Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A little trip to Old Goa

We didn't have much time for a long cultural outing on our weekend away (too busy eating per my previous post) but we did manage to hire a car and driver for the day who took us to Panjim, Old Goa and Margao.  

Mr Jules and I did not have high regard for Panjim (Goa's capital city) and Margao was only interesting from the point of view of its local covered market.  Old Goa was completely different - a World Heritage Site consisting of several historical and unspoilt buildings.  

To give some background, Old Goa was once the original capital of this Portuguese colony - a European style metropolis whose grand architecture reflected tremendous power, wealth and prestige.  Dominating the centre were churches, convents, cathedrals and monasteries and it is this soaring architecture that still remains today.  But don't worry I'm not going to bore you with loads of history, here are the photos (they are a bit dark - it was a monsoony day):

Se Cathedral (the e in Se should have an accent but I can't figure out how to do it)

Basilica of Bom Jesus through the trees.

Inside the Basilica Bom Jesus.  Particularly fine gold leaf work don't you think?

Brings to mind Aunt Mabel and her sagging breasts.

Se cathedral again

The interior of Se Cathedral.  By this point Mr Jules has told me he is not entering any more of the religious buildings for fear of being struck down

Front entrance of Se Cathedral.

Just love this tree which appears to be leaning as far away as possible from the statue of Jesus!

Convent of St Cajetan

Inside the Convent of St Catejan (by this point Mr Jules is lingering back to photograph a Kingfisher he has spotted outside). Check out that huge altar - it looks like some sort of medieval offering table.  I wonder if there are some girls that enter the convent never to be seen again.....

I just liked the symmetry...

A nun with a frou-frou dog complete with pigtail! All that's missing is her Louis Vuitton handbag...

Maintain Decorum! Don't I always?

Monday, 30 July 2012

Getting Stuffed at the Taj Exotica, Goa

Last time I went to Goa, in 1997, I spent four days in bed with dysentery at a hotel where our bedroom toilet could only be cleared by throwing buckets of water down it.  Not something you need when you’re on your deathbed.

15 years on and in another life, I was determined that this time, we would be staying in a place where a) I would not get ill b) if I did, I would have access to a properly working toilet (preferably with a gold plated handle).  And hence we found ourselves on a monsoon getaway to the Taj Exotica, a five star holiday resort in South Goa set in 56 hectares of manicured lawn, with abundant amenities such as the Jiva Spa, swimming pool, 9 hole golf course, umpteen restaurants and  in-house shops (yaaay).  It would be a well earned break for Mr Jules (as I am permanently on vacation anyway).
The Taj Exotica, at Benaulim, really is a beautiful retreat away from the madness that is Mumbai.  No constant beeping horns, no beggars tapping on your window, no horrific slums to ruin the view – it’s wonderfully antiseptic.

Despite our best efforts however, I did still end up getting a sore stomach but for reasons other than bacterial.  In a bizarre attempt at excellent customer service, the Taj decided to 'force' food upon us every time we entered one of its in-house restaurants! Bear in mind that we would kick off the day with a substantial buffet breakfast – probably some nice fruit and a mango yoghurt, followed by a fried English style breakfast (well I am allowed to, I’ve eaten fruit), followed by pastries and toast.  And then later, not being bothered to leave the hotel premises, we would stuff ourselves with an extensive lunch buffet – salad, followed by curry and parathas followed by a selection of desserts. Well you have to get your money’s worth don’t you?
So what we would have in mind in the evening would be to eat a light meal.  Honest Guv! But against our best efforts, for two of the three evenings it would pan out something like this:  

Upon giving our order, “Can I not interest you in a starter Sir?"
"No thanks we’re just having a main course”
"Are you sure Sir"
"Yes I am very sure thank you". 

Two minutes later….

”I would like to present with the compliments of the chef, a mushroom soup topped with a lecithin froth”.

Oh great thanks, just what I always wanted, some froth made out of lecithin.  After the free soup and the main course, so it goes:

“Would you not like a dessert madam?”
”Oh no thanks I’m full, I really just wanted a main course”.
"Are you sure Madam"
"Oh yes, quite sure thank you!"

One can't deny that the service is amazing at the Taj.  Five minutes later the waiter approaches the table:

“I would like to present you with traditional Goan dessert called Bebinca.  My mother cooked this when I was small, it brings back such happy memories”

(A layered custardy cake thing, with the consistency of a brick). 

“Oh marvellous thanks”. 

We force down the brick with a forced smile/grimace, whilst the waiter stands over the table ensuring that we are enjoying our complimentary dessert.   And then he follows this up with a 'gratis' glass of feni - the local liqueur.  It burns a hole in my throat and turns the food in my stomach into some sort of terrible chemistry experiment. 
Next evening…and another in-house restaurant, this time Italian.  We just want a bowl of spaghetti each. 

“Can I get you a starter madam?"
"Oh no thanks, I had the unlimited lunch buffet I am not that hungry”
"Are you really sure Madam?"
"Yes I really really am sure, thanks"

Three minutes later:

"The chef would like to present you with this basket of breads and oils and this beautiful plate of bruschetta"

Fabulous.  Now I think we're being stalked. Unfortunately the bruschetta is topped with smoked salmon, so Mr Jules can't eat any of it (oh yeah he can't actually eat raw tomato anyway) so it's left to me to consume the whole lot (well it would be rude not to).  I just about manage to squeeze that down and then the over-sauced main course of Spaghetti Carbonara.  

“Would you like to see the dessert menu?"
"No thanks can we just have the bill please?”

Ten minutes later:

“Here is your bill and selection of petit fours, with our compliments”…..aaaaaagh! Barf. (We are definitely being stalked by the chef).

The chef/stalker then comes out to ask us if we are satisfied with our meal and despite the fact we are looking green, we give him the thumbs up.
On the third night, too afraid to leave our room, we order the "in-house dining".

Here are the photos of the hotel, tomorrow I will post pictures of some of the sites we visited.

The vast expanses of Taj Exotica Goa - this area and the area below border a sun-filled central courtyard.

A mixture of modern and colonial interiors with nice touches everywhere such as these marble elephant bookends

Eugenia - the all day cafe where breakfast was served al fresco.

Salad course from the lunch buffet.  Salad that won't kill you (due to being washed in dirty water) is like gold-dust in Bombay - so we always eat as  much as we can when we see it!

This crow is the king of the castle of this giant chess set.

One of golf carts that the staff use to whizz around the vast resort (and give you a lift back to tbe main building if you are lucky!)

Each of these 'villas' house four rooms - ours was the bottom right on the ground floor.  Unfortunately due to the monsoon, there was no garden furniture available on our terrace.

Our room - out of shot is a large desk and two chairs and large double doors leading on to a small terrace.  Very spacious rooms indeed with separate dressing area and large bathroom.
Beautifully maintained grounds.  They even ensured that the coconut trees were pruned of coconuts every day to save guests getting conked on the head.

A five minute walk across the 9 hole golf course to the beach - a vast expanse of creamy sand.

See the cats in the bottom left corner - they went slightly mental when they smelt my smoked salmon and scrambled eggs! (I of course fed them with titbits of the 'imported Norwegian smoked salmon', much to the disdain of Mr Jules!)

The swimming pool - not huge but adequate and private.


Just some of the hundreds of staff that are employed to maintain the huge Taj Exotica estate.  Each person - gardeners, waiters, chambermaids are trained to say hello and ask you how you are - bearing in mind you may pass 10-15 or so  people on your way from the main building back to your room, it can get quite exhausting!

Find details of the hotel here:

Taj Exotica
Goa - 403 716
Tel:(91-0832) 6683333
Fax:(91-0832) 2771515

We booked through www.booking.com but I think better rates can be had if you contact them directly.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

A westerner's attempt to entertain Indians

I briefly wanted to mention food in a social context in India and how organising a food related gathering seems to be a complete minefield for an inexperienced westerner such as myself.

(If you want photos...sorry look away now! I am off to Goa this afternoon so tune back in on Monday when I will post the pictures)

There have been a few situations recently when I have been feeling terribly sociable and have said to Mr Jules..."so, shall we invite Mr & Mrs X and Mr & Mrs Y for dinner (or out to dinner)?"...  "Oh no I don't think that would be a good idea darling, Mr & Mrs X are Catholic and Mr & Mrs Y are Sindhi, I don't think they will have anything in common".  Then he suggests to me "well what about Person A and Person B, I think they'd really get on?  How about next Saturday night, we could take them to Sanchos.".  I say "Oh no I don't think that's a good idea, Person A is such and such caste and Person B is such and such caste.  They may feel uncomfortable with each other".  As a last ditch attempt I say, "well we could try couple Z, I would really like to spend some time with them, how about inviting them to the Sunday lunch buffet at the Marriot?"... "Oh no dear, we can't do that, they are fasting for a month." ....Well that's how ridiculous it is!

So we leave it.

Last week I told Mr Jules that I needed to go to Theobroma (a nice French style bakery in our area) so that I could pick up a chocolate mousse cake to take into work. I know how my colleagues absolutely adore western style chocolate.  So we get there and we are queuing up and I am pointing out the chocolate mousse cake I am thinking of to Mr Jules and then he says "do you know if they all eat eggs?"  I said "what do you mean, do they all eat eggs?"...well it turns out that for certain religions, on certain days, eggs or foods containing eggs are banned.  Aaaaaghhh!  That would also explain why Theobrama are selling eggless chocolate brownies - so I pick up six of those and six regular brownies.  Job done.  Turns out at the office the next day, five of the girls are not eating egg products because it is a Monday.  Well done Mr Jules.

I have also noticed that on the odd occasion when the girls in my office don't bring in their customary tiffin (kind of cooked packed lunches), ordering in a takeaway becomes an absolute farce.  I have honestly witnessed a decision making process that has taken over an hour .."ooooh let's order in pizza!!", delighted squeals from everyone.  "OK let's get the menu, what shall we go for?" 

Colleague number 1, "I can't eat ham!" (a Muslim - doesn't eat pork)
Colleague number 2, "I can't eat the Meat Feast!" (a vegetarian Hindi - does not eat beef)
Colleague number 3, "I don't like cheese, it's got egg in it!" (oh my god)
Colleague number 4, "Pepperoni is so bland, where is the chicken madras option?"
Colleague number 5, "I'm fasting, I'll have a cup of water!"
Colleague number 6, "I will only eat this pizza if it's deep fried in ghee! (OK I made that bit up)

And so it goes on.  I think we ended up with cheese and mushroom pizza for the vegetarians (when it was established that cheese does not in fact contain egg) and a ham and pepper pizza for the 'non-veg' of us.

When I went to book some flights recently, I saw the food choices that have to be made available on any one Air India flight:  Quote "Despite its unparallel dietary range, there’s something mystical and intrinsic about all Indian food: the reverence and thoughtfulness with which it is prepared"  What all of the following is prepared with such thought and mysticism?  Surely impossible!

  • Asiatic Veg/ Indian Veg Meal
  • Baby Meal/ Infant Food
  • Bland Meal/ Ulcer Diet/ Low Fiber Meal
  • Child Meal Lightly Spiced, Nutritionally Balanced
  • Diabetic Meal
  • Fruit Platter
  • Gluten Free Meal
  • Gujarati Meal-Veg Meal including Dhokla/ Patra
  • High Fiber Meal
  • Hindu Meal
  • Japanese Meal...Only on AI306
  • Kosher Meal
  • Low Protein Meal
  • Low Sodium, Unsalted Meals
  • Moslem Meal
  • Lactose Free Meal
  • Oriental Meal
  • Low Purin Acid Meal
  • Raw Veg Meal
  • Seafood Meal
  • Vegetarian Meal
  • Veg Meal (May contain Egg, Dairy Products) Low Sodium, Unsalted Meals

I ended up choosing my friend and I Hindu meals (vegetarian) as it seemed the simplest and safest option.  Should be interesting.

Getting back to dinner.  I suggested to Mr Jules "I would love to invite group Z around for and informal buffet style dinner".  Oh no that's going to be really difficult he says.  Person C doesn't eat beef and will be offended if we do.  He's Hindi.  Person D only eats vegetables that don't have feelings (hahahaha), she is Jain**.  Person E only eats products with eggs in them Tuesday to Thursday, Person F may be off the list as it is Parsi fasting month and I am not sure what they can eat.  And none of them drink alcohol.  Oh and they would all prefer to eat Chinese food.  Indians don't eat Indian food when they eat out.

OK I bloody give up it's just you and me then Mr Jules.

**the Jain religion bars jains from eating any vegetable that involves digging it from the ground. This rule, therefore, excludes potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, garlic, peanuts, raddish etc. from Jain diet.

PS:  Apologies if I have got the facts wrong about who eats what, clearly I find the whole thing confusing and 'mystifying'!!

An array of Indian foods

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Queen of Shops : Phoenix Mills

For any of my friends thinking that I am living in a retail wasteland, you really don't need to worry about me - because I've got Phoenix Mills.

When it's humid outside and you don't fancy battling the crowds of Crawford Market, sightseeing feels like a bit of an effort and getting out of town is too much like hard work, you can always pop down to Lower Parel to the air-conditioned designer retail/eating paradise that is Phoenix Mills.  When it comes to shopping, Mumbai has definitely come in from out of the cold (or should I say the heat) and this place is better than Westfields London. 

Gleaming escalators and mirrored lift shafts. Soooo clean!

Phoenix Mills is part of the 'High Street Phoenix' retail complex - an amalgamation of several shopping centres covering 3.3 million square feet.  You've got Skyzone which I think is the original structure containing Marks and Spencers (!!), Pantaloons - a type of clothing department store, Lifestyle, a small department store and a whole host of local brands.  Here you can also purchase a Subway sandwich.  Skyzone is connected via a courtyard to another covered area called Grand Galleria which has all sorts of Western and Indian brands as well as Fab India, the Bombay store (both good for buying untacky souvenirs) and Croma, India's biggest electricals chain.  In another outside courtyard area is Hamley's toystore (I need to check out the prices to see if it is as expensive as the UK), Staples and "Big Bazaar" - probably the only supermarket chain in the whole of India (under renovation at the time of writing so I have not yet been able to investigate)

And then the pee-ess de resistance - Phoenix Mills itself, a very modern designer air-conditioned shopping mall on four levels with attached parking, containing the creme-de-la-creme of western brands. Here we have Burberry, Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, Bo-Concept, Zara, Mango, Diesel, Tag Watches, Estee Lauder, Mac, Clinique to name but a few.  There's an even posher bit called 'Palladium' which hosts Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Bally, Etro, Bottega Veneto and Paul Smith.  For the high end labels,  I would say the prices are higher than in Europe (yes I've had a good look) due to import taxes so you won't find me buying anything there.  I will leave that to the Bollywood stars and Mumbai billionaires.  In India, Zara, Acccessorize and Mango are considered higher end brands than in Europe but we have found that any clothes that are manufactured within India itself are a lot cheaper  than can be found in Europe.  For instance Tommy Hilfiger and Biba.

Palladium Annexe - Gucci just visible (very nearly tempted to buy a pair of Gucci wellies here to keep human excrement off my feet in the slums...but then thought it might be a little inappropriate....)

There are plenty of nice places to eat at Phoenix Mills. Indigo Deli is a favourite where you can indulge in a cappucino and a slice of chocolate cake, (as well as a huge range of western dishes) and you can also pick up a French Baguette and some Brie while you're at it.  On the ground floor there is an outpost of Moshe's for Lebanese style fare, teas and coffees.  On the top floor is a range of Indian restaurants including an excellent Punjabi "Punjab Grill" for succulent kebabs and rich curries and the Manchester United cafe bar and shop (yes, that bit disgusts me, Manchester United is a huge brand in India and I can't quite believe it has dirtied this pristine shopping centre).  Also at the top is the 'Food Hall' which is predominantly filled with expat cooking ingredients...tins of tomatoes for £1.50, Perrier Water for £3 a bottle and packets of Cheerios for £7... as well as all manner of hams and cheeses. I particularly like the fabulous selection of clean, fresh and beautifully packaged vegetables (a total cop-out for those of us with fragile stomachs), and the baked goods are really very good.  The prices are obviously high for the imported goods but the vegetable prices aren't really that much more than you would find at the local market.

'Dark and atmospheric' Indigo Deli for high standard western style food and a good selection of breads, hams and cheeses.  We popped in for a cappucino and a slice of cake - but expensive at about £12 for two.

See.  You don't really need to worry about me! I'm really OK! 

Here are some more pictures (sorry they're a bit dark and a bit hurried as I was actually nearly arrested by the camera police)

At the Hilfiger kiddy store (Friday, watch this space!!).  Per usual efficient Indian style, two people to sort your payment out whilst trying to sell you a reward card and two people to wrap and pack.  And it still manages to take 20 minutes!

Not, in fact a famous West End theatre, but the posh end of Phoenix Mills shopping mall, where much to Mr Jules's delight, we discovered the newly opened Paul Smith store.

Diesel & DKNY. Notice everyone is wearing western style clothing here - you dont see many people wearing saris at Phoenix Mills.

Bombay - such a city of contrasts.  About 20 metres away outside the mall is this - a filthy grubby samosa stall. 

Here is the link to Phoenix High Street website http://www.highstreetphoenix.com/ for a full store listing

The Phoenix Mills Limited
High Street Phoenix
462, Senapati Bapat Marg,
Lower Parel (West),
Mumbai - 400 013
Tel: +91-22-43339994 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting FREd_of_the_skype_highlighting

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Can you cook it?...Yes you can!

I know some of my friends' children are reading my blog (hello Godchild), so I thought I would write something vaguely educational about how babies and young children do not eat properly in urban slums and about my experience of a community based cooking demonstration today.

In Mumbai, the first thing that strikes you is that basic human needs such as clean air, water, food and housing are severely constrained.  The most vulnerable are the children of the urban slums, especially newborns and infants.  Their health and development is entirely dependent upon their mothers' ability to breastfeed, the ability of mothers or caretakers to provide nutritious meals, the public healthcare system and the overall support of communities.  All of which is generally severely lacking.

A whacking great total of 47% of slum children in Mumbai under the age of five are stunted (a ratio of height to age), 16% are wasted (too thin for for their height) and 35% are underweight.  Child malnutrition is thought to play about a 50% role in the cause of child mortality.  For the children that do survive, prolonged malnutrition affects cognitive development by causing structural damage to the brain.  This obviously has severe implications for the way these children will lead the rest of their lives; in terms of productivity, income generation and general long term health.  A child's full potential is therefore severely limited by malnourishment.

(Hey guys, I did not churn this out of a text book, it's what I have learnt over the last few weeks!)

There are many reasons why women and children are not being fed properly: first springs to mind is just the sheer lack of money.  On average, most workers living in a slum earn probably about £1.50 a day tops.  Out of this they will have to pay for rent, electricity, clothes and food. There are also many social issues such as alcoholic and abusive husbands - women can become guilty if they or their children are being beaten up and then refuse to eat.  Also, women commonly do not know how to breastfeed properly or they may have superstitions surrounding breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding as we know, is extremely important in the first few days, weeks and months of a baby's life.

Unsanitary surroundings and impure water leads to diarrhea and other diseases such as TB, Hepatitus, Malaria and Typhoid and these illnesses commonly result in child malnutrition. Typically children are not properly immunised and when they contract these illnesses they are not able to hold down food, they lose their appetites and suffer from severe dehydration.   A mere lack of understanding about the importance of handwashing can have a severe knock on effect on a child's health.

A key cause is also just plain ignorance about nutrition; how to distinguish key food groups and how to buy seasonal veg and cook them properly (hmmm reminds of a certain Jamie Oliver campaign back in the UK!)  But even if they did, they may not even be able to afford the right stoves and vessels for cooking in. And on top of this there is the monster that is junk food.  Even the smallest of babies are being fed crisps and deep fried snacks that you can buy every few yards in the slum for a couple of rupees - babies being weaned may never ever get to see a mashed up courgette or banana (all of you mothers out there who love puree-ing would be distraught!). From speaking to the nutrionists, there seems to be ignorance about what is appropriate food for weaning or for slightly older children.  Can you imagine giving your two year old a vegetable Madras?  What chilli would do to the lining of a child's stomach? (if indeed that child will accept the food in the first place?) Well now you can begin to understand why food education is so greatly needed here.

So, as well as implementing many other initiatives to help reduce malnutrition in Mumbai's urban slums, one of the more 'fun' things my organisation does, is teach mothers how to cook basic, nutritious cheap meals for themselves and their children.  These are held every Wednesday afternoon at one of the clinics and today I went along to take some pictures.  Please see these below with captions explaining everything.  Thanks for looking.

Setting out cooking equipment prior to the demo.  This camping style burner and this one pan is typically all a slum dweller will have to cook with.  There are no handles on the pan and it seemed very unstable on the stove.  The Nutrela is a soya based food that the nutritionist recommends as a cheap way to bump up protein intake - this packet will cost about 30 rupees - 40 pence and should last for quite a few meals.

Prior to the arrival of the "students", the rice is cooked by one of our trainied nutritionists (note food hygiene is honoured with hair-nets all round for the staff!)

One of our community helpers chops veg in preparation for the class on the floor (everything gets done on the floor in India)!

Perfectly chopped veg - all seasonal and all available to buy on most streets.  Carrots, tomatoes, green beans, peppers, peas, coriander, cauliflower and in the upper right are fresh curry leaves.  This lot should cost no more than 20 rupees - 22 pence.

The class begins - this is our team of nutritionists and a couple of field workers.   On the menu today: Vegetable pilau made with the fresh vegetables above, Nutrela, and cracked wheat.  With a side of polenta cake (semolina mixed with egg) and a banana yoghurt puree for especially for the kiddies. It's not very Jamie Oliver, but it gets the point across.  It really does.

Each step of the cooking process is explained to the class.  One person stirs and cooks whilst another hands across the ingredients.  The class will be told the importance of purchasing seasonal vegetables (which are available absolutely everywhere) and how to supplement these with cheap and filling staples such as lentils (dal), semolina and rice.

Students concentrating hard.  What you can't see in this photo are their children creating havoc in the next room! (Oh yes creche services are made available during these sessions)

The finished product, an absolutely delicious (I tasted it) and highly nutritious vegetable pilau. The dishes in the background are the semolina/egg cakes which were also tasty if slightly bland (therefore good for kids). 

Banana yoghurty thing for the children. 

The after effect/the smile.  To be honest, this infant doesn't look like he has any malnutrition worries...no wonder why, see how he yomps down that yoghurt!

Yom yom yom.  A note for the reader - this child has a black dot on his forhead and kohl drawn around his eyes.  This is to ward off the "evil eye".  He also has black bracelets on each wrist and copper anklets for the same purpose. 
This little boy was so cute!  Sadly (and you can't see from this photo) but he has rickets.  He was motoring around the room by crawling on one leg and dragging the other. When he did stand up - he found it difficult and you could see how bent his legs were.

I really wanted to grab this child and give his hair a good wash.  He was delighful too but see the next photo.....

This cracked me up so much! He tried to put his feet into the Crocs of one of the nutritionists.  Where did he think he was going in those??  And see the wrong feet!  Hilarious, we were all laughing so much.
And to finish....his finest Elvis pose....uh huh....