Will Travel For Food – Where has it taken me…

A few days ago I was invited by my friend and teacher Prof. Kurush Dalal to speak to a class of Travel and Tourism Management students. I was to speak to them about Culinary Travel giving them a writer’s perspective and how to write about food and travel. I don’t know how to teach people to write, but what I know is to tell people the experiences to look for so that they have enough stories to write about. So, as I made the presentation (yes, I HAD to the bit I despise the most!) it started shaping up into what I would do as a culinary travel writer; I spoke about things that I when p keep in mind when planning my trips, stories that I go looking for and the ones that find me instinctively. Places culinary travel has taken me to…

To a humble kitchen in McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh

After quitting my job in 2016, my first trip was to this dreamy little town in Himachal Pradesh. My only plan here was to eat at the pretty cafes and tiny restaurants and pack-in as many meals as possible in 2 days (also read – Where to eat in McLeodganj). I had another agenda too…to take a cooking/baking class. There are a few Tibetan chefs around and I had read somewhere about Sangye’s Kitchen, a modest little kitchen in the heart of the town. I signed-up for his class to learn Tibetan breads. On that evening, while he taught me to bake using the most baking equipments he had (a gas stove and a pan), Sangye taught me the first lesson of, “start where you are, use what you have.” (also read: Baking bread and learning life’s lessons at Sangye’s Kitchen)

Sangye Tashi

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Where’s my hygge?

“This is so hygge,” said our host Anett Wæber, the founder of Meet The Danes (an agency that offers Danish home experiences to travelers), as she dimmed the lights, lit a few candles and put on some music. This was my introduction to hygge – the Danish word for the feeling of cosiness, comfort or fun. Yes, the feeling that you get when you curl up on a chair with a book and a mug of hot chocolate…the Danes have a word for it…hygge, pronounced as hoo-guh. In the Oxford Dictionary, which shortlisted hygge as ‘word of the year’ in 2016, it’s described as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” Hygge is derived from the Norwegian term hugga which means “to comfort”, doesn’t it sound like a close cousin to the English word ‘hug’? After all there’s nothing more comforting than a tight warm hug from a friend or loved one.

Cosy reading nook with books, candle and hot cocoa – Perfect recipe for hygge Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

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A walk in the woods: Vanvadi, Neral

On a Sunday morning, when half of Mumbai was submerged in torrential rains, I got on a train to Neral to learn about the forest foods of the Konkan region. The workshop was being organised by Vanvadi, a forest collective around 15 kms from Neral railway station. After almost a 45-min auto-rickshaw ride, I reach a place which is far removed from the urban development just a few kilometres away from one of the busiest cities in the world.

Vanvadi, Neral

More than two decades ago a bunch of like-minded people pooled-in their resources to buy undulating land in the foothills of the Sahyadris in the north Konkan Western Ghats. “Ecological regeneration and local self-reliance was our primary aim,” says Bharat Mansata, an active founder-member of the collective. “We were initially looking to buy about 10-15 acres for organic farming, mainly of fruit and vegetables. This was to be divided among 3-4 of us. But with more like-minded people joining, I began dreaming of an ‘alternative community’ of sorts gradually evolving – a community that aspired to meet its varied needs in harmony with nature and fellow humans,” he adds. The venture was tentatively named Vision Acres which was later changed to a more local name ‘Vanvadi’ which means forest settlement of forest farm.

Over the past 24 years, the 64 acre land has regenerated into a magnificent forest, dense and rich in biodiversity. A local adivasi family looks after and works at Vanvadi, almost since its inception. Bua, the eldest member of the family, guides us inside the forest to introduce us to various edible wild greens and plants that grow in abundance during monsoon. He gently navigates his way and points out various vines, plants and trees that either yield seasonally edible parts, or are useful to the adivasis in some other way.

Monsoon greens at Vanvadi, Neral

During the trail we spot ran suran (loth), a wild variety of yam which has a beautiful ruby red flower sprouting from the ground like mushroom. Its tender leafy growth is also consumed as a vegetable, cooked along with another forest plant bondara. Bua plucks a young leaf off a plant and hands it over to us to chew on, the leaf is bitter with a sour aftertaste. We also munch on tiny variety of awala and aliv, a fruit which looks like chikoo but has a sour aroma when it’s not fully ripened.

Pic Credits: Vanvadi Facebook Page

Vanvadi, with the help of local adivasis, has listed over 120 plant species in its forest which are useful to the locals in some way or the other. Out of these about 52 species provide edible yield (leaf, fruit, flower, stem, tuber/root) at a certain time of year. However, early monsoon is the peak season for harvesting many wild greens – the fresh, tender growth of almost a dozen vine species. Certain trees have multiple uses like mahua’s leaves are turned into fodder, flowers are well known for brewing liquor but they’re also cooked in various ways (there are dozens of recipes in Central India that use mahua flower), fruit can be cooked like a vegetable and seed is crushed to yield cooking oil. The residual cake after extracting the oil works as manure for the crops. The wood is used to make furniture, musical instruments, agricultural tools etc. However, it’s sacrosanct to cut a mahua tree; the wood is only used if the tree dies.

Presently, less than 2 acres at Vanvadi are used for farming. Mansata tells us that the original plan was to plant mainly fruits and vegetables, the adivasis showed them that a variety of local millets like nachni, varie, kangu, jowar can also be grown on the gentler slopes; and rice too on relatively flat, lower-lying areas.

After our walk in the woods we come back to the mud cottage, the only house in the midst of the forest, for a lunch cooked by the adivasi family and the Vanvadi volunteers. On the menu there are greens like a wild variety of amaranth, wild colacassia leaves, and ulshya, all stir fried with minimal spices. For accompaniments there’s sesame and garlic chutney, koshimbir with mahua flower and dry black chana with dried mahua flower. We polish off the humble meal with nachni bhakri and local variety of rice.

Meal including local wild greens at Vanvadi

The forest regeneration has also helped the area solve the problem of water scarcity in summer. “We get around 8 ft of rain in an average year. With such a generous supply any water scarcity is a human failure, not nature’s short-coming,” says Mansata. The porous soil of the forest acts as a massive sponge to efficiently recharge the groundwater drawn from wells and bore-wells, while stream-bed check dams and reservoirs harvests rain as surface water bodies. . The land and its downstream villages now have water all year round, despite a proliferation of one-way extraction bore-wells in surrounding areas in recent years.

Vanvadi has had its fair share of struggles and fights too, mainly dealing with the builder community which is deforesting big chunks of land to build resorts and holiday homes. “When locals cut the trees for firewood or other use, they don’t damage the roots and most trees regenerate. However, the developers dig out the roots with JCBs, which is the major reason for soil erosion under heavy rain, which then silts up stream-bed water bodies,” says Mansata.

While there are challenges, Vanvadi is slowly growing as a space to host workshops, work camps, forest food trails and  ecology-related educational activities to understand the local flora and fauna, and the vital life-supporting ‘environmental services’ that the forest provides. Every year, starting on Dussera, it also hosts a Vanutsav or forest festival – to celebrate nature and community.

To stay updated with the events and workshops being conducted at Vanvadi, you can request to join their Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/vanvadi.

An ode to Mumbai and everything I love about it

I don’t belong to Mumbai. Or shall I say that I thought I didn’t till recently. I have spent 14 years in this city, just 4 years short of the number of years I spent at my birthplace. It was around the same time – Ganesh Chaturthi – when I first set foot here oblivious to how my life was going to be tossed and turned around; that from being a jobless nobody, I will see my name (and recently my face too) published in some of the best magazines and newspapers. Every time I thought the city took away from me, it doubled it up and gave back, not always in ways I expected.

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How to eat well in Sri Lanka

I do not like kottu roti (the Sri Lankan/Tamilian street food made with flatbread, chicken, vegetables. Everything is fried on a tawa together and served in a big heap with a curry poured over it)

Now that we’re through with it let me talk about what I actually loved about Sri Lankan food. To be honest I absolutely disliked my first two meals there – string hoppers with fish curry and kottu roti. These were also some of the recommendation I got on social media. But the best ones were from my friend and teacher Kurush Dalal. He really knows Sri Lankan food well. This is a list of everything that I tried and loved in Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese meal in Colombo

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