Travels into The Heart Of Darkness

We would like to say that Koyambedu at predawn, pre-adventure, is inspiring. However, our story begins in a slushy bus terminus alive with the scent of rotting vegetables. We scramble into the bus to Chidambaram, settling on seats shiny with grunge. The mission is to reconnect with Pichavaram, the subject of the first piece in MetroPlus’s popular Road Less Travelled Column, which ran for over four years starting November 2003.

Following RLT tradition, we’re buffeted by wind, burnt by the sun and drenched with rain over the course of the journey. Emerging at crowded Chidambaram — looking vaguely Rastafarian with hair matted with rural grime — we swat amorous flies, elbow away friendly moustachioed men and teeter through suspiciously smelly slush, muttering darkly about Nature being overrated.

But, the journey’s just beginning. For some reason people always seem to enjoy tales of reporters put through trials of fire. Admittedly, it’s inexplicably satisfying to read about writers balancing on stinky fish carts, climbing sweltering rocks and crawling through spooky caves (all genuine MetroPlus RLT experiences) over a cup of comfortable coffee at home. It’s less fun when you’re acquiring a glorious Bob Marley hairdo miles away from your (sniff) hair stylist, (sob) shopping mall and (sigh) coffee bar.

Fortunately the waiters at ‘Vandayar High Class Vegetarian’ restaurant are friendly, despite our clearly irrational demands for a menu. (“Meals, madam, meals. Only meals.”) About six of them wait on us, giggling manically as they advise us on the best way to reach Pichavaram, about 16 km away.

Outside, the sun seems brighter and happier than usual as we clamber into an auto and zip towards the mangroves. Moving deeper into the villages, the auto weaves between goats sprawled across the road like languid Roman emperors, and the breeze gets cooler as the sky gets darker. It speeds unsteadily through emerald fields, tiny huts and flashy statues. Along buildings painted in a tasteful blend of neon green and violent orange. Very Manish Arora. Little seems to have changed since Shalini Umachandran explored Pichavaram five years ago for RLT. The road still boasts potholes, gaudy fertilizer adverts and statues of politicians painted in gold. The TTDC complex, which was under construction when the first RLT was written, is now ready. But it’s still rather basic. There is however a watchtower with a surprisingly sophisticated telescope through which we’re shown the glittering Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, almost 10 km away as the crow flies.

TTDC’s gushing website states Pichavaram offers “abundant scope for water sports such as parasailing, rowing and canoeing.” In reality, there’s still only one thing to do here. Take a boat into the mangrove forest.

Located in the Vellar-Coleroon estuarine complex, which is the northernmost part of the Cauvery delta, the brooding mangroves form lush forests that spring out of the water. Covering over 400 hectares, these hearteningly healthy trees, with their glossy green leaves, support a bustling community of varied wildlife: birds, insects and animals.

The row boat glides through intriguingly intricate passages of hanging roots carved out by the boatmen. It’s suitably mysterious: an enchanted wood. Sleek crabs scamper past, majestic falcons strut about, elegant kingfishers preen. In the background there’s the constant hum and flutter of insects and birds. It’s magical and yet strangely eerie: Like a huge multipurpose movie set, perfect for “Narnia” as well as “Omen”.

According to boatman Rajendran, hundreds of tourists wind through these waterways during the tourist season, which coincides with school holidays. Fortunately for us, there are no squealing children around. We’re alone. Like valiant explorers.

The azure sky’s perfect, especially once with our feet trailing in the cool water. Schools of tiny fish get competitive and race our boat, showing off their acrobatic jumps in quick flashes of silver. Besides being undeniably decorative, these mangroves absorb excess nitrates and phosphates thus preventing water contamination. They also act as a buffer, minimising damage from raging cyclones. Best of all, they’re not yet a popular destination, making Pichavaram one of the few places you can hear nothing but Nature breathing.

Though, if you’re staying overnight Nature tends to turn into the class bully. Our chaotically coloured room, with damp spots on the roof, flourishing ant community and cheery lizards, can only be accessed through damp fields rife with cows. Since there’s no phone, we’re advised to “open door and shout loudly” if we want anything. By 5 p.m. our boat ride’s done. “What else is there to do?” we ask. “Nothing.”

So we climb the watchtower and watch the sky slowly turn a brilliant orange and the sun sink in a burst of gorgeous hues. In minutes the sky begins to glitter with stars. Suddenly we see a fiery shooting star streaming ceremoniously across the sky. Minutes later the electricity fails, and we’re soon back in our tiny room, gingerly crouched on the bed in pitch darkness, hoping the giant spiders don’t find us. Beyond the window, alive with scurrying ants, the mangroves glimmer mysteriously in the moonlight.

Pichavaram’s not changed an iota in five years. Which is frustrating. But also fabulous.



The making of the Reluctant Gourmet

“Shame on u Shonali, u r a saddist … by the way we the people have a misconception of fine dinning in fact there is nothing called fine dinning, its good dinning. Appreciate what’s created rather than sounding to be a saddist” (sic)

(Anonymous hate mail from restaurateur, circa 2009)

I try. After all no one wants to be a ‘saddist,’ which I’m presuming is a crafty mix of sadism and unhappiness. It’s so much easier to be charming. Restaurateurs love you. Beaming chefs unveil complimentary desserts. Cheerful waiters hover fondly, sending occasional flying kisses. (Okay, so wistful imagination runs away with me occasionally.)

It must be admitted, not everyone loves The Reluctant Gourmet (RG). Ironically, in hindsight, that seems to be what makes this column work.

Just as our grammatically-challenged ‘saddist’ friend points out, people do “have a misconception of fine dining”. (But then she said ‘dinning’, which might just be a completely different thing.) As the country’s culinary scene grows at an exhilarating, not to mention bewildering, pace, pretentiousness sometimes overshadows quality. Ambition overrides ability. And, pricing derides common sense.

How does a food column make sense of all this? Especially when its writer is neither a cook nor a restaurateur?

Well, when the column launched, in response to the growing interest in food among Chennaiites, we decided to make it sound like an unabashedly honest friend. The kind of person you call for an opinion on where to eat. Or what to wear. Or to check whether yellow looks good on you. Brutal honesty offered with chatty updates became the RG tone. It worked, and the column eventually went national.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do try. So, instead of preachy lectures, RG canters excitedly into the colourful world of food, tugging its readers along — so far we’ve plodded through muddy vegetable markets, animatedly broken warm bread with baker-convicts at Chennai’s Puzhal jail and nibbled nervously on ‘hashima’ custard, thickened with the ovaries of a snow frog in a hip Singapore restaurant.

Restaurant reviewers have to be tough, because people should get what they pay for. It’s infuriating to go for a celebratory meal only to get lacklustre food, snotty service and a ridiculously high bill. This is my way of fighting for culinary justice. At the same time, I realise fairness is essential. After all, a lot of work goes into every restaurant opening, every menu and every meal. As everything in life, the truth is never black or white, instead, a perplexing range of greys.

Judging by the endearingly friendly mail from readers, this approach seems to work. (On the flip side, the RG tone’s proved so comfortingly familiar I’m called constantly by friends, acquaintances, friends of acquaintances and acquaintances of friends to provide hour-by-hour restaurant updates, food explanations and cocktail suggestions.)

As the opening letter shows, some of the restaurant folk are less enthusiastic. My friends are terrified to eat out with me, because they’re worried about chefs spitting in our food. (For the record, I think chefs are fabulous people. Shiver!) There’s the occasional threat from furious investors. And, after a review that’s less than flattering is published, I tend to stay away from the restaurant for about three months. I figure that’s long enough to ensure I don’t get a steak knife artfully positioned between my ribs. (It would just ruin my lovely Miu Miu evening wear.)

Actually chefs are astonishingly open to criticism. Many even have a reassuringly quick sense of humour. I once referred to a chef as Shylock, because his portions were tiny. The next time I was at his restaurant (after the obligatory three-month wait) with friends, a chocolate cake was delivered to our table. It has just three words across, in happy vanilla icing — “With Love, Shylock!”

In fact, The Reluctant Gourmet works, thanks to the many chefs, cooks and foodies, who’ve patiently explained ingredients, techniques and recipes to me over coffee, hot stoves and meticulous cookbooks. That’s also how it gradually acquired its politics — pushing local flavours, promoting food diversity, supporting sustainable eating. And, of course, its recurring theme — exploring the amazing way food from every part of India is so uniquely distinct. In this deliciously diverse country, food styles vary every 100 km or so, and every single household has an individual recipe for even something as basic as dal.

The restaurant scene changes almost every week in Chennai alone, which is where I’m based. In 2006, we wrote a MetroPlus food guide to the city, which went into reprint after reprint. Today, it would be a very different book. The city now has water sommeliers, wine libraries, and sashimi counters. The same things are happening across the country.

Things can only get better.

Meanwhile, I try to stay incognito to get an authentic experience. Sometimes I fail. So I’ll admit it: my prawns are bigger, my parathas fluffier, my pizzas more generously laden with cheese.

Think that’s fun? You try eating with a dozen hostile men in suits studying you all through dinner, like you’re a particularly twisted lab rat.

Though it must be admitted, drama like that makes for a good story. Even if that does make me — sigh — a bit of a ‘saddist’.