India, Delhi #2 The romance of Monsoon

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple is a travelogue novel  I read several years ago about the authors love affair with the city of Delhi. The colourful stories of his time and experiences learning about the history of this intriguing city made for a compelling reason to try and follow in his footsteps.

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My romantic view of Delhi

 

Classical poets and music romanticize monsoon. The intense heat, languid afternoons, walks in the gardens and the smell of freshly washed flowers…romance blossoms and is rekindled in the warm rains.  A welcome relief from the intense heat at this time of year, it is a time to come out and appreciate nature, the trees have a new sheen to them after being washed, watching children play in the rain..remember when you were a kid? splashing in puddles, standing under drain pipes, dancing in the rain… even on cold days when it rains the noise on my tin roof is comforting and soothing.

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A walk in Lodi gardens after the rain

 

Six years ago my first visit to India was in the intense heat of summer, what was I thinking? Not realising that pools are generally not common place in hotels here, it was so hot I longed to stay somewhere with a pool. The trip to Rishikesh was long and hot and the relief of a swim was so longed for. Upon arrival, the pool looked so inviting, but as it was getting dark, it could wait until tomorrow. The morning came and to my horror, the pool was being emptied! ” Monsoon is coming madam” of course it would have overflowed…. aghhhh… Monsoon came the promised day and it poured. After initially thinking this was grim I began to enjoy the rain and the joy it brought. I met an extraordinary woman during monsoon, we have remained friends ever since. Maybe we met because of monsoon.

The best part of this monsoon was that I met an extraordinary woman, we talked and talked, and did yoga together for a few days then she flew back to her side of the globe and later I went to mine. We have remained friends ever since. Maybe we met because of monsoon.

Monsoon brings people together, in a sort of “we are all in this together ” frame of mind as witnessed today in Old Delhi. We were aware that monsoon was in full swing, and living in a sub tropical climate we are used to heavy rain. What was an experience it was being in Delhi, a city of 24 million people and an infrastructure that is overloaded. The rains whilst giving much-needed relief from the heat brought the city to its knees. The traffic was gridlocked and the streets flood within minutes. What I didn’t see was tempers overheating ( apart from the obligatory horns that form part of the daily noise in Delhi) or people getting aggressive, but rather,  in general accepting and enjoying the rain, getting on with their day and being part of the moment.

The ever precarious overhead wires!

A visit to Old Delhi is a must whilst you visit here.There is almost a demarkation line between the old and the new.

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Reality view of monsoon in Old Delhi

 

Specifically the spice markets of Old Delhi were the destination for today. Once in the Chandni Chowk area everything changes, cycle rickshaws and other auto rickshaws that are only specific to this part of the city ( not allowed into the other areas) abound. This meant getting to know the prices again. Our first trip seemed very cheap at 20 rupee, the driver assuring us his umbrella ( cover on cycle) would keep us dry… after about 50 meters we were soaked so opted to stand in the shelter of a Shiva Temple to wait out the downpour… which only got worse and flooded our comparatively dry spot. Everyone was quiet and happy for the rain but being eager torsits we decided to brave it.

Flooded streets bring the city to a standstill

The result was not good and the driver announced the price was actually $20 USD whaaaat? Sure it’s fine to up the price for tourists and haggling over small price hikes for people who earn so little is unfair in my opinion. However this was not on… so beware of this- the US dollar trick was one I hadn’t seen before.

After negoation out of this one we finally found the famed spice markets. A network of streets with all sorts of colourful samples of spices and legumes varying in quality and size. Obviously there is much more going on behind the scenes as men with loads of books and dockets were intensely busy!

Old Delhi spice markets

Not being one for organized tours this may have been an instance where we would have learnt and understood a lot more had we done this. The streets are chaotic, dirty and probably a place not for the faint hearted. If you are going to pick a walking tour make sure it is one with only a few people as trying to stick with a group honestly would be akin to herding cats!

Kala Nemak or black salt in raw form

Spices are a sensory pleasure so spotting a vessel full of something resembling coal was instantly interesting to me . It was indeed Indian black salt, an ingredient I have used but was not aware of its raw form. Also known as kala namak or sanchal. It has a particularly sulphuric smell that is so good in vegan cooking as it makes stuff smell and taste like egg! Its health benefits are numerous according to ayurvedic medicine. Of course this had to be a take home souvenir. Why why why did I decide two kilos of salt was a good idea to haul around in my bag all day. Because it’s what I do, travel and cook….sore shoulders are a small price to pay.

Wrap up of monsoon and  old Delhi? both are fabulous and frustrating. Advice after this? Either research very very well, get a private guide ( best idea) or go on a small group tour. (Hindsight is a wonderful thing)

Check out the blogs by Food Tour In Delhi and read some to the great reviews they have… I think well worth it!

Japanese Fermented Tsukemono made super easy

Learning how to make dishes in different countries is part of my travel experience and life. I was fortunate enough to be tutored briefly by a Japanese chef in Shojin Ryori style cooking and it was there  I learned this most basic of all dishes and my jaw dropped as to how easy this was! Seriously there are two ingredients and five minutes of prep that’s it!

Although what I am presenting is super easy I would never underestimate the years of training and skill involved in this style of Zen Buddhist cooking. This is a complete cheats way to achieving a similar result and makes this way of cooking accessible to us.

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Hakusai No Shiozuke

Hakusai No Shiozuke is Japanese pickled cabbage. I got so excited after making this I have been pickling everything I could employing this method. I posted earlier a recipe for fermented cucumbers on sticks. Also super easy, and a healthy summer snack.

The larger term for pickles is Tsukemono which literally means “fermented vegetables”  Fermentation is such a current topic today and it’s all about gut health. Recent visits to Japan have left me wondering how the Japanese are so healthy as there is an incredible amount of processed food in the diet and not too much of an abundance of fresh raw fruit and vegetables due to high costs.

Many countries that do not have an abundance of vegetables often have their version of fermented vegetables such as Kim Chi in Korea, Sauerkraut in parts of Europe and so on.

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Typical little plate of pickles served before a meal

Koji rice is cooked rice that gets inoculated with a mold which then ferments the rice. At least that’s a very basic explanation. This fermented Koji is used to make other more well-known foods such as miso, sake, soy sauce, and mirin.

Shio Koji can be made, but as this form of fermentation was new to me I think buying the already fermented product is probably much more efficient and safe. The brand I have found easily in Australia is this one    When I say easily, look in the Japanese food section of larger Asian stores…

Shio Koji

Shio Koji

There are a number of different recipes for Hakusai No Shiozuke available but this one is just the most simple is staggering.

Ingredients

Cabbage ( either wombok or regular)

Japanese Cucumbers ( or Lebanese)

Shio Koji

Ziplock bag

Slice the cabbage finely, about two cups full. Slice the cucumbers diagonally finely or on a mandolin. Put in a ziplock bag with about 1 Tablespoon of the koji rice, massage this well into the cabbage. Let this sit and gently shake from time to time. You will notice the cabbage becoming limper and eventually after about two hours it has turned into a pickle. Seriously that’s it!!!

Add variety like shredded carrots, chilli flakes, what ever you feel like. There you have it, a tasty Japanese Tsukemono. Have fun!

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Shojin Ryori lunch with the magic pickle in the centre

Japan: Finding Vegan Food ..Easy?

Let’s face it, in the land of sushi and sashimi being a meatless and fishless eater was bound to be a bit of a challenge right?.. I would love to say, Nah it was easy, but no it is not easy. In fact, it was more of a challenge than I thought and many times I ended up eating only bread, not ideal for any number of reasons!

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Kyushu Jangara Ramen Harajuku fantastic bowl of goodness

The Japanese are famed for their longevity and healthy diets. So I will add this disclaimer…. I love Japan, its food, culture, people, and history, but I find a lot of food to be very processed and over packaged. A home cooked meal was high on my priority list after a week of eating, what I felt to be a mostly unhealthy diet. A trip to the market was interesting of course but so disappointing to find single items of food such as a tomato, or a ( singular) potato in its own package, and expensive to boot. Eating out seemed to be a cheaper alternative.

My Didi in Tokyo, who owns the fabulous chain of Indian restaurants gave me some insight into this. Vegetables are very expensive and are often a money losing dish at a restaurant as the general view held is that ‘why should veges cost more than meat…’  I found this sad and frustrating, to say the least.  Of course, people with some insight into the cruelty of animal farming get it, but to the general population, it seems animals are seen as food. That subject is not where I want to go with this post but rather to assist you on a visit with what to do! I must say though how is it then that the Japanese diet is hailed as one of the most healthy on earth. I wonder if this will be the case in the upcoming years as the western diet pervades the traditional way of life.  Any comments welcome please!

On a daily basis, my search for vege food became almost an obsession. I thank God for apps such as Yelp and Happy Cow which stopped me from starving. Okay, okay I am embellishing this slightly for effect! I tended to use Yelp due to the fact it lists places that have vege options whereas Happy Cow tends to be only those places that list with them and identify as veg only. If it wasn’t for the kindness of Funky Love Bunny ( yes that is his real name at Zen Japan in Coffs Harbour, Australia who has this awesome conversion card I surely would have eaten bread for two weeks.  He has sized it so it can be printed on a business card- wonderful idea. Please go visit Funky and his wife Emi at their fantastic Izakaya, well worth the trip.Vegan Convesion Card

I read up on many places to visit but once in a country full of more restaurants than people ( feels like it at times) I found trying to get to these places a bit overwhelming. A few in Tokyo are worthy of mention and relatively easy to find. Kyushu jangara is easy to find, but rather than give directions here, check it on Yelp and follow the map. Also worthy of mention is ramen at Tokyo station called T’s Tan Tan 

On the upside, Japanese food does not contain as much dairy as the western diet so I found that trips to the local convenience store were great. Lawsons stores have a great variety of takeout food and most people understand the word vegetaian. The rice onigiri parcels were the most consistent in terms of selection and even managed to find brown rice offerings. there are always salads and vege sushi available.

Compassionate cooking, vegan, plant based what ever you identify with is on the rise, especially in Australia. Other parts of the world have their traditional meat free dishes which are usually side dishes, and there are plenty of tasty ones in Japan, but on the whole, I found Japan not easy and certainly options were often limited to salad, so be prepared to be viewed as a weirdo for wanting to not eat meat. But hey whats new huh!

KYOTO: Shoguns and Geishas Part 1

I cannot believe I have not been to this wondrous place before. Step back in time to the richness that is the history of Japan. You can almost imagine yourself in the era of the Shoguns. My studies of Japanese history have always held me enthralled with Kyoto and finally, I am here! Kyoto is absolutely charming, quaint alleys, temples and shrines galore, geishas, ryokans, and more modern day offerings such as cute craft beer bars on the river….whats not to love.

Footnote: Two days was not enough but was a great taster. A stay in a Ryokan would be high on my list and more time wandering around Gion at night, especially to some of the more interesting places behind closed doors.

TWO DAYS IN KYOTO

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Prettiness in Gion

 

HOW I GOT HERE- I caught the Platt Kodomo shinkansen from Tokyo station. Obviously dreaming of ancient Japan I ended up in Osaka instead.. hmm rookie error and discovered that the distance is only 15 mins by shinkansen, or 40 mins on the local train, which is a lot cheaper. Telling myself it is all part of the adventure ( secretly irritated at myself) I eventually ended up where I was supposed to be. I discovered that Kyoto is more bus orientated than other cities so again I was glad I didn’t opt for the more expensive rail pass. The buses are easy and a day pass is around Y500

WHERE I STAYED-   I also chose Airbnb for this stay and picked a place near to the beating heart of Kyoto that is Gion. I chose this area as it was central and within safe night walking distance to most places I wanted to go to.

DAY ONE

An early start was in order as I realized there was far more to see here than two days allowed, so don’t try and do too much but rather savor the time exploring fewer places I have decided. I would highly recommend checking insidekyoto.com for their wonderful suggested itineraries, I literally used them as a guide map for everything I did in Kyoto, so helpful and informative plus easy to follow directions and tips.

Tenryu-ji Temple and Gardens – Arashiyama. Easy to get to by train, then a nice walk over the river to the temple and gardens. As it was a hot summer day I tried cucumbers on a stick – really, they are pickled in brine and lemon and were really refreshing. There is a recipe for this in another of my posts, so simple and easy- have a go!

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Pickled cucumbers for a summer snack

The temple itself is a large Zen Temple with some of the most famed gardens in Kyoto. I was here in June which is not as busy as other seasons, I can imagine the splendor of the gardens in both the cherry blossom season and in autumn, of course having to navigate the crowds at this time is a trade off. Personally, I found early June perfect as the crowds have lessened and the weather is warm.

 

 

 

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The walk through the gardens meandered up the hill where I found a temple restaurant called Shigetsu and decided to treat myself, knowing it was all vege cuisine.

 

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Shojin Ryori lunch at Tenryu-ji Temple

Shojin ryori cooking is the Zen Buddhist style that does not allow for strong flavors such as garlic and onions- interestingly similar to some cuisines in India- specifically Jain food. Each meal must have a harmony of the six basic flavors- bitter, sour, sweet, salty, light and hot, and on top of this the three qualities of light and flexible, clean and neat and conscientious and thorough. All meals eaten by the monks are proceeded and followed by verses expressing gratitude…. hmm also not that different from many faiths.
My favorite dish was the one in the top left, made of several components being I think a banana flower- the pink shoot one, a small green perfectly tied bundle with the most delicate matcha flavor mochi I have ever had and konnyaku- the dark brown item. This is the basis for shirataki noodles, a Japanese superfood… it is an acquired taste but the texture is very unique, bouncy and chewy.
I did a basic lesson in this style of cooking and had dreams of mastering this one day. When this food was put in front of me I was in awe of the simplicity and sheer beauty of it, the training, skill and patience involved is something people spend their entire lives perfecting… wow.

After lunch, walking through the gardens was a peaceful way to appreciate the attention to detail and serenity the gardens of this magnificent temple provide to Kyoto and the world.  Everywhere I looked simplicity and beauty shone through.

I again followed the directions of Insidekyoto to the north exit and walked into the incredible Arashiyama bamboo forest. The sheer height and colors combined with the odd dark wooden branches are a photographers dream. As I was here I was remembering my friend and photographer Mike Hollman’s work and marveled at how he managed to get such perfect shots. Head to his page to view these as they are unbelievable. When I saw his shots a year or so ago it made me want to visit and here I am!

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The warmth of the day and the walk provided the perfect excuse for a cool beverage, so off back into the city in search of a spot to sit and people watch. There is the main river running through the city and alongside this are dozens of small restaurants and bars mainly accessed off Pontocho Alley which is very quaint, touristy but still lovely. I found a small bar called Bar Jive up a steep flight of stairs that literally sat about ten people, all of whom were Australians, time to share some stories and cold beer, as we down under are so good at.

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Pontocho Alley

Gion is the centre of the cities nightlife on the opposite side of the river. Here it was important to follow the directions at Insidekyoto to where the geisha stroll about. It is a few streets of the main Dori (street) so could be easily missed. I was completely stunned by the winding cobbled paths, pretty willows ( I think that’s what they were… but just setting the scene) hanging over the shallow streams, cranes standing on one leg, fairy lights strung into the trees and yes, geishas walking the streets to their business. They sure can move quickly in those wooden shoes, I can’t believe I couldn’t snap a decent photo- but I am sure that was how it was meant to be. These pretty back streets are home to any number of very discreet, high-end restaurants and clubs, and I got a distinct impression that foreigners are not all that welcome. This is a case of invites only, on a highly sought after list, which needed forward planning. Never mind, next time I will plan this part better.

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Pretty streams in Gion

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Almost expecting a gondola to float by

A nightcap in a Spanish tapas bar seemed in order to finish off a full day. Japan is a gourmets delight for international cuisine, and not just at the high end as is the case in many countries due to the high cost of internationally trained chefs I am guessing. Whilst I had been told this by my friend and didi (Hindi word for sister) in Tokyo, in my mind this conjured up meals with a Japanese undertone. Well not so, and I take it all back…. the Spanish food I had was just fantastic.

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My spanish drinking pal

End of day one. Kyoto I love you and am so excited for tomorrow. I dream of samurai continues. The below picture marks the end of day one…. Sake and Bed.

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Thank you, and to all a good night.

Cucumbers on sticks- kyuri asa-zuke

My new favorite, healthy summer snack…. Japanese pickles on sticks

 

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kyuri asa-zuke Japanese pickled cucumbers

 

So today I have found my new favorite summer snack! Tsukemono mean Japanese pickle, and this one is kyuri asa-zuke.These baby’s are whole, on sticks and sold at many festivals and markets.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we encouraged everyone to eat these rather than sugary ice lollipops?

They were divine, a crisp tart and lemony Flavours with just the right amount of crunch! I have adapted a basic recipe for this below… you can slice them or skewer them like the picture, either way, they won’t last long!

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we encouraged everyone to eat these rather than sugary ice lollipops?

They were divine, a crisp tart and lemony flavours with just the right amount of crunch! I have adapted a basic recipe for this below… you can slice them or skewer them like the picture, either way, they won’t last long!

 

INGREDIENTS
* 2 Japanese or thin Lebanese cucumbers
* 1 tsp salt (depending on the size of cucumbers)
* Small piece of kombu (a special dried seaweed at most Japanese stores)
* Slices of lemon
INSTRUCTIONS
1. Wash the cucumbers
2. Wipe a small piece of kombu with tightly squeezed wet paper towel, and cut it into thin strips with scissors.
3. Put all the ingredients in a airtight bag, seal, and and massage to mix the contents well. Cucumber pieces start to release water immediately.
4. Without taking out the cucumbers from the bag, put the whole thing in a small bowl, and place something heavy on top. Within 1~3 hours the pickles are ready.
5. Skewer them and eat!