsets are grander at Hikkaduwa beach, Sri Lanka
The sunsets in Sri Lanka are grander and people are very warm.  The country owes a lot to tourism and has so much natural beauty to offer! I do hope to return here, maybe explore the east coast and Yala national park next time around!

Mangalore, Udupi and Bekal

Iconic light-house at Kapu beach, Udupi 
Karnataka is my new found love.  This time I set out to explore South-West Karnataka by beach bumming at the pristine beaches of Mangalore/ Udupi between sampling the Mangalorean cuisine (prawn ghee roast <3 content.="" heart="" nbsp="" our="" p="" s="" to="">

Must visit St Aloysuis Chapel, Mangalore
We also paid a visit to St. Aloysuis Chapel in the college campus by the same name. This Chapel is an architectural wander and has interiors in the Roman style. The paintings on the Chapel wall are intricate and very well preserved.  In fact, they do not allow photography inside! But This Chapel is a must visit!

Note two hot babes and iconic rock formations in the background!
It was end January and the region was very hot, but the numerous rounds of coconut water kept me cool. The most exciting part of the trip was St Mary’s island, where one finds strange rock formations made of basaltic rock supposedly when Madagascar broke away from Indian sub-continent.

Bekal Fort, North Kerala
We spent the last day of our trip at Bekal which is best known for Bekal Fort which juts out into the sea. 

Taj Bekal, you beauty!!
However, we made a quick trip to the fort and we were more than happy to simply unwind (in style!) at the Taj Vivanta property in Bekal (North Kerala)

My favorite part of our room, the swing overlooking backwaters, Taj Bekal 
The property is sprawling and boasts of an exclusive stretch of back-waters and it’s own private beach!  The earthy feel of the rooms with houseboat style roof, the traditional swing in the balcony overlooking the backwater and the swimming pool offering sunset views made our stay here very special.  

Swimming pool, backwaters and a sneak peak of the private beach!
To add to it, the hearty breakfast buffets and the chef recommended sea food for dinner at their sea-side restaurant while listening to the sound of the waves was the high-point.  

Backwaters, Taj Bekal
This property is the reason why so many people visit Bekal on a relaxing/ rejuvenating holiday.  No wonder it was difficult to part.

(Room for two cost us about INR 10,000/- = rates as on January 2016)

February 2016
Unravelling mysteries of Lonar crater, Maharashtra

Panaroma of Lonar crater
 It’s ironical how far and wide I travel, but rarely consider a trip in Maharashtra. Having read so much about Lonar crater (Buldhana district, Maharashtra), an action packed trip finally materialized just when February was bidding adieu. 

Unique rocks at Lonar
Lonar crater is one of a kind crater formed in basaltic rock some 50,000 years ago when a meteorite collided with Earth and left a deep burrow.  Today this burrow is a lake whose water is both saline and alkaline and is also a thriving habitat for birds and unique flora.

MTDC property, Lonar, Buldhana district, Maharashtra
We left Mumbai at 4 am and after driving through Malshej ghat, Aurangabad, etc finally made it to Lonar by 4 pm.  Lonar is almost 600 kms from Mumbai and it was very ambitious to do a one-night stay trip to Lonar, instead two night stay here is recommended.  We checked into the MTDC property (best stay option here and pre-booking is necessary), located at the periphery of the crater and quickly signed up with a guide to show us around the crater during sunset & guide us to a hike to the crater for sunrise the next day.

Viewing deck
We drove to the look-out point halfway across the MTDC property and enjoyed unobstructed view of the crater.  In photos, it just looks like a not-so-large green water body, but in reality the crater/ lake is huge with a diameter of 1.8 kms. 

Sunsets at Lonar
Thereafter, we visited the hanuman temple and enjoyed the sunset. Next morning was very exciting.  Our guide took us inside the crater and showed us around the numerous ruins of temples which dot the crater.  Some of the temples are being reconstructed, while majority are inhabited by bats! There are some temples which have carvings of figurines in Kamasutra poses, much like the UNESCO site of Khajuraho.

Green water of Lonar lake and winged friends
However, nothing beats the awesomeness of the lake, if you discount the strong odour of sulphur! The water is absolutely green and is covered by blue moss at several areas.  Early in the morning several winged friends were flying about of pecking on food along the lake which is why this lake is a birders paradise. There were also our predecessors (monkeys) playing about in the lush trees at the edge of the lake, trying their best to dodge the huge bee hives! 

Kamalja Devi temple, Inside Lonar crater
Most-touristy point of the crater is the Kamalja Devi Temple inside the crater. It sees a steady stream of devotees trickling in through the year.  We said our prayers and set off to finish our periphery inside the crater.  We ended the 4-hour walk at Gomukh temple where one can take a shower in the natural spring water which cascades down the artificially made holy-bath area.  Apart from the crater, we also visited the Daitya sudan temple (Vishnu temple with carvings akin to Khajuraho temples).

Our guide mentioned that the Lonar crater comes alive after monsoons, although the water level rises sharply.  A good enough reason to revisit? – only time will tell!

March 2016
Haridwar and Rishikesh

Meandering Ganges
Pilgrims are drawn to Haridwar, foreigners are charmed by Rishikesh/ yoga by the Ganges , well for me the biggest draw was rafting in the Ganges.  A cousin’s wedding in Haridwar was the perfect excuse to strike the rafting off my bucket list!  I spent 3 days and 2 nights in Haridwar of which majority time was spent in the weddings ceremonies and the balance in sight-seeing.  

Thereafter, we had a full day of rafting pre-planned (cost us about 2500 including vehicle and rafting the 24 kms stretch from Marine drive) on our last day. Our rafting company picked us up at out hotel in Haridwar and after driving for 1 hour we reached the office of our rafting company.  There we picked up our gear – life jacket, helmets and oar and set-off for a 45 minutes’ drive to Marine drive (starting point of our 24 kms rafting). The road was meandering and gave us stunning view of River Ganges throughout.

The gang!
At marine drive, we suited-up and got a briefing from our instructor.  Thereafter we set-off for a a few kms of lazy rafting, peppered with insane double rapids.  As the summer was just setting in, the water level in Ganges was quite shallow in parts exposing the rock-bed underneath and making rafting more dangerous.  Thus, having an experienced and friendly guide helped.

Our rafting route from Marine drive to Shivpuri (approx. 11 kms) took us about 2.5 hours whereby we tackled some popular rapids such as cross-fire, 3 blind mice, etc. Thereafter, we completed the stretch from Shivpuri to Rishikesh in another 2 hours. The rapids in this stretch were difficult and the rain/ thunder storm made it harder to row.  Luckily, the hot tea and vegetable maggi at the most-looked-forward to halt at Maggi point (approximately 3 kms short of Rishikesh) energised us.   The last stretch to Rishikesh was interesting with views of the numerous hotels/ yoga retreats dotting the river bed and the stunning views of lakshman and ram jhula. After finishing the 24 kms stretch of rafting, we were tired and socked to our bones and hot pakodas and mathris set us back on track for the return journey to Haridwar.

Overrated aarti at Ganga ghat
At Haridwar, we freshened up and went to Ganga ghat for the evening aarti.  The aarti was to start by 6:30, but even at 6 the crowds were maddening and the whole place was very chaotic.  The aarti itself was nothing remarkable.  In fact, the most enjoyable experience of the evening was eating hot parathas and washing it down with lassi for dinner at one of the many dhabas at Ganga ghat.

We did not get a chance to camp overnight at Rishikesh; however, I have heard it’s a lot of fun.  One can also do other adventure activities such as zip-lining and bungee jumping in Rishikesh.  Also, I would suggest going for rafting later in the summer months when water levels are higher and the rapids are even more challenging.

Quarter 2: April = Kashmir/ May = ? / June = ?

Coming soon :)


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