Wednesday, December 15, 2010

India – Land of Contradictions

Often when foreigners talk to me of India they point at urban Bangalore – my hometown with its sprawling malls, filled with pretentious European brands flaunting obscenely priced designerware, the pubs and bars well stocked with exotic liquor and the cafes and restaurants proffering plates of food as varied as Spanish Tapas to Japanese Tepankayi, out to the city’s well-to-do men, women and children that spend money without much thought. Simply put they are used to everything being served to them on a silver platter, while foreigners say “this is not the real India, the real India lives in villages and slums”.

To me, that is not the reality of the situation. In my minds eye there are two India’s one that forms the playground of the rich, and the other is the never ending obstacle course that the poor, lower-middle and middle class struggle to overcome and leapfrog over.

The irony of it all is having grown up and spent most of my life in India, I, like most of India's upper class learnt how to shut out the other India, choosing only to see what was in the India created for us – the fortunate and the secure.

Living in houses of considerable proportions, accustomed to running water – both hot and cold, electricity to power all the innumerable gadgets that the 21st Century has to , rich Indians go about their daily lives oblivious to the ‘other’ India that exists only footsteps away.

In some sense, the two worlds collide, as domestic staff are employed in and around the house. Maids, cooks, gardeners, watchmen and drivers live and work alongside the rich, serving and attending to their every need, yet indifference reigns supreme.

The strangeness of the situation is further exaccerabted as I have been living in Australia for the last three years. With every yearly visit to India – my home – the disparity of it all seems larger than life, yet within no time I slip back into the general, accepted upper class way of life.

Personally, at the core of India’s problems is our treatment of the poor in terms of opportunities – literacy, food, health and sanitation – it seems like a solution or improvement is decades away. Yet, what plagues me is that inversely, the ‘other’ India is raring to go – on its way to becoming a globally recognised economic powerhouse with extremely innovative technology.

Interestingly we (Indians) lay enormous blame on the corrupt government and politics within our country, and I am not claiming to be any different, but the point to be made is that the private business and technology sector has managed to create a massive platform for itself, so much so it has become globally recognised, yet with regard to issues of our own people we have a long way away to go to bridge the gap between the rich and poor, moreover for the poor to be able to live according to an internationally accepted humane standard of living.

As a chef, food writer and food, wine and travel enthusiast the paradox of the rich eating luxuriously well in India while countless numbers out there starve or barely get by with one meal a day is an extremely daunting and self -loathing. Ironically, this is the premise of how the two India’s live in synchrony, side by side, day in and day out for the world to gasp in wonder.

I am but one human being – yet I am one Indian with a fighting spirit, voice and hope for a brighter future for my country. The truth of the matter is that the children of India need our help. The country is home to nearly 44 % of the world’s malnourished children and many do not have access to a single meal in a day. If food is not available, education is neglected, perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty. Not only is their right to life under threat, but also their right to development.

Though there is still a tremendous need for increased efforts on the part of Governments, legislatures and societies before the state of the world’s children improves, some progress has already been made. In November of 2001, the Supreme Court of India passed an order mandating that "Cooked mid-day meal is to be provided in all the government and government-aided primary schools in all states of the country." This gave rise to what has been termed the ‘mid-day meal scheme’.

Today, the mid-day meal scheme in India, reaches out to an estimated 120 million children in government and government aided primary schools and is one of the most successful school lunch programs in the world. The success of the scheme can be attributed to public-private partnerships nurtured and developed by State Governments of the country, in which non-profit children’s organizations such as Akshaya Patra act as the implementing arm of the government. This approach has been so effective that NGOs today play a significant role in the scheme. Akshaya Patra alone reaches out to 1.2 million children across the country, an estimated 1% of the total number of nationwide beneficiaries.

YOU can make a difference. All you need to do is click on the link to Akshaya Patra and donate. A contribution of just Rs. 525 equivalent to US $/AUS $ 11.90 will help feed a child for a year.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Travelling with Blinders - Hong Kong

I’m up in the air on a plane again, hovering over Java once more. Oddly enough the last three weekends have been spent commuting to and fro various destinations around the world – Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur, Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay, Pune, Bangalore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and now I am making my way back to Bangalore.

So many cities, varying diverse cultures, customs, traditions, languages and most important to me – unique food-ways, yet one defining commonality remains – the ubiquitous shopping mall phenomenon that has captured the world by storm. Unfortunately for me this has been where I have spent most of my time on every recent trip.

While shopping is something I am passionate about second only to food, be it fashion, home-wares, cookware or gifts, the globalised mall concept irks me beyond belief. The sterile, safe interiors, the concrete confinement and the lack of local vibrancy robs you completely of the ‘authentic’ local travel experience.

Lucky for me – Delhi, Pune, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong all have massive street food cultures that makes eating on the go an easy-breezy pleasure, especially when travelling with persistent shoppers with an intensive list of items and stores (i.e. My mum and sister – travel companions during the Indian cities for my cousins wedding and likewise with my best friends Swetha and Sharmishta to Hong Kong on bacholerette celebrations).

Lucky for me, I have managed to fit in stops for chaat in Delhi and Pune and ducked into various dim sum eateries for quick bites amidst their hectic shopping itineraries. The unfortunate part however, is travelling with blinders I missed Lan Tau Island and the cable car ride up to see the Big Bronze Sitting Outdoor Budha, sighting the rare and beautiful famed Pink Dolphins of the Pacific Sea and exploring HK's volcanic past.

My first ever trip to Hong Kong and I was excited about exploring the deep rooted Chinese tea house culture, sampling off the beaten road yum-cha fare, savouring aromatic cups of tea, stopping curiously at food carts on the roadside and I was determined to try abalone, something I had never done until two days ago and a something I personally feel is totally overrated.

In a whirlwind of four days and three nights we managed to fit in every shopping district with their gigantic malls all featuring obscenely priced high end fashion none of could dream of buying anytime soon and endless nights of fabulous partying exploring Hong Kong’s buzzing nightlife scene.

Each area has its own definitive vibe – and each one is well worth checking out. Landing on a Thursday, we hit up Lan Kwai Fong – possibly HK’s most reputable nightspot known for its many numerous bars spread across the bending road. We did a fair bit of pub hopping, since Happy Hour was in full swing (5-9pm) and then moving on to Ladies Night offers of free cosmos etc – possibly our most economic night on the whole.

Our next night out we learned what real HK prices are like. We went down to Soho for a Greek meal – Mezze platter of dips, pitta, olives and peppers stuffed with marinated feta and a Seafood platter of Sardines, Octopus, Soft Shell Crab and Prawns, rounded off with a pitcher of Sangria. After our suitable feed we decided to ride the famed escalators that are ‘supposed’ to take you up and down according to your whim and fancy – but low and behold the damn things were shut off and instead we had to trek up and down in stilettos to get to the next venue – Dragon i – a hell of a walk away, but nonetheless worth it – hot rocking nightclub for the young and hip. This place was packed with the most incredibly gorgeous men I have ever come across in one space – still stunned from that night!

Having nursed our heavy heads, the next day consisted of more promising shopping along Mon Kok’s street vendors selling various bags, purses, key chains and knick-knacks in downtown Kowloon. Several shopping bags later we ventured to Discovery Bay – a residential island reached only by ferry from the mainland. It is truly a place worth visiting - everyone moves around the island on foot or golf buggy – it reminds me of the Jetsons only golf buggy instead of space hovering crafts! The entire gated community island concept blew me away – something that I think would take a hell of a lot of adjusting to do!

Returning to HK mainland later that evening after enjoying dinner at a friend’s house we took up a local recommendation and hit up The Pawn, Wan Chai for relaxed drinks. I must say it is a perfect spot for a quiet drink and nibbles with city views. The entire building stands as a testimony to the 1800’s when it was built originally as a pawn shop – therefore the name. The place is so much an institution that having come back to Bangalore only two weeks ago, I was watching a travelogue on HK on the discovery channel where The Pawn was featured. So don’t take my word – try it out yourself.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

ABC Farms Cheese & Wine Show, Pune – Nov 2010

Sula and Chateau Indage have become household names when it comes to Indian wine. Together they have been responsible for putting Nashik, Maharashtra on the vino map globally.

On a recent visit to a Cheese and Wine Show at ABC Farms in Pune I chanced upon two newbies, both of whose white collection hold enormous promise.

Fratelli from Solapur making a debut appearance is an Indo-Italian joint venture between Italy’s Secci brothers, Alessio and Andrea, the New Delhi-based Sekhri brothers, Kapil and Gaurav, and Mohite-Patil Ranjitsinh and Arjunsinh from Solapur. Fratelli is available in two white brands Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc — and two red brands — Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah priced between Rs 600 and Rs 1200 for a 750 ml bottle.

Vinsura, derived from Vinchur – 250 acres of sprawling vineyard land in Nasik and Sura – the Sanskrit word for wine, boasts a portfolio of wines ranging from Sparkling Rose, Chenin Blan, Sav-Blanc to Shiraz, Cab-Sav, Zinfandel and Claret. My favourite of the lot was the Coral Pink Zinfandel Blush extracted from Cab-Sav grapes and the Rose, so much so I had to grab a bottle for myself to take home.

Moving on to the cheese component of the afternoon, ABC Farms is said to be one of India’s leading producers of dairy, particularly cheese. With 50 years of operational and business experience in the dairy industry they produce over 60 varieties of cheese using their own cultures. Hybrid cattle and goats are used for the production of milk and then cheeses.

Several cheeses mostly generic Boursin, Cheddar, Edam, Gouda and Colby, infused with various spices, fruits and nuts were laid out with servers and cheese knives at the ready for tasting and purchases. Personal favourites were the Boursin crusted with Black Pepper, Boursin Crusted with Paprika, Sun-Dried Tomato Cheese (pic below) and a sharp Colby, only true in terms of colour but far too robust to be categorised as such.

To my disappointment the Raisin Cheese , Chocolate Cheese and Coffee Cheese left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Some things are better left the traditional way, and where cheese and fruit/ chocolate/ coffee are concerned, that’s my hunch!