Ginga and Sardines in Lisbon

Every time a car trundles past, I stand and hoist up my red plastic chair.

This certainly isn’t the most glamorous way to have a drink in Portugal. It is, however, the most atmospheric.

In Lisbon’s Alfama district – a maze of candy-coloured houses exuberant with dangling clothes lines – bars unapologetically ramble all over the street. My friends and I dive into a flurry of skinny lanes, watched by old ladies peering curiously from their windows and plump cats wearing supercilious expressions.

After an hour of rambling, we end up at a particularly charming bar, with its daily menu scrawled on cardboard paper and plastic chairs set right on the road. Fortunately only three cars go by in the time we’re there, leaving me just enough time between moving furniture to gossip with the neighbours and sample some fried cod croquettes.

At the next table, I watch with fascination as an old lady, roughly eighty years old, grandly enters with her dog. She grabs a chair and a beer and then sits down for a languid smoke, the leash casually draped around her shoulders. Beside her a gang of stylish old men with rakish hats order a round of beers. A friend tells us this is how to find a good restaurant – look for the ones filled with retired locals.

The next day, on our way to Castelo beach, we stop at Costa Da Caparica, a scenic ferry and bus ride away from Alfama. Our search of antiquated Portuguese people ends at a tiny corner restaurant where we order the country’s much loved grilled sardines, silvery and crisp, soaked with the unmistakable flavour of a charcoal grill.

Over the week we spend in Lisbon, this becomes a familiar smell. Especially because Alfama district, where we’re staying, is swinging into street party mode as summer sets in and random street corners are taken over by smoky sardine grills. We take deep appreciative breaths, savouring the aroma every night, as we head out for Fado music, pub crawls or merely another evening of knocking back countless shots of Ginga, the much-loved and dangerously addictive liqueur made by infusing ginja berries (or sour cherry) in alcohol.

Later in the week we decide to supplement our childhood history classes by a visit to Belem, from where Vasco Da Gama set out for India. The Jeronimos Monastery, a fantastical tangle of spires and sculptures, is easily one of the prettiest monuments I’ve ever seen.

Once we’ve done tourist thing, José Guerreiro, guide turned buddy from the Pancho walking tour, takes us to his favourite haunt: Pasteis de Belem. Loved by the Portuguese as well as tourists, this enormous café has been making its signature egg custard tarts since 1837.

As legend goes, in the beginning of the 19th century this was a small general store linked to a sugar cane refinery. When the liberal revolution of 1820 closed down all convents and monasteries, someone from Jeronimos began making these sweet pastries as an attempt at survival. This secret recipe has been passed on through generations of master confectioners.

Our waiter at Pasties de Belem proudly brings us a tray and suggests we eat each pastry with a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon. Carefully crafted, the flaky, buttery pastry is balanced by a sweet, wobbly interior.

Back in Alfama, we take to rambling through dark alleys to discover new restaurants. One of our best meals is in a hot, crowded Filipino-run nameless restaurant comprising of just two rooms, one of which has unfortunately been captured by a group of spectacularly untalented karaoke singers.

We squeeze into chairs in the main dining room, and are served bowls of deliciously salty olives speckled with garlic along with a generous jug of scarlet sangria. Plates of golden fried rolls filled with mincemeat follow. And then plates heaped with grilled sausages, rice and steamed vegetables. A pot pourri of food traditions – but one that works.

As we leave the gregarious owner laughs as he explains why he has no signboard. “They told me it’s 550 Euro to register,” he says, “So I call my restaurant Hollywood Grill, but only in my head!”


Gypsy dreams and jackal curry

Ayako Iwatani is heading home — to the gypsies.

Her biological family may be in Japan, where she’s an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hiroshima University. But right now she’s bouncing with excitement about visiting the people she lived, and bonded, with for one and a half years in Trichy while doing research for her doctorate on the ‘dream narratives’ of the Narikuruva (alternatively known as the Vaghizi) people.

 “I came to Chennai first in 1996 to meet them. I’ve been fascinated by the gypsies almost all my life,” says Ayako, now thirty eight years old and fluent in Tamil as well as the Narikuruva dialect. “Though they’re always seen as vagabonds and criminals, they’re also so attractive and mysterious. I was curious about how they see themselves.”

When she finished school, Ayako made a journey that would influence the rest of her life. “I went to the South of France to meet the Gitan gypsies… you know, the ones who do flamenco…” (Once of Europe’s most prominent gypsy groups, the Gitans, who spent many years in Spain before settling in France, are stereotypically colourful, with dusky skin, rousing music and theatrical dancing.) “I stayed with them for a long time; living in camping sites… we became friends.”

Discussing how India is the original home of the gypsies, she explains how their travels around the world are shrouded in mystery. “They began from North West India sometime between the 2nd and 9th century. Today, because of politics they’re forced to settle down. But even if they are not nomadic their lifestyles are very fluid. They change jobs constantly, and do work that’s inherently unstable, like picking scraps, selling antiques, gardening…” She adds, “Because they were always the last to come, they’re perpetual outsiders.”

She chose to travel to Chennai because she was curious how little information there was available about the gypsies of South India. “I went to Madras University and asked about the Vaghizi. They live in the streets, in Triplicane, by the beach…”

Although her first visit was brief she was so fascinated she vowed to return. “I decided to do a Doctorate on them, and this time I wanted to live with them. Otherwise I can never understand how they live and what they feel.”

Since Trichy has the biggest population of Vaghizi, she decided to go there. “No local research assistant would come with me. I was told they’re dirty, dangerous…” So she went alone, and stayed for one and a half years. “For the first 4 or five months it was very hard. Five of us shared one room. Men, women and children all sleeping together. There was no electricity at first, but I got it connected, put in a fan. Also a phone.”

“After a while it got easier. I even went on a business travels with them. We took buses to Goa, Sabrimala to sell beads…” While they have no written records, stories and names are passed down through generations. “One man I met in Trichy could recite his ancestors’ names for 17 generations. They also pass on a folded cloth that represents their goddess.”

The food was wildly varied, cooked on wood fires. “Narikutti Curry… I think that’s jackal – or is it a fox – from the forest. I’ve eaten cat once,” Ayako says blithely, adding “Also pigeons, rabbits… local vegetables. It’s good food. I love the rasam, Same spices but made in a different way. So good.”

Her PhD on their ‘Dream Narrative’ was based on early morning conversations, when everyone discussed their dreams. “For them dreams are important. In their dreams they are goddesses.” Like the Gypsies of Europe who celebrate ‘Black Sarah’ their patron saint (also called Sara-la-Kali and Black Madonna), the Vaghizi believe in a female higher power.

Mesmersized by her new family, she kept extending her stay. “I finally left because I had to go back and write the thesis. It’s tough to keep in touch. They are out of the house a lot of the time… and even when they are home often the phone is cut,” she sighs, adding “Although I submitted my research, I’ve come back every year.”

Ayako’s current trip’s dedicated to the street performers in Gujarat, also of gypsy origin. “I’m here for just one month this time.” Right now however, she’s is a hurry to get to Trichy. “I’m staying a week… and looking forward to going home!”


July 2011