Swimming With Sharks

I n Fiji, the sun pours down like honey. It delves through the sea, lighting swathes of blues and greens. Leaning out of our boat, we trail our fingers through schools of flirty fish. Perfect. Except, I’m worrying about becoming a shark’s lunch.

The adventure seemed so much more fun earlier that afternoon, when I was safely eating fish fingers at the sprawling Mana Island Resort. Fiji comprises 330 islands strewn across the South Pacific Ocean. Mana’s the largest on the Mamanuca chain, renowned for silky white beaches, bustling coral reefs and Tom Hanks’ “Castaway” (shot on Monuriki). We land at Nadi Airport on Viti Levu, then take a graceful yacht (aptly named Opulence) from Port Denaru marina to Mana Island, about 45 minutes west.

I’m slathering myself in sun block, airily discussing the merits of snorkelling over scuba diving when the team from Aqua Trek arrives with a boisterous round of ‘Bulas’. Over here, the cheery Fijian greeting ‘bula’ is as ubiquitous as frangipani, which is threaded into welcome garlands, piled atop fluffy beach towels and tucked behind the ears of the hunky local men.

A dive for conservation

Aqua Trek’s popular with divers for its experienced local instructors and ‘shark encounters’. In 1999, the company’s Brandon Paige (or as they like to call him — ‘The Shark Whisperer’) created a dive to educate people and aid in the conservation of these creatures.

Divers get to watch up to eight species of shark — from silvertips to 16-ft tiger sharks — get fed.

It’s safe because they operate on mutual respect. Besides, the Aqua Trek guys grin, there hasn’t been a shark attack in Fiji in years. “There’s always a first,” I mutter darkly, as the music of the movie “Jaws” swells up threateningly in my head.

Half-an-hour later, we’re at the Dive Shop, getting outfitted for our swim before clambering on to the boat. Dives offered from here include the South Beach dive, “home to many stingrays”. If that doesn’t excite you, there’s ‘Gotham City’, hangout of the batfish. And, of course, The Supermarket, where the shark encounter takes place. Further north, they offer “beautiful wall dive where you can swim with schools of Barracuda”.

We’re headed to the North Reef, guided by dive masters Jonetani Rokoua and Ilisoni Vaniqi. The sun’s gentle on our faces, the wind’s in our hair, and I’m sidling up to Ilisoni. “So, any sharks expected?” I say, my air of breeziness only slightly marred by the fact that I’m chewing nervously on my cheery orange flippers. “Sure,” he grins, gently pulling them away, and indicating it’s time I put them on. I gulp. “The thing is, I ate fish fingers,” I quaver. “They might, you know… um… want revenge?”

He looks concerned. “Okay, remember this.” I grab a notepad, and nod rapidly. “When you see a shark, look him in the eye…” “And?” I say, breathlessly. Ilisoni finishes: “And say, bula.” He dives off the boat.

I slide into the water, warm enough for a baby’s bath, adjust the snorkelling mask, and look into the sea. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. Intensely coloured corals form a swaying backdrop to bustling crowds of flamboyant fish. Every colour in the palatte is represented, in fearless combinations.

We swim over schools of self-important Sergeant Major fish, striped convict fish with guilty expressions, ill-tempered triggerfish biting off coral bits. A triggerfish pulls faces at me, wriggling his fat little Picasso-bright body, as his partner pouts her Angelina Jolie lips. A brilliant cloud of tiny blue and green chromis rises up out of the corals.

You never realise how much personality fish have till you go underwater. After snorkeling, we scuba dive, becoming participants rather than audience, swimming carefully to avoid harming corals as delicate as lace. The soft corals gently sway as we swim past spotting electric blue starfish between them. We wriggle between schools of zipping, darting and laughing parrotfish. Angel fish float about thoughtfully as if they’re composing sonnets. Jonetani points out the clownfish. Glowing orange with artfully placed streaks, the local variety — the Fiji Barbari, is loved for its playfulness, and is an unofficial mascot for the divers.

It’s certainly lucky for us. While we affectionately blow bubbles at Nemo, Jonetani tugs my hand. We watch in awe as a majestic baby white-tip reef shark glides past regally. Following from a respectable distance, we see another. And, then comes the black tip reef shark — with that characteristic triangular fin, the staple of screechy horror flicks. I’m too fascinated to worry.

Back in the boat, we head to a sand spit: our own little island. Jonetani bounces ashore with a picnic basket: hot tea and bags of chocolate cookies. We walk about jabbing our bare feet on prickly pretty corals, soak up the sun, and finally dive right back into the invitingly blue sea.

(The writer was in Fiji on the invitation of Tourism Fiji)

This little piggy went to market, This little piggy stayed at the cove, This little piggy got sunburnt…

We notice Joshua’s flaming red flower as he helps us out of the boat at Castaway Island. As we wade through the waves, wriggling our toes in the warm sand of yet another dazzling Fijian beach, he explains the significance. “In Fiji, we have no wedding rings. So wear a flower behind your left ear if you’re single, right if you’re married.”

We thoughtfully sip on chilled Chardonnay cocktails served in tender coconuts as Joshua sums up our first class on Fijian dating. “So, left ear if you’re looking and right if you’re cooking.”

The irony seems a bit unfortunate for the pig-on-a-spit at the Musket Cove Island resort, wearing a jaunty frangipani behind his right ear. Served with tapioca, bowls of bright salad and piles of juicy skewered prawns, this dinner’s an attempt to rediscover the food of traditional Fiji. Destination of choice for tourists from New Zealand and Australia for decades, the islands’ resorts — many owned by expatriates — have spent years focusing on International food with imported ingredients. They now realise it’s time to introduce more local recipes for food tourists and culture-vultures.

Fiji comprises 330 islands in all, of which less than one-third are inhabited. The islanders are so friendly, it’s difficult to believe that this was once a land of fierce cannibals. All that’s left of that lifestyle today are cute brain-picking forks sold in chic boutiques on Viti Levu (site of the nation’s capital city Suva). Apparently they’re great for salads.

Our cooking class is conducted by the beach at Musket Cove Island Resort just before Mr Piggy makes his debut. Under a spectacular island sunset, we learn how to make the much-loved Kokodo. Fresh Mahi Mahi fish is cubed and marinated in lemon, salt and vinegar overnight. Then it’s mixed with finely chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, and capsicum. Finally, the whole concoction is slathered in cool, rich, luxurious coconut cream.

At the local market in Nadi, Viti Levu, we weave between bundles of emerald spinach, chunky taro roots and piles of fat ginger. Though lots of produce comes from Australia and New Zealand, the government is now encouraging local farms, and requesting resorts to buy from them. Fish is plentiful, of course. A long, laden counter glistening with Red snappers and Barracuda. Sea bream and Coral trout. Blue fin trevally, Long-nosed emperors and knots of eels. The small fish are tied on a string, forming a necklace only Lady Gaga could wear, and sold in sets of 10.

Over here, families celebrate major occasions with a Lovo feast, also a staple at almost every resort. The work begins early in the day, as the Lovo pit is filled with wood, then set on fire. Rocks are placed on top of this, so they turn red hot. Then food — wrapped in plaited banana leaves — is placed inside, covered and left to cook for hours. The result is delicious: tender vegetables infused with the flavour of charcoal and spices. Meat so luscious it practically falls off the bone.

On our last day we dive off a boat, to swim in the warm Pacific waters clutching a fistful of soggy bread to feed the fish. They swim towards us indolently and nibble delicately, like socialites at brunch. In the evening, despite our sea-tangled hair and flaming sunburns, we make an effort to glam up for dinner. We’re headed to The Plantation, a fine-dining restaurant at the Sonaisali Island resort. After a flurry of dainty starters, we eat slow cooked pork set on a crab cabbage roll paired with a delicate apple and muscatel confit teamed with glasses of heady red wine. Dessert’s a delicate toffee basket filled with ripe tropical fruit topped with sorbet.

Our host suggests we end our evening with Angry Fijians — a wicked shooter comprising banana liqueur, Malibu rum and Bailey’s Irish cream. He kicks off his shoes and leads us to the Zero Bar at the other end of the property, insisting we walk to enjoy the balmy sea breeze. The perfect Fijian antidote to la-di-dah dining: star strewn skies, barefoot bars and giddy nightcaps.

Eating through Hong Kong

Egg tarts as sweet as sunshine

 

Springy, bouncy, wiry noodles in steaming soup

 

Flashy Mongkok by night

It’s midnight and we’re prowling through the dark, chilly alleys of Kowloon, Hong Kong.
As Temple Street’s night market quietens down, people flaunting fake Louis Vuittons, triple piercings and shiny leather pants elbow past looking for a late night snack. In true flashy big city style, the neon boards and electronic signage act like disco lights, covering the scene in surreal red-blue-green swathes.
We’re looking for Tim Ho Wan, the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. This tiny eatery, run by the former dim sum chef of the Four Season’s hotel is so popular we’re warned there’s a three hour wait for tables. Yet, in Mongkok, the locals – busy eating pungent tofu, Siu Mai and a Hong Kong style fried chicken covered in sesame seeds – don’t seem to know its exact location.
By 1 a.m. we stumble upon an alternative: a petite, steamy, bright eatery bursting with teenagers wearing their angst and iPhones as badges of honour. After much gesticulation the owner brings us a warm basket, filled with succulent fish dim sum and a bowl of sharp soya sauce. It’s teamed with sticky fried rice studded with disconcertingly sweet, fatty sausage.
Our Hong Kong food adventure’s off to an interesting start.
The next day we wake up to delicate stir fried vermicelli noodle crunchy with peanuts and a stodgy congee. It’s time to tick off the two next items on our ‘best of Hong Kong food’ list: silk stocking tea and egg tarts.
Hong Kong’s Central Business District is chic and busy, bustling with fashionistas in elegant winter coats and edgy hairdos. At the Good Spring Herbal Pharmacy, young bankers in sharp suits and startlingly feminine manbags delicately sip on ginseng tea, dispensed from an ornate, steaming brass pot. Inside, pharmacists read Chinese prescriptions written in graceful calligraphy, rapidly choosing roots and powders from heavy wooden cabinets and wrapping them up in crisp paper.
After a glass of Sweet Flower tea, tasting of honey and gardens, we trip into the Lan Fong Yuen tearoom. This heaving café claims to have invented Hong Kong milk tea, strained through a silk stocking. Serendipity sees us seated with charming Ad executive Jacqueline Ho, who logs onto Hong Kong’s popular OpenRice website on her iPhone to show us the best places to dine. After cups of the thin, smooth milky tea, served in heavy Lipton cups, she walks us to the Tai Cheong Bakery next door for egg tarts.
Ten minutes in line, and we’re rewarded by a warm, wobbly egg tart. Set in a flaky, buttery, golden pastry shell, the deep yellow tart is silky and just sweet enough to be satisfying. The city’s last British Governer, Chris Patten agrees. The store front boasts a blown-up picture of him pasted across the window, declaring his allegiance.
Day three’s dedicated to noodles. And, hopefully, that elusive Michelin meal. Back in central after a lot of walking, much of it uphill thanks to the city’s steep inclines, we find ourselves staring at an unexpected bonus – the Michelin ‘approved’ sign outside a random restaurant in the CBD. Inside, it’s quiet but for the steady sound of slurping as the family at the next table enjoys their bowl of noodles. Our noodles, however, lack punch – they’re watery and tasteless. The sticky rice served with soy and honey glazed pork is delicious, however. The pork’s so succulent and well done, it can be taken off the bone with just chopsticks.
Ever since travelling-celebrity Chef Antony Bourdain ‘discovered’ Mak’s Noodle in Wellington Street, it’s been a tourist magnet. However, following Jacquline’s advice to pick crowded restaurants, we head to Tsim Chai Kee, opposite Mak’s and positively bursting with the local lunch crowd. Inside, the community beach is so narrow and packed I’m a little worried my hungry neighbour will mistake my elbow for his lunch.
Tsim Chai Kee serves just three kinds of noodles: shrimp, fish balls and beef. My bowl of translucent wantons stuffed with king shrimp set on a generous squiggle of wiry, springy noodles arrives quickly. The noodles, wallowing in a fragrant broth, have to be teased out with chopsticks and a soup spoon.
Nobody bothers with small talk. Everyone’s here to eat, and eat well. Who needs a pat from Michelin with food so good.

The Franschhoek Valley Food Safari

We drive past quiet vineyards, gleaming horses and Hansel ‘n Gretel cottages. Watched over by towering mountains, idyllic Franschhoek Valley (about an hour away from Cape Town, South Africa) seems to be the land where time stands still.

More than 300 years ago, when Protestantism was outlawed in France, hundred of Huguenots were forced to flee their homeland. When a group of them arrived at the Cape of Good Hope by ship, the Dutch government gave them land in this valley. It was then home to wild elephants and called Oliphantshoek, or Elephant’s Corner. In a delightfully appropriate twist of phonetics, it became Franschhoek — French Corner.

We kick off our day of culinary tourism at Graham-Beck wineries, where cellar master Pieter Ferreira walks us through the elegant tasting room, lined with lustrous bottles from floor to ceiling. Upstairs, in the private dining area we gather around a table bearing a tray of smoked salmon and an array of wine glasses filled with the most curious ingredients. There’s a glass of bright yellow butter. Apples, oranges and strawberries. Crumbly brioche, thick honey, roasted almonds.

There’s even one filled with what smells like instant soup mix. “It’s got umami — which is the flavour that you also get in tomato and parmesan cheese,” says Ferreira, opening a bottle of Brut NV, a sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He then gets us to match the flavours in the wine with the ingredients in the glasses. It makes the usually airy-fairy exercise, so loved by the connoisseurs, far easier to understand.

We’re understandably a very cheery group by the time we get to their Cuvée Clive, a sophisticated bubbly that tastes of spring. Ferreira explains that they wait for six years, till the carbon di-oxide gets more integrated, “it becomes finer; the bubbles feel softer, rounder, like feathers on the tongue”.

We’re plied with more bubbly as we enter the sprawling grounds of Le Quartier Français, a restaurant so distinctive it’s practically become a local institution. Owner Susan Huxtur’s got all sorts of stories about guests, ranging from petulant celebrities to Russian businessmen accompanied by a flood of gun-toting bodyguards. Listed on the San Pellegrino’s influential list of the world’s top 50 restaurants, it’s even managed to edge ahead of Thomas Keller’s iconic French Laundry.

It’s surprising because unlike the restaurants of chefs such as Keller, Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià — all acknowledged to be culinary revolutionaries — Le Quartier Français is defiantly laidback. You almost expect to see people in scruffy Bermudas lounging by the pool, beside the resident cat.

However, the moment the starters arrive it’s clear why this restaurant is special. The food is simple, focusing on maximising flavours by using the best local ingredients and intelligent techniques. And then there’s the tongue-in-cheek presentation.

Fluffy corn bread is served in a dented sardine tin besides crisp sheet bread peppered generously with fennel seeds. All accompanied by the most deliciously nutty butter. “You allow butter to clarify, and then whip it into fresh butter to get that caramelly taste,” explains Chef Margot Janse, adding with a grin, “All the butter and milk here comes from a cow called Daisy who lives nearby.”

That morning, when she was jogging Janse found wood sorrel, which turned up for lunch. It’s set on a salty jelly of porcine, in the form of foam that tastes like sour grass. We also eat a coffee roasted warthog loin served with potato fondant, garlic puree and currant vinaigrette. (It helps that I don’t know it’s warthog till well after the meal.) And there’s lamb, from the Karoo region of South Africa, served with chakalaka marmalade, inspired by the spicy chakalaka made in the townships of Johannesburg.

This is food that is rooted, and that’s its greatest strength. Today’s gourmands don’t want to travel halfway across the world to eat the expected, no matter how smothered it is in time-honoured exotica like truffles or caviar. They’re in search of the unexpected and irreproducible.

Which is why Janse’s approach works: she leans on the strength of local ingredients and is constantly inspired by traditional recipes and flavour pairings. Then, she reinvents it all for a global audience.

Cape Town: City of Faith

This is a city that’s been rescued by faith. Time and time again. The wandering Khoisan and Khoikhoi were drawn here by the benevolence of Table Mountain, which provides the city with water through its porous sandstone structure. They called it Camissa, or ‘place of sweet water’.

Framed by mountains and fringed by beaches, Cape Town proved irresistible to the ships of traders and merchants who docked here — Portuguese, Dutch, British… Eventually, the slave trade was rampant, drawing labour from all over the world to build the city. You know the rest of the story — after all, it’s unnervingly recent history. Apartheid. Rebellion. Freedom. Forgiveness.

As the old order changed, it was faith — in their country, leaders and themselves — that kept the South Africans from plunging into anarchy. Of course, there were, and still are, massive problems — unemployment, poverty and crime. Post-freedom, the country’s biggest cities became recklessly dangerous. Today, this intimidating reputation for violence lingers. A reputation they’re working hard on changing.

Cape Town’s now a playground for the rich. Yet, for a long time, its inner city suffocated under a deluge of graffiti, theft and violence. Till the Cape Town Partnership stepped in. Since 1999, it’s been bringing together corporates, citizens and the Government, to rejuvenate the historic downtown area.

They have faith in the city, believing it’s worth saving for its remarkable beauty as well as history, containing lessons for the world. The partnership has repaired street lights, cleaned graffiti, and worked on crime prevention. Now, they’re inviting businesses, tourists and locals into the inner city to enjoy its public spaces together, with art exhibits, concerts and markets.

“We want to get the locals to come here. Get them out of their cars, high-security buildings and shopping malls…” says Andrew Boraine, chief executive of The Cape Town Partnership. “We run walking tours to teach people the history of our city, which is the history of our country… This is the oldest area of modern human settlement on the planet. People have lived here for 75,000 years.”

Lined with graceful heritage buildings, each with a chequered past, the centre of South Africa’s ‘Mother City’ certainly has atmosphere. History leaves its mark. Especially, when it’s turbulent.

Take the Purple Rain revolt, for instance. In 1989, thousands of anti-apartheid protestors were on the streets with banners stating ‘The People Shall Govern.’ When the police turned a water cannon filled with purple paint on them, intending to mark and arrest, a student swung it around, showering the police. The next day walls were scrawled with triumphant graffiti declaring: ‘The purple shall govern’.

Today, the event is celebrated by stories, public artwork, and the ‘Purple Turtle,’ a club that calls itself ‘the cornerstone of eccentricity and culture in the South African music scene’. As Cape Town has discovered, history stays relevant when it keeps pace with the lives of its people. Hence, reinvention is essential. This way buildings and stories continue to serve a purpose, instead of merely becoming empty repositories for stories and fading memories.

Taj Cape Town, a joint partnership between Tata’s Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces and Eurocape (an Irish property investment company), for instance, is housed within the historic South African Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers buildings located in the downtown area. Significant to Capetonians, it not just gives a fillip to inner city rejuvenation, but is also a tribute to the rainbow people.

After all, Cape Town’s first Indians, among many other nationalities, first arrived in on filthy slave ships in chains between the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Slave Lodge down the road from the hotel, once a dilapidated, filthy prison, locked in about 9,000 slaves between 1697 and 1811. Today, it’s a glossy museum endeavouring to convey the horror of its past. South Africa has discovered that air-brushing its tumultuous history does nobody any favours. Over here, healing comes with truth, no matter how painful, and reconciliation, no matter how difficult.

Groote Kerk, next door to the Slave Lodge, offered little comfort in those days. The site of the oldest Christian congregation in South Africa, it was open only to the whites. On the other hand, St George’s Cathedral, just down the road, surmounted its inevitable colonial beginnings to become a symbol of protest for the anti-apartheid regime, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Once home to vigils and high drama, it’s now peacefully hushed, lit by the candles flickering around a striking black Madonna and vivid stained-glass windows.

Today, the inner city is still speckled with barbed wire. Houses and stores bristle with menacing grills, locks and posters promising an ‘Armed Response’ to break-ins. Yet, the streets feel non-threatening.

South Africa’s current focus on tourism has involved locals and traders, explaining how important it is for tourists to feel safe. It helps that everyone we meet is fiercely proud of the country. The bargaining at Greenmarket square, once a place to sell slaves, and now the site of a bustling flea market, is cheerfully spirited. One charming woman selling quirky hand-made jewellery even seals the deal by enveloping me in an unexpected hug.

Healing comes in many ways. Perhaps, Cape Town’s performance poet Malika Ndlovu said it best — “In the light of memory and remembering / Through the streams of ourselves / reconnecting / recollecting / we find our way home.”

***

(Jet Airways recently inaugurated non-stop flights from Mumbai to Johannesburg, six days a week. Return Economy fares start at Rs. 35,595, while return Premiere (Business Class) fares start at Rs. 1,16,020. Jet Airways’ new Airbus 330-200 aircraft departs from Mumbai at 0205 hours, and arrives in Johannesburg at 0735 hrs. From there, it’s a two-hour flight to Cape Town)

Inside a male fantasy in Bangkok

 

Raising the bar in Bangkok. Take 1.

Shoot in session at The Witches Tavern

 

I’m in the centre of a male fantasy. And I’m not quite sure about the appropriate etiquette. Hah. Grabbed your attention, haven’t I? Now, let’s start at the beginning.
Bangkok. But of course. It’s the perfect place to play out the wild and wicked, right? The day starts at the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel, where we free fall into theatrical decadence. The lobby, covered in mirrors and crystal, is outfitted with fur couches and velvet sofas so brazenly funky you could be forgiven for assuming they recently escaped from Lady Gaga’s boudoir. Very MTV.
Which could explain why the channel, which brought us here, chose this as our base.
The MTV girls, in hip gladiator sandals and shorts, join us for dim sum in the coffee shop to bring us up to speed on the issue of male fantasies. For, there’s serious work afoot amid all the talk of partying in Pattaya and shooters in Patpong. MTV India is introducing the country to a whole new genre of reality programming: Fantasy reality TV. And we’re here to watch it unfold.
A few hours later we’re in the ‘Eristoff MTV Male Fantasy 101Villa,’ which makes even our flashy hotel look tame. Sprawling between a rolling emerald golf course and serene artificial lake, this souped up party pad has everything MTV assumes a man could possibly want.
We walk into the living room, equipped with a bar, snooker table and – yes – PSP (that’s a play station for the non-gamers among us.) There’s an indoor basket ball court. And one huge room features a pool, flanked by a swing on which three pretty young things sit applying mascara. Beside the pool, inexplicably, there’s a bathtub.
No pretty frills, lace curtains or dainty vases. Instead there are giant speakers, flat screen TVs and martini glasses everywhere. This is clearly a villa designed by a man. Which brings me back to my original dilemma. What’s a woman to do in a masculine dream villa, tended to by 4 sizzling hot women playing chauffer, gardener, cook and maid. I try some snooker, some bar stool swivelling, some paddling in the pool.
Then it’s time to meet Aditya Swamy, Senior Vice President, MTV India. He sits cross-legged on a gigantic leather couch while explaining the concept of the show over Diet cokes. “Its heightened reality crossing over into fantasy: super models, fast cars, super bikes…” The show’s targeted at India’s young ‘gimme more’ generation, intent on being cutting edge. “Four buddies coming and living together in a pad like this – you’ll have a good time. We also looked for people who embody the spirit of young India.”
More dignified than your typical reality show, fests of obsessive back-biting, grotesque bitching and petty fights, MF 101 is more about allowing viewers to live vicariously than appealing to their inner soap opera demons.
“Typically reality shows are all about who gets out – here there’s no elimination, no tasks, no fighting. We’re moving away from the mainstay of reality TV, which is conflict,” says Aditya.
Instead there are challenges. “You want to date a supermodel? Go ahead. But can you really handle a high maintenance woman? Can you really ride a souped up bike? You want to throw a big ass bash – can you take a night club and make it the most rocking?”
We meet the four lucky men at the Witches’ Tavern, a bustling pub dominated by a large rectangular bar, which is, predictably enough, seething with skimpily clad women. They turn out to be grounded,
articulate and charming, a relief given the fact that most reality TV
contestants can be outmanoeuvred by an orangutan. They also keep trying to distract us with tequila shots. Fortunately, we’re too bust with our bright pink cocktails, stirred with miniature brooms, to get sidetracked.
So here’s the dope on them. Chatty Ankit Vengurlekar’s an anchor on a popular news channel. Harpreet Baweja is an outspoken, ambitious entrepreneur who already heads a chain of spas. There’s a model, Sahil Salathia, who’s disarmingly friendly as he tells us about his secret weapon – a software degree. Rohan Sapra, the shyest, ironically has the most rock star lifestyle, since he’s a DJ in a trendy Delhi club.
When asked to define the best part of the experience, they’re unanimous – it’s the camaraderie. And the super bikes. We gasp. Not the women? “They’re just a part of the picture,” says Sahil. But what about your sexy staff? They nod, “Yeah yeah, they’re there. But man –
you should have seen those bikes… They were awesome.”
Adrenalin junkie Harpreet, adds, “I did an incredible flat out drag race against a professional Thai racer. I hit 185. It was exhilarating.” Over the month they’ve also partied on a yacht. Relaxed on a deserted Island. Dived into the warm blue sea in the middle of nowhere and raced each other to shore. Taken over a nightclub to run it for one evening.
“Each time all four of us are taken on a journey. That’s what I like about the show. It’s Entourage, not Desperate Housewives,” grins Harpreet. “And at the end of the show we can all party,” laughs Rohan.
A dream job? Well. Apparently, it’s not always easy. “Dating a diva was tough,” says Ankit, rolling his eyes. “Here I am trying to talk to her and she’s reading Vogue. Then I suggested a boat ride? And she was like ‘Dude, I’m wearing a dress!’”
What they really enjoy, they say, is the ability to try everything. “These are experiences that you can’t have in normal life,” says Sahil. Ankit adds, “Yeah, reality will feel very bland after 30 days of such high notes.” Harpreet adds, “Waking up each morning there is a sense of adventure…”
“This is living life king size,” says Rohan. “To chill out, enjoy… do
whatever you want, try whatever you want — every single day.”
(Eristoff MTV Male Fantasy 101 airs on MTV India every Saturday at 10 p.m.)

Kundalini questing by the Ganga

It’s a chilly 3 a.m. Dark. Windy. Quiet. Yet, somehow, I find myself racing through a garden grouchily brandishing a frightfully pink yoga mat. I’m accompanied by nauseatingly cheerful people: A fiesta of track pants, tattoos and chic jeweled turbans.
Spiritual Rishikesh’s is not easy to love. Certainly not at first sight. Not if your mantra is materialism, at any rate. Or if your idea of a holiday involves croissants in bed at 11 a.m.
Yet, by 4 a.m. we’re meditating in cross legged silence on a stony floor, ‘awakening our chakras’. Well, some of us are. My chakras only respond to mochaccinos. Fortunately, no-one frowns on Shavasana, that deliciously languid yoga posture. So I lie down and sneakily nap till breakfast.
And a good thing too.
We’re at Parmarth Niketan, set in Rishikesh’s Swarg Ashram area on the east bank of the Ganga. Where the action never stops.
Signing up with Connect With Himalaya (see box) for a healthy holistic holiday I had pictured spa-styled rooms, languid river cafes and quirky boutiques. I quickly learnt that Gaurav Punj’s idea of rejuvenation differed vastly from mine. (In hindsight, I should have got suspicious when his packing list included an LED torch, Electral packets and running shoes, instead of eyelash curlers, body shimmer and stilettos.)
Our power-holiday begins at Parmath, where Rishikesh’s annual International Yoga Festival is in full swing. Resting at the foothills of the Himalayas, beside India’s most holy river, Rishikesh has drawn the spiritually inclined for centuries: powerful mystics seeking solitude, yogis training their bodies into lithe time-capsules, troubled truth seekers desperate for redemption.
They came quietly, setting up kutirs in caves and rocks, living lives dedicated to silence. Then in 1968, The Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram (now closed), and introduced Rishikesh to the Western world. Suddenly India, specifically this sleepy town, was the cure to disenchantment. Everyone from hippies, high on marijuana and music, to health junkies, touting veganism and six packs, flooded Rishikesh. And Rishikesh absorbed them all.
Today, in addition to being a serious centre for yoga and spirituality, has grown into a refuge for an eclectic collection of karma chameleons, soul searchers and bendy yogis from across the world. They arrive in droves for the festival, all impossibly toned, enviably flexible and inevitably festooned with the usual Kundalini-questing paraphernalia: jingling silver lockets, lotus tattoos and chunky rudraksha malas. Religious songs sung with nasal American twangs and guitars blare on the streets from bookstores abounding with titles such as ‘The soul of love’ and ‘Death must die.’
All this on rustic Swarg Ashram road, crammed with fiercely bearded swamis in saffron, tea stalls fragrant with ginger and beatifically rambling cows.
To be in Rishikesh is to be far away. Cut away from your world, and all its trappings. It’s both disconcerting and vaguely thrilling. Like discovering a secret garden in your backyard.
The festival brings together brilliant and quirky teachers from across the world, demonstrating how incredibly plaint yoga can be — translated into so many powerful, and relevant, versions. While there’s plenty of kooky dancing, cheerleader-style whooping and running around the garden, the most satisfying (and difficult) classes are the ones taught by yogis determined to stay true to the principles of their school – even if they do jazz things up with music and fluidly choreographed movement.
Mohan Bhandhari, for instance, co-founder of YogiYoga in China, takes classes in Hatha Yoga, aimed at strengthening the core and spine. Then there’s LA-based Marla Apt who demonstrates restorative postures using the props of Iyengar yoga. And Kishen Shah, adjunct professor at UCLA, leads students though active and static meditation, demonstrating that stillness can be just as challenging as intense movement.
Yet, it wasn’t all flexing, sweating and downward dogs. Rishikesh is the gateway to the Himalayas, about1360 feet above sea level, and Gaurav ensured we explored it, luring us out of the cafes (abounding with gooey chocolate crepes, bright mezze platters and elegant pizzas) with promises of hills carpeted in flowers and glimpses of mountains draped in snow.
Our walks take us over the delightfully wobbly Ram Jhula bridge and into the Lakshman Jhoola area, crammed with pretty handicraft stores, twinkling tea stalls and quirky cafes. We squeal across the Ganga in a boat, flashing silver with fish. We pant and gasp 2 kms uphill to Kunjapuri temple, majestically overlooking the Gangotri range.
Back at Parmath, it’s time for our last Ganga Arti, an hour filled with singing, music and lamps. As the prayers reach a crescendo, people release bobbing diyas into the inky river, where they rush away in warm circles of light.
Further upstream at Shivpuri, the final leg of our trip, the Ganga changes character, roaring impatiently at the many muddling white water rafters. The first rapid grabs and tosses us playfully, the second has us clinging to the slippery boat in terrified delight, the third forces us to dive in, screaming with the shock of icy water. In half an hour we’re ‘body surfing’ blissfully, holding a rope dangling from the boat and thinking deep thoughts. Like what’s for tea.
Crisp onion pakodas and frothy coffee, in case you’re wondering – intensely satisfying in the way only comfort food can be when you’re tired and hungry. We’re now at Ganga Riviera, run by Anil Bisht of Adventure Trails. A former mountaineer still in the midst of a love affair with the Himalayas, Anil has set his camp right by the river, but well away from the madding crowd. Access involves a half an hour walk, followed by luggage-bearing mules.
Our trek from here is on the old – and startlingly scenic – Badrinath paidal marg, cut into the cool mountains for shade. It’s so silent you can practically hear the mountains breath. Till you hear the tinkle of a rambling horse’s collar. Or run into a shepherd, carrying an adorably cuddly lamb amidst a roadblock of wooly sheep supervised seriously by shaggy sheepdogs.
At night, the sky practically bursts with stars, as we curl up by the crackling bonfire at camp and listen to chilling stories about mountain spirits. As the fire dies, we stumble towards our welcoming canvas tents, lit with flickering lanterns. Then, comfortably exhausted, we fall asleep listening to the languidly hushed murmur of the Ganga.

Connect With Himalaya
Trek to Miyar valley, land of the blue poppy. Though quaint mountain villages, lush pastures and up a theatrically coloured glacier. Get initiated into the mysteries of Ladakh. Stay with the locals in snow leopard country, mountain bike across the area’s moonscape and raft on the Indus.
Or head to the valleys of Rupin and Supin, where you traverse spectacularly high ridges, to discover a mysterious forgotten lake, Baradsaar, revered by the locals.
‘Connect With Himalaya’ (CWH) is all about exploration. The travel outfit introduces city slickers to new travel experiences by following the old rules. Run by Gaurav Punj and Rujuta Diwekar, both passionate about these mountains and their people, Two-year-old CWH encourage trekkers to experience the Himalayas the way the locals always have: Taking on the challenges of the terrain by foot, following the paths of the shepherds and sleeping under the stars. And, most importantly, by moving away from the well-trod paths of the big operators.
“Right now the tour operators show a very limited area, and it’s thoroughly exploited,” says Gaurav, explaining why his routes are refreshing. “Manali, for example, has become a hub of adventure activities and there are now more travel agents than tourists there.” He adds, “You can’t ever know everything about the Himalaya. It’s so diverse — regions, people, culture, geology.” After travelling extensively for many years, he finally realized the best information came from the locals. “I got to know, for example, whom to trust for arranging my trek in Ladakh, or my stay in Munsiyari, or my transportation in Spiti. This is when the idea of CWH was born.”
Focused on sustainable tourism, CWH works with local guides, porters and drivers, in an attempt to inject money into the poor villages. “We believe in responsible tourism, and work on understanding the culture and lifestyle of the Himalaya’s people,” he says, talking of how every trek involves them, with homestays and adventure activities.
CWH offers about 25 trips a year, of which about 60 per cent are completely new, born out of exploratory treks. Their focus is on discovering the unusual, whether it’s a café tucked into a stony cliff or a valley of flowers.
Gaurav insists that evading the coaches and finding fresh destinations is not as tough as you would imagine. “About 90 per cent of the Himalaya tourism is in 10 per cent of the region,” he says, adding with a grin, “I have trips planned for the three years, all new places.”
For these are mountains you can explore your whole life, and still not completely discover.

Bourdain on Cooking and Cobras

He’s eaten the live, still beating heart of a cobra in Saigon. After munching through a handful of crisp fried tree worms he likened them to “a deep-fried Twinkie. Only wormier.” He travels the world with an astonishingly open mind: whether he’s in a gun club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the menu includes a sampling of firearms, or a secret Russian fight club, where diamond draped blondes sip vodka and watch men beat each other senseless. He’s executive Chef of Les Halles, a traditional French restaurant in Manhattan. Oh, and, he’s pretty hot, with his bad boy leather jacket and attitude.

Forget delicate creativity, starchy linens and artistic flair – Anthony Bourdain’s more about kitchen machismo, fiery opinions and flamboyant food making him a sort of a culinary rock star.

With his travel show, featuring extreme cuisine, and action packed books, the chef-turned-author-turned-TV presenter, has been tripping around the world years, followed intently by a large brigade of foodies, travel buffs and – let’s be honest – breathless women.

In a telephonic interview, organised to promote his show No Reservations on Discovery Travel and Living, he seems thrilled with his life, cobra hearts and all. “I am very aware of what a great job I have,” he says, “With the freedom to go where I want, when I want and say what I want. I’ve been given free reign to discover the world… It’s an extraordinary and amazing job.”

Bourdain talks of discovering India, wandering through Rajasthan, Kolkata, the Sunderbans and Mumbai. “My first impression was that India is both beautiful and frustrating. It is so big that you can’t rid yourself of the sense that you’re missing most of it.” Saying that although he and the TV crew tried to see as much as they could, he adds, “I could easily spend the rest of my life making television in just India.”

While his travels threw up a number of surprises (“Royal food in Rajasthan, and the fact that though I’m a vocal proponent of the carnivorous diet, India is possibly the only place I can eat a vegetarian meal”), he seems most excited about eating vada pav on the Mumbai streets. “I’m a big fan of the Bombay burger — potato in a bun.”

Unfortunately, Bourdain was forced to leave out south India, as another TV show was recently shot there and the producers felt it would be repetitive. “I was very frustrated about that,” he says, “I haven’t ever been there. It was one of my first choices. I’ve heard so much about the seafood…”

On his quest for the perfect meal (“I wanted the perfect meal… I wanted adventure. I wanted kicks… I wanted to see the world. And I wanted the world to be just like the movies”) Bourdain tends to concentrate on everyday food because “people are proud of their local food; it’s the purest expression of a culture”.

Categorically stating he’s not interested in fine dining (“The world is so globalised now. Fine dining chefs tend to cook like fine dining chefs, irrespective of where they live… fusion food in Mumbai isn’t too different from fusion food in Melbourne”), he says, “People from all income levels are beginning to crave the authentic. They’re less snobby about fine dining.”

Meanwhile, his forays into extreme cuisines, he insists, certainly aren’t for shock value. “People eat very differently around the world. What someone in America finds shocking is everyday food for people in Thailand. I’m interested in whatever is good.” He also believes that food and travel are inseparable. “I don’t think you can enjoy or even experience a country without a willingness to sit with the local people and eat and drink.”

His writing is equally down-to-earth. “I don’t try to be an authority or an expert. It’s not a priority for me to describe the entire history of the food. I come from an oral storytelling experience in the kitchen… I try to give people a sense of what things looked like and smelt like at the time.”

And when he’s not describing a desert feast with Blue-clad Berbers in Morocco, or bodysurfing beside a fishing village in Vietnam, he writes crime novels to escape. “I write about me and what happens to me all the time. So, it’s a relief to escape to a world of imagination from time to time.”

But food is clearly his first love. Discussing the world’s best chefs, he names “Thomas Keller in California and the chefs at French Laundry in Napa Valley”, and then adds “every chef who shows up at work every day and cooks well… Anybody’s mother who cooks well. I think cooking’s a noble activity.”

As for that perfect meal he’s been chasing for so long? “I’ve had so many,” he says thoughtfully. “You can’t look for the perfect meal: it finds you. It might be a simple bowl of noodles soup in Vietnam, or a plate of roast bone marrow in London. It’s not about the food. It’s context that’s important. Like who’s cooking it… A Bombay burger is as much a perfect meal as dinner in Paris.”

Fudge Cake Among The Karma Chameleons

Irresistible? The Brad Pitt of the salad world.


We stumble down by torchlight.

Past wobbly wooden fences enclosing whispering gardens bright with lettuce, lemons and pumpkins. It’s windy at night by the glacial Ganga. So finally inside the cosy thatched ‘ theatre,’ featuring a stage strung with fading bed sheets, we’re intensely grateful for the offer of steaming honey-lemon-ginger tea.

This is Rishikesh’s most charming secret. An endearingly earnest attempt at ‘Supper Theatre’ by Ramana’s Garden, an orphanage run by expatriate turned India-insider Dr. Prabhavati Dwaba.

Ramana’s draws support from Rishikesh’s unique blend of international tourist truth seekers, karmic collectors and almost-worryingly bendy yogis by reeling them in with a crafty mix of inspiring eco-warrior theatre, soul-satisfying organic brown rice and wicked amounts of fudge cake. The play, a fiery treatise on how big dams suffocate ‘Ma Ganga’ is irresistibly inspiring thanks to its stars, a bevy of feisty kids unapologetically hamming it up. The orphanage uses the inevitable donations this play prompts to hire lawyers and file PILs against dam construction every year.

Then, it’s time for dinner, a triumph of vegetables so vibrant they taste of sunshine, at Ramana’s Garden Gallery Cafe. We file in, soaking up the atmosphere — low wooden tables, haphazard strings of tiny lights, warm brick walls.

Glowing with a combination of salad, fresh air and crafty lighting!

Our meal opens with the Picassos of the salad world: crinkled lettuce, deep green argula piled with delicate carrot sticks and juicy piles of grated beetroot. It’s all topped with a generous dollop of creamy avocado. The sophisticated blend of flavours, texture and colour is fascinating. Especially given the fact that it’s been dreamt up in an unpretentious kitchen, worlds away from the influence of five star chefs, fancy equipment and edgy culinary schools.

Local, vegetarian and planet-friendly, this food bursts with equal amounts of colour, virtue and nutrition. “The menu changes everyday based on what is in the garden,” says Dwaba, adding, “It tastes so good because everything you are eating was growing an hour ago.”

When Dwaba first came to India 30 years ago (seeking enlightenment in a time-honoured tradition) she says her “guru” told her to live in silence “in a cave for a year”. That’s when she noticed the malnutrition among children. “It was outrageous. It made no sense. If you drop a seed here, you get a vegetable. If you tend it you get ten,” she says, explaining why she began this project. Meanwhile we’re working our way through thick wedges of lasagne, stuffed with lush pumpkin, zucchini and mushrooms, surrounded by buttery tagliatelle and oozing with creamy cheese.

There’s also nutty brown rice, punctuated by spurts of broccoli. “We started the cafe four years ago to feed the kids,” says Dwaba, “because sometimes we’re so financially strapped we have trouble. With this restaurant we make money everyday.”

Tonight Ramana’s Café is buzzing, thanks to a flood of guests from the International Yoga Festival at Parmath Ashram. Dwaba adds with a grin, “From tonight we hope to eat for a week!” Her project includes a mountain retreat, where a lot of their produce is grown both for the orphanage and the restaurant. Apples for instance, which can be eaten fresh, in pies or in their popular apple-ginger jam.

The seasonal menu incorporates a range of English vegetables, unusual varieties (our salad for instance includes four kind of lettuce) and innovative ideas, though the food is unfailingly simple. Over the year, guests get to try stinging nettle soup, walnut-cashew pizza and plump momos, besides home-baked croissants, cakes and cookies.

Which brings us to dessert. A fudgy chocolate cake, bursting with cocoa and good intentions. The little boys who staged the play are wandering around, posing for photographs.

Our Indiana-Jones styled scientist seems to be hitting it off with the startlingly cute Germs (who dressed in evil sequins and Bwa Ha Ha-ed through the play). In an unusual twist one of the Germs offers to cut my slice for me, sawing it into mush in his enthusiasm. I’m proudly handed a pile of unsteady crumbs, accompanied by an unwieldy old spoon and a big toothy grin. Best food presentation I’ve seen so far!

(For more information look up check http://www.sayyesnow.org/)
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Seeking culinary Utopia

Writing love notes in History class? After all, you figure, the past can bury its dead. It’s far more important to get yourself a date for dinner, right?
Well, it might surprise you to know how dramatically your dinner – irrespective of what you’re eating – has been influenced by history.
Every kind of cuisine — whether it classic French, hip Californian or traditional Indian — is shaped by its past. By invaders, traders and rulers. Peace, wars and politics. Love.
Think that sounds like the voiceover to some cheesy historical drama (preferably accompanied by a sweeping Oscar-winning musical score)? Well, then take the story of Catherine de Médicis, a princess from Florence, Italy. When she married King Henry II of France in the early-1500s, she moved with an entire entourage of talented Italian Chefs, who proceeded to impress everyone with their sophisticated food. Of course what was served and eaten at the palace set the tone for dining tables across the country.
Food is arguably the most powerful expression of culture. However since food customs are so sensitive to external influences, traditional recipes, ingredients and cooking methods are rapidly being influenced by quick-fix methods and the addictive all-pervasive trend of global cuisine. The most accessible foods of every culture — Mexican nachos, American burgers, Indian curry — are conquering dinner tables the world over.
But, simultaneously, taste-tourists are travelling the world in search of food thrills, culinary epiphanies and cooking discoveries.
So where’s the next food frontier? Try the relatively undiscovered countries of South Eastern Europe. Also known as the Balkans, stretching across Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro etc.
Countries like Bulgaria unwittingly managed to preserve much of their traditional food culture thanks to Communism, says gorgeous Chef Vita Bozadzhieva, who travels the world introducing people to the food.
At the Raintree Hotel, in Chennai, where she’s conducting a Balkan food festival, she talks of growing up in a very different environment where people worked hard, ate at home and used only local products and produce. “I am 33 years old now,” she smiles, “When I grew up, it was like Coca Cola, ‘Wow!’ Restaurants then served mainly either Turkish or Balkan food. “The Turkish were in our city for about 500 years. So we have super-mixed culture,” she says, adding that nevertheless, even now the Balkan countries have a cuisine culture that is distinctly different from the rest of the world.
“Our country is not so economically developed,” she says, “Still we believe that the wife must cook for her husband. I’ve grown up in that culture.” As a result, she says, their food is more homey. After all, it evolved in kitchens, not restaurants. In the hands of housewives not Chefs. And because of Communism, it marinated in tradition, undisturbed by outside influences for about three decades.
“Till about 15 years ago, it was very closed,” says Chef Vita, “People were not travelling so much. It was also very difficult to go out of the country.”
Hence the cuisine, influenced by a host of ancient invaders including the Romans, Greeks and Turks, had time to steep and simmer for a while. Appropriately enough, that’s how a lot of their food is prepared. “We use lots of herbs, and the food takes a long time to cook, to soak in all their subtle flavours,” says Chef Vita. “We also bake a lot. Every kitchen has lots of ovens.” They’re also one of the few places left in the world, besides India, where they set their own curd, instead of just buying tubs from the supermarket.
This food is necessarily rare right now. After all the Chinese and Indian emigrants travelled the world with baggage bursting with of home-made spices and recipes, thus getting huge chunks of the world enamoured with their food. Meanwhile, places like the USA, Britian and many Europian coutries (think Greece, Spain, Italy) gain converts thanks to mix of pop-culture and tourism Meanwhile, dishes like Chef Vita’s fragrant stewed lamb, served with chunky potatoes in thin gravy, remain undiscovered since it’s only recently that the people of the Balkan’s started to travel, and welcome visitors. There’s one more hurdle. “We’re a small country. For example you take a car and drive for six hours and you have reached the other end,” laughs Vita.
This, however, means Chefs like her have a distinct advantage that sets them apart.
“For me, I believe we are born and grow up, where we must be born and where we must grow. If I was born in a Communist regime, it was because that was what was right for me,” she says. “Now I realise it is an advantage. I’m different!”
Which is really the most exciting thing about food cultures, when you come to think of it. This is history that you can actually taste.

Sho-Buzz

August 2022
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