Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Chocolate Thoughts from India

In February I escaped from here. Accompanied by my darling mum and her narcoleptic friend, we high-tailed it off to India and a warmth that had seemed unimaginable in London. I retrieved some ghastly old gear from one of my charity shop-bound bags and swiftly gave it away on arrival in Mumbai - at once shedding not only winter encumbrances but all feelings of wanting to hibernate as well.

In between dealing with narcoleptic 'crashes' (quickly resolved with a ready lit cigarette) in busy places, pokey G&Ts and cramped, saddle-sore taxi rides, I threw myself into that city with zeal. It engulfed me with its thick heat, each noise and smell that rang out and clamoured towards me felt somehow cushioned.

Safe. I felt safe. I felt like I could've gone anywhere and, though surrounded by so much and so many, I was just caught up in the horizontal life that everyone else was rumbling along in too. India for me was about a life lived in the open air - with all the grimness and magic that this entails.

In Crawford Market at the end of the day, there is the meat enclosure - dangling pieces of fraying red flesh providing a tennuous curtain for the bathing butchers in the background. Each one delighted to be washing clean the days blood.

On Chowpatty Beach we picked past the burrowing rats and the soggy plastic bags to find families bedding down in smog-worn bivouacs, street hawkers plying bhel puri, itinerant chai-wallahs serving up beachside nectar and a whole swathe of neon-lit food shacks competing for your rupee by promising the best pau bhaji on the strip.

I rode the trains from the Northern Mumbai suburbs to the gut of the city's established order in the South. How the view changed - from sprawling organised chaos to unfinished concrete structures; disused buildings, over-used chawls, armpits in my face, warm sticky skin next to my warm sticky skin; hot breeze, funky odors, oiled hair, Bhangra ringtones...

In Bandra chickens pick around in fresh soil under the shadow of Swarovski's Indian flagship and super handsome men serve scamorza risotto in a/c dominated cafes. And down at Oval Maidan are a hundred separate cricket matches being played by teams of varying size and ability - from full whites and trophy tent to sandals being used for wickets.

And then there are the long distance trains! Nudging up against accommodating neighbours, the whole carriage seems animated. At each stop comes another opportunity to snack: vegetable cutlets, bhajis, pakoras, banana fritters, chai, ice cream, bhel puri...and then there's lunch - a 35rp feast of vegetable biriani, curds and soup. Luckily those locomotives are long and I could walk it off by striding from carriage to carriage.

There is much to say about India but what can't be ignored is the eating! From the land of impeccable, relentless service comes food - at all times, in all ways. We barely came up for air. In Goa we nyammed fish curry, millet fried mussels, tandoori Kingfish and real-deal pork vindaloo. We ate masala omelettes for breakfast, Goan bread, butter and jam, fruit salad, pancakes...

Spicy, fragrant, rich and meaty, what I began to crave - and very quickly - was my beloved CHOCOLATE. Sometimes it just wasn't available save for a little pack of cookies bought from the shop. But I did what I could in the name of sweetness - here are some of the results:

I knew it was never going to blow me away but I had to try Trishna's take on the brownie sundae. Best things about it were that it was sweet and warm, otherwise a bit on the Grade D side of things.

Train sweets - peanut clusters, bars, brittle. Kept us quiet for a bit.

La Plage on Aswem Beach right at the top of Goa was such a nice surprise. Despite threats from encircling Russians and protection demands they are still turning out French-style desserts. This crepe with Nutella and toasted walnuts went perfectly with the 'vanille fraiche' Chantilly cream.

But it was nothing next to the Captain Morgan flambeed bananas with iced white chocolate chaser. My God - I was in my clover!

Less successful was Monginis cake shop in Panjim. I loved Panjim in all its dusty, noisy, withered Colonial glory but this bakery didn't really cut it. I'd been sold the place as somewhere that made proper English biscuits so was pretty geed up. The mistake was taking this literally. I had a massive cake craving though so set about devouring as much of what was on offer as possible: dry, vanilla packed fairy cakes and some seriously plastic looking frosted layer cakes...

We had about seven cakes between us, three bottles of Coke and it still only came to about 75p. I certainly sprang back onto those hectic streets with renewed vigor after that little session.

After a Thali that had no end we were nigh on spherical. Our distinguished looking head waiter with the lustrous white hair looked so crest-fallen when I declined the sweet option so I went for it. It was strawberry ice cream - lurid pink, bubblegum fruity. He was pleased anyway.

Aah, the pancakes! I'd forgotten how much I love and need pancakes. The best ones of the whole trip were above, at Casa Susegad in Loutolim (honey & banana) and the Nutella smothered beauties on Cola Beach. Sometimes I'd have three a day.

Margao market, end of the day. Who will buy these bouquets of buttercream?

Gujurati sweets given to my mum on her birthday. We looked at them, took them out of their box, took pictures of them, carried them round with us and eventually they were infiltrated by some particularly determined ants in our Rajasthani tent on the beach.

Off in the interior, living on a purely South Indian diet with no cookies or pancakes for gimmicks, I tucked into this Kheer most heartily. It's a kind of rice vermicelli take on rice pudding: Warm, buttery, cardamon scented it was welcomed after the fiery gobi curry. I think I had about three helpings. (The bowl was quite small).

Hampi and backpackers' central. Quite a rude awakening after coasting between the lines for so long. Right along the river and through the moonlit drenched banana groves lay this barrage of reassurance for the homesick traveler.

Back in Mumbai we headed for the Salt Water Cafe in Bandra and none of us could resist the opportunity to eat flourless chocolate cake, chocolate and hazelnut torte or dark chocolate truffle cake. It was all a bit Sara Lee if we're being honest here but after tying a few Margaritas on none of us cared.

It's a bit embarrassing to admit this but, joined only by my Cola Beach pancakes, the most satisfying desserts for me on the whole Indian voyage were these two souffles from Indigo and Indigo Deli. For savouries there is no contest - I went wild for all that that country was dishing up - but for sweet things, for chocolatey things, the prize has to fall here: Vanilla souffle with bitter chocolate sauce plunged in by night; by day the bitter chocolate souffle with creme anglaise and a warm peanut butter cookie.

I don't remember having better souffles for years.


Deeba PAB said...

What a wrap on chocolate in India... and you hit the nail on the head. By far, it's the same story across the country. I live in the North on India, and as the hub says, the only true taste we get from chcolate ( and other desserts) here are the ones that I make at home...*blush*
Great post!!

TheFastestIndian said...

Fab write up Petra! And as an infrequent visitor I can defintitely confirm that India is rubbish for chocolate. The choc bars that are available (inc brands like Cadbury) all seem to have gone for the American-style candy 'taste'=yuk.
However India, and particularly West Bengal, rule in terms of sweets and puddings. Malpoa, gulab jum, rosagolla, sandesh, chomchom=yum!

Helen said...

What a wonderful post. I felt like I was travelling with you.

David Hall said...

This is amazing Petra! What an adventure you lucky thing.

How's life my dear? Let's speak soon.


gloria said...

You make me want to be there. Love your pictures

Beth said...

yum, everything looks so good!

Andrea said...

Wow!...Love the heart-shaped cake and the very very dark chocolate cake...I just imagined I tasted it...

Jen said...

totally delish!