Eating in Bangalore and Delhi

In the train station-like waiting room upstairs at the Mavali Tiffin Rooms, my recently arrived coworkers from New York sat gingerly to the side looking a bit wan. As they watched the barefoot waiters in the dining room bring food to the tables in giant metal buckets, my friends seemed to be wondering what they should and shouldn’t eat or touch or do. That had recently been me. But on this day, having lived in India practically my whole life (about a week and a half), I was all up in the throng of people rushing the host and straining to hear their number called for a table. MTR is an institution in Bangalore and I, eater of too much hotel food, was eager to try it. They led us through a maze of dining areas, through a corridor with a dirt-floored room filled with potatoes at one end and a row of single table rooms at the other, and into our own room. We’d each ordered a 5-course vegetarian meal and received a giant silver plate with little sections around the outside of it. We ate things like Bisibele Bhath, a bright orange, spicy rice and lentil dish, with cucumber raita, little cool salads of purple cabbage and carrots, chutneys and sauces and mango pickle (one of the greatest substances on earth—so sharp and spicy and sour). The waiters, with their silver buckets, kept returning to refill our plates and give us perfect pooris to sop everything up. My squeamish colleagues kept demurring and our waiters kept insisting. After we’d left the table, they even called us back for a second dessert course.

Before I left, everyone who heard I was going to India, even a lady on the subway who overheard it, had a tale of digestive horror to tell me and a tip or warning to offer— don’t ride in a tuk tuk, keep your mouth shut in the shower, don’t eat street food, drink a lot of gin and tonics to ward off malaria, don’t eat fruit or raw vegetables, use a straw when sipping a canned soda, and whatever you do, don’t drink unfiltered water. So understandably, upon arrival, we were all be a bit hesitant. My friend Nick was right when he advised me: “You will be confused and frightened for a few days and then you will love it.” I was nervous and extra careful at first and I still got sick so I figured, if I’m going to get sick no matter what, I might as well live a little.

On my flight over, I had ordered these steamed rice cakes—like fluffy white pancakes—called idlis. You dip them in coconut chutney and a nice smelling soup called a sambar. It’s made with tamarind and pigeon peas and various vegetables. The pigeon peas cook so long they get all mushed up so the sambar is really more like a stew.  My hotel in Bangalore (Le Meridien Bangalore) had them too but they weren’t as good so I asked around for the best idly place in town and was directed to Veena Stores. They’ve got a small storefront on Margosa Road with a long queue out front. I stood around in the road with everyone else eating breakfast, waking up. Oh man, their idly was perfect—so light! And it absorbed the sambar like a dream. And the watery, bright mint sauce! Perfect. Their coffee was also nice and strong with that slightly charred milk taste I love.

Our second hotel, this time in Delhi, was much nicer and through some totally bizarre circumstance the particulars of which still escape me, I ended up with a huge suite and a butler. It was down a hall, through a glass door with the word PRIVÉ etched into it, past a lobby full of oversized cartoon chairs and down another hall equipped with its own private bar. The décor was serious 1980s Vegas condo—I had a soaker tub in my room, a mirrored dining table and a zebra chair. The food at this hotel sucked too—the dosas at the airport were 100 times better than the ones at this place. But by this point, I had more time to venture out to restaurants. I enjoyed a salty lime soda, pani puri and raj kachori, a sweet and savory snack that resembles a small chubby volcano, at Haldirams, a vegetarian fast food chain. After work one night, we wandered our neighborhood (Noida Sector 18) in search of Indian fashion magazines and a late dinner. We found Vogue India and Colonel Kebabs. The waiter recommended tawa paneer and it came out on a sizzling cast iron platter. I had a moment of what a friend of mine calls “ordering the fajitas embarrassment” which ended promptly at my first bite. Smoky grilled rectangles of paneer and peppers and onions with a pasty spicy ginger sauce—not too saucy and not too dry—and teardrop-shaped naan to roll it all in.

Because work was so crazy, my month in India went by much faster than I’d imagined it would and I never felt like I really settled in until my last few days in Delhi when I got a metro pass and started going to yoga and exploring on my own. I also wished I’d had more time for adventurous eating. Although, I’d maintain that eating Indian Domino’s pizza (and its more horrifying cousin “A Taste of Italy”) several times counts as a serious adventure.

-Published in Put A Egg On It #4

 

ROCKET GALLERY

ROCKET gallery is tucked into a little alley off one of the winding side streets in a maze of shops and restaurants between the Harajuku and Shibuya neighborhoods of Tokyo. Do not rely on Google Maps when attempting to go there, however. Instead, turn left at Tony & Guy and then look for a big purple sign that says TEETH. From another direction, a closed photo lab with a blue door is a good landmark. The entrance to ROCKET looks like the door to a walk-in fridge. The space is small but tall and airy, thanks to a very pointy ceiling and a big skylight. The compact yet open kitchen is built into the bottom part of a wooden loft—the top of the loft is an exhibition and sitting space — and gallery visitors can interact with those inside the kitchen. 

Yasushi Fujimoto took time out of his busy art directing schedule (Vogue Nippon, Brutus, and many others) to found ROCKET in 1996 as a gallery for emerging artists. Over the 15 years of openings that followed, Fujimoto noticed something, "when we have something to eat in a exhibition, everyone talks more to each other and has more feelings about the art pieces, spaces, and the exhibition itself." So in 2011, he changed the focus of the space and built a kitchen. Megumi Inoue, the gallery's only full time employee, added, "We realized that the senses are really important. Before we had a food focus, people would walk through the gallery in 3 minutes and now people stay much longer, even hours."

Now ROCKET has shows that combine elements of art, food, fashion and music. They also sell snacks and limited edition art objects and have recently started doing catering jobs. A recent show called The Imperfect Cottage was a preview of new collections by fashion brands FOR and La Fleur. A floral arranger did a workshop on corsage making, a singer added a live performance and three additional artists served as experimental bartenders for the opening. Other events have more cohesive themes, like Science Cooking in ROCKET, which was a week-long summer experience exploring the idea that cooking is just a mix of chemical reactions. Someone put dry ice in the bar counter and served drinks while wearing a white lab coat. There were cooking classes about spice and rice and taffy making. The ramen restaurant Papapapapine made cold soda pop pineapple ramen soup for everyone and they let gallery visitors try carbonating different liquids. ROCKET recommends the 100% orange juice soda.

-Published in Put A Egg On It #8

 

Midnight Special

I was lying on the bottom bunk of my sleeper car, staring at trees and railroad signals when the train crunched to a halt. I didn't think much of the stop at first. It'd been snowing since we left Denver and the train had been creaking along in Colorado somewhere for hours, not quite yet passing into Utah. I watched it all through my eyelashes in a profoundly lazy fashion. The five novels I'd brought along were done. Alone and silent for hours on end, I spent the time untangling the crazy that had built up over two years of being broke, hustling, and not once leaving New York City. A testament to my fragile mental state: I had a plane ticket booked to San Francisco but the night before I dreamed I was on a gigantic double-decker gold plane, when we suddenly went down, engulfed in flames, onto the Golden Gate bridge. This rattled me, sent me over the edge. In the morning, I headed to Penn Station. I booked a sleeping car on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago and sat down with a cold beer and a slice to wait, watching the commuters. From Chicago I'd take the California Zephyr the rest of the way.

My room contained a top bunk, a bottom bunk that transformed into two chairs, a pull-out toilet and a sink. I lined the window with my travel talismans — a laughing Buddha, a St. Christopher and a cool looking air freshener a drunk taxi driver gave me. That first night, I devoured a burger with chips in the dining car — a sure sign that I was starting to relax — and washed it down with a half bottle of so-so pinot noir.

Time behaves differently on the train—it slows and stretches. I measured time by what I ate. The sun woke me up and I stumbled to the café car for a coffee. At 8am I returned for instant oatmeal. I ate lunch in my room but made it a point to show up for dinner. The food itself wasn't all that interesting. It tasted like plate specials you get in an all night diner. The chicken was decent but I left the creepily cubed mixed vegetables untouched. My first night I sat with Janine, an older woman from Pittsburg who said fuck a lot and was traveling with her husband, who had Alzheimer's and stayed in their room staring out the window. Janine and I were both in it for the long haul and liked each other instantly. She even helped me fashion a makeshift clothesline when I confided I hadn't packed well.

When I finally noticed we still hadn't moved, I wandered to the gossip center, a.k.a. the scenic view car, to get some news. Janine was there, talking to an ancient cranky academic with a thing for trains. One of the dining car waitresses cruised in and everyone crowded around her. Visibility was pretty non-existent and there was an issue with the train. The conductor said we'd stay until dawn and then get moving again no problem. We stayed put for a day and a half. Staring out the window of a stationary train doesn't have the same meditative, healing effect as when the train is in motion, so pretty soon I started to get scared. Janine and I, the curmudgeon academic, and two college kids killed a couple hours walking the length of the train, discussing our fellow travelers. Suddenly the kitchen announced they didn't have enough food to serve the full menu so if anyone wanted anything, they'd better come down early. I gathered my people and headed down to the kitchen. We offered to help but mostly just hung around raiding the wine while the kitchen staff made a kind of hobo stew with whatever was left. A motley crew of passengers stayed up most of the night keeping the kitchen crew company. At one point, the college kids found the whipped cream and we ate it with packaged cookies and jam in those tiny tubs. It was by far the best meal I’ve ever had on a train. 

-Published in Put A Egg On It #5