Getting a Second Life

He wears Armani suits and linen shirts in one life; leather pants and biker jackets in the other. He has a sensible hair cut and stern glasses in one life; a shaved head and rude tattoos in the other. He’s a powerful vice-president of a respect ed company in one life; and a stylist for poodles in the other.

And there are more than 7,000,000 people like him in the world. Each living a regular everyday life, and then going online to live a Second Life. Operated by Linden Lab, based in San Francisco, Second Life — introduced to the public in 2003 — is a virtual 3D world offering a parallel existence.

However, unlike in the real world, in Second Life you can be whoever you want, and do whatever you dream up.

“It’s not a game. It’s a platform. A place where real people come and lead virtual lives,” says Sebastian D. Marcu, a young German who works with Worlds Unlimited, a Second Life development company based in Cologne. “I work on strategies and concepts for companies, showing them how to use virtual worlds, Web 2.0 and communities as a tool to improve their business,” he says. Online, he works and socialises as a virtual character, called an “avatar”, called Enrico Visconti, an Italian.

“It’s an immersive world,” says Sebastian, adding that it appeals to people because it’s “not information driven, but heart driven. It’s not about being informed, it’s about participating.” Ironically, Second Life might be the refuge of breakaways and secret rebels, but it still follows basic societal norms. To really enjoy it, you need to build relationships. And eventually, you need to make, and spend money.

On the bright side, you can accomplish both in ways you might never have dared to in the real world. Introverted Chinese teacher Ailin Graef, Second Life’s first millionaire, for instance, started out as Anshe Chung, a virtual stripper. She used the money she made to buy land online and develop cutting edge boutiques, which she rents out, and locations like a fantastical floating city she built above a desert.

In three years she became a virtual property baron and real life millionaire.

Although Linden Lab sets up computer servers and creates the land, it is then auctioned off to people like Anshe. Essentially everything inside the software, from the malls to the mountains — has been created by users, who can then make money from these creations.

Although entering Second Life is free (you’re issued a standard avatar body), you need to pay for the frills — whether they’re new shoes or sky diving classes — using Linden dollars. (About 270 Linden Dollars make a US Dollar, and they can be converted at one of the many thriving Linden Dollar exchanges online. Second Life currently supports millions of US dollars in monthly transactions.)

Just like in the real world, spending money becomes addictive, especially considering the products on offer: routine silks, scarves and gowns, as well as an “Orb of power to warp the fabric of space and cloak you in invisibility”, “The Petrify spell to turn people into stone statues” and a strap on “pregnancy tummy” for avatars who want to have virtual babies. (“With a timer that ticks along as your pregnancy progresses, each tummy is good for one baby and is not reusable.”)

“You end up spending 20 to 100 US dollars a month, depending on what your interests are,” grins Sebastian. “My friend spent US$150 and then thought, ‘Oh my god that’s real money!’ So he became a Second Life shoe designer and now makes US$50 a month.”

With all this healthy commerce, Sebastian says Linden Labs makes about one million US dollars every 24 hours. Its explosive growth, boundless scope for creativity and large numbers of active residents are what make Second Life so alluring.

There’s tremendous variety as residents come from over 100 countries. About 60 per cent of the avatars are male, and the people logging in are aged between 18 and 85. Of course, since the most attractive feature of Second Life is the fact that people can be whoever they want, all this information is only approximate. A Punjabi can be Parisian online. And an 85-year-old man in a nursing home can be a peroxide blonde at a rave party. (A number of men, in fact, have female avatars.)

As in real life, people tend to form relationships. “There are people with real life partners and also virtual partners,” says Sebastian. “What is a pixel lover? I don’t know. But there are weddings in Second Life. It’s a huge business. People will book a whole virtual island. Islands with special experiences… a castle flying in the sky for instance.” Is it infidelity? That’s a grey area, since a pixel wife isn’t likely to call home.

For now.

Panting Around Lantau

On Lantau Island, you can trek. Or you can sightsee the lazy way.

Thankfully, I don’t trek. It involves far too much hard work. So if you are waiting for me to wax eloquent about how my eyes filled with tears when I saw the sunrise, painting the misty blue skies, as I conquered Lantau Peak, forget it.

Me? I wake up with the malls.

“Trekkers actually get up at 2 in the morning, and stumble up the hill with flashlights,” hoots my Chinese tour guide, as we set out to explore Lantau, from the environs of a plush tourist bus. Yeah. I managed to get the one tour guide who thinks like me.

But to be fair to the trekkers, and I know there are a lot of you out there, Lantau’s so gorgeous it almost makes me want to lace up my Reeboks. In fact, the Hong Kong Tourism Board encourages visitors to trek to explore Lantau, which has an enviable area of healthy natural woodland, bustling with gossipy streams along the mountain paths and tougher mountain trails, all marked out for hikers. There are rare trees and flowers, and, if you watch the surrounding waters carefully, you are likely to spot the island’s pink dolphins, which swim offshore.

The largest island in Hong Kong, Lantau now houses the city’s main airport and the newly opened Disney Land. But once you’re away from the swanky designer-crammed duty free airport mall and merchandising Mickey Mouse, Lantau is not just a world away from Hong Kong city. It’s almost a world away from this century.

The fact that more than 50 per cent of the island has been designated Country Park area, is probably the reason why booming, bustling Hong Kong has so little influence. Because, over here, there isn’t a Giordano in sight, and the island’s most prominent inhabitants are monks.

In the late 1970s, in fact, there were more than 500 monks living in 135 Buddhist monasteries, and Lantau was sometimes called the island of prayer.

So, appropriately enough, we begin by driving to the Po Lin monastery. Founded in 1927, Po Lin is set in picture postcard scenery, and the monastery itself looks like something out of an `exotic east’ movie. Incense sticks, lit by devotees, burn in the courtyard, perfuming the air. It’s a delicious slice of exotica, if you can tune out the “Pass me another film roll,” shouts from Nike-sporting, Nikon toting gangs of American tourists.

The monks seem to do it effectively enough, gliding past gracefully in flowing robes, oblivious to the hourly busloads of mayhem. In one starkly simple hall, the table is being laid out for lunch. Three bowls and one set of chopsticks are set for each person. “Soup, rice and tofu. Or a vegetable,” whispers the guide, “Their only meal for the day.”

Besides the monastery, there’s a hill on top of which rests the Tian Tan, or Giant Buddha. At 112 feet, and weighing 250 tonnes, the sculpture is the world’s largest seated outdoor bronze statue of the Buddha. You can climb 268 steps to see it.

I don’t.

Neither does the guide. We offload the one tourist who does want to climb, and take the lazy man’s route, a sneaky road behind the hill that leads right up the top. The view’s nicer if you’re not panting. Besides, we have to save our strength for the Wisdom Path: A set of starkly awe-inspiring scriptures set on a silent hill.

“You have to climb this. For wisdom,” said the guide woefully as we started struggling up the hill. “It’s the heart sutra. You’re supposed to read each one and ponder.” Although our pondering was more an excuse to take deep breaths, the wisdom path is indeed supposed to enlighten. The large wooden columns each contain a verse from the heart sutra, a text revered by the Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists, which has formed part of daily worship of cleric and devotees in East Asia for over 1,000 years.

The columns are set in the form of 8, representing infinity. And the one on the highest point of the hill is blank. “Which means you’ve understood everything. And now, there’s emptiness,” gasped my guide, as we both held on to it for support.

Tourists, and not just the ones wielding flashlights and sporty headbands are increasingly discovering Lantau. Surrounded by tiny islands, many owned by millionaires, the island’s a great place to marinate in sun and suntan lotion. You can even take boats to the smaller uninhabited islands.

And if you still haven’t figured out how deliciously quirky Lantau is, here’s another interesting fact. Besides being the home of the Hong Kong’s swanky new airport, Disney Land, a fishing village on stilts called Tai O, a still-under construction cultural theme village and the starting point of the bizarrely named `Ngong Ping 360′ a 5.7 km cable car journey, the island is also host to Hong Kong’s maximum security prison, set amid rolling hills, grazing areas punctuated by demure cattle and tumbling streams.

“Look,” grinned the guide as we drove past the swish prison complex. “In Hong Kong city, if you want a view like that you pay millions. In Lantau, you just kill someone!”

Where do ordinary heroes go?

DAVID SELVES was just 12 years old. But he dived into the water, to support “his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms.” This was in 1886. Two years earlier, Samuel Rabbeth, a 28-year-old doctor, had desperately tried to save a four-year-old suffering from diphtheria, clearing an obstruction in the child’s throat by putting his mouth to the tracheotomy tube. But he contracted the infection and died. And so did the child.

Ordinarily, they would have been forgotten by now. After all, they were neither rich nor powerful.

However, their courage is as arresting today as it must have been then, more than a century ago. Because, in a busy corner of London, there’s an old, hushed park where extraordinary deeds of courage are remembered, along with their ordinary heroes.

Almost hidden

Wedged between office blocks, this park is in the heart of London’s frenetic Barbican, bustling with bankers in expensive suits and secretaries clipping past in gleaming designer boots. Yet, you’ll be lucky to find someone who can give you directions to it. The frantically posing tourists at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, barely a minute away, hardly ever wander here, and Londoners seem to only stop by for a quick absent-minded cigarette or sandwich. But if anyone stops to listen, the powerful stories it tells are compelling enough to leave a lasting impact. Postman’s Park is one of London’s most surprising secrets. It also holds some of the city’s most heart-warming stories.

In the evening, the park is a pool of darkness, locked and bolted. The quaintly named “Guild & Ward Church of St. Botolph-Without-Aldersgate” next door, on the other hand, radiates warmth, with its burnishing lights and Scottish preacher’s lilting sermon. Although the park, set between King Edward Street and Little Britain, seems to be a part of the church (which stands at spot where “a church building has stood for nearly one thousand years” according to a plaque), a notice at the entrance proclaims that it was created with land from the churchyard of Saint Leonards, Foster Lane, St. Botolphs, Aldersgate and the graveyard of Christchurch, Newgate Street. Today it is maintained by the Corporation of London, Open Spaces Department. Once a popular lunchtime destination for workers from the old General Post Office, postman’s park, shaped so irregularly it looks like its been hastily squeezed in, was opened in 1880, opposite an old post office. But it went on to become much more than just a backdrop to hastily-eaten sandwiches and stately trees, thanks to George Frederic Watts, a talented painter and fiery philanthropist.

A different tribute

In 1887, Watts wrote to the Times, suggesting a memorial for ordinary heroes. After all, the rich and powerful are always remembered, whether they’re army generals, film stars or millionaires; celebrated for winning wars, teary lines or making enough money to raise grandiose buildings and glitzy marble plaques. Watts — the son of a London piano maker, who reportedly despised the very-rich and refused a baronetcy twice — campaigned for a memorial to remember regular people, who displayed startlingly heroic acts of courage, and died in the process.

His letter suggested that a memorial of this sort would be a marvellous way to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Year. But no one paid him any attention. Fortunately, for the few people who stumble upon this moving treasure and the selflessly heroic men, women and children who will be remembered for as long as it stands, when Watts realised that neither the government nor the town planners were really interested in raising marble to ordinary lives, he just went ahead and funded it himself, paying for the first 13 plaques. His widow then added 34 after he died in 1904. Five more were added almost three decades later.

Today, you can wander past the park’s mysterious tombstones draped in so many layers of damp moss that only occasional words shine though, an “alderman” here and “1800” there — it was evidently a graveyard at some point in it’s history. But huddled together in groups of seven at discreet corners, the tombs are clearly not the main show here. Neither are the fountains, which burble politely on the pathway. Or the lush patches of purple flowers, surrounded by carpets of bright yellow maple leaves.

It’s the 50-foot gallery stretching across the end of the park, neatly plastered with plaques (most created by Royal Doulton), crowned by a damp, faded inscription, “In commemoration of heroic self-sacrifice”.

Power in simplicity

The brief descriptions on each tablet are plain and unemotional. But that simplicity is their power. For, these are stories that need no histrionics, or ornate embellishment to move any random reader that happens to wander past.

There is the plaque to John Cranmer, a clerk in the London County Council who drowned when he was 23 years old “while saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner” in 1901. And eight-year-old Henry James Bristow who died in 1890, when he “saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock”.

But perhaps the most vivid is the heart-rending remembrance to Solomon Galman, an 11-year-old who “died of injuries after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street”. At the bottom are his last words. “Mother, I saved him but could not save myself.”


The Coriander Club

The well-worn wooden cart piled high with piles of gleaming brinjals, bright chillies and fragrant coriander leaves might still pass by your window every day. But as more and more people choose to drive their trendy SUVs to one of the massive supermarkets — springing up all over every big city in India — to buy their fruits and vegetables, it could eventually become a thing of the past.

Fortunately, in the United Kingdom, farmers are fighting back. And, perhaps it is because of recent food scares and worries about genetically modified food. Or a mounting concern for the environment. Or, a more selfish quest for food that doesn’t taste travel-weary. But British consumers are now insisting on eating and buying local produce, as they now want to know where, and how, their food originated.

Emerging phenomenon

Which explains why farmers’ markets are getting increasingly popular across the United Kingdom. Started in London a little over 10 years ago, these (usually weekly) markets bring together groups of local farmers, with their produce.

The National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) — which has approximately 7,000 members and 225 markets under its wings — stipulates that all this produce must be from within a radius of ideally 30 miles, but never more than 100 miles. Anything made by the stallholder, such as the bronzed crusty breads and moist carrot cakes displayed enticingly at these markets, has to contain fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. And the farmer or a direct representative must be present at every stall, to talk to customers and answer questions.

At the little Wednesday farmers’ market in Finchley, London, for example, Peter and Joan Clarke never leave their makeshift counter, set up in front of their van. As he unloads crate after crate of appealing vegetables — some plucked a few hours ago at their Kingcup Farm in Denham, which is about 16 miles away — he says their chats with customers are an essential part of their business. Besides urging them to try new, exotic vegetables, (“Baby leeks can be steamed. They’re delicious with a cheese sauce.”) the couple also get ideas about new crops to grow. “That’s how we have mooli and saag, suggested by Indians,” he grins. He grows 70 different varieties of vegetables, 30 of which were spread out in vibrant piles at the market that day.

Peter says that these markets are beneficial for both the farmers and the people who buy from them, as the food they supply is always fresh, and therefore both nutritious and tasty, with intense flavours and colours. For farmers, markets like this aren’t just a way to connect with customers. It also means they finally get to bypass the middlemen, and shun supermarket chains, notorious for their draconian rules.

Big supermarket chains place ridiculous conditions on farmers, such as insisting every apple has to have a uniform diameter of 2.5 inches. A report by “Friends of the earth”, called “Supermarkets and Great British Fruit” (2002), gives the results of a survey done with 100 apple and pear growers, who said any fruit with minor skin blemishes gets rejected, along with “apples that are either not red enough, or too red”. As a result, fruit is left on the orchard floor or simply dumped. More than half the farmers stated that they have to apply more pesticides to “meet cosmetic standards”. It’s not just fruit. Felicity Lawrence, journalist and author of Not on the Label says, that for every 30 tonnes of carrots harvested, just 10 tonnes are used.

More variety

At a farmers’ market, you see varieties of seasonal food you are unlikely to find anywhere else, especially at this price range. Peter Clarke, for instance, has five piles of carrots, each a different colour — creamy white, sunshine yellow and different shades of orange — in his stall.

“Since some fruits and vegetables don’t travel well, like some heritage varieties of tomatoes, which have thin skins, you won’t find them in supermarkets,” says Sue Thompson, Spokesperson and Certification Manager for FARMA. “So farmers’ markets around the world have been a lifeline to rare varieties of fruits and vegetables and breeds of meat.” For instance, there are more than 2,000 varieties of native U.K. apples. But in the world of supermarkets there are may be 20.

Organisers like Cheryl Cohen, director of London Farmer’s Markets (which sets up and administers London’s 15 certified farmers’ markets), actively search for farmers who offer more than the routine foods. “We have some Japanese farmers on the South Coast, who are growing lovely leafy Japanese vegetables,” she says, “And there are a group of Asian women growing Asian vegetables at the Spitalfields City Farm (at London’s East End) who call themselves the `Coriander club’, who we would love to include in our markets.” (These Bangladeshi women, who come from the surrounding borough of Tower Hamlets, grow traditional herbs and vegetables.)

Local sourcing of this sort reduces lorry and plane “food miles”. FARMA estimates that the ingredients for an air-freighted British Sunday lunch creates 37 kg of greenhouse gases. When bought from a local market, on the other hand, just 38.2 grams are released. That’s a dramatic reduction of 99.8 per cent.

But perhaps the best thing about a market of this sort is the chance to enjoy the oasis of warm “small town” community feeling that invariably springs up as farmers lay out their produce, and exchange recipes and storage tips with each other and passers-by.

Vibrant community

On a typical day, you’ll see a cyclist discussing routes with the baker, as he balances his helmet and a slice of spongy foccaccia on one side, while the feta cheese stall owner charms a wide-eyed tourist into tasting, then buying a hunk of his garlicky, crumbly cheese. Kids run between the rows of vegetables, pulling and poking at them in fascination, and in a corner the delicious smell of barbequed burgers rises, as a farmer in a striped apron works his fragrant grill.

And sales talk is both gentle and affectionate. “You can feel the difference here,” says Gina, a young graduate who moved from Australia to the Perry Court family farm in Kent (“because this is so much nicer than the office”) holding out a gang of plump onions for a customer. “It’s in the richness of the flavours… It just tastes so much more real.”

Orchids, Witches, Byron: Sneak Through Secret London

TOURISTS don’t see real cities. They see images, created by slick marketing people and shrewd shopkeepers. Paris, for instance, is the Eiffel tower, flashing gaudily beside overpriced restaurants and stalls festooned with “I love France” key chains. New York, of course, is the Statue of Liberty, and endless sweaty queues for a ferry to Liberty Island. And London, a photograph in front of Big Ben, a longing look though the bolted gates at Buckingham Palace and David Beckham at Madam Tussauds.

Unless, of course, you become a defiant independent traveller. It takes courage. You won’t be able to swap stories with the neighbours on how crowded Trafalgar Square is these days, or how the Champs-Elysées can be frightfully expensive, which might considerably bring down your social standing in the housing complex. (“Can you imagine, he was in New York, and he didn’t go to Macys!”) But you’ll discover a lot more. London for the locals, for instance, is a world away from the Hop-On Hop-Off tourist route.

Orchids and oysters

Languid Sunday mornings are perfect for pottering around the Columbia Street Flower Market in East London. Make your way there, past pretty houses with bright shutters and balconies lush with potted plants. Past friendly Labrador dogs out for a stroll with their owners, gardening enthusiasts excitedly discussing weed control and Londoners laden with bunches of vivid flowers.

It’s like “My Fair Lady” – except it’s the MTV version. Flower sellers holding out giant bouquets of cheery daffodils, bunches of stately white orchids and boxes crammed with potted petunias, all trying to out-shout each other, in an attempt to grab the attention of languid passing customers. Bustling cafés, handing out cups of steaming tea. And the motley crowd, swelling by the minute, includes little old ladies peering at cacti, and multi-pierced hipsters, wandering in after a raucous night, hoping to clear their heads. And maybe score a couple of beers.

This is also a deliciously unusual place to brunch. You can have a bagel in a garden café, accompanied by mugs of strong coffee. Or try oysters from a makeshift counter, where they’re piled besides traditional English kippers. Through it all a street musician provides vibrant background music. Foodies can also investigate the old barns, built like gardening sheds, covered with heavy wooden tables, creaking under the weight of local cheeses, exotic varieties of olive oils and crusty brown bread.

Magical Diagon Alley

Shockingly close to touristy Leicester square, teeming with drunk teenagers and theatre-goers bargaining for cut-price tickets, is mysterious Cecil Court. A hushed Victorian pedestrian street, it’s lined with old-fashioned stores, and reportedly inspired J.K. Rowling to create Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. Like Diagon Alley, crammed with curious shops and colourful characters, Cecil Court too has its share of magic.

With names such as “The Witch Ball” or “David Drummond Of Pleasures Of Past Times”, the shops here deal in the most delightfully eccentric goods. One dusty little store threw up shoeboxes crammed with old postcards from all over the world, including a bunch from homesick Britishers, posted in India more than half a century ago. (One, strangely enough, gushed about a snowstorm in Poona!) Then there’s the antique dealer, with a wealth of snuffboxes, Victorian charms and even a white stuffed owl that bears a startling similarity to Potter’s pet, Hedwig. Not surprisingly, this is also a meeting place for people interested in magic, most of whom head to the “Esoteric centre”, abounding in mystical books, beads and tarot readers. (London, by the way, has a significant number of wiccans and druids, many of whom are members of official groups such as the “Pagan Federation”.)

For a splash of extra colour, the road even has a turbulent past. Legend (and Wikipedia) has it that Cecil Court was razed in the early 1970s, probably by a Mrs. Colloway, who was apparently running a brandy shop and brothel there.

And, of course, if you need to stock up on Harry Potter money — galleons, sickles and knuts — you’ll find a store at Cecil Court that sells that too.

Byron’s Harrow

At Harrow On The Hill, bustling central London could be centuries away. Walk up a steep, winding path so quiet that the only thing you’ll hear besides your own breathing will be the rustling of leaves.

There’s something about Harrow On The Hill that makes people silently reflective, maybe it’s the languorous silence that wraps the hill. Or the almost intimidating Harrow School, founded in 1572, with its world famous alumni, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and former British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, amongst others. (There are guided tours of Harrow, made up of a charming muddle of warm, inviting buildings, with random stairs and unexpected quiet courtyards.) Or maybe it’s the spectacular 900-year-old St. Mary’s Church.

Beloved by the poet Lord Byron, who joined Harrow as a student in 1801, St. Mary’s is the quintessential English church. Even tempestuous Byron, infamous for his many roaring love affairs, extravagant lifestyle and wild living (Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his best known ex-lovers, described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”), found peace here.

Soothing landscape

In the churchyard, beyond the shadowy tombstones, there’s a huge tree under which he used to sit for hours, both as a boy and an adult. It’s easy to see why. The view — green meadows, aged trees and quaint houses dappled with sunshine — is as soothing as a watercolour. Byron’s sentimental poem, “Lines Written beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow”, was composed here. A part of it is reproduced on the plaque that marks the spot now. When Byron’s beloved daughter Allegra died at the age of five, he insisted on burying her at St. Mary’s. However, today she lies in an unmarked grave and all there is to remember her by is a discreet, easy-to-overlook tombstone, tucked into a corner. And the lines from her father’s poem nearby:

How do thy branches, moaning to the blast,

Invite the bosom to recall the past,

And seem to whisper, as the gently swell,

“Take, while thou canst, a lingering, last farewell!”

Posh Curry

It is as Indian as palak paneer, and as international as champagne. Traditional, like a tandoor, yet sufficiently avant-garde to keep up with edgy food trends. It incorporates age-old ingredients like saffron, and showcases caviar from the Caspian Sea with equal zest. A whole new genre, this is the newest form of Indian cuisine, currently being created by talented chefs in competitive London. Greasy chicken tikka masala has finally ceased to define India.

At Zaika, where the sleek décor is more about clean lines than the typical mirrors-sequins-and-elephants kitsch, and the music more Talvin Singh than thudding bhangra, Chef Sanjay Dwivedi offers a gourmet tasting menu. This includes a tandoori grouper, served with upma (or “Indian cous cous” as they call it) in a surprisingly invigorating champagne and cardamom sauce. The high drama of the meal is sustained by a succession of beautifully designed courses — seven in all — and theatrical frills, like a waitress spraying a thick foam of coconut cream over spice-encrusted scallops, right at the table. There’s pan-fried foie gras, served with wild mushroom naan and mango chutney. And chocolate samosas drizzled with raspberry sauce.

But Dwivedi’s current piece de resistance is his experiment with molecular gastronomy (the science of creating cuisine by treating your kitchen like a laboratory), a steaming portion of fragrant wild mushroom rice, topped with a scoop of tangy tomato “makhni” ice cream and served with mini-poppadums.

Slick and stylish

Slick, stylish and sassy, Indian food in London has certainly evolved from the days “Indian” meant oily balti meat curries and cheap takeaway. While the British have had an enduring affair with “Curry Houses” for many decades, these restaurants haven’t always been the best ambassadors for authentic Indian cuisine. For one, “Indian” in the British restaurant sector is used generically and includes Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepalese, and Sri Lankan food, according to Pat Chapman who heads the Curry Club and publishes the popular Cobra Curry Guide, currently in it’s ninth edition this year with about 50,000 copies sold. “Most of these restaurants in the U.K., some 85 per cent or 7,200, are Bangladeshi owned,” he says.

Typically their menu includes lamb jalfrezi, aloo gobi, vindaloos and “chicken naan”. “In a curry house, all the sauces are the same,” states Samir Sadekar, chef of the smart new Imli restaurant in Soho. “They just put in onion, carrots, tomatoes add spices and keep it cooking. Then, when a customer orders something, they’ll mix turmeric for a yellow colour, or red food colour for a chicken tikka.” And this holds true, right from Aberdeen to Brighton.

Nevertheless, these places are still popular and can be credited with having made Indian food a part of the British menu. “It’s also the British affinity for India,” says Chef Vivek Singh, of Cinnamon Club as he sips a luxurious Saffron Gin, glinting with gold leaf, in his trendy restaurant set in the old Westminster Library. “It’s the romance of the Raj… the best time of the Empire, and that just doesn’t go. So the feeling towards spices and silk is deeply engrained.” He adds that he constantly has customers who talk of grandfathers who served in India, “They still have old letters, photographs and paintings.”

Yet, he says even about a decade ago, although Indian food was wildly popular, “when it came to the top five, top 10 restaurants in the city, you would never find an Indian restaurant listed. It was still classified as `ethnic’ and it still had a cheap image.” Justifiably so since there was no quality control. “But because these restaurants were also successful — the most successful in the country — they didn’t need to change,” says Singh.

Raising the bar

Then restaurants such as Tamarind, which received a Michelin star for the seventh year running this January, began to raise the bar. Our motto is “change your perception of Indian dining”, says Rajesh Suri, Executive-Operations for the Tamarind Group. “We have high standards and inspect all supplies. If the sous chef is not happy with one fillet we send it all back.” Alfred Prasad, the Chef, adds that “London is the best place in the world for a restaurant, and a chef. But you have to be creative. And original. It’s very competitive.” And although they don’t innovate wildly, believing “there is enough diversity in Indian food. We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. There are so many regional specialities… the opportunities are endless,” they do “push the boundaries,” to quote celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey. Roghan Josh with avocado for example, or “butter chicken with herb butter to calm it down,” says Prasad.

Imli, Tamarind’s sister restaurant, on the other hand is about fast, casual dining,” says Chef Sadekar. “Vegetable brochettes, fenugreek wraps, papdi chaat and mushroom tikkis… What we are offering is lighter food, and great quality at affordable prices. For the common man, this food is a revelation. After a meal here people say, `I never knew Indian food was actually like this’.”

With three-year-old Benares (featuring contemporary food from all over India by Chef Atul Kochar) also being given a Michelin star this year, it looks like London is finally taking Indian food seriously. As a result, there’s tremendous competition and every chef is pushing himself relentlessly, resulting in leaps of creativity. “In India people are still following old rules… recipes that are 200 and 500 years old,” sighs Singh. “In India, unfortunately, we can do anything we want with any other cuisine, but we cannot touch Indian food. Indian people will not take any innovation.” He adds, “I create food that is relevant.”

Not just simplistic fusion

“People are changing the way they eat,” agrees Dwivedi. “We’re making food lighter. I don’t do rasamalai. And I don’t do rasagullas. I don’t eat them. Nobody does, unless it’s at a shaadhi… I’d make a crème brulee or chocolate samosas instead.” He insists it’s not simplistic fusion, but all about playing with flavours, textures and techniques. “When people dine at Zaika for an occasion we want them to remember it for the rest of the year.”

“At Cinnamon Club we’re still cooking with spice, still cooking Indian — but in a contemporary intelligent way,” says Singh. “I do a European fish on a Bengali sauce served with lemon rice, which is south Indian: the whole plate is Indian to me. The customer is comfortable because he recognises the fish, yet there’s still a wow factor.”

All this confidence is being reflected in the pricing too. For a long time, people, used to curry house prices, resented expensive meals at Indian restaurants. “It’s a mindset that’s been around for 40 years — Indian food has to be cheap,” sighs Prasad. “We use the same suppliers as Gordon Ramsey. The same vegetables, the same fish… and that’s a three Michelin star restaurant.” Thanks to years of standing firm, and their unwavering quality, Tamarind and the others now charge as much as any top London restaurant, and still have a stream of happy customers.

“I take offence to India being portrayed as just the land of snake charmers and tigers. There’s a brilliant, modern India too,” says Singh definitively. “We are comfortable with the international world, why shouldn’t our food reflect that?”

Byte Sized Pakodas

Sauté onions till brown. How brown? I’ve-spend-a-week-in-Goa brown? Smoke-alarm-shrieking brown? Or I’ve-been-using-Fair-And-Lovely brown?
Recipes can be infuriating for amateur cooks. All those annoying professional terms: chiffonade the herbs, add a bouquet garni, julienne the vegetables. How many times have you been bent over a glossy cookbook, double-boiling and basting away like some 21st century witch, wishing that you could hubble, bubble, broil and etouffe the writer? Fortunately the YouTube generation has come up with a solution.
Between all the videos of apparently unbalanced young men having astonishingly idiotic accidents and stammering adolescents showing us how to use iPhones, there are now heaps of kind chefs and accomplished home cooks who record their recipes, thus demystifying the kitchen for once and for all. (At this point, we must point out this does not include the bright sparks at ‘Will It Blend’ who feature an intently serious man attempting to pulverize everything from golf balls to the Iphone in a Blendtec ‘Total Blender.’)
People like Chef Sanjay Thumma, who has found himself catapulted to stardom thanks to you tube, are quietly revolutionising the way people cook. Sanjay began recording and posting his recipes online just two years ago on Today, his name throws up about 20,000 results on Google. His lemon rice alone prompted 10,000 instant hits. Sanjay says that he now gets an average of one lakh viewers a day, from all over the world.
Cooking styles have certainly changed. The dog-eared, turmeric stained, well-loved family cookbooks, passed down for generations might just become a thing of the past. I, for instance, take my dinky iPod Touch into the kitchen and balance it on the microwave when I cook. The ability to view Sanjay, and cook simultaneously, makes following a recipe as easy as boiling an egg.
Sanjay says written recipes are really for professionals. “Home cooks tend to make mistakes,” he says. “With a recipe, one in ten people can make it good. With a video 99 out of 100 can make it good.” Especially with Indian food. As anyone who’s ever tried to learn how to cook from their grandmother knows, Indian food involves a lot of “one pinch of this, a handful of that and a fistful of curry leaves.” Sanjay does precisely the same thing – but you now have the option of pausing, grabbing the mustard/ turmeric/ salt and then mimicking him perfectly.
“Indian food all about adding things at the right time, cooking to the right texture, to get the right results,” Sanjay adds, explaining why it’s beneficial to actually see for how long he fries onions, blends cucumber or churns yoghurt.
Sanjay’s an interesting example of how much professional Chefs can do to reach out to the public in these times, when the Internet makes all barriers obsolete, whether they’re geographical, professional or culinary. He studied hotel management in Hyderabad and then worked for the ITC hotels in Gurgaon, Chennai, Agra and Jaipur. He then moved to Chicago in 1998, where he eventually started his own restaurant ‘Sizzle India.’ It was successful enough to become a chain, but 4 restaurants and 7 years later, Sanjay decided life was getting monotonous. “I decided to sell all of them and take a 2 year vacation. Food is my passion – doing business is not… All I wanted to do was cook.”
During the vacation, he bought himself a video camera. By September 2007, Sanjay had set up a slick studio in Chicago and began recording his first 150 recipes. “I just used the restaurant favourites,” he says, “Because everyone wants to know how to make butter chicken, chicken 65, chicken tikka.” Then came the basic cooking: pakoda, sambar, chutneys. The show is largely based on requests from his large and loyal fan following.
Now, he’s moved back to India, to Hyderabad, and his website’s finally making money, though the videos are still free. “People who like the recipes donate money. And there’s also some advertising on the site.
The best part? The excited e mails from people all over the world. We’ve always known food can break barriers. Teamed with YouTube, it’s clearly unstoppable.

The Skinny On Lattes

I avoid skinny lattes dusted with cinnamon. I look askance at caramel macchiato. When a tall cappuccino slithers past me in styrofoam, I merely nod coldly. Global coffee is convenient no doubt, but it’s also completely devoid of romance.

Coffee shops have traditionally been the refuge of writers, thinkers and colourful troublemakers. Today they’re more about Rihanna than revolution. More for slick investment bankers than grungy poets. Containing more Armani suits than flowery Give-Peace-A-Chance bandannas.

These chic chains have been taking over the world. Once upon a time, you travelled to experience new cultures — for adventure, personal growth and novel experiences. Today, you can boat right into the heart of darkness, like Conrad’s Marlow, and then, instead of muttering “The horror, the horror”, just hop off and order a Brazil Ipanema Bourbon coffee “popular for its mellow, pleasant notes of cocoa and almonds” and “as light and lovely as a classic bossa nova tune.” It gives a whole new twist to living dangerously.

I did make an earnest attempt to boycott all chains for a while. I figured that if a reasonable number of people do that, it means the small, quirky and — most importantly — local coffee shops would have more of a chance of survival. It worked brilliantly in places such as Edinburgh, where locals and tourists exult in cafes with character and names such as Under The Stairs, The Witchery or Loopy Lorna’s Tea House. You wouldn’t expect less from a city where even love is deliciously wacky, judging by a recent gum tree posting: “Guy with light Asperger Syndrome seeks girl in Edinburgh that lacks social skills?? I like coffee shops, scenic places, folk music, art galleries…”

However, finding people and places that are this fiercely individual is getting increasingly difficult in Chennai. Especially now, with the city getting determinedly international and hip, as fast as it possibly can. Which means that it’s hard to find a cafe where you can have a conversation, read a book or write a poem, without being subjected to Ricky Martin, the fashion police in the form of skinny girls in skinny jeans and a menu that bristles with Italian coffee and French terminology.

Fortunately, the few places we have, such as Amethyst and the Eco Café, are so popular with the locals that they’re inspiring other restaurateurs. Such as Shafee Ahmed, who has just opened Beanstock on Anderson Road. It’s obstinately old-world, with antique furniture, pretty hanging lamps and bamboo. Set beside a decidedly edgy new boutique called Ambrosia, the café’s designed to be a space for a quiet pause.

Shafee calls it his “garage café,” since it sits beside a house, under a roof of pretty Mangalore tiles. Everything’s low-key here. There’s no air-conditioning; so, the café relies on its canopy of trees to keep it cool — which is working well, so far. There’s a funny little passage that connects the main part to another seating area, which feels a bit like a secret garden. And the cakes aren’t perfect, thank goodness. “I didn’t want a very nice-looking cake,” says Shafee, pushing forward a plate piled with moist blueberry and apple-cinnamon muffins, “I want food that looks like it was cooked at home.”

That’s why he’s got a supplier who bakes everything at her house (with real butter, if you please.) Right now, Beanstock is still working on its menu, so it’s rather basic with sandwiches, milkshakes and a couple of pastas. They have ambitious plans though, including a huge Beanstock in Kottivakam, next to Bella Ciao and Chennai’s latest addiction, the Paintball grounds. Maybe, it’s the beginning of a trend.

Here’s raising a toast to coffee shops where you can drink filter coffee cross-legged in delightfully frumpy pyjamas and write really bad poetry. Or, a really good book.

Beanstock is at 31, Anderson Road. Call 42188181 for details.

EXCLUSIVE: He Says, She Says: Season 2

On Movements: Women want upliftment, Men don’t mind any movement as long as it has ups and downs.

He Says:

Think about all the activist movements you’ve come across crying for your attention to save something or the other: gay rights (save our souls), vegetarianism (save the animals), Green Peace (save the environment), anti-war (save the world) or free speech (save us)… What’s common to them?

They all acknowledge that they are up against something larger, something so stronger and superior than them that it takes more than one of them to fight it. In fact, the basic idea behind activist movements is that they are in constant need for more and more of their tribe to take on all mighty, powerful majority who run the system.

That’s probably why men never sign up for any ‘Masculinist’ movement. For God’s sake, have you even heard of one?

Men are confident, even amused at the thought of asking another man for help to stand up for him. After all, there’s nothing a man can’t do but the even more significant point is that: Does he really want to do it?

Not unless it gives him tangible pleasure, monetary gain or brownie points when he’s bored.

So I wonder why women feel the need to gang up in the name of feminist movements?

Because, by doing so:

1. They acknowledge that the “other” (in this case, men) are running the system and are much stronger than them.

2. They come across as scaredy cats who want to hide under a banner or umbrella without an individuality of their own.

3. They jeopardise their chances of scoring with men with a sense of humour… and humour knows no political correctness.

4. Post-point/stage 3, end up lonely and in need of company, social security with plenty of time to sign up for activism, a voluntary activity that does pay. At least, not in cash. Or tangible pleasure.

5. Post-point/stage 4, by ganging up to take on the all-mighty ‘other’, are only re-emphasising points 1 to 4.

Moral of the story: Men like their action only when it’s fun. Women take their activism way too seriously.

She Says:

I’m feminist. And I don’t flaunt facial hair.

I just thought I’d clear the air, because that seems to be the common assumption about feminists, i.e. they’re a bunch of ugly women who use activism to give them a power that lipstick cannot.

Of course, if that’s how you dismiss feminism, you’re probably as shallow as a baby’s wading pool. Especially if you also subscribe to His theories, which summarised seem to indicate that feminists are a group of nervous women who band together so they:

1. Don’t feel lonely.

2. Can tremblingly acknowledge that men are more powerful;

3. And have given up trying to desperately hook male chauvinists (all of whom apparently have a rocking sense of humour).

Though if you really believe all this, my terrified, lonely, weak — yet shockingly still functional — feminist mind is just going to come to one conclusion: You’re really aren’t the brightest lipstick in the makeup kit, are you?
Feminism is essentially humanism. Feminists are women AND men who stand up for the rights of half the world’s population, because it’s routinely discriminated against.

The woman who insists she’s equal to any man is a feminist. The girl who refuses to be Barbie is a feminist. The open-minded man who treats his partner as an equal is a feminist.

Stand up for your rights, and you’re feminist.

The alternative? Well, for one you can sing along with Aqua’s Barbie Girl: “I’m a blonde bimbo girl, in a fantasy world/ Dress me up make it tight I’m your dolly… Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please. I can act like a star, I can beg on my knees…”

Though, I must point out in my rabid feminist way, any man who dates That, might as well just get himself a poodle. It’ll save him a fortune on diamonds at least.

(By Sudhish Kamath and Shonali Muthalaly)

The Power Of Clove

Dried whole limes at the Dubai Spice Souk

Turmeric, Myrrh, Frankincense, Cinnamon, Indigo

Turmeric, Myrrh, Frankincense, Cinnamon, Indigo

To my eternal fascination, I recently met a girl who’s frightened of cardamom.

We were at a dinner party in Abu Dhabi, standing in a friend’s kitchen discussing shoes, news and all things important when she spotted a menacingly large jar of cardamom on the shelf beside her. She recoiled in horror and then, between shudders explained that the little pods really scared her. Biting into one mid meal was clearly the stuff of nightmares: “They’re all smooth and creepy and ugh.”

To tell you the truth, i feel the same way about cloves. 

Spices really do have strange powers.

Once back in Dubai, it seems appropriate that we have to take an abra (Arabic for a traditional wooden boat) across the dark, restless creek at night to hunt down the city’s enchanting spice souk. We’re seated next to a group of Emiratis, in abhayas and kanduras for whom the crossing is clearly routine. Beside them, there are excited Japanese tourists recording every minute of the journey with blinding camera flashes and squeals.

Clearly, spices, like tourist attractions, tend to bring the most diverse people together.

We’re hugged by a cloud of tantalizing fragrances as soon as we get off the abra: cardamom, pepper and cloves intertwined with other, more unfamiliar, scents. Following our noses, we walk into the 18th century. A row of colourful stalls bustling with people of all nationalities shimmer with the delicious scent of frankincense.

The souk, set beside the creek, trades in spices that have traditionally arrived by sea from all over the world, mainly the Far East, India and Sri Lanka. Today, while the rest of Dubai exults in air-conditioned malls boasting gourmet hot chocolate, caviar and Christian Dior, the souk remains obstinately unchanged.

We first notice the rocks. Huge salt rocks and astonishingly bright bars of indigo, used to dye clothes. There are baskets of dark volcanic rock, to be used as pumice stones.

Then come the fragrances. Frankincense and myrrh, conjuring up images of kindergarten Christmas plays and the biblical Three Wise Men, carrying these as gifts as they travelled through the desert on camels, following a star. The more mysterious myrrh is a collection of dark saps from different trees in Yemen, and billows into a thick, sweet cloud when set on red-hot coal.

Of course there’s saffron, from Iran. A favourite with the American, Japanese and European tourists for whom rare saffron really is the ultimate in exotica. I’m more interested in the huge sacks of inviting nuts, set in rows. We chat with shopkeepers who earnestly urge us to try handfuls: cashew nuts dusted with fresh pepper, pistachios encrusted with rock salt and crisp almonds. They’re followed by chocolate coated dates with nut centres, which are chewy, gooey and crunchy at the same time.

We buy stunning pepper jars, filled with peppercorns in different colours — red, green, grey and black — from a variety of countries ranging from Brazil to India. We also discover the fabulous bezar, used in Arabic cooking. It’s a mix of cumin, fennel and coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, pepper corns, dried red chillies and turmeric powder, all roasted till they’re golden and then ground together.

Bundles of the biggest sticks of cinnamon I’ve ever seen are set beside fascinating sacks bursting with dried limes – black and brown from Oman. They’re popped whole into stews and soups. Or pierced, peeled or crushed before being added to biriyanis, meat dishes or seafood.

There’s red and white ginseng. Fresh vanilla pods. Intriguing bundles of red and pink dried rosebuds.

Rosebuds? They’re perfect for tea. Especially if you want to pretend you’re a heroine from one of those ridiculously enthralling Mills and Boons -type stories set in the desert. Arabian stallions, campfires and a cup of cinnamon and rosebud tea makes for an ideal combination.

It also works pretty well after one too many tequila shots. Bet the ancient seafarers who explored the world for these spices would be surprised at how far their bounty now travels. And how differently.