Thursday, June 29, 2023

Pics from a Trip to India

From late May to mid-June, our family of four visited India for nearly three weeks. It was my first trip back in 9 years. It was my son's first trip and my daughter's second trip to India- but she was under 3 years old the last time we visited, so it was as good as being her first one. The only thing she remembers from our 2014 trip is sitting on her grandmother's couch and watching Chhota Bheem

Here are some scattered food-centric thoughts from our trip, with a few pictures, and in no particular order. 

1. In terms of weather, May is not the best month to visit Maharashtra, on the west coast of India. The month was chosen for us by scheduling constraints- the kids have almost 10 weeks off from school, and it is perhaps better to go at the tail end of summer than during the height of the monsoon. 

For my daughter, what made up for the sweltering heat and humidity were the mangoes. Fresh, in-season mangoes were a revelation for her. She watched as mangoes were taken down from her grandparents' backyard mango tree, and then set down in straw to ripen to perfection. 

These alphonso mangoes are buttery, smooth, and sweet as can be. Other than fresh mangoes, she enjoyed mango ice cream and milkshakes and pickles and chutneys. (Her brother refuses to eat mangoes; he says they taste like soap to him.)

Fresh mangoes- cut and eaten
on the hour, every hour

Raw mangoes being bedded down in
straw to ripen naturally

2. Mangoes were not the only gifts of nature that the kids got to enjoy. The very first day we arrived, we bought these lychees from one of the many wonderful street vendors. As he promised, they were sweet and juicy. (We do get lychees here, rarely, at the Asian market). The kids also got to taste black-purple jamun or jambool, and tender coconut water from a vendor at the beach. They were not big fans of the mildly astringent taste of jambool. My daughter was a little weirded out by the texture and slightly briny flavor of slippery coconut jelly!

Fresh lychees

3. Eating in- We got to eat incredible home-cooked meals from the kitchens of our parents and aunts. At my mother in law's home, we ate idlis and dosas with fresh chutney, and many wholesome Southern Indian lunches. 

My parents have a wonderful lady who comes in every morning for a couple of hours and prepares magical meals. Among the dishes she cooked for us were thalipeeth, bhakri with jackfruit seed curry, misal pav, upma, and the breakfast you see below. My mother herself made gobi manchurian, which my kids loved, and lots of buttery toasts for my son who would eat little else! 

My aunt likewise treated us to homemade pohe, pateta par eeda, ragda patties, and a plethora of interesting store-bought snacks- like vada pav flavored khakra. She introduced my daughter to those jim-jam biscuits (filled cookies with a jam center) that I used to love as a child, and they were an instant hit.

A home-cooked breakfast of spinach puri, veg curry,
cucumber salad, and raw mango chutney

4. Eating out- Over the three weeks, we certainly ate out a whole lot. We ate all the must-haves of Maharashtra- pav bhaji, batata vada, Naturals ice cream, Frankies. Plus the usual Indian standards- Indo Chinese food and Punjabi food.

A highlight was meeting a friend for breakfast at 7:30 AM at the iconic Cafe Madras in Matunga. There was a crowd waiting outside the restaurant the whole time. It is mega popular and an institution. Pictured below is their plate of upma with mixture- so soft and tasty! We also tried ragi dosa, neer dosa, set dosa, and several cups of filter coffee with jaggery.

Another memorable meal was at Panhala, a hill fort near Kolhapur where we stayed overnight. My aunt, cousin, dad, and I slipped out to eat at a small family-run eatery- just a stall with plastic tables and chairs around it- that sold pithale-bhakri and bharli vangi, a rich eggplant curry. It was a simple, piping hot, and sublime meal. There was yogurt on the side, and a fiery condiment called thecha. 

I spent less than 24 hours in Pune but got to see many loved ones. It was fantastic spending time with my college friend after 24 years and getting to meet her sweet family. For breakfast, she and her husband took me out to a place that served nine different types of pohe! What fun! I had the Indore pohe after lots of deliberation. With the pohe they got me some wonderful (and very hygienically pressed) sugarcane juice. I was beyond spoiled. 

Upma plate at Cafe Madras
 in Kings Circle, Matunga

Pav bhaji- excellent, but needs more pav
and less onions! 

Thecha- a green chili paste condiment
in the making

Medu vadas for breakfast picked up
from a small Udipi place

Indori pohe

5. One more memorable meal- My mother organized a lunch at home for a dozen neighborhood aunties who all knew me growing up. It was great to see them all, and they all look decades younger and vibrant as ever. She got the lunch catered and it was a beautiful, traditional puranpoli thali

Clockwise from the noon position you see pictured- kaat (a thin, spicy curry), wedge of lemon, masale bhaat (a perfectly spiced pilaf), puranpoli (bread with a sweet lentil stuffing), cilantro chutney, vaatli dal (ground lentils), potato bhaaji (a dry curry), koshimbir (salad of cucumber and tomatoes garnished with crushed peanuts).

All in all, over this trip, we were treated to lots of good food, all very tasty, but quite different from the way I usually eat. There was a lot more fried food, lot more sugar, and a lot fewer vegetables than I am used to. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I am also thrilled to be back in my own kitchen.

The puranpoli thali, described above

Sweet syrupy paan after lunch

6. Animals: Right upon landing, my creature-loving kids were immediately intrigued by the stray cats and dogs, and peppered us with questions about them. My son summed up his feelings by saying that stray animals make him both happy and sad. He is happy to encounter them and watch them, but sad that they have no homes and no family. We bought some dog treats and stashed them in my purse to hand out to dogs. 

We noticed people caring for the animals, and most looked quite healthy and well-fed. There were not as many strays as I remember from the past. I saw several animals with their ears notched/tipped, which I understand is the universal sign for a stray who has been vaccinated and sterilized. I told the kids that although the strays don't have an easy life, there are good people everywhere, and clearly there are folks who care for them. 

Apart from dogs and cats, my kids were intrigued by the birds- mynahs and parrots, and pigeons and crows. A crow stations itself outside my aunt's second floor window and came to the windowsill every time we sat down to a meal, asking for its share. In Vashi, there were beautiful water birds on the lake. My dad took the kids to the grounds of the local university to see wild peacocks- a spectacular sight and they screech loudly! When we visited the hill fort town of Panhala near Kolhapur, the kids had their most memorable wild animal encounter when they came face to face with langurs.

A stray cat has adopted my parents and shows up
every morning in their yard for food

The langur outside our hotel window,
making a play for a child's snack

7. Nature: We stayed close to our families' homes and maximized time with people instead of getting out of town to beach towns or hill stations. But we enjoyed walking around to nearby parks and playgrounds wherever we stayed. My parents have a tiny, sweet, and beautifully cared for garden around their house, and it was lovely to eat meals there under the shade of the mighty mango tree. This tree was planted by my grandfather, and now his great-granddaughter is enjoying the fruit. 

We visited the hill fort town of Panhala for a night, and the views of the valley were spectacular. My dad, daughter, and I did an early morning hike through the hills to a park called Tabak Udyan. I remember going to this park on field trips as an elementary school kid, and it was fun to show my daughter the places where I sat in a circle with my little friends and ate out of my tiffin box.

Near my aunt's apartment in Juhu, Andheri, where I lived for several years in the 90s, I was overjoyed to see that a swampy piece of land is now a beautiful, restful, garden. The streets are lined with mural art and the mangroves are cordoned off and preserved. There are trash bins everywhere. 

We went to a small neighborhood beach at Juhu. A cyclone was making its way up the coast and the tide was high and furious. We were allowed to stay on the beach for only a few minutes and then the lifeguard shooed us away because conditions were becoming dangerous. Still, I am glad we got to dip our feet in the Arabian sea! It was sad to see how much plastic trash was washed up to the beach by the waves. Our oceans are clearly choking with waste.

My parents' backyard

A view of the valley in Panhala

Tabak Udyan with its famous
embracing trees

Hibiscus schizopetalus, 
a super decorative hibiscus

A small beach near Juhu, Western Mumbai

* * *

Visiting after nine long years, the highlight of the trip for me was catching up with people- relatives, friends, neighbors. It was good to see their smiling faces and hear all the interesting things they are doing with their lives. I saw several school and college friends that I haven't seen for over two decades. I also met up a longtime blog reader, H, and had a lovely cuppa and chat with her- it was like meeting an old friend even though we were meeting for the first time. 

The weather being what it was, we sheltered indoors and did not go out as much as I would have liked to be. The kids spent quite a bit of their time doing stuff that isn't too different from what they do here, and I made my peace with that. They went to see the new Spiderman movie at an IMAX theatre (first day, first show, which was exciting). Many afternoons, we ended up in the mall and the kids played in the arcade of all places. They ate pizza and soda in the food court. My son bought lego and pokemon cards. Oh well :) 

My daughter enjoyed Indian stuff a lot, the little things that she doesn't get in her normal life, like dressing in Indian clothing and jewelry for a photo shoot, and wearing jasmine garlands in her hair. She made beaded jewelry and read Enid Blyton books. We took her to South Mumbai to Jehangir art gallery and a quick visit to the Gateway of India and Colaba Causeway. She was unfazed by the traffic and crowds and eager to see everything. 

In the taxi on the way to the airport, both kids told me how much they enjoyed the trip to India. I am beyond grateful that they had many happy moments with relatives and friends, that they each found things to enjoy, that they tasted new things, and that they stayed healthy and happy over the trip (I was the only one who caught a stomach bug, and it thankfully only lasted a day.) This is not an easy trip to make with long, cramped flights, endless layovers, bickering kids, and crushing jet lag, but overall it all went better than I had imagined. 

As I was telling my daughter, she and her brother are Americans, but with access to this whole other complex and vibrant culture through their ethnicity and their parents' origin. It is theirs to tap into if and when they want to, and to whatever extent they like, for travel and discovery, for study and work. 

* * *
While we were away on this long trip, our sweet boy Duncan went to stay with a pet-sitter who owns a farmhouse with 2 horses, an elderly goat, 2 chickens, 2 dogs, and 2 cats, and several acres for the animals to roam around in. Duncan spent his days wrestling with the dogs, sunning himself in the fields, and napping indoors. He had his own vacation and came home so tired and happy! 

Back in his own yard

Big smiles

How is your summer going?