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It’s raining food

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on July 04, 2020 Published on July 03, 2020

Go with the flow: Jog Falls in Karnataka has always tempted the monsoon tripper   -  K MURALI KUMAR

Take a sky full of clouds, add heavy showers and garnish with thunder and lightning. The perfect monsoon destination, along with a sizzling array of goodies, is only a read away

Ever since the monsoon’s back on track, I’ve been mulling over what might nicely make the rainiest destination for a foodie — imagine sitting in a restaurant, watching the cosmic drama while tucking into hot food and thinking deep thoughts.

Options come to mind. Kovalam Beach in Kerala has attracted tourists since the 1930s and was the natural opening for Alexander Frater’s 1990 travelogue Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India. Sadly, the author died earlier this year, but he evoked the bombastic rains like none before him. There, I’d sprawl in deckchairs at fishy shacks with laid-back names such as Beatles Café and Crab Club, while watching the dark clouds build above the Arabian Sea, sip on milky coffee or “special tea” (beer in a teapot) if I needed something more potent while dipping soft appams into piping hot avial. The ideal time would be just before June 1 to see the monsoon’s arrival. Later is doable, but certainly less cinematic.

Where the clouds come home: Kovalam Beach in Kerala was the natural opening for Alexander Frater’s 1990 travelogue Chasing the Monsoon   -  THE HINDU/ S GOPAKUMAR

 

Hence, I might instead revisit Sohra, a small town at the edge of the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya; previously known as Cherrapunjee, it overlooks the Sylhet plains, across which clouds from the Bay of Bengal drift, and is world-famous for its record rains (11,000-12,000 mm annually) that water its living root bridges and pump up waterfalls. When I first went to Sohra decades ago, there were simple tea stalls serving Khasi standards such as jadoh (translated to ‘pork sparepart pulao cooked in pig’s blood’); but on my recent visit last year, a surprisingly delightful fine-diner, Jiva Grill, with an emphasis on succulent kebabs, had been set up on the outskirts with astonishing views towards the green gorges through which rainwater flushes down to the Surma River below. But it is a difficult place to visit during the lockdown.

Royal Rajasthan is another monsoon trip; and although there’s little rain, it’s cooler, the desert blooms, and one could do worse than lounging in backpacker cafés in a holy place such as Pushkar. After bargaining for trinkets and knick-knacks, purses of camel hide, risqué miniature paintings, rustic jewellery, and getting sloshed on bhaang lassi at those unnamed stalls that put hippies into the spiritual mood (in this otherwise dry town), one might eat one’s way through the 100 per cent vegetarian, utterly delicious Pushkari food scene. There are dhaba staples such as daal-batti, the ubiquitous banana pancakes and German bakes, and Western fusion — say, tofu steaks or baked potatoes with Marmite. Many restaurants are on rooftops with piped world music and splendid views over the narrow bazaars, some of the town’s 500 temples or the sunset over the 50-plus ghats lining the hallowed lake.

Or perhaps what I’ll do is go to Goa and enjoy the touristless-ness that monsoon ushers in, since one doesn’t have to jostle with three- to four-million beer-bellied Britons, vodka-guzzling Russians, extra-drunk Germans, and other highly refreshed merrymakers. According to Wikileaks, more than 99.9 per cent of all foreigners who visit India end up stone drunk in Goa. In the rainy season, however, they’re replaced by scatterings of bespectacled Bengaluru techies and Mumbai semi-hipsters looking lost without traffic jams; and social distancing isn’t a big problem, obviously.

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Sheltering in a low-key Calangute bar last July, nursing my heavenly urak — the seasonal tequila-ish beverage made from pulped cashew fruit, which has an angelically sour fermented taste, and is best chased with Limca — I observed a man entering the bar wearing only underpants. Anywhere else, a bouncer would’ve prohibited him from getting his desired beverage, but in Goa nobody seemed to mind much as the cool customer groped around in his private zone for cash to buy a peg. I reverted to the local papers that predicted heavy to very heavy rain — which is maybe why Mr He-man of the Year felt there was no point in dressing up.

Apart from its 125km of beaches, Goa is of course legendary for its food — the classic Ritz in Panjim serves sublime mussels, the thali at Vasco-da-Gama’s fishy Anantashram contains an entire ocean’s worth of seafood, and Terry’s on the Mandovi riverfront does an utterly yummy prawn sambar. Seafood supply gets scarce during the monsoon, however, and so the rainy season is best for Konkani veg fare; and one feels, perhaps, gratitude towards the Portuguese colonisers, who not only planted cashews in India but also brought chillies, potatoes and tomatoes — those cornerstones of proper vegetarianism. If that doesn’t cut it, sample the sorpotel — pork offal stewed in feni and vinegar — at the nearest Goan kitchen, the chorizo sausage pulao at beachfront old-timer Souza Lobo or the superbest tongue roast for miles around at Calangute’s bakery-slash-café Infanteria, which has grown into a multistorey bistro-cum-cocktail-bar with nightly live music. (When heading back to the hotel I always pack seafood patties, rissoles and croquettes from their bakery counter for midnight cravings.)

However, being a cosmopolitan place, Goa dishes up the finest international food in all of India — so in another sense, going to Goa is a culinary trip around the world, which is especially appreciable at viral times like these. Apart from the customary Conti, there’s Germanic pumpernickel sandwiches to be had at Lila Café in Baga Beach; sublime Greek at Thalassa, perched on a cliff in Vagator Beach (don’t miss the souvlaki pork skewers); Japanese sushi at Shiro in Candolim Beach; French fries at La Plage in Asvem Beach; and the choicest Burmese delicacies at Bomra’s (try chickpea tofu with tamarind-soy sauce, followed by slow-cooked cashew-crusted pork belly with apple chutney).

My most recent darling is the better-than-Italian food at the trattoria Piccola Roma (between Calangute and Candolim), a cheese-lover’s paradise where one may gorge on minty watermelon salad topped with homemade feta, ravioli stuffed with ricotta in a deliciously sweetish (no sugar added) buttery tomato reduction, Gorgonzola-drenched gnocchi, parmigiano risotto with porcini mushrooms, and finish off the night with a thoroughly satisfying Neapolitan-style pizza alici marinate with piquant anchovy paste (that holy grail of Italian cookery), and get billed half of what such a food orgy might cost in Italy. In essence, you’ll eat better than in Rome itself, without having to spend money on an Air Italia ticket; and the fact that one never has to book a table in advance and room rates are low makes monsoon the ideal time to enjoy Goa.

When not eating, I’d of course immerse myself in heritage — stroll along Panjim’s Latinesque streets in Fontainhas or the country roads on Divar Island; or visit the off-the-beaten path Pilar seminary with its intriguing museum; peek into other private museums set up by illustrious locals such as architect Gerard da Cunha and artist Subodh Kerkar. Or get a haircut at the 100-year-old Barberia barbershop in Calangute market. Yet, in the end, Goa is at its best in late-monsoon, when a colourful sunset makes it worth the trip.

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So where did I actually go in the end? Because of the travel industry being somewhat crippled this year, I ended up closer to home, driving 280km from Bengaluru to Kodagu, which is getting beautiful rains — no houses have upped and slipped downhill in landslides yet, like in recent years, and no metal roofing is flying in the air. (Last year a 2m sheet of corrugated iron crashed on the house where I stay.) And so that’s where I jot down these monsoon musings.

The icy nights and misty days go well with the peppery pandi made of chunky pork seasoned with kachampuli vinegar. The multi-Michelin-starred TV chef Gordon Ramsay came to Kodagu earlier this year to sample this miraculously delicious dish and other Kodava specials for his food show, so Kodagu is poised to become the next foodie pilgrimage globally. A culinary novelty this season is rabbit, a gamey dish in a rich pepper masala, fried up by the gentlemanly Mr Nobin at Hotel Coorg Traditional, a shack behind the Madikeri market with only four tables and a menu that’s 100 per cent non-veg. Nothing better when it pours down than munching on a happy hare; and the popularity has grown so fast that one needs to book one’s bellyful of bunny weeks in advance!

Rainy day special: Pork curry, Kodagu style   -  ZAC O’YEAH

 

As I wait for my next leporine encounter, I pray for the sake of hoteliers and restaurateurs that monsoon tourism picks up. Although Goa, Kerala and Cherrapunjee have always been the three greatest destinations for rain lovers, in Karnataka, too, monsoon tourism was growing, pre-Corona times, at 25 per cent a year; Malnad has a reputation for its ricocheting rains and Jog Falls has always tempted trippers. So at a time when the tourism industry is despairing, the best thing to do for foodies is have a weekend outing at the rainiest place within reach.

 

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

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Published on July 03, 2020
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