As a child growing up in Goa, studying in a predominantly Christian school, Ramadan (or Ramzan as it is called back home) never really made its presence felt. I had a vague understanding of the day-long fasting aspect - grasped from a couple of Muslim classmates who had once mentioned the pre-dawn meal (suhour) although I didn't know what it was called at the time. But beyond that, I was pretty much ignorant of what Ramadan involved and remained so until I moved to the UAE.
But having lived in a Muslim country for close to seven years now, it is still a revelation to see how much Ramadan actually affects every single aspect of life for those who practice it. And personally to see it evolve - from my first impression of it being a pretty restrictive period for those of us who don't have to fast (created mainly by overzealous warnings of "Don't be seen eating or sipping water in the street", "Don't chew gum, you will be fined" and "You won't be able to eat a hot meal in the office for an entire month") to my current impression of the season - one marked by convivial iftars with friends and colleagues, generous boxes of dates being passed around on hearing the adhan, and long evenings filled with sheesha and good company at all those incredibly social suhours.
So, in the spirit of the season which starts in a couple of days, here are some of my favourite Ramadan memories over the years.
Glimpses of khao galli in Mumbai (2004)
The year before I moved to the Middle East, I had my first taste of the transformatory aspects of Ramzan. As a student living in South Mumbai, I would sometimes take a bus from Marine Lines (where I lived) to Lovelane in Mazagaon to visit family. The bus route went along Mohammed Ali Road and through Bhendi Bazaar - a predominantly Muslim area of town - and on one trip during Ramzan, I was stunned to see how the whole area had come completely alive. There were people praying on mats on the road, green fairylights and lanterns strung over the mosque, streets and buildings and a line of food stalls (khao galli) that had cropped up to feed the fasting thousands crammed onto the street. Needless to say, traffic was slow, which meant an excellent opportunity to observe the celebrations.
Fasting and feasting in the UAE (2005-2012)
I moved to the UAE in summer, during Ramadan, and the transition couldn't have come as a greater shock to the system. Moving from Goa in the midst of the monsoons - green, wet and lush, to Dubai - searing hot and filled with ominous warnings about not being caught with a bottle of water in my hand - seemed strange to say the least, especially as the complete day-time fast is not imposed in India as it is in the UAE.
But the next year was completely different; inspired to keep the company of a friend at work who was practising the fast, it meant a whole new perspective on Ramadan. From watching the adhan go off a minute earlier everyday, to driving down to Safa Park (and once even to Sharjah!) to hear the canons fire, to numerous iftars and suhours with friends - living in the UAE has changed the way I view Ramadan and granted me a great deal of respect for those fasting all through the month.
Guts and guns in Oman (2006 & 2007)
I've spent the eve of Eid and Eid itself in Oman on two separate occasions and they are both trips I'll always remember. From attempting a road trip on a near empty stomach (let's just say there were a lot of bananas and packets of crisps
hastily eaten in the back of the car), to watching a goat and a cow being disembowelled for the Eid feast (if you can't handle a visit to the butcher you would be advised not to drive around rural Oman on the morning of Eid!), being invited to share the Eid meals of almost every Omani family we drove past (and then randomly consenting to join two tottering old guards outside Bahla Fort while they ate their simple Eid spread of dates, bananas and wheat porridge) and wondering if the festive gun firings on the eve of Eid may spell the end for those of us who'd very smartly decided to camp out in the open in the Omani interior - they are some of the best memories I have of Ramadan in the Middle East.
Dusk and dawn meals in Beirut (2011)
Last summer, I joined my best friend for a long weekend in her home town of Beirut. As the period of my trip coincided with that of Ramadan, it was fascinating to see a family preparing for iftar and suhour at home. Everyone helped make the food (without actually tasting any of it!) and daughters, sons-in-law, cousins and aunts came together to celebrate. From an absolutely delicious iftar spread laid out by my friend's mum, to an actual early morning suhour in an Ottoman-style tea garden (as opposed to the more commercial late-night versions I'd been to before at hotels in the UAE) - Ramadan in Lebanon was an amazing experience.
I'm pretty sure this Ramadan will bring its own share of great experiences and memories. To all my Muslim friends who've included me in their celebrations over the years, and all those observing the season, Ramadan Kareem!
All this Earth Hour chatter last weekend got me thinking about the magic of dining sans electricity. From desert barbeques and full moon parties (and I'm not talking about the notorious Goan or Thai variety) to candle lit dinners on the beach, here are my top three meal-time memories that would make any Earth-Hour enthusiast proud:
Barbequed chops and burgers in Oman
There's nothing quite like getting lost on deserted roads, having to steal wood from an abandoned construction site and building a campfire from scratch to work up an appetite. Whether the beach, the rocky summit of Jebel Shams or the sandy wadi beds, barbequed meals hastily prepared by firelight and handy headlamps in Oman rank among my favourite outdoor meal memories. Pack an icebox with premarinated lamb chops and beef patties (they'll last a full day of driving even in the height of summer), stock up on the mustard, ketchup, mayo and buns and don't forget a box of matches!
Full Moon Festival in Hoi An
Ravers expecting the drug and trance-fuelled Full Moon parties of Goa and Thailand may be disappointed; I was not. Every month on the 14th night of the lunar calendar, Hoi An shuts off its electricity for a few hours and the sleepy town transforms into a fairyland of floating lanterns, candlelit restaurants and moonlit streets, with traditional games, music and hand-rowed boat trips down the river offering the only forms of entertainment. Pick a table by the river, order a drink and some cau lau and enjoy Hoi An at its bewitching best...
Rum pancakes on the beach in Goa
True, you probably won't be sitting in complete darkness but turn your back on the coconut trees strung with fairy lights, face the sea, let your feet sink into the cool sand and watch the moonlight catch the crest of the waves - there's no better way to spend an evening in Goa than with dinner at a beach shack. Finish off your meal with a flourish and order a flaming rum-soaked pancake. The waiters are generally generous with the booze and will weave through the tables with your pancake spewing blue flames for some extra drama in the dark.
I anticipated a pretty calorific feast when I attended a college friend's traditional Marwari wedding back home in India last weekend.
The vegetarian fare favoured by the merchants of the Marwar plateau of Rajasthan is known to be rich. Like any desert cuisine, milk rather than water is a preferred cooking medium so desi ghee (Indian clarified butter) plays a starring role in almost every dish. In addition, gur (jaggery) is an ever-present entity, both in sweets - which often arrive and are eaten along with the mains - and served in its raw form as a sort of condiment.
Needless to say, when it came to delicious excess, I wasn't disappointed :)
The wedding was held in a Rajasthani-themed village or dhani in the Central Indian city of Indore. The food was plenty... and it kept coming. From a sit-down thali-style lunch served on leaf plates, to sweet, milky chai and pakoras, every variety of tongue-curlingly tasty chaat you could imagine like aloo tikki, pani puri, Dilli chaat and dahi bhalle, hot phulkas and rotis, sweets swimming in rabdi and steaming saffron-scented milk at night - there were so many delicious dishes, we couldn't get round to tasting even half of them.
Still, there were a few that made a real impression - most from being first-time finds and others for their sheer artery-clogging capacity. Read on for my top five Marwari food memories (and click through the bonus photo gallery of some of the other yum stuff we tucked into at the wedding):
Malpua: These sweet milky pancakes drenched in sugar syrup are a specialty of the Rajasthani town of Pushkar. A rich batter made from reduced milk, sugar, flour and semolina is fried in ghee and then dunked in sugar syrup. Diabetics should probably stay away, but the rest should look out for the ones that are slightly caramelized around the edges for the tastiest sugar hit.
Cheela: These North Indian savoury pancakes are made from besan (gram) flour stuffed with different fillings. The ones we ate contained crumbled paneer (cottage cheese) and were spiked with green chillies. Sweet and sour tamarind sauce and sharp green chutney made the perfect accompaniments. Mmmmm...
Makki ki roti:
This ain't no ordinary roti. Made from corn flour, this roti is denser than the wheat version and is usually cooked on a tava, then smeared lavishly with ghee. The ones we ate were swimming - sorry drowning - in it! (Yes, that's melted ghee that this roti is being picked out from.) While most of my friends gave it a miss (granted it can't possibly be good for you!) I can testify that, along with some sarson ka saag, it was delicious. (Although in hindsight, eating it with the powdered gur it was served with was probably overkill.)
Imarti: A denser cousin of the jalebi, imarti is made from powdered urad dal rather than wheat flour and is a sort of sweet pretzel - coloured with saffron and
flavoured with cardamom - that is deep-fried in ghee and than soaked in sugar syrup. Imarti tastes less crispy, more juicy and slightly heavier than jalebi and though I'd probably pick the latter if I had to choose between the two, it's still
a great way to end a meal.
Meetha paan: I've always wanted to try sweet paan and finally got round to it at the wedding. The soft betel leaves are traditionally stuffed with areca nut scrapings (a mild narcotic that I skipped) along with a variety of sweet fillings
such as cardamom, rose petals, honey, candied fruit or anise, cherries, cloves,
coconut and mint, rolled into a little parcel, popped into the mouth and chewed. Meetha paan is used both as a mouth freshener and a digestive - exactly what
we needed after our evening of indulgence.
Where to eat and what to do if you find yourself with 24 hours in Mumbai's most elegant - and touristy - part of town:
8.30am: Pancakes at Mondy's
Sweet pancakes filled with bananas and drizzled with honey may say backpacker in Asia but it's really hard to not think "holiday" when enjoying some with a milky cup of coffee in Colaba - even if you aren't a backpacker. Cafe Mondegar is a great place to linger over a newspaper, watch the hawkers set up their stalls and take a deep breath before plunging into the madness that is Mumbai. The menu is a no-frills affair with plenty of hearty staples like omelettes and stacks of toast, butter and jam. The lively frescos on the walls by the famous Goan caricaturist Mario Miranda are perfect to stare at while munching away and contemplating what to do with the rest of your day.
In and around the area: Shopping on Colaba Causeway, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the Gateway of India and ferries to Elephanta Island.
11am: Vada Pav near VT (sorry, CST)
This quintessential Maharastrian snack is everything you need to fuel up after a couple of hours spent bargaining your way through Colaba. You can't do any better than a hot, deep-fried batata vada (a big ball of spiced and battered potatoes), sandwiched in between a fluffy pav (bun) and sprinkled with green chutney and crunchy chilli, garlic and peanut powder. Cheap and tasty, this streetside favourite is easy to eat on the go - which makes it perfect for Mumbai's busy streets.
In and around the area: The gorgeous gargoyles and Gothic grandeur that is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), Rajabai Tower, the elegant Raj-era buildings along D.N. Road from Flora Fountain at one end to Crawford Market at the other.
1pm: Fish and prawns at Fort
You can't go wrong with some light-as-air Neer dosa (rice pancakes) with spicy prawn koliwada or gassi and crunchy fried Bombay Duck at Apoorva. The popular seafood canteen is bang in the centre of the throbbing, labyrinthine commercial heart of South Mumbai known simply as Fort. Pair your meal with some refreshing mosambi (sweet lime) juice to rehydrate before stepping back out into the muggy Mumbai afternoon.
In and around the area: The art gallery district of Kala Ghoda, Prince of Wales Museum, Fabindia or Khadi Bhandar for traditional Indian outfits, accessories, handicrafts and ethnic home ware or the Bombay Store for quirky souvenirs.
5.30pm: Bhelpuri, sevpuri and panipuri at Chowpatty Beach
These spicy, sweet and sour concoctions popularly lumped under the title chaat are synonymous with Chowpatty Beach. While they do contain enough of Mumbai's notorious local water to possibly make you ill, those with strong stomachs will be rewarded by one of the most surprisingly delicious streetsnacks you could find anywhere. The common base includes potatoes, chopped onion and tomato, chickpeas, spicy chilli and coriander chutney, small puris, sweet and tart tamarind sauce and generous helpings of chaat masala powder. To this mix, bhelpuri adds puffed rice while sevpuri adds the angel-hair-like sev made from fried chickpea paste. The result? A microcosm of Mumbai's mad mix presented in a plate.
In and around the area: The carnival atmosphere of the beach with pony rides, yogic contortionists and rope-walkers.
8pm: Kebab rolls at Bade Miyan
This kebab stand tucked down one of Colaba's dodgier streets is a Mumbai institution and the long lines of people and cars waiting to cart away their rolls are an indication of just how popular Bade Miyan is. Try the seekh kebab rolls, baida rotis or spiced goat brain with thin rumali (handerchief) rotis, all served with a hot green dipping sauce. Vegetarians are the only ones likely to suffer from a lack of choice but everything on the menu is a good bet for anyone else.
In and around the area: Relive the (albeit faded) Golden Age of cinema from a balcony seat at Regal Cinema - one of the city's old single-screen Art Deco movie theatres.
11.30pm: Night cap overlooking the Beautiful Bay
If three hours of Bollywood song-and-dance routines have left you thirsty, a quick pint at Leopold's Cafe (of Shantaram fame) is only a few minutes down the road. Those looking for a more glamorous location for evening drinks can hail a cab down to the Dome Bar on the roof of the InterContinental Mumbai for a bird's eye view of what the Portuguese many years ago named Bom Bahia or the 'Beautiful Bay'.
In and around the area: A late night drive down the 'Queen's Necklace' stretch of Marine Drive with its lovely Art Deco houses and apartment blocks.
It's no secret I pick my holiday destinations based on what the country in
question brings to the table, quite literally. I have to confess though, besides food I have one other source of influence that plays an almost equal role in helping me choose where to go next. Books.
While travelogues feature quite heavily in my literary diet, it's often great fiction that gets me thinking about packing my bags and heading to places I never would have considered visiting before.
Apart from adding new places to my holiday wish list, some of my best-loved novels have also led me to - or heightened my interest in - great bars, cafes and restaurants around the world. Here are a few of my favourites:
Casa Botin - Madrid, Spain
Described as "one of the best restaurants in the world" in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
If you read this in a Hemingway novel, wouldn't you want to try it out for yourself?
"We lunched upstairs at Botin's. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta."
- Jake, The Sun Also Rises,1926
More than 80 years on, the place is still going strong and has been for quite a while (Casa Botin has another claim to fame which will probably merit another mention in this blog at some point). The roasted suckling pig was as tender as I imagine it must have been in Hemingway's day, to have earned such high praise, and the wine - not rioja alta but syrupy Pedro Ximenez - was very sweet and went excellently with the pork. The upstairs dining room is a cheerful tiled room and a pleasant place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner. And although I didn't visit it, my brother-in-law (who did) told me the exposed brick dining hall downstairs is also a great spot to grab a meal.
The Elephant House - Edinburgh, Scotland
One of the cafes where J.K Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
I remember glancing through an early interview with J.K Rowling when I first
started reading the Harry Potter books. It pictured her seated by a big window
at The Elephant House with a stunning view of Edinburgh Castle. I knew then
that if I ever went to Edinburgh, that was a cafe I'd definitely visit. I'm no Harry Potter nut - although reading this blog series I did in 2007 may give you that impression. It was work, I swear! :) - but I am enough of a fan to have wanted to see the place where this strangely gripping saga first took shape. The cafe is a bit of a nerdy writer's haunt which made it even more appealing. Some of the tables have drawers underneath that contain all sorts of fascinating scraps - poetry scribbles, badly drawn pictures, bills... I loved it! And it isn't famous-for-the-sake-of-being-famous either - The Elephant House was voted the best coffee shop in Edinburgh so you can be sure you can grab a nice cuppa when you drop in.
Leopold Cafe - Mumbai, India
Played a starring role in Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Leopold Cafe (or Leo's as we always called it) was a favourite even before I heard of Shantaram. As a student in Mumbai, this is where I went on lazy Sunday afternoons for a big plate of fried rice after a matinee show at Regal, or for drinks and dessert before a late night film. Leo's is one of the oldest Irani-cafes in Mumbai and despite being the site of one of the 2008 terror attacks, I was pleased to have seen it as busy as ever when I visited Colaba Causeway a couple of months ago. It has the true faded charm of an old-school traveller's hangout, complete with whirring ceiling fans suspended from long rods, wooden furniture that has seen better days, eager gap year students exchanging travel tips and leather-skinned veterans nursing midday beers. The food is not the best, but the hearty portions and the atmosphere more than make up for it. The upstairs bar is generally darker, drunker and probably closer to the sort of place where anyone who read the book would picture underworld deals being done, but for a true taste of Colaba charm, dine at Leo's at street level.
M Bar - Hotel Majestic Saigon, Vietnam
Rooftop bar of the hotel where Graham Greene wrote the first draft of The Quiet American
My favourite book of all time, I challenge anyone who reads it not to want to
visit Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon (the old name just sounds so much more romantic and truer to the era in which this melancholy novel is set). While the
Continental Hotel got more than a few mentions in the book, it was at the Hotel
Majestic - also on Dong Khoi street (the oft mentioned Rue Catinat) - that Greene did most of his writing. The grande dame perched on the street corner is still pretty impressive and its rooftop M Bar is one of the best places in the city to linger over a cocktail. (Or in my case a mocktail, as I was on pretty heavy meds when I paid it a visit, after a bout of what was initially thought to be malaria, then dengue fever before finally being downgraded to a particularly nasty flu bug). Even without the help of a glass of something to lend a rosier glow to memory, the panorama of River Saigon and the city spread along its banks is not one I'm likely to forget any time soon.
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