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Over and over again as I traveled in India I felt the shortness of my visits. There were *always* uneaten meals, markets unvisited, foods untried. So similarly went Hyderabad, where I only got to eat haleem once. And if you’ll allow me to complain a little, not even a very good example. This

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was from here

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Rainbow Restaurant. Rainbow is one of a couple of places that serves haleem year round. (It’s normally a specialty of Ramazan.) While better versions must be a great delicacy, of slow-cooked mutton and wheat, this was mostly gluey and bland. I could have eaten it like porridge with a spoon, but I ordered a fresh baked bread to scoop it up instead.

I actually tried very hard to get the well-regarded version of haleem at Pista House. But while Pista House is a multi-national chain, on the day I visited to taste theirs, they were closed. Dubai, yes; Hyderabad, no. Hum. I settled for a box of sweets.

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I had hired a private car (to circumvent the rickshaw strike) and driven across town at great expense for nothing!

Or at least, almost nothing. Or…..rather…..a great and wonderful pleasure.

My driver made an unexpected stop at the incomparable Chowmahalla Palace. If you’re visiting Hyderabad, go there. It’s really fantastic. And I’m not into this sort of thing.

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Descriptions of the lives of the Nizams pale when you marvel before the extravagant dioramas in this museum. The fantastic details, the jeweled embroidering, riches, governance, more riches. Have you been in a room with a hundred chandeliers before? Like here? A hundred chandeliers made of a thousand facets each?

Perhaps that’s an apt comparison for one of the pinnacles of India’s cuisines, biriyani. I hope my euro-american friends who are reading this will take a leap beyond the greasy and gross versions availiable in restaurants here (I mean Portland) and imagine the sophistication and elegance you can taste in India. Especially in Hyderabad. Biriyani is a dish like a roomful of chandeliers. I tried two versions in Hyderabad.

Paradise Restuarant in Secunderabad (up north) is well known. It’s a sprawling restaurant with many sub-venues. I especially enjoyed sitting on the terrace and watching the street below buzz with activity as I ate.

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Hyderabadi biriyani is served with two side dishes, normally. Mirchi ka salan (a sauce of green chillis and nuts) and raita. You can see those behind the rice. And notice the chicken format: a whole leg.

Paradise’s biriyani is excellent, but even excellent-er is the biriyani at Shadab. I mean, IMHO! I’m a biriyani neophyte! I thought the rice was subtly spiced, but rich in flavor, and not too ghee-laden.

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Shadab is just north of the Charminar in the old city. I like the nifty interior, too.

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Perhaps in anticipation of the sweets I would soon be enjoying in Kolkata, I had my share of sugary things in Hyderabad.

Thrice I ate khubani ka meetha, Hyderabad’s famous apricot compote. As I already noted, I’m afraid my favorite version was eaten at Legend of Sikandar in Bangalore, courtesy a Hyderabadi ‘expat.’ At Southern Spice I ate this deep, sweet monotonous bowl:

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Shadab’s version was good:

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Our Place offered the most nuanced flavors, a hint of spice and a drizzle of cream.

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I really considered trying the khubani ka meetha at Paradise, just for comparison, but how much could I really eat? That’s a lot of apricots. Instead, I had their kulfi, and I’m glad I did. It was delicious.

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The magic of dairy in a clay pot is wonderful. I don’t know why it’s so aesthetically pleasing, but the texture of kulfi in a rough, cold terracotta bowl is something every food lover should enjoy at least once.

Osmania biscuits are a specialty of Hyderabad. The older Irani chai shops, whose popularity is waning, each offer a version of the light, not-quite-sweet and flaky cookie.

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These were from the Banjara Darbar. I hope there’s a future for this little pastry in the face of the new coffee gigachains.

The last sweet thing I enjoyed in Hyderabad was my friend Falooda at Shadab:

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Scented syrup, rich milk, pistachio ice cream and crunchy-jelly takmaria (soaked basil seeds). Nummy. I totally ate this whole glass with a huge plate of biriyani!

Just fifteen minutes ago I’d taken off my pants for the evening to settle down and write about how magnificent Coorg is.  You will never be able to imagine my horror unless you’ve survived a similar experience.  *I* can hardly imagine my horror, and it’s still recent and ripe. 

Do you recognize these? 

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For the sake of my gentler friends I’ve chosen a bloodless photo (and for my myriad non-gentle friends, send me a note and I’ll email you a copy of the real mayhem) but it’s testament nonetheless.  On my trip today to taste honey and pork, to see green cardamom plants and greener coffee beans I was crawled upon and sucked by a leech. 

Oh god.  Do you know?  The horror of a leech is that they do their crawling-on-your-body completely unbeknownst to you.  They only leave behind a sickening calling card that they’ve visited.  This one had to jump up past my sneaker, up past my sock , almost a full HANDSPAN above my ankle.  (That is, in the area of my very heart.) All the while, under the cover of my thick denim jeans. 

I can still see it, though I hadn’t seen it, working its awful, slimy way up my leg, just like in that David Cronenberg movie.  Crawling, inching, sneaking–to have it’s way with me. I can see that too, the rotten thing wallowing in my blood, confident of my ignorance, squirming–squirming not just like a worm but squirming with pleasure.  Getting fat and juicy.  I bet they somehow get slimier as they bloat up with blood.  Then, so as not to tip their victim off, they dribble off like a thick gob of spit sliding down a sleeping invalid’s chin. 

And you would never know they’d been there, or that they’d drank your blood. 

But.   

The thing about leeches is that when they dine they need to attach themselves to you.  So they secrete some special, wormy superglue to stay stuck to your skin.  And while they’re pigging out, like children with jam smeared all over their cheeks, that glue is mixed with your blood and makes a shiny mess behind.  In fact, as a succulent leech slides down your leg, that’s what it leaves behind–an awful trail of black-red blood hardened into acrylic.  You practically have to chip the stuff off.  (Though if you’re quick, you can pull the leeches off and turn their trails into Gummi Worms made from your jellied blood.)  *That’s* what I just found in my pants, the Horror of Coorg, and what is tempering my romantic nature. 

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AND COORGI PARADISE, really 

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I think it’s pretty common to balance overwrought accounts of nature by pointing out her horrors, too.  My prologue should therefore indicate that I’m about to sound overwrought. But I’ll be damned if Coorg isn’t one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.  I mean, Coorg is soul-stirring in the way that makes your soul feel stirred.   What will description avail? 

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The fences are made from poinsettias, only gigantic tree-like poinsettias that must bloom year round.  Behind the fences grow wild citrus, acres of coffee and peppercorn vines that spiral up tree trunks.  When you stop along the road you drink honey and clouds race so low overhead they’re actually beneath you.  The birds look like butterflies.  The earth is red; it rises and turns itself into roof tiles.  Foliage, let alone the ludicrous flowers, is nothing special.  Pigs scamper without knowing they’re delicious.  Children on the other hand know sugarcane is worth the risk of smuggling it.  Men hunt for wild boars with antique rifles.  The rainforest sleeps, then wakens with a roar of insects’ saws.   

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If it sounds like I’m trying to be poetic, I am.  But I’m doing it in Coorg’s honor and with the idea that my extravagant words are trying to indicate a little bit of what I enjoyed.  (Ugh, for instance, I really watched a boy happily defy his elder for the sake of his snack.) 

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So included are a few photos of this place I can’t do justice to, and which were taken in defiance of my stated mission. Though the food is good, Coorg is better.  

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A POST OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE, written later

How fetching that first bit on the Horror of Coorg now seems to me.  A leech!  I was sucked by a single leech! Well, if humans aren’t adaptable they’re nothing at all.  We cling to life, we cling even to mere pleasure, in the direst circumstances.  What was once horrific becomes mundane, like castaways turned cannibals, humans adapt.  We suffer all sort of degradation to survive and enjoy. 

So it is that I’ve been transformed by these miniature leviathans, by leeches.  For the sight of waterfalls and cascading clouds I will now hardly bother to reach down with a stick and scrape the marauders from my sneakers.  Why, even as I write this I’m bleeding from eight separate wounds.  It seems like nothing.  Or, perhaps, it seems like daily life in Coorg.   This is a place where you become a hybrid of the land literally and quickly.   

Let me talk about food then. Coorg is in the Western Ghats in Karnataka, so its cuisine has many similarities to other parts of the south.  It’s probably best known for its distinctive pandhi curry, pork curry.  Though a few other dishes seem somewhat unique, too, like kadam puttu, balls of rice meal.  A black vinegar-like liquid called kachampulli is also used only here in the rainforest.  Farmers’ honeys are well worth seeking out; they literally taste like flowers. Coorg is covered in coffee plants, endless, endless, endless acres of coffee plants.  Here’s one. 

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And a bunch of coffee berries. 

This is a terrible photo, but I’m including it merely to show the source of the kachampulli.  A fruit grows on this tree which is sundried and processed to yield the fragrant, sour black liquid. 

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Here’s a pool of it on a saucer. 

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A field of ginger. 

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Rice paddies. 

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Turmeric plants in front, mango ginger plants struggling behind. 

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An areca palm tree, source of the betel nut. 

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Vanilla beans.  (A potted vanilla bean plant grew on a vine around my bathroom in the woods.) 

A black pepper vine. 

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Cardamom plants. 

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You can barely see the cardamom buds trailing along the base of the plant, here. 

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This big, wild lemon isn’t just big.  You can rub it on your sneakers to keep the leeches away, though the locals I talked to didn’t bother with such foreign activities. 

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I hate to deviate from my chosen mission, but it sure is purty in Coorg. 

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Bees suckle the abundant flowers, though many died in a viral outbreak years back.  Here are some survivors. 

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And the beekeepers’ local co-op headquarters. 

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See?  I DID eat in Coorg.  Here are some plain rice breads (akki rotis). 

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A Coorgi chicken curry. 

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Some tasty potatoes. 

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Follow the sign. 

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And this is what you get. 

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Some rustic noolputtu, or rice noodles.  When I’ve tried my hand at noolputtu in the past I’ve come pretty close to these guys. 

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The rasam in Coorg always tasted especially excellent to me.  I don’t know why, maybe the fresh mountain air went well the hot, refreshing ‘soup’. 

A bowl of rasam.

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A clear shot of the same. 

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And another super rendition, this time demonstrating that peeling those miniature garlic cloves isn’t always necessary. 

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A tasty homemade meal from the folks across the street from my lodge. 

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And an even simpler meal, but man it was excellent.  Just a few elements.  SO tasty.

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Kadamputtu, rice balls with topnotch coconut chutney and potatoes in a thin sauce.  I love how uncluttered, easy food can be the most delicious.

I’m home in Portland again, but I have several more posts to make.  So please stay tuned.

My visit was fantastic, wonderful, delicious.  Many folks showed me their kindness.  I want to take a moment (before writing about Coorg) to express my appreciation.

Here’s to all of you!

Vini, Kriss, Jugjeet, Jyoti and family, Bashir, Stef, Ketan, Hemal, David, Carolyn, Saucy and family, Ammini, Babu, Joli, Ravi, Suresh, Rathna, Uma, Veena, Sekhar, Gautam, Sam, Laura, Ash and Pushpendra. 

You took some extra time to make my trip special.  It wouldn’t have been the same without your thoughtfulness and caring.

Thank you.

Whatta day I enjoyed with Uma. 

One of my last in Bangalore began with a whirlwind tour of Maleshwaram neighborhood.  We descended on a provision shop with greedigut passion and soon I was buying papads, pickles, halwa, sugar, you name it.  Normally I hesitate to buy stuff to lug around.  The spirit of shopping possessed me here though and I purchased with abandon.  Good times. 

I dearly hope Suresh or someone returns to this store for the CD shaped discs of Karnatakan sugar!  I misplaced mine.  These were stored in a leaf wrapper and tasted a little bit like cocoa.  They looked like plastic.  They are certainly a product that deserve some time in the spotlight along with the sugars of Bengal! 

Outside the shop were these leaves rolled into cups and secured with toothpicks.  They’re used to steam a kind of idli in a special idli steamer.  Talk about artisanship!  Somehow, someday I hope America’s dining elites gain an appreciation for one of their favorite terms:  “artisanship.”  Handmade, precious, small shop-produced food is all over India.  Farm fresh produce is all over India.  Intricately produced, labor intensive culinary goods are common.  Often, quite cheaply.  (And with this may go an analysis of economy and labor I leave to brighter minds.)  But in many ways the sort of homemade goods you get in America only at Farmer’s Markets are *easy* to find here:  jams, candies, digestives, sundrieds, namkeens, snacks, oils, vinegars, nuts and fruits, dairy, meat, appliances, spices.  It’s endless.  The sort of thing I would normally consider quite rare and expensive at home, say a homemade jam, is rather everyday here.  But!  I leave to my fellows their artisan salt shops and chocolate boutiques.  This is just a photo of some stitched up leaves…

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We left with bulging bags to make our stomachs bulge.  Uma knew of a small dosa shop that serves a tremendous rival to Chalukya’s.  (I also leave this debate alone.  If you pay me well I’ll tell you which I prefer!)  Central Tiffin Room, if I remember correctly. 

A couple pictures are important: 

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But this one is the most: See the ridges and valleys?  MMMMMmmmmmmm.  Thick and sweet are the ridges, crisp and savory the valleys. 

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I forget what this is called, perhaps it’s just a kind of upma: 

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Then we dropped by Sri Krishna Sweets, where everything is made with good, aromatic ghee.  I sampled a Horlick’s sweet here!  (Think, Ovaltine sweet, heh.)  I bought their yummy Mysore Pak instead. 

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Properly fueled, Uma took me to the Maleshwaram Veggie Market.  Great place!!   A snake gourd is coming off the rafter for us, in front are some drumsticks and ash gourd. 

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We got our haul home, here it is on the counter awaiting our afternoon in the kitchen, superfun. I think most of you will recognize the ginger, pineapple and coconut.  Other veggies are banana stem, a hunk of ashgourd, the snakegourd, a woodapple (these show up frequently on my travels, though I have yet to successfully ripen one without it going rotten) and drumstick leaves (which we didn’t cook).   

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Here you can see how a snakegourd is hollow.  It will cook down to a much smaller proportion. 

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Ashgourd batons, peeled and ready to be microwaved before dressed with sauce.

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And finished, with coconut and raw cumin seeds.  The texture of the ashgourd is excellent, juicy and toothsome.   

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The pineapple is turned into a savory dish, too.  It does not turn out too sweet. 

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The snakegourd is microwaved until tender with a little water and salt, then added to spiced oil and sauteed.  This is a Marathi dish (I have neither found nor eaten ANY Marathi food on this visit, except perhaps a bit at Swati Snacks) called a zhunka, I think. 

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Chickpea flour is added and it’s sauteed more.  Then, a good handful of chopped cilantro is added.

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These are the Lots-of-Work-to-Chop banana stem juliennes.  After peeling the trunk down, the outer fibers are stripped off, then the chopping is done.  Uma did most of this, and I pitched in at the end.  Phew! 

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She turned it into a tasty pachari, relative to the raita.   

And here they are.  Warm ashgourd, pineapple and snakegourd dishes, and the banana stem salad. 

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On the plate. 

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Uma let me feast on these, and she had a supper of spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, broccoli and fennel seeds which I watched over. 

The last photo I have is far from the least.  Uma has been making her own yogurt in this beautiful, red clay pot.  It makes an amazing and delicious product, no doubt a cousin to the curds and cultures of Bengal.  Since the pot is porous, moisture will slowly evaporate from the entire vessel, leaving a concave surface on top over time.  But more importantly, somehow setting up absolutely delicious, lovely curd.  Another dream for home:  finding a non-toxic, unglazed clay pot to cook with!  Anybody know?

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These are a pair of restaurants in Bangalore that I thought were excellent. Kanua especially impressed the hell out of me. So much so that I ate there two days in a row.

Therefore, Legend of Sikandar first. It’s a mughlai joint, with Hyderabadi chef Shaikh Arif Ahmed at the helm. He spent time at the table with us and took care of the ordering. So, we were a little spoiled.

Waiters at the window.
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Chef Ahmed picking a kebab…
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And lowering it into the tandoor.
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This was my favorite kebab of the meal, a gilafi but without onions. Tender meat enrobed with peppers. Piquant luxury from a chicken.
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A seekh kebab.
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Cream-marinated chicken.
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Another chicken variation. I wish I had more details for you, but no menu was available to take away and conversation of course precluded notes.
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Papaya chutney.
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Oh, and also my camera batteries died on me so a lot of these photos suck, even by my standards! Here’s the burrah kebab, a mutton chop. I’m not a fan of the garnishes, but they make business sense I suppose.
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A third regret: no photo of the khubani ka meetha, a sweet apricot dessert from Hyderabad that was the best I’ve tasted yet–including those from Hyderabad.

Now onto Kanua. I loved this place. Is it my favorite restaurant yet in India? Very possibly.

It’s off the beaten path on the outskirts of Bangalore near tech developments. It’s the open air floor on the top of this building.
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The cuisine is southern Konkani, so the food is related to the Mangalorean restaurants I posted about in Mumbai. (Though the restaurant does include at least one northern Konkani dish.) I found it to be remarkably different than those places, though, with a brightness, simplicity and elegance that the coastal joints lacked. Food is cooked in earthenware pots. Rice and vegetables are grown specifically for Kanua, and they only use produce which is natural to the region. I don’t know how much of this is BS, but the food is exquisite.

The flavors include coconut, jaggery, tamarind and chilli. It’s sweet and hot. Or rich and sour. Or both, but lush.

Okay, I’m being a dork. Here are some photos.

A passionfruit soda. I love the details Kanua spends time on: the beautiful water jug that sits in the middle of each table.
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The red roof tiles typical of Mangalore. Cool music plays in the background.
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Here’s another view of the interior, an open space that somehow feels cozy.
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A dish of pumpkin that shows how we eat with our eyes. The sauce was full of onions and the fragrance of coconut oil was like incense.
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More beautifully colored food, a dish of shrimp in a red chilli sauce.
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This plate includes black chickpeas with yam; the pumpkin; a bittergourd medley of sweet, bitter, hot and sour; the shrimp.
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I love the plate so much here’s another angle.
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And a closeup of the bittergourd: you guessed it, that’s chunks of sugarcane in there. Not too bitter, not too sweet!
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Oddly, I didn’t eat seafood at Kanua! The vegetarian was so good. Here’s a dish of vine spinach and papaya. Are you looking at that beautiful paanpolo (neer dosa)? Are you? Look at it!
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And look at this, too! It’s made of jackfruit seeds and green chillis. LOTS of green chillis. Often, India’s cuisines aren’t really all that hot. But damn, this was hot! Hot, sweet and good.
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This is a vegetarian appetizer made from yam (elephant foot yam, aka suran). The vegetable itself is rather bland, but coated in a crispy batter and dipped in a sour-sweet chutney, it tasted great.
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A mutton curry in a thin tomato sauce, still packed with flavor.
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And a chicken biriyani. It was good, but after Hyderabad a bit quotidian.
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A dessert of hot plantains. Too much cardamom?
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And a blissful crisp, fresh pastry. You can see I was eager. You dip the spirals in gently sweet saffron milk. Delectable.
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Suresh devised a lovely meal in honor of my visit. Well, he devised several meals in honor of my visit, but this was one of the first. He began the sauce by frying yogurt, and built it up with a leaf of lemon grass and another of allspice. Great fragrances.
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A tadka of *crisp* cumin, chillis and curry leaves finished the dish.
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Here the sauce has been used to poach a filet of fish. And notice the lovely Kerala red rice beneath, too.
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Skillet tandoori chicken. “This is too easy to make,” I complained.
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When I felt under the weather one day, Rathna whipped up this dal-rice porridge to make me feel better. Served with a lovely, lovely pickle. I felt better.
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From khoya, milk fudge…
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…we made these samose, with fat yellow raisins.
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And this photograph doesn’t show it, but this was one of the finest meals I ate in Bangalore, period. Sindhi curry. A succulent sauce thickened with a little chickpea flour.
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Rathna made a snack from these leaves, similar to taro-root leaves I think.
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The paste includes tamarind, ginger, chickpea flour and a little sugar.
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The paste is spread across the leaves and rolled.
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Then steamed.
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Rounds are sliced off the rolls when done steaming, and topped with coconut and mustard seeds. Sorry, no picture.

Here’s a samosa made from a dough like filo. They’re cheap and greasy. Pretty good, tooleafy.jpg.

These are some brilliant pakodas, twice fried, crispy dough around onions and great, yummy jabs of coriander seed. I ate a basket of these cold from the fridge the next day much to Rathna’s horror.
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Another tasty, tasty home cooked meal: crisp fried okra with mango powder, good dal and tomato pulao.
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And lastly, a plate of well-browned cauliflower transformed into a delicious subzi.
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One of the simple pleasures I enjoy is the market tables filled with a variety of sweet-sour-hot-salty “mints” (for lack of a better word) called churan in Hindi. Here are a couple I ate too many of: some jeera golis (cumin balls) made from tamarind, jaggery (natural sugar) and powdered sugar/salt. In the plastic are some tamarind-chocolates–not so chocolately, really, but tasty nonetheless.

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Suresh and I goofed around in the kitchen with some molecular gastronomy chemicals I brought along. We made falooda (in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve taken a shine to falooda). We worked together to produce the ingredients; here’s the plate I assembled with noodles, pistachio kulfi (Indian ice cream), milk, top quality vetiver syrup, saffron soaked tukmaria (basil seeds) and the new molecular touch–caviar made from saffron juice. Fun stuff. I’m not sure this version would get a warm welcome everywhere, though.

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This is just a shot of City Market, one of the old style holdouts in the face of multiple shopping malls and franchises. Good place to buy karhais! This is the floral section.

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Rathna made this date halwa–fragrant with ghee and not too sweet at all!

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I grabbed this bottle of snacks from Metro–a store sort of like Costco I guess. These are lightly spiced anchovies, not too salty, and dried into crisps. Nice, but nothing special. I’d guess they’re from Tamil Nadu, if I were to make a wild guess.

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These are some terrific Kerala snacks made from fried bananas. (Recipe in Ammini Ramachandran’s book, “Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts”). They’re thick and crunchy, almost like nuts, and coated in jaggery. My first taste didn’t portend what a pig I was to make of myself with them. When Suresh was gone one day, I simply ate the whole bag in one sitting. Sorry, Suresh!!!

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This is a woodapple. I wanted to make a chutney from it, as per Uma’s directions, but the first one I bought was rotten and the second one I bought wasn’t ripe enough. Oh well.

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And here are some sitafals.
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Mmmmmmmm, sitafals! Green versions…
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…and in Hyderabad I found a purple version that I thought was even sweeter and more floral, but that might’ve just been my imagination.
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This is a version of puranpoli, a sweet bread made with jaggery, hailing from Gujurat I believe. I’m not fond of them, but Suresh is.

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Mysore Pak is normally quite soft, made from ghee and chickpea flour. Here’s one that crunchy.

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I’m irritatatd with the owners of Tibb’s Frankies who couldn’t be bothered to answer a simple email query I sent them. (Why bother having a website if you don’t maintain it?) Anyway, I overcame my irritation with them to try their chicken frankie (a wrap made of an egg-fried paratha) which was highly rated by the Times of India. Tasty. Unfortunately, Tibbs Frankies ain’t got jack on Kolkata’s Kathi rolls (post forthcoming)….
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Suresh made a lovely Sindhi meal for me and a couple of fellow foodies–Veena and Uma. Veena was kind enough to bring along these Mathania chillis from Rajasthan. I’m eager to get ’em home and cook with them!
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Some banana halwa.

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And Suresh made this parting snack for me–shahi tukda. It’s a sweet sort of like a cross between french toast and bread pudding, fried in a liter of ghee (no, two!) and lightly drizzled with saffron syrup. Suresh needs to show Dum Pukht in Delhi how to make this version.

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