Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Recipes for you to feast on this Navratri

The mention of Navratri for me brings back memories of college days in Ahmedabad. Dressing up in traditional finery, all friends piling into one car and going to Garbha nights to dance the night away! Though the dancing is most fun in Gujarat, you can have your bit of fun this Navratri by throwing a party and serving up delicious fare. The best part about the festival is that the fast doesn’t mean that you need to starve. Just use different ingredients and it is literally time to feast!!

My latest article on Rediff suggests quick and easy recipes for Navratri. Read the article here.  

Friday, September 23, 2011

Second Careers

In today's crazy corporate life, it is inevitable that one's career will end way sooner than you imagined. It is only a few smart people who realise this and take proactive steps to ensure a second career in the area of their interest.

My latest article on Rediff talks about second careers and how to make that switch. Read it here

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Mediterranean Food Trail

In a continent known for its range of delicious cuisines and countries known for their mediterranean influences, my foodie expectation from Spain and Portugal ran high. 15 days of tasting local fare and noting the subtle differences between the tastes as you move farther south was an experience in itself.

Madrid, being the capital, served fabulous food. Cosmopolitan and more suited to touristy tastes, Madrid had something for everyone. The Paella here (the famous local rice dish usually made with seafood) failed to impress. A little too dry and the sea food staring at us (literally) in the face was a bit much. We also tried the Gaellic Octopus stew (full marks for courage) at Maceiras and though we washed it down with Sangria, it is safe to say that it is a taste I don't miss. As we were staying at the Westin near Huertas, we did venture into the Writer's District and had some fabulous Pasta. But our best meal in Madrid (besides the multicourse meal in Westin) was at a local restaurant called El Rincon de Jaen 2 near the Bullfighting ring. R's Spanish friend took us there and finally we experienced the spanish experience of getting free food for every 2 drinks we ordered. A word of caution - if you order the platter of fried sea food, it may have some creatures that you just dont want to see in their complete form let alone bite their heads. Another great experience was drinks and tapas near the Plaza Manor in a popular Tapas bar called Casa Labra where the fried fish was absolutely divine!! And ofcourse ending our food with the very tasty Churros (fried flour sticks dipped in molten chocolate) at the 19th Century Chocolateria San Gines.  

Clockwise from top right - Paella, Chorizzo & Mushrooms in Butter Garic; Casa Labra; Tapas at Casa Labra; Churros

Paella in Granada with strange creatures

Our second stop Granada is more famed for Alhambra rather than its food. We tried the Paella here and disliked it as much as we did in Madrid but we also discovered that the Spanish do a great plate of Croquettes, breaded and fried rolls of minced meat. With an apartment of our own in Granada, we managed to have most of our meals at home and frankly, the packaged Haldiram Dal Makhani with Tortillas was like a breath of air to a drowining man!!


Seville thankfully changed our minds about Spanish Food. By far the most superior city of the 3 in terms of food, the Sangria here reigned supreme as well. We discovered that we liked the lime flavoured Sangria a tad more than the one made with Apples. Walking around the tiny cobbled lanes of Seville had a charm of its own. We would often sit at a cafe on the sidewalk to sip something or just have a Gelato. Thankfully, our apartment was quite close to the Cathedral and Bullring so we walked most of the time.

But our best culinary experience (probably in the entire trip) was at a famous Tapas bar called Bodegas Castaneda. With only standing room available, they changed our mind about Paella with the sumptuous Chicken Paella and won our hearts with endless plates of free food and very animated bartenders.

The food in Portugal was more about grilled meats with crispy skin soaked in jus. The suckling pig was fabulous and the grilled prawns succulent. But the accompanying Piri Piri sauce was just a very very spicy olive oil - nothing like the fabulous Piri Piri we get at Big Chill. And yes, dont even bother trying the white sangria. Its like liquid crocin.

Crispy chicken with piri piri

All in all, its good to be back home! To kick up my tired feet and rest and to satisfy my palate craving mattar paneer, daal and chicken curry. Europe lives up to its reputation of being beautifully made and preserved. The people are elegant and the food interesting. An experience to hold dear in memories.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The sand, the surf and a book in my hand

If you love beaches (and even if you dont), there are few things more beautiful than waking up to french windows looking out into the ocean. There is something so calming about the sound of waves. The windows open into the swimming pools downstairs. Beyond them are cliffs that rise above the beach like warriors protecting their turf. And the beach elevator takes you down to the beach. Miles and miles of sand. Pristine waters that stretch as far as the eye can see. And beyond.

The view from our room

Portugal may seem like a poor cousin of Spain but don't be fooled. The country has a rich history and if you take the time to notice, the 2 countries are as different as Punjab and Kerala. The locals speak much more english than the Spanish. The food is more about grilled meats with crispy skin. My favourite piri piri sauce in Big Chill still reigns supreme as the original one here is just a very very spicy olive oil.

The beach

The waters of the Atlantic are cold and the beach grainy. Leisurely afternoons can easily be spent lounging around on the sunbeds on the beach, not unlike Goa. But the magic of Lakshadweep's sands and waters it has not. They remain for me (as of now) the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen.

Gorgeous Atlantic Sunset from our balcony

The Sheraton property is lovely and sprawled over cliffs. A 9 hole golf range and several tennis courts and swimming pools do their bit to keep one busy. Albufeira was a much required break in our crazy roadtrip stuffed with sightseeing and running around. It seems like we just pressed the pause button for 2 days. Refreshed, we are off today to see the Fairytale castles of Sintra and then onward to Lisbon.

Adios Amigos.

Sangria and Tapas anyone?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bullfighting in Seville

I want to write this down lest I forget how I felt and with what intensity. I am the kind of person who can barely watch Spartacus and did not watch 300 as I thought it to be too gory. So when we decided Seville to be part of our roadtrip route, I was in two minds whether I wanted to see a bullfight or not. But reasoning to myself that this was something I would only experience once in my lifetime, I decided to go for it. The bullring in Seville seats 14000 people and is the oldest in Spain. The fight that day was with a set of younger bulls and thus was cheaper at 35 euros per person (in the sombre tickets meaning shade versus the sunny seats) than the fight with the older ones.

The begining parade

Dot on time, the matadors marched out onto the arena in their grand finery and saluted smartly at the mayor asking his permission to begin. When he did allow, all but one left and he went and sat right in front of the gate where the bull was to charge out of, already having been wounded already to make it mad. I really do not want to give a play by play of the event, it not being for the faint hearted. But the gist of it is that 10 odd matadors repeatedly wounded the bull for 15 minutes till it was so weak that it could barely stand and then the main matador drove a sword through its heart.

The main matador shows his skill by barely moving his feet while the bull charges near him

Yes, we had the same reaction as you. It was gross. There were supposed to be 6 bulls that entered the arena, one after the other died, but after 2 we decided we just couldn't watch any more and walked out despite our ferociously expensive tickets.

That takes guts

I respect the traditions of every culture, but this sport needs to be banned. There is pure cruelty in pitting 10 people with weapons against one animal. Lets see a single matador take on a bull barehanded and then I may enjoy the spectacle. No doubt the matadors needed a lot of guts to stand in the face of death and still perform with such theatrics. And there is definitely a lot of skill involved. But for all practical purposes, this was as barbaric as people cheering in the Gladiator arena in Roman times (and yes, everytime the bull got injured, people cheered as if it were a baseball game. No, we couldnt get ourselves to).

I returned not regretting my decision as I had to experience it once to know how I felt about it. But I returned sad. At the bravado of human ego.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Granada - Poetry in stone

Spain may not be one of the top choices for a European vacation but it doesn't fail to charm. When you talk about Spanish tourism, besides the night life in Madrid and Barcelona, the first things that come to mind is Sangria, Paella, Bullfighting and for the more well read - Alhambra.

Olive Farms enroute to Granda

After Madrid, our second stop in Spain is Granada. A comfortable 4.5 hours drive from Madrid, Granada is located at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. The drive was uneventful in the begining but eventually the dry and barren landscape gave way to 200kms of olive farms. One can only stare in awe at the undulating hills with their neatly lined trees (as short as shrubs) which stretch for as far as the eye can see. Granada is home to the popular world heritage site - the Alhambra, the fort and the palaces of the Moorish Dynasty. Spain has a bloody history....the Islamic Moors who ruled the southern provinces and built beautiful cities were literally massacred and driven out by the Christian rulers.

Fairytale land of Alhambra

Alhambra is a gorgeous city built during these times. The 800 year old fort has palaces built by the Nasrid Dynasty. One may buy the cheaper Generalife tickets or splurge and get the all inclusive tickets. Your ticket will have a specific time and date for entering the Nasrid Palace and you must make sure you are at the venue atleast half an hour before that else you will not be allowed inside. Alhambra is sprawling and you will need the better part of your day if you want to explore it at leisure. We took the first tickets of the day at 8:30am (prebooked online) and were done only by 3pm. The palace itself is beautiful and built with tender loving care. The thing that struck me most having seen plenty of Mughal and Rajput palaces is the intricacy of carving all over the walls. The work is precise and beautiful. Another thing that struck me as different were the ceilings of the palaces which were made with wood vis-a-vis the marble or ornate ceilings we normally come across. The only christian palace in the complex, that of Charles was almost an eyesore in comparison but an interesting architectural plan with an outer square structure and almost a colosseum like round courtyard in the centre.

But what I shall most remember of this stunning city are the gardens (GeneralLife). Acres and acres of flowers, gardens and waterways that flow into each other, this is one place that has so many nooks and corners that you can lose yourself in. Flowers of every colour, fountains with cascading waters and a hush in the air, here is where the crowds fade away and it is just you and the Alhambra having a conversation in whispers.

Wooden ceilings in Alhambra
Absolutely exhausted after the Alhambra, we decided to take the day easy. The next day, we went out to explore the Catherdral in the city, popular for its renaissance and neo gothic structure. This is an absolutely must do in Granada. The Cathedral is built over a former mosque and the outdoor structure doesn't give a hint of the opulence that the interiors have in store. The Cathedral is absolutely breathtaking!! There is no other way to describe it. A humungous building with ceilings so high that that my neck is still aching with looking up so high, it has ornate gold artwork and paintings all over. We spent an hour just sitting in the pews and taking in the entire aura of the place. I doubt that a church more beautiful than this exists anywhere else.  

As our time in Granada comes to a close and we are off to Seville tomorrow, I shall look back at this tiny town with a smile. I will certainly not miss the cobbled stones which are a pain for taking baby strollers on but I can say for sure that Granda has the best Paella I have had till now (thankfully chicken and not seafood with octopus legs sticking out) and lip smacking Sangria. And yes, finally we discovered an amazing Tapas bar where we got a free plate of food for every 2 drinks we ordered. Considering that we ate our fill, it is safe to say that we walked out of the bar at 4pm with more than a swing in our step!!   

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

5 days of experiencing Madrid

Languid days spent walking around the narrow streets opening up into gorgeous 17th century fountain plazas. The sun refusing to set before 9pm, evenings ideally centered around lounging in the sidewalk bars sipping on Sangria and munching Tapas. The past 4 days in Madrid could very well be summarised thus.

Our hotel, Westin Palace

Besides the protests against the government on the streets, there is not much evidence of Spain's dire economic situation. People bustle around to and fro from work and spend their evenings thronging bars till the wee hours of the morning. The windows of our gorgeGous suite at the Westin Palace overlook the Plaza Neptuno and the sweeping eye can see the parliament, the Ritz hotel and Prado museum, all across the road from the hotel. The upgrades in the hotel helped us get this amazing suite, 2 bottles of wine and a stupendously amazing lunch for 4 at the Rotunda, the stunning dome restaurant at the hotel. If you ever happen to visit the restaurant, please do order the Tenderloin with Fois Gras which literally melts in one's mouth. Thanks D for pulling this one!

Rotunda Restaurant in the hotel where we had our 3 course meal

Here are the top things we did and highly recommend you do in Madrid:

1)  Spend a day walking around exploring the Royal Palace. A beautiful 18th century structure with opulent rooms like the Throne Room and the Dining Room, the palace is the official residence of the royal family but they do not live here anymore. The ticket line gets quite long so make sure you go early. We reached there at 10am when it had just opened and did not have to wait long. The entire palace took 2 hours to take but once you enter, you need to finish the palace to get out of the building or you need to go all the way back (the rooms lead into each other).

2) Evening spent around the Plaza de la Sol, the center of town. Calle Carmen is a great walk for shopping and eventually leads into Gran Via. After you're done shopping, have dinner at any of the numerous cafes or restaurants around. And finish off your evening with Churros (a deep fried flour stick dipped in molten dark chocolate).

3) Appreciate the work of masters like Van Gogh, Monet and more at the 3 galleries in town. Prado is the most famous (free everyday from 6-8pm) but I almost died when I saw Van Goghs for real at the museo thyssen-bornemisza (entry 8euros). The Naval Museum in the same neighborhood is a great place to see how the mighty Spanish navy ruled the oceans for hundreds of years. Replicas of age old ships and real artifacts makes this a must see. It is supposed to be free but the involuntary 'donation' of 3 euros per person is the entrance fee of sorts.

4) Stroll around the HUGE El Retiro Park. With lakes and the Crystal palace inside, it can take the good part of your evening to explore it. Locals come here after work with their children to see the ducks or just for a jog!

5) Go bar hopping having a small glass of Sangria or beer at each and hopefully some free olives or tapas thrown in by them.

6) Use the metro for travelling around town. It is highly convenient and each journey costs 1.5euros. But if you take a ticket for 10 journeys, you only need to pay 9.30

7) See the historic bull fighting arena at the Metro stop Ventas called Plaza de Toros, the oldest and largest bull ring in the world.

8) Dress VERY fashionably! The spanish like to look good. The women have make up on even early in the morning and I looked like a total tourist in my shorts amongst the elegant women in slim dresses and high heels.

9) Look for bargains at the crazy El Rastro Flea Market on Sunday mornings. Reach there before 10:30am and be done by 2:30 when the 3500 stalls start shutting. I bought a gorgeous dress and some accessories from there.

As we bid adieu to Madrid tomorrow enroute to our onward journey to Granada, the city shall be remembered for its high fashion, great art and architecture and a general buzz of excitement!

Coming up in the next post - Top things to eat in Madrid and where! Watch this space for more!

Later Senor & Senoras!!

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