I am often asked: what is the most under-rated destination that you have been to. My reply would be Sri Lanka with its stellar combination of World Heritage sites, wildlife, history, rich culture, terrific hotels, friendly people and a friendlier currency.


I was in Queensland, Australia after many, many years and it was truly a wonderful experience filled with new friends, good wine and food and exciting travel.


Everyone’s talking about China...There is great interest in China as a travel destination .


I am often asked: what is the most under-rated destination that you have been to. My reply would be Sri Lanka with its stellar combination of World Heritage sites, wildlife, history, rich culture, terrific hotels, friendly people and a friendlier currency.


I was in Queensland, Australia after many, many years and it was truly a wonderful experience filled with new friends, good wine and food and exciting travel.

Of Flash mobs and Antwerp...

There’s so much talk about flash mobs and viral videos now- the best flash mob to date was the one I saw on 'You tube' some time ago, set in Antwerp Station.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Top 10 travel moments of 2010

Well, 2010 was a great year of travel for me. Every trip I took was unique and not comparable with the other but just to give it some order and sift through and narrow down the really marvellous ‘wow’ moments:
1.      Does Santa Claus really exist? My trip to Finnish Lapland was in many ways a return to innocence and childhood. The magical landscapes, the adventurous activities like husky safari, snowmobiles, ice fishing made it a nature-intensive experience. The trip to the cheesy Santa Claus Village and my Finnish traditional sauna experience including a roll in the snow were the top 2 here!
2.      My first glimpse of Lake Bled, Slovenia would definitely take spot no 2 for its sheer picturesque quality and otherworldliness. A turquoise lake, an island with a church and a castle on the hill... definitely a ‘glass slippers’ moment of the year!
3.      Reaching Rovinj, Croatia at sunset...After a day driving through green Istria, medieval towns like Motovun and olive oil tasting, Rovinj was the cherry on the cake. Picture-perfect, pastel homes hanging on to the cliffs, cafes and artists galleries and a harbour which you could spend your life looking at.
4.      A walk through Auschwitz Poland: was in many ways the culmination of years of interest in the dark Nazi period of history which started with Anne Frank’s diary and then moved on to Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankl and others. Terribly heart wrenching experience. Dark tourism or not this is one trip that I am glad I took. A life-changing moment, indeed...
5.       A night at Castle Leslie, Monaghan, Ireland. An eccentric owner, a haunted castle and a beautiful backdrop. One of the top experiences of the year. A candle-lit dinner around the family table, the hysterical laughs of my friends and ghost stories and finally the tense night waiting for para-normal happenings- this was one travel moment that will stay with me for a long time!
6.      Watching the Impression Show at Guilin:  An epic outdoor opera in Guilin, China with mountains as props and the sky as the backdrop was one of the most dazzling productions that I have seen. To see the production you first take a cruise along the Lijiang river, a surreal journey through a ‘Chinese painting’ of limestone karsts and fisherman in conical hats.

7.      Floating on the Dead Sea and Petra: Not what I expected, the Dead Sea was much more ‘alive ‘than I thought it would be! There was no way I could have a photo-op with a book in one hand and a drink in another...but memorable all the same, bobbing like a cork on one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. Jordan continued to weave its magic on me with Petra, miles and miles of the ancient city of the Nabateans, the treasury was only the tip of the iceberg. Want to go back some day to spend at least three days in Petra!
8.        Climbing the Great Wall:  Though we chose the Labour Day weekend when the Wall was swamped with locals and tourists, it did not deter us from the mystical quality of the Wall. Like a slithering serpent, this engineering marvel with its stunning watchtowers and panoramic views of the landscape was truly a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. Breathtaking is the only word that comes close to describing it.
9.      Strolling through Tallinn, Estonia: Truly my find of the year. Smaller in scale than Prague and without the crowds (at least as of now- it’s the European Capital of Culture in 2011) it has a heady mix of architecture, culture and food. Accessible from Helsinki by a short ship journey, this is the city of the future.
10.  A trip to see the Terracotta Warriors and Xian: No matter how much you have heard about the mysterious terracotta warriors guarding the First Emperor of China’s tomb, seeing is believing!  This retinue of eerily life-like statues has to be seen with an articulate guide. We had one in Anthony. Hollow figures with a myriad expressions, hairstyles and weapons and their amazing re-construction, truly an exciting visit!

Friday, February 25, 2011


The beauty of Tamil Brahmin cooking is in its simplicity-no complicated gravies and time consuming cooking. Usually no garlic and no onion were used. Food was fresh, leftovers were never re-used and ingredients like spices and poddis (masalas) were home-made. Rotis were hardly eaten, and bread was resorted to only when we were sick!
 One of my earliest memories which anchors me revolves around one of my favourite comfort foods- Milagootal or Kootu where coconut is ground into the gravy of vegetables along with jeera, red chillies and pepper. I’m particularly fond of ‘Keerai kootu’- cooked and mashed spinach leaves mixed with boiled tur dal and tempered with urad dal, mustard and red chillies. This is just what the doctor ordered- a perfect mix of proteins and a dose of iron! Another variation is the’ puli vitta kootu’ where tamarind, dal and spices are added together. 

Sambar was a typical dish with rice- often with drumstick or vegetables like carrot and beans. A special treat was the’ aracha vittu sambar’ which had roasted gram dhal, coriander, red chilies roasted and ground with coconut and added to the sambar for a special fragrance and punch! Paati(grandmother) used to make a special ‘Kathrika Rasavangi’ a cross between a sambar and a Rasam with  ground spices, eggplant, tamarind and tur dal which we had with white rice, ghee and ‘sutta appalam’ , the humble roasted papad!
Another on my list of faves was ‘Mor Kozhambu’ a buttermilk based version of the north Indian kadhi which can have ‘Thaan’- sauted okra or cooked white pumpkin or yam. My taste of bliss was my grandmother’s ‘red morkozhambu’ made with fried methi seeds, chana dal and red chillies ground with coconut and mixed with yoghurt and brought to a boil! Perfect with ‘parapu usuli” a typical tambram dish where cooked vegetables like beans are mixed with crumbled steamed Tur dal and tempered with mustard seeds and asafetida!
On rainy days we had ‘Melagu Kozhambu’, roasted and ground pepper in a tamarind base, a variation of the normal ‘vathal kozhambu’ a tangy tamarind paste with vatral- sun-dried vegetables. This was a kind of cleansing as too much Dal could cause indigestion, according to Paati!  These dishes were made in the famous ‘Kal Chatti” a stone dish which imparted a special flavour. All the powders and pastes in my Paati’s home used to be home-made and fresh. Paati used to be famous for her ‘Paavakai pittalai- a bitter gourd sambar with fresh fried and ground masalas and a dash of jaggery which took away the bitter edge!
My grandparents’ home also had a “Thuvaiyal” everyday consisting of a paste of sautéed vegetables and spices. Rice, ghee and thuvaiyal mixed together kick-started many a great meal! On my grandmother’s repertoire were ‘Thuvaiyals’ made from unusual ingredients like orange peel and the scrapings of vegetables like snake gourd and carrot!
Another delicacy that we looked forward to was the ubiquitous ‘pachadi’- the south Indian version of the raita where cool yoghurt was mixed with cut cucumber or grated carrot or fried okra and tempered with mustard seeds and green chillies. Patti’s specialty was the ‘Nelli mulli pachadi’- where dried gooseberry was ground with coconut and green chillies and mixed with yoghurt to give it that special punch!
No meal was complete without a Rasam, a tangy tamarind watery dal which packed a mean protein punch. Rasam used to be made by paati in the traditional ‘Iyam chombu’ or lead vessel until people asked her to give it up as it was harmful! Paati had about ten variations on her list- Pepper rasam on the days we had our weekly ‘oil bath’, Mysore rasam, a spicy concoction with ground spices, a pineapple rasam , the pick-me-up lime rasam, Tomato rasam etc! Paati would mash the rice with a little boiled Tur dal and ghee and pour Rasam into a little valley! Rasam, rice, papadum and a potato curry was the ultimate meal!  Our favourite version of potato was the’ Uralaikazhangu roast’ golden fried potatoes with a tempering of mustard seeds and curry leaves and a fragrance of asafetida. Equally pleasing was the pale yellow ‘ podimas’- boiled and crumbled potato tempered with dals, fresh ginger and green chilli and garnished with freshly grated coconut.
On special days we were treated with a ‘Payasam’ a South Indian kheer. Semiya payasam was usual fare-roasted semolina with milk, nuts and sugar. Other delights were the Parappu Payasam with gram or moong dal, jaggery and powdered cardamom.
Most evening meals were light and typically eaten around 6 Pm and called’palaagharam”. These were not spicy, generally austere meals like dosas with chutneys, puris or Aval upma (a south Indian poha).Every meal used to be topped off with a ‘Mor Saadam’- rice with buttermilk accompanied by ’vada manga’ made from tender, tiny raw baby, mangoes plucked before they grow further, soaked in brine till they shrivelled! Another of Paati’s offerings was home made ‘Vepillai katti”. The name was a misnomer because it indicated that it was made from vepillai or neem leaves but actually its made from tender citron leaves ( narthangai or lime) and curry leaves minced( hand-pounded) together with some tamarind and spices. Another favourite accompainiment to mor saadam was the ‘Mor Milagai’ or the yoghurt chilli! These were green chillies soaked in sour buttermilk for weeks, sun-dried and stored and fried in oil till black! Sometimes we would have creamy Curd rice jazzed up with dals, ginger, green chillies and curry leaves accompanied with Vathal kozhambu. Half a dozen grandchildren would sit around Paati as she dropped these balls of curd rice drizzled with a drop of Vatal kozhambu into our outstretched hands!
I also have memories of festivals and the ‘special’ food that Paati would make on these days of feasting! A great favourite was the ‘Mango pachadi’ made for the Tamil New Year’s Day with raw mango cooked with jaggery and garnished with fresh neem flowers and mustard seeds. Paati’s fruit pachadi was divine- a mix of fruits in sugar syrup. Another favourite was the ‘kozhukatais’, a version of the North Indian ‘modaks’ with a rice flour wrap filled with grated coconut and jaggery flavoured with cardamom! This was made on Ganesh Chathurthi which was a festive day where we bought mud ganeshas with paper umbrellas and stuffed ourselves silly with luscious food! Some days she would make ‘Kalanda saadam’- lemon rice, coconut rice and tamarind rice accompanied by crisp vadams, and crunchy wafers. Long train journeys and family picnics always had these dry rice dishes wrapped up in plantain leaves and newspapers.
Today, I bow to my children’s need for junk food- pizzas, chaat and samosas. But when I am stressed out, I reach for my Kal chatti and start cooking paati’s Vattal kozhambu from scratch. To me it’s the ultimate stress-buster!

A variation of this was published by a food magazine...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

They say that great chefs have star power..have to agree after my experience this week at the Marina Bay Sands official'grand opening'. We had a chance to experience their acclaimed cuisine and get up-close with the chefs in their own kitchens..at a dine-around gourmet dinner. Pizzeria Mozza, db Bistro Moderne,CUT, Santi, Guy Savoy and Waku Ghin made their signature dishes and even went out of their way to please vegetarians like me:)
Guy Savoy is a 'three Michelin stars'..been voted France's chef of the year..What I enjoy here is the most amazing Artichoke and Black truffle soup with toasted mushroom Brioche..the meat eater friends rave about the monkfish with shallot that they taste..
Waku Ghin

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011


I enjoy shopping, especially window shopping in different countries where I get to see strange products and exquisite crafts all making for a sensory overload. My pick of five markets that I particularly enjoyed in the recent past: 
Shopping in Bali- bargaining is the `norm'. Bargain hard, you will often hear the shopkeepers screaming at you saying, "No, no bankruuupt," but that should not deter you. A definite must for craft lovers is the Denpasar - Ubud road, a 20 km stretch of antiques, stone and wood carvings. Paintings, masks, bead work, necklaces, and wall pieces all jostle for your attention.

Florence is an artist’s dream: walking around brings a surprise at every corner, but it’s equally a shopper’s paradise. Italian leather is famous all over the world for its quality and I enjoyed browsing through this colourful leather market outside the Santa Croce Cathedral in Florence. Bags, belts, wallets- take your pick!
Yangshuo in Southern China has a bazaar on West Street that looks like the outpost of the end of the world. It’s otherworldly, colourful and packed with the most exquisite items at the most ridiculously low prices. Bags (I indulged), scarves, fans, lace, umbrellas, jewellery... the list endless. Together with the crafts on offer you get to see the local tribes sitting outside shops just embroidering or having a meal in a bowl!
Ljubljana the capital of Slovenia is a city made for walking. There are many bridges, a castle on the hill and eye catching architecture. The Triple Bridge is a landmark and when you cross it there’s an atmospheric market with wooden toys, wild honey with fruits (a local delicacy), bags of dried herbs and colourful painted glass in a myriad hues and shapes: yours truly indulged again!
Krakow in Poland is a medieval city frozen in time: the epicentre is Rynek Glowny or the Cloth Hall which now houses stalls vending central European arts and crafts. There is glass ware, wooden dolls, bright chess sets with various versions, local embroidered dresses, and amber from the Baltics. Spend at least a couple of hours here!

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