Pickles of all kinds are at the top of my food chain, and I’m happy to eat ’em, cook ’em, make ’em, mix ’em, steal ’em, promote ’em.
One of my favourite sandwiches—I have no idea how, when or where I learned this recipe—is good bread with thinly-sliced dill pickles and a generous spread of peanut butter. Go on, try it. You might love it as much as Poor John and I do.
Poor John used to tease me about this unusual combo until the day I sent him off to work with that exact mix in his lunchbox. That was when I was still making his lunch (a service that didn’t last much longer).
He came home raving about how delicious it was. Duh, he could have believed me from the outset, but I had to prove it sneakily.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover Pickle Heaven (not its real name) in Kalimpong, West Bengal, India. This was serious pickle-dom, and the woman who runs the place makes all—well almost all—the pickles herself.
All kinds of vegetables, chillies and meat are done up in various sizes of glass jars and plastic packaging, and all crammed into a narrow shop on Kalimpong’s main street.
Obviously, I wasn’t going to buy anything to take home. Glass and liquid aren’t good travelling companions, and Australia’s quarantine regulations prevent many foodstuffs from being brought into the country.
But I was determined to buy/try some. The owner graciously offered to open jars to let me try, but I had a better idea.
When India and Australia were facing off in the semifinals of the ICC Cricket World Cup. Anand and I promised to buy a present as a consolation prize for the loser. Not only did Australia beat India in that game, we won the entire competition. Sorry New Zealand, because we wouldn’t have minded if you’d won because it was the first time ever that New Zealand made it to the finals.
The whole cricket competition was over and I still owed Anand his present. How about I take you to Kalimpong’s pickle emporium and buy you five kinds of pickles—your pick?
He couldn’t believe there’d be five kinds of pickles he actually wanted, but then he walked into the place.
Anand may be Indian, but he’s not vegetarian. And there, on the shelves, he found jars and bags of goodies such as pickled beef, pickled chicken and pickled pork. Choosing his five ‘prizes’ was too easy and I bet he’ll shop there the next time he’s in Kalimpong.
If you’re a fan of pickles, chutneys and sambols, you might like the mint sambol recipe on my cooking blog.
On a sad note, Kalimpong is close to Nepal and the devastating earthquake that hit there earlier this week. Three people are confirmed dead in West Bengal and some buildings have collapsed. I can’t imagine the shelves of pickles fared well.
The Mirik Sports Association runs the men’s toilet by the lake in the village of Mirik in West Bengal, India. I suppose they run the women’s too, but I couldn’t find it so can’t share any signage from it.
But the men’s sign says the price, in rupees, varies according to size. I’m still wondering whether the size—short versus long—refers to the time spent, the size of offering or the ‘equipment’.
A fellow traveller reckons he’d declare ‘long’ every time. Never mind the expense! What do you think?
P.S. Five rupees is about 10 Australian cents.
P.P.S. Don’t forget to stop by my cooking blog.
Bugs love me. In 1971, I landed in the Middle East for the first time and about two million mosquitos zeroed in on me singing out Dinner is served.
Generally, I do my utmost to avoid the biters and stingers. Bug repellent and I are good friends. So much so that my mother predicted that my adult perfume would be a scent called Eau de Bug Spray. And it’s true that I wear more Rid than I do perfume.
Our overland travels always present certain challenges for me. If there’s a risk of mozzies at night, I cover up with long sleeves and long trousers. I also carry multiple bottles of Rid, Australia’s tropical strength +antiseptic insect repellent, that I roll on daily.
I managed very well during our 10 weeks in India even though were we camping at least half the time. Got maybe one or two bites a week.
But my guard was down in Bhutan. Good grief, it was freezing. It’s supposedly spring here, but I’ve been wearing closed shoes, woolly socks, long pants, three layers of merino tops, a beanie, gloves and a puffy jacket. Some nights the temperature has dipped to 2–3°C (or 35–37°F).
Surely there aren’t any mozzies about. But I forgot about fleas.
Every single campsite (we aren’t in actual campgrounds) has been overrun with dogs.
Having been bitten in 1986 by a dog that later became rabid, I have a personal travelling policy of not touching dogs I don’t know. Never mind how much I love dogs, I still remember the series of injections I needed back then.
So I have not honeyed up to these camp dogs. Nevertheless, they make themselves at home around the camp. All day they lie curled into tight balls, perking up when the dining tent shows some activity or as soon as the sun goes down.
Nightfall brings on their barking frenzy. They race round and round our tents and weave back and forth across the campsite. Too late it dawned on me that their patrolling was also scattering fleas everywhere.
A swarm of those fleas found me. And based on where most of the bites are, it’s obvious that I was caught with my pants down, literally.
Our camps haven’t had a toilet, per se, but a toilet tent. That means a rectangular hole dug in the ground with a small tent set up over it. The dug-out soil is spread around the edge of the inside of the tent, so you can kick dirt over your ‘offering’. It’s functional, basic and your knees have to work.
The day of the flea attack, we were supposed to camp at a place called Chendipji, but the flat ground that was supposed to be used for camping had been taken over by a new stupa (those Buddhist monuments scattered all over Bhutan).
So the crew in the van carrying the main camping equipment had to drive on for many kilometres to find a place even remotely suitable for camping. Of course, after much searching they found a place that was ‘remotely suitable’ for camping.
The dining and kitchen tents were pitched beside the road. Our sleeping tents and the toilet tent were perched on a small cliff, which was home to a few dogs, and overlooked the other tents and a vast valley.
Poor John had pointed out some broken bits of glass on our cliff, and I had noticed that the toilet tent was rather close to the edge.
So about midnight when the bladder called, I opted for convenience and safety instead of stumbling toward the toilet tent. Around the back of my tent, I dropped my daks and had a quick pee, disturbing hundreds of ferocious fleas. They were quick, deadly and hungry.
Flea bites take forever to calm down, so six days later I’m still suffering. And I figured if I have to suffer, you can too, even if it is too much information.
After travelling with Anand and Deepti for more than 15,000 kilometres across India and Bhutan, I suppose a prang was inevitable. Prang being the Aussie slang for a minor car accident.
Now before I go any further, I should say that Anand in a superb driver. He’s watchful, patient, polite and cautious (without being a fuddy-duddy). He observes the speed limit and other rules of the road, which is rare in India. In other words, both Poor John and I feel completely safe with him at the wheel.
That doesn’t get around the other nuts on the road.
While our particular prang was frustrating, the overall outcome was more than satisfying.
Here’s how it played out.
We were on our way to visit the temple/monastery of the Divine Madman (how appropriate) when some knucklehead decided to zoom past us. As he did, he sideswiped our van, startling us all and prompting Anand to pull to the side of the road.
The offender pulled over too and jumped out of his van to start a shouting match. He was the only one shouting, because Anand and Tek, our Bhutanese guide, kept their cool.
We couldn’t hear the conversation, so I’m guessing as to the exact words, but we got a full report when the fellows returned to our van.
Offender shouting and with arms waving: Hey mate, what do think you were doing? You weren’t even in your own lane.
Anand, calmly but firmly: I was in my own lane. You chose to pass where the road was too narrow and you didn’t even beep to ‘ask’ me to move over. Even if you had beeped, I couldn’t have moved over without hitting the guard rail. Surely you could see that.
Offender still behaving badly: Don’t give me that. You weren’t in your lane.
And then a taxi arrived and out stepped an off-duty policeman, in uniform.
Offender embarks on his rant again when the policeman interrupts: I saw the whole thing. You shouldn’t have passed when you did. There wasn’t enough room. This man, pointing to Anand, was completely legal. You were wrong.
Offender went purple. He wasn’t about to give up so easily and argued on. It soon became obvious why he was so insistent on transferring blame. He was driving someone else’s van and he was going to have to explain the accident and pay for the damage. If only he could shed responsibility.
The policeman said he was unable to press charges because he was off-duty, so if Anand wanted to claim insurance both drivers and both vehicles would have to go to the cop shop.
The offender had a huge scratch down the side of his van and the wing mirror had broken off, but he wasn’t keen to have the accident reported. After a thorough inspection of our van, Anand decided the damage wasn’t too bad, and much less than he feared. So he let to it go.
Besides, we had a more interesting Madman to visit. More about that fellow soon!
After my recent post on some of our gastronomic delights in India, a faithful follower has asked me to avoid food posts in favour of posts on animals and people. Seems she overdid comfort eating (ice cream) to compensate for her lack of India food at home.
I didn’t actually agree to her request, but let’s take a side trip anyway to Satkosia Gorge Wildlife Sanctuary on the Mahanadi River in the eastern state of Orissa. It’s probably fitting because we were on our way to the gorge when we stopped in Angul for those remarkable paneer rolls I described in my ‘offending’ last post.
This sanctuary and the Baisipalli Wildlife Sanctuary make up the Satkosia Tiger Reserve. If the brochure is to be believed, the reserve is home to a ‘significant’ population of tigers. It also boasts leopards, elephants, spotted and barking deer, sambar, bison, wild dogs, sloth bears, jackals and porcupines.
We didn’t see any of them, which is not surprising when you read on to find that the 1000-square-kilometre reserve has 17 tigers.
This is when you have to remind yourself that the national parks and reserves of India are NOT zoos. There’s never any guarantee that you will see anything.
So we did laundry instead—lots of it.
Tikarpada village, where we stayed, had plenty buckets, plenty of water and plenty of sunny weather.
After ‘household duties’, we went for an afternoon canoe ride on the river. We scrambled down the hill (Tikarpada sits on a cliff now) and across the laundry-laden rock field to the riverbank.
Then it was into the canoes—Poor John, Gary and Deepti in the first one, and Anand and me in the second.
As we ‘stepped’ into these wooden crafts, we threw all thoughts of occupational health and safety overboard. The river was running fast, we’d be sitting a few centimetres above it, there were no lifejackets, the canoes were leaking and the cheerful polers/paddlers were baling as needed.
But the cruise was peaceful with not much happening. A few birds were around and some fishing boats and baskets were ‘parked’ on shore.
Our poler explained that in the prawn (shrimp) season, which is now, traps are set during the day and collected at night. He catches 200 grams to 5 kilos of prawns a night, and sells them to a middleman for about 250 rupees (A$5) a kilo. I now forget the amounts he quoted for fish, but the catch weight was higher and sale price was lower.
In the midst of all this chatter, there it was—THE GIANT! Our poler spotted it first.
Of course, I’d never seen such a giant before, and with the exception of our two polers, no one else had either. This was momentous. Anand and Deepti, both accomplished naturalists in India, were as excited as I’ve ever seen them.
But because we were facing the setting sun, the giant appeared as a silhouette. So our polers took us farther along until we could get a better look. And then before long we saw a second giant, in an even better light.
We all danced around with joy—in our heads and not in the canoe—at this multiple sighting of a new species for us, and after a long look headed back to ‘port’.
So a giant what?
I’m talking about the Indian or Malabar giant squirrel—the largest tree squirrel in the world and one of the most beautiful.
Eastern grey squirrels are about 10 inches long (head and body), while the adult Indian giant is 16 inches long, plus a tail that is almost another 2 feet. The long tail acts as a balance and a rudder, allowing the squirrel to leap almost 20 feet at a time.
And they’re colourful. Indian giant squirrels are two-tone and sometimes three, with colours of creamy beige, buff, tan, rust, brown and dark seal brown. The colour schemes tend to be region-specific, so if you manage to see the squirrel up close, you can usually tell where it comes from.
Indian giant squirrels are quite shy and dwell in the upper canopy of the forest. They almost never leave the treetops. No wonder it was such a challenge to get good pictures of them.
Walking the other direction
The next day we set out on a stroll through Tikarpada village and then up the gorge. Overnight we were told that the village is at the far end of the gorge and that our canoe trip had been away from the gorge.
Apparently people aren’t really allowed into the gorge and the proper part of the tiger reserve. Geez, how hard do they need to make it for you to see the wildlife that they promote? But you smile—and grit your teeth—and press on.
Luckily this outing proved to be more productive.
For starters, we got a good look at the village. Tikarpada is the proverbial moveable feast. While a few structures look fairly permanent, the river’s high monsoonal flow means the village sometimes has to move a bit after the water subsides.
Recently they had to move a lot—away from the shore, gorge and reserve. Why? Because the government decided hey were encroaching on the wildlife. Beats me how a long-time village that the government promotes as one of the places to stay among the wildlife has now become a problem?
But complaining aside, the walk was rewarding.
After the village, we came upon the gharial breeding and research centre. I’ve already introduced this endangered crocodile, and this gave us a chance to see them close up.
Gharial breeding in Satkosia is having mixed results. There are several (maybe three) adult gharials in the river, possibly all males. Well, that’s not going to produce any offspring. The centre says it collects eggs, hatches them and releases the gharials into the river. They also breed mugger crocodiles.
Anyway, admission was a whopping 10 cents a person and allowed us to walk unescorted through the centre and out the other side, which was padlocked but we slipped through the gaps between the gate and the fence posts.
Quite sensibly, we paid attention to the sign that said don’t go in the water because of crocodiles. And ignored the sign that said something like Satkosia Tiger Reserve, keep out.
It didn’t take long for the forest to present us with more to look at, including quite a few giant squirrels. And they were in lower branches so easier to photograph.
After a bit, Anand, Deepti, Gary and Poor John decided to walk on to where Tikarpada used to have its tents on the shore. I’d had enough of scrambling down hills so opted to wait for them.
We’d already been walking for a couple of hours so I found a flat rock to sit on, while I scrolled through photos on the camera.
Not sure why I happened to look down when I did. A baby snake had slithered across my thong (flip flop) which I’d slipped off earlier, and was thinking about crawling up the inside of my shorts. I didn’t scream, I didn’t shout, I didn’t even jump. Instead, I ever so slowly stood up and backed away.
Hello my little friend, and just who are you? No answer, just a curious look and then it slid away through the leaves and down the embankment. It seemed like ages before the others returned and I could tell them about this close encounter.
But the question of who it was remains unanswered. So far, no one has been able to identify what kind of snake it was. Can you?
We’ve been eating our way across India and we have the waistlines to prove it. Thankfully, I can still do up the top button on my shorts and trousers.
So here are the facts—in almost 10 weeks we’ve visited nine Indian states, covered well over 11,000 kilometres, sampled all sorts of cuisines and eaten more than 200 meals, plus a lot of snacks.
Can’t say we’ve had a bad meal in all that time. Sure, some have been better than others, and some have been sensational. We’ve had some amazing snacks too.
The other day, I realised I hadn’t said much about the food on this trip, so it’s time to bring you up-to-date.
While I don’t have pictures for all the delicacies, I can give you a run down on some of our recent favourites.
Top of the list has to be the paneer roll we had in Angul in the state of Orissa. Paneer is a fresh cheese common in Asia. It’s made by curdling milk with lemon juice, vinegar or some other acid. It’s easy to make at home and I’ll post a recipe when I’m back in Australia. Confession: I bought a paneer cookbook yesterday and here’s hoping there are some guiding recipes in it.
Anyway, back to that paneer roll. Deepti went into a small shop to order five of them—for her, Anand, Gary, Poor John and me. We were starving (it was a late lunch) and she didn’t return for ages. Good grief, were they milking the cow?
But the wait was worth it. That roll, with oodles of paneer and cooked chillies and veggies in a tomato sauce wrapped in a homemade roti, was out of this world. We could have eaten two, even three, and we all said it was the top treat of the trip.
So finding an equal has been a mission ever since. The chicken rolls we had from a street stall in Ahmedabad came close. The big bonus at this stall was being able to watch and photograph the fellows making them from start to finish.
First roll out a roti. And while it cooks, crack an egg onto it and swish it around. Gosh, they make it look so easy. Then line up five cooked rotis to receive the toppings. There’s a squirt of oil (not sure what kind), then a squirt of some red sauce (catsup or chilli?), then a liberal dose of cooked chicken in a tomato sauce, and then a generous sprinkling of finely chopped raw red onion.
Finally, wrap it up and hand it over. Now I have something to go on if I want to try making paneer or chicken rolls at home!
We washed our rolls down with glasses of mango juice—really expensive at 20 cents a glass. The proprietor, whose stall is next to the chicken roll guy, says he squeezes 15 kilos of mangoes a day in the off season and about 40 kilos in the on. Mangoes will be ripe about six weeks after we leave India. Darn!
We had an interesting breakfast in Chalsa, after visiting a so-so game park. We stopped and the woman said she had only one dish—a combination of puri breads and a chickpeas and potato curry.
Simple and delicious and as soon as we emptied a dish, she replenished our plates. No wonder our waistlines are expanding at a frightening rate.
Another find was the fruit bowls in Mirik, a popular tourist town north of Darjeeling.
The fellow running that stall was a whizz. As he worked, bag after bag of pineapples, watermelons, papayas and cucumbers were being delivered to his roadside stand.
It took him seconds to peel and chop all those fruits to create a bowl of colourful and healthy nourishment. And several things made the fruit extra special.
Obviously, fruit is seasonal, so with the exception of bananas, mandarins, grapes and pomegranates, the variety of fruit available has been limited. Quantity has been limited too. So it was great to get this full-on hit of vitamin C and new fruits as well.
Also, the fellow offered bowls of black salt (or kala namak) to sprinkle over the fruit. The raw material for black salt is mined in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. It has a distinctive pungent taste, and I’ve bought three lots of it to take home to Australia. If I believe the hype, I can use it to cure goiters, treat hysteria, relieve heartburn and intestinal gas, and more. Maybe I’ll never fart again.
The final bonus was that the dishes were made of leaves that had been pressed together and shaped into a bowl. It really was the optimum use of biodegradable products.
Two other winners came from a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Lava, a small hamlet near Kalimpong in the hills of West Bengal. We drove up there for an outing and arrived about lunchtime.
There were restaurants galore but no one seemed to be in the mood to cook. They kept urging us to go to the Orchid Restaurant which they said was in the market about 200 metres up the hill. Anand speculated that the restaurants we saw might think foreigners wouldn’t enjoy their food.
We trudged uphill—it was steep—for 300 metres or so without coming upon the Orchid, but we did see a fellow cooking a deep vat/wok of sweets that we refer to as ‘sugar bombs’—one bite and your mouth gets an explosion of sweet syrup and dough.
He also had platters of samosas ready to hit some fat. Anand ordered a round of samosas and five servings of noodles. The chef/cook swapped over his woks and fired into action.
The samosas arrived in no time and they were the lightest and tastiest samosas I have ever had anywhere in the world. The dough wrapper was perfect. The filling was perfect. So we ordered another round.
Then he got to work on the noodles, frying spices, onions and other veggies, and adding homemade noodles (not those 2-minute impostors).
At the end and even though we were totally full, we ordered a round of sugar bombs!
It was all pure deliciousness. And the whole spread, for five us, cost about A$8.
My green thumb is pretty faded. In fact, it’s never been all that green. I love plants and flowers but I’m not very good at growing them. Just like I’m not very good at hand washing laundry.
So I admire anyone who can get the earth to offer up healthy food and things of beauty.
Needless to say, I was gobsmacked by the array of orchids at the Flower Exhibition Centre in Gangtok in Sikkim in the northeast of India.
The centre, which is located in a large tropical greenhouse, is open year-round (admission is 10 rupees or 20 Australian cents), but we were lucky to have our visit coincide with the annual Sikkim Flower Show.
The display features pot after pot of beautiful orchids, in all colours and from all parts of India. I couldn’t help myself and took way too many photos (50 to be exact) of plants I didn’t recognise and couldn’t name. You can see I used some restraint when I chose what to post here.
Some plants still had their identifying tags, but most of those had faded or the ink had run in the two weeks since the show opened.
As a consequence, I’ve managed to identify only a few of these beauties, so I need your help to name more. Please share names (or possible names) for any of these orchids, and I’ll be mighty grateful.
Thanks is advance for any insight you can give.
This year’s the month-long Sikkim Flower Show opened on 17 March. If you’re anywhere in the area be sure to visit and take your camera. If you can’t get there this year, put it on your 2016 calendar.
P.S. I wonder what Nero Wolfe, the famous detective and orchid aficionado, would have thought of this display? He was an avid eater too, and I wonder if he’d have liked my page-32 recipe for Indian cheese pakoras. If you’ve never read his books, written by Rex Stout, you should give them a try.