Not just skinny pie

It’s not just fish and chips. Or vindaloo with a tall mug of lager at a pub down the road. And though I would never turn my nose up at warm Cornish pasty sold from bright little kiosks at major subway stations, I am in search of something more complex. Returning to London after more than six years, I am curious about how the city and its quicksilver food scene have changed. I have just one week. So much to eat, so little time. Still, I do my best.

Poshing it up:

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Ironically, my search for hip British cooking leads to young Scottish chef Adam Handling, known for his technique and fascination with Asian flavours. He plates up — hold your breath — a lunch of fish and chips. Although his version stays true to the essence and spirit of the old fashioned classic, he adds simple but clever tweaks. Diners choose between Scottish salmon, Gigha halibut and Atlantic langoustines. The fish is light and flaky, with a crisp golden crust, and is accompanied by deliciously uneven fries, generously seasoned with garlic and parsley. Handling is best known for his stint on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2013. The following year, he was named British Culinary Federation Chef of the Year. Now, aged 26, he runs Adam Handling at Caxton, a restaurant at the grand old St. Ermin’s hotel. His starters include a buttery liver pate teamed with warm bread that’s served in a quirky chef’s cap. Dessert is a yuzu meringue so pretty, it could hang at Tate Modern. It’s a creative tizzy of bold colours and bright flavours: milk ice cream, set off by tart yuzu lemon curd surrounded by puffs of caramelised meringue.

Cupcakes forever: It’s small, it’s fun and it’s slathered with icing. What’s not to love? Like the Little Black Dress, cupcakes just never seem to go out of style. I see them on sale everywhere, from trendy flea markets to train stations. But it’s at Hummingbird bakery in Notting Hill that I finally cave in and order one. I’m at Portobello market to browse through antiques, but its freezing, and the deliciously pink café looks invitingly warm. Made with free-range eggs and no preservatives, their cupcakes sit pretty in a colourful row. After five minutes of soul-wrenching indecision, I finally choose pumpkin chai over the pink champagne, red velvet and dark chocolate cupcakes. It’s soft and fluffy, but also surprisingly easy to shop with, even if I did get some icing on a set of 1940 crystal decanters.

Beyond shawarmas: Last time I was in London, Edgware road was the epicentre for Middle Eastern food: creamy pots of hummus, smoky kebabs and fluffy pita bread. At night, the road would be suffused with fragrant hookah smoke, curling its way over diners who spilled onto the sidewalks. This time, a gastronome friend suggests we expand our horizons and so we head to Antepliler, which specialises in Anatolian cooking. The food is fascinatingly unfamiliar. We eat Lahmacun, thin circles of dough topped with minced meat, vegetables and herbs, and then baked. There’s pide, which looks like the result of a love affair between a pizza and a naan. It’s filled with diced lamb, chicken, feta or halloumi. The star of the evening, however, is the Ali Nazik, featuring subtly spiced sautéed lamb served on a bed of baked aubergine, with lashings of thick, garlicky yoghurt. We finish with sweet dark Turkish tea.

Uncovering Camden: The Global Kitchen at Camden Lock serves everything from toasties to gourmet Mac & Cheese. We pass by Ethiopian, Jamaican and Spanish paella stalls, only to settle for the less adventurous, but still immensely satisfying, tiny Dutch pancakes slathered with warm Nutella. I also make a note to eat at the popular Shaka Zulu, which is in the same area, next time. London’s largest South African restaurant, it opened in 2010 with a special royal blessing from the Zulu King, HRH Goodwill Zwelithini. It specialises in game meats such as kudu, ostrich, springbok and zebra from Namibia. Though admittedly, the thought of a zebra steak is rather disconcerting. As silly as it sounds, a part of me keeps expecting it to be striped.

Creepy superfoods: At a gourmet store in stylish Shoreditch, I’m not surprised to see three shelves dedicated to everything from routine cold-pressed coconut oil, to coconut sugar. I do, however, do a double take when I find a bag of roasted grasshoppers. The sign above it announces ‘Grub’s Edible Insects’ and explains that they are a “healthy and super-sustainable protein source.” If you’re not brave enough to crunch through bowls of salted worms, try the other big trend of the year: bee pollen. A suitably mysterious superfood, it’s apparently considered to be one of nature’s most completely nourishing foods.

Eat beautiful: Eating clean is so easy in London. I’m not even tempted to grab a burger, candy bar or bag of chips thanks to the many inventive options available on every road. At Itsu, with its encouraging ‘Eat Beautiful’ slogan, there’s a new rice ‘potsu’ – but it sounds too fiercely righteous (roast vegetable, baby spinach, green leek, red rice) so I settle on salmon sushi. The salmon and avocado maki rolls are neat and satisfying. Better still, the menu tells me they total up to just 256 calories. In a fit of virtue, I add a pot of edamame to the meal, and mentally pat myself on the back all through lunch.

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Later in the week, a friend takes me to Ping Pong, where we eat baskets of fluffy steamed char siu buns stuffed with honey- barbecued pork. We also try tender pork chops, with parcels of vegetables and sticky rice meticulously wrapped in leaves; it’s both stylish and healthy. Well, except for the fact that we OD on cocktails. In our defence, they’re delectably intricate: the winter berry blazer alone has seasonal berries, cognac, absinthe and cassis liqueur, all flamed and partnered with strawberry tea. Finally, I’m fascinated by Square Pie at bustling Spitalfields Market, which offers a ‘Skinny Pie’ without the base. I order one, juicy with steak that’s been braised with carrots, leeks, onion and a decent hit of Guinness. It’s straight out of the oven, and doused in gravy. I team it with a feisty local Camden Hells lager, because, well, I’m on holiday. And remember, I did order Skinny Pie.

Please Porridge Hot: I develop an unexpected fondness for porridge, thanks to the friend I’m staying with, who cooks up a luxurious concoction every morning with almond milk and then tops it with nuts, cranberries and coconut flakes. Apparently, I’m not the only one. It’s still cold, and a large number of cafes advertise bowls of porridge. The oaty hot spot, however, seems to be the new porridge café at Shoreditch. They serve a different menu of about six versions every day. This is certainly not your grandma’s porridge. Think baked apple, raisin and cinnamon with grain-rolled oats. Alternatives include grain rye, buckwheat and spelt. If you prefer savoury porridge, there’s a version with salami, pecorino and porcini mushroom. And for weekends? Settle down with a large bowl of dark chocolate, raspberry and lime porridge made with coconut milk, and topped with hazelnuts.

And then there’s Indian:


Of course, curry in London is an old story, as are the fancy new Indian restaurants that are plating up primped and styled versions of Indian food. But the Indian restaurant that everyone seems to be talking about now is Dishoom, which calls itself ‘A Bombay café in London’. Created as homage to the old Irani cafes of Mumbai, it offers Parsi classics including eggs akuri and bun maska. They even have an Irani café-inspired berry pulao made with cranberries. And for the homesick Indian, there’s rajma chawal. Interestingly, the café’s made the crossover from desi cliche to smart global, drawing locals and expats alike. Probably thanks to its smart format and gentle fusion, such as the bacon naan roll, which you can eat with Bailey’s cutting chai. Bailey’s chai? Now there’s an idea to take home.

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Bite into a bug

Snack on a bag of lightly salted crickets. End your workout with a cold glass of whey protein made from ground bugs. Hand your children strawberry lollypops embedded with scorpions. Does the idea of crunching through ants, worms and caterpillars make your skin crawl? Get over it — and fast. Insects are all set to become the planet’s next biggest food source. And as part of the effort to make them a more conventional food source, innovative chefs, avant garde snack companies and eco-conscious organisations are finding inventive ways to conquer the ‘yuck’ factor.

Enter companies like California-based Hotlix, which proudly calls itself “the original edible insect candy creator”. They make everything from banana-flavoured lollypops embedded with scorpions to larva, which comes in three comforting flavours: BBQ, Cheddar Cheese or Mexican Spice. Then come the restaurants, the most trendy of which is Copenhagan-based Noma. Commonly acknowledged to be the ‘best restaurant in the world’, Noma founded the influential ‘Nordic Food Lab’, which does intensive and practical research to find ways to make ‘inedibles edible’, by finding ways to make insects delicious.

For brave home cooks, there are now helpful recipe books. Start with the Eat A Bug Cookbook: 33 ways to cook grasshoppers, ants, waterbugs, spiders, centipedes, and their kin. Then there’s Creepy Crawly Cuisine, which hand-holds you through your first insect hunt, then gives you tips on storage and preparation. (Their gourmet recipes include Stink Bug Paté, Curried Grasshoppers and Agave Worms in White Wine Sauce.

The buzz intensified when the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) released a report last year titled Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. It estimated that the world will host nine billion people by 2050, adding that meeting nutrition challenges — there are nearly one million chronically hungry people worldwide — “what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated”. Insects, it was pointed out, already form the traditional diet of at least two billion people. More than 1,900 varieties are used as food. Highly nutritious, they are a healthy food source, packed with protein, fibre, good fats and essential minerals. Additionally, they’re easier — and cheaper — to raise than livestock since they require less food, water and land.

While it might sound bizarre to a bug newbie, currently 36 African countries are “entomophagous” (there’s your new word of the day!), and so are 23 in the Americas, 29 in Asia, and 11 in Europe. In Latin America, chapulines (an edible grasshopper) are toasted in oil with garlic, lemon and salt. In Uganda, termites are steamed in banana leaves and then eaten. In Japan, sun-dried grasshoppers are cooked in soy sauce and sugar as a snack. South East Asia alone consumes between 150 and 200 types of insects. They even have a calendar listing what is available when: grasshoppers in January, red ants in February and mole crickets in March. Even as I research this story, a colleague tells me about Tamil Nadu’s ghee-fried eesals (those fatly content insects that daydream on your tube-lights on rainy days.)

Last year, at Slow Food’s AsiO Gusto meeting in Namyangju (South Korea) where sustainability was a key topic, I met Benedict Reade, head of culinary research and development at the Nordic food lab. Although Slow Food was essentially started in Rome in the 1980s to counter the damaging effects of fast food, it’s grown beyond its mandate into an eco-gastronomic movement, working with grassroots organisations, chefs and opinion leaders from around the world to promote food that is ‘good, clean and fair’, and protect biodiversity.

On the subject of how insects can feed the world, provided the world is willing to eat them — Reade comes up with a practical solution. “You can’t force people to taste something new. But give the fact that insects are a potential food source, it’s time we start finding ways to make them acceptable,” he says. Noma’s cunningly named ‘Pestival’ included for a London event titled: ‘Exploring the Deliciousness of Insects’ eased people in with fun food that was — at least at first — faintly familiar. An Anty-Gin and Tonic with wood ants. A Chimp Stick, consisting of liquorice root with seeds, fruits, herbs, and ants. Then came the Moth Mousse, Cricket Broth and butter roasted desert locust. Saying that “amazing nature supplies us with beautiful ingredients, but we have a population that does not appreciate it,” Reade says “Deliciousness is sustainability. People understand quality in their mouths.”

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Punjab: More than just mustard fields

We start writing our list on the train. “Golden Temple, Jallianwalla Bagh and Wagah, obviously,” says the good-looking boy sitting beside us, striking up a conversation mid-journey. (Much to our delight.) All of us had boarded the train in Delhi early in the morning, amid cries of chai-chai and promises of ‘garam, garam bread omelette’ from passing vendors. My two friends and I are on our way to Amritsar on a sudden whim to explore what’s possibly India’s most gracious city.

Mystery boy tells us he grew up in Amritsar and it has the “best food in the world”. We smile politely, dismissing it as loyal hyperbole. Till everyone around chimes in. “Oh those papad-wadis,” sighs one lady. “Alu kulchas” says another. Mystery boy takes over, “Beera chicken. Kesar dhabha. Amritsari fish at Makhan. Kulchas on Maqbool road…”

Disembarking at Amritsar station, we find our way to Hong Kong hotel, chosen for its fantastic parathas. By the time we wash the railway grime off our hands, the cheery owner has sent a man to our room with hot alu parathas served with packs of Amul butter and ginger tea. He’s also sent a list of places we should eat at. But our friend and self-appointed guide in Amritsar, the inexhaustible Harleen calls to warn us not to eat too much, because she has her own list. We pile into her car and begin with Brijwasi’s mixed chaat filled with snappy papdi, spongy bhalla (fried balls of urad dal, that have been spiced and soaked in yoghurt) and finely chopped potato. All topped with a squiggle of sweet tamarind chutney.

We take a breather at the Pakistani market, in a shop piled with bolts of cloth like a fabric library. The deliciously gaudy cloth unfurls displaying traditional pieces heavy with gold embroidery, but also funky prints, reminiscent of Masaba Gupta’s work, with unexpected icons like oversized pink safety pins. From there we wander through ‘Chor Bazaar’ with its knock off ‘designer’sunglasses, perfumes yellowed with age and overly amorous shopkeepers. Then it’s time to fortify ourselves with bhel puri, served from a small window just below a gun shop that advertises itself with a massive cut-out of a rifle suspended above. It’s rather surreal, all of us bundled up in pashminas, cautiously balancing a massive cone of bhel puri, crisp puffed rice laced with golden sev, black salt and lemon juice.

Dinner’s at Brother’s dhaba with unabashedly pink walls, where sarson ka saag arrives topped with a fat cube of rapidly melting butter. Following advice from Harleen and her husband, we head to the Golden Temple at 3 a.m. Although it’s freezing when we emerge from the warm car, we’re thrilled to see it glittering between arched pillars. Inside, as we soak up its prayerfully charged atmosphere we’re handed bowls made of woven leaves filled with freshly made, hot wheat halwa, drippy with ghee. As we exit, a man in a majestic turban beckons us to the langar area, where they pass us bright green plastic cups and a carefully torn section of newspaper. Volunteers with stainless steel jugs pour steamy tea into our glasses. The tea is fragrant with an unexpected flavour. Saunf (fennel seed.) “Good for your stomach,” smiles a passing lady.

We’re up at 7 a.m. because Harleen has promised us puri-chole at Kanahya’s. Waiting for a table, we watch three cross-legged cooks sitting solemnly frying puris in massive iron kadais dark with age. Inside, we are handed plates, onto which waiters ladle channa and potato in a jaggery-tamarind sauce. Teamed with fluffy puris and washed down with tall tumblers of thick lassi topped with chunky cream, it’s possibly the best meal of the trip.

Studying our constantly expanding list, we make a quick stop at Makhan for fish encased in a crisp ajwain-laced batter, then head out to buy wadi-papad. The papads are liberally speckled with pepper. The wadi is a neat clump of urad dal laced with pepper and red chillies. Next, we speed to Wagah for the chest-thumping border ceremony. On the way back, we manage to fulfil all our secret Yash Chopra ambitions by skipping through the gorgeously yellow mustard fields. Admittedly we look more like happy goats than sultry heroines. But still. At least we’ve ticked off 60 per cent of that list!

Tarla Dalal’s Dal-Bhat-Roti-Sabzi

Cooking has never been more ostentatious. Today’s chefs aspire to be seductive, multi-faceted renegades. As for Tarla Dalal? She was simply pragmatic. Practicality might not make for riveting television. In theory. Yet, Twitter has been abuzz with the news of her passing away on Wednesday. Just the day before, social networking sites were filled with news of the death of Chef Charlie Trotter from Chicago, whose eponymous trail-blazing restaurant introduced America to the idea of organic, seasonal and vegetarian food in the late 1980s.

Given this is the age of experimental cooking, with complex equipment, exotic ingredients and convoluted techniques, it’s interesting that these self-taught, no-nonsense, old-style chefs have made such an impact on the Twitter generation. But then Dalal’s strength was her realistic approach to everyday cooking. Despite her unassuming manner and unpretentious recipes she made such a powerful impact that home cooking in India can be divided into pre and post-Dalal. After all, this was a country where women did the everyday cooking, learning traditional recipes from their mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers. Which meant home-cooked food was always the food of your own region, community and culture. Dalal’s books changed that by bringing together popular recipes from the North, South, East and West in a seductively simple format, encouraging readers to experiment with new spices, flavours and ideas. Her first book, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, published in 1974, was instantly successful with Indian housewives who went on to become her biggest market over the next four decades. It sold a record 1,50,000 copies in total.

I met her for the first time in 2007, soon after she got a Padma Shri. Faintly bewildered by all the attention, (our conversation was interrupted every few minutes by excited women brandishing their old, yellowing, spice-stained copies of her books, asking for autographs) she said the award astonished her. “When someone told me on the phone, I said ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ I was surprised,” she said, shaking her head incredulously, “But it gave me great happiness. Nobody has been given a Padma Shri for cooking before!”

Despite having written over 100 books, which have been translated into various languages from Marathi to Russian, selling more than 3 million copies around the world, she insisted that she never intended to build an empire. “After the first book I told myself… that’s more than enough. I can’t write more than one book. Never in my life did I think I would end up writing so many.”

Staunchly old fashioned, she maintained that girls should learn to cook to please the men in her lives. Coming from her, it sounded more endearing than anti-feminist because she so earnestly believed in food as an expression of love. When she was engaged her husband, who was then studying Chemical Engineering at Michigan University in the U.S. would write to her about food. She said, “He used to write saying he wanted to eat this and that; all complicated things I had never heard of… I was 20 years old and could cook only DBRS.” (This, by the way, is where I first learnt that old-fashioned acronym for ‘Dal Bhat Roti Sabzi’.)

When they got married in 1960, she moved to Mumbai. By 1966, she was teaching cooking from home. Once the first book launched, her career began snowballing. She went on to host a cooking show, publish a bi-monthly magazine and run one of India’s largest food websites.

Astutely choosing to cater to a mass market, she standardised and simplified recipes, using local ingredients and simple techniques. I once watched her teach a crowd of women how to make a cheesecake, which started out as a mousse. “Add more cocoa and that’s one variation,” she said. Then, she told the audience to add flour and baking powder to turn it into a hot chocolate pudding. Finally, she mixed in a couple of spoons of supermarket cheese spread then poured it over a base of crushed digestive biscuits. For the cream, she suggested soya cream, telling people, “buy two litres and keep it in the freezer. It stays for a year.”

Are the food snobs horrified? Well, yes, her recipes are not high-brow, astonishing or even particularly challenging. But they are always economical, flexible and forgiving. Dalal was smart enough to figure one unchanging fact of life: even flamboyant cooks sometimes just want to make kichadi for dinner. In the end, it’s the DBRS that keeps us going.

Soju bombs and veggie epiphanies: Slow Food Korea

We begin with soju bombs. A Korean friend shows us how to line up two metal chopsticks on a mug of beer, and balance a shotglass of soju on top. Then, she bangs her fist against the wobbly table dislocating the chopsticks so the shotglass falls into the beer mug. “Now drink,” she grins. We obediently lift our soju-spiked beer.

I’m in Namyangju, a lush-green town about an hour away from Seoul, in South Korea to attend Slow Food’s first AsiO Gusto, which brings together small-scale sustainable producers, chefs and opinion-makers from 40 Asian and Oceanic countries. While most of the days are devoted to conferences dedicated to finding ways to protect food traditions and their custodians, mealtimes are reserved for exploring local food. Barbeque and soju bombs, just like Psy and Gangnam may be Korea’s best known exports, but they’re just one facet of an ancient, traditional and sturdy food culture.

Of course we try the barbeque, though. Popular culture is popular for a reason — it’s fun. At night we walk to an open air restaurant close to our hotel, drawn by their dramatically crackling fire. It’s cold and the owner — noticing us shivering — runs into the kitchen and emerges with bright fluffy blankets for each of us. The little round metal table has a cavity in the centre, into which a waiter places a tray of hot coals, covered with a grill. While the kitchen prepares the meat, we go into a side room, dominated by a loud television, and fill bowls with the traditional line up of starters: kimchi, sprouts, mushrooms, spring onions to take to our tables. When the pork belly and chops arrive, they’re spread on the table grill to finish cooking, after which we pull out the blistering pieces with long tongs and eat them wrapped in lettuce, along with fat green chillies, sharp fresh garlic and a dipping sauce made with sesame oil.

Contrary to the Korean food stereotype, it’s not all meat. Lunch is often bibimbap, a bowl of rice artfully topped with bright vegetables, julienned cucumber, dark spongy mushrooms, long crunchy sprouts, emerald spinach and intensely orange-red bigochujang (chili pepper paste.) Salt is minimal and nothing is fried, but the vegetables are fresh, local and organic so flavours are intense. Slow Food’s focus is re-introducing people — especially children — to the joys of unprocessed food. Epiphanies from home-grown vegetables sound ridiculous, till you actually taste one. I become a convert at a silent lunch, served by cooks who walk into a conference on ‘Food and Spirituality’ bearing flowers and candles. They hand each of us a clay tray. My heart sinks as I survey the meal: raw vegetables and barely-salted sticky rice with beans wrapped in a lotus leaf. Then I bite into the pumpkin, and my eyes widen at its sweet, intense, powerful flavour. The lotus stem is crisp, yet moisty. The mushroom, firm and juicy. For the first time in years, I cheerfully finish all my vegetables. And I don’t even need a soju bomb to end the meal.

Tteokbokki, snail cream & curly fries: Exploring Seoul

I’m going all Zero Dark Thirty on the egg-bread man. I narrow my eyes and take a step forward. “So is it baked?” He’s unfazed. “Try one,” he says in Korean, smiling widely. They look delicious. But I need answers, and it’s too early in the interrogation to snack. So I shake my head firmly. He hands me one anyway. As I pay, I turn to Narae Yun, my friend-guide-interpreter in Seoul. “Ask him how he makes egg-bread.” She translates. He shrugs, pulls another tray out of the oven and chuckles mysteriously. “Fine. I’ll figure it out myself,” I say sulkily, taking a bite and expecting it to taste like breakfast. However Gaeran Bbang is a world away from conventional eggs and bread. It’s light, fluffy and sweet, with an unexpected streak of salt and hit of fragrant spices. Reminiscent of donuts, nursery rhymes and Sunday mornings. I’m foxed. And more determined than ever to extract the recipe.

“Try again,” I ask Narae, holding up my notebook in an attempt to look intimidating. “He says there are 10 ingredients,” she translates. “Nutmeg?” I ask. He smiles. “Cinnamon?” Smile. “Mace?” Smile. I lean forward and glare, “Then what is in the batter.” As Narae listens to his answer, nodding her head thoughtfully, I smile victoriously. She turns to me seriously, “He says to tell you Indian women are very pretty.” Foiled. And now I’m too flattered to pick a fight.

Like Mr. Egg-Bread, Seoul is unexpectedly charming. I’m warned about insurmountable language barriers, live octopus dinners and dog soup before I go. A few days in the multi-faceted city prove that the stereotype, like most stereotypes, is a caricature of the truth. While admittedly all three features exist, they’re certainly not the norm. The pulsating city is a blend of the familiar and exotic, especially when it comes to food. From my hotel in Hongdae, the hip university quarter, I explore coffee chains offering frappes, espressos and waffles, as well as quirky cafes. (Over breakfast a guest even tells me about a café where guests can pet lambs as they drink their cappuccinoes.) After shopping for quirky cocktail rings, ‘Gangnam’ style ankle socks and trying on South Korea’s famed ‘snail cream’ at a bright cosmetics store, Narae and I wander into a chic restaurant designed to look like a nursery school. The short menu offers interpretations of street food. We order tteokbokki: chewy glutinous rice tubes (called tteok) and fish cakes soaked in Korea’s signature fiery gochujang sauce. “All of us ate this after school,” says Narae, adding, “The idea is to remind people of their childhood.”

Nostalgia seems to be a popular theme here. The food is closely linked to history, and locals are as sentimental about the past as they are enthusiastic about the inevitable wave of Westernised food. It’s an interesting balance: traditional tea houses, retro restaurants and multinational donut chains, all packed on any given night. Since we’re dabbling in history, we decide to eat Budae Jjigae for dinner. “It’s Soldier Stew,” says Narae, as the waiters hand us bibs to tie around our necks. I’m eyeing the bib suspiciously, as the table grill — a standard feature in most traditional Korean restaurant — is fired up, and the dish set on it is filled with spam, sausage, ham, rice cakes, kimchi inexplicable slices of American cheese and a broth. “We were very poor after the Korean War, so we made soup with whatever we could buy from the American soldiers,” says Narae, breaking a pack of instant noodles into the mix. The incongruous mixture of U.S. army rations spits and sizzles (hence the bib) as the ingredients merge and the broth cooks down, transforming the dish into a hearty stew.

The next day, I head to Gangnam to meet my hipster friend Joy Miryeo, who’s still recovering from last night’s party. Holding her head, she gingerly suggests we begin with lunch — a spicy seafood stew ideal for hangovers. The restaurant is stylishly dim, and reportedly a favourite with K-Pop stars. A heavy tray filled with squiggly octopus, juicy prawns and knobbly crab is set on the table grill, along with the ubiquitous tteok, sprouts and minari (Korean greens). As the broth thickens, it becomes increasingly rich, powerful and moreish.

We wander through Isadong’s warren of art galleries and souvenir shops after lunch, admiring the fish-shaped Bungeoppang (sweet cakes filled cinnamon-laced red bean paste). There are peculiar spiral cut potatoes, dipped in cheese and chilli powder. And dramatic but fairly tasteless ice cream hooks: foot long curly cones filled with vanilla ice cream. I sneakily eat a steaming Hotteok pancake, stuffed with molten brown sugar, cinnamon and chopped nuts as a pre-dinner snack.

Dinner is Samgyeopsal at a noisy restaurant, where we swap stories and do soju (the local rice wine) shots. Equipped with dangerous-looking scissors and tongs, Joy expertly cuts luscious strips of pork, and cooks them along with kimchi on the table grill. Following custom, we wrap the meat in lettuce and sesame leaves along with sliced onions, sprouts and kimchi, before dipping it into a trio of powerful sauces.

Emboldened by the soju, we continue to party at Prost, a rollicking bar in Itaewon, popular with backpackers, tourists and American soldiers. More proof that Seoul has a flair for bringing diverse elements together — whether they’re ingredients, cultures or nationalities — to create an alluring brew.

How We Crashed This Party

The last thing I remember is the sound of skidding tyres. A staple of movies helmed by men with chunky jaw lines, sure. But not exactly what I expected on our all-girl holiday to Koh Phangan – Asia’s hedonistic party island. So much for our images of dancing all night, fuelled by the island’s infamous vodka buckets, psychedelic trance and beach bonfires.

I must admit, we couldn’t have picked a prettier place to crash. Even if we are bleeding all over the flowers. The hill, far steeper then expected, is wrapped by sparkling reams of sea. Below us, tantalisingly just out of reach lies our destination: Koh Ma beach. Yes. It sounds like ‘coma’. Hilarious? Not when you’re chewing pebbles.

We crawl out of the shrubbery, and study at each other’s wounds with horror. Glare at our now-dented rented motorcycle, half buried in sand. Shake clumps of mud off our hair. Our friends, on a second motorcycle, had whizzed passed a while back singing loudly about the hills being “alive with the sound of music” in annoyingly colour-co-ordinated helmets. We figure they’ll realize we’re missing soon enough. They don’t. Fifteen minutes later, we’re wilting mournfully by the side of the road.

That’s when Scott appears on his bike: tattooed, multi-pierced and shirtless. Talk about unexpected guardian angels. He runs ‘Baan Tai Backpackers’ where we’re staying, in a spirited attempt to look ‘legit’ on this island of adventurers. And was on his way to visit a friend across the island when he came upon us tumbled into an undignified heap.
As Scott helps us wrestle our motorcycle upright and calls for back up we realize we’ve picked a convenient place to crash.

The view’s spectacular – but more importantly, there’s a defiantly hippy ‘Bob Marley’ shack, just down the road. We limp across, and by the time the other two girls arrive we’re lying flat on a massive cushion-spangled coir bed staring at a thatched roof strung with bright prayer flags and drinking cold beers. Beside us, sits the proprietor, in dreadlocks, beaded jewellery and a faded tee-shirt, gently strumming his guitar and singing ‘No Woman No Cry.’ “Ev’rything’s gonna be alright, Ev’rything’s gonna be alright… Oh, little sister, don’t she’d no tears, No woman, no cry…” Really. You can’t make stuff like this up!

Once the rescue jeep arrives, and our motorcycle is safely stashed away, we’re driven to the hospital. Or at least that’s the intention. I dive out of the car when I hear the word ‘stitches.’ So while my friend is dragged away, kicking and screaming, (her wounds are deeper) I sit at the Baan Tai backpackers reception channelling ‘macho’, while Scott does some biker-style first aid equipped with a bottle of 100 per cent alcohol and roll of toilet paper.

After being given an ridiculously inflated estimate of 8000 bhat at the first clinic, my friend ends up at a nearby government hospital where they give her a tetanus and efficiently bandage her up for one eight of that amount. As it turns out bike accidents are an industry here. In the evening the lady we rented the bikes from walks around our machine with a calculator and keen expression. “You girls: my friends,” she coos. We smile warmly. “Damage 10,000 bhat. But for you, I make it 5000 bhat.” We’ve made – maybe– two scratches and a minor dent, on an already liberally scratched and dented machine. However we pay up, and silently thank our lucky stars that we got off relatively easy. If either of us had broken any bones, we would have had to wait for the next ferry to Koh Samui, an island half an hour away. For Koh Phangan, with a population of almost 14,000 people, and an additional influx of between 10,000 to 30,000 people every full moon, does not have an X-Ray machine!

Over the week we’re in Phangan, we start noticing bandages on everyone. Also, dramatic accident scars – affectionately known as ‘Phangan Tattoos.’ We begin to wear our bandages with pride – it certainly ups our street cred.

This is Asia’s sassy answer to Ibiza. No hipsters, sports cars and multi-level night clubs here. Instead the party vibe is anti-establishment: young, grungy and bohemian. Sleepy Phangan is hugged by mountains and fringed by soft beaches. Even the waves here are laidback: warm, calm and gentle.

Our holiday is quickly divided into pre and post accident. After the ‘bike crash that changed it all’ we hobble about carefully, taking an army-style taxi jeep across the island to Haad Rin instead of riding those infernal bikes. At Haad Rin, venue of the Full Moon party that made the island famous, we buy more neon clothes than Lady Gaga could wear in a lifetime, and explore dusty shops selling everything a dedicated party goer could ever need: Red Bull in cough-syrup style glass bottles, bikinis striped like candy and sunscreen. (Then there are the medical supplies: ‘Wound management’ is especially popular.)

We’ve missed the Full Moon Party and all its associated madness on purpose. A monthly dance music festival set on Haad Rin Beach it draws anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 people. We hear stories of how hotels get so full that the island finally posts a ‘No Room’ sign on the beach just before the party night, urging visitors to find accommodation in neighboring Ko Tao and Koh Samui islands.

What started as a small, alternative, eclectic affair for ‘real’ travelers is now a massive commercial event. Over the years a host of supplementary parties have sprung up on the island, the best known of which are the Half Moon Festival, the Jungle experience (which calls itself an ‘underground dance gathering’) and Black Moon Culture (“Peace. Trance. Dance.)

The accident serves as a perfect excuse to extend our stay, so we can attend the Half Moon party. On Half Moon night Baan Tai Backpackers is abuzz with ‘Beer Pong’ plans, apparently a necessary pre party ritual, along with enthusiastic body painting. We make friends easily when word gets around that we’re the “Indian Biker Girls.’ Assuming they’re impressed by our bravado, I make the mistake of asking a friendly Japanese-American boy how he heard of us. “Oh. They’re talking about you everywhere. In the cafes, the markets,” he chuckles. “But, lots of people have accidents,” I sputter. “Ya. But you’ll are the first girls to take a bike, and crash in 45 mins. Sober.”

It’s a refreshingly multi-national gathering. The Israeli boys give us tips on face painting. A Dutch artist offers to paint stars on my arm, while her boyfriend obediently holds up a pot of hot pink paint. The Americans beat us as at beer pong, a curious game that involves throwing table tennis balls into mugs of beer.

At some point in the night I hand my wallet over to a friend, begging her to ensure that I don’t get an impromptu tattoo. Phangan’s tattoos parlours, open all night, have invitingly loud music, bright lights and mesmerising designs. I’m nervous about waking up in the morning with a hangover, an overly-stylized psychedelic butterfly imprinted on my back and a lingering sense of regret.

We finally head to the party at midnight in a convoy of jeep-taxis. We’re handed icy orange vodka slushes as we enter the huge outdoor clearing, lit with psychedelic lights. Rimming the dance floor, there are fire jugglers, laughing gas sellers and a solemn line of Thai artists painting intricate dragons breathing crimson fire on sunburnt backs. Under a line of golden lamps there are food stalls offering hot dogs, satay and sausages on sticks. But the most popular item are the vodka buckets, a murky mix sold in cheap red and blue plastic buckets along with a bunch of pink straws for the island’s signature community drinking experience.

Weaving through dancing bodies, we make our way to the front and then clamber on a wobbly wooden bench for a better view. It’s a dramatic sight: thousands of people dancing with their arms akimbo. Thanks to the ultra violent light all you can see is their paint coming alive. All that neon suddenly makes sense.

Coming to think of it, so does the accident. We’ve played the game, and flaunt the scars. Finally. We’re Phangan insiders.

Fly from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur to Surat Thani. At the airport, you can buy a ferry ticket that covers a bus ride to the ferry, and then the 3.5 hour ferry ride to Koh Phangan Island. Boat schedules on For people who choose to stay on Koh Samui, there are boats on party nights that ferry people to Phangan. For Full moon and half moon party dates, check

He Says, She Says Spl: No more Happily Everafters?

By Sudhish Kamath & Shonali Muthalaly


Forever and ever?

Back in the day, before the invention of mobile phones, we used to talk, hang up and spend the rest of our time living a life. We shared it with people we loved because they were around you more than anyone else.

Like the mobile phone that replaced telephones, we are not attached or wired to anything anymore.

If you are young and born in the late Eighties or Nineties, you know the longest relationship most people have had is with their mobile phone.

Back when we had landlines, we rarely changed phones. Today, we change mobiles every year or two.

In many ways, these phones have become a metaphor for our love lives.

When it comes to love, the concept of forever has forever changed. Handwritten long love letters have been replaced by single character emoticons.

Like phones, the lifespan of relationships, is coming down every few years. There’s so much activity in our lives and our batteries are draining quicker than before.

When it stops working and can’t be fixed, you get rid of it and get a new one because you need it. You need it because you are used to it.

Close proximity with computers and mobile phones has only made us adapt and learn from machines. The inbox has become an extension of our mind space. We store information as files and delete what we don’t need.

We live online. Friends are on Facebook, people follow on Twitter and closest buddies on Whatsapp. And Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as simple as Unfriend, Unfollow, Block, Ignore and Blacklist.

The nineties said friends are the new family. Today, networks are the new friends. We spend more time on networks than with friends.

The need to belong and find acceptance within the network is superseding the need for relationships. With most urban youth having their first relationship at 16 or 18 and not ready to commit until they are 30 or 40, they don’t want to wait till they are married to get physical. Careers have become more important because it’s become more difficult to find a well-paying job than a relationship.

Once the most intense relationship breaks down, every relationship after that pales in comparison, leading to disillusionment, emptiness and a temporary void.

Like the end of a really good sad movie. Eject. Insert new disc.

Or shutdown. Log in.

I see dead people.

Yet… all it takes is a moment to bring a heart pounding back to life.

Heart. The most resilient thing ever. With a lifespan of over a 50 mobile phones. With an inbox so deep and limitless. With strength that can withstand the greatest of falls. It’s built to love. No matter how hard you try not to use it, you just cannot control it. Want a happily ever after? Surrender to it. It has an endless supply of love. Release it. And it will set you free.

People come, people go. Love stays. Forever. And ever.


Why wait for forever?

Modern love is tough.

Perhaps that’s why Mr Right has been replaced with Mr ‘Right Now’.

Cynical? Not really. Perhaps we’re finally realising the significance of Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Live the moment. Luxuriate in the ‘Now’.

The world has changed. Love used to mean romance: poetry, roses, candle lit dinners. Boys begged common friends for your phone number. Wrote you ten page letters, with cute cartoons drawn in the margins. Composed songs for you, and strummed them on beat-up old guitars.

In the Nineties we fell in love and channelled the likes of Savage Garden: “I’ll be your hope, I’ll be your love be everything that you need/ I love you more with every breath, truly madly deeply do…” Contemporary chartbusters are very different. Think Eminem and Rihanna singing ‘Love the way you lie’: “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn/ But that’s alright, because I like the way it hurts/ Just gonna stand there and hear me cry/ But that’s alright, because I love the way you lie.”

Welcome to the free fall of modern love. Breathless. Relentless. Unapologetic.

So you’re in love. And out. You break a heart. Have your heart broken. Dump. Get dumped. Have a fling. Cheat. Experiment. Maintain ‘friends with benefits.’

It’s fast, it’s ruthless, it’s no holds barred. Speed dating, powered by technology. Relationships on steroids.

Girl meets boy. Girl googles boy. (And vice versa.) A little Facebook stalking, Whatsapp through the night, dates set via SMS. There goes the mystery. But not the drama. By date two, you’re half way through a relationship. Texting, sexting, booty calls. Love and lust, inextricably intertwined. Till it’s over. Till you’re at a party. Again. Exchanging BBM pins. Again. Here we go. Again.

Love at first sight? Please. You have got to be kidding. This isn’t a Jane Austen book. Or ‘Harry Met Sally’. Or a Celine Dion song. They seem so naïve today. Romance instagrammed: Charming – but far from real.

Love today is far more complex. An information overload, incessant connectivity, inescapable uncertainty.

But it’s still love. And it’s still real. And perhaps, it’s more resilient. Because, ironically, in this age of high-tempo relationships, we’re more understanding than ever before. After all, we’ve all ‘been there’. We know what it’s like to hurt. To cheat. To fall in love. Truly, madly, deeply.

So you’ve become more sceptical? It’s called growing up. Another bad relationship? It’ll make you appreciate the good ones. Had your heart broken again? Take pride in your courage to keep believing.

Meanwhile, enjoy the good times. Even if they’re temporary. Maybe Mr Right Now will turn out to be The One. Maybe he won’t.

But in the end you’ll realise that love hasn’t changed. Our generation is as infatuated with finding “the one” as our parents generation was. Only, our odds are better. After all, we’re more willing to take chances. More open to living life on our own terms. And modern love has made us so much braver.

(This originally appeared here).

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How I Stumbled My Way To A 10K

About three months ago The Chennai Runners challenged me to run a 10K at the upcoming Chennai Marathon on December 1st. And – in a moment of misguided enthusiasm – I agreed. Here’s my piece on the run up to the race.

I’m not an inspiring story. I might as well get that out there right now so I don’t disappoint you later. I say this outright because I
can’t seem to be able to run one kilometre in this city without stubbing my toe against yet another glowing, healthy, happy runner
whose “life has been changed” by lacing up his/her shoes.

I can’t even lace up my shoes. Not ‘correctly’ anyway. I tried the ‘runner’s knot’ three times, and still tripped on trailing laces 500
mts into my first run.

And since I’m using this as a confessional booth, I might as well tell you, I’m not even a cheerful runner. (No surprises there, huh?) I’m grumpy when I wake up at 5 am. I’m grumpy when I stretch. And I’m grumpy when I run.

So why am I doing this at all.

Well, three months ago I naively wrote a breezy article about how anyone can run a 10K, not suspecting for a minute that I would eventually be challenged to put my money where my mouth is. (And, in hindsight, what a big mouth it is!) Once the article was out, the head of Chennai Runners, Krishna Kumar suggested I test the thesis. He sounded so confident in my abilities that I got
carried away by his optimisim, logged on to the Wipro Chennai Marathon website, and rashly signed up.

When an event is 3 months away, you feel invincible. Run 10 Km? Well. How hard can it be? So, I did all the important things in careful, contemplative, logical order: Bought pink running shoes. Planned where to eat a pancake-bacon-champagne celebratory brunch post-run. Created a suitably eclectic play list for my Nike Running App, featuring everything from Taio Cruz to Tina Turner. (Obediently following instructions, I even chose a ‘power song’:Beneath Your Beautiful – Labrinth feat. Emeli Sandé, if you must know.)

Lest you think it was all fun and games, let me assure you I did some spadework. I not only downloaded the Couch to 10K programme, but also took multiple print outs to leave on unsuspecting colleagues’ desks. (Nothing quite as satisfying as dragging everyone down with you.) I joined the Chennai Runner’s Alwarpet beginners group with an equally run-resistant friend, let’s call her Fudge. And, I told my coaches at The Quad Bootcamp about my grandiose plans.

I confess that I never looked at that Couch to 10K programme again. Fortunately, I did stay regular with my Quad workouts, and so when I turned up for my first run ever with the Chennai Runners group at Alwarpet, I survived 5 kms. But it was not easy. Mostly because Fudge and I staggered in on Saturday morning expecting group hugs, cappuccinos and a gentle jog. However, the ‘beginners’ flexed their calf muscles and galloped away like a herd of Zebras in a David Attenborough documentary. Congratulating ourselves on having the foresight to sneakily stuff auto money into our pockets, we ran-walked-grumbled-ran-walked behind them. Through it all, Fudge and I rolled our eyes and sighed, “This running thing is grotesquely over rated.”

But the people at Chennai Runners are awesome. Honestly. I have never met so many upbeat people in my life. Don’t worry. I’m not going to give you a nauseating spiel on beautiful friendships here. Mostly because I know them as Gatorade Girl, Hydration Belt Guy and ‘That Nice Boy Who Smiles.’ Over the 6 Saturday runs we manage to attend, we get used to their relaxed style of coaching, and I stop having nightmares about being left behind. I have to admit, that runner’s high is awesome.

There are some unexpected fallouts though. Saturday nights are not the same – I’m in pyjamas by 9 p.m. The one time I try
to regain my party girl credentials, I drink two glasses of wine, get into stilletoes and head out for a night of wild clubbing at the
Flying Elephant: only to fall asleep at the table. I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not. My friends had to form a protective ring
around me to stop giggly party girls from photographing, Instagramming and posting me on Facebook.

Last week, I was still grouchy about the run. Then, I went to Marina beach with some friends and did my longest run, 8K in 66 mins. (Forgive me, but I’m ridiculously proud of my timing, given how un-athletic I am.) My foot started to hurt, and by the time I got home, I was hobbling.

I’m still surprised at how upset I was. After all, this was the perfect excuse not to run. And a legitimate one at that. As it turns
out, I didn’t realize I wanted to do this run, till I thought I wouldn’t be able to. So I flexed and iced and massaged. I sat at the
office with my foot on an upturned dustbin. Yesterday, I tried running once more, and managed 5 K with no niggles. Thrilled, I texted all my friends to say I’m back in the game. Of course, some things don’t change. I’m still wailing about the map. 10 K looks like a really, really, r-e-a-l-l-y long way.

I’m not sure what it is about running that makes it addictive. Fudge radiantly tells me she intends to run 3 times a week at least, even after the marathon is over. (That traitor!) As for me, well, the last three months have taught me that this is a test of your mental as well as physical capabilities. My biggest hurdle was my fear of running. Now, I realise it’s silly to limit myself simply because I assume I’ll be bad at something. As we grow older, we tend to stick to doing things we’re good at. Honestly, my running challenge was rewarding, because I was so bad at it. It made all the small victories much more meaningful.”

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New Year’s in Varkala. (Or The Story Of The Stick.)


A swimsuit, a sarong and a stick. Varkala essentials. We’re in Kerala for New Years after hearing rave reports about how the beach here is stunning, and more importantly still off the grid. We’re determined to enjoy it before the package tourists seep in, with their sweaty coaches, boisterous children and plastic-wrapped lunches.
The waves here are warm, fierce and stinging with salt. After a satisfying swim, we ramble along on the North Cliff, a two kilometre stretch of restaurants with awe-inspiring views. As evening sets in, men in tight tee shirts bulging with biceps fill massive ice trays with a variety of bright-eyed, beckoning fish. The lithe Blue Marlin, with its wicked spear like snout is the star. Although the fish’s dramatic majesty is tragically diminished by a lemon stuck at the tip of his snout, presumably so it doesn’t snag passing tourists.
Marlin attacks are the least of our worries, however. As we draw closer to New Year’s Eve, the local boys get overly amorous. Not content with gaping, they begin to brush past ‘accidently.’ The last straw is when I get pinched. My gorgeous and tough, Punjabi friend finds herself a stick the size of her arm and brandishes it angrily. My other friend, a glamorous ex-model, picks up a coconut and holds it up menacingly. The boys shrink back. We go for dinner.
Over the last ten years, The North Cliff has evolved a unique style of cuisine, heavily influenced by its visitors. Strangely there is no Kerala food available – much to our disappointment. There is, however, plenty of badly-made North Indian food.
After a fruitless hunt for appams and stew on day one, we settle down at Temple Coffee for breakfast. With seven jet black puppies tumbling all over the floor, zippy Wi-Fi and powerful coffee it quickly becomes our favourite spot. Open at 6 a.m., it’s the perfect place to watch the sun go up, bouncing ferociously off the sea, while drinking cold, frothy, vanilla-scented frappes before an early swim. On the days we wake up late, we go the whole hog: Thick cut bacon between slices of soft brown butter and mustard smeared bread. Crusty toast triangles with golden jam. Crepes folded over a cloud of fluffy freshly grated coconut.
Lunch is at Café Del Mar, bursting with happily sun-burnt backpackers. The menu’s a blithe blend of cuisines, with a smattering of the inevitable Indian exotica. Decaf espressos, Soya lattes and cappuccinos, along with items like Cafe Sufi (espresso, milk, vanilla ice cream), Bombay frappes (tea, vanilla extract, milk) and ‘Lassy’ in strange flavours like pineapple, grape and green tea! Since this is also a hippy haven, there are new age power smoothies, blended with coconut and soy milk.
We try a café called Abba. Varkala must be the last place in the world where the Swedish band is still hip. Or perhaps it’s an ironic post-modernist cultural comment. Either way, we eat Israeli schnitzel served with chips, hummus and pita bread, while listening to Fernando on loop. Something in the air that night? You bet. The creepy boys are back, but The Stick takes us back to the hotel safely.
Fortunately, we bump into some friends on New Years Eve. And fortunately, they’re boys with an average height of 6 feet. They march in front and behind, firmly moving letchy mustachioed monsters out of our way. Dinner’s at Clafouti, with breathtaking view of an inky sea sprinkled with the unsteady lights of tiny boats. There are juicy momos, inexplicable fish pakodas and chewy, batter fried octopus tentacles. The highlight is a hefty red snapper, grilled whole and served with a flourish: soft, flaky and delicious.
We bring in the New Year at a crowded grungy bar optimistically titled ‘Rock N Roll’ café. The Stick accompanies us. And a good thing too. The Punjabi gets pinched this time. Before any of us can react, she turns and wallops the guy with The Stick. He runs like a rabbit, diving into the dance floor in terror. She tears after him, whacking him all along the way. All six of us sprint behind them.
As dawn breaks, we gather on the cliff and release a series of graceful sky lanterns. Goodbye bad karma. As they rise up majestically, everyone on the beach squeals with delight. From the grope-y boys to the constables. The lanterns flicker bravely, and we watch them till they disappear over the dark, restless sea. Happy New Year everyone!



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