Monday, 17 October 2011

My favourite Mutton 'Chaamps' or Lamb Chops!

This is one of my most favourite recipes. It's simple, rich in flavour and absolutely finger licking good. I almost didn't share it coz it's THAT great! But then it wouldn't be fair to have a blog about food and not share the best of the best on it, would it?! So all I ask from you is that when you get all those compliments from your friends for being a such a rockstar cook, do send some my way!

Here it is, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Mutton/Lamb Chops - 500 gm
Yogurt - 1 cup
Red Chili Powder - 1 tsp
Coriander Powder- 2 tsp
Garam Masala Powder - 2 tsp
Green Chillies, chopped finely - 2
Ginger-Garlic Paste - 3 tbsp
Salt - to taste
Oil - for basting
Brown Onion Paste - 1/2 cup
Lemon Juice - 2 tbsp
Amchur Powder (Raw Mango Powder) - 1 tsp
Onion Rings - For Garnish

1. Clean and trim the mutton/ lamb chops.
2. Whisk together yogurt, brown onion paste, ginger-garlic paste, Red Chili powder, garam masala powder, green chillies and salt. Let it chill.
3. Rub the chops with coriander powder and marinate in lemon juice for 30 minutes.
4. After 30 minutes, marinate the chops in the yogurt mixture for 2 hours.
5. Put the chops on a grill or a pan and cook till done.
6. Sprinkle amchur powder before serving. Garnish with onion rings and serve with mint chutney.

I usually make the chops in an open pan with a lid so that once it has browned, I can cover it and let it cook through as the quality of lamb chops in India is not that great and it takes far longer to get done. 

I had about 15 people over for dinner the other night and here's a picture of the chops cooking. Of course, it was almost 5 times the above quantity and I had to prepare it in two batches! 

Sorry, there is no 'after' picture of the final finished dish. As you can imagine, no one wanted to really wait till I got a picture! It just disappeared, so maybe next time.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Holidayers!

Almost everyone I've met in my life loves to travel, and I don’t mean commuting or flying around for board meetings (although some of those can be fun too). It’s the sort of travel that involves exploring an unknown place or going back to the same spot coz it feels like home; experiencing new thrills or seeing a familiar face; jumping off a cliff into the sea or soaking up the sun in an old armchair. It’s what explorers did thousands of years back and it’s what we do today when a coffee break just isn’t enough. Whatever be the motive, travelling is something we all look forward to.

Often I find myself sitting at airports and train stations, looking at all those people around me - single ones, couples, in groups, with families - and wondering where they come from and where they are headed. So I thought I'll put my observational skills to test and profile certain types of holiday travellers and while I am at it, give out some handy travel tips (TT) as well! Want to find out what sort you are? Read on...

1. City Slickers: These are people who are headed to the big cities; New York, Bombay, Hong Kong, LA, Sydney, London, Singapore etc. They are headed there mostly because they have friends or family living in those cities. Who wants to spend on a hotel in a metropolis, right?! So you come to visit family/ friends, have some fun, go clubbing, eat fancy meals, shop your guts out and at the end of the week when you’re totally partied out and there’s no money left, you just go back home. Or, if you've travelled really long and hard to get to one of these cities, you might consider packing in a weekend at some nearby touristy destination coz you don't want to go back feeling like all you did was see the inside of bars and malls. 
- Take gifts for your hosts and don't scrimp, they are saving you those hotel bills after all.
- Always carry an extra bag or two for all the shopping you will come back with, especially a cabin-sized one so that you can cut some kilos from the baggage limit.
- If you are going for ten days, pack for WILL check out and buy the millions of fashionable things available out there.
- Ladies, take those high heels along - a black and a silver or gold. They will dress up anything, even an old pair of jeans. 
- And make sure you pack plenty of accessories, this is your chance to get them out of those boxes you have been hoarding forever! 

2. Retreaters: These are the ones who want to kick back and relax, and pay extra for being isolated from modern day conveniences like cellular coverage and Internet connectivity. If you don’t know how to turn off your own phone, then you deserve to pay extra, don't you?! An exotic spa in the Himalayas, a chateau in France, hot springs in Iceland...well, even that yoga retreat on the outskirts will do just fine. The idea is to get far from the madding crowd.
- Hone your negotiating skills and ask for complimentary spa treatments and activities available at the resort, beforehand. It's that much harder to get freebies once you're already there, duh!
- Buy that book you've been meaning to read in advance, don't wait to find it at the airport bookstore.
- Make sure you have a fresh holiday playlist on your iPod.
- Leave the check lists, mental notes and other worries behind (yes, you did shut that bedroom window and the gas is turned off as well!)

3. Trippers: It doesn't matter where they go as long as it's away from home. The beach is a popular choice but they'd be just as happy on a mountain. Whether it is Goa or Simla, Ibiza or Napa, the idea is to kick back and have some fun...much like the city slickers, except not in the city! A quiet holiday is not what they are looking for either; show them the best bar in town, the local flea markets, a good seafood joint or a great biking trail and you'll find them perfectly happy.
- If your partner and you don't share the same likes, then invite along others who do, or just go solo. 
- Pack extra swimsuits and beach wear. 
- Don't forget to apply the sunscreen, no point just carrying it!
- Take things that you never get a chance to wear...that extra low cut blouse or the see through shirts. 

4. Touristers: These are the hardcore travellers; the ones who looks at maps, worry about visas and air fares coz this is their big vacation. Their list would have names like India, Italy, Croatia, New Zealand, South Africa, Greece, blah, blah. They save up for them hoping that they'd have covered a fair bit of the planet before it's finally time to leave. So when they do get out there, the plan is to not stay holed up in hotel rooms, but cover as many places and sights in each trip.
- Be quick to make friends...on the shuttle, in the hotel, restaurants etc. Who knows you might end up saving money on carpools and find some great company as well.
- Chat up the locals, they'll always know more than the guide books can ever tell.
- Carry your own water. Wouldn't you rather spend those couple of bucks on magnets and other souvenirs??
- Remember to charge your camera. It's the one thing you tend to leave for the end and usually don't end up doing!

5. Backpackers: They like things off the beaten path. Give them a mountain to climb and a hole in the earth to take a dump in and they'll be perfectly happy. For them holidays are about becoming one with Nature, experiencing the thrill of the outdoors and just taking life as it comes. Campers, trekkers, bikers, backpackers...they are all the same breed. Filled with a sense of adventure and heaps of adrenaline, they are the no-frills lot.
- Pack according to the weather obviously and take ONLY the essential: cargo shorts/ pants, waterproof tracks, a windcheater, a warm jacket. If it's cold - gloves, cap and muffler.
- Choose your footwear with the utmost care; do not wear a new pair or you'll be sitting alone on the mountain top with shoe bites!
- The Rule of Three: wash, dry, wear! You'll never need more than three pairs of these, and that's a luxury - underwear, socks, t-shirts.
- Don't forget to pack a medicine kit - include pills for fever, stomach upset, headaches, nausea and an anti-allergy. Also a couple of band aids and antiseptic. Ask your doctor for a list.
- A mosquito repellent could be handier than you think, especially if you are camping out at night.

So did you figure which profile you belong to? Or do you like to flit around the spectrum like me?

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Singapore Slinging

This is probably the one place that I have visited most outside my own country. I know a lot of people don't particularly care for it and I often hear phrases like, "it's antiseptic" or "it has no character". So yeah, if you are looking for character then please head to Venice or Morocco. As far as it being 'antiseptic' is concerned, then I am quite happy not seeing people spit and piss on the road.

Singapore could very well have been Singhapur, an extension of India (without the dirt and character of course) - it's practically in the neighbourhood, there are a whole bunch of Indians living there and Tamil is one of their four official languages. I have more friends living there than I have in Delhi, and have certainly attended more workshops and conferences there as part of my erstwhile corporate life.

Well, even if you do not know any one in Singapore it's a decent enough getaway. It's got a great party scene, fabulous food and tons of shopping if you are into those malls mushrooming everywhere. And for those of you with kids, there's the usual bird park, night safari, seaworld etc. It's also a convenient stopover en route to other destinations such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia, so if you're not satified with Singapore alone, you could always make a bigger vacation out of it.

Here's what I like to do best in Singapore...

That's pretty obvious, isn't it? Singapore boasts of all kinds of cuisines and if you're a fan of Pan Asian like me, there's enough to dig into. It is a melting pot of different influences - Malay, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Portuguese, Arabic - so be prepared for some gastronomical giddiness! Do remember though that almost every place stops serving dinner around 9:30 pm so if you want to enjoy your meal, get to your destination well in time. 

Food Courting:
If you are the experimentative sort, the best way to get initiated into the world of Singaporean cuisine is to go to a food court and let your senses guide you. You'll find plenty of options on practically every street and every mall, but two of my favorites are Newton Food Centre and Lau Pa Sat. The atmosphere here is always alive and festive, with a mix of locals and tourists chattering around crowded tables as they tuck into their meals. There are almost a hundred food stalls to choose from, so it can be a bit overwhelming at first but just follow the old trick and head for the stalls with the longest queues. There are no gauranteed results and not everything you order is going to blow you away, but it's an experience nevertheless.
Breakfast by the River
This is a great idea for a Sunday brunch. Go sit by the river at Robertson Quay, it has a couple of nice spots and is relatively more laid back than it's counterparts, Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. Perfect for washing away a hangover with some greasy bacon, runny eggs and a jug of OJ! Do avoid the pancakes, they make them thick and large and it tastes almost like bread!
Bak Kut Teh lunch at Songfa

Explore Street Food 
On my last trip, a friend took us to try out one of her favourite meals, Bak Kut Teh which literally means 'meat bone tea'. It's a simple pork rib broth, served with rice and some accompaniments. It's nothing to look at but has a fantastic flavour. So the next time you're there go to Songfa opposite Clarke Quay Central Mall and experience it for yourslef.
Arab Street is an absolute must. It's full of cosy little restaurants and cafes serving Middle Eastern cuisine, besides other stuff of course. In the evening, there are chairs and tables laid out on the sidewalk and almost every place offers flavoured sheeshas (tobacco pipes). It's quite enchanting to walk the by lanes, inhaling the smell of apples and cinnamon and vanilla as the smoke comes wafting out of the cafes. 
Bugis is another great place to go exploring for street food. Right at the entrance of Liang Seah lane you'll see two restaurants facing each other called Ah Chew and Yu Kee...I guess that's what happens when you sneeze and don't have a tissue! On a serious note, there were quite a few joints that looked promising. I tried out a Vietnamese place called Madam Saigon, and it's definitely a place I would go back to.

Meal at Madam Siagon, Bugis
Other Dining Delights
A place to seek out would be the Taiwanese restaurant chain, Din Tai Fung. Their steamed pork dumplings are to die for, as is almost everything else on the menu. 
Dempsey Hill has quite a few spots to go testing your taste buds, some of the popular places here are Jones the Grocer, I hear they serve a pretty good breakfast. There's also the hip and happening PS Cafe.
You can't go to Singapore and not have the famous Chilli Crab. You have to have it simply because the next time two people are arguing about whether it's worth trying or not, you have something to say!  I had it at the popular seafood chain, Jumbo. It's nothing like the name suggests and is actually drenched in a sweet and savoury sauce. I've had better crabs before, but I wouldn't write it off either. Coupled with the soft steamed buns, I managed to polish off a fair bit of the pot below.
Chilli crab with steamed buns at Jumbo, Clarke Quay
There is always a party on somewhere so after you've tucked in a good meal, the only thing to do is to hit the bars. The riverside is the most popular destination simply because of the number of choices you have there and Clarke Quay is definitely the most action packed. Go to Highlander and The Pump Room for some great drinks and live music. If you are into hardcore clubbing then head to Attica, and in case you're missing some desi style Bollywood dancing, there's always the Rupee Room.
Here are a couple of other options: 
No. 5 Emerald Hill, off Orchard, is a new found favourite. It's tucked away in a lovely little lane and has a casual, fun ambiance. Don't be surprised if you find the place strewn with peanut shells coz that's what you are supposed to do here, simply crack open the peanuts and chuck the shells on the floor. You get to be a pig and they save on housekeeping bills...everyone's happy. 
Blu Jaz on Arab Street is 
another place that's buzzing with energy and open late. There's plenty of outdoor seating and it's perfect for getting some drinks and catching up with friends, without being drowned out by loud music. 
Chijmes (pronounced 'chimes') is a great place to spend an evening. It was once a Catholic convent with a Gothic church inside, but today it houses a whole host of restaurants, bars and shops. However the colonial structure, including the church, is still intact which is what makes this place charming and unique.
1-Altitude is one of the more hip places that I kept hearing of during my last visit. It's a rooftop bar offering a great view of the city. But not all the reviews were great, some consider it too chichi and over priced, so I decided to give it a skip this time. 

If you have travelled around the world, you would have definitely come across a Chinatown before, and I don't mean just in China! Whether it's in Singapore or San Francisco, there is a certain similarity to all Chinatowns but it's a place that I can never tire of.  Apart from the food of course, the best part is browsing around those little stores, looking for souvenirs and trinkets to take home. And don't forget your camera coz there are plenty of sights to capture.

Chinatown, a splash of colour against the usual gray skyline
Sunday morning bustle
Colourful shutters and lanterns from the mid autumn festival
It's no Hawaii or even Goa, so please do not expect sprawling sandy beaches and crystal clear water. But if you have enough time to kill in Singapore, then a great way to spend the day would be to head to the 'beach', get a few beers, soak in the sun and generally lounge in the water.
Sentosa has a bunch of beaches so even if you're not up to the Merlion sighting and seaworld tour, you can just head to one of the beach clubs and hang there all day. Cafe del Mar has a decent stretch with plenty of day beds and cabanas. Tanjong Beach Club also has it's own pool, so when you get tired of the sea, you can sit by the pool and check out the bikini bodies. These places typically have families and sun bathers during the day, but as the sun begins to set the mood changes completely, and you have yourself a rocking bar on the beach with lanterns, fire shows, club music, the works!
Cafe del Mar, Sentosa

In case you hadn't heard, Singapore is synonymous with shopping. There are at least a millions malls and growing, they even have a 'shopping festival' for crying out loud! Now, I am a shopaholic but after my first few visits, I decided to steer clear from those malls. But if you are there for the first time, it's something that you cannot and will not avoid. So all I can do is give you a few suggestions and hope that you are able to prevent a migraine and a twisted ankle. Also note that you will not be in for bargain experience, this is no Thailand.
Lets start at Orchard Road, there was a time I used to love hanging out here but now it's so overcrowded that once you enter a mall you'll need a GPS device to find your way back out on the same street. Nevertheless, it's still the number one shopping destination if you are a first timer. You'll find all the brands in the world on this single stretch. Mind you, it's an expensive destination, but it's something you want to tick off your list anyway.
Vivo City is the largest mall in Singapore and one of my favourites with a good mix of international and local brands. It's pretty well located at Harbourfront and you can also find an easy connect to Sentosa via a cable car from here.
Another old favourite is Suntec City Mall. After a point, you'll find the same shops everywhere but this one is relatively less crowded. Start at Galleria and Tropics in Tower 5.
For cheaper shopping destinations, there are the more local places like the Bugis Street Market and the Far East Mall near Orchard. I didn't much care for them but it really depends on what you're looking for, if it's just trinkets and souvenirs to carry back home, then it's not a bad option.

Finally, it's Ikea time! For us Indians who are severely deprived, any trip to an Ikea enabled country is incomplete without a visit to this Swedish temple. For me its like going to Disneyland! So if you feel the same way, I suggest before you shop anywhere else, head to Ikea in Tampines which houses the larger of the two outlets in Singapore. While you are at it, just remember that you did not come into the country on a boat and that no amount of sweet talking is going to make a those extra 100 kilos disappear at baggage check, so choose wisely. And remind me to take my own advise next time...that way I won't have to leave the salad spinner behind at a friend's place!

I hope this was enough to get you started. I could go on and on but I don't want to turn this post into the Lonely Planet Singapore edition, so I'll stop here.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Straight from the kitchens of Ladakh

Here's a continuation from my last post, and this comes straight from the kitchens of an army battalion posted in Ladakh! I had the privilege of trying these dishes when I was visiting them last year, and can promise you that they are finger licking good.

Before I share the recipes with you, a couple of things to note:

  • Usually Tibetans do not use any spice powders, but coriander, turmeric and red chili powder as well as ready made meat-masala powders can be added as per choice and taste. 
  • These are very basic and easy to cook recipes, and have actually been written by a Tibetan cook. Once you start preparing it, you may need to adjust certain proportions as per your liking. Increase or decrease the quantity of water depending on the consistency you want.
  • You can also use your choice of meat for these recipes. What I had was Yak meat but it can easily be substituted with either mutton, lamb or even chicken.
  • A vegetarian version of the Thukpa can be made by just omitting the mutton from it, the rest of the process remains same.
  • Most of these recipes have 'ajinomoto' or mono sodium glutamate listed in the ingredients. There are certain health scares related to the use of this flavouring, although there are certain groups that would disagree. However, in case you want to avoid using it just substitute it with either Oyster sauce or Worcester sauce. 

Bon Aptit! 

Ladakh, the land I love

Circa 2010. I had recently quit my job with no plans of going back, and was experiencing a somewhat premature midlife crisis. I needed to take time off and disappear somewhere to re-evaluate my life. As is with most people, travel has a therapeutic effect on me, so planning a trip seemed like the perfect thing to do. But this time I wanted to take off alone…no friends, no family, just me myself and I. Then came a call from a cousin, an army officer posted in Ladakh, with an invitation to go visit him.

Dilemma: Do I go off some place where I do not know anyone, all by my self and explore my inner soul or, go to Ladakh, get royally pampered and see the place in a way that no one outside the army can experience? I chose the former. 

Nah, just kidding. Ladakh was being served to me on a platter, so that's where I went. I did go alone but what happened there is another story. Everything was taken care of for me - right from a nursing assistant who came to check my BP twice a day to ensure I was acclimatising well, to a lavish itinerary that covered everything from local sights to trekking, rock climbing, fishing and of course a plethora of Tibetan dishes for me to try out. I had arrived in paradise.

I am not going to bore you with facts and figures like how high is the tallest mountain there and what the weather is like at different times of the year. For all that, there is Google. This is just my tribute to the most breath taking place in this country and perhaps even the world. So without further ado, let me show you the Ladakh that I saw. 

The map below details out the route that I covered, marked in orange. I went up east from Leh to Kiari, where my cousin's unit was located. With that as my base, I covered Tso Moriri and Chumathang. After a few days, I continued further east, all the way up to the Tibet border via Chushul (this is a restricted route and not open to civilians) and approached Pangong Tso from the Tibet side, so I had the awesome opportunity to drive up it's entire length in India. I finally returned to Leh via Chang La. 

Besides flying directly into Leh, you can also drive up to it. I believe these routes are equally awesome. Plus it's also easier to acclimatise this way as you'll be gaining height far more gradually. The most popular route from Delhi is through Manali, or you could come from Srinagar via Kargil. The latter is something that I'd surely like to do someday. But for this trip, I wanted to get straight to Leh and spend all my time exploring as much as I could within Ladakh.

Here are my top tips for you if you ever plan to go to Ladakh:

Rezang La war memorial
1. If you have any army connections, however remote, use them (don’t start calling me now!) This is one of those places where our soldiers brave all kinds of adversities to protect our borders, so no one knows the area like they do. And if they are happy to show you around, consider yourself lucky. 

2. Acclimatise. Esp if you are flying directly into Leh. Do not exert yourself on the first two days at least. Just get familiar with your acco on day one, and gradually start doing less strenuous things like browsing the local market and visiting sites that are on the same altitude. Here are some things that i did...
Head to the magnetic hill and watch your vehicle 'drive itself'
Sit by the spot where the Indus river meets Zanskar river

3. The gompas and palaces are a must see but if you are pressed for time, then just choose a couple that you’d like to see most. A smart way to do it is to cover them en route to other destinations, splitting them across days. If you try and club too many in the same day you may end up suffering from what I call a 'monastery fatigue'! Here are some of my favourites…

Stakna from a distance

Hemis - the largest and richest one

Photang Palace - Dalai Lama's summer retreat

Shey Palace - chortens at the entrance
Thicksey monastery
Stok Palace

4. Go with a sense of adventure if you really want to max out your trip to Ladakh. If all you want to do is drive around in the comfort of your car and take photos next to the lake where ‘Three Idiots’ was shot then don’t bother with Ladakh, there are a lot more easier and cheaper destinations for that.

5.  Keep your eyes wide open! There is no way that you will miss the natural beauty that surrounds you but still, just get the window seat whenever you are driving between places...make frequent stops and just get out of the car to take it all in. I have never ever seen as many shades of blue, brown, yellow, gray and green in my life as I did in Ladakh. Every curve of the road reveals something new and breathtaking.

Pangong Tso - people say you can see seven shades of blue in it, and it's true!
A dried out river en route to Chang La from Pangong Tso

6. Try and plan a trip around some of the popular festivalsEach monastery has it's own celebration, the most spectacular one being at Hemis in June. Most festivities usually take place in peak season so make your bookings in advance to avoid paying exorbitant rates. 

7. If you like shopping then go for the local stuff. Silver and pearls can be bought anywhere in the world now, so what you really want to focus on is the fabulous pashminas, tankhas and local Tibetan artifacts. You’ll also get amazing jams and fruit preserves, which make a cheap and wonderful gift for friends back home.

8. Taste the local cuisine. There are plenty of cafes these days selling things like pizzas and chop sueys, but please don’t waste your time eating that! If you do not have a very adventurous palate, at least have the Thukpa and Momos. Yak meat is overrated but if you are a non-vegetarian, go for it anyway! Also the butter tea is wonderful in the cold weather...think of it as a soup rather than tea, and you may be able to savour it better. Here are a few of my favourites, look out for their recipes in my next post!

9. Invest in a good camera before you make the trip. I am not big on Nature photography, but this is one place where I loved every bit of it just coz of the varied nature of the topography. 
I'll sign off with some of my favourite shots from the trip...
Monk-ing around
Spending an afternoon at Thicksey
My fishing spot at Kiari
Tso Moriri
Bad luck, near Chang La
Winged visitors at Pangong Tso
Little lamas at lunch, Thicksey
Prayer wheels at Hemis
Pit stop at Upshi
At peace
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