Travel, Food & Living

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Sunday, 22 July 2007

FOOD GUIDE - Oh! Calcutta

For years, I have harboured a myth - there can be nothing more in Bengali food than fish and rice.

And even though I knew I was being stupid, I somehow believed that there's nothing much about that cuisine which the vegetarians can relish.

Well, unfortunately I myself had to shatter all my myths into pieces when I devoured an amazing amount of food at Delhi's latest Bong heaven Oh! Calcutta.

I really would be the last person to know how would an authentic Bengali luchi or dhokar dholna taste, but the only thing I knew for sure was that the food there was simply delicious.

When the opening of this restaurant was announced some months back, it had stirred quite an interest in the Bengali population of my previous office, many of whom made frequent trips to the place.

Frankly, I had never thought of going there. But recently, for my mallu, fish loving husband's sake, I thought of giving that place a shot. After all, the birthday boy had to be pleased.

And only later I realised what I would have missed had I not ventured. From the moment I set my feet into the warm and pleasing restaurant right next to Hotel Park Royal InterContinental I knew I had fallen for it.

The lighting was just perfect, neither too dark nor too bright. The sitting arrangement comfortable.

So if you wanted a cosy romantic dinner, you could opt for a corner sofa or your noisy group of friends could occupy the long centre table. Basically, there is room for everyone.

But the one thing that really stole my heart at Oh! Calcutta was their staff. In a city where warmth and smiles have become rare commodities, this restaurant seemed to have stocked up these two things very well.

The waiters came, stood patiently and took time to explain each and every dish to us who were very obvious first timers to a Bengali joint.

And when the food was served, we almost forgot that we were sitting in a restaurant and paying for the meal. Every item was lovingly served to us till we said stop.

An extra care was taken to ensure that the non-veg food was kept away from the veggies. And the waiters amazingly seemed to hover around and would pop up when any of our plates had some empty space.

I'm sure I ate a trifle more than my appetite thanks to the way the food was served.

So, there was begun bhaja (yes, I love brinjal so much that I honestly didn't care about the others' taste!), aam de bhindi, dhokar dhalna and luchis.

My husband wanted to taste the famous Hilsa so there was smoked the hilsa and mutton curry for him and my father.

The plain deep fried begun bhaja was amazing and so was the slightly sour bhindi overflowing with friend onions.

But the luchis stole the show. Swollen to perfection, and so soft that they would literally break with three fingers.

And the oil. No, the luchis didn't taste as if they were fried in a can full of oil. Believe me, they tasted surprisingly oil free!

Though many might not agree with him but my husband was of the view that the vegetarian fare was much tastier than the non-veg.

But then I really can't comment much on a Keralaite's taste for Bengali fish, even if it is Hilsa. The railway mutton was tasty was what I was told.

Of course, how can a good Bengali meal be over without a good sweet. So we sampled the rusgulla, sandesh and mishti doi.

I was hesitant at the thought of shelling out extra bucks just for a mithi doi which can be picked up for Rs 8 from Mother Dairy.

But I almost hit myself when I licked a small quantity of it from my mother's kulhar (clay glass). Thick, sweet and divine.

With stomach just about to burst, chewing paan, I finally roved my eyes around to observe the crowd.

There were the obviously Bengali couples sitting and relishing smoked hilsa and luchis amongst loud discussions on everything ranging from politics to painting.

And then there was the typical Dilliwala population who would have suddenly decided to become adventurous and move over their butter chicken.

And then there was me, whose myth about Bengali food was finally broken here today. Oh! Calcutta.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Rafting the white water spectacles of Ganges

It was pure magic. We were floating right in the middle of the holy Ganges, with the white water gushing from all sides. Is it the real me?

I wondered. Considering I am not the dare devil type, it was hard to believe that I could convince myself to jump right in the middle of the busy river.

I guess it was all about the experience. After all, we were cruising through the rapids of the river with life jackets as our only protection.

And then, the sheer magic of the virgin nature around me probably made everything seem possible, even jumping into a river without knowing the S of swimming.

For me, the river rafting trip meant a lot more than just the exciting sport.

Love at first sight

None of us were prepared for what was going to meet our eye after the six hour drive from Delhi. We had spent the 27 kms drive from Rishikesh, (which seemed more like a chase to a no man's land) in excitement and anxiety.

After all, we had not seen any brochures and had done no web search. So, when we set our feet in Camp River Wild, we were taken aback.

Awestruck, we stood overlooking the silvery sand and white water cradled between mountains and wondered where have we landed. It wasn't like standing on the Goa beach along with a host of tourists running, playing, sun tanning or just sitting. This beach was no tourist hub.

In fact, when we arrived, we couldn't even see another human face for at least ten minutes. The silence was overwhelming and just looking at the sheer beauty of the place made us forget everything else ... rafting, rock climbing, rappelling - all was forgotten.

We were only trying to soak into the surroundings, just to adjust our eyes to the beauty and our ears to the humming of mother nature.

And then I knew that this trip is going to give me a lot more than I expected. Yes, it was love at first sight.

Our camp

It was my maiden experience of staying in a tent and so for the other four friends of mine. An exciting experience it surely was to enter into the flimsy looking tent which transforms into a typical luxurious room the moment you open it up.

A comfortable double bed, dressing table and a separate bath area. We really didn't mind the little congested space. Well who needs a hotel when you are comfortably staying literally in the lap of nature?

And as if to remind us where we are, our feet would dig into the sand of the beach whenever we would set our bare feet on the ground.

Back to basics

Guess what was the substitute for tube light and bulbs in the camp? Well, the good old lantern. Yes, it was a trip back in time, a time which none of us have ever known or will ever know.

Okay, I do admit that initially we did miss an air conditioner or even a fan because the afternoon temperature even in the month of March seemed pretty high. But eventually as we freshened up and the day progressed, we didn't seem to mind the absence of any electric instrument.

Strangely, there was nothing more that I was demanding from our life at that time.

Dusk brought with it more moments to cherish. The breathtaking sight which greeted when we stepped into the open air out of our tents is still etched into our memory.

The soft, yellow light emanating from the row of lanterns made the silvery sand look almost golden. And stretching endlessly in front of us was the crystal clear white water of the river which compelled us to just sit, stare and marvel.

We joined the guests staying in all the tents of the camp who were having a cosy singing and dancing session.

Far across the distance, I could hear the sounds of only our voices, our musical instruments. And sometime in between, the cry of a wild animal would interrupt our melodious meet and we all would jump up.

It was amazing and yet a little scary. We were so near and yet so far from civilisation.

The sport

Finally, I'm back to talking about the purpose behind our trip. Our river rafting experience began early morning of the day two. We were already given a brief training session on what all to be careful about while rafting.

So, wearing life jacket, helmet and armed with oars, we were running towards our raft, a bright blue plastic inflated tube like thing. The five of us were supposed to sit on the edges of the raft with our trainer sitting right at the front edge.

For about 15 kms further, our journey was smooth. There were hardly any rapids to interrupt our smooth flow into the river. And we, like obedient kids were following each and every instruction of our trainer.

With the cold, white water splashing all over our faces now and then, our rafting experience was turning out to be good fun. I couldn't believe we were sailing through a huge patch of Ganga river with oars, life jackets and a raft.

And when the rapid came, we were caught off guard. Our steady flow of conversation was suddenly interrupted by our trainer's shout saying whole team get down.

Thanks to the training, we knew what it meant and we all ducked down into the raft. The raft tossed and turned and finally became stable. We got up as per the instruction of the trainer and stared jubilantly at the now calm water. "It is safe to jump into the river now," our trainer told us.

The adventurous ones with me immediately did as told but I hesitated for a long time before venturing. Finally, very slowly, I put one foot into the icy cold water and then the other and then praying hard, I jumped.

For a second I thought I was drowning but suddenly, I felt myself being afloat in the middle of the river. I made the river my bed and opened my eyes wide staring into the horizon.

Lying afloat on the sparkling clean river felt so peaceful. Amidst the gushing of water, I could faintly hear the chirping of the birds and the buzzing of the insects.

Our journey after that was quite a roller coaster ride. The rapids were getting rougher and the trainer kept on saying 'forward all' which meant keep on rowing. By the time we braved four rapids, I was exhausted and felt I couldn't row for anymore.

I was firmly clutching the thick rope lining along the corners of the raft. Despite everybody's protests, I had given up the oar by now was no more rafting.

And then even before I realised, I felt myself slipping into the water. I knew nothing can happen, thanks to the life jackets but still I panicked but almost immediately I was pulled up.

The adrenaline rush kept us going throughout the 30 kms stretch of the river, negotiating rapids, the raft overturning and a lot more.

Our trainer kept telling us tales of the expert rafters and kayakers who regularly negotiate many a rapid to win competitions. Being first timers, we were of course made to raft in some of the lower grades of the rapids.

We did hear sad stories of adventurous people who could never be seen again after being sucked in by the swirling water of the Ganga.

By the time we reached back to our camp, our stomachs were growling for food. After all, rarely do we city bred people exercise our bodies so much.

Halfway through the sumptuous dinner and our eyes could barely remain open and we hit the bed almost immediately.

Though our legs and hands were paining badly the next morning, we didn't skip a game of beach volleyball, a session of rock climbing and rappelling. Well, we did have to pop in pain killers the next day.

With no cell phones catching network there, our holiday was interrupted by nothing which reminded us of our life back in the city. The continuous body exercise left not much room for any thought, worry or conversations.


But when we were bidding farewell to the camp, it wasn't rafting that I was thinking about. For me, it was hard saying goodbye to the paradise I had discovered.

Today, it's been three long years, but the sight of the silvery sand and white water is still fresh in my memory.

Yes, the trip meant a lot more than negotiating the rapids or climbing the rocks. It was indeed pure magic.

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