Sunday, August 26, 2007

A different sort of tea

If you're in Bandra, the coffee shop at the Taj Land's End is a pretty good choice for a relaxed afternoon tea.

The music is never loud. The service is pleasantly discreet, without being hoity-toity. There is a large selection of teas on the menu, but the past 4 or 5 times, I've always settled for their beautiful Makaibari tea.

Makaibari - the 'champagne of teas' - comes from a privately owned estate in the foothills of the Himalayas. The estate is 150 years old, and still owned by the fourth-generation of the Banerjee family.

To me, several things make Makaibari very interesting.

The first is that in a remote rural society that is traditionally dominated by men, Makaibari has several women in supervisory positions managing both male and female tea-pickers. In fact, in Makaibari's Joint Body, the women outnumber men four to one.

The second is their concept of 'biodynamic' agriculture: the idea that agriculture can be entirely self-sustaining, a sort of closed biosphere.

A whopping 70% of Makaibari is under forest cover. The tea bush itself is part of a six-tier system of trees and plants typical of a sub-tropical rainforest. The idea is that when tea grows like this, in a natural setting, it carries with it the fragrances and flavours of Nature.

There are other cool things about Makaibari - they run Project Panther, a program that has actually successfully reversed the decline of the leopard population in the Himalayan foothills. Makaibari has 11 leopards, by the way, and lots of other wild life as well. Most bird watchers get pretty excited when you tell them Makaibari is home to 30 Great Indian Pied Hornbills.

Makaibari is Fairtrade certified. This means workers are paid above established minimum wages, there is no forced or child labour, working conditions are safe, and workers have access to national and international labour protection (such as the ILO).

Most of this is visionary stuff thanks to Rajah Banerjee, Makaibari's current owner, who - apart from being the only cowboy this side of the Himalayas - seems to be a man after my own heart.

But Rajah Banerjee is not the coolest thing about Makaibari.

About fifteen years ago, they found a new type of creature on the Makaibari tea estates. It was an insect the exact replica of a tea leaf. Rajah Banerjee calls it the Miracle of the Tea God. It's a praying mantis that's decided it wants to start looking like Makaibari's best crop. In summer, it looks like a fresh new tea leaf. In winter, the insect carries blisters, just like the tea leaves themselves. Now *that's* what I call cool.

Anyway - the next time you're in Taj Land's End - don't just ask for Darjeeling. Check if they have Makaibari. And before you do, make sure you've read Rajah Banerjee's personal recommendation on how to have the right tea at the right time.

- Deepa

Acknowledgements: The plantation photos came from the Makaibari and Silvertips websites. The first photo at Taj Land's End is from mami, my Finnish friend. While I was enjoying my Makaibari, she ordered white tea - but that's a subject for another post perhaps!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Great Mumbai Commute

It was a long conference, and at the end of it, I was glad to pack up my laptop and head home. It was 8:30 p.m. The entire city seemed to be going in the same direction as I was.

The red BEST bus was packed full of commuters. Clicking this photo from the luxury of my airconditioned car, I felt guilty, as if I was personally responsible for the heat and dust and grime.

Ten minutes into the drive, everything came to a standstill.

The reason? This sub-way. It can handle only one lane.

Eventually we got out of the subway. There was a long wait at the intersection, to turn into the highway. The motorcycles were sort of weaving in and out through the rest of the traffic, getting to the head of the "queue".

On the highway it was quite clear who the boss was.

Lettering on the back of a tiny auto-rickshaw. This guy was zipping past the trucks - a brave David in the face of multiple Goliaths!

Unlike me, this was one guy not in a hurry to get home.

Finally we got past the suburbs. No more auto-rickshaws: the black-and-yellow is the king of the roads now. A little more distance - and I'll be home.

Ta-da! And now we do this whole cycle all over again tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Idli-vada at Chor Bazaar

I was wandering along Chor Bazaar, when I got hungry. There was nothing around except old gramophone records, movie posters and memorabilia.

Then this guy came along, with his compact little restaurant-on-the-hoof. He didn't speak
much. In fact, he didn't even return my big grin. Once my camera came out though, he softened a bit. Can you see the beginnings of his smile?

I bought two plates of idli-vada. Each came with one soft white idli and one brown vada, heaped with coconut chutney.

To keep the chutney from soaking through, the 'plate' was a square piece of plastic - the outer wrapping of a pack of biscuits. I wonder where he got them from, but it kept the chutney on the plate, where my fingers could get at it easily.

Oh, and he hung around while we ate, waiting to see if we needed second helpings of the chutney.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

You are what you eat - the philosophy of Indian food

I was in Manchester last week, at the Old Trafford Stadium, for a conference. At lunch, the tables were groaning with food from Spain, France and the UK. There was also a very popular Indian counter, serving rice and curry.

I wanted to try some of the European cuisines on offer, so I walked around with my plate, looking for something vegetarian. I found zilch. Everything looked great, but had some sort of meat or fish or fowl in it. The closest I could find was a Spanish frittata - a rich scrumptious looking thing made of potatoes, eggs and cheese, nicely browned and just begging to be eaten.

I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to eat Indian. So I got some of the Spanish thingy on my plate, scraped the egg off, and carted it off to my table along with some perfectly tasteless green salad. At my table were Wendy and Anna, both tucking away into Indian curry. Wendy is English, and Anna is German.

The conversation turned to vegetarianism.

'So, is it a religious thing with you, Deepa?', said Wendy.

'Not really', I said. 'I was born vegetarian, and I've just stayed that way.'

I should have shut my mouth then, and the conversation would have ended, but no, I had to play the culture card.

I grinned and said, 'Besides, its taken me several births to get here. Why regress?'

Anna turned to me. 'Sorry, what was that?'

So I set off on a long discussion about the cycle of rebirth, of progressing from the animal to the divine, and how food plays a part in the journey towards spiritual awakening. We talked of the ascetic food habits of Buddhist and Hindu monks, about the traditional classification of food in ayurveda, taboos and symbolism, and all the little things that make food such an important part of Indian culture.

At the end of the chat, Anna gestured at her rice-and-curry and said, 'You know what, Deepa? In the UK we walk into Indian restaurants all the time, and we eat so much Indian food - but we know nothing about the entire philosophy behind food.'

I smiled and agreed with her, but I thought to myself - it's not that different in Mumbai.

The concept that eating simple food is a way to progress spiritually has been lost in the holier-than-thou stance of Mumbai's vegetarians. There seems to be, within each little community, an excessive petty focus on establishing purity and superiority over other communities based on food habits. Several upscale localities in Mumbai are becoming exclusive vegetarian enclaves, by refusing non-vegetarian tenants, and by discouraging the sale of meat and other 'impious' food. I know many people who will not accept food or even water from the hands of 'lower' castes.

The idea of food as an inner guiding principle, as a personal living choice, is dying. We're reducing our great philosophies as usual, to taboos and rituals.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Lessons from Dharavi

I watched as the old man shaped the clay carefully. A dull brown pot emerged from the muddy lump, growing, taking form.

I had a brief wild temptation - I wanted to poke a finger in it, and watch the mud groove around my finger. I damped down the thought. 'Act your age, woman', I told myself, and focused instead, on the mesmerising wheel. In one smooth gesture, he scooped the pot away from the wheel, and gave me a smile. I was filled with sudden warmth for this frail yet strong old man.

I was in Kumbharwada, Dharavi, home to potters from Saurashtra. With me was Shelley Seale, a writer from Texas, working on a book about underprivileged children. As part of Shelley's research, I took her on a tour of Dharavi.

The homes of Dharavi's potters are a world in themselves. There is a simple logic in the layout - at the front of the house, on the roadside, the pots are sold. If you enter the front door, you see the potter's home - there is a tiny living area with a television, and a kitchen neatly stacked with steel plates and tumblers. Pass through the kitchen, and you're in a little workshop, where pots are fashioned. Beyond this workshop is a common open area, where you can see the kilns where the pots are baked.

It is a cottage industry. Men, women, children - everyone does a part of the work. Water has to be fetched and carried, the clay mixed to form the right consistency, and finished pots and pans loaded into trucks. In the midst of the bustle, food is cooked, spicy Saurashtra cuisine. Tea is made. Children are bathed and fed and sent off to school.

At the end of the tour, Shelley wrote an article for, about her Dharavi visit. She said -
To me, this place dispels the myth that poverty is due to laziness — that the poor somehow deserve their lot in life because they are lazy or stupid or otherwise lacking in some important character trait that the successful possess. Dharavi is a resounding rebuttal to that belief.

I couldn't have said it better.

Behind the potter's workshop, gunny bags with clay.

Pots and shallow pans, drying in the sun

The kilns are fired using waste material. The pollution and heat is incredible.

Doing the dishes and keeping an eye on the kid.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

When coriander and mint flirt with yoghurt

These are the ingredients for one of my favourite chutneys:

- Fresh coriander leaves
- Fresh mint leaves, roasted for a minute so it's not bitter
- Green chillies
- Onions
- Ginger
- Garlic
- Bit of sugar (to fix the bitterness of the mint)
- Salt
- Lemon juice, one half of a lemon
- One cup yoghurt, hung so there's no whey

Grind everything together into a fine paste, except the yoghurt and the lemon juice.

Stir the paste into the yoghurt.

Check for taste, add lemon juice and more salt if needed. You're now set to conquer the world.

A few years ago, I spent some time in the US, visiting my sister-in-law. We'd make tortilla wraps with this chutney.
All you need is a mix of veggies - beans, potatoes, cauliflower, carrots and peas. Boil veggies, season with cumin, add salt, red chili powder and a bit of garam masala. Buy tortillas, heat them, fill veggies into it, and then add this chutney on top. For added flavour, sprinkle chopped onions, coriander, lemon juice and chaat masala before you close the wrap. Serve hot, and remember to bow at the sound of sudden applause.