Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Looking Back at 2007

I will remember 2007 as the year of food, travel and (of course) blogging! The year began at Bali, where my family and I had a truly magical time. Then came Japan which was a gourmet's delight. The vacation at the African Kingdom Lodge in Orlando Florida was another fantastic family experience. As was our vacation to Switzerland and England later in the year. In addition to all this, I made several business trips to the USA, and as you can expect, indulged in a variety of culinary delights that the Bay Area has to offer.

I continue to build bonds with old blog-friends even as I make new ones. Thank you Sank, Sig, Sandeepa, Foodette, Zhu, Renny, Anil, Vishal, Bee, Hari, Backpakkar and Indicaspecies for being regular readers of my blog over these months and commenting on my posts. My blog saw 25,000+ visits during this year and the readership has moved up considerably in recent months. I look forward to another great year ahead.

As this year comes to a close, here's wishing all of you - my readers - a Very Happy New Year! May you live all the days of your life in 2008 and beyond.

FlowersHari of The Long Hol tagged me recently to select a photo from this year and explain why this photo is special. So here it is: a picture of some flowers blooming. Special because it's taken by my five-year old daughter who's quite a nature lover already!

Bali posts: Ringing in the New Year, Indonesia, Island of the Gods, Gourmet in Bali, Laguna Resort. Japan posts: A Dish to Die For, Around the World, Land of the Rising Sun, Kawaii, Epicurean Part 1, Epicurean Part 2, Living Twice. Orlando vacation posts: The Magic of Disney, Africa Recreated, Downtown Disney. England and Switzerland posts: Timeless London, Sweet Dreams, Massage at 36K feet.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Top Pune Eat-Outs

Lunch Thali at the Mystic Masala PuneIn an earlier post, I had listed my top five favorite restaurants in Pune. However, for new visitors to Pune, here is a larger list of eating options which I frequent, to give you a flavor of what's available (and good!). Please note that I am partial to restaurants located in the Camp Area. Also, I am only covering mid-range restaurants in this post which are 'safe enough' for our friends from abroad.

Note: The locations and phone numbers of all restaurants mentioned here are provided at the end of this post.

Update, June 2011: Updated post on Best Dining Options in Pune.

Indian food

By default when someone says Indian food, it usually means North-Indian food. The menu will include kababs, curries, and common breads such as Naan and Roti.

Kulfi Falooda at the Mystic Masala PuneSigree has a better lunch buffet (now) than the Bombay Brasserie and therefore would be my top choice for a business lunch. Bombay Brasserie easily makes the best kababs in town and will be my top dining choice for Indian food. They also have a sit-down buffet option outdoors during the evening which includes unlimited kababs, bread, dal, biryani and desserts. If you choose the à la carte menu, I recommend Murgh Kali Mirch and the Sheek Kababs here, followed by Dal Bukhara with Garlic Naan and Gosht Biryani. Make sure you try the Rabdi for dessert, or better still combine and share portions of rabdi with malai kulfi.

Buffet at the Sun N Sand PuneAmong the five-star hotels, Chingari at the Le Meridien and Kabab Hut at the Sun N Sand are good options, but the quality of their kababs fall short of those found at the Bombay Brasserie.

For something different, you can also try the Lunch Thali at the Mystic Masala in the Taj Blue Diamond hotel. The South Indian thali was the best one I have had so far at this place.

Mainland China PuneChinese and Thai

Mainland China is the best option for great food during lunch or dinner. They also have a special lunch menu which let's you order a soup, entree, rice/noodles and desserts for a fixed price. I recommend the Peppery Lemon Soup (chicken or prawn), the steamed dim sum platter and the Chengdu Clay Bowl Chicken.

Malaka Spice and Silk Route are great options for Thai food (they also have Chinese, Vietnamese, Malay and Korean and other Far East Asian food items on their menus). Malaka Spice has a decent wine list too. The ambiance in Silk Route may not be top-notch but the food more than makes up for this.

Alternately, Whispering Bamboo at the Taj Blue Diamond is an excellent choice for a business dinner or for one of those special occasions. Do try their prawns in pepper and salt as a starter and the water-chestnut dessert here.

Mainland China PuneSea-Food

Sea-food in Pune usually means Cuisine from the Konkan Coast. These restaurants will serve you a variety of fish, prawns and crabs made in different styles.

My top choice is Krishna (they used to call themselves Trishna earlier) and Coconut Grove, followed by Spice Garden (old-timers will know this place as Farshid's). Mahesh Lunch Home, which showed a lot of promise earlier, sadly comes fourth in my list!

At Krishna, I usually order Pomfret fry (bone-less) which is excellent with mint-chutney and onion rings. At Spice Garden, I love their tandoori Surmai (king-fish) chunks. At all these places, I love having a Gassi with either the appam or neer dosa. The gassi is a Konkan curry that is made of grated coconut and spices with prawns, fish or chicken. The appam and neer dosa are speciality steamed breads only found in some of the southern Indian states.

The Coconut Grove also serves a mean Clams Masala that you must try when visiting this place.


This is a new category of eat-outs I only encountered when I made Pune my home; I do not remember any 'sizzler' restaurants in Delhi. And my friends from the USA, this isn't a Pune version of Hooters! It's not the waitstaff that sizzles but the food they serve on hot iron griddles. :-)

Sizzlers usually consist of grilled meats, veggies and fries that are arranged on a hot iron griddle and serves with a sauce of your choice. The loud sizzling noise and smoke as the food is brought to your table are what makes this interesting. My top choices are Yana, Zamu's and Yoko's. If you don't mind the cramped interior Bounty is a good one too. Incidentally, The Place claims to be the first sizzler restaurant in Pune (and apparently in the country too).

My favorite sizzler is usually the Chicken Shaslik (because it is the spiciest one of them all!) but I ask them to serve it with fries instead of rice. Try the sizzling brownie with ice-cream for dessert if you are eating at Yoko's.

International Fare at Flags PuneThe Others

And finally, here my other favorites that don't fall into any particular category.

La Dolce Vita and Toscana for Italian food. There is a new restaurant in town but I haven't tried that yet. La Dolce Vita has a large selection of wine and has recently opened a Martini Bar right next door. Toscana is my choice for a romantic dinner during the summer evenings.

Flags is an interesting restaurant that features food from many different countries; good ambiance, lots of entree choices and innovative cocktails make this a good dinner destination, especially after a movie at the neighbouring Inox multiplex.

International Fare at Flags PuneNot Just Jazz By The Bay is in my list, not only for it's live music during the evenings, but also for their creative Salads & Sandwiches lunch buffet during week-days.

For unwinding during the evening over drinks, Kiva' new location in Koregaon Park is my current favorite. Extensive menu of starters, cocktails, retro and rock music. Very tastefully done interiors too.

And finally, Arther's Theme which claims their cuisine is French. French or not, the food is good. I love this place for sentimental reasons: it is one of the earliest places I and my wife frequented during our first weeks in Pune. However, I love their quaint interiors and innovative menus too. They are one of the few restaurants in Pune where you get nicely presented plated food.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I am certain I will have other eat-outs to talk about in the coming year. Meanwhile, if you are at Pune and have try one of these places, I would like to know if you agree with me or have another opinion. Bon Appetit!

Locations and Phone Numbers

Sigree: City Tower, Dhole Patil Road Road & Boat Club Road Junction : Ph- 66027080
Bombay Brasserie: City Point, Dhole Patil Road & Boat Club Road Junction : Ph- 66011101
Chingari at Le Meridien Hotel: RBM Road : Ph-26050505
Kabab Hut at Sun N Sand Hotel: Bund Garden Road : Ph - 26137777
Mystic Masala at Taj Blue Diamond Hotel: Koregaon Road : Ph -66025555

Mainland China: City Point, Dhole Patil Road & Boat Club Road Junction : Ph- 66013030
Malaka Spice: Lane 6, Koregaon Park : Ph - 26136293
Silk Route: Lane 6, Koregaon Park : Ph - 26135793
Whispering Bamboo at Taj Blue Diamond Hotel: Koregaon Road : Ph -66025555

Krishna: Ashoka Mall opposite Sun N Sand hotel. Ph - 26132331
Coconut Grove: Mangalwar Peth,Opposite Ambedkar Bhavan : Ph - 26053981
Spice Garden: Dhole Patil Road (at the end of the lane on which Zamu's is located)

Yana: Gold Ablabs Multiplex, Kalyani Nagar : Ph - 56092451
Zamu's: 189 Dhole Patil Road : Ph - 26123610
Yoko: 3-G, 5th avenue, Dhole Patil Road : Ph - 30908165
Bounty: Landmark Garden, Kalyani Nagar : Ph - 26613360
The Place: Moledina Road & MG Road junction, beside Hotel Aurora Towers : Ph - 26134632

La Dolce Vita: City Point, Dhole Patil Road & Boat Club Road Junction : Ph - 26145555
Toscana: Next to Bishop's School, Kalyaninagar : Ph: 26686520
Flags: Metropole, Bund Garden Road : Ph: 26141213
Not Just Jazz by the Bay: E-Square Multiplex, University Road : Ph: 56044200
Kiva: Lane 6 (all the way down towards South Main Road), Koregaon Park : Ph - 30520987
Arthur's Theme: Lane 6, Koregaon Park. Ph - 26132710

Recent Updates on Pune's Dining Scene:


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Manipulative Restaurant Menus!

Forbes Traveller ran an interesting article on 'menu psychology'. Here's an excerpt:

Smart chefs (or their menu consultants) know that when most of you open a menu, your eyes go right to the top of the page on the right side. And, armed with that knowledge, chefs place the menu item that will give them the most profit at the top of the page. Hence, it soon becomes their biggest seller.

Then, your eyes normally drift to the center of the page. That’s where many chefs place their absolutely most expensive item. They do that not because they expect you to buy that item, but because the psychology of menus indicates you’ll probably then look at the items immediately above and below the high ticket item and order one of those. Again, those two items rank second and third for generating profits.”

Read the original article in full here.


Monday, December 17, 2007

The Other Side of Diversity

A few years back, Robert Putnam, one of the world’s most influential political scientists revealed some bleak side-effects of ethnic diversity on society. Putnam found that living in diverse communities makes us worse neighbours and citizens: “Immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital...Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer,” he wrote.

Putnam's controversial book, Bowling Alone, details his research on diversity and American society; his subsequent work found similar patterns in European and Asian societies too. You can read some more about his work on Wiki.

Science is making other uncomfortable discoveries. As The New York Times warned in a front page story last month, the DNA era is raising “new worries about prejudice”. In the article, Marcus Feldman, a Stanford biologist, explained: “There are clear differences between people of different continental ancestries. And it has the potential to spark a new era of racism if we do not start explaining it better.”

All this, even as countries-- and business -- become increasingly multi-ethnic. I think our societies will be reshaped during the next few years as we learn to reconcile between the meterial benefits of diversity and the strain it creates in our (existing) social fabric.

Even as I (and many of my world traveller blog friends) hope we will learn to live in multi-ethnic societies, Putnam's research shows why immigration is such a hot issue for voters everywhere.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Unlimited Kababs To Heaven

The heady flavors of spices seduces you even as your teeth begins to sink into the well-marinated meat. You savour the sensation of expertly cooked meat -- fresh from the tandoor. The crunchiness of onions, and the icy freshness of mint chutney mingling with the juicy meat in your palate. You are now certain -- heaven can't be more pleasurable than this!

Gilawati Kabab at The Great Kabab FactoryThis evening almost didn't happen. I and a colleague had earlier planned a drive to Fisherman’s Cove, a seaside resort in Chennai with an excellent open-air restaurant. We changed our plans at the last moment and decided to have dinner at a place closer to our hotel instead. What better place to choose than The Great Kabab Factory (TGKF) at Radisson.

The Concept: TGKF only opens for dinner and has a fixed menu. You are served six varieties of kababs with a variety of Indian breads. Multiple servers in factory uniform serve kababs directly onto your plates. Kababs are followed by two kinds of dal, biryani and five different types of desserts. You can order unlimited helpings of anything on the menu! The menu changes every day – the restaurant claims to have expertise in over 140 different kinds of kababs.

Taftan at The Great Kabab FactoryOur reservations were for 9:30PM. The hostess managed to get us a table quickly. The ambiance is the same as their Delhi and Noida restaurants: low lighting, dark colors, walls adorned with cooking utensils, an open kitchen at the far end, checkered table-cloth, and flatware made of twisted steel.

Dinner began with the best kabab of the night, the Gilawati kabab. The kabab was accompanied with an Ulte Tawe Ka Paratha, a thin, pan-fried bread. The server helpfully informed us that the Gilawati was made with 123 spices and ingredients. You place the kabab in the paratha, add onion rings, mint chutney and roll it up to eat. The Gilawati was deliciously aromatic and melted in my mouth. What a great way to begin today’s kabab journey.

Raan-E-MurgThe next kabab was the Raan-E-Murg, a chicken drumstick marinated in spices. This was well made too - crisp outside and succulent inside, with a distinct flavor of cumin. As recommended, we paired this kabab with yogurt chutney.

We were now served with the Bakharkhani and the Taftan, two speciality Indian breads. I chose the former, and it was excellent. (See my post on Indian Breads).

The Chaat Methi Mahi Tikka came next. This was very good. A large chunk of fresh king-fish marinated in fenugreek and chaat spices. The flavors mingled very well with the mint chutney.

Chaat Methi Mahi TikkaThe Kaali-Mirch Ki Pasanda was marinated lamb that was beaten into thin strips and heavily seasoned. The predominant flavors were from the black pepper. The taste was complimented by the tomato chutney that accompanied this dish.

Now came the Zafrani Murg Tikka, chunks of chicken marinated in saffron, yogurt, and other spices.

And the last type of kabab was the ever-popular Sheek Kabab. Skewers of minced lamb mixed with many spices. The one served to us that night was soft but coarsely ground. The flavor of the spices came out nicely and the kabab was hot and spicy the way I enjoy it.

We couldn’t resist ordering another round of the excellent Gilawati kabab before we moved to the Biryanis.

Today’s biryani was a Murgh Biryani, which was good, but I prefer the Gosht Biryani (which is made with mutton/lamb instead of chicken). I also tried their Dal Makhni, which was good, not unusually so.

We were very full by now. But how could I say no to desserts? The server got us all five of them to taste.

Mithai at The Great Kabab FactoryThe kheer-malai was very good as was the kalajaam. The gajar ka halwa tasted just like home-made ones (which was good!), and the malai kulfi was excellent too. But the one that I will remember most among the desserts was the Khubani Ka Meetha. Those who don't travel to Hyderabad may not ever know this one. This exotic sweet-dish was popular with the Nizams and I can see why! Made with apricots and cream, this is quite an interesting dish that lingers on in your mouth and memory for a while.
Kabab lovers, I recommend you try this restaurant on a week-day when it is less crowded.

The Great Kabab Factory first opened in Delhi at the Radisson Hotel (near the International Airport). I remember being blown away by the concept and quality of kababs during my first visit. Since then, the concept (and brand) has become so successful, Radission has opened Kabab Factory restaurants in other cities, including Chennai, Jalandhar, Varanasi and recently Bahrain.

If you enjoyed reading this, here are some other posts you may enjoy:


Monday, December 10, 2007

Quick Trip to Chennai

Last Friday, I drove out at 4:30AM to catch a morning flight from Mumbai to Chennai. It was a cold, wintery morning and there was an accident on the expressway. Two trucks had collided in the opposite lanes, and all incoming traffic from Mumbai was backed up for miles.

I reached Mumbai airport in two hours and thirty mintues without the driver over-speeding; see how much time you can save if the Mumbai traffic is absent from the streets?

Mumbai is one airport where almost every newspaper is available for free for passengers! I don't remember which one of them began this trend, but now every one of the national and business dailes are there for your reading pleasure!

Jet Airways IndiaThe Jet Airways flight that took me to Chennai was the first one I have ever boarded that did not have a Premiere section. All seats were done up in brown leather (different from their older blue colored interiors). Seems like this is the new color scheme we will see in their newer aircraft. Matches well with their new canary yellow uniforms.

As we landed, I could see that it had rained during the night. It was cool and dry now - by Chennai standards; Pune people would probably still call it warm and humid. :-)

I was back at the Le Meridien (I had blogged about this hotel and one of their restaurants earlier this year). I had to quickly change into work clothes since I had a meeting coming up. That is when I realized the hotel room didn't have an iron and board. How annoying! But hey, wait. Thy press your clothes for free. I called housekeeping and my shirt was ready in 10 mins!

A quick lunch at the Cilantro and we were off for a long day of meetings. I did try hard to keep the lunch light! I had the Saag Gosht, fish Amritsari, crab masala, a fiery eggplant dish, some rasam, and steamed pulao. I had to taste two desserts, the Malai Madhuri and the upside-down peach pudding. Like I said, a light lunch. :-)

During the evening, it was decision-making time again! Dinner at The Taj's Fisherman’s Cove or The Great Kabab Factory at the Radisson? Great sea-food at a sea-side resort or great kababs just 15 minutes from our hotel? But the dinner deserves it's own post!

En route, I picked up some more interesting tid-bits from the in-flight magazines:

Oberoi Udaivilas HotelConde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards 2007 are now out. In the Hotels and Resorts category, La Scalinatella on the Isle of Capri in Italy topped the list with a perfect 100. Only the second time this has happened in the 20 year history of these awards.

At #2 was Oberoi’s Udaivilas in Rajasthan which came in at 99.6 (very close indeed!). Oberoi also had the #3 and #6 positions with the Vanyavilas at Ranthambore (97.7) and the Amarvilas (97.3) at Agra respectively. Three Indian hotels in the Top 10 and all of them Oberoi properties!

On a different note, JetBlue this month began offering free email and instant messaging on its flights. Virgin America and other airlines are expected to follow with more online access during flights within the USA.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Norwegian Troll Visits Pune

Norwegian Troll in Pune IndiaA troll came visiting today from distant Norway. My blog-friend, RennyBA, had sent him my way! Renny is a prolific blogger and a strong believer in the power of social networking and the Internet: He blogs about life, food and culture of his country, Norway. He even met his wife online, and his blog was recently rated as among the top three European blogs of 2007.

Fellow muggles who don't know much about trolls, here's a quick starter course for you:

Troll from Norway1. Trolls have long crooked noses, only four fingers and toes on each limb, and most of them have a bushy tail.

2. Trolls live in the icy mountains of the North, and only come out after sunset. Sunlight makes them crack or turn into stone.

3. Trolls can be big (almost gaints) or small: mine is a small fella, as you can see in the picture here. :-)

4. Trolls have super-natural abilities and sometimes lure men by turning themselves into beautiful young girls. Tip: When in doubt check their behinds, because they are unable to hide their bushy tail! :-)

5. If you keep them happy, they can make your livestock yield much milk and get fat and sleek. That's why people put a bowl of porridge in the barn for them during Chistmas Eve.

Alrighty then. That should keep you safe when you visit the icy North on your next Norwegian trip. Thanks, Renny for the wonderful gesture!


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The New Black...Is In Your Plate!

From cocktail dresses to the iPod and now onto your plate! Black is chic, even when it comes to gourmet food: check this article in the latest issue of Time magazine. I had never heard of black chicken or black carrots before.

Black Silkie Chicken
Intrigued, I researched some more. The sudden interest in ebony colored food by gourmets is attested by the fact that even the New York Times ran a recent article on this trend.

Forbidden Rice"The craze for ebony-tinged foods can be traced to Asia, where inky ingredients have a long and illustrious tradition. The nutty flavors and raven tones of forbidden rice were once reserved for Chinese emperors.", says Time.

Silkie chickens originated in Asia, where they are valued for their deep gamy flavor. US chefs are more interested in the novelty factor that this meat offers. This chicken -- which has white fluffy feathers but black bones, meat and skin -- is also being touted as the new 'health food'.

The Scotsman reports, "Black-bone silky fowl have been used as a "folk invigorant" in China for 1,000 years. Now Chinese food scientists have confirmed they contain high levels of a substance called carnosine. This is a powerful anti-oxidant and is taken in supplement form in the West to improve muscle strength and alleviate the effects of ageing, autism and diabetes."

Black CarrotsThat's Fit points out the Japanese have always been fond of black food, "Historically, the Japanese sought foods such as black vinegar, black soybeans and black mushrooms for their rich taste. But now deeply-hued foods are recognized for their nutritional value."

And therefore, next time you find dal mein kuch kaala hai, it maybe because you are dining at a gourmet restaurant! :-)


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Train Journeys in India

A long time ago, I looked forward to summer vacations when schools would close for a month. Every year at this time we went to Calcutta, Allahabad or Kanpur to visit my many aunts, uncles and grand-parents. We would travel by railroad for two days to cover the 2000 kms distance from Mysore. This wasn't unusual; very few people took a flight when traveling within India those days.

A Train and the Indian MonsoonThe long train journey was a joyful experience. I was absorbed by the fascinating sights and sounds during the train ride. Air-conditioned coaches were rare, which meant open windows (and dusty faces); we kids could stick our faces against the windows in an attempt to see the rest of the train winding its way through hills, valleys, forests and creeks. Photo credit: Train in the rains by Bramha.

I don't think I have seen as much of India as I did during those train journeys, albeit through a child's eye. When I was older and travelled alone, I would get down at every station to stretch, sip tea from earthen cups and soak in the sights and sounds. Every station was a little different: there were large 'railway junctions' in towns otherwise unknown, vendors hawking foodstuff special to that town: oranges in Nagpur, pethas in Agra, and mihidana in Burdwan.

A Train Snaking Across IndiaThe cries of the chaiwallahs, the wiry porters in their red shirts, the myriad vendors and fellow travellers rushing by, all fascinated me. I never really noticed the dust, the flies, the stinking toilets, the sweaty crowds, or the malfunctioning ac during those days.

Photo credits: Snaking train by Arjun, Blue train by Vinu, Toy Train by Bishal Rai. Please click on the pictures to go to their respective Flickr pages.

Years later, I bought myself a first class ticket on the Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Calcutta. To me that was the epitome of luxury travel. A completely air-conditioned train, the Rajdhani was quite a status symbol those days. The train reached Calcutta at least five hours faster than every the other train. The experience on the Rajdhani was closer to that of a flight: cleaner, less noisy, and less dusty! It was also the beginning of the end of my relationship with Indian Railways. I now valued time and comfort over everything else, and so began choosing flights over trains.

Indian RailwaysIt's been a long time since those days. I took the train during a recent journey to Goa after a gap of several years. It was fun reliving my childhood memories once more. Not much has changed on the Indian railroad during these years. I have! I now notice the dust, the flies and malfunctioning Ac's even as I enjoy the splendid views of the lush green countryside. The earthen cups for chai have been replaced with plastic ones. I see more foreigners (mostly from Israel) in the train. Still, it seems like old times.

For those who want to discover India beyond the Taj and Software, a train journey is probably the easiest way to get a head start.

For new visitors to India, here are my top three recommendations for your first train journey in India:

#1: Train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling

Darjeeling TrainPlan for this popular ride to Darjeeling on the narrow gauge Darjeeling Himalaya Railway, and a night or two at the Windamere Hotel. This train is now a UN World Heritage Site. Take the Darjeeling Mail from Calcutta (at Sealdah station) to New Jalpaiguri, leaving Calcutta Sealdah at about 10PM and arriving at about 8:30AM next morning.

The 'toy train' connects with the Darjeeling Mail in New Jalpaiguri, leaving at 9AM and arriving Darjeeling at 3:30PM. The leisurely day spent on the toy train through the Himalayan foothills is a day well spent.

The Windamere at Darjeeling was a boarding house for bachelor tea planters, and became a hotel in 1939. Meals are served by white-gloved, turbaned waiters and eaten by candlelight to the sound of Cole Porter tunes on the piano. Even if you can't afford it, make sure you come along for afternoon tea - probably the best cup of tea you will ever drink here.

#2: Train ride from Delhi to Shimla

You will leave Delhi on the Shatabdi Express for the train journey to Kalka. Here you change to the narrow-gauge 'Toy Train', which will take you on a wonderful journey up into the hills to the town of Shimla at over 7,000 feet. Shimla was chosen by the British as their retreat from the summer heat, and not only is the main street called the Mall, but many of the buildings in the town are very British in style. You can choose to stay at the magnificent Oberoi Cecil Hotel or Wildflower Hall both of which enjoy fabulous views of the Himalayas.

#3: A train ride on the Konkan Railways

This railroad passes through some of the most pretty coastal landscapes of Western India. You can either travel between Bombay and Goa or all the way to Kerala. Pick a train that travels during the daytime so you can enjoy the scenery outside.

Palace On Wheels IndiaAlternately, you can try one of the touristy luxury trains that combine city tours along with the train journeys between cities. The most popular one is the Palace on Wheels.

The Palace on Wheels is a moving hotel. It has 14 air-conditioned coaches and each sleeper has four compartments with en suite facilities and twin lower beds. Your personal attendant or Khidmatgar is available at all times. Dining is in one of the two opulent restaurant cars, the Maharaja and Maharini, serving Indian, international and Chinese cuisine. There is a comfortable lounge car and bar. The decor and furnishings reflect the colours and traditions of Rajasthan. Over 7 days, the train will take you from Delhi to Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Bharatpur and Arga before returning back to Delhi.

Palace on Wheels IndiaThe Deccan Odyssey is another alternatives to the Palace on Wheels. The Deccan Odyssey covers Maharashtra and a pinch of Goa - Mumbai, Ganpatipule, Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, Goa, Pune, Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora.

Update, June 2008: Visitors to Bangalore please note, Karnataka has introduced it's own tourist train experience, The Golden Chariot.

Update, Jul 2008: And now, The Viceroy of India takes you on a luxury train travel across India from Bombay to Calcutta covering Jaipur, Agra, Delhi, Varanasi and Darjeeling. Check Cox & Kings for details.

Update, Jan 2009: This month will see the introduction of the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, an improved version of the Palace on Wheels. Over seven days, this train will set off from Delhi to cover Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Bharatpur and Agra. This journey will bring to you Rajasthan's forts, havelis, lakes and wildlife in a super-luxury train journey. The tariff varies between $900 - $2000 per person per night. Here's a brief comparison with the Palace on Wheels:

Check out these sites for more information:

The Indian Railways Fan Club
Luxury Trains
Rail Tourism India Site


Friday, November 30, 2007

The World's (New) Culinary Capital

I had blogged about Michelin's first venture Eastwards. But who could have guessed the result? Tokyo has unseated Paris as the world's culinary capital. Michelin's Tokyo guide awarded 191 stars to 150 restaurants in the Japanese capital, the most number of stars awarded in any city. Previously, Paris had the most stars, at 65.

Eight restaurants in received Michelin's highest three-star rating, and this included two sushi eateries. But Paris can still claim to have the most 3-star rated restaurants, with 10 (France overall has 26).

Michelin Comes to TokyoAt the press conference, Michelin also crowned 82-year-old Jiro Ono of Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in central Tokyo the world's oldest three-star chef.

A team of three undercover European and two Japanese inspectors spent a year and a half visiting 1,500 of Tokyo's estimated 160,000 restaurants to decide on the ratings, according to Michelin. The famed guidebook series rates establishments on excellence in cooking, service, decor and upkeep.

Read more details here. This has certainly silenced all those who thought the French cannot be impartial when it comes to food!

Other Michelin posts in my blog:


Monday, November 26, 2007

Not Just Parathas

NaanDuring childhood days in Mysore, I rarely ate out. Food was always freshly cooked at home and served hot. While lunch consisted of rice with meat or fish curry, dinner almost always consisted of chapatis that were served with dal and subzi (vegetable dishes). On special occasions, we would have pooris or parathas.

On those very rare occasions when we did eat out, it would be dosas at the popular Dasaprakash hotel.

ChapatiChapatis are the most popular Indian bread made at home, followed by parathas and pooris. Chapatis (also called roti or phulka) make no use of oil, unlike prarathas and pooris. Note: Picture of Naan by mind2mind2mind, and Chapati by Aaplemint.

Rice has been the staple for those who lived in the Coastal regions of India, while North Indians traditionally ate wheat-based breads. Now-a-days people tend to eat a little of both at home.

Chole BhatureIt was only when I began travelling and eating out that I realized there were an infinite variety of breads waiting to be discovered in India. Saturdays in Allahabad were special: almost always a movie with friends followed by dinner at the Civil Lines area. That's where I first tasted Chole Bhature. Made from refined flour like pooris, but more chewy and with a slight sour taste, they were awesome with the delicious chickpeas-based chole served with onion rings and fesh mint chutney. And very popular as one could see by the crowds waiting to be seated.

Mooli ParathasIn Dehradun, I would walk down to the Paltan Bazaar shopping area in cold winter evenings for some culinary indulgence. I discovered another new Indian bread here, the Missi Roti, made with besan. Oh what a delight it was polishing off curried eggs and paneer-matar on those foggy evenings.

Naans, Tandoori Rotis, Missi Rotis, Roomali Rotis, Laccha Parathas...I loved them all and knew where to find the best in the winding gullis of Lucknow. Usually always with a bowl of dal and kababs! And of course, Makke Ki Roti and Sarson Ka Saag (bread made of corn-flour with mustard greens usually served with a dollop of home-made butter) which is a speciality of Punjab during the winter months.

AppamI was now pretty certain I had gone through the gamut of Indian breads. Until I discovered the Taftan and the Sheermal. Unless you visit Kashmir, these breads are difficult to find in most parts of India. However, if you are in Delhi, I recommend The Great Kabab Factory at the Radission for a taste of these exotic Indian breads along with some mouth-watering kababs.

And finally in Pune I had my first Appam and Neer Dosas which are quite the staple in Konkan restaurants. An appam is just perfect to polish off spicy gassi, a hot-and-spicy gravy made with different meats (chicken, fish or prawns). Neer Dosas are very different from the regular dosas; there are very thin, very moist, and they melt in your mouth.

More AppamsNote: Pictures of Chole Bhature by Mayank Agrawal, Poori by Mad Tea Party, Mooli Parathas by Holy Jalapeno, Appam by Claire Forster and smruthy, Kachori by Sunday Night Dinner, Bhakri by evolvingcolor, Sheermal by richdrogpa, and Taftan by Zak.

But there is so much more to Indian breads. Here are excerpts form the Hindu BusinessLine last year:

You've heard of plebeian Indian breads like the roti, naan and kulcha, of course. But ever sunk your teeth into the spectacular Agra Ka Paratha? This leviathan of a bread is left to sizzle on a 40-kg griddle till it turns a flaky gossamer gold, making the air redolent with its delicious aroma.

Pooris. Click for recipe.Then there's Nawab Wajid Ali's spectacular multi-tiered Jalebi Paratha with its secret 200-year-old recipe! The Lifafa Paratha — shaped like an envelope with a pocket — is famous in Amritsar, while the pistachio-flecked Gauzban from Awadh — resembling a cow's tongue — is another epicurean delight.

Not to mention the 10-kg Halwa Paratha, which travels with the Nauchandi Mela across Uttar Pradesh and is served with halwa as an accompaniment.

"Indian cuisine is as diverse as its people and geography," says Radisson's Chef Arun Tyagi, who travelled and researched for the festival for three months. "We have been tracing the culinary journey of the humble bread from Hyderabad (with its linkage to West Asia) to the Vijayanagar Empire and its roots in the Telangana, the mighty Mughals and the aristocratic Nawabs of Avadh to the legendary kitchen of Punjab."

Kachoris"When I was travelling across Banaras, for instance, I came across a street called `Kachori ki Gali'! Now how many Indians know that such a street exists in our country?"

Being a multi-faceted country — textured with a variety of colours, cultures, festivals and languages — Tyagi feels Indian breads too possess an astounding multi-dimensionality. But interestingly, while the recipes of Indian curries — Mughlai, Awadhi, and even Rajasthani — have been documented, the breads' recipes have been passed down purely by word of mouth. And hence, the shroud of mystery that envelopes their provenance. In an evening drenched with culinary history, and plenty of food for thought, we partook of some amazing Indian breads with accompaniments like the flavour-charged murgh kalimirch tikka, the melt-in-the-mouth dorra kebabs, machli ajwaini and kofta naram dil.
Other exotic Indian breads worth a mention:

TaftanLal Roti: A Delhi speciality, this bread gets its name from its reddish-brown hue. A sweet, leavened bread, lal roti is also referred to as the sheermal, as it is akin to the bread of the same moniker available in Lucknow and Mehmoodabad.

Agra ka Paratha: The Agra ka Paratha is rarely known outside of Agra. Made in dome-shaped, gargantuan griddles, the bread was presumably discovered by Rambabu of Agra. It uses a gram-wheat-flour combo with a variety of fillings to give it a unique taste. Rambabu Paratha Bhandar in Agra, set up almost a century ago, continues to delight customers with this wonderful bread and even exports it.

Kachori: Banares is renowned for its jalebis and kachoris. The Kachori ki Gali here produces some of the most scrumptious kachoris in the world. Fennel and dhal-flavoured, potato-stuffed or paneer-filled, the result is pure manna.

Double Puri: A unique bread made in Amritsar, this is a double-tiered puri, a wonderful innovation by the city's Kanha restaurant. It is said that such huge crowds throng this eatery for breakfast every morning that in two hours flat the kitchen empties out its produce and shuts shop!

BhakriBhakri: Maharashtrian cuisine has some wonderful influences from south and central India. One of the most wonderful dishes of Maharashtra is the Bakri-keema from Kolhapur. A bread made from millet, the bakri teams wonderfully well with the fiery Kolhapuri keema. Update: Check this post for the recipe of the bhakri-pthale sandwich shown alongside.

Pathri: This exquisite bread from the Mopla community of Kerala is made of rice flour, rolled out like a phulka and smeared with coconut milk and saunf before serving. The sweetness of the coconut milk and fennel give it a wonderful taste.

Mawa Kachori: It is a tradition in Jodhpur that you begin each meal with a sweetmeat. You can't escape from the city's sweet hospitality or Mithi Manuhar as it's called. Mave ki Kachori, Besan ki Chaaki and Maakhan Vade are some of Jodhpur's renowned sweet bread offerings.

SheermalChowringhee Mughalai Paratha: The Mughalai Paratha, sold on Kolkata's Chowringhee Road, has imbibed influences from North India. A bread made of refined flour that is dipped in egg and fried, this paratha is a meal in itself and is sold at special roadside eateries.

Mandwa Ki Roti: Mandwa is a grain grown in the Himalayan regions of Garhwal, Himachal Pradesh, and Nepal. This plant requires no water to grow and does not get infected for years. A heat-generating grain, its rotis are ideal for the hilly regions and is eaten after being smeared with ghee and sugar.

Gauhat ka Paratha: Gauhat, a lentil grown in the mountains of Garhwal, is boiled and mixed with chopped onions, coriander and green chillies. This concoction is then stuffed in a Mandwa-flour dough, rolled out and cooked slowly on a tawa.

Kashmiri BreadsAnd finally Kashmir where you can try breads such as Sheermal and Baqerkhani, without which no Kashmiri breakfast is complete. Kashmiris use a variety of breads seldom seen elsewhere. Tsot and tsochvoru are small round breads, topped with poppy and sesame seeds and traditionally washed down with salt tea. Lavas is a cream coloured unleavened bread; baqerkhani is the Kashmiri equivalent of rough puff pastry and kulcha is a melt-in-the mouth variety of short-bread, sweet or savoury, topped with poppy seeds.

And so, dear readers, if you thought only the French have variety in their bread, think again! :-)

If you liked this, you may also enjoy the following posts:


Saturday, November 24, 2007

O Jerusalem!

I like planning my vacations way in advance. I love the process of getting to the actual trip, especially if it involves a country or a city I have never visited before. As I begin planning my next trip abroad, I have been asking myself, "After Europe, what?"

Old Jewish Quarter in JerusalemThe obvious choices are Africa and Australia. I haven't set foot on these continents thus far. While my initial impulse was to do a real African Safari, I have been recently contemplating visiting Morocco and/or Egypt instead. But there is one place that fascinates me no end but I am wary of planning a family vacation in: Israel. Note: Jerusalem picture by Sam Rohn.

I read an interesting article on Israel in the Hindustan Times recently. Completely different from the usual stuff you read about continuing hostilities, the killings and the tragedy.

The author, Samar Halarnkar, begins with this funny observation: First, let's get this out of the way. Israeli women are not just stunning and fit but very stylish. Come to think of it, they are a lot like Iranian women. A friend who has lived in Tehran told me this, tongue firmly in cheek: "If they procreated (ie., the Iranians with the Isrealis), you would have some of the world's most beautiful people."

He goes on talk about how women are ubiquitous in Israel. He says, "Women are everywhere: soldiers with rifles, security personnel manning the country’s ubiquitous x-ray machines, running passport controls — and most look like models. Many tour guides are women, weaving their country’s biblical past into a great national narrative with great passion. I met two energetic grandmothers, both in their 50s (one had a grand-daughter aged 22, another a grandson aged 17), sprinting up stairs and barely breaking into a sweat as they rushed our group of huffing Indian journos from historical site to museum. When we met with President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, three stooping, old women brought coffee and snacks."

Israeli Tourists in GoaIndians will feel welcome here. Many Isrealis visit India for their vacations; Goa is a popular tourist destination for the young. Here are some interesting notes from the HT article:

There is no country I have visited where being Indian evokes instant acknowledgement — and a smile. Young people behind shop counters, artists, bureaucrats, politicians, middle-aged university professors who may not have gone to India but know enough about it from their children. Even a grim-faced security officer at the heavily guarded presidential home in Jerusalem let down his guard for just an instant to reveal he was heading to India next month."

The biggest surprise came from a young Israeli at an airport bookstore. “Tu marathi bolto (Do you speak Marathi)?” he asked delightedly. His Marathi wasn’t particularly strong, but then he had been to India only once. Uziel Moshe was the son of Maharashtrian Jews, one of 70,000 Jews of Indian origin who streamed into the promised land over the last 30 years. His colleague, an Asheknazi or European Jew, grinned and said: “Woh Marathi bolta hain, main toda Hindi boltan houn (He speaks Marathi, I speak some Hindi).”

All this recognition is aided by the fact that 40,000 Israelis head to India every year to let off steam after their two years of compulsory military service. When you consider that Israel's population would comfortably fit into Mumbai's suburbs, the universal recognition is clear. And links appear when you least expect them.

“Ichaka dana, bechaka dana …” We were driving in the Judean desert heading for the Dead Sea when Tikhva Levin, our guide, who was really a professional archaeologist, suddenly broke into this ancient Raj Kapoor hit. She had been with us for two days and was one of those rare people who showed little interest in India. “You know this song?” Levin asked cheerfully. “It’s from a movie I saw when I was younger. I cried so much. It’s still popular in Israel this movie, The Wanderer. The Wanderer? Ah, she was talking of Awara, the universal Indian hit from Russia to Morocco.

I really hope I will be able to travel to this tiny but historical place during this lifetime...


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Full Circle

There have been a spate of articles - and even books - in recent times on the resurgence of India and China. Yet, not everyone realizes that we are only coming a full circle. Both China and India led the world in scientific endeavor before the 15th century.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article in The Economist (read the original article in full here).

TOWARDS the end of the 11th century, while tardy Europeans kept time with sundials, Su Sung of China completed his masterpiece: a water clock of great intricacy and accuracy.

Clock-making was only one scientific endeavour in which China and India comfortably led the world before the 15th century. China outstripped Europe in its understanding of hydraulics, iron smelting and shipbuilding. Clean your teeth with a toothbrush, rebuff the rain with a collapsible umbrella, turn a playing card, light a match, write, pay—or even wipe your behind—with paper, and you register a debt to China's powers of invention.

India's genius, then as now, was in software not hardware. Its ancient civilisations ushered in a “mathematical revolution” from the fifth century, when Aryabhata devised something like the decimal system. In the seventh century Brahmagupta explained that a number multiplied by zero was zero. By the 15th century, Madhava had calculated pi to more than ten decimal places.

After the 15th century, however, the technological clock stopped in both countries, even as it accelerated in Europe. This peculiar loss of momentum, noted Joseph Needham, a great historian of Chinese science, takes some explaining. Why, he asked, did the science of Galileo emerge “in Pisa but not in Patna or Peking”? Roddam Narasimha of India's National Institute of Advanced Studies reaches a conclusion: “Up to the 18th century, the East in general was strong and prosperous, the status quo was comfortable, and there was no great internal pressure to change the global order,” he writes.

Simon Cox, the author of this article, goes on to make a very insightful observation:

“But even as India's technological powers make a splash in the world, they stir only the surface of its own vast society. India produces more engineering graduates than America. But it has only 24 personal computers for every 1,000 people, and fewer than three broadband connections. India's billion-strong population cuts both ways. Whenever an Indian demographic appears as a numerator, the resulting number looks big. But whenever its population is in the denominator, the number looks small. It is like looking at the same phenomenon from opposite ends of a telescope. As of now, India matters more to technology than technology does to India.”


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Michelin Arrives Early in LA And Vegas

Michelin Three Star Joel Robuchon Las VegasMichelin's first ever restaurant guides for Los Angeles and Las Vegas were accidentally leaked on their website a week early. Apparently, this is the first time such a leak has happened in Michelin's 100 year history; they have also confirmed the authenticity of the leaked list. LA gourmets may feel a little miffed with no restaurant getting three stars; however, Las Vegas now has one certified three-star restaurant, Joël Robuchon. Surprisingly, Thomas Keller's Las Vegas restaurant didn't get a star.

While the guides become officially available on Nov 20th, here's an early look at those which earned the coveted Michelin stars :

LA Michelin Three Stars (signifying exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey) :


LA Michelin Two Stars (means an excellent cuisine, worth a detour) :

Mélisse, Santa Monica
Spago, Beverly Hills
Urasawa, Beverly Hills

LA Michelin One Star (meaning a very good restaurant in its category) :

Asanebo, Studio City
Cut, Beverly Hills
Joe's, Venice
La Botte, Santa Monica
Matsuhisa, Beverly Hills
Mori Sushi, West Los Angeles
Ortolan, Los Angeles
Patina, Los Angeles
Providence, Los Angeles
Ritz-Carlton Huntington Dining Room, Pasadena
Saddle Peak Lodge, Calabasas
Sona, West Hollywood
Trattoria Tre Venezie, Pasadena
Valentino, Santa Monica
Water Grill, Los Angeles

Las Vegas Michelin Three Stars

Joël Robuchon, MGM-Grand

Las Vegas Michelin Two Stars

Alex, Wynn Resort
Guy Savoy, Caeser's Palace
Picasso, Bellagio

Las Vegas Michelin One Star

Alizé, Palms Casino Resort
Andre's, Downtown
Aureole, Mandalay Bay
Bradley Ogden, Caeser's Palace
DB Brasserie, Wynn
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, MGM-Grand
Le Cirque, Bellagio
Mesa Grill, Caeser's Palace
Michael Mina, Bellagio
Mix, Mandalay Bay
Nobu, Hard Rock Resort
Wing Lei, Wynn Resort

For the latest Michelin ratings of San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country restaurants, see my earlier post.

Trivia buffs, here are some other Michelin facts: Taillevent, the Paris restaurant that has held three Michelin stars for 34 years, lost one of the stars this year. France has 26 three-star restaurants, by far the highest of any country. The guides and maps division represents about 1 percent of revenue for France-based Michelin, the world's biggest tiremaker.

After Europe and recently the USA, Michelin Guides is headed eastwards; watch this space!


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Best American Food

Many American friends are stumped when I ask them about traditional American fare. Americans have had exposure to global cuisine for a long time thanks to immigrating people from every corner of the world; in fact, many would consider Italian staples such as pasta American. I recently discovered an article on the Best American Food at Conde Nast Traveller by Alan Richman that made me smile. This is how he begins:

American BarbequeBefore we were able to pay attention to food, Americans had to perfect democracy, settle the West, free the slaves, crush the Nazis, and fight the commies. Meanwhile, we ate whatever was at hand. We stewed squirrels. We turned turtles into soup. Food was secondary. Oh, we had raw materials aplenty: fields of waving grain, herds of juicy protein, oceans of non-farmed fish. We just didn't know what to do with it all. Note: Barbeque picture by LennieZ.

Our first uniquely American restaurants appeared in the fifties and sixties. We called them Polynesian, even though none of us knew where Polynesia was or what Polynesians ate. We concocted Sesame Chicken Aku-Aku and Shrimp Bongo Bongo. It was our first date food. In the seventies, food started to change, courtesy of a place we had never taken seriously before: California - home to Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, fresh vegetables and wood-grilled meats.

Once we discovered how much fun it was to eat, there was no stopping us. We freed chickens from their pens - and ate them! We let pasta get cold - on purpose! We shunned preservatives that prevented spoilage - and called it health food!

Read the entire article and his recommendations on the best of American cooking here.


Friday, November 09, 2007

Worth Flying First Class?

With flat-beds becoming ubiquitous in business class, I have wondered if flying first class is any longer significantly better. When I checked in at the Lufthansa counter in San Francisco recently to catch a flight to Frankfurt, I got a chance to evaluate for myself. Lufthansa had decided to bump me up to first class. So here are my observations:

On Lufthansa's 747 lang-haul aircraft, the first class cabin is in the upper deck. Pros: the first-class cabin is segregated from the rest of the cabins; people from elsewhere will not keep the toilets occupied! Cons: you have to climb the staircase to and from the upper deck with your luggage.

The seat seems luxurious and wide; however the new business class seats on Singapore Airlines and even Virgin are almost as good; I wouldn't pay extra for the seating comfort.

The entertainment system sucks. The TV screen is very small compared to the newer cabins in Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, etc. Actually, even Lufthansa's business class cabins seem to be equipped with better screens. On the positive side, the seats have ordinary 100V power outlets to connect a laptop without requiring special adapters. Also, plugging in your own Bose headphones is much easier done in these seats as compared to their Business Class.

What else? Let's see... you get a different (better quality?) amenity kit, pajamas to change into, and incrementally better selection of food and wine - I clearly remember the Beluga caviar on toast which never makes an appearance in Business class. :-)

Net-net: I wouldn't pay extra to upgrade from Business to First on Lufthansa. Also, Business class on Singapore's new aircraft offer as much as Lufthansa's First does today.

Singapore Airlines First Class Suite on the A380

BTW, many of you may have already heard about Singapore Airlines' new First Class Suites on their new A380. If you haven't, take a look here. I have also put a few pictures here. As you can see, everything is very tastefully done, and I particularly like their choice of colors.

Singapore Airlines First Class Suite on the A380

Other features: hand-stitched leather armchair, standalone bed (not converted from a seat), turn-down service, more privacy with sliding doors and window blinds, full-length wardrobe, Givenchy designed pajamas & tableware, and an entertainment system consisting of a 23 inch LCD screen, 100 movies, 700 music CDs, and 20 radio channels. Now that a reason to want to make some more money, right? :-)

Singapore Airlines First Class Suite on the A380