February 10, 2009

A Taste of Home - Part I

It's been a couple of weeks since I got back Stateside from my annual pilgrimage home to India. As vacations go, this was actually a lengthy one – nearly three weeks 'in-country'. As with any vacation, this one had it's highs and lows but at the end of it all I had got to spend some quality time with perhaps the only five people in the world who love me unconditionally (even though, thanks to some spectacularly bad math on my part, two of them got less than 48-hours of the total, but that's groveling for another time) so it was all good.

The great thing about long vacations in India is that you get to eat a lot and culinary terms this trip was a particularly varied and rich experience. Here, in a semi-chronological order, are the highlights of that experience:

Let's start with Mumbai and lunch at the Renaissance Hotel Powai's buffet. We went there on a Sunday, which the brother, in an effort to lower expectations, told me was a slow lunch day. It must have been because the Renaissance clearly had its B-team on duty. The food and the service were, in a word, sad. Except for three things. The first was the Rahra Mutton, which was qualitatively so much better than the rest of the spread that I am wondering if it might have been stale – you know, leftovers from the night before when the alpha chef presumably still had the con. Then there were the Gol-Gappas (or pani-puri, as they call them in those parts), which were crisp and golden brown; the 'pani' was salty and tangy and the proper sewer green color. Finally, there was Nikita – the sous chef at the chaat station. I have never, in all my years, seen a female chaat maker before. It is easier for me to imagine a female president of the US than a woman in India making chaat professionally. That has to be the last male bastion left. I did double takes and triple takes. I stared. (The fact that Nikita was rather good looking and had a winsome smile is entirely besides the point.) Just for having the testicular fortitude to put Nikita on the chaat station the Renaissance gets a place in the highlight reel – even though their food generally sucked.

Yea, even Nikita's chaat unfortunately (the gol-gappas, although at the same station, were made by a different dude 'cause Nikita was on a break at the time, I think).

We had dinner at Mainland China in Andheri (I think) that night in order to sate my Indian-Chinese cravings. The service was prompt and courteous; the food was good; we ordered too much; a jolly time was had by all – in other words, it was your typical family outing to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I only mention it because it would be the only Chinese food I would eat on this trip. And for the fact that I discovered the secret to restaurant style crispy spinach upon my return (it's somewhat of a speciality at Mainland China apparently. But that's another post).

The best food I had in Mumbai were the bread pakoras that the brother's mother-in-law made for breakfast the next morning. Ab-so-lute-ly spectacular. They were crisp to the point of being crunchy on the outside while the filling inside was moist, almost gooey. They physics of how such a thing is possible is a bit of a mystery to me. They took me back to my childhood and my school canteen and the Moonlight sweet shop in Munirka, New Delhi. I ate at least half-a-dozen of those bad boys, maybe even 10.

Before I go on to the Delhi leg of the trip, a quick word about the Rajdhani Express, which I took from Mumbai to Delhi (my first train ride in six years! As the bro' and his wife will testify, I was as excited as a 6-year old!) – they feed you a lot on that train. I mean like all the time. It seemed like every time I turned around, there was a dude standing there with a snack or a juice or soup or tea or coffee or something! Amazing.

And the staff on the train was unfailingly polite, always ready to accommodate requests – for extra coffee, extra sandwiches, extra blankets, extra ice-cream, you name it – and always with a smile. And they had like six(!) choices for the dinner entree – vegetarian or non. If non, then eggs or chicken. If chicken, then Indian or Continental. You don't get that kind of choice in first-class on an international flight! The next morning, as the steward started to rattle off the seemingly endless choices for breakfast, I actually had to stop the guy and ask him to get whatever he thought best (he was so pleased he got me idlis and veg. cutlets!).

The fact that Lalu Yadav screwed up Bihar is probably indisputable. But that in the railways, he's found a calling is probably equally indisputable. Maybe the Indian Railways would be willing to teach the staff at the Renaissance a thing or two about customer service.

1 comment:

--xh-- said...

was wondering where did you vanish :)