Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Don't miss Marafa

‘Don’t miss Marafa!’ is what my Lonely Planet – Kenya tells me about this geological phenomenon… and I couldn’t agree more! Here is why…

Day one in Malindi, my second in Kenya and the Marafa Depression, locally called Nyari, topped my places to see in this coastal town. Hell’s Kitchen as it is also known is about 30 kms away and we set out on a taxi after lunch. The plan is to reach there after about 3.30 pm when the sun’s rays are a little lesser intense. The place is known to be extremely hot in the peak hours of the afternoon.

It’s a scenic drive with some pretty steep ups and downs. 

  Road to Marafa
 The road is surrounded by arbitrary shrubs, acacia trees, some neem and the distinct baobab. It is a grand tree to which I am introduced to, by my smiling guide and I’m to meet ever so often during the course of my Kenyan Vacation. He tells me that the seeds are edible. They are sweetened and the kids here love them! 

 Baobab Tree
After about an hour’s drive we reach Marafa village. We have to take a guide who leads us to the canyon. A ‘wow’ escapes my lips as we approach the rim of the canyon.  I’ve seen pictures of canyons, but that’s about it… this is the first time I’m seeing a canyon, live!

At the Rim

The sandstone existing in this area eroded over time, due to wind and rain to form this depression.

There is a native legend about how this place was formed, our guide explains.  The place was once inhabited by a rich family. Water was scarce, so they used the milk of their cattle to wash and bathe. This display of excess angered God. Enraged, He cursed the family and sunk the land into the earth.  The soil here is in distinct shades of red, white and yellow. While yellow is the earth, white and red mark the milk and blood respectively.

The colors: milk, earth and blood

  We walk along the rim first and then follow a trail that leads to the floor of the depression. The walls of the canyon are sandy and unstable, vulnerable to touch, causing the surface to crumble. 
Eroding walls of the gorge

The erosion is continuous making the cliché, ‘change is constant’ super-apt here! The eroding sandstone forms some interesting sculptures.

An Elephant Shrew?!

 We complete a circuit and arrive at the place we started. A bit part of the route is narrow and tricky, because of the deep, steep fall there. But a few deep breaths and some assistance from the guide sees me through.
 ... the guide office
It is amazing that a place such as this should be so devoid of consumerism, without even as much as a chai-stall there. We had gone there without carrying water but this they sold at the bench n’ table guide office, along with some soft-drinks, out of an ice-box! A man selling curios near the parking lot was the singular exception.This to my eyes only adds to the allure of the place – untamed and beautiful!!!

Marafa Hell's Kitchen: Bird's eye view

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Oil-free Chicken 'Kali Mirch' Curry

That wicked layer of oil floating on Indian curries is now a thing of the past. It’s a brand new year, the perfect time to ‘…ring out the old, ring in the new’. So, break that stereotype – try this new recipe of ‘Oil-free Chicken Kali Mirch Curry’.

Irresistible! Gotta eat first, pictures later…
Here is a recipe for Chicken curry minus a single drop of oil. Ideal if you want to eschew some calories after the New Year excesses. And before you dismiss it as “Insipid diet food!” let me tell you, it is as tasty as any chicken curry worth its salt can get. The added beauty is that it’s easy and quick therefore convenient. For men (with even basic cooking abilities) who want to impress their girlfriends or placate their wives here is the big idea. Oil-free Chicken curry with rice, onion rings by the side and of course; don’t forget the candles! The lady won’t stop smiling all evening, I assure you. (I’m sure my lady-readers are loving this, for different reasons!) And, you can substitute the rice with bread if you are feeling a bit lazy but certain combinations ‘simply rock’. This particular curry n’ rice is one of them. Go ahead, try it out!

... , , , and the chicken

1. Marinate the chicken
Do this at least six hours in advance.
Beat about a cupful of fat-free yoghurt.
Into this grate the rind of lemon (a half is sufficient) - this along with other spices is responsible for the fragrance of the dish.
Add the juice of half a lemon, a tsp of Garam Masala* powder and half a tsp of turmeric powder.
Mix well with the chicken pieces (Two chicken breasts minus the fat).
Toss it in the refrigerator till you are ready to cook. Do not add salt at this stage.

2. Make the curry
Sauté a finely chopped onion (large) in a seasoned non-stick pan for about two minutes or till it changes color. Remember; no oil. Of course, it is possible!
Toss in about ten to twelve cloves of well-crushed garlic (yes dear, no oil even now), sauté for a bit.
Grate about a half inch piece of ginger and add to the pan (no oil, yeah, time to break stereotypes!) The ginger has a tendency to stick to the bottom, but don’t bother, we have a solution.
Tomato to the rescue! Puree about four large tomatoes in a blender (not too fine!) and pour it in, and “viola!” problem solved!
Now, time for spice** ... Add the whole spices and let the curry simmer stirring occasionally. About seven to ten minutes should be fine; the idea is to cook the puree.

3. Add Chicken to the curry
The basics taken care of, add the chicken along with the marinade.
Put in some fresh mint leaves (3-4 sprigs) to enhance the flavor, but only if you like it’s taste.
About two tsp Kali Mirch (Hindi: Black Pepper) freshly ground and salt to taste.
Cook till done.

4. Finishing touches
We’re almost done. The basic gravy should by now have thickened. Add some water if it’s too thick for your taste. Transfer contents to a serving bowl and garnish with freshly chopped coriander leaves.

Enjoy …

* For those readers new to Indian cooking, Garam masala is a spice mixture easily available in Indian stores.

**Spices for the curry
Cinnamon – 1 ½” piece broken into bits to release flavor
Cloves – 3 nos
Cardamom – 2 roughly crushed with a rolling pin
Star anise – 1 broken (details here) (more details about star anise)

Bay leaves - 2

1. If you have a pressure cooker at your disposal, transfer curry into it after adding chicken (end of step 3) – three whistles and you’re done ;-). Quick, ain’t it?

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy Birthday

Dearest Pappa,

Love you & miss you.

Monday, December 22, 2008

... of Tarkarli beach, the fresh catch and coastal cuisine

What does the term 'Malvani Cuisine' bring to mind? To me it's rich and spicy coconut-curried fish sitting on rice, with some crisp, fried prawns by the side along with a glass of tangy 'sol-kadhi'. And what if it is accompanied by the soothing sound of waves and a mug of chilled beer on Tarkarli beach? What does one say? It's not just food... it's an experience to be savored, the complete Malvani experience.
Sindhudurg and Tarkarli had been on my wish-list for a long time. So when the invitation to join a group of picnickers came in I readily accepted it. In a couple of hours I was in the chartered bus on an over-night journey from Bombay to Malvan.

I think it is now necessary to give my readers some geographic clarity. Sindhudurg is a district in the state of Maharashtra on the Maharashtra - Goa border. Malvan is one of it’s eight talukas (taluka : an administrative division, akin to a city). Sindhudurg, the district gets its name from Sindhudurg, the sea-fort. Tarkarli is a fishing village in Malvan with a beach so beautiful that it is locally known as the queen of beaches.

Tarkarli Beach

Waking up to a mild, rising sun and abundant greenery is the best part of such over-night bus journeys to the countryside, especially to a concrete jungle-dweller like me. It is a cool morning with a bit of fog. The hilly, gently undulating terrain is clad with varied shades of green – paddy fields, shrubbery covered slopes, palms, banyan trees, even an occasional river.

The sign of things to come: En route to Tarkarli

It’s late in the morning when we arrive at Tarkrli. We check-in at the MTDC resort which is an okayish place. There are some lapses in cleanliness, but our cottage is adjoining the beach and with a view so heavenly, worldly things like a bit of sand on the floor, not-too-clean towels or shoddy service can sometimes be overlooked.

Our boat-shaped cottage

Sitting on the sand, staring into the waves of the sea is such a stress-buster. And with a beach like this it is as good as it can ever get - clean and uncommercialised. The Sawantwadi sea-fort at a distance, on the horizon and the casurina trees gently swaying in the resort behind. I spent a lot of my time lazing on hammocks, listening to the music of the sea.

(photo courtesy: Rajan)

Tarkarli, as I mentioned before, is primarily a fishing village. Peak fishing activity happens early in the morning, but some action is on through-out the day till the sun sets in the Arabian Sea. And some fisher folk are always at work on the beach – singing as they heave the catch out from the sea, gathering their nets together.

All in a day's work

The variety of sea-food is awesome and so is the size of the tiger prawns in the catch. The prawns are nothing short of irresistible. My dad had once told me that the way to determine the freshness of prawn is the ‘straightness’ test. I.e. Freshness is directly proportional to the straightness and the staler they are they tend to curve inwards. But here in Tarkarli, (my vegetarian readers, please excuse me!) the fish is so fresh, it jumps and also, the prawns are not exactly straight, they bend backwards!

Prawn Basket

Our 'friendly, neighborhood fisherman'

How I wished I could do a ‘Madhur Jaffery’ and cook the catch then and there on the beach. Since that wasn’t possible, we took the second best option. There are a many houses in Tarkarli village that offer home-cooked food. We arranged for our basket, with the variety of sea-food to be cooked for dinner in the characteristic Malvani style in one such place.
That is a dinner that I can put down on my list of 'memorable' meals. Succulent prawns, crisp on the outside. Authentic Malvani- style fish curry with spice levels perfectly adjusted to our urban palate and the digestive, tasty ‘sol-kadhi’ to wash our food down. As a matter of fact this was the combination that we had for lunch and dinner during our course of stay here. Did it get repetitive or tiresome? No way. On the contrary it left us all craving for more.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Chocolate Haven in the Blue Mountains

Location: Sydney, NSW, Australia
Time: Early April

The morning has all the ingredients for a terrific excursion. Winter is setting in slowly – the air is cool and the sun is shining, nice and bright. Perfect holiday weather! We are driving down to the Blue Mountains.

Really looking forward to this walk in the Australian bush! There are various treks here. Each of them is marked with a sign indicating the difficulty level and time taken to complete it.

One thing that is very evident about this place is the way it is kept up. Steps are provided where ever there is an especially steep gradient. Railings are positioned, albeit very unobtrusively, on narrow sections. But in spite of all these safety measures the overall foresty feel of the trail is not lost.

This place is not just a visual treat but also a treat for the lungs. Purest of pure air – oxygen therapy!

Our walk is fun. We go down a valley. The view is fabulous. We come across some crystal clear brooks on the way. There is something very typical, very uniquely “Australian” about the undergrowth of this place.

A small drive away from the trekking area is an amazing sight – the Three Sisters.

Three Sisters: a natural formation

There is a beautifully calming quality to the Blue Mountains. The kind that makes me feel like I want to build a log cabin and stay on for ever… Too much wishful thinking! “Maybe I should camp here overnight?” Good idea! I’ll do it in my next visit…Surely!

The Blue Mountains appear blue from a distance, therefore the name! There is a scientific reason behind this phenomenon. The terrain is covered with eucalyptus trees. The oil from the trees forms a misty layer in the surrounding atmosphere causing sunlight to refract and hence giving the mountains a blue tinge.

Hey, the Indian name for Eucalyptus is Nilgiri. (Sanskrit: Nil – Blue; Giri – Mountain) Just figured out why!! And there is the Nilgiri Mountain in the south of India.

We’ve walked around so much. Am I tired? Not in the least? Hungry? Yes, has anyone realized we are very close to lunch-time!?

A little further is an outfit called (chocoholics beware!) – The Chocolate Factory. What a place!! They manufacture and sell chocolates here, in this cosy dwelling nestled among mountains. Isn’t this the stuff dreams are made of!?

You see the process of making chocolate here. Needless to say, the place smells divine. Well, the olfactory and visual senses are targeted and the mind has stopped thinking. Doesn’t chocolate evoke the most primal emotions?

Well, it is from this place, in the fantastic backdrop of the Blue Mountains, that my first chili chocolate came from! This one is rich dark on the outside with a truffle centre. It has a “hand-made” look as if it’s rough and dented and rolled in cocoa.

We get the usual favourites packed – rum n’ raisin, plain dark, etc. and decide to sample the chili. At first bite it almost tastes like the regular dark and then slowly the warm spike of chili emerges on you. It is a complete explosion of flavors. Amazing!!

Hats off to the person who discovered chili chocolate! I mean cocoa is regular condiment of Mexican cuisine – like if I were to think of a parallel, akin to how Indian cuisine uses turmeric – but this is different! To most people today ‘chili chocolate’ is an outright oxymoron. To bring these diverse flavors together a person would need a mind that is OPEN. So much for philosophy!

Cheesecake at the Blue Mountains Chocolate Factory Cafe

We leave the place delighted at our discovery. We’re going to catch lunch… It’s going to be steak at a steakhouse back in Sydney – medium rare. Maybe today I’ll try it rare… surely… discuss it some other day.

P.S. A special thanks to my blogger buddy Prasan for motivating this post.

Friday, August 22, 2008

New Look for Chili Chocolate

Brad Pitt does it for almost every role. So does Aamir Khan, closer home in India. Now Chili Chocolate decides to follow suit, so cheers for a new look. Yippee!

No, the reason for changing is not so trivial – I’m not even close to suggesting that Mr Pitt or Mr Khan get a new image for frivolous reasons. Of course it’s to get under the skin of the character. – But it is not change for the sake of change!

Let’s go back to where we should – the beginning of Chili Chocolate (CC). There was a time I wrote when something really ‘inspired me’ and prompted me to put words on paper. Eventually, these articles just got lost in my bookshelf. So, when I started the blog, my intention was basically to have a place to post these pieces of writing.

“So what’s the big deal about it?” you’ll ask, “Most of the blogging community starts that way!” I know, but very soon I began to question and these questions perpetually seemed to be there at the back of my mind:

What does CC stand for?

Is it friendly?

Is it easy on the eyes or is it getting over-crowded and busy?

Please, but it doesn’t even have a welcome note!

This new look is my answer to all those questions (and exclamations).

But on the flip side, I’m still not used to this new ‘image’, if I may use the word! It feels like it’s someone else’s blog!! Guess it’ll take me some time to get accustomed.

If nothing ever changed, there'd be no butterflies.

However, it is for you my readers and friends, to tell me if it is a butterfly or a dull moth. Your opinion matters to me… very much. Please take the poll and let me know (new readers included). I’ll be glad if you also leave a comment.

Long ago, a wise sage once said “If nothing changes, nothing changes”…

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Philadelphia Post

This was my first time to the city of Philadelphia. The usual research that I had done before going to there spoke about the role of the city in shaping American History. Sites like the Liberty Bell and the Independence Hall topping the ‘things to see’ list! And then there were the museums, the Betsy Ross house and of course, the Eastern State Penitentiary (refer to previous post).

Independence Hall

Philadelphia City Hall

And... its mirror image

Statue of William Penn atop the City Hall

There is always so much more to a city, any city than the regular things to do or see lists, isn't it?

In the case of Philadelphia, it is nicknamed ‘The city of Brotherly Love’ (Greek: philos – love; adelphos – brother). Many Asian countries believe in the effects that one’s name can have on an individual. The holder of the name, it is said, imbibes its qualities. I may dismiss it generally, but it couldn’t be truer where this place is concerned. Because Philly, in my experience, is one friendly city!

Friendship Arch in Chinatown, a gift to the city of Philadelphia, crafted by artisans of Tianjin, China (A sister city)

The city is very global with people of so many different races and nationalities living here… people, who are warm, sociable, accommodating and smile easily. This, in my opinion is one of the prime things that makes a vacation worth being taken.

We walked a lot in Philly. The air was cool and it would drizzle of and on, so it made venturing out on foot so much fun! Pritam and I stayed at a friend’s which is in a residential neighborhood about 15-minutes walking distance from the Independence Hall. There is something very distinctive about the residential architecture here. Homes are typically quaint row houses, mostly with red-brick façades. A lot of them have windows bordered with pretty, flowering plants.

Apart from its historical significance, one aspect that strikes me about this city is its murals. Wonderful, eye-catching pieces of art that cover walls of buildings! They give Philly a unique, artistic identity. They depict various themes and some of them are really huge.

Philly, as I understand, has an extensive mural arts program. It was started with a view to counter the huge graffiti problem that the city faced. As part of the program graffiti vandals gained guidance from professional artists thereby helping them channel their creativity.

Today, there are over 2,500 murals in the city and more are created regularly, giving Philly its uniquely artistic identity!

Another characteristic of this city is its parks and squares

I have come to the last day of my vacation. We’ve been indulging in diverse cuisines – Turkish, French, Japanese… but have yet to try the Philly cheesesteak. “No Worries!” Our host and dost (Hindi: dost – friend) Ravi takes us to Pat’s at the Italian Market. Philly cheesesteaks are available all over the city but here is where we get the real McCoy. No other meal of the day being feasible, it’s got to be breakfast. So, we head for ‘Pat’s – King of Steaks’.

The time is about 11 a.m. There is a queue of four or five people before us. “This place is packed at night. Come here after midnight and you’ll have to wait for ages” Ravi says. And if I remember correctly, Pat's is open 24-hours.

Across the road is Geno’s, another cheesesteak spot and competition to Pat’s. Both places are supposed to have some really die-hard patrons!

The cheesesteak is divine. I’m not one for hearty breakfasts but can’t resist something so good! It is a plump bread roll stuffed with strips of steak and crunchy fried onions. Loaded with cheese - melting and gooey! If only there was a can of chilled Budweiser to go with it! Heard of champagne brunches (haven’t tried yet!) but beer breakfast… ahem!

I eat it all and feel very guilty later. Why are all good things in life illegal, immoral or fattening? Never mind…

Beer reminds me of an apt proverb I’d read flipping through a book of Ben Franklin proverbs at the Franklin Institute. ‘Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’ Couldn’t agree more!

Statue of Benjamin Franklin at the Franklin Institute