Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 11: Time out for food and wine

Sunday Lunch by Spo0nman

I was going to continue to write about public parks but that can wait. It's time to talk a little about food. Bangalore has turned out to be like Chicago, a great cosmopolitan melting pot of world cusines at affordabale prices in homey atmospheres. Too bad the demands and lunchtime buffets of TW University have generally kept me off the street at suppertime.

You can get good versions of just about anything here without ever going too far -- all of the Indian regions, Middle Eastern, Italian (especially if it's veggie-style), Mediterranean, Continental, American semi-fast (Chili's, Domino's, TGIF) and fast (MacDonald's, KFC), Chinese, Korean (doesn't a place called Barbecue Nation totally tempt you?) Thai, French bistro. Recently, a Bulgarian resturant opened at a downtown hotel which caused a lot of interest in the newspaper dining columns.

Once upon a time, I swore I would never waste blogspace on cooking tips, but right now, I just cooked one of my favorite Bangalore home meals and it might be useful for forangi (westerners) to know about this if they are into meat and find they don't have time to get to these places, either.

During the day, at the ThoughtWorks office and at the hotel where we conduct Thoughtworks University, there are buffet meals with a lot of carbo opportunities -- rice, bread, beans/peas/lentils, potatoes, cookies, crackers, ice cream, sweet desserts. Thanks to this, I now know why the local dress features so many baggy items -- it's not about the heat, it's the food -- it gets really hard to eat all of this stuff and stay comfortable in your trousers.

But for dinner at home, I discovered a brand of frozen ground lamb kabobs (aka kifta kabob) that is really pretty good. I can get a tiny cabbage, about the size of a grapefruit, from the cart down the street. The little market in the Diamond District parking garage always has shallots, garlic or onion; tomatoes, and peppers - red or green. Frozen peas are easy to find too. So I slice the sausage and the vegetables and saute them all in butter and olive oil.

Excellent fruit stand

Then there's this great dairy product called Set Curd, which sounds awful to Americans, but is really like a cross between labna* and sour cream. Put that on the sausage-cabbage mix and serve with red wine. It makes me happy to eat it.

I found a local (means Karnataka State) wine that pairs very well with this dish. It's very much like the dry, dark red Greek wines Paul and I like, or old-time Zinfandel. The winery is Kinvah and the wine is a blend called Manthan. The label does not name the grapes. It needs to pair with food but that's OK as it makes a good house wine. It goes for about 450 Rs a bottle which is about $9 US here.

The set curd stuff is so good, it makes a great version of lamb stroganoff tossed with hot noodles or pasta and sauteed mushrooms and shallots. You can always add peas, too ...very Indian to add peas, it seems.

Set curd is also a great replacement for milk or cream in scrambled eggs. I have yet to try the lamb sausage in an omelet but my taste buds tell me it should go very well that way if fried up with shallots, red peppers and basil. If it's brunch or later, I'd do a white wine with this -- especially Chenin Blanc or a sparkling wine and a fruit salad. Since Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes are doing OK in India, you can generally buy these wines at good prices without encountering too many disasters.

Yes, India has a wine industry. Most of the vineyards are in Maharashtra State, which borders the Arabian Sea and includes the cities of Mumbai and Pune. Only a few vineyards are in Karnataka State, the home of Bangalore. Karnataka is generally high desert so you could expect different wines to do well here, or at least, the same grapes will perform differently.

Of the Maharashtra vineyards, Sula is a consistent performer. They were a wine pioneer so have had more time to mature their vines and perfect their techniques. Their Sauvignon Blanc, when freshly released, is an excellent choice. Just opening a bottle and inhaling the bouquet excites my gourmet radar. It is more expensive though; a half bottle generally runs in that same 400 RS range ($8-9 US).

Since Indian food can be heavy, starchy, and spicy, Sauvignon Blanc is an good match and Chenin Blanc often provides just the right sweetness and bite to pair with tropical fruits and fried breads.

Karnataka is still searching for its wine identity. There are only about 9 wineries here. If anybody asked me, I would look to do here what has been done in Spain and certain parts of Italy and the Rhone. Nobody is growing southern Rhone grapes here that I've seen but a lot of effort is going into Shiraz, perhaps because of the proximity to Australia. I think Zinfandel is a better bet. This is high desert so many places get hot, but not too hot for good Zin, and there is a very interesting minerally red sand soil here (different from US Georgia clay) that can impart a lot of "terroir" (flavor of the land).

My favorite Karnataka winery so far is Grover Vineyards. Their La Reserva is a good attempt to reproduce an afforadable but accurate Bordeaux-style of wine (Cabernet-Merlot blend that matches with steaks). To that end, they've engaged a well-known consultant from France. Their rosé is an excellent buy if you like a dry, southern-France style rosé to pair with all of the spicy chicken and potato dishes available here.

Many restaurants in Bangalore serve Maya wines as their house wine. Maya is a Maharashtra winery and generally I have not been impressed. These wines usually have a plonky, skunky note. The Sauvignon Blanc is their best entry.

Some TW friends recently had a Big Banyan Cabernet at B-Flat, a wonderful jazz and supper club on 100 Ft. Road (try the "hot dog" a martini-style cockail of scotch, sweet vermouth and ginger liqueur). My friends report the wine was very surprising and chocolatey. Since they are ThoughtWorkers from Australia, I trust they have a good wine sense. I haven't had any Big Banyan wines yet but am looking for an opportunity. This is another Karnataka winery but they have an Italian instead of a French expert onboard.

If this post has caught your interest, there is a regular periodical published for the India consumer called Sommelier India.

* Labna is a very thick plain yogurt that has been strained of liquid so much, it is really a spreadable cheese.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 10: More about Lal Bagh

If you come to the east/south gate of Lal Bagh, the Peninsular Gneiss is on your left and an Oriental Garden is on your right. There's a main boulevard in front of you which you can imagine bisects a clockface from 6 to 12. This boulevard is where all the action congregates. On the left, on my first vist, appeared to be a series of green food stalls and lots of people buying snacks. Actually, this turned out to be exhibit space and the annual Mango Festival was going on. silly me! I was totally unaware of it.

Instead, I veered away from the foot traffic and headed right along the edge of the imaginary circle, towards 5 o'clock and an area that looked like a naturalistic landscape with a large bamboo grove. I hoped to spot some good birds here and did succeed in finding a brown-headed barbet, a first for me.

The path in this direction skirted the Oriental Garden which appeared to have locked gates. Further on though, it looked like some people were in there so I thought maybe the gates were just closed but not locked. On a second visit, I learned that the garden really was locked and I had seen an illusion created by an exterior walkway.

Soon I came upon my first clue that Bangalore had a serious water problem. It was a fantastical fountain that represented some mythological or religious event with a seaside setting. Everything about it suggested a rocky cave lashed by ocean waves, except the fountain was bone dry, dusty, and scattered with brown leaves.

Eventually, I counted four fountains and one simulated woodland creek with waterfall, all missing their water. That reminded me of the middle swimming pool, the ladies-only pool, at the Diamond District, which was also empty of water. I had thought that pool was just undergoing seasonal maintenance. But now it occurred to me there wasn't enough fresh water available to Bangalore to justify keeping the public fountains operating.

As I reached about 4 o'clock on my walk, I noticed a large grassy space behind the Oriental Garden where people were playing games, running around, and picnicking....very much like an afternoon in Chicago's Lincoln Park but not what you expect in a place promoted as a botanic garden.

And there was a tree limb, downed by a storm long enough ago that all of the leaves had withered but no groundskeepers had cleared it away yet. Further on, near 3 o'clock, was an elaborate greenhouse filled with lotus pools and large-leaved jungle plants (aroids), but every door to this place was chained shut.

A stray dog, sleeping in the sun. A colorful cottage building of unknown purpose, doors locked with cracked walls and pillars and peeling paint. A broken brick walkway to a terrace with crumbling steps. And unexpectedly, Bambi!

There's a word for things taken out of their context and put in contradictory settings -- like the London Bridge in the Arizona desert -- but I can't think of that word right now. I don't think anything I had seen in Bangalore up to that point made me feel more like I had just gotten off the spaceship than seeing a Disneyana display of Bambi, Thumper the rabbit, and their friends in this formal garden setting.

And there was more. Once I got to about 2 o'clock on the perimeter, I cut in to the center to get back to the main boulevard. Here I found Snow White's dwarves - all seven of them.

They were arranged around a mechanical clock set into a bank of flowers, behind which, on my sightline, was a very Napoleonic formal column and sculpture of some historical person on horseback, and beyond that, a modernistic, 1960-ish fountain without water. All backed by trees and hedges that seemed to say, "This way to the real botanic garden!"

Deliberate or accidental, I felt like I had wandered into an attic of discarded colonialism.

But the boulevard back to 6 o'clock did take me through a beautifully kept circle of topiary followed by a pretty gazebo where concerts might be held on occasion, followed by the Glass House -- an open-air exhibition hall for staging large-scale, seasonal horticultural displays and fairs.

One write-up had mentioned there was a rose garden of 5,000 plants. Now to me, even a single well-kept rosebush in full bloom can be a tremendous work of natural art, so 5,000 of them?? I took the detour, past an ancient huge tree, distressed to see so many people had carved names and initials into it, and found the rose garden. It too had gates chained shut, paths calf-high with grass and weeds, none of the bushes pruned or groomed, and only a few fading flowers.

On a second visit, the grass was cut and the stems pruned, so I guess the blooming season just starts and ends a lot earlier than it does in Chicago, or Oregon.

Time was up, an early monsoon storm was brewing, there was a spotted owlet huddled on a low branch (another first!)

I left with at least a quarter of the garden plus the lake unexplored that first day, but came back and may be back again. It's a weird, wonderful, sad, aggravating, beautiful, thought-provoking place.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 9: Lal Bagh & the Peninsular Gneiss

Wikipedia and the India guidebook I consulted before traveling, describe Lal Bagh as a botanic garden. The mere fact that I am writing this post probably indicates that I beg to disagree with that description. Let me tell you about it.

First, the Wikipedia entry is a good source for history and the current tree-cutting situation. The photos shown and linked there tell a true story, but not all of the story.

Paul and I really like botanical gardens. We are members of the Chicago Botanic Garden and wherever we go, if there is a garden there, we try to make time to visit it. Although most of our travels have been in the US and Canada, we've seen a lot of New World gardens ... Vancouver and Victoria, BC.; Hilo, Hawaii; Catalina Island; San Antonio; San Franciso; even Peoria, Illinois, just to name a few favorites (sorry, states south of the Mason-Dixon, graveyards and Civil War sites trump gardens down there).

So what will I see at Lal Bagh? It was on my mental tourist checklist and when Deepali recommended it in my first week, I moved it to the top of the list. Arriving there was quite impressive. I came by auto-rickshaw and after paying admission, we drove down an alley of giant cypress trees and canna lilies to the parking lot. From there, the first thing I encountered was a spectacular gelogical formation that I didn't really expect (I had read the TW guide, not the current Wikipedia listing.)

It was so vast and subtly extruded from the ground that my initial impression was of a concrete pouring gone wrong; I thought maybe it was a botched attempt at creating a rock garden, or some landscaping in progress. It looked like a gigantic dish of gray ice cream set out in the sun.

I couldn't figure out why a botanic garden would start such a badly-designed venture until I walked on a little farther and realized that the scale was too massive to be a man-made garden feature. It was a natural rock formation... or maybe rather, the worn-down skeleton of a hill older than the hills.

At the top was a little shrine, a monument to the place ... the Peninsular Gneiss which forms the bedrock of all of southern India. Way Cool!

Except there was no end to the bits of trash, plastic bottles, roast corn cobs and paper plates of partially eaten food tossed all around this place. A wonderful place where a person could stand in silence in blind, relentless sunshine and contemplate thousands of years of the earth's rotation.

An aging process invisible yet completely vulnerable to human, and only human existence. A thing far greater than any single one of us, the thing to which we will all return someday when the composite minerals that form our bodies and their containers dissolve back into the earth which gave us our original structure and home.

Roast corn detritus by mpries, on Flickr

So there I am contemplating life, death, and the human equivalent of monkey dung and I am wondering why everybody else seems to have no problem with it. This is the essence of my Bangalore adventure.

to be continued...