Category Archives: Observations

Life Hacks for a Kiwi in India!

1. Learn Your Veg from Your Non-Veg!

Until I got to India I had never heard of the term ‘Non Veg’. In the simplest terms it means food that is not considered vegetarian. In New Zealand ( and most other countries in the West) food is only labelled (and then only sometimes) if it is deemed as vegetarian. It is accepted widely that the majority of people will choose food by taste and style, not necessarily if it has some type of meat or not. In the hospitality industry, we always used to keep a few plates of food with no meat on it for those few that called themselves vegetarian. Until very recently there was very little understanding of what vegetarian food is or means.

In India Veg or Non Veg food is steeped in religion and politics and is a lot more complicated than at first glance. Restaurants freely display signs to say if they are 100% Veg or sell Veg and Non Veg food.

From my own observations, what people eat depends on a variety of factors – your religion, your caste or where you live is just the start. As in Hinduism where there are thousands of Gods/ Deities there sometimes seems to be that many types of vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

For example, Muslims tend to be Non Veg and eat chicken and mutton (goat), but not pork. Non veg Hindus don’t eat beef and Catholics pretty much eat everything unless it’s lent then they tend to be veg, with fish only on Fridays. If you are from the Punjab, you most likely eat meat, but if you are from Gujarat then most likely you don’t.

Jain’s are vegetarian and don’t eat garlic or onion ( or anything from under the ground, don’t eat eggs, but can eat dairy).

Then there are the vegetarians that don’t eat eggs or dairy and those that do. Those that are only vegetarian on Tuesdays or Thursdays or vegetarian only in India – overseas they will eat anything. Those that are vegetarian only while fasting (fasting food is a whole blog in itself!) and the list goes on. Approx. 30% of India is classified as pure vegetarian, the rest somewhere between those that eat eggs (not classified as pure vegetarian) and dairy through to those that will eat anything.

Buying food can be a bit of a science too. The majority of India still sells goods from smaller family owned stores; large chain supermarkets are in the major centres but much fewer than in the West. Gujarati’s tend to own a lot of the general food stores (at least in Mumbai) which mean’s you can buy milk but not eggs (no meat at all ). Larger supermarkets almost without exception will have all their non veg products including eggs in a separate walled off part of the supermarket.

Fish is brought from the Goan’s or Manglorean’s, many of whom are also Catholic so will also sell pork products. Bengalis also sell fish, but this tends to be the fresh water variety only. Mutton and chicken tends to be sold by Muslims, Paneer (cottage cheese) and fresh dairy by the Punjabi’s & Sindhi’s and eggs are sold in tiny roadside shops manned by immigrants from the poorer states of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.

Beef is a sore point all over India. In many Indian states, including Maharashtra where I live, the slaughter of cows is illegal; making it difficult to buy, sell, and, as a result, eat, beef. In Maharashtra, it is now illegal to sell or be in possession of beef. Beef is avoided by most Hindu’s but eaten widely by Catholics on the Konkan coast and in the North East. I am not even going to start on the politic’s of beef!!

By the way before I forget, alcohol is often seen as ‘Non Veg’ so its not allowed to be sold in the majority vegetarian or dry states such as Gujarat and not allowed in pure veg restaurants. At the same time you will never find alcohol at a Muslim restaurant, but you will have plenty of eatable non -veg options available, In fact finding veg options in a Muslim area on a festival is very difficult!

So in a nutshell, check what you want to eat before you go to a restaurant – it might be a little more complicated than you think.

For the record I am mostly a vegetarian. I do eat fish and seafood, occasionally eggs and dairy. I don’t eat any animals. I do occasionally drink alcohol.

Disclaimer: This piece is only from my observations as a foreigner living in Mumbai. It is only a generic observation from my point of view.

Naxalites, Taxi Drivers and Life’s Chances

I have been to India often, in fact I lived there for three years and through my business I still travel back regularly so I am not totally unfamiliar with the country and its ways. Many countries are vast and varied, but I have not been to one that has as many stories to tell as India. I think that even if I lived there for the rest of my life, I could still not travel everywhere and be exposed to all the diversity that makes up this unique country. I have just come back from a fast two week trip starting in the North East, travelling to the South and ending in the bustling metropolis of the  large West Indian city of Mumbai. This story is but a glimpse of one of the stories of India. Continue reading Naxalites, Taxi Drivers and Life’s Chances

Life Seems Full of New “Day One’s”

As my life has gone on, it seems I have more and more ‘day ones’! Starting a new job, a new house, a new country, a new diet, a new exercise regime.

I have moved countries five times, this doesn’t include the various cities within those countries. If I really apply myself I can probably count the number of houses and jobs I have had, but I surely cannot remember how many times I have started exercising or eating healthily again. I say eating healthily, as I gave up on diet’s years ago, I am no longer sucked in by fad’s and promises of slim shapely bodies in record time with little effort bar the ££$$ I need to spend to get there.
Continue reading Life Seems Full of New “Day One’s”

Not so sweet; Mr Whippy

I just had to post this photo of Mr Whippy.

I heard the familiar jingle as I was walking through the park on a warm spring evening. Instantly I was taken back to my childhood when we used to love the sound of Mr Whippy on a hot summers day and after convincing mum to part with a few coins, nothing seemed nicer than watching the white creamy ice cream being twirled into a cone then sprinkled with 100s n 1000s and if we were lucky a small chocolate flake being pushed in the side. Continue reading Not so sweet; Mr Whippy

Sugar, to Tax or not to Tax

Today the UK media reported that England’s Chief Medical Officer suggested that taxing sugar, similar to the tax on alcohol and cigarettes would assist in reducing the endemic obesity problem in the UK.

I have been in the UK for about 18 months and yes I do believe that action needs to be taken on the ever increasing problem of obesity here. I am not going to discuss the problems and issues for the country of overweight people, those problems and the cost to the country are well documented and discussed and make for very worrying statistics.  What I do want to comment on however is how I observe this country dealing with this problem. Continue reading Sugar, to Tax or not to Tax

Dhal vs Lentils – Tastes of Faraway Lands

I first got introduced to lentils when in my pre teens my mother and my older sister decided to go on what was colloquially called a ‘health kick’. My mother who suffered from terrible migraines, was prepared to do anything to get relief from the merry go round of severe headaches and pill popping to try and relieve them. My sister as I remember was becoming aware of her health and body as girls tend to in their young adult years. It was also  at the end of the hippy era where sprouts, chickpeas and alternative living were in fashion.  Things such as cottage cheese and tofu appeared in the fridge, ryvita crackers and vogels bread replaced the thick soft white bread we had been brought up on, alfalfa sprouts were being cultivated in an agee jar on the window sill and hard, flat, greenish- brown pea looking things called lentils were being stored in our cupboard. Continue reading Dhal vs Lentils – Tastes of Faraway Lands

Confessions and Observations of a Supermarketaholic

I like supermarkets, sometime times I pretend I don’t, but really I do. This is my second go at living in England, the first time was about 14 yrs ago when there didn’t seem to be too many supermarkets around. My shopping was mainly done from the wonderful family owned small stores that lined each high st.  At that time I lived in Islington and Stoke Newington, the only supermarket within walking distance was a dark scruffy place that I really only visited to get toilet paper and dishwashing liquid, I can’t even remember its name.

Don’t get me wrong I do love the European culture of tiny well stocked stores selling the most divine fresh meat and produce and jars of exotic sauces along with the staples of everyday living.  Buying fresh food each day on the way home from work and eliminating the need for large storage spaces in the kitchen. Italy really sold me on this concept, no need for cars to lug big bags of shopping, just buy the freshest of produce each day and have enough room to store your olive oil and a few fresh spices.

Growing up in New Zealand, I was introduced to the supermarket culture from a young age. Mum making me carry the old brown paper bags full of the weeks grocery’s home; home always being up the hill and not down.  Supermarkets in those days were boring, small dark isles to hide away from mum, nothing interesting on the shelves. New Zealand didn’t allow easy importation of foreign goods until the 90s, about the same time immigration was opened, so all those ingredients that I used to read about in exotic recipe books, like coconut milk, spices, variety of rices, limes, fresh chillies, pulses and so on were just not avail to me, a budding cook with a taste for anything hot, spicy and exotic. In the 90’s suddenly we had a deluge of people and things from foreign lands that previously I could only dream about, introducing me to tastes and sensations that rocked my senses that had been brought up on lumpy mash, dry meat, overcooked carrots, boiled peas and the only exotic spice that hit our food was an occasional sprinkle of black pepper.

We did have corner stores, these we called ‘The Dairy‘, mostly they sold milk, butter, newspapers, snack food etc. Too expensive and understocked to live out of unless maybe you were a student, too lazy to go to the supermarket and content to live on crisps and soft drink. The Dairy’s were also my first introduction to the Patel’s from Gujarat, it seemed that most dairy owners in those days hailed from that region of the world. How they must have missed their own local food, I doubt if any non -Indian kid in NZ had heard of dhoklas, rotli, khichdifarsan, mint chutney or my now favourite dabeli at that time.

Back to the Supermarkets, how they have evolved and almost against my will most now sell a range of the freshest produce, the most exotic spices, the best cuts of meat, freshly caught seafood and the largest array of packed food and the cheapest and most extensive range of alcohol that one could imagine. All of this is sold in an ambiance of  a clean light and an almost exciting atmosphere with competitive prices, bright packaging and smiling cashers, keen to give you tokens, cash back and vouchers for even better deals next time you visit.

What to do? succumb to the clever advertising, the bright lights and the one stop shop, convenient and almost exciting or keep supporting the local family owned local. I now live in North London and have a myriad of choices, Waitrose, Aldi and Sainsbury’s within walking distance, M&S and a large Tesco not much further away. While I love to roam their aisles for both the bargains and the not so cheap exotic packed goods all wrapped in cellophane and nicely stacked on clean shelves, there is something that keeps drawing me back to a store that is close by, I am unsure of its name but our family colloquially calls it ‘The Mediterranean store’ . Typical of London this store is packed to the brim with jars, cans, packets and sacks of food, some I recognise, some I don’t, all seeming to vaguely come from the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern part of the world. Along with the packed food comes fresh produce, a huge range of in-season fruit and vegetables, stacked up outside, inside, wherever there is space and a meat counter selling fresh Halal meat, not packed and sanitised behind cling film and polystyrene, just clean and fresh waiting to be brought by the kilo, chopped or minced to order. Open sacks of nuts, large bowls of olives, stacks of baklava,  spices, fresh hummus and other exotic delights finish the scene as you venture in. As much as I love to roam the shelves of M&S or Waitrose, something draws me back to this shop and others like it. The ability to pick out the best of the not so perfect looking fruit, pick of a packet of something from the precariously placed pile and chat briefly with the woman behind the counter, who has the knack of multi tasking down to a fine art, who can switch languages seamlessly depending on who she is serving and remembers me with a large smile when I enter.

So a supermarketaholic or just a foodie that loves meandering amongst aisles of fresh fresh food always looking for that ingredient I have never heard of or difficult to pronounce to try in my next family meal, I am not sure, but I do know that regardless, ingredients that I can smell, touch and create from scratch a meal with, will win every time.

A Taste of Tamil Nadu Heaven in Tooting Broadway, London

Chutny n Dosa, a little South Indian eatery that I have recently found in the unusual sounding place of Tooting broadway, South London.

I love South Indian food, in fact it is one of the reasons I really miss living in India. I was introduced to South Indian  food  a few years ago  when I travelled to Kanyakumari, the very tip of India where the Indian ocean, the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal meet and have never looked back. The taste of various freshly made dosa, idly, wada, or uttapam with spicy chutney and sambhar is now for me a breakfast (or lunch) second to none. Along the way I visited various towns and villages such as Mangalore, Mysore, VijayanagaraHampi,  and Thiruvananthapuram, amongst others. All of theses places having their own specialties and providing their own slight differences to the standard fare of the south.

Nothing else tastes the same or can be compared. The simple food outlets have a only a few items on the menu, that when run out is over for the day. Larger places or those in the bigger metro cities usually have a more extensive array of food and variety, often including Indian/ Chinese dishes and non veg dishes.

I have never before had South Indian food that tastes quite the same outside of India. The sensation and flavour is never quite the same, the ambience  not there and the disappointment of not quite getting the taste I crave hangs around. That is until I found Tooting, well actually Dosa n Chutny in Tooting. The whole ambience is South India, the place is scrubbed clean , but the paint is ever so slightly peeling, the menu reads like 1000’s of other non veg South Indian restaurant menus and when the food arrives I am sent straight back to one of the unpronounceable villages in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka or Kerala.

My personal favourites at Dosa n Chutny, apart from the staple dosa and idli is the Chettinadu fish curry that has the lingering taste of Tamil Nadu  and is even more delicious when mopped up with a veechu parotha. The spicy prawn thokku with juicy prawns and a thick masala sauce is a taste sensation in itself, making my eyes water and prompting me to order another sweet lassi to cool my mouth before taking another bite.

There is of course a few Londonisms, the waiters all wear shoes, the tables are wiped with a popular antibacterial spay n wipe instead of soapy water , the water in the jug provided is safe enough to drink and the prices reflect the local economy, albeit excellent value for money.  The clientele on the few times I have been seems to be expat South Indian’s, maybe hankering for tastes of home and a good mix of people that come from all over the globe and make London the melting pot that it is.

I like this place, I have to travel a long way from North London to get there and to date have not been disappointed. Simple and delicious or simply delicious.

dosanchutny

Photos from Dosa n Chutny website

Roti Chai

Today I visited Roti Chai, a not so small cafe / restaurant not far from Selfridges behind Oxford st.  Roti Chai, sells a cross section of Indian street style food, small tasty morsels of popular fast food from across India and as the name suggests Chai, or sweet Indian Tea made with milk and infused with spices.

I like going to Roti Chai. The place has plenty of natural light, seems friendly and the decor is reminiscent of the murals and truck art that is seen widely through India. It reminds of me my time in India. The food is tasty and reasonably authentic in a hygienic British way and comparably not bad value for money in the middle of the tourist belt of Oxford St. I even drink the chai there considering I hate tea. I have never really liked tea even though my parents drank gallons of the stuff when I was growing up. I got introduced to the hot sweet, spicy chai in India and loved to drink it steaming hot by the roadside out of tiny terracotta or glass cups. Watching chai being prepared by a chai walla is an experience in itself.

Back in the west I am not so fussed, but a few months back I had a chai at Roti Chai that I enjoyed and now look forward to that unique taste served in the traditional chai glasses whenever I am in that part of town. The bhel puri and vegetable samosa with chutney is also hard to resist. Until today that is; today I got served warm, thin, weak chai, which of course we sent back, only to see the chai walla insert the milk frothing wand on the espresso machine into each glass to heat it up. We got back the same chai, still weak and thin but at least piping hot. Gone was my vision of the chai being cooked slowly in a pot, giving it time for the spices to infuse and the taste to develop before being strained and served steaming hot and fresh.

Maybe I will return here, maybe I won’t, but I will certainly never order chai again. Maybe the chai walla was new, maybe he was having a bad day, but it doesn’t really matter I don’t want to visit there anymore and I won’t take my friends there for chai anymore.

One of the hardest things for an independent restaurant to obtain is continuity with its food. Unlike the large chains whose food is processed and managed from some central food manufacturing plant down to the last crystal of salt, the last puff of flour to ensure that it looks and tastes exactly like the same no matter what day or where you buy it; independent eateries are usually born of a vision from the owner to create a unique taste and experience, whilst been freshly prepared and cooked on the premises.

The visions from this would be restaurateurs or chefs coming either from a new vision, idea or the desire to recreate the home cooked food from their home, their childhood memories, often from a land far from where the restaurant of today is. The recipe, the love and ambience in the way that it is prepared and served is usually just as envisioned during the early days but once the popularity grows and the visionary has to start to rely on other people to keep preparing and serving the food day after day, this is usually when the cracks start appearing.

Visiting an independent restaurant, I do expect some variations of the same dish on different day. Slight variations of seasonal differences and the flair of different chefs even though cooking from the same recipe.  I do however; expect that the standard of taste, presentation and quantity remain constant. What annoys me is that when I find a place that I enjoy visiting regularly I find suddenly that the one thing I enjoy is now substandard, disappointing and no longer exciting or value for money.

First of the first

2014 –  another first of the first. This time in London UK. Woke up late to cold and the type of miserable rain that makes one want to close the curtains and snuggle further under the duvet. I have experienced  the first of January in many countries – New Zealand, India, Thailand, London, Manchester and Edinburgh.

New Zealand is full of childhood memories. New Year on the beach, waking up to the warmth, holidays and exciting times ahead.  Rain for me was always disappointing; chilling the air, making playing outside uncomfortable. It was usually a welcome break to the long hot summer days, but not being a farmer or relying on rain for my well being, I considered it a nuisance and a reminder of the cold bleak winter days that would always follow.

Asia changed my perception of rain. My first summer rain was in Cambodia, a very brief shower, warm, skin tingling and it seemed to freshen and brighten the whole countryside. Since then I have experienced many Asian rains, from the torrential monsoons in Mumbai, flash flooding in New Delhi, sudden downpours in Thailand and the more gentle misty rain in Sri Lanka. For some reason these Asian rains seemed more uplifting, warmer and were welcome as a cleanser and cooler for the dust and heat baked countryside. The sign of cooler times ahead always was welcomed rather than dreaded.  The rain was always more comfortable, less cold albeit it often flooded,the damp and mould always evident in tropical cities. Maybe its the fact that rain in Asia is usually confined to the monsoon season, a sign of the break of the relentless heat, the upcoming cool season and once over it won’t come back for months .

Back to the first of the first. As I grow older and travel more I look for more firsts. I grew up believing what I saw  and what I was told to be true and for many of my formative years it was. Christmas came every year, the New Year was always on the 1st of January, summer followed spring which came after winter which was preceded by autumn, rain was always cold. Simple things, simple beliefs until I started meeting people that had never celebrated Christmas, whose New Year was on a different day and who had never experienced cold rain. Simple things but so different.

Now I look for the differences, actively seek them out, questioning my own beliefs, looking for first of the firsts and not just on the first of January. Any day can be a first, in fact it is. Every morning a new morning, every rain is different, whether it be warm or cold, every person is different moulded by their own upbringing’s, their own experiences.

Today is the 1st of January 2014, the rain outside is cold but I am grateful that I have a warm duvet and someone I love to snuggle into. I have many resolutions, the usual suspects around, eating habits and fitness but more and more I am looking both within as well as outside for those simple experiences I don’t even know exist yet, like the joy in warm rain.